Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism

7 12 2019


Nate Hagens has written a substantial paper, four months in the writing, ten years in the making he tells me….


  1. Overview
    Despite decades of warnings, agreements, and activism, human
    energy consumption, emissions, and atmospheric CO2 concentrations
    all hit new records in 2018 (Quéré et al., 2018). If the global economy
    continues to grow at about 3.0% per year, we will consume as much
    energy and materials in the next ∼30 years as we did cumulatively in
    the past 10,000. Is such a scenario inevitable? Is such a scenario possible?
  2. Simultaneously, we get daily reminders the global economy isn’t
    working as it used to (Stokes, 2017) such as rising wealth and income
    inequality, heavy reliance on debt and government guarantees, populist political movements, increasing apathy, tension and violence, and ecological decay. To avoid facing the consequences of our biophysical reality, we’re now obtaining growth in increasingly unsustainable ways. The developed world is using finance to enable the extraction of things we couldn’t otherwise afford to extract to produce things we otherwise couldn’t afford to consume.

    With this backdrop, what sort of future economic systems are now
    feasible? What choreography would allow them to come about? In the
    fullness of the Anthropocene, what does a hard look at the relationships between ecosystems and economic systems in the broadest sense suggest about our collective future? Ecological economics was ahead of its time in recognizing the fundamental importance of nature’s services and the biophysical underpinnings of human economies. Can it now assemble a blueprint for a ‘reconstruction’ to guide a way forward?

    Before articulating prescriptions, we first need a comprehensive
    diagnosis of the patient. In 2019, we are beyond a piecemeal listing of
    what’s wrong. A coherent description of the global economy requires a
    systems view: describing the parts, the processes, how the parts and
    processes interact, and what these interactions imply about future
    possibilities. This paper provides a brief overview of the relationships
    between human behavior, the economy and Earth’s environment. It
    articulates how a social species self-organizing around surplus has
    metabolically morphed into a single, mindless, energy-hungry
    “Superorganism.” Lastly, it provides an assessment of our constraints
    and opportunities, and suggests how a more sapient economic system
    might develop.
  3. Introduction
    For most of the past 300,000 years, humans lived in sustainable,
    egalitarian, roaming bands where climate instability and low CO2 levels made success in agriculture unlikely (Richerson et al., 2001).
    Around 11,000 years ago the climate began to warm, eventually plateauing at warmer levels than the previous 100,000 years (Fig. 1).

  1. This stability allowed agriculture to develop in at least seven separate locations around the world. For the first time, groups of humans began to organize around physical surplus – production exceeding the group’s immediate caloric needs. Since some of the population no longer had to devote their time to hunting and gathering, this surplus allowed the development of new jobs, hierarchies, and complexity (Gowdy and Krall, 2013). This novel dynamic led to widespread agriculture and large-scale state societies over the next few thousand years (Gowdy and Krall, 2014).

    In the 19th century, this process was accelerated by the large-scale
    discovery of fossil carbon and the invention of technologies to use it as
    fuel. Fossil carbon provided humans with an extremely dense (but finite) source of energy extractable at a rate of their choosing, unlike the highly diffuse and fixed flow of sunlight of prior eras.

    This energy bounty enabled the 20th century to be a unique period
    in human history:
  2. more (and cheaper) resources led to sharp productivity
    increases and unprecedented economic growth, a debt
    based financial system cut free from physical tethers allowed expansive credit and related consumption to accelerate,
  3. all of which fueled resource surpluses enabling diverse and richer societies. The 21st century is diverging from that trajectory: 1) energy and resources are again becoming constraining factors on economic and societal development, 2) physical expansion predicated on credit is becoming riskier and will eventually reach a limit, 3) societies are becoming polarized and losing trust in governments, media, and science and, 4) ecosystems are being degraded as they absorb large quantities of energy and material waste from human systems.
    Where do we go from here?
  4. Human behavior
    Humans are unique, but in the same ways tree frogs or hippos are
    unique. We are still mammals, specifically primates. Our physical
    characteristics (sclera in eyes, small mouth, lack of canines etc.) are the products of our formative social past in small bands (Bullet et al., 2011; Kobayashi and Kohshima, 2008). However, our brains and behaviors too are products of what worked in our past. We don’t consciously go through life maximizing biological fitness, but instead act as ‘adaptation executors’ seeking to replicate the daily emotional states of our successful ancestors (Barkow et al., 1992). Humans have an impressive ability to process information, cooperate, and discover things, which is what brought us to the state of organization and wealth we experience today. But our stone-age minds areresponding to modern technology, resource abundance and large, fluid, social groups in emergent ways. These behaviors – summarized below – underpin many of our current planetary and cultural predicaments (Whybrow, 2013).

    3.1. Status and relative comparison Humans are a social species. Each of us is in competition for status and resources. As biological organisms we care about relative status. Historically, status was linked to providing resources for the clan, leadership, respect, storytelling, ethics, sharing, and community (Gowdy, 1998; von Rueden and Jaeggi, 2016). But in the modern culture we compete for status with resource intensive goods (cars, homes, vacations, gadgets), using money as an intermediary driver (Erk et al., 2002). Although most of the poorest 20% in advanced economies live materially richer lives than the middle class in the 1900′s, one’s income rank, as opposed to the absolute income, is what predicts life satisfaction (Boyce et al., 2010). For those who don’t ‘win’, a lack of perceived status leads to depression, drinking, stockpiling of guns and other adverse
    behaviors (Katikireddi et al., 2017; Mencken and Froese, 2019).
    Once basic needs are satisfied, we are primed to respond to the comparison of “better vs.worse” more than we do to “a little” vs. “a lot.”

