That was a headline on the Guardian earlier this year. A study published in Environmental Research Letters measured the impact of certain lifestyle choices when it comes to carbon emissions. The study suggests that having fewer children, along with adopting a vegetarian diet, avoiding long flights and selling your car, will have the most impact in reducing an individual’s carbon footprint.
This argument is based on the idea that more people in the global population means more carbon emissions. Therefore, it should follow that countries with higher populations would have bigger carbon emissions. However, the figures don’t line up. A paper published in Environment and Urbanisation journal found that between 1980 and 2005, sub-Saharan Africa was responsible for 18% of the world’s population growth – but was only responsible for 2.4% of the world’s extra carbon emissions. Compare that with China during the same period, which had a similar population growth and was responsible for 20 times the emissions. True, one could argue that having fewer children in countries like China, the United States, Canada and the UK could have a positive impact in reducing carbon emissions. But the problem is that population size doesn’t address the root cause of what allows emissions to occur in the first place.
The overpopulation argument has reared its head in recent years and generally goes like this: It takes a certain amount of resources to keep people alive and there is a finite number of resources on the planet. If the number of people exceed the number of resources the planet can provide, we see an exhaustion of resources. There are areas of the world that have no access to basic resources like food, clothing, housing, clean water etc. Therefore, we have reached peak capacity and cannot continue to allow populations to grow.
Of course, the issue with arguments like this is that they ignore unequal distribution and consumption of resources throughout different parts of the world.
In Australia, for example, we have the paradox of a massive amount of food waste (costing each household $3800 per year) yet food insecurity (the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food) is at an all-time high. According to one article in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘In a single month 644,000 Australians receive food relief from charities, while 43,000 people are turned away due to a shortage of food and resources … A third of those going without are children.’ So we are currently throwing away tonnes of food each year while people are missing meals.
Between 2006 and 2011, homelessness in Australia rose by 17%. Whilst we have to wait until 2018 to get the official census data on more recent figures, homelessness has increased by 75% in Melbourne (since 2014). Recent events in Martin Place in Sydney suggest that homelessness is on the rise there as well.
But homelessness in Australia is not due to a lack of dwellings. Roughly one million homes were empty on census night. Even if up to 524,779 of the homes were accounted for due to market turnover (meaning they are in a transitory phase and are expected to have tenants shortly) that still leaves an estimate of just under half a million empty homes sitting vacant. Considering we only have 105,237 homeless people currently in Australia, this seems an obvious mismatch. Given these statistics relating to something as vital as food and shelter, we should begin to question if we are really distributing resources in the best way possible. Isn’t this actually an issue of resource management?
Returning to the study published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL), ways to address climate change are framed as being ideologically motivated, as though it’s an issue that can be solved by individual choices. This approach tends to ignore the possibility that climate change is integral to the entrenched, institutionalised ways of operation found in modern-day social structures. In other words, collective industry is making emissions, but the burden of solving climate change is placed on the shoulders of the individual.
We recently learned that that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s climate emissions. According to the neoliberal mindset of the ERL study, the average consumer should not only research all these companies and their subsidiaries, they should then boycott them to drive them out of the market. Good luck boycotting ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron entirely – let alone the thousands of companies that depend on their oil to keep running. I’m sure your act of ethical consumerism will send shock waves through the oil industry, driving them to immediate reform!
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t think about their individual choices, but the reality is that because of the way society is currently structured, those choices won’t make that much impact – if any at all – on how industry functions.
Clearly, there is a striking discord between popular opinion and the actions of those in the energy industry. A survey conducted by the Lowy Institute this year revealed that ‘81 per cent of respondents wanted policymakers to focus on clean energy sources such as wind and solar even if it costs more to ensure grid reliability.‘ On top of that, 57% of Australians also believe that climate change is a ‘critical threat’.
Those of a more reformist mindset might think this problem can be addressed by our elected politicians – that such representatives might create stronger legislation to address climate change reflecting the will of the people. The truth is politicians and major parties rarely represent the interests of their constituents, but rather their campaign donors. The fossil fuel industry invests considerable money into our political campaign system – an estimated $3.7 million dispersed the Labor, Liberal and National parties. And it’s a wise investment for them because according to a 350.org (a grassroots clean energy campaign website) report, for every dollar they invest, they will receive $2000 back in government subsidies. So with the mechanisms for change to be enacted through the state sector currently jammed, what is the best approach to dealing with resource imbalances like climate change, hunger and homelessness?
Well, we start with the management of our collective resources, for the solution to this crisis lies in a population that leads more with democratic values and is less beholden to singular or concentrated private interests. Is it likely that empowered people will vote for a new, expensive, destructive and soon-to-be-outdated coal mine, or will they be more invested in renewable energy sources? Allow and empower communities to be more directly involved in the decision-making process of industry and production. Given the figures cited by the Lowy Institute earlier, I think it’s obvious which way people would vote. If given control over food and housing, I sincerely doubt that people would allow food to go to waste and houses to remain empty while people are going hungry and living on the streets.
Want to fight climate change? Let communities and workers be involved in the management of industry.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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