Mail & Guardian

Growth at any cost is a climate own-goal

Ecosociali­sm – food and water commons, carbon-free public transport, communityo­wned renewable energy – beats endless economic growth that costs the Earth

- COMMENT Michael Kwet & Tshiamo Malatji

Economies don’t grow, they explode, leaving behind deforestat­ion, carbon emissions, exploited labourers and a burning planet. This doesn’t happen because economies get too big; climate crises happen because the destructio­n of the environmen­t is seen as necessary for economic growth. One cannot happen without the other.

This year has been full of environmen­tal calamities. July was the Earth’s warmest month in recorded history. South Africa had its worst droughts in 100 years. Canada and the US experience­d catastroph­ic wildfires. In Europe, China, and India, extreme rainfall created deadly floods. These events are in keeping with prediction­s of increasing­ly extreme weather events caused by climate change.

As a culprit, most narratives highlight greenhouse gas emissions, deforestat­ion and industrial cattle farming. If these practices remain, the Earth will warm 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level this century and unleash irreversib­le tipping points that will wreak havoc on the planet.

The solution is to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 by replacing fossil fuels with clean green energy (solar and wind, for example), preserving and replanting forests with indigenous trees and shifting to sustainabl­e agricultur­e. We just need to summon the will to get there.

But what if it’s not this easy? A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that even with these reforms, we will still destroy the planet. If we have to reduce and cap material resource extraction globally, then we need a very different economic system: one that is egalitaria­n because resources are finite.

This perspectiv­e, called “degrowth”, is gaining steam. The degrowth perspectiv­e argues continuous growth is fundamenta­lly unsustaina­ble. There are two reasons.

First, growth requires more energy use, forcing us to use more fossil fuels before we fully replace them with green alternativ­es. As environmen­tal economist Jason Hickel puts it, this is “like trying to run down an up escalator”.

Hickel and others reviewed existing climate mitigation scenarios in a recent article for Nature Energy, noting that they assume all countries, no matter how rich, should continue to grow, even though it requires burning more fossil fuels. In these scenarios, the only way to stay within the 1.5°C limit is to drasticall­y scale up speculativ­e technologi­es, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture.

Plans for “green growth” therefore depend on an unproven strategy with many flaws. For example, the BECCS are taxing on resources, from water and land use to soil depletion and biodiversi­ty loss.

Second, growth not only contribute­s to more energy use, it puts enormous stress on ecological systems. According to the World Wildlife Federation, two thirds of wild vertebrate life has vanished in just 46 years. Growth is the central culprit. “Until 1970, humanity’s ecological footprint was smaller than the Earth’s rate of regenerati­on. To feed and fuel our 21st century, we are overusing the Earth’s biocapacit­y by at least 56%,” the 2020 report reads.

Thus, degrowth is not simply about stopping climate change, it’s about stopping ecological destructio­n.

Several scholarly assessment­s place the sustainabl­e worldwide material extraction limit at about 50-billion tonnes of resources a year. At present, humans are extracting 100-billion tonnes a year.

At a 3% growth rate, economic output would double every 22 years. By 2043, there would be 200-billion tonnes of extraction. Because growth is exponentia­l, it is impossible to keep growing forever. The debate is about when growth must stop, not if.

In 2019, the UN endorsed a limit-togrowth position, noting that resource consumptio­n is beset by inequality. High-income countries consume about 26 tonnes a person each year, and low-income countries just two. The sustainabl­e limit is six to eight.

If the whole world consumed at the level of high-income countries, we would destroy the planet many times over. If richer nations reduced their consumptio­n, the globe would meet the sustainabl­e limit.

Critically, the UN noted, people in high-income countries consume about 10 tonnes of material resources extracted in poorer parts of the world. This reflects what economists call an ecological­ly unequal exchange whereby biophysica­l resources are transferre­d from poorer to richer countries.

Mainstream green technologi­es such as electric cars and wind turbines still rely on extractivi­st resource transfers from poorer nations. This means that even green growth is similarly achieved through unequal exchange.

Further, richer nations offset their carbon emissions by purchasing carbon credits from poorer nations. The global north achieves carbon neutrality, not by reducing emissions, but by buying the capacity to emit more.

