What’s really driving the global economic crisis is net energy decline

3 08 2017

And there’s no going back. So let’s step into the future.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Source: Doug Menuez

Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In the fifth contribution to our symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Jonathan Rutherford explores the fundamental driver of global economic malaise: not debt; not banks; but a protracted, slow-burn crisis of ‘net energy decline.’

Cutting through the somewhat stale debate between advocates and critics of ‘peak oil’, Rutherford highlights some of the most interesting and yet little-known scientific literature on the intimate relationship between the global economy and energy.

Whatever happens with the shift to renewables, he argues, we are moving into an era in which fossil fuels will become increasingly defunct, especially after mid-century.

The implications for the future of the global economy will not be pretty — but if we face up to it, the transition to more sustainable societies will be all the better for facing reality, rather than continuing with our heads in the sand (or, as per the image above, stuck up the bull’s behind).


As argued in more detail by Ted Trainer in this symposium the best hope for transition to a ‘post carbon’ — or, better, a sustainable society (a much broader goal) — lies in a process of radical societal reconstruction, focused on the building, in the here and now, of self-governing and self-reliant settlements, starting at the micro-local level.

The ‘Simpler Way’ vision we promote, in my view, is an inspiring alternative that we can and should work for. The hope is that these local movements — which have already begun to emerge — will network, educate and scale up, as the global crisis intensifies.

In what follows, I want to complement this view, by sketching why I think the global economy will inevitably face a terminal crisis of net energy in coming years. In making this prediction, I am assuming that global transnational elites (i.e. G7 elites), as well as subordinate national elites — who manage the globalised neoliberal economy — will pursue economic growth at all costs, as elites have done since the birth of the capitalist system in Britain 300+ years ago.

That is, they will not voluntarily pursue a process of organised ‘degrowth’. In my view, at best, they will vigorously pursue ‘green’ growth, i.e. via the rapid scaling up of renewable energy and promoting efficiency etc., but with no intention of actively reducing the overall level of energy consumption — indeed, most of the mainstream ‘green growth’ scenarios assume a doubling of global energy demand by 2050 (for a critical review of one report, see here).

I am focusing on energy but, of course we can, and should, add to this picture the wider multidimensional ecological crisis (climate change impacts, soil depletion, water stress, biodiversity loss etc) which, among other things, means that an ever increasing proportion GDP growth takes the form of “compensatory and defensive costs” (See i.e Sarkar, The Crisis of Capitalism, p.267–275) to deal with past and expected future ecological damage.

Energy and GDP Growth

Axiom 1: As the biophysical economists have shown global economic growth is closely correlated with growth in energy consumption.

Professor Minqi Li of Utah University’s Department of Economics, for example, shows that between 2005 and 2016:

‘an increase in economic growth rate by one percentage point is associated with an increase in primary energy consumption by 0.96 percent.’

GDP growth also depends on improvements in energy efficiency — Li reports that over the last decade energy efficiency improved by an average of 1.7% per annum.

One of the future uncertainties is how rapidly we are likely to improve energy efficiency — future supply constraints are likely to incentivise this strongly, and there will be scope for significant efficiency improvements, but there is also to be diminishing returns once the low hanging fruit has been picked.

Axiom 2: Economic growth depends not just on increases in gross energy consumption and energy efficiency, but the availability of net energy. Net energy can be defined as the energy left over after subtracting the energy used to attain energy — i.e. the energy used during the process of extraction, harvesting and transportation of energy. Net energy is critical because it alone powers the non-energy sectors of the global economy.

Without net energy all non-energy related economic activity would cease to function.

Insight: An important implication is that net energy can be in decline, even while gross primary energy supply is constant or even increasing.

Below I will make my case for a probably intensifying global net energy contraction by discussing, first, broad factors shaping the probable trajectory of global primary energy growth, followed by a discussion of overall net energy. Most of the statistics are drawn from Minqi Li’s latest report which, in turn, draws on the latest BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

Prospects for Gross Energy Consumption

Over the last decade, world primary energy consumption grew at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent. It’s important to note, however, as Jean- Jancovici shows, that in per-capita terms the rate of energy growth has significantly slowed since the 1980s, increasing at an average annual rate of 0.4% since that time, compared to 1.2% in the century prior. This is mainly due to the slowing growth in world oil supply, since the two oil shocks in the 1970s.

There are strong reasons for thinking that the rate of increase in gross energy availability will slow further in coming decades. Recently a peer reviewed paper estimated the maximum rate at which humanity could exploit all ultimately recoverable fossil fuel resources. It found that depending on assumptions, the peak in all fossil fuels would be reached somewhere between 2025–2050 (a finding that aligns with several other studies see i.e Maggio and Cacciola 2012; Laherrere, 2015).

This is highly significant because today fossil fuels make up about 86% of global primary energy use — a figure that, notwithstanding all global efforts to date, has barely changed in three decades. This surprising early peak estimate is substantially associated with the recent radical down-scaling of estimated economically and technically recoverable coal reserves.

The situation for oil is particularly critical, especially given that it is by far the world’s major source of liquid fuel, powering 95% of all transport. A recent HSBC report found that, already today, somewhere between 60–80% of conventional oil fields are in terminal decline. It estimated that by 2040 the world would need to find four Saudi Arabia’s (the largest oil supplier) worth of additional oil just to maintain current rates of supply and more than double that to meet 2040 projected demand.

And yet, as the same report showed, new oil discoveries have been in long term decline — lately reaching record lows notwithstanding record investments between 2001–2014. Moreover, new discoveries are invariably smaller fields with more rapid peak and decline rates. The recent boom in US tight oil — a bubble fueled by low interest rates and record oil industry debts — has been responsible for most additional supply since the peak in conventional oil in 2005, but is likely to be in terminal decline within the next 5–10 years, if it has not already peaked.

All this, as Nafeez Ahmed has argued, is generating the conditions within the next few years (once the current oil glut has been drawn down) for an oil supply crunch and price spike that has the potential to send the debt-ridden global economy into a bigger and better global financial crisis tailspin. It may well be a seminal event that future historians look back as marking the beginning of the end for the oil age.

An alternative currently fashionable view is that peak oil will be effectively trumped by a near-term voluntary decline in oil demand (so called ‘peak demand’), mainly due to the predicted rise of electric vehicles. One reason (among several), however, to be skeptical of such forecasts is that currently there is absolutely no evidence that oil demand is in decline — on the contrary, it continues to increase every year, and since the oil price drop in 2014, at an accelerating rate.

When peak oil does arrive, there are likely to be powerful incentives to implement coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids but, apart from the huge logistical and infrastructure problems involved, a move in this direction will only accelerate the near-term peaking of coal and gas supply, especially given the energetic inefficiencies involved in fuel conversion. Peak oil will also likely incentivise the acceleration towards electrification of transport and renewable energy, to which I will now turn.

Given peak fossil fuels, the prospects for increasing, or even just maintaining, gross energy depends heavily on how fast renewable energy and nuclear power can be scaled up. Nuclear energy currently accounts for 4.5% of energy supply, but globally is in decline and there are good reasons for thinking that it will not — and should not —play a major role in the future energy mix (see i.e Our Renewable Future, Heinberg & Findlay, 2016, p132–135).

In 2016, all forms of renewable electricity (i.e. excluding bio-fuel) accounted for about 10% of global energy consumption in 2016, but a large portion of this was hydroelectricity, which has limited potential for expansion. Wind, Solar PV and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) are generally agreed to be the major renewable technologies capable of a large increase in capacity but, notwithstanding rapid growth in recent years, in 2016 they still accounted for just 2.2% of world primary energy consumption.

Insight: In recent years many ‘green-growth’ reports have been published with optimistic renewable energy forecasts — one even claiming that renewables could supply all world energy (not just electricity) by 2050. But, it should be recognised that this would require a very dramatic increase in the rate of growth in renewable capacity.

In the last six years, new investment (including government, private sector etc) in all forms of renewable energy has leveled off at around the $300 billion a year. Heinberg and Finlay (p.123) estimate that this rate of investment would have to multiplied by more than a factor of ten and continued each year for several decades, if renewable energy was to meet current global energy demand, let alone the projected doubling of demand in most mainstream energy scenarios.

In other words, it would require an upfront annual investment of US$3 trillion a year (and more over the entire life cycle). By comparison, in 2014 the IEA estimated that global investment for all energy supply (i.e fossil fuels and renewables etc) in 2035 would be US $2 trillion per year. In addition, if fossil fuel capacity is to be phased out entirely by 2050, it would require much premature scrapping of existing capital — depriving investors of making full returns on their capital — which can be expected to trigger fierce resistance from large sections, if not the entire, transnational capitalist class.

Currently both oil and gas supply, if not coal, are growing much faster than all renewables, at least in absolute if not percentage terms. No wonder that the most ambitious IPCC emission reduction scenarios assume continued large scale use of fossil fuels through to 2050, and rely instead on highly uncertain and problematic ‘net emission’ technologies (i.e Carbon Capture and Storage, massive planting of trees etc).

Based on current trends, Minqi Li’s recent energy forecast predicts that the growth of renewable energy will, at best, offset the inevitable decline in fossil fuel energy over coming decades. He forecasts that a peak in gross global energy supply (including fossil fuels and renewables) will be reached by about 2050.

This of course does not include the very real possibility of serious energy ‘bottlenecks,’ resulting, for example, from the peak in oil — for which no government is adequately preparing — and with no alternative liquid fuel source, on the scale required, readily available.

The Net Energy Equation

The foregoing has just been about gross energy, but as mentioned above, the real prospects for the growth-industrial economy depend on net energy, which alone fuels the non-energy sectors of the economy. This is where the picture gets really challenging.

With regards to fossil fuels, EROI is on a downward trajectory. The current estimate (in 2014) for global oil & gas is that EROI is about 18:1. And while it’s true that technological innovation can improve the efficiency of oil extraction, in general this is being overwhelmed by the increasing global reliance on lower EROI unconventional oil & gas sources — a trend which will continue from now until the end of the fossil fuel age.

Axiom 3: What is often overlooked, is that declining EROI will exacerbate the problem of peak fossil fuels.

As Charles Hall explains, declining EROI will accelerate the advent of peak fossil fuels, because more energy is needed just to maintain the ratio of net energy needed to fuel the economy. And when, inevitably, we begin to move down the other side of Hubbert’s peak, things will get even more challenging. At this point, decreasing gross supply will be combined with ever greater reliance on lower EROI supplies, rapidly reducing the amount of net energy available to society.

The situation would be improved if the main renewables could provide an additional source of high net energy (i.e EROI). But, while this question is the subject of much current scholarly debate, and is quite unsettled, it seems highly likely that any future 100% renewable energy system (as opposed to individual technology) will provide far less net-energy than humanity — or at least, the minority of us in the energy rich affluent regions — has enjoyed during the fossil fuel epoch. This is for the following theoretical reasons outlined by energy experts Moriarty and Honnery in a recent paper:

  • Due to the more energy diffuse nature of renewable energy flows (sun and wind), harvesting this energy to produce electricity, requires the construction of complex industrial technologies. Currently, this requires the ‘hidden subsidy’ of fossil fuels, which are involved in the entire process of resource extraction, manufacturing and maintenance of these industrial technologies. As fossil fuels deplete, this subsidy will become costlier in both financial and energy terms, reducing the net-energy of renewable technologies.
  • The non-renewable resources (often rare) needed for construction of renewable technologies will deplete over time, and will thus take more energy to extract, again, reducing net energy.
  • Due to the intermittency of solar and wind, a 100% renewable energy system (or even a large portion of renewable energy within the overall mix) requires investment in either large amounts of redundant capacity (to ensure there is security of supply during calm and cloudy weather) or, alternatively, large amounts of (currently unforeseen on the scale needed) storage capacity — or both. Ultimately, either option will require energy investment for the total system.
  • Because the main renewable technologies generate electricity, there will be a large amount of energy lost through conversion (i.e. via hydrogen) to the many current energy functions that cannot easily be electrified (i.e. trucks, industrial heating processors etc). In fairness, the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity also involves substantial energy loss (i.e. about 2/3 on average), but given that about 80% of global primary energy is currently in a non-electrical form, this appears to be a far bigger problem for a future 100% renewable system.
  • As renewable energy capacity expands, it will inevitably have to be built in less ideal locations, reducing gross energy yield.

Axiom 4: Regardless of the net energy that a future 100% renewable energy system would provide, it is important to recognize that attempts to ramp up renewable energy at very fast rates — far from adding to the overall energy output of the global economy — will inevitably come at a net energy cost.

This is because there would need to be a dramatic increase in energy demand associated with the transitional process itself.

Modelling done by Josh Floyd has found that in their ‘baseline scenario’ (described here) — which looks to phase out fossil fuels in 50 years — net energy services for the global economy would decline during that transition period by more than 15% before recovering.

This would be true of any rapid energy transition, but the problem is particularly acute for a transition to renewable technologies due to their much higher upfront capital (and therefore energy) costs, compared to fossil fuel technologies.

Conclusion

The implication of the above arguments is that over the coming decades, the global economy will very likely face an increasing deterioration in net energy supply that will increasingly choke off economic growth. What will this look like for people in real life?

Economically, it will likely be revealed in terms of stagnating (or falling) real wages, rising costs of living, decreasing discretionary income and decreasing employment opportunities — symptoms, as Tim Morgan argues, we are already beginning to see, albeit, to varying extents across the globe — but which will intensify in coming years.

How slow or fast this happens nobody knows. But given capitalism is a system which absolutely depends on endless capital accumulation for its effective economic functioning and social legitimacy, this will prove to be a terminal crisis, from which the system cannot ultimately escape.

We therefore have no choice but to prepare for a future economy in which net energy is far lower than what we have been used to in the industrial era.

Insight: To be clear, crisis by itself, will not lead to desirable outcomes — far from it. Our collective fate, as Trainer explains, depends largely on the rapid emergence of currently small scale new society movements — building examples of the sane alternative in the shell of the old — and rapidly multiplying and scaling up, as the legitimacy of the system declines.


Jonathan Rutherford is coordinator of the new international bookshop, Melbourne Australia. He is involved in various local sustainability projects where he lives in Belgrave.

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How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!

Reference:

Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.





Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it

23 04 2017

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Time to get off the economic growth train?
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

What does genuine economic progress look like? The orthodox answer is that a bigger economy is always better, but this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, the economy can’t grow for ever. The Conversation

This week’s Addicted to Growth conference in Sydney is exploring how to move beyond growth economics and towards a “steady-state” economy.

But what is a steady-state economy? Why it is it desirable or necessary? And what would it be like to live in?

The global predicament

We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming more resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is likely to increase the burden on ecosystems still further.

Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Degrowth to a steady-state economy

The idea of the steady-state economy presents us with an alternative. This term is somewhat misleading, however, because it suggests that we simply need to maintain the size of the existing economy and stop seeking further growth.

But given the extent of ecological overshoot – and bearing in mind that the poorest nations still need some room to develop their economies and allow the poorest billions to attain a dignified level of existence – the transition will require the richest nations to downscale radically their resource and energy demands.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “degrowth”. To be distinguished from recession, degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

In a world of 7.2 billion and counting, we need to think hard about our fair share.
Karpov Oleg/Shutterstock

At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.

This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

The very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success are now proving to be our greatest failure. Attempting to universalise affluence would be catastrophic. There is absolutely no way that today’s 7.2 billion people could live the Western way of life, let alone the 11 billion expected in the future. Genuine progress now lies beyond growth. Tinkering around the edges of capitalism will not cut it.

We need an alternative.

Enough for everyone, forever

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.

Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal well-being. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the universal human craving for meaning.

Do we really need to buy all this stuff anyway?
Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the “simpler way” – producing and consuming less.

This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.

The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.

But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

What would life be like in a degrowth society?

In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future.

Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.

Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.

We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.

Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens with water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should “eat the suburbs”, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets.

Community gardens, like this one in San Francisco, can help achieve sufficiency.
Kevin Krejci/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.

We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.

But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy, which would also enrich our communities.

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

Making the change

A degrowth transition to a steady-state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven from the “bottom up”, rather than imposed from the “top down”.

What I have written above highlights a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency (for much more detail, see here and here). Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.

