books energy sustainability

The Post Carbon Reader

Here’s a book you might want to be aware of: The Post Carbon Reader is a collection of essays from the good folks at the Post Carbon Institute. It is edited by Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, and I’ll let Richard introduce the book:

The Post Carbon Reader explores key drivers shaping the 21st century, from renewable energy and urban agriculture to social justice and systems resilience. The book features important thinkers and activists: Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Sandra Postel, David Orr, Stephanie Mills and Michael Shuman, among others.

I am particularly excited about this project, as it perfectly showcases the efforts of all my colleagues at Post Carbon Institute, an international think tank dedicated to the transition to a more resilient, equitable and sustainable world.

I woudn’t normally highlight a forthcoming book, but I’m making an exception of this one because there’s a great series of sample chapters available as downloads from the Post Carbon website. I’ve been browsing them this week on the train, and if the rest is as well written and well designed, I’ll enjoy reading the whole book when it comes out in October.

61 comments

  1. The Overview claims that “Climate change, peak oil, freshwater depletion, species extinction, and a host of economic and social problems now challenge us as never before“. I think that most unlikely – it is not supported by the evidence. Nonetheless, I do think that more (nearly all) of us will be living in cities during this century so urban agriculture will become increasingly important. Therefore Chapter 11 (Erika Allen) “Growing Community Food Systems” looks interesting. For more about Erika, see this: http://tiny.cc/bgg2e. I have a special interest as I am developing a community garden project in the UK.

    1. There is something of a tendency to declare climate change to be the biggest challenge in the history of humankind, which looks less likely the more history you read. Taking all the crises together however, we do have a pretty serious looking century ahead of us, and what defines this set of problems is that they are global ones. We’ve not really seen that before, because the population is so much larger and more connected than it has been, and that boom has only happened in the last fifty years or so.

      Whereabouts is your community garden project? Urban gardening is something I’m supporting here in Luton.

  2. Jeremy:

    I don’t think mankind has ever faced a century that wasn’t serious and the twenty-first is unlikely to be an exception. But I’m old enough to have lived through a whole slew of potentially disastrous crises – doom was always just around the corner. Yet, during my lifetime, despite a huge increase in population, less people live in poverty, people are healthier and live longer (child mortality has fallen dramatically), famine has largely been overcome, air pollution has improved and, overall, we are more prosperous and more free. And that has pretty well been the overall pattern throughout the Holocene. And all this has happened, note, without any need to use less or want less or to “make wealth history”. On the contrary it’s increasing wealth that brought about these extraordinary improvements – just consider how China and India are raising millions of people out of poverty.

    Of course, mankind still faces terrible problems and there’s no place for complacency; I have no doubt that ghastly things will happen in the next hundred years. But our history is one of improvement (especially recently) and I see no reason why the future should be any different. For some reason, people seem to be attracted by pessimism. But history is clear: it’s unnecessary and unjustified. Time to cheer up and think positively – we can fix these problems and are very likely to do so!

    As you now know, my community garden project is in St Albans – very close to Luton. I think that, in a very small way, the project matters: urban gardening is exceptionally relevant (for many reasons) in today’s world. As I said above, most of us will be living in cities during this century, so urban agriculture will become increasingly important.

  3. Agreed, increasing wealth has brought all kinds of benefits, and I’m not dismissive of all that’s happened so far. But those benefits haven’t been evenly shared. Our world is hugely unequal, and the problem we now have is that we don’t have enough of the world’s resources for everyone to live like we do.

    There isn’t enough oil, metals, wood, food, or atmosphere for everyone in the world to drive and fly and take part in a throwaway consumer culture. That means that we either continue to live in an unjust world, or we take a step down and make more room at the top.

    That’s the rather specific context of me wanting to make wealth history. If we used fewer resources more efficiently, more people would be able to improve their standard of living. Money isn’t a zero sum game, but materials are, and we use too much. The fact that we’re not any happier than we were thirty years ago shows that living with less isn’t actually a pessimistic scenario.

    1. Jeremy: you raise two very different (albeit related) issues.

      (1) Unequal wealth and an unjust world – with limited room at the top.

      Well, that we are unequal has been the case since mankind walked the earth – for a range of reasons, some good (e.g. leadership gets things done) and some bad (e.g. oppression brings misery). One thing is clear: attempts to change it never succeed. It’s a waste of time and energy. Far better to accept human nature as it is and work with it towards ensuring inequality is channelled towards improved outcomes for all. There are plenty examples of that happening – build on them. One result: the “room at the top” goes on expanding – and (see below) is set to continue to do so.

      (2) “Inadequate” resources making it impossible for most people to improve their standard of living.

      This is simply not so: mankind’s history (recent history in particular) demonstrates time and time again how resources are made available on a wider and wider basis. A major driver for that has, most recently, been the wealth generated in the developed West – I expect that, in the future, it’s more likely to come from the so-called developing economies. Consider, for example, the benefits China is bringing to Africa – albeit because it wants Africa’s minerals etc. to fuel its own rapid growth. Everyone wins. It would be pointless and actually damaging to try to ban, for example, China’s burgeoning prosperity. And, in any case, it would be utterly absurd: there’s not the slightest chance China would be interested.

      It’s been forecast that the oil will run out “soon” for a hundred years. It hasn’t – and I expect it won’t happen for a long time. But, when it looks likely, I’m sure human ingenuity to find a solution. That’s why humans have been so remarkably successful – their story is one of continuing dynamic change.
      The mistake so many make is to assume things will stay as they are, that the future will be a bigger example of the present. Food is a supreme example (you’re wrong to say there isn’t enough as if it were a static resource): thus the Green Revolution (making farmland vastly more productive) has completely transformed Asian agriculture and the oft-predicted mass starvations haven’t happened. And so on (I won’t bore you with other examples): there is every reason to be optimistic. But never complacent: it’s not going to be easy. But then it never was. Nonetheless, today more than 6 billion people live on the planet and experience improving health, food security and life expectancy. And it’s been possible, not by using “fewer resources more efficiently”, but because technologies have changed and thus resources have changed. Huge improvements in standards of living have happened, are happening and will continue to happen. All this would have been unimaginable in, say, 1960. I don’t believe the world today is any different: we cannot imagine the future. But, for most of mankind, it’s likely to be better than the present. And people will surely be happier – how can you possibly know that they’re not happier now than they were 30 years ago – when ill health, starvation, child mortality etc. were far worse than they are today?

      Even if it were possible (it isn’t), “making wealth history” would put all this into reverse. I suggest you think again.

      Apologies for the rant. But I consider this exceptionally important.

      (PS: how about that get together?)

  4. I also consider it exceptionally important, which is why I started this blog and write here every day. Let me put the whole concept another way.

    The ecological footprint of an average Briton is such that if all 7 billion of us lived like we do in the UK, we’d need two more planets worth of cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, fresh water, forest, and air.

    We only have the one planet. That gives us only two choices, as far as I can see it:

    1) We accept that there will always be haves and have nots. That’s easy for us to say, because we’re not in the latter category. In order for us to live as we do, there will need to be a global underclass who are using less than an equal share, so that we can enjoy the surplus. This is our current position and the default choice.

    2) We scale back our lifestyles to something nearer to one planet living. It’s not a return to the dark ages, it’s a rediscovery of the simple truth that more isn’t always better. (See Richard Layard’s book ‘Happiness’) As we contract our resource use, others expand theirs and we converge at a sustainable medium, averting resource conflict along the way.

    As for inequality being inevitable, I don’t buy that for a second. If everybody believed that inequality cannot be changed, then we’d still be living in a feudal society. They would have been called idealists when they started, but people have called for greater equality in access to land, a say in government, and fairer distribution for centuries, and they have succeeded. Our nation is infinitely ‘richer’ for it. Democracy, human rights, and social security are all proof that attempts to change inequality can and do succeed.

    I don’t believe in absolute equality. I’m not a socialist, let alone a communist, and there must always be room for excellence and innovation to be rewarded. But a world where the top quintile owns 85% of the wealth, and the bottom owns 1.4%, is morally repugnant. Greater equality is possible. Even if it wasn’t, a life spent fighting for it would not be wasted.

    1. Jeremy:

      Your belief that the world comprises a fixed resource – with the few gaining at the expense of the many – is wholly mistaken. Worse, it’s an attitude that’s an obstacle to progress.

      Take India. In the 1960s, many “experts” thought that it was incapable of feeding itself. It had too many people on too little land and mass starvation was probably inevitable. It was doomed. Yet that didn’t happen. Far from it: what happened was that a revolution in agriculture – new types of crops, especially wheat, better use of fertiliser, pesticides and machinery, better irrigation, improved storage, processing, trade and communication – transformed yields so quickly that, within ten years, India was exporting wheat. It’s a revolution that continues today (there’s a very long way to go) and it’s been accompanied by increased income, better healthcare, better education, an improved environment and more equality. And it’s happened despite a massive increase in population. Did the “wealthy” have to scale back its lifestyle to make this possible? No – on the contrary, India’s middle class has expanded vastly and today approaches Western levels of prosperity. And that’s the point: it’s a prosperous, inventive, well-educated and growing middle class that, more than anything, has made the overall transformation possible.

      Wake up to reality. India isn’t unique. Mankind’s history has been one of better use of resources bringing improved living standards for more and more people. Since 1900, despite a 400 percent increase in population, per capita food production has increased by 50 percent – and it’s still increasing. More equality (yes, it’s possible), freedom and justice are the consequence not the driver: all this has happened, not by “making wealth history”, but by making more people wealthier.

