Sunday, October 29, 2023
In 1972, a group of MIT economists published The Limits to Growth, a study that used computer models to analyze the future of our planet under twelve possible scenarios. In the 50 years since the book’s publication, the authors’ “business-as-usual” scenario has unfolded with alarming accuracy: population and economic growth have continued at about the same pace as in prior decades, and human activity has exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. The authors cautioned, moreover, that we cannot innovate our way out of the climate catastrophe—technology alone would delay ecological collapse by only a few years.
We have barreled past the Earth’s breaking point but somehow still failed to heed these warnings. Today, advocates of degrowth—like the economists whose computer models proved so prescient—contend that green technology cannot save us. Instead, Global North countries must curtail consumption. By shrinking our ecologically and socially destructive industries (like weapons, meat, and private transportation) and expanding the social foundation for a good life (high-quality and universal health care, education, and jobs), we can build new economies that do not depend on growth.
But degrowth has remained a largely fringe movement. In policy circles, the mainstream paradigm for responding to climate change is “green growth”—that is, consuming “better” rather than consuming less. Green growth advocates claim that technological innovation—which seeks to harness solar, wind, and other large-scale renewable energy—will reduce greenhouse gas emissions without necessarily requiring a reduction in consumption. But even proponents of green growth acknowledge that greenhouse gas emissions will not drop quickly enough with this approach. Questions remain, moreover, about whether infinite growth is possible on a planet with finite resources.
Environmental justice advocates should challenge green growth orthodoxy for additional reasons. A boom in the production of electric vehicles, heat pumps, solar panels, wind turbines, and other green technologies will require a massive intensification of mining for rare earth minerals. As Thea Riofrancos writes, toxic and socially controversial sectors like mining have historically been offshored by Global North countries to the Global South, where mining operations are rife with human rights and environmental abuses. But the United States and European Union are now seeking to onshore the extraction of lithium and other critical minerals, believing that this shift in production “will enable end-to-end dominance of the [renewable technology] supply chain” and give them the upper hand in struggles for geopolitical leverage. At first blush, explains Riofrancos, this feels like justice—finally, after decades of “unequal ecological exchange” in which Global North countries exploited and extracted the labor and natural resources of the Global South, the U.S. and EU will not wreak social and environmental devastation on Global South countries to mine the critical minerals needed for green growth.
But in the U.S.—just as in many Global South countries—indigenous communities will bear the brunt of critical minerals mining. Earlier this year, indigenous land and water protectors built a protest camp and used their bodies to block construction of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Nevada. “Lithium mines and this whole push for renewable energy—the agenda of the Green New Deal—is what I like to call green colonialism,” said one member of the tribe. Last year, after the Biden Administration used the Defense Production Act to subsidize the extraction of critical minerals, advocacy organizations expressed their opposition to the move and urged the implementation of requirements to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous communities.
As Andrew Nikiforuk writes, we must grapple with what it means to continue down the path of endless growth— “replacing one unsustainable fossil fuel system with another intensive mining system powered by even more extreme energies.” The production of “clean” technology is not clean, and we know who will shoulder the burdens. Yet too many climate advocates seem willing to sacrifice indigenous communities in the pursuit of green growth. Even Bill McKibben suggests he is at peace with this tradeoff because the harm of green technology production is “localized”—limited to specific communities—while “the damage that comes from fossil fuels is global and existential.” What are the ethical and moral implications of this micro-harm versus macro-harm logic? Have we decided that marginalized communities are expendable in the name of green growth, just as they were expendable in the name of fossil fuel growth?
-- Ruhan Nagra