German scholar Wolfgang Sachs talked about sustainable development versus economic growth in Copenhagen on invitation by The Ecological Council, The European Environment Agency and the Danish newspaper Information. Wolfgang Sachs is a former professor, former chairman of Greenpeace Germany, author of several books and contributor to the IPCC.
Sachs introduces with “the four directions” which are his logical answers to scarcity. Then his talk is divided in nine points; some skipped, others expanded. Focussing on growth, the efficiency paradox, green investments, sufficiency and commons here are a selection of quotes and notes.
“Let us speak about the success of Copenhagen [laughter from the crowd] everybody who is right in his mind, in the world, knows that we are entering a new historic age. Everybody who is clear in his mind knows that, let’s call it universal encompassing environmental scarcity is to be with us for the 21st century.”
“There are four possible reactions. [...] the first logical answer is, well, keep out people who might add to the aspirations; so it is a logical answer to go for exclusion. [...] Second logical answer when scarcity is looming [...] expansion is a logical response [nuclear power, genetic technology, capture and storage of CO2, geoengineering]. Third, [...] get better in the way we use things; so efficiency is another logical answer. [...] Fourth, [...] revise the aspirations.”
“Growth [...] it is a very young phenomenon. Of course for many thousand, two thousand years certainly, humanity has lived without steady economic growth. More so, classical economists – Adam Smith, Malthus, [?] – still do not really have the idea about steady accelerating growth. Yes, there was the idea around that you might increase prospect [...] at some point it will kind of level out, it’s not going to be, if you want, a human condition.”
“The idea of permanent economic growth is an offspring of the fossil age.”
Before second world war governments did not see economic growth as their main objective. Growth philosophy a product of the post-war effort to curb unemployment, thus only 40-50 years old.
Efficiency paradox: Efficiency leads to consumption.
“The direct rebound effect is that once you can do something more efficiently you do more of the same thing. […] The indirect rebound effect is even more important: […] Where does the money go? […] Whereever you look it is very likely that there will be new energy and material demand associated with it.”
For example, I bought a bike about a week ago. I use it to transport myself to and from work so it already did about 100 kilometers. That’s a couple of kilos of CO2 saved right there. However, it is the stated policy of the Danish government to sell unused carbon quotas. The money they use on tax cuts for the rich and for companies. Thus, my green investment and biking effort is funding luxury yachts, stock market speculation and I don’t know what else.
“The precautionary principle [...] requires we begin research, debate, social experiments about how to live well with less or no economic growth.”
“Investments today shape the economy of tomorrow.”
“There is a common ground [...] between green economy and degrowth. We need green investments because we need a different infrastructure. [Even if it comes with short term growth.] In the mid to long term a real green new deal has to incorporate a perspective of degrowth.”
“Cars are built for intermediate performance levels.”
Effort is wasted in designing for top speed etc.
“The more unequal a society is the less happy people are.”
Unhappiness has environmental consequences as well as growth incentives, therefore promoting equitability creates sustainability.
“If we’d had to pay for Wikipedia, we wouldn’t have it.”
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