In the 21st century, times change quickly. Like that esoteric band you’ve always liked being unexpectedly nominated for the Mercury Prize, last year was the year the climate crisis finally broke through into the mainstream. The Extinction Rebellion, global climate strikes, the UN Climate Action Summit, Greta Thunberg: for better or worse, everybody had an opinion when it came to this planet’s ecology.
This year, as virtually everyone in the world knows, is the Year of the Pandemic. And one major element of this most unwelcome of developments is that COVID-19 has pushed the climate crisis into the background (despite being intrinsically linked to it). What has been foregrounded instead is the need to ‘save’ the economy rather than the planet we live on.
So, after having taken a break from the subject for a few months, I’ve decided to go back to beating my drum about the environment. Because, ultimately, despite COVID having killed hundreds of thousands of people so far, this is small change compared to the suffering that a near-uninhabitable planet is set to cause us all.
Green growth — a contradiction in terms
As a translator, I read texts every day about the need for companies to transform their business models to focus on green growth. I’m talking long blah-blah sentences like: “In an age where the industry has wrought near-irreparable destruction on the planet, we now have the chance to change how we do business and invest in efficient technologies that pave the way for 100% green growth and the environmentally sustainable evolution of society as a whole”. Leaving aside the fact that these companies virtually always make it sound as though they aren’t actually complicit in the global destruction-fest (note the non-personal collective noun, ‘industry’, instead of ‘we’), this appears pretty promising at first glance. Carbon-neutral tech, cleaner air, fewer trees chopped down, secure jobs, an economy safeguarded — who doesn’t want that?
But there’s only so many times you can read this kind of corporate call to arms before you start to ask what ‘green growth’ actually means and how it’s supposed to work.
As an article by Jason Hickel on the website Systemic Alternatives points out, “even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale”. Hickel offers support for this conclusion in the form of an experiment conducted by a team of German scientists back in 2012, which created a computer model to chart global resource consumption. The team then ran a scenario in which every nation on Earth immediately adopted the current best practices on resource usage. What they found was that resource consumption rose from its then-current rate of 70 billion tons a year to 93 billion tons by 2050.
A slightly different experiment was conducted by another team in 2016, with virtually the same results: even after improving the best practices for resource consumption, the model showed a resource burn-through rate of 95 billion tons by 2050. While the 93–95 billion mark would represent putting the brakes on the free-for-all buffet-style approach we’re currently taking toward the planet, this is still a significant rise in resource use. With that comes vast CO2 emissions, warmer seas, drier land, more extreme weather events and the ongoing mass extinction of flora and fauna.
That’s even assuming we ever end up implementing those best practices, of course. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, none of the major industrialised nations have followed through on the policies they set out, nor have they met their emission reduction targets. The USA has withdrawn from the agreement entirely. We can probably assume, then, that 95 billion tons is nothing more than a fantasy figure.
What this means, as the Systemic Alternatives article sums up so well, is that you can commit to efficient technologies and practices and organisational structures all you want, but you’ll still be part of the capitalist system — a system based on private ownership, materialism, unequal distribution of wealth and power, and widespread economic instability. Yes, you can have solar, wind and hydroelectric energy, but it’ll still be used to power the engine that drives consumer culture. As ever, these new developments will make some people richer and others poorer; the majority of the people who gain will use their wealth to pay for novel products and experiences (because that’s what we do), while those who lose will continue to work like dogs in the hope that one day, we’ll be able to move out of the kennel and into the big house. What a model of green economic growth absolutely won’t be doing is making every effort to limit the rise in the planet’s temperature to a manageable level.
You could say, then, that green growth is so called not because of any commitment to ecological preservation; it’s green because it’s going to keep the dollars flowing.
It isn’t just fringe websites that are pointing this out. A host of prominent media outlets and academic journals have highlighted the fact that “over-reliance on promises of new technology to solve climate change is enabling delay” and that “we can be green or we can have growth, but we can’t have both together” — at least not within the time frame we’ve set ourselves to put the brakes on the Anthropocene and ensure our home remains halfway habitable.
Deep social adaptation
An article on the website The Conversation by Geoff Mulgan, CEO of the charity Nesta, makes the case that in order for humanity to truly get to grips with the climate crisis, we need to weave zero-carbon living into the fabric of society. As he points out, this would require such steps as
[providing] more support for places that are deliberately pioneering new ways of life — like Freiburg in Germany, which has gone further than anywhere in designing new lifestyles into its physical structures, for example by banning and restricting cars
backing the thousands of local food projects around the world that are weaning people off dependence on agri-business and meat and cutting food waste.
That’s just the microplastic particle on the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg, though. On the most macro of scales, we need to invest — and genuinely believe — in a model of degrowth rather than exponential growth. As was established during the Second International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Barcelona in 2010, degrowth would mean, among other things, banning or imposing extreme restrictions on private vehicle usage, flights, consumption of meat and dairy, commuting and most forms of retail. It would mean the elimination of mega infrastructure projects such as the building of new roads, runways, bridges, tunnels, seaports, power plants, etc. It would require the introduction of a basic income and the appropriation of empty residential units for those who need them. It would mean facilitating the transition to not-for-profit and volunteer-based business models. It would require us to smash the advertising industry entirely. It would mean replacing GDP as our primary indicator of prosperity with the collective and individual well-being of people and the planet.
To manage this, we would need to bring about a sea change in the way we view the world, the way we work, and the approach we take to our lives as individuals. Part of that would mean working not because we wish to accumulate wealth, but because we love the essence of what we do and the effect it has on our personal and collective well-being. What about the jobs nobody enjoys? Maybe then those fabled ‘efficient technologies’ could come into play; alternatively, the work could be shared between all.
Whatever the case, the prevailing belief would have to be that we exist to serve ourselves, not to service an invisible economy. Sound selfish? Maybe not: as Wilde said, “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking other people to live as one wishes to live.” We are asked day in, day out by a handful of people at the top of the tree to exist within a framework that benefits them only. The alternative — doing that which nourishes us physically, intellectually and spiritually — sounds much more appealing, at least to me.
These are all quite revolutionary and even (gasp) socialist ideas. And they’re nothing new, either. But they may just end up being necessary. That is, if we don’t want life to be one long pandemic after extreme weather event after famine after the other (I, for one, do not). For the record, I have absolutely no faith at all that we could implement deep social adaptation on this scale. Then again, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist. The point, though, is that the answers to the problems are out there. Green growth, worshipping at the altar of efficiency and magic bullet technologies are most certainly not it.