Citizen Action Monitor

Bill Rees’ Degrowth Vision – Planned descent toward socially just sustainability for all: Part 3

Rejecting degrowth, continuing on a path of business as usual, is asking for deep trouble.

No 1552 Posted by fw, December 30, 2015

“So, I would argue that if we maintain the business as usual course – remember, I said degrowth is better than the alternative – business as usual is the primary alternative. Of course, there’s a spectrum between these two bookends, but business as usual is taking us in one direction — Rising demand, diminishing supply of energy, minerals, fish stocks, etc., competition for capital, unrepayable debt, and increasing costs for everything will create a situation in which economies one by one turn south, following the path of Egypt, Syria, Greece.”William Rees

In Part 2 of this four-part series, Rees refers to humankind as a rogue species. Our increasing use of fossil fuels has driven relentless exploitation of this planet. The result is an earth in a state of overshoot, outpacing its capacity to regenerate the resources we consume. Citing the historical evidence of Joseph Tainter and others, Rees shares warns that, left unchecked, we are on a downward spiral past to societal collapse. Symptoms of collapse typically include: corruption at the top, governance rigidity, and diminishing returns to investment in just about everything.

In this post, Part 3, Rees declares that rejecting degrowth in favour of continuing on a business as usual path will ultimately lead to accelerating climate change, ecological degradation and uneconomic growth, which he defines as growth in which the damage costs exceed the benefits. The damage costs of extreme climate change will be our undoing. The numbers don’t lie: the planet is warming; hot weather events are increasing along with greenhouse gas emissions. Climate scientists are beginning to panic, alarmed by their findings: we’re on track for 4°C of warming, which would be absolutely catastrophic. Two distinguished climate scientists are now arguing that degrowth – a planned economic recession – is a fast, safe way to reduce emissions. Even the World Bank has issued a stark warning – We’re in deep trouble. We should be worried — Rich and powerful elites make the decisions, the rest of us have no voice.

Below is an embedded 35-minute video of Rees’ talk, Why Degrowth, along with my transcript featuring added subheadings. Although my transcript excludes 5 text boxes shown in the video, it includes the passages in which Rees reads from or paraphrases the text box content. The transcript covers a 6:42-minute segment of Rees’ talk, beginning at the 19:03-minute mark, ending at 25:46 minutes.

Alternatively, click on the following linked title to access the host website, Rees’ video, and two other related videos. There is no transcript available at this site.

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Why degrowth? Dialogue on pathways towards a smaller economy, by William Rees, 2014 The Extraenvironmentalist / Vancouver Degrowth Live Event Series, April 16, 2014

The Video: Why Degrowth

TRANSCRIPT (Start 19:03 – End 25:46)

(19:04 mark — Text Box omitted)

The primary alternative to degrowth is business as usual, ultimately leading to uneconomic growth

So, I would argue that if we maintain the business as usual course – remember, I said degrowth is better than the alternative – business as usual is the primary alternative. Of course, there’s a spectrum between these two bookends, but business as usual is taking us in one direction. Rising demand, diminishing supply of energy, minerals, fish stocks, etc., competition for capital, unrepayable debt, and increasing costs for everything will create a situation in which economies one by one turn south, following the path of Egypt, Syria, Greece, and so on and so forth.

Or, we can confront the possibility, if that (above text) doesn’t happen, of accelerating climate change and ecological degradation which herald a period of uneconomic growth.

The concept of “uneconomic growth” in which the costs of damage exceed the benefits

Here’s a concept for you. We think of economic growth. What is uneconomic growth? It’s growth in which the damage costs exceed the benefits. Now if you’ve been plotting – as insurance companies do – the damage costs of extreme climate events, you’ll see that it’s now in the tens – regularly, tens of billions of dollars per event. And there’s dozens and dozens of other costs that go unmonitored by our kind of economy.

We measure the benefits – not even very well in a silly index called GNP [gross national product] – but we don’t measure the costs by enlarge. What was the cost of the collapse of the north Atlantic cod stock? Nobody really figured it out. What’s the cost of the extinction of species? We don’t really know until the whole system goes down. But the point is, you can imagine a system in which the costs exceed the benefits. And at that point, growth is uneconomic.

