Many of us are aware by now that we are facing multiple crises: climate change being just one – warming and acidifying oceans, depleted soils, global habitat and biodiversity loss are among the others in this ‘polycrisis’. The Auckland floods have made us acutely aware of how vulnerable our cities are to the ravages of extreme weather, events predicted to become more extreme and frequent as the effects of climate change bed in.
We know that this is not going to get better any time soon. There will be more floods, droughts and other weather events that will cause destruction, economic loss and human distress on a scale that we cannot yet imagine. Even the issues that affect us day to day, such as the cost of living, have at their root the unsustainability of our current economic system.
The realisation is dawning among many of us that we cannot solve this problem following the same path that led us here – that is, an extractive growth-oriented economy dislocated from the realities of a finite planet.
Our current economy and way of life is built on a one-off windfall of energy-dense fossil fuels. While this will not run out any time soon, all evidence points to the fact that it has peaked. But irrespective, if we have any hope of averting the worst extremes of climate breakdown and ecological collapse, we will need to reduce our energy and resource use.
This article, published in Newsroom, explains why and how – by embracing ‘degrowth’, in which we redesign the economy to put human and environmental wellbeing at its centre.
“In years gone by, you may have heard the words ‘peak oil’, often intoned with a sense of foreboding, warning us that before long oil would run out and things would never be the same.
But we don’t hear the term so much any more. Is that because the ‘doomsters’ were all wrong? Because, in fact, we have plenty of oil – and, even better, it’s never going to run out? Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you care about what we are doing to our climate and biosphere – the answer to all those questions is ‘No. As Isaac Asimov said in his influential address ‘The future of humanity’ in 1974:
When I was 13, I started thinking … Major premise: The Earth’s volume is finite. Minor premise: The total volume of coal and oil on the Earth is less than the total volume of the Earth. Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil are finite.”
I have made a bleak realisation. I am a failure. I have failed at the single most important role in my life – to safeguard the future for my children.
This has been an awful realisation to make, and it crystallised when my 14-year old son, after listening to some climate-related report on the radio said, ‘We are doomed, aren’t we, Mum?’. Unusually for him, there was not even a hint of facetiousness or irony – he was quite sincere.
At that moment, a bit of my heart shattered into pieces.
We now face the growing certainty that we will breach the 1.5 degree warming threshold that may have enabled us to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change. We have been warned that accelerating climate breakdown will lead to more severe and frequent climate disasters, ecological collapse, economic and social breakdown and unimaginable human suffering, including starvation, illness, displacement and death.
Or as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres so starkly put is a few days ago, ‘we are on a highway to climate hell’ with the option to cooperate or, enter a collective suicide pact, and perish.
Even if my children do not experience the worst of this ‘climate hell’ first-hand, they will see it unfold in parts of the world, including the ‘global south’, most vulnerable to climate disruption.
As parents, we have worked to equip our children with the skills and attributes they will need when their time comes to navigate the adult world, and hopefully help make it a better place: critical thinking skills, a basic understanding of democratic process, compassion and empathy, and self-belief, especially when they hold views different from others.
And as a parent, I can only hope that this will be enough to weather the climate storm ahead.
For a while now, we have been reassured that if we cannot reduce our emissions as much as we need to, offsetting will take care of the rest – mainly through tree-planting. But this is a fairytale – a convenient one for industry and consumers alike. A tree planted now will not be sequestering carbon at anywhere near its peak rate for many years; meanwhile we continue to pump out climate pollution. Forests are also at increasing risk of fire due to a heating climate, or can simply be harvested – wiping out their sequestration capacity. Recently, Climate Commissioner Rod Carr condemned this strategy as ‘plant and pollute’.
But we can just switch our fossil-fuel guzzling habits to other more sustainable energies, and all will be well, right? Not quite, because there is the issue of net energy. At peak abundance, it took something like one unit of energy to produce 100 units of oil, but alternative energy sources – including hydropower, solar and wind – have a significantly lower energy return. Biofuels perform especially poorly – at 3 or less units of energy for every one consumed by some assessments. So producing enough energy to maintain our energy-hungry lifestyles will require a huge expansion of the energy sector, with all its associated environmental costs.
The reality is simple. The continued pursuit of growth is not viable; we cannot continue consuming and throwing stuff away at the rate we are. We are already in breach of multiple biophysical limits – climate being just one – and the technological salvation we have been waiting for is nowhere in sight.
To a growing number of New Zealanders, the way forward is clear. To reduce emissions and our environmental impacts, we must reduce our consumption. Some call this idea de-growth, but this has the obvious disadvantage of sounding like a deficit. In my eyes, this is the wrong way to think about it. I believe that a shift from our obsession with economic growth and its mythical ‘trickle down’ effect, to one where human and environmental wellbeing is central, would be a path to plenitude – of improved wellbeing, time with family and friends, connection with community, time to move, have fun and be in nature.
I grew up in the 1970s. Our family had no car, we walked or biked everywhere, and occasionally took a bus; most of our clothes were hand-me-downs; we grew our own vegetables; if something broke we fixed it; we spent most of our time playing creatively or outside – not with expensive devices. Did I feel deprived or hard done by? No – we had everything we needed for a good life.
I am not suggesting we turn back time and eschew technology, Amish-like, but rather think about what we really need for a good life. When looking back on their lives, few people will regret not having the latest Smart TV or getting that status-enhancing but stress-inducing promotion. Most people will regret things like not spending more time with their kids, or not prioritising their health over work.
Whatever we call it: degrowth, steady state economy, wellbeing economy or ‘new economics’, the time to fundamentally reassess what is important to us, both individually and as a nation, is now. Is it growth, mass consumption, convenience; or is it wellbeing, connection, and time to spend with those we love?
It is rare these days to hear anyone say, ‘We want more growth, and if that means destroying the environment, well, that’s the price we must pay!’ Local and central government documents are adorned with such statements as ‘We are going to grow our city/district/economy, while protecting and enhancing the environment, and transitioning to a low-carbon future’. Most of us would relate more to the second kind of statement – it sounds more, well, sustainable.
But which one is more honest?
In an attempt to answer this, I have been exploring the literature around green growth. This is the idea that we can continue growing the global (and national) economy, while reducing our impact on the environment, and especially climate. The central assumption is that we can decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions and resource use.
So, how is this going? Not that well so far. As of 2022, seven years after the Paris Agreement agreed to maintain global temperatures below 1.5 degrees, global CO2 emissions are still rising.
That may be so, but haven’t some countries managed to decouple their economies from emissions? Yes, one study often cited to support the case for green growth found that between 2005 and 2015, 18 countries (mainly – but not all – European) have decreased their CO2 emissions by 2.4% per year collectively – though that decrease can in part be explained by a slowdown in GDP growth rates.
And, while decoupling of emissions is happening in some regions, there are almost no cases of the absolute decoupling of resource use (i.e., a decrease in resource use while GDP continues to go up).
And of course, it is important to remember that the biosphere doesn’t care where emissions come from. So if one country is able to decouple its emissions by – at least in part – outsourcing polluting industries to another country, that’s good for its emissions footprint but doesn’t make a jot of difference for the health of our planet.
But can’t we just plant more trees, to suck up our growing emissions and reach ‘net zero’ that way? Not according to Climate Commissioner Dr Rod Carr, who says this only reinforces a ‘plant and pollute’ mindset. Carbon sequestration through tree-planting is riddled with problems, including the time it takes for a newly planted forest to mature and sequester at an optimal rate (when emissions and harm from emissions is happening now), and the fact that once it reaches maturity, sequestration plateaus. To use forests to sequester our growing emissions, we would also need an immense amount of space, inevitably compromising capacity for food production. Impermanence is another major flaw – forests are vulnerable to multiple risks, including fire, disease, destruction for other land uses, and of course harvesting for timber. In a (tree)nut-shell – trees are great, but they shouldn’t be our strategy to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
But what about negative emissions technology, such as BECCS (bioenergy and carbon capture and storage)? This is what many (including the IPCC) are pinning their hopes on. Scaling BECCS to the level required to meet net zero targets will require a vast area of agricultural land (estimated to be equivalent to two times the size of India – for best results the size of Africa would be even better) and colossal quantities of water and fertiliser to grow the crops required to create biofuels (recent estimates put both at double current global usage), shooting through already strained biophysical limits, not to mention being problematic for global inequities (which countries are going to forgo food-making capacity to enable us to continue our pursuit of growth?). Check out this video explainer on BECCS.
Broadening the discussion for a moment to the idea of ‘sustainable development’, established as a foundational principle at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, including being enshrined in our own Local Government Act 2002, has also been criticised as a vague and contradictory concept enabling governments to promote the message that ‘we can have it all at the same time, i.e. economic growth, prospering societies and a healthy environment. … This so-called weak version of sustainability is popular among governments, and businesses, but profoundly wrong and not even weak [sustainability], as there is no alternative to preserving the earth’s ecological integrity.” (Klaus Bosselmann in his book ‘The principal of sustainability’ (2017)). Our difficulty in decoupling environmental harm from economic development certainly supports this critique.
And from a New Zealand perspective, numerous environmental indicators tell us that since the enactment of the Resource Management Act in 1991, based on the principle of ‘sustainable management’, degradation of our environment has only accelerated. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, see Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand.)
So where does this leave us? While the idea that we can continue to pursue growth while reducing harm on the planet (through reduced emissions and resource use, environmental destruction and degradation) may remain alive in theory, there is little empirical evidence that it is possible in practice. Put simply, it hasn’t happened so far.
So at what stage do we abandon the imperative for growth and focus instead on the pursuit of human and planetary wellbeing?
Earlier this month, the Minister for the Environment David Parker made an address to the Forest & Bird annual conference entitled “A vision to restore the environment”. I was delighted to see he made reference to my book Beyond Manapouri, and how history helps us put events today into context. Here is an excerpt of his speech, which can be read in full on the Beehive website:
Last week I had the privilege of speaking at the launch of Catherine Knight’s new book Beyond Manapouri – 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand. Continue reading →
In New Zealand, we have recently experienced one of the most prolonged periods of drought since records began, and a number of regions in New Zealand have now been declared as officially in drought. We live in Kapiti, a coastal area where there is less rain and more sun than many parts of New Zealand. On top of that, we have very sandy, porous soils, which makes growing some things quite challenging. Continue reading →
These concrete steps on a Kapiti beach once connected a seaside backyard with the beach, but now connect only with thin air. They are a poignant (and somewhat whimsical) reminder of the very real effects of coastal erosion.
This coastline, on the west of the North Island of New Zealand, is subject to ceaseless erosion; many properties are literally being “eaten away” by the effects of waves and weather. Continue reading →
“Unless immediate steps are taken towards the conservation of large tracts of existing forests, and towards the re-planting” of forests “the climate, which is naturally dry, will become, year by year, more dry, until at length pastoral and agricultural pursuits … will become profitless, if not impossible.”
In New Zealand, deforestation has led to chronic erosion, loss of soil fertility and serious floods. However, in other countries, deforestation – or afforestation with plantation species – can lead to a quite different set of problems. Such as bears!
A recent Japan Times article, “Bearing the Brunt”, outlines the problem of increasing human-bear conflict in Japan. The primary author of envirohistory NZ, Catherine Knight, examined the human relationship with bears in Japan through history for her doctoral thesis, and is quoted in this article. She believes that degradation of the bears’ forest habitat is the key factor in the bears’ increasing tendency to encroach into human realms for food. Extreme weather, as a possible result of climate change, is likely to have exacerbated this problem, providing a potential explanation for the recent spikes in bear incidents.