The text of Matt Carmichael’s address to the REAP AGM – 22 September 2010
So how bad is it?
In thirty years the consumer economy has blown up, slaughtered, drained, trashed or otherwise consumed roughly a third of all the natural resources available. 80% of the forests are now gone. We are losing $2-5 trillion worth of irreplaceable forest a year purely in economic terms. Half the oil has been used and demand is rising. 40% of the coral reef is damaged or dead. In forty years freshwater fish populations have been slashed by a third and we have created 356 dead zones in the oceans where the waters no longer contain oxygen. In fifty years 90% of large ocean fish stocks have been wiped out. 17,291 species are known to be threatened with extinction, besides all the ones we’ve already seen off, and all the ones we haven’t discovered yet, which might have cured a cancer or Alzheimers, or helped life to adapt to a warmer world. 315,000 people die each year from the current additional effects of global warming and 325 million more are seriously hurt, but in the early years of the 21st century global greenhouse gas emissions rose faster than in the worst case scenario of the UN’s 2001 report.
15 out of 24 basic ecosystem services provided by the planet are being exploited unsustainably. If everyone in the world were to consume materials at half the current rate of a US citizen, we’d have 8 years’ worth of lead left, 9 of silver and 17 of tin. Entire elements used up. 40-50% of food is wasted in the USA; a third in the UK. Including the ‘overburden’ of materials wasted from extraction to disposal, the average US citizen consumes 164kg of materials each and every day. That’s the weight of a racehorse every 3 days. 99% of those materials extracted to produce goods are disposed of within 6 months of purchase.
I have personally pursued the sources of all these figures and can vouch for them, and will happily supply the references.
The dream of consumerism for everyone is over. Africa can’t live like us. The truth is that in fact we can’t live like us. This year we used up the entire bountiful budget of planet Earth’s provision by 21st August. For the remaining 132 days – more than a third of the year – we are chomping away at natural capital, the inheritance passed down to us by a million generations.
When I talk like this, people assume I want to turn the clock back. I want us all to live like cavemen, or medieval peasants, or Tanzanians.
No, of course not. I want my quality of life to improve, not deteriorate. I want the children and young adults I teach at Roundhay to be happier and more secure than me, not less. I want to make life better within the constraints of what Earth can provide for us.
Why do I believe this is possible? My answer to that question also tells us something about why REAP is so important.
To understand why we can improve our quality of life within ecological limits we need to understand a few things about where we’ve gone wrong.
Crucially, we are getting richer but we are not getting happier. We have massively increased the material throughput of our economies at no apparent benefit to our quality of life. Self-reported happiness levels in Europe and America climbed with industrialisation until the point at which they committed fully to consumerism. The American people stopped getting any happier in 1950. In the UK it was 1975. It is since we stopped getting any happier that most of the serious environmental damage has occurred, as in so many of the statistics I gave you at the start.
The problem with consumerism is that it turns us into slaves of the economy instead of allowing us to design an economy that serves us. That’s why it cancels out its own gains in happiness.
How are we enslaved by consumerism?
One way is through overwork. We do on average 7.6 weeks more work a year than in 1981 (assuming a 40hr week) According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 14% of mothers and 17% of fathers are working after 8:30pm several times a week, and 38% of mothers, and 54% of fathers work at least one Saturday a month. We used to have 33 Bank holidays, now it’s just 8, and we no longer have a shared rest day. We are becoming the slaves of the consumer economy
Another example is the way we are placed in competition with each other to pay more for consumer goods. When we’ve got everything we need, the value of many goods shifts from their actual function and design to what they say about us. So, when a teenage boy buys a pair of trainers, it’s not the intrinsic value of the trainers that he’s thinking about. It’s what the trainers say about him. He’s the one being evaluated, not the shoes. So the market, having placed him in competition with his mates, is able to charge him astonishing prices for a pair of shoes that might have cost £2 to make. We are becoming the slaves of the consumer economy
We are strongly encouraged to enter into debt. Why? Because the market needs us to keep demanding the stuff it supplies, so it’s abolished skint. There is no skint. You just sell your future to prop up the consumer economy today. You become a slave to the consumer economy.
We are constantly exposed to a story telling us that our value as human beings is determined by income and social status, which we signal with consumer fashion statements. The market requires us to feel insecure, nurtures a low self-esteem telling us “Because I’m worth it” whilst subtly manipulating us into thinking that ageing makes us ugly, or that a real man doesn’t get on a bus. We are becoming slaves to the consumer economy.
The reason I believe we can get happier whilst living within ecological limits, is because the things that can improve our quality of life now involve freeing ourselves from slavery to a market that has turned on us and become the tyrant we know as consumerism.
And that’s where REAP comes in. Because we can’t free ourselves without thriving communities. Anyone who is serious about improving our quality of life needs to understand that for most of us in the rich world it’s no longer about quantity of stuff. In fact, the quantity of stuff we’re getting through is destroying our chances of a good quality of life, as well as other people’s. Quality of life is about good relationships, a sense of security, better health, having more time for people and new skills, sharing things and valuing the things we have. All of these depend on us to regenerate our communities.
I’m not talking about some kind of idyll, I know people can often be a pain, but there are some compelling facts. A study in America found that being a member of any local group – choir, football team, knitting circle, train enthusiasts club, you name it – halved your chances of dying in the next year. Another study found that crime is lower in geographical areas when people trust each other, and for them to trust each other, they have to know each other. Another finds that the more densely centred in a geographical area a person’s contacts are, the more likely they are to receive help in a crisis; so community is an insurance policy. Another study: how many friends people have within fifteen minutes’ walk correlates very well with crime rates: more friends in the locality, lower crime rates.
