Growth pains

by
20 September 2019

TODAY’s climate strike will probably turn out to be carbon-neutral. All the energy expended by protesters travelling to the places where they will protest should be offset by the lost productivity of the adults who, for the first time, will be joining the student strike in significant numbers. Strikes and street closures are a crude means of making a point. Something that directly targets the people one wants to influence, in this case world leaders preparing to gather for the United Nations climate summit on Monday, would be more effective. But governments listen to business leaders, too, perhaps more than to schoolchildren; so action that reveals the depth of feeling of employees and customers has value. Enlightened companies have recognised the cost of environmental degradation to their businesses — in the present as well as the future — and are supporting employees who wish to strike today.

Productivity remains the topic that climate campaigners address with care, knowing how unpopular their message would make them with the political leaders they are trying to win over. Economic growth continues to be used as the key indicator of a nation’s health, without any thought of the environmental cost. Under this scale of judgement, a successful government is defined as one that manages to increase the material wealth of its citizens. But the growth of the past 200 years has depended almost entirely on the exploitation of fossil fuels. A new calculation by Vaclav Smil, an emeritus professor of the environment in Canada, reckons that, for most of human history, in the hunter-gather phase, each individual consumed five to six gigajoules of energy through the use of food and fuel. People in high-income societies now consume 50 times that, mostly derived from fossil fuels. It is now possible to make the land yield ten times what it did a century ago, but only because 90 times the amount of energy is poured into it, almost exclusively from fossil fuels (Growth: From Micro-organisms to megacities, MIT, 2019). A hypothetical example: a clothing manufacturer creates a winning design and sells 20 per cent more garments, resulting in more profits, more staff, more tax paid. But the environmental impact of those new garments — 20 per cent of industrial water pollution comes from textiles, as well as ten per cent of global carbon emissions — contributes to the undermining of all the efforts made to use clean energy, fly less, recycle more, etc.

It is remarkable that religions have not been more to the fore in challenging the grip that material growth has on global society. Christians repeat “Blessed are the poor,” but they don’t really mean it. Attempts by radical economists to promote Gross National Happiness as an alternative measure are routinely dismissed; but organisations that promote spiritual well-being, if they are serious, should campaign much more wholeheartedly against a value-system that threatens the planet — without ever delivering the widespread contentment that it promises.

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