Take two people.
‘Person A’ has a car. A yearly supply of new clothes. Imported food. Consumer goods. Plastic bottles of drink, wrappers, straws. Computers. An iPhone. A fully decorated and furnished house. They take a few flights a year.
‘Person B’ has a space to sleep on the dirt floor of a family home in which they subside on crops grown locally. And they don’t have any of that stuff, or take any of those trips; in part because they don’t have the money.
It’s clear who is making more impact on the environment.
And yet, when we measure how ‘green’ a country is, we’re using flawed logic to show that Person B is somehow ‘worse’.
Take the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), produced by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.
In this index, Switzerland – one of the world’s richest countries – is also the world’s ‘greenest’; and Burundi – one of the world’s poorest and hungriest countries – comes bottom.
Now, the EPI creators don’t actually use the word ‘green’. But others do. It’s easy to see why they’d make that link. After all, something called the Environmental Performance Index must be linked directly to overall environmental impact; right?
The EPI measures things like air quality, water quality and sanitation. All laudable goals.
But there’s something it doesn’t measure. Consumption.
This is a dangerous narrative. It’s wilfully ignoring issues that are plain to see for anyone willing to look. It’s dangerous because it tells us that a country that has way more than enough is somehow greener (and therefore more righteous) than a country that has nowhere near enough.
Consumption is the huge elephant in the room that nobody talks about. And why? Because it’s easier to ignore it. And here are two reasons.
- It’s inconvenient because it would mean we’d need to encourage people to buy less stuff, and risk damaging the economy.
- It’s also inconvenient because we can outsource its impact. A country like Switzerland might not be polluting as much as a manufacturing giant, such as China. But they sure as hell are using the products that required all the polluting activity in the first place, just to be made. In other words, they’ve transferred their pollution elsewhere. And yet ultimately, borders are porous and artificial – but we’re all part of the same planet.
We’ve got to change the narrative that tells us it’s ok to always aim for more, because we can do so sustainably. This narrative is an all out lie, because everything we produce has some environmental impact.
We have to challenge the narrative that tells us its ok to strive for more than enough. Instead, striving for simply enough could help us get to a better place. Only then we can start to define a new narrative that can face up to the reality of the task ahead of us.