Solving the Climate Crisis Requires the End of Capitalism

It’s time to face the fact that resolving the climate crisis will require a fundamental shift away from our growth-based, corporate-dominated global system.


Originally published October 9, 2021 in Salon


The global conversation regarding climate change has, for the most part, ignored the elephant in the room. That’s strange, because this particular elephant is so large, obvious, and all-encompassing that politicians and executives must contort themselves to avoid naming it publicly. That elephant is called capitalism, and it is high time to face the fact that, as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system of our globalized world, the climate crisis won’t be resolved.

As the crucial UN climate talks known as COP26 approach in early November, the public is becoming increasingly aware that the stakes have never been higher. What were once ominous warnings of future climate shocks wrought by wildfires, floods, and droughts have now become a staple of the daily news. Yet governments are failing to meet their own emissions pledges from the Paris agreement six years ago, which were themselves acknowledged to be inadequate. Increasingly, respected Earth scientists are warning, not just about the devastating effects of climate breakdown on our daily lives, but about the potential collapse of civilization itself unless we drastically change direction.

The elephant in the room

And yet, even as humanity faces perhaps the greatest existential crisis in its species’ history, the public debate on climate barely mentions the underlying economic system that brought us to this point and which continues to drive us toward the precipice. Ever since its emergence in the seventeenth century, with the creation of the first limited liability shareholder-owned corporations, capitalism has been premised on viewing the planet as a resource to exploit — its overriding objective to maximize profits from that exploitation as rapidly and extensively as possible. Current mainstream strategies to resolve our twin crises of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot without changing the underlying system of growth-based global capitalism are structurally inadequate.

The public debate on climate ignores the elephant in the room. (Credit: Forbes | Roger Dean Duncan)

The idea of “green growth” is promulgated by many development consultants, and is even incorporated in the UN’s official plan for “sustainable development,” but has been shown to be an illusion. Ecomodernists, and others who stand to profit from growth in the short-term, frequently make the argument that, through technological innovation, aggregate global economic output can become “absolutely decoupled” from resource use and carbon emissions — permitting limitless growth on a finite planet. Careful rigorous analysis, though, shows that this hasn’t happened so far, and even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still lead to unsustainable consumption of global resources.

The primary reason for this derives ultimately from the nature of capitalism itself. Under capitalism — which has now become the default global economic context for virtually all human enterprise — efficiency improvements intended to reduce resource usage inevitably become launchpads for further exploitation, leading paradoxically to an increase, rather than decrease, in consumption.

This dynamic, known as the Jevons paradox, was first recognized back in the nineteenth century by economist William Stanley Jevons, who demonstrated how James Watts’ steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of coal-powered engines, paradoxically caused a dramatic increase in coal consumption even while it decreased the amount of coal required for any particular application. The Jevons paradox has since been shown to be true in an endless variety of domains, from the invention in the nineteenth century of the cotton gin which led to an increase rather than decrease in the practice of slavery in the American South, to improved automobile fuel efficiency which encourages people to drive longer distances.

When the Jevons paradox is generalized to the global marketplace, we begin to see that it’s not really a paradox at all, but rather an inbuilt defining characteristic of capitalism. Shareholder-owned corporations, as the primary agents of global capitalism, are legally structured by the overarching imperative to maximize shareholder returns above all else. Although they are given the legal rights of “personhood” in many jurisdictions, if they were actually humans they would be diagnosed as psychopaths, ruthlessly pursuing their goal without regard to any collateral damage they might cause. Of the hundred largest economies today, sixty-nine are transnational corporations, which collectively represent a relentless force with one overriding objective: to turn humanity and the rest of life into fodder for endlessly increasing profit at the fastest possible rate.

Under global capitalism, this dynamic holds true even without the involvement of transnational corporations. Take bitcoin as an example. Originally designed after the global financial meltdown of 2008 to wrest monetary power from the domination of central banks, it relies on building trust through “mining,” a process that allows anyone to verify a transaction by solving increasingly complex mathematical equations and earn new bitcoins as compensation. A great idea — in theory. In practice, the unfettered marketplace for bitcoin mining has led to frenzied competition to solve ever more complex equations, with vast warehouses holding “rigs” of advanced computers consuming massive amounts of electricity, with the result that the carbon emissions from bitcoin processing are now equivalent to that of a mid-size country such as Sweden or Argentina.

An economy based on perpetual growth

The relentless pursuit of profit growth above all other considerations is reflected in the world’s stock markets, where corporations are valued not by their benefit to society, but by investors’ expectations of their growth in future earnings. Similarly, when aggregated to national accounts, the main proxy used to measure the performance of politicians is growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Although it is commonly assumed that GDP correlates with social welfare, this is not the case once basic material requirements have been met. GDP merely measures the rate at which society transforms nature and human activity into the monetary economy, regardless of the ensuing quality of life. Anything that causes economic activity of any kind, whether good or bad, adds to GDP. When researchers developed a benchmark called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which incorporates qualitative components of well-being, they discovered a dramatic divergence between the two measures. GPI peaked in 1978 and has been steadily falling ever since, even while GDP continues to accelerate.

Since 1978, Genuine Progress has been falling even while GDP continues to increase. Credit: Kubiszewski et al., Beyond GDP: Measuring and achieving global genuine progress

In spite of this, the possibility of shifting our economy away from perpetual growth is barely even considered in mainstream discourse. In preparation for COP26, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) modeled five scenarios exploring potential pathways that would lead to different global heating outcomes this century, ranging from an optimistic 1.5°C pathway to a likely catastrophic 4.5°C track. One of their most critical variables is the amount of carbon reduction accomplished through negative emissions, relying on massive implementation of unproven technologies. According to the IPCC, staying under 2°C of global heating — consistent with the minimum target set by the 2015 Paris agreement — involves a heroic assumption that we will suck 730 billion metric tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere this century. This stupendous amount is equivalent to roughly twenty times the total current annual emissions from all fossil fuel usage. Such an assumption is closer to science fiction than any rigorous analysis worthy of a model on which our civilization is basing its entire future. Yet, even as the IPCC appears willing to model humanity’s fate on a pipe dream, not one of their scenarios explores what is possible from a graduated annual reduction in global GDP. Such a scenario was considered by the IPCC community to be too implausible to consider.

This represents a serious lapse on the part of the IPCC. Climate scientists who have modeled planned reductions in GDP show that keeping global heating below 1.5°C this century is potentially within reach under this scenario, with greatly reduced reliance on speculative carbon reduction technologies. Prominent economists have shown that a carefully managed “post-growth” plan could lead to enhanced quality of life, reduced inequality, and a healthier environment. It would, however, undermine the foundational activity of capitalism — the pursuit of endless growth that has led to our current state of obscene inequality, impending ecological collapse, and climate breakdown.

The profit-based path to catastrophe

As long as this elephant in the room remains unspoken, our world will continue to careen toward catastrophe, even as politicians and technocrats shift from one savior narrative to another. Along with the myth of “green growth,” we are told that a solution lies in putting monetary valuations on “ecosystem services” and incorporating them into business decisions — even though this approach has been shown to be deeply flawed, frequently counterproductive, and ultimately self-defeating. A wetlands, for example, might have value in protecting a city from flooding. However, if it were drained and a swanky new resort built on the reclaimed land, this could be more lucrative. Case closed.

The new moniker arising from the corporate titans at the World Economic Forum is “stakeholder capitalism”: an inviting term that seems to imply that stakeholders other than investors will play a role in setting corporate priorities, but actually refers to a profoundly anti-democratic process whereby corporations assume increasingly large roles in global governance. This month, the UN Food Systems Summit was essentially taken over by the same giant corporations, including Nestlé and Bayer, that are largely responsible for the very problems the summit was intended to grapple with — which led to a widespread boycott by hundreds of civil society and Indigenous groups.

