The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

Environmentalists are hypocrites, right? They condemn all sorts of behaviours like driving cars or taking plane flights in which they themselves indulge, and they want to deny poor people the right to the same luxuries by saying that the economic growth which promises to widen access to such luxuries is unsustainable.

These, frankly, are pretty dumbass criticisms, but environmentalism probably isn’t going to get far until it can somehow transcend them, and they get aired every day – not only by ignorant pub bores, but often by extremely smart people. I didn’t plan to write this post, but in the last week I’ve come across these familiar criticisms by two such smarties – the late Professor Hans Rosling, in this entertaining TED talk from 2010, and global inequality expert Professor Branko Milanovic in his brilliant, but somewhat flawed, recent book Global Inequality1, which I’ve just finished reading. Perhaps we could also throw in the Angry Chef from my previous post, who writes along similar lines that “The irony of people questioning what science has done for us whilst typing on a computer, connected to the internet via a fibre optic cable, should not be lost”. I want to address these criticisms partly because they fit neatly into the present narrative arc of this blog. But also because, rather than just trying to absolve myself as a guilty environmentalist, I want to try to turn that familiar critique on its head and go somewhere more useful with it.

The first part of the critique – the hypocrisy of personal complicity with environmental ‘bads’ – is the easiest to combat. Taking the Angry Chef’s example of computers, back in the 1980s I completed an entire university degree without once looking at a computer, whereas today I’d struggle to get through a single day without doing so. That’s not because I’ve changed, but because the world has. Of course, I could choose to take a stand and not use a computer, or a car, or aeroplanes. There’ve been times in my life when I’ve done exactly that. I passed my driving test in 1983, but didn’t actually own a car until 2007 (ironically, when I started running my ‘sustainable’ farming business). At various times and for varying durations I’ve similarly taken stands on flying, meat-eating, TV ownership etc. What difference has it made to the future of the world? Virtually none. Here we have the exact opposite of the free rider problem – let’s call it the oppressed pedestrian problem. In a ubiquitously motorised society, weigh up the personal costs of not driving against the benefits it delivers to the world at large, throw in the question of how much personal complicity affects the truth that motor vehicles are environmentally problematic, and go figure. The problem is structural, not individual. Nowadays I try to respect people who choose to avoid environmentally-negative behaviours, refrain from criticising people who don’t, and focus as best I can on what seems to me more important – the larger social structures that enable or constrain these choices.

Perhaps it’s harder to combat the second part of the critique, as articulated by Hans Rosling in his talk about the lack of access to washing machines among the majority of the world’s people – and more specifically, the majority of the world’s women. Surely, Rosling suggests, environmentalists who have access to one can’t without hypocrisy wish to deny the same access to all the world’s people? Actually it’s not so hard to combat this accusation. Do I use a washing machine? Yes. Do I wish to deny use of a washing machine to the 5 billion people in the world who don’t have access to one? No.

See, that was pretty easy. I do entertain a few caveats about Rosling’s position – the element of technological determinism involved in supposing that gender inequality is overcome by machines, the impact of the collective contexts in which people do or don’t have access to any particular technology, and the over-simplified connections he makes between labour-saving machinery, education and improved income. But, no, I think it would be great if everyone had access to a washing machine. I also think it would be great if nobody was threatened by climate change. There’s certainly a trade-off there, and I’m not persuaded by Rosling’s fond hopes for a decarbonised energy supply that can fund rich-country levels of energy use globally. But that’s another issue. For me, the main problem is that I doubt many of those billions actually will have access to a washing machine any time soon, if ever. So if it’s right to advocate for a better life for the world’s poor – and I think it is – then we need to start thinking afresh about how to do so. I want to broach that in the remainder of this post, perhaps in a rather roundabout way, by reviewing aspects of Branko Milanovic’s book.