    3.2. Supernormal stimuli and addiction In our ancestral environment, the mesolimbic dopamine pathways were linked to motivation, action and (calorific) reward. Modern technology and abundance can hijack this same reward circuitry. The brain of a stock trader making a winning trade lights up in an fMRI the same way a chimpanzee’s (and presumably our distant ancestors’) does when finding a nut or berry. But when trading stocks, playing video games or building shopping centers, there is no instinctual ‘full’ signal in modern brains – so we become addicted to the ‘unexpected reward’ of the next encounter, episode, or email, at an ever increasing pace (Hagens, 2011; Schultz et al., 1997). Our brains require flows (feelings) that we satisfy today mostly using non-renewable stocks. In modern resource rich culture, the ‘wanting’ becomes a stronger emotion than the ‘having’.Overview

    3.3. Cognitive biases
    We didn’t evolve to have a veridical view of our world (Mark et al.,
    2010). We think in words and images disconnected from physical reality. This imagined reality commonly seems more real than science, logic and common sense. Beliefs that arise from this virtual interface become religion, nationalism, or quixotic goals such as terraforming Mars (Harari, 2018). For most of history, we maintained groups by sharing social myths like these. Failure to believe those myths led to ostracism and death. Beliefs usually precede the reasons we use to explain them, and thus are far more powerful than facts (Gazzaniga, 2012).

    Psychologists have identified hundreds of cognitive biases whereby
    common human behaviors depart from economic rationality. These
    include: motivated reasoning, groupthink, authority bias, bystander
    effect, etc. Rationality is from a newer part of our brain that is still
    dominated by the more primitive, intuitive, and emotional brain
    structures of the limbic system. Modern economics assumes the rational brain is in charge, but it’s not. Combined with our tribal, in-group nature, it’s understandable that fake news works, and that people resist uncomfortable notions involving limits to growth, energy descent, and climate change. Evolution selects for fitness, not truth (Hoffman, 2019).

    We typically only value truth if it rewards us in the short term. Rationality is the exception, not the rule.

    3.4. Time bias (steep discount rates)
    For good evolutionary reasons (short life spans, risk of food expropriation, unstable environment, etc.) we disproportionately care
    about the present more than the future, measured by economists via a
    ‘discount rate’(Hagens and Kunz, 2010). The steeper the discount rate,
    the more the person is ‘addicted to the present.’ (Laibson et al., 2007).
    Drug users and drinkers, risk takers, people with low I.Q. scores, people who have heavy cognitive workloads, and men (vs. women) tend to more steeply discount events or issues in the future (Chabris et al., 2010).

    Unfortunately, most of our modern challenges are ‘in the future’.
    Recognition that the future exists and that we are part of it springs from a relatively new brain structure, the neocortex. It has no direct connection to deep-brain motivational centers that communicate urgency. When asked to plan a snack for next week between chocolate or fruit, people chose fruit 75% of the time. When choosing a snack for today, 70% select chocolate. When choosing a movie to watch next week 63% choose an educational documentary but when choosing a film for tonight 66% pick a comedy or sci-fi (Read et al., 1999). We have great intentions for the future, until the future becomes today. Our neocortex can imagine them, but we are emotionally blind to long-term issues like climate change or energy depletion. Emotionally, the future isn’t real.

    3.5. Cooperation and group behavior Group behavior has shaped us as much as individual behavior (Wilson and Wilson, 2008). Humans are strongly ‘groupish’ (Haidt, 2013), and before agriculture were aggressively egalitarian (Pennisi, 2014 Boehm, 1993). Those historic tribes that could act as a cohesive unit facing a common threat outcompeted tribes without such social cohesion. Because of this, today we easily and quickly form ingroups and outgroups and
    behave favorably and antagonistically towards them respectively. We are also primed to cooperate with our in-group whether that is a small
    business, large corporation, or even a nation-state – to obtain monetary (or in earlier times, physical) surplus. Me over Us, Us over Them.

    3.6. Cultural evolution, Ultrasociality and the Superorganism
    “What took place in the early 1500s was truly exceptional, something
    that had never happened before and never will again. Two cultural experiments, running in isolation for 15,000 years or more, at last came face to face. Amazingly, after all that time, each could recognize the other’s institutions. When Cortés landed in Mexico he found roads, canals, cities, palaces, schools, law courts, markets, irrigation works, kings, priests, temples, peasants, artisans, armies, astronomers, merchants, sports, theatre, art, music, and books. High civilization, differing in detail but alike in essentials, had evolved independently on both sides of the earth.” Ronald Wright, A
    Short History of Progress (2004, pp50-51)

    “Ultrasociality refers to the most social of animal organizations, with full time division of labor, specialists who gather no food but are fed by others, effective sharing of information about sources of food and danger, self-sacrificial effort in collective defense.” (Campbell, 1974; Gowdy and Krall, 2013).

    Humans are among a small handful of species that are extremely
    social. Phenotypically we are primates, but behaviorally we’re more
    akin to the social insects (Haidt, 2013). Our ultrasociality allows us to
    function at much larger scales than as individuals. At the largest scales, cultural evolution occurs far more rapidly than genetic evolution (Richerson and Boyd, 2005). Via the cultural evolution that began with agriculture, humans have evolved into a globally interconnected civilization, ‘outcompeting’ other human economic models along the way to becoming a defacto ‘superorganism’ (Hölldobler and Wilson, 2008).

