The following is part 4 of a four-part series titled Degrowth: Getting to the Root of the Climate Crisis, and is adapted from my presentation at the Australian Climate Action Summit, 20th September, 2014.
This article was first published here.
Parts 1, 2 & 3 can be accessed as follows:
The climate crisis, correctly diagnosed, is the overshoot of one of the nine planetary boundaries that safeguard the health of the biosphere that supports the human enterprise. The cause of this overshoot is correctly identified as the extraction and processing of natural resources and dumping of waste at a rate beyond our planet’s natural rate of renewal and recycling – all in pursuit of endless economic growth.
With the root cause of the crisis identified as our relentless pursuit of infinite growth on our inconveniently finite planet, it makes sense for the climate movement to engage with the concept of degrowth in order to properly address our complex predicament.
There are two key factors in economic growth, and its counterpart, degrowth:
Our economy grows thanks to increases in both population and consumption. To address one of these factors without also addressing the other would be an exercise in futility: curbing consumption while allowing population to grow results in no net reduction in emissions; similarly, stabilizing population while allowing consumption to increase in order to service our debt-based economy results in no net reduction in emissions.
We’re going to have to tackle both population and consumption, and, as it is, we don’t exactly make ourselves popular at dinner parties when we talk about scaling either of them back.
But, contrary to popular propaganda, neither decreasing consumption or gradually lowering our population is actually a threat to human rights – or even to our quality of life. Quite the contrary, in fact.
If you’ve been sold the notion that a Big Australia is good for us, you’ve been conned. If you’ve been sold the notion that increased consumer spending is good for us, again, you’ve been conned – most likely conned into buying a lot of crap you don’t need, and a heap of buyer’s remorse. Never trust a salesperson.
Population: a human rights & healthcare issue
Contrary to popular myth, stabilizing population does not require coercive or draconian policies – such as China’s one-child policy (which, again, contrary to popular myth, doesn’t apply to all of China’s provinces – folks in most of the countryside are exempt, and it also doesn’t apply to families whose first-born is a girl). Many countries have adopted sound policies that have been effective in stabilizing and gradually lowering birth rates. These policies revolve mainly around access to contraception and family planning, sound sex education, women’s economic emancipation, access to education, and sovereign reproductive rights.
The reality is that when human rights are prioritized, birth rates drop. In countries where women have economic rights, the right to education, good healthcare, and reproductive rights, they choose to have fewer children on average. Most women in the developed world – where there is universal healthcare – choose to have just one or two children on average. This leads, in turn, to a better standard of living for the whole family, better educational opportunities, better employment opportunities, and better opportunities all round for the next generation. Really, what’s not to love?
Consumption – much easier to rein in
What my own work really focuses on, however, is consumption – how we can consume significantly less without sacrificing quality of life. I choose this focus because it is arguably more feasible to rapidly curb consumption than it is to rapidly stabilize and lower population, and many of the tools of degrowth are accessible outside the realm of politics and policy, hence available to everyone.
But there are a few ways we can tackle consumption with policy measures – a few examples would be:
- Shifting from an income tax to a consumption tax – this way downshifters like myself would be rewarded for living lightly on the planet and other people would be incentivized to do join the movement to power down our way of life.
- Rationing household and business use of energy according to means testing – an unpopular measure for sure, but not as unpopular as runaway climate change. Ideally this would be coupled with emissions caps and production quotas for the energy industry, favouring cleaner, renewable sources.
- And, of course, as mentioned before, an end to debt-based finance would enable a steady-state economy to emerge via the elimination of the profit motive from business.
Mentioning these policy points is just an academic exercise, however, while there isn’t a politician on the planet capable of getting elected who would consider implementing such policies. The empowering aspect of degrowth needs to be emphasized, as there is a great deal we can all be doing to curb our consumption in the meantime while we wait for a shift in public opinion to usher in a government intent on addressing our crisis at its core. No naïveté intended, of course; this change in government may well not happen until it is too late to make a difference. We cannot afford to wait. We need to downshift now.
Shifting down a gear
Downshifting – otherwise known as opting for voluntary simplicity – is really all about re-imagining the good life. About not buying into the stories we are sold by a materialistic and competitive pro-growth culture.