But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness.

Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a steady-state economy. We need to create new, post-capitalist structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life. These wider changes will never emerge, however, until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness.

I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.

The alternative is to consume ourselves to death under the false banner of “green growth”, which would not be smart economics.

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





If everyone lived in an ‘ecovillage’, the Earth would still be in trouble

27 06 2015

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

We are used to hearing that if everyone lived in the same way as North Americans or Australians, we would need four or five planet Earths to sustain us.

This sort of analysis is known as the “ecological footprint” and shows that even the so-called “green” western European nations, with their more progressive approaches to renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport, would require more than three planets.

How can we live within the means of our planet? When we delve seriously into this question it becomes clear that almost all environmental literature grossly underestimates what is needed for our civilisation to become sustainable.

Only the brave should read on.

The ‘ecological footprint’ analysis

In order to explore the question of what “one planet living” would look like, let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most prominent metric for environmental accounting – the ecological footprint analysis. This was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, then at the University of British Columbia, and is now institutionalised by the scientific body, The Global Footprint Network, of which Wackernagel is president.

This method of environmental accounting attempts to measure the amount of productive land and water a given population has available to it, and then evaluates the demands that population makes upon those ecosystems. A sustainable society is one that operates within the carrying capacity of its dependent ecosystems.

While this form of accounting is not without its critics – it is certainly not an exact science – the worrying thing is that many of its critics actually claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact. Even Wackernagel, the concept’s co-originator, is convinced the numbers are underestimates.

According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetish continues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase.

Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

The footprint of an ecovillage

As I have noted, the basic contours of environmental degradation are relatively well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a “fair share” ecological footprint.

Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecovillage can be broadly understood as an “intentional community” that forms with the explicit aim of living more lightly on the planet. Among other things, the Findhorn community has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy and makes many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials.

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.
Irenicrhonda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community. It was discovered that even the committed efforts of this ecovillage still left the Findhorn community consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be sustained if everyone lived in this way. (Part of the problem is that the community tends to fly as often as the ordinary Westerner, increasing their otherwise small footprint.)

Put otherwise, based on my calculations, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, we would still need one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. Dwell on that for a moment.

I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I share this to criticise the noble and necessary efforts of the ecovillage movement, which clearly is doing far more than most to push the frontiers of environmental practice.

Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

In a full world of seven billion people and counting, a “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today. Such fundamental change to our ways of living is incompatible with a growth-oriented civilisation.

Some people may find this this position too “radical” to digest, but I would argue that this position is merely shaped by an honest review of the evidence.

What would ‘one planet’ living look like?

Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Nevertheless, just as the basic problems can be sufficiently well understood, the nature of an appropriate response is also sufficiently clear, even if the truth is sometimes confronting.

We must swiftly transition to systems of renewable energy, recognising that the feasibility and affordability of this transition will demand that we consume significantly less energy than we have become accustomed to in the developed nations. Less energy means less producing and consuming.

We must grow our food organically and locally, and eat considerably less (or no) meat. We must ride our bikes more and fly less, mend our clothes, share resources, radically reduce our waste streams and creatively “retrofit the suburbs” to turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. In doing so, we must challenge ourselves to journey beyond the ecovillage movement and explore an even deeper green shade of sustainability.

Among other things, this means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency. Unpopular though it is to say, we must also have fewer children, or else our species will grow itself into a catastrophe.

But personal action is not enough. We must restructure our societies to support and promote these “simpler” ways of living. Appropriate technology must also assist us on the transition to one planet living. Some argue that technology will allow us to continue living in the same way while also greatly reducing our footprint.

However, the extent of “dematerialisation” required to make our ways of living sustainable is simply too great. As well as improving efficiency, we also need to live more simply in a material sense, and re-imagine the good life beyond consumer culture.

First and foremost, what is needed for one planet living is for the richest nations, including Australia, to initiate a “degrowth” process of planned economic contraction.

I do not claim that this is likely or that I have a detailed blueprint for how it should transpire. I only claim that, based on the ecological footprint analysis, degrowth is the most logical framework for understanding the radical implications of sustainability.