    A superorganism can be defined as “a collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective”(Kelly, 1994). Via cooperation (and coordination), fitness transfers from lower levels to higher levels of organization (Michod and Nedelcu, 2003). The needs of this higher-level entity (today for humans; the global economy) mold the behavior, organization and functions of lower-level entities (individual human behavior) (Kesebir, 2011). Human behavior is thus constrained and modified by ‘downward causation’ from the higher level of organization present in society (Campbell, 1974).

    All the ‘irrationalities’ previously outlined have kept our species
    flourishing for 300,000 years. What has changed is not ‘us’ but rather
    the economic organization of our societies in tandem with technology,
    scale and impact. Since the Neolithic, human society has organized
    around growth of surplus, initially measured physically e.g. grain, now measured by digital claims on physical surplus, (or money) (Gowdy and Krall, 2014). Positive human attributes like cooperation have been coopted to become coordination towards surplus production. Increasingly, the “purpose” of a modern human in the ultrasocial global economy is to contribute to surplus for the market (e.g. the economic value of a human life based on discounted lifetime income, the marginal productivity theory of labor value, etc.) (Gowdy 2019, in press).

    3.7. Human behavior – summary
    Our behavioral repertoire is wide, yet informed, and constrained by
    our neurological heritage and the higher level of organization exhibited by our economic system. We are born with heritable modules prepared to react to context in predictable ways. “Who we are” as a species is highly relevant to issues of ecological overshoot, sustainability and our related cultural responses.





The Danger of Inspiration: A Review of On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal

11 09 2019

Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, has one crippling flaw—it’s inspiring. At this moment in history, inspiring talk about solutions to multiple, cascading ecological crises is dangerous. Republished from the Resilience site……

At the conclusion of these 18 essays that bluntly outline the crises and explain a Green New Deal response, Klein bolsters readers searching for hope: “[W]hen the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.” It is tempting to embrace that claim, especially after nearly 300 pages of Klein’s eloquent writing that weaves insightful analysis together with honest personal reflection.

The problem, of course, is that the statement is not even close to being true. With nearly 8 billion people living within a severely degraded ecosphere, there are many things we cannot, and will not, achieve. A decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—depends on our ability to come to terms with these limits. That is not a celebration of cynicism or a rationalization for nihilism, but rather the starting point for rational planning that takes seriously not only our potential but also the planet’s biophysical constraints.

Klein’s essays in this volume make it clear that she is well aware of those limits, but the book’s subtitle suggests that she is writing not only to inform but also to mobilize support for Green New Deal proposals. This tension runs throughout the book—when Klein reports on and analyzes the state of the world, the prose challenges readers to face difficult realities, but when making the case for those policy proposals, she sounds more like an organizer rallying supporters.

That’s not a dig—Klein is a writer who doesn’t sit on the sidelines but gets involved with movements and political projects. Her commitment to activism and organizing is admirable, but it can pull a writer in conflicting directions.

This critique should not lead anyone to ignore On Fire, which is an excellent book that should be read cover to cover, without skipping chapters that had been previously published. Collections of essays can fall flat because of faded timeliness or unnecessary repetition, but neither are a problem here. As always, Klein’s sharp eye for detail makes her reporting on events compelling, whether she’s describing disasters (natural and unnatural) or assessing political trends. And, despite the grim realities we face, the book is a pleasure to read.

Before explaining concerns with the book’s inspirational tone, I want to emphasize key points Klein makes that I agree are essential to a left/progressive analysis of the ecological crises:

  • First-World levels of consumption are unsustainable;
  • capitalism is incompatible with a livable human future;
  • the modern industrial world has undermined people’s connections to each other and the non-human world; and
  • we face not only climate disruption but a host of other crises, including, but not limited to, species extinction, chemical contamination, and soil erosion and degradation.

In other words, business-as-usual is a dead end, which Klein states forthrightly:

I feel confident in saying that a climate-disrupted future is a bleak and an austere future, one capable of turning all our material possessions into rubble or ash with terrifying speed. We can pretend that extending the status quo into the future, unchanged, is one of the options available to us. But that is a fantasy. Change is coming one way or another. Our choice is whether we try to shape that change to the maximum benefit of all or wait passively as the forces of climate disaster, scarcity, and fear of the “other” fundamentally reshape us.

On Fire focuses primarily on the climate crisis and the Green New Deal’s vision, which is widely assailed as too radical by the two different kinds of climate-change deniers in the United States today—one that denies the conclusions of climate science and another that denies the implications of that science. The first, based in the Republican Party, is committed to a full-throated defense of our pathological economic system. The second, articulated by the few remaining moderate Republicans and most mainstream Democrats, imagines that market-based tinkering to mitigate the pathology is adequate.

Thankfully, other approaches exist. The most prominent in the United States is the Green New Deal’s call for legislation that recognizes the severity of the ecological crises while advocating for economic equality and social justice. Supporters come from varied backgrounds, but all are happy to critique and modify, or even scrap, capitalism. Avoiding dogmatic slogans or revolutionary rhetoric, Klein writes realistically about moving toward a socialist (or, perhaps, socialist-like) future, using available tools involving “public infrastructure, economic planning, corporate regulation, international trade, consumption, and taxation” to steer out of the existing debacle.

One of the strengths of Klein’s blunt talk about the social and ecological problems in the context of real-world policy proposals is that she speaks of motion forward in a long struggle rather than pretending the Green New Deal is the solution for all our problems. On Firemakes it clear that there are no magic wands to wave, no magic bullets to fire.

The problem is that the Green New Deal does rely on one bit of magical thinking—the techno-optimism that emerges from the modern world’s underlying technological fundamentalism, defined as the faith that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing. Extreme technological fundamentalists argue that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. (If anyone thinks this definition a caricature, read “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”)

Klein does not advocate such fundamentalism, but that faith hides just below the surface of the Green New Deal, jumping out in “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” which Klein champions in On Fire. Written by U.S. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (the most prominent legislator advancing the Green New Deal) and Avi Lewis (Klein’s husband and collaborator), the seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals. But one sentence in that video reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].”

First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to that rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean, “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.” The problem is, we don’t have all technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that, we are guaranteed to fail.

Reasonable people can, and do, disagree about this claim. (For example, “The science is in,” proclaims the Nature Conservancy, and we can have a “future in which catastrophic climate change is kept at bay while we still power our developing world” and “feed 10 billion people.”) But even accepting overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies, we have to face that we don’t have the means to maintain the lifestyle that “A Message from the Future” promises for the United States, let alone the entire world. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion.

Welcome to the third rail of contemporary political life. The question that the multiple, cascading ecological crises put squarely in front of us is, “What is a sustainable human population?” That question has to be split in two: “How many people? Consuming how much?”

It’s no surprise that political candidates ignore these questions, but progressive writers and activists should not back away. Honestly engaging these issues takes us well beyond the Green New Deal.

On the second of those questions—“consuming how much?”—Klein frequently highlights the problem, but with a focus on “profligate consumption.” She stresses the need to:

  • “scale back overconsumption”;
  • identify categories in which we must contract, “including air travel, meat consumption, and profligate energy use”; [I do wish people would get off the back of meat consumption and point the finger at industrial scale agriculture instead…]
  • end “the high-carbon lifestyle of suburban sprawl and disposable consumption”;
  • reject capitalism’s faith in “limitless consumption” that locks us in “the endless consumption cycle”; and
  • make deep changes “not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our economic system.”

No argument with any of those statements, especially because Klein rejects the notion that simply improving efficiency will solve our problems, a common assumption of the techno-optimists. But challenging “overconsumption by the comparatively wealthy” focuses on the easy target: “The bottom line is that an ecological crisis that has its roots in the overconsumption of natural resources must be addressed not just by improving the efficiency of our economies, but also by reducing the amount of material stuff that the wealthiest 20 percent of people on the planet consume.”

My goal is not to defend rich people or their consumption habits. However, constraining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability. Here we have to deal with the sticky question of human nature. Klein rightly rejects capitalism’s ideological claim that people’s capacity to act out of greed and short-term self-interest (which all of us certainly are capable of doing) is the dominant human trait. Human nature also includes the capacity to act out of compassion in solidarity with others, of course, and different systems reward different parts of our nature. Capitalism encourages the greed and discourages the compassion, to the detriment of people and planet.

But we are organic creatures, and that means there is a human nature, or what we might more accurately call our human-carbon nature. As Wes Jackson of The Land Institute puts it, life on Earth is “the scramble for energy-rich carbon,” and humans have gotten exceedingly good at grabbing lots of carbon. Not all cultures go after it with the same intensity, of course, but that scramble predates capitalism and will continue after capitalism. This doesn’t mean we are condemned to make the planet unlivable for ourselves and other creatures, but public policy has to recognize that we not only need carbon to survive but that most people—including most environmentalists—like the work that carbon can do for us when we burn those fossil fuels. And once we get a taste of what that carbon can do, it’s not easy to give it up.

As Klein points out, curbing our carbon-seeking is not merely a test of will power and matter of individual virtue; collective action through public policy is needed. I believe that requires a hard cap on carbon—limits that we can encourage people to accept through cultural advocacy but in the end must be imposed through law. A sensible approach, called “cap and adapt,” has been proposed by Larry Edwards and Stan Cox. In a forthcoming book, Cox will expand on a cap-and-ration strategy that could help in “drawing the human economy back within necessary ecological limits,” a follow-up to, and expansion of, his earlier book that made a compelling case for a rationing.

There’s no simple answer to how much energy and material resources we can consume without undermining the ecosystems on which our own lives depend, but I’m confident in saying that it’s dramatically less that we consume today, and that reducing aggregate consumption—even if we could create equitable societies—will be difficult. But that’s the easy part. Much more difficult is the first question—“how many people?”

On the question of population, On Fire is silent, and it’s not hard to understand, for several reasons. First, the Earth has a carrying capacity for any species but it’s impossible to predict when we will reach it (or did reach it), and failed attempts at prediction in the past have made people wary. Second, some of the most vocal supporters of population control also espouse white supremacy, which has tainted even asking the question. Third, while we know that raising the status of women and educating girls reduces birth rates, it’s difficult to imagine a non-coercive strategy for serious population reduction on the scale necessary. Still, we should acknowledge ecological carrying capacity while pursuing social justice and rejecting anti-immigration projects. Progressives’ unwillingness to address the issue cedes the terrain to “eco-fascists,” those who want to use ecological crises to pursue a reactionary agenda.

There’s no specific number to offer for a sustainable human population, but I’m confident in saying that it’s fewer than 8 billion and that finding a humane and democratic path to that lower number is difficult to imagine. [I’ll offer one, and it’s well below one billion – https://damnthematrix.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/losing-our-energy-slaves/ ]

The fact that these questions are troubling and/or impossible to answer does not mean the questions do not matter. For now, my answer—a lot fewer people and a lot less stuff—is adequate to start a conversation: “A sustainable human presence on the planet will mean fewer people consuming less.” Agree or disagree? Why or why not?

Two responses are possible from Green New Deal supporters: (1) I’m nuts, or (2) I’m not nuts, but what I’m suggesting is politically impossible because people can’t handle all this bad news.

If I am nuts, critics have to demonstrate what is unsound about the argument, without resorting to the cliché that “necessity is the mother of invention” and the faith-based claims of the technological fundamentalists.

If I am not, then those Green supporters face a quandary. When mainstream Democrats tell progressive folks that the Green New Deal is doomed to fail because it is not politically viable at this moment, supporters counter, appropriately, by saying that anything less is inadequate in the face of the crises. Those supporters argue, appropriately, that the real failure is supporting policies that don’t do enough to create sustainable human societies and that we need to build a movement for the needed change. I agree, but by that logic, if the Green New Deal itself is inadequate to create sustainability, then we must push further.

The Green New Deal is a start, insufficiently radical but with the potential to move the conversation forward—if we can be clear about the initiative’s limitations. That presents a problem for organizers, who seek to rally support without uncomfortable caveats—“Support this plan! But remember that it’s just a start, and it gets a lot rougher up ahead, and whatever we do may not be enough to stave off unimaginable suffering” is, admittedly, not a winning slogan.

Back to what I think Klein is right about, and eloquent in expressing:

Because while it is true that climate change is a crisis produced by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is also, in a more profound sense, a crisis produced by an extractive mind-set, by a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard. I call it the “gig and dig” economy and firmly believe that we will not emerge from this crisis without a shift in worldview at every level, a transformation to an ethos of care and repair.

The domination/subordination dynamic that creates so much suffering within the human family also defines the modern world’s destructive relationship to the larger living world. Throughout the book, Klein presses the importance of telling a new story about all those relationships. Scientific data and policy proposals matter, but they don’t get us far without a story for people to embrace. Klein is right, and On Fire helps us imagine a new story for a human future.

I offer a friendly amendment to the story she is constructing: Our challenge is to highlight not only what we can but also what we cannot accomplish, to build our moral capacity to face a frightening future but continue to fight for what can be achieved, even when we know that won’t be enough.

One story I would tell is of the growing gatherings of people, admittedly small in number today, who take comfort in saying forthrightly what they believe, no matter how painful—people who do not want to suppress their grief, yet do not let their grief overwhelm them.

What kind of person wants to live like that? I can offer a real-life example, my late friend Jim Koplin. He once told me, in a conversation about those multiple, cascading ecological crises (a term I stole from him, with his blessing), “I wake up every morning in a state of profound grief.” He was neither depressed nor irrational but simply honest. Jim, a Depression-era farm boy who had been permanently radicalized in the 1960s, felt that grief more deeply than anyone I have known, yet every day he got up to work in his garden and then offer his time and energy to a variety of political, community, and arts groups that were fighting for a better world.

Klein speaks of this grief in On Fire, in what for me were the most moving passages, often involving her young son’s future in the face of this “planetary death spiral”:

There is no question that the strongest emotions I have about the climate crisis have to do with [Toma] and his generation—the tremendous intergenerational theft under way. I have flashes of sheer panic about the extreme weather we have already locked in for these kids. Even more intense than this fear is the sadness about what they won’t ever know. They are growing up in a mass extinction, robbed of the cacophonous company of so many fast-disappearing life forms. It feels so desperately lonely.

The escape from loneliness, for me, starts with recognizing that Jim’s “state of profound grief” was not only wholly rational but also emotionally healthy. When told that even if this harsh assessment is correct, people can’t handle it, I agree. No one can handle all this. Jim couldn’t handle it every waking minute. I don’t handle it as well as he did. At best, we struggle to come to terms with a “bleak and austere” future.

But that’s exactly why we need to engage rather than avoid the distressing realities of our time. If we are afraid to speak honestly, we suffer alone. Better that we tell the truth and accept the consequences, together.





The need for a new Matrix…

9 04 2019

How many years have I been saying jobs are unsustainable? Here’s Tim Watkins explaining it better than me…

The (other) economic madness of the green new deal

Remind me again why you go to work in the morning?  Is it because you are so committed to the mission of your corporate employer that you would willingly work for nothing if they asked you to?  Does your job provide you with so high a degree of life-meaning and personal satisfaction that you would gladly do it in exchange for the minimum income required to feed and clothe yourself? 

No, I thought not.

For almost all of us, work is a means of obtaining money; and money is merely the means by which we are able to consume the goods and services we desire.

Now let me ask you a multiple choice question: why do you think that the oceans are currently so full of plastic that it has polluted the entire marine food chain?  Is it (a) because evil petrochemical companies simply dump plastic into the sea; or is it (b) because it is the inevitable product of mass consumption by 7.5 billion humans (especially those of us in developed states)?

Plastic pollution, along with all of the other fallouts from the globalised industrial economy, is the end consequence of our collective consumption of the goods and services that we desire.

The various versions of green new dealism that have hit the headlines recently have no alternative but to avoid both of these questions.  Instead, they reduce a human impact crisis – aka “the Anthropocene” or “the overshoot” crisis – to the single dimension of greenhouse gas emissions.  They then reduce the greenhouse gas emission crisis to a carbon dioxide crisis; which is further reduced to only the carbon dioxide emitted in the course of electricity generation.

