In the effort to limit and reverse the worsening impacts of global heating, the immediate goal is to quickly stop burning coal, oil and gas. That means rapidly shifting to renewable energy for electricity generation and transportation.
But simply switching from one source of energy to another and trading gas-powered cars, trucks and SUVs for electric ones won’t resolve the climate crisis — as important as those are. The interrelated environmental crises — deforestation, species extinction, climate change — are being driven by wasteful consumerism. Getting off fossil fuels poses more of a challenge if we continue to consume massive amounts of disposable products and energy.
As Andrew Nikiforuk recently wrote in the Tyee, “Any imperfect solution to our current civilization-threatening predicament must include dialing down our energy consumption rather than coming up with high-tech visions that keep accelerating it.” That includes the energy and materials used to produce growing mountains of disposable products, from smartphones to cars to clothing.
Almost everything we produce requires minerals and metals, which must be mined — including wind turbines and solar panels. If we continue to use electronic gizmos that must be replaced every year or two, and if we continue to insist that most people should have a couple of tonnes of metal, plastic and glass to move a hundred or so kilos of human, rather than building reliable transit systems and walkable communities, building out renewable energy might slow our descent but won’t save us from calamity.
That is isn’t an argument against renewable energy, which is absolutely necessary. Coal, oil and gas are also mined, cause massive damage to air, water, land and climate and put all life at risk. But we can’t continue to thrive in a system that depends on constant growth on a finite planet — population growth, economic growth, ever-increasing consumption. We need unlimited sunlight and wind for energy, but we have to recognize that finite resources are required to utilize that energy.
We’ve been misled into believing that endlessly chasing after more, bigger, shinier things will bring us satisfaction and happiness when, in fact, it’s often the opposite. Our Sisyphean struggle has left us tired and alienated, created massive inequality and pushed us toward ecological collapse.
We need a paradigm shift.
Getting by with less doesn’t mean living less satisfying lives. It’s a question of what we value. We’ve been indoctrinated into believing that wealth and power are the ultimate goals, but only a minuscule percentage of the growing human population truly benefits from that, and the “trickle down” economic theory has always been a hoax.
If we truly valued the short time we each spend on this planet, we surely wouldn’t waste it to wreak misery and destruction in pursuit of elusive goals. We’d learn to find joy in family, friendship and nature, in learning and sharing.
Working ourselves to exhaustion and jetting off to some increasingly crowded resort area for a couple of weeks to recover can’t be what life is about. Does dining on burgers and steaks make us any happier than enjoying healthy plant-based foods? It certainly doesn’t make us healthier. Does staring at a tiny device all day make us feel any more connected and satisfied with our lives than actually getting together with real people in real time, or taking in the quiet beauty of nature?
Industrialization, and especially car culture, were sold to us under false premises, fuelling a crisis that now threatens our survival. We’re not going to go back to the way things were, nor should we. But we can progress to better ways of living.
That will require quitting fossil fuels as quickly as possible and shifting to renewable energy. But we must also learn to use less. Energy efficiency is part of that, but reducing what we use is critical, especially in the western world, where per capita energy consumption is many times higher than in other parts of the world.
We’re capable of great technological innovation, but that alone isn’t enough to create a better world.
As Nikiforuk writes, “In blunt terms we need an energy strategy that pointedly shrinks economic activity over time the same way chemotherapy effectively diminishes a cancerous tumor.”
We might be surprised to find that our lives will improve if we do.
David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.