Sunday the 27th of January, 11 am. I am preparing myself to leave the house, putting on an extra sweater before I get into my warmest winter jacket. I am about to navigate myself through the rainy streets to the North Station of Brussels, where soon another climate protest will start to demand action from the Belgian governments. It’s the second march this week, the 5th in the last two months. The last thing I pick up before I head off is my protest sign. It reads: ‘System Change not Climate Change’.
For weathered activists, this slogan must sound familiar. You can see it at many protests, probably because it is catchy and resonates with many. Although we might have different reasons, a lot of people do not feel particularly happy about ‘the System’. The fact that we have a surge in climate protests in my little country, where people rather spend their Sunday at grandma’s to enjoy beef stew and fries (a Belgian classic), is the proof of that. Not to mention the Yellow Jacket movement that put parts of Europe on fire — literally and figuratively — in the last weeks.
But why exactly am I, a middle-class kid with an engineering degree and stable job, be unhappy with ‘the System’ and demand it to change? The answer is not so simple. Although for a long time I have a feeling — would I call it intuition? — that something is awfully wrong with the way we set up our economy and society, I struggled to put a coherent argumentation together to defend it. Alas, the engineer and philosopher in me are far from satisfied with ‘intuition’ as justification for my opinions. And hence an attempt to explain why I demand system change over climate change.
The current system is causing havoc
To start off on the same foot, let’s agree that the current free-market capitalism you and I am are finding ourselves in, is a major driver for climate change. If you don’t, you’re probably not going to agree with much of the rest of my reasoning here and you might better go watch some Netflix.
Capitalism is based on the extraction of resources, both natural (raw materials and fossil fuels) and humanitarian (labour). These are necessary to please its heavenly and divine king: economic growth. The fetish for infinite growth can only work in a world where resources are too, but surprise surprise, they are not.
Meanwhile, the dependency of economic growth on fossil fuels has pushed the carbon content of the Earth’s atmosphere through the roof, with rapid warming of our oceans and continents as a result. The dire results of that are well-known to all of us, from sea-level rise to extreme weather events, and need no revisit. The loss of fauna, flora, and the toll on people around the world is already starting to unfold in front of us. So hell yes, I prefer system change over climate change.
And the politicians, they let us down
In response to the recent climate marches, a clear division has shown up within the Belgian political circles. On the one hand, there are the conservative — often rightwing — parties, who are quick to point out that many of the protesters are hypocrites because they still like to take the plane to Spain for their summer holidays. This would have been a fair point, was it not for the fact that politicians choose to subsidise airports, lower the levies on kerosene, and exempt aeroplane tickets from taxes, instead of supporting cleaner transportation methods. They further point out that the usual solutions brought forward by their opponents — renewable energy, electric vehicles, eating less meat — are either too costly or too discomforting. It is a cynic and pessimistic reaction, but is to be expected from the conservative side of the political spectrum in my country.
What worries me more, in fact, is what I hear on the other side. Or rather what I do not hear. The proclaimed ‘progressive’ and ‘green’ parties do not get much further than the usual argumentation: renewable energy, biking to work, and vegan Fridays are going to save the world. And no worries, they say, economic growth remains assured. In fact, they promise us something better: ‘green growth’.
Green growth assumes one can decouple an increase of GDP from an increase in emissions. Given the fact that there is absolutely no empirical evidence so far that that is possible on a global scale, this promise is neither credible nor very progressive. What they are proposing is not system change, but system confirmation.
Why I do not believe in green growth
You must be wondering why I am not a believer in green capitalism or green growth. Let me try to explain. If you hadn’t yet, take a cup of coffee or tea — this is going to take some time.
Capitalism is all about the accumulation of wealth, achieved by never-ending economic growth. Growth is obtained by producing more goods and services year after year. Hence, you need an increasing amount of resources and energy to keep the factories running and the cargo trucks driving. Even if you make your production processes more resource and energy efficient, switch to a service economy, we will always need physical goods to give us shelter, produce our food, and transport us. Although we might need fewer materials to build the same car, and we might share that car with more people, in the world with a growing population and a growing standard of living, it is hard to believe emissions will decrease while GDP keeps growing.
