The ‘All that matters’ series is a line of books introducing and summarising important topics. There’s one on bioethics and terrorism, and Chris Goodall has contributed this one on sustainability. I picked it up because Goodall is an interesting voice in the sustainability discussion, with a habit of raising unorthodox perspectives.
He’s also a very clear writer, and that makes Sustainability a very readable tour of the idea. Goodall has chapters on key issues such as water and food, and explains concepts such as carbon footprinting and planetary boundaries. He touches on points of contention, such as where the safe limits to carbon intensity might lie, and is generally very good at saying what’s well established and what’s conjecture. There’s an admirably level headed approach to common questions like ‘will we ever run out of resources?’. Like all the books in the series, it ends with ‘100 ideas’ of things to read or look up – a useful prompt for those looking to dig a little deeper into the issue.
The book also contains a chapter on Goodall’s own theory about peak stuff. This is the theory that in Britain has experienced a peak in materials consumption, and that we are now using less biomass, fewer minerals and less fossil fuels. This, suggests Goodall, shows that economic growth can occur without increasing material consumption.
This is an appealing idea, but it has a few problems. The first is that the steep decline in Britain’s total material use appears very close to the point that Britain’s economic growth stalled. Materials consumption has nosedived in recent years, but then so has the economy. Did the recession create the decline, or did the decline bring about the recession? Are they not connected at all? It’s not a clear picture, and not a long enough time frame to establish a trend. Goodall doesn’t help his case by pointing to Japan as his main example of an economy growing and reducing its material consumption at the same time. Except that Japan hasn’t grown for twenty years and may well prove the opposite.
Still, Britain’s domestic materials consumption has fallen, that we know. Use of metals and fossil fuels is on a slow decline and Goodall has done us all a great service by delving into the ONS material consumption stats. I’m fascinated to see what trends emerge from this, and it is actually the main reason I bought the book – but it doesn’t have any place in an introduction to sustainability. Goodall admits that it’s contentious, but really it’s not established enough to be here at all.
There are other problems. In a chapter on resources, Goodall suggests that it is the carbon problem that makes oil use unsustainable, but because of unconventional oil, it would be sustainable otherwise. This plays into the popular but false narrative that peak oil theory was proved wrong. As I’ve explained before, the rise of unconventional oil is actually proof of peak oil and was predicted very precisely by peak oil writers.
One of the book’s central points is that we can continue growing the economy without fear, and that growth may even improve our chances of creating a sustainable economy. It’s a shame that Goodall has drawn this conclusion from his peak stuff research, because I think it suggests a rather different conclusion: that economies don’t just grow, they grow up. Older societies like Britain or Japan reach a point where the consumer society is pretty saturated and most people have their basic needs. Population is aging, the economy has moved from industry to services. In such an economy, I would expect both material consumption and economic growth to slow. This isn’t a disaster, it’s a natural progression, a maturing process. But that really is an unconventional view.