I hope this will be the year when we have the bravery to ask ourselves: does the endless pursuit of growth make our lives worthwhile?
Note: This article was originally published in the UK’s inews.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. This proverb has been much in my mind as we head into the New Year. In over a decade of thinking and writing about the climate and ecological crisis, I struggle to find a year that has been as grim as 2022. I won’t list them all here as there is simply not enough space, but there were numerous weather records set this year. Temperatures in the U.K. exceeded 40°C. China suffered a heatwave that meteorologists have said are unprecedented in human history. Vast flooding in Pakistan killed over 1,700 people. Yet we still seem unable to act. This year’s big United Nations climate conference – COP27 – was held in Egypt and ended with almost zero progress towards agreements that would actually reduce fossil fuel use.
That’s not to say there was no good news in 2022. While the Biden administration has not fully delivered on its climate promises, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed into law this year represents the biggest ever U.S. Federal investment in renewable energy. In Brazil, voters rejected Bolsanaro’s deeply divisive and climate-wrecking politics. Incoming President Lula has promised to reverse the destruction of the Amazon and so the risks of this region releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases have been reduced.
There were also positive changes in industry. Solar power now produces the cheapest electricity in history. Plummeting costs are a result of continued ramping up of production. This year China increased solar power capacity by 137% since 2021, which itself was a record-breaking year. But China also posted record-breaking coal production in 2022. And there’s the rub.
The accelerating deployment of wind and solar cannot keep up with humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy. Fossil fuels still supply around 80% of global energy. Next year may not see any decrease in global carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, they may even rise as pent up economic demand in China is unleashed as the nation abandons its zero covid policy.
The accelerating deployment of wind and solar cannot keep up with humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy.
It didn’t have to be like this. Just over a year ago during COP26 in Glasgow, all nations agreed that they would do whatever it takes to limit warming to no more than 1.5°C since pre-industrial periods. At the time the International Energy Agency made it abundantly clear that meant no more new oil and gas development. We must leave 60% of all existing oil and gas reserves in the ground if we want a 50:50 chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. So it makes no sense to be trying to develop new reserves.
Unfortunately many of the major oil and gas corporations and their financiers didn’t get the memo. To take just one example, Royal Dutch Shell is committing $46 billion over the rest of this decade to develop new oil and gas fields. Shell may simply insist that they are responding to what politicians and business leaders want, which is more energy to power more economic growth. Global capitalism got a taste of reduced energy demand and economic growth during the Covid19 pandemic and demonstrates no desire to go back there. I certainly don’t advocate for the sudden end of fossil fuels – that would plunge the global economy into not just recession but collapse. But the seriousness of our situation demands that we must consider other ways of organising our societies rather than around the endless pursuit of economic growth.
As children we learn that you can have too much of a good thing. Unfortunately that is long-forgotten by the grown-ups that manage our economies. The assumption that economies must always grow is so embedded into our worldviews that it is never questioned. It is absolutely the case that some nations should increase their energy and material consumption along with average incomes. Over one-fifth of the global population lives on less than $3.20 a day. Nearly a billion people do not have access to electricity. One third of the global population does not have access to safe water.
But satisfying these needs does not require the entire global economy to increase. There is more than enough to go round. This isn’t just wishful thinking. Recent research has demonstrated that all of humanity can enjoy decent lives with access to good services at the same time as rapidly reducing environmental impacts. We just need to share more of the resources we currently have. That’s another childhood lesson that our business leaders and politicians appear to have completely forgotten – it’s unfair to take more than your share.
We could realise a world in which no one goes hungry, where no one fears for their future.
The name given to this emerging school of economic theory is “degrowth economics” because it emphasises that some industrialised nations should stop the endless pursuit of growth and actually reduce the amount of energy and materials they consume. I prefer the name rebalancing economics because the task we face is to move our societies back into balance, both between each other and the Earth system that ultimately sustains everyone.
Writing this during the orgy of overconsumption after Christmas could feel like an exercise in futility. But it’s worth remembering that the Christmas festival is much older than Christianity. The pagans who built Stonehenge and other stone circles celebrated the winter solstice of 21 December in their own calendars. On the shortest day of the year they knew much of the winter still remained and they could face many weeks of freezing weather. But they also knew that the sun was going to return and with it a new year of life.
We could realise a world in which no one goes hungry, where no one fears for their future. A world where dangerous climate change has been averted and our biosphere has begun to heal. At the same time we could spend more of our lives doing the things that make us happy. Spending time with friends and loved ones, doing meaningful work, pursuing hobbies. I’m sure that sounds like wishful thinking. It certainly feels light years away from the position of today’s mainstream political parties.
But it’s always darkest before the dawn. And so I look towards 2023 as offering the hope that this will be the year when we have the bravery to ask ourselves: Does the endless pursuit of growth really make our lives worthwhile?