Clean Energy Won't Save Us - Only a New Economic System Can
It’s time to pour our creative energies into imagining a new global economy. Infinite growth is a dangerous illusion
Clean Energy Won't Save Us - Only a New Economic System Can
‘That 30% chunk of greenhouse gases that comes from non-fossil fuel sources isn’t static. It is adding more to the atmosphere each year.’ Photograph: Ashley Cooper/Global Warming Images/Alamy
By Jason Hickel / theguardian.com

Earlier this year media outlets around the world announced that February had broken global temperature records by a shocking amount. March broke all the records too. In June, our screens were covered with surreal images of flooding in Paris, the Seine bursting its banks and flowing into the streets. In London, floods sent water pouring into the tube system right in the heart of Covent Garden. Roads in south-east London became rivers two metres deep.

With such extreme events becoming more commonplace, few deny climate change any longer. Finally, a consensus is crystallising around one all-important fact: fossil fuels are killing us. We need to switch to clean energy, and fast.

This growing awareness about the dangers of fossil fuels represents a crucial shift in our consciousness. But I can’t help but fear we’ve missed the point. As important as clean energy might be, the science is clear: it won’t save us from climate change.

Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that we are able to get off fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no question this would be a vital step in the right direction, but even this best-case scenario wouldn’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe.

Why? Because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes. Deforestation is a big one. So is industrial agriculture, which degrades the soils to the point where they leach CO2. Then there’s industrial livestock farming which produces 90m tonnes of methane per year and most of the world’s anthropogenic nitrous oxide. Both of these gases are vastly more potent than CO2 when it comes to global warming. Livestock farming alone contributes more to global warming than all the cars, trains, planes and ships in the world. Industrial production of cement, steel, and plastic forms another major source of greenhouse gases, and then there are our landfills, which pump out huge amounts of methane – 16% of the world’s total. 

Jeffrey’s Bay wind farm in South Africa. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

When it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.

Think of it this way. That 30% chunk of greenhouse gases that comes from non-fossil fuel sources isn’t static. It is adding more to the atmosphere each year. Scientists project that our tropical forests will be completely destroyed by 2050, releasing a 200bn tonne carbon bomb into the air. The world’s topsoils could be depleted within just 60 years, releasing more still. Emissions from the cement industry are growing at more than 9% per year. And our landfills are multiplying at an eye-watering pace: by 2100 we will be producing 11m tonnes of solid waste per day, three times more than we do now. Switching to clean energy will do nothing to slow this down.

The climate movement made an enormous mistake. We focused all our attention on fossil fuels, when we should have been pointing to something much deeper: the basic logic of our economic operating system. After all, we’re only using fossil fuels in the first place to fuel the broader imperative of GDP growth.

The root problem is the fact that our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.

Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping miles, air miles, and trucking miles. Photograph: Feature China/Barcroft Images

Our more optimistic pundits claim that technological innovations will help us to de-couple economic growth from material throughput. But sadly there is no evidence that this is happening. Global material extraction and consumption has grown by 94% since 1980, and is still going up. Current projections show that by 2040 we will more than double the world’s shipping miles, air miles, and trucking miles – along with all the material stuff that those vehicles transport – almost exactly in keeping with the rate of GDP growth.

Clean energy, important as it is, won’t save us from this nightmare. But rethinking our economic system might. GDP growth has been sold to us as the only way to create a better world. But we now have robust evidence that it doesn’t make us any happier, it doesn’t reduce poverty, and its “externalities” produce all sorts of social ills: debt, overwork, inequality, and climate change. We need to abandon GDP growth as our primary measure of progress, and we need to do this immediately – as part and parcel of the climate agreement that will be ratified in Morocco later this year.

It’s time to pour our creative power into imagining a new global economy – one that maximises human wellbeing while actively shrinking our ecological footprint. This is not an impossible task. A number of countries have already managed to achieve high levels of human development with very low levels of consumption. In fact Daniel O’Neill, an economist at the University of Leeds, has demonstrated that even material de-growth is not incompatible with high levels of human well-being.

Our focus on fossil fuels has lulled us into thinking we can continue with the status quo so long as we switch to clean energy, but this is a dangerously simplistic assumption. If we want to stave off the coming crisis, we need to confront its underlying cause.

4.3 ·
3
What's Next
Trending Today
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 9,931 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 8,908 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 8,809 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 8,391 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 6,830 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 5,168 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 5,141 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Forest Man
16 min · 4,802 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 3,993 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 3,535 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back From Cars
5 min · 3,462 views today · Modern cities are designed for cars. But the city of Barcelona is testing out an urban design trick that can give cities back to pedestrians.
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 3,337 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 3,328 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 3,313 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
10 Provocative Quotes from Ivan Illich's "Deschooling Society"
Daniel Lattier · 3,292 views today · Ivan Illich’s groundbreaking book Deschooling Society (1971) offers a radical critique of the institutionalization of education within modern societies. Illich believed that we...
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 2,879 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 2,197 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 2,079 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 1,631 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 1,570 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Clean Energy Won't Save Us - Only a New Economic System Can