How to shift to a healthy future?

How to shift to a healthy future?

Scientific research shows that climate change is going faster than anticipated due to our consumption and carbon emissions. How can we turn around before we reach an irreversible tipping point? Should we aim for degrowth? Should we hope for technological fixes? Let’s find out what Jason Hickel has to say in his book “Less is More – How Degrowth will save the World”.

Openness to new ideas is a feature of agile, learning organizations that we need to become future-fit. What can Jason Hickel’s book offer leaders, organizations, and consultants? Read his ideas and reflect on:

  • What are the implications for your organization’s strategy and goals?
  • What are some threats and opportunities?
  • How can you lead and change in this time of transition?
  • How to develop your organizational culture to be future fit?
  • How to adjust your organization if we shift from ownership to user-ship? – and so on!

You can read the first post here

Here’s my second article, based on Hickel’s book. Hickel shows that our economic system is structurally dependent on growth and is rooted in a worldview of dominion and dualism that goes back some 500 years. Ecological science requires that we learn to see the human economy not as separate from ecology but as embedded within it. This poses a radical challenge to the dominant worldview and capitalism.

Can technology fix what is wrong?

Some people think that technology will save us: Efficiency improvements and recycling technologies will allow us to make growth ‘green’. But according to Hickel, technology can’t keep us under 2 °C, even if all the countries in the world fulfill their pledges.

Growing the global economy means growing energy demand and growing energy demand makes the task of transitioning to clean energy significantly more difficult. Many technologies are not yet ready or scalable, such as BECCS: bio-energy with carbon capture and storage.

The challenge is huge. We have built up a global fossil-fuel infrastructure over the past 250 years, and now we have to completely overhaul it in only thirty. While it’s possible to transition to 100% renewable energy, we cannot do it fast enough to stay under 1.5 °C or 2 °C if we continue to grow the global economy at existing rates. If we want to succeed, we have to scale down energy use.

Sunshine and wind are clean, but the infrastructure we need to capture it is not. We need to extract metals and rare-earth minerals for solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars. Ultimately, says Hickel, we need to radically reduce the number of cars we use. The lithium for our batteries is an ecological disaster. It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium.

So, what should we do if technology can’t fix everything? Governments can impose taxes on resource extraction. Another option is innovation so we’ll become more efficient. But beware of the Jevons paradox: efficiency improvements save money, and capitalists reinvest the savings to expand production.

Is there a way out of this bleak scenario? Hickel offers another perspective and some solutions.

What are the secrets of the Good Life?

Hickel argues that it’s not economic growth itself that matters – what matters is what we are producing, whether people have access to essential goods and services, and how income is distributed.

Past a certain point, more GDP (gross domestic product) isn’t necessary for improving human welfare at all. The relationship between GDP and human welfare plays out on a saturation curve, with sharply diminishing returns. Research shows that in the United States, happiness rates peaked in the 1950s, but didn’t increase though people achieved more material comfort and stuff.

Hickel discusses countries with high levels of human welfare with relatively little GDP per capita. The European Union has 36 % less income than the United States and yet beats the US not only on life expectancy but on virtually every other indicator of human welfare. Also, Costa Rica ranks among the most ecologically efficient economies with happy and healthy inhabitants.

Universal public services are significantly more cost-effective to run than their private counterparts. Public transportation is less intensive in terms of both energy and materials than private cars. Tap water is less intensive than bottled water.

Spain spends only $ 2,300 per person to deliver high-quality healthcare to everyone as a fundamental right, achieving one of the highest life expectancies in the world: 83.5 years.

Hickel’s conclusion: we could achieve our social goals, for every person in the world, with less GDP than we presently have, by organizing production around human well-being, investing in public goods, and distributing income and opportunity more fairly.

When people live in a fair, caring society, where everyone has equal access to social goods, they don’t have to spend their time worrying and they can build bonds of social solidarity.

