I've seriously tried to believe capitalism and the planet can coexist, but I've lost faith
This article is the first in a three-part series on radical ideas to solve the environmental crisis.
As the Productivity Commission confirmed this week
, Australia’s economy has enjoyed uninterrupted growth for 28 years straight. Specifically, our output of goods and
services last financial year grew by 2%. Economists obviously see the growth of a national economy as good news – but
what is it doing to the Earth?
limitless economic growth, yet research
shows that trajectory is incompatible
with a finite planet.
If capitalism is still the dominant economic system in 2050, current trends
suggest our planetary ecosystems will be, at best, on the brink of collapse
. Bushfires will become more monstrous
and wildlife will continue to be annihilated
As my research has sought to demonstrate
, an adequate response to climate change, and the broader environmental crisis, will require creating a post-capitalist society
which operates within Earth’s ecological limits
This won’t will be easy – it will be the hardest thing our species has tried to do. I’m not saying capitalism hasn’t
produced benefits for society (although those benefits are distributed very unequally within
And of course, some people will think even talking about the prospect is naive, or ludicrous. But it’s time to have the
What is growth?
generally refers to gross domestic product
(GDP) – the monetary value of goods and services produced in an economy. Historically, and across the globe, GDP and
environmental impact has been closely linked
Capitalism needs growth
. Businesses must pursue profits
to stay viable and governments want growth because a larger tax base means more capacity for funding public services.
And if any government tried to slow or stop growth for environmental reasons, powerful economic forces
under capitalism would offer fierce resistance – with some businesses perhaps threatening to leave the nation
What about ‘green growth’?
Most mainstream economists and politicians accept the science
on the dire state of the planet, but not many people think capitalism is the problem. Instead, the dominant response to
the ecological crisis is to call for ‘green growth
This theory involves producing ever more goods and services, but with fewer resources and impacts. So a business might design
its products to have less environmental impact, or a product at the end of its life could be reused – sometimes called
a ‘circular economy
If our entire economy produced and consumed goods and services like this, we mightn’t need to abandon the growth
to capitalism. Instead, we would just “decouple
” economic growth from environmental impact
Too good to be true
There are several big problems with green growth theory. First, it isn’t happening
at the global scale
– and where it is happening to a limited extent within nations
, the change is not fast or deep enough to head off dangerous climate change.
Second, the extent of “decoupling” required is simply too great
. Ecological footprint accounting shows we need 1.75 planets
to support existing economic activity into the future – yet every nation seeks more growth and ever-rising material living standards
Trying to reform capitalism
– with a carbon tax here and some redistribution there – might go some way
to reducing environmental harm and advancing social justice.
But the faith in the god of growth
brings all this undone. The United Nations’ development agenda assumes “sustained economic growth” is the best way to
alleviate global poverty – a noble and necessary goal. But our affluent living standards simply cannot
be globalised while remaining within safe planetary limits. We need degrowth
, which means planned contraction of energy and resource demands.
Taking a fair share
Let’s do the maths. If all humans lived like Australians, we’d need more than four planets
to sustain us. Earth’s population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050
. Our current levels of consumption do not add up.
Something resembling a fair share could involve developed nations reducing energy and resource demands by 50%
or even 75% or more
. This would mean transcending consumer lifestyles
, embracing far more modest but sufficient material living standards
, and creating new post-capitalist
modes of production and distribution that aimed to meet the basic needs of all
– not for limitless growth.
” in material consumption
can begin at the individual level where possible
. But more broadly we must create local
and sharing economies
that don’t depend on globalised, fossil-fuelled distribution chains.
A range of social movements
will be needed to persuade politicians to adopt systemic change.
Last year’s global student strikes
and Extinction Rebellion
protests were a good start. Over time, they could create widespread public momentum
for an alternative, post-growth economy.
Ultimately, structural and policy inventions
will be needed. This includes changes to land governance
to make sustainable living easier. And we need to start having difficult but compassionate conversations about population growth
I’m certainly not suggesting we adopt a centralised, Soviet-style state socialism. After all, a socialist economy seeking growth
without limit is just as unsustainable as growth capitalism. We must expand our imaginations
and explore alternatives
I don’t have all the answers – and I think post-capitalist movements, now and in the future, will probably fail
. But if we do not recognise capitalism’s inherent growth fetish
as the central problem, we cannot formulate a coherent response
, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne
This article is republished from The Conversation
under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article