      And, by the way, far from our needing “two more planets”, developing technology and more intensive agriculture will mean that less land is needed for cultivation, releasing more to nature – think urbanisation/aquaponics, for example. Early humans needed a thousand hectares to stay alive. Soon less than a tenth of a hectare will be needed.

      It’s an exciting prospect and helping it to happen a most worthy enterprise.

  5. Like Robin, I’m sceptical about the case for decarbonising society; what is interesting for me is finding the value in green ways of thinking – saving the “baby” in other words, without the anti-CO2 “bathwater”. And I think there is much of value there, things like energy efficiency, innovation, reducing pollution and waste, building local communities, appreciating and caring for the environment, i.e., green spaces, clean air and water, etc.

    There’s a great example of good “green” thinking here at verticalfarm.com, which gives you a flavour, I think, of what might be possible. My favourite bit from that site, by the way, is: “We cannot go to the moon, Mars, or beyond without first learning to farm indoors on earth.”

    It can be a win-win situation, I feel, if we get to keep our modern technological civilisation and bring more people out of the poverty trap, and we also get to use energy more effectively and conserve nature. But if this way of thinking is to succeed, I think it must appeal to the mass of people – the carrot of saving energy and money, rather than the stick of climate change doomsday scenarios.

    1. I think the ‘bathwater’ you mention there is key to creating a sustainable future. People don’t respond to predictions of doom, but there is a very real opportunity to create a fairer, cleaner, healthier and happier world as we move towards sustainability.

      That’s why I don’t mind being wrong about climate change. It may turn out that the warming we’ve seen has nothing to do with us and is a natural cycle beyond our control. We can’t know for certain. But if we create renewable energy and more efficient houses and public transport and local food networks, then we’re better off anyway.

      That’s the gamble really. I’m not a scientist and it took me a long time to make up my mind about climate change. I’m still sceptical about much of what I read, and there are lies told on both sides. For me the deciding factor is the risk. If there’s even a small chance that we’re responsible, then let’s act on that. Most of what we need to do is worthwhile in its own right.

      Conversely, the price of not acting, and then finding out that the science was right, is pretty disastrous. And since the consequences of climate change fall most heavily on those least responsible, it’s a matter of justice too.

      We can’t wait and see. Ultimately we need to make a decision without knowing for sure whether climate change is anthropomorphic or not. I personally think the consequences are too severe to take the gamble.

    2. Jeremy: you say that “If there’s a small chance that we’re responsible, then let’s act on it … the price of not acting, and then finding out that the science was right, is pretty disastrous … we can’t wait and see … the consequences are too severe to take the gamble”. Put like that, it seems obvious.

      But it’s not. Here’s why.

      First, were the world to make the cuts specified by Kyoto (back to 1990 levels), even protagonists of reduction agree it would achieve little more than a tenth of a degree temperature reduction, making no serious difference to the climate.

      But there is no possibility that even these inadequate cuts will be made – because there is no “we” to take action. Instead, there are a large number of “we”s (the world’s nations), each deciding for itself. And they are failing utterly to agree to cuts. Indeed, the developing economies, led by China, India and Brazil, have made it clear that they have no serious plans to reduce emissions: hence the failures to agree at Copenhagen, at the G20 meeting and last week at Bonn. In the meantime, China, India and South Africa, for example, are expanding their economies largely by building more and more huge coal-powered power stations. Yet these developing economies plus, for example, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela (and anyone who thinks they will make cuts is living in dreamland) already are responsible for two thirds of all emissions. Moreover, we now know that the US is unlikely to do much either.

      Given all this, action by the UK is pointless.

      But talk of cuts ignores the downside: cuts come at a price. They would mean yet further damage to our already tottering economy, with grim consequences for our children’s and grandchildren’s quality of life, for fuel bills and energy availability and for our precious and fragile local environment. But, worse, they threaten poor people in the Third World: more expensive or non-existent energy (a consequence of CO2 restriction) means that clean water, proper sanitation, fresh food, adequate health care, better education, etc. will be either unavailable or hopelessly expensive. Moreover, inadequate energy supply is a major cause of political instability and violence, affecting, in particular, some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

      It would surely be vastly preferable to use some of the billions otherwise wasted on emission reduction in tackling some of the ghastly problems the world faces now – inadequate water supply, disease, inefficient agriculture, etc? And to strengthen our economy so that it will be best placed to cope with whatever disasters the future may have in store.

      1. Now who’s talking about fixed resources? There’s no shortage of money in the world and it’s not an either/or scenario between climate change and poverty. Haven’t you noticed how the leading advocates for action on climate change are the aid agencies? Groups like Oxfam and Christian Aid are making more noise than anyone because they’re working on the ground, and they know that climate change is already destroying livelihoods in poorer parts of the world.

        You’re right that the political processes are broken however. I hope I’m wrong and that our governments will surprise us, but the chances of us getting over our out-dated national interests are slim. That’s why I put my own energies into the Transition Towns movement rather than political campaigning.

    3. Jeremy:

      You say that “Oxfam and Christian Aid are making more noise than anyone because they’re working on the ground, and they know that climate change is already destroying livelihoods in poorer parts of the world“. Not quite. Of course the climate changes (it always has) and some changes can destroy the livelihoods of poor people – in which case, Oxfam, Christian Aid (both of which I have long supported) etc. can make a difference. But no one yet has demonstrated a link between livelihood destruction and mankind’s GHG emissions. Moreover, as I’ve pointed out already, the livelihoods of the vast majority of poor people have improved markedly in recent years. And the driver of that has been economic growth. China and India are prime examples. And they are doing nothing to “tackle climate change”.

      As I noted above, a consequence of such action is that clean water, proper sanitation, fresh food, adequate health care, better education, etc. become either unavailable or hopelessly expensive for poorer people. I was dismayed therefore when Christian Aid, of all people, campaigned (fortunately without success) to block a recent World Bank loan to South Africa to enable it to build a much-needed power station.

      China and India, and other “developing” economies, fully understand this. Of course, it suits them to express diplomatic (and commercial) “green” rhetoric. But it’s quite clear they have no intention of agreeing to emission cuts that would endanger their economic growth – and the benefits it brings to millions of their poorest people. Their support for the World Bank loan exemplifies this reality.

      1. 1. We know that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect. Without the atmosphere’s heat trapping effect earth would not be able to support life.
        2. We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.
        3. Since industrialisation levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have risen from 280ppm to 390ppm.
        4. If there are more heat trapping gases in the atmosphere, one might suspect that more heat is being trapped. Global temperature records show a warming trend of 0.75 degrees over the last century.

        It is not unreasonable to suggest that climate change is caused by human behaviour. It is a theory good enough for the Royal Society and the National Scientific Academies of the US, China, India, France, Russia and just about any country you care to mention, as well as the UN, the EU and the G20. In a survey of climate scientists carried out last year, 97% of them agreed with the mainstream theory.

        If none of that is good enough for you, fine. It’s good enough for me. For India’s need to emit CO2, see contraction and convergence.

    4. Jeremy:

      For some reason, you’re completely missing my point.

      It’s this: whether or not man-made climate change is a valid hypothesis (my view on this is completely irrelevant), the harsh reality is that, as I’ve shown above, led by the developing economies, the world is ignoring the authorities you cite and not taking the actions they say are necessary to reduce emissions. You may believe that’s a horrible mistake. But it’s how it is – emissions will continue to increase into the twenty-first century.

      The developing economies have chosen this course because they are determined to grow their economies – and hence their power and influence in the world. One happy consequence is that hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of poverty. That can only be a matter for rejoicing.

      The best course for us is to strengthen our economy so that we are best able to cope with whatever challenges and disasters may be in store – making paltry reductions on GHG emissions is pointless. And we should do what we can to help those (especially in Africa) who are unlikely to benefit from the developing economies’ success.

      1. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy though, isn’t it – nothing is going to happen, so let’s not bother. There is nothing inevitable about climate change. Choosing not to act because it’s pointless is what everybody wants to do – it conveniently allows us to carry on as usual, and we all get to blame each other if it goes wrong.

        I agree that international cooperation doesn’t look terribly forthcoming, but that’s no reason not to try. Anything else is complacent and self serving.

    5. Jeremy:

      I don’t know where you get the “let’s not bother” bit from. Nor do I, for a moment, think we should “carry on as usual”. Nor am I complacent.

      Look, it’s quite obvious that the developed economies have no intention of reducing emissions. And who can blame them? As Fred Pearce (Guardian journalist) pointed out recently, “The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 40 Nigerians, or 250 Ethiopians“. Yet China today is the world’s second largest economy (this year it grew by 11.9pc in the first quarter and 10.3pc in the second) and the largest CO2 emitter (70% of its energy consumption is based on coal – see this). It’s on course to be the world’s largest economy by at least 2050. Nonetheless, it’s still categorised as “developing” because it’s income per head of its 1.3bn population keeps it at a 127th position in the world league. It has a long way to go. To a lesser extent, similar factors apply to India, Indonesia, Brazil etc. These, like it or not, are the countries driving global growth and, very understandably, they intend to go on doing so. And, as I’ve pointed out, it’s pulling hundreds of millions of hitherto desperate people out of poverty.

      Surely you must agree that that’s a matter for rejoicing. Don’t you, Jeremy?

      But just because emissions are going to continue to increase doesn’t mean that we should sit back and do nothing. On the contrary, there’s a vast amount we should and must be doing. As Alex Cull hints above, it’s what makes the twenty-first century such an exciting challenge. If you allow me, I’ll return to this later.

