Clip from "Going to Extremes" workshop at the University of London, 4th December 2013
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 obsessing upon what we're doing today.
Please note, this is a long page. That's because you can't express these ideas in short sound bites. If we could, we'd have probably solved these problems by now! If you want to understand what it is I do, you will have to read on…
Note: The small boxes on either side of the page give access to various
reports/papers which illustrate the points made in the text in more detail.
These are not here for visual decoration – I urge you to read them!
We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect;
we apprehend it just as much by feeling.
Therefore, the judgement of the intellect is, at best, only the half of truth,
and must, if it be honest, also come to an understanding of its inadequacy.
Carl Jung, 'Psychological Types'
'Energy and Food' workshop, 2008
"It's the economy stupid!", Bill Clinton famously said. The deeper meaning of that statement promotes the idea that political credibility relies not just upon sound economic principles, but that getting things done in politics requires an understanding of economics both to secure the goals you seek, and understand what it is not possible to promise whilst maintaining said economic credibility. That concept deserves unbundling into its constituent parts; today, this justification is often used in public policy circles without any testing of the presumptions it embodies.
The End of Cheap Oil, Campbell & Jean H. Laherrère, Scientific American, 1998
What if this is a rationalisation of the political limits upon change was based upon supposition, or political bias, rather than objective evidence of the influential factors or possibilities? What if there are other influential factors acting upon society and the economy today (for example, oil supply), which are dismissed because they do not fit with that over-aching political consensus?
Referring to Jung's idea that knowledge must rely on feeling as well as intellect, what if the mainstream of political discourse relies on 'feelings' which are instead depicted as rational fact? That's an easy proposition to test; we simply take some of those ideas and look for the facts/research to back them up. Unfortunately if we do this the results are sometimes unsettling!
Energy, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: Five Propositions, Steven Sorrell, Sustainability, 2010
Political Ideology and the Avoidance of Dissonance-Arousing Situations, Nam, et. al., Plos One, 2013
What we find is that the reliance of politics upon information management and "spin" increasingly distorts the relationship between key political propositions and the objective data which might support them. Public debate is increasingly taking place within a 'consensus trance' where positive/reinforcing data is amplified, whilst dissonance-arousing information is rejected.
As a key factor in this process, today's professionalised/institutionalised 'economic class' have become the clerics within a secular religion. Just as heretics or apostates were persecuted in the past, so those who criticise economic orthodoxy are vilified today without and 'rational' examination of the objective facts. Likewise, public life requires an adherence to the theories of 'orthodox' economics in order to play a leading role in our society. As spiritual/theist values have diminished in the wake of mass consumption's material delights, so economics has supplanted those values across the political and civil debate.
Dangerous Exponentials: A radical take on the future, Tim Morgan, Tullet Prebon, June 2012
Time to leave GDP behind, Costanza et. al., Nature, 2014
Of course "economic credibility" assumes that we understand what the mechanistic trends of human economics are. As I've researched energy and environmental issues over more than twenty years, I kept coming across well researched, observationally-based and statistically argued critiques of the economic "conventional wisdom". These cast doubt upon the theoretical credibility of economics, and by extension large parts of contemporary political theory. Especially within our current economic environment, that poses the question as to whether the political/economic establishment is able to solve our current inter-related energy, environmental and economic crises; if it does not understand how those crises are manifesting themselves, how can it act with certainty to solve them?
Universal Declaration Of The Rights Of Mother Earth, World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, 2010
I did not start out on this continuing journey, more than 30 years ago now, to spend my time reading lots of economics texts! Even so, that's increasingly what I'm doing as my investigations of planning, or pollution control, and latterly 'extreme energy', always end up with an economically-inspired policy bottleneck – which obstructs real change, because dealing with that bottleneck necessarily involves a clash with mainstream economic orthodoxy.
How Can We Outlive Our Way of Life?, Tad W. Patzek, OECD, 2007
What motivates me then as now, what drives my work each day, is the wondrous complexity and beauty of the natural world and the human species living within it. However, the more I've pursued the understanding and protection of that world, the more I have found that economic or material justifications, divorced from the observational realities of the world around us, increasingly lie at the heart of the human ecological crisis.
Welcome to the Anthropocene
You can also download this video as a 17.5 megabyte MP4 file
or a 17.3 megabyte Ogg/Theorea file (download
to your hard disk and view locally).
What we're discussing here is not an abstract issue; it's not some form of ideological diatribe which seeks to justify a political agenda through pseudo-science (rather like economics?).
