George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage”: A friendly critique.

7 05 2018

By my old mate monbiotTed Trainer

Few have made a more commendable contribution to saving the planet than George Monbiot. His recent book, Out of the Wreckage, continues the effort and puts forward many important ideas…but I believe there are problems with his diagnosis and his remedy.

The book is an excellent short, clear account of several of the core faults in consumer-capitalist society, and the alternatives advocated are admirable.  George’s focal concern is the loss of community, and the cause is, as we know, neo-liberalism. He puts this in terms of the “story” that dominates thinking. Today the taken for granted background story about society is that it is made of competitive, self-interest-maximizing individuals, and therefore our basic institutions and processes are geared to a struggle to accumulate private wealth, rather than to encouraging concern for each other and improving the welfare of all. Thatcher went further, instructing us that there is not even any such thing as society, only individuals. George begins by rightly contradicting such vicious nonsense, pointing out that humans are fundamentally nice, altruistic, caring and cooperative, but we have allowed these dispositions to be overridden primarily by an economic system that obliges us to behave differently.

He gives heavy and convincing documentation of- this theme. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with several indicators of the sad state of affairs.  “ … this age of atomization  breeds anxiety, discontent and unhappiness.” (p. 18.) “An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world.” (p. 16.) Chapter 3 deals with the way neoliberalism has caused the social damage that has accumulated over the last forty years.

But my first concern with the book is that disastrous as it is, neo-liberalism isn’t the main problem confronting us and likely to destroy us.  The main problem is sustainability.  George does refer to this briefly and rather incidentally (e.g., p. 117) and again it seems to me that what he says is correct… it’s just that he doesn’t deal adequately with the magnitude or centrality of the problem or it’s extremely radical implications.

I need to elaborate here.  Few seem to grasp that the “living standards” enjoyed in rich countries involve per capita use rates for resources and environmental impact are around ten times those that all people expected to be living on earth by 2050 could have.  For fifty years now a massive “limits to growth” literature has been accumulating. For instance the Australian per capita use of productive land is 6 – 8 ha, so if the almost 10 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2050 were to live as we do now, up to 80 billion ha would be needed.  But there are only about 8 billion ha of productive land available on the planet and at present loss rates more than half will be gone by 2050. Many other areas, such as per capita minerals use, also reveal the largely unrecognized magnitude of the overshoot. (For a summary of the situation see TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

The inescapable implication is that we in rich countries should accept the need to shift to lifestyles and systems which involve enormous reductions in resource use and ecological impact.  A De-growth movement recognizing this has now emerged. Yet the supreme goal in this society remains economic growth, i.e., increasing production, consumption, sales, and GDP without limit. To refuse to face up to the absurdity of this, which is what almost everyone does, is to guarantee the onset of catastrophic global breakdown within decades.

Thus the sustainability problem cannot be solved unless we abandon affluence and growth […the title of Ted’s 1985 book which changed my life and is the reason you are now reading this…]  Just getting rid of neo-liberal doctrine and exploitation is far from sufficient.  Even a perfect socialism ensuring equity for all would bring on just about the same range of global problems as that we face now if the goal was affluence for all.

When all this is understood it is clear that the solution has to be transition to some kind of “Simpler Way”.  That is, there can be no defensible option but to shift to lifestyles and systems that involve extremely low per capita throughput.  This cannot be done unless there is also historically unprecedented transition to new economic, political and value systems. Many green people fail to grasp the magnitude of the change required; reforming a system that remains driven by market forces, or growth or the desire for wealth cannot do it. Just getting rid of capitalism will not be enough; the change in values is more important and difficult than that. Yet we advocates of simplicity have no doubt that our vision could be achieved while providing a very high quality of life to everyone.  (For a detailed account of how thing might be organised see TSW: The Alternative.)

George doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the limits, the magnitude of the overshoot, or therefore the essential nature of the sustainability problem and its extremely radical implications.  Above all he does not stress the need to happily embrace extremely frugal “lifestyles”. Sustainability cannot be achieved unless the pursuit of affluence as well as the dominance of neo-liberalism ceases, and he therefore does not deal with what is in fact the main task for those wishing to save the planet; i.e., increasing general awareness that a Simpler Way of some kind must be taken. George does not discuss the simplicity theme.

This has been a criticism in terms of goals. I think the book also has a problem regarding means.  The book is primarily about politics.  It is a sound critique of the way the present decision making system works for the rich and of the need for us to take control of it into our hands via localism. But George is saying in effect, ”Let’s get out there and build community and take control and then we can fix things.” Unfortunately I think that advice is based on a questionable analysis of the situation and of how to fix it.

My case requires some discussion of what I see as perhaps the book’s major problem, which is to do with the nature of community, more accurately with the conditions required for it to exist or come into existence. Again George’s documentation of the sorry state of community today is to be applauded.  But I think his strategic recommendations mostly involve little more than a plea for us to just come together and commune, as if we have made the mistake of forgetting the importance of community and all would be well if we just woke up and knocked on our neighbour’s door.

Firstly George’s early pages give us powerful reasons to believe that such “voluntaristic” steps are not going to prevail against the massive and intensifying forces at work driving out community.  Economic reality gives most people no choice but to function as isolated, struggling, stressed, time-poor, insecure individuals competing against all others to get by, having to worry about unemployment, the mortgage and now the robots. Mobility obliges the individual to move through several careers in a lifetime, “development” eliminates stable neighbourhoods and rips up established support networks. Developers and councils prosper most when high rise units are thrown up everywhere, and the resulting land prices weigh against allocating space to a diverse landscape of mini-farms and firms and community gardens and leisure facilities likely to increase human interaction. Smart phones preoccupy with trivia and weaken parental control. Commerce and councils takes over functions families and neighbourhoods once performed for themselves, making us into privatized customers with fewer social responsibilities.  People understandably retreat to TV and IT screens for trivial distraction, and to drugs and alcohol. No surprise that the most common illnesses now are reported to be depression and loneliness.

