Now that the financial and political components of the present system have discredited themselves, a fluid situation exists that might allow more viable options to emerge. Local green initiatives, in particular the Transition Towns movement, are gaining in strength and number(s), but do they have the potential to develop the capacity needed at a national level to transform societies’ energy and transport infrastructures?
In a commentary on the Great Depression of the 1930s, the German economic historian Werner Abelshauser noted that the scale of the crisis in its early stages was often underestimated. While still in office, President Hoover saw the worst as being over, and when he came to power in 1933, Roosevelt thought the same. According to Abelshauser, the main actors in the drama lacked what he called “Catastrophe Consciousness.” They simply could not comprehend the scale of what was happening.
In this paper, I argue that the same now holds true for elite thinking and preparedness across a range of issues that were predicted in the 1970s by the group that wrote the Club of Rome Report, the “Limits to Growth”. At the time, this report received a lot of attention but it was widely rubbished by mainstream economists, who helped create a conventional wisdom that the “Limits to Growth” theorists “had been proved wrong”.
Unsustainable growth, “overshoot” and collapse
The subsequent period was marked by the rise of Thatcher, Reagan and market fundamentalism and by the collapse of the communist bloc. A long period of expansion occurred from which most people in the world either did not gain or emerged worse off. The cheap energy powering modern transport and communications enabled globalised capital to move easily to where it wanted — to take advantage of the cheapest pay, most favourable tax opportunities and lowest environmental standards. It is therefore not surprising that while the index of market-based transactions (GDP) soared, the other, less-publicised well-being measures — like the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare — stagnated or declined. While the media was full of adverts for the latest energy-guzzling toys and stories showing the luxurious lifestyles of the celebrities, most people could only have a taste of this lifestyle if they ran down their savings or got deeper into debt on a gamble that the equity on their home would continue to rise. The consumer toys they then purchased were bought “on the cheap” because the environmental filth generated in production is offloaded onto people living in or near the new industrial zones in India, China and elsewhere.
In short, this kind of development was highly unbalanced, characterised by the running down of financial savings and natural capital, followed by the piling up of financial debts — and ecological debts too. As the system became grotesquely unequal it became correspondingly unbalanced. The money, and hence the purchasing power, accumulated to the benefit of a few. They then lent it back into circulation, which maintained aggregate demand. After a point however, those who borrowed the money were too poor to service their debts. And when energy prices rose, this finished them off. The financial debt crisis has been very painful for millions of people but they will mostly survive it; what is not clear is whether humanity will survive the crisis of ecological debt.
The “Limits to Growth” theorists had a phrase to describe all of this: “overshoot”. They didn’t deny that growth could occur for a time at high rates, but they argued that it couldn’t last because humanity cannot permanently run down natural capital and degrade sinks — the air, seas and lands that absorb the wastes of economic activity.
Oil and gas depletion is a run-down in natural capital because natural gas and oil are non-renewable. Using them can only be described as sustainable if a proportion is set aside to build up a renewables-based infrastructure that will deliver not only an equal or greater amount of replacement energy over its lifetime, but also the energy needed to replace the renewables infrastructure itself. To date, nothing of the kind has happened.
Wherever one looks in the world, fossil water supplies have not been used sustainably. Soils are being eroded and not restored at anything near the rate required. Perhaps most seriously of all, the use of the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas dump far exceeds safe levels. In a now well-known article, scientist James Hansen and colleagues calculate that a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is probably far below 350, possibly as low as 300-325ppm. Yet the atmospheric concentration is already 387 ppm and rising.
Humanity is thus taking from future generations to feed its consumption now or, rather, a very tiny minority is doing so. And this tiny minority — the political and economic elite — is steering planet Earth towards a catastrophe far greater than the credit crunch. They are steering us directly towards an eco-system crunch.
Seeing the trends together: Nature does not do ceteris paribus
The true magnitude of this crisis can only be ascertained by viewing all the different problems together. Typically, the various threats and problems are examined by specialist media correspondents and editors, specialists in academia and specialist departments in government and local government. These experts are all working within certain conceptual and administrative conventions that parse reality into bite-size chunks that journalists, researchers, officials and policy makers can cope with. The specialisation seems to help them get a better grasp of the issues.
