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The Juggernaut: consumerism is antithetical to solving climate change

January 11, 2011

The big container ships and oil tankers can run on for 20 miles after putting their engines in reverse. Inertia prevents them stopping any quicker – the tendency for matter, when moving, to keep moving in the same direction. (For the pedants, inertia is also the tendency of matter, when at rest, to remain at rest. I’m casting guilty looks at my exercise bike as I write this).

I’ve reached something of a hiatus in my writing. The catalyst was posting an item in my blog which, it turned out, was pretty much identical to something I’d written two years ago. Christ! I’m just repeating myself now. This isn’t good, surely? I know the sceptics and their hardcore brethren repeat their clichés ad nauseum – discussions I would largely characterise as ‘wading through vomit’ – but while repetition is the stuff of propaganda, science is about constant discovery and refinement; how come, as a follower of science, I’m not full of novelty myself?

Perhaps it is because science, like Max Weber’s politics, ‘is a strong and slow boring of hard boards’. We don’t get a gripping story, even much of a narrative, from climate science on a weekly basis. (Just as well, for it usually transpires than when events move that fast, bad things follow – unintended consequences and all that). Climate science is like that which it studies, a steady and inexorable process that takes a long time to get anywhere. The length of this journey and the lack of milestones by which we can adequately judge our progress are very problematic when it comes to getting anything done about climate change, building around it a consensual position in a democratic society, or writing about it. Climate change – or rather, the damage it will do – is all too remote, too abstract. Not only that, but when the damage is manifest, it will be done mostly to people who live a long way away, their terrible plight reduced to a 2 minute news item, misery compressed to fit inside the frame of an LCD screen, the horror sanitised so it doesn’t offend people eating their breakfast.

In fact, I too am feeling a bit distanced from my subject. For years I’ve struggled to build some kind of analysis in which I can argue credibly for change, but Copenhagen and Cancun, US intransigence and other events have, in the past year, largely convinced me that mitigation simply will not happen. Whatever climate change has in store for us, I suspect we are going to find out – over several generations certainly – but history will record our dismal failure to protect ourselves, to curtail our indulgencies and embrace change.

Recently, I have been doing some back to basics thinking about the whole issue. One strand of thought follows a historic perspective, in which this civilisation goes the way of all previous empires, conveniently solving the population problem, albeit with an awful lot of violence along the way. This is an argument based on historic inevitability, but it could just as easily be presented as a revenge tragedy enacted by Lovelock’s Gaia. I remain suspicious of it, however; it’s so easy to propose, yet difficult to substantiate.

If history isn’t inevitable, then what is? Well, inertia is inevitable. I write quite often that I’m not seeking answers at this time, merely trying to formulate the right questions. The question I think is most pertinent for this generation, for this era, is whether anyone seriously thinks the immeasurable juggernaut of consumerism can even change course, let alone be halted. Put simply, it’s been picking up speed ever since the industrial revolution. Many enjoy the fruits of consumerism; many more desire what we in the west already have. It is one thing to give up something after tasting its pleasures, another thing altogether to be denied even the most transient exposure. That is the message: the developing world can no longer aspire to catch us up, have what we have. There isn’t enough stuff to go around, not enough energy to fuel manufacture or transport, and the energy consumed by consumerism is rendering our climate anarchic.

In some ways, I feel the past decade has been the one in which consumerism has been prodded into action by the growing evidence of its own fallibility, weaknesses that are both inherent and unavoidable. The latest assault has just started, with the US congress clearly determined to placate the vested interests who finance their election campaigns at the expense of everyone else on the planet. This great beast is just waking up, taking climate change seriously now, but only as an enemy of profit, to be defeated by any and all means in a war everyone is going to lose. The juggernaut that is consumerism continues headlong into a dark night, headlights beaming out bravely as it hurtles, at full and unstoppable speed, towards the mortal chasm of its own creation.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. The King In Yellow permalink
    January 11, 2011 4:46 pm

    “Climate change – or rather, the damage it will do – is all too remote, too abstract. Not only that, but when the damage is manifest, it will be done mostly to people who live a long way away, their terrible plight reduced to a 2 minute news item, misery compressed to fit inside the frame of an LCD screen, the horror sanitised so it doesn’t offend people eating their breakfast.”

    The break down in the education systems in the UK, US and other western nations coupled with the spoon sized shredded dreams served up as news is a key issue. More often than not when dealing with the deniers you find they are forming their inDUHvidual opinions based on the mass media. A few pertinent comments:

    Harrison Ford: ““What is news?” he muses. “It’s hard to quantify. Certainly news has changed completely, and the morning shows are not really designed to bring you the news, except to tell you what happened overnight, and the rest of it is a kind of magazine mentality – a little bit of this, a little bit of that. It’s harder to be an educated and informed citizen.””
    (From an interview in the Torygraph last week)

    “One Nation of tabloid robots who actually believe what they see on tv, but when ask about it say “I don’t care.””
    (Jello Biafra’s Pledge of Allegiance)

    All the best.