Just ask yourself what proportion of national productive capacity and investment is explicitly targeted to building cohesive and mutually supportive communities … try finding that line item in the Budget Papers. Now how much goes into trying to increase business turnover and consumption. I rest my case.  George is more aware of all this than most of us but he falls far short of explaining how it can be overcome … or that it can be overcome. In my firm view it cannot be overcome until the capitalist system and several other unacceptable things have been scrapped, and that will take more than knocking on your neighbour’s door.

More important than recognizing the opposing forces, George’s recommendations for action seem to me to be based on a questionable understanding of community, leading to mistaken ideas about how to create it.  As I see it community is most important for a high quality of life, but it is strange, very complicated, and little understood.  It involves many intangible things including familiarity, a history of interactions, close personal relations, habits and customs, a sense of common interests and values, helping and being helped, giving and receiving, sharing, lending, debt, gratitude, reciprocity, trust, reliability, shared tasks, resilience, concern for the community and readiness to act collectively to achieve common goals.  It is analogous to an ecosystem, a network of established dynamic interrelationships in which a myriad of components meshing spontaneously contribute to the “health” of the whole …  without which the components couldn’t do their thing.  But the community ecosystem also involves consciousness, of others and of the whole, and it involves attitudes and bonds built by a history of interactions.  This history has established the values and dispositions that determine the communal behavior of individuals and groups. Community is a “property” that emerges from all this.

Community is therefore not a “thing” that can be set up artificially at a point in time, nor is it a property or ingredient that can be added like curry powder or a coat of paint.  It cannot be brought in or installed by well-intentioned social workers, council officers or government agencies.  It is about deep-seated ideas, memories, feelings, habits and social bonds. It therefore has almost nothing to do with money and economists can tell us almost nothing about it. You could instantly and artificially raise the “living standards” of a locality just by adding dollars, but you can’t just add social bonds. They can only grow over time, and under the right conditions. George explains clearly why neo-liberalism eliminates those conditions – my problem is that he doesn’t explain how to get them back and he proceeds as if it is simply a matter of individual will or choice, of volunteering to go out and connect. As I see it we won’t get far until social conditions make us connect. George’s urging will prompt some few to make the effort, and he refers to many admirable initiatives underway including community gardens, local currencies and cooperatives. I see these “Transition Towns” ventures as extremely important and George is right to encourage people to get involved in them. They are the beach-heads, establishing the example local institutions that must eventually become the norm and that people will be able turn to when the crunch comes, but I do not think they will grow beyond the point where a relatively few find them attractive … until macro conditions change dramatically.

Here is a brief indication of how Simpler Way transition theory sees it.

There is now no possibility of heading off an extremely serious multifactorial global breakdown.  For instance, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be reduced at maybe 8% p.a., and yet they are rising.  Renewable energy would have to replace fossil fuels in a few decades … but presently it contributes only 1.5% of world energy use. There are strong reasons to think that oil will become very scarce within ten years. (See Ahmed, 2017.) Global debt levels are so high now and rising so fast that the coming CFC 2.0 will dwarf the previous GFC1. Did you know that global insect populations have suddenly begun to plunge? Forget about your white rhino, it’s the little fellows at the base of food chains that really matter. Need I go on.

There are many other accelerating problems feeding into what Mason (2003) described as the coming 2030 spike. What we have to pray for is a slow-onset terminal depression, not a sudden one, giving people time to wake up and realize that we must move to The Simpler Way.  The Transition Towns movement is the beginning of this but I do not think it will really take off until the supermarket shelves thin out.  Then people will be forced to come together in their suburbs and towns to work out how they can build cooperative local self-sufficiency. They will realize this must be done collectively, that the market must be prevented from determining what happens, and above all that the competitive quest for wealth is suicidal and that frugal “lifestyles” must be embraced. In other words, if we are lucky and the breakdown in global systems is not too rapid, the coming conditions of intense scarcity will force us to create local economies, committees, cooperatives, working bees, commons etc. … and these conditions will produce community … out of the wreckage.

But community is not the crucial goal. What matters most at this early stage of this revolution is people coming together to take collective control of their town, that is, to go beyond setting up a local swap shop here, a community orchard there a cooperative bakery somewhere else, and to start asking questions like, “What are our most urgent needs in this town … bored teenagers, homeless people, lonely older people, too few leisure activities…well let’s get together to start fixing the problems.” Essential to The Simpler Way vision is citizens in direct participatory control of their own situation, i.e., the classic Anarchist form of government.  The big global problems cannot be solved any other way because only settlements of this kind can get the resource and ecological impacts right down while providing well for all.  For thousands of years people have taken for granted being governed. That is not just political immaturity, it is not viable now. Distant, central agencies like the state cannot run the kinds of settlements that will enable per capita resource rates to be decimated. These can only be run by conscientious, cooperative citizens aware of their local needs and keen to work together to build and maintain their own local water, energy, agricultural, social etc. systems. (There will still be a remnant role for central agencies.)

