Breakdown or Breakthrough? Degrowth and the Great Transition

Yves here. While most people respond better to positive messaging, I find “degrowth” to be far too sanitized a term for the sort of consumption cutbacks we all have to make to have any hope of averting the worst climate and species loss outcomes. A big problem is most of us depend economically on infrastructure that is high cost in environmental terms (imagine, for instance, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who serve individuals and small businesses located in suburbs of major cities). Even under current arrangements, radical conservation is our best first step, but how we get to a different economic order without a lot of energy expenditures is not obvious.

By Zack Walsh, a Research Associate at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam, Germany. He co-leads the A Mindset for the Anthropocene (AMA) project which integrates personal and socio-ecological transformations to sustainability. Originally published at openDemocracy

Demonstration at the end of the 4th International Conference on Degrowth, Leipzig, 2014. Wikimedia/danyonited. CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

When mainstream approaches to sustainability fail to challenge economic growth they provide limited, sometimes even false solutions to today’s crises. Technological and political interventions that reduce environmental impacts and enhance overall efficiency – though contributing to sustainability in a narrow sense – end up adding to global inequality and ecological overshoot, insofar as they accelerate growth. Growth is one of the chief drivers of social inequality and environmental degradation; it is also what sustains the global capitalist economy.

Sustainability solutions that promote growth under the banner of “green growth” are the easiest to accept and implement, but they are the least able to address the roots of today’s crises. Proponents of green growth believe that growth can be decoupled from environmental impacts, yet there is no empirical evidence that this is possible. Meanwhile, acting on such an unproven assumption obscures the real harm being done by sustaining extractive and exploitative capitalism.

We have already surpassed the known limits to growth, so degrowth is our only option. Sustainability is an outcome of healthy metabolic relationships between an organism and its environment. When consumption depletes resources faster than their rate of regeneration – which is what we are currently doing – it is by definition unsustainable.

Although essential, today’s most progressive reforms, including the Green New Deal and the circular economy, will only be effective when combined with a more equitable distribution of resources and decreasing per capita consumption in advanced economies. For sustainability efforts to be effective, they must be part of a comprehensive degrowth agenda focused on systems change.

Contrary to common misunderstandings, degrowth does not mean negative growth or imply sacrifices to one’s quality of life. Rather, it is focused on reducing a society’s material and energy throughput while actually enhancing quality of life.

According to the Paris Climate Agreement, societies around the world must become carbon-neutral within the next 30 years to limit global warming below 2°C. The only time carbon emissions declined as rapidly as needed was during global crises like World War II and the collapse of communism. The scale and pace of such changes implies a massive transition to degrowth which is impossible without coordinated action.

The next 30 years constitute what systems theorists call a ‘decision window.’ How societies decide to respond to mounting social and ecological pressures will determine whether the system evolves or collapses. Once the decision window ends and the global system passes the chaos point, the system irreversibly changes, and there are only two futures left – breakthrough or breakdown.

There is no chance that a wildly optimistic techno-future can sustain growth beyond social and planetary boundaries. Civilization will either collapse or it will follow a path of managed descent and sustainable reorganization. The only breakthroughs remaining follow paths of degrowth.

Although degrowth is beginning to enter mainstream debate, especially in Europe, it has very little influence over public policy. Few politicians are willing to challenge the growth imperative that sustains the global capitalist system. This contradiction lies at the heart of our inability to respond to global warming.

Climate negotiations have been ineffective in the face of competing economic and political pressures to grow. Given our inadequate response, scientists predict there is only a 5% chance of limiting warming below 2°C, and a 1% chance of limiting it below 1.5°C by 2100. Even if every nation succeeded in meeting their commitments to the Paris Agreement, we would still experience 3°C of warming.

Living in a world that is 3°C warmer is what we can expect by 2100, and that is a horrifying prospect. Life will be extremely challenging. In such a world, the UK government predicts that we will experience the collapse of part or all of the Amazonian rainforest, a 25-60% increase in the risk of hunger, and more than a billion people without sufficient water. The only way to protect our quality of life under such hostile conditions is through a deeply rooted collective transformation following principles of justice and sustainability.

Present-day responses to eco-crisis are split between two visions that represent the different futures of breakthrough versus breakdown. These two visions, called the Great Transition and the Great Unraveling, are typically considered future scenarios, but one does not have to look far to find indications that both are happening already. “The future is already here – It’s just not very evenly distributed,” as William Gibson once said.

Indigenous people, for example, have already experienced the apocalypse and indigenous knowledge has been warning us about climate change for centuries. As the image below shows – with the causes of eco-injustice in the center and their antidotes around the edge – the roots of today’s global crises are not new. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, state violence, and Enlightenment humanism (and its domination of non-humans) underlie our global crisis and the Great Unraveling of civilization.

Zack Walsh2.jpg
Zack Walsh. All rights reserved.

Today’s troubling rise of eco-fascism, for example, coincides with a global rise in white supremacy, authoritarianism, and right-wing nationalism. “We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism,” writes Naomi Klein. A growing number of “preppers” are building bunkers and stockpiling resources. The ultra-rich are buying $3 million apartments in underground missile silos to comfortably survive future catastrophes.

Such responses protect the power and privilege of people who benefit from the collapsing system. They offer no breakthrough paths for transitioning society towards greater justice and sustainability. People who accept the Great Unraveling as the only reality tend to embrace rugged individualism, tribalism and protectionism. They see a dying system and respond reactively under stress. On the other hand, people who respond proactively through solidarity, justice and collective action are laying the groundwork for the Great Transition.

