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Last Updated: Monday, 18 August, 2003, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
Can the world go on as it is?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

Put your recycling out, fit energy efficient bulbs, use public transport - you think you're helping to save the planet. But could all our efforts be futile?

Are we doomed?
Britons are slowly starting to recycle more. Cars are much more efficient than those on the roads 20 years ago. Our houses are better insulated. And local supermarkets now stock eco-friendly devices, such as low energy light bulbs.

But the environmental benefits could count for naught in the drive for economic prosperity, according to the Fabian Society. A report by the left-leaning think tank says our level of consumption stands in the way of sustainable development.

And acting locally - perhaps by recycling that drinks can or buying locally-grown produce - has little effect unless governments do better at acting globally, says the report's author, Roger Levett. "Individual actions can't make a difference without a regulatory framework to underpin the good done."

Even eco-friendly technologies encouraged by Labour can cost the Earth dear. Sure, our cars can go faster and further - and on less fuel - than those of our forebears. But this has helped put more people on the roads. And manufacturers have made these energy efficient motors bigger in order to power gutsier - and more thirsty - cars.

"Tony Blair gets very excited about hybrid engines, which can double the miles you get to the gallon. But you can make your journeys more efficient quite easily, by sharing the journey to work with a colleague or by running more than one errand at a time," Mr Levett says.

Cyclist rides into the congestion charge zone in London
Want to drive? It'll cost you
Encouraging behavioural change is at least as important as technological advances if we are to treat the Earth as we mean it to stay.

London's congestion charge scheme, for instance, is set to be repeated in other traffic-clogged centres. While there will always be people prepared to pay the 5 toll to drive into the central city, it has forced others to think twice about whether that journey needs to be made by car. As a result, traffic is down by a fifth.

Apocalypse when?

To be serious about the environment means tackling consumption, Mr Levett says. Globally in the past 20 years, household energy use has increased by two-thirds, road traffic has doubled and air traffic quadrupled. Each year the rich countries of the OECD produce almost two tonnes of waste for every person.

The Good Life
Could downshifting be the answer?
Sir Crispin Tickell, of Oxford University's Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, says the scale of our consumption has created a demand which since the late 1970s has exceeded the Earth's ability to provide.

"The ecological overshoot could have been as much as 20% of supply by the beginning of this century," Sir Crispin says.

One problem is that economic growth is taken as a key measure of policy success and of a country's development. Instead the priority should be sustainability. "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognising costs."

New York during the black-out
Cheap electricity has its costs
The black-outs in North America last week provide a timely reminder of this. The energy market there - as in the UK - has been deregulated and costs cut to lure consumers. This leaves little in the pot for maintenance and extra capacity. Thus when one station went down, others struggled to keep up with demand until whole cities were left in the dark.

But now cheap resources and conspicuous consumption have become a way of life for many, there will no doubt be resistance to change. Will it be to our cost?

"Some history is there as a warning," Sir Crispin says. "Since the last ice age ended 11,000 years ago, there have been around 30 urban societies. Some lasted longer than others. But nearly all crashed sooner or later, and the underlying cause was a mismatch between human demand and natural supply, in short unsustainability."

Not easy being green

How best to make a change for the good of ourselves and the good of the planet? Our fates are, after all, intertwined. Sir Crispin says that change is usually down to one of three main reasons: leadership from above; public pressure from below; or some catastrophe which jerks us from our inertia onto a more sensible course.

Mr Levett says politicians must address consumption, however difficult that may be. The political risks London's mayor Ken Livingstone took in pushing through the congestion charge illustrate how hard this can be.

But politics should not be about short-term popularity with drivers or oil barons or bargain-conscious shoppers - the Fabian Society says it is about identifying the kind of society we want, for ourselves and for our future, and the job of government try to achieve it.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

With the recent blackout, we Americans have been given a warning about how difficult it is to sustain our way of life. Unfortunately, committees will waste millions of dollars, and months in Congress "debating" the multibillion dollar price tag needed to keep up with our demands. But America spends billions of dollars each year defending its oil supply lines. It is high time we spent that money on research and development of a cleaner and more ethical source of energy.
Vince Wilyard, US

In the West we have a "standard of consumption" that's way beyond the rest of the world, which is desperately trying to catch up. When a billion Chinese and half a billion Indians plus half a billion Africans want a car plus all modern conveniences, what will happen? Either a radical change in societies will occur, or we are all headed for disaster.
Stefano Mori, UK

Recycling should be easy, and non-recycling expensive. Observation from Denmark a few years ago: drinks in plastic bottles cost 50p extra (ie: a sizable amount), which was refunded by a machine located in all supermarkets. If non-recycling is not expensive (eg: 5p) nobody will bother, and if recycling is difficult, it is just an extra tax.
Carl, UK

Part of the blame has to lie with the short-termist view of our political system. What government is going to risk a nationwide push to an environmentally sustainable and renewable economy when the short term costs of such policies (higher taxes, reduced growth, industry back lash, etc) are likely to force them out of government?
Andrew , Wales

We in Eastern Canada and the US have recently had a direct and unambiguous lesson in sustainability; the lights are back on but no-one is making guarantees as to how long. What people see as their immediate self interest is not necessarily based on adequate knowledge of the method by which those interests are satisfied, or what the extended consequences may be. Suppliers seem to communicate very little background information that would help users understand.
Denis Tremblay, Canada

"Because they don't, why should I?" is a playground mentality - you should be green yourself, at home and, where possible, in your workplace. There is a reasonable amount of people-power in the workplace - why not lobby to have recycling facilities for paper, printer consumables and lunchtime packaging? As green laws come into play, these requirements will be a necessity, but right now many can be dealt with through 'corporate responsibility' and charitable donation.
Jon Eland, Leeds, UK

Problems for the Fabians/Greens:
*consumption is what generates profits, employment and tax revenue - if we reduce it, how do we pay for the NHS, state pensions, schools etc?
*the environmental record of countries with limited consumption of what people need, rather than want, isn't always good eg: USSR.
Ed, Oxford, UK

We carp on about providing an efficient, modern transport infrastructure, but no-one seems to look at reducing the demand side of the equation. Why are we transporting sheep from Cornwall to Scotland, or flowers from Kenya to Europe? The worship of global markets, and pure economic growth, is an obsession that will cost us all dear.
Al, Cambridge, UK

To say recycling a can or a bottle is a futile action is particularly stupid. It is the actions of individuals that bring about a larger change. Keep recycling.
Harry, London, UK

Most of the UK's waste is produced by industry not households, so unless more is done to control companies that pollute the environment, then there is next to no point in me reusing my carrier bags or sorting out me plastics from me glass. However, it is harder to control those businesses as they're much more powerful than the government and only too willing to help parties fund their election campaigns. And can I just say: Kyoto Accord...
Louise Keane, Reading, UK

Multinationals are powerful, but when push comes to shove they have to respond to the laws of supply and demand. Supermarkets do not stock CFC-free aerosols for environmental reasons; they sell them because in the late 80s consumer demand shifted. If consumer demand is vocal enough, companies will be forced to change or face financial ruin.
James Brunt, UK

James, CFCs were banned by law because of environmental reasons, not because people's buying preferences shifted.
Julian Skidmore, UK

Yes, bad example James, but what you say is true of organic food - it is being stocked because consumers have demanded it. I buy organic food for environmental reasons - less pesticides in the ecosystem.
Sean, London

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