Sustainable Progress?

In the previous post I argued that energy efficiency and improved technologies are making things worse, not better. But what about the political and economic programmes promoting sustainability? There’s a lot of talk, and things seem to be happening?

Integrated reporting[1]. Carbon footprints. Clean Development Mechanisms. Technology incentives. Mass rollout programmes. Greenhouse Gas reporting Protocols. Energy use benchmarking programmes. I use these things in my research, and sometimes even teach this stuff. Although some of them result in energy efficiency, they don’t really lower our energy use. Sure, some of it was formulated with good intentions. But because they aren’t implemented with the same concern, they are just band-aid solutions. Most large companies comply simply as political posturing. Benchmarking, for example, means comparing a whole bunch of buildings, and saying that the bottom half should strive to be at least average. But that’s like arranging 10 deadly poisons and picking one that’s below average. It’s still going to kill you. The Clean Development Mechanism and Carbon credits do not force countries and companies to pollute less – pollution becomes an asset, and you just ship it out to a poorer country’s balance sheet.

Unfortunately, these are the best we have at the moment and we shouldn’t discard them yet. They are ways to raise awareness about the issues, but it would be a fatal mistake to regard these things as steps towards sustainability, since they are not changing our consumption patterns. Depending on how and where you draw your measurement boundaries, the numbers look good. But as soon as you zoom out, you find that the big picture hasn’t changed significantly.

What do we mean by sustainability? The famous Brundtland definition of sustainability is to meet our needs without compromising future generations’ ability to meet theirs. But this fails on three levels: first, our needs are insatiable and will never be met. Second, we are not meeting basic needs at the moment: ask the 80% who are living on less than ten dollars a day and have little or no access to clean water or sanitation. At the moment we are drawing the boundary so as not to include them. Third, we are compromising future generations in a big way. A more accurate definition would be: Enough for all, forever. At the moment almost no-one is sustainable:

At the Breaking Point

We have these ‘sustainable’ food labels and stickers, but we live in a world of false prosperity. We like our coffee, sushi, hot water, our cool cars, and our smartphones, and we can’t imagine living without them. The same way 18th century American slave-owners couldn’t image living without their slaves. But it is a false prosperity. We have simply outsourced the unsightly stuff to where we don’t have to look at it: sewerage, waste, slavery. The argument that it costs too much to change is invalid. It costs too much already. We have ‘cheap’ local and international travel and ‘cheap’ electricity. But what we are paying for is not the true cost of that energy. We are only paying for its extraction, distribution, and the expansion of the system. We are not paying for the effect. It is false prosperity. We cannot go on living like this.

It’s very easy to complain about this, but what would happen if we ‘rationalised’ the prices of fuel or electricity, to reflect the true monetary cost? The cost of electricity would increase many times over. Companies would go bankrupt. Honest, hardworking people would lose their jobs. The poverty line would move way up into the middle class as what we regard as ‘basic rights’ today would become what they truly are: luxuries. This is the nature of systemic evil: it is not really anyone’s fault, but, like slavery, it has become so deeply woven into the fabric of society that by removing it and seeking justice, we would create injustice.

Why do we have this problem? It has to do with an assumption so fundamental that we rarely even think about it.

The progress paradigm

How much will be enough? A little bit more. Always just a little bit more. Lee Iacocca (Chrysler CEO)

If you’re not growing, you’re decaying, goes the maxim repeated in the paper and the pulpit. To progress means to grow. And if your economic system is built on consumption, this means increasing your Gross Domestic Product (GDP): producing more stuff. Two consecutive quarters of GDP non-growth is a recession, and we don’t want that.

We consume and have technology for three reasons: comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. Our demand for these things is insatiable, because desire is a positive feedback loop: the more we have, the more we want.

But this is like measuring the progress to your destination by how much food you’ve eaten so far. It doesn’t tell you where you are, or how much you have left. So is GDP really a good measure of national wellness?


Source: Peter Victor, Questioning Economic Growth, Nature 468, 370–371 (18 November 2010). “These results bear out an observation made in 1934 by Simon Kuznets, a Russian-American economist and one architect of the system of national accounts from which GDP is derived: “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”

Does GDP growth reflect our increased well-being? It does not. If Brazil cut down all her rainforests, her GDP would shoot through the roof. But would Brazilians really be better off? Thinkers have started to realise this, and on a theoretical level, the “national capital” of a country is now being measured not only in terms of GDP. They call this Ecological Economics. Unfortunately, if we start looking wider than simply money, the picture looks decidedly bleaker:

95% Confidence interval on world animal populations. Source: Living Planet Index, WWF and Zoological Society of London. "The biggest recorded threat to biodiversity globally comes from the combined impacts of habitat loss and degradation, driven by unsustainable human consumption."" - LPI Report

95% Confidence interval on world animal populations. Source: Living Planet Index, WWF and Zoological Society of London. “The biggest recorded threat to biodiversity globally comes from the combined impacts of habitat loss and degradation, driven by unsustainable human consumption.”” – LPI Report

A chilling article describes the economic problem well: we can pump another 565 Gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere before we raise global temperatures by 2°C – the magic, catastrophic number. The problem is that we have 2 795 Gigatons in proven reserves – 5 times as much. These are only the proven ones. The article goes on:

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically aboveground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

These reserves are worth $27 trillion . Scientists are telling companies and nations to keep $20 trillion below the ground. Who will win? It’s not a difficult question. Ironically, climate change is helping: with a third of the arctic ice out of the way, new sea drilling opportunities are opening up. Barack Obama assured investors: You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can… That’s a commitment that I make, and Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy. So any political commitment to clean energy isn’t clean-instead-of-carbon. It’s clean and carbon. The more the better.

Ok, so we know what needs to be done, and we have the technology to do it. Besides the political problem, there is, unfortunately, another obstacle standing between us and a sustainable world: The poor. That pesky 2 billion. Achieving some level of global social justice isn’t that difficult. The West spends more on make-up, ice cream and pet food in a year than it would cost to give the rest clean water, food and basic education.[2] But social ‘justice’ and environmental justice are incommensurable. We can’t have both. “The vast majority of people alive want to be full citizens of a world whose privileges they can see on television.”[3] But the average American uses more electricity in a day than the average Ugandan uses in a year. What do you think will happen if we lifted everyone in Africa out of poverty and gave them a Western standard of living? It would be a (very) bloody disaster. Social justice can’t mean helping them to consume as much as us.

We need to break our consumption paradigm. To a large extent, it is what defines is. I consume, therefore I am. But our children will not live like us: whether they want to or not. They will either hate us, or thank us, but they will wonder at our waste in the way we wonder at the Nazi German public’s apathy. How could they let it happen? We ask indignantly. But the Nazi comparison is a callous joke: their public let only 6 million die through indifference. It pales in comparison. We drive our big cars to where we can sip on our 3rd world lattes and wear our vast wardrobes of Chinese clothes, and talk about how our forefathers hunted certain species to extinction. How primitive of them, we say, to think that our natural resources are infinite.


Next time: Hope

[1] Where companies have to report on environmental and social indicators along with their financials.

[2] Keith Hart and Vishnu Padayachee, Development, in: The Human Economy, Polity Press.

[3] Ibid.