Labouring for a better, not bigger future

by Sahra Kress

“Our hope can only ever be as strong as our struggle”1. I am writing about the future from my position as a midwife, for two reasons. I am passionately concerned about the future of every child I deliver. Also, being intimately familiar with the transition struggle of the labour and birth process, I have been fascinated for years by what complexity theory describes as far-from-equilibrium states that are the foundation for adaptation and change. According to dynamic systems theories, these change processes occur following a gradual accumulation of stresses that a system resists until it reaches a breaking point, known as the ‘edge of chaos’. The term bifurcation, or crisis moment, is a tipping point, and is often referred to in non-linear science to describe the dynamic that initiates a transformation2.

In my view we are globally, collectively, facing multiple crises that bring us ever closer to the edge of chaos; tipping points socially, economically, and environmentally that require us to reimagine society. In this article I will briefly review the predicament of humanity as it faces the reality of multiple overlapping crises, that will only worsen for the children being born now. I will briefly describe what a paradigm shift to a post growth future might look like and consider the challenges of renewable energy sources and technological fixes. Finally, I will consider what it might take to find the courage to reach for hope, through connection and care.

The Predicament

We are familiar with the mega-predicaments facing humanity now. Every day we are confronted by news and can no longer avoid knowing about the dire realities progressively unfolding. The United Nations' Secretary General is warning the Ukraine war is threatening to unleash an unprecedented food crisis, which could last years. Antonio Guterres warns of a cost-of-living crisis not seen in more than a generation, with escalating price shocks in the global food, energy, and fertiliser markets3. We pursue production, consumption, and are impacted by resulting emissions at an unprecedented level, even though we understand rationally that our actions are destroying ecosystems and that, as the UN said in April this year, “unless governments everywhere reassess their energy policies, the world will be uninhabitable”4.

The Pacific region is on the front line of climate change impacts and has limited infrastructure to support its vulnerable population. I have witnessed overt suffering and poverty in the slums of Port Moresby. I understand the ravages of injustice, exploitation, and raw need. I have also lived in the remote hinterlands of Papua New Guinea and the gentle coastal villages of the Solomon Islands. How can we not feel their pain as their coral dies, their homes are decimated by out-of-control weather? I was there in 2015 when Cyclone Pam hit. The vulnerability of these beautiful people is not more abstract now, being distant.

Cyclone Pam, 2015, Western Province Solomon Islands

In Aotearoa biodiversity is in serious trouble: 4000 of our native species are threatened or at risk of extinction, and this risk is worsening for many species. Pressure on natural resources is
widespread—land use change is degrading our soil and water, urban growth is reducing
versatile land and biodiversity, our water ways are suffering from farming pollution, urban
areas are causing pollution, freshwater use is impacting negatively on our waterways, the way
we fish is affecting ocean health, we have high greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change
is already affecting our country5. Mother Nature is hitting back with a vengeance, refusing to
be ignored. Fires, hurricanes, draughts, floods—she is shouting at us to pay attention.

In her book ‘Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis’6, Sally Weintrobe examines neoliberal
exceptionalism and the culture of ‘uncare’. The painful history of colonisation, oppression, and
exploitation clearly demonstrates the predatory behaviour that has led to the social and
ecological crises. With the increasing rise of Artificial Intelligence7 and social dis-cohesion
and conflict, I have been so concerned about the future that I have chosen not to have children
of my own,

Dr Samuel Alexander and Dr Rupert Read8 are among the rare senior academics who have
chosen to speak out starkly. They have come to the conclusion in the last few years that this
civilisation is “going down”. It will not last. It cannot, because it shows almost no sign of taking
the extreme climate crisis—let alone the broader ecological crisis—for what it is: a long global
emergency, an existential threat. This industrial-growthist civilisation will not achieve the Paris
Climate Accord goals; and that means that we will most likely see 3-4 degrees Celsius of global
over-heat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it. The stakes
of course are very, very high, because the climate crisis puts the whole of what we know as
civilisation at risk. Bill McGuire, Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at
UCL, says, “The truth is that we are at the heart of a crisis situation that has the potential to
tear apart global society and economy within decades. We have the ability and opportunity to
engage, to make a difference, but this will only happen if enough people understand the
magnitude of the problem, and are scared enough to act. This will never, however, be the case
as long as climate scientists, and those who work on the impacts of climate breakdown, tip-toe
around the issue and rein in their language. So, be scared, be terrified. But don’t let this feed
inertia. Embrace your fears and use them to galvanise action.”9

