Thanks to a great amount of data, and at this point also common sense, we can be certain of the correlation between economic growth, the increasing gap in social inequality, and the collapse of all earth’s living systems.
NO NATURE — NO FUTURE. Global climate change strike. Markus Spiske, Unsplash.com
In a previous piece, I’ve described how we are currently building our society under a virus paradigm, and how it is just impossible to carry on like this.
But how can we start moving forward? If we want to build a system that doesn’t predate on nature or social wellbeing we need to come to terms with some truths, no matter how hard they are.
First: An idea of prosperity centered on individuals comes from privilege because it ignores the interdependent wellbeing of all of the earth’s living systems (including all peoples).
Disciplines that dominate today’s worldview and public policy, such as economy, sociology, or psychology, were born amid “the age of enlightenment”. A philosophical movement born in the western bourgeois class that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 17th to 19th centuries centered on things like the predominance of reason, materiality, Individual liberty, and scientific reductionism.
It is no wonder why, at their core, our current understanding of reality neglects the importance of interconnectedness in the world. Contrary to what the “enlightened” gentleman said, we are not separated from our environment.
There is no such thing as personal succes, an idea of prosperity that praises on individualistic attainment is characteristic of privilege. Persons are a part of communities and we all depend on the wellbeing of the natural world as much as every other living form.
We should start seeing the alarming rates in which extinction is happening for living forms around and start taking bold actions to stop it. Instead, all we have are these warm initiatives intended at best to try to reduce the damage, we are trying timidly to fix with one hand what we aggressively destroy with the other.
Biodiversity policies and programs reflect the false assumption by policymakers that economic growth is more important than natural systems integrity or social equity. We think the destruction of nature is needed to alleviate poverty and to achieve prosperity because we fear that without growth we will be miserable.
But evidence suggests otherwise, the dismantlement of ecosystems only favors the concentration of money, and while social inequality rises the people with less access to economic structures and money suffer the worst part of the crises’ consequences.
Second: We cannot reconcile economic growth with social equity and environmental health.
In a recent study called ‘Biodiversity policy beyond economic growth’ published in the scientific journal Conservation Letters, more than 20 specialists in conservation ecology and ecological economics studied the connection between economic growth and the magnitude of biodiversity loss.
Their results are clear: there is a contradiction between an economy built for growth and natural wellbeing. This is just one more of several studies worldwide to reach this conclusion, it is time for us to accept it and move on.
This study shows how the economic growth in the last decades has resulted in encroachment or total disappearance of natural habitats worldwide. At first, we may think that it is linked to population growth but the structure and evolution of the global economy, and the production and consumption patterns resulting from it, play a key role.
1. Loss of natural land
Since the 1960’s you can see a correlation between GDP growth and global agricultural intensification. A production model based on large-scale monocultures that have disastrous effects in biodiversity because of its excessive use of land, natural resources, machinery, fuels, agrochemicals, etc.
Industrial agriculture is estimated to be responsible for around 80% of deforestation worldwide. This is not serving the need for food or human development, instead, it sustains a change in consumption patterns towards a higher demand for animal protein, highly processed, and imported goods from which global agribusiness benefits.
The increase in GDP has also given rise to wealth in privileged social groups around the world, which led to a surge in private transportation for some, allowing the sprawl of cities. On one hand, it generates a multiplication of low-density communities that demand more space and infrastructure, thus competing with natural ecosystems. On the other, it has aggravated the isolation of areas where people with limited access to economic resources live.
The global change in agriculture and cities has increased the exploitation of natural resources and worsen the already unfair social and economical structures, both in rural and urban areas.
2. Climate change
Economic growth has led to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse emissions that produce climate shifts toward warmer temperatures. These changes happen at rates exceeding the capacity of many species to adapt, resulting in local extinctions.
Warmer temperatures also enhance the frequency and intensity of events such as storms, floods, extreme temperatures, and droughts. This heavily impacts ecosystems that were not very healthy in the first place.
