The Planet is not of course under any threat. It is organic life on earth that is under threat. The climate is changing and the evidence points to a significant contribution by man. The problem is that human activity is generating more CO2 than the Planet can process. The CO2 is causing the Planet to heat up with various potentially catastrophic consequences for organic life on earth. This much is pretty well understood by everyone though there are still those that deny this consensus view. Given the potentially catastrophic consequences it is probably best to proceed on the assumption that the consensus is correct whatever your actual view.
So to save the Planet ( shorthand for saving organic life) we need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions. This makes sense. Trees and other foliage (and some bacteria) remove Carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. This chemical process converts water and CO2 into glucose and Oxygen. Glucose is made up of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. The Carbon atoms form the body of the plant. A tree is a kind of Carbon storage facility. In the past many trees and other organic matter were converted to what we now call fossil fuels. By burning these fuels we have released millions of years of stored Carbon back into the atmosphere in a couple of hundred years. Not difficult to see what has gone wrong really.
The first need is to stop burning fossil fuels. This cannot happen overnight because we need energy and must generate alternative sources with comparable capacity, or so the story goes. We certainly need alternative sources but why do we need comparable capacity? The purpose of this blog is to explore the unquestioned ‘comparable capacity’ assumption. Can we not perhaps reduce our energy consumption until non-CO2 releasing forms of energy can take over? The question is interesting because it highlights the problem with economics and human social practices that might also usefully be addressed.
Economics is obsessed with growth and maximizing things. Unemployment and excess capacity are sins and we must grow as fast as we can and always have available resources fully utilized. It is wasteful not to do so. This is because the CO2 effect is not built into the maths. Let us assume scientists can tell us how much CO2 we can risk releasing into the atmosphere in the next x years. Given existing energy technology we can calculate how much global growth is consistent with this CO2 constraint. If we could police this constraint, then growth would become a function of the introduction of new CO2-absent technologies. But of course we cannot police this constraint. The reason is parochialism.
How does one divide the CO2 constraint among the many nation states? And if we can answer this question, how does one enforce this division? You see the problem. Human society is not optimally organized to resolve the CO2 problem. The matter becomes even more problematic within nation states. If a country’s growth is capped it has implications for living standards, employment, military strength etc. The political problems are too huge for our present generation of politicians. The temptation to ignore the constraint is overwhelming. So what do we do?
We could cross our fingers and hope that the introduction of new energy technologies accelerates. The problem is that whilst CO2 is the pressing issue of the day, economic growth creates other ecological problems as well. Some problems may not even be apparent yet. Underlying the CO2 problem may be a more fundamental concern; our obsession with material consumption and growth of material consumption. It is certainly true that our obsession has driven the material advances that we have achieved and many technological innovations. But perhaps it is time to introduce another variable into the economic equation; quality.
The quality of existence is not always enhanced by material growth. I worked in an industry in which people kept ‘score’ by annual pay. These people worked incredibly long ours, took enormous risks, and sacrificed family life, in order to exceed the previous years bonus. This process continued long after they had achieved what any sane person would have considered ‘enough’. Some become obscenely wealthy as a result. Lesser mortals like myself could never get into the habit of keeping score by annual pay. I always had a concept of ‘enough’ and so long as it was met I was happy. For some like me work and pay was a means to an end and not an end in itself. Capitalism thrives on wealth being an emd in itself. Only then is the drive to accumulate always at full throttle. Herein lies a problem; the Capitalist imperative is quantitative growth not quality.
Ironically, the socialist imperative is also growth, at least in all incarnations of socialism that I have encountered, including Marxism. The essential difference between Socialism and Capitalism is in the distribution of growth (of wealth). There may be some loss of growth through enforced redistribution, but this is a side effect not an objective. Moreover, it is not proven that enforced redistribution lowers the long run growth path. It may simply smooth the process as Socialism is less prone to recession. The point is growth is important to both mainstream political ideologies. Arguing that growth is a ‘bad’ is limited to cranks and tree-huggers, or so it is claimed. The CO2 problem suggests otherwise.
The most effective way to slow our CO2 emissions until new technologies provide a sustained alternative to fossil fuels is to slow our growth of consumption. Everybody can do their bit. Do you really need that long-haul holiday, another pair of shoes, to drive to school, etc? Even christmas cards need to go. You have the option of Facebook, Instagram, text, Whatsapp, Facetime, Skype etc, so why send a card? Just because it is traditional? Traditional Chinese medicines are wiping out African wildlife so screw tradition. Let us live in the present and deal with pressing current issues rather than hiding ourselves in nostalgic, anachronistic, practices.
Of course, an anti-growth approach will, in the short-term, have implications for jobs. This is a non-trivial problem. Work is how humans gain the means of existence and for many it adds the only meaning to their lives. The resource savings should be used to cushion the blow for the structurally unemployed. The bigger problem may be in substituting new forms of meaning to lives. Perhaps this is long overdue and needs to be done for those still employed as well. A job need not define who you are. The question is which political party would be willing to offer an anti-growth, pro-quality, agenda?
The only grouping that consistently speaks to this type of agenda is the Green movement. This group seems to combine a socialist economic agenda with an ant-growth bias. It is not yet very popular, though it has grown. One of the potential risks in this movement is the organization around national boundaries despite its, in principle, global perspective. The organization of essentially socialist economic programmes, whether pro or anti-growth, on national grounds gives rise to nationalist socialism. The socialist economic agenda aims to look after all citizens and draws democratic political strength from this. However, inevitably it must then define who the citizens are, who they can be, and who can produce more of them. We know where this has led in the past and need to be ever vigilant on what we allow to happen while solving other pressing problems. In the last analysis, the human problem may be simply nationalism.