As Alexander and Read8 see things, there are three broad possible futures that lie ahead:


1. This civilisation could collapse utterly and terminally, as a result of climatic instability
(leading for instance to catastrophic food shortages as a probable mechanism of collapse), or
possibly sooner than that, through nuclear war, pandemic, or financial collapse, leading to mass
civil breakdown. Any of these are likely to be precipitated in part by ecological/climate
instability, as Darfur and Syria were.8

2. This civilisation (we) will manage to seed a future successor-civilisation(s), as this one
collapses.


3. This civilisation will somehow manage to transform itself deliberately, radically, and
rapidly, in an unprecedented manner, in time to avert collapse.

The first option will involve vast suffering and death on an unprecedented scale. The second option is very difficult to envisage clearly, but is, they suggest, very likely. Virtually everyone
in the broader environmental movement has been fixated on the third option, unwilling to
consider anything less. Alexander and Read feel strongly that that stance now is no longer
viable8. Instead, they urge us to talk about how we can prepare the way for a future successor-civilisation. And, encouragingly, they are not alone in this—the Degrowth (or post growth)
movement is gaining momentum.

It becomes clear that change is inevitable and inescapable, therefore the question is only—does it come ‘by design or disaster’?

An Opportunity - Post Growth Wellness

“Enough is enough and more is too much” says Dr Jason Hickel10, an economic anthropologist
at Goldsmiths University of London. Degrowth and recession are not the same thing, he says.
“A recession is what happens when a growth-oriented economy like capitalism fails to get
growth, things fall apart. We need economies that can shift into a lower gear without harming
people’s lives, so degrowth basically calls for a planned down-shifting of the economy so that
we use less fossil fuels, we use less unnecessary resources but at the same time distribute
existing income and opportunities more fairly so that people can have access to the things they
need to live flourishing lives.”10 So just to be clear, the mechanism is redistribution of wealth,
not austerity.

A Degrowth paradigm describes an economy that naturally circulates money rather than concentrating it, an economy that values people's needs ahead of corporate greed, and an
economy that gives more than it takes from our life-supporting environment. Such an economy
is possible. While our extractive, growth-dependent economy is driving us to collapse, a vision
for a full circle, post-growth economy is emerging, offering a pathway to our shared thriving
within ecological limits11.

 Children’s ward, Vanuatu

The notion that growth has lifted millions out of poverty doesn’t stack up, Hickel says. “Half of the labour that we render and all of the resources that we dig up and all the emissions we
emit every year is all done to make rich people richer. The answer is some countries distribute
income more fairly and crucially invest in universal public services like robust education and
welfare, affordable housing, and public transportation”12.

Maternity hospital, Papua New Guinea

Only a small fraction of new income from economic growth actually goes to the global poor, only 5 percent goes to the poorest 60 percent of humanity. “If you look at the way that global
GDP is distributed, we see that the richest 5 percent of the world captures about half of all
global GDP”10.

Streets in Honiara, Solomon Islands

Meanwhile, ecological indicators on the health of the planet continue to worsen. The argument is that economic growth is needed for the world’s poor, although the lion’s share of the growth
is going to the already wealthy12. Degrowth is therefore a demand targeted at the high-income
countries. It is a demand for global justice, and it has been articulated from low-income
countries now for several decades. Social movements in low-income countries recognise that
growth in high-income countries is colonising their ecosystems and appropriating their
resources, driving catastrophe on a global scale11.

Hickel is convinced a majority of those in high-income nations want to shift to an economy focussed on well-being rather than on perpetual growth. Everyone realises on some level that the economy that we’re a part of is deeply destructive and we need something better, something saner10. In a recent workshop held in New Zealand’s parliament buildings on how to respond to a future with less abundant resources, the presenters suggested Aotearoa could be a leader in transitioning to a new social order14. In Spain, we have just seen politicians for the first time arguing unequivocally that degrowth is the necessary corollary to the finite nature of our planet and the capacity of its natural systems15.

