Greta Thunberg Is Right. Fairy Tales of Endless Growth Will Destroy Us

Growth is driving climate change. But news media ignore the clear connection.

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Greta Thunberg: ‘We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.’ Photo by campac Creative Commons licensed.

It has been just over a year since 16-year-old Greta Thunberg started her “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm. Since then, she has spoken to increasingly large crowds — including Friday in Montréal.

There are many reasons why people are still talking about Thunberg’s speech on Monday at the United Nations Climate Action Summit. She spoke with knowledge, clarity and passion well beyond her years.

What I find especially significant about the talk is her inclusion of a critique of economic growth in the climate change story frame. “We are at the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Thunberg said.

Scholars and activists share Thunberg’s concerns about the current system of endless economic growth. For example, professor David Barash powerfully equates endless growth to a Ponzi scheme. It is a system, he says, “predicated on the illusion that it will always be possible to make future payments owing to yet more exploitation down the road.”

Economist Juliet Schor similarly warns about the resource depletion implications for economic growth. She highlights that endless growth will lead to “blowback… which is now happening with the climate system, oceans and forests.”

Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon succinctly offers that “it’s becoming increasingly clear that endless material growth is incompatible with the long-term viability of Earth’s environment.” And writer Naomi Klein refers to the “god of economic growth,” powerfully proposing that “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”

Thoughtful and well-researched scholarship makes clear that economic growth and environmental crises are related. And yet non-academic writing linking endless growth economics and climate change is almost non-existent.

I have conducted a content analysis on the Canadian Major Dailies database. In the 12 months prior to Thunberg’s talk there were 850 newspaper articles (including opinion pieces, editorials and letters) with “climate change” in the headline.

Of these, 372 — or 44 per cent — were related to the economy. And yet only one letter to the editor raised concerns about economic growth in the era of climate change.

This is what makes Thunberg’s mention of “eternal economic growth fairy tales” so remarkable — she put economic growth and climate change into the same frame.

It is easy to think that economic growth is essential — that we have always had growth at the core of economic policy. But scholars point out that this is not the case. Bill McKibben and Peter Victor point out that our “fixation” on economic growth as an “explicit object of government policy” began in the mid-20th century.

McKibben highlights that since then economic growth has not only devastated the planet, but also fostered inequity, insecurity and “is no longer making us happy.”

Cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff offers that “all of our knowledge makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neurally activates. All thinking and talking involves frames.”

In other words, we understand and act upon climate change based on what has been framed with the climate change stories we are told.

The good news is that climate change stories can change. Not that long ago, there were few stories about climate change. Today, the number has dramatically increased.

Until recently, there were not many stories that linked climate change to extreme weather events. Increasingly, these stories are being told.

Now it is time to question economics and foster discussions about the hard decisions and changes that need to be made. It is clear that we cannot simply consume differently — we must consume less. MORE

 

Mike Nickerson: We must adapt to the limits of our planet.

Dramatic change is needed.

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We have long had the knowledge and ability to provide everyone with viable, satisfying lives far into the future.

Enmeshed as we are in a vast, expanding mechanical network, it is hard to imagine living in a culture where our lives are the core substance. Nevertheless, such a cultural shift offers an enduring and satisfying relationship with the Earth.

As a species, we have to shift from our long childhood growth phase to a stable adult form. In society’s late adolescence such cultural change may seem illusive. Step by step, however, the following can turn what is initially unimaginable into a clear possibility.

The first step is developing renewable energy. Wind, solar, hydro and other renewable energy development can be part of the end goal, while the process of putting them in place remains well within the familiar pattern of resource intensive development.

The second step is to focus on education and health care. These lead directly to increased capability and quality of life while using minimal amounts of material resources. Education is almost entirely knowledge and good will. Health-care is the same at the level of knowing how to lead our lives so as to maximize health. Experience shows, in country after country, that populations spontaneously stop growing when local economies are managed in a way that provides people with basic education, health care and old age security.

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The third step is for human aspiration to focus on what we can do with life rather than on consuming material goods and expanding our use of energy.

The desire to grow is firmly rooted in our characters. Throughout our formative years and well beyond, growth is a preoccupation. To be able to crawl, to reach the water tap or to have our own way all require getting bigger. The residual urge to grow has been harnessed to stimulate the expansion of material consumption. The dilemma is that, while each of us wants to grow, collectively we have already grown to confront the limits of our planet. The solution has a well established precedent in each of our individual lives. For the most part, our physical growth comes to an end as we become adults. Physical growth is replaced by the development of our understanding, skills, relationships and appreciation of what life offers.

Voluntary simplicity is easier to promote when it is clear that it offers abundant opportunities for growth. Life-based pursuits, or the ‘3 L’s’ — Learning, Love and Laughter — as they are referred to for our sound bite world, offer boundless frontiers. The development of skills, scholarship, art, music, sport, dance, friendship, spiritual aspiration, parenting and service were the essence of human culture before the commercial era pressed acquisition to its current place of prominence. The saturation of landfill space, problems with pollution and painful experiences with finite natural resources bid us re-consider the emphasis we place on the pursuit of our human birthright.

In the same way that a developing embryo goes through the stages of evolution, civilization will likely follow the pattern of individual maturation. As a culture we are in late adolescence. We have grown big enough to accomplish anything which life requires of us. Now, as self-centeredness gives way to responsibility, our rapid physical growth can transmute into the growth of the remarkable qualities with which people are so abundantly endowed.

We could be appreciating life so deeply that we wouldn’t have time to impact the Earth at a dangerous level.

We have long had the knowledge and ability to provide everyone with viable, satisfying lives far into the future. It is not as sexy as solutions based on shiny industrial products, and it is unlikely to make a lot of money. Nevertheless it could save civilization.  MORE

Emissions inequality: there is a gulf between global rich and poor

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American congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently shook up environmental politics by releasing a broad outline of a Green New Deal– a plan to make the US a carbon-neutral economy in the next ten years, while reducing both poverty and inequality. Lauded by many as a radical and necessary step, president Trump responded in typical style:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal. It would be great for the so-called “Carbon Footprint” to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!

The Green New Deal doesn’t directly call for people to consume less meat. But the argument that solving climate change means changing our diets is widespread, and Ocasio-Cortez herself has made the link.

From personal carbon footprint calculators to articles outlining how many Earths we need to sustain the consumption of the average citizen of the UK, Europe or the US, consumption is identified as the problem. Reduce consumption, runs the argument, and you solve climate change. But is “our” consumption really the problem? Who is “we” anyway?

Globally uneven consumption

This point has been made before, but bears repeating. Most of the world’s population produces very little in the way of either carbon emissions or broader environmental impacts. We can go further here by also looking at imported carbon emissions – that is, the emissions that come from the production of goods and services in countries such as China that are then consumed in the wealthy countries of the global north. If we include imported emissions, the UK’s overall emissions have only marginally decreased since 1990. MORE