Drill baby drill!

The candidates' attitude towards the environment in the US election is making it a case of opting fo

Back in May, Friends of the Earth endorsed Barack Obama. By August they were putting out statements attacking his decision to embrace a bill that would have allowed drilling in Alaska and slamming his support for 'dirty liquid coal'.

Such has been the pattern of this election. The environmental lobby get momentarily excited about the candidates on offer. Then someone asks a question about energy policy and their green credentials go out the window. Obama favours renewable energy targets, but is also a proud supporter of food-price boosting ethanol subsidies. John McCain says that tackling global warming will be one of the priorities of his presidency. Yet he wants to hand carbon permits to polluting industries, and has made a campaign slogan of 'drill baby drill'.

Americans are waking up to global warming. But cheap petrol and low taxes come first every time - and where voters lead, politicians will follow. "Most people want to do the right thing, but there's the big picture, and there's today," says Rich Bowden, a professor of environmental studies at Allegheny College, Pennsylvania. "If you ask if they care or would they spend money to protect the environment, they'll say yes. If you look at their actual behaviour you get a rather different answer."

Much of the nation's failure of will can be credited to its leaders' failure to actually lead. FDR called on the US to build 50,000 aeroplanes; JFK announced it would put a man on the moon before the decade was out. The best the environmental movement has found was Al Gore, and he lost.

Indeed, plenty of US politicians have done all they can to push the country in the other direction. George W. Bush has slashed environmental protections. Ronald Reagan cut funding for renewable energy, removed the solar panels from the White House, and appointed a secretary of the interior who believed it was okay to pillage the Earth because the Rapture
was coming.

Even Ted Kennedy drew pure green fury earlier this year when he tried to block a wind farm development off Cape Cod, for the marvellously patrician reason that it would ruin the view from his yacht.
("What right do people in Massachusetts have to do that?" fumes Bowden. "I live in a state where people are ripping the tops off mountains and pouring them into streams.")

This year's candidates are better - but only just. And the endorsements for Obama are as much a judgement against McCain as enthusiasm for the Democrat.

"It's a choice between 'drill baby drill' and change - but we don't know what that change will be," says Bowden. That's a worry. After all, environmental collapse is change too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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