What we're talking about here is verifiable fact, revealed through large-scale studies of the natural world/the environment over time. This demonstrates that the "popular self-identity" of our modern world is divorced from its material reality – from the present and foreseeable impacts that society is having on the vital fabric of the ecosystems which support its existence.
The video here on the right explains these global ecological in more detail.
For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.
John Meynard Keynes, 'Essays in Persuasion'
Looking Back on the Limits of Growth, Smithsonian magazine, 2012
Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?, Paul Ehrlich, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2013
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. The public too are dragged into this social obsession, the exemplar being the daily benediction which concludes major news broadcasts – "today the DOW rose one hundred points, the FTSE rose forty points… "
Why are we growth-addicted? The hard way towards degrowth in the involutionary western development path, Pascal van Griethuysen, Journal of Cleaner Production, 2010
But what if the core value of this discourse – economic growth – were invalid?... think on what the implication would be within our everyday lives.
Just over sixty years ago, in the post-Second World War environment, economists sold an idea to politicians that would come to dominate the latter-half of the Twentieth Century: If we can make the economy grow every year then everyone will have a little bit more each year; and if everyone knows they will have a little bit more each year, then fewer people will question the overall allocation of economic wealth.
The Role Of Energy In The Industrial Revolution And Modern Economic Growth, Stern/Kander, ANU, 2011
This policy wager was made in the wake of the economic strife which had existed for at least a century before, and especially so during the global depression of the 1930s; and arguably it was made with the best of intentions… And it worked!; for the last sixty years the continually growing living standards of the West have reduced the debate over the allocation of wealth, and the political and social unrest that these disagreements caused.
Approaching a state shift in Earth's biosphere, Barnosky et. al., Nature, 2012
However that's not been without a cost. In order to keep the economy growing it has been necessary to swell the supply of natural resources, and especially energy, in order to generate growth – physical universal laws do not allow growth to take place in a material vacuum! In turn, the effect of materials production upon planetary life-systems, and especially the use of fossil fuels, has had an immense cost to the well-being of the ecosystems which support human life.
…all arguably because, sixty years ago, the political class in the West were unwilling to discuss the allocation of resources across society?
On the practical limits to substitution, Robert Ayres, Ecological Economics, 2007
Degrowth and the supply of money in an energy-scarce world, Richard Douthwaite, Ecological Economics, 2011
Of course the critical question is, looking forward, can Keynes' 'magick formula' for growth, which has been at the heart of modern political-economics for 60 years, hold if growth is no longer possible in an ecologically constrained environment?
Of course such a position is seldom echoed within the media, and clearly not by the mainstream of political opinion – and I've yet to hear anyone in mainstream politics of economics pose the above question.
Should such an understanding of our present ecological situation become widely adopted, not only would people stop making money as they abandon Keynes' "necessary avarice" (which is, by any definition, the principal effect of economic growth ending); it also threatens the historical wealth accumulated by the economic and landowning elite in the past as we must, by necessity, redistribute that wealth as part of the future "degrowth" of the economy – it would be, very simply, the end of the world as we've known it!
The Second Law of Economics: Energy, Entropy, and the Origins of Wealth, Reiner Kümmel, Springer, 2011. ISBN 9781-4419-9364-9.
At the heart of the current growth-led economic process lies a myth – the proposition that the global economy can continue growing indefinitely. This is far more than a concept which 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 the 'economically active' population. Where economic growth entered the realm of delusion has been the post World War II emphasis that growth, especially debt-led growth, be at the core of all economic policy (e.g., in Britain this policy began with Rab Butler's budget of 1954). At is simplest, debt-led growth is a promise that energy and resources will be available, or the environment will have sufficient absorptive capacity, to enable economic activity in perpetuity to repay that debt… but what if that were not the case?
Enough is Enough: Ideas for a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, O'Neill et. al., CASSE, 2010
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.
Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing, United Nations, 2012
In the modern world, whilst retaining its earlier meanings, growth has taken-on a new conceptual meaning, wholly separate from the natural world. Today "growth" represents abstract financial values attached to the modern, globalised economic system, endogenously created out of its own existence. 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.
Energetic Limits to Economic Growth, Brown et. al., BioScience, 2011
Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, Charles A.S. Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard, Springer, 2012. ISBN 9781-4419-9397-7.
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 –
At the heart of today's worsening ecological crisis lies a systemic misperception about the relationship between the earth, humanity, and the global economy that has expanded so dramatically over the last fifty years. For most economists and politicians, the global economy has become the centre of reality, the overarching system within which all else is subsumed. Human societies, communities, eco-systems, and habitats are all seen as subsystems of that overarching system. As such, there is no inherent reason why that overarching economic system shouldn't go on expanding indefinitely, with constant increases in the throughput of both energy and matter.
