Mon Dec 10th, 2007 at 06:58:12 PM EST
Between all the talk we have here about the cliff we're driving towards at increasing speed due to the unsustainability of the economic and technological systems we live and participate in, I'm afraid we're losing sight of just how managable the issue really is.
As the light green PR thinkers Nordhaus and Schellenberger have rightly pointed out many times, bombarding people with a plethora of dangers which they should worry about does not lead to a positive, liberal response. Instead, it fuels conservative sentiments.
At the same time, Schellenberger and Nordhaus seem to have internalised a right-wing narrative about the American way of life which if you think about it comes down pretty much to 'the eternal yankee'. The eternal yankee is a consumer and proud of it. The extent of his freedom is defined by the quantity of his material possessions. Global warming politics, according to Schellenberger and Nordhaus, needs to be fitted around this perspective of the eternal yankee. This means it cannot affect material consumption.
((comments Diary Rescue by Migeru))
This diary is not just about Schellenberger and Nordhaus. It's not just about the insufficiencies of Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth'. Yet, if I manage, it won't quite be about the universe and everything either.
The politics are improving...
First, some good news by John Quiggin, ctsy of Yglesias:
Political events in Australia have been moving so fast, no one has really caught up. A week ago, Labor looked very likely to win the election (held last Saturday) and there seemed a good chance that Liberal (= pro-business right) Prime Minister John Howard would lose his own seat. Those things duly happened, and that seemed to be about as much as we could expect or hope for. Instead, there has been a meltdown of spectacular proportions on the losing side.
That left the Liberals with a choice between two ambitious, but largely ideology-free, political adventurers, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull, much the more able of the two, offered a complete repudiation of the culture-war policies of the Howard era, proposing ratification of the Kyoto protocol, an apology to indigenous Australians, support for repeal of the anti-union Workchoices package.
The USA is even more isolated politically
on climate change than ever before. If only Canada could get its act together
, the isolation would be absolute. The more relevant part of the Australian elections is the response of the opposition to their clubbering. Right now it looks like the GOP will also be clubbered (again) in 2008. With Chafee gone and Hagel bowing out at the next elections, I don't really know if there will be any Republicans left in the Senate that are not complete ideologues, though. Still, the political movement is going in a positive direction on the issue of climate change.
... but the problem is bigger
At the same time, however, we are risking carbon blindness. That is, focusing only on climate change without thinking about the underlying issue of sustainability. Schellenberger and Nordhaus are guilty of this. But Al Gore also contributes to it, as do studies such as those by McKinsey and Vattenfall. This is not meant to deny that these are useful, but they look at the matter from a perspective that aims to find the cheapest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A side-effect from arguing in such terms is that interventions like geoengineering quickly become more reasonable propositions.
The more important part is that we ignore other major problems we have such as depletion of non-renewable resources, and degradation of carrying capacity for renewable resources. Depletion of non-renewable resources has a single cause: use. Degradation of carrying capacity for renewable reources is caused by overuse, simple destruction (land use changes), and by the effects of pollution.
Greenhouse gases are not an exceptional form of pollution, and the global warming crisis is not necessarily bigger than the crises of biodiversity, soil degradation, or peak resources. One argument of Schellenberger and Nordhaus is that greenhouse gases are qualitatively different from other forms of pollution and thereby can't be solved by a single 'policy fix' the way other forms of pollution could be in the past. This gets the problem the wrong way around. It is not the problem that is now different, it is the narrow-minded solution of a single 'policy fix' for each specific form of pollution that has always been wrong.
Integrating the various kinds of environmental effects humans have on the planet is the purpose of the 'global footprint' measure. As the Global Footprint Network reckons we use about 1.3 times the productivity of the earth at present, we get to the concept of a global ecological overshoot.
You can doubt the accuracy of the global footprint measure, but the idea that we are in overshoot is backed up by observation of a variety of current developments, such as collapsing fish stocks, declining biodiversity and peak resources.
In addition to the current overshoot, the world population is expected to rise, and the development trajectory taken by most of what we call the developing world is towards mass production and consumption as well.
There still is a simple solution...
If that sounds like an insurmountable problem, it isn't. You see, most of our current energy and efforts are not spent on producing stuff. They are spent on producing waste. Alex Steffen put this beautifully in his takedown of Schellenberger and Nordhaus.
Making more things does not need to mean using more energy. Throughput and outcome are different things. The amount of material and energy that go into a given product or service (the throughput) do not predict how useful it is (the outcome): a car made with five times as much metal as another car is not necessarily five times as enjoyable, while a computer which uses a tenth as much energy as another computer may offer comparable or better performance more cheaply (especially if cost over time is considered).
Because the major product of our industrial systems is waste -- waste in vast, staggering, difficult to imagine amounts -- we can improve the performance of nearly every product in our society while dramatically slashing its energy and material usage. This is true now, with existing technologies and emerging design approaches, and it's true even before we start to think about closing the loop at the end of those products' lifecycles through concepts like zero waste planning and producer responsibility.
If we make our product cycles completely green, in line with the cradle to cradle
approach, who knows how much we will save in terms of resource extraction. Maybe we'll use four to five times less? If the ecological footprint were an accurate measure, we only need to reduce our impact by roughly 23%. Even if we take a much more conservative estimate, we can still allow for a significant amount of growth.
... but what about energy use? Entropy? A steady state economy?
The idea that we can solve the issue of environmental sustainability merely through technological interventions in the production - consumption process will seem dissatisfactory to many greens. However, it's true! For the time being. Eventually, however, economic growth will catch up again with any improvements we make; we will need more energy to maintain the cycle and more resources to expand it than the earth can support.
At the same time as we close the cycle, however, we might also slow it down by making goods more durable. McDonough and Braungart, who thought up cradle to cradle, want to make you happy about wasting. Waste = food. But this is only part of the picture. We've gotten used to treating many products as disposable without any reason. Clothing is a good example of this. Once you're grown up, you can wear your clothes for decades. Instead, regular western people now buy clothes for a season. They're cheap enough for that, and often the quality does not allow for much more.
With a focus of quality over quantity and refinement over variation in style, we can have the same level of material wealth at a much lower level of industrial production. This is in part a mental change. But eco-efficient washing machines that don't damage clothes are also part of the picture.
(I know some here like the idea of washing by hand, but I don't think it's going to catch on big again if we can avoid it)
The final mental change that we need is a realisation that 'the good life' is not defined by the amount of goods we own. The positional status goods have needs to be replaced by something else. It would be nice not to have the need for positional distinction, however, that might be difficult for the group animals that we are?
I see a growing reception of the idea that material wealth does not pay off past the level that the USA and some West-European countries achieved between the late 1950s and the early 1970s. Of course, some people have been saying this for a long time, but until recently it was easy for the powerful to dismiss them as dirty fucking hippies. There now is an increasing body of 'hard' science to back this idea up and the 'new' mindset is being recognised at official levels, at least in the European Union. We should support that development.