books climate change sustainability

The future can go one of three ways

This week I’ve been reading Ecological Debt, by Andrew Simms. It comes at it from a slightly different angle, but makes the same argument as Make Wealth History, or probably as close to it as anything I’ve read so far:

Estimates vary, but scientists suggest that to stop dangerous climate change becoming irreversible, over the 21st century 60 to 90% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be necessary. Understandably, however, the majority world believes it has a right to become very much richer in the material things that the citizens of rich countries already take for granted. Without a radical change in how we manage the global commons of the atmosphere, this means one of three things. Either there has to be a massive reduction in rich country emissions, far beyond the scope of the current international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, to give poor countries the environmental space to develop. Or, poor countries are simply to be denied the carbon-rich development path followed by industrialised countries. An instruction that, to a degree, they can simply and understandably ignore. Or, finally, the third option is that the engine of conventional development keeps running on carbon, and there is climatic chaos. In this case a radical or, perhaps logical change of direction suddenly becomes an attractive option.

This particular passage struck me because of the idea of there being three possible outcomes to a future with climate change. It’s something I’ve written here before, and it forms the basis of the introduction of the book I’ve been working on (long delayed by our house renovation, alas).

The whole world wants to develop and enjoy a Western lifestyle, to drive and fly and live in a house with air conditioning. Unfortunately, we have overshot the earth’s carrying capacity by 30% just to deliver that lifestyle to one billion people. It is simply never going to be possible for all seven billion of us to live like that.

And that leaves us with three options:

  1. We ignore the whole issue of sustainability and run the growth economy until it breaks. The wheels will come off eventually, but if we’re lucky it will be after we’re gone. This is the default position, and it is manifest in both procrastination and denial, in wishful thinking and blind faith in the markets.
  2. We create perpetuate a two-tier world, where some people live affluent lives and others are denied it. Some would argue that we’re secretly pursuing this approach already, denying development to African countries through debt, unfair trade laws and structural adjustment. Some even see climate change as a conspiracy to limit development.
  3. We make wealth history – we beat a sustainable retreat, downsizing overgrown economies to make ecological space for those who don’t have what they need. In the process, wealth is re-defined from the abstract and futile ‘more’ of growth economics, and re-focused on what makes life worth living.

In short, we’re headed either for a crash, for conflict, or for a transition to a sustainable way of life. It seems logical to me. Anyone got a different way it could go?


  1. Jeremy – your points 1 to 3 perfectly summarize the situation. There is room for discussion about many details, developments, time scales, but all in all this is what it all boils down to. And it is basically the conclusion of the good old “Limits to Growth” report as well. And of many other works. On top of it we would face the problem of unsustainable global population growth even if forced economic growth could be halted. The 7 Billion are not static – they keep multiplying.

  2. Yes, I think this is a good summary. One minor correction and a “fourth” option (which I think is actually most likely).

    Minor correction: We create a two-tier world
    I’d suggest “We perpetuate a two-tier world”, since this is what we’ve had for some time. Though perhaps we currently have a three-tier world, with the rapidly industrialising economies of Asia representing the impossibility of the present attempt to spread western levels of consumption worldwide.

    Fourth option. We increasingly take sustainability seriously and greenwash washes less and less. Concerns of justice are raised and debated and slowly public sentiments shift in favour of more and more radical reductions to western consumption habits. We shoot for 3, but discover we are too late and end up still more or less with the consequences of 1. In frustrated reaction, we implement as much of 2 as those with power are able, bringing extra misery on the way down.

    My point is that our best efforts may still not be enough to avoid very significant disruption and misery, and while I’m all for motivating people with positive visions of what is possible, I’m also aware that disappointment is a powerful and dangerous emotion. We can work for three, but there are no guarantees that even all working together is going to get us out of all the horrific consequences of pursuing growth in the ways we have been doing (and largely continue to do).


