Can "Green Growth" Save Us From the Climate Crisis?

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
CC BY 2.0. Growth/ Lloyd Alter

Do we have the political will to do what has to be done? Simon Kuper doesn't think so. I do.

Everyone who is thinking about climate has to also be thinking about growth. Vaclav Smil wrote in his last book on energy: "Any suggestions of deliberately reducing certain resource uses are rejected by those who believe that endless technical advances can satisfy steadily growing demand. In any case, the probability of adopting rationality, moderation, and restraint in resource consumption in general and energy use in particular, and even more so the likelihood of persevering on such a course, is impossible to quantify."

Now I am struggling to get through his latest book, Growth, which he concludes by "driving home the point that the trajectory of modern civilization, driven by computing imperatives of material growth and biospheric limits, remains uncertain," which is his way of writing, "OMG we're all gonna crash and burn."

Writing behind the Trump-sized paywall at the Financial Times, Simon Kuper is not too optimistic either. He points out that global emissions are rising and the population is growing.

So we need to slash emissions while feeding and fuelling more people. But those people are also getting richer: global income per capita typically grows about 2 per cent a year. And when people have money, they convert it into emissions. That’s what wealth is.

Will renewables and new technology make a difference? Perhaps a bit, but not fast enough. Cars keep getting bigger and last many years, and our leaky houses last many decades. Planes are getting a lot more efficient, but their numbers are going up dramatically. "The sad truth is that moving from dirty to green growth will take much more time than we have. The infrastructure we’ll be using these next crucial decades has largely already been built, and it isn’t green." This is where it gets tricky.

If green growth doesn’t exist, the only way to prevent climate catastrophe is “degrowth” now, not in 2050: stop most flying, meat-eating and clothes-buying until we have green alternatives, ban privately owned cars and abandon sprawling suburbs.

Good luck with that. In the end, he asks if democracy can survive without carbon (my emphasis):

We are not going to find out. No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle. We can’t blame bad politicians or corporates. It’s us: we will always choose growth over climate.

I proceeded to the comments to see how many of the rich tory business types who subscribe to the Financial Times would start screaming about this commie trash and found them surprisingly sensible and resigned to their fate. And then I realized that this is really just a stage of denial, that I will call 4b. The first five were laid out by Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian a few years ago.

Stage 1: Deny the Problem Exists
Stage 2: Deny We're the Cause
Stage 3: Deny It's a Problem
Stage 4: Deny We can Solve It
Stage 5: It's too Late

People in Stage 4 claim that solving climate change would be too expensive and that if we try do do anything it will hurt the poor who need energy now. Stage 4b might be that it's too hard and uncomfortable: "I like my SUV and my job that has me flying all over." We can't solve it because as Kuper concludes, "We will always choose growth over climate." Jobs come first!

I am not sure Kuper is right. He says, "No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle." Ignoring his incorrect usage of the verb decimate, I will note that 63 percent of Canadians just voted for parties that supported carbon taxes over the party that wanted to cancel them. Most of the people who did vote for the Conservatives live in the provinces that make their money by digging and boiling tar, and are poster children for Upton Sinclair's quote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

There is also Greta and young people everywhere who get this. Change is in the air. Now back to Vaclav Smil; maybe he has the answer somewhere in this book.