Rectifying the excesses of our world does not mean a return to the Dark Ages. A post-consumer world can be a happy one, tooby Jennifer Johnson / October 22, 2020 / Leave a comment
For decades, the environmental vision articulated by David Attenborough was seemingly an apolitical one. The wildlife shown in his documentaries inhabited distant landscapes, which were governed by laws all their own. It was Attenborough’s job to make sense of these worlds for viewers at home—to impose narrative logic over the wondrous chaos of nature.
Entire species are dying out while the atmosphere fills with carbon dioxide and the oceans brim with plastic waste. There is an obvious temptation to place the blame with mankind as a whole. Attenborough himself has occasionally indulged in this kind of misanthropy. Humans, he recently told the BBC, have simply “overrun the planet.” Phrases like this imply that population control measures are the simple answer to the problem of ecological destruction.
The toll of affluent lifestyles
However, the beloved naturalist struck a different tone in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live earlier this month, when he identified the “excesses the capitalist system has brought us” as the root of environmental ills. Rather than apportioning blame to humans everywhere, Attenborough singled out the resource-intensive lifestyles enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest consumers. His comments echo a number of recent studies that have quantified the disproportionate impact of consumers in the Global North.
According to a report from Oxfam published last month, the richest one per cent of the world was responsible for more than double the carbon pollution emitted than that emitted by the poorest half between 1990 and 2015. During this 25-year window, humanity doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a report published this summer in Nature Communications, an international group of scientists identified consumption by the globally affluent as “by far the strongest determinant and the strongest accelerator” of global environmental impacts.
The study argues that consumption must be avoided or reduced until it falls within planetary boundaries—while simultaneously fulfilling human needs. Reducing demand for resources while supporting a growing global population sounds like a daunting task. But scientists and economists are already creating models that show us what such a world could look like.
Change in consumption patterns
Inevitably, there will be some…