Numerous community-led disaster responses and efforts to implement a Just Transition exemplify the ongoing transformation required to another way of life based on inter-connection and cooperation. Efforts that promote eco-socialism, decolonization, racial justice, gender justice, direct democracy and multi-species kinship can help to challenge, heal and transform the roots of eco-crisis.

Our collective survival depends on our ability to cooperate under social and environmental constraints. When disaster strikes, “It will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill.” Humanity’s greatest achievement – and the reason we became Earth’s dominant species – is our remarkable capacity for cooperation. Language, technology, culture and institutions (like law and money) allow us to communicate, learn from one another, and coordinate our actions. As the eco-crisis deepens, our collective survival depends on social innovations that advance justice and sustainability across all dimensions.

We have entered a new climate regime which poses a threat to civilization. Whether we meet global goals to decarbonize society over the next 30 years will determine whether we sustain a life worth living. To enhance quality of life under degrowth scenarios requires a strong commitment to cooperation and justice. As this and other studies illustrate, that is absolutely possible: commons-based systems can sustain flourishing while reducing material throughputs by up to 80%.

The commons provides a foundation for degrowth and sustainability which may constitute the seed forms of a post-capitalist system. What we need are cultures of practice to translate such innovations across all domains – political, economic, spiritual, and artistic.

These ideas are based on a new online course on EcoJustice: Securing Our Future, a collaboration between the A Mindset for the Anthropocene Project at the IASS, Potsdam and the Courage of Care Coalition. If you would like to learn more, please register for our online course or join our upcoming webinar on February 20 between 5-6 pm (PST).

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61 comments

  1. John

    Fantastic article. Green growth is disingenuous because we probably won’t survive unless we abandon capitalism. Without growth you don’t have profits, the lifeblood of the capitalist economy. Less consumption means less economic output, less GDP. Keynesianism isn’t the solution because it is predicated upon spurring consumption in a capitalist system (the unsustainable behavior that must be changed). In order to save ourselves, we have to consume less, but this will cause huge losses, which will be unacceptable for liberal capitalist governments.

    The only way I can imagine us having an economy sustainable enough to save ourselves would be a command economy. You need a central authority directing economic activity to make it as sustainable as possible (very science-based, ideally the government would be democratic). Whatever the case, we have to reduce consumption (heck, that’s the word for economic demand, which is measured in GDP), which means recessions and depressions that are politically impossible in a capitalist system. We need a different system. Some sort of democratic command economy sounds good to me.

    I imagine some sort of a command economy that’s a distant relative of the Kruschev era USSR’s (which, let’s not forget, according to the CIA’s conservative estimates, had the highest growth rates of any economy in history). but with computers and AI and democratically elected bureaucrats who manage an equitable, sustainable (regenerative) distribution of resources. Of course there will be markets, but they won’t govern the economy, they’ll just be an accessory.

    I think that’s a much more realistic route to saving the planet. The amount of degrowth needed to give us a chance to survive would reduce consumption (demand) so much that there’d be a severe depression. That’s just not politically possible. Maybe it is if you had a sort Chinese-style authoritarian capitalist state and a huge jobs guarantee program imposing extreme sustainability measures. Whether or not that would work, I don’t know. We’d have to ask the scientists (maybe a team of scientists and economists could make some calculations and tell us).

    Reply
    1. tegnost

      but with computers and AI and democratically elected bureaucrats who manage an equitable, sustainable (regenerative) distribution of resources

      Sounds like technocracy to me, and a recipe for control fraud. Computers as we speak are being used by state and non state actors to give a little to “consumers”, i.e. i get to read naked capitalism every morning, which is really great, but the cost is not what I paid for the computer, but giving access to the tech behemoths (how exactly are you expecting to transform this extractive industry into one that produces unbiased outcomes? Color me doubtful…) who don’t think it’s any of my business what they do in their monetization of my data. AI is also reasonably fantastic in it’s alleged promise. Example: Were I to be able to find an aboriginal human who has never seen a car, through sign language and rudimentary communication I could show that person how to drive a car in a couple of hours. How many nimitz units of capital have been expended to make an AI that is nowhere remotely close to the computing power of any functioning human brain (and by functioning I don’t mean “hates trump”, I mean the five senses are adequately represented which is about all it takes to be a capable actor). Promises, promises…

      Reply
      1. John

        No, not really, I don’t believe technology will solve all of our problems. The issue isn’t lack of technology, it’s lack of political will.

        All I meant was: imagine how efficient a planned economy could be if it used computers and AI? The Soviets didn’t have computers yet were able to achieve the fastest growth rates in history. When people say that a command economy will never work, they’re missing the fact that computers would enable it to be much more efficient and effective than the command economies of the past.

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    2. Tim

      “Without growth you don’t have profits”

      That statement needs to get a lot more exclusive before it becomes true. Profits are flow and the difference between expenses and income. Profits can absolutely exist without growth.

      Stock prices on the other hand are as they are titled, Stock. On the whole if there is no growth there would be no change in the overall stock value of the market, unless on averages unless expenses are reduced, and you can’t cut those forever. So asset inflation would become a thing of the past.

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      1. John

        Having negative growth rates will drastically reduce both the mass and rate of profit. As discussed in the article, degrowth is impossible without decreasing demand (i.e. negative GDP growth).