The UN Food Systems Summit was essentially controlled by corporate interests. Source: Food Systems 4 People

As net-zero targets decades away are formally announced at COP26, built implicitly on a combination of corporate procrastination and speculative technologies, we can only expect the climate crisis to continue to worsen. Ultimately, as negative emissions technologies fail to meet their grandiose expectations, the same voices that currently promote reliance on them will lend support to the techno-dystopian idea of geoengineering — vast, planet-altering engineering projects designed to temporarily manipulate the climate to defer a climate apocalypse. A leading geoengineering candidate, financed by Bill Gates, involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting the Sun’s rays back into space. The risks are enormous, including the likelihood of causing extreme shifts in precipitation around the world. Additionally, once begun, it could never be stopped without immediate catastrophic rebound heating; it would not prevent the oceans from further acidifying; and may turn the blue sky into a perpetual dull haze. In spite of these concerns, geoengineering is beginning to get discussed at UN meetings, with publications such as The Economist predicting that, since it wouldn’t disrupt continued economic growth, it’s more likely to be implemented than the drastic, binding cuts in emissions that would head off climate disaster.

There is an alternative

Why is the elephant in the room so rarely mentioned in mainstream discourse? One reason is that, since the collapse of communism and the parallel rise of neoliberalism beginning in the 1980s, it is assumed that “there is no alternative,” as Margaret Thatcher famously declared. Even committed green advocates, such as the Business Green group, are quick to dismiss criticism of our growth-based economic system as “knee-jerk anti-capitalist agitprop.” But the conventional dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, to which such conversations inevitably devolve, is no longer helpful. Old-fashioned socialism was just as poised to consume the Earth as capitalism, differing primarily in how the pie should be carved up.  

There is, however, an alternative. A wide range of progressive thinkers are exploring the possibilities of replacing our destructive global economic system with one that offers potential for sustainability, greater fairness, and human flourishing. Proponents of degrowth show that it is possible to implement a planned reduction of energy and resource use while reducing inequality and improving human well-being. Economic models, such as Kate Raworth’s “doughnut economics” offer coherent substitutes for the classical outdated framework that ignores fundamental principles of human nature and humanity’s role within the Earth system. Meanwhile, large-scale cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model.

Another reason people give for ignoring the elephant in the room, even when they know it’s there, is that we don’t have time for structural change. The climate emergency is already upon us, and we need to focus on actions that can occur right now. This is true, and nothing in this article should be taken as a reason to avoid the drastic and immediate changes required in business and consumer practices. Indeed, they are necessary — but insufficient. Ultimately, our global civilization must begin a transformation to one that is based not on building wealth through extraction, but on foundational principles that could create the conditions for long-term flourishing on a regenerated Earth — an ecological civilization.

Indigenous people on the frontline of the climate emergency desperately need support. Image: Amazon Watch | Kamikia Kisedje

Even in the short term, there are innumerable steps that can be taken to steer our civilization toward a life-affirming trajectory. Around the world Indigenous people on the frontline of the climate emergency desperately need support in defending the biodiverse ecosystems in which they are embedded against assaults from extractive corporations. A growing campaign is under way to make the wholesale destruction of natural living systems a criminal act by establishing a law of ecocide—prosecutable like genocide under the International Criminal Court. The powers of transnational corporations themselves need to be addressed, ultimately by requiring their charters to be converted to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, and subject to rigorous enforcement powers.

The transformation we need may take decades, but the process must begin now with the clear and explicit recognition that capitalism itself needs to be supplanted by a system based on life-affirming values. Don’t expect to see any discussion of these issues in the formal proceedings of COP26. But, turn your attention outside the hallowed halls and you’ll hear the voices of those who are standing up for life’s continued flourishing on Earth. It’s only when their ideas are discussed seriously in the main chambers of a future COP that we can begin to hold authentic hope that our civilization may finally be turning away from the precipice toward which it is currently accelerating.


Jeremy Lent is an author and speaker whose work investigates the underlying causes of our civilization’s existential crisis, and explores pathways toward a life-affirming future. His recently published book is The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe. Website: jeremylent.com.