CO2 increase is a dysfunctional cost of a return to Business As Usual (BOA)

Fig. 5

Atmospheric Carbon Accumulation

This [Fig. 5] is the upward tick of carbon dioxide that I mentioned earlier. It touched 400 parts per million just a year ago. This is the highest level that it has been for tens of millions of years. It’s been a 42% increase in just this century. And the measurements are so sensitive that we can detect the breathing of the earth, the cycle of the seasons in the northern hemisphere when the green plants turn on and off and cause that cycle to fluctuate in that manner.

Fig. 6

Mean global temperature

CO2 increase drives up the global average temperature

This is the primary driver of the uptick in temperature. Now you’ll notice periods of seeming plateau or even a decline in temperature. That’s because the oceans do a flip. There’s something called the north Pacific decadal oscillation, for example. We happen to be in a cold water phase right now. So if you look at the top end of that thing some will say “Ah, climate change has stopped. There’s no warming for the last decade or so on average.” By the way, that’s not quite true. But the point is, it’s the oceans. The oceans are assimilating vast quantities of heat.

(21:46 mark Text Box omitted)

Has warming slowed? Climate and overshoot

And we now have a network of very sensitive instruments that can detect the rate of heat accumulation in the oceans. We’re gaining – the net gain — is the equivalent a 0.6-watt light bulb on every square metre on the surface of the earth. This is equivalent to the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs every day of the year, 365 days per year.

(22:25 – Text Box omitted)

So, we’re into that overshoot in just about every dimension you all know of. Climate change, I’ll mention. For the first 13 years of this century include 12 of the warmest 14 years in the instrumental record. Extremely hot weather events have increased by a factor if 50 compared to the decades before 1980. These are real numbers. Again, nobody’s making this up. Other weather extremes are increasing in frequency and intensity.

(22:47 Text Box omitted)

Scientists are beginning to speak out

Recent findings – even climate scientists are beginning to panic because they’re not being paid attention to. I’m a scientist. I was, literally took a whole course in which we were urged never to engage in politics. Your goal as a scientist is to produce data. It’s not up to you to interpret the social and economic meaning of those data. That is beginning to break down because the scientists are getting frightened with the results of their analyses.

Two distinguished climate scientists are now arguing that degrowth – a planned economic recession – is a fast, safe way to reduce emissions

Two of the most outspoken are Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows at the Tyndall Institute in the UK. They came out – they’ve now done several papers, this one from 2008* – arguing that we are on track for over 650 parts per million equivalent of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – that means about a 50% plus or minus chance of reaching 4°C of warming, which would be absolutely catastrophic. And they argue that the only way out of this is that the OECD countries begin about a 6% per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions beginning immediately so that we’re virtually out of using carbon fuels by about 2090 I guess.

So they argue that this really requires degrowth, a planned economic recession. Those are their exact words. The western world should be engaged in a planned economic recession. We’ve got the wealth to do it. And if we include everybody in the process to ease our way down – a soft landing as opposed to the crash that might follow. [*See this later paper: Avoiding dangerous climate change demands de-growth strategies from wealthier nations by Kevin Anderson & Alice Bows-Larkin, Climate Change negotiations; Warsaw 2013, November 25, 2013).]

When growth is uneconomic

Fig 7.

Uneconomic growth

Given current trends, continuing on a business as usual path will see the costs of more growth exceeding the benefits

This is just a curve showing the idea of uneconomic growth. As the economy grows with the increasing production and consumption, the X axis, then the marginal utility of growth – that is to say the benefits – will decline over time because the next unit of growth isn’t nearly as important as the early units, but the costs increase. And we’re seeing increasing costs now every time you open a newspaper. At some point the costs exceed or cross the benefits. That’s the optimal scale. No point in going further, because every point beyond here represents a point at which the scale of the economy produces more costs than gains.

Rich and powerful elites make the decisions, the rest of us have no voice

Problem. The benefits are going over here, the costs are being imposed over there and those guys over here are the ones making the decisions. Hence we’re now in a situation where the poor and impoverished are really not in a political position to do very much about it.

(25:27 — Text Box omitted)

Even the World Bank has issued a stark warning – We’re in deep trouble

Even the World Bank has caught up. One of the great promoters of growth and development a couple of years ago has come out with a major study – you can look it up, it’s online –

“The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur – the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen.” (World Bank. 2012, Turn Down the Heat. Why a 4°C Warmer World must be Avoided.) They don’t go as far as degrowth but they believe that we’re in deep trouble.

***** END OF PART 3 *****

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