We all saw it. The orange, almost crimson, skies which greeted residents of the Bay Area as they woke up for their days on September 10th were terrifying on many levels. It was almost as though a day from the future, of what awaits us should we not correct course soon, had fallen back through time, as though the hypothetical rapture yet to come was showing us a polite sneak peek. For many of us, this was the first time we had experienced the world-altering effects of climate change first-hand — suddenly, the oncoming climate crisis was no longer just an abstract distant future that we read about only in textbooks. After all, it is one thing to read about it, but to experience it as we now have ascribes it a sudden tangibility and urgency for many of us which was perhaps missing before.
But even with the alarming scarlet skies notwithstanding, it has been clear that we have entered a markedly new, more imminent era of the climate crisis. It has begun to knock on our door, begun to make its presence be felt — and the signs are everywhere we look. California and Australia have become consumed by record-breaking wildfires, the past couple years of hurricane seasons have been some of the strongest ever, Death Valley saw the world’s highest ever recorded temperature in August, and, as if this list of alarming environmental indicators wasn’t bad enough, large swathes of arctic Siberia have caught fire — an environmental marker which even the most alarmist climate scientists didn’t expect to see for another several decades (what’s the opposite of hell freezing over?).
Clearly, something must be done fast. Energy experts are already warning that the next six months are likely our last chance to prevent a carbon rebound and stave off climate catastrophe. But what, specifically, can be done? The subject was brought up at the first presidential debate, and both the candidates weighed in. President Trump waffled and dodged the question, opting instead to keep repeating how he wanted “crystal clean water and crystal clean air.” Biden, on the other hand, took the opportunity to tout his $1.7 trillion green infrastructure plan, which would aim for the U.S. to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and reach net-zero emissions by 2050. According to Biden, the plan would largely be financed by rolling back Trump-era tax breaks for the 1 percent and would lead to the creation of nearly 10 million jobs. Moreover, the plan emphasizes the importance of developing sustainable technologies; it would pledge a $400 billion investment over the next ten years towards the research and pursuit of sustainable, green technologies.
Biden’s plan is a massive improvement over Trump’s record on climate. Over the past four years, Trump has rolled back auto emission standards and air quality regulations, practically neutered one of the country’s most important environmental protection laws and racked up over 150 executive actions which have attempted to “scale back or wholly eliminate climate mitigation and adaptation features.” Should Trump remain in power, this destruction of the environment will continue, and it is highly likely that the continuation of his policies will trigger the activation of certain irreversible climate ‘tipping points.’ Even though we can plainly recognize that Biden’s plan is a clear improvement over Trump’s and is a needed start, it is equally important to note that Biden’s plan is simply not good enough if we wish to truly resolve the oncoming climate crisis.
Overconsumption & The Affluent
In order for us to understand why this is, we must first understand what the main drivers of climate change are. The scientific literature seems to have reached a clear consensus on the what the problem is — overconsumption by the affluent. Reports indicate that the world’s top 10 percent of income earners are responsible for between 25 to 43 percent of environmental impact whilst the world’s bottom 10 percent income earners exert only around 3 to 5 percent of the world’s environmental impact. As Professor Lorenz Keysser of ETH Zurich puts it, “[over]consumption of affluent households worldwide is by far the strongest determinant — and the strongest accelerator — of increased global environmental impacts.” In short, the overconsumption habits of a wealthy minority are fueling the climate crisis.
Biden’s climate plan operates under the guiding principle that sustaining these exorbitant and lopsided levels of consumption is feasible so long as we replace said consumption with a green and sustainable version of itself. After all, if the things we consume are made out of green materials and are transported to us using renewable energy, what’s the problem?
Technology Alone Cannot Save Us
The problem is that unless something drastically changes on a large-scale policy level, it is simply technologically implausible to arrive at such a point before it is too late. According to a study done by a group of researchers led by Professor Tommy Wiedmann from the University of New South Wales, over the past forty years the worldwide growth in consumption (and by consequence, growth in our environmental impact) has far outpaced any gains that have been made by technological advancements aimed at reducing those impacts. This trend has held into the 2010s despite the world beginning to significantly increase its investments in renewable energy: the last decade has seen countries worldwide dump over $2.5 trillion into renewable energies. “As long as there is growth — both economically and in population — technology cannot keep up with reducing impacts, and the overall environmental impacts will only increase,” says Weidmann.
