The world is on the horns of a terrible dilemma. We are caught between two competing realities: On the one hand, we understandably love and pursue economic growth. In fact, a capitalist system requires it. Halt growth, and the whole thing shudders and widespread misery inevitably ensues.
In the last week, we’ve seen two dramatically different approaches to this paradox coming out of Latin America; one which embraces the challenge, one which denies it completely.
Jair Bolsanaro, elected president of Brazil this weekend, has no time for anything remotely environmental. Such concerns are “suffocating Brazil,” he says, and he promises to unleash a fresh wave of deforestation and development in the Amazon. “Climate denier” barely covers it.
This flies directly in the face of every scientific recommendation for how to minimize the impact of climate and ecological breakdown. But it is embraced by companies who, in the words of mine owner Elton Rohnelt, “have been waiting 30 years” since the end of the last military dictatorship to get on with ripping up one of the world’s most vital ecosystems.
The Bolsanaro administration could, quite literally, prove to be the straw that breaks the environment’s back. Or, at least, an environment fit for human habitation. He won the presidency with 56% of the vote.
This is mind-bendingly hard to bear for anyone willing to grapple with what the science is telling us. Let’s not forget, the massed ranks of the world’s climate scientists told us mere weeks ago that we have 12 impossibly short years left to achieve the biblically difficult task of getting off fossil fuels, or face terrifying worst-case scenarios up to and including civilizational collapse. The media reaction was, on the whole, cursory and passing. A flurry of headlines and then onto the next immediate political scandal. It has left little trace.
Despair comes easily and often, now, to those paying attention to the Earth system. It is breaking down all around us.
To take some of the facts we learnt in the last week alone: A major report by WWF found that humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilization. The worst affected region is South and Central America, which has seen an 89% drop in vertebrate populations, largely driven by the felling of vast areas of wildlife-rich forest.
Whether the ecosystem will be able to sustain the conditions needed for this human civilization, or indeed mass human life itself through to the end of this century is a live question.
So yes, it is easy to despair. Which makes the victory secured in Mexico last week all the more important.
On October 22, 2001, then President Vincente Fox announced plans to build what was originally planned as a $2.3 billion new airport for Mexico City. After several failed attempts, they broke ground on construction in 2014.
This wasn’t any old airport. NAICM, as it came to be known, grew into a genuine mega-project: the price tag rocketed to $13 billion; it promised to handle 125 million passenger flights per year. It became a flagship project not just for Mexico, but for the airline industry and its plans to double the number of flights globally, reaching 7 billion a year by 2034. It was sold to the public on the promise that it would deliver economic growth for all Mexicans.
The problem was not just that it would support a massive increase in airline emissions, but it was being built over an ancient lake, which doubles as a water reserve for the already water-stressed region. It is land of immense ecological and social importance.
It should not be surprising, though, that economics were the only consideration for the authorities, as the mega-airport was primarily the darling of the investor classes. Carlos Slim, the fifth richest men on the planet, and by far the richest in Mexico, has been a champion of the project from the beginning. Former president Enrique Pena Nieto put all his political firepower behind it. Mexico’s elite saw it as a new jewel in the nation’s crown.
But resistance was fierce from the beginning. The communities of Lake Texcoco rose up and said no. They were ignored, ridiculed, and repressed, sometimes violently. And then this Sunday, they won overwhelming support–to the tune of 70%–in a public referendum set up by the incoming administration of president-elect Andreas Obrador.
The airport is cancelled. The forces of life beat the forces of “growth at all costs” capital. At least, they have for now. It’s never wise to expect powerful people to slink quietly away in defeat. There can be no resting on laurels. Already, we are seeing pushback; the peso fell 4% on the news, as investors saw their potential profits evaporate. But for now, the local communities of the lake have won.
And let’s again be clear: This is not an easy dilemma in any sense. Putting life, community, and nature above economic growth takes clarity of purpose, an uncompromising boldness, and a willingness to innovate that we will be needing far more of in the coming years. There are plenty of alternatives to apply, whether it’s the vision of local self-sufficiency captured in concepts like FabLabs and FabCities initiatives, the concept of the circular economy so artfully advocated for by the likes of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, or the regenerative economics put forward by people like the Capital Institute, we are not short of creative alternatives.
This is essential, as most of us have had the simplistic and incorrect notion that “economic growth is always good” drilled into us from birth. The fact that the communities of Lake Texcoco could see through it, stand up against it, and prioritize life instead, is something we should all applaud and learn from.
This victory tells us two things: Firstly, in these dark days, it reminds us that major environmental wins are possible in the face of stiff and determined opposition from very powerful people.
And secondly, it shows exactly what the strategy now needs to be: uncompromising resistance coupled with determined and focused preparation for the post-growth world. The rejection of the airport is a rare victory for the planet. A victory that both the scientific community and progressive movement desperately need right now.
Martin Kirk is head of strategy for /The Rules, a worldwide network of activists, artists, writers, farmers, hackers, spiritualists, and dreamers, linking up to push the global narrative on poverty and inequality in a new direction.