No period in history compares to the Great Acceleration after World War II, a rapid increase in human activity driven by population expansion, globalisation, technological and communications improvement, improved farming methods and medical advances. The Great Acceleration can be seen in the rise in everything from carbon dioxide release, to water use, to number of cars, to ozone depletion, to deforestation, to GDP, to consumption.
A century ago, life expectancy in Europe and the US was less than 50 years, now it's around 80 years. I've been fortunate enough to live in an age in which I’ve been vaccinated against killers from polio to tuberculosis to measles; I've had an inside toilet and bathroom with hot and cold running water; a refrigerator; central heating; a free education and health service; and hunger has been a pleasant and soon-relieved sensation rather than a chronic debilitating experience.
In short, like the average person living in the developed world at the end of the 20th century, my life is comfortable and far removed from that experienced by the average person a century earlier.
This rapid transformation was a filthy undertaking: pea-souper smogs shrouded cities like London killing thousands; acid rain poisoned rivers, lakes and soils, eroded buildings and monuments; refrigerant chemicals ate away at the protective ozone layer; and carbon emissions caused a change in the global climate and acidified the oceans.
In addition, our voracious appetite for manufactured products has led to massive deforestation and created a mining boom for minerals, oil and coal that is destroying ecosystems and producing a deluge of toxin and plastics waste that will take centuries to degrade.
Lesser-developed nations will strive to follow the Great Acceleration trajectory set by industrialised nations. Peasants scraping for subsistence in the dirt of India do not toil under romanticised notions about their labours. They too would like to experience the same acceleration in life expectancy, as well as basic requirements like clean water provision, toilets, electricity, internet access, and creature comforts like cars, air conditioning, refrigerators, washing machines… the list is endless.
However, as global citizens sharing this planet, we cannot afford for billions more people to eat and live as the average American now does at the expense of the environment. Climate change, ecosystem services degradation and limitations on natural resources threaten the lives of millions.
So what's the answer?
Many poor countries have argued that they must be allowed to develop their economies, with however much pollution that entails, and then clean up when they are rich. It seems like a reasonable argument, after all, that's what rich countries did. Except that rich cities still suffer from smog, much of our biodiversity has been irrevocably lost, and we're still pumping out greenhouse gases.
Others point out that there is more than enough environmental space on this planet for everyone to live sustainably, but the developed world needs to scale back its consumption and allow for a more equitable sharing of resources.
I’ve seen both sides of the argument first hand. I spent over two years travelling around the developing world and living on the contents of a backpack. In several destinations, I washed, like the local people, with a bucket of cold water and a pouring scoop – usually river water, but in some places skin-itching seawater. In other, more touristic places, I would have access to a shower – sometimes with warm water – even though the local people rarely had such facilities. (Actually, this is part of a wider issue, highlighted in a recent report about how developed-world people bring their resource use on holiday with them to poor countries – something I may return to in a later column.)
When I returned to London, of all the luxuries now at my disposal, I was most pleased to have drinking water on tap and a dependable hot shower. As I brought home my many boxes out of storage, I was bewildered by just how much stuff I owned. When was I going to wear so many clothes; read so many books; what was I going to do with all these accumulated items?
Of course, not everyone living in the West is going to experience such an epiphany on excessive consumption. And, a year on, I catch myself perusing shops, wondering whether I need a new t-shirt... (I don't). But there are encouraging signs that our runaway appetite for new stuff is beginning to wane, in the UK at least, that people are eating less environmentally costly meat, and that Americans are copying their European counterparts in adopting more fuel-efficient cars. Some of this is down to people having smaller disposable incomes in the recession, and some due to policy-led changes that encourage a less polluting lifestyle.
Nevertheless, these are small steps in economies based around consumerism. Citizens are encouraged to desire items from childhood onwards, and consumerism is the main economic strategy for governments trying to climb out of recession.
Meanwhile, the excessive consumption habit has spread throughout the world, and is particularly obvious in China, as I noticed on my visit earlier this year. Barely a decade ago, streams of bicyclists pedaled down alleys in Beijing. Now Chinese buy more Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces than anybody else in the world. Shanghai’s per capita energy use is already higher than London's, and the city has become a shoppers paradise for China’s nouveaux rich . The four busiest Apple stores in the world are in Shanghai and Beijing. And cities including Paris, London and New York are falling over themselves to attract this new breed of label-obsessed consumer addicts.
One way of prompting people to be more thoughtful about their purchases – and whether such a purchase is even needed – would be to levy an environmental services fee.
The 'polluter pays' principle already covers dirty factories in the UK and other countries, for example, who must pay to clean up their damage to soil, water or air, and to safely dispose of toxic waste. But many people think it should be extended to include carbon dioxide pollution, freshwater and energy use by manufacturers, so that the price of a product more accurately reflects its environmental cost. The charge would encourage more sustainable production and also help pay for remedial efforts from carbon capture and storage to waste water clean-up to recycling.
Socially educating people not to seek happiness through excessive consumption will be a huge and possibly doomed undertaking, however many times it is shown that it can’t buy you happiness. So perhaps the answer is in trying to restore the natural balance of things.
In nature, 'resources' are cycled – for example, water taken up by plants is eaten by animals that breathe out water vapour, returning the water to the soil for the plants by way of rain. Nothing is lost. But the scale with which we humans are using resources is too rapid for natural systems to manage. Microorganisms, for example, can degrade our waste, but not at a rate that matches our production. Likewise, trees and plants can take in our carbon dioxide, but not fast enough.
Ultimately, the answer lies in a synthetic version of this natural cycling, so-called closed-loop manufacture, in which products are created using renewable energy, all the materials used in the process are re-used and the final product is also fully recycled to minimise original resource-use. It means no waste, no pollution, and far greater efficiencies, as closed-loop pioneers are already discovering.
Guilt-free consumption could one day be possible. Whether it will make us happy is another question.