“Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned, and the last fish eaten, will you realise that you can’t eat money.” – Native American proverb
I vividly remember this quote painted on a classroom wall at my old high school, and it was definitely on my mind as I watched the Canberra 2013 International Film Festival screening of Planet RE:think (2012) in November. This documentary film was commissioned by the European Environment Agency and originally screened to delegates at the 2012 Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainability. Touted as a “ground-breaking documentary … on our excess consumption of natural resources”, it certainly got me thinking about the unseen environmental, economic and human costs of our (mainly first-world) patterns of consumption. But what the film did not discuss was perhaps most telling.
The extraction, harvest and/or consumption of natural resources, be they food, fuel or raw materials, is at the heart of our modern conception of wealth creation. It is here the film begins. The film discusses how the central goal of most governments has been to promote consumption of goods, to generate more wealth and thus allow even-greater consumption of goods.
So far, so good. Of course, sometimes this economic model doesn’t work, the Global Financial Crisis being a case in point: economic growth driven by debt. It is another debt however that Planet RE:think draws our attention to; our environmental debt.
Virtually all economic activity incurs an environmental cost be it mining, fracking, burning of fuels or goods-manufacture. Yet, environmental degradation comes at no economic cost to the perpetrators except for a small and often-inconsequential number of government levies and penalties. Indeed, environmental destruction often appears on a nation’s balance sheet as increased economic activity e.g. the wealth generated from increased petroleum exports, rainforests cleared for agriculture etc.
As the film makes clear, the very real costs of environmental destruction are rarely accounted for. If Australia’s recent repudiation of the carbon tax is anything to go by, there is a strong aversion in many sectors of the community to putting a price on environmental destruction. But could this partially be because we are not being made aware of the value added to our society by the environment and the costs associated with its destruction?
In search of alternative economic models that account for the value of the environment, Planet Re:think turns our attention to the nation of Bhutan. Starting in 2010, Bhutan has eschewed measuring gross domestic product (GDP) in favour of a broader measure of societal activity and wellbeing, considering such factors as air/water quality, health, education as well as traditional economic activity. They have termed this measure of overall societal productivity ‘gross national happiness’ (GNH).
In the film’s exposition of Bhutan’s alternative GNP metric, Planet RE:think is most effective. It was refreshing to hear Bhutan’s then Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, speak of environmental preservation and cultural progress not as optional extras to be aspired to but as part of the government’s priorities, alongside catering to the material needs of citizens. It is an attempt to take a holistic view of society’s wellbeing, and is a view that recognises that environmental needs are essential for and not subordinate to, long-term economic stability.
Of course, the Bhutan model raises a number of unanswered questions. Does GNH place enough emphasis on the environment/social progress? Will the focus on GNH adequately facilitate adequate living standards for Bhutanese? Nonetheless, GNH is ground-breaking in that it poses a question often-unaddressed in our GDP-driven societies: is the pursuit of material wealth a means or an end?
The consequences of pursuing material wealth are hammered home as the film shifts focus to India, which is at the centre of the growing global e-waste problem. Ever wondered what happens to obsolete computers/tablets/DVD players? Apparently much of this electronic waste makes its way to developing countries like India, where small scale enterprises work dismantling hard-drives, motherboards and transformers, sorting them into their separate precious-metal parts.
It is here however, that Planet RE:think loses a bit of credibility. Conditions in the cottage e-waste reclamation industry are appalling. Workers, often children, break open electronic equipment using little more than hammers. Solder-containing components are then melted down using handheld torches, emitting carcinogenic fumes in order to release valuable copper and brass pieces. These precious metal pieces are then sifted in rivers, releasing toxic impurities downstream. Yet the film dwells only briefly upon the obvious health and environmental problems besetting this form of e-waste reclamation, instead focussing upon the ‘great potential’ for vast amounts of e-waste to act as the ‘precious metals mines’ of the future.
The focus on a new, green technological future continues as Planet RE:think considers Greenland’s nascent mining boom for rare-earth metals. As the film explains, rare-earth metals are key components in many of the sexiest environmental solutions, from ‘paper-saving’ electronics to electric cars and wind turbines.
Perhaps due to the sensibilities of the European Union who commissioned the film, the environmental cost of rare-earth mining in EU-member Denmark’s dependency, Greenland, is down-played. They are real, however. One smart-phone is estimated to contain the equivalent of over a tonne of rare-earth metal ore, with all the extraction, shipping and refinement costs that entails.
In light of these examples, it is curious that Planet RE:think barely mentions the most-obvious way of reducing our environmental impact: buying less electronics, driving less and consuming less energy. Radical, yes. More radical than carrying the equivalent of a tonne of rare-earth ore around in your pocket? Perhaps not.
One scene from Planet RE:think particularly resonated: an Indian man standing before a pile of computer hard drives ready to be dismantled. So accustomed was he to this work, he effortlessly pointed out the various drives, rattling off their model numbers: ‘Pentium four, five, six…’ It seemed to me so pointless: the design, the precious-metal extraction, the glamorous product launches and the in-depth tech/spec reviews, only so these same products could be made redundant within two years, their component parts filling back rooms of Delhi slums.
Planet RE:think asks us to consider what we consume. Perhaps it is time we asked ourselves why we consume.