The way to save the planet: shrink the economy

The oil and gas industry claims that the 11 percent drop in reported U.S. carbon emissions between 2007 and 2013 was due primarily to the growth in fracking (“When Human Consumption Slows, Planet Earth Can Heal”). However a recent study in Nature Communications determined that 83 percent of the 2007-2013 reduction was the result of decreased consumption and production during the great recession, while only the remaining 17 percent was due to changes in fuel type. That makes sense; less economic activity lowers carbon emissions.

This simple truth has far-reaching implications. Our current economic system, based on growth, can’t adjust to this fact. But that doesn’t change the fact: the way to save the biosphere is to shrink our economy.

Progressive environmental activists know we must reduce our carbon footprint, but for strategic reasons, we advocate a mélange of solutions. We fight to ban fracking, stop the XL pipeline and divest from fossil fuel companies. This makes sense: if applied globally these actions, in combination with conservation, would significantly decrease economic activity, and thus lower carbon emissions. We also promote increased efficiency in heating and cooling appliances, air and automobile travel, better public transportation, recycling, and alternative solar generation. These actions, while reducing the carbon footprint of the products we buy and trips we take, may not lower total emissions if they result in our buying and traveling more, or using more cheaply generated solar power.

Significant segments of our movement celebrate a “green new deal,” that will create an economic boom and new jobs while greening our economy. This is dangerous self-deception. Everyone needs living-wage jobs, but if the additional millions of job-holders produce more products and consume as the typical living-wage worker and their families do today, we’ll collectively emit even more carbon and make the problem worse.

Therefore we must couple the new green jobs with significantly reduced hours and substantially increased wages/salaries for all workers, including professionals. These workers and their families must spend their increased funds and free time in a manner that does not produce more greenhouse gases. This complex of interactions won’t work without careful planning and re-education. We’ll make no progress if we create more consumers taking part in the throw-away society.

Progressive environmental activists are also reluctant to talk about population. We believe in sharing the world’s resources more equitably, but don’t calculate what that means as the global population approaches eight billion. The issue of population control has racist roots and a history of unequal practice. In addition, five hundred million relatively affluent North American and Western European whites produce 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, while billions of people of color in the third world have tiny carbon footprints. While masses of people living in poverty are not responsible for global warming, increasing their level of consumption to that enjoyed in the “developed world” will have a profoundly negative impact on the world’s carbon footprint.

Any comprehensive climate change program must deal with this triple challenge:

1. to decrease economic activity to limit carbon emissions.

2. to achieve a livable standard of living for everyone by increasing wages to compensate for decreasing work hours.

3. to fairly redistribute the dwindling resources of our planet to include the third world.

This monumental challenge can only be met by global agreement to replace competition with cooperation, replace profit with sharing, and to engage in physical, social, artistic and intellectual pursuits instead of rampant consumption.

This article originally appeared, under the title “We Need Contraction,” at Robert Meeropol’s blog.

Photo: Chicago junkyard. Edward Blake/Flickr


Robert Meeropol
Robert Meeropol

Robert Meeropol is the younger son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He is the founder and past executive director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children. For over 40 years he has been a progressive activist, author and public speaker.