Dying of consumption while guzzling snake oil: the environment crisis requires overhauling our corporate industrial civilization

We cannot count on our government officials to offer real solutions—only we can make the necessary large-scale changes in production and consumption on both the individual and systemic levels. What these changes amount to most of all is living simply, personally and collectively. This is the true #resistance, writes Kristine Mattis in Common Dreams.


We’re an egoistical, delusional lot, us humans. We’re the only species on the planet who despoils its own life support system and who does not live within biological limits. Does that make us the most intelligent or least intelligent species?

Preservation of our environment remains well toward the bottom of our priorities. Personally and collectively, in our daily lives and in the media, we fixate on career, financial accumulation, economic growth, political performance, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and external validation. None of these aspects of our lives mean anything without a livable planet full of basic resources, and every one of these fixations contribute directly or indirectly to our planetary degradation.

Noam Chomsky has even begun to recognize that our precarious environmental predicament—primarily envisioned as the issue of climate change, though it encompasses so much more—is the most crucial existential threat to human life on the planet. Of late, whenever you see Chomsky interviewed or hear him speak, he tends to emphasize that of many injustices and dire risks to the people of the United States, the people oppressed by U.S. empire, and humanity as a whole, all pale in comparison to the our environmental crisis.

In the fall of 2017, a group of world scientists issued a second warning to humanity (the first of which was delivered in 1992): if we do not make significant changes to our way of life immediately, we will no longer be able to ward off the inevitable precipitous decline of our planetary ecosystem as a result of our poor environmental stewardship. Still more scientists cautioned as recently as Aug. 6, 2018 that if we do not undertake a societal transformation, a host of positive feedback mechanisms would be unleashed that could soon render the Earth uninhabitable to many species, including humans. The scientific tendency toward conservatism in predictions of risk, as evidenced by the underestimation of the timing and severity of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would imply that time is of the essence. While an individual ecosystem is able to withstand and adapt to deleterious forces for a certain amount of time, if that injurious bombardment continues unabated, the ecosystem will finally reach a threshold, at which point it will collapse. The Earth’s entire biosphere is no different.

And yet charlatan academics who cherry-pick data outside of their fields to support their elitist perspective, like Steven Pinker, as well as ecomodernists, such as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger at the Breakthrough Institute, and tech giants such as Elon Musk, would have you believe that we are living in the greatest era known to man and that our human intelligence and innovation—particularly of the technological sort—will carry us through these perilous ecological times. It’s an optimistic message that everyone likes to hear, but it is hollow at its core. Just read through their proclamations and manifestos. What you will find is wishful-thinking based on flimsy, unsubstantiated premises that we all want to believe so that we in the first world can carry on in our daily lives with little disruption to our usual profligate consumption, and especially, to corporate capitalism. Indeed, fourth-wave environmentalism, which too many of the large environmental non-profit organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Fund promote, is predicated on corporate-environmental partnerships and technological modernization. It is touted as “win-win”—yet in practice, it is nothing but a loss for the biosphere.

On Aug. 1, 2018 we celebrated “Earth Overshoot Day,” the day when human beings had utilized more resources than the planet would be able to replenish in a year. The Global Footprint Network has been calculating this day since 1970, when it took us, on average, until December to utilize all of the resources that the planet held for us annually. Now, we use our allotted natural resources by August. Regardless of the margin of error in this estimate, it is clear that since all of this yearly overuse is cumulative and compounded over time, we have long overused planetary resources by this point, and we’d need decades for the Earth to compensate for our past and continuing gluttony. Obviously, some of us are more responsible for this conspicuous consumption than others, which the Global Footprint Network breaks down by country; also obviously, the United States sits near the top of the list of planetary abusers.  

