From the Unsustainable Here to the Sustainable There

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In 1972, the Club of Rome released a report called The Limits to Growth that laid out the damage to the planet and to human beings of unrestrained increases in economic production and population. It was a straightforward extrapolation from then-current trends that took into account limited resources like water, fertile soil, and fossil fuels.

That same year, the United Nations held its first environment conference, which led to the creation of the UN Environment Program. Climate change was barely on the conference agenda, but it would increasingly focus the attention of scientists and policymakers over the next two decades with the introduction of the term “global warming” in 1975, the Montreal Protocol in 1987 that restricted ozone-destroying chemicals, and the creation in 1988 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

For half a century, in other words, the international community has issued warnings about the linked hazards of economic growth and climate change. Despite these warnings across five decades, very little has been done to engineer an alternate to unrestrained growth that can safeguard the planet and yet still secure a measure of prosperity fall all humans.

Current doomsday scenarios of a future dominated by environmental disasters and economic deprivation are not the result of “sudden panicking,” points out Vedran Horvat, the director of the Institute for Political Ecology in Croatia and a panelist at a recent Global Just Transition seminar on post-growth alternatives. “We had 50 years to realize what the Club of Rome said in the 1970s. Already at that time we knew there were limits and boundaries to our growth and that the planet does not have unlimited resources. Already we are too late. But I don’t see that as a reason not to act. Now it’s a question of how we act.”

Similarly, discussion of “peak oil”—of a falling off of oil production—has been around since 1956, when geophysicist Marion King Hubbert predicted that the United States would hit peak production around 1970 while the rest of the world would top out in the early 2000s. Although Hubbert did not anticipate the discovery of new sources of oil, his predictions were only off by a couple decades. The COVID pandemic’s impact on global supply chains, the war in Ukraine, and the rapid transition to electric vehicles have combined to ensure that peak oil demand will arrive in the next few years if it hasn’t happened already.

As with the Club of Rome’s warnings, little has been done to prepare for the depletion of fossil fuels.

“For the last 14 years, we’ve talked about green transition,” observes Simon Michaux, an associate professor of geo-metallurgy at the Geological Survey of Finland. “But there’s been no feasibility study for macro-scale industrial reformation. We had some ideas, but we didn’t cost them out. We didn’t get to the point of determining what kind of power stations we would need, who would pay for them, and what kind of engineering we’d need to keep each one running. Here we are perhaps past peak oil, and we still don’t have a credible plan to phase out fossil fuels.”

The lack of a plan and the urgency of the crisis are two major obstacles. A third challenge is the absence of consensus on how to move forward. “For the last two decades, those of us who are more and more worried about these conditions and the fact that things aren’t changing are aware of just how far we are going down the road we shouldn’t be going down,” says Susan Krumdieck, professor and chair in Energy Transition at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. “We’ve put on our superhero capes to fight. Unfortunately, we’re pulling in different directions.”

One obvious difference in approach is between the richer countries of the Global North and the poorer countries of the Global South. “We’ve seen lots of initiatives like the Green New Deal in the United States which lack the perspective and participation of peripheral economies in the Global South,” notes Renata Nitta, a campaign strategist for Greenpeace International based in Brazil. “When you think of plans to decarbonize the economy and transition to electric vehicles, you have to ask where those raw materials come from. More than half of lithium resources, for instance, are based in Latin America in a very dry area where the mining takes a lot of energy and water and dispossesses traditional and indigenous communities.”

At this point, after a half century of study and debate, the international community has a good understanding of the challenges of economic growth and the urgent threat of climate change and resource depletion. Only recently, however, have scientists, engineers, policymakers, and movement leaders begun to identify the components of an action plan around post-growth alternatives. From “transition engineering” and “degrowth by design” to a new social contract and a new economic model built around the commons, visionary thinkers and activists are finally beginning to pull in the same direction.

Transition Engineering

In 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City. One of the exits was locked while a fire escape was too flimsy to hold all the fleeing workers. Because they could not get out of the building, 146 garment workers died in the flames. It was one of the deadliest industrial accidents in U.S. history. It also set in motion the transformation of working conditions in factories through the improvement of safety standards.

The Triangle fire is not the only example of a man-made disaster. “At that time, roughly 40 coal miners a day were dying on the job in the United States and that year 5,600 UK workers died on the job,” notes Susan Krumdieck. “That isn’t the case anymore. Maybe in Qatar a lot of people are still dying on the job but that’s because they’re not doing what we do, namely safety engineering. We see the emergence of corrective discipline time and again. After the Titanic went down, maritime safety emerged to ensure that that didn’t happen again. After toxic waste disasters like Love Canal, we saw the emergence of processes to prevent those man-made disasters.”

Climate change is also a man-made disaster. Like coal mining deaths and toxic waste dumps, it is a byproduct of the industrial era. Recognition of climate change—and the costs it has already exacted in human lives and environmental deterioration—has led to the creation of what Krumdieck calls “transition engineering,” namely an effort to “downshift fossil fuel production and consumption and then engineer the adaptation and resetting of the energy system and the economic behaviors in that context.”

Krumdieck was motivated to become a mechanical engineer as an undergraduate in 1981 “because of the energy crisis, the OPEC oil embargo, global warming, and the existential threat of biodiversity loss,” she remembers. “For nearly 20 years, I taught people how to put CO2 safely and efficiently into the air. Then in the late 1990s, many like me got distracted by carbon capture and storage and by biofuels because we are engineers and it was very exciting to work on these really impossible things.”

She has since transitioned to transition engineering. “That’s how impact happens: by developing standards, training, and professional organizations,” she points out. “Now is the time for people working on this all around the world to come together and create a discipline.”

She hopes that future historians will look at humanity’s predicament today much as we look back at the Triangle Fire. Transition engineering can potentially transform the way economics work much as safety engineering has radically minimized man-made hazards in the workplace.

“This year, in the UK, fewer than 150 will die on the job,” she concludes. “Not one of those is okay. But 100 years ago, all 5,600 worker lives lost were just the price of the progress of industrialization.”

Addressing Fossil Fuel Dependency

Despite considerable investments by China, the United States, and other countries into renewable energy systems like solar and wind, fossil fuels remain the dominant source of energy in the world. In 1966, oil, gas, and coal supplied approximately 94 percent of all electricity. By 2009, that number had dropped to a little above 80 percent. But over the next decade, even as concern over climate change spiked, dependency on fossil fuels barely shifted, falling to just under 79 percent by 2020. The economic rebound from the COVID lockdowns, coupled with the initial energy shocks associated with the war in Ukraine, has encouraged a greater reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal, and generated record profits for oil and gas companies.

But the war in Ukraine—and the near universal desire to achieve energy independence from external suppliers—has also inspired many countries to push harder to install renewable energy, forcing the International Energy Agency to revise its estimate of increased renewable capacity by 30 percent. According to the IEA, “renewables are set to account for over 90% of global electricity expansion over the next five years, overtaking coal to become the largest source of global electricity by early 2025.”

The desire for transition may be strong but the physical infrastructure is still lacking. “The task to get rid of fossil fuels is much larger than we thought, so large that we should have been taking it seriously 20 years ago,” reports Simon Michaux. “We need 586,000 non-fossil-fuel power stations to phase out fossil fuel, but there are only 46,000 in the existing system. We don’t have enough minerals to build these new stations.”

Further, those minerals are often in areas of the Global South where extraction poses serious risks to surrounding communities and the environment. “Half the world’s cobalt reserves are in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Renata Nitta points out, adding that such mines are often the locus of human rights abuses. “More than 14,000 children are working in cobalt mines.