Global energy consumption appears set to continue its pre-pandemic growth path. On the one hand, there is the need to drastically reduce energy use, especially from fossil fuels, for
ecological sustainability reasons, and on the other, the need for some energy growth in low-energy societies13. Seventy percent of plants, animals and fish have already been lost and we’re
only at 1 degree warming10. It is a race against time, Hickel says, between how quickly ecosystems disintegrate and how quickly human consciousness can evolve10.

The current ‘growthist’ marketplace favours the wealthy and enables their gain at the dual expense of the natural living systems upon which all species depend and on the standard of
living of the masses subsisting near the poverty line. We need to decide as a society whether
to defend and maintain this system, placing untold wealth in the hands of a few, whilst
decimating the natural environment and marginalising already marginalised people, or whether
we redistribute existing wealth and put in place limits to entitlement, limits to impact on natural
systems. A Degrowth, post-growth agenda.

Degrowth versus Green Growth

Dr Jack Santa Barbara skilfully explains the current predicament we find ourselves in regarding energy use and our limits to growth16. Ecological degradation inevitably leads to economic
decline17. He says, “If we continue to enthusiastically exchange natural capital for financial
capital and end up with a biocapacity deficit, we will not only be operating unsustainably, but
also become financially dependent on others. The current trajectory indicates this could occur
well before the end of this century. This is the path we are on—consuming more of nature
annually than it can regenerate"17.

We are approaching the safe limits for many planetary boundaries, including biosphere integrity and ocean acidity. For climate stability, we may have already crossed the threshold,
as evidenced by the alarming rise in extreme weather events throughout the world, which we
are beginning to feel increasingly in Aotearoa as well now. Humanity is currently using nature
1.7 times faster than ecosystems replenish, akin to using 1.7 Earths. So, the obvious problem
facing us: we only have one Earth13.

There are important discussions taking place about energy and its economic and environmental effects. In their invaluable book Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery13 consult a panel of energy experts, including many of the world’s most authoritative energy analysts. They discuss
global energy challenges, the perilous state of the planet, and the problems with proposed
technological fixes.

One key concept is Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) which is used to compare the actual net energy for society from sources as diverse as “renewable” energy from solar and
wind power installations with conventional oil and gas. Qualitatively weighing up the benefits
and disadvantages of any action has been around for millennia. The common-sense idea is that
all the energy inputs for building this energy conversion system, such as a wind farm or a coal-fired power station, should be less than the energy delivered by the energy plant over the course of its operating life13. The energy inputs should include the energy costs to manufacture and construct the energy conversion device; the operation and maintenance energy costs; the
transport energy costs for the components; the energy costs of any additions needed to the
transmission system; and any energy costs for decommissioning, removal, and site
remediation. Charles Hall, a pioneer in energy analysis, argues that the importance of EROEI
extends well beyond energy, to biology, economics, and sustainability in general13.

The prospects for solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, and ocean energy, all have benefits as well as environmental disadvantages. Although bioenergy and hydro are the most important
sources today, wind and solar energy have by far the greatest potential—and are the most
rapidly growing. In fact, Moriarty and Honnery13 explain that renewable energy projects today
are not decided on the basis of EROEI calculations. Instead, the comparison of economic costs
(with any subsidies factored in) with expected revenues over the project’s life is the basis of
the decision. Any energy production method can produce largely hidden or ignored costs for
any or all of three groups: the non-human natural world; people in countries with low incomes
and/or low levels of effective pollution controls; and future generations of humans. Nor is this
the only challenge facing the evaluation of future renewable energy potential. Others are
declining resource quality, the need for energy storage if intermittent renewable energy sources become dominant, and the removal of the energy subsidy from higher (as conventionally assessed) fossil fuels as they are replaced by renewable energy13. It is becoming increasingly clear that renewable energy may not be as green or abundant as often portrayed.

Technological fixes are highly favoured by most decision-makers because they involve the least disruption to existing social and economic order. So let us consider a number of the
technical fixes in the context of mitigating climate change: nuclear power; energy-efficient
improvement; various technologies for carbon dioxide removal; and geo-engineering in the
form of solar radiation management. The first point to make is that there is a real risk that they
come with unintended consequences. Nuclear energy is losing market share, and even the
nuclear industry does not predict share recovery. Reductions in energy intensity have not
prevented global energy growth, because of unmet demand in presently low-energy countries.
Carbon dioxide removal in the form of forestation has been implemented in some places, but
net loss in global forest biomass is still occurring. Other forms of carbon dioxide removal are
still unproven at the very large scales needed. Solar radiation management is likewise
unproven, and like carbon dioxide removal technologies, would eventually face the depletion
of fossil fuels13 and thus be difficult to maintain.

Moriarty and Honnery13 explain that for various reasons, these technological fixes to avoiding serious climate change are likely to either be of minor benefit or have significant unwanted
side effects. The first two methods discussed, massive reliance on nuclear power, and major
improvements to energy efficiency, have the advantage of reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
However, only a limited time frame is available for solutions to the risk of catastrophic climate
change since the adverse consequences of climate change are already apparent. For example,
because the global reactor fleet is ageing, and because of long lead times for new plant
construction, it would take many decades for nuclear power to achieve a major share even for
electricity production, let alone all primary energy. Solar radiation management is the only
mitigation method that could be rapidly implemented and appears to have far lower energy and
monetary costs than carbon dioxide removal methods, but after a few decades would be
difficult to implement due to depletion of fossil fuels13. Both approaches would merely delay
the inevitable need for alternative fuels. Will the impending climate catastrophe wait?

Post pandemic 2022, all signs indicate that economies are still fixated on economic growth and prepared to tolerate the often-hidden environmental risks of such a path. Not only is the
economy an energy system but it requires growing surplus energy to avoid collapse. Before
we can use energy, we must first obtain it. And obtaining energy has an energy cost of its own.
And so, the more energy required to obtain energy, the less surplus energy is available to power the wider economy, unless we keep growing the amount of energy18.

The solution suggested by proponents of a Degrowth paradigm is deep and rapid energy conservation. This would mean using fewer energy-consuming products and/or using them
less. In addition, the world will have to largely replace fossil fuels with renewable energy
sources, but a simple rapid substitution of fossil fuels by renewable energy does not appear
possible, for the following two reasons. First, renewable energy may not be available in
sufficient annual quantity to replace existing levels of fossil fuel use, at least in a sustainable
manner. Second, we saw that dynamic energy considerations imply that the rate of introduction
of low EROEI sources, with high upfront energy input costs, both of which characterise most
renewable energy sources, is subject to constraints. The world does need to replace fossil fuels
with renewable energy sources, but the decades likely needed for this replacement rule out
renewables as having more than a minor solution to play in overcoming our immediate
environmental crises13. Energy conservation then appears as the only solution for rapid
greenhouse gas reductions left in the short term.

Not only have energy limits been reached, but ecological limits have also been exceeded to such an extent that a ‘stagflationary’ economic depression seems inevitable18. The serious
ecological sustainability problems our planet faces in the Anthropocene expose the reality that:
these problems are increasingly of our own making; technological solutions are less effective
because solutions to one problem can aggravate the other problems; and global inequality is
high and still rising 10,13,16,18.

The feasibility of deep and rapid energy conservation, together with the rise of extreme weather events experienced by an ever-increasing share of the global population, open up space for
more rapid social and economic changes. The term ‘Degrowth’ comes from a radical economic theory born in the 1970s and does seem to be gaining some traction now as fears about climate change escalate. The World Economic Forum published an article this month19. emphasising that Degrowth is about shrinking rather than growing economies, so we use less of the world’s energy and resources and put wellbeing ahead of profit. Things are getting worse, fast. As a twist on what others have said, it is surely preferable to imagine the end of the growth economy, rather than the end of the world.

If people are passive in the face of the climate and ecological crises right now, I think it is likely because they are stuck between two alternatives. On the one hand, there is optimistic
naivety that there will be techno-fixes that will defuse the climate emergency while life more
or less goes on as usual. This is, I believe, a desperately risky path keeping us from facing up
to climate reality. It is becoming increasingly clear that renewables to replace the status quo of
energy consumption are a fantasy. On the other hand, there are dark fears that people mostly
don’t voice and don’t confront6. The debate about green growth versus degrowth is active and
alive20 and will likely increase in my view. The question is—do we have time to run this risky
experiment?

