Why The Sale Must End Soon

Issued by The Royal Society, People and the Planet is a new study concerning the challenges posed by population growth.

The global population set to increase by a further two billion people over the next 20 years, but the report highlights the fact that the key question is not How many people? but rather How are they all going to live?

The startling conclusion is that in developed and the emerging economies, consumption has reached unsustainable levels and must be immediately reduced. The report claims that the increase in population will, ‘…entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. This change is critical  to ensuring a sustainable future for all.’

These findings will something of a body-blow to David Cameron’s vision of an export-led return to growth, but at least he can take some comfort from the fact that his strategy didn’t appear to be working anyway. The implication is clear; whether we like it or not, the good times are not about to return any time soon. But while this news is certainly bad for the Coalition (and also for the other centre-right Governments in the Eurozone) it is not necessarily bad news in and of itself, nor indeed for the rest of us.

The strategy of Governments over the last 30 years has been to focus on increasing the wealth, well-being and opportunities of individuals rather than of society as a whole. Like any policy there have been winners and losers, but the result is that this recession intuitively feels different to all the others. In comparison with the previous slumps of the 70s and 80s, GDP is much higher – which is a good thing – but the gap between rich and poor is now much, much bigger than it ever was and it is continuing to widen at an unhealthy rate. Literally in fact. For example, in my hometown of Sheffield,  the average life expectancy in the richest parts of the city is more than 20 years greater than that in the poorest. This pattern is repeated in cities across UK, Europe and North America.

Change is required, but the truth is that this is as much attitudinal as it is economic. A third of all food purchased in the UK is simply thrown away, while 80 percent of all items bought are used once and then discarded. Everything Now is an indulgent and wasteful way to live, and we have all been complicit in its emergence, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be happier, or better off without it. Reusing equipment, recycling materials, reducing waste, obtaining energy from renewable sources, and getting consumers to stump up for the actual cost of their consumption will make a huge difference to our way of life, but not necessarily to our quality of life.

Ultimately, persuading people to spend and consume less will do nothing to promote growth, but perhaps the debate should actually be about what growth is and why it’s so important. After all, we live on a small planet with finite resources and as Leo Bloom, the hapless account in The Producers, famously said, ‘You can only sell 100 percent of anything, Max.’

What we need is a new way of measuring economic success beyond GDP and GVA, which fail to take into account things like levels of well being and contentment. This will take far sighted political leadership across all the parties; and probably not the kind of people who feel that closing a VAT loophole requires them to pretend that sausage rolls are the best thing since sliced bread, because worrying about how every policy will ‘play out’ in the short term, spells disaster for the long term.

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Critical Mass

Mike Freedman is an independent filmmaker based in London. He’s in the final production stages of a feature-length documentary called Critical Mass, which is about the impact of human population growth and consumption on our planet.

Mike’s staring point is the work of John B Calhoun, a US psychologist who did a lot of research into the effects of overcrowding. Calhoun’s most famous experiment is ‘Mouse Utopia’ in which he created the perfect living environment; devoid of predators, with unlimited food and water, and plenty of places for the mice to nest. The only limitation was space. Into this ‘world’ he released four breeding pairs and watched what happened. The mice took a while to get used to their new environment. In the wild, mice are located somewhere near the bottom of the food chain, so few get to enjoy a peaceful old age, making them somewhat nervous by nature. But after 104 days they started to breed.

And carried on breeding.

Over time their ‘world’ became more and more overcrowded to a point where it was impossible for them to behave like mice at all. Dominant males were unable to defend their territory and when the stress of trying to do so became too much, they simply gave up. Random acts of violence became commonplace; mothers wounded their own young and attacks on non-dominant males were not defended.  The last surviving birth was on day 600, after this point the mouse society broke down completely. Females stopped reproducing and males withdrew completely. Many of the former dominant males made their way to the most isolated parts of the enclosure. Never engaging with the other mice, eating, drinking and sleeping alone, they spent every waking moment grooming themselves, which caused Calhoun to dub them ‘The Beautiful Ones’. Despite the continued abundance of food and water, the population declined quickly towards extinction.

Calhoun’s work had a profound influence on urban planning and the design of mass transportation systems. In humans, overcrowding can lead to a decline in task performance and an increase in aggression and other anti-social behaviour. The simple fact is, we don’t like crowds. Commuters who join an already crowded train for a short journey, have much higher stress levels that those who joined the train earlier when there was more space available, even though their journeys may be much longer. There is a direct correlation between inmate density and the incidence of prison riots: overcrowded prisons are much more difficult  to control.

Overcrowding also leads to a decline in altruistic behaviour. In 1968, Bibb Latane and John Darley carried out the first in a series of studies into Bystander Apathy. The research was in direct response to the murder of a US woman called Kitty Genovase, who was killed in a brutal attack, which lasted over 30 minutes. Although the crime was was witnessed by 38 people, none of them did anything to help; no one even called the police. Latane and Darley’s experiments created similar emergency situations – researchers feigning heart attacks at a busy tube station – and their results showed that the likelihood of assistance was inversely proportional to the number of people present.  Their explanation was a diffusion of responsibility: the more witnesses there are, the less responsibility each witness feels to offer help.

Despite all the debate about climate change, population growth is the elephant in the room. Overcrowding really is going to be our biggest challenge in the short to medium term. Over the next three decades the world population will increase from its current level of 7 billion, to more than 9 billion – the equivalent of adding a city the size of Rio de Janeiro every month. Today, more than 50% of the global population live in cities – the first time in history that the proportion of urban residents has outnumbered those living in rural communities – and most of those 2 billion new people will be born in the megacities of Asia, Africa and South America (the number of megacities – those with a population greater than 10 million – will also increase from ten to 29 by 2030).