  2. January 11, 2011 8:57 pm

    I have been living without a TV (idiot box) and i am sure it made me see things in a different way. The information you can find on the internet is brilliant and i use this more and more but have found that here the others are coming in with silly articles. it is a bit of a jungle and you need to know where to look.
    Consumerism is a dead-end we need to be more happy with what we have instead of the constant i want more syndrome.

    Resent i came across FACE Free Air Co2 Enrichment research very interesting but i do not know much about it yet just starting to read about it. I hope it will help me to grow the right plants which will handle climate change the best.

  3. The King In Yellow permalink
    January 11, 2011 9:27 pm

    “I have been living without a TV (idiot box”

    yes, it helps – coming up to 3 years without live Tv – just what DVDs I want. On the internet you do need to be careful, but it is possible to be informed.

    All the best.

  4. January 12, 2011 11:49 am

    As The King In Yellow notes you have hit the nail on the head about the damage from climate change just being a future news item removed from out western lifestyles. We see it already, the fires in Russia, flood in Pakistan and now Australia, even the odd Cumbria or Cornwall right on our door steps. You have made me feel all rather depressed.

  5. Jack Savage permalink
    January 13, 2011 12:23 am

    If a movement could be started that reversed the trend of people being judged by what they have rather than by what they are… after all, it only took a decade or so for attitudes to drink-driving to move from something a lot of people did without much social stigma to something just this side of torture-murder now.
    Some few years ago I decided (following an example set by my son ) to see exactly how little I could buy without actually greatly affecting my real quality of life. It is now an ingrained habit. If everybody looked at people’s patio heaters and said: “That is just silly” or their 3 litre £50,000 car and just laughed….
    Or can envy never be generally eliminated? Probably not while the corporations relentlessly promote it.Personally, the concept of having enough has brought me a great deal of peace of mind.
    Population in many Western countries is stable or dropping. The rates of increase in many third world countries are slowing in proportion with their development.It may be that with future technical advances there could be enough for all with a little care and restraint. The likelihood of that occurring looks pretty low at the moment,however.
    Still, life is good and we only pass this way but once. You cannot agonise about the rest of the world all the time. If it is something you can do nothing about, tune it out. Ommmmmm!

  6. adelady permalink
    January 13, 2011 3:36 am

    Whenever I get down about general public attitudes, I remember that it took less than 10 years for deodorants to become not merely acceptable, but desirable indicators of living a good modern life.

    It can be done.

  7. Colin permalink
    January 14, 2011 12:37 pm

    Forgive me for saying so but if you want to talk to people about science you need to get it straight yourself. Objects do not keep moving or stay still as a result of inertia. If you push an object where there is no friction it will move without ceasing. Equally a stationary object will not move until force is applied, it is not kept static by “inertia” whatever that may be.

  8. Graham Wayne permalink*
    January 14, 2011 1:20 pm

    Well Colin, I never mind being corrected, although I care less for being patronised. According to, I did reasonably well (from memory, in fact) although I did miss out the ‘unless acted on by a force’:

    Inertia is the name for the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, or an object at rest to remain at rest, unless acted upon by a force.


    Their definition and mine seem remarkably similar. Now, do you have anything to say about the subject?

  9. Colin permalink
    January 14, 2011 1:43 pm

    Yes. The “unless acted on by a force” is rather critical to the whole thing isn’t it? How would a stationary object start to move without a force being applied to it?

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    January 14, 2011 7:14 pm

    It was a casual reference to make a general point. It wasn’t a bloody physics lesson, but an analogy.

    You’re just being dull now. Comment on the topic or not at all.

  11. mark houghton brown permalink
    January 22, 2011 11:45 am

    It seems like the shit is definitely going to hit the fan Graham; but to blame consumerism is to choose a small portion of a much larger target (though a guilty portion maybe).
    If we take the Optimum Population Trust numbers, the world can sustainably support between 2.7 and 5.1 billion. The capacity of earth to support us is inevitably diminishing due to climate change, topsoil loss, peak oil and other physical limits being reached. Yet humans are hitting 7 billion this year and projected to hit 9.2 billion by 2050, and there’s not much we can do about those demographic forces.
    A collision is inevitable, and the overshoot of population vs resource seems material.

    Yet I am no doomer; hope springs eternal! There are many ways to foster more resilient communities and more responsible behaviours, but the suffering will be immense.
    Its not going to be easy.

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