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.)