Global Warming and Degrowth: Faster, Farther, and Stop
Sufficiency is the magic word against the overpowering, nature-destroying human beings. The Anthropocene calls for frugality.
Rarely has an interjection made such history. At a conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico in 2000, Paul J. Crutzen from Mainz , Nobel Prize winner for his work on the ozone hole, could no longer contain himself: “Stop using the word Holocene. We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the … in the … Anthropocene!” At first there was a stunned silence, then during the coffee break the term began to be used, initially in specialist circles, then among a broader public worldwide.
What did Crutzen mean? He suddenly had an intuition that the earth’s history had entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene. Mankind is now a geological force, comparable to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Because human activity shapes the earth’s surface and the earth’s atmosphere in a large-scale and permanent way.
This ranges from global climate overheating and its consequences for fauna and flora to the sealing of soil and the disruption of water cycles, the rapid loss of biodiversity, the accumulation of toxic substances in the air, soil and water to a rapidly growing number of people and slaughter cattle.
You have to imagine what research is now saying: the weight of the mass created by humans, i.e. the sum of all industrial plants, houses, roads, ships, equipment and mountains of garbage, reaches the weight of the biomass on earth in these years, i.e. the Sum of the whales, livestock, insects, mushrooms, crops, trees and human bodies!
In view of this epochal break, the common talk of the environmental crisis turns out to be mere window dressing: it is not about environmental protection, but about protecting life. Nor is it about a temporary crisis, but about an epochal catastrophe . After 50 years of environmental policy, i.e. the hectic containment of the damage caused by today’s economy, it is now a matter of saving nature and its life processes from the overwhelming power of humans.
That’s a completely different house number. It demands a profound revision of the current economy and, moreover, of expansive modernity as a whole. The antidote to expansive modernity is sufficiency. She is skeptical about the technical achievements of modernity. Their civilizational project is to reconcile the resources of industrial modernity with the biosphere’s ability to regenerate.
The virtue of frugality has a firm place in the wisdom traditions of the world from Aristotle to Confucius. They need to be dug up again in the face of the Anthropocene. This is all the more necessary as the strategy of resource efficiency comes to nothing as soon as the savings are eaten up again by the quantities of goods. Efficiency means doing things right, sufficiency means doing the right things.
Because in the expansive modern age, everything revolves around the Olympic motto: greater speeds, greater distances, growing quantities of goods and services. Sufficiency swims against this current. It is carried by the proverbial knowledge that everything has its price. The technical feats of industrial modernity are only one side of the coin, the other is inequality and the destruction of nature.
Renewables alone are not enough
That is why the proponents of sufficiency advocate breaking with the imperative of “faster, further and more”. In this sense, the art of omission takes precedence in politics. In doing so, one has to abandon the popular assumption that renewable energies will do the trick, that they are even infinitely available. There is no doubt that the switch to renewables is inevitable, but the question cannot be suppressed: where and to what extent?
The limits of the power demand must be discussed in view of the costs of material, area and landscape. What benefit justifies the injustice of wind turbines and solar cells? The electric SUV that the well-off city dweller drives around with? The power consumption for streaming films at home instead of going to the cinema? Or: all the container ships from China and long-distance trucks on the highways, powered by green hydrogen?
Everywhere the old, too often suppressed question returns: what is enough? What is enough for everyone and in the long run? In any case, nobody should assume that an economic model that has been based on fossil fuels for almost 200 years can continue unchanged with renewable energies. In the future, sufficiency will be regarded as a technical design principle. In this way, cars can be designed for medium speeds.
What would have happened if, for example, the Paris Agreement of 2015 had included the commitment of the 20 car manufacturers in the world not to produce any more cars that drive faster than 120 km/h within ten years ? That would have been a huge bonus to achieve the 1.5 degree target after all. A small step for humanity, but too big a step for capitalism.
Cut like butter with a circular saw
Instead, the share of SUVs and off-road vehicles in new registrations has risen continuously since 2015, to currently 29 percent in Europe. Large, heavy, highly motorized, SUVs are climate killers, an electric SUV is as absurd as cutting butter with a circular saw. While internal combustion engines can maintain high speeds for a long time, electric cars have to pay attention to range. They are therefore ideal vehicles for medium speeds.
Sufficiency can be understood geographically, especially in times of the Anthropocene. For example: how to protect half the earth for plants and animals? This is the crucial question for biodiversity on land and in the sea . How much area is enough for humans? A sensitive issue because it touches on the question of whether there are limits to the need for living space and for all types of office, commercial and traffic space.
In any case, in Germany, the area for settlement and transport increased by around 20 percent between 1992 and 2020, and the average living space increased from around 35 to 47 square meters. Almost half of the total area of the Federal Republic is sealed. The trend is to get by with the existing development, which leads to distribution conflicts between rental and luxury apartments, commercial and green spaces, community gardens and vacancies of all kinds.
How to make more out of a limited area is already moving the minds of architects, citizens and authorities around the idea of the “green city”. In business, too, a business model based on less is long overdue. The circular economy , if it comes, is not only a question of economic calculation, but also a question of honor: You don’t work with exploiters, whether of resources or workers.
For example the textile industry. Europe imports no less than 63 percent of textiles and 70 percent of fashion items, mainly from Bangladesh, China and Turkey. For example, while the cotton for a T-shirt comes from Pakistan, it is then woven into yarn in Turkey, processed into fabric in India and sewn in Bangladesh before finally ending up on the European market.
The excessive use of pesticides in cotton production, the water pollution caused by the dyeing of the fabrics and the poor working conditions of the seamstresses are all too well known. Even high-quality recycling would not absolutely reduce the consumption of resources with constantly increasing consumption. Saving resources yes, but you can’t avoid realizing that the most environmentally friendly product is the one you didn’t buy.
A life-serving economy will therefore not be possible without a surge in sufficiency. Capitalism is facing a test of a special kind: it will only survive the 21st century if it succeeds in creating value while the quantities of goods are decreasing. After all, those who eat healthily are disinterested in excessive meat consumption. There are various reasons for pushing for a massive reduction in the number of animals for slaughter.
The class question disappears
On the one hand, the feed imports that are destroying biodiversity in South America. On the other hand, the fact that animals are not things that can be produced according to economic logic, but sentient beings. Animals may not be as intelligent as humans, but they know fear and loneliness, suffering and boredom. Plant-based nutrition is also an expression of sufficiency, not out of fear of a resource crisis, but out of connection with other living beings.
In addition, sufficiency has a cosmopolitan dimension. As expansive modernity sweeps across the globe, the quest for frugal prosperity is on everyone’s agenda. In the debate about the Anthropocene, the “class question” disappears behind the concept of humanity, although it is now clear who is currently the main cause of the Anthropocene: the 10 percent of the world’s high earners, who are responsible for almost half of the CO 2 emissions on earth eject earth.
They live on all continents, two thirds in the USA/Europe/Japan and one third in the various emerging countries. All of them cannot avoid practicing the right measure. To paraphrase Gandhi’s famous quote: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”