In TSW: The Transition it is argued that this taking of control at the town level must be seen as the beginning of a process that in time could lead to revolutionary change at the level of the national and international economies, and of the state itself. As townspeople realize they must prevent the global economy from determining their fate and as they find they must build their power to take control of their own situation they will increasingly pressure state policies to be geared primarily to facilitating local economic development…and in time they will replace state power by citizen assemblies.

The activities and projects George advocates could be most important contributors to this process, but I don’t think they will add up to the required revolution unless they are informed by a basically Anarchist vision whereby people come to understand that the main goal is not a town containing nice things like community orchards, nor indeed one with robust community, but a town we run on principles of frugal, cooperative, needs-focused, local self-sufficiency.

Ahmed, N. M., (2017), Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer.

Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike, Earthscan Publications.

Monbiot, G., (2018), Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, London, Verso.

TSW: The Limits to Growth, thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm

TSW: The Alternative, thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

TSW: The Transition.  thesimplerway.info/TRANSITION.htm

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It’s the Consumption, Stupid….

2 05 2018

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – The Gaping Hole in the Middle of the Circular Economy

paul mobbsA great article by Paul Mobbs, an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Why the latest buzz-phrase in consumer sustainability is not only failing to tackle the core problem, but why it is doomed to fail

Listening to Radio 4 this morning I heard the two juxtaposed keywords that I’ve learned to dread over the last couple of the years; ‘circular economy’. It’s a great idea, and I can’t fault the true belief of those promoting it. My problem is that the way they describe it has little to do with the physical realities of the world, and hence it’s really just a “get out of hell free” card for affluent consumers – who are, it would appear, the most vociferous proponents of this idea.

As is so often the case with feel-good eco-stories, the Today programme’s[1] interviewer was all light and fluffy; and obviously flummoxed because they did not have the confidence to ask any basic, challenging questions of the interviewee.

The segment was examining the new research[2] from Portsmouth University. They’ve found a ‘mutant’ enzyme from bacteria they found living on plastic in recycling centres. As with all enzymes[3] – like the things they add to washing powder so you can clean clothes without boiling them – these complex molecules accelerate chemical reactions by working on the chemical bonds which hold things together. In this case, the enzyme breaks down the bonds of the polyethylene terephthalate[4] (PET) molecule.

Great idea; and if shown to be ecologically safe, great chemistry. That’s not the issue here.

Enter ‘the Circular Economy’

The scientist then described the value of this enzyme as part of the ‘circular economy’[5] – a concept proposed in the 1980s, and popularized in recent years by organizations such a the Ellen MacArthur Foundation[6], of moving from a linear to a circular economic process:

  • ‘Linear’ economy – meaning that materials are created, used and disposed as waste, requiring that new resources must be reduced to replace them, which is how the core of the global economy works today;
  • ‘Circular’ economy – meaning that all materials and products are manufactured and sold so that their content can be fully recycled and used in new products once more, obviating the need to produce new resources to replace them.

It is a lovely idea. One which I would whole-heartedly support, but for one slight technical hitch I perceive in this concept; The Laws of Thermodynamics[7] – and my particular favourite, The Second Law of Thermodynamics[8].

The Laws of Thermodynamics arose in parallel with industrialization, having first been used to described the operation of steam engines. Over time science has perfected the principles of these ‘laws’ and now finds that they are universal.

The Second Law deals with irreversible reactions – that is, operations which once undertaken cannot be undone.

What the ‘circular economy’ idea would propose in relation to PET plastic bottles is: Take some natural gas (yes, contrary to the idea that plastics come form oil, most plastics are made from the light by-products of oil refining, but mostly natural gas and gas condensate) and turn it into PET plastic; then make a plastic bottle with a blow-moulding machine; use the bottle; then recycle the bottle, and keep recycling after each use – obviating the need to use more natural gas to create plastic. As a result, the use of the bottle becomes ‘circular’.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The thermodynamic restrictions of human hope

Of course, there’s always a big hairy “but” in situations like this.

In this case, the use of plastic represents a ‘reversible’ reaction – you can make plastic, and then recycle the plastic to make more plastic. Sorted!

The energy expended in doing that, however, is an irreversible[9] process. It can’t be recovered.

The Second Law dictates that energy can be used, but in the process the ‘quality’ (for which read ‘usefulness’, or ‘density’, or ‘value’) of that energy is degraded; and once degraded, that ‘quality’ cannot be recovered without using even more energy than was expended when the energy was first used.

For example, water flowing downhill can turn a turbine to make electricity; but it takes more electricity than that was generated to pump that same volume of water back to the top of the hill again.

Now at this point proponents of the circular economy will talk about using renewable energy, thereby avoiding the issue of finite resources being used to power the process. That’s true, up to a point; and that point is, what are those renewable energy system made from? Finite resources.

Limits to renewable energy

Just because renewable energy is ‘renewable’, it doesn’t mean the machines we require to harvest that energy are freed from the finite limits of the Earth’s resources[10].

There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied[11].

The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.

For example, the first metal humans smelted[12] about 9,000 years ago was copper. Ever since copper has been a brilliant indicator of human development, with consumption increasing in line with human development ever since. One reason for that is that as industrial use has fallen (e.g., replacing copper pipes with plastic) we’ve used more copper for new technologies (e.g., electronics – roughly 14%[13] of the weight of a mobile phone is copper).

Copper also has one of the best, most mature recycling systems, but even then it’s been estimated that only half of all copper is reused[14].

The problem is, due to its long and intensive global use, we’re approaching ‘peak copper’[15] – the point where the remaining amount of copper in the ground, and more importantly its falling ore quality, reduces the amount which can be economically produced annually. And more significantly, the ecological impact[16] of the falling copper ore quality is that the energy consumed and the greenhouse gases emitted by production increase exponentially.

