Kevin Anderson, of the world renowned climate science Tyndall Centre, was in Glasgow last week giving a talk in which he took the most optimistic IPCC models he could and still arrived at a picture of the future in which human extinction seemed pretty much assured since ‘market economics cannot deal with non-marginal changes’ and he couldn’t see the populace and politicians being willing to embark on the dramatic changes needed. He argued that ten years ago we could have made the transition to a climate safe economy, now we could still make it but it would be bumpy, if we wait another ten years it will be very painful and may be too late. Current international negotiations, if successful, are likely to take us to 4C. To hold at 3C (if hold is possible at that temperature, with arctic melt, forest fires, and methane release feedbacks underway) would require a 9% cut in emissions per year, to aim for ‘holding’ at 4C would require a 3.5% cut pa. He argued that we aren’t politically and socially capable of cutting by 9%; and although we can cut by 3.5%, we can’t live at 4C. Despite his analysis, Kevin was a completely engaging presenter, getting laughs several times, especially when he said that the only way we know to cut emissions rapidly is economic recession, later adding that the collapse of the Soviet economy had cut emissions there by 5% a year, half the rate of reduction needed now.
Why did the audience find it so funny that cutting emissions meant ending economic growth? It reminded me of Monbiot’s point about ‘economic growth’ being our ‘immortality project’, our collective denial of our own and our planet’s limits. Speaking with Kevin afterwards I asked him why he didn’t directly address the point and say out loud that this particular economic system is the force driving extinction? His answer was arresting: he feared that if he said this explicitly then people would dismiss everything else he is saying. This fear – that the one thing that needs to be communicated can’t be communicated – can be summed up by one word: taboo. Breaking a taboo means no longer being worthy of consideration. This explains why all such attempts tend to dress up the move from economic growth to a sustainable economy in terms of improved happiness and well-being rather than going straight to the point: this economy is killing people and planet, and it has to be transformed, and transformed now.