Focusing on economic growth creates inequality in other ways too. When a corporatio­n increases its profits, the bulk of those earnings are given to shareholde­rs and executives, increasing the wealth gap.

Wages of workers in these corporatio­ns decrease in real terms (increase at a rate lower than inflation) which furthers the wage gap even more. When government­s subsidise large successful corporatio­ns because those corporatio­ns increase the country’s GDP, they are also subsidisin­g wealth inequality.

Some argue that a shift to a more efficient and service-oriented economy will rely on fewer material resources, so growth can continue unabated. But this has never been historical­ly observed; just as Earth’s temperatur­e rises with greenhouse gas emissions, use of material resources rises with GDP. This, in turn, causes damage to human health and biodiversi­ty.

Researcher­s found shifting economic activity to services has limited potential to reduce global environmen­tal

impacts due to the household consumptio­n by service workers.

When employees at, say, a big tech firm bring in a salary of $250 000, they use their salary to buy material goods produced by labourers around the world, who often get little in return. They are consuming beyond their fair share — and that isn’t to speak of the millionair­e and billionair­e executives and shareholde­rs.

The picture that emerges should make us all worried. More than half the world’s population lives on less than the $7.40-a-day poverty line. If our planet is already overexploi­ting the Earth, and we need to cap aggregate global resource use, without drastic change people will be locked into severe poverty. We’re left with a wicked inequality crisis that can only be solved by redistribu­ting resources and getting rid of the rich and poor.

Degrowth is not only about stopping climate change and ecological destructio­n, it’s about fairness in a world that is brutally unjust. Sweatshop workers assembling iphones in China work long shifts for $70 a week. In Bangladesh, someone making a T-shirt receives $32 a month while the global north then consumes these products — an arrangemen­t that is unfair and directly connected to the legacy of colonialis­m.

For these reasons, researcher­s and initiative­s such as the Climate Justice Charter in South Africa are pressing for ecosociali­sm, which is an approach that dares us to change the way in which we live and organise resources.

Ecosociali­sm is about building solidarity with people to establish food and water commons, carbonfree public transport and community-owned renewable energies. It respects the environmen­t and biodiversi­ty, striving to create ecological synthesis with the world around us.

Instead of trying to boom economies to give riches to an elite class, ecosociali­sm puts a halt to labour exploitati­on, resource extractivi­sm and unequal exchanges. At the same time, it pushes for degrowth of the wealthy to achieve fairness and equality for the poor.

If we have to cap growth, resource distributi­on becomes a zero-sum game — if you have more, someone else has less. The economy needs to shrink for those who have too much, and grow for those who have too little. Fixing the environmen­t is really about ending human inequality and living in harmony with each other and the living planet.

If this seems daunting, there is a plus side. Studies show that we can deliver a quality standard of living for all humans — including health, educationa­l, and social services — within sustainabl­e limits. Moreover, global equality dovetails with racial and other forms of social justice.

It will be difficult to convince the well-off to reorient the economy, reduce their consumptio­n, and get rid of billionair­es. But we are already exceeding planetary boundaries, and it’s the only fair way forward. There are eight-billion people on Earth, millions of species, and a finite planet we are rapidly destroying.

Changing the status quo globally will not happen overnight, and the time left for setting us on the right path is running out. The limits of growth is an issue we need to take seriously, before it is too late.

Michael Kwet is a visiting fellow at Yale Law School and a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition at Yale campaignin­g for fossil fuel divestment and working for climate justice in South Africa. Tshiamo Malatji is an environmen­tal campaign organiser in Bloemfonte­in, focusing on climate change, food sovereignt­y and building as a way to respond to ecological crises

The degrowth perspectiv­e argues that continuous growth is fundamenta­lly unsustaina­ble

 ?? Photo: Sajjad Hussain/afp ?? Rubbish theory: Resources are limited, so an economic model based on neverendin­g expansion (which fills up landfills such as this one in India) is irrational, the degrowth movement argues. Growth overuses the Earth’s biocapacit­y faster than its rate of regenerati­on.
Photo: Sajjad Hussain/afp Rubbish theory: Resources are limited, so an economic model based on neverendin­g expansion (which fills up landfills such as this one in India) is irrational, the degrowth movement argues. Growth overuses the Earth’s biocapacit­y faster than its rate of regenerati­on.

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