This lecture was presented at the University of Nottingham on April 4, 2017. Please click on the slides to enlarge them.
On April 3 in the Guardian there was an article about Christine Lagarde of the IMF concerned that the growth of productivity in many “developed countries” has been falling. There is a problem for the finance sector if growth falls away since additional income is needed for people to be able to service and repay their debts. Without growth the finance sector is destabilised and, indeed, it has been necessary to bring down interest rates to manage the situation.
But the problem is not only a practical one. Growth of production is central to the core ideology of the current economic system, to the idea of “development” and “progress”. It is central to the legitimacy of the people who run the global economy. Without it there is a legitimacy crisis.
The idea of “progress” primarily emerged in what was called the European enlightenment of the 18th century and involved the idea that science and technology would enable the increase of material production and economic activity and it was this that made the “age of commerce” the highest point in human evolution. Basically technical progress and increased production was equivalent to moral progress because the chief problem facing humanity is want or “scarcity”.
The new heroes for humanity were now innovating entrepreneurs who risked money to back the production and marketing of machines that they had invented.
At first production increased was not measured comprehensively. However from the post world war two period onwards it became the practice to keep national income accounts and to keep track of economic growth figures as the chief measure of “progress”.
Extraction. This form of development led to a massive increase in the volume and weight of materials extracted out of the planet – over time a greater proportion being construction materials, minerals and energy minerals.
Magnitude…. Recent research from the University of Leicester calculated the total mass of all the artifacts produced by human society – buildings, cars, computers – a large part of which is now rubble and waste in dumps. They found it to be 30 trillion tons. That represents a mass of more than 50 kilograms for every square metre of Earth’s surface.
By contrast, the total amount of living matter, including people, plants, animals, insects and bacteria is estimated to be around 4 trillion tons of carbon = about 9 trillion tons.
From the 19th century onwards artistic visions of the future saw it as being one in which lots of clever powered machines would become available to transport people and products, to produce goods and to generally make life easier. Indeed while text books of economics describe a world of land labour and capital – a different description would have been people using and guiding machines and infrastructures powered by a succession of energy carriers – coal, oil, gas, electricity.
Slide Four: Human output as a measuring rod – concept of energy slaves
Energy slaves The result is a society dependent on ever increasing volumes of energy to power the machines and technical infrastructures. To put this in perspective we need some measurements and numbers. One way of measuring is by using the power capacity of the average human body as a unit of account. If we take an averagely healthy person and get them to peddle all day long on a peddle generator then they can, with their muscles, generate 3kWh a day – if they can stay awake for 24 hours. This would keep a light bulb lit all day.
The concept of energy slave was developed by Buckminster Fuller in the 1940s to describe how much human labour would be required to sustain a particular activity in the absence of fossil fuels. For example if would take 11 energy slaves to power a toaster. Thus since the average north american consumes 24 barrels of oil a year, and because a barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of 8.6 years of human labour it would take 204 energy slaves to sustain an average US lifestyle and a 110 energy slaves to sustain an average Western European lifestyle.
Here’s another statistic to consider. If we were to try to power the (2012) internet with pedal-powered generators, each producing 70 watt of electric power, we would need 8.2 billion people pedalling in three shifts of eight hours for 365 days per year. (Electricity consumption of end-use devices is included in these numbers, so the pedallers can use their smartphones or laptops while on the job). 1,815 TWh equals three times the electricity supplied by all wind and solar energy plants in 2012, worldwide.”
Progress or a gilded index of ruin? Ideologists of right and left bought into the idea of progress as technological change but disagreed over issues of social justice, distribution and how and who should manage the process of change.
Nevertheless there were always some critics of industrialism itself and not everyone accepted the narrative that economic growth was per se some kind of moral good. For example 19th century thinks like John Stewart Mill saw the possibility that growth could become uneconomic, denied that bigger was necessarily better and foresaw a case for an eventual “steady state economy” while John Ruskin wrote about uneconomic growth as “A gilded index of far reaching ruin” and how increasing wealth often went together with what he called increasing “illth”. Artists and writers like D H Lawrence were appalled at the “tragedy of ugliness” brought about by industrialism.
Some critics later in the 20th century had another message. The challenged the very idea that growth would be able to continue – according to Kenneth Boulding – ‘Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.‘
Denied continued possibility of growth. In the early 1970s the famous Limits to Growth study was conducted by system scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under commission by a business group called the Club of Rome. The MIT group ran a computer model of the world economy in the world ecological system with basic variables being growing food and industrial output feeding a growing population. The growth of industrial production would however lead to increase pollution and wastes as well as to resource depletion. It would be these two processes that would feed back and eventually lead to a decline in both industrial and food production. Eventually the pollution and declining food and industrial production would lead to a increase in death rates and fall in birth rates.