Now of course we’ll use copper more efficiently. And if we run short, rising prices will increase recycling rates – though it will also increase the disruptive theft[17] of copper in society. The difficulty is that, just last week[18], the copper industry announced that it worried about production after 2020.

Strategy is important, but ‘real’ change is critical

OK, back to the ‘circular economy’.

What really matters here is not so much the material used in production, but the energy density of production. Energy density isn’t just a matter of how much energy it takes to produce an article, but how long that article lasts. That in turn affects the ‘return’ on the energy invested in its production – or EROEI[19].

Let’s say a plastic bottle takes six weeks to be manufactured, filled, bought, consumed, collected and reprocessed to the point of re-manufacture. That’s good because recycling plastic can represent a saving of more than 50%[20] on the energy used to produce it compared to virgin materials.

What determines the long-term sustainability of this though is not just the one-time saving, but the viable fraction that can be reclaimed and reused.

Let’s assume that, at best, we can recover 60% of the content of the bottle over each 6 week cycle. After 1 cycle, 6 weeks, we have 60% of the material left. After 2 cycles, 12 weeks, we have 60% × 60% = 36% left. After three cycles there’s 60% × 36% = 22%. After four cycles, 13%, etc.

By the end of one year (8 or 9 cycles) we’d only have 1% of our plastic left.

The obvious response is, “well, let’s recycle more”. The problem is that achieving a higher recovery rate actually requires expending more energy, reducing the energy saved – and as you get nearer to 100% the amount required is likely to exceed the energy involved in producing new plastic from raw materials.

For example, recycling in densely populated urban areas is easy, because waste management is an essential part of being able to run an urban area. But what about more sparsely populated rural areas and villages? At what point does the energy expended running a collection vehicle exceed the energy saved from materials recovery? (answer – it’s completely dependent upon local circumstance, and so has to be evaluated as part of the planning process rather than generalized in advance).

“It’s consumption, stupid!”

It’s the same as the falling copper ore problem. The more diffuse your source, the more energy you have to expend to recover it. Getting the easy to find plastic, let’s say the first half, will be easy. Getting the next 20% might take as much effort. The 10% after that twice again. And the last 20%? It might produce no saving at all.

Alternatively we could extend the life of the bottle – by refilling instead of recycling. That would have a significant effect, but even then, on each refill cycle a certain number of bottles would be rejected.

Don’t ignore this option though. It is arguable that, in lieu of increasing recycling rates, extending the service life of resources probably has the best energy profile – since it reduces not only the need to re-manufacture resources, but also the need to recycle/replace them. The problem is that reuse often requires far greater change and co-operation by consumers – precisely the thing our ‘liberal’ economy hates doing because it involves dictating the actions of consumers.

Forget Bill Clinton’s line about ‘the economy’; “It’s consumption, stupid!”

More importantly, throughout this whole process, energy is expended[21]; and energy is the one thing we can’t recover. Therefore we have to avoid re-manufacture or recovery in the first place. The difficulty is that no one wants to advocate this – combining multiple reuse, high recycling AND longer service life – as it means the effective elimination of consumerism, fashion, ‘innovation’, and many of the other totemic traits[22] of the modern consumer materialist economy.

Then again, given that a large amount of the world’s wealth is derived from resource exploitation, any change to that pattern is likely to have huge implications for the day-to-day economy[23] that the most affluent consumers rely upon in order to consume.

The ‘Circular Economy’ must accept thermodynamic reality

Arthur Eddington[24] was a British scientist (and Quaker) who advanced physics and astrophysics in the first decades of the 20th Century, and popularized the theories of Albert Einstein – against the then anti-German and anti-Jewish prejudice of the science establishment.

In relation to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Eddington produced a famous statement:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

The ‘circular economy’ is, in my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further[25] from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity[26].

While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today[27] – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion[28] of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.

In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use[29] by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality[30] of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.

In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations[30] on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises[31] bite further up the income scale.

 

References:

  1. BBC Radio 4: ‘Today’, 17th April 2018 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qj9z
  2. Guardian Online: ‘Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles’, 16th April 2018 – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles
  3. Wikipedia: ‘Enzyme’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzyme
  4. Wikipedia: ‘Polyethylene terephthalate’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate
  5. Wikipedia: ‘Circular economy’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_economy
  6. Wikipedia: ‘Ellen MacArthur Foundation’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_MacArthur_Foundation
  7. Wikipedia: ‘Laws of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics
  8. Wikipedia: ‘Second law of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics
  9. Wikipedia: ‘Irreversible process’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreversible_process
  10. BioScience: ‘Energetic Limits to Economic Growth’, vol.61 no.1, January 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/brown2011.shtml
  11. EU Joint Research Committee: ‘Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies – Assessing Rare Metals as Supply-Chain Bottlenecks in Low-Carbon Energy Technologies’, 2011 – http://www.oakdenehollins.com/pdf/CriticalMetalsinSET.pdf
  12. Wikipedia: ‘Chalcolithic’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcolithic
  13. U.S. Geological Survey: ‘Recycled Cell Phones – A Treasure Trove of Valuable Metals’, July 2006 – http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3097/fs2006-3097.pdf
  14. Environmental Science and Technology: ‘Dynamic Analysis of Global Copper Flows’, Glöser et al., vol.47 no.12 pp.6564-6572, May 2013 – https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es400069b
  15. Wikipedia: ‘Peak copper’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_copper
  16. Resource Policy: ‘The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints’, Gavin M. Mudd, vol.35 no.2 pp.98-115, June 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/mudd2010.shtml
  17. Wikipedia: ‘Metal theft’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_theft
  18. Mining: ‘Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted – experts’, 10th April 2018 – http://www.mining.com/copper-supply-crunch-earlier-predicted-experts/
  19. Wikipedia: ‘Energy returned on energy invested’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_invested
  20. Ecological Modelling: ‘Analysis of energy footprints associated with recycling of glass and plastic – case studies for industrial ecology’, vol.174 no.1-2 pp.175-189, May 2004 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380004000067
  21. Sustainability: ‘Energy, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: Five Propositions’, vol.2 pp.1784-1809, 18th June 2010 – http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/6/1784/pdf
  22. Nature: ‘Time to leave GDP behind’, vol.505 pp.283-285, 16th January 2014 – http://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.14499!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/505283a.pdf
  23. International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research: ‘The Need for a New, Biophysical-Based Paradigm in Economics for the Second Half of the Age of Oil’, vol.1 no.1 pp.4-22, 2006 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/hallklitgaard2006.shtml
  24. Wikipedia: ‘Arthur Eddington’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Eddington
  25. Journal of Cleaner Production: ‘Why are we growth-addicted? The hard way towards degrowth in the involutionary western development path’, vo.18 no.6 pp.590-595, April 2010 – https://degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Van-Griethuysen-why-are-we-growth-addicted.pdf
  26. The Australian National University : ‘The Role of Energy in Economic Growth’, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, October 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/stern2010.shtml
  27. PNAS: ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’, vol.99 no.14 pp.9266-9271, 9th July 2002 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/wackernagel2002.shtml
  28. The Corner House: ‘Energy Security: For Whom?, For What?’, February 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/cornerhouse2012.shtml
  29. Paul Mobbs/MEI: ‘Energy Beyond Oil – Could You Cut Your Energy Use by Sixty Percent?’, June 2005 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/energy_beyond_oil_book.shtml
  30. Ecological Economics: ‘Degrowth and the supply of money in an energy-scarce world’, vol.84 pp.187-193, 28th March 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/douthwaite2011.shtml
  31. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: ‘Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?’, vol.280 no.1754, 7th March 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/ehrlich2013.shtml
  32. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute: ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?: An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data’, Research Paper No.4, August 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/turner2014.shtml




A response to Changing the Conversation

8 12 2017

Ed. Note: Richard Smith’s article, Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse, which Saral is responding to this post, can be found on Resilience.org here, or here on DTM where I republished it. My only gripe with Saral’s essay is the total lack of mention of debt abolition…..  canceling debt is the only way forward when we start talking about what to do about all the job losses.

By Saral Sarkar, originally published by Saral Sarkar blog

In his article,1 Richard calls upon his readers to “change the conversation”. He asks, “What are your thoughts?” He says, if we don’t “come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.” I fully agree. So I join the conversation, in order to improve it.

Let me first say I appreciate Richard’s article very much. It is very useful, indeed necessary, to also present one’s cause in a short article – for those who are interested but, for whatever reason, cannot read a whole book. Richard has ably presented the eco-socialist case against both capitalism and “green” capitalism.

But the alternative Richard has come up with is deficient in one very important respect, namely in respect of viability. Allow me to present here my comradely criticisms. It will be short.

Is only Capitalism the Problem?

(1) Richard writes, “Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse … .”. It sounds like an echo of statements from old-Marxist-socialism. It is not serious. Is Richard telling us that, while we are fighting a long-drawn-out battle against capitalism in order to overcome it, we can allow population to continuously grow without risking any further destruction of the environment? Should we then think that a world population of ten billion by 2050 would not be any problem?

I would agree if Richard would say that capitalism is, because of its growth compulsion, one of the main drivers of ecological collapse. But anybody who has learnt even a little about ecology knows that in any particular eco-region, exponential growth of any one species leads to collapse of its ecological balance. If we now think of the planet Earth as one whole eco-region and consider all the scientific reports on rapid bio-diversity loss and rapid dwindling of the numbers of larger animals, then we cannot but correlate these facts with the exponential growth of our own species, homo sapiens sapiens, the latter being the cause of the former two.

No doubt, capitalism – together with the development of technologies, especially agricultural and medical technologies – has largely enabled the huge growth of human numbers in the last two hundred years. But human population growth has been occurring even in pre-capitalist and pre-medieval eras, albeit at a slower rate. Parallel to this, also environmental destruction has been occurring and growing in these eras.

It is not good to tell our readers only half the truth. The whole truth is succinctly stated in the equation:

I = P  x  A  x  T

where I stands for ecological impact (we can also call it ecological destruction), P for population, T for Technology and A for affluence. All these three factors are highly variable. Let me here also quote Paul Ehrlich, one of my teachers in political ecology. Addressing leftists, he once wrote, “Whatever [be] your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth]”. Note the phrase “whatever your cause”. Ehrlich meant to say, and I too think so, the cause may be environmental protection, saving the earth, protecting biodiversity, overcoming poverty and unemployment, women’s liberation, preventing racist and ethnic conflicts and cleansings, preventing huge unwelcome migration flows, preventing crime, fighting modern-day slavery, bringing peace in the world, creating a socialist world order etc. etc. etc., in all cases stopping population growth is a very important factor. Sure, that will in no case be enough. But that is an essential part of the solutions.

