Could Austerity be Good for the Planet?

WITH the shrinking of the UK economy, planned increase in public borrowing and expected higher taxation and public spending cuts it is claimed that Britain is entering a decade of austerity. Could we see a return to more sustainable lifestyles?

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article-1169140-009206c7000004b0-284_468x3751WITH the shrinking of the UK economy, planned increase in public borrowing and expected higher taxation and public spending cuts it is claimed that Britain is entering a decade of austerity. Could we see a return to more sustainable lifestyles?

On 22 April the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, announced in his annual budget that the economy would shrink by 3.5 per cent this year. He also outlined plans to increase public borrowing of £175 billion with borrowing levels to be £173bn, £140bn, £118bn and £97bn in years after.

The Chancellor has been criticised for being over optimistic about future growth forecasts. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned the Labour government must close a £90 billion hole in order to balance the budget. The independent think-tank claimed that this would cost every UK family £2,840 per year by 2017-18 in higher taxes or public spending cuts. Critics argue that this will see the dawn of a new age of austerity on the scale of that experienced after the Second World War.

images-7The baby boomers born were the first generation of the consumer society born in Post-War Britain. Since the 1950s we have whole-heartedly embraced consumer values with an emphasis for immediate gratification and satisfying individual needs. We have now arrived at a point where we are living beyond our means not only in the financial sense but also in the ecological sense. The demands of our increasingly globalised, industrialised, high consuming society have overloaded the planet’s natural ability to absorb, replenish and restore. We are now drawing on our ecological capital rather than living off nature’s interest. For sometime we have been experiencing an ecological credit crunch but this has not received much media or public attention.

A new period of austerity could provide the opportunity to rediscover values that were lost sometime ago. While being on a budget may not be fun it does make us thing about how we spend our money and whether purchases are really necessary.

2292499420_1cf4c88267Many people over the age of 65 lived through the War and grew up in years of austerity. They were forced to appreciate the value of food and goods due to having experienced rationing. This instilled a “mend and make do” attitude where waste was avoided. As a consequence many people aged over 65 tend to be prompt bill payers, debt averse and dislike waste.

Since the War we have managed to export our manufacturing base to the Far East to take advantage of low cost labour and consumer products. It is now cheaper to throw away and buy new rather than repair. Gone are the days when things were made to last or where we would have an item for many years with an occasional service or repair. We now consume to be fashionable – when a new trend comes along the old is ditched for the new.

The biggest incentive to encouraging a move to greener lifestyles is cost. There are many things we can all do so save pounds and the planet. Less consumption and profligate use of resources does not have to be austere. It means appreciating the value of not consuming, making do and reusing and recycling and buying to last.

The next decade could be the time we finally begin to live within both our ecological and financial means.

© Gary Haq 2009

The Global Ecological Credit Crunch: The Elephant in the Room

HAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?
Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown. This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

World EconomyHAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?

Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown.

This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

From the global to the local level we have stamped our footprint on the natural world. We have over-exploited natural resources, degraded ecosystems, and caused mass extinction of some species while endangering others. Our long-term survival is dependent on having access to food, water, air and energy yet we seem intent on irreversibly damaging our life support system.
Footprint

A look at the current state of the planet provides a bleak picture. A United Nations assessment of the global situation shows that over the past fifty years we have caused more ecological damage than in any other period in human history. The extent of our willful destruction is becoming ever more evident. Global warming is resulting in changes to the climate system, which could have catastrophic consequences for humanity. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is now larger than ever, allowing harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth endangering human health, marine organisms and food production.

Fifteen out of 24 major ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably. Habitat destruction is threatening more than 16,000 species with extinction. Over-exploitation of aquatic ecosystems is putting the future use of marine and freshwater fisheries at risk. Unsustainable land use is causing soil erosion and desertification while the quantity and quality of freshwater is declining, increasing the likelihood of water scarcity in certain regions of world. Our exposure to environmental pollution is responsible for nearly one-quarter of all diseases contributing to respiratory illness, some types of cancers, vector-borne diseases and emerging animals to human disease transfer.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature´s (WWF) Living Planet Index we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history. The Index measures trends in the Earth’s biological diversity and enables the health of ecosystems to be monitored. Since 1970 the biodiversity fell by about 30 per cent due to pressures of population growth, economic activities and consumption patterns.

Over the past 45 years, our demands on the planet have more than doubled. In 1961, nearly all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet their own demand. However, the situation had radically changed by 2005 with many countries able to meet their needs only by importing resources from other nations. Ecocredit - Ecodebtor

The demands of our increasingly globalised, industrialised, high consuming society have overloaded the planet’s natural ability to absorb, replenish and restore. We are now drawing on our ecological capital rather than living off nature’s interest. Habitat destruction and permanent loss of productivity are threatening both biodiversity and human wellbeing.

If we continue with the slow, steady growth of economies and populations then by the mid-2030s humanity’s demand on the planet will be twice its productive capacity. At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological resources and large-scale ecosystem collapse will become increasingly likely. If we carry on regardless with our current level of consumption then by early 2030s we will need two planets to keep up with the demands we place on the planet.

elephant_in_living_room1If we have any hope of addressing the global ecological credit crunch then world leaders will need to start taking it seriously. They will need to give as much attention (if not more) to the elephant in the room as they are to the current financial crisis.

© Gary Haq 2009

No Time to Waste – Returning to the Good Life

earth-clock-01AS a child the school summer holidays seemed an eternity. Time seemed to pass very slowly. These days as an adult its hard to keep up with all the things one has to do. How many times have you heard people complain we “just don’t have the time”?

Psychologist William James’ explanation is that children experience everything for the first time and that all experiences are new. Their intense perception of the world around them means that times goes slowly. As adults we have fewer new experiences, life is more familiar and less information is taken in and time is less stretched. While there are obvious cognitive psycholgoical explanations to our perception of time there are also other factors at play.

As a child growing up in the 1970s there was only three TV channels which only ran for a limited number of hours. We did not have a computer, mobile phone, video player or DVD to distract us. Most of the time was enjoyed playing out in the streets with other friends. On TV there was a popular sitcom called The Good Life which described the experiences of Tom and Barbara who have had enough of the rat race and decide to become self-sufficient. They convert their garden into a farm, keep pigs and chickens and grow their own crops.the-good-life1

Life seemed a lot simpler back then but perhaps I am looking back through rose-tinted spectacles?. Afterall, I did not have to worry about paying bills, going to work or doing house work. Despite all this, I do feel that life has speeded up.

streetsThis is evident in our breakdown in our sense of community. In the cobbled streets of inner city Salford (UK) where I grew up we knew or had a good idea who lived in the 40-plus houses there. These days I only know three of my neighbours. This is partly due to people being more mobile and not staying in one place too long and partly due to being more private individuals. No longer do we have the time for idle chit chat. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland we are rushing around saying we are late.

In his Novel Momo Michael Ende wrote about a mysterious young orphaned girl, who arrives in a small town and notices that the inhabitants are starting to change, becoming obsessed with time and money. Momo discovers that the culprits are the “Grauen Herren”, sinister, ghost-like men who are stealing time. The effects were dramatic. The village barber found that:

he was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare; in some mysterious way, it simply vanished. Imperceptibly at first, but then quite unmistakably, his days grew shorter and shorter. Almost be­fore he knew it, another week had gone by, another month, and another year, and another and another.”

In his article entitled Time Pollution, Prof. John Whitelegg attempts to explain the paradox that the more people try to save time, the less they seem to have? Whitelegg argues:

Time is central to notions of sustainability. A sustainable city or a sustainable transport policy or a sustainable economy cannot be founded on economic principles which, through their monetarisation of time, orientate society towards higher levels of motorisation, faster speeds and greater consumption of space. The fact that these characteristics produce energy-intensive societies and pollution is only part of the problem. They also distort value systems, elevate mobility above accessibility, associate higher speeds and greater distances with progress, and dislocate communities and social life.”

There is no doubt that our lack of time has contributed to the community disintegration that has been occuring across Europe and other western countries in the last few decades. Perhaps we need to change our perception of time and spend more time being rather than doing. A global recession may provide that window of opportunity to reassess our values and lifestyles and perhaps like Tom and Barbara we can return to the “Good Life” that many of us remember.

© Gary Haq 2009