Our Climate Shituation

Despite the alarming global environmental emergency, I am so looking forward to pohutukawas in full bloom in New Zealand

The problem with reading too much world news is that you notice so many freak weather events. As I write this, for instance, there are landslides in China, and the drought in Syria is getting desperate. The recent floods in Germany, says the Guardian, were nine times more likely to be caused by climate change than just by chance. The fires in California continue and there has been rain instead of snow at the top of a two-mile-high mountain in Greenland for the first time ever. Floods in Tennessee have caused deaths of twins lost from their mother’s arms and the death toll was rising. There is a flash flood warning in New Mexico. There are fires in Greece again. And in Siberia, Algeria, Lebanon, France, Turkey, Paraguay. The 14,000 foot Mount Shasta of Northern California was just photographed without snow for the first time ever.

Of course that’s when you only have one crisis. Afghanistan is facing three – conflict, drought and pandemic. Haiti has an earthquake, an assassination and a pandemic let alone dire poverty. The Danish Refugee Council says, “Water crisis and drought threaten more than 12 million in Syria and Iraq”. The crop failure in Zimbabwe from the drought in 2017/18 is still affecting food supply and the Red Cross there says, “There are an estimated 5.5 million rural Zimbabweans to be food insecure as a consequence, with 3.8 million people in need of food assistance.”

Stop! It is clear that we are in a pickle. Or as comedian Steve Bhaerman describes our predicament, we worry about “our climate shituation”. Anyway, that might be enough doom-scrolling for now and congratulation to those who have read this far.

Even in these times of uncertainty, the beauty of nature is there for us to marvel at

Climate and the growth imperative

I guess my new journey started this year when I worked on my submission to the Climate Commission. They were predicting virtually the same GDP in 2050 (27 years away!) while emissions had dropped. I thought about the material throughput and all the “chewing up the beauty and spitting out money” (as Charles Eisenstein would say) and I concluded you couldn’t tackle just one environmental problem at a time because the others persist. I argued their brief should be expanded to the whole future so that we had a Futures Commission again.

The  Climate Commission’s assumption of continued GDP growth in rich countries seemed nonsense to me. At the end of her book, “This Changes Everything” Naomi Klein wrote, “the economy is at war with the climate”. But GDP growth results in species extinction too.  What about food insecurity from loss of pollinators? Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury in 2018 commented, “Having heard the new Secretary-General of the United Nations say at the opening of COP that nothing in these reports, of maintaining it at 1.5C, will affect economic growth, I think we are still living in magical thinking.”)

Will green growth solve our climate shituation?

Over the last few months I have been to Extinction Rebellion websites and learnt about Degrowth. I read Jason Hickel’s Less is More and started a Degrowth column on my Tweetdeck. Would I try to start a Degrowth pressure group in New Zealand? Possible. Then during a Zoom meeting of the Living Economies Educational Trust Nicole Foss convinced me it wasn’t going to happen because it was wishful thinking that any politicians will advocate for this and expect to be elected.

Timothée Parrique, a leader in the degrowth movement has wryly tweeted, “The cool thing about working on degrowth is that everyone loves you. It’s overwhelming really. The idea sells like hot cakes, especially among economists who just cannot get enough of it.” Then he attached a list of examples of how they describe degrowthers – dogmatists, religious fanatics, anti-modern, misguided, wrongheaded, immature. Just imagine the derision that would follow from media and big business interests –and politicians of all stripes are very sensitive to the views of big business.

People asked me if I was writing a book and yes I have collected a lot of material. But I haven’t advanced it recently. I keep reading and thinking. I have understood the myth of green growth, about the declining return on energy invested (EROI) and how that makes the mining of oil and minerals more problematic, both environmentally and economically.

Looking for Components to make Electric Car Batteries. From Foreign Control Watchdog August 2021

After digesting a great article about the limits to mining of metals for renewable energy from a prominent geologist Simon Michaux I can no longer enthuse about electric cars or solar energy or wind energy. Moreover Transitional Engineering Professor Susan Krumdieck has rubbished the idea of hydrogen as a renewable energy.

Will rationing energy do the trick?

On the other hand I have enthused about David Fleming’s great invention Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) and advocated for them on twitter. That would prevent instability as GDP declined. And like many of us I have been on Zoom calls where experts talk about climate change and urge various actions, and they almost always finish with the reassurance that if we do a, b or c or all three we will turn it around. COP26 in Glasgow will do it.  Been there, done that.

Many alternatives to GDP have been proposed (OECD etc) but the GDP ‘mindset’ suits the ‘business as usual’ focus on economic expansion of goods and services, i.e. growth, over wellbeing. In fact New Zealand is cited as an example of a country which has wellbeing indicators, but there is no regular reporting of them in the media. In contrast business reporters regularly celebrate the growth of the economy.

Or protesting on climate?

By chance then I watched a talk by the delightful researcher Brenè Brown who had interviewed many courageous people. She asked them if the main thing they had to overcome was fear. No, they said, it was the armour you put round yourself to justify and explain your lack of action that stopped you acting. Fear was with you all the time.

