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“If you want to build a ship, don’t call together some men just to gather wood, prepare tools and distribute tasks,” proclaimed the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Instead, teach them the longing for the endless sea.”
The evidence of the recent budget, in which the environment was like a salad leaf abandoned to wilt in the June sun, suggests that the wrong approach has been taken to building a green economy.
It’s a shame, because there is no shortage of tasks and tools to distribute, and a long list of patient, rational reasons why we should do so.
For example, in the recently published Zero Carbon Britain 2030, both the ample potential of switching in a short period of time to a genuinely clean energy system, and the dangers of not doing so, are comprehensively examined. In these austerity-minded times in which the government is acutely concerned about our balance of trade, a single figure makes the point: based on an oil price of $78 a barrel, which could prove far too modest, replacing our own North Sea oil and gas with like-for-like imports will add £53 billion to the trade deficit, the report estimates.
Even at a time of broader cuts, the potential economic, social and environmental benefits of spending on a carbon detox for the UK economy have been repeatedly and exhaustively made.
Neither is there any mystery about the necessary conditions needed to make it happen. New sources of funding to encourage investment are needed from, for example, a green investment bank, which has been approved but not capitalised, and a high price for carbon to make change economically attractive.
There are the easy, reliable no-brainer initiatives, such as the mass roll-out of energy efficiency makeovers for buildings, wind, wave and solar power, which in turn create jobs. But there is also no shortage of more exotic, less reliable ideas to keep people entertained.
This month, cloud whitening or so-called “seeding” to help reflect heat away from the atmosphere enjoyed a shower of new interest. Research from the Carnegie Institution and the Indian Institute for Science suggested the potential for a cooling effect, but not without consequences. It reduced overall global rainfall and simultaneously created a more extreme pattern of monsoons.
And yet, for all the time that the rational case for action is put and its benefits outlined, we are failing not just to leave the harbour on our journey to an economy that operates in balance with the biosphere, but our boat lies in pieces by the dockside, incomplete and construction barely begun.
A longing for the adventure in unknown seas, in equal parts fearful and exhilarating, is yet to be released. Admittedly, at the moment, this is made more difficult by the fact that when most people watch pictures of the sea, it’s typically covered in a vast oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, courtesy of BP.
On current trends, in 77 months time, by the end of 2016, it will no longer be likely that we will be able to stay on the right side of the risks that surround destabilising our climate system. Yes, we need to start building our low carbon energy arks. But we need more than that, an excited longing for things to be different, better.
The human impulse at the heart of modern society has been brilliantly co-opted by the sellers of disposable, upgradable consumer goods, not to mention by TV makeover shows. Counter-intuitively, in some ways we embrace change – but we demand it in unambitious ways, through novelty, redesigned gadgets with extra functions and added apps. In this sense, we approach the world on the assumption that it is never good enough. The impulse may be destructive when harnessed to conspicuous consumption, but does it have to be a bad thing, innately, and can’t it be dematerialised, and redirected from simply having more stuff towards a better way of being?
The thinker Zygmunt Bauman makes the point that the “the good society is the society that is convinced it is not good enough.” He calls gardeners, “obsessive compulsive utopians,” always trying to improve the world around them in a job that is never complete.
As we try to ensure a world fit for future generations, have a look around and ask yourselves, is this the best that we can do? What would it take, and what could we achieve if we were able to harness our transformative impulse for good? Instead of tying ourselves into a bloodless, technocratic exercise, what if we were able to find a longing for the endless sea?
The global financial crisis, climate change, poverty and BP: the extent of the problem is clear. But what is the best way to solve it? This was the question asked at the first Steady State Economy Conference held in Leeds on June 19.
The conference was organised by Economic Justice for All (EJfA), a Leeds economics and sustainability debating group and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), with the aim of coming up with some concrete policy recommendations.
