We are living in significant and consequential times. We face a crisis of both people and the planet that requires our urgent attention, or we risk devastating outcomes. But there is hope. The planetary crisis is largely a by-product of the people crisis and both can be addressed with the one solution: putting people and the planet firmly at the centre of our economy.
The people crisis
The people crisis is primarily a result of escalating wealth and income inequality: despite there being more money in the world’s economy than in all of human history, this money is not being distributed evenly and inequality has been increasing for decades. Nearly half of the world’s wealth is now owned by the top 1.1% while the world’s poorest 55% - over 4 billion people - own just 1.3% of the world’s wealth. This wouldn’t be so problematic if even those with a small share of the pie had enough to live a life of dignity. Sadly, for many, that isn’t the case. More than 700 million people – nearly 10% of the world’s population - live in extreme poverty, existing on less than $1.90/day. At a national level the figures are just as concerning: the rates of poverty in Australia, the U.S.A. and the U.K. range between 11% and 22% of people – including 14% to 31% of children.
Poverty not only means a lack of resources, it also means a lack of power and influence. Almost universally the rates of poverty are higher among those who are not married, young or elderly, not white, women, and who those who have lower levels of education. The already marginalised are finding themselves without a seat at the table, so to speak. Conversely, extreme wealth enables influence over most things, and political discourse and media ownership are no exception. This translates into a situation where often all major political parties in a country are funded by individuals with excess wealth and corporations who exist to generate profits to distribute to mostly wealthy individuals. It can also mean that the mainstream media influence election outcomes in line with their billionaire owner’s political ideologies. Research has shown that wealth and empathy have an inverse relationship: the wealthier you are, the less empathy you have. I’m not implying that everyone with excess wealth is malevolent, or even conscious of their disproportionate influence. Nonetheless, it remains that a small fraction of excessively wealthy people wielding so much power is not good news for most of society.
And so we see political parties elected who implement policies that favour the wealthy, resulting in favourable conditions for companies funnelling huge profits to individuals, and poorer conditions for workers including stagnating wages, under and insecure employment, and a rising cost of housing, healthcare and education. It is easy to see how wealth can become self-perpetuating. The last 40 years of global economic growth is proof of that: the richest 0.1% captured as much of this economic growth as the poorest 50%.
The planetary crisis
The planetary crisis is a consequence of overshoot of the following six planetary boundaries: climate change, land-system change (deforestation), biodiversity loss and extinctions, freshwater use, ocean acidification, and biogeochemical flows (resulting in soil degradation and oceanic dead zones). The people crisis exacerbates the planetary crisis: excess wealth causes disproportionate harm. For example, when it comes to climate change the wealthiest 10% of people globally create 52% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with the top 1% responsible for 15% of GHG emissions. Yet, the poorest 50% of the world’s population create only 7% of GHG emissions. These emissions have profound consequences: the people who will be first and most affected by climate change are those that have done the least to cause it.
The UN Secretary-General described the latest IPCC report, released in August 2021 as a “code red for humanity”. Despite this call-to-arms, November’s 26th Convention of the Parties (COP26) - a COP where many marginalised communities were not represented but where the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, was invited to speak - delivered much the same as the previous 25 COPs: reliance on technology that doesn’t exist, targets set in the future for someone else to deal with and an unwillingness to face into the fact that if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change we will need to radically change how many of us live on this planet. It is little wonder that GHG emissions are now 60% higher than they were when the first IPCC report was released in 1990. Tragically, we have now emitted more GHGs into the atmosphere since this first report – when the climate crisis hit the radar of the world’s politicians - than previously throughout all human history.
Global political action does not reflect it, but this really is a race against time. Climate change is killing people now. There are countless examples of this, but the first climate change famine in Madagascar is particularly heartbreaking. A stark reminder of the injustice of climate change: the carbon footprint per capita of a North American or Australian is 153 times that of a Madagascan. Additionally, the warming consequence of our GHG emissions triggers tipping points in the earth’s systems. Tipping points are “a critical threshold that when exceeded leads to large and irreversible changes in the state of the system”. The Amazon rainforest, which is no longer a net carbon sequester but a net carbon emitter, is close to crossing this threshold. We have lost the Arctic where so much heat-reflecting white ice has been lost, revealing the dark-blue, heat-absorbing waters below, it has created feedback loop of warming.
If we activate the global tipping cascade we will have set in motion a series of events which are irreversible on a human timescale. No amount of technology or lifestyle changes will prevent the planet from warming to a level that makes it largely uninhabitable for humans. We have already activated 9 of the 15 known tipping points, but no one knows at exactly what temperature we will activate the global tipping point - likely around 2C of warming. Politicians seem hell-bent on finding out: after 30 years of discussions current policies still put us on track for 2.7C of warming. Perhaps the most alarming part of the planetary crisis is the unwillingness to actually do anything about it. Although when you consider the people crisis outlined above it makes complete sense. Those with excess wealth control the political discourse, and they benefit hugely from the status quo.
A new system
It is in equal parts reassuring and daunting to know that these symptoms are all related to the one disease: an economic system predicated on growth. It is reassuring in that you can only solve that which you understand. Daunting because creating the will for change will be one of the most difficult, and important, feats in human history.
The issue with a single-minded focus on economic growth, measured in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), is that it is a distraction. While politicians are concentrating on GDP they are not focused on ensuring the economy is actually working for people and the planet, which it clearly is not. As Robert F Kennedy so eloquently said in a speech in 1968, GDP “measures everything … except that which makes life worthwhile”. Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and author of Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World, describes GDP growth as ‘a measure of the health of capitalism’. The limitations of the metric are quite astounding.