Who owns one of these (power drill)? Keep your hand up if you’ve used it in the last three months… one month….two weeks… What’s it doing the rest of the time? One study found that power drills are used an average of six times before they are binned. Total waste. Why don’t we share them? Because we don’t know each other, or because we don’t have community facilities to share them. We don’t have a culture of sharing.
Maybe we don’t have the facility because no-one has time to set it up or run it. People are working so hard they don’t know their kids, let alone the bloke three doors down. This is in a society where 2.46m people are unemployed!
Overwork does not serve our interests. It serves the interests of bankers and multi-millionaires. Work is something we can share, and communities are where these kinds of opportunities work best when they’re created. We don’t need to work those extra 7.6 weeks a year if we’re working them to buy trainers with a profit margin of 2000% or power drills we hardly use, or to pay the mortgage on the bigger house (or rented storage space) to store all the stuff we hardly use – the astonishing quantity of stuff that is put in a hole in the ground within 6 months of purchase.
What we do need are skills – many more skills than our schools currently teach, or than we develop within the narrow specialisms of the workplace. We need to be able to grow food, repair bikes, make clothes and run festivals. We need to be able to fix computers, plumb kitchens and renovate furniture. We can do this if we learn and share our skills in communities, and if we have a bit more time to do that.
The longer we leave it to slash our material consumption and rebuild our communities, the more we commit ourselves to the grim choice between Armageddon and poverty. But that choice is absolutely not necessary. We can have better, longer-lasting, more bespoke stuff, stuff we love more. We can have more friends, better relationships and happier families. We can feel like we belong where we live again. We can achieve greater equality – in fact it’s essential for reducing ecological damage. We can have more time to invest in the things that really matter, the things that actually deliver on quality of life instead of the endless not-quite-enough of higher incomes that promise what they can’t give.
This vision depends on the efficiencies, and the face-to-face contacts that only healthy local geographical communities can provide.
Where are you going to share your power drills and mowers and projectors and PA systems and camping equipment? In your community.
Where are you going to find someone to share a lift to work, or to share car ownership? In your community.
Where are you going to set up freely accessible workshops to mend, recycle and invent stuff? In your community.
Where are kids going to play out safely? In communities where people know each other and look out for each other and recognise a stranger.
Where are we going to start up the alternative currencies and time-trading schemes to protect us from the vagaries of Bust and More Bust when we go crashing into final ecological limits?
These are some of the benefits of rebuilding communities.
In Roundhay, it’s REAP that has recognised the link between community and ecology. You are the ones who provide hope for this community, whether people recognise the threats or not. Every contact you make, every name you learn, every conversation you have over the garden fence or at the farmer’s market, every leaflet you distribute or poster you put up, every idea that comes to fruition, every greener driving lesson and every plant you swap – every one of these is helping to build a real community here, and helping people to make that all-important link between community and sustainability. You are doing a marvellous job.
Even better, you’ve invited me to raise with you the question of how to build on this success. So here are three ideas or challenges that I suggest you start to discuss this evening, and then carry on into the weeks and months ahead:
1st idea. If you agree with me that to a certain extent BUILDING COMMUNITY IS GREEN, then many kinds of activities, clubs, groups and local businesses are part of that. Can you think of ways of making community in Roundhay feel more tangible? You could have street parties, a festival, a Roundhay community website, buddies in different groups… that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure if you apply your imaginations to this, then it’s something you can make an impact on.
2nd idea. Share the drills. Sharing stuff is one of the most basic requirements of feeling richer with a smaller footprint. There are websites for sharing stuff where you say what you can lend and people come round to borrow it. Some communities have set up volunteer-run stuff-libraries with an actual building where people keep their stuff for the street, or the block, or the whole village. When people know they can get a drill easily when they need it, the economic equation changes, because they’re actually saving money by sharing. So think about how to share the drills.
3rd idea. The new government is talking about two big things: massive cuts, and local communities. There is a huge danger here. If people come to associate the one with the other, then in 30 years people could be talking about communities in the same tone of voice that they talk about trades unions 31 years after the winter of discontent – and anyone who’s seen the news in the past couple of weeks knows how negatively the unions are perceived. David Cameron’s Big Society is set to benefit local communities where people have the education, the confidence and the experience to win the grants, jump through the legal hoops, run the committees and follow through on the ideas. Meanwhile, in poor communities, funding will disappear and services with them.
Roundhay will benefit. But what’s going to happen in Gipton, in Harehills, in Chapeltown? I can’t tell you how it would work, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if people in places like Roundhay twinned up with people in places like Gipton to make both communities better for the people who live in them? Both communities would benefit from the different ideas, experiences and skills the other brought to the table. Both would benefit from economies of scale on more ambitious projects. Both would end up more resilient to economic and ecological threats. Each community might have different needs and therefore different projects, but be more likely to achieve them. And community – the very idea of community – might be saved from association with what may become the least popular government in living memory. One small example: the back-to-front gardens project in Harehills has set up demonstration gardens where people grow food in their front gardens, in such a way that it looks beautiful too. The idea is to improve people’s quality of life, strengthen local communities and reduce environmental impacts. And it’s working. People passing by stop to ask how to do it. The postman wants to know where to get the stuff. Neighbours want their front garden to look as good. It’s the sort of thing REAP could go to Harehills for advice about, and without sounding in any way patronising, start to build links around a community-building green agenda.
Of course there are many more very important things you could do, but these would be my personal suggestions. Well done REAP for all you’ve achieved already. I hope that what I’ve said will help you to understand the importance of what you’re doing. And I can’t wait to see what you do next.