Overshoot and collapse…. Unless anything was done there would be a period of overshoot and collapse. Production could grow at a rate that was unsustainable – that could not last, just as an individual or a company can spend more than its income by borrowing, by running down savings and by not fixing the roof – however that would lead, eventually to a collapse. So the global economy could grow at more than a sustainable rate but it would eventually lead to collapse.
Economists declare the study discredited. This study created fury among economists who declared the study discredited because, they argued, markets and technology would anticipate and solve any problems. But the LtG theorists had never denied that technological options were available and that alternative and substitute arrangements could be found. Their argument was that the alternative arrangements and technological options would themselves claim an increasing proportion of energy, material resources and time – in work-arounds and attempts at technical fixes. In the words of more recent authors there are technical alternatives but are they affordable in the context of keeping the rest of the economy going?
We will see that this is a serious problem for many purported solutions for ecological and environmental problems.
So what is the evidence 45 years later? Let us look, first of all, at the dynamic of depletion. Resources are of different kinds – most biotic resources are renewable but they must not be taken at more than a sustainable rate. Trees that are cut down can regrow and fish that are taken out of the sea will breed – but not if the trees and fish are taken at too high a rate.
People who understand depletion rarely say resources are going to run out in any absolute sense – although biotic resources can be unsustainably harvested and drive species to extinction as is threated to various fish species.
With many mineral resources there is limited scope for any kind of renewal. They can often be re-used and recycled but that takes more energy and some of the resource will inevitably be lost. That means that with mineral resources what more normally happens is that lower and lower grade resources have to be used and this makes extraction more and more expensive. You can see this in the following chart of the grade of a variety of ores tapped in Australia.
Now the point is that if as is shown here, say with copper, the ore grade falls from a 25% to a 5% copper content then 5 times the energy has to be used to extract and smelt it – and it leaves 5 times the tailings. That becomes a problem if the cost of energy is high or if the economy cannot afford to pay more for the product.
Fossil fuel depletion. This problem of having to use progressively inferior resources as depletion occurs is also especially true of fossil fuels because once they have been burned they cannot be re-cycled or re-used. Use of energy mineral resources involves an entropy change. The energy converted during use for human purposes is still there afterwards as heat but dissipated in the environment and no longer available for further use.
The depletion of non renewable energy resources makes it necessary to extract them from more sources that are more difficult, and expensive, to access. The greater resort to unconventional oil and gas – using fracking – is an example.
What you have in fracking or, more generally, the resort to so called “unconventional oil and gas” are technologies to extract fossil fuels from harder to access geological sources. When oil and gas is extracted from conventional wells it is being tapped from porous reservoir rock – the oil flows underground to the well and thus a single well can draw from a wide area. In unconventional wells the oil and gas is trapped in an impervious rock so it is necessary to create an artificial or engineered porosity. That involves a lot more use of energy, lot more work, a lot more wells, a lot more opportunity for accidents and things to go wrong and a lot more money cost too. Of course, the technology changes over time – with longer well lengths, bigger fracks and multi well pads. The fracking companies learn through experience. But this is still an expensive and limited resource that is resorted too because conventional wells are depleting.
That explains why unconventional gas is more expensive to extract and has struggled to make a profit. When oil and gas prices are low they do not cover these high costs and US oil and gas producers and many producers have made a loss. What keeps this show on the road is faith – belief that prices will recover and profits are possible
Much discussion about the environment takes place as if the only problem is climate change and reducing carbon emissions. While climate change is a serious problem other pollutants and wastes are also serious problems – to the point of being describable as “planetary boundaries” which is is dangerous to cross. These are problems like ocean acidification, biodiversity collapse with pesticides killing many beneficial species like bees. In recent years there has also been a realisation that we have a major problem of pollution of the oceans – and also the atmosphere – from large amounts of plastic trash. This does not biodegrade but it does eventually break up into smaller and smaller pieces and is ingested by marine animals. The impact of plastic has now been documented on over 600 species.
As regards climate change the problem is not only caused by CO2 but also N2O caused by overuse of fertilisers, hydroflurocarbons and methane from rice paddies, land use change, cattle and from leakages during the operations of the global oil and gas industry.