So I reflected on the armour I put on. It goes like this: I say to myself, no I am not going to do this or that because I am a researcher/writer and that doesn’t fit with my self-image. So I decided to abandon the armour and get into protest mode. Having never been a big protestor except during the Springbok Tour and a joining a big climate change protest, at the time I was suddenly incensed that the All Blacks had signed a deal with INEOS, the oil company. I bought materials to make placards and made contact with others. A date was set. I practised my sign-writing.

Then lockdown came.

I was recently at a meeting where, after a conversation about the inaction of local and national government on climate, a person I respect said, “Don’t go down that rabbit hole I would never come out.” It set me thinking.

The Limits to Growth

In 1975 I was a candidate for the Values Party, three years after the landmark report The Limits to Growth which concluded that if global society kept pursuing economic growth it would experience  a decline in food production, industrial output and ultimately  population within this century. The Values Party had the nerve to question whether GDP was always progress. Twenty years later I was to learn the role of the money system in creating this growth imperative. Forty years later Wise Response, a group of environmental academics based in Dunedin, has been making submissions pointing out the limits to growth to government for years.

Then came Gaya Herrington’s article. She works at the accounting firm KPMG and holds a master’s degree in Sustainability Studies from Harvard University. Her July 2021 report appeared to show  that controversial 1972 study predicting the collapse of civilisation was – apparently – right on time. Both of the most closely aligned scenarios  with the data (“Business and Usual” and “Comprehensive Technology”) indicate that business as usual, pursuing continuous growth, “is not possible,” even when paired “with unprecedented technological development.” Such scenarios “would inevitably lead to declines in industrial capital, agricultural output, and welfare levels within this century.” In an article for the Club of Rome she says, ” The strongest conclusion that can be drawn from my research therefore, is that humanity is on a path to having limits to growth imposed on itself rather than consciously choosing its own.”

When I  watched an hour long talk by ecological economist William Rees called “Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?” I was struck by the graph of steadily rising emissions  in the atmosphere with several landmark climate conferences placed in it. He said there were 34 international climate conferences held over 50 years and half a dozen major agreements.. “and they don’t produce a dimple on this rising curve of carbon dioxide emissions.” I couldn’t help wondering what makes us so optimistic and that the trend will suddenly stop. What on earth is this conclusion? Are we an intelligent species or not? That version of optimism is more like wishful thinking, which decides what works and tried to force that idea to work, even if it doesn’t.

The Paradox of Post Doom 

Recently I have been reading the book edited by Jem Bendell and Rupert Read Deep Adaptation: Navigating the Realities of Climate Chaos and then my YouTube threw up a talk by a fellow I had never heard of. At first I thought he was a fraud. He was talking about writers I had never heard of. Then as we went further into his extraordinary presentation, I paid more attention. He said the decline was already happening and eco-anxiety was normal and healthy. He is Rev Michael Dowd and has a website http://postdoom.com. In his podcast section he lists his interviews with people like Shaun Chamberlin, Jem Bendell, Rupert Read, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, Steve Keen, Joanna Macy, Matt Slater, Steve Bhaerman, Paul Ehrlich and many, many others, asking them the same set of questions about the future.

I have now listened to several of these interviews. Rupert Read, who often uses the sentence, “This civilisation is over” gave a very thoughtful interview. He related the story of how in 2018 he wrote a piece and sent it on email to several colleagues, asking them not to send it on. They replied saying it was worth publishing but he was too apprehensive so published it under a pseudonym. Once again a good response. He said he had a huge surge of energy to live a good life of service to others after he went through the door of gloom and grieving. Michael Dowd and he agreed on this. It’s a huge paradox. You don’t have to get stuck in a state of despair or cynicism, you don’t need to get paralysed. Once you stop fighting the denial, once you resist falling into the trap of compulsory optimism and hope, relief sets in and you emerge energised. The unnamed unease is gone. It’s a relief to face reality and the energy you spent in denial or false optimism is now available to use.

Similarly Jem Bendell was reluctant to put his thoughts out there in public for a start and got a fair bit of flak from his 2018 article Deep Adaptation.

So what is the alternative now? Face the coming decline of our civilisation and live a good life on this wonderful planet.

Politicians will chose economic growth not climate action

My observation is that the demand for economic growth will always trump meaningful action to halt the decline of the ecosystem on which we depend. It happens within Council’s departments and in Government departments and in Cabinet. It happens when global fossil fuel corporations, fixated on quarterly reports and profits, rationalise their way to ever greater extraction of oil and gas and coal. It happens because of our systems of government seem powerless to stop them.  It happens after every international climate conference.

Why? Many years ago I did some quick research on the interlocking directorships of the major companies in New Zealand – banks, utilities, energy, transport, alcohol companies and so on and I came reluctantly to the conclusion that these few men were more powerful in many ways than the government.

The societal demand for compulsory optimism

Insisting on optimism in the face of so much evidence is maladaptive.

Just because our species has messed with the planet’s climate doesn’t mean there isn’t joy in gazing at beauty.

