Sep 262011

I have been reading an excellent book by Tim Jackson called Prosperity without Growth (there is also a report of the same name online). While he is an economist the book is readable and provides some valuable insights. Firstly he attacks the myth of Decoupling, which is the normal response to the obvious fact that we cannot continue to grow the physical economy for ever on a finite planet. It suggests that we can somehow reduce the physical impact of our economy and therefore continue to grow. The book distinguishes relative decoupling (reducing the impact of each dollar of growth) from absolute decoupling (the reduction of our overall impact). Relative Decoupling has been a general trend over the last 50 years, though carbon intensity has plateaued in the last ten years, while absolute decoupling seems to be a complete myth. Coincidently Gigaom has this wonderful article by Tom Murphy on energy use and growth which reinforces the wishfulness by looking at how long we would take to run out of various sources of energy at a constant 2.3% growth rate. The 2.3% is lower than the actual 2.9% since the start of the industrial age, and was chosen because it represents a 10 fold increase in 100 years. Using 20% efficiency and only covering the total land area of the globe we run out of solar energy in 275 years! Going to 100% efficiency and covering the oceans also gets us an extra 125 years. You get the idea, though he continues – Capture of all solar light energy buys us 1350 years from now, while a whole galaxy worth of stars only gets us out to 2500 years! He points out that we know fairly accurately what humans were doing 2500 years ago, and he knows what we won’t be doing in a further 2500 years.

Back to the book; Jackson points out, as many have, that our current economy is based on continual improvements in productivity, which along with any increase in population, requires growth to be at least the product of the two increases just to stand still. Reducing or stoping growth without the loss of jobs which accompany recessions, requires that we not only stabilise population, but find a way of offsetting that labour productivity, and he points out that there are already many good ways of doing this, from the increased leisure we say we want (but don’t pursue very hard) to community infrastructure and the environment. Critically he also points out that income is only important to wellbeing up to a point. He looks at life expectancy, infant mortality and education versus income and shows that once average income reaches $15,000 per year the best of the “poor countries” meet or exceed western countries. Recommended reading.

Meanwhile in the “real world” talk of zero growth is still likely to mark you as part of the loony fringe, although the current economy, dominated by the large corporate, and slavishly worshiped by our political classes, is showing definite signs of running out of growth room, making viable alternatives rather urgent, and many commentators on the left are starting to demand a change of direction, while those on the right are demanding we become more laissez-faire, meaning we will probably endure a few more increasingly rapid and painful crashes and recessions before we start looking for alternatives. I tend to agree with Leopold Kohr, who 50 years ago was ignored for warning that allowing (even encouraging) our companies and institutions to grow bigger would inevitably lead to collapse.

Speaking of Growth or lack of it, Charlie Brooker has an amusing comment in the Guardian called “If capitalism has failed, how the hell do we pay for our Shreddies?”. I suspect many will agree with him when he says that we knew in our hearts that our current consumer paradise (for some) was unsustainable.

“The complete collapse of capitalism would bring on an identity crisis of staggering proportions. You mean we listened to all those advertising jingles for nothing? We memorised PIN codes and coveted “brands” and shuffled round shopping malls in search of personal validation – and we were wasting our time? And those eerie puppet people who dressed like Apprentice contestants and sat on the Bloomberg channel burping out phrases such as “collateralised debt obligations” and “securitisation” and “facilitate” and “drill-down” and “going forward” – those people were boggle-eyed bullshitting lunatics and the entire system was a tosser’s delusion? None of us could ever have guessed. We didn’t have to guess. We knew. We knew. We knew in our hips and our hearts and our heads that this stuff was nonsense, but we just had to keep going. We had to, didn’t we? Because that’s what everyone else was doing.”

Thomas Friedman asks “Is It Weird Enough Yet?” discussing both the weather and the apparent requirement that Republican candidates deny climate change (and large slabs of science in general).

Meanwhile we keep pushing the envelope, playing a game of double or quits with Gaia, who seems always to collect her gambling debts. Hot Topic, with masterful understatement labels a recent article on CO2 emissions “Not Good News“. Bryan Walker reports that while emissions fell slightly (by 1%) in 2009 they rebounded by 5% in 2010, or more than twice the long term average of 1.9%. This puts us on course for a 3-4 degree rise by the end of the century. He finishes by trying to stave off pessimism by hoping that Paul Gilding is correct in his book The Great Disruption when he predicts a major turnaround sometime this decade when folk see collapse is inevitable. If that’s the good news it’s going to be a rough ride…

It’s worth noting in conclusion that our politicians have committed to keep warming to 2 degrees, though they don’t mention it much, haven’t done nearly enough to achieve it, and are obviously more worried by the absence of growth. They look like they have run out of ideas and are just going through the motions and hoping that things don’t collapse completely on their watch. So maybe another major financial collapse or two would be good news in the long run, if it hammers in the impossibility of endless growth and allows us to focus on what is important to all of us, Not another iGadget, but enough good food, clean water, and the ability to participate meaningfully in society. Tim Jackson calls it “Flourishing within Limits”, the US Declaration of Independence calls it “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and Jimi Hendrix said “I dig anything as long as it don’t hurt anybody”. There are very large differences in social well being between countries, and, at least in Europe, well being is significantly worse in those countries that have promoted consumerism, as well as falling dramatically over the last 30 years. In UK, a study of the health of communities concluded “Even the weakest communities in 1971 were stronger than any community now”.

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