Probably at 1.5 degrees C increase over pre-industrial runaway process – release of methane clathrates in arctic tundra and arctic seas – releasing methane
On current trends it looks likely that global temperature rises will be way above 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial times. The likely result of this will be the melting of Antarctica and Greenland – the melting of Greenland alone will raise global sea level by 7 metres – or 21 feet which means flooding all the world major coastal cities and large areas of farm land – close to home we are talking of Hull and the Lincolnshire coastline going under the sea.
Both fossil fuel corporations and companies producing and promoting green technologies have developed and are promoting responses to depletion and pollution –there are technical fixes – but the key issues are whether these fixes are economically affordable for the rest of the economy plus whether they are acceptable to the public given what often turn out to be wider social, health and other concerns (so called externalities).
In recent years we have seen examples of “technical fixes” that have stalled and not got beyond the early phase of development – because the money cannot be found to develop them further. An example is carbon capture and storage.
All such fixes typically mean that energy costs more to supply – but because energy underpins all economic activity that is a serious matter. It takes money out of people’s pockets that they cannot then spend on other things. Studies have suggested that in the USA if the amount of national income spent on energy exceeds 5.5% the economy crashes.
To the extent that these costs are money ones the issue of unaffordability can be temporarily masked masked by debt where there is an expectation that the affordability problem is temporary. Debt can work in this way. Individuals, families, companies and government may assume that current difficulties and unaffordability is a temporary problem and the future will be brighter. For example companies may assume that technologies like fracking will improve and bring down extraction costs – or they may gamble that energy prices will rise in the future after all. So they borrow. This borrowing is helped by central banks keeping official interest rates low or even below zero.
But what about renewables? Can they fill the gap left by depleting sources of fossil fuels – and can they do so without greenhouse gas emissions and accumulating wastes?
Composition of renewables. First of all we should note that nearly half of the global renewable energy supply is what is called “traditional biomass”. For example this will include firewood from rainforests and marginal land harvested by indigenous people or cow dung which is burned in India.
In addition to this quite a high proportion of so called “modern renewables” is biomass from plantations and agriculture grown as an energy crop – either for burning for heat, or for burning to generate electric power or for coverting into biofuels. Hydro power is next in size.
By contrast, what many people immediately think of when they think of renewables – solar voltaics or wind power – or even smaller tidal or wave energy – is very small indeed. It is growing incredibly rapidly but it has a very long way to go.
Will the growth of renewables be sufficient to sustain economic growth and sustain a consumer society? Some people think so. But among experts there is a huge gulf in opinion and the debate has sometimes been acrimonious.
On this there is a great gulf between what I would term the cornucopians and those who are more sceptical to the point of being described as doomers. The distance in estimates of future potential is really huge. A recent article in the journal “Energy Policy” pointed out that estimates of the global technical potential for renewables vary by up to two orders of magnitude – in other words the optimists think there is 100 times more available energy than the pessimists.
How do we account for these huge differences?
1. Counting energy costs – it is net energy that matters. Optimists often do not calculate the energy inputs needed to tap their renewable energy source. They give estimates of gross potential but net potential is what is needed. This is not just the energy cost of the solar panels and wind turbines but the costs of building the factories to built them, the cost of the transport and installation, the cost of maintenance, the energy cost of the administration – and being realistic about how long they will last.
2. Infrastructure costs Properly speaking the calculations should include additional energy inputs like those involved in (a) a need to extend grids and infrastructures – where the sun shines and the wind blows is not necessarily where you want the power that it generates – so connections must be built.
3. Costs of buffering intermittency…. To allow for the fact that one day the wind may be blowing north of you, the next day east of you, the next day south of you, and the next day west you may decide that to be reasonably sure that you can tap some wind energy you need to put turbines north, east south and west. But in this case your greater security of supply would be purchased by 4 times the capital cost compared to a single fossil fuel fed power station. (b) you may need your energy in the evening rather than midday when the sun is shining strongest so you put in battery storage – but what if the wind does not blow for several days? In the UK the solar energy coming in is 9 times more powerful in July compared to December when it is very dark – but you need more energy for heat in December – battery storage between July and December would be a hugely expensive undertaking.
4. When non electrical energy carriers are needed. Another point is that renewables that are electrical don’t answer your needs when you ultimately want heat, or a liquid fuel for vehicle transport. Yes, you can convert electricity into heat or into battery storage for vehicles or into hydrogen. However there are conversion losses when that happens. A further major consideration is that you not only have the costs of making, installing and connecting wind turbines or solar panels. There is also the cost of developing and manufacturing differently designed vehicles or heating systems that run on a different basis.
5. It is not just fossil fuel minerals where it is necessary to resort to progressively inferior sources. An anaologous problem besets renewable sources of energy too. After the best locations for wind speed, sun, water flow etc have been taken – to continuing expanding capacity it it necessary to resort to the inferior places with lower energy return yield next.
