Rapacious Consumerism and Climate Change

Commercialisation has poisoned all areas of contemporary life, and together with its partner in crime, consumerism, is the principle cause of man-made climate change.

Operating under the suffocating shadow of neo-liberalism, the market forces of commercialisation act blindly and indiscriminately. The presiding deity is money; the goal of endeavour quick profit and limitless growth – no matter what the human or environmental costs may be. And the consequences to both are great, long-term and far-reaching: global climate change, with its numerous effects, and the wholesale destruction of the natural environment being the most significant.

Bleak prospects

The Earth is our home, ‘our sister’, as Pope Francis calls it in his ground-breaking Encyclical letter, ‘On Care For Our Common Home’. And we are poisoning and raping her; polluting the rivers and oceans, destroying the rainforests, coral reefs and natural habitats; the treasures she has given us to care for.

It is unchecked human behaviour that is lighting the various fires of destruction, and unless there is a change in the unsustainable, overindulgent way we are living – ‘we’ in developed countries largely but not exclusively ­– the prospects for the planet and the ‘human experiment’ are bleak.

The interrelated environmental catastrophes are the greatest threat to human and sub-human life, and are not separate from the economic and social crises facing humanity. This integral ecology, a term employed by a range of groups from Pope Francis to the Occupy movement, highlights the interrelation of the unprecedented issues facing humanity and the need for a new imagination to meet such challenges.

Our abuse of the Earth, together with what many believe to be a growing threat of nuclear confrontation, has, as Noam Chomsky makes clear, brought about the most serious crisis in human history: a crisis which has motivated millions of concerned people throughout the world to unite against government apathy and destructive actions, but which is being met with complacency and arrogance by ideologically driven politicians and the corrupt corporations, who, to a greater or lesser extent, determine policy.

Pope Francis expresses the view of many when he says that, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He goes on to point out that “we may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” resulting from the wide-ranging effects of climate change and global warming.

Whilst anthropogenic (man-made) climate change, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels is due to various factors, a lifestyle based on rapacious desire for all things material is the key underlying cause. This is made clear in a University College London (UCL) research paper, which states that, “although population and demographics are considerable factors in carbon emissions and consequent global warming, consumption patterns remain the most significant factor………consumers, rather than people, cause climate change,” although in the world of big business and amongst some governments, these appear to be synonymous terms.

After examining the issue in great depth with the aid of specialists, Pope Francis reached the same conclusion; he points out that blaming “population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.” To blame population growth is, he goes on to say, “an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution [of wealth and resources], where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”

A world of exacerbated consumption

Consumerism is the life-blood of capitalism. It is an engineered pattern of behavior that functions and is perpetuated through the constant agitation of desire for pleasure, a transient state that is sold as happiness.

The consumer culture has been manufactured. Human beings are not naturally rapacious; they, we, have been coerced into it, as Rob Urie (author of Zen Economics) says, “there is an entire industry devoted to creating [the] consumer culture.” Through manipulative advertising and marketing strategies corporations have promoted the false idea that happiness and contentment will be discovered on the next shopping excursion, inside the packaging of the new gadget or video game.

The designers of the consumer game know well that no such peace will be discovered in the material world of make believe, and so discontent is guaranteed, prompting the next desire fueled outing. And so the cycle of inner emptiness, perpetual longing and dependence on transient appeasement through consumption is maintained. As Pope Francis puts it, “the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”

The consequences of this are ever-greater energy demands, oceans of land-fill waste, deforestation, contaminated air that kills millions every year, and widespread environmental destruction.

Consumerism is a western way of life, another toxic export – together with fast food, obesity and diabetes – that is now finding its way into the cities of some developing countries. It is not the billions living in poverty in the towns and villages of Sub-Saharan Africa, or rural India and China, who are indulging in the voracious consumption that is crippling the planet; the poorest 50% of the world’s population is, according to Oxfam, responsible for a mere 10% of ‘total lifestyle consumption emissions’. The cult of consumerism is predominantly the pastime of the spoilt and bored – with access to easy credit in the developed nations of the world. Europe and America, for example, with a mere 12% of global population; i.e. approximately 900 million people, account for over 60% of worldwide consumption.

This illustrates that it is not necessarily the number of people that is responsible for climate change, it’s how those people – specifically those within developed and (materially) aspiring countries – act and behave.

Unrestrained consumption and perpetual growth is essential to the success and profitability of the neo-liberal project, which, without such consumerism would collapse. And so insatiable desire for material possessions is virtually insisted upon, by governments, obsessed with economic expansion, and businesses that depend on sales. This itch, which is constantly excited by persuasive advertising, a culture of comparison and narrow definitions of self, feeds an urge to continually consume. The aim in such a world is not simply enough, but excess, abundance. And whilst the ruling elite is indifferent to the destruction of the planet and the health of humanity, the prospect of the collapse of their cherished ideology is unthinkable.

