Some unexpected words from Bill Bryson

I won’t bother to review it here, but I’ve just finished Bill Bryson‘s book At Home: a short history of private life. It’s a long and fascinating journey through our everyday lives, looking at the stories behind our homes and the things that fill them. It’s an entertaining read, but tucked away on the last page is a challenge that’s very relevant to this website:

“Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and half days by a European, or every 28 hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet’s other citizens. One day – and don’t expect it to be a distant day – many of those six billion or so less well off people are bound to demand what we have, and to get it as easily as we got it, and that will require more resources that this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield.”

Bryson doesn’t say what he thinks the answer to that dilemma is, but in spelling out the problem that this site tries to address, you’re not going to get much better than that.


  1. Indeed! You won’t get much better than Bill Bryson’s way of spelling it out. But I wondered if you’d like to see how I recently said the same thing to Jim Fisher but added my kind of answer which as you stated Bill Bryson does not:

    Hi Jim , I was thinking about your article again. I’ve not got it in front of me, but the bit which states something to the effect that it’ll be hard for up and coming countries to appreciate that they will not be able to achieve the affluence we’ve had. Surely, if they have any means towards that goal (of our affluence), they’ll seek a government that promises it, whether or not it’s achievable and despite the arguments against it; because human nature’s desire for wealth is so strong & more succumb to human nature than those who see the folly of so much of it. The (I think inevitable) process of trying will contribute more to the disastrous global effects. So, what I’m saying is that we cannot ORDER them not to try, and like many a child told not to touch the fire, it will go ahead and do so! Hence, I’m back again on the thought process that whatever we do, we cannot produce a global government which has overall power to ENFORCE moderate global behaviour (do we really want to! & can’t help thinking of Orwell’s Animal Farm & the Christian desire & hope for God’s Kingdom).

    I suppose the fact is that we go ahead with our good intentions knowing that more trouble is inevitable, but there is always hope that given time, we may eventually improve the situation for some period of time, at least for some that follow us? Is this your train of thought too, or do you see it otherwise?

    Regards Karen

    Any response Jeremy?

    1. Yes, it’s futile to ‘order’ countries not to follow the development path we’ve chosen ourselves, and it would be unethical for us to do so while we continue to enjoy the benefits. There are two things we can do though. 1) We can reduce our own environmental impact, as individuals and as society, creating ecological space for developing countries to grow. That’s the essence of the ‘make wealth history’ proposition. 2) We can encourage developing countries to ‘leapfrog’ technologies – moving straight to renewable energy for example and bypassing the fossil fuel stage altogether.

      1. Jeremy is it enough to reduce our footprint? Should we also transfer say our savings from reducing our footprints to the 3rd world? After all much of the wealth we enjoy has actually been looted from the 3rd world. Or is this just up to governments?

        Either way i dont see anything happening it will be Hit the Wall and pick up the pieces afterwards.

        1. I see pessimism, at worst, as a self-fulfilling prophecy, at best as a veto on ones own responsibility adopted by people who have given up (no offense).

          Alternatively, at worst, the system could tear itself and society apart. At best, the many growing grass-roots awareness movements will successfully raise the ‘public’ consciousness to a level that simply upgrades the way we go about living on the planet.

          If we see it as thus, a simple numbers game we realise it is only our own apathy that will bring about the former. And it doesn’t take an optimist to be motivated by that.

          1. There are those -who may or may not call themselves Optimalists- who see the system as it is and the psychology and politics involved as something that good intentions won’t sway. The things that move your mind just doesn’t for many and they will kick and scream all the way to the wall. Secondly funnily enough I’m finding a few starting to say we actually need the system to crash otherwise business as usual will deplent natural capital to such an extent that any sort of recovery will be underminded because we have destroyed much of the worlds natural systems. Bring on the financial collapse we might just have a hope.

  2. It’s a difficult one, isn’t it? On the one hand the current system with its injustices and its violence towards nature isn’t fit to survive. On the other hand, we’re all living pretty well right now and have a lot to lose from a collapse – perhaps if we can all hang on a little longer…

    Looking at the outcomes of the Durban conference or the entrenched positions of US politics, I find it hard to summon much optimism. If the Durban proposals go through, the world’s most polluting countries won’t even start cutting their carbon until 2020 – too late to stop the worst of climate change, if the 350 estimates are correct.

    But while I’m not optimistic, I’m not daunted by the slim chances of success. The good fight remains worth fighting because it’s right. A call for justice that falls on deaf ears is not wasted, because to keep silent or give up is to be complicit in the injustice.

