Few of us want to face the climate mess. The numbers are scary and confusing, and the facts have never been reported in a way that actually generates public understanding. “The media are complacent while the world burns,” Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope declare in the Columbia Journalism Review. There’s plenty of data to back up this bold assertion: based on an analysis of 600 New York Times articles on climate change, a UC Berkeley report states that “the vast majority contained none of the five basic climate facts,” meaning that readers are left uneducated about the truth and scope of the problem. (The five criteria the researchers used are that global warming is happening, that burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases that create warming, that 90%+ of climate scientists agree on the human causes of warming, that there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there has been for hundreds of thousands of years, and that warming is permanent.)
It’s not just a lack of effective information: many media movers and shakers claim that climate coverage is “a palpable ratings killer” in the first place, and so they tend to curtail or water down their coverage. Of course there are exceptions—an article in New York by David Wallace-Wells beat the supposed “traffic Kryptonite” curse (over 6 million hits, which led to his book The Uninhabitable Earth). Wallace-Wells has stated that “being alarmed is what the facts demand.” Still, amid the unfolding and encircling crisis, most people are still living on “zombified” autopilot as if little had changed. Instead of facing our new material and moral realities, we’re in deep denial, hoping that we won’t have to make changes (beyond tweaks like switching between burgers). Perhap some techno-optimist gizmo—like geoengineering—will swoop in like a superhero and save us.
Some argue that the smart approach is to focus on the numbers, but it’s not clear why, unless knowledge of numbers is supposed to add up to some kind of nerdvana salvation. In fact, because numbers are abstract, focusing on the numbers can occlude the real-world meaning of those numbers. An X% increase in drought sounds bad, but doesn’t create a sense of urgency without understanding what drought equates to in terms of concrete suffering. Numbers can make you into a sanctimonious climate nerd but they are a sliver of the story and understanding them does not necessarily generate action. Just being frightened and hoping for a techno-rescue isn’t much better, either.
Our climate-conceptualizing woes start not with failure to know the numbers or with avoiding aversive emotions, but with our vocabulary and our thinking tools not being up to the task. To be savvier at saving ourselves we’ll need to reconsider the role of thought-stopping abstractions such as “economic growth,” “standard of living,” “sacrifice,” and “neutral.” For instance, contrary to the PR coming from our overlords, technology—and especially supposed global-game-changers like geoengineering—can never be “neutral.” The choice of which technologies to develop and use will always have social, moral, and political implications that reflect underlying values and worldviews. We won’t be able to make the right choices of technology without careful deliberation on moral and social goals, plus democratic oversight and accountability to make sure tech is serving the people rather than the other way around.
The first step is to name the problem: to locate the incorrect assumptions that have led too many of us to believe that perpetual economic growth is essential and that consumption is our raison d’être. The “consumptive-assumptive” worldview treats a thing called “growth” (usually measured in “economic activity”) as inherently good. Because it is inherently good, there is no need to deliberate on the values underlying the particular “economic activities” being done, i.e. whether some of them are harmful or contribute more to our fulfillment and well-being than others do. If the casino industry and arms manufacturing are thriving while the manatees and coral reefs are dying and your kids’s life prospects are being worsened, don’t worry the economy is growing, and manatees and coral reefs and your kids future just are not relevant for the good-uber-alles economic activity.
The consumptive-assumptive view can constantly be heard, even among those who profess themselves sincerely concerned about climate change. Consider Ezra Klein—the New York Times podcast host, opinion columnist, uberwonk, and stats-shaman. In a conversation with Brian Deese—the director of the National Economic Council and fresh-from-Wall-Street top economic advisor to Joe Biden—Klein said that when it comes to climate change, “you can’t… ask [people] for sacrifice. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to do this by making energy more expensive, and certain things are not going to be available anymore.’ You want to do this in a way that feels positive-sum to people—better technologies… You’re getting something out of it … not ‘you get less in order for the future to get more.’” Deese strongly concurred, saying: “I want to double down on that.”