The economics of degrowth, Kallis et. al., Ecological Economics, 2012
Perspectives on Limits to Growth 2012, Smithsonian Institute, 2012.
In terms of the ideological underpinnings 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 upon which our human 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 itself a sub-system of the totality of life on earth – and that interdependent network of living organisms in turn has a symbiotic relationship with the non-biological geophysical processes of the planet.
The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Harvard University Press, 1975. ISBN 9780-6742-5781-8.
This means that the majority of economists (and the politicians they advise) choose – on the basis of straightforwardly invalidatable suppositions – to ignore the fact that the physical limits of the Earth's biosphere constrain the speed and scale at which the human economic system can expand.
Entropic Disorder: New Frontiers In Environmental Sociology, Laura A. McKinney, Sociological Perspectives, 2012
In the face of such physical realities, this group of people (it is a 'group' ideology, for which no one individual can be held accountable) are acting out the role of the 'three wise monkeys' whilst simultaneously riding on the back of the 'elephant in the room' (please forgive the mixed metaphors, but it's difficult to politely express my incredulity at their willing ignorance in any other way!) In the long run, the human economy cannot grow beyond the capacity of the surrounding ecosystem to sustain that growth – specifically its its ability to provide the high grade resources and waste absorptive capacity necessary to support a certain level of human development.
Prosperity without growth?: The transition to a sustainable economy, Tim Jackson, SDC, 2009
The work of the Sustainable Development Commission continued after the production of the report cited above, and in 2006 they held a consultation on the issue of how we might define what constituted 'well-being'. Following on from this consultation, their report, Prosperity Without Growth, described the political realities of our pursuit of growth –
Modern economies are built explicitly around consumption growth. Politicians and economists may differ in their prescriptions for kick-starting growth in the event of a recession. But all of them assume a return to high street spending is what we're after. Apart from anything else, in the conventional view, structural stability relies on it.
And yet there's still something odd about our persistent refusal to countenance anything but growth at all costs. After all, John Stuart Mill, one of the founding fathers of economics, recognised both the necessity and the desirability of moving eventually towards a 'stationary state of capital and wealth', suggesting that it 'implies no stationary state of human improvement'. And though Keynes' macro-economics was largely concerned with the conditions of prudent growth, he
also foresaw a time when the 'economic problem' would be solved and 'we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes'.
Five years on, that commission now abolished, we are obviously no further forward!
The judgement that human life is worth living, or rather can and ought to be made worth living,… underlies all intellectual effort; it is the a priori of social theory, and its rejection (which is perfectly logical) rejects theory itself.
Herbert Marcuse, 'One-Dimensional Man'
Speaking to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil,
Parliament, November 2009
The Need to Reintegrate the Natural Sciences with Economics, Hall et. al., BioScience, 2001
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; and by extension, through the commodification of all life rather than attaching innate value to it, to some extent we inevitably under-value human life too.
Growth isn't possible: Why we need a new economic direction, Simms/Johnson, NEF, 2010
Conversely, those things which in our long evolution have 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 their impact on the world around us. One of the best realisations of this split between the man-made and natural world was produced by John Seymour, in his book, The Ultimate Heresy; he sums up the personal dilemma which the modern economic obsession engenders in us all when he states –
The Earth Has a Soul, Carl Jung & Meredith Sabini, North Atlantic Books, 2002. ISBN 9781-5564-3379-5.
"When you come finally to accept the belief that Man is a part of Nature you have completely to overhaul every one of your previous ideas about what it is right to do".
Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy, Wackernagel et. al., PNAS, 2002
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.
State of the Planet Declaration, Planet Under Pressure, UNCED, 2012
This imbalance, of direct perception versus objective impacts, 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.
The Need for a New, Biophysical-Based Paradigm in Economics for the Second Half of the Age of Oil, Hall/Klitgaard, International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research, 2006
Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08, James Hamilton, 2009
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 and Joseph Schumpeter 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.
Money and Energy, Richard Douthwaite, The Post Carbon Reader Series, 2011
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 –
Economic vulnerability to Peak Oil, Kerschner et. al., Global Environmental Change, 2013
The foregoing example has been discussed in detail because it serves as a case history of the type of cultural difficulties which may be anticipated during the transition period from a phase of exponential growth to a stable state. Since the tenets of our exponential-growth culture (such as a non-zero interest rate) are incompatible with a state of non-growth, it is understandable that extraordinary efforts will be made to avoid a cessation of growth. Inexorably, however, physical and biological constraints must eventually prevail and appropriate cultural adjustments will have to be made.
Ecological Economics Comes of Age, Brian Czech, May 2013
To say that thermodynamics over-rides economic growth is a far too simplistic statement. Yes, as M. King Hubbert notes, there are thermodynamic restrictions on the human species; but the most important aspect of this greater physical phenomena within economics is the non-substitutability of dense energy resources (conventional oil/gas especially).
The limitations of depleting resources upon economic growth are already foreseeable within the logic of economics: as energy commodities run short, so the price of these non-substitutable commodities will rise; as the price of energy commodities rise, so the prices within our increasingly high energy, resource-rich economy rise; price rises negatively affect the system through price inflation; price inflation erodes the value of growth, but more significantly shortages reduce the growth-inducing value of energy in the general economy. Therefore, within its own logic, resource depletion must send the economic system into a long-term decline – and, as I argue in my various presentations on this issue, this is a demonstrable trend since the energy price rises of the 1970s.
Oil's Tipping Point has Passed, Murray/King, Nature, 2012
Social complexity and sustainability, Joseph A. Tainter, Ecological Complexity, 2006
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.
The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, Kenneth E. Boulding, 1966
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". Note that this is not a "steady state" economy, which has been discussed recently as a more ecological alternative to the present growth-led model.
Problem Solving: Complexity, History, Sustainability, Joseph A. Tainter, Population and Environment, 2000
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. However such problems are further exacerbated as this changes the dynamics of the economic process across society: by the effect this will have on the availability of resources (you need energy to produce raw materials, and as raw material deplete so it take more energy to produce them); by the health of the public finances as traditional tax/income mechanisms break-down; and collectively, by the limitations that this puts on and research and development programme created to address these problems.
For a man can lose neither the past nor the future; for how can one take from him that which is not his? So remember these two points: first, that each thing is of like form from everlasting and comes round again in its cycle, and that it signifies not whether a man shall look upon the same things for a hundred years or two hundred, or for an infinity of time; second, that the longest lived and the shortest lived man, when they come to die, lose one and the same thing.
Marcus Aurelius, 'The Meditations', Book II
Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity, R. Buckminster Fuller, 1969; latest reprint edition, Lars Muller Publications, 2008. ISBN 9783-0377-8127-2.
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".
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi, 1944; latest reprint edition, Beacon Press, 2002. ISBN 9780-8070-5643-1.
Losing our seemingly rightful access to our material possessions is not the end of the world. This has happened before in Britain: The Saxons after being conquered by the Normans in 1066 were dispossessed of their lands – just as the Romans had dispossessed the Celts before them; the landless subsistence farmers cleared from the land by inclosure acts between the Fifteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (and later the Scottish clearances too) were forced into urban centres; and the early residents of Manchester and the other early industrial towns had no concept or 'urbanism' within which to make sense of their new existence.
Throughout history many people, in the immediacy of that personally cataclysmic moment, probably felt that their life as they knew it was coming to an end. What in fact happened was that society, collectively, changed and adjusted to the new circumstances. The greatest human attribute, enabled by our intelligence and sociability, is the ability to adapt.
Relishing my role as camp cook at the
Free Range 'Great Outdoors' weekend,
West Wales, 2008
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 yet another, unknowable, disruptive 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 upon humans – but by the physical nature of the environment that we live within upon its human inhabitants. We must adapt to living with less energy and resources, and hence, from our current conception, less wealth.
Energy Return On Investment, Charles Hall, Post Carbon Institute, 2012
In these circumstances, the most simplistic mistake that any commentator can make is to assume that we can make this transition to a new material reality whilst preserving the relative affluence of the Western lifestyle. Examples of such optimism in the face of hard, quantifiable fact abound; such as the belief that we might supplant the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy, or, in the opposite ideological corner, assuming that markets/human innovation can solve any problem. The available evidence indicates otherwise!
A Comparison Of The Limits To Growth With Thirty Years Of Reality, Graham Turner, CSIRO, 2008
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 research report by CSIRO which critically analysed the 'Limits to Growth' (LtG) hypothesis –
"As shown, the observed historical data for 1970-2000 most closely matches the simulated results of the LtG 'standard run' for almost all outputs reported; this scenario results in a global collapse before the middle of this century... contemporary issues such as peak oil, climate change and food and water security resonate strongly with the feedback dynamics of 'overshoot and collapse' displayed in the LtG standard scenario."
Just off the train at Church Stretton, bringing
my workshop (front pack) and camping
equipment (back pack) for a
weekend festival, 2009
Resolving these issues represents the core of my present work:
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!