Exercising conscientious consumerism—buying less—could be a powerful step towards salvation.
I REMEMBER THINKING, about ten years ago, that, in the history of our species on this planet, we had probably arrived at the apex of our glory days. The world was our oyster, and the focus was completely on us. Everything we could think of needing and wanting from anywhere in the world lay at our fingertips. Amazon had already begun changing the way we shop, and the internet itself, having started as a tool for sharing research and development, had become first and foremost a world-wide marketplace.
Food from everywhere made it to our table with such nonchalance that if it ended up in the compost bin, or even the garbage, it wasn’t a big deal. There was, as they say, more where that came from. And it could be had cheaply, because we hadn’t yet considered the fairness of reimbursing the environment for the burden that included oil-snorting barges on every ocean, and endless transports and raefrigerated trucks on every major road on the globe.
It was the same for every other commodity and service. Everyone and everything on the move seemed to be headed for somewhere else on the planet. A world map showing the crisscrossing of all the ways in which we physically connected on a daily basis for pleasure and commerce—especially for commerce which gives us such pleasure—would have disappeared under a web of endless lines. (Kind of like my grandson’s blank page after he’s had a good go at it with his colouring pencils.)
Ten years ago, the evidence of climate change was already here but had not yet come to rest heavily on us. After all, we assumed, our leaders were busy fixing this problem, and we, either naïvely or audaciously, expected that they would do it without imposing any disruptions or inconveniences on us. (Kind of like expecting an electrician to rewire the house without interrupting dinner prep and Jeopardy! on TV.)
World leaders had recently attended COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, and while a binding agreement on climate change mitigation had (still) not been reached, they had acknowledged that global temperatures should not increase by 2°C above ‘preindustrial levels’. In using that term, the document pointed at human activity as the undeniable catalyst of an increasingly unstable and warming climate. Here was our summons to step up, roll up our sleeves and begin owning and tackling the problem.
Instead, we—the people and our governments—spent the next decade stonewalling, side-stepping, and quibbling about culpability. People grew increasingly polarized: If you cared about the economy, you hated the environment and vice versa, and so on. Politicians, meanwhile, kept kowtowing to pressure from the extraction industries, watered down environment protections already in place, destroyed a tonne of scientific data, and blew our emission reduction targets off the charts.
All was in the name of economic growth, which, according to politicians, bankers and other opportunists, is essential for continued prosperity (not to mention trickle-up wealth.)
At the 2015 Paris Accord, Ottawa jubilantly declared that Canada was back, and then…nothing. The announcement seemed to have been an end in itself.
We continued to grow our global economy and all the infrastructure required to support it. We needed more of everything, including fossil fuels, electricity, minerals, plastics, food, cheap textiles, vacation destinations, the list was endless. Millions of vehicles and thousands of aircraft and shipping containers came and went and came and went.
It was all very convenient, frenetic, and stunningly unsustainable, but nonetheless profitable because Nature continued to be the unpaid servant exploited to the extreme.
The benefits of increasing globalization and perpetual economic growth have long been lauded, but left unchecked, these realities would inevitably lead to environmental collapse. We’re seeing the beginnings of this already: In the atmosphere supersaturated with runaway emissions. On the land that’s pocked with oil wells, spent mines, tailings ponds, sequestered uranium, and countless other toxic nightmares, And in the oceans harmed by contaminants including oil and plastics, noise, over-fishing, jellyfish proliferation and an already injurious increase in water temperature.
We’ve destroyed huge old forests for mining, logging and the commercial farming of commodities such as palm oil and beef, all for markets thousands of kilometres away. Many invasive species have hitched rides around the world, including, most recently, Covid 19, and the Asian Giant Hornet (vespa mandarinia), which is suspected to have ridden a container ship across the Pacific and is now possibly firming a toehold in the Pacific Northwest, including on our island. If it succeeds, it will pose a lethal threat to our already beleaguered pollinators and further erode our food security.
This is how we find ourselves, less than ten years away from 2030, the very last ramp off the highway to climate hell. Already the wagons of a badly damaged environment are circling around and creating anxiety and mayhem. In BC alone, we’ve had floods, droughts, lethal heat domes, an ongoing pandemic we could not have imagined, and now another avian influenza on the horizon.
And still our leaders continue to waffle. Premier Horgan has eyes only for the extraction industries, and federally it would seem the same, although the prime minister tries harder to hide his fetish. On April 6, federal Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault announced approval of the controversial Bay du Nord project, a huge oil extraction enterprise to be built far off the Newfoundland coast by the Norwegian oil giant, Equinor.
One day later, the federal budget revealed that it’s full steam ahead with the fanciful notion of carbon capture, a yet-unproven technology intended to curb carbon emissions rather than carbon production. It’s a fallacious solution that, perversely, will be developed by the fossil fuel industry, using the lion’s share of a finally decent budget earmarked for alternate energy development.
(What a week for Guilbeault. Considering that he was once a gutsy Greenpeace activist, he must be feeling about as stage-managed as Gumby.)
Never mind investing in real solutions for sustainable energy. Never mind looking up and observing that if we can feel the heat of a source that’s 150 million km from where we stand, maybe we’d do well to explore it for our energy needs.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres wasn’t mincing words when he recently declared that the path we’re on is “moral and economic madness.”
It has to stop. By now we’re painfully aware that our politicians are far too encumbered with conflicting pressures and interests to move quickly and decisively. We know 2030 will be here alarmingly soon, and also that global economic inter-connectedness is such a huge and intricate entity and that there’s no top-down way to systematically wrestle it back into something more sustainable. The only solution lies with us, and it’s a disarmingly simple one: Buy, use and waste less.
Buy closer to home whenever possible. If it feels onerous, begin by doing just one proactive thing. If it feels futile, keep in mind that together we could calmly and methodically cool the entire economy just by exercising conscientious consumerism.
Shipping containers and delivery vans will not bring what we haven’t ordered. Stores won’t restock what we don’t buy. (Bottled water would be a very fine casualty.) Reducing demand will calm the market in a controlled and natural way.
We have incredible clout as consumers. We stopped renting videos, and subsequently shut that entire industry down. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. We rarely reach for pay-phones and checkbooks, and they’ve mostly fallen by the wayside too. As long as there’s been a market, it has waxed and waned according to our demand. A new equilibrium always finds its way.
The glory days have come and gone. Is the world going to have a viable next chapter? Only if it’s written by us.
Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic lives in Saanich and is a passionate mom, grandmom, writer, gardener, and defender of the environment.
Image above: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons