[First published on www. catherineknight.nz on 16 November 2022]
Is it time we re-evaluated our obsession with perpetual growth and shifted our focus to building a society that puts human wellbeing at its centre?
The signs that we have breached multiple biophysical boundaries are becoming harder to ignore. Climate scientists say that we have missed the opportunity to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees and predict that the world will breach this critical threshold in the next few years. Unprecedented biodiversity loss, marine and freshwater degradation are well-documented. In recent weeks, researchers reported that 75% of fish caught in New Zealand’s southern seas contained microplastics.
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.
Meanwhile, in New Zealand, our per capita energy consumption (in oil equivalent terms) has been on a relentless rise – tripling since the 1960s – despite all our ‘energy-saving’ devices.
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?