      1. As I said, see contraction and convergence. Under this mechanism, the developed countries reduce their carbon emissions and ecological footprint, and developing countries expand it until we converge at something more equal. It’s Aubrey Meyer’s idea, and is recognised as the fairest way to deal with climate change at an international level.

        Of course it’s important that poorer countries should grow, but where you and I would part company is that I believe countries like the UK have grown enough. We now need qualitative growth, rather than just aimlessly pursuing GDP.

    6. Whether you approve of Aubrey’ Meyer’s proposal or not (and, on that, I agree with Alex Cull’s comments on that below), there’s no possibility of it working. I suppose the main reason is that it’s inconceivable that the world’s nations would agree to it. But, even if a miracle occurred and they did, it still wouldn’t have the desired effect of curtailing GHG emissions. For two reasons:

      (1) The industrialised West’s contribution to global emissions is such that, even if it were to cut back to 1990 levels (in accordance with the Kyoto Protocol) while the rest of the world continued expand, the result would be no more than a tiny (and ineffectual) dent in continued overall emission growth. That would be true even if it were to cut back to 1970 levels – it’s utterly inconceivable (even if that miracle occurred) that it would go any further. Look carefully at this chart: http://homepage.mac.com/williseschenbach/.Pictures/carbon_emissions_1970_all.jpg (If the link doesn’t work, copy it and paste it into your browser). You’ll see that, whereas the industrialised West’s (including Japan and Australia) emissions were half the global total in 1970, in 2006 they are down to a third – a trend that continues. The real expansion is coming from three sources: chiefly the developing economies (China and India in particular), the special cases (Russia, Iran, the Gulf States, Venezuela etc.) and last (and sadly least) the non-developing countries (notably in Africa). (For relevant data, go to the CDIAC website)

      (2) In any case, the industrialised West has made no progress even in implementing Kyoto. By far the largest emitter is the USA and it’s now clear the legislation (inadequate anyway by Kyoto standards) proposed by the Obama administration will not be enacted. Worse perhaps (see link below), the US is experiencing a coal boom: according to the Associated Press, since 2008 16 coal-fired plants have been completed and 16 more are under construction. These plants, it’s reported, “produce electricity equivalent to that needed to power all the homes in California and Arizona … the environmental equivalent putting 22 million additional cars on the road.”

      So not much sign of contraction there.

      No, Meyer’s is not the way forward. As I said yesterday, there’s a vast amount we should and must be doing. It’s what makes the twenty-first century such an exciting challenge. I hope to find time soon to expand on this in the light of Alex Cull’s interesting post.

      1. I think you’re dismissing Meyer’s ideas too quickly. If you look at the detail, it allows for countries such as China and India to develop, increasing their carbon emissions in the short term. It assumes that everyone has the right to emit the same amount of CO2, and works towards parity by 2100. In the longer term, everyone has to reach the same level, but there is room to get there at a pace that doesn’t destroy any hope of development. The OECD countries begin decarbonising immediately, but emissions from African countries wouldn’t peak until 2050 or later.

        As far as I can see, contraction and convergence is the only equitable way to deal with climate change. It’s the only model that takes both climate change and poverty seriously. I know it’s a big ask, but perhaps I’m less of a pessimist than you have assumed.

    7. Jeremy:

      My point about Meyer’s ideas is that right or wrong (and I’m sure they’re wrong) there’s no possibility of their being implemented. Please read my post above and look at the graph to which I referred: action by the OECD (inconceivable anyway) would make virtually zero difference to emissions. His ideas were initiated ten years ago (when the world was a wholly different place) and they’ve had no traction since then. They weren’t even on the agenda at Copenhagen: and what was on the agenda failed. In any case, it’s too late: China and India are already emitting far more GHGs than Meyer had in mind and (see above) are set to emit far more. And the USA (the world’s second largest emitter after China) is in the process of expanding its fossil fuel usage. It’s a lost cause.

      No, I’m sure the way forward is quite different and very positive – see my comment below on Alex’s post. That is something worth fighting for.

  6. Thank you, I’m aware of the green revolution. But how many people can you feed on an acre of land? 10? 20? 50? How far can you push the diminishing returns of fertilisers and irrigation, especially if they’re based on non-renewable resources? You seem to suggest that this is an infinite process.

    Wonderful things have happened in India, but can every Indian eat meat at the same at the same rate as an American without driving further deforestation in the Amazon? Can every Indian drive a petrol driven car on our current supplies of oil?

    I’m not ignorant of development or markets or world history, nor am I against those things. Make Wealth History is not about putting poverty on a pedestal and refusing progress. It’s about knowing where ‘enough’ lies, about redefining wealth away from the simplistic notion of ‘more’. It’s about the fundamentally illogical proposition that lies behind our current definition of progress: that you can have infinite growth on a finite planet.

    You’re here every day attempting to correct me, but you still don’t seem to have grasped what this site is about.

  7. Hi Jeremy, Robin, just to chip in.. Re Aubrey Meyer, I know that he has stated his position thus: “The choice we face is therefore between making determined, drastic changes now, or doing nothing. There is no middle road.” However, I think it would be a mistake to think in terms of either 100% war on CO2 emissions or 100% indifference/business as usual. And I agree with Robin that an all-out push to reduce man-made CO2 emissions in the near future would be very costly and impracticable (and going by the events at Copenhagen and Bonn, and the prospects for Cancun this winter, it doesn’t look very likely any time soon.)

    Even accepting the IPCC position on the dangers of CO2, it should also be noted that the IPCC expect CO2 to remain in the atmosphere for about 100 years, which would surely mean that the world is committed to decades of climate change anyway (again, I am accepting the IPCC position purely for argument’s sake.) And it would mean that attempts at heroic CO2 abatement over next few decades would not be for our children, or even for our grandchildren, realistically, but for our great-grandchildren, maybe, or their children.

    The danger would, I think, be that by becoming less wealthy and hampering economic growth, we sacrifice the next couple of generations in the attempt to benefit the generations which come after that.

    The premise is that with CO2 levels raised above 350 ppm in the atmosphere (or thereabouts) there will be accelerated sea levels, more droughts, storms and floods, leading to famine, disease, war and climate refugees – general hardship, in other words, mostly affecting poorer countries in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America. By throwing our resources into CO2 abatement – and in doing so, clipping the wings of our developed-world economies and limiting the growth of developing-world economies – we benefit our descendents from the 22nd century onwards, perhaps, but we make ourselves and the next couple of generations more vulnerable to the ravages of the climate change that we are already committed to. (Now I don’t personally accept that that raised levels of man-made CO2 will make the above problems significantly worse, but I’m following a certain line of reasoning here.)

    Let’s say that eventually, after decades of “climate chaos” and hardship, CO2 levels have stabilised at something like 350 ppm. My argument then would be that even if this is so, and the world has also turned its back on fossil fuels, wealth and economic growth, it will still face the sort of natural disasters and climatic extremes experienced historically up to the late 20th century, with episodes like the Dust Bowl in America in the 1930s, like the devastating hurricanes of the early 20th century, rapid warming periods such as the 1920s and early 1700s, Sahel droughts, epidemics, Little Ice Ages, etc. But it will not be able to respond to such changes and disasters as effectively as it can now.

    Because, I would assert, it is wealth that enables societies to respond well to climatic variation and natural disasters, and robustly withstand them. Consider the recent floods in Pakistan – a wealthier society and stronger infrastructure would have helped the Pakistanis immeasurably. Or take earthquakes (a better example perhaps, as no-one seriously believes that CO2 emissions are the cause of these) – Haiti, a very poor country, fared very badly this year while Chile, a relatively wealthy country, fared better. Japan, an even wealthier country, tends to fare better still, when big and destructive earthquakes occur.

    By far the biggest contributors of flood relief aid so far to Pakistan, for instance, have been the wealthier nations. I would argue that wealth is not just about imbalances and inequalities (although these undoubtedly exist) – among other things, it is about having the surplus and the spare capacity to make a difference in the world (in this case, to be able to mobilise people and convey large quantities of materials to where they are needed, using fossil-fuelled ships, trucks, planes and helicopters.)

    This is turning into a bit of an essay (!) so briefly and very broadly, my plan would be something like the following:

    1) Instead of fixating on CO2 emissions in the short term, focus on maintaining the wealth of the developed world and bring the developing world up to strength (by all means, work at making conditions fairer and playing fields more level at the same time.) However, there is a PJ O’Rourke quote which I rather like: “Economics is not zero sum. There is no fixed amount of wealth. That is, if you have too many slices of pizza, I don’t have to eat the box.” Turn aid recipients into wealthy trading partners. And spend money on doing things that make sense whether or not man-made climate change exists. Improve infrastructure, build sea defences, avoid building on flood plains or wetlands, improve hurricane/typhoon warning systems (crucial in the case of Burma in 2008), mop up the disease, war, famine etc., that already exists.

    2) In the medium to long term, develop energy sources that are as good as or better than existing oil/coal based energy. CO2 reduction will be an additional bonus and for those who are concerned about it, as using natural gas, nuclear and future generations of renewables should automatically mean a reduction in man-made greenhouse gases. Fuels like biobutanol to replace petroleum, are another promising medium-term avenue, perhaps.

    The outcome? I suggest it would be that we’d all start or continue to enjoy the benefits of living in wealthier societies, and build a future that is both high-tech and sustainable.

    1. Economics is not zero sum, that’s quite right, but plenty of other things are – in this particular discussion, the atmosphere. If I’m polluting the atmosphere, and you start polluting the atmosphere as well, it will pretty quickly fail us both. So either you need to refrain from joining me in my pollution, or I need to halve my pollution so that we can both safely continue.