This may not immediately seem so bad. What’s wrong with “positive-sum,” “better technologies,” and cheap energy? Klein is a militantly (even desperately) optimistic sort of person; in 2019, during a podcast episode with clean-energy guru Saul Griffiths titled “How to solve climate change and make life more awesome,” Klein said that “conversations about climate change are pretty depressing [but] decarbonizing doesn’t mean accepting a future of less—it can mean a more awesome, humane, technologically rich, and socially inspiring future for us all.” Griffiths endorsed this abundance-oriented path. “Our cars could be just as big, only electric,” he said. “…The American Dream could be better than… ever.”
Big cars and a super-sized American dream! Who could be mad about this? It sounds so nice (big cars are so “humane”). Certainly, for Klein it’s more “awesome” than the responsible-resource-use alternative. In another podcast episode, David Roberts (a big-cheese climate journalist) joins Klein in fearing that since it brings out the worst in people, it’s best to avoid a scarcity or limit-oriented mindset. These journalists feel strongly that we can’t contemplate constraints on high-consumption lifestyles; that’s deemed unrealistic and presumed to be “politically impossible” because it makes life less “awesome.” To even begin to discuss it means you must be demanding austerity, asceticism, misery, the surrender of all that makes life rich and pleasant (pleasant mostly for the privileged few at the top of the consumption pyramid). But whatever your political orientation and data-dicing tells you, the relevant “limit-oriented” factor here isn’t a mindset. It’s the known facts of carbon physics and ecological science.
As of right now, a colossal 11,000 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2) per human per year is dumped into our shared air (though that’s a very unfair measure, as we’ll see). The aggregate annual dump rate has reached 40 GtCO2e (GtCO2e is gigaton CO2-equivalents which factors in other greenhouse gases and issues like land use). Since the rise of industrial capitalism, over 1 trillion tons have been spewed into the air (CO2 levels were 280 parts per million in 1750, now they’re about 420). The planet is about 1°C hotter than pre-industrial times and rising at an accelerating rate of 0.2°C per decade. Griffiths himself has suggested imagining it all like this: “If you had a giant set of scales and put all the things humans make or move on one side, and all of the CO2 we produce on the other, the CO2” wins.
It’s all the things we “make or move” that have already “geo-engineered” us into this hot mess. Hence we’ll need to change many, if not all, of the ways we make and move everything. That TED talk-trained impulse you may feel to focus on the one highest impact thing in your life just won’t cut it. For instance, electric cars may be an improvement, but they come with their own climate costs. Despite the macho-Muskian sales pitch, electric vehicles (EVs) aren’t exactly “clean tech” for a number of reasons. The International Energy Agency estimates that demand for electric cars will drive 4,200 percent more lithium mining by 2040, and EVs use 400 percent more copper than gassier cars. Lithium and copper aren’t mined under nice climate-neutral conditions: as one analyst notes: “Rising demand for metals [for] low-carbon technologies could perversely increase emissions and worsen environmental damage.” This is because the production process has to be changed as well as changes in the consequences of consumptions. Simply switching our vehicles from one type of tech to another won’t be enough; it’s highly unlikely that Americans in particular will be able to maintain their highly-consumptive super-sized-SUV lifestyles and simultaneously mitigate the climate crisis. The United States has already contributed far more to CO2 emissions than any other single country; if the rest of the world started living like the U.S., the climate crisis would be far, far worse. The numbers just do not add up: the wasteful consumerist lifestyle of the United States cannot go on much longer and it cannot afford to spread to other countries. Any dream of a future tech-based “awesome” limitless society is a liberal-wonk version of science denial.