        Degrowth is incompatible with capitalism, either the neoliberal or the Keynesian form.

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    3. Joe Lambke

      “ Growth is one of the chief drivers of social inequality…”
      this is B.S.
      why is naked capitalism post this junk?

      Reply
      1. John

        I think all that they’re saying is often times the wealth generated by growth ends up being distributed to only the wealthy.

        Reply
        1. Joe Lambke

          they shouldn’t write lines like that, including the title…
          “ As Thomas Piketty has conclusively shown, inequality always relies on ideology.”

          Reply
      2. Joe Lambke

        In her book Generation Unbound, Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution, cited research indicating that differences in family structure have “increased income inequality by 25 percent.”

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    4. Dana

      A command economy is THE worst thing that humans can do to ourselves. We need a DECENTRALIZED economy where LOCAL people who can see what is needed can take care of LOCAL needs, not some power hungry elite bureaucrat a thousand miles away who thinks things ought to be done his way. Status Quo thinking will not save the day.

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    5. Michael Feltes

      “I imagine some sort of a command economy that’s a distant relative of the Kruschev era USSR’s…”

      I’m always glad of an opportunity to share my favorite essay, In Soviet Union, Optimization Problem Solves You, by Cosma Shalizi, which demonstrates that running a command economy on the scale of the USSR in the early 60s would require computing resources that are “not just too cheap to meter, but genuinely immense” and explores some of the consequences of that fact. Central planning is not viable under any technological regime we can currently imagine, much less build. Any political economy has to use the price mechanisms of the market in order to distribute decisions on production and distribution over many actors in the economy. The hard, perhaps impossible, part is to use the market as a tool without letting it transform into a worldview.

      Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    After centuries of growth, we are now faced with at least decades of contraction whether we like it or not. Under the theories of MMT, ‘spending money’ is not so much a problem but actual real-world resources are. I am going to go out over my skis here and say that the way forward may lay with true price discovery. We have to find out the true cost of what we do in order to efficiently allocate the remaining resources so I am going to propose a radical solution that will get the Wall Street billionaires and organizations like Green Peace to come together to try to stop it.

    What I am proposing, based on what I have read of some of the work of John Michael Greer, is to eliminate subsidies. Examples – eliminate ALL government subsidies of the nuclear industry and find out if it can truly ever pay for itself. Do the same with wind turbines too. And Banks. And Big Pharma. Lets really find out what pays for itself and what does not. What also got me thinking of this line of approach was a passage from Lies, Damn Lies and LIBOR by London Banker-

    “Price discovery is not a sexy function of markets, but it is critical to the efficient allocation of scarce capital and resources, and to the preservation of the long term wealth of investors and the economy as a whole. If price discovery is compromised by manipulation, then we will all be gradually impoverished and the economy will be imbalanced and unstable.”

    More examples – strip out all the IT, computers and all the other junk teach that has been pushed onto elections for example and go back to pencil and paper as it has been done for decades. If there is a way to push back the clock to eliminate energy use, then do so. Go back to paper ledgers in hotels instead of check-in computers. And actual keys for people to use. One hotel in Austria went back to keys after their high-tech door system constantly broke down. The technology to do so is still there and much was left unexplored so time to go back to less energy & resource intense times. This may sound like the Luddite in my ancestry talking out but I am sure that this may be the way to go.

    Reply
    1. jaratec

      The problem with your proposal is that nobody pays for externalities. Environmental degradation is not discovered in the process of “price discovery”.

      Reply
        1. Susan the other

          Price discovery or affordability? In some instances a monopoly has certain efficiencies – not just exploitation skills. So if we could have only one giant corporation let it be computer tech. But properly regulated as a utility connecting us all. If I have to choose, I’ll choose my computer over my car every time.

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          1. Carla

            “So if we could have only one giant corporation let it be computer tech. But properly regulated as a utility connecting us all.”

            I think that should be the U.S. Post Office.

            “The USPS handles 47 percent of the world’s mail, delivering nearly 150 billion mail pieces annually. It delivers more in sixteen days than UPS and FedEx, combined, ship in a year. The agency has roughly half a million career employees spread out across almost 31,000 locations. Post offices are tucked into every state, across far-flung Native American reservations, and in remote protectorates…
            Not surprising, then, that Americans consistently rank the post office among the most popular arms of government. A February 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that 88 percent of Americans have a positive view of it.”

            But here’s my favorite part of the same article:

            “The agency’s central role in America’s development was perhaps best summarized in the Postal Policy Act of 1958, when Congress declared that the post was “clearly not a business enterprise conducted for profit” but a public service designed to promulgate “social, cultural, intellectual, and commercial intercourse among the people of the United States.””

            To me, that spells “Internet Service Provider.”

            Here’s the source of those quotes:

            https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/april-may-june-2019/congress-is-sabotaging-your-post-office/

            Reply
        2. Otto

          With a greatly reduced population paying for externalities is not necessary. Have a population level which all can consume what amount they want, pollute as much as they want and fly around the world 2 or 3 times a week (if they can afford it) so that it makes no effect on the environment. Job done with no tech fixes just a bit of time. No time here to deal with ‘whataboutery’.