While the ecological footprint is derived from a variety of factors, a simple axiom provides the truth about our resource use: those people and societies who adhere to their basic needs live more sustainably than those who partake in their wants. The more one lives in excess of one’s needs and more extravagantly in one’s wants, the more responsible one is for the degradation of the planet. Thus, the richest among us, regardless of how “green” they purport to be, are the most destructive to the environment, and it follows that the richest and largest conglomerates and corporations will contribute the most to environmental destruction.  

Concurrent with Earth Overshoot Day on Aug. 1, The New York Times Magazine released (online before print) Nathaniel Rich’s lengthy piece entitled “Losing Earth,” which sought to chronicle the historical political atmosphere surrounding the climate change debate in America from 1979-1989. Rich’s premise is that during this crucial decade the United States government had a chance to save the planet from the catastrophic global warming that we are currently experiencing throughout the globe, but because of their failure to act, we are left with our current climatic predicament. Immediately after the publication of this piece, critics countered that Rich largely ignored the role of climate change deniers within the Republican Party and from the fossil fuel sector, who engaged in a concerted corporate disinformation campaign about climate change for decades. Instead, they say, Rich’s piece placed too much blame on the collective human “we.” 

In a way, Rich and his critics are both right and wrong. We are all to blame for our ecological catastrophe, but our American government—which is now a de facto subsidiary of major corporations—along with the corporations themselves and the rich who benefit most from corporate profits, are far more to blame than the rest of us because they have far more power and ability to enact changes and control societal norms. The poor basically bear no burden because when you are struggling to meet your basic needs, it’s nearly impossible to prioritize anything beyond those simple human requirements. 

In any event, both Rich and his critics miss the big picture; resource depletion and climate change are only part of the problem. Even if the U.S. government and the entire planet had tackled climate change—the solutions offered, at this point, mainly concern switching to 100 percent renewable energy and possibly utilizing questionable geoengineering technofixes with untold unintended consequences—we would still be left with enormous global ecological issues. Our over-consumption, as evidenced by Earth Overshoot Day (and simple observation), stems in a large part from our over-production, which stems from our economic assumption that we must live in a world with incessant economic growth. Furthermore, what we produce and consume most, other than fossil fuels themselves, are synthetic substances—often derived from fossil fuels. Synthetic toxics, the likes of which did not exist for more than 99 percent of the Earth’s lifespan, pose specific threats to organisms because organisms have had little time to evolve and adapt to them.

The excessive production of, consumption of, and resultant pollution from these toxic substances may pose as large of a risk to the planet, if not a larger one, than climate change itself. (Side note: toxicsor toxicantsare manmade substances that pose health threats to organisms. Toxins, by contrast, are produced by organisms, like the venom of a snake or the poison from a bee sting. This is an important distinction that scientists, doctors, advocates, and journalists should keep in mind, especially when discussing the danger of toxics to human health and the health of entire ecosystems.) Indeed, when asked about the environment, some prominent people, such as controversial biologist Paul Ehrlich, have suggested that “the toxic chemicals that we are distributing from pole to pole may turn out to be a worse problem” than global warming. Even renowned British investment banker Jeremy Grantham surmised, “I think chemicals will turn out to be a hotter button than climate change.” Yet, we continue to produce, consume, and dispose of these toxics unrelentingly. 

One of the most major toxic pollutants we boundlessly produce and consume is plastic. As recently as this year, many people first became aware of the enormous problem of plastic pollution. Perhaps largely because of the BBC documentary series “Blue Planet II,” which took time away from its beautiful, awe-inspiring footage of marine flora and fauna to show the profound problem of macro and micro plastic pollution in our oceans, or because of National Geographic's comprehensive series of reports, some people were finally alerted to a problem that was right before their eyes, but commonly disregarded. In response to the newfound knowledge, several companies and municipalities banned plastic straws and urged a reduction of our consumption of “single use” plastics. Yet these measures will barely begin to curb the plastic problem, considering production of plastic is still on course to soar by 40 percent in the next decade. Not only is it vital that we try to eliminate the pollution already created, but we must curtail the stream of pollution that rolls of off assembly lines every day if we are to make any progress whatsoever. The only real method to deal with the problem of waste stemming from our over-consumption is cutting it off at its source. That also means we must have the foresight and ethical fortitude to stop creating such unsustainable and toxic substances in the first place, no matter what fortunes we forgo in the process.