To see what lies behind this feel-good physics-defying mentality, we need to discuss the disastrously under-exposed idea of “elite panic.” Elite panic is a phenomenon from the field of disaster studies (yes, that’s a thing). As Rebecca Solnit describes in her book about the joy of disasters (yes, that’s also a thing), the aftermaths of mass acute crises, like earthquakes, are often recalled as the most meaningful times in a person’s life—hence the title of Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell. Calamity responses come in two broad types. Most ordinary people unthinkingly jump right in and help, with neighbors and strangers, strenuously, heroically sacrificing without thought for the costs to themselves. (And afterwards many of them experience the also disastrously under-popularized concept of “post traumatic growth,” whereby many people experience positive changes as a result of facing adversity, like no longer sweating the small stuff).
Meanwhile, elites tend to panic, individualistically protecting their property and their privileges (often triggering what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” whereby the rich use a crisis as an opportunity to find new ways to get even richer; COVID-19 is a fresh-hell case in point). In passing, Solnit makes a superb observation about how “public imaginations” of crisis are formed. Many of us, elites included, haven’t directly experienced earthquakes and similar nightmares, and our shaky expectations of what happens in disasters are shaped by TV and Hollywood. These fictional portrayals are in turn shaped by artistic norms in which heroic, individuals tend to be contrasted against the stupid, hysterical masses. Meanwhile, during real crises, the masses tend to calmly help each other. For instance, when exiting the Twin Towers on 9/11, many people let those carrying the injured and disabled pass rather than stampeding down the stairs. Mass decency. Not elite panic.
In the slower (but quickly accelerating) climate-quake, elaborate forms of elite pre-panic are in play. As threats to high-carbon life modes mount, the wealthy—and the media that tends to cater to their material interests and their “conscience management”—have a tendency to project their psychology and preferences (political and moral) onto everyone else, pretending that their unbridled greed is just simple human nature. Rather than pitch in to adapt to long-known eco-constraints (like maybe not building a $500 million super-yacht that needs a heli-padded support yacht), or helping those suffering now from climate change or those who will be most heavily impacted in the near future, the rich and their media allies are generally working hard to convince you that protecting your capitalist-god-given consumer liberties is paramount. Meanwhile there’s a “moral crime [in] how much you and I… consume, given how little is available to… so many other people on the planet,” writes David Wallace-Wells.
The positions preached by Klein, Deese, and Roberts fit this pattern of elite pre-panic and projective greed. And the doctrine that no viable climate program can now even hint at limits to highly consumptive lifestyles has spread to unlikely venues, such as Jacobin, where Holly Jean Beck proclaims “Progressives must avoid being seen as the advocates of heavy-handed restrictions,” because people will not accept curtailments to their lifestyles, and any attempt to make them do so will result in right-wing reaction. Again, the real restrictor here isn’t politics; it’s the heavy hand of climate physics. Carbon really bloats when burned, packing on oxygen pounds and ballooning 500 percent in size. To have any chance of meeting the 1.5°C goal set by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), we have to cut back a lot, and we have to cut back now. Any refusal to face this fact has strong Bush Sr. energy: “the American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Okay: good luck negotiating with physics. It has historically proved quite hard to beat (it offers no loopholes for the rich). It’s wiser to ensure your politics fitting the physics.
To see the logical, emotional, and moral fragility (and infantilization) of the all-must-be-awesome-or-else attitude, imagine similar “arguments” in historic crises. The U.S. can’t join the Allied side in WWII because it will require rationing and victory-garden veggies, and since we can’t ask people to make sacrifices, I guess the Nazis win. We can’t countenance making cotton “more expensive,” so we must keep up slavery, at least until substitutes are as cheap and as profitable. Unless we’re “getting something out of it,” equal to what we had before, we’re not saving that drowning child, or making those vaccines, or ending that poverty. It’s a curiously twisted conclusion to Klein’s purported awesome aim of a “humane… socially inspiring future.””
The accepted assumption behind this—that lifestyle change (maliciously mislabeled as “sacrifice”) is impossible—isn’t some “fact” of human nature or Americanness. It’s actually a very recent idea. To see how far the arguments here have shifted, consider what David Roberts wrote as recently as 2012:
“You can claim that clean energy can offer the same abundance that fossil fuels offered, through the magic of technology or innovation or whatever. But it’s dishonest. Reducing emissions enough to substantially slow climate change will inevitably involve being more judicious and intelligent in our energy use. Profligate, heedless consumption of disposable crap is going to have to be reined in.”