The challenge is not just the insufficiency of mineral resources. “Wind and solar are highly intermittent,” Michaux continues. “To become viable, we need a power buffer. My calculations show that such a power buffer would be so large as to be impractical. Which means that wind and solar can’t be the foundational energy system we want it to be. So, we either need to change wind and solar or we need to change electrical engineering to deal with variable power supply.”

One strategy for gradually reducing dependency on fossil fuels is rationing. The United Kingdom, in a plan supported by the Labour and Green parties, considered implementing Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) as a way to equitably reduce fossil fuel consumption. In a TEQ system, individuals are issued quotas of fossil fuel energy to use, the surplus of which they can sell. Institutions purchase TEQs at auction or buy as needed. The TEQs are linked to carbon reduction goals, and governments can progressively reduce them to meet national and international requirements.

“The system that does the rationing and why is a primary requirement,” Susan Krumdieck points out. “Seats at a Queen concert are rationed: there are only so many. If everyone who wanted to see the concert just showed up it would be a disaster. So, the system that lets us book and manage our expectations is essential. Does that system exist for fossil fuels? No, so let’s build it.”

Simon Michaux agrees that rationing would be sensible, but it would work only if there were sufficient trust in the system, which requires full transparency. “Everyone involved has to understand what’s happening and why,” he maintains.

Because of the war in Ukraine, rationing of energy has already happened throughout Europe. Vedran Horvat points to measures “related to air-conditioning temperatures in offices, the heating of swimming pools, and the lighting of public monuments. This broad range of measures to decrease energy consumption, in the context of the energy crisis in Europe due to the war in Ukraine, is well understood and easily accepted. It is also an issue of solidarity to understand that if we maintain our comfort at an unsustainably high level, it might have detrimental impact on people on the other side of the planet.”

Addressing Growth

Economic growth continues to push greater consumption of energy. The pandemic shutdowns led to a 4.5 percent decline in global energy consumption in 2020, but that was erased by a 5 percent increase in 2021 during the economic rebounds. In the first half of 2022, energy consumption continued to rise by 3 percent.

The war in Ukraine, however, has dampened growth prospects, not only for Russia and Ukraine but for Europe more generally. “At the moment, many European countries are facing zero-growth scenarios and some core European economies are not predicting any growth in the next few years,” Vedran Horvat points out. “Which means that we really need to address questions of how to organize our lives and ensure wellbeing for all in conditions of if not degrowth then at least zero growth. This sort of degrowth, which is imposed by geopolitics, is degrowth by disaster.” This kind of degrowth resembles austerity measures imposed during or after other kinds of disasters, like war or debt default.

A better approach, Horvat notes, would be “degrowth by design.” In this way, “we program our developmental scenarios to satisfy human needs and wellbeing but in ways that don’t lead necessarily to economic growth,” he explains. “This would involve fair and equal redistribution of resources through as much of a democratic process as possible. We should think of how to use the current crisis as an opportunity, A democratic transition to degrowth is necessary if we want to discuss viable alternatives rather than have degrowth imposed by disaster as is now the case.”

Such degrowth by design, argues Renata Nitta, must include a major shift in thinking. “We have to move from a very individualistic, profit-driven society to one that is more based on sharing, on the commons, on valuing care,” she notes. “In this sense, we have a lot to learn from what indigenous and traditional communities are doing and telling us. Their vision of the cosmos is embedded in a different ethic that respects the environment. Deforestation rates inside indigenous areas can be 26 percent lower than other areas. So, these communities are very effective in terms of protecting the environment. We have to ensure that they’re part of the decision-making and we surely have to respect their constitutional rights.”

Who Are the Changemakers?

All transitions need people who help engineer the pivot. These are the changemakers, like the revolutionaries in America and France in the eighteenth century or the Silicon Valley scientists and entrepreneurs who ushered in the computer age.

