12/19/2013 - 09:48

More democracy, and a sense of limits

The ideas that have emerged in this roundtable for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing other environmental and equity-related problems include decreasing consumption, challenging prevalent models of development, ensuring that governance is centered on people, and shifting national energy policies toward renewable energy. Adnan A. Hezri in Round One focused mostly on the last of these. I would support such transformations—but because social equity is as important as environmental sustainability, it is crucial that renewable energy projects be decentralized.

Centralized renewable energy sources such as wind farms, big hydropower projects, and large solar installations—in addition to carrying significant environmental impacts—are inherently resistant to democratic control. It is all too common for the energy they produce to go to wealthy urban areas or industrial complexes, while the rural poor continue to lack energy access. Energy from decentralized renewable sources tends to be more quickly and directly accessible to the poor, especially if these projects are supported by governments and civil society.

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen, meanwhile, has mostly emphasized reduced consumption. Reducing overall energy demand is certainly required—especially in industrialized countries, but also among rich people in less industrial nations. Reductions can be achieved through efficiency, but also by reducing frivolous energy uses such as neon advertising signs and all-night lighting in shops. Eliminating unnecessary goods such as fashion products would decrease consumption, as would changes in public transportation policy. But in practical terms, how are these reductions to be achieved?

Generating public awareness can play a role; behavior will change to an extent if people understand the suicidal nature of current energy pathways. But deep reductions probably require that environmentalists gain greater political power, as Hezri has suggested. Only through the exercise of political power can the externalities of fossil fuels be internalized, making these fuels economically unviable. Political power is required to levy taxes on or impose prohibitions against luxury consumption, and to use tax revenues for subsidizing decentralized renewable energy options. Political empowerment of citizens is likewise necessary if rural communities are to gain the ability to protect their natural resources from powerful urban and industrial forces. But at the same time, one should not underestimate the ability of radical, decentralized movements to change things on a large scale. In India, for example, it was a decentralized movement—not a direct takeover of government—that made the country's Right to Information Act a reality.

Political transformation has to be accompanied by an economic paradigm shift: The world must break its addiction to economic growth. Hezri's Round Two assertion that "economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering" misses the important point that humanity is already overstressing the planet. Activities that are causing humanity to break through Earth's ecological limits must be curtailed.

Curtailing these activities does not require de-growth everywhere. It is people in the Global North and the wealthy in poor countries who must drastically shrink their environmental footprint. Meanwhile, radical economic redistribution would ensure that the Global South has the resources it needs to generate livelihoods and meet people's basic needs.

Taking steps such as these would not end economic growth. Rather, growth would become sustainable instead of limitless. Most important, the world as a whole would achieve a "steady state" in which continuing improvements in well-being would not be predicated on ever-growing consumption of energy and materials.