In a generalised system crisis, the opposite is the case: the compartment-alisation that specialisation brings with it precludes a clear overview, one that would tell us that things are far more dangerous and the dangers likely more imminent than we thought. Thus specialists can tell us that a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures will probably lead to a fall in global crop yields of 10%. But to calculate figures like these, specialists have to make assumptions about the context in which 1 degree C rise will happen. The normal assumption is ceteris paribus: all other things being equal or staying the same. However, in a general system crisis, most relevant “other things” are NOT staying the same. They are changing, and very often in an unfavourable way, because one problem exacerbates the others in a chain reaction that becomes a cascade of knock-on effects. Thus, for example, plants grown in warmer temperatures than they are acclimatised to will need adequate water to suit those altered conditions, and if there is a depleted level of fossil water to draw upon, then crop yields may fall a lot more.
The food crisis
If runaway climate change or the Energy Winters predicted by peak-oil theorists are not gloomy enough for you — if you really want to be frightened — then just consider together some of the well-established trends in global food production:
In a May 2009 article “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” in Scientific American, Lester R. Brown argues that some of these trends are creating the context for conflict, the breakdown of political administrations and the emergence of “failed states”. Of course, the disintegration caused by resource wars is one other reason for failed states. As oil, natural gas, water, agricultural land and mineral resources become scarcer, so land grabs or destabilising manoeuvres are made to secure privileged access to them; this often underpins conflicts that, at least on the surface, are about ideology or religion.
The growing number of conflicts then has its own self-feeding dynamic. Increasingly “the market” reacts by growing a security, prisons and armaments sector with a vested interest in further sales, while mass psychology becomes more paranoid and sociopathic. Frightened, hostile groups find it more difficult to co-operate to find positive responses to the situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, quite apart from the misery of living in them, failed states become sources of refugees, disease, piracy and drugs and, arguably as a consequence, breeding grounds for psychopaths.
Disease, ill health and a global public health crisis
The risks of disease and ill health are crucial. Once again, if we put the trends together the picture is far more alarming than if we look at each issue in isolation:
Naturally, there are trends working in the other direction. Most systems have feedback effects, including negative feedbacks that act as stabilisers. Thus, when animal diseases like swine flu sweep around the world, some people stop eating meat either temporarily or for good. That the world is in an economic recession has led to a dramatic decline in air travel, which has probably slowed the spread of swine flu.
Scaremongering versus the reasons to be cheerful
The threats, then, seem both real and in some cases imminent. But to present the picture wholly from the negative side is to be accused of “scare mongering” by those techno-optimists and politicians who are confident that while problems exist, they are still manageable. Such people argue that it is alarmist to emphasise negative trends and worst-case scenarios without also highlighting options for responding to those threats. With regard to food, water and soils there are indeed many options for organic production and ecological agriculture. Possibilities exist to improve soils, manage water resources better, enhance and extend biodiversity, integrate alternative forms of aquaculture and fish production, and disperse the concentrations of animals that have become “disease factories” and, because much of their food is made from it, act as a pressure on the price of grain. There are also ways to improve energy efficiency and to promote renewables and policies like Cap and Share that could lock in the carbon gains made.
The real problem is not a lack of potential responses to the truly colossal threats we face. What is genuinely alarming is that the political-economic establishment has a built-in inertia that stops it responding quickly, effectively and adequately to these threats as they present themselves. And while it is true that it has responded relatively quickly, and certainly on a huge scale, to the banking crisis, this is only because making money is the primary purpose of the economic system. Crucially, even though the threats it poses are far graver, as outlined above, the response to the ecological crisis has been totally different. The vast vested interests and financial clout of the corporate elite are based on a fossil fuel – and carbon-powered status quo that wants to see “business as usual” continue in perpetuity. All of which means that the money men drag their feet when it comes to addressing the ecological crisis.