Downshifters don’t buy into the notion that money equals success, that you have to earn status, that you need to accumulate material wealth. We don’t buy into the cycle of planned obsolescence that forces us to upgrade our gadgets constantly as last season’s model ends up in a toxic e-waste dump in the third world. We’re not interested in keeping up with the Joneses – we don’t live next door to them anyway.
So we don’t sacrifice ourselves to the treadmill of profit to service endless economic growth. We’re happy to work less and play more. We live tiny – a modest home is a cheap one. Our energy requirements are low – again, nice and cheap. And we’re not into shopping – there are more fun things you can do without having to get your credit card out. Simply put, we aim for a one-planet lifestyle, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the developing world who live light upon this planet.
Now, I’ve been called a Luddite – as though I’m anti-technology – in response to my stance on the misapplication of technological fixes. While I admit techy stuff isn’t what floats my boat, I certainly appreciate my computer, the internet that enables me to share my thoughts with like and unlike minds, and my car that facilitates my travel to faraway places and events, such as Climate Action Summits.
While I don’t necessarily think all of the technologies I enjoy are sustainable, I don’t think we should all go back to the Stone Age either – and neither do we have to. But we do have to rein in our consumption to what Mother Nature allows, to accept the limits to growth of the human enterprise. The consequences of overshooting our limits have become painfully obvious: if we do not change direction soon, we will end up were we are going. It will only be a question of whether resource constraints or climate chaos strike first, and one will undoubtedly exacerbate the other.
But not everyone is keen on the idea of degrowth, and some are repulsed by it. Some get pretty defensive. I’ve had it suggested to me that I’m an ingrate – that it was technological developments such as the invention of the washing machine that enabled me, a mere woman, to get an education. This, of course, was parroted at me by someone who had swallowed Hans Rosling’s TED talk on why technology is the saviour of all that is good and worthy without question.
As a woman, of course, I know better. I’m quite sure it wasn’t some kind gentleman donating my gender his clever labour-saving device that secured my liberty from the drudgery of what is obviously and rightfully women’s work. And I can’t quite imagine the women’s lib movement protesting in the streets with chants of “What do we want? White goods! When do we want them? After we’ve finished the ironing!” Wins for women were, sadly for the proponents of vicarious salvation through technology, achieved by women, not men, and via political action, not white goods.
Having said all that, I don’t own a washing machine, and my other half does his share of the laundry – by hand.
Walking your talk and eat your cake
Preaching degrowth without practising it through downshifting is not a credible approach to stirring momentum for the movement. Integrity matters.
So, as an advocate of degrowth, what have I done to downshift my own consumption and lifestyle? Well, I live in a small unit, a cabin really – with my partner and two cats – and we have very little stuff. We eat low on the food chain, organic where possible, locally-produced where possible, and always seasonally. We don’t exactly live to shop – my clothes are op-shopped – mostly chez Salvos (do a twirl), and our furniture is all pre-loved. But I must admit we still have our gas-guzzling beast of a car – a four wheel drive we bought second (or third or fourth?) hand for a lengthy road trip a couple of years ago and lived in for a while. I promise we’re planning to sell it off soon and replace it with a couple of bikes. So we’re not perfect, and we’re not purists.
To many middle-class folks we look like we live in poverty – a shocking choice for many of our demographic, whose parents or grandparents didn’t claw their way up from lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder for their progeny to throw it all back in their faces with an ungrateful sneer.
But what does living in poverty mean? Do we lack anything we might need? Do we work hard for little reward? Well, no. We don’t have jobs. We run our own little consulting business – consulting only for the clients whose work we really respect and value – non-profit organizations – and we do it for a pittance really. It keeps a roof over our heads and the wolf from the door, and frees us up to put time into things that really matter – like family and friends, putting time into Sustainability Showcase, the grass roots non-profit we both volunteer for, and SHIFT magazine, the magazine of the degrowth and resilience movement.
And of course it means we have time for events like this – the Climate Action Summit, and for front-line activism, and for spending time out in the sunshine, in the green calm of nature, under the big sky (I love that this country’s sky is so big and boundless), enjoying it all before it’s all destroyed.
Perhaps if you join us on the degrowth journey, it won’t get destroyed after all. I don’t know that much about many things, but I do know this: you can’t have your cake and eat it – so I’m just going to enjoy eating mine.