“Frustration Simmers Around the Edges of COP27” is the headline that says where we are regarding climate action at the global level. Below the headline, political scientist Reinhard Steurer expressed my view when he said, “The process is focused on keeping things as they are for as long as possible, and, as a byproduct, about solving the problem with techno-fixes only. Unfortunately, this will not be enough.” (1)
I became a climate activist in the year 2001, representing an interfaith initiative to educate faith communities about the justice implications of global warming. Our goal was to help prevent the suffering of the world’s poor, who had done nothing to create the problem but would experience its consequences “first and worst,” as we said in our messaging. We hoped that privileged people of faith, inheritors of Golden Rule teachings, would respond by reducing their own use of fossil fuels. Our message was “replace fossil fuels with renewable power generation, as individuals and congregations, and by advocating with government officials.”
This is the message environmentalists and most scientists have been conveying, and the core of the COP27 effort. “Replace fossil fuels with renewables” is the theme of almost all the broadly publicized campaigns of more than thirty years of public education about climate solutions. And while wind and solar are the fastest growing energy sources, we still watch greenhouse gas emissions mount.
I have no advice about how to make the message more effective, but I have a growing concern about the campaign. I’m afraid we’ve been barking up the wrong tree.
The problem is bigger than climate, and no amount of renewable power generation can resolve it. Some people have been saying the issue is population, and as we’ve now reached the eight billion number, that’s certainly part of the truth. The real issue, though, is limits—planet-determined boundaries that technology cannot overcome. As Limits to Growth (1972) and William Catton’s Overshoot (1980) made clear, continued expansion of people and goods is a path to doom. Or, as the first issue of The Ecologist stated in 1972,
The principal defect of the industrial way of life with its ethos of expansion is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the life of someone born today is inevitable—unless it continues to be sustained for a while longer by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind. (2)
I think now that our efforts should have confronted the ethos of expansion. If we had drilled down on degrowth as religiously as we’ve promoted renewable energy, the public might have moved toward seeing human behavior from the perspective of nature: humans have a rightful place on the planet, but it’s a smaller place than we imagined. And the justice message would have been “privileged humans in developed nations have a lot of shrinking to do before they fit into a space that small.”
My father raised hound dogs, animals he trained to hunt raccoons in the woods of the family farm. He liked to hear their voices on the trail of their prey and admired their ability to track a scent a mile or more, but he had no patience with a dog that had lost the scent yet kept on barking.
I think we’ve lost the scent. If we had begun shrinking our individual and national footprints—if we had rejected a growth economy—the climate problem would likewise have been reduced, as we saw in the first months of the COVID pandemic. Instead, most environmentalists went along with the illusion that privileged people could retain their expansive life patterns by changing the fuels that powered them. We pursued technological solutions to greenhouse gas accumulation, ignoring the impacts on nature of continued economic growth.
As The Ecologist predicted, “an entrenched minority” has sustained the economy “at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.” This is what Richard Heinberg also said in last week’s Post-Carbon Institute newsletter (November 9, 2022): “My generation basically had all the information it needed. We had books like Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, and Small Is Beautiful. We could have tamped down consumption, but instead, we threw the biggest party in all of human history and we're leaving the next generations to clean up after us.”
And we’re watching the current generation in Pakistan deal with flood, in Africa deal with drought, and in island nations deal with rising seas. Party-goers, too, are experiencing climate-destabilization disaster: Florida hurricanes, for instance, European heat waves, and water shortages mounting daily in the US West.
The other day I wondered, “What if we had gone into churches, mosques, and synagogues telling the whole truth of our dilemma?” What if we had spent the past twenty-two years explaining to people who at least aspire to live honorably that nature’s patterns demand more modest lifestyles than Americans consider normal? What if environmentalists, instead of urging a technological fix to climate had said, “Let’s all move toward Earth-size lives.”
Not only people of faith, whom some of us thought would be the most receptive audience for a climate justice message, but many in the general public might have seen the sense of less self-indulgence. We might be surprised at the political benefit of that message. Some of the anger of folks who’ve been missing out on the prosperity might have been softened if they had seen higher-income people challenged rather than praised during these years.
If with regularity voices had been raised to demand downsizing by affluent people, including elites—and if some elites had begun conspicuously embracing smaller-impact behavior and promoting no-growth as economic policy—well, that would be a genuine populist message. If environmentalists had placed themselves among the low-income, low-consumption part of the population rather than with the power players in Washington . . .
Amitav Ghosh’s analysis is helpful to complete that thought. “The Left – and here I’m also talking about the Greens – made the decision some time ago to move towards a technocratic centre. . . The danger of technocracy is that you cannot tap into the general discontent with the political class because you are completely identified with the political class.” He anticipates “this instability is going to intensify, and it will empower the Right.” (3)
Nevertheless we can begin now to spread the message that addresses the core problem. We can educate ourselves and policymakers about the meaning of sustainability. As my environmental educator daughter defines it, “In nature there is no depletion of what we impersonally regard as resources, and there is no waste.”
By these terms it’s easy to see that the Western way of life is not sustainable. That fact has not yet reached the general public because major environmental groups and many renewable energy advocates, including faith-based initiatives, don’t yet acknowledge it. Even if governments and corporations had begun in 2000—or 1970—to close down coal- and- gas-fired power plants, and to cover land and ocean with wind turbines and solar panels, our way of life would still be colliding with planetary limits. Forests would still be leveled; habitat for wild animals, birds, and insects would be reduced to the danger point; and plastic waste would be accumulating in living bodies, including oceans. Nature and industrial civilization, based on a market economy that demands growth, are not compatible no matter the power source. Endless growth on this planet is not possible.
Sustainability means living as nature lives. It means no depletion of the elements of the ecosystem humans have treating as economic resources, and no waste. What we pursue is up that tree.
By personal example, by conversation with individuals, and by confrontation with technocracy on all levels, we can paint a picture of real sustainability. As recently deceased ecological economist Herman Daly once said, "Growth chestnuts have to be placed on the unyielding anvil of biophysical realities and then crushed with the hammer of moral argument." (4)
The message we would be carrying is, in the end, a moral idea. Only people who care about others will see the benefit, but humans are a social species. We like to help. And those who embrace degrowth will not only be helping others but be better positioned to live comfortably during the inevitable decline of the unsustainable industrial era. I think offering this possibility provides a much needed course correction and would start us barking up the tree that offers the best chance at survival.