Fossil addiction: Is there a road to recovery?

Published in Norwegian in Dagbladet, 30 October 2014

There is no shortage of knowledge about global environmental and climate problems. It is necessary, therefore, to ask: Why is nothing happening?

Recently, yet another climate report was launched, and it was of especial interest up here, as the Norwegian ex-prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was among its 23 authors. The message from The New Climate Economy is upbeat: Economic growth and ecological sustainability are not, it argues, opposites. As a matter of fact, the authors claim, the transition to a climate-neutral economy may entail considerable global economic growth. By way of conclusion, the report lists ten general recommendations for the governments of the world, which show how their economies may be tweaked in a climate-friendly direction, if the politicians were only to do as the authors tell them to.

There is nothing in this report which has not been known for many years. For this reason, it is necessary to ask why so precious little has been done so far, and what makes the authors think that this particular publication will have practical consequences. The Kyoto agreement aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the materially rich countries, yet they increased by 58% between 1990 and 2012. At the same time, critical books and alarming reports on the climate crisis were published with increasing frequency. In other words, neither a lack of knowledge nor a lacking willingness to take part in large meetings about climate could be said to be the problem.

Around the same time as Stoltenberg launched The New Climate Economy in Oslo, the researcher Graham Turner in Melbourne published something far more thought-provoking than this catalogue of well-intentioned banalities. He had examined the predictions made in the 1972 report Limits to Growth, concluding that the authors of that report were by and large accurate in their assessments. His paper is called ‘Is global collapse imminent?’.

Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome foundation, warned against a coming global crisis resulting from population growth, resource depletion and environmental degradation. Climate change was only dealt with in passing, but it is worth noting that the authors did point out – more than forty years ago – that emissions of carbon dioxide might lead to a warming of the atmosphere. The report concluded that growth had to slow down, the world’s population had to be stabilised (preferably reduced); and that the production of necessities should be undertaken in an ecologically sustainable way.

Turner demonstrates that the growth rate in the main areas has been more or less as anticipated, including population, natural resource use, pollution and productivity in the agricultural and industrial sectors. All these indicators still point upwards, but according to Limits to Growth, they will reach their summit very soon. Owing to growing environmental problems and resource scarcities, productivity will decrease, which will in turn reduce the quality and availability of various services and contribute to a significant reduction of the global population over the coming decades.

Neither on the left nor on the right end of the political spectrum did the Club of Rome’s report generate much enthusiasm. Although they disagreed about lots of things, socialists, liberals and conservatives agreed that economic growth was good, and that population growth was not a problem as long as the economic growth rate was healthy. (This response, of course, echoes the standard Victorian riposte to Thomas Malthus and his dire predictions of overpopulation. Marx’ sharp criticism of Malthus was appropriate in the mid-19th century, but he did not anticipate global ecological crisis.)

So far, notwithstanding extreme weather events and financial crises, there have been few signs of the global economic collapse predicted by the Club of Rome; the authors of the report estimated that the turning point would come around 2015, while the figures from Melbourne suggest a slight delay.

A couple of things are nevertheless worth remarking. First, Limits to Growth predicted an ecological collapse without taking climate change into consideration. Secondly, they presented several possible scenarios and suggested policy changes that might improve chances for a viable future. This was in 1972. Although the findings of the report were well known at the time (I remember reading it as a schoolboy), the scenario the world has so far chosen to follow, is the one they label ‘business as usual’.

The question deserves repeating: On the basis of the very considerable knowledge possessed by the global elites about the unintended side-effects of growth, environmental deterioration and now climate change, it may be difficult to understand why so little has happened. Global energy use has been more than doubled since 1972, and the proportion of renewable energy remains almost negligible. In some countries, including Norway, it is a common view that natural gas is part of the solution. This is, perhaps, not so strange: Norwegian oil production peaked already in 2001, while gas production is still growing. But although natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, it does not solve the problems we are facing. Although natural gas, provided there are no leaks (a tall order), can be at least 25% cleaner than coal, that is not to say it is climate-neutral.

There are several possible answers as to why business as usual prevails.

First, the alliances between politicians and powerful resource companies are strong and sometimes invisible. The new chair of the Norwegian Labour Party, Jonas Gahr Støre, has often spoken of the climate challenge since he took the reins last spring, but his party has shown no sign of abandoning its oil-friendly policies, in line with the interests of the oil companies. In Australia, which – like Norway – profits greatly from a boom in fossil fuel exports, the prime minister has simply declared that ‘Australia is open for business’, and in that country, normal democratic considerations are routinely brushed aside the moment big money is involved.

Secondly, the gap is too wide between people’s everyday lives and the abstract discourse about climate change. Why should I delude myself into believing that it might save the Greenlandic glaciers if only I make sure to compost my kitchen waste, eat lentils and take my bike to work? Without politicians who have the courage to implement policies making it rational to live sustainably, and who make certain that transportation, industry, food production and infrastructural construction take place in ecologically responsible ways, there are no sound reasons for you and me to lead our lives as ecological martyrs.

Thirdly, and most fundamentally, contemporary world civilization is based on a deep addiction to fossil fuel. The industrial revolution depended crucially on the marriage of James Watt’s steam engine and the rich, shallow coal deposits of Wales and the Midlands. Since the Napoleonic wars, all economic growth, population growth, improved conditions of life, increased agricultural productivity and technological development have been intimately connected to increased energy use, which has usually been the increased use of fossil fuels. An insatiable appetite for coal, oil and gas have, in other words, been synonymous with growth and development.

On this background, it should come as no surprise that the aforementioned Jens Stoltenberg, while he was still CEO of Norway, Inc, did his best to ensure that the country should export as much fossil energy as possible; whereas, just a couple of months after his electoral defeat last year, he came out in Aftenposten, ashen with anxiety, explaining that we (that is humanity) had to find a way of dealing with the climate crisis immediately.

For the record, this is not meant to ridicule Stoltenberg, whose reputation as an honest, committed and genuinely democratic politician is probably deserved. What is interesting is that he comes across as a trueborn child of his time, a time which, for two hundred glorious years, gave humanity a sustained and unprecedented boon, quantitatively as well as qualitatively, thanks to the fossil energy. Alas, this era is now fast moving towards its end, and Stoltenberg’s dramatic ideological shift may indicate the presence of a more widespread anxiety, indeed that we may be approaching a momentous turning point, after which growth and fossil gluttony no longer are seen as tantamount to development and progress. In all likelihood, Stoltenberg has come to realise that we are about to undermine the conditions of our own existence, that we’ve painted ourselves into a corner; that the carbon offsets of which his government were famous will not do: Planting trees in the Amazon does not solve anything insofar as they are financed by petroleum exports.

The idea of green growth promoted in The New Climate Economy is, naturally, popular in the political and economic establishments. Most ecologically minded mainstream economists support it, and it is theoretically possible. However, if Graham Turner and the Limits to Growth authors are at least partly right, future growth is probably best located to the immaterial parts of the economy (e.g. board meetings, app development and slogan production), and should probably not be coupled with continued population growth.

An alternative to green growth might be to rethink progress and development. Rather than an economy measured by the profitability of enterprises or national GDP, one might imagine an economy driven by the overarching aim to satisfy human needs. Rather than policies which stimulate private consumption, one might establish a taxation system where the price of a commodity or service was linked to its ecological footprint. But it is not as if there is a single magic button to press. It will be necessary to change mentalities and activities simultaneously. To achieve this, we shall need politicians who are not firmly tied to existing economic practices.

It may hurt a bit to change, but not necessarily any more than it hurts to tear a strip of sticking plaster off a hairy leg. Of course, it is not merely necessary, but possible to change the present course. But it will not be feasible without a leadership which realises that you cannot offer a coat of paint when what the house needs is complete renovation.

One thought on “Fossil addiction: Is there a road to recovery?

  1. I’m looking for a Microfinance Organization with low interest like Kiva Zip or Zidisha but who focuses on ecologic sustainability in addition to economic growth. I do believe we can grow, as mentioned in the article, and still be neutral, well up to a point at least, then we have to say “we are rich and many enough – we don’t need more economic growth for now.”

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