The article series begins on a Saturday , with the front page of the economics section of the NRC national newspaper featuring the ticker: “believe in growth or shrinkage.”
With that, I was immediately on the fence. Because it’s not about believing. It’s physics. You can calculate how much energy and raw materials can be used per unit of time without depleting or ruining the system. You can analyze it, calculate it, and draw conclusions. So those who talk about it in terms of believe, in the context of either contraction or growth, just haven’t done their math. Or are avoiding it because it doesn’t fit their stall.
In the series, under the working title ‘climate and capital’, I was interviewed in the second part a week later. In which I indicated that our current level of prosperity was not sustainable. Paul Luttikhuis, the interviewer/journalist had wrapped it up nicely in 6 theses.  I received many emails (with support and additional arguments) and it created a avalanche of reactions to messages on linkedin. And , is should be mentioned, almost all serious reactions.
Perhaps that is because it is clear that it is not an ‘opinion’, or not a personal plea for a certain direction, but limited to straightforward analysis , which then indicate a certain direction. It is what it is. There were of course some reactions along the lines of “Yes, but…” I would therefore like to respond briefly to the main themes raised in the reactions, in order to maintain clarity.
First of all, there were the reactions and discussions about population growth, referred to by some as overpopulation. This is a little strange, of course, coming from a country that is among the top five most densely populated countries in the world (excluding city-states). We have little right to speak in this regard, globally. And we even want more people, because the the work is growing over our heads .…
But indeed, with fewer people we would all have a somewhat bigger slice of the pie. But alas, what can you do about it? Besides, you can hardly abolish human beings, for that matter, then there would no longer be a problem as well.
People are a given fact, and there is food enough, albeit that we have to grow and distribute it in a different way, and with a different diet. And, by the way, the UN does good work in countries with a high birth rate, in educating especially women, and with effect, as Weisman describes in his book Countdown .
Besides, human beings themselves are still the most sustainable source of energy we have to employ: they have to eat anyway, and can then perform solar (food) based labor.
Another theme that was frequently raised, concerns ‘value’. This is a word that leads to great confusion of speech, because everyone has a different image or means something different by it. This is always difficult in a discussion. It requires everyone to state what they actually mean by value. As far as the environment and climate are concerned, there is only one value: is what we are doing sustainable for everyone far into the future? And that refers directly to what is also called the carrying capacity of the earth: the physical potential of the system as the only real value: in other words: the amount of solar energy that can be made use of per year, and possibly per country. Without solar energy nothing functions. Even fossil fuels are solar energy, although we can no longer use them in that form, as we now know. The idea that we won’t have any problems once everything runs on renewable energy is also vain hope: assuming we don’t use fossil fuels for that, those are precisely the problem (the one and a half degree CO2 budget will be exhausted within two years) . Or we have to decide that we find 3 or 4 degrees acceptable. Then the ‘depopulation’ supporters will also get their way….
So-called ‘financial value’, on the other hand, has no value, that is, no relation to physical value. . That is merely collective ‘belief’ in self-concocted and printed money. It lacks any relationship with physical reality, which has been separated from it by economists. ( example: GNP increases as bad work is done,: more repair and maintenance or replacement, is greater GNP. And at the same time of course more energy and material impact)
And that naturally leads to another oft-cited theme, that of consuming: That is exactly the essence of that money-based financial management: inducing consumption. Of mainly material things. That’s what the whole (financial) system is laid out to do. Not on effectively meeting needs, ‘das war einmahl’, but on the maximizing selling and profits.
Once there is money, it starts rolling. And it doesn’t stop. Like the bicycle maker and the pilot I described. But that’s not the whole story yet: because with every transaction the state creamed off a part as tax, which is then handed out again as subsidies for ‘consuming’, like fossil fuels. And that’s not all either. Because how did that person get the money for that so-called sustainable bicycle in the first place? By flying in roses from Kenya pherhaps? ‘valuing’ them at Schiphol and then putting them back on the plane to Russia?
And that in turn leads automatically to the next oft-cited theme: system change, Yes, it is necessary. At least, if we are serious about the climate crises and the intention to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. With the current model, of the financial system and private property (which everyone defends individually) there is no chance that we will contain CO2 emissions. If, for example, all land is privately owned, of what should new earthlings live? From exploitation by the owners? After all, the land is already divided. Indeed, a shrinking population would help. And that is what we should strive for. But passively, Actively cannot. By definition, no. It’s just fair sharing while it lasts. At least, that’s the way it should be.
And that in turn is related to the next theme that came along in the responses:: lobbying. As the biggest power that pushes depletion of the earth, and needs fossil fuels to further push us to consume. They cannot do otherwise, it is their business model, which we have collectively allowed to emerge. And we can do little about it, because it has been privatized. Hence we now have to pay to get a disastrous agricultural system changed, or to buy out coal plants. And later to pay much more to keep out sea level rise.