But when talking to Ezra Klein in 2019, Roberts said that he really doesn’t “think that rich people are going to make the right call.” Scarcity, limits, and stress make “us all meaner,” shrinking our “circle of moral concern.” Conversely, abundance makes us gentler to each other. Roberts and Klein admirably and genuinely wrestle with the worry that in attempting to battle the climate crisis, “what we are about to do is…throw the world’s poor…back a hundred years.” Yet their limited moral imaginations and win-win worldviews seem to hinder them from connecting the moral dots. Are we only interested in doing what’s right when it improves our own lives? When we “get something out of it”? When it costs us nothing? When it doesn’t constrain our consumer choices? Is this a crisis or are we choosing curtains?
So, if “heedless consumption” is now uncurbable and dishonesty is de rigueur, what’s the alternative? Another Klein podcast—podcasts are a useful source for experts’ real, unpolished opinions because they speak off the cuff—episode offers a disturbingly dark explanation. The episode in question features Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker environmental writer, and covers her book Under The White Sky, which considers the possibilities of geoengineering. Klein references Kolbert’s book, which contains “a wonderful quote [from a scientist]… ‘We live in a world where deliberately dimming the fucking sun might be less risky than not doing it.’ That feels like quite an indictment of the human race.” Kolbert agrees, saying that she hopes her “respectful horror comes through.” Klein adds that, “we need to be spending many billions of dollars studying [geoengineering]… not because we want to… but because… we may have no choice.”
Because, in this view, “heedless consumption” is unavoidable—the entire human race t having been indicted as irredeemably greedy and addicted to comfort and “disposable crap,” , incapable of any altruistic behavior or even just “sacrifices” to protect their own kids or their beloved way of life —we simply have “no choice” but to get serious about geo-engineering. These purported tech-savior solutions come in two broad buckets: sun-blocking and carbon-sucking.
To some, “dimming the fucking sun” seems doable. A 2019 Royal Society report passingly notes “multiple serious physical risks…[and]…social challenges” before concluding it could be done “effectively…, rapidly, reversibly, and inexpensively.” Sun-blocking, aka solar radiation management (SRM), seeks to scatter incoming sunlight back into space; just a 2 percent shift, it’s widely thought, could counter current warming. Stratospheric sulfur dioxide injections, probably the best-thought-out method, are a form of volcano-mimicking. In the past, volcanic eruptions have caused measurable global cooling—when Mount Pinatubo blew in 1991, an ash cloud 1,100 kilometers wide and 35 kilometers high injected 15 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere above the Philippines. A hazy layer of aerosols spread globally, yielding a year of cooling (1°F on average, though effects varied—some places warmed). It also shifted distant rainfall patterns (2,400 miles away, Mongolia got drier). In 1815, the eruption of Indonesian volcano Mt. Tambora caused crop failures from Ireland to Italy. Millions starved or emigrated—this is partly why there are now so many Americans of Irish and Italian descent.
Yet, even the most “practical” SRM approaches need slow-bake new technologies. For instance, we would have to develop new aircraft to aerosol-spray the stratosphere (heftier engines, longer wingspans). Kolbert suggests possible R&D costs of $2.5 billion, as well as $2 billion per year to take a million tons of aerosols on 40,000 flights (that’s only 1 percent of current annual plane trips). Regardless, SRM is a painstaking atmospheric aspirin, a minor symptom reliever, not remotely a cure. Kolbert herself notes that you would end up with two addictions: to carbon emissions, and to SRM. Emit more forever, riskily manipulate the Earth more to counteract the effects. An endless cycle. And all SRM variations suffer a Pandora’s pillbox of side effects (like the whitened sky that forms one by-product of SRM and gives her book its title). Alarmingly, these side effects have not been well-studied: “only a handful of papers… have addressed the ecological impacts and risks.” Given the vast gaps in our understanding of the enormously intricate dynamics of our ecosystem, it is volcanic hubris to say that SRM could be used “effectively… and inexpensively.” Side-effect droughts would likely mean millions of starving refugees. Does that “cost” sound “easy” or “inexpensive”? Or do we consider it a morally acceptable trade-off to avoid limits in cheese choices? And even if we were to set aside moral concerns and deploy SRM as quickly as possible, it would still take many years (just designing and building new large aircraft can take a decade or more), so that won’t help with the 2030 race (to stay on track for the IPCC’s 1.5C goal we need deep cuts, not in timescales that are decades away, but by 2030, i.e. this decade = now).