Note that in the equation cited above, there is no mention of capitalism. Instead, we find there the two factors technology and affluence. We can call (and we generally do call) the product of T x A (production of affluence by means of industrial technologies) industrialism, of which there has until now been two main varieties: the capitalist one and the planned socialist one (of the soviet type). Nothing will be gained for saving the ecological balance of the Earth if only capitalism is replaced with socialism, and ruling socialists then try to increase production at a higher rate, which they must do under the pressure of a growing population which, moreover, develops higher ambitions and aspirations, and demands all the good things that middle class Americans enjoy.

(2) Modern-day old-socialists do not deny the existence of an ecological problem. They have also developed several pseudo-solutions such as “clean” and “renewable” energies and materials, efficiency revolution, decoupling of GDP growth from resource use etc.

It’s good that Richard rejects the idea that green capitalism can save us. But why can’t it? “Because”, he writes, “companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.” This is good, but not enough. Because there are old-socialists (I know many in Germany) who believe that it is only individual capitalists/companies and the system capitalism that are preventing a rapid transition to 100 percent clean renewable energies and 100 percent recycling of all materials. Thanks to these possibilities, they believe, old-socialist type of industrialism, and even economic and population growth, can be reconciled with the requirements of sustainability. I don’t think that is possible, and I have also earlier elaborately explained why.2 Said briefly, “renewable energies” are neither clean nor renewable, and 100 percent recycling is impossible because the Entropy Law also applies to matter. What Richard thinks is not clear from this article of his. It is necessary to make his thoughts on this point clear.

Is Bottom-up Democracy of Any Use in the Transition Period?

(3) Richard writes, “Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy.” I do not understand the connection between the two, planning and democracy. At the most, one could say that for better planning for the villages, the planning commission should also listen to the villagers. But at the national level? Should, e.g., the inhabitants of each and every 500 souls village in the Ganges basin codetermine in a bottom up democratic planning process how the waters of the said river and its tributaries should be distributed among ca. 500 million inhabitants of the basin? If that were ever to be attempted, the result would be chaos, not planning. Moreover, how do you ensure that the villagers are capable of understanding the national interest and overcoming their particular interests? Such phrases are only illusions.

In his 6th thesis, Richard sketches a rosy, idealistic picture of a future eco-socialist society and its citizens. That may be attractive for him, me and other eco-socialists. But this future lies in distant future. First we would need a long transition period of contracting economies, and that would cause a lot of pain to millions of people spoilt by consumerism or promises of a consumerist future. We shall have to convince such people, and that would be an altogether difficult job. We should tell them the truth, namely that austerity is necessary for saving the earth. We can promise them only one thing, namely that all the pains and burdens as well as the benefits of austerity will be equitably distributed among all.

What to Do About Jobs?

(4) Richard writes: “Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of jobs from here to ChinaYet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries, we’re doomed.” And then he puts the question “What to do?” We can be sure that all people who wholly depend on a paid job for their livelihood, whom we must also win over, will confront us with this jobs question. Let me finish my contribution to this conversation with an answer to this question. 

There is not much use talking to ourselves, the already converted. We need to start work, immediately and all over the world, especially in those countries where poverty and unemployment is very high. We know that, generally, these countries are also those where population growth is very high. People from the rich countries cannot simply tell their people, sorry, we have to close down many factories and we cannot further invest in industrializing your countries. But the former can tell the latter that they can help them in controlling population growth. The latter will understand easily that it is an immediately effective way to reduce poverty and unemployment. A massive educative campaign will of course be necessary in addition to concrete monetary and technical help.

In the rich countries, contrary to what Richard perhaps thinks, it will not be possible to provide new equivalent jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish. For such countries, reducing working hours and job-sharing in the short term, and, in the long term, ostracizing automation and labor-saving technologies, and using labor-intensive methods of production instead, are together the only solution. That is already known. Another thing that would be needed is to negate free trade and international competition. However, it must also be said openly that high wages and salaries cannot be earned under such circumstances. 

We eco-socialist activists must begin the work with a massive world-wide political campaign in favor of such ideas and policies.

Notes and References

1. Smith, Richard (2017) “ Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse.”
https://forhumanliberation.blogspot.de/2017/11/2753-climate-crisis-and-managed.html
and
https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/11/21/climate-crisis-and-managed-deindustrialization-debating-alternatives-ecological

2. My views expressed in this article have been elaborately presented in my book:
Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (1999). London: Zed Books,  and in various articles published in my blog-site
www.eco-socialist.blogspot.com





On abandoning effluence

23 12 2014

Some of you might remember that if ever there was a book that changed my life, it was Ted Trainer’s “Abandon Affluence”.  These days, I have a tendency to call it “Abandon Effluence”, as the planet chokes on waste of all kinds produced by our effluent civilisation, be it CO2 in the air or plastic in the ocean….

Today, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald prompted me to comment further on this.  Titled “Miserly Newstart keeps unemployed further away from jobs”, I could not help thinking “thank god for the unemployed”.  For two fundamentally and totally contradictory reasons.  Poor people can’t consume the planet to death, and poor people keep the economy afloat…  You won’t read that in mainstream media…

The morons in charge of our country right now seem to take great pleasure in denigrating the unemployed (and the disabled, and the sick, and anyone else who may have fallen on hard times) for not doing any of the “heavy lifting”.  The media loves to tell us that these dole bludgers live off our taxes (all monopoly money created out of thin air let us not forget) and we should therefore look down upon them as inferior people.  From the SMH:

Australia’s Newstart was comparable to benefits provided in the Southern European nations of Greece, Spain and Portugal, which have all been rocked by the global financial crisis and sovereign debt problems. So we’ve got southern European generosity even though Australia is richer than those nations and escaped the financial crisis relatively unscathed.

