How the myth of unlimited growth is destroying the planet

15 Diciembre 2009

Economic growth and continued expansion are a vital requirement for the current pattern of civilisation. We need to change this if we are to solve the climate crisis.

What challenges does the climate crisis pose us as humanity?
Unless we tackle the myths of growth and development, unless we manage in a short time to enact a radical redistribution of access to the world's commons, we will face a doomsday scenario.

We need to look at how the issue of what we call climate crisis is framed. Once you refer to it as a climate crisis, you limit the debate to how much carbon there is in the atmosphere. It becomes a technical problem. How do we reduce carbon emissions? Solutions are seen and top-down techno-fixes, when this is really about the need to change a whole pattern of civilisation.

Focusing entirely on carbon and temperatures also leaves out the fact that forests have been irrevocably destroyed, seas dramatically overfished, water contaminated. An economic system based on unlimited growth contradicts a limited planet.  It also attempts to obscure the political and distributional dimensions of this global crisis.

There is a huge difference between those who have historically made the greatest contribution to climate change and those who suffer its most severe impacts. Pollution invariably occurs where the poor live, while the rich live in uncontaminated areas. Therefore this isn't just about levels of pollution but also about justice. According to the Food Agriculture Organisation, one billion people go hungry each day. The impact of climate change will lead to high migration, more racism, attempts to protect privilege, the rise of resource wars, more inequality and more violence. We don't have much time left.
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What are the roots of the current destructive pattern of civilisation?
They are both cultural and philosophical, with roots that go way back, but which were taken up by capitalism in rapidly increasing ways. As there can be no such thing as capitalism without growth, we must go beyond capitalism. But this destructive model was also present in the 20th century socialism, so it goes deeper than capitalism. I believe it is a profound civilisational pattern. The problem is that the vast majority of the world has incorporated this view, in their subjectivity, as if happiness depended on it and never ending accumulation of things. 

This crisis can not be responded to with small adjustments as the corporations, elites and some scientists would like us to believe. I’m afraid only environmental catastrophes which affect people personally may prompt people to realise how profound this crisis is.

Fortunately, there are other visions such as those promoted by campesino, social justice and indigenous organisations that hold up different visions of wealth and development. This division will be obvious in Copenhagen, with those inside, whether government, corporations, or scientists, claiming to have technological-fixes and solutions based on the market, whilst those outside will have more radical critique.

What do you think about carbon trading?
Carbon trading is a perfect example of top-down technologically-reliant market-led false solutions which are ultimately designed to create new forms of accumulation. This in turn fuels economic expansion which is at the root of the climate crisis. It is absurd to think a solution of growth can lead to something that is caused by growth itself. There is also such incredible inequality of access to the planet's carrying capacity, that it will become inevitable that if some people are using more, others will necessarily have access to less. Clime justice is a necessary dimension of any possible solution to the challenges we now face.

How can we start to tackle climate change if it is structurally so embedded in the system?
Undoing capitalism in the short term is obviously not likely. Much has been said about a post-industrial, post-material or knowledge society, but this has been mainly nonsense. Material production and extraction and destruction of the Earth’s commons has continued at an increased rate. It is stupid to think that there can be solutions in Copenhagen when at the same time the same governments are trying put the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation back on track. The continuing goal of creating more growth and more trade will have a much bigger impact than anything that might be decided in Copenhagen.

Why is this economic model so entrenched?
Firstly, we are living in a culture informed by a global Christian framework that goes way back in time. The Bible contains the basic notion that nature is separate, which is also the root of modern science and technology – just look at Bacon or Descartes. It has formed part of our common understanding for centuries. People who believe otherwise, such as indigenous people who refer to Mother Earth and assume we are part of nature, are seen as ridiculous, primitive and not scientific. It is part of the dynamics of modern capitalism. Growth and continued expansion are a vital requirement for this pattern of civilisation. No government in the world would say that the purpose of economy isn't growth. It is hard to envision any party that proposed a 10% shrinking of economy would get any votes. The way we current understand as wellbeing and wealth urgently needs to be reviewed.

I think there is also a tendency to feel overwhelmed by the overwhelming dimensions of the problem. At times, climate and environmental destruction seems so huge and unassailable it is easier to keep living our lives as if it doesn't exist.

What is state of alternatives in Latin America?
I think alternatives and new concepts of wealth are extremely vital as a preparation for a radical change in lifestyle. It is vital to show that economics is an extremely distorted and biased characterisation of reality. This needs to be said again and again, and repeated and repeated. When something more catastrophic occurs, people will keep it in the in back of their mind and realise that these messages were not apocalyptic but actually providing some tools for thinking (and living) differently.

We have seen some interesting developments in Ecuador or Bolivia under the indigenous terms of sumak kawsay (in Quechua) and suma qamaña (in Aymara), meaning Living Well. These are alternative concepts of life, individual which require harmony amongst humans and rest of life on Earth. In Ecuador nature is now considered a subject with rights. It is enshrined in the country’s Constitution, which means these rights must be protected and the law ensures that the state protects it. This advance does not come from nowhere, but is part of long-term struggles by indigenous peoples and communities and social movements. Of course, just because it is in the constitution does not mean that a profound civilisation shift has already occurred, but it is certainly part of the current political and cultural struggles in those countries. 

What do you think about the arguments that the South doesn't have a historical responsibility to reduce emissions, yet are also likely to be the main polluters in the future? What is the South's responsibility?

Well, it is true that China has now overtaken US in emissions, even if per capita it emits much less than the US. But it is definitely the case that we can't have a China growing at 12% for next 20 years because this will threaten our survival. This is a question of justice, redistribution of access to the Earth’s commons. The planet won't survive unless there is a radical reduction in consumption in North. At the same, it is not responsible to say “let the South just follow the Northern example of over contamination in order to catch-up and review the situation later”. 

And what about the role of Venezuela?
To be honest, the whole progressive left in Latin America have been very disappointing on environmental issues. They gained power largely as result  of  continent wide  popular reactions against neoliberalism, against the whole pattern of an export-led model of growth and development. Yet no country with so-called Left or progressive government has become less dependent on commodity exports for its growth. In fact, the opposite happened: these countries have become more dependent on primary good exports, often exports of fossil fuels. In Venezuela, oil now makes up 93% of total value of exports which is an unprecedented high.

There is a discourse on a crisis of civilisation, of capitalism as machine of destruction of planet, but when it comes to action plans and policies, it is simply not present. In Venezuela, the main opposition to dominant development model comes from indigenous communities who are protecting their territories from oil, coal and other extractive industries. But because they are small numerically, their cause has not become a more overt issue for the whole of society so these critiques are not likely to have success in the short run.

These are particularly difficult issues in Venezuela, where we have had 100 years of oil-centered, rentist society. The majority think Venezuela's wealth is exclusively tied to oil and that oil is commonwealth that we have a right to share. This has led to the idea of ever expanding consumption rights based on an ever increasing oil and gas national income. In Venezuela, for example, the price of gas is almost sacred – 4c per litre at pump- and it can't be changed, because Venezuelans believe they have a right to that price.

What can we do?
People have to be more informed. The way issues are being framed, and represented in the media, don't allow for action. Either presented as overwhelming, technical problems only solved by corporations or completely depoliticised. We need to undo this at every level.