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Betting the Earth on a Game of Wrap-Cut-Smash

Betting the Earth on a Game of Wrap-Cut-Smash

Photo by Kevin Gill | CC BY 2.0

The Earth is having to deal with continuous, largely unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases, along with soil degradation, mass extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, and disruption of nitrogen, phosphorous, and water cycles. Meanwhile, efforts to head off the planet-wide ecological crisis remain trapped in a game of rock-paper-scissors. [1]

Let’s start with the “paper,” which represents the kinds of paper exercises purporting to show that prosperous “green growth” can carry humanity and the Earth together through a better and better future. These include, for example, the 2015 “Ecomodernist Manifesto” [2] and a series of “100% renewable wind, water, and sunlight energy roadmaps” [3] published in recent years. Such cornucopian analyses undergird the mainstream climate movement’s vision of a smooth transition to a greener, happier, more prosperous world.

The paper, however, is cut up by the “scissors”— the restraints on resource exploitation and consequent cutbacks in production of goods and services, along with other human activities, that will be necessary if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided. Rooted in the knowledge that infinite growth is impossible and efficiency a chimera, the idea that economic activity must be restrained was developed early on by the ecological economists Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly [4] and has long been urged by the Post-Carbon Institute [5], “peak oil” campaigners [6], Tim Jackson, Ted Trainer, and various proposals for firm ceilings on energy consumption, with business and household quotas [7].

The scissors argument for the necessity of cutting throughput and pulling back within ecological limits is unassailable. However, most such analyses are focused on the world’s high-production, high-consumption economies, with few specific recommendations for how the billions of people in both rich and poor economies who already lack adequate access to resources can achieve material sufficiency.

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