Walking the tightrope

Many delegates to The Green Party Convention spoke strongly that reliance by Governments and politicans on the capitalist market forces and consumers to meet the challenges of Climate Change would not only fail but accelerate the impending end of life as we know it. After all, the IPCC say we only have twelve or less years to start making the Government-sized decisions that might save our live on the Earth. Even Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, intends to put forward a plan towards a reduction of , not 30%, not 40% BUT 55% of greenhouse gases by 2030. Get your finger out LEO!!!!!

The Swedish thinker and writer Gunnar Rundgren believes that ‘competition, not consumption, drives global destruction. As new ideas and inventions enter the market, for a time a company can have real growth both in production and labor because the total production increases a lot quicker than the labor productivity. Sooner or later markets get saturated and the pressure of competition increases.  Companies have to focus more on marketing, productivity and lower costs. Those made redundant through rationalization get a job in a new growing industry and the story is repeated. Increased productivity also leads to increased wages and in combination with lower prices to a tremendous growth in consumption.

“There is really no way around this on an aggregate level. And it explains very well why total resource use is increasing despite all advances in efficiency. For companies in competitive markets, it is really not possible to stand still producing the same product. Customers change slowly, but you have to increase productivity and innovate in order to survive. And capital owners of various sorts will demand rent on their invested capital or reschedule it to other businesses. It is all part and parcel of the capitalist market economy. Some argue that a non-capitalist market economy would be different, but I (Gunnar) have as yet not seen any convincing theory for how such a society would look like and there are no relevant historical examples to look at either. ‘
Increases in labor productivity through competition lead to increased use of resources and increased consumption through cheaper goods.

“The real driver of economic growth and resource use can be found in the conditions of production, and there, consumer demand plays a minor role. Calls for green growth or sustainable consumption will not change these fundamental conditions. Radical cuts in individual consumption, incomes and wage labor can change the game however.”

Which opens the way to a radical alternative which some suggest is the only way – Degrowth and the Circular Economy as proposed by Erik Assadourian and John Mulrow.

By now, most environmentalists have come across the term circular economy. It’s sexy, it’s cool, and it makes us feel like we can have our cake and eat it too—as long as the cake is made of sustainably grown ingredients, cooked and transported with renewable energy, and any leftover cake is composted to enable the making of future cakes.

But advocates of the circular economy rarely grapple with a central truth: the circular economy depends on a significant and sustained period of economic degrowth. Instead they tend to focus on innovations that deliver efficiencies and unlock new economic opportunities.

But the global data reveal this isn’t enough. According to the ecological footprint, globally we’re using the resources of 1.6 planets. The USA uses 5 Earths; Ireland, Russia, Germany use 3.2 Earths; countries like Iraq, Educador & Indonesia use a fraction over 1 Earth. This calculation is probably an understatement because it is based on a few measureable annual statistics and doesn’t count the degradation of soils, water contamination or the effects of species decline (like the humble honey bee). This is undermining Earth’s systems and the ability of humans (and countless other species) to survive and thrive. To get back within planetary limits, we will need to shrink the global economy by at least 37 percent – and realistically by much more in some countries if we expect to start healing the decades’ worth of damage our overconsumption has wreaked on the planet.

Degrowth acknowledges this, but Circular Economy advocates and designers tend to ignore or deny this reality. But shrinking material and energy demand is a prerequisite for a circular economy that functions within Earth’s limits.

There are at least three reasons for this. First, if production levels rise as a result of circular innovations, environmental savings are negated by new production–a phenomenon called the rebound effect. Second, the circular economy’s increased reliance on bio-based materials would utilize already overtaxed agricultural and ecological capacity. Third, energy is never free. Even renewable energy brings with it significant ecological impacts. Until we right-size the global economy, we’re going to need a prolonged period of degrowth.

Thus if the circular economy is serious about making human civilization truly sustainable and meeting the Paris Climate Accord of 1.5 max global warming, it needs to marry degrowth. So what can we do? – The top four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions with the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions: having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year), living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year), avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).

These actions have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less). (Environmental Research Letters, Volume 12, Number 7); some people will work less, either shorter weeks or longer holidays, for less income once essentials were covered; reduce unnecessary travel if we can walk, cycle or use public transport, car share or use electric taxis by living near our schools or work or public transport; eating less processed and more locally grown food while avoiding food-waste; demanding our suppliers provide longterm sustainable solutions for our needs. By reducing our demands on the Earth, we help ourselves.

By marrying these two concepts in a Spiral Economy, we get a better understanding of both the journey and the destination. Degrowth is a process not an end. The circular economy—at a much smaller throughput—is the destination. As our economy shrinks, revolution after revolution, we spiral down and eventually reach the goal—a smaller and circular economy. Visualizing this, one could call the marriage of these two concepts the “Spiral Economy.”

With limited resources, government policies should prioritize curbing growth first and foremost: shortening the work week; enabling more people to lead sufficiency lifestyles in the informal, or what Juliet Schor calls the plenitude economy; and providing the basic public goods (such as local & distant public transit, libraries, and even the humble drinking fountain) that discourage more ecologically-costly private consumption. These are good places to start.

Flash floods on farmland in Lesotho

Personnally, I believe that a mixture of individual choices, government decisions and technological innovations will save civilisation, but in the next 50/100 years global life will become less predictable with unknown consequences – out of & in-season floods, droughts, heatwaves, fires, snows, frosts, population movement, wars and violence. Thank God we live on an island in the Atlantic warmed by the Gulf Stream, but ………………………….?

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