Greta was right: endless economic growth is a fairytale

Greta Thunberg was right when she called us out on our failures at the UN a year ago. It's time to step up to the plate and explore new ways to organise the economy.

Greta Thunberg staged a sit-in when she dropped by for a chat with Angela Merkel in August.
Greta Thunberg staged a sit-in when she dropped by for a chat with Angela Merkel in August.picture alliance/dpa

Berlin-Let me remind you what Greta Thunberg said at the UN almost exactly a year ago: "People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosytems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth," said Thunberg. "How dare you!"

The adults in the room clapped and cheered. And then went about their daily business of growing the economy for eternity.

After that speech, the trolls – aging men who can't handle being told the truth by a girl – came out from under their bridges and stepped up their attacks on the Swedish teenager. AfD and their international brethren made hay out of shameless Greta-bashing. That was pre-corona. The virus has largely redirected the attention of science-hating morons to Bill Gates and the irresistible Kool-Aid of Q-drops.

This Friday, Greta's global crew, Fridays For Future, are back from corona hibernation and I'm glad. Though we're in a pandemic, we need to start talking about the world-sized elephant in the room again.

We normal, non-conspiracy believing people, know in our heart of hearts that Greta's right about the "endless fairytale", the tale that says the fantastic material prosperity in which our lives are embedded will continue forever.

The economic system we've lived in since the end of the Second World War has delivered unprecedented comfort, health, longevity and leisure for hundreds of millions of people in the western world – but also increasingly across the globe. And that's a good thing. I'd be a hypocrite to say otherwise.

But it is founded on an astonishing lie: Keep the economy growing and everything will be fine. Those at the bottom will also continue to reap the benefits as long as the stats point in the right direction: cheap holidays, cheap electronics, cheap meat, cheap clothing. You'll get more of all of the above – and your children will get even more. Forever.

We've known it was a lie at least since the 1960s. Scientists in the 19th century already predicted that blasting CO2 into the atmosphere would heat up the climate. We've known the truth for generations. And then keep putting it on the back burner again and again. 

Fridays for Future's demands are modest

We suppressed our doubts and fears with waffle about sustainable development, green capitalism and all the rest of it. And then Elon Musk comes along and promises us climate-friendly, sustainable, self-driving luxury transportation. All at zero cost to the planet.

It's complete bullshit and we all know it. From the impact of his gigafactories on local ecosystems to the insane energy footprint of the aluminum smelters creating the raw material for the cars' bodies; from the impact of mining raw battery materials to the notion that we'll have enough sustainable energy to power hundreds of millions of cars. It's bullshit - from start to finish. And we all know it. 

It's Thunberg's fairytale repackaged one more time. The fairytale that somehow we can get richer forever without stripping the earth of every natural resource, without wrecking the climate and extuinguishing the biodiversity we ourselves require to stay alive.

Fridays For Future's demands are modest. All they're asking for is that we stick to the Paris Agreement - which itself is probably too much of a compromise to save the climate.

Let's be honest: it's not going to happen any time soon. Even Germany – a rich country which likes to wear its green credentials on its sleeves – missed its 2020 climate goals. Emissions fell by 32 per cent compared to 1990 levels.

The target was 40 per cent.

This despite Germany's huge head start that resulted from shutting down dirty East German industry in the 1990s.

Climate chaos is here. Are the raging West Coast fires enough to convince you? Or the latest predictions that temperatures in Germany will be well above average this fall and winter? Or should I remind you that Germany's 2018 grain harvest was the worst in 24 years – thanks to that year's drought.

Let's be real, we're not going to stop this with Teslas and lifestyle tweaks.

Just another hero wearing a mask.
Just another hero wearing a mask.Photo: AP

Climate change is a phenomenon of unprecedented scale and complexity. In other words, a "hyperobject", a term coined by philosopher Tim Morton. The tried and tested economic concepts of the 20th century simply aren't going to cut it. They aren't cutting it now, in fact, and haven't been since the moment we began to understand the gravity of the problem. 

There's no shortage of ideas on how to really create an economy that works for everyone. No shortage of sustainability institutes, academics and start-ups working on promising novel ways to at least alleviate the worst effects of an out-of-control climate.

One example I really like is economist Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics, a new economic approach which is currently being put into practice in Amsterdam with the Amsterdam City Doughnut.

In this model, the outer ridges of the doughnut represent limits beyond which our environment suffers. The internal edge of the doughnut – the circle around the void – represents the bare minimum for everyone on earth. The donut is the sweet spot.

 Berlin leaders out there. Yes, you! What are you waiting for?