Global concern about climate change has now reached a remarkable level, thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg and her team. There is however, in my view, little understanding of what the underlying problem is or how to solve it. The climate problem is just one of many factors driving consumer-capitalist society to its imminent destruction.
We have gone far beyond the sustainability limits and the big global problems cannot be solved unless we abandon affluence and growth. Following is a brief indication of the case, which most people including too many green ones, still refuse to think about.
The most important cause of our predicament is simply that there is far too much producing and consuming going on, ripping through dwindling physical and biological resources and destroying ecosystems. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that it would now take 1.7 planet Earths to meet current resource demands sustainably. Yet only about one-fifth of the world’s people are doing most of the consuming and damage. If by 2050 the 10 billion people expected to be living on the planet were to have risen to the “living standards” Australians have now, global resource demands and ecological impacts would be seven times as great.
But that does not take into account the absurd and suicidal implications of the manic commitment to economic growth. If those 10 billion had the living standards that Australians expect normal growth to deliver to them by 2050, the multiple would be around 18. Just about all our big problems are largely due to the fact that the present levels of production and consumption are far beyond sustainable, yet almost all people, institutions, governments and economies are blindly and fiercely committed to limitlessly increasing them.
The conventional economist’s response is, don’t worry, technical advance and more conservation effort will solve the problem. This is the basic “decoupling” thesis, i.e., the claim that GDP can continue to rise while its resource and ecological impacts are kept to sustainable levels. Many studies over recent decades have shown this claim to be fantasy, the most weighty being that by Parrique et al., 2019 for the European Environmental Board. They review the potential in technical advance, recycling and shifting economies to services and information, and conclude that these are not going to solve the problem; in fact it is getting worse.
The glaringly obvious but almost universally ignored conclusion from this is that if the big global problems are to be solved then we must abandon affluence and growth (…the title of my 1985 non-best selling book.) Producing anything, including information and services, uses resources; if you increase production you will increase resource use, when it is already far too high. When will green, red, respectable, deplorable and other people join the dots and accept this?
There is now a global De Growth movement based on this understanding. The above multiples show that the De Growth must be down to levels of production, investment, trade, consumption and GDP that are a small fraction of present amounts, probably in the vicinity of 10%. (See the detailed case.) This is totally impossible in the economic system we have. Even if conventional economists ever thought about any of this, they would have no idea what to do.
Nor, unfortunately, do most good green people. Greta et al. are doing a heroic and miraculous job in upping the demand that something be done. But greens proceed as if there are solutions just waiting to be implemented, solutions that would not threaten our comfort or wealth or the economic system but governments are too lazy, stupid or bought-off to adopt them. This means they do not grasp what De growth means; it means somehow stopping 55,000 Australian workers from producing coal … and not transferring them to other jobs where they just produce something else.. It means that the practice of getting interest on loans must totally cease; do you understand that if there are interest payments there is growth. It means that the market cannot be allowed to be a major determinant of what happens in the economy because there has to be socially controlled allocation of very limited resources to ensure needs are met; that is, it means (some kind of) “socialism”. (For the detailed explanations see The Simpler Way Perspective.)
The problem cannot be dealt with by the economic system we have because capitalism is by definition about growth. Significant De growth means phasing out a great deal of industry, trade, jobs and opportunities for the investment of capital. Yet the problem is much deeper than that; it’s foundations are cultural, evident in the taken for granted conceptions of “progress”, “development” and the good life. Sufficient is not enough; we want more and more.
If the dots are joined it is obvious that we cannot begin to grapple with any of this effectively until there is a general realisation that the party is over, that the quest for growth and affluence must cease before it destroys us, that progress, development and the good life have to be redefined to be about other goals than getting richer and richer.
There is an alternative, one that would indeed cut resource and environmental impacts by that 90%. And there is in fact a considerable theory and practice concerned with building it, evident within Voluntary Simplicity, Eco-village, Transition Towns and related movements. The basic principles are to do with happy acceptance of simpler lifestyles and systems, within mostly small, highly self-sufficient, cooperative and self-governing local communities. This is the only way to enable a high quality of life for all while cutting resource and environmental impacts dramatically. For instance a study of egg supply found that the dollar and energy costs for the conventional industrial-supermarket path are around 50 to 200 times those for village co-ops, because the latter can totally eliminate the need for industrial inputs, transport, packaging, agribusiness, advertising, chemical additives, waste removal, etc., while providing co-products such as manure for local gardens. Another study found that an alternative community in Missouri had energy, water, waste, travel etc. statistics around 5-10% of US averages… with quality of life indices above average. Many live in such communities within (small and beautiful) $5,000 cob houses working only one day a week for money. And high tech research and universities could flourish on the resources saved. This is where the dots lead Greta… if you choose to follow them.
Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. He has written numerous books and articles on sustainability and is developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney.