Revolution, Part 1: The End of Growth?

2 01 2015

By Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

New research suggests that the ongoing global economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature. The continuation of the crisis, though, does not imply the end of the world – but rather is part of major phase shift to a new form of civilization that could either adapt to post-carbon reality and prosper, or crumble in denial.

We are on the verge of a major tipping point in the way civilization works. Even as so many global crises are accelerating, a range of interconnected systemic revolutions are converging in a way that could facilitate a transformation of the global economy from one that maximizes material accumulation for the few, to one that caters for the needs and well being of all.

That’s the conclusion of a major new book published as part of the ‘Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics’ series, The Great Transition, by Prof Mauro Bonaiuti, an economist at the University of Turin in Italy. Bonaiuti’s book applies the tools of complexity science to diagnose the real dynamic and implications of the global economic crisis that most visibly erupted in 2008.

That crisis, Bonaiuti argues, is not simply a part of the cyclical boom and bust process, but is a symptom of a longer “passage of civilization.” Advanced capitalist societies are in a “phase of declining returns” measured across the period after the Second World War, including GDP growth, energy return on investment (how much energy is put in compared to what we get out), manufacturing productivity, among others.


Fig1 – Bonaiuti’s graph of GDP growth rate in Europe from 1961 to 2011, illustrating a fluctuating but consistent long decline


Fig 2. Bounaiuti points out that Energy Return On Energy Investment(EROIE) is also declining for major fossil fuels
But compared to these declines, in the same period and on a global scale we have faced near exponential increases in energy consumption, public debt, population growth, greenhouse gas emissions, and species extinctions. For Bonaiuti, the declines we are seeing are a consequence of the “the interaction between limitations of a biophysical nature (the exhaustion of resources, global warming, etc.) and the increasing complexity of social structures (bureaucratisation, the reduction in the productivity of innovation and in the educational, health and productive systems, etc.).”


Fig 3. Global population growth and energy consumption plotted in one graph (Source: The Oil Drum)


Fig 4. Global rise in debt to GDP ratio from 2000 to 2013(Source: The Telegraph)

Fig. 5 Correlation between exponential increase in consumption, C02 emissions, species extinctions, and environmental degradation (Source: Skeptical Science)

The economic crisis is therefore not just about debt, or deregulation, or market volatility or whatever. Fundamentally, the crisis is due to the global economy’s ongoing breaching of the limits of the biosphere. Ironically, as Bonauiti points out, after a certain point as material accumulation measured by GDP continues, well-being and happiness have not only stopped growing, they are now also in decline as depression and other psychological ailments are proliferating – a phenomenon that mainstream economists are at a loss to explain.

But it begins to make sense when we re-frame the crisis as not simply an economic one, but as a “bio-economic” one, in which exponential material consumption is increasingly destabilizing the biosphere. This environmental ‘overshoot’ explains “the inability on the part of the capitalist system to continue to produce social well-being and to face the ecological question with any efficaciousness.”

Collapse? Or renewal! (or both…?)

Civilization is thus undergoing a huge, momentous ‘phase shift’ to a new era as the current form of global predatory capitalism crumbles beneath the weight of its own mounting unsustainability. As this process unfolds, it simultaneously opens up a range of scenarios for new forms of society, within which there is an opportunity for “a great transition towards new institutional forms” that could include greater “democratic self-government of communities and their territories.”

Despite the very real disruptions this phase shift entails, many of which have been explored in-depth at Motherboard (the unprecedented spate of global unrest being a major example),the Italian economist is cautiously optimistic about the potential long-term outcomes.

“When the framework changes, as the sciences of complexity teach us, there will be other forms of economic and social organisation more suited to the new situation,” said Bonaiuti. “In particular, in a context of global crisis, or even stagnant growth, cooperation among decentralized, smaller scale economic organisations, will offer greater chances of success. These organizations can lead the system towards conditions of ecological sustainability, more social equity and, by involving citizens and territories, even increase the level of democracy.”

Bonauiti uses the term ‘degrowth’ to describe this new framework – but degrowth does not simply mean no growth, or even negative growth. It actually entails a new science of ‘post-growth economics’ in which the obsession with measuring material accumulation as the prime signifier of economic health is jettisoned, in which it is recognized that endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and relatedly entropy.

