We all know, I suppose, that the world is getting over-populated; that we’re depleting the world’s resources and exterminating species at an alarming rate… and that there’s nothing much you and I can seem to do about it. Sure, I can recycle a piece of paper and a tin can, but when the local Council at at the same time leaves lamp-posts lit all night, heats council buildings day and night, summer and winter, when shops leave their lights on all night for security and advertising, the little bit I can do, frankly, looks stupid. Think global, act local: yes… but is this really getting to the root of the problem? I don’t think so. What exactly is the problem? Overpopulation?
Well, the conspiracy theorists would have us believe that the powers-that-be want to reduce the world’s population to below 500 million people, and maybe they do. But that, I think, is a negative solution, and only partial at best. Certainly, if we extinguish humanity entirely, our problems will indeed be solved. But partial/total extinction is the solution of the unimaginative.
Instead, I think we have to look at what is driving the problem in the first place – and it isn’t just humanity’s propensity to breed like crazy. After all, wealthy humans typically have far fewer children than those in poverty, since they can be sure their offspring stand a good chance of survival into adulthood. So we need to look at wealth and poverty. And, we need to go one step further than simply looking at abolishing poverty as such, because that is probably impossible with our current economic system. Instead, we need to look at the economic system itself.
The economic system of the world can be summed up under the name, ‘capitalism’. I know we’re all supposed to say that capitalism is good, and maybe it is indeed better than some of the dire systems that have been tried before, at least when it is coupled with democracy and personal freedom, but it is also extremely wasteful. Capitalist production, and the full-on ‘free-market’ system, in fact require massive overproduction in almost every area of production. We have a name for this: it is called, ‘built-in obsolescence’.
It is hard to think of exceptions to the rule of built-in obsolescence, actually. What the rule is, is that any product has to be made so that it wears out, deteriorates, or otherwise becomes obsolete, in as short a time as the market allows. Why? So that the producer can sell you another one. Think about it. If every light bulb lasted a lifetime, once every house had a dozen or so, what would the manufacturer do? Go out of business. This is why light bulbs these days are only guaranteed for 1,000 hours of use (it used to be 2,000). This is why people are encouraged to trade-in perfectly good cars every two or three years to get the latest whizz-bang model with nicer hubcaps or to show off how clever or rich they are. This is why people are encouraged to buy all-new clothes every season. Well-made clothes could last a decade. But it is hard to find well-made anything, in any area of production, in fact. Why? Because it is not profitable in the long run.
So, every person in capitalist society is busy purchasing, over and over again, products that could (in theory) have been made to last some 10 times longer (say). Instead of struggling to support some 7 billion people, the planet could be supporting 70 billion. Not that that is necessarily such a great idea either, of course, but it emphasises the wastefulness of our economic system.
I don’t know if there’s enough farmland to support 70 billion people. I have read that, well-managed, the Earth could probably support 20 billion. But we are not managing it well.
Capitalism is so-called because it is based on the notion of making a profit: of accumulating ‘capital’ (a large collection of spare dosh). The profit motive is, we are told, the best way we can think of for motivating people to work together productively. Well… is it? According to one study that I can’t locate at the moment, even in the ultra-capitalist USA, some 50% of the population in fact help out with some of their time on charity work at least occasionally. And being a parent is not exactly a capitalist enterprise either, is it? Yes, people have a profit motive; but they also have a community motive: a motivation to help one another to build a better society for ourselves and our children. This too is part of human nature. We are social animals. Even in the anonymous big cities, most people obey the rules most of the time to keep the system running as smoothly as it can. So other systems are a possibility. This may seem like a remote possibility at the moment, but we have grown up in a society brainwashed by aspirational advertising seeking to part us from our money and our common-sense. It is hard to peek beyond the boundaries; to see beyond the ‘matrix’.
How can the psychopathic plutocrats who control our world be persuaded to give up their seemingly endless thirst for money and power to save the planet? Well, I don’t know. Sorry. But being aware of the nature of the problem has to be the first step. And purchasing based on quality and necessity rather than fashion or the need to show-off may help a bit too.
One area where individuals can make a difference, perhaps, is in farming, strangely enough. The world’s farming system tends to transform land from fertile natural environment to exhausted monoculture to desert. According to Bill Mollison, one of the founders of ‘permaculture‘, this doesn’t have to be so. It is possible to farm sustainably, and even city dwellers can sometimes contribute to this. His book Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements started a bit of a movement on this subject, and in the video “In Grave Danger of Falling Food” below he shows how it can be done. I haven’t started growing tomatoes in my bedroom just yet… but it is not impossible that I might, either…