I’ve been writing for Thought Leader for roughly two years, and consistently on the same types of issues. I write about consumerism, “affluenza”, climate change, environmental degradation, oil and coal addiction, and the politics of eating meat — and after each piece, when I go through the comments, I’m left with the same overwhelming feeling: That as a society we are unable to admit that something is wrong.
When it comes to crime statistics, poverty and the need for job creation, we all seem to agree that things aren’t right, that we need to do more to tackle these pressing issues. However if the discussion shifts to a more systemic level — to the effect that our consumerist lifestyles are having on the planet — a severe case of myopia sets in. We block the facts and carry on as if the contradictions weren’t there.
I think this myopia is most easily illustrated with the example of factory-farmed meat. Ninety percent of us reading this are fully aware of what factory farming entails in terms of ethical concerns, environmental impacts, and human health issues. We know factory farmed beef is an incredibly inefficient form of meat production, and that in the context of an increasingly water-stressed country, the amount of water it uses is staggering. And yet confronted with these facts, we defend our flesh-eating with tepid excuses. The one who raises the issue is ridiculed, dismissed, called a fundamentalist — even unpatriotic.
Raise the issue of how our modern consumerist lifestyles are completely at odds with the planet’s finite resources, and you’ll face the same thing. Speak up about how the economics being taught at university is fundamentally flawed, and you may as well be speaking about the fairies you danced with under the moon. Point out that our economy’s growth fetish is entirely unsustainable, and you’re a classist or an anti-development hippie.
And yet I think today almost everyone has a sense that we are pushing up against the limits. Putting profit before all else is trashing the planet, and polarising wealth in the hands of a very select few. The oceans are being emptied, water resources polluted, and increasingly we are plugging into the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet. And as South Africa gears up to host the international climate talks, it quietly goes on constructing two of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants.
But at the end of the day it’s just easier to ignore these inconvenient truths. We’d rather sit in front of our 42-inch flat-screens and tell ourselves that this is just the way things are — if anything it’s overpopulation that’ll get us, and I’m not responsible for that!
The cars, the houses, the weekends away. The iPads, the takeaways, the outfit, after outfit, after outfit; each is a small dose of numbing anaesthetic, a pathetic prize for maintaining the status quo. Why rock the boat and have to face the true costs of our gorgeous lifestyles when we have it so cushy at the moment? Like the people in Desperate Housewives, we’ll do almost anything to maintain the glossy appearance (even fooling ourselves) while just beneath the surface …
Let’s face it: the effect that you or I can have on something like this is minuscule, unnoticeable. Perhaps that’s why ignoring it is so much more attractive — trying to change things is a far bigger commitment and far less appealing than simply enjoying the benefits. But surely the very least we can do is acknowledge that something isn’t right, that things can’t carry on like this.
I think that’s what makes the Occupy Wall Street movements so important. It’s about people coming together to articulate the reality of where we are: things are not alright! Sure, the people taking part in these occupations don’t have all the answers. They also don’t necessarily have an idea of the next steps — but what they do have is the courage to acknowledge that globally we are facing a serious problem. Collectively they are pulling back the veil, and facing the fact that things must change.