Rather than expanding our renewable electricity production and developing an EV fleet, a degrowth approach would be to initiate a massive energy conservation programme and investing in cities where we can live, work and play within 15 minutes’ walking or biking

Opinion: Purchasing an EV is something more people are doing to reduce the worst impacts of climate change. EVs are attractive and increasingly convenient.

But is this reaction to the climate crisis an example of the wrong solution to the wrong problem? Is climate change, as serious as it is, even the most important problem to address?

Climate change is certainly an existential threat and more needs to be done to mitigate its worst impacts. Yet even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, we would still face a range of environmental existential threats. 

* Rod Oram: We’ve pushed nature into ever greater crises
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Part of the problem is we haven’t defined the problem correctly. Rather than trying to deal with specific issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and so on, there is an underlying cause that connects these threats. Understanding the cause could provide a new approach to dealing with many of these challenges.

First let’s step back and try to understand just what the threat is. As far as we know Earth is the only planet in the universe with complex living systems, with a biosphere covering its surface.

The biosphere is an intricately balanced network of living and non-living systems interacting with each other in a self-regulatory manner. This rare web of life provides for us physically, economically, aesthetically and spiritually.

The greatest existential threat we face is arguably the destruction of this biosphere upon which we are utterly dependent for our wellbeing. Climate change, biodiversity loss, extensive pollution, are examples of biosphere disruption that we are causing at an accelerating rate.

The scope, scale and speed of human transgressions of planetary boundaries, biophysical limits, or carrying capacity (take your pick which set of measures to consider), are all unprecedented.

Our transgressions are no longer local, but planetary in scope.

The scale of transgressions is not trivial but huge, at least 50 to 100 percent beyond safe limits. It’s no comfort to learn that most of the empirical measures used are acknowledged underestimates.

And the speed of making things worse is not slowing down but accelerating.

Taken together, the scope, scale and speed of disrupting the biosphere risks pushing life-providing Earth systems into states inhospitable to complex human societies.

We have a planetary emergency, and we seem to be focused on the symptoms rather than the cause.

So what is driving this biosphere disruption that is such a threat?

A bit of history tells us that our use of energy is a key factor. Without enormous amounts of energy we would not have been able to have such a huge impact on the biosphere.

These two charts indicate how much our energy and raw material use has grown over the last two centuries, and accelerated over the past few decades.

Use of raw material and global primary energy consumption rise (terawatt hours/year)

Global primary energy consumption, 1800 to 2018. Source: Vaclav Smil and BP Statistical Review of World Energy

Our unprecedented use of energy and materials has resulted in unprecedented threats.

All these energy and raw material flows through our global economy (currently 100 billion tons annually) are disrupting planetary systems that make Earth the most desirable location in the universe.

We are crowding nature out with our stuff. The weight of human artefacts now exceeds that of all living things on the planet.

Material flow in tons (normalised to 1 in 1900)

Growth of global resource flows in the twentieth century. All flows are in metric tons per year and normalized to 1 in the year 1900. Krausmann, et al, 2017

We are disrupting global ecosystems to the extent that scientists are formally declaring a new geologic era, the Anthropocene. This is an era when human activities are the major drivers of ecosystem change at a global scale. Humanity has never confronted such a planetary challenge. Our approaches to dealing with it are constrained by our ignorance and inexperience at this level.

Awareness is growing that reducing energy and material use is essential to operating our global economy within safe planetary limits.

Many governments now have a strong focus on reducing fossil fuel use to alleviate climate change. But we are continuing to use more fossil fuels each year, despite the expanding use of alternative energy technologies such as solar and wind. Indeed, solar and wind infrastructure can only be built with fossil fuels.

We are not reducing fossil fuels for non-essential things to build these alternative energy sources; the net effect is more emissions.

Similar dynamics occur regarding biodiversity loss and pollution reduction. Species continue going extinct and pollution levels are higher year after year.

All of these harmful activities are driven by our use of energy and raw materials, and spreading our activities over more and more natural areas.

And here’s the rub. A good deal of our energy and raw materials use is driven by the goal of growing our economy. Growing national economies remains the dominant policy priority of all governments. EV sales keep one of the world’s largest industries profitable.

While there are many acknowledged benefits from a healthy economy, economic growth per se may no longer be the most sensible policy priority on a planet headed for ecological catastrophe. Economic growth may actually be “uneconomic” in the sense that the costs outweigh the benefits.

Our greatest existential threat is arguably our disruption of the biosphere. Shouldn’t our overarching policy priority be to restore and preserve this unique resource which sustains us?

Back to the EV example. They work. They’re attractive and convenient. But what about the material and fossil energy that goes into producing them, and the impact of this material and energy use on the biosphere? How will a global fleet of EVs impact our accelerating energy and raw material demands reflected in the decades ahead?