    Simon, yes, it would be great to see a transfer of wealth towards the developing world. One way to do that would be through carbon credits, where everybody has an equal right to emit a certain amount of CO2. Those emitting less than their share could sell the surplus, and thus be compensated by those with larger footprints than an equitable share.

    1. Jeremy does that include past emissions? BTW I don’s say we give up far from it, its just don’t expect a top-down approach or a wide spread bottom-up. With the former there is just too much entrenched self-interest and with the latter human psychology is against us. Best thing is to prepare for the transition on a local community basis and pick up the pieces.

      PS love dyour advertising posts but like the above people won’t change until its forced on them they are too addicted to their consumer fixes.

  3. Arguably, countries with a historic responsibility should start cutting first, with Britain leading the way as the inventor of coal power. But that’s not a fair approach on this generation of Britons, who’d essentially be punished for their forefathers’ ignorance about carbon. So I think the fairest approach is to keep it to present emissions, on a per capita basis.

    I’m with you on the community basis, which is why my practical energies go into my local transition initiatives.

    1. jeremy see that’s the rub and is an interesting point in itself. (Pls excuse the moral philosopher coming out.) David Boonin did a whole book looking at whether compensation is owed to today’s descendants of US slave peoples and went through all the arguments related to historical wrongs eg present days people didn’t do it etc. & in the end came up with some pretty persuasive arguments that diminished historical responsibility doesn’t cut it.

      You have the benefit and strong continuous legal cultural historical links as the same national entity. People seem quite prepared to get all the benefits from belonging to such an entity from any historical ties, treaties, possessions etc but won’t accept many of the serious costs associated with these ties. It would be similar to a family who stole- & even if legal at the time- property in an earlier generation, a few generations after saying well I don’t need to give it back or owe compensation I didn’t do it; it would be unfair to ask me to lower my living standards by giving the property back.

      It well might be unfair but the stronger injustice would then expect people who didn’t do or benefit from the act to be burdened with your national deeds when your nation continues to benefit and enjoy a higher living standard than those that didn’t. Reminds me of the Saudis wanting compensation like 3rd world countries in climate change negotiations -doesn’t matter at all concerning relative wealth,-it’s only fair to be compensated & treated the same way because their national interests are now affected.

  4. I agree with that, up to a point. There’s no doubt that as a country we enjoy the ongoing legacy of our colonial rule, slavery, and from a domestic point of view, the enclosure acts. The latter being a rather direct example of a family legally stealing in fact, and still enjoying a seat in the House of Lords for it in some cases.

    However, the urgency with which we need to deal with carbon emissions, and the reluctance of most people to consider reducing their footprints at all, makes that a moot point. This generation has to take responsibility for its own emissions and that’s proving to be almost impossible. To demand that we shoulder the historical burden as well is too much. I can see the justice of a historical emissions approach, but I’d settle for less than that for the sake of expediency.

    There’s also a big difference between slavery or colonialism, and climate change. However socially acceptable it may have been at the time, slavery was clearly morally wrong, and so was the oppression and plundering of overseas territories. Our historical emissions are not in the same category. Nobody understood the science of it. If we had known about the dangers of cumulative CO2 at the beginning of the industrial revolution and pressed ahead regardless, then it could be considered a moral problem. But we didn’t. It was entirely accidental.

    We do know now, which means there is a moral obligation to deal with current emissions.

    1. Jeremy’s last four sentences – I’m really not feeling content about mixing science and morality as having to go hand in hand – if we don’t know beforehand, we’re not responsible? That surely would mean we can go ahead with absolutley anything UNTIL we see any disastrous consequenes!? – like acting with little or no forethought but expecting to shut the gate after the horse has bolted.
      We do need understanding and forgiveness though, which must be gratefully acknowledged by appropriate actions to reduce the ongoing effects. How that’s done is another matter! KW.

      1. Not remotely Karen – of course we have a responsibility to think through our actions and their consequences. What I’m suggesting is that when James Watt was building the first steam engines in the 1770s, there is no way that he or anyone else could have known that the end result of that process would be melting ice caps. And that’s why understanding and forgiveness for those past emissions is a good place to start.

    2. Jeremy ignorance of causal actions regarding harm by itself doesn’t automatically abrogate responsibility for all associated harms. Be it a drug that later causes birth defects, or action or product that later causes harm, ignorance isn’t a defence. You in fact could have done all the testing and had all the precautions and that won’t matter a fig if the product still goes onto cause serious harm.

      One way to think it when considering sharing what is left of the C02 atmospheric dump and whether it should be shared as is or from past use; that we have billions that don’t have their basic needs met yet you wish them to share this dump as is, so you or others who already have those needs met, can also meet your unneeded wants and desires through many of the things gained through past co2 use.