The proposed solution – the mass deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels (and, tacitly, the grid infrastructure to support them) – has the primary aim of pulling the global economy out of the post-2008 doldrums by creating millions of new jobs.  Exactly how many new jobs has yet to be determined, although at least some proponents argue for a mobilisation on a par with the Second World War or landing humans on the Moon.  As Brian Murray at Forbes notes:

“Commentators have frequently compared the GND’s potential deployment to two examples from twentieth-century U.S. history that involved dramatic, rapid shifts: 1) the decision to send astronauts to the moon and 2) World War II.”

“The speed of progress toward the moonshot was staggering—and the effort was highly targeted, focusing on the specific technologies necessary to transport a single vehicle to and from the lunar landscape 240,000 miles away while keeping the occupants alive. At the height of the moon effort in 1966, relevant spending amounted to 0.7% of GDP.  In today’s dollars, that would be $150 billion.”

“By contrast, World War II consumed 35.8% of GDP at its peak (1945), an amount equal to $7.4 trillion today. The massive undertaking involved virtually every aspect of the economy. Over 17 percent of the work force was deployed in the armed forces and nearly five million women entered the work force (a 40 percent increase), many in place of men deployed overseas, to bolster domestic production to support war efforts.”

Murray argues that any attempt to implement the green new deal is likely to be closer to the Moon shot than the war.  Nevertheless, we are still talking about billions of dollars and millions of new construction jobs.  For Murray, the key economic problem here is that wind turbines and solar panels require very little labour to operate and maintain.  As a result, any jobs created would necessarily be temporary.  This, however is a secondary concern and is easily counter-critiqued by the proponents of green new dealism – the additional demand created in the wider economy by the new deal workers spending their wages will create a wider economic boom that will generate new jobs to employ these workers as the construction phase comes to an end.

Let us now revisit those awkward questions I posed at the beginning of this post.  What proportion of several millions of green new deal workers will be offering their labour for free?  What proportion will work in exchange for meals, clothing and a bed for the night?  Most will expect to be paid at least the minimum wage.  And if the promises of the green new dealers are to be realised, a large proportion of the jobs created will need to be high-skilled and high-paid.

Most workers do not simply save their wages every month.  Indeed, one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ observations which informed the original new dealism in the 1930s was that ordinary workers had a far greater propensity to spend than wealthier people.  That is, if someone who is currently only able to eat because of food stamps or a package from a foodbank is given a job at the current average wage – $56,500 (US) £28,600 (UK) – they are likely to spend almost all of it; whereas if the same average wage were given to the CEO of an international bank, they would be far more likely to save it.  So, from a demand point of view, creating lots of relatively well-paid jobs for people who are currently unemployed, underemployed or eking out a living on the minimum wage makes absolute economic sense.

Environmentally, not so much.  The technologies that the new jobs are created to deploy are intended to be greener than the technologies they replace – although they still necessarily involve fossil fuels in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance.  Nor – at least for now – are these technologies recyclable; indeed, solar panels contain toxic chemicals that prevent either recycling or landfill disposal.  And, of course, in the absence of seasonal grid-scale storage technologies nuclear baseload and gas stand-by capacity will continue to be needed to smooth out intermittency.  These, though, are again secondary problems.

The main issue that any green new deal has to overcome if it is to have any credibility is how we go about preventing millions of new workers from actually spending their additional income.  For all of its many flaws, one of the environmental benefits of quantitative easing since 2008 is that very little of the newly printed currency has seeped out into the real economy.  Most has been used for corporate share buy-backs or investment in various derivatives that do little to increase demand for goods and services across the real economy.  Indeed, this is one of the central criticisms of the current policies levelled by green new dealers.  Any green new deal, in contrast would be increasing global consumption of goods and services by billions – if not trillions – of dollars worldwide.  But mass consumption is precisely the cause of our environmental crisis in the first place.  Millions of new wage labourers are no less likely to purchase such things as single-use plastic containers, corn-fed beef, petrol cars and international travel than any of the current workforce.  The result is that as fast as the electricity generating industry is curbing carbon dioxide emissions, the manufacturing, transportation and industrialised agriculture sectors will be ramping up their emissions – and using up the planet’s remaining resources – to satisfy the new demand.

Far from being a means of sustaining a global economy built upon fossil fuels, a green new deal that creates new jobs and stimulates economic growth amounts to little more than a final blow-out binge before our once-and-done global economy comes crashing down around our ears.  The only means – assuming any is possible at this late stage – of mitigating the environmental catastrophe that is gathering pace around us is to engage in a managed process of de-growth (which may include some deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies) to create far smaller, localised and less consumptive economies than we have had for many decades.  By necessity, the process would also require a shrinking of the human population to a level in accordance both with what is sustainable and with the standard of living we consider acceptable – i.e., the more consumptive our lifestyles, the lower our life expectancy/birth rate will have to be.

This is not, of course, anything that is going to win votes at an election.  But any detailed examination of the environmental impact of millions of new workers spending their new wages on even more of the same patterns of consumption that have already brought our planet to the edge of extinction should – in any sane world – be no less acceptable.  It is a tribute to our propensity for denial that so many people regard green new dealism as an environmental good rather than the catastrophe it is likely to become.





Adding balance to the meat debate

18 02 2019

Of late, I have seen article after article, video after video, exposing ‘meat eating’ as a culprit for the exploding greenhouse emissions we are experiencing. And when I point out it’s all rubbish, I’m attacked as a climate denier….. ME!  A climate denier…?!

