With the easing of restrictions, our carbon emissions will rise again substantially.
Yet there is growing recognition that we should treat recovery from the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, wasteful consumption and unsustainable growth, and make our society cleaner and greener.
This issue is especially important given the need to drastically reduce our emissions by 2030.
According to the UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report 2019, to prevent warming beyond 1.5°C, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent every year to 2030.
Emissions reduction is of course dependent on making an effective and urgent transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
Government spending aimed at achieving economic recovery should be directed at investments that facilitate that transition, while at the same time creating jobs and business opportunities.
Reducing emissions is also closely tied with reducing consumption — a crucial issue for affluent countries like Australia, whose consumption of resources far exceeds what ecologists regard as sustainable.
To reduce consumption, we need to make lifestyle changes.
And on this topic, I can recommend a favourite book that I re-read recently: Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss (Allen & Unwin, 2005).
Affluenza (subtitled When Too Much Is Never Enough) is about overconsumption and waste in the Australian context, and causes us to question our expectations, the way we live, and how much we consume.
The book’s central premise is that Australian society, like other rich societies, has become addicted to overconsumption driven by aspiration, resulting in high levels of personal debt, overwork, stress, obesity, hoarding, and extensive waste.
The book examines overconsumption in its many forms, such as:
Buying more food than we need, which then gets thrown out.
Our demand for increasingly larger houses since the 1950s, while the average number of occupants has decreased.
The purchase of household goods that we don’t really need.
The popularity of large 4WDs despite the safety hazards they pose and their poor fuel economy.
According to the authors,
“People afflicted by affluenza have an insatiable desire for more things.
Although our desire might have no bounds, our capacity to use things is limited: there is only so much we can eat, wear and watch, and a house has only so many rooms we can usefully occupy.
The difference between what we buy and what we use is waste.”
In regard to food waste, for example, the authors refer to a, then recent, survey showing that Australians threw away $5.2 billion worth of food and drink in 2004.
The situation has not improved since then.
The most recent Rabobank Food Waste Report has found that Australians wasted $10.1 billion on food in 2019, up from $8.9 billion in 2018, making Australia the fourth-worst food waster per capita in the world.
The authors do not advocate that “we should build humpies and live in self-satisfied deprivation”, which they say would misconstrue the purpose of their book.
As they explain.
“It is not money and material possessions that are the root of the problem: it is our attachment to them and the way they condition our thinking, give us our self-definition and rule our lives.”
Affluenza challenges us to think about and avoid overconsumption, of which we’re all guilty to a greater or lesser degree — a very timely challenge in the wake of the Coronavirus upheaval as we return to the “new normal”.
Jeff Cranston is a member of local climate change action group WarrandyteCAN.
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