We’re Addicted to Economic Growth and It Will Be the Death of Us

The idea that economies must keep growing is an underlying cause of the climate crisis.

The following is excerpted from the new report,Climate After Growth: Why Environmentalists Must Embrace Post-Growth Economics and Community Resilenceby Post Carbon Institute and Transition Network.

On November 14, 2012, just days after his re-election and two weeks after Hurricane Sandy flooded New York City, President Obama was asked by the New York Times about climate policy, specifically the possibility of a carbon tax:

I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.

This short statement reveals the raw political calculus that prevents the Obama Administration–and really, most every national and international political body–from meaningfully addressing the climate crisis. Obama’s comments reflect the underlying assumptions of politicians on both sides of the aisle (at least those who recognize that there is a climate problem) and conventional thinking across virtually all sectors of society.

The benefits of–and need for–economic growth are so widely assumed that they are hardly ever debated. And yet, maintaining perpetual growth on a finite planet is impossible–logically, physically, and yes, economically. Nevertheless, our Western way of life seems to depend on a shared belief in economic growth. And so most politicians, economists, businesspeople, and ordinary citizens continue to prop up this irrational view.

In our view, President Obama’s widely shared judgment that addressing the climate crisis is secondary to getting “back to normal” is wrongheaded–not only because it implicitly underestimates the severity of the climate crisis, but also because it presupposes that the old economic “normal” can be revived. In fact, the “normal” of robust economic growth is gone and won’t return, at least in the long term (as we’ll show in this paper). But without recognition of that fact, and without a viable alternative to the growth paradigm, significant progress in climate policy is highly unlikely. And without climate policy, we are headed toward global catastrophe.

The environmental community recognizes that truly meaningful national and international climate policy solutions are currently politically infeasible. But the source of the intransigence is often attributed to political partisanship and the corruptive influence of moneyed interests–most notably the fossil fuel industry, which has used lobbying, campaign contributions, massive advertising, and similar tactics to shift public perceptions and exert political influence.

Therefore, the strategies employed by many in the organized climate movement (particularly after painful failures in 2009 and 2010, at COP15 in Copenhagen and the US Senate) have centered on pursuing state and regional policies, and on growing a citizen movement to stand in vocal, active opposition to the fossil fuel industry. On both these fronts the environmental community has accomplished a lot.

But the growth imperative is the underlying cause of the climate crisis. As long as the climate movement leaves it unchallenged, meaningful climate policy won’t come until it’s too late, if at all. If we (politicians, businesspeople, environmentalists, and ordinary citizens alike) continue to prioritize growth above all else, we will refuse to do what is required to address the climate crisis–which is to cut fossil fuel use dramatically. To put it plainly, we’re hooked on economic growth and economic growth is hooked on cheap fossil fuels.

Cheap fossil fuels–particularly oil–grease the wheels of our globalized, consumerism-based economy. Of course, we must correctly price fossil fuels (internalizing their environmental costs instead of externalizing to other sectors of the economy and future generations), and we must concurrently commit to a massive build-out of renewable energy production and embrace energy efficiency. But it is difficult to imagine accomplishing this without a reduction in that pillar of conventional economic thinking–Gross Domestic Product (GDP)–in at least the OECD nations.

The good and bad news is that the growth paradigm is already in its death throes thanks to fundamental changes occurring in the very systems (energy, climate, and economy) that have supported it for the last century. The transition to a new paradigm will be challenging, but the sooner we act the better chance we have of managing it. Thankfully, models are already emerging for making our communities healthy, vibrant, and resilient without the need for perpetual economic growth.

In this paper we argue why the changes taking place in our energy, climate, and economic systems constitute a new (post-growth) “normal” and why a different kind of growth is absolutely critical to addressing the climate crisis: the growth of smallscale, local efforts aimed at responding to these changes by building community resilience.

The New Normals

We have entered an era of “new normals” not only in our economy, but in our energy and climate systems, as well. The implications are profound:

The New Energy Normal. The era of cheap and easy fossil fuels is over, leading the industry to resort to extreme fossil fuel resources (tar sands, mountaintop removal coal mining, shale gas, tight oil, and deepwater oil) to meet demand. Unfortunately, these resources come with enormous environmental and economic costs, and in most instances provide far less net energy to the rest of society. They also require much higher prices to make production worthwhile, creating a drag effect on the economy. As a result, high energy prices and economic contraction are likely to continue a back-and-forth dance in the coming years.

The New Climate Normal. Climate stability is now a thing of the past. As extreme weather events grow in severity, communities are increasingly adopting strategies that build resilience against the effect of these and other climate shocks. At the same time, we must take dramatic steps if we hope to avoid raising global temperatures more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. According to Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, this would require a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions per year, starting now — a rate so significant that it can only be achieved through dramatic reductions in energy use.

The New Economic Normal. We’ve reached the end of economic growth as we’ve known it in the US. Despite unprecedented interventions on the part of central banks and governments, the so-called economic recovery in the US and Europe has been anemic and has failed to benefit the majority of citizens. The debate between stimulus and austerity is a distraction, as neither can fully address the factors that spell the end of economic growth the end of the age of cheap oil, the vast mountains of debt that we have incurred, the diminishing economic impacts of new technologies, and the snowballing costs of climate change impacts.

These fundamental changes in our energy, climate, and economic systems require unprecedented (and previously politically untenable) strategies. Yet this new reality is still largely unrecognized. As long as our leaders’ predominant focus remains on getting back to the days of robust economic growth, no national or international climate policies will be enacted to do what is required: cut fossil fuel use dramatically.

Instead of focusing on achieving climate policy within the economic growth paradigm, the US environmental community must embrace strategies that are appropriate to these “new normals.”

Responding to each of these new energy, climate, and economic “normals”  will require one common strategy: building community resilience. Efforts that build community resilience enhance our ability to navigate the energy, climate, and economic crises of the 21st century. Done right, they can also serve as the foundation of a whole new economy — an economy comprised of people and communities that thrive within the real limits of our beautiful but finite planet.

Thankfully, innovations that build community resilience are cropping up everywhere, and in many forms: community-owned, distributed, renewable energy production; sustainable local food systems; new cooperative business models; sharing economies, re-skilling, and more. While relatively small and inherently local, these projects are spreading rapidly and creating tangible impacts.

Growing the community resilience movement to the national and global scale that s needed will require the full support and participation of the US environmental community. Specifically we need to:

  • build the capacity of groups — large and small — who are leading these efforts;
  • support the growth of a global learning network; and
  • enable local investments to flow into community resilience enterprises.

By making community resilience a top priority, environmentalists can offer an alternative to the “growth at all costs” story, one in which taking control of our basic needs locally has multiple benefits. Community resiliencebuilding can create new enterprises and meaningful work, and increase well-being even as GDP inevitably falters.

It can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, while addressing social and economic inequities. And it can strengthen the social cohesion necessary to withstand periods of crisis.

On their own, community resilience projects can’t overcome all the environmental, energy, economic, and social equity challenges facing us. That will require coordinated global, national, regional, community, business, neighborhood, household and individual efforts. But the community resilience movement can help create the conditions in which what is now “politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

How the environmental community responds to the risks and opportunities of the new energy, climate, and economic “normals” will make an enormous difference in its success, and in the fate of humankind.

Read the full report at Post Carbon Institute.

Authors: Asher Miller and Rob Hopkins.
Asher Miller is executive director of Post Carbon Institute.

Rob Hopkins is the originator of the Transition concepts and co-founder of the Transition Network.

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