“If the leaders of the main political parties in the UK are not thinking seriously about an alternative to economic growth, then we the people must urgently start and develop the discussion,” Dr Lorna Arblaster, of EJfA, explained.
It was a discussion that was urgently needed. The conference attracted over 250 academics, economists, community organisations, activists, NGOs and business people who played as much a part in making the day a resounding success as the keynote speakers: Peter Victor, author of Managing Without Growth and Professor in environmental studies, York University, Canada; Andrew Simms, Policy Director at nef; Dan O’Neill, European Director of CASSE; and Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth and professor of sustainable development, University of Surrey.
Peter Victor opened the conference by challenging our “fear of a no growth disaster” and reminding us that until 1950 there was no discussion of economic growth as something to strive for.
“Can we have full employment, no poverty, fiscal balance, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions without relying on economic growth?” he asked. “You bet!” was his resounding reply, which he backed up with a detailed computer model.
Participants were then asked to put forward alternative policy recommendations in expert-led workshops on how this could be done in the UK.
These included eight policy-focused workshops: limiting resource use; stabilising population; reforming the monetary system; maintaining low unemployment; distributing income more fairly; changing business practices; measuring quality of life and achieving a successful UK transition within a globalised economy, as well as two process workshops: changing consumer behaviour and engaging politicians and the media.
Well-being and work-life balance were key themes of the day as was reconnecting with ourselves, reconsidering what it means to be human and deciding what we really want from our lives. And as Andrew Simms reminded us, not forgetting to have fun.
The conference was just the start. The ideas and proposals which were discussed in the workshops will be collated into a manifesto, which will outline how to achieve a steady state economy in the UK and will form the basis for the movement’s next step.
So what of Leeds now that the steady state caravan has left? There’s a buzz in the city; people who missed the conference feel that they’ve lost out and others who had never heard of a steady state economy have seen the local media coverage. With all the crises and government cuts they may even be starting to question whether there is another, better way.
As names go, the First Exploitation Company sounds like an inspired slight dreamed up by an angry anti-oil campaigner. In fact, it was the original title, coined in 1903, of the troubled company we now know as BP. But then, public relations have never been its strong point.
Over the course of a century BP, in its various guises, has managed to outrage everyone from revolutionary nationalist leaders in the Middle East to Britain’s supposedly closest ally. Now Barack Obama has ensured that BP is Public Enemy No 1 in the United States (tonight, he will make his first address to the nation direct from the White House to stress the point).
In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, BP is being freely compared in the US to those poster boys of corporate malfeasance, Enron and Worldcom. Beleaguered chief-executive Tony Hayward may not be Bernie Madoff, but hate mail and threatening phone calls have been directed at him and his family. Hayward is now reportedly undergoing training in front of a so-called “murder board” of legal experts to prepare him for the aggressive questioning he will face from the Congressional Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in Washington on Thursday.
BP’s share price is tumbling, as its expected liabilities from the spill – estimated at anywhere up to $40bn (£27bn) – climb so high that the financial markets are giving the company’s debt a “junk” rating. Speculation over BP’s future has ranged from filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to a possible takeover by one of its giant rivals, Exxon Mobil or Chevron.
TED, the organisers of high profile conferences devoted to ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ have just announced the line up for next month’s TEDGlobal 2010, which includes not one, but two nef Fellows. Nic Marks, Founder of nef‘s centre for well-being and creator of the Happy Planet Index will be taking the stage in Oxford in the opening session of the conference, on 13 July, followed two day’s later by nef fellow Tim Jackson, author of the ground-breaking Prosperity Without Growth. Other speakers include David McCandless, author of the Information Is Beautiful blog, architect David Adjaye, and singer Annie Lennox, talking about her work on HIV/AIDS.
If you’ve never visited the TED site, its back catalogue of talks by a dazzling array of speakers from previous conferences is highly recommended viewing. A few gems from the all-time favourites category include Ken Robinson on why schools kill creativity, Barry Schwartz on the paradox of choice, Dan Gilbert on what makes us happy, and Hans Rosling in the most spectacular talk on statistics in the whole world, ever.