      That’s the situation we have with CO2. If the world can’t handle 7 billion people all driving cars, do we want two billion people driving and the other five forced to walk, or all of us on the bus? That’s a crass example, but it makes the point. My philosophy is that a fair world is the better option.

      Maintaining the wealth of the developed world is the default policy, and one we’re pursuing pretty vigorously at present. But we’re mistaken if we think that growth will solve poverty. Out of every $100 of global growth, just 60 cents goes to the poorest. To make the poorest countries even a tiny bit better off, the global economy would have to be several times larger – and it’s not sustainable at its current size. I’ve explored the idea of economic growth on a separate website, beyondgrowth.co.uk, if you’re interested.

    2. Thank you, Alex. An excellent analysis and prescription: I agree with both.

      Throughout human history, growth and its consequence, wealth, have been the drivers of increased overall prosperity and well being. It’s what humans do – it’s why they’re unique. And not only does wealth enable each generation to live longer, healthier lives than its predecessor, it enables continual improvements in humans’ ability to help themselves and each other when things go wrong – as they always will. Alex’s example of infrastructure in and aid to Pakistan illustrates this perfectly. Consider this: in September/October 1887, nearly one million people died in flooding in China. Would so many have died, had modern technologies (communications, transportation, medicine, etc. – all the products of the wealthy West) been available? I don’t think so. Since the nineteenth century, technological improvement – derived from wealth – has been astonishing. There’s every reason for equally astonishing improvement in the next hundred years. Unless, that is, we foolishly try to stop its driver: mankind’s urge for wealth creation. No one can know what disasters lie in store for us – a major asteroid strike, a massive volcanic eruption, catastrophic climate change, nuclear war? But we do know that, with more new and improved technologies, we will all be better able to cope. Even perhaps to survive.

      Here’s an example. When enterprising, innovative, creative Western technologists developed the mobile phone, it was widely seen as a rich man’s toy: remember those ghastly red-braced “masters of the universe” with their brick-sized phones? No one imagined that, within just a few years, it would become widespread in Africa – a continent without inadequate land lines – giving small businesses access to finance, enabling farmers to find the best prices for their produce and providing health workers with undreamed of opportunities to help the sick. It’s proved to be a completely unplanned and revolutionary change.

      A similar (and related) change is the Internet. It’s enabled millions of ordinary people throughout the world – provided they can afford (as many increasingly are) to have access to energy, telecommunications and computers – to exchange ideas and innovations freely, openly and usually without charge. As was noted recently, “dot-communism” has made Marx’s dictum – from each according to his ability, to each according to his need – much nearer realisation than he ever achieved.

      Jeremy, your post above illustrates perfectly what I have in mind:

      1. Your atmospheric pollution point is not how things work. Today China’s air pollution is the worst in the world. It comes mainly from pollutants in the flue gases of coal-fired power stations: particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides and mercury. But changes in technology (mostly devised in the affluent West, but increasingly in the developing East) mean that it’s become possible to virtually eliminate such pollutants. And China’s new power stations incorporate these technologies. Thus things don’t stand still: technological change means overall air pollution will reduce as energy usage increases.

      2. Likewise your point about cars. Yes, global wealth is set to increase: the IPCC’s projections assume that people in 2100 will on average be four to eighteen times as wealthy as people today. But this will take time so seven (rising to nine) billion people will not demand cars immediately. And, as the world will not continue as it is, by the time they do, technological change will have altered transportation beyond our imagination. Remember: at the end of the nineteenth century, “experts” thought an obstacle to increased wealth would be the mountains of horse dung in city streets.

      3. And your sixty cents of every hundred dollars of global growth going to the poorest point cannot be correct. Look how growth made the Internet and mobile phones possible: did anyone think at the outset that was going to benefit many of today’s poorest people? Who knows which of today’s developments will have the same effect in the future? In any case, China, India etc. generate by far the greater part of the world’s growth today – and that’s already brought massive improvement to hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people.

      These changes have happened within a few recent years. Long may such change continue: it’s why growth has not been hampered despite our living on a finite planet. It offers the prospect of a fairer, more prosperous and better world – a world where fewer people are slaves to survival and more have the time for enterprise and innovation. But it may not continue. It’s threatened by thugs, bullies and dictators who want to keep any benefits to themselves, by bureaucrats who want to plan and regulate change, by governments and “authorities” that feel their status is threatened or want to protect their favoured industries – and, I regret to say, by honest, well meaning ideologues who are sure that limiting growth is what’s best for their fellow humans.

      That, Jeremy, is why I suggest you might wish to reflect on, even reconsider, your belief that we should “make wealth history”.

      1. I refer you to this UN Department of Economic Affairs paper, Growth is Failing the Poor, where the 60 cents figure comes from. Growth doesn’t solve poverty, or not nearly as fast as it should. Britain’s economy doubled in size between 1991 and 2001, and the number of people living in poverty went from 13.9 million to just 13.8 million. Egypt has seen growth rates of 7% in recent years, but the government admits that 9 out of 10 Egyptians haven’t benefited and the number of people living on less than $2 a day has risen from 20% to 44%.

        Growth is not the same thing as progress, and less growth does not have to mean returning to the past.

        You don’t believe in man made climate change, so you see no problem with ongoing growth. I do believe climate change has an underlying human cause, I came to the conclusion that growth was not possible in a world of climate change, and I have since found a whole movement that says the same thing. It is small, but it is growing, and it is far more thought out than you think. Economists including Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill believed that the economy would stop growing at some point, when we had reached ‘enough’.

    3. In my above post, the reference in the fifth line, third paragraph should, of course, have been to “a continent with (not ‘without’) inadequate land lines”. Apologies.

  8. Jeremy:

    Here’s something for you to ponder this weekend:

    The Chinese economy is the powerhouse of global growth. It’s been growing at a rate of over 10% per annum for the past thirty years, far surpassing any other country. You’ll find some facts here.

    Today China is, alia, the world’s largest car market and energy consumer; it’s home to four of the world’s ten largest companies. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, at its current rate of growth it will, by 2020, surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.

    The result? Well, according to a recent UN report, a direct result of this growth is that China has “generated the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed” and is already achieving “the goal of halving the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015 set by the UN as one of eight Millennium Development Goals.” Hmm…

    A quotation from the People’s Daily Online:

    China has increasingly become the nascent engine house of the global economy with its continuous galloping growth for decades [helping] more people out of poverty than any other country in history. Since the policy of reforms in late 1970s, the number of people living in absolute poverty (unable to adequately feed themselves) has declined from one in four in 1978 to one in twelve today (less than 100 million people). The number of extreme poor has been reduced by 300 million.

    I’ve invited twice you to agree with me that this is a matter for rejoicing. You’ve yet to reply.

    1. Yes, it is a matter for rejoicing when people are lifted out of poverty. I grew up in Africa, and I was passionate about poverty long before I started thinking about the environment.

      Here’s the problem, and I quote from Pan Yue, China’s deputy minister for the environment, talking about his country’s growth ‘miracle’:
      “This miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace. Acid rain is falling on one third of the Chinese territory, half of the water in our seven largest rivers is completely useless, while one fourth of our citizens does not have access to clean drinking water. One third of the urban population is breathing polluted air, and less than 20 percent of the trash in cities is treated and processed in an environmentally sustainable manner. Finally, five of the ten most polluted cities worldwide are in China.”

      As China realises the price they are paying for economic growth, they are emerging as the world leader in new technologies too. China has more installed solar power than any other country. They are pumping more public money into research and development than anyone else. China will need to decarbonise too, and it will be better placed to do so than most.

      I’m all for growth in the right places. Here’s something for you to think about over the weekend: In a finite world, is it possible for anything to grow forever?

    2. Yes – but, Jeremy, it is five years since Pan Yue said “this miracle will end soon”. It hasn’t – nor will it. His comments about lack of clean drinking water, urban pollution, etc. are sadly still true. But here’s the remarkable thing: despite extraordinary growth since that Spiegel article, they’re all improving. China is not paying a price for economic growth. For example, you seem to have forgotten what I said as recently as last Thursday: yes, China’s air pollution is the worst in the world (mainly from pollutants in the flue gases of coal-fired power stations – particulates, carbon monoxide, sulphur etc.) but recent changes in technology make it possible to virtually eliminate such pollutants. And China’s new coal-fired power stations incorporate these technologies. As I said, things don’t stand still: technological change means air pollution will reduce as energy usage (in China’s case, that means fossil fuels – they show no serious intent to “decarbonise”) increases.

      Think about this: the world isn’t, as you think, finite. Why? Because mankind’s ingenuity is infinite.

      1. I had a bet with myself that you’d say that. Human ingenuity is the easiest of easy answers, but history says something quite different. From the Greenland Norse to Easter Island, it’s littered with stories of people who bumped up against the limits of their geography. Have you read Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’? Yesterday was calculated as the day that we overshot the earth’s biocapacity for the year. Let me guess, you don’t agree? And even if you did – we’ll think of something.

        The earth hangs in a all kinds of delicate balances, and is finite in innumerable ways – limited capacity to absorb CO2, nitrogen, or CFCs, limited quantities of fossil fuels and metals available to us, natural limits to population numbers, limited supplies of fresh water, limited regeneration rates of wild fish and ancient woodland.

        In 1997 a new record was set for the most people crammed into a phonebox. The group probably thought they’d reached the limits of the phonebox at 12, but human ingenuity found a way of pushing that to 14 in 2003. We’re dealing with a different scale, but exactly the same logic. To say that the world isn’t finite is the same as saying you can fit an infinite number of people into a phonebox.

    3. BTW, it seems that Pan Yue may have been ousted. I trust not: there is a massive and, it seems thanks because his efforts, achievable need for China to sort out its many environmental problems. (But China obviously doesn’t think is “decarbonisation” one of them – and I agree.) His successor, Wu Xiaoqing, has said, “We must be very strict in applying environmental standards.” Let’s hope that’s true.

    4. Well spotted, Jeremy. Yep – it’s the essence of my message that mankind’s limitless ingenuity differentiates us from other animals and accounts for our continuing success. The result is evident: we will soon have expanded our population to ten billion from less than ten million ten thousand years ago; and, despite that expansion, the lifespan, health and prosperity of the vast majority has increased vastly – with, despite our “finite planet”, better and improving access to clean water and fresh air. Yes, there are terrible exceptions. But, as we’ve discussed, their numbers are reducing at an extraordinary rate.

      Yet, despite this record, we’ve been continually and gloomily warned – often by the most eminent people – that “if we continue like this, humanity is doomed”. They’ve been right: but we prospered. Why? Because we never “continue like this”. We change, we adapt, we invent, we discover – knowledge doesn’t stop growing. The results are always inconceivable by the preceding generation (e.g. the internal combustion engine and the internet). That will continue. Of course, there have been (and will be) setbacks – usually when greed, selfishness, violence and “authority” get in the way. But they were the exception. BTW, you chose two poor examples. The Easter islanders died out (that much cited “parable of our time”) because of population abduction (to crew whaling ships and for use as slaves in America and Peru), VD and smallpox. This was not eco collapse. And even Diamond accepts that the Norse failure in Greenland (after hundreds of years of success) had multiple causes. Probably the most important was (wait for it) climate change: they were unable to cope with the transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age (cooling is far worse than warming).

      Even your examples of “delicate balances” are flawed. For example, the Earth has survived much higher concentrations of CO2, fossil fuels are far from exhaustion (e.g. even at present rates of use (massive) there are hundreds of years of coal supplies available), there is no reason to believe in a “natural limit” on population (wherever did you get that horrible idea?) and the technology of fresh water supply is improving rapidly – e.g. drip irrigation – and hydroponics has huge potential re water and land use. Sure, there are serious problems: over-fishing, topsoil misuse and financial disasters are three. But we’ll fix them.

      Oh yes, I thought you’d mention “Earth Overshoot Day” (groan -they get paid for telling us this stuff). But I was surprised that you didn’t also mention Professor Guy McPherson’s view that “Global climate change threatens our species with extinction by mid-century if we do not terminate the industrial economy soon”.

      Shudder: we’re all doomed, I tell you – doomed. Nonsense.

      1. Robin, do you ever stop to wonder how we managed to avoid all those various catastrophes? Don’t you think it was because people warned about them? Environmentalists are in the business of warnings, not prophesies. It’s always conditional – if we don’t change, these things will happen. Nothing I talk about on this blog is inevitable. You’re far too quick to dismiss serious problems as doom-mongering and pessimism.

        What if Norman Borlaug had taken the same view on hunger? The situation would never have changed. Unfortunately when catastrophe is averted, it seems to subject any further catastrophes to diminishing returns. ‘They went on about leaded petrol and nothing ever happened. They predicted doom over acid rain, and that never happened – why should we pay any attention to climate change or peak oil?’ Sometimes we get it wrong and mountains are made out of molehills (Europe’s attitude to GM food could be one of those, but that’s a different story), other times we see the warnings and our changes stop the predictions from happening. I agree that we’re an inventive species, but necessity is the mother of invention. You have to match your much vaunted human ingenuity to a grasp of the real issues that we face. Ironically, you dismissing every hint of disaster is more likely to suppress innovation than encourage it.

        I’m very sceptical of people like the Optimum Population Trust, by the way, but I’ll tell you where I got the ‘horrible’ idea of natural limits for population – from biology class at school. You can see it at work in the comfort of your own home if you buy a fish tank and then add another fish to it every day. As with my previous comment, can you follow your own logic through here? What you’re suggesting is that there are no limits and the earth is to all intents and purposes infinite. So we can have ten billion people, we can have twenty billion, 50 billion, 100 billion? Your logic is the same as suggesting you can fit an infinite number of people into a phonebox, or an infinite number of fish into a tank.

    5. Jeremy:

      You probably don’t realise how funny I find that. In was in charge of the Government’s Y2K (the so-called Millennium Bug) project. And, yes, our warnings were continually taken as predictions (remember: “experts say that planes will fall from the sky”). But the problem was real, our warnings were heard and, thank goodness, it was largely solved. So, yes, warning can be essential – if the problem is real and practical solutions proposed.

      But saying that we must “terminate the industrial economy soon” isn’t warning, it’s plain doom-mongering. You know that.

      Norman Borlaug is one of my heroes. But he did more than warn. He ignored the pessimists who insisted that India was on the brink of famine and, based on the work of Cecil Salmon and Orville Vogel, was already working to solve the problem. India’s wheat revolution took off in the same year that environmentalist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb was published saying it was absurd to think India would ever feed itself. Spot the difference?

      Borlaug is a prime example of the power of human ingenuity. Humanity keeps producing such people (people who do exactly as you say: they apply ingenuity to real issues) – that’s why I’m an optimist. Incidentally, you won’t be surprised that I agree about GM food.

      As to population, a remarkable feature of today’s world is just how quickly birth rates are falling – it’s an inevitable consequence of increased wealth (which bizarrely you think should be “history”). In India, for example, the rate has fallen from 5.9 children per woman in the 1950s to 2.6 today. The boom is over. The UN predicts world population will peak at 9.2 billion this century and fall thereafter. If that’s correct – and there’s every reason to think it is – there’s every prospect of feeding the world for ever.

      How’s that for optimism?

      1. Let me quickly remind you that it was you that quoted McPherson, as I don’t subscribe to that kind of unrealistic, all-or-nothing sentiment. We can’t ‘terminate the industrial economy’. That is indeed doom mongering, and since it’s just as impossible as infinite growth, it’s actually a lazy answer. I advocate slowing down, backing up a little and redistributing. And I believe in practical action and real solutions.

        You probably don’t believe it yet, but we have optimism in common. I’m confident that we’ll be able to feed the world at 9.2 billion. The point I make on this blog is that we won’t be able to feed everyone if we all insist on eating like Americans. We have a definition of wealth that includes driving cars, eating beef, living in a big house and flying on exotic holidays. It’s an incomplete and unsustainable definition, and it is that sense that we need to make wealth history.

    6. Jeremy:

      I should have explained why I found the idea of a natural limit on population “horrible”. It’s because the concept raises echoes of the coerced reduction policies of the twentieth century. At one time, ending the “freedom to breed” was a widely accepted policy in so-called civilised countries. As usual, it was seen to be governments’ duty to impose top down action.

      But now we know that, when people are given the opportunity to get wealthier, birth rates fall without coercion. Yet you oppose wealth. So I was bound to wonder what measures you had in mind. Now I learn you are sceptical of the Optimum Population Trust, I’m reassured – although I still wonder how you think humanity should deal with what you obviously think is a problem.

      1. Yes, that’s exactly why I find talk of population limits difficult. One of the key formulas for sustainability is ‘population x consumption = ecological impact’, and people often pick a side. OPT says there are too many people, while most green groups blame it on consumption. I say the starting point should be per capita consumption – if 20 Ethiopians have the same environmental impact as 1 American, the problem is clearly not Ethiopia’s. That’s why I advocate contraction and convergence, because it says that if the Americans had a little less, the Ethiopians can have more, we’d all have a sustainable ‘enough’.

        The great news on population is that it is education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, and women’s rights that brings birth rates down – and that’s how I would tackle the problem. If all the energy spent fretting about population was channeled into poverty campaigning, it would solve the problem without raising the spectre of coercion.

    7. You’re getting close to my position in that last sentence. But I’m not sure what you mean by “poverty campaigning” – I don’t think that’s what’s solving it in India and China. The answer, in my view, is always economic improvement. Then people insist on a cleaner local environment, better healthcare, improved education – and have fewer babies. So encouraging local enterprise is the key. And that usually means access to assured electric power. (That’s why Christian Aid was so wrong about that power station in South Africa.) Effort there can pay off – trying to get Americans to “have a little less” is a waste of time. They won’t listen.

      Here’s an interesting statistic: the gap between rich (big consumers) and poor in China has increased but the millions of Chinese lifted out of poverty means that, globally, the rich/poor gap has reduced. Making people less rich isn’t the answer.

      The good news is that both the OPT and the greens are wrong: the dreaded population explosion is already over.

  9. Jeremy, Robin, I was going to respond re the mentioning of Jared Diamond earlier, but I see the debate has moved on since then! I remember writing glowing reviews of his books, and still consider him a very interesting and readable author. For various reasons since then, though, I’ve changed my mind somewhat, regarding the case he sets out in Collapse. As Robin points out, there are other sides to the story about the Rapa Nui culture on Easter Island, for instance (here’s‘s an essay by anthropologist Benny Peiser which also puts forward a different case to Diamond’s). It could be argued, perhaps, that the Rapa Nui people did have a sustainable society – until they came up against Europeans – and that their story might have been better told in Guns, Germs and Steel.