This problem will only exacerbate over time. As globalization continues to stretch itself across the world, some 1 billion people in China and India are expected to ascend out of low-income groups into their respective country’s middle and upper income brackets, and consequently global consumption levels will skyrocket even more than they already have as millions across the world begin to adopt the same consumption heavy lifestyle found in the West.
While the Biden Plan’s added $1.7 trillion green-infrastructure investment will certainly help assuage this, it will not be nearly enough to both close the pre-existing gap between consumption and technological advancement and, on top of that, counteract the additional ratcheting of consumption brought on by a rapidly ascending globalized middle class. Thus, we can clearly surmise that, as Wiedmann’s co-author, Professor Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney, puts it, “any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if technological advancements are complemented by far-reaching lifestyle and consumption changes.”
But Are Such Lifestyle Changes Even Possible?
Is achieving the necessary far-reaching changes in lifestyle and consumption even possible? Well, if we examine the world’s current economic alignment, it would seem that it is practically impossible. Modern society’s economy is centered upon growth; in other words, the economy needs constant growth of human production and economic activity in order to function. It is for this reason that when a country’s GDP growth is negative (when its economic activity is contracting) that country’s economy goes into a crisis, and why when a country’s GDP growth is positive (when it’s economic activity is expanding) that country’s economy is considered to be, more or less, in a positive position.
Growing humankind’s production — and consequently growing the amount of things humankind consumes — is precisely the name of the game under our society’s current economic alignment. For us to try to achieve sweeping lifestyle changes to try and rein in the amount humans consume under an economic system which is predicated upon infinite growth of consumption is simply an exercise in futility.
Biden’s plan, if we even see it come to fruition, is merely a proverbial band-aid that cannot resolve these fundamental contradictions of our current economic system. After all, even if climate change did not loom as an existential threat, currently-constructed capitalism’s premise of infinite expansion in a world which has finite resources is a delusion which humanity would eventually be forced to somehow vault. That said, this is not to say that I am advocating for a centralized, Soviet-style state socialism; after all, a state-led, socialist economy which pursues endless growth is no closer to resolving this dilemma than a capitalist growth economy.
The Solution: A Degrowth Economy?
Instead, what could be a viable solution would be a switch to some variant of a degrowth economy, or at the very least a steady-state one, and with it, the abolition of economic growth as society’s organizing principle. Different from a recession, a degrowth economy would have to be a period of planned, even-handed economic contraction among the nations of the global North, with the eventual goal of reaching a steady-state economy which operates within the confines of Earth’s environmental limits — or at least until technology reaches a point where sustainable growth is actually plausible on the scale we need it to be.
The term “degrowth economy” one may conjure up images of hardship, deprivation, and a stagnation of societal progress, but it is important to note that this is not necessarily so. We must be careful not to conflate economic growth with societal growth, even if our current society has conditioned us to believe the two to be one and the same. A degrowth economy would have to be egalitarian: everyone’s needs would be met in a way which maintains a modest but satisfactory quality of life whilst the overconsumption of society’s affluent would have to be done away with. Society would produce a lot less (and, most importantly, consume a lot less), but this would greatly reduce our working hours and liberate us to spend more time on leisure. One need not fret too much the loss of consumerism which a degrowth society would bring about; studies show wealth and the consumption of material excess do not even really make us happy.
I maintain no illusions that such a future will be hard to envision for many of my readers. The current iteration of growth-oriented capitalism has presided over human production for well over four hundred years, and imagining a world without it is assuredly quite difficult. But humans have progressed and evolved through modes of production their entire existence, discarding systems once they are no longer useful or optimal. Once upon a time, we lived in feudal societies, in which workers were bound to the land and the divine right of kings seemed unchallengeable; yet humans shed those systems, and here we are now, living under vastly different circumstances. To believe that human production as it is currently constructed is its final form and the ‘end of history’, so to speak, is at best naive and at worst willfully ignorant. The truth of the matter is that an existential threat the magnitude of climate change will require equally existentially altering solutions; we must only be brave enough to imagine them.
Featured Image Source: Unite for Climate Justice New Zealand