People are happiest in countries like Germany, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Canada, and Denmark – the social democracies. But it’s not just about happiness. We should look at people’s sense of meaning – a more profound state. People feel they have meaningful lives when they have the opportunity to express compassion, cooperation, community, and human connection. These are what psychologists refer to as ‘intrinsic values’.

Does your organization’s culture foster compassion, cooperation, community, and human connection?

Consumer research shows that because Denmark is more equal than most other high-income countries, people buy fewer clothes – and keep them for longer.

Hickel says: it’s not an income as such that matters. It’s what that income can buy, in terms of access to the things we need to live well. We can enable flourishing lives for all without additional economic growth.

And yes, we need innovation to solve the climate crisis. We need better solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, and we need to figure out how to dismantle the global fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with renewables. But we don’t need growth to do it. Projects like these require public investment. We can fund the transition by directing public resources from, for instance, fossil fuel subsidies (which stand at $ 5.2 trillion, 6.5 % of global GDP) into solar panels, batteries, and wind turbines.

Pathways to a healthy future?

Hickel paints some pathways forward. If you think this is radical, just explore these solutions. What are the threats and opportunities for your organization? How to adapt, how to change, what do you need to develop to thrive and contribute to a sustainable and just future?

He states that to reduce energy use, we need to abandon aggregate growth as an objective, scale down less necessary forms of production, and organize the economy around supporting strong social outcomes.

Step 1. End planned obsolescence

Developed in the 1920s, manufacturers plotted to shorten the lifespan of incandescent bulbs to be able to sell more light bulbs.

With legislation, we could require manufacturers to guarantee their products for the duration of maximum feasible lifespans. Think of household appliances and technological devices.

What if we introduced a ‘right to repair’? The European Union is working on this with its Green Deal. How about switching to a lease model for large appliances and devices, requiring manufacturers to assume full responsibility for all repairs?

Step 2. Cut advertising

Advertising entices people to consume far beyond their needs simply by manipulating their psychology. You can seed anxiety in people’s minds and sell things on the promise that these things will provide social acceptance. Hickel proposes to stop this.

Step 3. Shift from ownership to user-ship

What if we can lease, share, and borrow lawnmowers, cars, and so on? We needn’t buy so many.

Step 4. End food waste

What if we ate all the food that we produced? Research shows that a lot of food is wasted as it doesn’t meet criteria right off the land or factory, it is wasted during storage, transport, and delivery. Or it ends up in the bin after consumers have prepared it. We can save energy and money if we organize it better.

Step 5. Scale down ecologically destructive industries

How about legislation for products and services that are “nice to have” but are not a “need to have”? That sounds radical, so we would need a democratic process and dialogue about what we, as a society, find acceptable. What is the distinction between “nice” and “need”?

If we consume half as many products, we also need half as many factories and machines to produce them, half as many airplanes and trucks and ships to transport them, half as many warehouses and retail outlets to distribute them, half as many garbage trucks and waste disposal plants to process them when they’re binned, and half as much energy to produce and maintain and operate all of that infrastructure.

That may be great for the environment, but what about jobs? Hickel: As products last longer, as we shift to sharing things, and as we slash food waste and scale down fast fashion, employment in these industries will decline and jobs will disappear across the supply chains. In other words, as our economy becomes more rational and efficient, it will require less labor.

Can we shorten the work week? We can facilitate this process by introducing a public job guarantee so that anyone who wants to work can get a job doing socially useful things that communities need, like care, essential services, building renewable energy infrastructure, growing local food, and regenerating degraded ecosystems – paid at a living wage.

If we work less, we might consume and pollute less, too. A study of French households found that longer working hours are directly associated with higher consumption of environmentally intensive goods, even when correcting for income. By contrast, when people are given time off they tend to gravitate towards lower-impact activities: exercise, volunteering, learning, and socializing with friends and family.

Why would leaders and consultants think about these ideas? This is part of being prepared, cultivating a forward-thinking culture, of training your personal and your organization’s resilience skills. For instance, how to adjust your organization if we shift from ownership to user-ship? And: does your organization’s culture foster compassion, cooperation, community, and human connection?

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

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