Elsewhere in the tech-swoops-in-to-save-us bucket, carbon capture (CC) seeks to wrestle the greenhouse-gas genie back into the bottle. Also known as “negative emission” or “carbon sequestration,” CC comes in two flavors: natural and mechanized. Natural CC means that atmospheric carbon is absorbed by biogeosphere processes (e.g. vegetation, soil biomes, sundry tiny sea beasts, weathering). Collectively, these processes currently absorb about 50 percent of human emissions—we spew out a total of around 40Gt per year, of which the vegetation absorbs about 10Gt and the oceans another 10Gt, leaving 20Gt net added (those are Global Carbon Project figures). Making a dent in that would involve vast vegetation shifts (aka a lot of trees planted, as in trillions of them). But the planet’s maximum additional reforesting potential is only about 2.4Gt (1/10th of current net annual emissions). Planting trees would certainly help, but like Rome not being built in a day, it will be little help by 2030. Other natural CC ideas are considerably less well-cooked and have smaller effects compared to the size of the problem.
On the mechanized CC side, energy-engineer Saul Griffiths has been electrifyingly critical, writing that “[i]magining…we can build machines that work [several] times better than all of biology is a fantasy created by the fossil fuel industry in order to keep on burning.” Kolbert, for her part, describes a small air-to-rock operation devised by a company called Climeworks; it uses resin filters to capture CO2 before geothermally heating the filters to release the CO2 which is then rockified for $1000 per ton. Another potential mechanical CC company proposes to build semi-trailer-sized machines which can suck a (literal) ton of carbon per day. The inventor of this technology says we’d need 100 million trailers “to keep up.” And like any needle-moving techno-structure that will consume copious quantities of other eco-constrained resources, we must always weigh the dirty downside of “green tech.” Carbon capture machines, just like electric cars, windmills, and solar panels, still likely have huge “embodied carbon” in the concrete, metal, water, and energy etc, used in their construction. The entire superstructure of production and consumption is filthy; these technologies may be cleaner, not clean.
Moreover, Griffiths believes that the invisible hand of the market will be too slow to get the job done, especially because CC will always be energetically expensive. He calls it, in fact, “a thermodynamically awful idea.” It’s costly energy-wise to collect and compress those pesky carbon dioxide molecules. If you set up your CC tech next to a concentrated smokestack source, it’s somewhat easier, but plucking carbon dioxide out of thin air is a challenge (400 parts per million of carbon in the air means you have to sift 2500 other parts for each jailed CO2 molecule). And when carbon is pumped underground or into undersea reservoirs we face risks of leakage in perpetuity (don’t forget that burned carbon is now 500 percent bulkier than the holes it first came out of).
In carbon-sucker circles, “moral hazard” fears are somberly speculated on (“moral hazard” is the idea that people will take extra unwise risks if they feel they’ll be bailed out). But there’s no need to speculate: a de-facto form of exactly this moral hazard has long operated in plain sight in IPCC reports: the possibility of carbon sucking at scale—no matter how remote, or fantasy-based—has delayed action for decades. Just about all safe-temperature paths promoted by the IPCC and other groups presume colossal use of CC. The usual type is “BECCS,” meaning “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage.” Bioenergy is niftier because its carbon isn’t from fossils—plants suck atmospheric carbon that’s rereleased when they’re burnt, which is then sucked up again by more plants. That sounds tidy, but a beefy-enough BECCS would mean far less beef eating. You’d need to plant trees on about 75 percent of global arable land (livestock currently accounts for just under 80 percent of global farming land). The BBC recently quoted an expert who called CC and BECCS “carbon unicorns.”
