On January 12, The Guardian quoted departing chief scientific adviser Sir David King as saying, “any approach that does not focus on technological solutions to climate change—including nuclear power—is one of ‘utter hopelessness’.”
It is useful to have this view so succinctly stated, because it is nearly the reverse of the position I will be exploring in this column, which is that there is an overwhelming need for non-technological responses to our global environmental crisis.
If I could debate the point with Dr. King, I would begin with a discussion of our differing understandings of the nature of the crisis itself. In his view, climate change is caused by technology and therefore must have a technical solution. But to me this is a blindingly superficial framing of the situation. It’s not just climate change that threatens us, but depletion of resources including oil, natural gas, coal, fresh water, fish, topsoil, and minerals (ranging from antimony to zinc, and including, significantly, uranium); as well as destruction of habitat and accelerating biodiversity loss—which is exacerbated by climate change, but is also happening for other anthropogenic reasons. In essence, there are just too many of us using too much too fast.
Thus the problem is not merely technological; it is cultural in the deepest sense. Starting a couple of centuries ago, our species embarked on a path of unprecedented growth, founded on a temporary subsidy of cheap hydrocarbon energy. Climate change is a side effect of fossil fuel consumption, and has emerged as the most critical symptom of our growth binge. But unless we address the core of the problem, other symptoms will soon overwhelm us even if we manage technically to resolve the dilemma of carbon emissions.
Addressing the core of the problem means letting go of growth; in fact, it means engaging in a period of controlled societal contraction characterized by a stable or declining population consuming at a per-capita level far lower than is currently taken for granted in the industrialized world.
For anyone who understands the basics of ecology—having to do with relationships between population, resources, and carrying capacity—nothing could be clearer. But for those who insist on seeing only technical problems with technical solutions, the forest remains lost from sight behind a single tree.
To be sure: minimally polluting technologies must be part of our response to climate change and all the other symptoms of global crisis—whether those technologies include wind turbines, better public transit systems, or more efficient electrical storage devices. But just as important are changes in individual attitudes, habits, and expectations; and more essential still is a fundamental reworking of economic institutions and policies, so that endless growth ceases to be seen as good or even possible.
Some (Sir David King among them) would say that climate change is so serious and pressing a crisis that we may have to put off grappling with other environmental problems and use any means at our disposal—including otherwise problematic technologies such as nuclear power—to address it. But there is no way we can substitute alternative sources of energy—including nuclear—for fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions as much and as quickly as the science says we must, unless we also dramatically reduce overall energy consumption. No matter how you slice it, we’ve got to downsize and re-localize our economies, and so culture change is indispensable to the required response.
King says that wrongheaded environmentalists are keen to take society back to the 18th century or further. Yet there are few indeed who want to ditch the humanitarian and scientific advances of the past decades. This is a straw-man argument. A fairer formulation of many environmentalists’ views is this: unless we use technology within the context of a controlled, planned, sustained period of economic contraction, we will see a chaotic, depletion-led societal collapse that could make the 18th century look like paradise by comparison.
Once one accepts this larger framing of the problem and its solutions, a whole world of possibilities opens up—a world I intend to explore in future columns. Far from being a world of utter hopelessness, it is one that engages human responsibility, creativity, and community. It is one characterized by cultural maturity, rather than the advertising-fueled teenage—even infantile—attitude that assumes that the world exists only to supply an ever-expanding list of human wants. It is the world of post-carbon living toward which tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens worldwide are beginning deliberately to transition.
Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute and author of The Party’s Over, Powerdown, The Oil Depletion Protocol, and Peak Everything.