    One thing that is great about this site, Jeremy, is that although I don’t find find myself agreeing with everything here, it does prompt serious thought about some very fundamental questions – how is wealth defined, what is growth, etc. Re slowing down and contracting the UK’s economy, for instance – reducing our share of the world’s wealth, in other words, so that other regions of the world get a larger slice of the pie (while ensuring that not too much of the planet’s resources end up as ingredients for that pie, if I’m understanding this correctly) I would be curious to know what steps you would personally recommend to achieve this, and how you would measure success or failure (I’m looking through the beyondgrowth web site you linked to, and this has some interesting ideas but these seem more on the lines of pointers or suggestions.)

    Diverting part of the Western world’s wealth and redistributing it to places such as Sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh – how would this be carried out in a way that could have a significant effect, for example, on CO2 levels and climate change? (I’m being my own Devil’s Advocate here!) Would you recommend an international system of energy/carbon tax mechanisms, for example, such as the “carbon ration card” scheme David Miliband was talking about in 2006?

    Another question, which I suppose comes at the matter from a different angle, is: is there an existing nation or region with a general level of wealth/standard of living that you think the UK should emulate and downsize to? Presumably not the US, Japan or Switzerland (too wealthy), nor Uganda, Nepal or Papua New Guinea (not wealthy enough); maybe Chile? Or New Zealand? Or Norway? Or is this too simplistic, and perhaps there is no country or region yet which could serve as a useful benchmark?

    I suppose that what I’m getting at, and what my query might boil down to, is what would the average UK citizen have to have less of, in order to achieve what you would consider a real solution?

    1. hi Alex, interesting points about Rapa Nui. I’ve read the article you linked to and will be careful how I speak of the place in future.

      That’s also a whole series of good questions, and it deserves a good answer, so excuse me if I take a little while to respond in full. I suppose the site almost needs a kind of manifesto. I’ll make some notes and write something later over the weekend, and I might add it as a post so that more people can join the discussion.

      To respond to the middle bit, I will just say that there’s no country right now that is modelling sustainability well. I think there are a number of different countries that we could learn specific things from – Sweden’s plans to become oil-free by 2020 for example, or Cuba’s de-centralisation and urban agriculture policies. Some individual regions and cities are getting it right too, like Curitiba in Brazil, which is considered to be one of the best planned cities in the world. We’ve already started following Germany’s lead on renewable energy. I think we’ll end up picking and choosing from best practice all over the place.

      As for the standard we’ll finally settle on, I’m not sure. There is a useful tool that might provide some clues however, the Happy Planet Index from the new economics foundation. It measures quality of life (life satisfaction and life expectancy) against environmental impact (ecological footprint), rating countries according to how well they are delivering good lives to their citizens . You can score badly either way – through poverty or through overconsumption – so it gives an unusual perspective. The global winner is in fact Costa Rica, which has comparable life expectancy to the UK (78.6 vs 79) and higher life satisfaction, with uses less than half of the resources.

      What the HPI demonstrates is that you don’t need a high level of consumption to live a healthy, happy and fulfilling life. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to downsize to the living standards of Costa Rica, but it does rather puncture the notion that any movement backwards would be a disaster.

    2. Jeremy:

      I look forward to your detailed response to Alex. In the meantime, I had a look at The Happy Planet Index as you recommended. But I was unimpressed when, in the third paragraph of the Executive Summary, I read this:

      The dogmas of the last 30 years have been discredited. The unwavering pursuit of economic growth – embodied in the overwhelming focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – has left over a billion people in dire poverty …

      That is wholly misleading. Yes, it’s sadly true that there are today a billion people in dire poverty. But 30 years ago there were many more: as I point out above, one of the most remarkable features of recent years has been the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. How has that been achieved? Simple: by the unwavering pursuit (largely in China and India) of economic growth. And the best hope for today’s billion (mainly in Africa) is (ahem) economic growth.

      Here’s another extract:

      … the problems that plagued us before, risk becoming even more acute: more than half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day; inequality continues to rise …

      Again, that’s misleading: far from “becoming more acute”, earlier problems – short life expectancy, poor health, grinding poverty, inadequate food and water supplies, growing populations, etc. – although still dreadful, are becoming less acute. And, yes, it’s true that “inequality continues to rise”. And where is that most marked? Well – it’s China. But it’s also China which has, according to a recent UN report, “generated the most rapid decline in absolute poverty ever witnessed.”

      There are doubtless some useful things in The Happy Planet Index. But it’s hard to take it seriously when it starts by getting the basics so hopelessly wrong. It would be far more useful and practically optimistic to read this article in today’s Economist. Entitled How to feed the world, it tells of Brazil’s agricultural miracle. Some extracts:

      THE world is planting a vigorous new crop: “agro-pessimism”, or fear that mankind will not be able to feed itself except by wrecking the environment. The current harvest of this variety of whine will be a bumper one.

      The world has been here before. In 1967 Paul Ehrlich, a Malthusian, wrote that “the battle to feed all of humanity is over… In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.” [See above re how India proved this hopelessly wrong]

      [And another country has done the same] … a large net food importer [it] decided to change the way it farmed. … it decided to expand domestic production through scientific research, not subsidies. Instead of trying to protect farmers from international competition—as much of the world still does—it opened up to trade and let inefficient farms go to the wall.

      The country was Brazil. [And] Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. [In contrast, Brazil] depend[s] critically on new technology. … Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

      Exactly.

  10. The Happy Planet Index proves that GDP is not the be all and end all – here are countries that have boosted their GDP through the roof, and yet their citizens are living less fulfilling lives than elsewhere. Other places, like Costa Rica, are delivering high quality of life with half the resource use.

    GDP is discredited – critics include Nicolas Sarkozy and even David Cameron. Growth alone is an abstract. What is growing, and who benefits? Don’t forget that oil spills, debt, drug addiction, or obesity all contribute to GDP. Growth in itself may or may not be a good thing.

    As I have pointed out before, the pursuit of growth alone will not solve poverty, because global growth is so unevenly distributed that the wealthy countries would need to get far, far richer before the poorest would see even a slight rise in their wellbeing. Since we do not have enough resources for the wealthiest to get massively richer, pursuing growth is a fools errand.

    But don’t take my word for it. Look up the Campaign for a Steady State Economy. Read Tim Jackson’s book ‘Prosperity without growth’, or the new economics foundation’s report ‘growth isn’t possible‘. These are not theories that misunderstand the basics – the basics are themselves wrong.

    1. Obviously, GPD is “not the be all and end all”: mankind should not pursue growth alone. That’s surely obvious. But there’s no doubt that it’s economic growth that’s got so many people out of poverty. Nor is there the slightest doubt that those people are now living vastly more fulfilled lives. I doubt if many of them worry about debt, drug addiction or obesity. So there are hundreds of millions of people who have benefited directly from the pursuit of GDP and are already seeing a significant rise in their wellbeing. Jeremy: why are you so reluctant to accept that? Would those people agree with you that “pursuing growth is a fool’s errand”? I don’t think so. China’s success is the clearest proof that anti-growth economics are misplaced and that the assertions I quoted from The Happy Planet Index are simply incorrect. The basics are not wrong. GDP s not discredited.

      BTW, the fact that Sarkozy and Cameron are critical of GDP doesn’t do much to convince me.

      1. Robin, I am not remotely reluctant to agree that economic growth has lifted some people out of poverty. I’ve said as much several times in this conversation now. I am as strong an advocate as anyone for growth in the developing countries. But why do we need to grow any further in the UK? Why does the US need to grow? Or Switzerland, or Kuwait?

        Global growth is so unevenly shared that the vast majority of it goes to those who are already living in luxury. What the system fails to recognise is that since we have already overshot the earth’s biocapacity, further growth and further poverty alleviation will only come at the cost of further environmental degradation. China is proof of that too.

        Some countries need to grow. Others need to shrink. That, by the way, is the principle of contraction and convergence.

    2. Jeremy:

      So growth is OK in developing economies? Hmm – but these are the very economies that are consuming the bulk of the world’s resources. There, and not in the stagnant West, is where nearly all the world’s growth is occurring these days: see (again) this graph. China, for example, is already the world’s second largest economy and is set to be the biggest by 2020. When does their growth stop being OK?

      Yes, China is proof that growth can bring environmental degradation. But so was Europe when it first industrialised. And we learned how to overcome it. So will China – I’ve mentioned already how its latest coal-fired power stations are using new (Western developed) technologies to to clean up flue gas pollutants.

      And that raises another point: it’s largely the many technologies (communications, computers, agriculture, healthcare, medicine, transportation, power generation, etc.) developed as a direct result of the West’s growth and resulting wealth that are doing so much to resolve the developing economies’ problems. Do you really want to bring that process to a halt? I rather doubt it.

      Perhaps the answer is to rename this blog: “Make Nasty (Western) Wealth History (unless, that is, it helps the poor) but it’s OK to encourage Nice Wealth elsewhere.”

      1. Two things Robin:

        1) Per Capita. China and India’s economies are vast because their populations are vast. Their consumption levels per capita are far below ours and it simply isn’t true to say that they are consuming ‘the bulk of the world’s resources’. There will be further growth in India and China, and the big challenge to them is to distribute that wealth better, otherwise it won’t end poverty. And don’t get hung up on India and China. There are places that desperately need growth, especially in Africa.

        2) Enough. You ask when China and India’s growth stops being okay, and the answer is when people have enough. And that’s why I’m against further growth in the west. It serves no purpose, and if it’s only to satisfy our own greed for some infinite more, I think we should stop and pursue a higher calling.