6. Potential short supply for materials needed for the manufacture of some technologies – rare earths.
7. Some technologies give rise to emissions themselves – e.g. hydro power leads to increased methane emissions when vegetation is submerged.
8. Climate change may lead to a decline in renewable energy yield and costs – eg changing rainfall impacting hydro power, climate change reducing biomass and wind and cloud cover impacting wind or solar – though that may be in either direction, wind speeds may be higher in a warmer world…
Bio-energy as renewable energy resource…. An important part of this whole debate relates to the role of bio-energy – wood that can be burned directly or other crops that can be turned into fuels. Biomass is a renewable energy source in that the ground on which it has been grown can be used again using the solar energy that proceeds the next harvest. Unlike wind or solar energy biomass is stored energy that can be combusted at a time of choice – so it does not have the problem of intermittency that wind and solar do. So there is a lot of hope that biomass – or bio-energy – can provide energy in forms that wind and solar cannot. Bio-energy has come to seen as a source for surface transport on sea and land – as well as a fuel for airplanes. On top of that some scientists see it as a feedstock to replace petroleum based chemicals and other materials.
BECCS….. There is even a hope that biomass and bioenergy can provide a carbon negative energy source – this is called BECCS. The argument goes plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere and embody it in their cellular structures. This returns to the atmosphere when they are burned and thus, so the argument, biomass based energy is carbon neutral. It then….supposedly….becomes a carbon negative energy form if burned in power stations specially equipped to take the CO2 out of the combustion gases, liquify them and then pump them underground for the next tens of thousands of years. All we need is to plant up an area one to three times the area of India to use for their fuel
But where is the land and the water to come from for all of these hopes? So where do we find the area?
Displacement of other land uses….. The point is that growing bio-energy crops will either displace food crops or crops used for fibres (clothing) or for building material – or alternatively it will involve displacing vegetation on what is called marginal ground and displacing communities who use that land but in a low impact way. In addition, “wild” areas like the rain forests have other important eco-system functions and cannot be cut down, ploughed up of converted into urban areas and flooded by dams without different kinds of negative consequences. When Brazil cuts down its rainforests it reduces rainfall and that has knock on consequences for its hydropower and for indigenous communities living in the forest…in their forest.
Generating food, fiber and other biomass-based products that people currently consume utilizes roughly 75% of the world’s vegetated land. Over 70% of the water withdrawn from rivers and aquifers is used by agriculture and fertiliser use has doubled the amount of reactive nitrogen in the world, leading to large-scale pollution of aquatic ecosystems, extensive algal blooms and bodies of waters with low levels of oxygen. Even so, agricultural and forestry practices have not, on balance, increased the total quantity of biomass production: they have merely transformed natural ecosystems to produce goods and services for human consumption. Humans cannot increase at will the global amount of biomass or the proportion of that they take.
Feeding the world in the future will be difficult enough already… A study by the University of Reading modelled scenarios for global food production and nutrition by mid century based on current technologies and inequality of access to food. The found that 31% of the global population would be at risk of malnourishment by 2050 with no climate change and 52% of the global population (an extra 1.7 billion people) were at risk of malnourishment when climate change is taken into account.
Not only is climate change negatively impacting harvests but there are also problems of depleting aquifers and soil erosion. Many pesticides are losing their effectiveness and there is competition for farm land from non agricultural uses like for urban building land. Depletion of oil and natural gas will make fertilisers more expensive and more difficult to supply.
Land and water grabbing……. The drive of corporations to develop bio-energy sources is in competition with food security in many countries. There is a corporate land and water grab across the entire world and much of this takes place to grow biofuels and biomass, particularly in Africa. Multinational corporations make deals with national governments and at the local level people find that land their families have been using for generations is taken away from them for “development”.
Is Bio-energy really carbon neutral? Although the growth of bioenergy crops absorbs carbon, using the land to grow bioenergy crops sacrifices the sequestration of carbon in land that is left to revert to forest. This foregone carbon sequestration, which is not considered in current GHG accounting related to bioenergy, may be substantial. For example, in the western Ukraine forest growth following abandonment of farmland resulted in a net carbon sink of almost one ton of carbon per hectare forest and year
So what does a LtG future look like? Of course everywhere will be different but we have some frightening examples. Let us take Syria for example.
Up until the mid 1990s Syria was a good example of “development” – there was growing oil production sold on the world market that gave the Syrian government revenues that it could use to subsidise food and fuel as well as spend on armaments.