Climate change poses a major threat to life forms everywhere. Its causes are not only closely related to the changes in production and consumption described before but also they act in synergy with them, making the situation even worse.
3. Invasive alien species
In the last decades, the global economy has depended on international trade to keep the growth going. The expansion of transportation routes and the magnitude of international exchanges constitute the perfect way for alien species to get to regions that were previously beyond the reach of natural colonization.
The intensity of human-mediated species exchange associated with economic activities have profoundly negative implications for native life, ecosystems, and lastly human well-being (especially for those more vulnerable).
To keep the growth going production cannot stop and so, neither can consumption, this is the most distinctive factor of the fast-paced economy in which we live. Biodiversity loss drivers are the consequence of the global economic model, not population growth.
Third: we cannot change our impacts on the natural world and alleviate social inequality without changing business and economic structures.
And we shouldn’t want to, with so many flaws and negative impacts on vulnerable populations and natural life we should be eager to change these structures.
What enables the false idea of prosperity that results in an economy built on unjust wealth distribution and nature collapse?
The answer is fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, and its derivatives. Fast rates of production and consumption needed to keep on the economic growth are allowed by fossil fuels and its byproducts: cheap energy, plastics, agrochemicals, construction additives, etc.
If we want to make a rapid and successful transition we cannot rely on an individual change of principles or habits, especially when they need to come from those in privileged positions.
We urgently need a policy that aggressively tackles the use of fossil fuels. Since they constitute the base of our fast-paced economy, this alone is the single most important action to take to make a quick and profound change.
Think about it as if it were gun control. Guns are not responsible for violence, it has existed since the beginning of times, but to reduce the amount of them in circulation, or forbid its use altogether, has demonstrated to have outstanding positive effects on social wellbeing. Gun control doesn’t stop violence, but it certainly puts a very big limitation on the impact of a person who commits an act of violence.
With fossil fuels is the same, the reason that we keep the engines on all the time is ideological, but fossil fuels enable an economy that is more environmentally and socially destructive.
In the same way as with guns, we simply cannot wait until this transformation is made by a change in individual choice or ideology. Countless lives are at stake, we need to stop the availability of fossil fuels as soon as possible.
Fourth: energy from renewable sources is not enough to cover what fossil fuels provide. Instead of trying to substitute it, we need to adapt by slowing down.
A serious policy aimed to make fuels unavailable will catalyze profound structural changes in every single aspect of our economy.
It would shift agriculture from predatory industrial type towards a nonintensive agroecology model characterized by a use of crop varieties better fitting for local conditions, dramatically diminishing the needs of soil, land, energy, technology, machinery, fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation.
Even though some products, such as animal-derived foods will be less available, seasonal agricultural production will be cheaper. This way we can have diverse based systems that foster regeneration of resources such as soil and water while using more labor and generating more jobs.
Currently, the only ones that benefit from industrial agriculture are the big scale agribusiness, making the system inherently unfair. By making fossil fuels unavailable we will make economic structures more just and accessible for small scale producers helping alleviate rural poverty.
Our cities and communities would also be tremendously transformed. With more expensive fuels and electric power, fewer people will be able to commute, thus reorganizing urban spaces. A more clustered living will allow the development of a more intense communal life and stronger local social organization.
With fewer automobiles in the cities, the number and size of parking lots and streets will also diminish, and so more natural recreation zones can be established inside them. This would not only increase the quality of life of humans but also of flora and fauna that live in urban spaces.
To adapt to rising costs of transportation the use of communication technologies will grow to connect people that are not close enough. Even though it uses a significant amount of electric energy, it is not comparable to the amount used by transportation and it can be sourced from renewable sources easily.
With more expensive energy and transportation, international manufacturing industries’ costs would rise, and local producers would greatly benefit.