          Reply
    2. Amfortas the hippie

      this is fantastic…in both senses of the word.
      I wish Humanity all the luck,lol.
      but my prophet beard itches, and points rather to the Doom Side.
      Humans don’t just have a few hundred years worth of Growth Imperative Habits…it goes all the way back into the deeps of time…to the beginnings of the First Communications Revolution(language) than engendered the Invention of Coordinated Cooperation.
      we’ve done degrowth and collapse and decline before…just not on such a scale…it was always one region or another.
      Now, it’s everywhere.
      we can’t make tylenol in this country any more.

      Still…I’m all for trying…and in fact, have built our lives and future(perhaps justified the path we were already on?) on Noah’s Ark on land, in the Texas Hill Country.
      Like the Monasteries and Latifundia when Rome was falling apart…like a Civilisational Appendix(a back up for gut biota).
      as for Paper, rather than screens and integrated circuits: yes. Paper is readily recycled and used again and again(one of the largest problems currently is the toxic inks and solvents used, which limits reuse potential.

      when i became a Doomer(circa: 2003, but the mindset was already there, due to stories of the Depression), and landed on a Library, a la ,i quickly discovered that acidic paper would be a problem, and a Scriptorium would be necessary(see:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Name_of_the_Rose )
      hence, bamboo…which i also wanted for windbreaks and trellis material(but which has gotten out of hand, sadly,lol)
      makes easy paper….and we’ve experimented with bamboo toilet paper(boy’s have had an interesting youth)—paper made from the leaves only is adequate for this purpose, in case you were wondering.

      Reply
    3. John Steinbach

      +1 A 30 year window for change closed 40 or more years ago. Yves is correct. Radical conservation is the best bet. This was pointed out by the Energy Futures Study by Harvard in the early 70s. Unplanned “degrowth” is baked in the cake.

      Reply
    4. DJG

      The Rev Kev: Your last paragraph is a way of describing degrowth: de-bloat. We have so many systems now that claim to be efficient and aren’t. “Go paperless. Save a tree.”–it’s the biggest lie of our times.

      Years ago, I read an essay about the contrast between traditional societies and modern industrial society. The author pointed out that most people would be happy to live in a traditional society–on the land, maybe in a smaller town, working less hectic hours, using less energy, so long as some of the modern conveniences and necessities were still in place, such as good medical care, vaccination, clean water (always a problem in traditional societies), illumination (candles won’t do it). We can keep water heaters and showers. And toilets! The telephone (but maybe not the cellular phone.) This doesn’t mean that degrowth is just one big Renaissance Faire–but if we selectively eliminate excesses of modernity, we do stand a chance.

      There are plenty of villages in Italy, France, and Spain that have been depopulated. In Italy, some of these villages get press with the occasional effort to sell a house for a euro if someone will move in and renovate the place. This is likely the model for degrowth. Return to the care of the land. Revitalizing small-town and small-city U.S.A. is going to require an even bigger effort, given that small-town U.S.A. now has trouble holding on to banks, schools, stores, hospitals, and population–small-town Europe hasn’t been as thoroughly denuded.

      In short: Yes. Back to paper. Back to handwriting. Back to trains. Back to mail (rather than texting). Back to the close relation of the land and the cities. Back to sailing ships. Yes, things will take longer. Maybe they should.

      Reply
      1. notabanktoadie

        Return to the care of the land. DJG

        That is consistent with Old Testament style land reform (Leviticus 25). But let’s not stop there but also heed Deuteronomy 23:19-20 and eliminate government privileges for usurers.

        As for “back to this, back to that”, increasing knowledge allows us to do more and more with less and less material and energy – so the way is forward not backward.

        Look, we tried an unethical system and it is failing – there should be no big surprise there. So let’s fix it and move on – while we still can.

        Reply
      2. polecat

        Back to a Garden .. any garden ! .. in a Big way, as well.. If a majority of the public were to grow/raise some of their own food, that would help reduce the industial imputs that are essential to the not-always-so-smooth running of the monopolized BigAg/Big Food production manufacturies. If say, a lethal virus (waves with a Corona in hand..) were to cause planetary supply-chain havoc for an extented period, those who maintain a portion of their own larder could better withstand the slings and arrows that Gaia, combined with human’s own industrial disfunction, might throw their way.

        Reply
        1. carl

          I had some similar thoughts, since I started a garden last year and the winter growing season has been quite bountiful in my South Texas backyard. If a two week “stay home” order were implemented here, I don’t think I’d have much problem getting by on the food from the garden. Even a month wouldn’t require too much forethought. I really get the food security concept here.

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    5. d

      Taking the ‘teach’ away won’t make elections better, as it wasn’t like they couldn’t be corrupted before ( the last minute find of ballots, or the missing ballots, or the whole sale replacement of them…happened many times before).but making the stealing of elections harder, will likely need both. Course the need for election security in both is obvious. Just don’t either by themselves to do that. Then of course if we want to eliminate all subsidies of any type, then we will have to pay more for roads, based on use and damage to the roads by that use, lots more than today. Course we would have to eliminate the choice by business to loose in court, pay fines, and take those off their taxes. Course we could make that only optional if the companies accepted responsibility for what was done. Course we need to solve how to publicize the events so that people aren’t Hurt by hiding errors

      Reply
    6. JTMcPhee

      Who sets prices? Some kind of authority. Who gets to be the authority? In the environmental area, “cost-benefit” has taken the place of the Precautionary Principle. There are lots of “experts” who will be happy to massage inputs into such calculations, both “costs” and putative “benefits,” to give whatever answer the payer intends, with great degrees of seeming “accuracy” and “completeness.” So all kinds of “innovation” and “development” get approved (under laws and regulations that have been arbitraged and captured) to “go forward,” with later generations to pick up the “costs” of attempting, attempting , to “fix” what was done after the “profits” have been taken and spirited away… http://archive.knoxnews.com/business/tellico-dam-still-generating-debate-ep-411807529-359923851.html As the link suggests, these are “political” decisions with all that implies.