What the morons keep forgetting is that whilst these unemployed people may not be paying income tax, they do pay GST on almost everything they buy with their $500 a fortnight (including food, as most of these people probably buy processed food rather than fresh), and rent to their landlords who profit handsomely.  When you earn such paltry amounts of money, everything you get gets ploughed back into the economy and is counted as GDP.  I believe that the main reason the unemployed are so derided is because they don’t actually participate in growth, they simply don’t get enough to consume like those who work!  And they cannot get in debt, except with high interest rate credit cards…. and no doubts the banks love cashing in on that one, even if there are a few defaulters among them.

Unfortunately for the unemployed, nearly all of them do not realise what an opportunity unemployment really is.  They have been so brainwashed into thinking the Matrix is the only modus operandi that they find it impossible to think outside that box.  To be fair, none of the employed do either!

Imagine this…:  next month, all the unemployed wake up to themselves and decide to abandon the Matrix.  They each find one of the 800,000 houses that are empty at any one time in Australia, and squat there.  After all, Australia has a tradition of squatting, that’s how this nation began…!  Using their last dole payment (or two or three), they buy chickens and seeds, a few gardening implements, and start growing their own food.  They won’t need electricity because they won’t be watching TV or charging their smart phones.  They would surely have enough clothing already to keep warm if it’s cold, and most of them would quite likely own essentials like bedding etc….

Now I realise this is pure fantasy, but just bear with me a little longer…..  what would happen to the economy?

According to the ABS, there are 777,700 unemployed people at the moment in Australia, representing 6.2% of the 12,500,000 who make up ‘the work force’.  The underemployed number 14.8%, or another 1.8 million people, for a total 2.6 million people who presumably earn their $500 a fortnight’s worth of pound of flesh.  I make that out to be a total of (in round numbers) 33.8 billion dollars a year.  What, exactly, would happen to the economy if that much spending/consumption was removed from the economy?  Or the 3.4 billion in GST for that matter?  What of all those landlords who suddenly lose their tenants, causing a crash in the housing bubble?  What of the power companies that suddenly find themselves having to shut down 10% of their power stations?  Were the government to exile the unemployed, it would cause an instant depression…….

The reason of course there is any unemployment at all, is due to the very market forces the morons in charge constantly push on us.  If there were no unemployment, it would be an employee’s market instead of the current employers’.  In a labour shortage situation, any potential employee applying to fill a vacant position would be able to name his price (wages) and desperate employers would have little choice but to accept.  And we can’t have that now, can we…..  the labour market will not pay any more than is absolutely necessary.  So the morons in charge continue denigrating the very socio-economic sector they and their precious Capitalism created, even ensuring they mostly cannot get a job even…….  according to the SMH:

Morris and Wilson argue Australia’s current approach is counterproductive. Their study into the implications of life on Newstart found many recipients were so deprived they were ill-equipped to get work. Newstart’s very low rate was “scarring” the unemployed and making it more difficult for them to find a job.

If there were jobs to be had of course.  Furthermore, my imaginary scenario above will one day come to fruition; it’s only a matter of when really.  So many pundits are proclaiming that it will all start next year, like Paul Craig Roberts…

We need a reboot, no doubt about it, but first, we have to rid ourselves of the morons in charge.  Before it’s too late.  If it isn’t already of course, they all have their heads in the sand.





Talkin’ bout a revolution revisited

8 11 2013

GreedyI wrote this about a week ago in response to articles and comments written over at the Australian Independent Media Network regarding our infamous friend Russell Brand’s assertions voting was a waste of time…….  Having been published now, it’s time to also put it up here……  Enjoy.

To say Russell Brand has had an impact on the blogosphere would be the understatement of the year.  His notion that we should all stop voting has brought out all the people who don’t, those who are thinking about it, and those who think the whole idea is the abandonment of hard won liberty and democracy . . .The crux of Brand’s position on our systems of government really resonated with me when he told Paxman in that now infamous BBC interview “Well I don’t think it’s working very well, Jeremy. Given that the planet is being destroyed. Given that there is economic disparity of a huge degree. What are you saying? There’s no alternative? There’s no alternative? Just this system?”

The system (I call it the Matrix…) is indeed broken.  I was prompted to write this article by OzFenric‘s assertion that Democracy had been poisoned by Capitalism.  As it happens, I totally agree.  But how did this come about?  I’m old enough to remember when this wasn’t so…..  I’m starting to think that Capitalism really went berserk once Communism was defeated with the fall of the USSR and the demolition of the Berlin Wall.  Unconstrained by the cold war, Capitalism decided to take us lefties on, and not just take us on, but convert us.  And it largely worked.  At the last election, the Socialist Party garnered 0.07% of the vote . . . yet right wing micro parties did far far better than that.  Was winning the socialist ‘struggle’ meant to be ‘us’ becoming Capitalists?

With roughly twice as many years under my belt as Brand, I can remember all sorts of things he doesn’t even know occurred.  Trivial things.  Like the fact that in my twenties, one never heard about the stock market as part of ‘the news’.  Nor the price of gold or oil, unless of course we were having a less trivial oil shock because the US hit Peak Oil and the Arabs wouldn’t sell them their oil at the ridiculously low price of the time, causing gold to reach $800 an ounce . . . I remember those things, but I also remember not understanding them.  I was too busy having fun, and no I wasn’t doing drugs like Brand.  Once that crisis passed, nobody mentioned the price of gold or oil again; well not for another 10 or 15 years.  Now it’s a substantial section of ‘the news’.  Everyone seems fixated with money now, as if it was some sort of measure of wealth, instead of course being a measure of debt…..