In the real world, which exists beyond models, geo-engineering is somewhat like playing Jenga, blindfolded, crossed with both 12-dimensional chess and Russian roulette. Our mind-bogglingly complex biosphere has “tipping points” and likely many as-yet-unknown linkages, all of which add up to a risk of “abrupt irreversible” changes. These linkages could cascade, triggering further dominoes (resulting in a hothouse hell-on-Earth scenario). And I’m obliged to warn you that some of these triggers are likely near or already in motion. For example, “part of the Amazon may already have reached a tipping point … [switching] to emit more CO2 than it absorbs.” And the rate of ice loss from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has tripled in the last decade. Both of these have far-reaching, knock-on effects (changes in global rainfall and sea level). It’s not possible to know how geoengineering will interact with already wildly complex systems and tipping points. This geoengineering gamble would be like setting up an elaborate stumbling block for your kids (and all future humans), and hoping they somehow don’t trip. What “benefit” outweighs the “cost” of worsening your own kids’ life chances?
Rather than continuing to list dire numbers or avoiding the topic out of terror, it’s important to address how we feel. The ways in which we’ve been encouraged (or trained) to feel matters, since they shape how we think and act. Klein-esque optimism and the “awesome-at-all-costs” impulse to avoid unpleasant feelings grossly mistakes the gravity of the crisis and the social value of emotions (ignoring threats because they don’t “feel awesome” is no way to survive as either individuals or a group.) Climate change is quite simply terrifying stuff. As Wallace-Wells has noted, it is “naive to imagine we could respond to [the climate threat] without some people being scared.”
This purported “optimism” also hides a dark despair and contempt for humanity. In Klein’s interview of Kolbert, he suggested that the entire human race could be indicted for the climate fiasco. But the vast bulk of human beings (alive today or historically) really carry very little of the blame. For example, 1 billion people in 48 African nations have only caused 0.55 percent of total atmospheric CO2. And the bottom half of the global population caused a mere 6 percent of growth in total emissions from 1990 to 2015 (i.e. the unpoor caused 94 percent of emissions growth). In the meantime, Oxfam reports that “Nearly half [of global economic] growth has merely allowed the already wealthy top 10 percent to augment their consumption and enlarge their carbon footprints.” Indeed, calling this era “the Anthropocene”—the term used to describe the extent of human influence over the climate and environment in our time—is arguably a miscarriage of justice. It’s an utterly unearned collective punishment. It’d be truer to call this the Technocene, or Capitalocene, or Greedocene.
“Humanity” didn’t cause climate change: capitalism did. Make no mistake: geoengineering solutions are not offered as a stopgap solution while we get our carbon house in order, but to ensure that life—specifically greedy, consumptive W.E.I.R.D. (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) life—remains “awesome.” There are polluter-elite WEIRDos in every nation of course, but it’s not “human nature” that prevents us from making “sacrifices” or lifestyle changes—it’s capitalist nature, the worldview that treats greed as good or neutral, sees limitless growth as the goal, and believes altruism is impossible since humans are (and should be) selfish only able to solve a problem if the solution is presented as being in their own economic self-interest. As economic inequality expert Branko Milanovic observes, capitalism has been “successful in transforming humans into calculating machines endowed with limitless needs.” This insatiability is needed to get the math-o-magical machinery of capitalism to work, but it’s not an accurate or universal descriptor of how humans can or must function. We don’t have to be greed machines—and in fact, relatively few of us are.
