The countdown is on with now just under 55 days until the much anxiously awaited Copenhagen Climate Conference where world leaders (we hope it’s the leaders, not delegates) will work on drafting a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012 (and a serious agreement is needed).
Nations know that there is no excuse for waiting, binding action must be taken at Copenhagen. Not only to maintain a decent standard of living and healthy planet for ourselves, but for our children. However, in order to realize this green dream we must recognize the inherent problems with our current system. Otherwise, we will continue to feed the growth machine without making ourselves happier and while making the world worse for our children.
Climate Change 101
Climate change is far from simple, but the basics are this: we’re causing a build up for greenhouse gasses which is warming the planet and causing chaos in our biosphere. Chaos comes in many forms: increasing severity and frequency of storms, rising sea levels, desertification, soil erosion, species extinction, and the list goes on. Besides pushing our environment farther and farther away from life supporting capability, our harmful actions will soon push us over the tipping point and induce feedback loops.
When the feedback loops take over, the emissions from sequestered parts of the planet will outstrip everything we could have emitted and spiral our environment quickly out of control. We cannot stop the ocean from belching out tons of methane once we’ve warmed the oceans enough to get it started. The only thing we can do is not allow it to start in the first place. I think it is safe to say that if we allow it to reach this point most, if not all, of civilization will come apart and we will likely be placed back into a stone age we may never fully recover from (not to mention all the people who will die).
Okay, now that we have the basics out of the way, let’s talk about one of the larger issues (in my opinion) that is going to make our quick, decisive movement to a sustainable world more difficult unless addressed: the economy.
Copenhagen Can Only Get Us So Far
Some might argue that we can continue to grow the economy while curbing climate change. This is probably not too far from the truth in the short term, but long term goals will require us to deal with the 2-ton elephant in the room: our economy model is unsustainable. We are fueling increasing growth that is pushing us against more ecological limits everyday. One of the broader, more obvious limits is the very issue at hand: we can’t continue living on fossil fuels because we are warming the planet and changing the climate.
The basic laws of thermodynamics are starting to trump the theories of neo-economists. We cannot increase exponentially in size while the planet stays that same – science and basic common sense) says so. Don’t be fooled by the economists that claim their social science is based on good physics or math. For one, economists hate math. And two, they base their economic equations on outdated physics – stuff that is taught only in history classes not in the physics department. If they are based on flawed theories why do we trust them?
Most neoclassical economists might not admit this, or even know it, but even the founders of their prized economic thought, most notably John Maynard Keynes and John Stuart Mill, recognized that growth could not continue indefinitely. We have surely reached (or perhaps passed) this point.
The Paradigm Must Shift: What has growth done for you lately?
It should be noted that we haven’t always been addicted to growth, society as a whole for a long time maintained a steady “throughput” – or consumption and production. This changed with the miracles brought by cheap oil. Once we broke the cycle, we started creating policies that encouraged more growth because it seemed to work.
We have been indoctrinated with the need to fuel that machine called growth, feed that monkey on our backs named consumption. Unfortunately for us continued growth on a finite planet will only create more and more scarcity. Sure, it’s a lot easier for our current model to keep going when it doesn’t account for the “externalities” of climate change or resource depletion, but it’s not realistic or ethical.
Fear not! There is a change brewing in the economic thought now – on campuses around the world and in conversations on your local street. We are realizing one by one that our economy doesn’t function the way we think it should. We’re seeing more and more poverty not less. We’re cluing into the fact that most economic growth is placed in the pockets of those who are already stinking rich. We have seen how unhappy we are becoming – our happiness in America hasn’t changed much since the 50s! Growth is no longer economic in the true sense of the word.
So, how do we fix the problem? Well, you’re reading this so that’s a good start. Second is to become involved in the conversation and in your democracy. Third is to create non-violent civil disobedience demanding change. Fourth, and just as important as the rest, is to live the steady state life – walk the walk.
Sustainable Economy for a Sustainable Planet
Our economy is by definition the accounting of our actions on earth, so shouldn’t it include the earth in the account books? The first real step will come when governments recognize that there is more to the economy they growth in GDP. This metric is out of date and horrible at accounting for true progress, as many believe it does, it simple puts all the economic transactions (good or bad) into a total. As Paul Hawken says, “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P.” We need something better and some countries are already beginning to realize this by adopting other metrics to indicate progress.
After we start to take into account our impacts on the planet and the effects of the economy on the happiness and true prosperity we must then focus on changing our focus. The realization that GDP is just the beginning, next we will turn away from constant growth-at-all-costs to a more sustainable economy. We must begin to put money creation in the back in the hands of the people instead of the profit-hungry private banks. We must look for a better way to live our lives, instead of working ourselves to death. We must make the maximum wages and minimum incomes for a fair distribution of wealth.
With a sustainable economic scale and policies in place to make the progress of our new economy based not on more but better we will have a much more realistic chance to not only address climate change, but maintain comfortable human life on Earth indefinitely. The Earth demands from us a sustainable economy if we wish to live, so let’s do it already!
Every country should be making a commitment to a better planet. Developed nations especially have an ethical duty to lead a binding agreement with strong carbon emission reduction targets. But long term goals are not enough, we need large short term goals as well. And any talk of cuts being unrealistic are unfounded, the facts show that nations have already successfully met Kyoto Protocol goals.
We need to wake up to reality. The solution will require a global rationing of carbon emissions. It is time for citizens to rise up and demand change. We must address climate change. The consequences of inaction are great, we are beyond talk, we must act now. Create civil disobedience! Take to the streets! We can and must stabilize our atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 350 ppm!