A lot of things have changed in my sixty odd years.  I clearly remember us only having one car, a Renault that was so small the family couldn’t fit in it.  And the only reason we even had this car was that it was supplied to my father by his employer to do his work for them.  I remember having no phone (of any kind), no TV, no fridge, no Traction lounge, no house of our own, in fact we had almost nothing.  I remember an absolutely epic trip when I was seven years old, moving from the south of France to Belgium in my father’s Citroën (you know, the type they use in Maigret and WWII films…)  In this car we shoe horned my parents (someone had to drive!), my grandmother, five kids and all our belongings…  Everything.  One thousand kilometres with the boot roped up to stay shut and the roof rack having to be adjusted forward again every few hundred k’s because it was sliding backwards in the wind drag.  And trust me, we weren’t going fast.No affluence here, move along…..

With two more siblings born in Belgium, by 1963 my Communist parents decided they’d had enough, and sought asylum in Australia looking for a better future.  The rest as they say . . .

Looking back fifty years, it would be easy to say Capitalism was good to us.

There’s an old saying:  “If you’re not a socialist at 20, you haven’t got a heart.  If you’re still a socialist at 50, you haven’t got any money”.  That must explain why the Socialist Party only received 0.07% of the vote at the last election.  I don’t know why they bother.  I mean, you have to get at least 0.5% of the vote like the Motoring Enthusiast Party to have any chance of getting into the Senate…!  But I digress.

Raised in a Communist household, you’d think my future was sealed, but after ten years working as a public servant after leaving school, I decided to have a crack at Capitalism and started my own business.  During the eighties, which even though that decade started under the conditions of the aforementioned oil shock and the Howard induced recession, was one of the fastest growing periods known to Homo Capitalus.  I single handedly managed to grow my photographic studio from nothing to $150,000 a year turnover in just eight years.  I really thought I was made.  For a brief period, I even abandoned Socialism!  I was rich . . . well I felt rich.  In reality, I was seriously indebted….  This could never end, now could it….?  My naivety knew no bounds, but was soon enough shaken by the ‘recession we had to have’.  Much of my work came from advertising agencies which fostered insatiable growth and consumerism, and once people started losing their jobs, people stopped consuming, and advertising budgets collapsed.  As did my business.  Was this all that the much heralded Capitalism I had embraced meant to achieve?  Failure . . . ?

What followed, for me at least, was a mid-life crisis (you know, the one I was never going to have) entwined with the discovery of environmentalism.  Two books changed my life.  Ted Trainer’s ‘Abandon Affluence’, and the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth Report’.  I was blown away by the fact that the utter unsustainability of Capitalism had completely escaped my attention.  What was wrong with me?  How could I even have worked for the evil advertising industry?  Yet every man and his dog was hard at work, denigrating those anti growth books; we can’t have reality getting in the way of unfettered profits, now can we…..

At this stage, still full of optimism and wanting to change the world, I retrained in Renewable Energy technology, and joined the Greens.  I abandoned affluence and Capitalism, sold all my crap, rid myself of all debts, and downsized like you wouldn’t believe.

Whilst I at first believed our looming predicaments could in fact be fixed, what I really learned was that it was all too late.  Why I believe this would take far far more space than an article like this can allow, but it’s all relentlessly laid out in this blog.  The numbers simply do not stack up . . .

Since Capitalism converted all of us lefties to embrace affluence, the growth of the economy and population means we are fast approaching uncontrollable climate change.  In cyberspace, there are two kinds of blogs I now realise.  Those like this one (meaning the AIMN for whom this was originally written…) that debate politics and environmental issues – without really knowing the enormity of the predicaments looming on the horizon – and the doomerblogs, like mine, run by people who ‘get it’.  There’s even a whole bunch discussing ‘Near Term Human Extinction’, now known by its own acronym, NTHE.  Never heard of it?  Look it up . . . fascinating stuff, might even make you think voting is a waste of time!

“Getting it” is quite a process.  I’ve been at it now for close on twenty years.  I don’t expect anyone reading this to suddenly ‘get it’.  It’s all about the numbers; they simply do not add up . . . I just can’t say this enough.  Once you truly realise what ‘they’ have done to us, and the environment, once you truly understand the mathematics of exponential growth, once you understand what a scam the whole debt economy is, and once you realise that ‘they’ will do nothing about it (even though they know . . . ) because there are no solutions apart from ‘them’ losing their wealth and power . . . you too may well start thinking voting is a complete waste of time.

I don’t know what Brand knows.  I reckon if he came here for dinner, we could have a doozy of a conversation.  But Brand’s gut feeling is right.  We need a revolution.  It could so easily be a bloodless one too . . . What the next system needs to be like will be worked out after a serious shake up of the establishment.  Capitalism is doomed to fail, just like every other ponzi scheme ever dreamed up before it has failed.  There will be a lot of people walking around like zombies in the streets wondering WTF happened . . . and we the zombies outnumber ‘them’ a million to one (they are not really the 1% at all..), ‘they’ do not stand a chance.  ‘They’ are shit scared I reckon.  Hence all this cyber spying and neo fascist nonsense we are beginning to read about everywhere.  The next ism will have to be invented.  I don’t know how it will turn out any more than Brand does.  But everything’s about to change, and most people have no idea.  And they vote.  Still.