Once upon a time, on a faraway planet, a group of highly sophisticated beings were faced with a crisis. They had made great progress indeed, but it had come at a cost: profound changes to the planet’s natural cycles. Now their atmosphere was warming, their oceans acidifying and their food security was severely threatened. An emergency meeting was called to discuss possible solutions.
After much brainstorming, someone came up with a brilliant idea – that reducing consumption and changing its patterns would help the planet recover and rejuvenate. But, asked a wise old individual: who would take the bold first step? There were many that hesitated and they had many excuses. The beings could not build momentum toward lasting change. The rest, as they say, is geology.
Meanwhile on Earth, all’s well on the consumption front. As the latest global carbon budget shows, the world’s consumer-in-chief is back to its favourite ways: American emissions of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide rose in 2010 after a short lull. Hardly a surprise, for consumption is the engine of the American economy and lifestyle.
But consider two items in the New York Times published at the end of last year. “Miami has a hearty Oi (Hello) for free-spending Brazilians” and “Miami real estate market embraces Brazilians”, the headlines proclaim. Turns out Brazilians, armed with cash from a thriving economy, are flocking to Florida’s Miami in droves, lured by cars, jewellery, luxury homes and art. And Miami is leaving no stone unturned to extend every manner of courtesy to the Brazilians.
There is little doubt the economic growth in Brazil will improve the overall well-being of its citizens; that is a statistical given. But as in India and a host of other fast-growing economies, it is likely to fuel the same style of consumption that was hitherto the preserve of rich Western nations. Businesses in Europe and the United States will breathe easy, secure in the knowledge that these emerging markets will more than make up for any temporary setbacks in their own backyards.
Ironically, it is in Brazil this month that humanity’s representatives will gather at Rio+20 to discuss sustainable development and the green economy, among other things. There is no agreement on what exactly these terms mean, but fast cars and designer brands are unlikely to figure prominently in any definition. The challenge for those in Rio will be to find ways of improving global human well-being that do not at the same time fuel the sort of consumption that compromises planetary well-being.
Do we have it in us to bell the consumption cat and avoid a fate similar to those beings that lived once upon a time on that faraway planet? Much hope is being invested in the concept of the green economy as a step in this direction. But this concept will not succeed if growth continues to be the raison d’être of the economy, a point made elaborately in a recent article by Peter A. Victor and Tim Jackson in the Human Dimensions magazine. It is only when we become aware of the tension between the terms ‘green’ and ‘economy’ that we might be able empower this concept to serve the goal of sustainability.
My personal expectation from Rio+20 is not a grand declaration or a list of goals but instead some fresh, out-of-the-box thinking rooted in optimism as well as realism. Here’s hoping for glimpses, however fleeting, of workable alternatives to the consumptive model.