By 2050 the world will have a population of 10 billion if current growth rates are sustained. If everyone was to have the lifestyle of affluent western nations the world’s economy would be 15 times larger and likely lead to a planetary collapse. Philip Temple argues the need for a new beginning.
When I was five years old, I lived in a small terrace house in a Yorkshire coal mining town. It was a rented two-up and two-down but, except when sleeping, everything happened in the kitchen. It had one gaslight, one cold tap and a black cast iron stove which my Granny kept stoked with coal which she carried in a bucket down the cobbled path from the bin at the end of the yard. The bin was next to the long drop with squares of newspaper hanging from a nail on the wall. It stank and I was small enough to worry that I might fall through into the shitty mire beneath. So I always hung on hard to the front of the seat when I went.
Newspaper was useful in other ways. It could be used to wrap up rubbish that could not be burned in the stove and served as a renewable table cloth. This helped me start reading and asking questions my Granny and Granddad could not always answer or which they told me I’d find out about later, when I was older.
They seemed really old to me although they were both only in their mid to late forties. But they were old. They both had false teeth and my Granny was already bent over from the labour of lugging buckets of coal and washing heavy loads in the kitchen copper. This was especially hard work because Granddad was a coal miner on night shift and came home black all over and Granny had to wash him in the tin bath on the kitchen floor. He was too old to be down the pit but he had to do it, despite his bad chest, because there was a war on and all the young men were away fighting. We sometimes heard about people on our side of town who had lost a son or a brother or a father. It wasn’t that long before I lost Granny and Granddad. They were both dead 10 years later. From hard labour.
The war meant rationing as well, of everything, so my boots weren’t replaced when they should have been and my feet show the result to this day. I don’t remember eating chocolate until I was seven. No-one could travel around without a permit and I never heard of anyone who had a car. I did not have any vaccinations because there weren’t any. So I contracted chicken pox, measles, mumps and whooping cough but was strong enough to get over them. One or two of the children at my primary school died from measles. But when the war was over, life began to get better and I had my first vaccination, BCG against tuberculosis, because I was a close contact to my stepfather who had contracted it. Yes, when the war was over, slowly it all began to get better.
Now I/we have a mortgage-free house with seven double-glazed rooms, indoor plumbing, an induction stove top, heat pump and a variety of ‘labour-saving’ devices, as well as a garden which yields potatoes, tomatoes, beans, grapes and lemons. Of course, I have a modern car. My children have already reached the ages of my Granny and Granddad when they died. They can look forward to another 30-40 years, all going well. And in all of this lies the problem.
The world population when I was born was around 2.3 billion, the most that many scientists believe the planet can sustain. It is now well over three times as many – as is New Zealand’s population – and is expected to reach 10-11 billion before it starts to decline. A significant proportion of the current 7.9 billion people on the planet have experienced the material benefits and health improvements that I have, and even more want to catch up. Consistently, we hear calls for economic growth and wealth creation that will close the gap between the haves and have nots. An annual GDP rate of at least two percent is seen as the minimum desirable. But if, by 2050, the hugely increased population all achieved the same GDP per capita, the global economy would be 15 times larger than today. There is no way 10 billion can live the lifestyle of the west without causing planetary collapse.
Yet we are more or less still pursuing this suicidal course. Our fate was predicted with reasonable accuracy 50 years ago by the Club of Rome authors of Limits to Growth. Like all prophets, they were naysayed by the growth merchants. But then, who could not resist flying off for that overseas holiday; the latest, safest, bestest car ever designed; the bach; and later the amazing small personal computer that had more power than that used on the Apollo moon missions? And those shining devices with ear pieces that guide people along footpaths and are an essential accompaniment to a flat white.
The results of ignoring the prophets is that we face runaway global warming and environmental disaster if we do not prevent mean planetary temperatures climbing by more than 1.5 degrees C over the next 10 years. That’s all the time left as world population, its pollution, waste and extraction of diminishing resources keep increasing at a fast rate. We are already into overshoot.
So what’s to do? First, we need to stop denying the mess we are in and that somehow, someone, somewhere will find a magic bullet or that entrepreneurial technology will come to the rescue. But technological miracles like fusion power, hydrogen and mining on the moon won’t hack it. More trees and EVs and reducing agricultural emissions won’t hack it. Renewable energy won’t hack it either, if that just powers more material growth.
If we can agree something more drastic is needed then we must urgently begin a big open debate about a new kind of post-growth economy. Everything has to be dialled back. It needs leadership and action from both government and the grass roots.
The government needs, urgently, to undertake scientifically governed planning and risk assessment for the nation. It needs to focus on developing infrastructure that supports new thinking around sustainable and rewarding lifestyles. Less pursuit of wealth and more focus on community wellbeing and co-operation, such as supporting local food growers, and the sharing of goods and services. Many community groups around the country understand this already, and this is where absorbing mātauranga Māori is particularly important. Yet, the majority of us think that by reducing our carbon footprint and planting some more trees we’ll get by. We won’t.
Soon we will have no choice but to face a post-growth world. We must prepare and plan for it and not let it happen uncontrolled. A deliberately created post-growth or degrowth economy is very different to unplanned recession or the consequences of unexpected disasters like the current catastrophe in Ukraine.
There is much to debate, the pros and cons, the whys and wherefores, what to do and what not to do. We need to start now, aiming not for affluence for all, but justice and adequacy for all. A new world is coming, ready or not. And my childhood memories tell me that a reduced material world is not the end of the world but rather a new beginning.