      Recall the quip about people who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing.’

      Reply
  3. JC

    I just want to point out that growth makes some level of inequality socially acceptable (to an extent). When some people exercise upwards social mobility, they simply capture a larger share of the created wealth. In a world without growth, the only way for someone to improve one’s own situation is to take something away from somebody else. And you can bet that that someone is not going to let that happen without a fight…

    So a succesful no-growth / de-growh society is likely also one with a strong control and repression system.

    Reply
    1. d

      Yea a low growth economy requires a shrinking population, no Choice there at all. So we essentially have to limit all parents world wide to one Child to avoid starvation later

      Reply
  4. Keith Newman

    In the early 2000s I participated in a serious and concerted campaign to get Canada to live up to its Kyoto commitments. We failed. A Conservative government was elected to power for 9 years and its leader, our prime minister, believed climate change was a plot by the socialist Chinese to undermine the economies of the developed word, and acted accordingly. The situation has not improved noticeably since although the rhetoric has. My current belief is that it is extremely difficult to convince people to voluntarily make the kinds of sacrifices Yves alludes to in her introductory comment. I now believe a key component to reducing our carbon footprint is for a large reduction in the population of the developed world. Individuals would still be able to consume a lot but there would be far fewer of them. This is an argument that is virtually impossible to make to progressives since it would mean a great reduction in immigration and lead to accusations of racism, etc. As a result ”green” progressives are limited to making unrealistic calls for personal sacrifice that attract little political support. This leaves the way open for pro-business types and conservatives to propose slight, mainly symbolic, climate change related improvements. Ironically conservatives at times do call for less immigration, indeed frequently tinged with racism.

    Reply
    1. JTMcPhee

      How do immigration limits affect the overall locust-like behavior of our species? Immigrants might overall “consume” less than present “citizen-consumers,” but they apparently aspire to catch up. Without reduction in birth rates to less than replacement, and seconding your comment about the fecklessness of calling for personal ‘de-growthing’ behaviors, immigration limits will do damn-all nothing to reduce the overall bootprint of humans on the face of Mother Nature…

      A nice assortment of thinking and speculating about plagues: https://www.flavorwire.com/481849/10-plague-novels-that-will-not-help-you-deal-with-the-ebola-virus

      Reply
      1. Keith Newman

        The main driver of population increase in most developed countries is immigration, especially from low carbon footprint countries. Moving people en masse from low carbon footprint countries to high ones and increasing their population drives ghg emissions upwards. If not for that the population of the most of the developed world would slowly decrease and consumption would decrease accordingly, eventually.

        Reply
  5. Stephen The Tech Critic

    I am optimistic that if we do our best, we can keep temperature rise below 2.5-3 deg C. Roughly I’d expect ~20% emission reduction by 2030, 30% reduction by 2040, 50% reduction by 2050, 90% reduction by 2070, and carbon zero not long after that. I kind of just made up these numbers, but I have some reasoning behind them.

    Fundamentally, we face a simultaneous pair of crises. There is the ecological crisis which encompasses the climate, and there is also the social crisis caused by contemporary neoliberalism. The eco crisis is likely to inflame the social crisis, and the social crisis impedes our ability to respond to the eco crisis. This is why the Green New Deal is such an important policy. Both of these crises must be addressed simultaneously with all the resources that can be brought to bear.

    Unfortunately, part of our social crisis involves extreme overconfidence in our technology and its capabilities. It is the nature of technology to be difficult to understand without specialty knowledge. For specific instances, the knowledge required to understand it may be possessed by only one or a few people. Thus there is typically an information gap that can be exploited, and in our neoliberal system, these gaps are exploited ubiquitously in a “race to the bottom” sort of way. Everything is over-hyped. Reporting about technology has extreme strong optimism bias, and the result is that people generally have unrealistically high expectations.

    It is widely believed that we possess the technology to solve climate change, if only we had the political will to deploy it, but as I imply above this is not the case. Hence, even climate scientists (IMHO) greatly overestimate our capability to solve climate change using any technology we have now or will have any time soon. Climate change *solutions* aren’t really their area of expertise. Unfortunately, most people don’t know this, and I suspect it will take quite a while for people to adjust to the new post-growth reality, even if the government provides a strong welfare state as part of this *managed decline*.

    At the same time, we cannot abandon technology. We can’t send billions of people “back to the jungle” to live a primitive existence. We *need* to develop a lot of new technology even if we choose to follow an aggressive managed decline strategy. And in the very long run, I believe technology *will* help solve climate change. It’s just that we have to be realistic about what’s possible and how long it will likely take to develop it. We also must heal our institutions, which have been ravaged by neoliberalism, to restore them to a state in which the people within them can innovate productively. I believe innovation in our society is blocked in substantial part because so much creative effort is essentially devoted to marketing the thing and because of short-termism in general.

