07 October, 2012

The Titanic

The good news of the Deprived Society.

By Thanos Stasinopoulos

Greek version


In my first article in this column almost 3 years ago, I wrote about a genie whose miracles were not capable of providing a long-term solution to the environmental crisis. That genie reappeared the other day and we had an interesting dialogue that I convey here, in my last 'Leveller' article in

- You seem to be worried again. Last time it was the environmental crisis, now what is tormenting you? he asked me.

- We are having another crisis now, economic this time: Wages are falling, taxes are rising, hope is hibernating, I explained.

- I know all that, he says. It's not too bad; on the contrary it is good news!

I was surprised and invited him to explain.

- Do you remember that you had asked me for some favours that were supposed to end the deterioration of the environment? You asked for free and clean energy for cars and I provided it. You asked for clean electricity, I provided it. You asked to convert landfills into recycling centres, I did. You also asked for ecological buildings, energy self-sufficient, and I did that too. But soon you realized that, in spite of solving all those issues that you considered vital, the result was just a delay in the decline. And you know why? Because those actions were aiming to temporarily alleviate the problem, without dealing with its origin. So, what do you think you should do, apart from such half-measures? he asked me.

- I believe that consumerism is the main cause of environmental problems; therefore I would try to limit it, I replied.

- Quite right, but not just that, he corrected me. Do you know Ehrlich's relationship, I = PAT?

- Yes, the one saying that human impact on the environment depends on how many people we are, the level of consumption per capita, and the amount of raw materials and waste that result per unit of consumption depending on our technology.

- Exactly. Now consider that today you earthlings are twice as many as in 1970, which means that you have doubled your impact on the planet just because of your population growth. Take also into account that during the same time you have increased 12-fold your average income per capita, which roughly means 12 times more consumption and waste by each one. 2 by 12 equals 24, therefore you realize that your present burden on the environment is about 24 times more than just 40 years ago. In that period, how much did you advance your technology to decrease the quantities of raw materials and rubbish 'per unit of consumption' as Ehrlich says?

- I do not think that the performance of our technology has increased 24 times, I answered impressed with those numbers. There has been significant progress for sure, but not that much I think.

- Then you do see the course you have taken. Now what do you think you should do? Maybe you have to reduce P by euthanasia, large scale warfare, or some new lethal virus?

- What are you talking about? I protested. I told you earlier that the solution is to reduce consumption!

- All right, whatever you say, he said smiling. Let's assume the solution is that. And how would you achieve it? By advertisements saying 'Do not buy what the other ads urge you to buy'? Or by imposing an ecological martial law? You understand very well that the system of free market and perpetual growth that dominates you will not accept putting a noose on its neck or chains on its leg. You better find out what is absolutely essential for consumption.

- In order to consume, one must have money to spend, I dared saying as a wise economist.

- Therefore by reducing available income you reduce consumption and the burden on the environment too. That's why I said that the crisis is good news for the environment. And not in one or two issues only. Look for example at electricity production in your country, which for decades was increasing steadily by 3-4% per year; now it is falling by almost the same rate. See the amount of municipal waste that was climbing by 2% each year and now is diving -not to mention the increase of 'informal recycling' as scavengers multiply.

I was stunned not only because of such news, but also because of his awareness of all that. And the genie continued:

- Think also about the benefits that the decline in building activity brings to the environment and landscape: fewer hills will be converted into gravel, less rubble will litter the countryside, less concrete will cover areas within and outside the cities. Perhaps you view recession as a calamity in your profession, yet it is good news for the natural environment -do you disagree?

- The way you put it, I can hardly disagree, but...

- There is no 'but', it is very clear, less construction means less burden on the environment, period. You know very well how many ills are brought by, say, illegal buildings or those offensive villas on seashores and forests, often linked to corruption.

-That's what ruined us, I murmured.

-Nah, do not think so, corruption was only a symptom of the egocentric materialism that drives you like marionettes, he corrected me. But don't worry, you have several more rewards from the crisis. Do you remember saying about the number of cars in Greece doubling every 12 years and the problems created by such increase? Congestion, anxiety, pollution? Well, car sales are plummeting nowadays. And not only that, the existing ones are used less. So now you have less traffic congestion and less air pollution. And you have such results without new policing and new prohibitions, and without spending a penny for new arteries and junctions, for new parking lots, for tree planting and the like. Do you see how nicely the crisis sorts out your mess?

I could not hear more of such nonsense and I replied rather abruptly:

- So what do you mean, we must all become like Hugo's Les Miserables in order to protect the environment? Are we nuts?

- Oh, you have misunderstood, he replied with an odd smile. Who said 'all'? I thought you were smarter.

- Explain please, I said annoyed a bit.

- Remember that after our previous encounter you saw a dream about the Titanic? The legendary shipwreck where 2/3 of the first class passengers survived, 1/4 of the third, and just 1/5 of the crew? In that event, the privileged passengers had special treatment compared to the rest, which explains why most have survived, together with 2 of their pets. Of course there was no way that everyone could have been saved, simply because the lifeboats were enough for less than half of those aboard.

- And what does that tragedy have to do with the current crisis? I asked puzzled.

- It is a good example that, in situations where there is no chance to save everybody, the privileged ones have priority. The same applies to the environmental crisis: since your present morality does not allow a drastic population decrease, and since your technology is not capable of dealing with your mess, then the only remaining solution is reducing consumption, as you suggested. But that does not apply equally to everybody, as there will always be those few who are more equal than 'hoi polloi'. It has always been like that in your history, and you know it.

- Do you mean that it is a selective crisis now?

- Of course, don't you see? Many in your country cannot afford buying heating oil, but at the same time several others buy a new car, some even a Porsche or a Jaguar. What I am trying to say is that a majority is forced to reduce consumerism and your burden on the environment, but some others continue as usual. This is not something new; you have been doing just the same for a long time: rich countries have far less population than the rest, yet they use most of natural resources on the planet for their own consumption and waste. So what you were doing to many other countries is now gradually emerging in your own societies: a few will live happily ever after and the others worse and worse. But as we said, this has its advantages because poverty makes you to lessen the damage to the environment. The 'Affluent Society' was a good fiction to keep you away from the red sirens. But it cannot continue on your planet, therefore the crisis leads you back to the 'Deprived Society'.

All that seemed too much to buy, so I responded with optimism:

- The crisis is temporary! Eventually, in one year or in 10, things will get better and the current difficulties will become history.

- So that's what you think, huh? I advise you to investigate a bit and you'll see how the rich-poor gap has been steadily increasing in your Western societies during the last 20 years. What do you think will stop that trend? You rejected systems based on solidarity for the sake of competition, which inevitably leads to inequality. Since you have no ability for a sensible judgement, then I fear that you will have the economic crisis as a lasting lash. If that is orchestrated by some group, then they also do the planet a favour. But you should remember, there is no crisis for Croesus -do not forget who survived the Titanic.

Once he finished those words, he disappeared again, leaving me in deep thoughts. I hope he is wrong.

This story brings an end to my "Leveller" column in, which I thank for hosting me for 3 years.

Happy New Year!

Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
Dr. Architect Engineer, AAGradDipl.


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