Take this May 2009 quote  from The Guardian, for example
America’s oil, gas and coal industry has increased its lobbying budget by 50%, with key players spending $44.5m in the first three months of this year in an intense effort to cut off support for Barack Obama’s plan to build a clean energy economy.
The spoiler campaign runs to hundreds of millions of dollars and involves industry front groups, lobbying firms, television, print and radio advertising, and donations to pivotal members of Congress. Its intention is to water down or kill off plans by the Democratic leadership to pass “cap and trade” legislation this year, which would place limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
The essence of the problem can be expressed in economic terms: those with access to fossil fuel–based technologies are currently far more productive and therefore have a competitive advantage that allows them to undercut their competitors and make the most money. The wealth thus gained also allows them to undermine their political rivals where it really counts — well-connectedness. It enables direct access to those in positions of political authority so they can influence political agendas. Resources are also made available for campaigns to set agendas within the mass media, and in this way to mould public perceptions and public opinion.
Power arrogance and hubris
There is nothing new in the phenomena of power arrogance and hubris. Since the earliest civilisations, rulers have made decisions and overreached their power in the confident belief that they had God on their side. In more modern times our rulers have believed that nature rewards the fittest, in other words, them.
Irrespective of what point in history they emerge, the starting point of most elites is the comfortable assumption that, as things have typically gone right for them in the past, they will continue to go right in the future. This belief is compounded by the fact that for a long time it has been the “little people” who bear the costs while those higher up the food chain reap the benefits. Power means that they are effectively cocooned from the negative kick-back from their actions. Long before the rulers themselves are successfully challenged and fall — and this typically happens only in the final stages — millions of others have already lost out badly and immense damage has been done.
What we term hubris is the cruel arrogance that arises from a failure of bottom-up feedback in systems where vast social and geographical distances exist between the powerful and the powerless. The punishment of Nemesis, the Greek goddess who was supposed to re-impose limits on those who overstepped their power, typically befalls entire societies before it befalls the rulers. Today the vast distance that separates the global elite from ordinary people is magnified further by the high-power technologies of communications, transport, production and weaponry. Nemesis, when she comes, will be global.
Power relationships in the transition
What to do? Marxist acquaintances of mine would probably suggest armed revolution but that would be futile. It would only enhance and exacerbate the current trends towards greater surveillance, paranoia, police powers and militarisation, a war that the powers-that-be would win before we’re all dragged into the vortex of the ecological crisis.
The situation demands that we re-think what political and economic power involves. Because there are a host of things that can and must be done to re-organise society at the level of the household and local community, there’s no need for people of goodwill to wait for politicians to set an example. The Transition Towns movement has shown that immense potential exists for people to organise to do what they can now to get their homes, gardens, local transport arrangements and communities in order for the coming crisis. Increasingly, local politicians are taking their point of departure from the Transition Initiatives. This shows that power comes not solely, or even mainly, from positions of formal political authority; it comes with having the kind of initiative to which others respond and which acts through the power of personal influence and example.
The exercise of power in human society occurs by means of various initiatives. And these initiatives don’t always need to be big. Many of the biggest and most powerful institutions originally started very small.
As individuals and groups we have both needs and problems. To meet the needs and solve the problems, we structure our activities in purposeful ways. And a purpose pursued over time, through an arranged sequence of activities, is an initiative. When we pursue this purpose with other people, we set up organisations and institutions to help us. We agree (or in an authoritarian system impose!) to shared purposes, develop the skills for attaining them, and then assemble and apply the energy, material and financial resources required.
It is a challenging job to get new organisations off the ground around new purposes, bringing together people who may not know each other, developing and applying new skills, and accumulating the other resources for the job — and all from scratch, too. This process is commonly called “capacity building” and it requires all-round leadership.
Capacity building is a process of empowerment in the sense that the group has a growing capacity to achieve its aims. As groups grow they develop a capacity for planning and designing their activities over time, implementing their decisions and then monitoring and reviewing their results. The more a group can achieve, the more resources it will tend to attract and the more it will get noticed in the political process, irrespective of whether any group member occupies a formal position of political power.