I am not sure where this will all take me. All I know is that during lockdown I am standing in awe at the miracle of spring, of emerging life. Just because I have somewhat given up hope that all my work and the work of countless others over the last decade or two on climate change will come to anything it doesn’t mean I will stop working. There is life on the other side of contraction and collapse. There are plenty of victories that can be won. There is community to build, there is my garden to tend to, there are people to care for and who care for me. There are things in our culture to save.  All civilisations eventually die and homo colossus will not be spared. But what will rise from our mistakes? What lessons will be learned? How many groups will emerge and where? Will they be more humble, ecologically sustainable and equitable?

I am no more pessimistic today than I was last year. I smile as much. I cook just as many tasty meals. I laugh and sing still. It’s just that I believe it is time to face the fact that we are spoiling our home and it is probably irretrievable. Our civilisation is dying and the die-off will not be equal or fair. It’s time to grieve and emerge from the grief stronger and more loving.

As Ronald Wright observed in The Short History of Progress, civilisations like Easter Island and the Maya civilisation often fail because of some combination of overpopulation, environmental degradation, warfare, shifting trade routes and long drought. He argues that all successful cultures eventually fall victim to “progress traps” – technological adaptations which all allow excessive collection of resource wealth leading first to luxury, and then inevitable collapse. These cultures, before they collapsed, showed evidence of the development of social elites who contributed to the environmental abuses – another example of how our human species is so fragile. But whereas in all of these cases the collapse was local this time it involves the whole planet.

Now if you will excuse me there is new growth on my tamarillo tree to marvel at.

 

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To get the next economic system we need to find the assumptions of this one

Banks Peninsula fires after drought Feb 2017

Many are asking if we have to sit around waiting for the current system to collapse. If we have only 3 years to turn around the emissions pattern as the UN has said, we had better get on with designing the next system.

The current system assumes:

  1. There will be only one currency for a country.
  2. The majority of the country’s money will be created and controlled by private banks.
  3. The money will be created as interest-bearing debt.
  4. All land, all natural resources and natural monopolies can be privately owned, and this means people can profit from buying and selling it.
  5. All major decisions will be made by national or international governments or agencies.

This all adds up to a system with a growth imperative built in.(For years I thought it was just the money system but I believe now after a conversation with Steve Keen it is a combination of that and the land tenure system) The consequences are regular booms and busts, regular monetary crises, banking crises and sovereign debt crises and ever widening wealth inequality.

Edgecumbe floods 2017

The growth imperative also means that it is inevitable that we consume our natural and social capital.  Perpetual growth is not natural. There is no entity in nature which is designed to grow forever, unless, as Margrit Kennedy pointed out, you count cancer. And now we are paying for our blindness with floods, droughts, coastal erosion and food shortages.

Therefore the phrases ‘doughnut economy’, ‘stable state economy’, ‘no-growth economy’, ‘regenerative or resilient economy’ are good descriptive words, but they don’t change the current economy’s DNA. We have been inventing more and more names for this since the publication of The Limits to Growth and arrival of the NZ Values Party in the seventies. They all sound good but we can’t go on and on pretending there isn’t a growth imperative built into the design of our mono-currency economy.

It is like saying I would like this rose to be white and scented but in fact it is red and unscented. The redness and unscented is built into its DNA and no amount of nice new language or great new writing will alter it. We just can’t go on creating more and more names for a good economy.

The Growth Imperative is in the DNZ

I am sure economists like Kate Raworth are contributing to raising awareness but honestly, give or take a few years of dormancy, people in the advanced economies have been at it since the 1970s. The Greens talked about it for a few years but dropped it like a hot cake quite a while ago.

Now I don’t expect too much new thinking will come out of universities. It is tricky for a university economist to breach the parameters of what they can say without losing their salary. Professor Steve Keen is having to crowdfund his salary now.

It is now time to acknowledge that we need to leave the new system alone and invent an entirely new model. We can’t solve climate change within the current model.  Within the old system you can’t put on a hefty carbon tax and expect a different political result from Australia. (Yes you can plant trees and do other things, sure.)

Supposing therefore we allow:

  1. There to be more than one currency
  2. It must be publicly created and controlled for inflation.
  3. The currency will be spent into existence not lent into existence.
  4. The currency will be designed to decay (Silvio Gesell’s quote is “Only money that goes out of date like a newspaper, rots like potatoes, rusts like iron and evaporates like ether can be capable of standing the test as an instrument for the exchange of newspapers, potatoes, iron and ether.”)
  5. The commons must be publicly owned and rent for their monopoly use must replace income tax and sales tax.

I realise that these are all huge jumps in thinking and the last point means there have to be very strong leasehold contracts to protect the occupier of the property together with no rent on land used for conservation or historic purposes.

Naomi Klein has spelt out this challenge for a new economic system in her book This Changes Everything.

Though The Next System Project is grappling with the challenge of finding it in Washington DC it would be great to have a special platform somewhere in NZ to work on it ourselves.

Oh, and by the way, my book The Big Shift – Reinventing Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System is available from Living Economies bookshop. It is the result of a four-year think tank of what was the New Economics Party and is the source of the above ideas. We may be right we don’t know, but we tried.

 

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