So: if our politicians, leaders, decision-makers fail to take meaningful action to reimagine systemic structures, or provide the necessary regulations to move towards a society focussed on wellbeing instead of wealth, does that mean small communities need to strategise toward adaptation as best they can? Will it be left to local actions to enact the changes needed in the void of government leadership? Many voices of authority on this topic are suggesting so23.

Outer island health clinic, Solomon Islands

Voluntary simplicity is sometimes called ‘the quiet revolution’21. This approach to life involves
providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimising expenditure on
consumer goods and services, and directing progressively more time and energy towards
pursuing non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning. Voluntary simplicity is a way
of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and
affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting’. Perhaps as the climate crisis
gets worse and there is increasing panic, wider cross-sectional responses will follow.

Collaborative Vision, Strategic Action

Considering our dire predicament and the possible path towards a better, not bigger future, I hazard to ask—could we be reaching an inflection point? Could we be at a crisis time of
bifurcation towards a planned, more equitable future? Perhaps through relinquishment,
resilience, restoration and reconciliation22 we can we find the courage to care beyond
ourselves? Those of us who stand in a space of uncompromised honesty are often accused of
being doom-mongers. We are not alarmists. We are raising the alarm. To seriously engage with
the overshoot issue, we need to think differently8.

In Aotearoa there are multiple organisations like Our Climate Declaration, Wise Response, The Lentil Intervention, Pathways to Survival, Tiwaiwaka, as well as the larger NGOs and
ecological conservation and restoration initiatives. There are innumerable international
initiatives such as the Post Growth Institute; Deep Adaptation Forum; Ecological Economics;
Climate Psychology Alliance; the Simplicity Institute; Centre for the Advancement of the
Steady State Economy and many others all working with such vision and determination.

Upper South Island, Aotearoa

There are incredible examples of community action. Local solidarity and vision, as demonstrated by the Nelson Tasman Climate Forum23. I add my dedication to theirs. We are
advocates for the children of the future. The children of the present have already raised their
voices and begged us to act. It is up to us to change our ways to allow space for all living things
on this beautiful planet. It will take courage, struggle, compassion, and connection.
Kotahitanga—we must work together.

 

References:

1. Hickel, J. (2022). It's either degrowth for the rich or climate disaster. https://podcast.dissenspodcast.de/172-degrowth 

2. Kress, S. (2010). Chaos and complexity- a discussion of the impact of non-linear
science on contemporary childbirth. https://kapiti.nikaumidwives.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Sahra-Article.pdf 

3. Favas, M. (2022). War in the world's breadbasket: a global food crisis. RNZ interview

4. United Nations (2022). Climate report: It’s ‘now or never’ to limit global warming to
1.5 degrees. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/04/1115452 

5. Forest and Bird. (2022). Why it matters. https://www.forestandbird.org.nz/campaigns/law-bring-back-nature 

6. Weintrobe, S. (2021). Psychological roots of the climate crisis. Bloomsbury Academic.

10. Hickel, J. (2020) How degrowth will save the world: RNZ interview.

11. Post Growth Institute. (2022). https://www.postgrowth.org/ 

12. Hickel, J. (2022). Degrowth is about global justice. https://braveneweurope.com/jason-hickel-degrowth-is-about-global-justice 

15. Lodeiro, M. (2022). One of Spain’s governing parties adopts degrowth.

19. World Economic Forum (June 15, 2022). Degrowth – what's behind the economic theory
and why does it matter right now? https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/06/what-is-degrowth-economics-climate-change/?fs=e&s=cl&fbclid=IwAR3KubkhR9YfzeEdcJc9ugJmxCOXpsr2vJydlFB6lGMA81M_xW_TvAxdej4&fs=e&s=cl 

20. Boston, J. (2022). Living Within Biophysical Limits: green growth versus degrowth. https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/pq/article/view/7578 

21. Simplicity Institute (2022). http://simplicityinstitute.org/samuel-alexander 

All photos: author

 

All Posts
×

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!

OK