Can the descent from consumerism and growth be prosperous? Can we turn our overlapping crises into opportunities?

These are the defining questions of our time.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander is Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at University of Melbourne.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.





A Degrowth Response to an Ecomodernist Manifesto

29 05 2015

Originally published on the Resillience website, I thought my followers would find this interesting….  having said that, the more work like this I read the more pessimistic I feel anything will be done!  Such is the momentum of the ‘Ecomodernists’

Critique Summary

Authors and Endorsers: Jeremy Caradonna, Iris Borowy, Tom Green, Peter A. Victor, Maurie Cohen, Andrew Gow, Anna Ignatyeva, Matthias Schmelzer, Philip Vergragt, Josefin Wangel, Jessica Dempsey, Robert Orzanna, Sylvia Lorek, Julian Axmann, Rob Duncan, Richard B. Norgaard, Halina S. Brown, Richard Heinberg


A group known as the “ecomodernists,” which includes prominent environmental thinkers and development specialists such as Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, Stewart Brand, David Keith, and Joyashree Roy has recently published a statement of principles called An Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015). Many of the authors of the Manifesto are connected to an influential think tank called The Breakthrough Institute.
ecoutopia
The Manifesto is an attempt to lay out the basic message of ecomodernism, which is an approach to development that emphasizes the roles of technology and economic growth in meeting the world’s social, economic, and ecological challenges. The ecomodernists “reject” the idea “that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse,” and instead argue that what is needed is a reliance on technologies, from nuclear power to carbon capture and storage, that allow for a “decoupling [of] human development from environmental impacts.”
The Manifesto has already received strong criticism from an array of commentators, but none of these assessments has yet critiqued it from the perspective of “degrowth,” which is an approach that sees the transition to sustainability occurring through less environmentally impactful economic activities and a voluntary contraction of material throughput of the economy, to reduce humanity’s aggregate resource demands on the biosphere. From a degrowth perspective, technology is not viewed as a magical saviour since many technologies actually accelerate environmental decline.
With these disagreements in mind, a group of over fifteen researchers from the degrowth scholarship community has written a detailed refutation of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which can be read here. The following is a summary of the seven main points made by the authors of this critique:
1. The Manifesto assumes that growth is a given. The ecological economists associated with degrowth assume that growth is not a given, and that population growth, inequalities, and the decline of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, which spurred the unprecedented growth of the global economy over the past century, means that the limits to growth are either being reached or will be reached in the very near future. The ecomodernists, by contrast, scoff at the idea of limits to growth, arguing that technology will always find a way to overcome those limits. Graham Turner, Ugo Bardi, and numerous others have shown through empirical research that many of the modelled scenarios, and the fundamental thesis, of the Club of Rome remain as relevant as ever—that is, that the human endeavour is bumping up against natural limits. Richard Heinberg has shown that the production of conventional oil, natural gas, and heavy oil all peaked around 2010, despite, but also due to, continued global reliance on fossil fuels, which still make up over 80% of the world’s primary source of energy. The history of industrialism to date suggests that more growth will be coupled with increasing environmental costs. Thus the Manifesto does nothing to question and rethink the growth fetish that has preoccupied (and negatively impacted) the world since at least the 1940s.
 
