Friday, 22 January 2010

Sustainability and stuff (at last)

Breaking the expectation of exponential growth being the solution to all problems will not be easy – it is hard wired into the very basis of classical economic theory and even how fiat money is created by such as the US Federal Reserve. Most people who have career type employment have accepted the status quo as the way to get ahead and, no matter how they may originally have been capable of understanding the inherent drastic flaws in the system, when they were still at college, life somehow clouds their minds – they end up so occupied with squirrelling away the excess amount of nuts for the winter that their insecurities force them too, that they lose sight of the fact that their actions may actually be generating one helluva winter that wouldn’t otherwise have occurred.

Last night I went to a presentation, by Peter Taylor, to the CIGPE (Channel Islands Group of Professional Engineers).

It was called "Making sense of carbon foot printing in the built environment"

Mr Taylor is a founding partner of CarbonPlan, a London based sustainability consultancy that specialises in work related to the built environment.

I’m bringing this up as an example of the difficulty we may face ahead which will be caused by the old problem of the “good being the enemy of the best”. The situation reminds me of the late 80's/early 90's when I was patronised by Pierre Horsfall, the then President of the Finance and Economics committee. I had been trying to point out the errors in the "unending growth is good" argument when he metaphorically patted me on the head in an avuncular fashion and metaphorically said "don't you realise, naive little green person, that we must have more economic growth to pay for the environmental clean up that you say we need?" I then went on to introduce him to the concept of ecological economics, which he had the grace to admit looked interesting.

Early on in his talk, Mr Taylor - professional sustainability consultant from London - said something along these lines “although there are many who are criticising the idea of further economic growth, I do not share this idea”. This sort of dangerous complacency unfortunately goes down well here in Jersey, which is full of financiers etc schooled in the dogma of conventional economics. If even sustainability consultants haven’t all “got it” yet, I think there is still a lot of work left to do.

He then went on to do a population analysis by suggesting that the only way that global population will stabilise is by female education in the third world combined with economic growth. He conveniently left it for the audience to miss that he was backing economic growth generally (i.e. in the rich nations too) but was justifying it by reference to the needs of the third world – a bit of a magic trick…

I don’t think that any of us would dispute that economic growth, in areas which have very little economy to start with, is not a good idea, if we assume that it will be achieved using a different model from that which the West has used up to date – ever increasing amounts of non-renewable energy and ever increasing amounts of material resources extracted and not recycled.

The problem with the “vanilla” economic growth juggernaut is that it requires increasing amounts of energy and materials throughput to achieve ever higher levels of “stuff”, which it believes is essential to keep the whole shooting match going. Its advertisers and marketers have been brainwashing us for decades that it is our patriotic duty to use more stuff – they play on our psychological weaknesses (you gotta save more nuts!) to make us think that more stuff is the answer because they believe it!

Economic development can achieve higher levels of sustainably desirable “stuff” for those undeveloped nations, who currently don’t have enough, without increasing demands for energy or materials – indeed it can, and must, lead to decreasing demands for energy and materials.

A cute example of growth versus development is personal music systems. In the seventies, they were carried on your shoulder – conventional economic growth principles applied to stereos would have meant that personal stereos would be the size of a house by now. Instead they “developed” and now they are incredibly “Ipod” small. I know this is not a bulletproof example, as it’s possible that the extreme technology involved in creating Ipod’s may use more energy and toxic materials than the 70’s beat box but what the hey!


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