The climate crisis is scary, but it’s solvable—in theory. As Bill McGuire said bluntly in Prospect magazine: “There’s a simple answer to climate change. But will capitalism allow it?” If we curb “heedless consumption” and nix the excessive luxuries for the W.E.I.R.D.o world (COVID proved planet-scale consumption changes can be near instant), we can dramatically reduce carbon output. For example, if the global top 10 percent of polluter elite individuals cut their burn rate to that of the average European citizen, total global CO2 would shrink 30 percent. This known-to-work strategy is called “degrowth,” which means something like managed, selective reductions in resource usage via better, more morally sound prioritization. That’s not remotely what markets are in the business of doing (not on their own, but they can be so guided).
To be fair, Klein and Kolbert do mention this; Kolbert says putting degrowth “on the table is really, really important” (though not important enough to include in your climate-adaptation book, apparently). They then quickly pass on to discuss more pressing issues like UFOs. (I’m not joking: the podcast episode is 1.6 percent degrowth, 12 percent UFOs, and 86.4 percent how tech can protect W.E.I.R.D.o norms so nobody ever has to face limited choices at brunch—with “nobody” meaning “nobody-rich-enough,” since the bruncherati typically don’t care how limited the choices of the poor are). The meta-message couldn’t be clearer: the climate crisis sounds serious, it is very scary and the numbers are bad, but it’s not serious and scary enough to trump consumer liberties even at the top end, or to warrant having to drive less planet-wrecking vehicles or eat fewer exotic fruits (and degrowth is worth less of your time than extraterrestrials). Perhaps they feel we’ll need alien tech to crack this?
Until the alien tech gets here, the moral clarity of more precise terms can help us get on a saner path. One morally-clarifying term that I’m fond of is “greedocracy”—the all-trumping faith that greedy self-interest is and should be our ruling passion. This “In Greed We Trust” doctrine is foundational to capitalism (sometimes euphemized as “self-interest” or “utility”), and baked into many of the institutions that run our world. And it’s perhaps more powerful than any religious doctrine in history, since it shapes the lives of even those who don’t believe in it.
It’s time for the white-gloved invisible hand of economics to meet the visible fist of physics. Despite Klein’s sunshine-and-optimism-only greedocrat-friendly preferences, much of what matters in life is very firmly (laws-of-physics firmly) not “positive sum.” Many aspects of ecology are, in fact, precisely zero-sum. Resources put to one use are not being put to another. A wetland turned into a strip mall is no longer a wetland. If the rich emit more CO2 through their consumption, the rest of the world cannot afford to increase their own consumption.
In sharp contrast to contemporary capitalist economics, the field of “ecological economics” starts from the basic reality-facing facts that many resources are finite, or renewable only at rates consistent with biosphere boundaries. Little of this work has been adequately popularized yet, but Kate Raworth’s “Donut Economics” squarely accepts the truth that our worldwide woes are wider than carbon. We are currently facing nine planetary boundaries: Biodiversity, Carbon, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Land-use, Ozone, Ocean acidification, Freshwater, and Atmospheric aerosol loading. The first four are already busted, and they’re self-explanatory except perhaps that nitrogen and phosphorus are critical to all agriculture (without artificial fertilizers adding these to soils we’d be able to feed 3 billion fewer people today). Many “green growth” efforts will increase burdens on these boundaries (e.g., EVs needing 42X more lithium mining will mean huge water use shifts risking desertification and biodiversity losses).
Detailed degrowth work has been done on what could be called “The Great Satiety,” providing “decent living standards” for as many as 10 billion people in 2050 using far less energy and resources. It’s more likely than you might think; we’re already generating half the renewable energy that would be needed (here we’ve already incurred the embodied carbon costs). This degrowth shift doesn’t mean sackcloth and ashes; it would involve universal education and healthcare, and at least 5,000-15,000 km of mobility in various modes per person per year. It offers fairer and better lives for the vast majority of people than today’s greedocracy delivers. If Klein and people like him are serious about “humane, technologically rich, and socially inspiring future for us all,” this is clearly a program they ought to be interested in, rather than coming up with ways for rich people to further feather their already sumptuously well-feathered nests.
