New Economy Journal

So you want to save the environment: Do you realise what it will take?

Volume 4, Issue February 2023

February 28, 2023

By - Ted Trainer

Piece length: 1,334 words

Article Theme : Does Capitalism Have a Future?

Cover image by Markus Spiske from Unsplash
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Most people have no idea how far beyond sustainable ways we are, nor do they realise that the planet cannot be saved unless we abandon our affluent-consumer-capitalist society.

Recent admirable contributions to P and I have yet again raised alarm about the urgent and neglected imperative to take effective action, but even these underestimate what would have to be done. The usual demand is for politicians captured by corporate interests to find the courage to close the coal-fired power stations, buy back Murray River water rights and stop land clearing. But the main reason why they don’t do these things is because they can’t.

If politicians took the necessary steps to save the environment, the economy would instantly collapse and they would be instantly tipped out of office. We have an economic system which cannot function unless the amount of work, jobs, investing, producing, and consuming taking place are not just kept high but are creased all the time. …that is, there must be economic growth or unemployment, bankruptcy and recession surge.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians are dependent on coal being mined. If you close the mines, what are you going to do with them? Put them all into windmill production the next day? If you return the right amount of water to the Murray then you will need to organise funerals for many country towns.

The common mindless assumption is that the adjustments could be made, by a tweak here, a subsidy there and more solar panels. All we have to do is crank up our effort to recycle our garbage, buy green label products, put in rainwater tanks, create more national parks, shift to electric cars and develop more efficient technologies, and that will cut the environmental impact to a sustainable level, while we all go on enjoying affluent lifestyles and economic growth. That’s what the “Green Growth” movement tells us.

Most people have no idea of the huge magnitude of the reductions required if we want to save the environment. There is now a global ‘degrowth’ movement but even within it there is little understanding of the magnitude of this issue. According to the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Index , it takes more than 6.7 hectares of productive land to provide for each Australian. This means that if all the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 were to live as we Australians do now, we would need around 70 billion hectares. Yet there are only about 13 billion hectares of productive land on the planet. Further, if the normal 3% p.a. growth in our economy we take for granted continued, by 2050 the figure of land needed would be around 20 times greater. In a scenario where we left one third of this land for nature, we Australians would be taking around 10 times our fair share. In order to reduce this to a sustainable level which all the world’s people could share, current Australian per capita rates of resource consumption would have to be cut by around 90%.

The fundamental cause of all the big global problems threatening our existence is the fact that the amount of production and consumption going on is far beyond levels that are sustainable or those all people could ever rise to. This is why resources are being depleted, the environment is being shredded, the poor countries are not getting a fair share, resource wars are needed, and social cohesion in the ‘rich’ countries is crumbling.

“But technical advances will solve the problems.”

The standard response to this ‘limits to growth’ analysis of the situation is to claim that better technology and more recycling will reduce the impacts sufficiently without us having to think about reducing our high ‘living standards’. That is, resource and environmental impacts can be ‘decoupled’; from GDP growth. But we can no longer believe this to be an option. The detailed reviews by Hickel and Kallis, Parrique et al. and Haberl et al. (who reviewed over (800 studies) conclude that it is not happening and is not remotely likely to happen. If GDP increases, resources will be depleted and environmental impact will increase. Thus, there is no escaping the conclusion that the big problems cannot be solved unless there is astronomical change. We need to adopt radically different lifestyles and systems which enable us to live well on a small fraction of current resource consumption. For decades, some of us in the simplicity camp have been explaining how this can easily be done… if that’s what we want to do. But the first point to grasp is that it cannot be done in a consumer-capitalist society and it cannot be done without happy acceptance of far simpler lifestyles and systems, in which there is no interest in getting richer. Too much to ask? Probably, but it’s the only viable option to work for.

The solution?

The task is to enable large numbers of people presently working hard to produce and consume vast amounts of stuff, to shift to ways in which they live well without having to do that. Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in Missouri is one place working to show how it can be done. Their per capita resource consumption is around 5-10% of the US average, while their quality of life indices are higher. One of my studies indicated that Sydney outer suburbs could do much the same, largely feeding its members from within its boundaries, while cutting the paid work-week to two or three days. In poor countries there is now a largely unrecognised revolution underway, whereby literally millions of people are turning away from the capitalist ‘development’ path to build their own alternative systems … for instance, the Zapatista, Ubuntu, Campesino, Kurdish and Catalan movements.

The crucial principles include, most people living in highly self-sufficient, self-governing and co-operative communities, running their own local zero-growth economies via citizen assemblies and committees, involving lots of co-operatives and commons and small firms and farms (which can be privately owned) via mostly low-tech simple systems. This is not a ‘socialist’ vision; it is classical ‘anarchism’. The centralised state cannot implement or run such structures and processes; these must arise from the experience and desires of citizens who have come to realise that they must take control of their own local systems.

The reasons why this is the sustainable way are made clear by our study of an egg supply chain. The normal supermarket path involves complex international networks for agribusiness and industrial feed and fertilizer production, production of steel for factories, tractors, shipping, warehousing, battery farming, logistics, advertising, trucks, super marketing, IT, finance, consultants, packaging, waste removal, and expensive technical skills. However eggs produced in backyards, community co-ops and local small farms eliminate almost all of these costs while adding benefits such as enabling ‘waste’ kitchen scraps to become chicken feed, and ‘waste’ chicken manures to go directly to soils.

We found that that dollar and energy costs for backyard or co-op eggs are typically around 2% of that of eggs supplied by the supermarket path. There could also be a similar fishing industry in your neighbourhood, based on small tanks feeding into aquaculture systems. Further, closed-loop recycling of all nutrients can totally eliminate the need for sewers and the fertilizer industry. Humble but perfectly adequate new housing can be built from earth at a tiny fraction of the cost of McMansions. Leisure committees would ensure rich local substitutes for jet-away

travel. There would still be an important, though much reduced, role for some more distant and large centralised institutions, such as universities and mass production, but many industries could be entirely phased out. (For more details see The Alternative.)

Obviously, our present political and cultural institutions are totally incapable of comprehending let alone implementing such a vision, so there’s not much point in badgering Albo to close those mines. But the coming self-destruction of consumer-capitalist society will focus minds wonderfully. Meanwhile, please join us in working hard to change the dominant suicidal mentality as quickly as possible. If you really want to save the environment, that’s what it will take.

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