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October 4, 2014
DESTROYING THE WORLD -- THE KINK IN THE HUMAN BRAIN
Pointless, joyless consumption is destroying our world of wonders.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 2nd October 2014
This is a moment at which anyone with the capacity for reflection should stop and
wonder what we are doing.
If the news that in the past 40 years the world has lost over 50% its vertebrate wildlife
(mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish) fails to tell us that there is something
wrong with the way we live, it’s hard to imagine what could. Who believes that a social
and economic system which has this effect is a healthy one? Who, contemplating this
loss, could call it progress?
In fairness to the modern era, this is an extension of a trend that has lasted some two
million years. The loss of much of the African megafauna – sabretooths and false
sabretooths, giant hyaenas and amphicyonids (bear dogs), several species of
elephant – coincided with the switch towards meat eating by hominims (ancestral
humans). It’s hard to see what else could have been responsible for the peculiar
pattern of extinction then.
As we spread into other continents, their megafaunas almost immediately collapsed.
Perhaps the most reliable way of dating the first arrival of people anywhere is the
sudden loss of large animals. The habitats we see as pristine – the Amazon rainforest
or coral reefs for example – are in fact almost empty: they have lost most of the great
beasts that used to inhabit them, which drove crucial natural processes.
Since then we have worked our way down the foodchain, rubbing out smaller
predators, medium-sized herbivores, and now, through both habitat destruction and
hunting, wildlife across all classes and positions in the foodweb. There seems to be
some kink in the human brain that prevents us from stopping, that drives us to carry
on taking and competing and destroying, even when there is no need to do so.
But what we see now is something new: a speed of destruction that exceeds even that
of the first settlement of the Americas, 14,000 years ago, when an entire hemisphere’
s ecology was transformed through a firestorm of extinction within a few dozen
generations, in which the majority of large vertebrate species disappeared.
Many people blame this process on human population growth, and there’s no doubt
that it has been a factor. But two other trends have developed even faster and
further. The first is the rise in consumption; the second is amplification by technology.
Every year, new pesticides, new fishing technologies, new mining methods, new
techniques for processing trees are developed. We are waging an increasingly
asymmetric war against the living world.
But why are we at war? In the rich nations, which commission much of this destruction
through imports, most of our consumption has nothing to do with meeting human
This is what hits me harder than anything: the disproportion between what we lose
and what we gain. Economic growth in a country whose primary and secondary needs
have already been met means developing ever more useless stuff to meet ever
For example, a vague desire to amuse friends and colleagues (especially through the
Secret Santa nonsense) commissions the consumption of thousands of tonnes of
metal and plastic, often confected into complex electronic novelties: toys for adults.
They might provoke a snigger or two, then they are dumped in a cupboard. After a
few weeks, scarcely used, they find their way into landfill.
In a society bombarded by advertising and driven by the growth imperative, pleasure
is reduced to hedonism and hedonism is reduced to consumption. We use
consumption as a cure for boredom, to fill the void that an affectless, grasping,
atomised culture creates, to brighten the grey world we have created.
We care ever less for the possessions we buy, and dispose of them ever more
quickly. Yet the extraction of the raw materials required to produce them, the pollution
commissioned in their manufacturing, the infrastructure and noise and burning of fuel
needed to transport them are trashing a natural world infinitely more fascinating and
intricate than the stuff we produce. The loss of wildlife is a loss of wonder and
enchantment, of the magic with which the living world infects our lives.
Perhaps it is misleading to suggest that “we” are doing all this. It’s being done not only
by us but to us. One of the remarkable characteristics of recent growth in the rich
world is how few people benefit. Almost all the gains go to a tiny number of people:
one study suggests that the richest 1% in the United States capture 93% of the
increase in incomes that growth delivers. Even with growth rates of 2 or 3% or more,
working conditions for most people continue to deteriorate, as we find ourselves on
short contracts, without full employment rights, without the security or the choice or
the pensions their parents enjoyed.
Working hours rise, wages stagnate or fall, tasks become duller, more stressful and
harder to fulfill, emails and texts and endless demands clatter inside our heads,
shutting down the ability to think, corners are cut, services deteriorate, housing
becomes almost impossible to afford, there’s ever less money for essential public
services. What and whom is this growth for?
It’s for the people who run or own the banks, the hedge funds, the mining companies,
the advertising firms, the lobbying companies, the weapons manufacturers, the buy-to-
let portfolios, the office blocks, the country estates, the offshore accounts. The rest of
us are induced to regard it as necessary and desirable through a system of marketing
and framing so intensive and all-pervasive that it amounts to brainwashing.
A system that makes us less happy, less secure, that narrows and impoverishes our
lives, is presented as the only possible answer to our problems. There is no
alternative – we must keep marching over the cliff. Anyone who challenges it is either
ignored or excoriated.
And the beneficiaries? Well they are also the biggest consumers, using their
spectacular wealth to exert impacts thousands of times greater than most people
achieve. Much of the natural world is destroyed so that the very rich can fit their
yachts with mahogany, eat bluefin tuna sushi, scatter ground rhino horn over their
food, land their private jets on airfields carved from rare grasslands, burn in one day
as much fossil fuel as the average global citizen uses in a year.
Thus the Great Global Polishing proceeds, wearing down the knap of the Earth,
rubbing out all that is distinctive and peculiar, in human culture as well as nature,
reducing us to replaceable automata within a homogenous global workforce,
inexorably transforming the riches of the natural world into a featureless monoculture.
Is this not the point at which we shout stop? At which we use the extraordinary
learning and expertise we have developed to change the way we organise ourselves,
to contest and reverse the trends that have governed our relationship with the living
planet for the past two million years, and that are now destroying its remaining
features at astonishing speed? Is this not the point at which we challenge the
inevitability of endless growth on a finite planet? If not now, when?