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Benet Northcote: How poor do you have to be to talk about global consumption?

Benet_northcote Benet Northcote, one of the authors of the Quality of Life report and now Chief Policy Adviser for Greenpeace UK, argues that the pivotal challenge of maintaining both consumption and wellbeing can't be ignored.

Let’s tackle this head on: how poor do you have to be to talk about global consumption? It seems a strange question, but it’s been mulling in my mind since reading Tim’s post about the Quality of Life Report from a few weeks ago.

First some background. The simple truth is the world is consuming too much of our natural resources. Every year WWF publish their One Planet Living Index. Simply put, if everyone in the world consumed the same as we do, and we wish to live in a sustainable way, then we would need three planets not one. 

If you factor in the effects of climate change, then this ratio will rapidly deteriorate. India and China are developing fast, and citizens are demanding ever more consumption. The pressure on arable land and water supplies will become real issues for global stability as people want more. Resource conflicts are already a reality and this is likely to get worse.

We must also consider how we measure happiness. The Economist Intelligence Unit – not a natural ally of the deep-green movement – is clear that money is not the only way to measure happiness. David Cameron has often repeated Robert Kennedy’s famous comments on GDP as a measure for wellbeing.

For me the pivotal challenge of 21st Century is how to deal with the twin questions of consumption and well-being.

We cannot go on as we are. It isn’t making us happy. Nor is it sustainable. Yet we need to develop. Halving hunger will not come about without energy for more productive growing, harvesting, processing and marketing of food. Improving health and reducing death rates will not happen without energy for the refrigeration needed for clinics, hospitals and vaccination campaigns. The world’s greatest child killer, acute respiratory infection, will not be tackled without dealing with smoke from cooking fires in the home. Children will not study at night without light in their homes. Clean water will not be pumped or treated without energy. I have written elsewhere that the Quality of Life Report is the first serious attempt to address this question in the UK (and it is a question for us, just as much as it is for the poor in China or India).

But I want to respond to Tim’s specific comments. Firstly, he asserts the green movement believe growth, acquisition and even humanity itself are the enemy of the planet. Well, yes, to a point. Unsustainable growth and acquisition is certainly the enemy of the planet and global security. Humans do not naturally act sustainably. The trick we need to pull off is changing that, without condemning the world to poverty: to decouple economic growth from increasing consumption. Clean energy rather than dirty energy; using food more efficiently; and stopping needless waste. For example, my daughter’s recent birthday party resulted in over 30 plastic toys from friends at her state-school. Within days they were mostly broken and ignored. Is this sustainable? Or is it symptomatic of over-consumption?

Secondly, Tim says that rich shadow cabinet members shouldn’t lecture low-income families on too much materialism. I agree about lecturing, but over-consumption is an issue for everyone. It is not about stopping the poor getting more, but stopping society as a whole destroying the planet. Decoupling economic growth from consumption should not punish the worst off; everyone needs to adjust their behaviour. It follows that everyone, whatever their personal circumstances, can talk about it. And if not, because they are too rich, then who can? How poor do you need to be to talk about the major issues confronting our planet?


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