The last utopia: Who will pay for our free lunch?

Sep 26, 2019 | 7 comments

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of an eight-part series about the climate and biodiversity crises. John Keeble is a former Guardian and London Evening News journalist. He is part of Cuenca’s thriving hiking, cycling and writing communities. You can download free his latest novel, Beyond Extinction, via To read part one of the series, click here.

By John Keeble

Do you remember the good old days when you just knew what was right and what was wrong? It ain’t like that anymore. We are beginning to understand the real-world consequences of our actions.

Clothes are an example. You could feel good then buying ethically – cotton instead of exploiting animals; rejecting sweat-shop labels. And you could buy often – it was good for you, it kept people in employment, and it helped the economy.

Those ideas look a lot shakier now as we count the environmental costs. Cotton, my favourite material, is used in 40 per cent of the world’s clothes. It takes 15,000 litres of water to make one pair of cotton jeans. Multiply that by the clothes for three billion people (40 per cent of the world population)… adds up in a world critically short of water, one of the resources we are stealing from future generations.

Animal fibres – wool, leather, silk and so on – can be less demanding on water but most empty huge amounts of pollutants into the air and land. These pollutants come from animal farming and processing.

The “fast fashion” trend means that we throw more clothing away.

More than 60 per cent of clothes are made from synthetic (plastic) fibres or a mixture of natural and synthetic fibres. And that is a major contamination hazard.

Compounding the problem – and playing to old ideas about buying new fashionable clothes whenever possible – is the “fast fashion” trade that has vastly increased the throw-away clothes market.

“The dark truth about the fashion business is that too much of a good thing is creating environmental destruction and human misery on an unprecedented scale,” said the HuffPost. “People around the world collectively consume more than 80 billion items of clothing each year, and those items are increasingly seen as disposable.”

Americans alone produced 16.1 million tons of textile (clothing, bed sheets etc) waste in 2015, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Of that, 2.5 million tons were recycled; 3.1 million tons were burned; and a shocking 10.5 million tons went into landfill.

Since 2015, the fast-fashion industry has pushed up sales with ultra-low prices – clothes to wear and discard rather than to carefully buy and keep. These are even less attractive to recycle.

In the UK, Extinction Rebellion protested at the London Fashion Show to draw attention to the damage to the planet caused by the clothing industry in general and the fast-fashion firms in particular.

My questions: What do you think about clothing waste and pollution?  When you see 30 per cent off that new jacket or skirt you want but don’t need, are you going to buy it? Will a wear-and-throw T-shirt at $8 tempt you?

Meat and fish have been part of the health and wellness notions of our cultures for thousands of years. Of course, when our species had just a few million eaters in a bountiful world, damage was localised and people migrated when they had killed and eaten everything. The hugely increasing population made this lifestyle more problematic, if hidden from everyday consciousness, and farming took up the strain.

When I was a kid soon after World War Two in England, my parents reckoned that to be healthy you had to eat some kind of animal for every meal.

Now, we see meat production for what it is – a vast user of land and water, and a massive polluter. Not to mention the cruelty of industrial slaughtering (yes, I know, the meat you eat comes from animals who die with smiles of satisfaction on their faces).

As kids, too, we were almost forced – in my case unsuccessfully – to drink milk. Now we know that the dairy industry is as environmentally damaging as the meat industry.

No problem. We can drink almond milk. That’s fashionable and cruelty-free. Wait a minute, almond milk? Almonds take enormous amounts of water to grow and California, where 80 per cent of the nuts are grown, is hardly water rich. And the non-organic growers use up to nine pesticides, including five harmful to bees. Better look for an alternative.

In the UK, we go for soya milk. In other places, like South America and Southeast Asia, coconut milk is my favourite because soya milk is not easily available. Other milks are coming onto the market, including those made from grains.

My father loved eating fish in the 1950s and 1960s. In the shopping areas just outside east London, there were scores of “fish n chip” shops. Throughout Britain, fish shop owners became more creative with business names like In Cod We Trust, The Codfather, and Battersea Cod’s Home.

Then the seas began to run short of cod and other fish. In the 1970s trawlers from Britain and Iceland fought the Cod War over who could fish where. Fishing regulations – designed to protect national fishing grounds – grew tighter to keep out competition. However, around the world, fishing boats became more efficient in catching and processing, including the introduction of fishing fleets operating together.

Now, the impossible is happening: intensive industrial fishing is emptying the seas of life, causing damage to the planet on a scale that cannot be sustained.

Concrete and cement are old friends. Nice homes, super roads, grand community buildings. We have all appreciated the usefulness of these building materials. Clean, safe. Except now we find they are hugely damaging to the planet.

“Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence,” reports the BBC in London. “It is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet.”

Concrete is made from cement. And, according to the think tank Chatham House, cement production accounts for eight per cent of world carbon dioxide emissions. “If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world – behind China and the US,” says the BBC.

Not doing very well, are we? You thought life was a free lunch and now we find it’s your grandchildren who will have to pick up the bill as the world heats and species die out on a massive scale.

Do you remember the images of good living and reasonable aspirations in the middle years of the 20th Century? TV shows of happy families in nice homes with nice cars for you to drive on nice leisure outings and shopping. Happy days.

In England, like other comparatively rich Western countries, popular culture had a clear message: work, have a family, enjoy growing affluence with possessions and vacations.

Now, with world population swamping the planet’s ability to supply everything we want, those messages seem like a path to human extinction through overpopulation and overconsumption.

Perhaps the cruellest pollution is ourselves. Our endless drive to procreate. That moment when the cycle of life, of consumption, begins again. More resources used, more land grabbed, more pollution, more of everything robbed from future generations.

What can you do to offset, even just slow, the damage we are doing to the world?


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