In a society with no fossil fuels, acquisitive power would decrease, people would no longer be able to buy as intensely as we do today, nor would they need to produce all the time. Good thing that the economy wouldn’t need it.
Extractive industries’ costs will also rise. Less material available and less buying capability would force every product to be thought and designed in terms of extended life use and repairability, even reuse or recycling would be costly.
Less exploitation of natural landscapes due to decreasing demand for supplies would also contribute to the decline in international transportation and the infrastructure needed to allow it. Mega Projects that are very damaging for ecosystems, would be made more expensive so they would need to be planned in terms of efficiency and demand, not to foster economic growth.
Diminishing international traffic would also mean a very drastic reduction in waste. The packaging needed to endure long travels is the most pervasive kind of pollution: single-use plastics.
The unavailability of fossil fuels would single-handedly alleviate the three main forces that are causing the environmental crisis we live in today.
Firstly, it would catalyze the conversion of agricultural practices globally in favor of those helping to maintain more natural landscapes intact, or give time to damaged ecosystems to regenerate;
Slowing down stripping of land and industrial production will allow the natural processes of the earth to restore a balance of carbon-dioxide.
Finally, with a decline in production and the need for international trade, we would greatly reduce the impact of extractive and transportation industries in natural environments.
In this way, we can radically change our agricultural practices, industrial systems, urban distribution, consumption patterns, and waste generation. Thus, laying off a staggering amount of the pressure ecosystems suffer today, and allowing them to restore themselves slowly.
Fifth: Great changes in our lives are to be expected if we want to build a sustainable economy and society focused on wellbeing for everyone.
As the use of fossil fuels decreases, the economy will shift towards a slower agrarian base, depending heavily on local rural production for employment and consumption. This will result in a seasonal economy limited by the capacity of local ecosystems to provide jobs and goods. One that alternates in cycles of great activity and rest, according to the time of the year, the climate, the region, etc.
A contraction would bring a decrease in working hours. It may not seem desirable today because under our current economic system it means scarcity, but with financial structures and public policy made for it, it doesn’t necessarily translate to hardship. We, as humans, evolved and lived like this for ages.
It would be something similar to the quarantine we are living through today. It was established as a response to a huge crisis, we didn't wait for each one to decide if they want or not. As a result, some people have had a lot of moments of peaceful introspection and connection, whilst others are facing a situation that leaves them with feelings of despair and loneliness.
What’s the main difference between these people? Probably most of the people having a time of reflection and learning are focusing on themselves partly because they are not afraid of being devoid of material sustenance. They have the privilege of counting on strong support structures such as individual or family wealth; good communal relations; or government policies.
But besides financial stability, they have tools that allow them to use this time of partial inactivity in personal growth. These people are the ones using this confinement as a time for picking up old hobbies, learning new things, and reinforcing valuable bonds with others.
Imagine seasons in which we don’t engage in long working hours so we can use it for any activity that feels meaningful, regardless of its market value. How different would the world be for us and nature, if we were to have “breaks” like this one in our lives periodically, but with the addition of being able to go out, do things you’re interested in and hug the people you love?
A sensible direction with the environment will of course mean the sacrifice of our seemingly obsessive relationship with technological progress, material growth, and consumerism. In other words, we would let go of a part of what the bourgeois enlightened age men believed was the greatest most important venture of humankind.
In a cyclic economy integrated with nature, times of economic contraction do not translate into pain, but into an opportunity to develop personal and social well being. Occasions for investing time and effort in our communities and personal development.
Here is where spirituality becomes essential. It can guide us into building a life that provides a sense of direction away from production and consumption, through personal growth and communal life. If we can finally realize prosperity beyond materialism we can transform our societies faster than we think, by tackling what bounds us to the never-ending rat race our life has become: the use of fossil fuels.
In a system inherently unfair and built for materialistic proposes there is no wellbeing insight for anyone. But we can create economic and social structures that allow individuals to live a life of personal fulfillment inclusive of all peoples, and all forms of life.