This can partially be explained by the fact that we are chased by the so-called ‘rebound effect’. First described at the beginning of the industrial revolution by Jevons in his book ‘The Coal Question’, the rebound effect refers to the observation that increases in resource efficiency stubbornly turn out to increase the final consumption of the resource. Take cars: the more fuel efficient their engines, the bigger the cars we put them in. Same holds for lighting: people switch to LEDs but install more of them. In the end, we are consuming more, not less, fuel and electricity.
The rebound effect has been observed time and time again and is also the reason why I do not believe the circular economy is going to be as disruptive as many people believe want me to. Reusing materials at the end of a product’s lifetime should certainly be aimed for. But it will only succeed if it is cheaper than using virgin materials. Great, you say, cheaper product for me and less planetary resources used, good job! Subsequently, you head off to spend your saved money on other stuff.
Capitalism cannot work in a warmer world
Even if it were true that we can structurally address global warming within the capitalistic framework, I have serious doubts about whether it is compatible with an increasingly unpredictable world.
First of all, capitalism discounts the future per rato of the interest rate. Everybody who ever has prepared a cash flow statement knows that. For a capitalist, the future is worth less than what’s happening now. That’s a pretty bad starting point to address climate change issues.
More fundamental even is the issue of the availability of credit, which is, according to Yuval Harari, a necessary precondition for capitalism. In his book Sapiens, he describes it very eloquently:
‘Credit enables us to build the present at the expense of the future. It’s founded on the assumption that our future resources are sure to be far more abundant than our present resources. A host of new and wonderful opportunities open up if we can build things in the present using future income.’
Indeed, credit is what allowed the exponential increase in wealth and welfare in the Western world over the last two centuries. The belief in a future which is going to be better — well, more productive — than today, becomes more and more problematic though. Will production still increase when extreme weather events destroy crops and houses? When sea level rise renders real-estate in Miami worthless? When a heat wave turns our workforce unproductive? Once the belief starts to crumble, the who will be willing to provide the credit that is necessary to keep the now doubtful growth going? Before you can spell ‘austerity’, the whole neoliberalistic system comes to a halt.
Economic growth needs us to be unhappy
We cannot talk about neoliberalism and capitalism without talking about consumerism. Without the latter, the former would fall apart. It is the lie we all need to buy into (literally!) to keep the economic model going.
Consumerism wants us to believe we always need more stuff to be happy. Although the science of happiness is far from settled, empirical proof underpins the following definition, for which I refer again to Harari:
“Happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.”
It has been exactly the point of consumerism to make us believe that, objectively, we are in bad condition: we are not beautiful, smart, or safe enough. At the same time, it drives up our subjective expectations for the feeling and status we will achieve once be bought jacket x or smartphone y. This lie traps us in a vicious cycle, which is slowly driving people unhappy. But hey, the economy is growing, so let’s keep this madness going!
Where consumerism creates a feeling of missing and discontent within an individual, the scarcity of resources created and maintained by neoliberalism does the same to whole communities or societies. The lands once shared between farmers where cut in pieces and put up for sale. Let the farmers compete for it, was the reasoning. Nature once open to everybody is closed off. Let the people buy a ticket, they said. Natural resources are claimed by a foreign multinational, the consumer can get some in the supermarket we are promised. Destruction of social welfare organised by the state, let the sick find the best private insurance himself.
The only reason why we accept the privatisation of what was once shared — with other words, the destruction of the commons — is the promise of abundance laid out for us in supermarkets and shopping malls. The scarcity at the production side is justified by the abundance at the consumption side. It all supports the dearly wanted economic growth, but none of it makes us even a tiny bit happier.
Give us back the commons
Bref, this system is sick. It is sick to its bones. And therefore we need system change. Although I prefer to leave the solution to more educated and smarter citizens than me, hereby a humble high-level proposal for what we could do. Step one: take stock of earth’s replenishable resources and how much we are using in excess right now (some scientists already made an honourable attempt). Step two: bring back resource use to an acceptable level. Step three: open up these resources and manage them as a property of the community, i.e. turn them once again into the commons they once were.
You might find my proposal garbage. That’s fine. You actually might find my whole analysis pure nonsense. That’s also fine. I invite you to challenge me and I am happy to discuss. But let’s be honest, the current economic system is not going to cure itself. It’s up to us. Until some of our democratically elected leaders show a sincere ambition to move away from the current paradigm, I will keep marching. And I will keep bringing my sign: ‘System Change, not Climate Change’.