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Life on a disposable planet

A reality check about the ultimate cost of our economy's unchecked consumption.

The following is an edited excerpt from "Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis" by George Monbiot (Verso, 2017).

Our impacts on the biosphere — the frail membrane in which life occurs, which envelops the dead rock of planet Earth — are treated as externalities. The living world exists outside the realm of market exchange, and therefore outside the models. Or it is reduced to just another component of the consumer economy. As the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman put it, "Ecological values can find their natural space in the market, like any other consumer demand."

The awkward fact that all human life would immediately end without it is someone else’s problem. To mainstream commerce, the Earth is both loot and dump. Commercial activity, broadly speaking, consists of extracting resources from a hole in the ground on one side of the planet, inducing people to buy them, then dumping them a few days later in a hole in the ground on the other side.

Whether or not they were useful to those who purchased them is irrelevant: if marketing can persuade people to part with their money in exchange for goods, the interests of humanity have been served. The faster we do this, the more successful economic life is deemed to be, and the greater is the sum of human progress. To mainstream politicians, the living world (denoted by an alienating term that conveniently creates no pictures in the mind: "the environment") is something their advisers tell them they should appear concerned about.

Whatever that environment thing may be, and they never seem too sure, they must look grave and shake their heads and explain that the crucial task is to ensure that we act sustainably. They have little idea of what this means, either. You can tell by the way the language shifts. First they talked about "sustainability." Then it became "sustainable development."

Then it evolved into "sustainable growth." Then it became "sustained growth." Sustainability and sustained growth are antithetical concepts. But no one seems to have noticed: they are used interchangeably. To the mainstream media, the environment is what blowhards talk about. Lip service must still be paid, but only when there’s a meeting about it featuring Very Important People.

What then counts is what these people say to each other, and who stands where in the photo, and what this meeting might mean for the next meeting. Occasionally a journalist reports from somewhere that is not a hotel or conference center, such as a rainforest or glacier or coral reef — somewhere no one in their right mind would wish to visit unless it involved a luxury safari lodge, ideally with spa and sauna.

They will say the usual thing about everything turning to dust. It will be dumped at the end of the news program, between a crucial report on the brand of shoes the prime minister favors and the football results. It will be picked up by no other journalists, as they will be too busy poring over what one very important person said to another in an overheard conversation in a restaurant, and what this might mean for the career of a third, and whether it might affect the results of the election in three years’ time.

The aggregate of £1 billion of soil lost this year, £1 billion lost next year, and so on, is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilization.

To most people, who are not economists or politicians or journalists, the state of the living planet features as a real but remote concern, dimly perceived through the gauze of daily life. Something to worry about, certainly, once the mortgage has been paid and the kids have left school and we have worked out what the hell to do about our pensions. Probably the best time would be never.

But right now it is all too complicated, and it can’t be that much of an issue anyway, if no one’s stopping us from buying that bigger car we fancy, or eating the fish those people say are almost extinct, or washing our hair with stuff made from palm oil. If it were that big a deal, "they" would do something, wouldn’t they?

Occasionally, when disaster strikes, the dull apprehension surges into perplexity and alarm, but this abates as fast as the floodwaters recede. Some people switch from denial (it’s all nonsense, nothing’s going to happen) to resignation (it’s too late to do anything, we’re doomed) without pausing for a moment’s resolve (it’s real, and we must act).

To be an environmentalist, to see what others refuse to see, is to struggle every day against hostility, denial and, above all, indifference. It is to find yourself fighting almost everyone in a position of power. It is to find yourself locked in a constant cycle of determination and despair. I could recite the long and familiar list of horrors: the natural marvels eliminated for a mess of pottage; the shocking, disorienting speed with which living systems are being snuffed out.

But this approach, as I know from bitter experience, tends not to engage people but to repel them. Instead, I will mention just one issue that exemplifies our relationship with the natural world.

Disposable planet

The state of our soils features in the media and political life even less often than other environmental issues. When it does, it is usually expressed in financial terms. In England and Wales, for example, according to a parliamentary report, the loss of soil "costs around £1 billion per year." When we read such statements, we absorb the implicit suggestion that this loss could be redeemed by money.

After all, monetary figures are meaningless unless the goods they measure can be so redeemed. The presumed financial loss (whose quantification is as dodgy as most such attempts to price the biosphere) distracts us from the real issue: that this is the basis of our subsistence. When the soil goes, we go with it. The aggregate of £1 billion of soil lost this year, £1 billion lost next year, and so on, is not a certain number of billions. It is the end of civilization.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation uses a more relevant metric. At current rates of soil degradation, it reports, the world on average has 60 more years of harvests. A combination of powerful machinery and the drive for immediate profit rather than long-term protection incites farmers to compact and churn the soil and leave it exposed at crucial moments, whereupon rain or wind strips it from the land.

To keep up with global food demand, the U.N. estimates, 14.8 million acres of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, nearly 30 million acres a year are lost through soil degradation. In an era in which everything is treated as disposable, we use it, lose it and move on, trashing rainforests, wetlands, savannas and other precious habitats to mine what lies beneath. 

This is not an unanticipated side effect of the system; it is the system. In "The Constitution of Liberty," Friedrich Hayek argues that

"Soil mining" may in certain circumstances be as much in the longrange interest of the community as the using up of any stock resource ... Such resources share with most of the capital of society the property of being exhaustible, and if we want to maintain or increase our income, we must be able to replace each resource that is being used up with a new one that will make at least an equal contribution to future income. This does not mean, however, that it should be preserved in kind or replaced by another of the same kind, or even that the total stock of natural resources should be kept intact.

In other words, as Hayek explained, "There is nothing in the preservation of natural resources as such which makes it a more desirable object of investment than man-made equipment or human capacities." Soil should be treated like any other form of capital: disposable and exchangeable for money.

Our sole duty to each other is to maximize income. As long as we replace the soil we mine for profit with something else — a new factory, for example — its exhaustion is of no account. What happens when we exhaust the soil everywhere appears, strangely, to be beyond the scope of his analysis.

Let’s move to Mars

But plenty of people propose an answer. Seldom does a week go by without someone writing to me to explain that when we have squandered this planet’s capacity to support us, we can abandon it and move to another one. Earth itself should be treated like a plastic cup or a paper towel: to be thrown away when it is of no further use. (Or, to be more precise, we should throw ourselves away — into space. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we see ourselves as disposable.)

This belief is the ultimate negation of belonging. People who would consider the idea of living in the Gobi Desert intolerable — where, a realtor (estate agent) might point out, there is oxygen, radiation-screening, atmospheric pressure and one g of gravity — rhapsodize about living on Mars.

In an era in which everything is treated as disposable, we use it, lose it and move on, trashing rainforests, wetlands, savannas and other precious habitats to mine what lies beneath.

People who blithely envisage the collapse of our biosphere imagine that we will escape the power, greed and oppression that could cause it by relocating into orbiting pressure vessels controlled by technicians, in which we would be trapped like tadpoles in a jam jar. The enthusiasm for planetary abandonment is not restricted to a far-out fringe: NASA has published papers presenting it as a thrilling prospect.

This is how far the detachment from physical reality has advanced. This is what is delivered by a system that insists we are subject to no resource constraints.

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