23 thoughts on “Solving the Climate Crisis Requires the End of Capitalism

  1. Who here will be the first to give up everything that capitalism makes possible? Like this blog and the computers on which it is written? It is impossible to get rid of something so popular, something that you yourself cannot give up, and if you cannot give it up, then how can you expect anyone else to give it up? The talk means nothing if you don’t walk the walk. Those who do not yet live privileged energy-intensive lifestyles want to do so as soon as possible. There just isn’t enough planet Earth to go around for everyone to live like you or me. the US government spends more per citizen than is sustainable, so even the people living on the street contribute to the problem. Is England any different?

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  2. Many of us have been thinking about this, reading and in conversations for decades. Assuming you’ve read Herman Daly (steady state and ecological economics) and Bob Constanza’s work this fits nicely into this thinking. As a “progressive” business guy for over 40 years in the SF Bay Area and long time member of SVN, many in business know the system is rigged for the few and rigged for disaster. Only a few speak up – that takes courage, love, and truth.
    I believe that it’s the way we do capitalism, predatory style, that is the real problem. The game of short term wealth creation at ALL costs – ALL COST
    Many colleagues and I are out to demonstrate that we can design and run businesses that are focused on sustainability, urgent climate action and engaging millions / billions of others to take action (including our votes) on the journey. We can create for profit businesses (not predators) deeply committed to the regenerative economy and future, not the extractive economy.
    And yes – only a few with courage talk about this massive mastadon in the room. COP26 will be a total COP-OUT – hugs and BS all around. Action – a joke and criminal. My granddaughter will not be smiling on November 12th.

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  3. The ideas referred to would be fantastic. But, are the super-rich and their giant corporations going to just roll over and join this new world without a gripe?
    Markets will always exist, but the only path to global survival is through reasonable regulation strictly enforced and strictly reasonable, Businesses organize labor and capital, and innovation ensues. Owners are entitled to a reasonable profit. But, things have gotten way out of hand when we find ourselves ruled by corporate power, which drags the world down to ecological ruin.
    Corporations must be forced to give up their unbalanced power, quit hiding behind the false legal rubric of “personhood” and join humanity it its efforts to save the planet and create a fair and just society.

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    1. Great. Let’s do it. Where is the next adjacent? Give everyone a job in a national agency that rents workers out to corporations. Workers get paid even if idle. Then, a continuity agency ensures corporations comply with production allocations and distribution of basics. And strict environmental rules otherwise no workers. And compulsory share purchase if not performing.

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  4. The notion that, “Solving the Climate Crisis Requires the End of Capitalism”, is certainly a step forward in the understanding of the state of human affairs in this Late-Modernity. But the End of Capitalism is not the solution.

    The solution will inevitably address the conception of a new “cultural field”. By that I mean all thinking, behaviors, and actions within a society in the present. That includes its knowledge formation, its shared worldview, its economic, social, and cultural systems. This will inevitably occur ‒ or through human agency ‒ or more probably through a natural re-balancing act that will force humans to adapt in order to survive and if they can’t adapt the species will just go extinct. Those who might be interested in this kind of thinking can check The Continuum of the Cultural Field.

    Capitalism emerged in the South-West of Europe in the 12th century. But it had not suddenly fallen from the sky. It was the outcome of a process that was at work in a very particular context that had formed over several centuries. This subject, by itself, is too vast to address in a comment. I will just mention here that in the wake of the crusades the European aristocracy got mesmerized by the luxury goods that Crusaders had looted in Palestine.

    A new demand had abruptly emerged that called for an offer. South-Western European long distance merchants ventured to answer that new demand and in the process they encountered unbearable risks that needed to be answered. The answer came with the merchants’ conversion to “the reason that is at work withing the transformation of money into capital”. That reason gradually expanded to other domains of life and in the 17th century it got applied to all there is under the sun. Philosophic rationalism and science were born… and note that the multiple side-effects of Modernity, that have been accumulating over the last centuries, all find their origins in science ! That is because the budgets to pay for scientific research are financed by big capital holders or their servant corporations and state institutions.

