A while back I watched a documentary-type film called Oceans. The whole film was spectacular, but for me one piece was particularly striking.

Shot underwater, looking up towards the surface, we slowly panned over what looked like a bright red satin sari. It was gliding through the water, soft yellow lines rippling across the red fabric: a squid swimming alone through the waters, its “tail” drifting out behind as it delicately glided along. And it just made me realise what’s really at stake here, all the destruction we are causing around the planet — and for what? A flashy watch. Marble kitchen counters. Chocolate.

Some number-crunching: it’s estimated that roughly half of the earth’s mature forests have now been cleared. Thirty percent of all natural animal species will be extinct by 2050, and most scientists acknowledge that the current rate of species loss is greater now than at any other time in human history: today’s rate is hundreds of times higher than background extinction rates. Add to this the damage we are causing in the Canadian tar sands, our oil drilling in the Niger Delta, the pollution of our water systems, and the list goes on.

Deforestation for palm oil plantations

New photographic evidence showing how Sinar Mas has cleared forests for palm oil plantations in an area of important orang-utan habitat. Sinar Mas oil palm concession, PT Bangun Nusa Mandiri, Borneo.

We are ravaging our planet regardless of which way you cut it. While there are those sceptical of climate change and the ability of humans to affect the earth’s climate, you cannot argue with the simple fact that when it comes down to habitat destruction, and the loss of biodiversity, humans are the ones to blame. And we are doing it for what? Often the most trivial, transient, inconsequential rubbish. Look around yourself: how many things do you see that are truly worth the environmental damage they cause?

Yes there are some aspects of our modern lives that are an absolute necessity. Take medicine for example. But then you get the razing of forests and habitat destruction for palm oil plantations so that we can have softer skin and chocolate. I really struggle to balance the “need” or “right” to a flat-screen television, to drive a V8, to “frizz-free” hair etc, with what they cost in terms of biodiversity and ecological impact.

I’m sure there are those who are going to say that it’s not my place to decide what we need, and what we don’t. Who am I to say that there should be limits as to what we can and can’t have any more? That it’s their right to have those things, or that by limiting them I’m infringing on personal freedoms of some sort. But is that what our democracy and our rights have come down to?

Is the culmination of our struggle for freedom now nothing more than the right to plunder so that we might have fancy cars and fast food? Are we really so addicted to Coke and cars that we’re prepared to quibble over the harm they cause rather than give them up in favour of all that’s at stake here?

No doubt there are many positive aspects of capitalism, and perhaps to some extent it really does bring out the best in society. It stimulates creativity and drives progress — whatever that may mean.

Our modern way of life is wholly dependent on the capitalist system, and much of the positive you see around yourself is surely a result of capitalist endeavours. The very fact that I can communicate this to you is itself a product of capitalism. So I hear you when you say that capitalism is not all bad, and that it can and does do good in the world.

But let’s not be blinkered fools about it either.

There must surely come a point where we say we have caused enough damage. A point when we stop trying to hide from the fact that our way of life is causing the damage, and it needs to change. I am saying there are aspects of the way we live today that we definitely do need — I’m not advocating a return to some form of primitive life — but there are other aspects that are simply no longer justifiable.

It’s time we really started re-evaluating the way we live our lives, and that process begins with a cold, hard look at ourselves and the things around us.

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  1. Ron Nielsen, The Little Green Handbook: Seven Trends Shaping the Future of Our Planet, Picador, New York (2006) ISBN 978-0-312-42581-4; http://www.nature.org/rainforests/explore/facts.html