When the Greens announced Labour as their preferred partner for any post-election negotiations John Key was quick with the accusation that the Greens in government would mean environmental policies would have precedence, that jobs would be sold down the river and that economic growth would be on the backburner.
It is not the purpose of this column to argue the respective merits of political parties, but the claim that economic growth trumps care of the environment needs to be challenged, wherever it appears. Economic growth has been phenomenal since humans unlocked the energy of fossil fuels in the industrial revolution which began over two centuries ago.Â In that short time the human population of the globe has increased six-fold, life expectancy has more than doubled and technologies have advanced at previously unimaginable rates.Â
We have known for some time that environmental damage was being done along the way, and efforts have been made to repair some of it, sometimes tolerably successfully.Â But it is only in the past ten or fifteen years that the greatest unsuspected environmental damage has begun to reveal itself to the investigations of scientists. The burning of fossil fuels which has powered our growth has been changing the composition of the atmosphere to produce a rapidly increasing level of global warming unprecedented in human history. It is profoundly altering the ecosystems to which we belong and on which we depend. It is of a magnitude which threatens the whole structure of human civilisation and mass extinction of other species.
That is the verdict of science, and it would be sheer folly for us to think that economic growth dependent on energy from fossil fuels can remain unaffected by this discovery. It would also be a betrayal of upcoming generations, for it would condemn them to severely diminished lives.
Some environmental concerns may be able to be postponed for a time and dealt with later, but not this one. Glaciers and polar ice caps once melted are unlikely to be reconstituted by any action we can take. Metres of sea level rise can’t be lowered. Desertification is not easily reversed. The acidification of the ocean is a colossal phenomenon.
No one who has absorbed the scientific findings can consider them somehow outweighed by current economic models. Addressing climate change is an imperative, and the economy must be fashioned accordingly so that greenhouse gas emissions are are severely cut over the next forty years.
Does that put economic growth on the back burner?Â It may in fact mean a very lively economy. There is enormous potential for growth in renewable energy technology and the infrastructure to support it. A whole industry will be needed for the sustainable design, building and retro-fitting of housing and commercial buildings.Â Manufacturing which is based on continual recycling rather than resources ending in landfill will produce expanded employment opportunities. Human ingenuity will find inumerable opportunities for productive enterprise within the new boundaries.
However it will be a differently based economy and the change may well involve pain for some industries as they give way to sustainable alternatives. Farming may have to alter some of its ways.Â We may have to live on a more modest scale than we are presently encouraged to aspire to and the frenetic consumption which undergirds the present economy may subside. But none of these factors signify economic collapse.
Environmental collapse is the real threat. Our economy must be reshaped and politicians of all colours should be getting on with that task, not offering delusory hopes that business as usual is a viable option.
This column first appeared in the Waikato Times, Nov 11, 2008