(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, August 12, 2021)
Science tells us that we now have fewer than 10 years to reduce the human burden on Earth or trigger tipping points in Earth’s natural systems from which there is no return. Most discussion centers on the climate emergency, but we also have crises related to air, water, soil, species extinction, and more.
The primary cause of our crises is well known. According to the Global Footprint Network, humans currently consume at a rate 1.7 times what Earth can sustain. Yet, we have only one Earth and no hope of finding another soon—if ever. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed what we already know: we’ve run out of time and must now take drastic action to avert an even worse catastrophe.
A viable human future depends on living with less. Does that mean sacrifice? Leaving more people behind? Or is this challenge an unprecedented opportunity to achieve a better future for all? The question of how much is enough, the theme of the fall 2021 issue of YES! Magazine, poses a foundational question for our time.
Daily reports on economic indicators such as GDP celebrate increases in consumption and sound alarm bells when consumption declines. Meanwhile, daily news reports tell of one climate-related disaster after another. Rarely, if ever, do we hear serious discussion of the connection between growing GDP and growing environmental disasters.
The question of how much is enough begins an essential conversation. It is one that usually involves exploring what we as individuals can do to limit our consumption. Asking “when is less more?” invites us to look at societal choices over which we have little individual control. In examining these societal level choices, we can see areas on which we can potentially join in common cause. Let us look at several key areas where less could be more.
Deadly Weapons. Humans have long dreamed of peace, yet we consume enormous amounts of resources for war. A recent study found that the U.S. Department of Defense accounts for an estimated 80% of the federal government’s energy consumption. The defense department is also the world’s single largest institutional consumer of petroleum, which supports the world’s largest collection of guns, tanks, military aircraft, and warships. Though the U.S. military imposed the largest environmental burden of any nation’s military, the U.S. is only one nation among many with large militaries.
The statistic on the defense department energy use tells us nothing about the social and environmental costs of producing deadly weapons or the impacts of their use not just by the military, but also by local police, terrorist groups, criminal syndicates, gangs, and armed individuals. It is far past time we learned to live in peace with one another. The production and use of weapons of war is an obvious example of where less would be more.
Mis-/Disinformation. A healthy society needs responsible media to inform us and connect us with each other. Our expanded communications capabilities create an unprecedented potential for us to join in creating an ecological civilization that works for all of life. Tragically, our ever more extraordinary communications capabilities are most often used to manipulate our minds for purposes contrary to our well-being. This includes advertising that promotes wasteful, even harmful consumption, and propaganda to promote socially and environmentally destructive political agendas. These activities provide lucrative employment to support lavish lifestyles for those who serve them. Less would be more.
Financial Speculation. Money is nothing but a number that has no existence outside the human mind. It can be useful as a tool but becomes a threat to life when its only purpose is to accumulate more money. The structures of modern society make it virtually impossible to live without money, which gives enormous power to those who create it and decide how it is used. Honest money is created transparently by public institutions to serve public purposes. But we now allow private bankers and financial gamers to make claims against society’s real wealth without the burden of creating anything of value in return. The Gross World Product (a global GDP) for 2021 is projected to be around $94 trillion. Analysts project that the value of global financial services will reach $26.5 trillion by 2022. Only a small portion of that amount represents essential financial services. The rest should be considered a form of theft, and a primary driver of income inequality and environmentally burdensome, ego-driven displays of extravagance. Less financial manipulation would give us radically increased equality with far less waste.
The Bitcoin Con. Private cybercurrencies are a form of counterfeiting. Bitcoin, a cybercurrency favored by global cybercriminals and tax evaders, is an especially costly example. The energy consumed in “mining” Bitcoins equals the energy use of a small country or major city. The related computer facilities contribute to electronic waste and the current global shortage of semiconductor chips. Bitcoin and other cybercurrencies have value only because buyers expect the market to bid up the price further, or else they need it to prevent tracking of an illicit transaction.
Global Supply Chains. Until very recently in our history, we organized our economies around the labor and needs of local communities. This facilitated repair, reuse, recycling, and resilience, and allowed communities to work within the capabilities of the Earth’s regenerative systems. But global trade rules first introduced in the 1990s stripped place-based living communities of control of their markets, labor, and other resources, and allowed transnational corporations to consolidate their power without concern for the well-being of workers, customers, and nature. China has become the epicenter of a highly fragile interdependent system of global supply chains involving the massive, environmentally destructive long-distance movement of material goods by sea, land, and air. Less reliance on global supply chains would reduce this burden while helping restore the social and environmental health of local communities.
Short Stay Air Travel. Air travel has helped to bring us together as a global species, but it consumes enormous amounts of time, energy, and other resources for purposes that can often be better served in less socially and environmentally costly ways. The purposes of a great many international business meetings and professional conferences could be better served by sharing information electronically, including with video conferencing. In terms of vacation travel, a stay in a nearby resort often better serves the need for restful time off in a beautiful relaxing environment. Visits to destinations on your bucket list for purposes of bragging rights commonly overwhelm the destination to give you little more than a selfie in a crowd. When it comes to travel, less can be much more.
Auto-Dependent Cities. Yet another example relates to our dependence on cars. My wife, Fran, and I lived in New York City from 1992 to 1998. It was the only time in our adult lives that we had no car. Everything we needed or wanted was in walking distance or reachable by rapid public transit. We loved this healthy and friendly way of getting around. Designing every city to make it easier to walk, bike, or take public transit for daily trips could remove a significant human burden on Earth while improving life for everyone. A growing number of major cities are taking steps to become less car-dependent. Regarding car travel, less can be more.
Why do we have so many wasteful sources of consumption? Culturally, it stems from excessive individualism, and societally it stems from using money rather than healthy living as our standard of economic performance. These two forces spur the wasteful consumption that manifests in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Disruptions in our lives caused by the COVID pandemic gave us a wake-up call that both highlighted our human vulnerability and interdependence, and an economy that rewards harmful behavior and inadequately compensates those doing the most important work.
As we learn to think and act as an interdependent global species, we must look critically at all the forms of consumption that could be eliminated to the ultimate benefit of all. Such an examination is needed if we are to transition to an ecological civilization. I elaborate on the concept in my white paper, Ecological Civilization: From Emergency to Emergence, prepared for the Club of Rome’s discussions on a new economics for a new civilization.
We face a defining choice. We can hold to course with an economy that grows GDP to provide a few with the opportunity to make a killing as they prepare to escape to outer space. Or we can embrace the current opportunity to transition to an ecological civilization, with a living economy dedicated to supporting us all in making a secure and fulfilling living on a thriving living Earth.
Awakening to the reality that we cannot eat money and there are no winners on a dead Earth points us to the latter as the clearly better choice.