If I had to give a label for my work (as I am often asked to do) I would describe myself as an "ecological futurologist". For me it's important to be proactive to define the agenda rather than chasing it. Whether I'm dealing with energy, computers or camping, we must always keep sight of where our current actions are taking us in the future rather than simply what we're doing today.
There are plenty of people around trying to predict the future; it's an age-old human activity. Today there's a lot of money to be made in predicting how the economy, or individual companies, or the value of commodities, will change in the near future. For this reason politicians and the media in expressing the central theme of our political-economic discourse in the world today, economic growth hang upon every prognostication of economic performance as if it were some spiritual mantra.
But what if the core value of this discourse economic growth were invalid?... think on what the implication would be within our everyday lives.
Of course such a position is seldom echoed within the media, and clearly not by the mainstream of political opinion. Should such an understanding of our present ecological situation become widely adopted not only could such a view of our future stop people making money (which is, by any definition, the principal effect of economic growth ending) but it also threatens the historical wealth accumulated by the economic and landowning elite if the past it would be, very simply, the end of the world as we've known it.
At the heart of the current economic system lies a myth the proposition that the global economy can continue growing indefinitely. This is far more than a concept that offends the Laws of Thermodynamics; even within the theory of economics, it's a proposal that holds within it significant flaws. Yes, human society has historically grown, although a large proportion of this growth was related to increasing population. Where economic growth has entered the realm of delusion has been the post World War II emphasis that growth be at the core of all economic policy (e.g., in Britain this policy began with Rab Butler's budget of 1954).
The earliest concept of growth was biological, organic, and essentially related to human experience. In the Renaissance, as mathematicians modelled the natural world, growth took on various numeric forms, but they still had a reliance upon nature because the analyses were based upon observation. In the modern world, whilst retaining its earlier meanings, growth has taken-on a new conceptual meaning, wholly separate from the natural world; today it represents abstract financial values attached to the modern, globalised economic system. It is arguable that this separation of growth from a concept based in the natural world to a concept based in an abstract human system is at the root of many of the ecological problems we are faced with today.
That position may sound a little extreme, but was also been highlighted by the Government's (recently disbanded) Sustainable Development Commission in their report, Redefining Prosperity
In terms of today's prevailing political economy, such a world view is not all that surprising. Unfortunately, it ignores both the basic laws of thermodynamics and the natural laws on which all life support systems depend. However dynamic it may be, the global economy is in the first instance a sub-system of human society, which is in itself a sub-system of the totality of life on earth.
This means that the majority of economists (and the politicians they advise) choose to ignore the fact it is the physical limits of that eco-system which constrain the speed and scale at which the economic sub-system can expand. In the long run, it cannot grow beyond the capacity of the surrounding ecosystem to sustain that growth in terms of its ability to provide high grade resources and absorb low grade waste. What we have is what we've got; matter can neither be created nor destroyed.
The work of the Sustainable Development Commission continued after the production of this report, and in 2006 they held a consultation on the issue of how we might define what constituted 'well-being'. Following on from this consultation, in their most recent report, Prosperity Without Growth, they described the political realities of our pursuit of growth
In reality the apparent inconsistencies between economics and thermodynamics amounts to more than just an argument over the mathematics of growth. When we separate the development of the human system from the natural environment of which it forms a part we cease to value important aspects of the natural world that are essential for our well-being. Conversely those things which in our evolution had absolutely no value the most stark example being the human monetary system (e.g. fractional reserve banking) take on a significance that hides or distorts our impact on the world around us. One of the best dialogues on the nature of the split between the man-made and natural world was produced by John Seymour in his book, The Ultimate Heresy; he sums up the dilemma when he states
To tackle the environmental and resource crisis that will emerge over this Century human society, out of necessity, will have to re-interpret the human perception of growth. To the average person life is a linear process; we live out our lives at the same rate, often with the same patterns of activity year after year, whilst our hearts regularly beat-away each moment away like the ticking seconds of our clocks. In reality, whilst we consciously live in a linear world, the human system that we are a part of is growing around us at an exponential rate. This imbalance of perception makes it difficult for us to consciously address the totality of our impact upon the planet, wrought through our demands for life's "necessities". It's this imperceptible, accelerating rate of growth that is driving climate change, pollution, and the depletion of natural resources which we now see feeding through as higher food and fuel prices today.
Right now the world is trying to climb out of a deep recession, and the political-economic agenda is concentrating on the various measures needed to restore economic growth. Since the work of Simon Kuznets on business cycles in the 1930s and 1940s, the assumption has always been that growth would always pick up after a few year of any downturn make up for the losses accrued during recessions. Government policy from the 1940s onwards has been to intervene in the market by taking on more national debt and stimulating the economy back into growth. Arguably, peak energy changes how the conventional business cycle operates. If, from now on, energy of all types becomes ever more expensive, and after peak gas the total amount of energy available begins to significantly shrink (arguably peak gas will represent the point of "peak energy"), then economic growth in the future is no longer guaranteed. M. King Hubbert, who developed the idea of the peaking of fossil fuel and mineral resources in the 1940s and 1950s, made the consequences of this clear in the conclusion to evidence he gave to a US Congressional Committee in 1974
To say that thermodynamics over-rides economic growth is far too simplistic statement. Yes, as M. King Hubbert notes, there are thermodynamic restrictions on the human species, but the limitations of economic growth are already defined within the theory of economics: as energy commodities run short, so the price of these commodities will rise; as the price of energy commodities rise, so the prices within our increasingly high energy, resource-rich economy rise, and this negatively affects the system through price inflation; as inflation erodes the value of growth, but more significantly as energy shortages reduce the growth-inducing value of energy in the economy, so the current economic system must go into a long-term decline.
We can put the nature of the future restrictions on economic activity into an extremely simple statement when we pass the peak of resource production, for one person to have the same amount as before another person must have less. For this reason the economic forces that have created growth over the last two hundred years will cease to operate as we understand them today. We need a new economic model, and that model must be based upon the assumption that, following the global peak of oil production, and certainly after the global peak in gas production, we must run our economy with "less". This is not a "steady state" economy, which has been discussed recently as a more ecological alternative to the present growth-led model. When the energy available to human society begins to decrease so the activity within the human system must contract too it's an implication of the First Law of Thermodynamics, but within the economic system the problems are further exacerbated by the effect this will have on the availability of resources, the health of the public finances, and limitations that this puts on research and development programmes to try and address the problem.
Although the situation that I outline above may, within the context of the everyday political-economic debate we see in the media and politics, sound a little alarming, there's one important fact to remember; as noted earlier, this isn't going be the "end of the world", just the "end of the world as we know it". This has happened before in Britain: The Saxons after being conquered by the Normans in 1066; the landless subsistence farmers cleared from the land by inclosure acts between the Fifteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (and later the Scottish clearances too); and the early residents of Manchester and the other early industrial towns all probably felt that their life as they knew it was coming to an end. What in fact happened was that society changed and adjusted to the new circumstances.
On many occasions in the documented history of Britain we've had to contend with calamitous change and on each occasion we have evolved socially. This is the task that we must put out minds to today as we approach a new turning point in our history. The challenge is that for the first time in three hundred years we are confronted with a wholly new phenomena, and one that's imposed not by humans but by the nature of the environment that we live within living with less energy, and hence less wealth. In these circumstances the major mistake that many mainstream environmentalists and commentators make is that they assume we can make this transition and preserve the relative affluence of the lifestyle that we have in the West today; the available evidence indicates otherwise!
This is not some deep green/anti-technology/anti-consumerist rant. This is increasingly the deduction of scientific analyses of the available data. To illustrate, I'll leave you with the concluding remarks from a recent paper by CSIRO that critically analysed the 'Limits to Growth' hypothesis
So, resolving these issues represents the core of my present work be that running weekend camps to teach people the skills to live simply outdoors in order to improve their personal resilience, teaching people the basic technical skills to recycle/reuse electronics and computers, or writing technical articles on energy and economics that seek to illustrate these points to a more learned audience.
At the most basic level, my interest is in how we resolve the present (and rather delusional) expectations of what constitutes "normality" with the reality of what present trends describe.... sometimes that's not an easy job, but someone has to do it!