2. Ecomodernists believe in the myth of decoupling growth from impacts. Long the fantasy of neoclassical economists, industrialists, and many futurists decoupling is the idea that one can have more of the “good stuff” (economic growth, increased population, more consumption) without any of the “bad stuff” (declines in energy stocks, environmental degradation, pollution, and so forth). Yet to date, there has been no known society that has simultaneously expanded economic activity while reducing absolute energy consumption and environmental impacts. In terms of carbon-dioxide emissions, the only periods over the past century in which global or regional emissions have actually declined absolutely have occurred during periods of decreased economic activity (usually a political crisis, war, or a recession). While it is true that many countries have reduced their carbon intensity in recent decades, meaning that they get more bang for their energy buck, efforts to decouple GDP-growth from environmental degradation through technological innovations and renewable energies have failed to achieve the absolute emissions reductions and reductions in aggregate environmental impacts necessary for a livable planet. In short, absolute decoupling has not occurred and has not solved our problems.
3.  Is technology the problem or the solution? The ecomodernists cannot decide. The Manifesto is open and honest about the impact that modern technologies have had on the natural world, and especially emissions from fossil-fueled machines. However, as an act of desperation, the ecomodernists retreat to the belief that risky, costly, and underachieving technologies, such as nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, will solve the climate crisis and energize the sustainable society of the future. The reality, however, is that nuclear power provides less than 6 percent of the world’s energy needs while creating long-term storage nightmares and present-day environmental hazards. We cite Chernobyl and Fukushima as obvious examples. From the point of view of degrowth, more technology is not (necessarily) the solution. The energy crisis can be addressed only by reductions in throughput, economic activity, and consumption, which could then (and only then) create the possibility of powering global society via renewables.
4. Ecomodernism is not very “eco.” Ecomodernism violates everything we know about ecosystems, energy, population, and natural resources. Fatally, it ignores the lessons of ecology and thermodynamics, which teach us that species (and societies) have natural limits to growth. The ecomodernists, by contrast, brazenly claim that the limits to growth is a myth, and that human population and the economy could continue to grow almost indefinitely. Moreover, the ecomodernists ignore or downplay many of the ecological ramifications of growth. The Manifesto has nothing to say about the impacts of conventional farming, monoculture, pesticide-resistant insects, GMOs, and the increasing privatization of seeds and genetic material. It is silent on the decline of global fisheries or the accumulation of microplastic pollution in the oceans, reductions in biodiversity, threats to ecosystem services, and the extinction of species. Nor does it really question our reliance on fossil fuels. It does argue that societies need to “decarbonize,” but the Manifesto also tacitly supports coal, oil and natural gas by advocating for carbon capture and storage. Far from being an ecological statement of principles, the Manifesto merely rehashes the naïve belief that technology will save us and that human ingenuity can never fail. One fears, too, that the ecomodernists support geoengineering.
 
5. The Manifesto has a narrow, inaccurate, and whitewashed view of both “modernity” and “development.” The Manifesto’s assertions rest on the belief that industrialized modernity has been an undivided blessing. Those who support degrowth have a more complex view of history since the 18th century. The “progress” of modernity has come at a heavy cost, and is more of a mixed blessing. The ecomodernists do not acknowledge that growth in greenhouse gas emissions parallels the development of industry. The core assumption is that “development” has only one true definition, and that is to “modernize” along the lines of the already industrialized countries. The hugely destructive development path of European and Neo-European societies is the measuring stick of Progress.
 
6. Ecomodernism is condescending toward pre-industrial, agrarian, non-industrialized societies, and the Global South. The issue of condescension is particularly stark in the Manifesto. There is not a word about religion, spirituality, or indigenous ecological practices, even though the authors throw a bone to the “cultural preferences” for development. Pre-industrial and indigenous peoples are seen as backwards and undeveloped. The authors go so far as to say that humans need to be “liberated” from agricultural labour, as though the production of food, and small-scale farming, were not inherent goods. There is no adoration for simple living, the small scale, or bottom up approaches to development.
 
7. The Manifesto suffers from factual errors and misleading statements. The Manifesto is particularly greenwashed when it comes to global deforestation rates. It suggests that there is currently a “net reforestation” occurring at the international scale, which contradicts the 2014 Millennium Development Report that shows that afforestation and reforestation have, in fact, slowed deforestation rates, but that the world still suffered a net loss of forested land between 2000 and 2010 by many millions of hectares. Research by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Wide Fund for Nature confirms the reality of net forest losses. Further, the Manifesto makes dubious claims about net reductions in “servitude” over the past few centuries, and the role played by pre-historical native peoples in driving the megafauna to extinction.
In sum, the ecomodernists provide neither a very inspiring blueprint for future development strategies nor much in the way of solutions to our environmental and energy woes.




Choosing between our economy and our future

12 02 2015

Christiane Kliemann

A guest post from Christiane Kliemann who writes on postgrowth, alternative economy and societal change. She is a member of the Degrowth 2014 team

The new year has just begun and we’re already inundated with horrible news: two new reports have collected further evidence that human economic activity puts life on Earth at risk, and another shocked us with the fact that the 85 richest people on the planet are as wealthy as the poorest 50% – and that the gap between them is still widening. Not to mention the brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, the ongoing wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine and the devastating situation of refugees.

