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Death by Growth: What the Climate-Bill Autopsies Missed

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By now the corpse of the climate bill has been so thoroughly autopsied, that examining it any further seems almost inhumane. A whole army of coroners have weighed in, suggesting an array of possible causes of death: Republican obstructionism, failed presidential leadership, a weak climate movement, the wrong policy approach, the recession.

Each one of these problems no doubt played a role in finishing the bill off. But ultimately they weren't much more than complications associated with the real killer - the disease which for all their poking around, the coroners somehow managed to miss.

It's the killer that shall not be named. The killer the coroners don't see because they don't want to see it, even though it's almost impossible to miss. It's the biggest force in politics. It's the top issue in almost every election, and especially this one. It's mentioned in every stump speech. Top world leaders meet several times a year to discuss how to promote it.

It's the economy stupid. And, no, not the recession. Not the lack of growth, but growth itself. Or, rather, the government's unwavering devotion to advancing it. I'm not going to spill any ink here explaining how the paradigm of unending growth is incompatible with preserving life, prosperity and security on a finite planet. Far more authoritative voices such has Bill McKibben and Gus Speth have already articulated that argument far more eloquently than I could. But for the purposes of doing a proper postmortem on the climate bill it needs to be said that as long as growth remains the number one priority of governments worldwide any effort to by those governments to seriously address climate change will be doomed to end in failure.

And, of course, growth is without a doubt our government's top priority, as its kneejerk reaction to the financial crisis makes abundantly clear. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it best in his book First as Tragedy then as Farce:

With the financial meltdown the urgency to act was unconditional; sums of unimaginable magnitude had to be found immediately. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, saving AIDS patients and those dying for lack of funds for special treatments, saving starving children...all this can wait a little bit. The call to "save the banks!" by contrast is an unconditional imperative which must be met with immediate attention.

And forget about "green growth." That's the biggest oxymoron since "clean coal." Sure with efficiency and clean energy we can create less pollution per unit of economic output. But getting to the point where we can even maintain our current economic output without cooking the planet will already be an economic and technical challenge of incredible proportions; never mind trying to fuel an economy twice as big.

The government's devotion to economic growth entails a devotion to the ultimate drivers of economic growth: corporations. And passing a carbon cap or a carbon tax means going up against the biggest, baddest corporations in the history of corporations: fossil fuel companies. Their formidability lies not just in the fact that they have tons of money to buy political favor but that they constitute the very life blood of the growth based economy; they literally and figuratively fuel the engine of growth. They are the holiest of holies in the corporate temple. Smiting them means smiting the entire growth model; it means blaspheming the Gods of Growth.

In short, the fossil fuel industry is not just another powerful special interest; it is arguably the greatest power in history, backed by enormous wealth, profound dogma, and the power of the global political system. It quite literally is the world order. Displacing it isn't a matter of piecemeal reformation, but wholesale transformation - in other-words, a revolution.

Wow, okay, so we need a revolution. So how exactly does that help those of us trying to fight climate change? Well, for starters, it could help us avoid wasting energy on incremental reform. By understanding that our federal government may very well be systemically incapable of delivering real reform, we can redirect ourselves towards a more fundamental goal: changing the system; transformation, not reformation. A clean-energy revolution needs to be just that - a real revolution. The founding fathers didn't get us from monarchy to democracy with baby steps. Accomplishing that change required a giant leap.

And what this means is that despite all of our political instincts, despite all of the wise counsel of pollsters and PR gurus, we have to take the ultimate leap and start directly campaigning against the global religion, economic growth itself - the myth upon which the power of the fossil fuel gods thrive. Kill the myths, kill the dogma, and the gods die with them.

Sound crazy? Not really. Mindbogglingly audacious maybe, but not crazy. It's certainly no crazier than concluding that to address the symptoms of an illness, you've got to find a cure, not just fight the symptoms. Climate change is after all a symptom of our economic philosophy. That's not to say we shouldn't work to alleviate that symptom. Good progress on that front is still desirable. But ultimately it won't save the patient. It won't save our planet and our civilization. To do that we have to find a cure, and that requires diverting real time and resources from treating the symptom.

And fighting the growth disease might be easier than we think. In fact it might be easier to mobilize people to fight it than to fight the climate symptom. That's because the economy and its impacts are much more visible, much more present and deeply felt in most people's everyday lives than the climate crisis and its impacts. It has often been said that the lack of immediacy is the climate movement's major handicap. The economic crisis we just faced certainly didn't lack immediacy. There's nothing more immediate than losing your house, your job, your livelihood, as so many did when the housing bubble burst.

Moreover, people weren't oblivious to the fact that the crisis was caused by a bubble - by unsustainable growth in a certain sector of the economy. Public confidence in our economic model has already been shaken. To help precipitate its collapse, we need to start connecting the dots between the housing bubble and the much larger bubble that's bound to burst when it collides in the very near future with the very sharp reality of a devastated planet.

Of course to get people to disavow a dogma as strong as the growth dogma, we have to do much more than shake their confidence in it. We have to offer them an alternative paradigm that provides what the growth dogma promised but was never really designed to deliver on: true, abiding, globally shared prosperity. An economic system that focuses not on growing GDP, but on growing the things that matter: security, opportunity, education, health, happiness, community, democracy. An alternative that transcends the old false dichotomy between capitalism and command-and-control communism. It's a model top economists have been developing for years, but whose brilliance has long been obscured by the mirage of endless growth. It's called the steady-state economy.

As defined by the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy (CASSE), a steady-state economy is one "with stable or mildly fluctuating size...[which] may not exceed ecological limits." In other words it's an economy that's perfectly suited to a world beset by the bursting bubbles and ecological crises of uneconomic growth. It's the only economy compatible with real climate solutions.

No wonder then that some of the world's top climate advocates including Bill McKibben, Eban Goodstein, Paul Hawken, Wendel Berry and Gus Speth have endorsed the CASSE platform. But it is a wonder more have not. The steady-state economy is the cure for what killed the climate bill, and what's killing our civilization. It's the revolution we need. If we want to bring the world back from the brink, we'd all better start campaigning for it.

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