No one really expects governments to be consistent. I’m not talking about election times – we’ve all been watching the Conservatives doing their spring clean of the Labour closets – but about the mixed messages from different government departments, delegates, ministers and so on. Indeed, the chasm between what they say and what they do rarely fails to swallow up a few gullible casualties. But when it comes to biodiversity and our environment, the temptation to cash in on our natural resources is usually so great that we all pretty much expect it- while being told something completely different. Is it time, when we’re losing species this fast, to make a change? Our hard-learned lesson is, preserving our environment is preserving our economy. Until this is fully realised, don’t look for the promises, look for the action- if you can find it…
European Fish Week
This week is marked by European Fish Week, a rallying call to help the vast, silent, emptying oceans (sign the petition here). If you think that sounds dramatic, consider this figure – 88% of EU fish stocks are overfished. Eighty-eight per cent! And how did it get this bad? Well, a big problem is that decision makers (like the European Fisheries Ministers) don’t really listen to the scientists they hire. Fishing quotas are consistently set far above the limits recommended by scientists that would, if adhered to, prevent the stocks from further depletion. In the past, quotas for blue-tuna have been set 47% over scientific recommendations. If you’re interested in the health of our seas I’d also strongly recommend this video by respected scientist Jeremy Jackson, and this one by Silvia Earle, former chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Clearly, when it comes to the oceans, we all know who the losing side is. Sometimes, though, the economic bulldozers are hushed by the echo of the penny dropping: we are on the same side. It’s little surprise, then, that as the fishing industry flags, things start to move: a federal investigation in Canada will begin next week to study the decline of sockeye salmon stocks, when only about one million of an expected 10.6-million returned to the Fraser River. There even promises to be a contentious look at the impacts of salmon farming on these stocks.
Whaling’s another good example of the tensions that exist between commercial interests and the conservation of the natural environment. The illegal whaling (let’s not kid ourselves) by Japan is being legally challenged by Australia (we’ll see what that does). Also, and maybe I’m being overly-optimistic here, the trial of the ‘Toyko Two’ Greenpeace activists could work to expose the whale meat trade (reaching as far away as Californian restaurants!)- perhaps a little hope for the ocean titans. Then again, there’s the news that President Obama may be looking to reverse the ban on whaling. Hmm. And what is the EU- we know their record on fishing- doing about all of this? Your guess is as good as mine.
David Cameron yesterday described the need to make drastic cuts as “critical” and “urgent”. He said that his predcessors in government had “thought the good times would go on forever”, and that not we must face up to the fact that “we have been living beyond our means”. Profligacy and waste “is the legacy our generation threatens to leave the next.” The current situation is “unsustainable”. Now is the time to “face the music” and stand up to the “most urgent issue facing Britain today”.
Cameron was, of course, talking about cuts to public spending. But wouldn’t it be nice if he used the same language, the same gravitas and urgency to talk about need to cut carbon emissions, in order to address the far more urgent, far more dangerous and far more unjust problem of climate change?
We’re often told that politicians can’t take drastic measures to tackle climate change because they are unpopular, or because it would be electoral suicide to talk about the need to make sacrifices. But this whole discussion of the deficit, and what George Osbourne has called the ‘painful’ cuts to come, shows that our political discourse can cope with talk of unpopular sacrifices. So why, if our Prime Minister can make a grave and serious speech about the deficit, can’t he do the same with climate change? If he thinks people can cope with hearing that there will be painful cuts to public services, why does he think that they’ll baulk at the idea of painful cuts to their carbon budget?