    The larger point is that the necessary transformations are going to take time before our efforts to address the eco crisis are likely to become productive. Culture change is never easy, and even after the culture change, there may be a lot of lost ground to make up. A lot of useful technical knowledge has been taken for granted by society and forgotten. Note that just because some knowledge is written in a book or on the Internet somewhere doesn’t mean it’s “remembered”; someone has to know to look for it. The overall process of institutional change and renewal could easily take on the order of 30 years.

    Reply
    1. xkeyscored

      I absolutely agree that we can’t abandon technology. Refusing to use it to fight climate change will just leave us defenceless, waiting for nature to do something, which might take hundreds of years, or us trying to reforest the world without tools or transport other than ourselves, and perhaps pack animals.
      But what leads you to expect ~20% emissions reductions by 2030? Our GHG emissions have been increasing almost every year for decades. What signs do you see that this trend is reversing?

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      1. polecat

        One cannot ‘fight’ climate change. One can only hang with it .. adapting as well as is possible, to changes as they occur. To try to stop our climate, a notoriously complex and chaotic system, from doing what it does, as it relates to geophysical processes ..is like trying to stop Sol from shining ! It is the ultimate of human hubris, to think we can slow or stop planetary systems from doing they do ! When it comes down to it, we are like moronic ants on a hill, next to an eroding cliff. The
        real Ants know better !

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        1. xkeyscored

          I don’t think it’s exactly hubris to think we can cause, accelerate, or slow climate change. I think that’s reality. We are causing it with our activities, and we could, ‘in principle’, change our ways.
          I see stopping Sol from shining, or SAI, as a technology we probably will use, in twenty years or so at a guess. And I reckon by then most people will have laid aside their objections to it, in the face of the droughts, storms, floods and wildfires ravaging the planet.

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      2. Stephen The Tech Critic

        I assume the first 20% (very roughly) of reductions are low hanging fruit. We can get there by “putting the pedal to the metal” and building a bunch of solar and wind power infrastructure. That’s what I expect we’d get (in terms of power infrastructure) from the first 10 year run of a GND. I also charitably assume that other major emitting countries like China do the same. To be fair though, even 20% may be too optimistic. Maybe 10 or 15%? There is the huge bootstrapping problem in which all the new construction emits a lot of carbon before the first reductions accumulate.

        The trouble of course is that beyond the low-hanging fruit and after we pass 2030, things get a lot harder. The more intermittent sources we bring online, the less bang-for-the-buck (and CO2 tonne) we get by investing in more of the same. On top of that, beyond 2030 we’re likely to be spending a lot more money (and carbon) reacting to the bad effects of climate change and trying to mitigate them in the future.

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        1. PlutoniumKun

          I think you are right to focus on the ‘low hanging fruit’, although I would argue that this accounts for a lot more than 20%.

          One area that confuses people – and I think is a deliberate source of confusion spread by naysayers – is the difference between embarking on a transition and completing it. There are many legitimate criticisms of, for example, converting the electricity network to 100% renewables. But most of the technical problems do not apply to converting up to 75% or so of the network to renewables – the core difficulty is the last 25% or so – this is when you potentially hit trouble with energy storage and predictability and so on. In reality, there is no economic or technical reason why most regional grids can’t convert to at least 50% renewables very rapidly – many could convert to 90% or so without any great problem, especially with greater interconnection.

          So there is no excuse for not starting the process. The ‘final yard’ issues can be dealt with when we come to them, which even with a super high speed transition will be in the 10-20 year timescale, not tomorrow.

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    2. Titus

      “Hence, even climate scientists (IMHO) greatly overestimate our capability to solve climate change using any technology we have now or will have any time soon.” I am a scientist that does climate research both on open and closed feedback loops and the sociological impacts, including impact statements. I can’t think of one scientist that is intentionally overestimating anything. Care to many a few peer reviewed scientists that say such nonsense? Whatever one thinks about the unhinged climate, “intelligent” and “thoughtful” ideas are not the same as being fact based. And acting on those facts. The facts are in, two of which are things are happening must faster than we thought and rises in temperature seem to be at 3-4C° by 2070. This is awful. The reason temperatures don’t reach 7C° which would make the earth inhabitable is that the way we live now is expected to collapse by the 2037, in forcing the end of any use of Carbon Fuels, extreme changes in human demographics, and generally as a civilization winning the “jackpot”, for the complete inability to do anything useful to stop certain things by 2030 and 2035 respectively. For starters we need a reduction of 7.6% world wide in the use of carbon fuels this year. How we doing?

      Reply
      1. Stephen The Tech Critic

        “I can’t think of one scientist that is intentionally overestimating anything.”

        That’s not what I said nor what I meant. I am not attacking you or climate scientists in general. What I speak of is closely related to the concept of Planning fallacy but exacerbated by the fact that the information we have about various technologies is typically incomplete and is often “selected for” in a way that biases toward optimism about the performance of that technology.

        To give an example of optimism bias that applies more specifically to the climate sciences: My understanding (which is supported in your response) is that recent climate projections look a lot more dire than projections in the recent past. Now I could try to argue that those older, presumably more erroneous projections exhibited more optimism bias, but I won’t because it’s hard to prove that anyway. Instead, I’ll point out that the *level of confidence* in those old projections and the climate models they were derived from was likely too high.