Economic “growth” is often defended on the grounds of lifting people out of poverty, but that’s not entirely an accurate picture. Only 5 percent of global income gains go to the bottom 60 percent; the unpoor get 95 percent of growth (this is the same trickle-down trick that gutted America’s working class). So little gets trickled down that—if all were to remain the same and climate were not an issue expected to hugely impact the global poor—it would take 200 years to end extreme poverty. As we quibble over whether the globally comfortable can be asked to give up their baubles, the extreme poor face multi-lifelong sweatshop toil (on fast fashion, sneakers, and “disposable crap” that we won’t “sacrifice”) before their 6th, 7th or 8th generation descendants can crawl above a horridly low poverty line. Hailed as one of humanity’s greatest achievements, glacially slow reductions in poverty are really an inertia-enabling “convenient alibi” says Philip Alston, ex-U.N. special rapporteur. At current ratios, the greedocracy’s organized cruelty will lift everyone above $5 a day only with 173-fold greater GDP. That’s impossible (sans alien tech/asteroid mining/spare planets/carbon unicorns).
On top of that, “flourishing” lives aren’t nearly as tied to GDP and growth as greedocrats tend to claim. Spain, for example, beats America on many social indicators (like life expectancy, which is 5 years longer in Spain). And this is accomplished on 50 percent less GDP and 70 percent less carbon per capita. Abstractions like GDP and economic growth conflate survival basics with “nice-to-haves” with looney-tunes luxuries because market value is seen as the only important measure of social value. This causes categorical errors: these are not at all the same kinds of things, and do not carry the same kind of social value. This is the central moral error of greedocrats and the markets-uber-alles crowd.
Why do we cling to growth and GDP, even as it destroys our only life-support system? Here a great George Orwell observation applies: “those at the top had trained themselves to be impenetrably stupid.” The elite portions of society have been educated into a severe form of “theory-induced blindness” (a great phrase psychologist Daniel Kahneman uses to describe a common expert malady) and trained into guilt-free-greed-glorifying “conscience management” norms. And the world-shaping idea—beloved by utilitarians, liberals, economists, techno-optimists, rationalists, free-market growth fans, and greedocrats—that we should organize life to “maximize flourishing,” i.e. maximize access to all possible joys for those who can afford them, has misled us. A better goal would be to minimize suffering. Isn’t it obvious that nixing malnutrition is a far better use of resources than adding to the comforts of the wealthy? Doesn’t it make much more sense to cut back on consumer consumption in wealthy countries rather than to put all our eggs into the risky, untestable basket of geoengineering?
It’s not going to be easy to ask people to make changes and “sacrifices”—it is, after all, to paraphrase Mark Fisher, easier for people to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But this is a crisis of our imaginations (of disordered desire), as Ursula Le Guin reminds us, capitalism’s “power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings…Resistance and change often begin in … the art of words.” Words to counter the greedocrat norms presumed and promoted by Klein and co. But words can connect the needed changes to what really matters morally, these changes will protect someone or something you love (your kids, polar bears, baseball). Can you really love what you aren’t willing to make an effort for, or to bear costs for, or “sacrifice” for? Degrowth doesn’t mean a drab world, or even an end to ludicrous luxuries. Furthermore, the “sacrifices” in question are not being asked for from the poorest people, but will come from those who have far more than they could ever possibly need, and whose consumption habits are inflicting direct harm on others that those inflicting the harm are not currently paying for. But once everyone’s basic needs are met and if we’re within biosphere boundaries… knock yourself out chasing your favorite (future-friendly) baubles.
As sustainability scientist Kimberly Nichols notes, our descendants will for centuries have to live Under The Sky We Make, the title of her own climate adaptation book. We’re all “skywriting our most important legacy,” as she describes it. For most of us, nothing we do will outlast the multi-generation impacts of the carbon we emit. Every carbon gram you choose to not emit is an act of grace, a gift to all future humans and life.
Should we pick the path of grace, or of greed?