At nef, we don’t believe that tackling climate change means sacrificing everything we hold dear. In fact, we’re adamant that the Great Transition to a sustainable economy could result in us living happier, more meaningful lives. But we’d be foolish to say that such a transition would be easy. It won’t be. It’ll be the greatest challenge we’ve ever faced. And yet no politician can be honest about it. None of them are talking as frankly about the need to cut climate emissions as they are about the need to cut spending. Something is seriously awry when we make a huge fuss over the deficit, while the climate on which our economic and social stability depends is getting ever nearer to meltdown.
Three years ago, I felt like a bit of a loan voice. I’d been increasingly highlighting my concerns about a mounting reliance on a magic bullet (or a number of them) to mitigate against climate change. But, most of the time, I just got glazed looks, or doe-eyed responses from proponents of technological fixes (e.g. nuclear or carbon capture and storage) that: ‘all I care about is preventing runaway climate change’. As if I don’t.
But now, two mechanical engineers, Patrick Moriaty and Damon Honnery have published a paper that sums up part of my argument.
The word spill doesn’t really do justice to the unfolding disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, brought to you by oil giant BP. A spill, as Sophie Elmhirst has pointed out, is what happens to milk: “There’s no point crying over it, as the saying goes”.
But before you start wondering whether to call it a slick, a disaster, a catastrophe, be sure to pay a visit to IfItWasMyHome.com. Enter your home town and watch as the big black blot of oil is superimposed on where you live. Here’s what it looks like dumped on nef HQ in London, engulfing most of East Anglia, and stretching right across to the Breacon Beacons.
At this point, most words feels like an understatement.
(Hat-tip to @JohnHitchin for the link)
We may be in the grip of the worst economic upheaval for half a century, but the UK is still at heart a forward-looking, modern economy, isn’t it? Smogs and satanic mills are things of the past and we have a model that is resource-light and service driven, don’t we?
Perhaps not. In the UK for the first quarter of this year, £1 in every £4 paid in dividends to shareholders came from a single industry: oil and gas. And, from that sector, just two companies – BP and Shell – accounted for the vast majority.
If the banking crisis taught us one thing, it is that putting too many of your economic eggs in one sector’s basket is a very bad idea. In banking it was a bad idea because they practised Narnia-nomics (which is probably a slur on Narnia). With the oil and gas sector it is a bad idea for two reasons, which may seem contradictory: the products are both very damaging and have no long-term future. Unfortunately, however, there’s still enough oil and gas left to cause more damage than the planet can handle (and an awful lot of coal, which people may turn to as the other fossil fuels become more expensive and harder to get).
Where the damage is concerned emissions continue to drive the loss of a climate system conducive to stable, flourishing societies. A combination of steadily rising greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures suggest that in around 78 months we will enter a new, more dangerous category of risk for creeping climatic instability, reason enough perhaps, to disinvest in fossil fuels.
The second reason is that an economy so hard-wired to the oil and gas sector is hitching its future to a long-term loser. We are already decades past the point of peak global oil discoveries, and on the cusp of the peak of oil production.
A new assessment of 14 forecasts of global oil supply underlines how the short-lived empire of oil is already well into its dotage, with the end in sight during our own lifetimes.
Some speculate that the moment at which production levels-off and begins its inexorable decline is already with us. If so, it may be only the recession, which temporarily reduces demand, that is hiding it. Several more forecasts suggest it will happen over the course of this decade – mere seconds away in the calibration of economic planning. Crucially, the study concluded that no credible forecast could put the date more than 20 years away.
Expect to see repeats of BP’s disaster at its Deepwater Horizon rig as companies seek to extend their lives of by exploiting ever-more marginal and hard-to-get reserves. Accidents happen when limits get pushed and an industry becomes increasingly desperate.
While companies like Shell, BP and Exxon may dominate the current economic landscape like leviathans, it is a feature of the end of empires that they seem permanent (especially from within) until, suddenly, they are gone.
