Dr Catherine Knight is an award-winning writer and policy practitioner who has published several books on the environment, including Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand (2018). She is an honorary research associate at the School of People, Environment and Planning, Massey University.
OPINION: As the climate crisis deepens, with devastating effects here in our own communities, many people are starting to question the system that created this crisis in the first place.
Sure, we can ‘build back better’ – with more roads, bridges, stormwater and stopbanks – but, at best, this will only buy us a little more time before the next catastrophic weather event strikes.
Climate change is already bedded in, but we still have a chance of preserving a liveable planet for our children and their children.
* It’s time to give up on growth – why degrowth is the key to our future
* To grow or to degrow? That is the question
* School Strike 4 Climate: School students get ready to strike again over climate change
* Cyclone Gabrielle: Adaptation no longer climate change’s poor cousin
* Early action on climate change would save New Zealand $30b, report finds
However, to do this, we must stop causing the harm that causes climate and ecological breakdown. Renewable energy and new technology will help in our transition to a lower impact economy, but we must also drastically reduce the energy and resources we use and waste.
The idea of reducing the throughput of energy and material flows in our economy while focusing instead on wellbeing is known by many names – wellbeing economy, steady-state economy, doughnut economics – but the name that speaks most directly to what needs to be done is ‘degrowth’.
In spite of the name, degrowth advocates do not suggest the carte blanche reduction of economic activity. They propose the downscaling of parts of the economy that do little to contribute to human wellbeing while causing enormous harm to the environment. Examples of such sectors are industrialised meat and dairy production, fast fashion, advertising, cars and SUVs, and aviation.
Advocates argue for the need to lengthen the lifespan of products by phasing out single-use products and by banning the designed-in obsolescence of electronic and household appliances.
On the other hand, they also propose the expansion of sectors of the economy that will support our transition to an economy that operates within planetary boundaries. Such sectors include renewable energy generation, public transport, social housing, the health and care sectors, education, green infrastructure and sustainable food production, among others.
Degrowth advocates argue that whether we like it or not, we will get to a point (and it may be sooner than we realise) when current growth rates are no longer viable, and our existing economic system will collapse.
Rather than a chaotic collapse leading to unimaginable human suffering and social disruption, they advocate a planned transition to a post-growth economy, in which the economic system is redesigned to put human and planetary wellbeing at the centre, rather than unevenly distributed wealth creation. (Nearly two-thirds of all new wealth created globally in the last two years went to the richest 1%.)
This would be a more rational and efficient economy because it would be centred on producing goods and services that we actually need, not ones that we are persuaded we need through all-pervasive advertising.
Degrowth proponents acknowledge that the downscaling of significant parts of the economy will mean less paid work for those working in ‘sunset’ industries, and propose policies such as a universal basic income, publicly funded retraining schemes and a four-day week to address this.
These and other policies would enable more people to contribute to society in ways that are not rewarded by direct income, including in care-giving, environmental restoration, or work that contributes in other ways to social or community wellbeing.
Such a fundamental redesign of the economy would have major financial implications. There would be less revenue produced by energy-intensive, ecologically damaging sectors. But it needs to be remembered that – despite the myth of trickle-down economics – the bulk of this wealth currently goes back into the pockets of a wealthy few, with very little made available to be invested in public goods or services.
Furthermore, under our current economic system, the costs of harmful industries fall on the government (and therefore us as taxpayers), as we have seen with the shocking damage caused by poor forestry practices in the recent cyclones. On a bigger scale, climate change is an ‘externality’ of the (‘obscenely’ profitable) fossil fuel industry, on which the entire global economy is utterly dependent.
And here is the good news. Not only would a redesign of our economy be better for the planet, it would be better for us as human beings.
By putting wellbeing at the centre of the economic system, not growth, we would provide the conditions for a more equitable society where people have more time and energy to do the things that bring joy, nourish wellbeing and restore connection with place and community.
As the climate crisis really starts to bite, we need to set ideology aside and have a mature, evidence-based discussion about the future of our economy and society, for the sake of this precious planet and future generations.
Aotearoa New Zealand can lead the way, as it has done before.