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The Long Goodbye: A Life of Loss and Plenty

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on April 08, 2015

Last week, after a long fight with Alzheimer’s, my mother passed away.

A few weeks earlier, sitting in the seniors’ home looking on with my father at the shell of my mother, we pondered a life well-lived, with love, loss, abundance and scarcity. By this point my mom only recalled snippets of her formative years growing up in Rotterdam during the challenges of the depression. And the depression was a time of plenty compared to the occupation of World War II that quickly followed on its heels. Food was available during the depression, if you had money. The War in Europe on the other hand was a time of shortages and constant sacrifice, and loss, for just about everyone. Survival, never a sure thing, was much more tenuous. My father was a prisoner-of-war and barely made it out alive.

My parents may have started life in deprivation and uncertainty, but beginning in the late 1940s they, and their compatriots, and especially their children, made up for lost time. In Europe, the Americas, and a little later in Japan, and then China, India and parts of the Middle East and Africa, an additional three billion increasingly-wealthy urban residents ensured that the second half of the 20th Century will always be remembered as a time of growth and largesse.

The 1950s and 60s are referred to as the ‘great acceleration’: The time that the world moved into high-gear for resource consumption, along with wealth and waste. My four siblings and I were all born in the 50s and 60s.

The die was cast early in the 20th Century with industrial hotspots like the Niagara River, the US Midwest, and parts of the UK and Europe. Industry flourished, populations grew, and everyone got wealthier and used far more resources, generating enormous amounts of waste and pollution.

We tend to underestimate our wealth and even more glaringly, greatly underestimate the resources we use and the damage we are wreaking upon the planet. My mom’s lifetime provides a useful yardstick. On May 11, 1929, when she was born, the world’s total wealth was about $3 trillion (in today’s dollars) and this was before the great Wall Street Stock market crash of October 24 that same year that wiped out some $14 billion in one day (a small hiccup in today’s markets).

By 2015, global wealth has grown almost 100-times (about $265 trillion). We buy a lot of stuff with this new money. Nowhere is that more evident than through solid waste. In 1929, people around the world threw out less than 175 million tonnes of waste. Today that’s swelled to more than 1.7 billion tonnes (enough garbage to fill the SkyDome more than 3500 times).

In my mom’s lifetime, 5 billion hectares of forest were lost (about 40 times the size of Ontario); some 300 million tonnes of plastics dumped into the oceans; more than half the world’s wildlife lost. Global CO2 concentrations increased from 307 ppm in 1929 to more than 400 ppm today (350 ppm is considered the ‘safe upper limit’). In the 1930s there were healthy populations of cod off of Canada’s East Coast, along with tigers in India and rhinos in Africa. Most of the world’s rivers were still relatively pristine and groundwater mostly at historic levels. In 1927, global population passed 2 billion. Today we have more than 7 billion people and we are on track to exceed 9 billion by 2042.

This rate of wealth increase and ecosystem destruction is still accelerating. My parents habituated by a childhood of scarcity always made us finish the food on our plate, and throwing out food was a rarity. The first time I flew in an airplane was in Grade 4; it was a big deal. This year, more than half my family and friends flew somewhere, many trying to escape the cold.

Highlighting the increase in wealth since the 1930s, the size of the average house has more than doubled (while family size decreased). Appliances and electronics increased dramatically in efficiency, so too automobiles and their fuel efficiency, and yet our use of electricity and petroleum products continues to increase.  Many houses have several televisions and often a handful or two of laptops, tablets and phones.

Strangely though, most people do not feel wealthier amid all this relative largesse. The City of Toronto, for example, feigns poverty as it tries to improve public transportation. On January 1, 1946, Toronto residents overwhelmingly supported a plebiscite to fund the subway. And even after the promised federal and provincial money was lost to squabbling, the City still went ahead with a scaled-down effort. That short-term sacrifice is now likely worth $50,000 - $100,000 in the price of every city home. We have the money and yet we are unwilling to pay to fix the foundation at home and abroad.

Canada’s contribution to overseas assistance has plummeted since the 1940s and 50s. Solidarity between the 905 suburbs and 416 downtown, or western and central Canada, seems ever more elusive. Sighting almost any new infrastructure is far more difficult than it was just a few decades ago.  We sense a greater beggar-thy-neighbour attitude. This makes no sense, for when my parents talk about living through the depression and the war, they always mention how good friends and neighbors were so critical to their survival. Charity helped everyone.

My mom lived a life of scarcity and plenty. Many people, like my mom’s children and grandchildren, have been lucky to live only in plenty. As the memories of scarcity are lost, we the more fortunate need to rally to our neighbours and friends; and as the world is more interconnected, everyone is our neighbour. We need to buy better and share the wealth, for no better reason than charity helps everyone, especially ourselves. As I contemplate how to do this myself, I give thanks to mom.

Filed under: Sustainability 101