Now that we have exceeded the limits to growth, the new conditions of resource scarcity require many initiatives to meet individual and community needs in different ways, closer to home, with less energy and materials. Transition Initiatives highlight a major area for change, one in which most ordinary people can and must participate: the acquisition of new skills, networking, organising initiatives and developing projects. As this process evolves, it’s inevitable that participants will recognise that the state and politics must also change to complement, rather than undermine, what they’re trying to achieve.
It’s obvious to many that to deal effectively with climate change or environmental chaos, energy is best spent seeking to influence or replace those in power, i.e. people in senior positions in politics and business. Politicians typically pass the buck, however, claiming that citizens should change, that they can’t do much until we are ready. This, however, is nothing but an excuse for not getting down to the issues at hand. The truth is that some things we can do on our own, some with state support and some mainly (or only) at state level. If the state is unwilling to act, we can still get on with things locally and join with others nationally and internationally. And when we do, we build the organisational power and the moral authority to eventually transform the state.
Proximal and distal power
Personal circumstances determine the purposes that people pursue. Most ordinary people have, at best, proximal power — the ability to influence that which is immediate in their lives, e.g. what they buy, who they spend time with and so on. But this kind of proximal influence can be considerably extended by networking together in Transition Initiatives and skilling up on a different model. In the end, more ambitious goals for transformation means influencing and changing the structures of distal power.
Distal power transcends proximal power . It is the world in which high politics, high finance and business operates, often behind the scenes, informally in clubs, in social networks of the well connected, in official offices of state. Distal power is the ability to determine the contexts in which others operate. In terms of political power, this means the ability to influence things like interest rates, public expenditure priorities, programme priorities for grant-aid funding, legal frameworks, minimum standards regulations for health and safety, buildings etc.
The danger of co-option: sticking to transitional purposes
I do not wish to deny the usefulness of intervening in the political arena, nor of trying to influence policy. On the contrary, movements like the Transition Initiatives will hopefully become more able to work the system, i.e. find their way around and use the structures of distal power to develop more resilient communities. At the same time, it is to be hoped that engagement with the system does not lead to compromise. Where movements or individuals engage prematurely with more powerful networks, they tend to get co-opted, lose their own agenda and adopt the agenda of the more powerful players. The danger in our case is that that “involvement” would be manipulated to legitimise “greenwashing” and resource-wasting growth. It is important that we stick to our own purposes.
With the vital caveat about the dangers of co-option in mind, we can nevertheless envisage a process where groups like the Transition Initiatives secure changes in the structures of distal power so that they are more amenable to their different purposes. Specifically, it would involve state structures prioritising resilience as the number one item on the public agenda. Resilience would be seen by all as being not only different from a growth agenda, but incompatible with it. Priorities like public health, social cohesion (a priority for vulnerable people who will otherwise become a source of public-health risk), the conservation and maintenance of sustainable energy supplies, would shift to a position where they have the power to trump the provision of more inessential consumer goods.
We will know we have made it in the U.K. when we rewrite the mission statement of the U.K. Treasury, which currently says that its
aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth, and achieve rising prosperity and a better quality of life with economic and employment opportunities for all.” Its aim ought to be “to secure economic resilience to protect and ensure that the basic needs of all can be met fairly through assisting transformation of the economy in the face of natural capital depletion and environmental limits.
With this kind of state it would be possible to develop a collaborative working relationship between communities, officials and a community economy sector. This last sector would establish ethical living as its goal. It would help communities provide for their basic needs while adjusting to, and coping with, difficult times. The community economic agenda would prioritise fairness and equity to help maintain social cohesion. And as resources become scarcer, social and community enterprise would stand a better chance of surviving conflicts arising from distribution.
Unless and until we can change the state to support these kinds of processes, it will be necessary to grow our abilities to develop purposes in ways that are largely independent of the structures of distal power. This means the development of confidence, skills and resources that do not rely on anything bestowed by the structures of social authority; we will need to development the ability to use our own unutilised energies for the organisation and management of “powerdown” processes.
