This is a guest post by environmental campaigner Alex Randall.
What responsibility should rich countries take for their historical carbon emissions? Should consumption by the wealthy have to be curbed to accommodate the growing consumption of the world”s poorest billion people? These are questions that are not quite answered by the Royal Society”s recent People and the Planet report.
The report acknowledges that consumption is a problem. If we do not want to run up against various ecological limits, or planetary boundaries, the richest countries will have to reduce the amount they consume. This needs to happen to make space for the 1 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day to consume more. Because of various ecological limits – including climate change – it is not possible for the wealthy countries to continue on their consumption trajectory, as well as allowing for the world”s poorest to consume more too.
This is fairly controversial, especially coming from an organisation like the Royal Society. The great hope of many governments across the world is that consumption by rich countries can continue and possibly expand, while at the same time, consumption by the world”s poorest (and everyone in between) can expand as well. The aim is that through new technology and market mechanisms the ecological impact of consumption can be reduced so that we do not run up against the planet”s ecological limits.
The authors of People and the Planet are clear that this isn”t possible: “The combined effects of market forces and new technologies are not able to overcome planetary boundaries on the scale necessary to avoid unsustainable pressure on the planet and much human suffering.” Because economic growth (measured in GDP) and consumption are so closely linked, this will mean GDP growth might no longer be possible. What needs to be done instead is almost too controversial for the report to go into. The possibility of steady-state and circular economies are discussed, but the report stops short of really making the case for either: “This report is not the place to pursue these highly contested strands, but they cannot be ignored.” It seems the Royal Society are not completely comfortable with their new stance. We still need to try and de-couple economic growth and resource use, they argue. But they then argue that in the long run this won”t be possible.
Where the report doesn”t venture is interesting. The authors stop short of exploring the ethical dimension of rich countries” historical consumption. They seem happy to accept that the world”s richest must consume less to allow the world”s poorest to consume more. What they don”t argue is that there is an ethical obligation to do this because historically the wealthy nations have enjoyed the benefits of high consumption. Where the report dares not tread is to suggest that high consumption in rich countries might have caused poverty in other countries. The authors do not draw a connection between how rich countries got rich and why poor countries are still poor. This is important because exploring these arguments adds force to arguments that wealthy countries should sharply reduce the amount they consume. Saying that rich countries should reduce consumption to redress an unequal situation is one thing. Saying that this unjust situation has been persistent for centuries is quite another. Suggesting that high consumption by the rich might have contributed to the desperate situation of the world”s poorest is more powerful still.
Still, we should be pleased that the Royal Society have made the leap of accepting consumption in developed countries has to be addressed. Their tentative forays into questioning economic growth are also interesting. Even though the report does not fully explore the ethical implications of wealthy nation”s historical consumption the report will hopefully make space for these debates to enter the mainstream.
Working with leading animator Leo Murray and acclaimed journalist George Monbiot, PIRC is putting together a short, snappy animation to explain the scandal of the UK”s outsourced emissions. The animation forms part of an ongoing project by PIRC to ensure the UK’s outsourced emissions are properly tackled by the Government.
Leo Murray is a leading British animator and climate activist. Besides being heavily involved in environmental activism over the past decade, he was lead animator on climate blockbuster The Age of Stupid, and writer and director of acclaimed animated short on the threat of runaway warming, Wake Up, Freak Out – Then Get a Grip (www.wakeupfreakout.org).
PIRC are delighted to have been granted funding by Artists” Project Earth (APE) and a number of other foundations to produce the animation. Watch this space for more details as we get closer to completion and launch!
As part of Bristol Big Green Week, PIRC are co-organising a workshop on The Ethics of Advertising.
Date & time: 4.00pm – 5.30pm, 13th June 2012
Venue: Arnolfini, Light Studio – Bristol
Advertising is everywhere, yet few questions are asked about its effects on our consumption, our freedom of choice, or our cultural values. This workshop will examine the deep ethical dilemmas advertising raises – and explore some ways in which we can start tackling them, both locally and nationally. With Jon Alexander, former adman turned industry whistleblower and co-author of Think of Me as Evil?; Agnes Nairn, co-author of Consumer Kids; and Guy Shrubsole, Director of PIRC.
Insomniac followers of PIRC may have already caught this, but at around 3am last night Radio 5 live’s programme ‘Up All Night’ featured a slot on the topic of outsourced carbon emissions by Julian O’Hallaran – including some (fortunately pre-recorded) comments by PIRC’s Guy Shrubsole.
You can listen again here (relevant programme is 2 hrs 5 mins in).
The influential Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Parliamentary select committee have today demanded the government take responsibility for the UK’s still-rising emissions, stating Britain “has to address its consumption if it is to make an effective contribution to a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions”.
Whilst on paper, Britain’s carbon emissions have fallen by 19% since 1990, when measured on a consumption basis – by factoring in imported goods that the UK consumes – they have risen by 20% over the past 20 years.
