What we can do is a series drawing inspiration from the changemakers of our time. Matthias Schmelzer is an activist-researcher on the topic of degrowth.
There is no one way to tackle the climate crisis. The problem is too big, too complex. Climate action needs to be as diverse as the ecosystems it aims to save. What we can do is a series drawing inspiration from the change-makers of our time. What are they doing to help our planet? What were their first steps? What gives them hope? Climate action is needed. Here’s what we can do.
Exactly 50 years ago, a group of scientists proposed a radical idea. Using cutting-edge computer modeling technology, they concluded that if the global economy continued to grow unfettered, then it would lead to ecological disaster within the next 100 years.
With plenty of time left to turn the ship around the message was hopeful: humans are capable of creating societies that don’t wreck our natural environment, so long as we impose limits on ourselves and the production of material goods.
The “Limits to Growth” report was controversial, and largely rejected by the mainstream for decades. However the growing urgency of climate change has brought these critiques back into the public debate. It’s now widely accepted by many of the world’s largest financial institutions that as the economy expands, so does the production of waste, emissions and pollution. The big question is what to do about it.
Activist-researcher and author of The Future is Degrowth Matthias Schmelzer is part of a growing movement of ecologists, economists and activists who believe that “degrowth”, a planned reduction in the size of the economies of wealthy nations, is the best solution to reducing emissions of wealthy countries, while allowing Global South economies to increase necessary production to meet their needs.
Proponents of degrowth say that wealthy countries can shrink their economies and increase wellbeing by improving and increasing public services like transport and healthcare, promoting plant-based diets and ensuring a fairer distribution of wealth. This planned reduction in the economy means that we would consume less stuff, work less, and have more time to pursue non-work related hobbies.
For this installment of What We Can Do, we spoke to Matthias Schmelzer about why he thinks degrowth is the way forward.
What does climate action look like for you?
I’m an activist-researcher – so climate action looks a bit differently for me in both areas; activism and academia. I’ve been involved in dozens of actions of civil disobedience, mostly with Ende Gelände (blocking lignite mining in Europe’s biggest CO2 emitting mine), but also around international summits, global justice protests, and with Stay Grounded.
As a researcher I try to understand the root causes of the climate emergency, which I see as the capitalist system driving perpetual economic growth. Based on research that shows that “green growth” is not enough to achieve climate targets, I’ve also focused on alternative approaches for how to achieve a good life for all within limits – including post-growth and degrowth. Increasingly, I also try to integrate both areas, activism and academia, and I’ve most recently been involved with Historian Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion.
Overall, I try to keep a balance between activities focusing on what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia” – blocking with our bodies the extractive industries causing the climate emergency – and those actions focusing more on the equitable societies we want to build – a good life for all.
What is your earliest memory of being aware of the climate crisis?
I have a strong memory of a long conversation I had with a friend, when we were on the way to the protests against a G20 summit in London in 2009. It was through this conversation that I realized that all mainstream efforts to solve the climate crisis through ecological modernization and green growth are ultimately failing. After that I started to read more and more about economic growth, the structural drivers of fossil fuel emissions, and dynamics of capitalist accumulation – and started to get involved with degrowth, helping to bring the discussion to Germany.
Even though I think about the climate emergency a lot of the time, I am still learning new things about the scale of the challenges every day. So you could say that I am still waking up to the situation we’re really facing: that continuing to burn fossil fuels is changing the entire global climate system in what amounts to an irreversible, uncontrolled, and dangerous experiment with our only home, the planet.
Do you ever experience eco-anxiety or hopelessness? How do you manage that?
Yes, of course, when I look at the work required of us and the tasks ahead I often feel hopeless and overwhelmed.
However, it also helps me to remember that I am speaking from a very privileged position – being a white cis-male person in the Global North, employed by a university. So while we should take eco-anxiety seriously, I think it should be considered through a decolonial lens. It’s been observed that climate anxiety is overwhelmingly a white phenomenon that can distract from the much more fundamental problems facing the most affected areas in the Global South, refugees, and other oppressed and marginalized people.
Rather than emphasizing grief and eco-anxiety, I hope the climate justice movement can channel this grief into solidarity, acknowledging the colonial roots of the climate emergency, reparations, and collectively strengthening systemic alternatives.
What climate solutions give you hope?
People give me hope! People’s commitments, struggles and solidarity. I recently had the honor of listening to Angela Davis speak, celebrating ten years of refugee struggles in Berlin – and her retelling of the long history of successful peoples movements from decolonization to Civil Rights to the ongoing struggles around women’s liberation in Kurdistan and Iran gave me hope.
Yes, to halt runaway climate change, we need technological solutions and government policies, but we also need strong social movements. Their effects can be immense. A recent report has shown that Indigenous communities’ resistance against more than 20 fossil fuel projects has resulted in stopping at least as much CO2 emissions as 25% of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions.
Wouldn’t degrowth mean that we see a reduction in our living standards?
Degrowth does mean changes to the lifestyles of the richest 10%, because these lifestyles are based on an unsustainable level of consumption. But this doesn’t mean going back to caves! Degrowth doesn’t mean sacrificing a decent and dignified standard of living. What we need, instead, are systemic changes that radically increase equality in our societies and that include social innovations. For example, instead of focusing on promoting electric cars – which produces a new scramble for resources, land and energy in the Global South – we need to invest in affordable public transportation, ban cars in cities and share the cars we still need, thus reducing resource and energy demand. Public abundance instead of private luxury!
Opponents to degrowth say that degrowth is not necessary as over the last decades, the world's richest countries have learnt to pollute less and reduce emissions using new technologies and environmental regulations, all at the same time as growing their economies. What do you say to this perspective?
Indeed, since degrowth has become more prominent there has been a fierce debate about the possibilities of decoupling economic output from ecological destruction, emissions and resource use.
I think it’s a totally flawed argument to suggest rich countries have already achieved decarbonization pathways that are compatible with growth. Yes, it's true that efficiency improvements and the shift to renewable energies is slowly bringing down emissions, but it's simply too little and too slow. There is by now a wealth of studies showing that absolute, global and fast enough emissions reductions are highly unlikely to be achieved while also increasing GDP in rich countries. It’s like trying to go down an escalator that is moving upwards – achieving climate goals would be much easier if we abandoned economic growth. For this I recommend our book The Future is Degrowth – life could in fact improve in such an economy beyond growth that focuses on meeting everyone’s needs within limits.
What can people reading do to support your work?
Organize, organize, organize. Get active, wherever it makes sense for you and where you can make a difference. Governments will not solve the problem for us – we have to do it, together. And in getting active, please push for the systemic changes that really get to the root of the multiple crises we face.