There’s so much to say about this topic, it’s hard to know where to start, but I will just say this; meat consumption is not the issue, the predicament is industrial agriculture, pure and simple…… so instead of blaming animal farming, commentators should be attacking the entrenched conventional farming system that needs to be destroyed.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, the consumption of your diet is just as harmful as the consumption of unsustainable meat. Are you listening George Monbiot? George is one of those classic deniers of the truth. He recently wrote “76% of farmland is wasted on farming animals”. And what does George know about farming?  Zilch I’ll bet…… because farms that grow meat are incapable of growing anything else, otherwise meat would not be produced there.

When soil incapable of growing edible vegetable matter for people is converted to this use, it’s only possible because of the addition of untold chemicals which, since the beginning of the ‘green revolution’, a completely wrong use of the term ‘green’ by the way…..


This opinion piece by Richard Young was originally published by Triodos Bank here


Grazing animals have shaped the quintessentially pastoral British countryside for thousands of years and play a vital role in sustainable food systems. However, over the last decade or so we’ve been told by a succession of high-profile reports that we have to make drastic cuts in our consumption of meat in order to help limit global warming, biodiversity loss and other agriculture-related problems. This has left many people confused about what they should eat to be healthy and have a sustainable lifestyle.

The authors of these reports, such as the recent EAT-Lancet report, all correctly highlight the problems for humanity caused by a rapidly growing global population, high meat consumption in developed countries and an increasing appetite – or in some cases nutritional need – for meat in many developing countries. However, the focus is always put on cutting out red meat, rather than poultry, and no distinction is made in the way the meat is produced.

The basic reason for this is that all cattle, sheep and other ruminants emit the greenhouse gas methane, while chickens do not. They also convert grain to protein less efficiently than poultry or pigs.

It is predicted that by 2050 another billion tonnes of grain will be needed every year to produce enough meat to feed the global population, something which is clearly unsustainable, since continuous grain production is one of the biggest causes of soil degradation and loss. Indeed, globally, cropland soils continue to degrade as carbon is lost to the atmosphere – 24 billion tonnes of soil is lost annually, over three tonnes for every person on the planet.

However, what the researchers invariably overlook is that this is only an issue in relation to grain-fed cattle, such as those in US feedlots, whose rations consist of maize, soya meal and chopped straw.

In contrast, two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass, in most cases because the land is not suitable for growing crops. The only practical way to get food from this land without causing an environmental disaster is to graze it with livestock. Almost all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly fed on grass, grazed in the fields during summer and fed as hay or silage over winter – and the UK has one of the best climates in the world for growing grass. Some of these animals do also get grain, but in many cases this is waste grain, like Brewer’s grain (what’s left after beer making), which humans cannot eat.

Tragically, a high proportion of the UK’s most species-rich grasslands have in the past been ploughed for cropping or resown with ryegrass monocultures. However, all organic and most pasture-fed meat producers include legumes, multiple grass species and herbs in their grazing mixtures. Even many intensive farmers have now been persuaded by agri-environment schemes to restore grassland diversity, with wild flowers and delicate species getting a chance to recover once the use of synthetic fertilisers ceases. This in turn helps to revive the intricate web of life, which begins with microbes, soil spiders and other insects, embraces farmland birds and small mammals, and ultimately sustains us humans.

While over-grazing was encouraged by farm subsidies prior to the early 1990s, some grassland is now under-grazed due to falling demand for lamb. This is a problem because many bird and butterfly species have evolved in tandem with grazing livestock. In fact, both the RSPB and Natural England recognise that grazing animals are essential for sustaining healthy wildlife populations.

But what about methane? The high methane levels in the atmosphere are a significant cause of global warming, yet ruminants are responsible for only 5% of UK anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon – grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out by photosynthesis. In fact, fossil fuels are not only the main source of carbon dioxide emissions, they are also responsible for a third more methane than ruminants and all the methane from fossil fuels contains additional, ‘fossil’ carbon.

So what meat should we choose to help sustain the planet? It’s not a red versus white issue. The simple answer is that we should eat far less grain-fed meat, be it beef, pork or chicken, instead we should actively seek grass-fed meat and meat from animals supplemented with only small amounts of otherwise waste grain.

While few people yet realise it, we actually need to encourage increased production of grass-fed meat, since the most effective way to restore our degraded arable soils and wild pollinators is to re-introduce grass and grazing animals into cropland rotations.






Kevin Anderson & Hugh Hunt – A Rule Book for the Climate Casino

14 12 2018

https://ScientistsWarning.TV – Kevin and Hugh are back with us this year discussing the new ‘climate glitterati’ that come annually to Davos to feign concern about the climate while they discuss techno-fixes that might allow the (in their minds at least) to continue their excessive lifestyle that is heading us directly for runaway climate change and collapse.

Hat Tip to Chris Harries for this COPOUT chart…..




Areas Of The World More Vulnerable To Collapse

16 06 2018

ANOTHER great post from SRSrocco…..  this one should be of particular interest to Australians though, because we are in a more vulnerable region…. and while Australia may look not too bad on those charts, it’s only because our relatively small population means we consume way less than most of the other nations of the Asia Pacific region…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Certain areas of the world are more vulnerable to economic and societal collapse.  While most analysts gauge the strength or weakness of an economy based on its outstanding debt or debt to GDP ratio, there is another factor that is a much better indicator.  To understand which areas and regions of the world that will suffer a larger degree of collapse than others, we need to look at their energy dynamics.

For example, while the United States is still the largest oil consumer on the planet, it is no longer the number one oil importer.  China surpassed the United States by importing a record 8.9 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2017.  This data came from the recently released BP 2018 Statistical Review.  Each year, BP publishes a report that lists each countries’ energy production and consumption figures.