Contradictions between different parts of the state
and public sector
Firstly, confronted by the limits to growth, current political-economic establishments are having great difficulty acknowledging that citizens will have to change their lifestyles. On the one hand, there is no desire to sponsor a movement in which people might — horror of horrors — lose interest in shopping. After all, what is growth without consumption?
On the other hand, some politicians recognise that many people are having great difficulty holding onto their “lifestyle packages” and these politicians don’t want to give the impression that they’re going to make life even more difficult for these people. Each of us holds in balance a habitat and consumption throughput that must match an income and credit capacity related to our work and sources of income, and which sustains our dependencies and emotional relationships in ways appropriate to our age, health and aspirations. In a time of generalised crisis, people are subjected to agonising decisions because the choices are no longer about which brands to pick on supermarket shelves, but about how to hold the entire lifestyle together without losing one’s home, seeing one’s relationships break up or being unable to cope in a job whose security is in any case precarious. It is therefore no surprise that establishment-based “green” think-tanks and consultants base policy frameworks on the assumption that the public would not be obliged to substantially change their lifestyles. It is simply too unpalatable a message.
As a result, mainstream politics largely cedes the very space where much of the real work of change is needed: the creation of a movement focused on post-consumerist, low-energy lifestyles. I write “largely” because health-promotion agencies and sustainability officials will typically lend their support to projects that promote allotments, community gardens, local food, warmer homes and the like. But such schemes are far from the mainstream and have tiny budgets. And in terms of political traction, they can be a bit toothless.
The politics of the future is therefore one in which these fringe groups, aided and abetted by officials and practitioners working to an increasingly important public-health agenda, are likely to move increasingly into the mainstream, while “economic development”— the industrial and financial activities of the state and the networks in which they operate —come to be seen as largely irrelevant, are discredited or are (rightly) perceived as operating in a way that is eco-socially toxic.
Government decisions that affect the ways the
While the state will increasingly recognise that it must urge the public to take action to reduce carbon emissions and unnecessary waste, the reverse of this also holds true: that the public will be more sensitive to whether, and in what ways, major government decisions either enhance or undermine what they are being urged to do. People are increasingly aware that unless society as a whole, and unless nations as a whole, take action on climate change, what they do as individuals and communities is futile.
This is a crucial part of the argument for policies like Cap and Share because it cuts through the backsliding and evasion that currently passes for climate policy. If fossil fuels create climate change they should be banned from sale unless with a permit. Period. The limited permission to sell fossil fuels now is temporary. It arises only because we cannot wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels overnight. The number of permits, denominated in greenhouse gas quantities, has to be reduced as quickly as possible down to zero. A policy like this must also be administered in an equitable manner. In contrast to the European Emissions Trading System, which gives away permits, the fossil-fuel suppliers should have to buy in a Cap and Share system. The bulk of the revenue from these sales should go back to the people, shared out on a per-capita basis. The people need these revenues to invest in establishing their houses and communities as the top priority.
If people are to be encouraged to take action at the proximal level and this action is not to be undermined by actions at the distal level, the frameworks themselves must be changed in a complementary way. Cap and Share is one part of ensuring this happens. But it’s not enough on its own. Consistent industrial, transport and agricultural policies are also needed.
Shaping strategic infrastructure decisions
Over and above the reorganisation of local space (homes, gardens and neighbourhoods), some very large-scale bits of engineering are needed to create the broad-scale renewable-energy and transport systems of the future. The techno systems are so large that national-level strategic political decisions have to be made, with major implications for resource allocation. At this point in time the carbon lobby is far too dominant and well entrenched for government to get behind even the most modest non-carbon energy and transport. It will take time to grow a citizens’ movement with the economic clout, momentum and networked resources needed to change this situation, though the pressure for this change will certainly build.
People who take the climate crisis seriously and start to act in their private lives and community are obviously going to be outraged when government takes the sorts of decisions that they have recently in the U.K. by agreeing to a third runway at Heathrow. In the age of the Internet, people can see now only too clearly what is going on when big government and carbon interests cut deals to develop coal power based on the slender hope that Carbon Capture and Storage will work sufficiently and on time. We are therefore likely to see a growing polarisation against big government and big carbon business alliances that currently have a stranglehold on national energy and transport policy.