        I really do recommend reading some of the literature around this. ‘Prosperity without growth’ is a very important book, ‘The Spirit Level’ is another. I don’t suppose you ever read ‘The Limits to Growth’ either.

    3. Jeremy:

      But I didn’t say that China and India are consuming the bulk of the world’s resources. What I said was that the developing economies are so doing. And, to illustrate that, I referred you to a graph showing that the carbon emissions of the US and Europe were, five years ago, little more than 25% of the global total – and the gap has widened since then. Yes, it’s absolutely true that the developing economies’ consumption levels per capita are far below ours. But what that means is that that gap will just get wider and wider and …

      And where do you get the idea that “the big challenge to [China and India] is to distribute that wealth better, otherwise [they] won’t end poverty”? As I’ve already pointed out, the gap between rich and poor in China is getting wider. But China’s lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty means that, globally, the gap is getting narrower. An interesting paradox you may think. But it indicates that increased wealth at one end of the Chinese economy correlates with less poverty at the other – i.e. the precise opposite of your view.

      Then you say that I shouldn’t get hung up on India and China – and cite Africa as an area that desperately needs growth. As you know, I wholly agree. Let’s hope Indian and Chinese success can be replicated there.

      As for China and India stopping when people have “enough”. Well one problem, Jeremy, is that people never think they have enough. The Chinese and Indians will be no different – and, anyway, the date when these countries will have eliminated poverty is so far in the future that the matter is academic. Re the West, there isn’t much growth now anyway and I fear that will continue. And you haven’t answered my question: how would you distinguish “nice” Western growth (where it benefits poorer peoples) from “nasty” growth – especially when the products of the latter (say the mobile phone and innovative medicine) turn out to benefit poorer peoples as well?

      As for reading the literature: well, I followed your reference to The Happy Planet Index and I found it contained egregious errors in the opening paragraphs (see my post above). Not very encouraging.

      1. Your graph referred to carbon emissions, not consumption of resources.

        The challenge to India and China is to share the wealth or risk internal conflict. Both countries have millions of dissatisfied citizens who fear they aren’t getting their share of the boom. Some of them have already taken to the streets, and some have taken up arms against the state, Northern India’s communist rebels for example. Since China is paying a pretty high environmental price, further growth could actually become ‘uneconomic’ – the environmental costs will be more than the growth is worth. In that case it will slow, and millions of people will never get their share. I’m aware that the gap between the rich and poor in these places is wide, and that’s precisely why I mention it.

        I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that ‘western’ growth is ‘nice’ and benefits the poor, so I don’t know how to answer your question. Western growth doesn’t actually benefit the poor in the grand scheme of things. And what are you describing as ‘nasty’ growth here?

    4. Jeremy:

      I feel I should expand on my contention that the developing economies, and not the industrialised West, are today consuming the bulk of the world’s resources. I’ve shown you a graph of CO2 emissions which shows clearly that the industrialised West is today consuming quite a small proportion of fossil fuels and I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog how China, for example, has cornered a monopoly of the dwindling resources of “rare earth metals” and lithium essential for so-called “green” technologies: especially electric cars, low energy light bulbs and windmills. But then we might consider other historically more basic commodities such as copper and you’ll find again that China is the biggest consumer. I could go on – but you’ll get my point: it’s not the “greedy” West that’s creating your problem.

      But is it a problem anyway? I think not. Here are a few pointers for you. Enhanced techniques of food production are greatly increasing the capacity of the world’s farmland – see my post above (August 27) about Brazil’s agricultural miracle. And even the perception of what are “resources” is changing: glass fibre is replacing copper wire, electrons are replacing paper, software is becoming more important than hardware, completely new ways of generating energy are being developed. These are all the products of Mankind’s boundless ingenuity. That’s why The Limits to Growth to which you drew my attention (I was well aware of it) got things so hopelessly wrong – it (and other alarmist books) assume things will stay as they are, that the future will be a bigger example of the present. That’s not what happens: humanity’s extraordinary story has been one of continual dynamic change.

      And another point: in recent years, most of that ingenuity has been the direct result of the wealth created in the West: there’s no time for ingenuity when you’re worried about the next meal. (This will change as other economies become wealthier.) Yet you want to “Make (western) Wealth History”. Apart from being a hopelessly impractical ambition, if successful it would be totally self-defeating.

      1. So you haven’t read The Limits to Growth – I didn’t think so. I have, and they don’t assume that things will stay the same. Their research includes dozens of different scenarios, including factoring in all kinds of optimistic resource discoveries or technological breakthroughs. All these do is delay rather than cancel our eventual encounter with the limits, which you deny exist anyway.

        On your faith in human ingenuity, here’s why I believe it is misplaced: ingenuity is an abstract. By itself it is nothing, everything depends on who is using it and what for. The atomic bomb is a miracle of human ingenuity, after all. Like science and technology, the vital questions are all about the ends, the aims of that ingenuity. Who does it serve?

        Two examples: our overfishing problem is directly the result of technology in the service of profit, with no concern for sustainability. Large boats spot shoals from planes or use sonar to locate them, allowing them to catch at unsustainable levels. Ingenuity here makes things worse, not better. On the other hand, Brazil has recently begun using satellite imagery to monitor deforestation, allowing them to watch remote areas without sending rangers out there. It’s been remarkably successful, technology in the service of sustainability.

        It is misguided to suggest that the earth has no limits because human ingenuity is infinite. Applied to the wrong ends, it’s just as likely to be part of the problem.

    5. Jeremy:

      Ah – but I did read Limits to Growth, albeit a long time ago. It was published back in the early 1970s by the ‘Club of Rome’ and, yes, it tried to look at various scenarios and possible technological developments. And it concluded that, at the exponential growth then expected, supplies of key commodities (zinc, tin, copper, etc) would be exhausted by the end of the century. It strongly influenced Paul Ehrlich’s book The End of Affluence where he predicted that “before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity…in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” I remember all this got an immense amount to publicity at the time. But none of these things happened – and, famously, Julian Simon won his bet with Ehrlich. Today, there are large reserves of the threatened commodities listed in the report and there have been technological developments of which its authors didn’t even dream. As I said above, the future is never a bigger example of the present.

      This story (dire prediction turning out to be hopelessly wrong) has recurred for hundreds of years. There is no reason to believe that current fears of resource exhaustion will be any different.

      But of course there have been (and will be) major setbacks when mankind foolishly choses the wrong path. And, as I’ve said before, overfishing is certainly one of those. But fortunately they’ve always been outweighed by the opposite – hence the largely unexpected massive world-wide improvement in human living standards since the 1970s. Brazil’s use of satellite imagery is one of many such cases – did you know, for example, that John Deere fits differential GPS equipment (a massive aid to efficient farming) to most of its tractors?

    6. And Julian, here’s another link to add to your growing collection about contemporary China. Note this extract:

      … few western observers foresaw the dramatic growth of China as a manufacturing facility over the last decade, and even fewer understood the size of the Chinese coal reserves that have the potential to power that manufacturing capability for at least a century. Chinese coal is tremendously cheap to produce, but expensive to export. It is this simple fact that underpins continued Chinese industrial growth. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not cheap labour that provides China’s competitive advantage. It is cheap coal.

      Given this scenario, China is extremely unlikely to agree to any measures that seek to tax, or otherwise constrain, the use of energy in any form.

      Also this:

      And then of course, we also have India waiting in the wings. The next decade looks like it is going to be just as interesting as the last.

  11. Hi Jeremy, the Happy Planet Index is interesting – I share some of Robin’s reservations about it but agree that a more nuanced approach than GDP to measuring prosperity would be helpful. The top nation in the index, Costa Rica, does seem to have managed its affairs more skilfully than some of its neighbours, and is blessed with good agricultural resources, although there’s a slight irony, maybe in that much of its prosperity has recently depended on eco-tourists from the US, Canada and Europe – largely a good thing, but it does depend on there being a supply of wealthy foreign visitors.

    I found one of your earlier comments striking: “You ask when China and India’s growth stops being okay, and the answer is when people have enough. And that’s why I’m against further growth in the west. It serves no purpose, and if it’s only to satisfy our own greed for some infinite more, I think we should stop and pursue a higher calling.” That got me thinking about what “enough” might mean. Also how would “enough”, when applied to a country, translate into “enough” for individuals in that country? Several thoughts (in no particular order):

    1) On an individual level, “enough” is easier for me to understand than on a city-wide or country-wide level. For example, normally at any one time I have two pairs of work shoes; when one pair wears out, I buy a new pair. Two pairs seem “enough” for me – I have no aspiration to own 20 pairs of work shoes. Neither do I want to buy expensive hand-made Italian shoes for work – something fairly inexpensive from Clarks is good enough. For a city or country, when looking at something as mundane as work shoes but on a grand scale – things like roads, sewers, electricity supplies, rubbish disposal, what would be “enough”? Clearly, things degrade and need to be replaced, so some amount of money must be spent on repairing and maintaining sewers, for example, or mending pot-holes in roads. How would stopping economic growth affect these things, I wonder? Would it mean living with crumbling sewers and pot-holed roads for longer than we would like (the equivalent of me wearing my worn-out shoes for a few more months or years)? Would it mean patching things up but not expecting improved roads, water pipes, etc.?

    2) What is greed? I’m running a thought experiment – a young man in India starts work at a company and after a while, finds he has enough money to buy a television set. Is he greedy? Then his company (I’m imagining a multinational IT company) transfers him to the UK and he starts working in London. Now he has more money, enough to buy a more expensive TV. Is he greedy now? If so, when did he start to be greedy, when he was in India or when he moved to the UK? Did he undergo some sort of fundamental change when he became a consumer in the UK? His colleague is a young English man who earns a similar amount, and who goes out to buy an identical TV. Is he greedy? Etc, etc.