After 1996 Syrian oil production began to fall and by 2010 was only one half its 1996 level. This had a drastic financial impact on the government and forced it to cut fuel subsidies.
2002- 2008 water resources dropped by a half due to waste and overuse. That was followed by a drought between 2007 and 2010 which was the worst on the instrumental record – widely judged by climate scientists to be the result of climate change. Tens of thousands of people – whole villages of Sunni cultivaters abandoned their homes in the countryside and moved into the cities like Aleppo, dominated by Alawite communities, leading to rising ethnic tensions. Between 2010 and 2011 the global price of wheat doubled. Assad was unable to maintain food subsidies because of falling oil revenues.
In the rising tensions outside powers have intervened with their own agendas – and those agendas have been rival oil and gas pipeline routes – either from Iran to Europe or from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Europe. In this Russia has allied with Iran to defend the Assad regime and the US and UK are covertly allying with fundamentalist Sunni rebels to topple Assad and establish their own regime for their pipeline routes where there would be a role for Halliburton and Exxon.
In a number of other countries there has been a convergence of food, energy and water crises.
Oppositional and resistance struggles against environmental impacts have occurred the world over. The latest in the global north is a movement against fracking that has sprung up internationally.
Conflicts about environment have also been documented and studied by academics – for example with the Environmental Justice Atlas which has details of about 1,000 environmental conflicts world wide – against land grabbing, against resource extraction, against toxic waste dumps and pollution processes, against deforestation and plantations including biofuel plantations. Although activists in the global north and global south are increasingly networked there are clear differences between movements in the global north and south.
Environmentalism of the Poor….Joan Martinez Alier refers to a Environmentalism of the Poor in the global south. In this case the poor are often defending the eco-system on which they rely for vital resources like firewood or food in a subsistence economy. Indigenous communities are often struggling to defend ancestral homes and sacred sites. For these communities the eco-system is more than a resource store. It is integral to their spirituality and cultural identity as a community rooted in a particular place occupied by their ancestors since time immemorial. The place does not belong to them but they belong to the place – nature is not a store of resources but part of their being. They have a kinship with the species of plants and animals. Nature is Pachamama – mother earth in a very real sense.
The data in the Env Justice Atlas shows that indigenous communities are playing a disproportionate role defending nature in India, South America and Africa.
Some parallel movements also exist in the Global North – like movements by the First Nations in Canada and the USA to defend their ancestral lands – as for example against oil and gas pipelines recently in Dakota with the high risk or leakage and spillage.
There is also an Environmental Justice Movement. Concern and influence by the wealthy in the global north ensures that polluting and toxic industries as well as waste dumps are located away from rich communities. They are sited near poor ones, often where ethnic communities live. It is such communities that will get sick from the toxins or from fracking and they have organised to defend themselves.
Not all green activism is reactive and oppositional. There have been many pro-active and experimental projects on a small scale to pioneer and develop examples of green economy, green lifestyle and a complementary style of politics.
The words ecology and economy originate from a greek word oikos – the household – so effectively meaning the management of a household – many green pre-figurative experiments and projects are about the transformation of household, garden and wider neighbourhood to make them more self sufficient and efficient in providing for human needs.
In the last few decades typical projects like community gardens have sprung up all over the world – including in decaying urban areas and rust belts or in refugee camps.
Thousands of Eco-villages have been developed too – although one can argue that they are the normal way of living for countless thousands of communities in the global south, in the global north are intentionally established and often have multi-functional purposes – as therapeutic and mental health projects, as art projects and to experiment with ecological gardening and cultivation, the promotion
There are likewise community energy, community transport and cycling and recycling projects whose aim is to help their members participate practically in a green transition.
From isolated projects/struggles to a movement with a narrative for the future of society. Many activists have realised the need to network and make alliances and need for political representation to combat the way that the toxic economy uses the state to advance its own purposes and agenda. To combat this the green movement must be more than a collection of isolated struggles and projects but needs to come together as a movement with its own ideological narrative for the future of society. This has included challenging the desirability and critiquing the prospects for the growth economy. Many groups therefore share an overarching vision of the need for a Great Transition – and for “Degrowth”.
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Brian Davey trained as an economist but, aside from a brief spell working in eastern Germany showing how to do community development work, has spent most of his life working in the community and voluntary sector in Nottingham particularly in health promotion, mental health and environmental fields. He helped form Ecoworks, a community garden and environmental project for people with mental health problems. He is a member of Feasta Climate Working Group and former co-ordinator of the Cap and Share Campaign. He is editor of the Feasta book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, and the author of Credo: Economic Beliefs in a World in Crisis.