At the same time, a lot of effort is being spent to reassure us that economic growth and a capitalist economy are essential for solving what some call the “crisis of civilization”.

Growth is the perennial buzzword of the World Economic Forum – and this year is no exception. Delegates keep assuring us that their own profitability is vital for safeguarding humanity, while we ordinary people go about our day-to-day lives: we happily drive our cars, book flights to our next holiday destination and raise our children as we’ve always done.

It seems that we are in collective denial about the threatening implications of reality. We still trust in the old narratives that growth and competition are good, that technology and experts will fix it and that capitalism is history’s ultimate victor.

Not only ecological limits and growing social inequality, but also the increasing violence of fundamentalists of all sorts indicates that it is high time for a new economic and social narrative. An economy that is essentially based on competition will always perpetuate violence and hatred.

Wanted: new economic narratives

Before a new narrative – degrowth, for example – can gain ground, we have to accept that there are only radical options left. We have to choose between our economy and our future.

Even now, degrowth is already appealing to a growing number of people, as last year’s Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig proved.

It embraces many aspects that are common to a rising number of social and ecological grassroots-initiatives around the globe:

  • Integrating social and ecological issues instead of playing them off against each other
  • Replacing economic growth with a holistic idea of wellbeing
  • Turning away from resource-intensive production and industrial agriculture
  • Claiming more democratic participation and co-creation
  • Preferring small and decentralized solutions with short feedback-loops, re-localization of economic cycles and decentralization
  • Prioritizing sufficiency and resilience
  • Creating resilient livelihoods instead of unstable jobs in fragile globalized supply chains

In circles closer to the mainstream, I have personally observed that criticizing the dependence on economic growth and calling for a social-ecological transformation of the economy is welcomed by many.

Doubts and reluctance stem from the widespread perception that transforming the system is unrealistic, given the powerful interests of the elites.

Ordinary people feel subject to, rather than masters of, their circumstances.

In order for the vision of a degrowth society to become broadly accepted as a realistic option, we need to agree on the following points:

  • Growth and climate stability are incompatible
  • Continuous growth does not increase prosperity
  • Growth will soon come to an end anyway
  • After a certain point, the ecological and social price paid for keeping up growth becomes unacceptable
  • Growth and Western consumption patterns are increasingly resented in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The “trickle down” effect has been proven wrong
  • There is no such thing as “green growth
  • Degrowth does not only mean less, but differently, i.e. meeting everyone’s needs more sustainably and equitably with fewer resources
  • Degrowth is not against innovative technologies, but requires them to be administered democratically and “convivially” based on the precautionary principle

It is high time to shape a broad social movement

Despite what corporate interest groups say, we can all understand that a good life does not require ever more traffic, bigger houses, and greater quantities of waste. We cannot square the benefits of “more stuff” when it threatens our ecosystem and coincides with extreme poverty in some parts of the planet.

A good life requires long-term security in meeting everyone’s basic needs: food, shelter, affection, leisure, protection, understanding, health, participation, creation and freedom. All of these requirements are dependent on a healthy planet.

If we take our oft-cited Western values seriously, there is no doubt that we have to change our ways and ensure that our values come before any corporate or private profit.

It is high time to shape a broad social movement that pressures governments and businesses to help adjust consumption and production habits to allow the good life for everyone. We want cooperation instead of competition, common instead of corporate interest, solidarity instead of greed, strong social relationships instead of meaningless consumption, mindful resource stewardship instead of extractivism and compassion instead of indifference. We demand less traffic, fewer mega-projects and more community-based policy.

It is high time to take our future in our own hands and to realize that our current economy is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

Originally published in the Guardian.





Revolution, Part 1: The End of Growth?

2 01 2015

By Nafeez Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

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

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

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

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

Fig1

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

Fig2


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

Fig3

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

Fig4

Fig 4. Global rise in debt to GDP ratio from 2000 to 2013(Source: The Telegraph)
Fig5

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

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

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

Collapse? Or renewal! (or both…?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________

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