Want to curb the climate crisis? Scale back economic growth, says Andrew Nikiforuk

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Southam Lecturer, award-winning journalist disputes the value of technological solutions

Photo sourced from UVic Fine Arts.

Andrew Nikiforuk wants you to cut your energy consumption — now. The award-winning energy journalist says climate change is the product of unconstrained economic growth and that new technologies, such as carbon capture, aren’t the solution. 

Nikiforuk is a contributing editor with the Tyee and the author of several books on the oil and gas industry, including The Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent and Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil. 

Just two days after an atmospheric river caused disastrous flooding and landslides across B.C., Nikiforuk arrived in a packed lecture hall in UVic’s Engineering and Computer Science Building to deliver this year’s Southam Lecture. 

The writing department puts on the lecture every year through a gift from the Southam family. In addition to the lecture, the speaker also gives talks to writing classes. This year, Nikiforuk delivered the Nov. 17 lecture to a record-breaking audience of over 1 200, mostly watching over a livestream. 

Nikiforuk says the root cause of climate change is unrestricted economic growth. Economic growth requires energy expenditure, like the burning of fossil fuels. Energy consumption releases greenhouse gases, causing climate change.

To escape the worst effects of the climate crisis, Nikiforuk says we’ll need to decrease the size of the global economy by at least 40 per cent, with the decrease in growth focused primarily on the world’s wealthiest countries. 

“We can choose … a managed energy descent, something few civilizations have ever achieved, or we can face collapse,” he said.

He emphasizes that exponential economic growth is a historical anomaly: it’s only been taking place for 200 years and is the product of fossil fuel consumption. Therefore, it’s possible to scale back growth. 

Though economic growth is an incentive inherent to capitalism, Nikiforuk isn’t calling for an end to that economic system. He says capitalism is just the system we’ve chosen, and that socialist countries like the Soviet Union have expended energy at just as reckless a rate as capitalist ones. 

Nikiforuk also believes population growth is fuelling the climate crisis — a conversation that he says decision-makers avoid. 

Nikiforuk doubts the needed slowdown in economic growth will happen. He says people with economic and political power are much more likely to favour technological solutions, like carbon capture, because they don’t want to discuss the issues of economic growth, population, or technology.

“Our elites promise every day that a host of new green technologies — most of them unproven, most of them vastly uneconomic, most of them which will never scale up — will solve all of our problems,” he said.

Much of the lecture focused on debunking these “green lies”: technological responses to the climate crisis, like carbon capture or hydrogen fuel, that he says don’t solve the problem. Nikiforuk’s critiques focus on how technological solutions are produced using fossil fuels, are difficult to produce in large numbers, and deepen the ills he perceives in our “technological society.” 

Nikiforuk is greatly concerned about the proliferation of technology in society — dubbed the “technosphere” — arguing that technology exercises control over behaviour, impacting communication, attention, and trust. 

Instead of relying on technology, Nikiforuk says we should focus our efforts locally to cut energy consumption.

“I think it’s more important to prepare your community for the storms ahead than to get lost in lobbying governments that are in many cases really unmoveable,” he said in an interview with the Martlet.

In the conclusion of his lecture, Nikiforuk gave advice to those in attendance: exit the technosphere, take care of nature where you live, do practical work with your hands, value things beyond their use, care for your community, and ask each day what you can contribute to the world.

Nikiforuk extends this advice to students as well. For some, he says, preparing for the current crises might involve asking whether university is the most useful place for them to be, or whether they’d be better served learning a trade or working with people. 

“Students need to ask themselves what is meaningful to them and how they can help to create more meaning in their communities they live in,” said Nikiforuk.