The scope for change for millions of people is not simply a matter of individual wishes and willpower. The term “lock in” is often used to describe how our economies and societies operate with a technical infrastructure that is replaced only very slowly and at considerable investment cost. While individual and communities can start to change their lifestyles at the local level to a considerable extent, further change will hinge on decisions taken about engineered infrastructures by the organisations that decide on them. At some point a full follow-through in ecological transformation will be dependent on huge collective planning and investment decisions about the technical infrastructure of society — the fabric of buildings, the transport systems and the power station architecture.
I use the word “systems” here deliberately because there is a danger of thinking in terms of individual technologies and not seeing that we are actually talking about larger techno-social systems with cross-economy complementarities. Central to the energy system, for example, is the problem of how to deal with intermittency if renewables are to be used to their maximum capacity. There are clearly ways to deal with this — through matching electricity demand to the supply when it’s available (when the wind blows, batteries for electric cars are charged up) as well as through the development of electrical storage capacity. However, the decisions that need to be taken here are big strategic decisions involving industrial, energy and transport policy.
Furthermore, large-scale engineering and building programmes can develop only at a certain pace, and, while it can perhaps be speeded up if we all accept that an emergency exists or is imminent, limits are still set by the time needed to plan, clarify technological, legal and administrative issues, raise finance, train people and get them together in functioning and effective teams. These time issues cannot be wished away.
Capacity building for ‘Powering Up’
The Transition movement has a good chance, over several years, of making an impact on the “Power Down” agenda, but for a “Power Up” agenda to be realised, well-thought-out, strategic decisions must be made in the fields of energy, industry, agriculture and transport. Ideally, taken together these decisions would comprise a consistent plan. But getting such a plan worked up and implemented is not merely a matter of political will; we also need organisation, resources, logistics and skills. The politics cannot move faster than the build-up of the eco-economic capacity.
Free-market fundamentalists might well say that the state is likely to do a thoroughly bad job if it has too much influence over big infrastructure decisions. They might thoroughly dislike my implied dirigiste argumentation. They might be right. However, rather than states backing the wrong systems, I fear we’re more likely to see a failure of states to back any coherent large-scale system plans at all.
Given the short-term nature of the parliamentary system and the huge scale on which we now have to re-cast the entire energy, transport, agricultural and industrial systems, given the competing vested interests with their rival approaches, given the credit crunch, given peak oil and its capacity to bring the economy to its knees, given the enormous complexity of all these things, I believe that politicians and the state are simply incapable of making strategic decisions on the scale necessary. What we will get instead is a lot of floundering and procrastination disguised with rhetoric. Indeed, although there has been a lot of rhetoric about Green New Deals, there has been almost no spending on climate or environmental agendas.
This situation echoes the ideas of Joseph Tainter: that societies collapse not because of stress surges per se, but because, when stress surges occur, circumstances have become so complex that the authorities are overwhelmed by all the complications to the point of being unable to provide a response and see it through. This dynamic defines the larger and longer term challenge. We are threatened with a future of breakdowns, extreme weather events and epidemics, all observed by an increasingly paralysed state and an elite that masks the collective self-deception using the machines of the PR industry and the mass media. The race will be on to develop a coherent ecological package to forestall the growth of extremist parties. These parties will focus on people’s mass anger and despair and on simplistic messages of hatred — blaming and persecuting scapegoats like ethnic minorities, immigrants, the rich or the growing numbers of environmental refugees.
Can a new movement of ecological activists unfold to the extent that one is needed? Can it move from proximal to distal agendas without co-option? As it evolves, can it find within itself the necessary financial acumen, skills and organisational resources to create realistic and realisable plans? Will it be able to create the minimal necessary renewable-generating capacity and the minimal necessary alternative transport network and cultivational system? Given the collapse in the credibility and legitimacy of the carbon mainstream, can this nascent movement find sufficient popular political support to take over and transform the state in a peaceful process to oversee the development of an alternative ecological resilience package? I believe that yes, of course it can.
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