This week I’ve been reading Ecological Debt, by Andrew Simms. It comes at it from a slightly different angle, but makes the same argument as Make Wealth History, or probably as close to it as anything I’ve read so far:
Estimates vary, but scientists suggest that to stop dangerous climate change becoming irreversible, over the 21st century 60 to 90% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will be necessary. Understandably, however, the majority world believes it has a right to become very much richer in the material things that the citizens of rich countries already take for granted. Without a radical change in how we manage the global commons of the atmosphere, this means one of three things. Either there has to be a massive reduction in rich country emissions, far beyond the scope of the current international agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, to give poor countries the environmental space to develop. Or, poor countries are simply to be denied the carbon-rich development path followed by industrialised countries. An instruction that, to a degree, they can simply and understandably ignore. Or, finally, the third option is that the engine of conventional development keeps running on carbon, and there is climatic chaos. In this case a radical or, perhaps logical change of direction suddenly becomes an attractive option.
This particular passage struck me because of the idea of there being three possible outcomes to a future with climate change. It’s something I’ve written here before, and it forms the basis of the introduction of the book I’ve been working on (long delayed by our house renovation, alas).
The whole world wants to develop and enjoy a Western lifestyle, to drive and fly and live in a house with air conditioning. Unfortunately, we have overshot the earth’s carrying capacity by 30% just to deliver that lifestyle to one billion people. It is simply never going to be possible for all seven billion of us to live like that.
And that leaves us with three options:
- We ignore the whole issue of sustainability and run the growth economy until it breaks. The wheels will come off eventually, but if we’re lucky it will be after we’re gone. This is the default position, and it is manifest in both procrastination and denial, in wishful thinking and blind faith in the markets.
createperpetuate a two-tier world, where some people live affluent lives and others are denied it. Some would argue that we’re secretly pursuing this approach already, denying development to African countries through debt, unfair trade laws and structural adjustment. Some even see climate change as a conspiracy to limit development.
- We make wealth history – we beat a sustainable retreat, downsizing overgrown economies to make ecological space for those who don’t have what they need. In the process, wealth is re-defined from the abstract and futile ‘more’ of growth economics, and re-focused on what makes life worth living.
In short, we’re headed either for a crash, for conflict, or for a transition to a sustainable way of life. It seems logical to me. Anyone got a different way it could go?