The tricky bit is how do we conform to the planet instead of what we're doing now? At the moment we're consuming the equivalent of just over 1.7 planet Earth's worth of resources. We're exceeding the Earth's ecological carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7, the ecological equivalent of squeezing blood out of a stone or a civilization collectively holding its breath to cavort in a place where there's no oxygen.
The nasty part is that we're absolutely dependent on slaughtering the Earth's resources forever at increasingly rapacious levels of consumption. We're consuming - and wasting - way too much now and we want even more tomorrow. We define our success by our excess. And there are billions of newcomers in emerging economies lining up for their own share of the consumer class pie.
That won't go on because it cannot go on. Our politicians who pursue perpetual, exponential growth in GDP never address this reality. It would merely confound their plans and expose them as ecological charlatans. You have to include every Canadian prime minister at least as far back as Chretien in their ranks. The scientific alarm bells go back that far.
Today we have a young, moderately bright but far from brilliant, prime minister who has boasted his overarching priority is to accelerate the expansion of growth and consumption.
A good many of us today recognize climate change as an existential threat to life on this planet. We have not reached a similar recognition of our unsustainable levels of over-consumption as an equally existential threat to our survival. Jason Hickel refers to it as, "the unviability of absolute decoupling in order to advance an ecologically reckless insistence on growth."
We know that our irresponsible greenhouse gas emissions are largely 'out of sight/out of mind.' Sure we get wildfires and droughts and floods but the really murderous part, the famine and the dying, that is offloaded on the weakest, poorest, most vulnerable people of the Third World so distant that we barely notice if we notice them at all. Hickel says we fail to see our excess consumption the same way as our excess GHG emissions.
Here’s the real “problematic political and ethical proposition”: to assume that it’s okay for rich nations to continue growing needlessly while knowing that this is actively destroying the lives of poor people across the South. If we want to be serious about eradicating poverty in poor nations, de-growth in rich nations is going to have to be part of the equation.In his latest essay, Jason Hickel explains why, despite what we're told, growth cannot be green.
Warnings about ecological breakdown have become ubiquitous. Over the past few years, major newspapers, including the Guardian and the New York Times, have carried alarming stories on soil depletion, deforestation, and the collapse of fish stocks and insect populations. These crises are being driven by global economic growth, and its accompanying consumption, which is destroying the Earth’s biosphere and blowing past key planetary boundaries that scientists say must be respected to avoid triggering collapse.
Many policymakers have responded by pushing for what has come to be called “green growth.” All we need to do, they argue, is invest in more efficient technology and introduce the right incentives, and we’ll be able to keep growing while simultaneously reducing our impact on the natural world, which is already at an unsustainable level. In technical terms, the goal is to achieve “absolute decoupling” of GDP from the total use of natural resources, according to the U.N. definition.
...But the promise of green growth turns out to have been based more on wishful thinking than on evidence. In the years since the Rio conference, three major empirical studies have arrived at the same rather troubling conclusion: Even under the best conditions, absolute decoupling of GDP from resource use is not possible on a global scale.
...We are nowhere near imposing a global carbon tax today, much less one of nearly $600 per metric ton, and resource efficiency is currently getting worse, not better. Yet the studies suggest that even if we do everything right, decoupling economic growth with resource use will remain elusive and our environmental problems will continue to worsen.
Preventing that outcome will require a whole new paradigm. High taxes and technological innovation will help, but they’re not going to be enough. The only realistic shot humanity has at averting ecological collapse is to impose hard caps on resource use, as the economist Daniel O’Neill recently proposed. Such caps, enforced by national governments or by international treaties, could ensure that we do not extract more from the land and the seas than the Earth can safely regenerate. We could also ditch GDP as an indicator of economic success and adopt a more balanced measure like the genuine progress indicator (GPI), which accounts for pollution and natural asset depletion. Using GPI would help us maximize socially good outcomes while minimizing ecologically bad ones.
But there’s no escaping the obvious conclusion. Ultimately, bringing our civilization back within planetary boundaries is going to require that we liberate ourselves from our dependence on economic growth—starting with rich nations. This might sound scarier than it really is. Ending growth doesn’t mean shutting down economic activity—it simply means that next year we can’t produce and consume more than we are doing this year. It might also mean shrinking certain sectors that are particularly damaging to our ecology and that are unnecessary for human flourishing, such as advertising, commuting, and single-use products.George Monbiot sees one culprit that lurks behind our lethal addiction to ever more.
The problem is mass disposability. Or, to put it another way, the problem is pursuing, on the one planet known to harbour life, a four-planet lifestyle. Regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems.He cites the example of the campaign against plastics fueled by the Sargasso-like seas of plastic swirling in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans to demonstrate how easily we are distracted, our attention diverted.
Even marine plastics is in large part a fishing issue. It turns out that 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that has come to symbolise our throwaway society, is composed of discarded nets, and much of the rest consists of other kinds of fishing gear. Abandoned fishing materialstend to be far more dangerous to marine life than other forms of waste. As for the bags and bottles contributing to the disaster, the great majority arise in poorer nations, without good disposal systems. But because this point was not made, we look to the wrong places for solutions.
...It is only as citizens, taking political action, that we can promote meaningful change.
The answer to the question “how should we live?” is “simply”. But living simply is highly complicated. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the government massacred the Simple Lifers. This is generally unnecessary: today they can be safely marginalised, insulted and dismissed. The ideology of consumption is so prevalent that it has become invisible: it is the plastic soup in which we swim.
One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.
As the famous Hothouse Earth paper published last month, that warned of the danger of flipping the planet into a new, irreversible climatic state, concluded, “incremental linear changes … are not enough to stabilize the Earth system. Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold”.I post this with the near certainty that, while there is much truth in what Hickel and Monbiot contend, civilization, especially in the West, is not remotely ready to turn itself upside down, inside out. Their thinking is not out of line with the venerable (99 years old) James Lovelock who, many years ago, argued that mankind's last, best hope lay in what he called "sustainable retreat." The simple, inescapable fact is that we have to grow smaller, not ever larger, if we are to return to the safety of our planetary boundaries, Spaceship Earth. If not, we perish.