Current Problems

Environment

Degrowth offers a path to a truly just global energy transition

July 11, 2024

Rio Tinto – Kennecott open pit copper mine. Salt Lake County, Utah. How do we balance the needs of an energy transition with the harsh realities of mining critical minerals like copper? Photo by arbyreed/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Canada’s National Observer: As the world inevitably transitions away from fossil fuel extraction, there’s a growing international consensus that mining critical minerals — including copper, nickel, cobalt and zinc, gold and more — will have to ramp up in order to power clean energy sources.

This consensus, reflected in the 2022 Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy, rests on the assumption that our lifestyles in the developed world are sustainable, if only we stopped pumping CO2 into the atmosphere while commuting from the suburbs in our personal vehicles to work. But given that mining for raw minerals is beset by many of the same problems as fossil fuel extraction — from water pollution to violating Indigenous rights and facilitating violent, exploitative relations with the Global South — I contend this assumption is faulty.

Some degree of mining, naturally, will always be a necessity to keep our lights on and computers running. The fundamental question is one of harm reduction — how do we balance the needs of an energy transition with the harsh realities of mining critical minerals? 

The Liberal government plans on having 100 per cent of vehicles sold by 2035 be electric, with the eventual goal of phasing out combustible engines. Replacing every combustible engine with an electric vehicle is simply not a viable long-term solution to the climate crisis. 

Just as a traffic jam is a traffic jam, regardless of the type of engines clogging the road, an energy transition that takes place without considering its effects on the material world is doomed to repeat its failures. What’s needed is a fundamental rethink of the rationale underpinning resource extraction — an attitudinal shift away from the cult of endless growth and consumption.

In doing so, we can learn a valuable lesson from Indigenous communities the world over, who reject the notion that a clean economy can be built through the destruction of their lands and water. 

Global Consequences of Extracting Minerals

While increasing mining activities to build electric batteries, solar panels and wind turbines might seem like a no-brainer to those who live in big Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver, where three-quarters of the world’s mining companies are based, those who have to deal with the consequences of increased production have a notably different view. 

In the Yukon, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun is calling for “an immediate halt to all mining activity” on its traditional territory after a major rockslide from the Eagle gold mine likely released cyanide into its waters. 

Indigenous Peoples and environmentalists have played a leading role in opposing the expansion of mining in Ecuador, which has corrupted pristine, biodiverse lands that are central to Indigenous ways of life. In February, the Shuar Arutam People of Ecuador took Vancouver-based Solaris Resources to the B.C. Securities Commissionfor allegedly failing to disclose to shareholders that it received consent from just two of 47 Shuar communities for its proposed Warintza mine in the Amazon. 

In Sudan, proceeds from gold mining have bankrolled the country’s brutal civil war, which has displaced 7.3 million people and killed thousands since April 2023. 

Authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have destroyed homes, villages and agricultural land, and engaged in human rights abuses including sexual violence, beatings and arson to make way for expanded cobalt and copper mining, according to a report last year from Amnesty International

The products of this violence and environmental degradation in the Global South fuel our modern, tech-infused lifestyle in the Global North, which is bad for the environment, Indigenous reconciliation and international human rights. 

But under the existing framework of endless growth, it is, more or less, a necessity. Precious metals aren’t going to mine themselves. 

Solutions and Alternatives

There are, of course, alternatives to this global rush for critical minerals. 

One option is to slow down the pursuit of economic growth, ensuring an appropriate international regulatory regime is in place to mitigate the worst abuses of mining companies and their government enablers. 

A good starting point might be the elimination of the investor-state dispute settlement process, through which extractive companies, including Canadian ones, have strong-armed developing countries into paying them billions in compensation for implementing policies that impact their profit margins. 

A more radical proposition is to dispose of the concept of growth altogether. 

The word degrowth might be jarring to some, who read it as a call for austerity — a sign of how deeply embedded assumptions about the need for constant economic growth are in our collective consciousness — but it’s provocative by design. 

French economist Serge Latouche, writing in Le monde Diplomatique, says the purpose of degrowth is “not a concrete project but a keyword,” which challenges the “tyranny [that] has made imaginative thinking outside the box impossible. 

“What really matters is that we reject continuing destruction in the name of development,” he added.

At its core, degrowth proposes a decline in wasteful energy and material consumption habits, with decisions about resource allocation made via local participatory democracy instead of the whims of a global capitalist class. It’s about replacing an economics of “desire” with one of “need,” in which ecological and social values are placed at the forefront of allocating resources. 

Indigenous relations of reciprocity between the people and the land, in which people take what they need from each other and nature, and give back what they can, provides a useful framework for degrowth economics. 

A degrowth economy would build cities efficiently, rather than in ways that enrich developers; protect green spaces, mountains and waterways; transform investor-owned vacant housing into affordable housing; end health-care privatization; make higher education accessible to anyone who yearns to learn; and promote diplomacy in global conflict. 

Degrowth ideals offer an on-ramp towards a better green world that doesn’t simply halt increasing global temperatures while reproducing the inequities of the climate crisis, creating instead a truly just global energy transition. 

Jeremy Appel is an independent Edmonton-based journalist and author of Kenneyism: Jason Kenney’s Pursuit of Power (Dundurn, 2024). He also writes The Orchard newsletter on Substack, which focuses on the intersection of politics, media and corporate power.