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Betting the Earth on a Game of Wrap-Cut-Smash

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Photo by Kevin Gill | CC BY 2.0

The Earth is having to deal with continuous, largely unchecked emissions of greenhouse gases, along with soil degradation, mass extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, and disruption of nitrogen, phosphorous, and water cycles. Meanwhile, efforts to head off the planet-wide ecological crisis remain trapped in a game of rock-paper-scissors. [1]

Let’s start with the “paper,” which represents the kinds of paper exercises purporting to show that prosperous “green growth” can carry humanity and the Earth together through a better and better future. These include, for example, the 2015 “Ecomodernist Manifesto” [2] and a series of “100% renewable wind, water, and sunlight energy roadmaps” [3] published in recent years. Such cornucopian analyses undergird the mainstream climate movement’s vision of a smooth transition to a greener, happier, more prosperous world.

The paper, however, is cut up by the “scissors”— the restraints on resource exploitation and consequent cutbacks in production of goods and services, along with other human activities, that will be necessary if ecological catastrophe is to be avoided. Rooted in the knowledge that infinite growth is impossible and efficiency a chimera, the idea that economic activity must be restrained was developed early on by the ecological economists Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly [4] and has long been urged by the Post-Carbon Institute [5], “peak oil” campaigners [6], Tim Jackson, Ted Trainer, and various proposals for firm ceilings on energy consumption, with business and household quotas [7].

The scissors argument for the necessity of cutting throughput and pulling back within ecological limits is unassailable. However, most such analyses are focused on the world’s high-production, high-consumption economies, with few specific recommendations for how the billions of people in both rich and poor economies who already lack adequate access to resources can achieve material sufficiency.

In response to that deficiency, down comes the “rock”: visions of ecological/economic/social transformation or revolution in their many forms. While ecosocialism and “ecological civilization,” [8] as well as “degrowth”[9] have been proposed as necessary replacements for capitalism and its growth imperative, a number of other non-mainstream climate/environmental movements also put economic and social transformation at the center of efforts to avert global ecological crisis.[10]

Given the way the world economy works, the “rock” folks are rightly concerned that the burden of economic and ecological restraint will be borne by people and communities who are already suffering the kind of fate that the scissors people are predicting will befall us all one day if business continues as usual. Therefore, the rock approach prioritizes the fight against exploitation and injustice. Ecosocialists and others argue further that with economic and political power in the hands of the people rather than corporations and the governments that serve them, the Earth-imperiling exploitation and hell-for-leather growth that are at the heart of capitalism will end.[11]

However, the rock approach rarely if ever attempts to project quantitatively whether or how all of the Earth’s inhabitants can attain full material sufficiency and high quality of life while at the same time total material production and consumption are being confined within ecological limits. An end to capitalist exploitation would make wealth and income equality possible, but how will total material throughput be maintained high enough to ensure sufficiency for all but kept low enough to keep the Earth livable?

That question takes us full circle (triangle?), back to the paper, i.e., the ecomodernist and renewable-energy technophiles. They’ve seized this opportunity to co-opt climate activists by wrapping the justice rock. By promoting the idea that material restraint is a form of repression, they argue that industrial escalation and economic growth are social-justice imperatives.[12] And in their search for a way in which all humans can enjoy material abundance, many in the mainstream climate justice movement have embraced the paper dream of a renewable energy cornucopia[13] (and some have even latched onto nuclear power[14]).

But green-growth-as-justice is a mirage. Published “100-percent renewable” scenarios struggle just to satisfy current or extrapolated consumption. They would provide for a worldwide per-capita energy consumption that’s no more than 12 percent of current US consumption.[15] And none of those scenarios foresee the massive transfer of wealth and resources from global North to South that would be required to ensure sufficiency in poor countries and regions given that the average household on Earth would have available an energy supply that’s just 12 percent of today’s US consumption. They would implicitly leave in place the highly unequal access to energy between rich and poor, opening a door through which the eco-modernists can rush in with their nuclear reactor blueprints.

No green-growth vision can achieve either the greenness or the growth it promises. It is demonstrably impossible (and even if possible, it would be suicidal) for the entire world to consume resources at anything close to 100% of today’s U.S. rate. Given that reality, the scissors cut the paper and the game continues.

Of all the difficult conundra facing humanity, the search for a way out of this wrap-cut-smash game is the most urgent. A society has to accept the need for an ecologically imposed, quantitative ceiling on the production of capital, goods, and services. And it must devise a system that will ensure material sufficiency, fairly and for all, without breaking through that ecological ceiling. Only then can it develop appropriate green-energy capacity and adopt other policies and technologies that can ensure good quality of life for all while keeping within the necessary ecological restraints.[16]

Before there can be an escape from the rock-paper-scissors game, it is necessary to dismantle the structures that force societies to meet the imperatives of capitalism and allow the global affluent to escape sacrifice. That will open up the possibility (but not the certainty) that modest green economies that ensure ecological limits along with material sufficiency and justice for all can be achieved. That seems far from politically possible these days, of course, and not just because of Trump. It was a distant dream long before that guy wandered onto the scene. But I agree with my friend Bob Jensen that we have to work as if a decent future is possible.

Notes

[1] Explanatory notes continue below. This is an effort to avoid breaking the flow of the 900-word main text above. It may be best to first read that main text straight through without bouncing back and forth between it and these notes. After that, read these notes.

