This statement is not to be taken in a literal sense – it is, in essence, throwing down the gauntlet and challenging us to approach the topic of global warming in a new way. The very real and practical physical aspects of climate change are the benchmark by which we must judge our actions and remediate behaviour. Naomi is suggesting, rather, that to find the solution and a way forward, we need to stop looking at this problem in a purely physical sense and look at a wider societal interpretation of how we got to where we are now, and how we might find a solution through change. It is true that there is a reluctance to challenge the very fundamental source of our behaviour which is steered for the most part by the economic framework of capitalism. A shifting of perspective is not only desired, it is crucial to implementing a true understanding of the actions necessary to reduce our carbon emissions and to create a more sustainable society.
If we begin to examine the systems we have, however, we can see that there are issues with the theory behind growth as an equalizer or steady state as a means to solve our environmental crisis. The idea of ‘trickle-down’ economics has not worked in practice. Increasingly, those who own the largest share of market capital are becoming wealthier whilst poverty is still very much a global issue (UN World Social Report, 2020). A sustainable future should allow for human well-being, whilst working within the boundaries of the planet. Steady State allows that we can ‘deplete non-renewables at a rate equal to the rate at which a renewable substitute is developed’ (Daly, 1992). But what if the rate of development of renewables isn’t sufficient to provide for global needs? Some of the green growth theory makes an assumption of technological solutions to reduce and remove carbon from the atmosphere, yet there is very little evidence to support that this can be done on the scale required in the short time frame we have. The following are just a few of the limitations with technology: Not all means of transport can be moved to electric; planes and ships will still need fuel. Nuclear energy, unless it can be advanced, will not be enough to supply the world’s energy needs and wind energy has the problem of sourcing enough locations to meet increased need (Trainer, 2011). There is also the issue of ‘unintended consequences’. Using technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere or pump it into the ground may result in unexpected and damaging results and the global warming crisis is already at dangerous levels and room for experimentation is limited to non-existent. Discounting the technological fixes, what remains is an overly optimistic view that by increasing efficiency and switching to green energy supply and production methods, we can meet the targets necessary to reach zero carbon by 2050.
Consumption and use of materials is another issue. Growth needs more materials and more energy and unless every industry and production method can be switched to a circular model, the problems of waste and emissions remain. According to Dietrich et al, a ‘business as usual’ scenario would mean that humans would require 180 billion tonnes of materials by 2050. Similarly, the UNEP 2014 Report outlines that ‘during the 20th Century, extraction of construction extraction of construction minerals grew by a factor of 34, industrial ores and minerals by a factor of 27, fossil fuels by a factor of 12 and biomass by a factor of 3.6. The total material extraction increased by a factor of about 8 to support a 23-fold GDP growth’. In the same report the comparison between developed and developing countries is shown, with resource use as high as 30/40 tonnes per person per year in developed countries compared to a much tinier figure of 2 tonnes per person per year in developing countries. If we assume that in the interests of social justice, developing countries have a right to a standard of life similar to that of developed countries, then a growth economy implies more resource usage, not less. As the resource mining to date has put a heavy burden on the environment, then it is difficult to reconcile further extraction of resources with addressing the environmental crisis.
Thus the truth is, indeed, very inconvenient for some. However, there is a growing recognition that alternatives are available. Naomi Klein spoke recently about ‘ideas lying around’ (which was originally a quote from Milton Friedman) in her Democracy Now Video Interview in March 2020. The ‘ideas lying around’ can lead to greater inequality or alternatively, can be oriented towards a complete shift in thinking and living. One such idea, or set of ideas, is degrowth, which has been around for some time and originated in the 1970s with the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. It went on to be adopted by many more academics in different fields and the first degrowth conference was held in Paris in 2008. Degrowth is not a prescribed set of principles but rather an umbrella movement which advocates a different value system, placing greater emphasis on human and environmental well-being. As the title suggests, it is also advocating a ‘decrease’ or winding down of how we live and what we consume. Proponents of degrowth would challenge the ability of sustainable development to solve the ecological crisis and would challenge also, the utilitarian basis of capitalism. It also broadly embraces a more holistic view of humanity, allowing for deeper motivations and social capital (Demaria, 2013). It is critical of the consumerist profit driven lifestyles that arise from capitalism and acknowledges the Easterlin Paradox which states that improved income does not equal improved happiness. Degrowth is perhaps not an answer but rather a signpost that there are new roads to travel and new territories to be explored, in a way that may improve our lives and allow the planet to heal. One of the elements of degrowth is the idea of redistribution of wealth. In order to rebalance world wealth, it is necessary to acknowledge the role of geopolitics and colonisation in our currently unequal system. Wealth in the north has often been acquired at the expense of the global south so from a social justice perspective, redistribution is a means of balancing and removing the need for pressures around economic growth (Hickel, 2019).
Another concept which fits well under the degrowth umbrella is doughnut economics which originated with Kate Raworth. Called doughnut economics because of the circles which are part of the colourful visual attached to the theory, it postulates that we live within an inner circle of human need, i.e. housing, food, etc. and the outer circle, which is the ecological ceiling of our planetary home. Between the two circles are the ways in which we can have a safe and just life (Raworth, 2017). Raworth writes in Doughnut Economics that ‘humanity faces some formidable challenges, and it is in no small part thanks to the blind spots and mistaken metaphors of outdated economic thinking that we have ended up here.’ Significantly, this year saw Amsterdam become the first city to embrace the doughnut model as the guideline for policy making. Post-Covid, it has offered an experimental way to meet the needs of citizens without further degrading the planet. It is an example of where a certain set of circumstances have created the window of opportunity for change. The doughnut model has been scaled down to create a ‘city portrait’ which shows where needs are not being met and can encompass everything from housing to imports.