On the desk in front of me is a set of graphs. The horizontal axis of each represents the years 1750 to 2000. The graphs show, variously, population levels, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, exploitation of fisheries, destruction of tropical forests, paper consumption, number of motor vehicles, water use, the rate of species extinction and the totality of the human economy’s gross domestic product.
What grips me about these graphs (and graphs don’t usually grip me) is that though they all show very different things, they have an almost identical shape. A line begins on the left of the page, rising gradually as it moves to the right. Then, in the last inch or so – around 1950 – it veers steeply upwards, like a pilot banking after a cliff has suddenly appeared from what he thought was an empty bank of cloud.
The root cause of all these trends is the same: a rapacious human economy bringing the world swiftly to the brink of chaos. We know this; some of us even attempt to stop it happening. Yet all of these trends continue to get rapidly worse, and there is no sign of that changing soon. What these graphs make clear better than anything else is the cold reality: there is a serious crash on the way.
Yet very few of us are prepared to look honestly at the message this reality is screaming at us: that the civilisation we are a part of is hitting the buffers at full speed, and it is too late to stop it. Instead, most of us – and I include in this generalisation much of the mainstream environmental movement – are still wedded to a vision of the future as an upgraded version of the present. We still believe in “progress”, as lazily defined by western liberalism. We still believe that we will be able to continue living more or less the same comfortable lives (albeit with more windfarms and better lightbulbs) if we can only embrace “sustainable development” rapidly enough; and that we can then extend it to the extra 3 billion people who will shortly join us on this already gasping planet.