        I’ve been a major skeptic of the climate models from the start, and I’m not surprised by the recent turn toward more dire projections. The latest models may be the best yet, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily able to predict much. We should expect a lot more of the unexpected and be prepared to adapt in whatever ways are necessary. Short-to-medium term climate uncertainty (regionally and temporally) may prove to be one of the most difficult and expensive aspects of climate change to deal with.

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  6. Off The Street

    Bunker marketing materials would probably make interesting reading for those likely to be left behind. Find out what the evacuators and their ilk really think about the average human being, or median, or semi-interquartile or whatever.

    Just a guess, but the overriding message presented to the subject audience about those objects wouldn’t be favorable.

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  7. Peerke


    Nate Hagens put it well in “ Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism” link above: “ A bunch of mildly clever, highly social apes broke into a cookie jar of fossil energy and have been throwing a party for the past 150 years. The conditions at the party are incompatible with the biophysical rea- lities of the planet. The party is about over and when morning comes, radical changes to our way of living will be imposed. Some of the apes must sober up (before morning) and create a plan that the rest of the party-goers will agree to. But mildly clever, highly social apes neither easily nor voluntarily make radical changes to their ways of living. And so coffee and stimulants (credit, etc.) will be consumed during another lavish breakfast, but with the shades drawn. It’s morning already.”

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  8. chuck roast

    The academic discipline of Economics, ever the handmaiden of the capitalist class and the economic elite, has for several generations had the immense luxury of calculating “economic growth” or in more common terms – seeing to the baking of a bigger and better pie for all. Unfortunately for them, their arcane recipes of algorithms, regressions and stochastic growth models may not meet the tastes of these rapidly changing times.

    For 100 years the politicians and their willing assistants have been cohorts in creating the weltanschuung that “growth” is the generous and sublime gift of the captains of industry and finance. For a short time when the gas went out during the interregnum of the Great Depression the bakers and their supervisors were forced to address the distribution of a much smaller pie. We know from grandma’s recipes of that era (or “epoch” in the words of the great Bernie Shurman) that this was very uncomfortable for the kitchen staff as their ingredients were exposed as being less than nourishing.

    Welly (in the words of the great Yves), now that the ingredients for the pie appear to be diminishing yet again and on a more permanent basis, and the resultant confection of a smaller size, the bakers will perhaps take the lead in the discussion of distribution. If you listen closely, beneath the sound of coins changing hands, you can hear the sound of the knives in the kitchen being sharpened.

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  9. jef

    “Contrary to common misunderstandings, degrowth does not mean negative growth or imply sacrifices to one’s quality of life. Rather, it is focused on reducing a society’s material and energy throughput while actually enhancing quality of life.”

    This is the key. I tell people that degrowth will happen no matter what we do, in fact it is happening already it’s just not spread evenly. So we either let it shake out however it will i.e bottom up pain and suffering, or we manage it making sure everyone is ok. I know…kumba yaaaaaaaaaa!

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    1. xkeyscored

      Call me a miserable cynical misanthrope if you like, but bottom up pain and suffering seems to be the choice among WEIRD countries and many others.
      Compare the media attention given to the recent bushfires in Australia with that given to Cyclones Idai and Kenneth, including here. Non-stop coverage of the former for weeks, the latter more or less forgotten in days. Yet just two weeks ago, “Beira still bears the marks of Idai. Tens of thousands of people are living in temporary or unsafe shelters and those who were lucky enough to have their houses spared, are struggling to make repairs. … Idai alone destroyed 715,000 hectares of crops. And this in a country (Mozambique) where nearly two million people are already food insecure.” “While the official death toll stands at 603 people. An estimated 223,947 houses were destroyed or damaged and more than 140,000 people were displaced due to the cyclone and flooding.” What might the corresponding numbers be in Australia?
      I think it’s entirely reasonable to compare our responses to these two probable manifestations of climate change; they’re at opposite ends of the Indian Ocean dipole thing. In more ways than one.
      https://www.euronews.com/2020/01/30/rebuilding-mozambique-country-still-recovering-from-devasting-cyclones-idai-and-kenneth

      Reply
  10. John Wright

    The late author Kurt Vonnegut wrote of his environmental concerns 32 years ago (1988)

    see https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/kurt-vonneguts-letter-relevant-today/

    “1. Reduce and stabilize your population.”

    “2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.”

    “3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.”

    “4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.”

    “5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.”

    “6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.”

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  11. meadows

    I lived for a few month in the early ’70’s in a community in Southern France called, The Community of the Ark. It was led by Lanza del Vasto who was a disciple of Ghandi…. The community was quite large, the only electricity was in the bakery. Wood heat was used. I wanted to join the experiment, which had been going for quite some time. It was based on voluntary simplicity, manual labor and non-violent actions.

    So beautiful. I loved the people, the work, the bread, kissing everyone good morning, then good night, the singing, the food, good work. Everyone had two sets of clothes, one for work one for everything else.

    Unfortunately it was too catholic and French for this dyed in the wool american, and I missed my girlfriend so I bailed after a few months. Almost 50 years ago but I lived the real deal for awhile.

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  12. Rod

    Thought provoking article w much I agree with.
    I myself do not think “de Growth” cannotes the scope of what needs to go on.
    For awhile now, the phrase I use is:
    Decommissioning ( our Economic model of Consumption) and Realigning ( to Sustainability). Imo, it better implies the effort and intentionality required.