“When change happens, it’s not a shift in mass consciousness among people as such,” Simon Michaux points out. “It’s a relatively small number of people embedded in our civil service. They’re not necessarily elected officials, they’re people advising those officials. And when they decide to move on things, they can move quickly.” He notes that it’s difficult to work through official channels because the establishment is not interested in change: “They’re having a great time with growth and power and money.” But advisors, who aren’t themselves in charge, are a different matter. “If they decide that they’ve had enough, change happens,” he points out.

Scientists and engineers, too, can play a role. “A network of badly-behaved scientists and engineers who just do stuff without permission,” Michaux continues, can also spur forward a shift in consciousness by developing new ideas, approaches, and innovations and getting information about them into circulation. “Most of humanity is inured to the existing paradigm. So, you only need 4-5 percent of humanity” to understand the new approaches and decide to move on them.

Vedran Horvat looks to trade unions as key players in the process, particularly in Europe where the European Green Deal is decarbonizing economies from the top down and without sufficient attention paid to addressing inequality and injustice. Trade unions, he argues, are essential in forging a new social contract that creates the consensus necessary for degrowth scenarios to move from the fringe to mainstream acceptance.

“Trade unions are sometimes quite difficult but necessary partners to tackle the justice element of moving toward post-growth scenarios,” he concludes. “Post-growth scenarios are not politically represented in democracies, are not related to democratic power in a way to execute such scenarios. So, we must find other ways to have political representation of this shift in the political arena.”

Renata Nitta is skeptical about the notion that technology can solve all environmental and climate challenges. To advance zero-growth alternatives, she says, “we need to redefine the convergence points between state, trade union movements, and all those who might be left behind when adopting this new regime.”

Tipping Points

Change can happen when a critical mass of people abandons an old model in favor of something new. Sometimes that happens as a result of a particular event. For instance, the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 spurred an effort to ban the pesticide DDT. On the climate front, the approach of a number of tipping points—the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, the complete thaw of northern permafrost—should have already prompted a reconsideration of the push factors behind global warming. Ideally, physical tipping points should translate into perceptual tipping points.

When it comes to economic growth, however, virtually all governments, international financial institutions, and economists—as well as significant majorities of the population—believe that either the status quo is working for them or that directing a larger share of a growing pie will remedy what’s wrong. Only when a critical mass of people understand that the pie can’t keep growing—that unlimited growth is not liberating but ultimately self-defeating— will a tipping point in public opinion be reached.

In April 2010, the largest oil spill in history happened when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Several months later, a massive fire at a ruptured gas pipeline south of San Francisco brought renewed scrutiny to the perils of the fracking industry. Also in 2010, “it was becoming quite clear that the Kyoto protocol was not going to make a blip of difference,” Susan Krumdieck reports. “Those were the galvanizing moments. And that’s when 100 engineers came together to create the Global Association for Transition Engineering. It was clear we were going down a very dangerous path and that we had to help end users adapt to a better way of doing things.”

Another way of discussing tipping points is the notion of sacrifice. When will a critical mass of people willingly accept sacrifices—of their SUVs, frequent air flights, cruise ship vacations, and so on—to save the planet from its multiple environmental threats? Or will sacrifice need to be imposed on an unwilling populace, as China did with its one-child policy beginning in 1980?

“In many countries, social majorities are not accepting that sacrifices need to be made,” Vedran Horvat points out. The stumbling block is not willingness to recycle but willingness to scale back on consumption. “The circular economy obviously has some positive environmental or climate impacts but it doesn’t teach us to consume less,” he adds. “Bringing some resources back into circulation to use again is all good and needed, but it doesn’t require us to consume less. We need to relearn what our lives look like if we consume less.”

Sacrifices can be imposed from above, or they can be agreed upon collectively through a democratic process. “Obviously governments, commissions, and transnational governance regimes are all engaged in delivering quick, top-down solutions without investing time into democratic processes,” Horvat continues. “That’s no reason not to bring this debate into society and, wherever possible, enable citizens to learn how to transform their lives. When we say that we don’t have enough resources, we are not asking what energy is being used for at this moment and whether we need that to maintain the system. Some things must be shrunk or calibrated to the new reality if we are to be more responsible toward future generations and for them to live in a just world.”

