Revised 31 October 2022
We, our children, and our grandchildren are privileged to be living in a period of transition that is unparalleled in the entire history of humankind. The decisions and actions that we have made in the past and the decisions and actions that we will make over the next number of decades have and will limit the options of current and future generations. We need clear visions of alternative pathways to transition from growth to a sustainable steady state.
We must plan for a sustainable future that we are able to have in the long term rather than continue on our current growth pathway which is no longer viable. Hartmut Bossel in his 1998 book Earth at a Crossroads: Paths to a Sustainable Future makes the following comment:
"The many alternative visions of sustainable futures that have been published in the past three decades all agree - with minor variations - on the fundamental principles and processes … This is a remarkable result, and it is all the more remarkable as the different authors have arrived at these alternative visions independently of each other - in different countries, at different times, under different circumstances, in different languages. It can only mean that there is a common body of facts, knowledge, and ethical principles from which consistently the same conclusions can be drawn. "
In 1979, my compilation of the attributes of a growth versus a sustainable society was published in the international journal Urban Ecology (download here). This compilation which has been recently extended and updated can be viewed here.
A vision of a society that we are able to have in the long term can be gained by compiling and comparing the characteristics or attributes of a growth society versus a viable sustainable society which is subject to energy and material constraints.
First and foremost, a sustainable society will allow development without physical growth of material and energy flows and population. All energy must be renewable and all materials must be recyclable. The per-capita use of energy and materials will be less than what it is now consumed in the developed countries.
The economic philosophy of a sustainable society will be very different from that of a growth society. A sustainable society will accept limits and the purpose and emphasis of production will be on the maintenance and wellbeing of everyone in society with equitable distribution of production.
A sustainable society will need to be more self-sufficient and its technology will be more appropriate according to the level of energy and materials per-capita available for production. Technology will need to be more benign with less pollution which can be assimilated by the environment. Mass production will be replaced by artisanship. Food production using permaculture methods will involve everyone and will replace industrialised monoculture. A sustainable society would be more community oriented.
It is critical to understand that climate change is but one of many symptoms of a wider ecological overshoot manifested in biodiversity loss - for example, massive declines in pollinating insects, collapse of ecosystems, pollution, resource depletion, and soil depletion. Any attempts to continue business-as-usual economic growth while also avoiding climate change through a transition from fossil fuels to renewables and infrastructure can only but lead towards increasing ecological overshoot and collapse.
We need to rapidly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, starting immediately by reducing our use of fossil fuels. At the same time, we still need to use fossil fuels to enable a transition from fossil fuels to that of renewable energy and infrastructure. The only way out of this conundrum is to radically reduce our current levels of consumption and divert the use of fossil fuels away from extravagant and unnecessary consumption to a limited renewable energy system that can support a lower-energy society.
Reducing our consumption of fossil fuels means keeping most of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid exceeding critical climate change thresholds. Further exploration of fossil fuels would be a waste of energy and reduce our budget of fossil fuels which we need to enable a transition. If we squander our limited budget of fossil fuels on foolhardy explorations for more fossil fuels and frivolous consumption, then we will lose our last chance to make a global transition to renewable energy and infrastructure.
The richest 10% of people in the world in the well-developed countries, and that includes New Zealanders, are responsible for 49% of CO2 emissions. The poorest 50% of people in the world are responsible for only around 10% of total lifestyle consumption emissions. Excessive inequality exists not only between countries but also within countries. A dramatic reduction in consumption by the rich countries will not necessarily result in a dramatic decline in welfare and happiness. There is strong evidence that high energy consumption does not equate to higher well-being (Millward-Hopkins et al. 2020). A decent living standard can be had at less than a tenth of energy consumption of what New Zealanders currently use, based on data provided by Joel Millward-Hopkins (2020). A transition to a less materialistic lifestyle will be difficult for some. However, many of our actions to mitigate the impact of climate change and reduce our impact on the environment will improve the quality of life for families and enhance and promote a greater sense of community.
Over the next number of decades, we need to prioritise as to what is essential consumption as opposed to frivolous consumption. We also need to prioritise our investments in renewable energy and infrastructure given that renewables are unable to provide the same scale of net energy per capita that we use now.
We need to acknowledge that so long as we remain in overshoot, sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption. We need to admit that modern renewables – wind turbines and solar panels – are themselves dependent on fossil fuels and have no possibility of scaling up to replace current levels of fossil fuels.
We need to recognise that equitable sustainability requires an economic levelling. Fiscal and other regulatory mechanisms are required to ensure redistribution of income, wealth, and opportunity among and within countries. Greater equality is better for everyone. A fundamental shift in policy is needed. We must move away from GDP growth as the target of our economy, and shift the economic paradigm to de-growth or whatever is needed to fit our ecological carrying capacity.
Transition is a communal and national effort which must be built on acceptance of the limits of planetary resources and be a fair and just transition. For this transition, a war-footing response is appropriate, an organisational effort that many government demonstrated with our recent COVID pandemic. In WWII, rationing of fossil fuels was the tool used to divert energy to the war effort. This tool could again be employed to direct the down-shift in energy consumption and emissions. Either we have a planned, orderly contraction (de-growth) of our economy or else a far more chaotic contraction will be forced upon us by nature.