Until we recognize that, that the big mistake is at the base of our financial management system, all initiatives have no chance. Not even if we were to accept that we have to make do with less. And then behavioral psychologists can describe why people make choices the way they do, as in the article that appeared a week later, but those are pointless analyses. You can’t expect the average person to spend half an hour in the supermarket studying all the cans of fish to find out whether the fish in them are in danger of extinction, whether they were caught ‘sustainably’, etc. And does so with all products. If anyway he is educated enough to make that analysis. You can’t expect that. It just has to be right on from the front end. And that is just impossible when there is more and more unsubstantiated money in circulation. And with more and more rich people who have an interest in keeping it that way.
Mankind is still mainly concerned with himself, in all areas. And does not realize that nature has completely different plans. As I compared it in corona time, by turning things around, The earth is sick and has a fever, heats up, its immune system comes into action, against the invaders, with viruses. It was not our immune system having trouble with a virus, it was (is) earth’s immune system having trouble with us.
Faith, then? Those who speak in this of believe only show that we as a human species are already completely disconnected from reality, and reason only in their own interest. Just paying with language and words. The environment shows something completely different. Anyway, those who don’t want to hear it, will feel it.
So much for the reactions to the NRC newpaper article. There is some more to say about the discussion around Capital and Climate, and why it keeps simmering.
The forces are too great, pushing us in the wrong direction. And although most people are willing to adapt which will keep an earth more in balance, the desire to stand out with more comfort or more nice things for humans , by politicians for example, or the drive to make money, by part of society who (also often unconsciously) have a blind spot for the consequences , is too great a temptation to resist, to develop enough counter forces to reverse this process.
This desire is understandable, universal I would say, and we have allowed this financial drive to develop by adjusting the money system more and more to those desires.
Look at the parliament…. A lot of things are going wrong, and being signaled, but not enough support to turn things around in majority.
We will not get out of this within the current system. We are not going to see rigorous reforms, a completely new money system, a different social order, settling for less, comfort, travel, etc. And there are also more and more people in this part of the world with money, and want something to do with it.
Even disasters hardly seem enough: the flood in 53, we invest loads of money to beat the sea and save land below sea level. The economic crises in 2010: we save the banks that caused the misery. Pandemic 2020: a race for vaccines, then to fix things as quickly as possible and save “the economy. Climate problems: more technology, putting the cart before the horse. Nitrogen: the governement still trying to find ‘creative’ solutions, to suit everyone: “ Hell, it can’t be, such an insignificant little substance that is going to tell us what we should or shouldn’t do. Come on now…!”
I think we are no different from other species, that we claim as much of the natural space as possible, until natural enemies correct us and, after many ‘battles’ , an ecological balance is achieved. However, we are still in the phase of enormous growth, having defeated our “enemies” as far as we know, and claiming virtually all of natural space. However, counter forces, climate, pandemic, are emerging that are going to point us back. And chances are it will be a matter of waiting for the counter-forces to succeed in doing so, the idea that we ourselves could or would do so is an idea fixe. We will have to go through that natural(?) ecological process.
In conclusion. It is the tech optimists we like to “believe” in, against our better judgment, because then we don’t have to give up anything. I have just 1 question for those tech optimists , and those who believe in them, and let it sink in for a moment:
We should stop CO2 emissions today (the budget to stay under 1.5 degrees will run out in two years). So how are we going to do that, all those tech reforms, for all the world, and then without fossil fuels….?
PS: A word about “Green Growth” . Well, in any case, what does not exist is green economic ( financial) growth. Because that would mean that with ‘economic’ growth there should be no energy or material involved, but that is precisely the only thing that produces ‘quality increase’, at the same time causes depletion and environmental damage. And far beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, that is, far beyond the natural accretion of stored energy and grown Bio mass from the only real source of renewable energy, for the earth, being the sun…. Let alone that this could all be applied for 8 billion earthlings who want the same level of prosperity as us in the ‘rich’ part. And rightly so of course.
And economic growth , within the model that the economists have created is impossible without energy and material deployment , that is what that model is based on after all , the free deployment of resources , only depletion of them. And when it becomes scarce , its worth even more … All studies also show that decoupling works only marginally. No wonder, more and more money is coming into circulation, and it has to be spent…
(By the way, GDP also goes up when bad work is done, and a lot of repair or maintenance is needed. Bad work is rewarded! Perhaps that’s why we are short of people in the Netherlands… )
Anyway. Green green growth does exist, of course: biomass, biodiversity, forests. And that is exactly what is needed: Green growth, but of the green, organic kind.
But the term green is thus tainted, and hijacked by the economists . Because green in what is called green growth thus does refer (but improperly) to green as in nature. Suggests economic growth, without affecting nature, with all that goes with it such as biodiversity, climate etc. So it is just vulgar framing that sends everyone in the wrong direction.