Ecological transition in a finite world

Image: Eduardo Berliner
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By TOMÁS TOGNI TARQUINIO*

The illusion still remains that it will be possible to decouple, or dissociate, the growth of wealth from the damage caused to the four components of the ecosphere

The Earth is finite. With just thirteen thousand kilometers in diameter, the distance that separates Paris from Montevideo, the planet will remain the same size for billions of years. An insignificant celestial body wandering in space, but exceptional: the only one that harbors life, to our knowledge. However, we conceive of it as unlimited and whose function is to serve us.

In the sacred record the vision is ancient; is present in the first verses of the genesis. In the profane record, the utilitarian view of nature asserted itself much later. In the 17th century, René Descartes synthesized it by placing humans on the pedestal as “master and possessor of nature”. In the 20th century, Joseph Schumpeter updated the concept by stating that creative destruction is the engine of capitalism. Between the lines, the Austrian economist said that fossil modernity only thrives in an infinite world. Today, these ideas are increasingly contested. We humans rediscover that we are nature, that we are in nature and that nature is in us.

The industrial society is completely dependent on fossil energy. It proved to be incompatible with the limits imposed by nature. The abundance of fossil energy and raw materials has shaped the way our way of life is organized. And it feeds the chimera of an endless planet. This way of producing and consuming goods and services distanced human beings from living and inanimate nature. Now it puts at risk the living conditions of humans and non-humans on the face of the earth. Utilitarianism separated us from biology – from the conditions in which life thrives – in favor of mechanics.

Faced with the accelerated ecological deregulation of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and biosphere (ecosphere), defenders of these conceptions try to preserve this mode of production and consumption of harmful goods and services. The predominant discourse conveyed by the media, also present in civil society, assumes that the ecological transition will be carried out without paradigm shifts. They assume that overcoming this gigantic challenge will occur in a context of abundance of raw materials and energy.

Future limitations are minimized and do not match the enormous obstacles that thermo-industrial civilization already faces and will face on a more acute scale, in the short, medium and long term. The supposed context of opulence in natural resources, associated with optimism regarding technological innovations, would be favorable components for overcoming difficulties. The ecological transition is observed as if it were independent of the enormous material substrate on which modernity rests. The gigantic scale of natural resources that will need to be mobilized is insufficient to guarantee the same standard of living. A situation made worse by the short period of time needed to build a post-carbon society.

It is about replacing the global energy matrix, which is 85% dependent on fossil energy (coal, oil, gas), and responsible for around 80% of GHG emissions, with low carbon energy (wind, solar and nuclear that only produce electricity). And introduce new technologies that require extracting a quantity of metals equivalent to what has been removed from the lithosphere since the invention of metallurgy.

But ecological deregulation does not just concern the climate aspect. It is accompanied by the loss of biodiversity, depletion of non-renewable natural resources and diverse and varied pollution of the natural environment (water, air, soil...).

The illusion still remains that it will be possible to decouple, or dissociate, the growth of wealth (GDP) from the damage caused to the four components of the ecosphere. In other words, promoting the growth of wealth and, at the same time, reducing the use of raw materials and energy – in absolute terms. The increase in goods and services has always been accompanied by the growing use of raw materials and energy. Today, for example, the consumption of raw materials is higher than the growth rate of the world economy. The greater the production and consumption, the more matter and energy will be used in the economic process and the greater the degradation of the natural environment.

The prevailing narrative remains diffuse and unstructured. They believe that the same privileges offered by fossil modernity will be ensured by the ecological transition: economic growth, purchasing power, mobility, food, housing, health, education, retirement, social security, leisure... However, the prosperity provided by the term-industrial society benefits in an extremely unequal way for around 30% of the world's population. For example, the richest 1% on the planet is responsible for 15% of CO emissions2; the richest 10% by 52%; while the poorest 50% for just 8%. If the richest 10% already cause this level of degradation of the ecosphere, it is clear that it is impossible to extend the benefits of this way of life to the part of humanity excluded from the banquet.

However, the mode of production and unrestrained consumption of goods and services continues to be seen as perennial and not transitory. This is a parenthesis of abundance that began with the industrial revolution and now finds limits to its expansion. These restrictions are imposed by irrevocable physical, chemical and biological laws and not by economic laws.

Mitigating and adapting humanity to the harmful effects caused by ecological deregulation requires facing the future with realism. There is still no clarity about what the future will be like, nor how to build it. The solutions will probably be diverse, depending on local and regional conditions, approaching the sphere of production and consumption.

The future will not be the extension of the present way of life. The ecological transition is not just about changing infrastructures, replacing fossil energy with low-carbon energy. This is a cultural transformation that requires abandoning the way of life born with industrial civilization.

There is still time to build a society guided by sobriety in production and consumption, by voluntary and shared moderation. Overcoming implies knowing what to produce, what to produce for, who to produce for and, above all, how to produce, giving priority to the necessary and essential, abandoning the superfluous.

*Tomás Togni Tarquinio, anthropologist, has a postgraduate degree in Environmental Foresight from EHESS (France).

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