[2] An “Ecomodernist Manifesto,” inspired and promoted by the California-based Breakthrough Institute, asserts, “Despite frequent assertions starting in the 1970s of fundamental ‘limits to growth,’ there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future.” The ecomodernists see their vision being realizable only through massive deployment of nuclear energy. They urge that humanity should retreat entirely into high-tech, self-sufficient urban areas leaving the rest of the Earth’s surface to “Nature”. The summer 2017 issue of Jacobin magazine confirmed that some on the Left are not immune to this delusion. The arguments made in that issue’s articles were later eviscerated by John Bellamy Foster. Ecomodernism has grown into an academic movement of sorts as well, one that has been rejected and mocked by critics.

[3] A series of renewable-energy “roadmaps” published by Stanford’s litigious professor Mark Jacobson and his colleagues (along with papers by others) purport to show that current and future energy demand, both in the United States and worldwide, can be met by drawing exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric energy sources. Other published studies have shown that the “100 percent” conclusions are based on faulty assumptions and analysis, but they continue to be widely cited in defense of the kind of green-cornucopian future envisioned by prominent environmental figures like Al Gore.

Ecomodernism and 100-percent-renewablism differ in the types of energy sources they would substitute for fossil fuels; however, they are very similar with respect to their deep faith in efficiency, in technological progress, and (most recklessly) in best-case scenarios.

[4] In The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), Georgescu-Roegen made a thermodynamic argument against long-term expansion of the human economy and for limits on growth. Daly followed with more specificity in Steady-State Economics (1977) and, with Joshua Farley, the textbook  Ecological Economics (2010).

[5] Richard Heinberg, a Post-Carbon Institute fellow,  has written thirteen books related to the end of growth, one of them titled The End of Growth.

[6] “Peak oil” alarm has quietened. New technologies have postponed the day when petroleum resources will have been depleted to the point at which they cannot be usefully extracted; we have gone from a situation in which we thought we would run out of fossil fuels before we burned enough of them to bring on catastrophic warming to a situation in which we will bring on catastrophic warming long before we run out of fossil fuels. That said, the old rule that no resource lasts forever has  by no means been repealed.

[7] Probably the most fully elaborated plan for greenhouse emissions quotas are Tradable Emissions Quotas (TEQ), under which a nation (they were designed for the United Kingdom) sets an annual emissions budget that declines year by year, divides a portion of that budget into per-capita allowances distributed free to each household, and puts the rest of the budget into a pool from which businesses purchase credits. Similar strategies include “personal carbon allowances,” “Cap and Share,” and various plans discussed in Chapter 3 of my book Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing.

[8] Although they do not always use these terms in referring to themselves (and they disagree among themselves on some basic issues), editors and writers at Monthly Review, Climate and Capitalism, and Capitalism Nature Socialism are currently among the more prominent advocates of ecosocialism and/or ecological civilization. Recent books include Facing the Anthropocene by Ian Angus, Creating an Ecological Society by Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, and Marx and the Earth by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett.

[9] The Europe-based degrowth movement originally promoted degrowth primarily in the affluent North. But degrowth is now viewed more broadly, aiming, according to one analysis, to “repoliticize the debate on the relationships between sustainability, economy and society and to advance a new vision of social–ecological transformations. It contributes to building a counter-hegemonic narrative, in alliance with equivalent alternative frameworks emerging from the global South such as Buen Vivir from Latin America.”

[10] The most prominent “rock” activism has included Standing Rock and other battles against fossil-fuel infrastructure such as the Shut It Down actions; indigenous peoples’ struggles around the world; the Buen Vivir movement; 350.org’s fossil-fuel divestment campaign; The Leap; and the many groups and communities who have joined in the People’s Climate Movement and activism at global climate conferences.

[11] Some (most?) ecological anticapitalists go beyond the fact that capitalism cannot survive without growth to assert that the converse is true as well: that growth will not occur in an egalitarian noncapitalist economy. Magdoff and Williams, for example, write, “Once socially determined material and nonmaterial needs are met equally across the world, the economy will stop growing. A ecological society has no built-in need for growth.”

[12] The Ecomodernist Manifesto contains some examples of growth-as-justice arguments. But as Herman Daly has observed, those in the upper economic strata claim that economic growth is necessary to ameliorate poverty largely because they reject the alternative: the much-dreaded redistribution of wealth that would otherwise be required (and with growth, the wealthy still capture most of the benefit.)

[13] An informal survey of signs and banners at the 2017 People’s Climate March demonstrated to me how dominant is the idea that access to abundant renewable energy for all is a possibility and indeed a human right. Bill McKibben’s much-discussed 2016 New Republic article makes this argument explicitly. The Climate Mobilization’s Victory Plan, meanwhile, finds that even with a U.S. buildup of climate-friendly infrastructure at herculean scale and speed, demand control through fair-shares rationing will be required if greenhouse emissions are to be suppressed on an emergency timetable.

[14] For claims that pro-nuclear equals pro-green justice, see “relentless repetitions of falsehoods”  by Michael Shellenberger’s outfit Environmental Progress.

[15] I derived the 12-percent-of-U.S. figure from Ted Trainer’s scrutiny of “100-percent renewable” studies. Trainer used Australia’s per capita consumption as the standard.

[16] No one or even two of the three parts of this puzzle can stand alone. A society can’t become ecologically sound by simply cranking out green technology. A society can achieve a high degree of social and economic justice while at the same time outrunning its ecological headlights. It can produce less and achieve ecologically supportable throughput while still letting exploitation, oppression, and deprivation endure or worsen.

All three goals can be achieved, but if that happens, business-as-usual is not going to survive under such conditions. A revolutionary transformation of society will be required.

Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is on the editorial board of ‘Green Social Thought’, where this essay was originally published. He is author of ‘Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing’  (The New Press, 2013) and three other books.

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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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