Those who've been around computers for two or three decades will know what it means when your operating system is no longer supported. It becomes a word processor so long as the computer and your old printer keep running. You do lose your ability to communicate with newer computers or to run new software so, before long, you have to get a new machine.
We're in that same sort of jam with governance. We're trying to stay the same, using the same modes of organization - political, economic, industrial, social, even military - and it's all from the past. 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism, 20th century geopolitics, all the systems that evolved from the onset of the industrial revolution.
All of that stuff worked pretty well right up until the early 70s. That was when our global population reached three billion and mankind began to grow beyond the finite limits of our planet's ecology. That's when the Great Acceleration really kicked into high gear.
We grew. We grew in numbers - from three billion to nearly eight billion today. We grew older - longevity increases have been impressive. We grew larger in per capita GDP a measure of production, consumption and, gulp, waste. We found ways to pilfer the planet's resource reserves - draining aquifers to get water for irrigation, fishing "down the food chain" exhausting one species after the next, contaminating our air, our water and even our soil. We kept finding ways to squeeze the remaining drops of blood out of our rock.
We brought on the scourge of climate change. That's our doing. Our signature is all over it.
That the climate change problem worsened deeply about the same time as the developed world embraced neoliberalism could be a coincidence but not likely. What is neoliberalism but capitalism on steroids, hyper-capitalism, the very engine of exponential growth.
Neoliberalism does not accommodate shrinkage. De-growth doesn't fit the neoliberal paradigm. That's a huge problem yet you won't find any political leaders willing to part from the neoliberal orthodoxy.
We all know that the most optimistic climate change forecasting agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, has told us that any real hope of averting catastrophic or runaway climate change hinges on our willingness to cut existing greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and to nothing by mid-century. It's like your doctor calling you into her office and telling you that "this is what you must do if you want to live."
This is where anthropologist, Jason Hickel, comes in. Hickel sees human survival threatened by our addiction to perpetual exponential growth and the rise of an oligarchy that keeps us on that path.
Last September Hickel demolished the deadly farce of "green growth."
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.In November, 2016, Hickel made the case for abandoning GDP and the pursuit of three per cent annual growth, an economic system he argues is incompatible with life on Earth.
When it comes to global warming, we know that the real problem is not just fossil fuels – it is the logic of endless growth that is built into our economic system. If we don’t keep the global economy growing by at least 3% per year, it plunges into crisis. That means we have to double the size of the economy every 20 years, just to stay afloat. It doesn’t take much to realise that this imperative for exponential growth makes little sense given the limits of our finite planet.
Rapid climate change is the most obvious symptom of this contradiction, but we’re also seeing it in the form of deforestation, desertification and mass extinction, with species dying at an alarming rateas our consumption of the natural world causes their habitats to collapse. It was unthinkable to say this even 10 years ago, but today, as we become increasingly aware of these crises, it seems all too clear: our economic system is incompatible with life on this planet.Last week, Hickel's target was over-consumption, our increasingly rapacious assault on our one and only biosphere. He contends, convincingly, that we're racing toward climate breakdown.
Over the past few years, scientists have been warning that we may fail to reach our climate goals even with the most aggressive efforts, because global economic growth is driving energy demand up at a pace that’s outstripping our ability to install clean power.
Today the world is producing 8bn more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000. That’s a lot – enough to power all of Russia. But over exactly the same period, economic growth has caused energy demand to increase by a staggering 48bn megawatt hours. In other words, all that new clean energy we’ve rolled out covers only a small fraction of new demand. That’s why emissions keep rising. It’s like shovelling sand into a hole that just keeps getting bigger.
This problem is going to eventually cripple us. If we continue growing the global economy at existing rates, it will nearly triple in size by the middle of the century. That’s three times more production and consumption than we’re already doing – which will require nearly three times more energy.
...The recent IPCC report points out that to have a realistic chance at staying under 1.5C, we need to scale down energy demand. The scenario its proposes – developed by an international team of scientists – calls for high-income nations like Britain and the US to significantly reduce their consumption of material stuff.
Right now, rich nations devour 28 tonnes of material per person per year – including everything from fish to forests, plastics to metals. That’s four times more than ecologists say is sustainable. It requires an extraordinary amount of energy to extract, produce and transport all that stuff.Hickel discusses immediate measures our governments can introduce - extended warranties on products so that appliances last 30 years instead of just five or ten; a "right to repair" our devices, i.e. smartphones that will presumably require manufacturers to continue to support them during their usable lifespans and, where possible, make them upgradeable.
All of these measures would dramatically reduce material consumption, without any loss to our wellbeing. But to really make it work, we need to get straight to the heart of the issue: put a cap on annual material use and tighten it year on year, down to 8 tonnes per capita by the middle of the century. This will change incentives across the economy – reorienting people and business toward long-lasting, repairable and recyclable products.Did you get that? We're now at 28 tonnes per capita. We have to cut our resource/material consumption by well more than two-thirds by 2050. What Hickel is championing closely resembles a "steady state economy."
There is a glaring hole in Hickel's prescription - getting global population under control. Total population has already increased three fold during just my own lifetime. We're nearing eight billion and we're told that will grow to twelve billion before it peaks.
Let's not obsess with hurdles. The focus should be on what blocks our path to a viable future. If you can't get this sorted, everything else you may do about appliances and devices or cutting emissions is purely gestural, ineffective and a distraction.
What we have to throw off are the shackles of the neoliberal order ushered in by Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney. We have to stop voting for people who want to commit us to perpetual, exponential growth. And, yes, that is the standard operating system of the Liberals and the Conservatives. the NDP too for that matter.
It comes down to this: we have to start voting for life and that means we have to stop voting for death. That sounds harsh but it's not. The best part is that it's so cut and dried. You choose A or you choose B but, if you do choose A, the status quo, the continued embrace of perpetual, exponential growth, recognize the madness of what you're doing.