    3) Your mention of a “higher calling” interests me, as it would appear to touch on matters such as spirituality and psychology. I would like to know more about what you mean. On an individual level, perhaps not everyone is interested in following a spiritual path – many people (perhaps a majority?) seem content to live their lives, enjoy their modest pleasures and provide for their families. How would their lives change, in a steady state economy? Would they still be able to fly to Majorca once a year, or buy a plasma television, or keep driving a car? Are they greedy to want to do such things? (And how do they differ, in that respect, from their working-class equivalents in India and China?)

    Anyway, enough questions for now (!) These are more like thought-experiment-type questions really, so I’m not expecting a long list of answers!

    1. Good questions. I haven’t forgotten the last set of questions either, but it’s been a busy week! Let me go through these quickly.

      1) An economy that isn’t growing doesn’t mean that it is static and that there is no money for anything. Money would still be made, taxes raised and government money spent on infrastructure. We might have more immediate ways of distributing that money though – such as road pricing. Things would wear out and be replaced and upgraded too.

      2) Greed is a mindset, I think. It’s not possible to draw a line and say ‘this much is enough and everything else is greed’, and each of us would define a comfortable lifestyle in our own way. A mindset is a nebulous thing to identify then, but consider the findings of the ‘Overconsumption in Britain’ report, in which 61% of respondents said they couldn’t afford everything they need. Clearly 61% of us aren’t homeless and hungry, so it suggests a somewhat warped view of ‘needs’, and I’d probably put much of that down to advertising ramping up our expectations all the time.
      If our answer to the question ‘what do you want?’ is just ‘more’, then by definition we will never be satisfied.

      3) and that leads me to the higher calling. There is a spiritual dimension to it, but that’s not what I had in mind. John Maynard Keynes envisioned a future where everyone was provided for, and that man would use his economic freedom wondering “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” In the 1950s and 60s, people were convinced that in the future we’d barely need to work, and that the biggest problem would be how to use the leisure time that efficiency and automation would win for us. That’s not a mid century pipe dream – it’s an option that’s still open to any one of us (I’ve taken it myself by only working three days a week). With more time, we could be pursuing the arts, sports, participating in local democracy, playing with our children, gardening.

      In a steady state economy, the amount of materials we can use in a year is capped, and so is the waste that we can produce. Within that there is still a whole realm of opportunity for innovation. Entrepreneurs will still make fortunes, fashions will still change. We’ll still have new things, but they’ll be built to last and fully recyclable (every part of the first Dyson vacuum cleaners could be re-used, for example) We might lease things like cars, rather than own depreciating assets – Riversimple are a good example of a ‘steady state’ business model. The biggest driver of growth is debt, because interest means that we need to pay back more than we put in. That means we’ll need to find new ways of financing things like mortgages, the most obvious being charging a lender’s fee rather than interest. I should write a post on life in a steady state economy. I’ve got some notes on it somewhere…

  12. This is a very erudite conversation that has continued with a surprising and somewhat unusual level of civility. Congratulations to all.
    To come quickly to a bottom-line, there is a basic question that I believe crystaliizes the debate: Which society would you like to live in? One run according to Jeremy’s world view or one run in line with the world view articulated by Robin and Alex? My vote, for what it is worth, is for the rational optimists – Robin and Alex.

    I am just finishing an interesting biography of Robespierre, Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr. The title sums it up and is a warning to beware those whose “good intentions” mask a hubris and lack of respect for individuals. If you think I am exagerrating just take a look at the reaction to Andy Revkin’s recent post at Joe Romm’s Climate Progress web site. So while Jeremy is far more civel than the average CAGWer at Climate Progress, the willingness to use the coercive power of the state is clearly visible.

    1. Hi Bernie, thanks for joining the conversation. I agree that good intentions for one thing often mask a selfishness or a disregard for something else. Conservation agencies, for example, often privilege endangered species over the needs of local people, which is an unnecessary and unfair approach.

      I would pick you up on your last point though – the ‘willingness to use the coercive power of the state’. That’s not something I advocate, and there’s no reason to suppose that sustainability requires bigger government or central planning. I’m talking about a cultural shift that involves government, business, the arts, the whole spectrum of society. You can read the whole of history as a struggle between coercive power and cooperative power, ‘power over’ versus ‘power with’, and the former has never led to human flourishing.

  13. Jeremy, it is very strange that on a personal level, I find myself liking some aspects of the steady state economy idea, even while my mind is busy marshalling arguments against it! For instance, one thing I intensely dislike is waste, and in the past have felt depressed at having to throw away goods that might be perfectly usable except for a small but critical component that no-one is prepared to replace. Things that are built to last and can be reused, cannibalised or recycled have a definite appeal, and although I’m not yet living the conserver lifestyle, as expounded by Charles Long, there are lots of thrifty and conserver-like habits that I find very easy to adapt to.

    The main arguments against a steady state economy (from the very little I’ve read about it, admittedly, although that will hopefully change) could be summarised as:
    1. At this point in history, we have a certain synergy at work, leveraging (I don’t normally like this word) human creativity and resourcefulness; these are resources we are not likely to run out of, and which prompt the question: do we actually need to hold back on economic growth?
    2. A steady state economy in one country might drive away trade and investment from other countries. Business people might feel constrained and move abroad, taking their money and business with them.
    3. Caps, quotas and restrictions might be seen as draconian and unfair measure, especially when enforced in one country but not in another. People might try and get around them by turning to crime (e.g. the rise of the Russian mafia in Soviet times, or working out how to scam the system, which is what has happened to a certain extent with carbon trading). A government might feel obliged to resort to repressive measures, such as in Cuba or the old Eastern bloc, to keep the population in line.

    There are probably some valid answers to these objections (my no.3 is especially gloomy); I’ll have to read up on the subject more, maybe. If you do post a blog on steady state economies, I’ll be very interested to read it.

    1. Yes, the waste avoidance and good design are really positive aspects of leveling off the economy, but they demonstrate one of the key problems with pursuing growth for its own sake. For example, almost no-one goes without enough to eat in the UK. You’d think then, that growth in the food sector would be impossible. We have enough, and so the grocery sector really ought to have entered a ‘steady state’. New products would be invented and trends would come and go, but the actual tonnage of food sold wouldn’t need to rise, at least not on a per capita basis.

      Instead, we have an obesity problem, and a waste problem, and unhealthy eating habits. There’s more profit to be made in processed foods with added value, so ready-meals are aggressively marketed, slowly eroding our involvement with our own food and our traditional cooking skills. We eat too much, and obesity serves the supermarket bottom lines very well. And more than anything else, we throw food away – a whole third of what we buy.

      How can there possibly be further growth in the food sector? Only by us getting fatter still, and throwing away even more. There’s no incentive for the companies to save on waste or encourage healthy eating, as it would impact their profits. It’s a situation now where the interests of shareholders and businesses are actually working against us.

      It would be wrong to imply malicious motives in the supermarkets, but it does demonstrate that growth isn’t always desirable, even if it is possible.

      on your other questions:

      1) To my mind, a steady state economy would need a huge amount of human ingenuity to pull off! Creativity is not a good thing in itself, but an abstract. Whether creativity is useful or not depends on what it is turned to, what purpose it serves. The steady state economy is still a market economy, so money will still flow to the best ideas and innovative thinking.

      Do we need to hold back on economic growth? Not necessarily – but we do need to hold back on use of materials, and on pollution (including CO2) – and so far no country has managed to substantially’decouple’ economic growth from material throughput.

      A steady state economy sets limits to the materials we can use and throw away. There’s still room for all kinds of growth and innovation within that. Think, for example, of the difference between buying a CD, or downloading an MP3 – since there are almost no resources used in the latter, it would be free to grow. A steady state economy would have a thriving services sector, and many businesses that currently offer products would switch to a service-based model. We’re already seeing that in the car industry, with new models offered for lease as well as for sale.

      2) Yes, there’s a danger that we’ll end up with business moving elsewhere, but I think there’s a number of reasons why this may not be a big problem.

      Firstly, global corporations already move around at will, and often for very bad reasons. Oppressively low minimum wages, poor environmental standards, absence of health and safety guidelines and so on all contribute to a ‘race to the bottom’ in a globalised economy. Every environmental or social measure costs money and risks business flight, another example of profits working against our best interests. Despite this, global agreements are reached, and standards are put in place. It just takes a while.

      Secondly, corporations use this as a threat, and don’t necessarily follow it through. You can see that with the banks. The City is constantly threatening to flee to Germany or New York if the government regulates, but other countries have regulated successfully without losing their businesses.

      More importantly, reducing wastage and using resources more efficiently is good business sense, and will become increasingly important. Prices of raw materials have been rising steadily for decades, and competition for supplies is intensifying. As stocks run low, using resources sustainably will become a business necessity.

      3) It’s important to realise that the steady state economy is a long term goal, and that it cannot be adopted overnight. We’re talking about a decades-long transition, a generational change where growth is slowed, leveled and eventually reduced. That’s the opposite of the free market ethic that was imposed on the former Soviet union almost literally overnight, leading to economic collapse and the country’s assets in criminal hands.

      With the steady state as the ultimate aim, a long transition allows companies to adjust slowly. Caps are reduced year on year at a level that allows resource replacement – see the Oil Depletion Protocol as an example of how this would work.

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