Another End of the World is Possible

Photo of two girls making a 'Don't Let the World Burn' poster
Melbourne climate strike. Photo Credit: John Englart

Marya Hart

The Earth is at a Tipping Point

We humans now extract and consume resources at an unsustainable rate. If we continue on this course, we will render the earth uninhabitable.

“We are on a fast track to climate disaster,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a speech introducing the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) latest report in April 2022.

On one side of our planet’s tipping point is life as we know it. On the other, as Guterres puts it, are “major cities under water; unprecedented heatwaves; terrifying storms; widespread water shortages; the extinction of a million species of plants and animals.”

Both Guterres and the environmental movement advocate a rapid shift to renewable energy if we want to tip the scales back in favor of sustainability.

But green energy alone will not get us there. We must address not only the source of our energy, but also how we use it.

The good news is that it is possible for us to live in abundance while forgoing pollution, habitat destruction and the downstream impacts – but only if we face our present predicament, understand how our addiction to economic growth has gotten us here, and commit ourselves to changing the way we use energy.

Less is More, More is Less

To understand why a shift to renewables is insufficient for the challenge we face, it’s important to understand “the rebound effect”:  a well-documented paradox of human behavior. In a nutshell, as energy generation and use become more efficient, humans erase that efficiency with increased energy consumption.

When it comes to green energy, you can see the rebound effect all around you. Super-efficient light bulbs? Great, we don’t have to turn them off. Electric car? I’m doing my part by driving it. Saved money through efficiency? I’ll use that money to fly to a far-off vacation spot.

Green Technology Alone will not Save Us

But perhaps scaling up renewables and recycling can meet our energy needs? 

Well, not exactly. First, remember the rebound effect. Under our current economic system, as GDP grows, energy use rises in tandem. Green growth “absolutely decoupled” from energy and resource use has never been proven possible.

Then, recall that even solar and wind energy are not free. Converting the sun and wind to useful purposes requires resources and energy-intensive processes. For example, photovoltaic panels use arsenic, cadmium, tellurium; wind turbines require concrete, steel, iron, fiberglass, polymers, aluminum, copper, zinc and rare earth elements. Battery storage and transmission use lithium, copper, and nickel.

Even with aggressive recycling and landfill recovery, those critical minerals cannot be mined or recycled at a scale to meet currently-anticipated demand. Plus, building a new green infrastructure at a rapid-enough pace will use fossil fuels, intensifying the energy and climate problems it is meant to solve.

Worse, in the race to obtain critical minerals and other resources for the green economy, poor nations and people are most imperiled. Green energy resources are concentrated in the global South, often on Indigenous lands, where energy companies have consistently harmed air, water, wildlife, and people in search of profits.

Even green energy has limits and costs: it requires mining ever-dwindling stocks of ores, along with manufacturing and transmission, all entailing energy use, waste, transport costs, greenhouse gas emissions, economic exploitation, and environmental destruction.

The brutal reality: Human civilization is based on an economic and energy system of endless growth, which will collapse once the limits of extraction, and its concomitant environmental effects, have been reached.

This systematic collapse-in-progress is driven by inequality. Rich nations and people consume more than they need, contributing disproportionately to pollution and climate change. Meanwhile, poor nations and people have not reached basic sufficiency.

Fortunately there is a solution. It’s just a bit harder to achieve than changing out our household light bulbs.

Degrowth: A New Way

Degrowth is defined by the economic anthropologist and author Jason Hickel as “a planned reduction of energy and resource use designed to bring the economy back into balance with the living world in a way that reduces inequality and improves human well-being.”

Degrowth does not refer to population control nor to closing our national borders against immigrants. Rather, this movement exposes the connection between ceaseless growth and environmental degradation and proposes we find new ways to live within the earth’s material limits by abandoning our policy of growth at any cost.

We can’t get there only by recycling or driving EVs. We need bold political and social action to create a fundamental systems shift. 

Degrowth Requires Big Changes

We must push our national leaders to live up to their climate promises, and we in the global North must act in solidarity with the global South. Degrowth absolutely depends on restructuring human and economic relationships and changing the way we interact with the earth.

It can be dispiriting to think only of huge, global forces that are seemingly beyond our control. But rather than lapsing into pessimism and despair, we can find hope and lead the way to big solutions by taking local action.

Locally, we must concentrate on solutions that promote sustainability and degrowth. Many of the North Star Chapter’s campaigns focus on achieving these principles. Active campaigns that reflect aspects of the degrowth principles include: 

  • Opposing highway expansions in favor of investments in efficient, equitable public transit. The proposal to replace the section of I-94 through the cities with the Twin Cities Boulevard is a current example. Expanding affordable housing near transit is also a part of creating truly sustainable systems. 

  • Supporting energy alternatives and energy efficiency while battling new oil and fossil gas infrastructure. This is why we have been working to stop Enbridge’s Line 3 and Line 5, as well as opposing new fossil gas plants from Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power. (We successfully stopped Xcel’s proposed new gas plant and are currently fighting the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center, or NTEC.) 

  • Rejecting the greenwashed promotion of false solutions; for example, proposed sulfide ore mines such as Polymet, Twin Metals and Tamarack which promise jobs and critical minerals at the risk of toxic, perpetual water pollution.

  • Moving to Zero Waste. Supporting extended producer responsibility bills, which require the manufacturer of a product to be responsible for its ultimate recycling, reuse or disposal. 

  • Supporting allies in advocating for tax, wage, and labor laws that reduce inequality, protect workers and prevent the top one percent from unduly influencing our economic and environmental policies.

  • Advancing policies that foster local self-reliance, including distributed energy, local food production and industry.

We are facing an existential threat, but we will prevail if we face the facts, mourn our losses, and accept that there will be material changes to our lifestyle. Our lives can and will still be joyful and complete, if we speak out and keep hope alive.

For more information, including a bibliography, follow this link.

Marya Hart is an active volunteer with the North Star Chapter, and enjoys working on member communications and database entry.