As Renata Nitta points out, the Global South has already made sacrifices for centuries through colonial appropriation and its aftermath. But now, the Global South urgently needs help in transitioning away from fossil fuels and addressing the current impacts of climate change. “It took 30 years to agree on financing for loss and damage,” she points out. “We can’t wait another 30 years to define the rules for financing the transition. At the national level, we need to move away from the lobbying of big corporations on governments to create processes that are more bottom up than top down: to include marginal groups and ensure that their rights are being respected. It takes a lot of time, but what other choices do we have? I don’t see any other way to create faster change.”

At the same time, Nitta stresses the importance of utopian alternatives. “We are constantly being bombarded by messages of doom,” she says. “These messages disempower people. For quite some time, the environmental movement was quite good at using “end-of-the-world” messages. But now is the time to change. People are building resilience in communities all over the world. Our job as researchers and environmentalists is to help amplify these ideas.”

Sacrifice won’t come easily to the affluent in the Global North. “We’ve been living a wonderful life in the last century, a golden era of getting whatever we want with a snap of our fingers,” notes Simon Michaux. “What happens if we are moving into a world without enough to go around, when we have to work very hard for less outcome? From a biological point of view—and I learned this from Nicole Foss—energy determines the size and complexity of an organism. If energy is reduced, that organism has to shrink in size and become less complex. If we are stepping into a low-energy future, industry will likewise become simpler and smaller whether we like it or not. There will be a reorganizing of energy around new energy sources. Then people will reorganize themselves around those industrial hubs, and our food production will reorganize around those people.”

In other words, a major fork in the road approaches. “In this way, we’ll decide who we really are and what kind of world we want to live in,” Michaux concludes. “Do we turn against each other or work together?”

Role of the State

The economic trend of the last four decades has been in the direction of reducing the power of the state: privatization of state assets, reduction of regulatory apparatuses, weakening of government leverage over the economy. Some of the policies to address climate change fit into this pattern by emphasizing market-based solutions such as carbon trading. But as the example of Chinese state investments in renewable energy suggests, governments have enormous power to push through economic transitions.

“If a government can come up with a sensible plan that everyone gets behind, more government intervention might work,” notes Simon Michaux. “But if it’s like the Roman Empire, when the government wasn’t acting in the best interests of the majority of the population, then it won’t work. If that happens, there will be less government intervention and a parallel system of governance will emerge, and the social mandate to govern will transfer from one system to the other. We’ll need government in some form, but that government would have to implement a new system that doesn’t exist yet in a paradigm that doesn’t exist yet. My job going forward is to build the tools that try to understand what that paradigm might be and then hand those tools off to people who will go on past me.”

Governments also remain subject to considerable influence from the corporate sector, particularly fossil fuel companies that continue to lobby for subsidies and other favorable terms. “We see at every COP how weak governments are,” Vedran Horvat explains. “They are not able to make agreements that are immune from fossil fuel companies and the corporate sector more generally. The return of government is essential in abandoning fossil fuels for it is governments who ultimately have to operate in the public interest.”

Renata Nitta agrees: “The market won’t resolve the climate and biodiversity crisis. A market mechanism proposed by companies is often little more than greenwashing so that they can maintain business as usual. It’s important to pressure government to keep these corporations accountable and not accept false solutions.”

Time, all of the presenters agree, is of the essence. “Now that I’m a granny, I don’t have time to think about things I can’t do anything about, such as the way the market works or the way politicians work,” Susan Krumdieck reports. “I’m laser-focused on the changes that are required, on a change in a place or a system that can be scaled up.”

Odrast is the Croatian word for degrowth,” points out Vedran Horvat. “The word doesn’t sound negative in Croatian. It means to grow up and be mature. So, we need to be mature enough to cooperate and identify a definite set of options to ensure the survival of future generations.”

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.