    So in reality “Solving the Climate Crisis Requires the End of Western Modernity”… and it is most probable that the real solution is more something like “Solving the Climate Crisis Requires the End of the model of power-societies and the end of Western Modernity”… but this is another story.

    What I wanted to show is that narratives are important but they are not sufficient. Does it help to have the right solution to a problem if societies are incapable to implement that solution ?

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  5. Our planet is our mother. Centuries of pathological exploitation reveal that capitalism devours everything eventually. Earth as mother is another feminine aspect of life giving life – a thing that the ego sees as an opportunity to claim, own, abuse, at will. All else must be controlled. Capitalism without respect, without self-control, without love for life, without mothering is – a reptile worshipped as a god.

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  6. Before capitalism, it was power, then wealth. With capitalism, wealth comes first, then power. The issue is power and wealth, and few who have it willingly give it away. The only solution is to neutralize power and wealth, but I don’t hear the elephant in the room being addressed.

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      1. The structure of capitalism is indirect power, or power through participation in a system of trust that everyone belongs to. Before capitalism, power was direct enforced by the power itself. Your IMHO reflects a position within the capitalist system, where money is power. It is important to understand the difference if a person wishes to replace capitalism. Capitalism works because manufactures meet demands created in the marketplace. From the computers we use to write these blogs to everything else required for our survival. Wishing it go away or change without addressing the consumption issue is absurd. Too many people are too wealthy and consume too much. That is the problem. Nothing will change our trajectory toward oblivion unless you can change the elephant in the room.

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      2. Terms like “capitalism” are often thrown around without regard to the nuances of their many aspects. Usually the writer or speaker uses it interchangeably with “markets”. The other problem is that, as with other .”isms”, it is loaded with political baggage, and means different things to different parties.
        The exchange of goods and services is not ever going to be abolished, and I’m sure that is not what is meant when “capitalism” is said to be the elephant that is blocking a transition to a carbon-free society.
        The problem we have is not “capitalism” as such, but the cancerous, ever -increasing corporate boardroom casino capitalism that requires constant growth to feed the greed of its perpetrators.
        Reasonable profits as reward for reasonable productivity is fine, but the public good must be kept foremost in mind when any institution becomes so powerful that a large portion of the population is employed by it. Such institutions are often more influential than governments, and take over some of their prerogatives. If this happens, they must also become democratic, to insure that they are carrying out the will of the people. Otherwise it is the peoples “right, indeed their duty to alter or abolish them”

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  7. Been writing about the Jevons Paradox on my weekly journal regarding the pandemic. Called The Zombie Apocalypse, A Socialist in Lockdown, I have been writing a sort of Pepys Diary of the pandemic and publishing weekly on Facebook groups and my own page. As I am an eco-artist, I have been writing about the Pandemic as linked with Capitalism, Global Warming and Ecological Collapse. I first read The Coal Question by Jevons a while ago, whilst researching for my book. The Jevons Paradox is staggeringly effective and I haven’t heard one climate scientist (publicly) address it.. In a conversation with Michael Mann, probably the world’s most known climate scientist, he of the hockey stick graph, which I have used in artwork. I asked him is it possible he would talk about the Jevon’s Paradox, which seems to be missing from almost all conversations. Others jumped in to add their bits of info as per usual, with links to date etc. A short time later, he blocked me. I couldn’t believe it, but I have a horrible theory. Could be wrong and he may have done it in error, or just had a bad hair day. Now, a caveat here. I understand that people in the public eye, particularly those with bad news for Corporations and the wealthy, are subject to huge abuse and threats, and I know he has had many threats and they are very real, and that he gets constantly trolled on social media by cranks, and quite possibly sees me as just another. I also salute his far greater knowledge of the subject and I am aware of my lack of scientific credentials. However, I recently bought and read his latest book, The New Climate War. It’s very good, very precise and obviously chimes in with his research. But there are no answers, other than some wishy-washy stuff about renewables, and the usual guff about not giving up, giving in to ‘Inactavists’ as he calls them. But nothing about the heart of the problem. Confronting Capitalism. My experience, writing and painting about the Sixth Extinction (Global Warming and Ecological Collapse) makes me feel like a nurse in an ICU, the patient is slowly slipping away because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause. The pulse is getting weaker by the minute but the support staff are getting ready to turn off the switch and watch the latest movie on NetFlicks. Btw, the best explanation of what the Jevon’s Paradox is, apart from his actual book written in 1865, is an article I found by David Owen in the New Yorker of 2010, 2010/12/20, the efficiency dilemma. I suspect, although I may be wrong, is that Mann, like other scientists, cannot contemplate the end of Capitalism, possibly because all levels of funding will dry up, or, he is of the belief it can be tweaked to save us. It cannot.