If Bonauiti is right, then we should expect to be seeing more and more signs of this changing framework, and with it, the emergence of potential new forms of economic and social organization that work far better than the old industrial paradigm we take for granted. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

In part 2, I will round up five major ‘revolutions’ that are developing now, which are already undermining the old paradigm, and paving the way for viable alternative approaches: the information revolution, the energy revolution, the food revolution, the finance revolution, and the ethical revolution. The big shifts constituted by these revolutions are developing disparately, tentatively, and often incoherently – but despite that, they are evolving inexorably, and in coming years will be increasingly difficult to contain and co-opt.

All of them involve an increasing dispersion of power to people and communities, away from traditional centralized hierarchies of control. As they accelerate and begin to interact, the opportunities for transition will also open up. That’s not to say any of this will happen in a simplistic, easy-peasy manner. Prof Bonauiti identifies four potential scenarios for the future, and one of them involves ‘collapse’, while another leads to ‘resilience’.

The old paradigm, and those who benefit from it the most, will also resist the most, and their resistance and disbelief in the reality of change – and the people’s response to it – will quite literally define the future of our species, and of the planet, in ways that will remain entirely unpredictable.


Nafeez Ahmed is currently setting up the people-powered independent media platform “Insurge Intelligence: Watchdog Journalism for the Global Commons




6 responses

2 01 2015

Everything we know about civilization is going away. I hunt at the butchers, forage in the aisles of the supermarket, my watering hole is called a tap and my security is called the police force. I am screwed.

You talk of a transition to a new world order. It will not happen. A new order will be built out of the ashes of this civilization, An utter inability of our owners to see another way and denial is the name of the game. Our elites will do absolutely everything to maintain their position, and they will do everything wrong.

We will all have nothing. Only those who know how to live on nothing will survive. “The meek will inherit the earth”

2 01 2015
John Doyle

I think it should be visible already to many by now that we are in deflation. The rabid urge to shop, to consume is just making the overshoot worse. Like Wile E Coyote we’ve run over the cliff edge, but we haven’t looked down yet.
We are suspended by our blindness to what we are doing and the PTB are just making the crisis worse. They can’t conceive an end to growth.

2 01 2015

That Figure 5 is a bit of a cheat, since each curve is measured in different units and then scaled (scales not shown) to make them all start off in more or less the same place, and end in more or less the same place. The number of extinctions is pure guesswork, as is the number of low-oxygen dead zones. The correlation of the curves isn’t shown, and isn’t particularly highly correlated at all.

Likewise, Figure 1 of average GDP growth of 13 OECD countries – why only 13 when there are 34 member countries? Are they selected to show what he wants to show? And why only OECD?

Same with all his “data” – dressed up to look like it is rigorous, when it’s not.

Very few people will strive to have less, so we will continue to strive to have more until the whole thing crashes. Then when everyone is starving and the government clearly can’t help, then we can strive for The Simpler Way, which will look pretty good at that point.

2 01 2015

Dave, I think it will be too late when everyone is starving to strive for the simpler way. Those of us who are part or most of the way there already will be more in a position to fully transition.
But someone who’s life revolves around shopping, cafes, electronics, long distance travel to work, McMansions with huge ACs and flying away on their annual holidays will find the change nearly impossible, let alone starting a food garden to supplement what food can still be purchased.

2 01 2015

I think what all you guys have said above is bang on. I must add though that this bit gave me irrits…

“As this process unfolds, it simultaneously opens up a range of scenarios for new forms of society, within which there is an opportunity for “a great transition towards new institutional forms” that could include greater “democratic self-government of communities and their territories.””

Really!? MORE democratic local governance is an opportunity!? We have that now, it’s called the Local Council, and if civilisations collapse means more governance and more democracy then we’re all in for a harder time then I thought! 🙂

This bloke really needs to broaden his political philosophy horizons… democracy has failed the planet… start brushing up on your Bakunin matey! 🙂

3 01 2015

We need optimists and people who fantasize about a better way of doing things, but I don’t think they will prevail. It’s going to get much, much worse before it gets better/different.

There will be no dispersion of more power to individual communities, nor to the inhabitants therein. There will, however, be more police presence, including police who demand tribute in order to “protect” the businesses and citizens in true old style mafia style. There will be more and more intrusive and stupid regulation of anything and everything you can think of, until just living out a day will in some way be criminal and therefore fine-able.

I see it happening in my own community, and I have seen it coming for quite some time. Those in power are much more concerned about protecting their salaries, jobs, and power base than they are in preparing for a de-growth future.

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