BP also lists the total oil production and consumption for each area (regions and continents).  I took BP’s figures and calculated the Net Oil Exports for each area.  As we can see, the Middle East has the highest amount of net oil exports with 22.3 million barrels per day in 2017:

The figures in the chart above are shown in “thousand barrels per day.”  Russia and CIS (Commonwealth Independent States) came in second with 10 mbd of net oil exports followed by Africa with 4 mbd and Central and South America with 388,000 barrels per day.  The areas with the negative figures are net oil importers.

The area in the world with the largest net oil imports was the Asia-Pacific region at 26.6 mbd followed by Europe with 11.4 mbd and North America (Canada, USA & Mexico) at 4.1 mbd.

Now, that we understand the energy dynamics shown in the chart above, the basic rule of thumb is that the areas in the world that are more vulnerable to collapse are those with the highest amount of net oil imports.  Of course, it is true that the Middle Eastern or African countries with significant oil exports can suffer a collapse due to geopolitics and civil wars (example, Iraq, and Libya), but this was not a result of domestic oil supply and demand forces.  Rather the collapse of Iraq and Libya can be blamed on certain superpowers’ desire to control the oil market as they are strategic net oil importers.

The areas with the largest net oil imports, Asia-Pacific and Europe, have designed complex economies that are highly dependent on significant oil supplies to function.  Thus, the areas and countries with the largest net oil imports will experience a higher degree of collapse. Yes, there’s more to it than the amount of net oil imports, but that is an easy gauge to use.   I will explain the other factors shortly.  If we look at the Asia-Pacific countries with the largest net oil imports, China, India, and Japan lead the pack:

China is a net importer of nearly 9 mbd of oil, followed by India at 4 mbd and Japan with 3.9 mbd.  Thus, as these net oil imports decline, so will the degree of economic activity.  However, when net oil imports fall to a certain level, then a more sudden collapse of the economy will result… resembling the Seneca Cliff.

We must remember, a great deal of the economic infrastructure (Skyscrapers, commercial buildings, retail stores, roads, equipment, buses, trucks, automobiles, etc etc.) only function if a lot of oil continually runs throughout the system.  Once the oil supply falls to a certain level, then the economic system disintegrates.

While China is the largest net oil importer, the United States is still the largest consumer of oil in the world.  Being the largest oil consumer is another very troubling sign.  The next chart shows the countries with the highest oil consumption in the world and their percentage of net oil imports:

Due to the rapid increase in domestic shale oil production, the United States net oil imports have fallen drastically over the past decade.  At one point, the U.S. was importing nearly three-quarters (75%) of its oil but is now only importing 34%.  Unfortunately, this current situation will not last for long.  As quickly as shale oil production surged, it will decline in the same fashion… or even quicker.

You will notice that Saudi Arabia is the sixth largest oil consumer in the world followed by Russia.  Both Saudi Arabia and Russia export a much higher percentage of oil than they consume.  However, Russia will likely survive a much longer than Saudi Arabia because Russia can provide a great deal more than just oil.  Russia and the Commonwealth Independent States can produce a lot of food, goods, commodities, and metals domestically, whereas Saudi Arabia must import most of these items.

Of the largest consumers of oil in the chart above, Japan and South Korea import 100% (or nearly 100%) of their oil needs.  According to the data put out by BP 2018 Statistical Review, they did not list any individual oil production figures for Japan or South Korea.  However, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported in 2015 that Japan produced 139,000 bd of total petroleum liquids while S. Korea supplied 97,000 bd.  Production of petroleum liquids from Japan and South Korea only account for roughly 3% of their total consumption…. peanuts.

Analysts or individuals who continue to believe the United States will become energy independent are ignorant of the impacts of Falling EROI – Energy Returned On Investment or the Thermodynamics of oil depletion.  Many analysts believe that if the price of oil gets high enough, say $100 or $150; then shale oil would be hugely profitable.  The error in their thinking is the complete failure to comprehend this simple relationship… that as oil prices rise, SO DO the COSTS… 

Do you honestly believe a trucking company that transports fracking sand, water or oil for the shale oil industry is going to provide the very same costs when the oil price doubles????  We must remember, the diesel price per gallon increases significantly as the oil price moves higher.  Does the energy analyst believe the trucking companies are just going to eat that higher cost for the benefit of the shale oil industry??  This is only one example, but as the oil price increases, inflationary costs will thunder throughout the shale oil industry.

If the oil price shoots up to $100 or higher and stays there (which I highly doubt), then costs will start to surge once again for the shale oil industry.  As costs increase, we can kiss goodbye the notion of higher shale oil profits.  But as I mentioned in the brackets, I don’t see the oil price jumping to $100 and staying there.  Yes, we could see an oil price spike, but not a long-term sustained price as the current economic cycle is getting ready to roll over.  And with it, we are going to experience one hell of a deflationary collapse.  This will take the oil price closer to $30 than $100.

Regardless, the areas and countries with the highest oil consumption and net oil imports will be more vulnerable to collapse and will fall the hardest.  Just imagine the U.S. economy consuming 5 million barrels of oil per day, rather than the current 20 mbd.  The United States just has more stuff that will become worthless and dysfunctional than other countries.

Lastly, the end game suggests that the majority of countries will experience an economic collapse due to the upcoming rapid decline in global oil production.  However, some countries will likely be able to transition better than others, as the leverage and complexity of the economies aren’t as dependent on oil as the highly advanced Western and Eastern countries.





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