The road to reducing the impact of our current extractive economic system on the environment is long, tortuous, uncertain and filled with landmines.
Renewable energy, electric cars, biofuels – these are some of the technologies hailed as the route to significant progress. Yet, every bit of perceived progress soon seems to turn sour as soon as we start to understand the overall system effects.
When corn-based fuels were given a boost, it was soon discovered that they were highly inefficient. Some claim that more energy is used to produce corn-based fuels than the energy they generate. There was a big impact on food production and on farming practices that were environmentally damaging. These fuels became the poster child of environmental policy gone terribly wrong. But, particularly in the USA, farmers found the subsidies that came with the policy very attractive and it became impossible to row back.
Then came renewables and, in particular, Germany’s Energiewende – the big shift to renewables as the primary source of German energy. The debate about the wisdom and effectiveness of this policy continues to be the subject of heated debate – including among the parties currently trying to form a coalition coalition in Germany. For some, it has been one of the best things ever. Others point to rising carbon emissions through perverse effects as evidence that the policy was totally misguided. Where it will all end up is impossible to predict.
Now it seems to be the turn of electric cars. These cars produce no emissions out of their exhaust pipes. But recent work has shown that if one measures total emissions over the life cycle of the car (production, usage, recycling, waste), some small, petrol fuelled cars actually produce a lower carbon footprint than Teslas.
These difficulties highlight the difficulties of understanding environmental impact – let alone the challenges of devising policy that makes sense and actually works. Environmental activists see this as a reason to push forward more quickly. To experiment, learn and get better. Those on the opposite side argue for slowing the pace until we know exactly what we’re doing (which assumes that such a state is ever possible to achieve).
In our book, we suggest that it is time to stop looking at environmental policy in a silo. Environmental issues should be used as a different lens through which we evaluate how our economy works and work through what sort of economy we want to build for the future. The reality is that we live in extractive economies that are based, at their core, on extracting resources from the earth and in turn dumping our detritus back into it. Our whole economy is based on this principle.
Sure, we can be more ‘efficient’. We can extract a little less and dump a little less. But that’s not going to get us anywhere at all except, maybe, to postpone the day of reckoning for a few more years or decades – equivalent to a couple of milliseconds in geological time.
It’s time to start a much bigger debate. How do we transform our economies from extractive economies to, let’s call them regenerative economies? Economies where extraction and dumping become money losing propositions while activities that not only protect but actively replenish our natural resources become economically rewarding.
Our economies will not become anywhere near sustainable if all we do is become slightly more efficient but maintain their fundamental destructive underpinnings. It’s time for a bigger re-think.
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