In developed nations, wellbeing and GDP were decoupled decades ago: in these countries increases in GDP do not result in improved wellbeing. Continuing to grow the economy via the exchange of more and more resource intensive ‘things’ in the hope that wealth ‘trickles down’ to the poorest citizens is not only an inefficient way of alleviating poverty, it’s also inviting environmental collapse. A yearly growth rate of 3% is equivalent to doubling every 24 years. If we are exceeding 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries now, how can the planet sustain an economy that will be four times larger in less than 50 years’ time?
Quite simply, it can’t.
The big picture
Creating the will for systemic change is particularly difficult because many of us suffer from ‘carbon tunnel vision’, where we see carbon emissions as an isolated issue affecting the world today, unrelated to the other problems we face. This is what we saw at COP26: proposals to “solve” the climate crisis with GHG-centred technology to keep the current system as unscathed as possible. This will not only not solve the other issues we face, but it will more than likely exacerbate them.
I recently met with an advisor to a “green-growth, pro-climate action” Australian MP who told me that “we will solve the major issues one by one, climate first, then biodiversity next and so on”. This stance fails to recognise that these two issues are both caused by our irrational pursuit of economic growth and that we can solve both with the one solution. That said, I get it. Politicians are limited by what their electorate is willing to tolerate. The current view from the Overton window - the range of topics political candidates can credibly campaign on - is mostly of well-intentioned but largely inadequate solutions that will still lead to widening inequality and ecological collapse.
Those with excess wealth have a lot of control over where the Overton window sits, but thankfully, in a democracy, the numbers are still on our side. Through grassroots movements we can influence what becomes policy. But if we want people to vote for genuine climate action, we need to change the system completely, not provide solutions that work against them by entrenching the very system that is repressing them.
Degrow the economies of wealthy nations
We need the Overton window squarely focused on a new system. As Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, describes it we need “a system that meet[s] the needs of all within the means of the planet”. To achieve this, we must urgently degrow the material footprint - reduce consumption, including of energy needs - of developed nations back within planetary boundaries. Simultaneously we need to provide high quality social services everywhere, especially in developing nations where improving the standard of living will have a positive impact on wellbeing. Because GDP and material footprint are linked and cannot be decoupled in time to avoid ecological breakdown, GDP will decrease as we do this. This means we need to abandon GDP as the primary measure of prosperity in wealthy nations and begin to measure the things that matter.
For those who read this and decide that degrowth is a bad idea and politically unpalatable - a smaller version of the current system and will lead to high unemployment and living in caves - I assure you that degrowth is not the same as regression. While we need to reduce our material footprint, we have a say in what this looks like. Similarly, our options are far more nuanced than simply capitalism, socialism or communism. We are limited only by our imaginations and the planetary boundaries, but only if we chose to do it by design and don’t wait for ecological collapse.
Let’s use our imaginations and design the best future possible for everyone. Perhaps this is a world where no one is living in poverty. Where we stop warming the planet with our day-to-day activities by scaling back harmful industries like coal, oil, gas, armaments, aviation, red meat, fast fashion, financial investment, advertising, planned obsolescence and single-use plastics. It may be a future where we work, and earn, less, but are also less stressed because our basic needs are provided for, including high quality healthcare, education and public transport. A world where even though we may work less, work is always available to those who want it, and the work is meaningful, valued and pays a living wage. Where organisations are structured so that their primary motivation is creating value for people and the planet and not profit for shareholders. Where wealth can no longer accumulate in the hands of a few who use it pursue their own agendas.
It seems pertinent here to mention that the top two regrets of the dying are that they did not lead the life they truly wanted to lead and that they worked too hard. We can create a future where we exist to do more than just work and pay bills and have the time and space to find and pursue our passions. Where we no longer view our worth in terms of our job and our earnings, or how much, and what, we own compared to the proverbial Joneses. In this new economy there may be a radical abundance of art, music, drama, nature, fitness, rest, leisure and so much more. We could build on cultures and traditions that have been neglected in favour of consumerism for too long. It really is up to us to decide what this new system looks like.
Tell the truth, often
In designing this new world, we must be wary of the “gatekeepers of discourse” who think they can decide for us what is politically safe to talk about and what isn’t. Often those gatekeepers are the same people benefiting from the current system. We must also be wary because if we only discuss the technology driven ‘supply-side’ solutions and ignore the lifestyle-based ‘demand-side’ solutions we belie the urgency and scale with which we must address the environmental crisis: people are being affected by climate change now. We do not have the luxury of waiting for technologies that have not yet been - and may never be - invented. Additionally, we are now so close to activating tipping points that we are in a situation where, to quote environmental journalist George Monbiot, “if Earth systems tip as a result of global heating, there will be little difference between taking inadequate action and taking no action at all”.
Instead of gatekeeping the discourse we should open the floodgates and talk more about our current crises. Be honest and truthful: we are at serious risk of losing everything without urgent action; and we have both the demand and supply-side solutions available to us to tackle this crisis. In doing so I hope we can agree that no matter where we sit on the political spectrum we all have in common a love for this planet and all that it provides us, our home unlike any other in the whole universe. That what unites us is many magnitudes greater than what divides us and we must do whatever it takes to protect it. I sincerely hope that with this in mind we can work together to overcome the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
If we are to solve the planetary crisis we must also solve the people crisis by creating a more equal society and removing the excess wealth that results in disproportionate power. Please use whatever means you have available to you to help make degrowth a household word. This will enable us to firmly place people and the planet at the centre of the economy where they belong. It is these very actions that push us towards a social tipping point, where a now seemingly fringe idea - of doing whatever it takes to ensure we leave future generations a habitable planet - is normalised. In doing so we must act with urgency, as if millions of lives depend on it. Because it is no exaggeration to say that they do.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.