      Look sorry you cannot build your school or hospital you will go over your allocation of what is left and if you do we will all suffer from climate change. Pls make do so we in the first world can continue to use or schools and hospitals in a energy efficient manner with our electric cars and solar panels.

      Lastly I agree on one point people won’t buy it, but then again most won’t buy into what is necessary to stop from hitting the collapse wall anyway. If someone like yourself won’t buy into moral equity issues –like The Brazilian Proposal-those less concerned sure as hell won’t on the other issues, all equally painful. The only hope as I see it is the financial collapse combined with Peak Oil issues will force people to see that sharing equitably is the only way to avoid conflict.

  5. In all fairness I don’t think there are any good solutions that will work in time.

    The way we got to 1st world status was by exploiting the rest of the world and dirty fossil fuels. Some joined the club recently by basically selling stuff the 1st world club wanted but also largely also using cheap oil and coal. This is about to end! Consumer, and cheap fossil fuel driven development won’t happen. There just aren’t the resources to all live affluent 1st world lifestyles.

    We are already in planetary overshoot; the people who have been consumerism junkies aren’t going to give up what they have become addicted to and those who have seen this lifestyle will object to not being able to have their slice of consumer bliss.

    Sorry Jeremy if I came across the wrong way. The Golden Age of Fossil Fuels and Consumerism is about to end and its not going to be pretty.

  6. Thanks Jeremy, I did actually know what you meant, iImerely had issue with the connection ‘nobody understood’, so it wasn’t a moral issue. I see you were not taking that to it’s full meaning. It’s difficult enough conversing face to face with those who know each other, let alone a few lines with those who do not!!
    SimonJm talks of ‘you people’. Does he realise that ‘we people’ are part of a huge system we detest but cannot fathom out how to make amends and move to a better position, in a way that is significant globally.
    The few percent of ‘Big boys’ are really controlling virtually the whole ‘game’. We all have the human flaw but these ‘big boys’ carry the ace cards. What we small people do, as one politician once said to me, is mere ‘graffitti’. We make mumblings and our green lifestyles merely scratch the surface. Well known wealthy people do acts of charity but this too does not touch the root of the problem., (I personally believe starts with fear for our personal preservation and comfort over that of others not in ‘our gang’. Stop the big boys’ and more will come along. No, I’m defeinitely not saying it’s a waste of time and there’s no hope. I just wish we could drastically lower the accumulation of wealth starting as Simon said not to expect(!), from the top down where it is having the greatest drastic effects. They are pulling the strings.

    1. Karen is a sense this is again all academic for the reasons already mentioned. I think what I’m addressing is what some people 😉 are calling feel good environmentalism or feel good social justice & whether it stands scrutiny. Say we change a few light bulbs, put solar cells on the roof and pay Fair Trade prices or pay carbon offsets. I’ve heard it said this does bugger all in the big scheme of things. & yes the big boys hold all the cards- until the collapse-. What I’m interested in is given all the advantages of living in a 1st world country are we just on a point of principle really going to ask 3rd world countries to give us an equal share of what natural resources are left when in effect we have already had a large share of those resources? Secondly given all the resources and in particular energy we took to get where we are how the can a 3rd world country expect to get anywhere near our living standards while giving an equal share to this who already have it?

      I didn’t intend to lump anyone in some ‘you people’ club, but do want to confront the idea that a person enjoying a resource affluent 1st world lifestyle gets an equal share to someone living in grass hut at subsistence or lower level. BTW one can argue about large polulations etc but I’m trying to get my mind around how we expect to raise living standards in the 3rd world in a resource contrained world when some might expect to get an equal share of remaining resources per capita when their needs have already been meet.

  7. I’m an advocate of the contraction and convergence mechanism, which recognises that the atmosphere is a commons and everyone has an equal share in it. Obviously we use more than our fair share by a considerable distance, so the long term goal is to reduce our carbon footprint to a one-planet share while those in developing countries are allowed to expand theirs. I don’t believe that’s a moral cop-out, and I think it’s the fairest strategy out there for dealing with emissions.

    I’m with you on the collapse too Simon. I believe it’s inevitable and already in process. I don’t see any way back from the debt problem we’ve created, and we’ve left it too late to wean society off cheap oil. That crisis is unfolding on a daily basis, and a correct response involves resilience building, adaptation, and taking personal responsibility for ourselves and our families.

    But I believe that we have to keep calling for and working at the big solutions, no matter how deep the vested interests go. The collapse looks inevitable, but I want to make sure I did everything I could to prevent it and change society in a more controlled way. There’s also the matter of how bad the collapse will be, and every good and sustainable decision made today leaves us with less distance to fall.

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