Recently I’ve begun compiling a list of things to be cheerful about. Here are some items that should bring a smile to any environmentalist’s lips:
World energy consumption is declining. That’s right: oil consumption is down, coal consumption is down, and the IEA is projecting world electricity consumption to decline by 3.5 per cent this year. I’m sure it’s possible to find a few countries where energy use is still growing, but for the US, China, and most of the European countries that is no longer the case. A small army of writers and activists, including me, has been arguing for years now that the world should voluntarily reduce its energy consumption, because current rates of use are unsustainable for various reasons including the fact that fossil fuels are depleting. Yes, we should build renewable energy capacity, but replacing the energy from fossil fuels will be an enormous job, and we can make that job less daunting by reducing our overall energy appetite. Done.
CO2 emissions are falling. This follows from the previous point. I’m still waiting for confirmation from direct NOAA measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it stands to reason that if world oil and coal consumption is declining, then carbon emissions must be doing so as well. The economic crisis has accomplished what the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t. Hooray!
Consumption of goods is falling. Every environmentalist I know spends a good deal of her time railing both publicly and privately against consumerism. We in the industrialised countries use way too much stuff - because that stuff is made from depleting natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and the Earth is running out of fresh water, topsoil, lithium, indium, zinc, antimony … the list is long. Books have been written trying to convince people to simplify their lives and use less, films have been produced and shown on PBS, and support groups have formed to help families kick the habit, but still the consumer juggernaut has continued - until now. This particular dragon may not be slain, but it’s cowering in its den.
Globalisation is in reverse (global trade is shrinking). Back in the early 1990s, when globalisation was a new word, an organisation of brilliant activists formed the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) to educate the public about the costs and dangers of this accelerating trend. Corporations were off-shoring their production and pollution, ruining manufacturing communities in formerly industrial rich nations while ruthlessly exploiting cheap labour in less-industrialised poor countries. IFG was able to change the public discourse about globalisation enough to stall the expansion of the World Trade Organization, but still world trade continued to mushroom. Not any more. China’s and Japan’s exports are way down, as is the US trade deficit.
The number of vehicle miles travelled (VMT) is falling. For decades the number of total miles travelled by all cars and trucks on US roads has relentlessly increased. This was a powerful argument for building more roads. People bought more cars and drove them further; trucks restocked factories and stores at an ever-growing pace; and delivery vans brought more packages to consumers who shopped from home. All of this driving entailed more tires, pavement, and fuel - and more environmental damage. Over the past few months the VMT number has declined substantially and continually, to a greater extent than has been the case since records started being kept. That’s welcome news.
There are fewer cars on the road. People are junking old cars faster than new ones are being purchased. In the US, where there are now more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers, this represents an extraordinary shift in a very long-standing trend. In her wonderful book Divorce Your Car, Katie Alvord detailed the extraordinary environmental costs of widespread automobile use. Evidently her book didn’t stem the tide: it was published in the year 2000, and millions of new cars hit the pavement in the following years. But now the world’s auto manufacturers are desperately trying to steer clear of looming bankruptcy, simply because people aren’t buying. In fact, in the first four months of 2009, more bicycles were sold in the US than cars and trucks put together (more than 2.55 million bicycles were purchased, compared to fewer than 2.4 million cars and trucks). How utterly cool.
The world’s over-leveraged, debt-based financial system is failing. Growth in consumption is killing the planet, but arguing against economic growth is made difficult by the fact that most of the world’s currencies are essentially loaned into existence, and those loans must be repaid with interest. Thus if the economy isn’t growing, and therefore if more loans aren’t being made, thus causing more money to be created, the result will be a cascading series of defaults and foreclosures that will ruin the entire system. It’s not a sustainable system given the fact that the world’s resources (the ultimate basis for all economic activity) are finite; and, as the proponents of Ecological and Biophysical Economics have been saying for years, it’s a system that needs to be replaced with one that can still function in a condition of steady or contracting consumption rates. While that sustainable alternative is not yet being discussed by government leaders, at least they are being forced to consider (if not yet publicly) the possibility that the existing system has serious problems and that it may need a thorough overhaul. That’s a good thing.
Gardening is going gonzo. According to the New York Times (“College Interns Getting Back to Land,” May 25) thousands of college students are doing summer internships on farms this year. Meanwhile seed companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand, as home gardeners put in an unusually high number of veggie gardens. Urban farmer Will Allen predicts that there will be 8 million new gardeners this year, and the number of new gardens is expected to increase 20 to 40 per cent this season. Since world oil production has peaked, there is going to be less oil available in the future to fuel industrial agriculture, so we are going to need more gardens, more small farms, and more farmers. Never mind the motives of all these students and home gardeners - few of them have ever heard of Peak Oil, and many of the gardeners are probably just worried whether they can afford to keep the pantry full next winter; nevertheless, they’re doing the right thing. And that’s something to applaud.
But wait, before our cheering becomes an uncontrollable frenzy, we should stop to remember that most of these developments are due to an economic crisis that is taking a huge toll. With the possible exception of the last item on the list (and maybe some of those bicycle purchases), we’re not talking about voluntary behaviour that’s evidence of forethought and collective intelligence. Whatever gains in sustainability these trends signify have come at an enormous cost in terms of unemployment, homelessness, and lost retirement savings.
Take all this to its tragic extreme. What if a billion humans died over the course of, say, the next ten years from starvation or swine flu? That would take a lot of pressure off natural systems. There would be more space for other species to flourish, and consumption of natural resources (oil, coal, water, and so on) would decline dramatically, improving the economic prospects of the survivors. So from a certain perspective this unimaginable nightmare might be seen as a good thing - though hardly anyone who actually experienced it would likely see it that way.
Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this whole line of thought may be dangerous. Some free-market PR hack from the Cato Institute is likely reading along right now just as you are, trying out headlines for a press release. “Environmentalist delights in economic collapse!” might be a good one, or “Environmentalist wants billions of humans to die!” One way to avert that kind of backlash is to keep mum about the fact that economic contraction actually does have benefits, and so far most other environmental writers have been playing it safe in that regard. I’ve crossed the line here, so watch out. I might get us all in trouble.