The extreme capitalist system that is demanding such behaviour is inseparable from wealth and income inequality, climate change, displacement of people and environmental degradation; all are interconnected, and increasingly recognised to be so. As Pope Francis puts it, “in the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.”

All forms of life are mistreated in such a world because nothing has any inherent value; everything has fallen prey to the curse of commercialization, and is seen as a commodity, including human beings. Rivers, valleys, forests, mountains etc., all are commodified. Bought up by large companies who see such natural treasures in terms of an end product, which, when sold in the commercial cathedrals of the world – the shopping centers and homogenous High Streets of our towns and cities – can be financially profited from.

In the rush to drain the Earth of all goodness, huge numbers of indigenous people are displaced, the land ruined and beauty lost. Where the corporate hand of mankind is found, all too often one witnesses exploitation, destruction and waste; human intervention, as Pope Francis puts it “in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey.”

Impelled by a restless appetite to conquer everyone and own everything, “Capitalism,” as Naomi Klein rightly states, “is at war with life on earth.” And if triumph is to be judged in terms of destruction and degradation, at the moment it is winning.

Heating up the planet

Climate change brought about by greenhouse gases and the resulting warming of the planet, dates from the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century. According to analysis by NASA “the average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit), since pre-industrial times”. Two thirds of this increase took place since 1975, and it’s intensifying; nine out 10 of the hottest years on record occurred since 2000, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this sharp increase is “due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

The greenhouse gases produced are still an effect. As Naomi Klein puts it, climate change “has less to do with carbon [and other polluting emissions] than with capitalism.” An extreme form of capitalism that only prospers when certain negative aspects of human behavior are elicited: selfish, materialistic tendencies, which the ideological disciples, who benefit from this divisive way of living, and therefore believe in its dogma, are committed to encouraging. Honing in on Naomi Klein’s statement further we can say, as Pope Francis, UCL and others have concluded, that the most significant cause of man-made climate change is the food and drink of capitalism – consumerism.

The logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness

Worldwide, awareness of climate change varies from region to region. In a Gallop poll of 128 countries taken in 2008 they found that overall 61% of the global population were aware of global warming, of which only 11% felt they ‘knew a great deal about it’. Europe was the region where awareness was highest, 88% being aware, with 70% knowing ‘something about it’. This figure drops in the Americas (North and South) to 64% and perhaps unsurprisingly plummets to 45% in Asia, 37% in Sub-Saharan Africa and 42%v in the MENA countries.

Even where some acceptance of climate change exists, people are often reluctant to change their lifestyle and make the required sacrifices – for example, stick with their existing mobile phone, buy less stuff, reduce the use of electricity/gas, give up that diesel car, use public transport, etc., etc.

Awareness of climate change is a beginning, but understanding of the underlying causes and effects is needed to change behavior, as well as a major shift away from selfishness and greed. Such tendencies create separation – from oneself, from others and from the natural environment – desensitize us and lead to complacency. These ingrained patterns of behavior are strangling the purity out of ‘our sister’, and stifling the humanity in us. As Pope Benedict XVI stated and Pope Francis relates,  “the deterioration of nature is closely connected to the culture which shapes human coexistence.” Currently that culture is all too often a hedonistic one, based on competition, consumption and abundance

Knitted firmly into the heart of this culture and the crises facing humanity is Neo-Liberalism; it is an unjust system that needs to be laid to rest, and a creative, just method of organizing life initiated. A new system that flows from the recognition that humanity is a family and that all human beings have the same needs and the same rights, to live secure, dignified lives in which human essentials (food/water, shelter, health care, education) are provided irrespective of income; one that honors and respects the natural world and encourages positive attitudes and new responsible and liberating ways of being, made up of “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” as Pope Francis expresses it.

Moving away from the present unjust economic model would create the possibility of purification taking place: purification first and foremost of us, of the way we think and act; as the great Indian teacher J. Krishnamurti puts it, “is the pollution in the word different from the pollution within us…is that which is outside different from us, or is it a movement out and a movement in…like the tide going in and out?” This flow, he goes on to say “is a unitary movement.”

From the purification of our internal lives, in which we break the addiction to material goods, cease to look externally for happiness, and reduce our levels of consumption, will result in the purification of the natural environment, cleansed of man-made impurities.

A massive education programme is needed to bring about such a shift in thinking and behavior. One that inspires a shift in consciousness away from the idea of ‘the individual’ as the center of all activity, determinedly competing with everyone else, to a recognition of one’s place within the whole and the responsibility that goes with that. As Pope Francis makes clear, “our efforts at education will be inadequate and ineffectual unless we strive to promote a new way of thinking about human beings, life, society and our relationship with nature. Otherwise, the paradigm of consumerism will continue to advance,” and with it the further contamination of the Earth, the destruction of ecosystems and the heightened threat to human life. The choice is ours.

Graham Peebles is an independent writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in India, Sri Lanka, Palestine and Ethiopia where he lived for two years working with street children, under 18 commercial sex workers, and conducting teacher training programmes. He lives and works in London. Read other articles by Graham, or visit Graham's website.