All the more important, then, to plan for the inevitable. This is starting to happen. As the peak, plateau and decline of oil production approaches, its price will rise dramatically. Companies that are heavily exposed or, in other words, dependent on the old oil economy, will be at risk. Thinking back to the oil price spike of 2008, the ratings agency Fitch recently reassessed a range of industrial sectors for how vulnerable they will be when oil again knocks on the door of $150 per barrel. Airlines, trucking, chemicals and various consumer goods sectors look to be in big trouble. But railways and renewable energy cash-in.
It’s not just the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico that have fallen victim to our economic dependence on oil, its the climate that we depend on, for example, to grow our food, and will soon also be huge chunks of the economy.
The quicker we arrange a separation between society, the economy and the oil and gas sector, the better. This era-defining problem falls on the watch of the new coalition government. They could start by substantially capitalising the proposed new green investment bank and turning the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland – that once proudly called itself the “oil and gas bank” and is still up to its neck in fossil-fuel financing – into a Royal Bank of Sustainability. More or less we have just the lifetime of this parliament to get money out of oil and into renewables and low-energy infrastructure.
After the bank bailout, we were left with the question, “where did the money go?”. At least if we put our resources into the great transition away from fossil fuels there would be tangible results. We would be looking at a great wave of new employment opportunities, more energy security, a less vulnerable economy and the chance for a better future.
78 months and counting …
Professor Herman E. Daly is an ecological economist at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland and Author of Steady-State Economics
“We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.” — John Maynard Keynes, 1933
“Let’s build a smarter planet.” This is IBM’s inspirational slogan, intoned as a benediction at the end of their 2010 advertisements. They do not say, “Let’s make a smarter adaptation to our planet Earth, out of which we were created and by which we are sustained.” It is the planet that is insufficiently smart, not its evolutionary prize-winning, big-brained, star tenant.
What makes IBM think that the planet is dumb? Well, obviously the mentally challenged Earth does not know how to keep on accommodating our continual economic growth, so we must redesign it with that remedial instruction in mind. For example, our growth requires fossil fuels, but when we burn a lot of them the resulting atmospheric CO2 slows down the radiation of heat back to outer space, heating up the stupid planet and causing dumb climate change. It would be easier to radiate heat energy out and make more thermal room for necessary fossil fuel burning if only we had less solar energy coming in. So a smarter planet would have a higher albedo to reflect more of that troublesome incoming solar radiation. Blasting light-reflecting particles of sulfur into the stratosphere or troposphere should raise the planet’s IQ a great deal.
This sophisticated planet-smartening pedagogy is known as geo-engineering. It will cheaply re-engineer the planet to allow BP to feed the sacred flame of economic growth by drilling deeper holes in more precarious places to pump more oil. That in turn will supply NASA with the resources to build more rockets, thereby to fulfill our cosmic destiny to escape this terminally dumb planet and build a really smart one from scratch in a better location. Scientists have long realized that geo-engineering and other retrofitting measures, while necessary to buy time for building up evacuation capacity, cannot be the final solution for a congenitally moronic planet. And if meanwhile an occasional oil spill reduces the photosynthetic capacity of life in the Gulf of Mexico — well, we have just seen that our silly planet already allows in too much solar energy, so if we reduce that inflow we will not have to trouble ourselves with converting it into food energy. Furthermore when NASA, BP, and IBM finish building our new smart planet, it will contain a new and smarter Gulf of Mexico.
To sum up, by serving only the interests of the growing economy, global corporations like IBM are providentially led, as if by an invisible hand, to also build a smarter planet! Of course, unlike Adam Smith, they do not really believe in any deistic providence with its invisible hand that converts private greed into public good. They know from modern science that random mutation plus natural selection explains everything, and that free will and purpose are illusions. But some of these illusions have survival value and must be persuasively advertised to secure support from the tax-paying masses (science is expensive) — at least until IBM, BP, and NASA have finished building a planet so smart that its inhabitants can safely be dumb robots.
Originally posted at The Daly News, blog of the Centre for the Advancement of the Steady-State Economy.