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A Hot Mess: Growth is Not the Answer to the Climate Emergency
Professor Julia Steinberger is Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne, where she studies the relationships between the use of resources and the performance of societies
To mark another year of record-breaking climatic events, Byline Supplement is republishing its exclusive series of articles from the August 2022 edition of Byline Times. For the latest, subscribe here
You have written that close to 10 billion people could live a decent life with a smaller economy. How can this happen?
If we transform our economic system. Since the Industrial Revolution, our economies have been feverishly over-producing, without differentiating between needs and over-consumption.
Indeed, in the past century, a whole industry has grown up to market and advertise goods and services that consumers might not want or need. Governments focus on GDP growth, without considering quality of life or what investment is needed to enable people to live a good life at sustainable levels of resource use.
If we changed this system to a wellbeing-focused economy, we could live within the limits of climate and other planetary boundaries.
Most governments and corporate interests see green growth as a way to live compatibly with the Earth’s ecology. Is this feasible?
Even with technological advances, there is no evidence that growth can decouple GDP from resource use and carbon emissions – certainly not at the speed required to prevent the world from warming well past 2C, with all the devastation such warming would entail.
However, green growth is the strategy that underpins most governments policies and even the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Unless we change our economic system, we are heading for a dangerous future.
The good news is that it is possible to use much less energy but still have a really good quality of life, through sufficiency (avoiding over-consumption, for instance by biking or using public transport rather than driving large cars) and efficiency (avoiding wasteful consumption, for instance by insulating buildings).
What is stopping us from re-examining growth and changing the way our economy works?
Our governments have grown up with the fossil fuel industry and its allies and very often see their role as keeping these industries going. It is effectively state capture by large industries that prevents our governments from transforming our economies to serve people and the planet – as their main goal is to preserve the status quo that serves these industries.
Thus not only are our governments failing to provide a safe future through investment in sufficiency, efficiency, and renewable energy, but they are actively subsidising the fossil fuel industry.
Where can change come from?
As change isn’t coming from above, our only hope is that it comes from ordinary people. The public is starting to realise just how dangerous our future is. While the media and governments are failing to inform and warn citizens about the climate crisis, many people – especially young people – have gained information by other means and are deeply concerned.
But our governments still refuse to respond to their demands.
Are you optimistic about the future?
To some extent. We have all the tools we need today to live with less energy and less growth, where the vast majority of us would have a better quality of life. We don’t need to wait for miracle technologies for this. However, this can only be realised if we are able to transform our economic systems – otherwise we are stuck on the motorway to disaster.
Interview by Stephen Colegrave