    1. Perpetuating is a better word, thanks for that suggestion.

      And yes, there’s a good chance we catch on to sustainability too late. At worst, that descends into an ugly mess of inequality and squabbling. At best, it fosters a new impetus towards cooperation and adaptation. That could be a fourth option, or it could be the longer term outcome of a crash. In fact, some might want to start fighting for that post-crash cooperation now rather than fighting to prevent climate change. Looking at the way US politics is going, I think the denial is being institutionalised. I’m also aware of a new campaign to repeal the UK’s climate bill, due to launch during climate week at the end of March. Whether that succeeds or not, the chances of stopping climate change are looking increasingly slim. I’m not giving up on it yet, and we want to prevent it being any worse than it has to be, but learning to live peacefully in a warming world is also part of the challenge.

  3. some might want to start fighting for that post-crash cooperation now rather than fighting to prevent climate change
    Yes, though as you say, the more change can be slowed down, the easier cooperation will be (though it is going to be very difficult even at the rosier end of the likely scenarios). It has to be both/and.

  4. Yes that pretty well sums it up. 3 will only happen -if at all- after we have crashed and burned and the survivors start to pick things up again. I had a chat with a guy who seemed to be of a like mind on many things but thought Climate Change was a load of BS. Many peopel won’t share because they see nothing wrong with the way things are run now. & even if they hate what the elites are doing many still wont see the need for sharing what is left of the worlds resources.
    Many people just don’t get it.

    1. Possibly, but all nuclear programmes need huge government support and a twenty year lead-in time, so I wouldn’t hold out for fusion reactors or terrapower. China may be the exception – they’re building nuclear power faster than anyone else at the moment.

  5. Fusion has been three or four decades away since the 1960s. We don’t have three or four decades to wait for a silver bullet. If it’s not already ready to scale now, then it’s not going to make a significant difference.

    Terrapower may have some promise (I don’t have the technical expertise to judge it), but again, by the time it is likely to be ready on the scale necessary, we’re already more or less hosed. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue it, but I wouldn’t be putting all (or most) of my eggs in that basket, nor postponing doing everything currently in our power.

  6. If you listen to the Gates talk, make sure you also listen to the Q&A afterwards.

    Gates: “Twenty years to invent and twenty years to deploy. […] Terrapower could easily meet that if things go well.” Forty years is too late, not least because we’d have forty more years of coal infrastructure (with a lifespan of at least four or five decades for each coal plant).

    If this doesn’t work?
    Gates: Geoengineering to delay the heating. You hope you don’t need it.

    Gates: Few sceptics talk about science. IPCC is not the worst case. But best way to answer sceptics is to make something cheaper than coal.

  7. Yeah, we definitely need to pursue other sources and push hard on making energy use and transmission very efficient. Coal really has to go though, it’s unsafe for workers and terrible for the environment. But can solar and wind replace it in the medium-term? I get the strong impression it can’t. So we better be hoping for some breakthroughs, because if no big advances are made, we’re in for quite the crisis.

  8. Sorry to keep picking on your old posts, I’ve become rather sucked into this site since finding it a few hours ago!

    On this one, though, I really have to protest. Your three options are different to Simms’. His option one talks about reducing rich-country emissions to ‘create space’ for poor countries to grow. Your option three, the equivalent, talks about ‘downsizing’ rich-country economies to create that space.

    As you often do, you conflate reducing emissions with reducing or at least stabilising economic activity. But lots of people say they don’t have to go together – in fact I’d argue that’s the mainstream view among climate experts (the IPCC, for example).

    I know you’re sceptical about decoupling, so I’m not trying to restart that argument here. But it isn’t it flatly deceptive to present your troika of possibilities as broadly the same as Simms’, when he seems to allow for the possibility of low-carbon growth and you don’t?

    1. Not conflating, no. That’s why I say my views are similar, and why I add my three possibilities below at the risk of looking repetitive. I agree, the mainstream view is that growth can continue while CO2 emissions fall. I think the mainstream is mistaken there, unfortunately – it would be easier if they were right.

      I don’t wish to hijack Simms to endorse my point of view, but he is actually sceptical of growth. He just doesn’t spell it out beyond CO2 here. I’ve heard him speak on it a couple of times, and he co-wrote the little book ‘Growth isn’t Possible’. Also look out for his forthcoming book, ‘Cancel the Apocalypse’, which is subtitled ‘why we need to stop growing and start living’.

Leave a Reply to Christian Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: