Energy, Money and Growth: February 1999 Conference

A conference on the peaking of oil production, climate change, money and economic growth held at Trinity’s Goldsmith Hall, Pearse Street, Dublin.

On the 19th and 20th of February 1999, Feasta held a conference on the questions raised by Richard Douthwaite in his two new books, the second edition of “The Growth Illusion” and “The Ecology of Money.”

The conference featured speakers James Robertson, Dr. Colin Campbell and Richard Douthwaite, with workshops and panel contributions by Aubrey Meyer (Global Commons Institute, London), Jane King and Professor Malcolm Slesser (Resource Use Institute, Edinburgh), Mary Kelly (IBEC), David O’Kelly (FEASTA), and Serene Philip (Catholic Relief Services, India).

Why is this conference being held?
Speakers Biographies
Conference Programme

Why is this conference being held?

The most crucial challenge facing humanity at present is to find a way of living on the Earth without changing the climate so rapidly that the world’s forests are unable to adapt themselves and die, along with everything in them. The British Met. Office expects forest death to become really serious by 2050 if we fail to make our economic system much more sustainable within a very short time.

Stopping climate change involves cutting our fossil energy use by 60-80%. This would obviously completely transform the way we live. Minerals, transport and food, for example, would become very much more expensive. Moreover, because (as one of our speakers, Malcolm Slesser, has calculated) over half of the energy we use goes into generating economic growth, further expansion would become very difficult.

What would that mean for the capitalist system, which needs to expand continually if it is not to collapse? Would it bring it down? Or does it mean that its supporters will prevent us heading off a climate disaster? And, if we can’t grow any more, what does this mean for the Third World? Are its inhabitants, the majority of humankind, condemned forever to lead lives that are nasty, brutish and short? Serene Philip from Mumbai, who has worked on community health and agricultural development projects in India will give her view.

But why does the economy need to expand each year to avoid collapse? One reason is that the expansion is financed with borrowed money on which interest has to be paid. David O’Kelly’s seminar will explain exactly why this creates problems, showing that not only does it push us heavily into debt – Irish residents owe the banks one-third more money than they did this time last year – but it makes the economy highly unstable.

Even if we want to continue to increase our fossil energy consumption to generate further economic growth we may not be able to do so because the easily-extracted supplies are running out. Oil output will peak sometime in the next ten years according to Colin Campbell, an oil geologist, who will be speaking to us on Saturday night. Then, on Sunday, Colin will review the energy chapter in the revised edition of Richard’s book, ‘The Growth Illusion’ and say if he agrees with its conclusions. He will also conduct a seminar to allow people to explore the consequences of oil and gas depletion in more detail.

Another speaker, Aubrey Meyer of the Global Commons Institute, developed the ‘Contraction & Convergence’ approach to halting global warming. This involves sharing, on an equal per capita basis, the right to burn the limited amount of fossil fuel that can be used without changing the climate. A majority of the world’s governments are in favour of C&C not because they believe in equity but because they can’t think of any other way of dividing the emissions up that has the slightest chance of gaining international agreement. In his seminar he will explain the concept and discuss the state of play in the international negotiations to limit climate change.

Under C&C, countries that don’t burn all their fossil fuel allowance, like India, can sell the right to the remainder to nations, like the US, that can’t stay within their ration.. But what money are the Americans going to use? Dollars that they’ve printed themselves? Richard Douthwaite’s book, The Ecology of Money, looks at this question, and he’ll be describing in his joint seminar with James Robertson his ideas for a new world currency system that would make such purchases fair. James generally supports the ideas in Richard’s book but has reservations on several points, so this should be an interesting session.

James will explain his reservations when he reviews the book for us on Sunday morning and in the afternoon he will set out his own ideas on how the economic system needs to be transformed to become sustainable. These can be found in his recent book Transforming Economic Life, which will be on sale at the conference or can be bought in advance from the FEASTA office.

Another major problem which arises from the way we create our money is that its value is no longer tied to anything real in the way it was when the world operated on the gold standard. This leads to all sorts of short-sighted decisions being taken which damage the interests of future generations. Malcolm Slesser and Jane King will discuss in their seminar the need for an accounting system based on energy, an idea Richard borrowed from them to use in his book.

Finally, what should the Irish government’s policy be on the energy, growth and climate change issue and how will industry respond? Mary Kelly has been one of IBEC’s representatives in the discussions the government has had with the social partners on this country’s greenhouse-gas emissions reduction strategy and has seen its draft proposals, which will be finalised in the next few months. Industry is going to face severe adjustment problems if either the price of oil rises sharply, as Colin Campbell expects, or if firm action is taken to control greenhouse emissions. This is because most of the increase in emissions would come from increased industrial activity and road traffic if a no-change strategy was followed. Does this mean that, for the first time in its history, Ireland will have to say no to certain types of economic development?

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James Robertson’s early career was in Whitehall; he accompanied Harold Macmillan on his prime-ministerial “Wind of Change” tour of Africa in 1960. After setting up and directing the Inter-Bank Research Organisation, and contributing to enquiries on government, civil service, parliament, and London’s future as a financial centre, he became an independent writer and speaker in 1974.

Since 1975 he and his wife, Alison Pritchard, have circulated the twice-yearly Turning Point (latterly Turning Point 2000) newsletter – final issue, January 2000. In 1984/85 they helped to set up The Other Economic Summit (TOES) and the New Economics Foundation. He is a patron of SANE (South Africa New Economics Foundation), set up following his visit there in 1996.

His recent books include Beyond The Dependency Culture (Adamantine/Praeger, 1998), The Transformation of Economic Life (Schumacher Briefing No 1, Green Books, 1998) and A New Economics of Sustainable Development, a “Briefing for Policymakers” written for the European Commission in 1997 (Kogan Page, 1999). Copies of the latter two books are available from the Feasta office. He lives in Oxfordshire.

Richard Douthwaite is a co-founder of FEASTA. He worked as a journalist in England before studying economics at the University of Essex and the University of the West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica. All told, he lived in the Caribbean for six years, setting up a boatyard building concrete fishing boats for Jamaica’s fishing co-ops, helping produce a report on the economic effects of tourism on the Jamaican economy and working as Government Economist on the tiny island of Montserrat. He has lived in Ireland since 1974. For the first ten years, he and his wife ran a manufacturing business but he returned to journalism in 1985. His first book, The Growth Illusion, (Lilliput, 1992) is widely regarded as a classic and this conference is the Irish launch of the extensively-revised and updated second edition. (Lilliput, 2000).

His second book, Short Circuit (Lilliput, 1996) gives dozens of examples of currency, banking, energy and food production systems which communities can use to make themselves less dependent on an increasingly unstable world economy. In 1998-9 he was a consultant to an EU-funded project to establish experimental community currency sysrtems in Scotland, the West of Ireland, Amsterdam and Madrid. He lives in Westport.

Dr Colin Campbell obtained his doctorate in geology from Oxford University in 1958 and has worked since then as a petroleum geologist with companies including BP, Texaco, Fina and Amoco. He was Exploration manager for Aran Energy, Dublin, in 1978-9. More recently he has been a consultant to the Norwegian and Bulgarian governments, and to Shell and Esso.

In 1998, he and a colleague, Jean H. Laherrere, were largely responsible for convincing the International Energy Agency that the world’s oil output would peak in the next ten years He is the author of two books and numerous papers on oil depletion and has lectured and broadcast widely on the topic. A recent presentation was to a House of Commons committee. He lives in Ballydehob.

Aubrey Meyer is a violinist and composer who was once the principle viola player in the BBC Ulster Orchestra. He is a founder of the Global Commons Institute and largely responsible for the development and promotion of the ‘Contraction & Convergence’ approach to halting global warming. He works full-time on climate change issues and lives in North London.

Professor Malcolm Slesser trained as a chemical engineer and worked in industry for seven years before taking up academic appointments in Scotland, Brazil, the Netherlands and the US. He set up the Energy Studies unit at the University of Strathclyde and became its first professor. He was seconded for three years to work as head of systems analysis with the European Commission in Italy and has advised the International Federation of Institutes of Advance Study on energy systems analysis and its application to self-reliant development. He is the architect of the Natural Capital Accounting approach to macro-economic scenario analysis. He lives in Dunblane, Scotland.

Jane King has worked in the British diplomatic service and for UNESCO. She is now the manager of the University of Edinburgh’s contribution to the Modelling a Sustainable Europe study funded by the European Commission. She co-wrote The Management of Greed (Resource Use Institute, Edinburgh, 1997) with Malcolm Slesser and David Crane. This expalins a novel dynamic biophysical approach to achieving sustainability. She lives in Dunblane, Scotland.

Serene Philip has worked for both NGOs and funding agencies involved in participatory community health and agricultural development projects in India. She lives in Mumbai and is currently studying for a Master’s in Development Studies at Kimmage Manor.

Dr. Mary Kelly attended Trinity College Dublin, where she obtained a degree in Chemistry and a PhD in Organic Chemistry in 1983. Since then she has worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the areas of quality control and technical affairs. She obtained an MBA from Dublin City University in 1992. Mary joined IBEC as Environment Executive in August 1994 and was involved in developing the REPAK initiative.

David O’Kelly is a member of the FEASTA committee. He is currently researching the links between the money system and what he describes as ‘the many cracks apparent in the fabric of modern society due to unbridled economic growth.’ After holding a number of senior management positions in industry, he now works as a management consultant. He has been active in local politics and community development for 30 years and has served as a local councillor. He lives in Co. Wicklow.

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5.00 – 5.30 Registration
5.30 – 6.30 Dr. Colin Campbell, ‘The Imminent Oil Crisis’
6.30 – 6.45 Tea break
6.45 – 7.45 Richard Douthwaite ‘Which comes first – Changing our attitudes or Changing the System?’

10.30 – 10.45 Introduction by the Chairperson.
10.45 – 11.15 James Robertson will review The Ecology of Money
11.15 – 11.45 Colin Campbell will review the energy chapter of The Growth Illusion
11.45 – 12.00 Tea break
12.00 – 1.30 Panel discussion with audience participation. The panel will consist of Aubrey Meyer, Serene Philip, Jane King, Mary Kelly, David O’Kelly, Richard Douthwaite, James Robertson and Colin Campbell.
1.30 – 2.30 Lunch and launch of the New Economic Foundation’s CD ROM
2.30 – 3.30: James Robertson ‘Taxes, Public Spending, and Sustainability’
3.30 – 3.45 Tea Break
3.45 – 5.00 Simultaneous seminars

  1. Aubrey Meyer on the present standing of the Contraction and Convergence concept in international negotiations
  2. David O’Kelly on the problems caused by creating money through debt.
  3. Malcolm Slesser and Jane King on the importance of using energ rather than money to keep track of costs.
  4. Richard Douthwaite and James Robertson on the need for monetary reform as a step towards sustainability and the direction it should take.
  5. Colin Campbell on the growing power of OPEC and its likely consequences

5.00 ­ 5.30 Closing session. Each seminar will be asked to suggest goals for FEASTA arising from their discussions and to say what help they can give to achieve these goals.

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