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    1. Thanks for these interesting reflections, Gordon. I think you may well be right about Michael Mann and others believing they must “work within the system” even when it’s the system itself that is destroying us.

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      1. It seems to me that creating spaces for friendly wondering together about the way the “system works within each of us” can assist in the emergence of helpful conversations with those assuming, for whatever reason, the necessity to ‘work within the system’. The assumption being that it is our own ‘normal’ ways of looking that are at the root of our world crisis, and, as with any living ecology, our ways of looking naturally tend to avoid threats to our livelihood. I am noticing that such concerns can be welcomed, appreciated and enquired into as an important feature of the collective landscape of ‘normal’ we have all been required to adapt to.

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  8. Jeremy Lent describes in great detail above what capitalism is capable of. Just read it. It is clear from this that ideas like doughnut economics are incapable of changing anything as they move within the system and the system will successfully do anything to combat these ideas. If we turn a blind eye to it, we will be no better than climate change deniers.

    We can only fight the system from the outside. That will only work if we take the money away from the market. There is a global referendum on this, in which the majority of the people will vote for all financial debts to be paid off. This leads to a resolution to devalue all money. Life goes on as normal, with the only difference that all goods are gratis. Politicians motivate us to only take what we need. The danger to society will not be greater than at the first lockdown. After a short time, consumption drops sharply and the cause of the progress of the climate change disappears.

    I am neither a sociologist nor an economist, just an engineer with a lot of life experience. But I would ask the scientists to include this in their research.

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    1. That is the right answer, to get wealth out of the picture. If every person were allowed a maximum of 2000 watts for their lifestyle, a very different social organization would arise. It is interesting to think about ways to break up the current system.

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  9. Are you aware of this group ? CASSE

    Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy 4601 Fairfax Dr Ste 1200 Arlington, VA 22203-1559

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    1. The rebound effect is not sufficient to cancel out the social and financial benefits of energy efficiency.
      “when you increase the fuel efficiency of cars you lose no more than about ten per cent of the fuel savings to increased use. And if you look at the whole economy, Schipper said, rebound effects are comparably trivial. “People like Brookes would say that the extra growth is more than the saved energy, so it’s like a backfire. The problem is, that’s never been observed on a national level.” . . from New Yorker article by David Owen 12/12/2010

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  10. If I try to forward your long letter to someone else it will not go. I get an error message indicating that I must remove all spam, phishing or porn !!!!!
    Can you please arrange for a “view this in your browser” facility

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  11. Wish I could post a picture. The warm dry fact of it is that rapid long-term growth in global energy consumption has long continued along with much slower growth in global energy efficiency. Here you might just say Q.E.D., but what’s important is that the implication. It is that in order for continuing energy efficiency to reduce our demand for energy you’d need to have economic growth come to a lasting climax. A great many natural systems do just that. They can climax and thrive for many many times their initial period of exponential growth.

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  12. Degrowth effect, of course! Will better be digested as selective growth. We need to look the science, and address which proceses should grow, which ones stop pronto, and which are condemned. The critical timing is not been attended, maybe mandatory circumstances need to take the wheel. Evolution needs a crisis to trigger a revolution and the evolution effect. The size of the crisis is related to the size of the status quo, so, enormous! Actual crisis is only for starters. We humans have Stockholm syndrome with a greed based system, what could go wrong !?

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