Climate change is a consequence of growth

Industrial pollution from growth

Growth produces CO2

Climate change is no doubt one of the top threats to humanity’s well-being, even though there seems to be little that we can do about it, other than discussing it publicly and trying to understand its effects in enough detail to adapt to them when they do occur.

However, there’s a fundamental mistake we make with climate change as a subject for corrective action: we’re talking about the wrong thing. Climate change is not the problem. It’s a consequence of the problem. It’s an effect, not a cause. Rather than fussing about the symptom, we should focus on the disease. We should dig for the root cause. Actually, we can get there just by re-stating some things that rational people already know:

  • Climate change is caused by too much carbon dioxide pollution
  • Carbon dioxide pollution increases with the number of emission sources.
  • Most of these emissions are due to economic activity — power plants, factories, semis, automobiles.
  • As economic activity proliferates, then, so does carbon dioxide pollution

Politicians and economists have a term for “proliferation of economic activity.” They call it “growth.” It’s usually mentioned with the same reverence as “motherhood” or “apple pie.” In any typical policy discussion, it seems that growth is an end in itself, a synonym for “prosperity.”

The odd thing is, many climate change-aware people don’t ever stop to question this. Al Gore would never challenge the desirability of growth, I’m willing to bet. At best, after they mention “green energy,” they might propose some kind of pollution-filtering technology so that we can happily continue using up fossil fuels, rare earths, industrial metals and the very land we get food from in order to hold on to the economic magic of growth.

Sad to say, even if such technology were adequate and available, the sheer scale of such a proposal puts it firmly in the wishful thinking zone of the numerically-challenged. A similar case can be made with the idea that we can “replace” the world’s astronomically immense fossil-energy burn with windmills and solar panels — or even nukes, for that matter. The scale of it is, quite literally, immense — unable to be held in mind.

Our energy appetite is quantifiable, even so. The number, just for fun, is 550 quadrillion BTUs per year. A solid 80% of it comes from burning fossil fuels. To put this number in some kind of perspective, it would take roughly 14,000 nuclear power plants to replace that little bonfire. Compare the present worldwide count of 440. Of course, the much more preferable wind and solar energy sources are much less dense than nuclear, which only serves to enlarge the scale of any “replacement” proposition that much further.

We’ve been living in a state of ever-increasing material abundance for a dozen generations, long enough to set our expectations about what’s “normal” unrealistically high, to have them woven into the fabric of our institutions and our cultural DNA.  Historically speaking, though, this brief period is an outlier, skewed by our discovery and rapid exploitation of a very expendable gift of nature. The labor that once came from slaves and animals now comes from fossil fuel, mediated by the machines whose cranks it turns.

The official explanation for such abundance, of course, is Technology, and for its increase, the credit goes to Progress. If we pull the curtain aside, though, the rude fact revealed is that bits of technology without  something to turn the crank is little more than kinetic sculpture, and what we call “progress” is essentially a belief system that’s every bit as faith-based as any non-secular creed.

In blunt terms, technological progress is essentially the process of devising ever more lavish ways to burn fuel. When the fuel supply is finite, the size of the burn can increase for only so long. And when we’ve predicated so much on that increase, we have some pretty serious re-orienting to do when “so long” begins to arrive, as it is doing right now.

At this point, conversations about growth and how to encourage it cannot be considered serious. The serious conversations, at least for the short- and mid-term, need to focus on how we as a society go about managing contraction.

Longer term — another half-dozen generations, perhaps, and if we manage it well — we can expect a reversion to the historical mean for energy use and for the population size that such level of use can support. It took a while to get into overshoot, and it’ll take a while to wind it back. Such a span of time, though, is likely to be enough for the population to adjust naturally (the arithmetic is surprising), and for us to adapt to ways of living that are quite comfortable with much less use of energy.

After all, however much the myth of progress might be discredited, we do learn all the time, and here’s where we learn more about living lightly on the planet, rather than ways to gain greater concentrations of power. These would be the main circumstances for achieving the steady-state economy that’s really the only way to remedy growth. Once the  cause of climate change is remedied, perhaps then climate healing can get started.

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