Plastic became an issue partially because it became too large and obvious to continue to ignore (see: plastic gyres in seasplastics ingested into the bellies of birdssea turtles entwined in plastic debris, for just a small sampling), much like rivers catching on fire or cities filled with smog in the 1970s. Still, there are so many other insidious problems with production and consumption and its attendant waste. In addition to plastics, we have numerous other persistent organic pollutants (POPs)—pesticides, industrial chemicals like PCPs and PFOAs, and pharmaceuticals—lingering throughout the globe and harming the health of organisms and ecosystems in ways we have only begun to recognize.  

Many of these pollutants act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and can potentially cause a host of health effects through their endocrine mimicking ability. One of the major documented effects is the feminization of male animals—which has been consistently found in all vertebrates and most recently in sharks. Males turning into females may not sound like a huge ecological problem on its surface, unless you consider the fact that the loss of a male population could lead to the extinction of a species. Consequently, scientists are now wondering about what effects we may be seeing in humans—effects such as decreased fertility, increased reproductive cancers, even ambiguous gender identity. 

We also have an epidemic of e-waste from the constant production, consumption, and disposal of our consumer electronics. Our desire for non-essential products of convenience and entertainment, along with our technological gadgetry (computers, tablets, smartphones) has left the third world awash in a toxic stew, as some of our e-waste is shipped overseas to be dismantled for parts and burned for valuable elemental compounds if it is not buried in our own landfills. And much like all of these other troubles linked to over-consumption, the problem of e-waste just continues to grow

We currently have no true solutions to the waste and pollution from our over-consumption. Unless and until we have the means of dealing with the waste stream of such items, they probably should not be produced or consumed in the first place. Recycling is not the answer, though “green” consumers would like to think it is. It both utilizes tremendous energy and produces toxic byproducts of its own (particularly the recycling of plastic) and it cannot possibly absorb all of the products discarded. Plus, since recycling is just a market industry, and with China’s decision to stop buying waste, most of what we hope to recycle is ending up in landfills, which are completely unsustainable at their core

For the past century or two, we’ve gone down a slippery slope of permissiveness in terms of environmental responsibility as a civilization, and we may never ascend from the bottom. The only true sustainability is biodegradability—meaning whatever resources we take from the Earth are able to be returned to the Aarth. Ultimately, sustainability means that what we use returns to the Earth in a timely manner that does not pollute, causing ill health or irreparable ecological damage. Consequently, almost nothing we call “sustainable” within our corporate industrial civilization truly is. For the most part, we barely even compost the organic, decomposable items that could easily go back to the Earth, replenishing the nutrients to and enhancing the quality of the Earth’s soil. Instead, these too end up in a landfill. 

Most of what we take for granted as benign is not. A lot of what we expect is safe at acceptable levels is not. For example, we spread over one billion pounds of biological poisons on our food supply each year in the U.S., but we call them pesticides. We hype their safety and necessity while we ingest immeasurable amounts of them and while they migrate to our air, water, and ecosystems, all under the guise of progress, even sometimes, sustainability. This is utter insanity. Maybe the alarming increase in mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, is a reflection of a natural and normal attempt to cope in an utterly insane, overwhelming, unsustainable world rather than being reflective of physiological disease or genetic defect, both of which have yet to be found. We are polluting our minds with too much junk content, our bodies with too much junk food, and our planet with just too much junk.