We can have only one overarching policy priority at a time. Protecting the biosphere and continuing economic growth are clearly in conflict.

The only way the economy can grow is to use more energy and raw materials. The only way the biosphere can be restored is to significantly reduce the amount of energy and raw materials we use to live well.

Can’t we have both with ‘clean technologies’?

Recall that the scope, scale and speed of transgressing planetary boundaries is huge and accelerating. All of the currently dominant approaches to reducing energy and material use may contribute to making things less bad; but that’s not good enough. Some “solutions,” like massive numbers of EVs, may actually make things worse.

Our technical innovations are not sufficient to actually make the magnitude of changes needed to restore the biosphere. The current narrative of transitioning to “clean technologies” provide a false comfort that we can avoid catastrophe without much disruption of our global economy.

We have to make a choice of what our overarching policy priority is – economic growth or restoring the biosphere. We urgently need to appreciate our complete dependence on the integrity of the biosphere for our wellbeing.

Not planning for the planetary emergency is a bit like not planning for the fact that your life savings may run out before you do.

Ultimately, it’s our choice. We either continue to enjoy the unsustainable status quo for a while longer, and then catastrophe. Or we make some radical changes and survive to build a just and sustainable future.

We can have sufficient economic activity to meet human needs for a satisfying life without destroying the biosphere. But the level of economic activity that can operate within planetary limits requires us to reduce energy and raw material use to sustainable levels. Our current levels of use are at least 50 to 100 percent beyond those safe limits.

Acknowledging we have a planetary emergency would seem a useful first step. It is only when we sense an emergency that we drop our usual activities and refocus our priorities to do what is needed.

We are used to dealing with emergencies that are clear and present dangers. However, our planetary emergency is a clear but seemingly distant danger. The world’s poor are suffering now from these threats, but eventually the dangers will be visiting all of us.

Given the scope and magnitude of our transgressions of planetary boundaries, and the speed with which we are approaching potentially irreversible tipping points, the dangers are not far off – decades at best. The increased droughts, floods, fires and pestilence we are already witnessing are a harbinger of what is to come.

Reducing our energy and raw material use across the full range of our unsustainable systems is urgent. Not a single one of our major systems (agriculture, construction, transport, industry, forestry, waste management, etc) is currently sustainable. Changing priorities is critical.

Perhaps it’s time for us all to learn more about degrowth, and the multiple ecological and social benefits it could provide. The central tenet of degrowth is the reduction of energy and raw material use. This focus, if successfully implemented, would simultaneously addresses climate change, biodiversity loss, and extensive pollution.

Rather than relying on technical solutions to our existential threats degrowth accepts that radical social change is needed to avoid catastrophe. Degrowth focuses on how to make the necessary changes and provide the supports necessary to everyone to deal with the inevitable disruptions the radical changes will trigger.

Degrowth is disruptive to our current way of thinking about the good life, but offers a more realistic, and attractive, vision of what the future can be. By prioritizing biosphere integrity, and striving for justice and equality for all, degrowth has the potential to mobilize large segments of society at a global level.

The majority of people, as well as the rest of the biosphere, would be better off with a degrowth future than one predicated on continuous economic growth.

The economic growth narrative says we need growth to deal with all the existential challenges we face. That we need to invest in technologies to provide clean energy and reduce poverty.

The degrowth narrative says we need to prioritize biosphere integrity because our transgressions of planetary boundaries is already so huge, and accelerating, that we risk irreversible disruptions to basic life support systems.

Degrowth says that if we accept biophysical limits then we have to work harder at equitably sharing the resources we can use sustainably.

Unfortunately, the growth narrative is dominant and has got us into the undesirable predicament we are in. More of the same, including “green growth,” will only make things worse.

Building vast amounts of alternative energy infrastructure will require more fossil fuel and raw material use. Building a global EV fleet reflects a growth mind-set that accepts using more energy and raw materials. The degrowth mind-set explores how we can manage our lives with less transport of goods and people.

The degrowth narrative is portrayed as unnecessary, unrealistic, and uninspiring. But it seems to be the only one that acknowledges both the magnitude of the threats we face, and the biophysical limits that will ultimately determine what is possible. It arguably requires more innovation and creativity than the growth paradigm, but in the social arena rather than the technical one.

For example, rather than expanding our electricity production and developing an EV fleet, a degrowth approach would be to initiate a massive energy conservation program, and invest in a 15 minute city design – where most of our live, work and play activities can be accessed in 15 minutes by walking or biking.

Major social transformations of the sort degrowth advocates propose only come about with large social movements. Democratic governments are constrained by divisions within society about these competing narratives.

We cannot rely on governments to implement the radical changes needed without large numbers of us calling for the declaration of a planetary emergency.

It’s up to us to determine the narrative for a genuinely sustainable and just future.

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