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  13. Susan the other

    With the exception of communication/computer tech, all other utilities could be implemented locally and adapted locally. Communicate globally, live locally. The “new capitalism” can easily be good, old-fashioned economies on a much smaller scale and adapted to local needs. Local governments run democratically, employing best practices and science. No big corporate giants seeking the cheapest labor and favorable environmental regulations. Instead, everything done to preserve the local environment. Hands-on, local environmental capitalism. This way it’s OK if growth (improvements and self-sufficiencies) “sustain” capitalism because the excessive profit motive has been tamed. So, Localism – the opposite of big Industrialism – is the answer.

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  14. Pym of Nantucket

    It’s funny how humans have such a hard time admitting they are the problem. Evolution has built into our brains reflexes which are perfect in assisting evolution, but literally all the instincts we have for surviving as individuals are the fundamental source of our problem.

    We know the planet would be best without us but we can’t admit it because for centuries we explained our existence using childish stories we made up with us as the focal point of the universe. The majority of people on earth still believe in magic today, so it isn’t surprising when all the evidence points to one thing that people ignore it and believe humans are the solution to the problem.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      We are the problem? I rather think that it is the rapacious cruelty of the 9.9% on the 90.1%. More specifically I worry that the grift potential in the massive reforms needed in the political economy will be too great for the neoliberal elites to not use. Then add the social and economic cluelessness of so many people. Like Michael Bloomberg absurd statement about how easy farming is. Even a serious backyard or community farmer would disagree.

      Or I can take the more general problem of fuel taxes. Uber Blue California does not really have decent urban public transportation with the exception of San Francisco. People have to live counties away from their jobs because there is a lack of housing. The poorest parts of the state has no, none, public transportation. Think of the Midwestern and Plains States only with a lot more mountains, hills and trees with small towns or communities. The only way that poor, working, and even middle class Californians can get about or run businesses is by using gasoline, but we have the highest gas taxes of any state. So someone is going to say save the planet with higher gas taxes!

      And just where is the housing needed where the jobs are?

      Then there is the fast fashion industry. Junk clothing made overseas. Even spending more money for quality will often not get you quality. Have you bought any reasonably priced, decent quality American made clothing recently? Of course not.

      Degrowth? Send in the grifters?

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  15. Oregoncharles

    Important resourse: https://steadystate.org/; “Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy.” Based on the work of ecological economist Herman Daly. I’ve promoted this site before (I have no personal connection with it), but it’s directly relevant to the above article.

    Evidently, “steady state” is no longer enough; our impact on the world is going to have to shrink pretty dramatically – by my seat-of-the-pants calculation, we’ve overshot by at least 4 times. Global cooking is only one aspect of the resulting failures. As far as I know, Daly and the people at CASSE are about the only ones thinking seriously about how a steady or shrinking economy would work. Certainly not capitalism, which lives on groaf.

    Obviously, the world economy WILL shrink to fit, one way or another. We can only hope we can choose relatively painless ways, though it’s already far too late for best case scenarios.

    Thanks for raising the issue again, anyway, and for telling us of another organization working on it.

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  16. Anthony G Stegman

    Because the world is awash in debt, the only way to service the debt is robust growth. This is the conundrum we face in transitioning to a post capitalist world. Who will take the debt haircut? How will that be managed?

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  17. Alpha Centurion

    Malthusian climatologists and deep ecologists share ideas the Earth’s sustainability target is no more than 500 million humans. To reach the goal, Global warming was hence predicated by policymakers on global Cooling. On a 15,000-yrs scale Goldilocks Interglacial, -12C temp conditions will occur in the following 120,000-yrs of Glaciation as the earth tilt and orbit effect increases Earth’s distance from the Sun. In the last mini-Ice Age, the River Thames froze over, -4C conditions produced “never summers” only Solar Clockwork creates a predictable 2100-years Millenia cycle due to Sun’s greater distance in the 1660s, Total Solar Irradiance was least, but a shortening distance creates more Irradiance, so-called Global Warming which is nearly +0.5C per 100-yrs. That will create a total relative +4C temp increase in the 2810s, or 29th century, which is no more or less than the Medieval and Roman Warm periods. A Climate reprieve from global cooling occurs in 2018-2055-yrs when Solar Magnetic Activity will be at a minimum on a predictable 350-400yrs cycle. Both cycles occurred simultaneously during the mini-Ice Age.
    Graciously, the empowerment of women in the home and workplace produces smaller family units and education fosters sustainable society. Unquestionably, environmental liabilities and unsustainable costs of 20th century Wind and Solar Farm Technology for a modern society are both unsustainable, not recyclable, and, in short, unreliable power. However, as Germany as shown so slight global cooling in 2018 produced 18,000 mortality due to energy poverty while costs rose 5x.
    Alarmist climate credits belong to John P Holdren, Ann and Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, and Maurice Strong for energizing US Senators Wirth, Gore and Obama who sold Global Warming to Ted Turner’s $1B UN Foundation 1997-2007. CEO Wirth then lobbied the global finance and political leaders on behalf of their global warming agenda, while scientists falsified trends in temperature and sea-level rise, the UN IPPC Lobby stonewalled scientific debate, since the 17th century science was questionable. CO2 GHG Climate models had failed from the first 1971 until the last. Before 1923, Max Plank’s Law and Albert Einstein’s modern physics of heat exchange had replaced Greenhouse Gas Theory.. Leave it to dominantly white male globalist elites to erect this crumbling Tower, while 150 greater beneficial needs are unfulfilled.

    Reply

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