No one field is responsible for the predicament we are in, and no one sector will solve the problem. Every field, every industry in their current form is unsustainable and grossly polluting. This includes the military, finance, fashionentertainmentinformation technology (IT), agriculturemedicine, transportation (driving, flying, cruising, boating), engineering, construction, real estate, publishing, art, scientific research, even education. But again, we do not need scientific evidence to notice what is right in front of us. I used to conduct a thought exercise with my students in Environmental Studies. I would ask them to pick any item from anywhere and to perform an informal life cycle analysis of that item: that is, try to find out about all of the resources and energy needed to create that item, used during the life of the item, and emitted as pollution or toxic waste throughout the lifespan of the item through its end of use. Through this exercise, if you work in a hospital setting, you might discover that a chemical utilized in the process of MRI could end up as a toxic pollutant in certain ecosystems. If you work in IT, you might learn that server farms and promising new applications such as Bitcoin require extensive amounts of energy and resources to function. If you do this with any part of any industry, you will not need any special scientific training to discover our sustainability problem.

The fact is, we need to make the environment a priority in every field. Sustainability cannot be a novelty or a footnote; environmental impact must be the foundation of all disciplines. All students should be required to take introductory environmental studies classes. All academic subjects need to have sustainability as the base of their field. We cannot make “green” or “eco-friendly” niches within industries. Rather, we must strive to eliminate any practices and products that are not within our ecological limits and that are not necessary to our survival, because the overwhelming consensus of all scholars suggests that we are, without a doubt, imperiling our own survival if we continue on with business as usual.

We need to deconstruct our lives. We need to take things away and abstain from what cannot be sustainable. We need to create new norms, new stories, and new values. Perhaps the genius is not in the tech billionaire that creates unsustainable technology of questionable merit, but the wise person who could have intellectually created the technology, but who considered the social, psychological, and environmental ramifications, and decided against it.

Years ago I read an anecdote about refugee immigrants from a third world nation who had settled in America. As a welcoming gesture, they were brought to a shopping mall, but rather than being awestruck by the array of products and consumer choices, they were overwhelmed and repulsed by the excess. If we are to survive as a species, we should all learn to feel this way.

At this point, we cannot count on our government officials to offer real solutions—or at least solutions substantial enough to tackle the multitude of issues we face. It’s as if we have a preventable and reversible illness that could be solved through a change of lifestyle. We go to the doctor to be diagnosed. The Republicans react by denying the illness altogether. The Democrats ask for a magic pill, because they do not want to go through the trouble of exercising, eating less, and only ingesting quality, nutritious food. The rest of us, in every sector of society, in every field, need to pick up the slack and make necessary large-scale changes in production and consumption on both the individual and systemic levels. What these changes amount to most of all is living simply, personally and collectively. This is the true #resistance.

We cannot take for granted, as economists and industrialists do, that we will continue to produce and consume more. This premise, which undermines all of our research and policy initiatives pertaining to the environment, has been completely ineffective and must be abandoned.  

Americans and other first-world citizens have the notion that their happiness, their desire for comfort, their want of cool gadgetry, their egos, their power, and their careers are more important than life itself. As a result, even the most environmentally-minded middle class people are too tied to their creature comforts (a.k.a., consumer excesses) that they still rank among the biggest consumers and polluters. Americans often deride others for living beyond their means (meaning their financial abilities), but no one ever worries about living beyond our needs, which is perhaps the fundamental cause of our suicidal path as a species.  

Anyone who did not grow up rich or even upper middle class knows what it is like to sacrifice, knows what it is like to have to pick and choose—to only buy or use what is needed, rather than what is desired. You know you have to live without. You can’t afford to splurge. This is where we are with life on the planet. We can’t splurge anymore as individuals, but more critically, as industries and as societies. In fact, we couldn’t afford to overindulge decades ago, and we should have never done so in the first place. We don’t need science to understand this, and we don’t need an ecological footprint calculator. We need empathy and a sense of connection with all life on the planet. If we can learn to consume according to our needs rather than our decadent desires, not only might we all live more enjoyable, fulfilling, and healthy lives, but we all might just continue to be able to live.


Original source / Image credit: Common Dreams