Growth: A Hard Habit to Break

By Prof. Dr. Felix Ekardt
03:15 PM, June 24, 2016

If we are to take the Paris Agreement on climate change seriously, growth-driven society is on the way out. But greed is part of the human condition, and no one knows what life without growth would be like.

In December 2015, countries around the world agreed to a new global climate treaty. The legal details are vague, but the overarching objective is clear and binding. The Paris Agreement stipulates that global warming be limited to well below 2 degrees Celsius. For an industrialized country such as Germany, which has high per capita emissions, the IPCC estimates that this would mean 95 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

The Paris Agreement targets a further limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The changes required to achieve this would have to happen even faster; developing countries would have to press ahead with these in the near term as well. The Paris targets are absolutely welcome, considering that the consequences of climate change threaten all of humanity. But what no one admits is that their implementation will likely lead to a world without growth.

Protecting the climate and perpetuating growth can go hand in hand if we replace the fossil fuels we use for electricity, heating, fuel, and fertilizer by relying solely on technical options such as renewable energies and energy efficiency. New technology can be sold and growth achieved in this way. But technology alone will hardly get us to the aforementioned targets – even though, of course, no one can predict this today with any certainty. The challenge is simply too great.

Tidy emissions projections

Moreover, as our technology improves, our level of wealth rises, creating more emissions to deal with. We also lack effective technological solutions for some of the sources of emissions, such as agriculture. In addition, previous statistics and forecasts are based on tidily estimated projections. Industrialized countries such as Germany are supposedly reducing emissions, but in reality, the emissions from our way of life are increasing. We are simply shifting them onto developing countries, since this is increasingly where our consumer goods are coming from.

Furthermore, all of this talk about climate is one-sided: Other environmental problems such as the degradation of soil and ecosystems pose just as much of a long-term, existential risk to humanity and need to be addressed at the same time. The solution is obvious: Give more space to nature. Technology alone is not enough for these problems, even less so than it is for the climate. Consequently, under the Paris Agreement, part of protecting the environment is about leading a more frugal lifestyle, in addition to using green technology. It is not enough just to drive more-efficient cars – we have to walk places more often, or go by bike, bus, or train. Cosmetic fixes such as massive reforestation to bind greenhouse gases will do almost nothing to remedy this inconvenient truth; their scale would have to be enormous if we are to substantially reduce emissions that way.

Emissions-free nuclear energy is no solution either. The risk of such facilities being attacked by terrorists is uncontrollable, at the very least, and their costs are exorbitant. The German debate over nuclear waste demonstrates precisely this fact. And if, rather than embracing undesirable frugality, experts suggest removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through methods such as seeding the oceans or carbon capture and carbon storage, we face the threat of equally incalculable risks and exorbitant costs.

More frugality

The shift to a more sustainable society, therefore, will not work unless we also shift our way of life. We need to consume less. But then less will be sold: significantly fewer leisure flights, and fewer cars. This implies that the end of the growth-driven society is upon us, first and foremost in those industrialized countries that are called upon to make progress on climate change under the Paris Agreement. Neither will we get away with visions of a purely service-oriented world without any environmental footprint: Services such as flights and IT technologies also use a good deal of resources.

If we limited environmental protection purely to what was technically feasible, on the other hand, we would have to accept considerable environmental damage. This would mean tackling climate change only partially and would be tantamount to ignoring problems such as degraded ecosystems. In the long term, we would be destroying the physical foundations of our existence, and in the worst case this would happen through increased international and civil wars over dwindling food and water resources.

But here is the big problem: Until now, central social institutions such as the labor market, the pension system, the banks, and the system of national debt have depended on growth. So far, alternative concepts to liberate them from the growth compulsion have hardly gone beyond individual ideas such as a reduction in the number of hours worked. Furthermore, we lack conceptions of how to make the difficult transition into the post-growth era without massive upheaval and social unrest – as we witnessed in the euro crisis countries, where growth turned into contraction in the briefest of times.

Many adherents of post-growth evidently do not see this as a problem. Ultimately, they say, the contraction will gradually bring about an economy oriented toward solidarity and the common good, including the appropriate political majorities. They argue that people would be happier without capitalism because the competitive society would then become passé – that people are, in fact, primarily cooperative or even altruistic in nature, and only capitalism deforms them to be selfish. A world without growth, then, appears as the actualization of true human nature. But this misses the point.

Not everyone dreams of a happy life in the country

As the research shows, happiness is relative. So it is less the Malaysia trip in itself that generates happiness than the ability to keep up with the Joneses. A more frugal life can therefore make a person happy if that person still feels acknowledged. But happiness levels also often increase when people have more than those around them, and not everyone dreams of growing their own food in agricultural cooperatives instead of going to the capitalist supermarket.

The increase in mental health disorders in a globalized capitalism environment is not in itself proof that capitalism causes unhappiness. It used to be that someone who was sad would simply go see friends; nowadays, we diagnose depression and prescribe pills, which not least benefits the pharmaceutical industry and its continually new products.

Capitalism is an important cultural influence. Nevertheless, sociobiology has demonstrated that human beings have a certain propensity for selfishness. Outside of the kind of directly life-threatening conditions as occurred in the Stone Age, our propensity for cooperation is often limited. Cooperation is particularly difficult when it has to take place internationally, as with the climate, rather than in relatively manageable small groups, as in the distant past. Therefore, we must count on clear and very short-sighted calculations of self-interest, and among more groups than just managers and politicians.

We are part of the growth world

We are all interlinked in the growth world: through our jobs and our consumer desires, or our pension funds that own companies through their stock portfolios. And none of us – politicians included – always acts rationally. The all too human biases toward comfort, habit, repression, prestige, and the usual concepts of normality complicate any fundamental change. When I sit down on the emissions-heavy plane to Tenerife in February drizzle, I have absolutely no inkling of the climate disaster and limits to growth.

Concepts for the post-growth world should not bank on a new kind of human being, lest they remain ineffective utopias. But change is possible. Calculations of self-interest, concepts of normality, and even values can evolve further as different actors interact. They will even have to – environmentally speaking – if we are to survive.

About the Author
Ekardt, Felix

Felix Ekardt is Director of the Research Unit Sustainability and Climate Policy in Leipzig which he founded in 2009. Since 2009, he is also Professor for public law and legal philosophy at the Rostock University (Faculty of Law). His scientific focus lies in issues around human science sustainability studies. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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