As the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC) showed through an investigation using Freedom of Information requests last year, ministers and civil servants have been fully aware of this extremely concerning trend for many years, yet done nothing – content to maintain a conspiracy of silence.
“Every day… some businesses are dumping a waste that is toxic on our children. Products and marketing that can warp their minds and their bodies and harm their future.” Not the words of some zealous activist, but those of David Cameron, just before the last election. They’re worth recalling today as Unicef launch their Children’s Rights and Business Principles.
Principle 6 states that businesses should “use marketing and advertising that respect and support children’s rights”. That this ethic even needs spelling out speaks to the huge impact the commercial world increasingly has on children around the globe. Marketing to children is an increasingly lucrative industry – in the US, companies are estimated to spend $17bn a year targeting kids – and the means used to ensnare them in the consumerist net are increasingly pervasive.
From online ‘advertgames’ that blur the boundaries between commercials and entertainment, to recruiting children as peer-to-peer marketers, companies’ efforts at selling to kids are growing more insidious. The UN Principles recognise this concerning trend in stating that marketers must “consider factors such as… children’s greater susceptibility to manipulation” when conducting their business. And with good reason: as marketing academic and children’s campaigner Dr Agnes Nairn puts it, much marketing “operates darkly, beyond the light of consciousness”.
A good piece today by Ros Donald over at Carbon Brief examines the Government’s latest emissions figures. PIRC spoke to Carbon Brief, commenting on the new figures: “It seems like a cop-out on the part of the government given that this research is being done but not publicised or used to drive policy.”
The IPA’s 44 Club are hosting a debate tonight entitled ‘Is advertising out of control?’, sparked by the questions raised in our report Think Of Me As Evil?.
Does advertising fuel consumerism or is consumerism just evolution? Join us on 20th February for a lively debate surrounding the social and cultural impacts of advertising on society.
Advertising is a form of communication that is used for the greater good of society, right!? Public service advertising has certainly proven to be an effective way to increase stroke awareness, promote energy saving and fight domestic violence for example, and yet the advertising industry is forever under threat as ad campaigns continue to push the boundaries between what’s acceptable and what’s not.
The ad industry should be held more accountable for its actions states the ‘Think of me as Evil?’report recently published by WWF-UK/Public Interest Research Centre. The report is aimed at opening up the key ethical debates in advertising. It suggests that the deeper impacts of advertising, particularly on social and cultural values, have not been called out and debated. But in the face of social, financial and environmental crises, the industry cannot bury its head in the sand on these issues any longer and must take on its responsibilities. As Avner Offer, Professor of Economic History at Oxford University put it, “despite its alarmist title, this is a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of advertising. It makes a good case, on economic, social, and cultural grounds, for respite from the all-pervasive advocacy of consumerism.”
On 20th February at the IPA, Jon Alexander, co-author of the report; Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK; Guy Champniss, ex advisor to CEO of Havas and to World Business Council on Sustainable Development, and author of Brand Valued; and Jamie Whyte, Head of Research and Publishing at Oliver Wyman and ex philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University will battle it out on stage at a 44 Club event to answer the queston: Do the ill-effects of advertising outweigh the benefits? The panel will also touch on subjects such as, does advertising merely redistribute consumption? Is it simply a mirror of cultural values and one that enhances choice?
The event will start at 6.00pm with a drinks reception. The debate will begin at 6.30pm, followed by Q&A. The event will close at 8.00pm.
Cost: £24 (£20 plus £4 VAT) for members, £48 (£40 plus £8 VAT) for non-members
PIRC’s Co-Director Guy Shrubsole has given evidence before a Parliamentary Select Committee on the subject of outsourced emissions. A video of the session held by the Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee can be viewed here. A transcript of the session can be read here.
What did you watch over Christmas? Sky’s new production of Treasure Island? A catch-up of season two of The Killing? Or… lots of adverts?
Whatever you watched, it’s very likely that you got treated to a high volume of advertisements. The average Briton is exposed to 250 TV commercials every week, and that’s just broadcast ads. Environmental campaigners and behaviour-change analysts rightly focus much of their attention on influencing editorial agendas – getting a cause into the news or ensuring a documentary about an issue is accurate. But to keep on ignoring the commercial advertising that surrounds such editorial agendas (and thanks to product placement, increasingly pervades them) would be a big mistake.
PIRC attended a workshop on the Future of Advertising on 12th January 2012 organised by industry-funded think tank Credos and the Futures Company. We look forward to seeing the finished report in March this year.
Patrick Burgoine offers up this nicely-annotated notepad of his thoughts from reading Think Of Me As Evil?, 11th Nov 2011.
‘Think Of Me As Evil or Do No Evil?’ by Jonathan Akwue at Engine, 17th Nov 2011. (Making a fair point about how we don’t consider Google or other advertising-funded internet businesses much in our report.)