Are we prepared to change to prevent climate change?
What is needed to get us out of our comfort zone and fight for our children’s future?
If you ask, let’s say, a seven year old, it’s all pretty clear. If it’s the way we live, consume and produce that causes climate change, why don’t we simply stop it and start doing things differently? And if there are millions of people too poor even to meet their basic needs, why don’t we tell the rich to share a bit of their overflow so that there is enough for all?
We may consider this cute and naïve, we may laugh and say, “Look, it’s not all that easy, there are too many complexities and interdependencies and lock-ins and path-dependencies. It’s OK, when you’re older you’ll understand. Our economy needs to grow for us to keep up the good life. It needs to grow to get more people out of poverty, to secure return on investments, and to create jobs in place of those that fell away due to rationalization. We cannot simply stop the machine for something abstract like climate change: this would lead to recession, social unrest and chaos. We have to keep up our economic system to secure social stability, pension schemes and state budgets”—as if social instability, unemployment and wars on resources were not already well on their way.
Questioning the underlying system logic
These are all robust arguments hardly ever questioned—following the logic of homo economicus that individual profit and competition are the best means to achieve the higher common good. But what if this system logic itself was the root cause of our environmental and social crises—climate change above all—and needed to be replaced by something new to secure our survival on this planet? What if we have constructed a whole system of theories, models, technologies and defence mechanisms just to deny the simple truth? What if the seven year old was right and we do need to change our lives in an unprecedented way, and concentrate all our efforts on the required systemic transformation in the face of climate change and the underlying crisis of civilization?
Mark Lynas and others made the case that questioning the paradigm of economic growth is kind of politically extreme, but what if it turned out that climate stability and growth are indeed incompatible and that such “extremity” is in fact required? That keeping up economic growth, “green” or otherwise, is not in line with the physical reality of the planet, regardless of what we might wish?
In the end, it all boils down to the question of decoupling economic growth from greenhouse-gas emissions (and the use of other natural resources in the case of other no less important planetary boundaries). However, despite the tremendous efforts that are being invested to convince us that energy efficiency, renewables and new technologies will do the trick, decoupling in absolute terms remains highly unlikely if not impossible in a growing economy.
The limits to growth are real
According to economist Tim Jackson, from 1990 to 2007 the global carbon intensity of technology decreased annually by an average of 0.7 %. At the same time, global population increased by 1.3 % while the average income increased by 1.4 %. These numbers reveal that the efficiency gains (relative decoupling) didn’t even make up for population growth and income increase, so the overall emissions actually went up.
In order to avoid dangerous climate change in the future, we would need to achieve an annual carbon intensity decrease of at least 7 %, a figure ten times greater than that achieved from 1990 to 2007. The relating scenario only accounts for a moderate population and income increase, and maintains the gap between developing and developed countries. If the developing countries were to catch up with industrialized living standards, which is the more likely trajectory, this would even require a 55 times lower carbon intensity by 2050. Is this realistic?
While a recent high-level report claims that climate action and economic growth can go hand in hand, it doesn’t even attempt to prove the probability of absolute decoupling—leaving its core message a mere assertion. The reason behind it: among the multitude of studies dealing with decoupling and the related rebound-effects, there is not one that could prove absolute decoupling as a realistic scenario considering the relevant facts and figures.
Standing up to vested interests
This leads us to the question of whose interests are actually at stake in case the growth fetish gets criticized by a larger public¨—which can also explain the tireless attempts to prevent this from happening by the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, the agroindustry, the aviation and automotive industry, to mention only a few (no, electric or driverless cars are not sustainable, despite what the industry tries to make us believe). Given the vast financial and political power of the global players in these and other sectors, it is no wonder that governments are usually putty in the hands of their interest groups. These play with our fears and assure us that their profitability is essential for keeping our jobs—knowing that politicians fear nothing more than rising unemployment rates.
And indeed, in the current system, this fear of losing one’s job often forces people to choose between a secure livelihood and ethical principles – and to continue to work in jobs that are obviously damaging for the environment. So if a global bottom-up climate movement is to succeed against these vested corporate interests, it has to push just as hard for alternative solidarity structures and job opportunities. In the end, it’s not the corporations that we need, but secure livelihoods—which can be provided in many different ways.
Facing our defence mechanisms
At the same time it is not enough to point fingers at others and blame “the system” or “the industry” or “the politicians” when our own interests are deeply intertwined with that of the economy we are living in. Aren’t most of us quite happy in our comfort zones enjoying all the superficial pleasures the globalized consumer culture can provide? It’s definitely not those who are less fortunate and have to struggle to make ends meet who are to blame. It’s the average and above average consumers in the Global North and the rich in the Global South who are gobbling up resources that the earth cannot sustain. It’s our Western consumer lifestyle that inherently depends on the exploitation of nature and other people, particularly women—be it in the form of cheap labour, environmental racism or direct deprivation – e.g. by destroying people’s livelihoods for our hunger for resources.
So if we want politicians and governments to act and take on the “Great Transition” towards a secure and liveable future as their utmost priority, we first have to give up our defence mechanisms and stop justifying our own role. We have to bring across that we are really serious about changing the economy and changing our lives, and that we won’t accept any excuse. Otherwise they can rely on us being too deeply attached to our cars, fancy holidays and long-haul flights, globalized supply chains and ever more electronic gadgets—even at the expense of the millions of deaths, increasing violence, wars on resources and ever stronger environmental disasters.
Shaping a global movement for change
If the movement gets its priorities right, the largest parts of the global population have much to gain. Even the rich and privileged might prefer the prospect of a materially simpler life in a social and economic environment that fosters wellbeing in a healthier sense than the current one. Luckily, there are already many ideas, proposals and concepts available to secure the good life for all while maintaining a healthy planet—in democratic and participative ways.
The widespread belief that the white male hypocrites from Silicon Valley and their likes will save us through technological innovations is yet another symptom of our collective denial. These will neither be ecologically sustainable, nor democratic; they will just tighten our dependence on increasingly complex technologies from large monopolist corporations. We tend to forget that the real driver behind such innovations is not change, but the attempt to keep up our business-as-usual capitalist economy and prevent it from collapse—thereby securing cash flow into the pockets of the usual suspects.
Now back to the seven year old, for whom the solutions are so simple, so apparent. Don’t you think it’s high time we listen to our children, get out of our comfort zone and do all we can to safeguard the Earth for them? Consume less, share more and stand up against fossil fuels, urban sprawl, destructive infrastructures and resource extractivism. And, above all, fight for an economy that can fulfil everyone’s basic needs within the natural boundaries of a healthy planet.