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Peak planet: Are we starting to consume less?

Fred Pearce, New Scientist
… Might these reports of our imminent demise also be exaggerated? That is the reasoning of those who see a pattern in recent statistics from the industrialised world. People in the US are driving less. Europeans are using less energy. Water use is down in countries such as the US and UK; so is calorie consumption in the UK.

The talk is of “peak stuff”: that beyond a certain level of economic development, people simply stop consuming so much. Technology and the course of economic evolution allow prosperity to keep rising without a linked increase in our use of energy and materials. Our demands on planetary resources stabilise – and ultimately begin to fall.

Others are unconvinced, seeing in peak stuff a dangerous myth and a thinly veiled excuse to abandon efforts to limit our planetary impact. Without large-scale intervention to curb our excesses now, they argue, peak stuff, if it exists, will be too little, too late. So who is right? Is humanity really about to lose its appetite for stuff – and if so, will it help?

… British environment analyst and author Chris Goodall, for example, argues that people in the UK are consuming no more stuff than they did in the 1990s. According to data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics, he says, the country’s “total material requirement” peaked at 2.17 billion tonnes in 2001 and had fallen by 4 per cent to 2.09 billion tonnes by 2007, even though GDP rose by 18 per cent in that time. “Water use is down, travel and car ownership are down, metals and paper use down, cement use down, calorie consumption and meat eating is falling,” Goodall says.

What’s more, between 2000 and 2009, household energy demand fell by almost a tenth across the 27 countries of the European Union; in Sweden, France and the Netherlands, it was down 15 per cent. Water use has also fallen in other countries.

… Ausubel suggests instead that the effects of longer-term cultural and economic shifts are beginning to be seen. Beyond a certain level of affluence, he says, we spend proportionally less on resource-intensive staples such as food, housing and clothing, and more on services. For meals in swanky restaurants, for example, much of the cost goes into paying for the skills of the chef and the ambience rather than large quantities of the ingredients. Although the meal creates more economic value, it does not require much more material or energy than food cooked at home.

Similarly, we may use our extra cash to buy better-quality goods that last longer, or make conscious “ecological” choices, often guided by government regulations or something as simple as labelling.

… Such conclusions are disputed. Tim Jackson at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, doubts the trends will make a significant difference to our overall consumption, because resource efficiency in one area tends to be cancelled out by increased profligacy elsewhere.

… There is a more basic objection, however: even if peak stuff is reached soon, it will only apply to the billion or so people living in rich countries out of the global population of 7 billion. Achieving worldwide peak stuff, critics argue, would require heading off rising demand in the developing world, while seeing a much more sustained fall in consumption among richer nations.

… Or we might let markets decide – but give them the right signals first. In its People and the Planet report, the Royal Society supports the idea of giving cash value to finite “natural capital” just as we do to finite material resources. Through this we would put a price on forests, soils, water supplies and other essential ecological services – an approach that China has been pioneering (see news story). Tinkering with the tax system would also help, says Cameron Hepburn, an economist at the London School of Economics. Switching from income and labour taxes to taxing the use of resources could be a big incentive to change our habits faster and more profoundly in developed economies, where few are in need.

Will we grasp the nettle? The Danish agricultural economist Ester Boserup argued that throughout history, population growth and the pressure of shortages have been necessary spurs to technological developments, which seem to arrive just in time to avert the sort of disasters that exercised the likes of Malthus and Ehrlich. The signs are that we already have the know-how to live long and prosper without demanding ever more from a finite planet. The question is whether we will make the decisions to realise that promise before “just in time” becomes “just too late”.
(20 June 2012)
Suggested by Asher Miller of Post Carbon Institute.

Cuba, A Society In Motion

Roger Burbach, Global Alternatives
In Cuba change is in the air. But such change should not be read as an end to the revolution.

… The most recurring criticism was of limited food production and the daily problems people faced in securing three meals a day for their families.

… anyone can solicit the government for 10 hectares of idle land that can be held and farmed for personal profit for 10 years with the opportunity for renewal. Agricultural produce of just about every kind is now sold in open markets in urban and rural areas alike.

Almost from the start of his government, Raúl Castro has recognized that a transformation of the agricultural economy is the key to the survival and future of the Cuban revolution. In recent years, Cuba, a country rich in agricultural resources, has imported up to 70 percent of its food needs.

Accordingly Castro has issued an urgent call for increased agricultural production and announced the distribution of idle fields and forests so that “the lands and resources are in the hands of those who are capable of efficient production.”

Under a law passed in July, 2008 over 1.2 million hectares were distributed to more than 132,000 beneficiaries by mid-2011. There has even been a notable movement of people leaving the cities to take up farming. But the gains in production have been limited. Agricultural produce for the domestic market remained largely the same in 2010 and 2011.

Armando Nova, an agricultural economist at the Center for the Study of the of Cuban Economy, said in April in Havana, “the agricultural system remains in crisis.”

He added, “We need an agrarian revolution to drive the country forward and it is still blocked. The middle level bureaucracy and even sectors of the party, particularly at the provincial level, are determined to prevent market innovations for fear of losing their status and privileges.”

Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California. Along with Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes he is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. It will be released in January, 2013 by Zed Books.

© 2007- 2012 CENSA: Center for the Study of the Americas 2288 Fulton St., Suite 103, Berkeley, CA
(26 June 2012)

Death by suburban sprawl: better urban planning will combat sedentary lifestyles

Billie Giles-Corti, The Conversation (Australia)
Never before in human history have so many people been able to be so sedentary in the course of daily life.

Since World War II, technological advances have transformed the design and development of buildings and communities, the way populations are mobilized and fed, the nature of work, and methods of communication.

Industrial and home labour-saving devices – from the remote control of garage doors to televisions and everything in between – maximise convenience and minimise effort.

So compared with our parents and grandparents, feeding and clothing ourselves has never been so effortless.

But while offering convenience, our use of motor vehicles – even for short trips to the local shop – or a blower to “sweep” garden leaves, appears to be having a profound impact on the health of human populations.

Billie Giles-Corti is Professor of Health Promotion & Director McCaughey VicHealth Centre at University of Melbourne.
(28 September 2011)

Why are British children so unhappy?

Jon Henley, Guardian
Pressured and commercially vulnerable, our kids are the most miserable in the industrialised world

For more than five years, evidence has been mounting that children in Britain are worse off than those in other developed countries.

Back in 2007, Unicef published a table of 21 economically advanced countries. It compared 40 indicators — poverty, family relationships, health and safety, education and children’s own sense of happiness — that might affect the wellbeing of children.

Top of the list were the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. At the bottom, in 21st place, was the UK, just below the United States. The report concluded, essentially, that children growing up in the UK were the unhappiest in the industrialised world, and that parents in more than half the countries surveyed spent more time “just talking” to their children than did those in the UK; and that just 40% of UK 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds find their peers “kind and helpful”.

Four years later, a second report form the UN body found that while children themselves said their happiness relied more on time spent with family and friends and “having plenty to do outdoors”, UK parents — particularly in lower-income households — instead felt under “tremendous pressure” to ply them with consumer goods.
(27 June 2012)