If I had to nominate one single graph to make sense of the present human world, I think it would be the plot of relative gain in real per capita income by global income level over the last thirty years presented by Milanovic on page 11 of his book – the so-called ‘reclining S’ or ‘elephant’ graph, on account of its resemblance to said beast (you can see a version of it here). Essentially, the graph highlights four categories of people who could be termed the paired ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ from the neoliberal globalisation of the economy in recent history2. These are, first, the very richest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by nearly 70% over this period (Milanovic shows that, within this group, there’s a sub-set of super-rich ‘global plutocrats’ who’ve done even better). The second category of winners, who’ve done even better in relative terms, is what Milanovic calls the “emerging global middle class” – essentially the increasingly well-off middle-to-high earners in middle income countries experiencing fast economic growth. In practice, virtually all of these people live in China or a handful of other Asian countries. The losers are, first, the very poorest people in the world, who’ve increased their income by less than 20% (arguably it might not have increased much in the absence of globalisation, though I strongly suspect fiscal deregulation hasn’t helped their cause). And second, the poorer people in the high income countries, who while still earning more than the ‘emerging global middle class’ haven’t increased their income at all over the last 30 years, and so have fallen very much further behind the richer people in their home countries. It’s worth bearing in mind that these are relative rather than absolute figures, so they underemphasise the degree of wealth concentration that’s occurred over the period: someone on $1 a day who doubles their income has $1 a day more, while someone on $1,000 a day who doubles their income has $1,000 a day more. Indeed, 44% of the absolute income gain over the last 30 years has gone to the richest 5% of people3.

The elephant graph suggests that the world may be a slightly less unequal place than it was 30 years ago (the global Gini coefficient was 72.2 in 1988 and 70.5 in 2008) – although since inequality was at an all-time high in 1988, another way of saying this, Milanovic cautions, is that “global inequality today is at almost the highest point ever in history”4. This small reduction is almost entirely due to the rise of a hitherto ‘missing’ middle class in a handful of Asian countries such as China – which of course means that inequality within these countries has grown.

Here we have the well-known ‘Kuznets curve’, proposed by the economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s. A country typified by ‘subsistence’ peasant agriculture will have a relatively egalitarian income distribution, but most people will be poor. As a country ‘develops’ by switching to industry, average income increases, but so does inequality. Eventually, however, inequality starts declining through worker organisation, trade unionism, state welfarism and the like. The Kuznets curve seemed to describe pretty well what happened in early-industrialising regions like Western Europe and North America until the 1980s, but the rising inequality indicated in the ‘elephant’ graph since then confounds it. Milanovic talks – not entirely convincingly, to my mind – of Kuznets ‘waves’, whereby countries like China are now going through their first Kuznets curve, while countries like the UK and the USA have started riding a second Kuznets curve. Milanovic discusses various reasons why inequality is now rising and may decline again in the future in these ‘second curve’ countries, though he doesn’t persuade me that this will necessarily happen, and I’m not sure he even persuades himself. It may be better to ditch the Kuznets hypothesis and all the talk of ‘curves’ and ‘waves’ altogether, and instead contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality.

But let me try to apply the rather abstract results of the elephant graph to some questions of recent history and social policy. Going back to our old friends from 2016, the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s easy to see from the graph why there might have been a level of disillusionment among working-class voters in the UK and the USA about the consequences of globalisation that propelled them towards those particular ‘anti-global’ choices. Lectures about the damage those choices might wreak upon national prosperity probably didn’t wear too well with people who haven’t seen much of the prosperity come their way (obviously voting choices were a lot more complex than that, but I think that assertion is defensible – at least it puts me in the crowded company of many other wise-after-the-event commentators5).

However, the graph also suggests that looming over the shoulders of the relatively poor people in the rich countries are the relatively rich people in the poor countries (who are still poorer in absolute terms than the former, though they’re catching up). The notion that a Trump administration or Britain’s merry band of Brexiteers have either the will or the capacity to reverse the ebb of economic power away from the declining middle and working classes of the west and towards the rising middle classes of Asia seems, for numerous reasons, fanciful.

One thing that emerges strongly from Milanovic’s analysis, though he doesn’t place much emphasis on it, is how geopolitically concentrated the rise of the ‘global middle class’ is, being restricted to a handful of (admittedly very populous) Asian countries. In other words, it looks like the core-periphery structure of the global economy as described historically by world systems theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein is being replicated. What we’re seeing is less the rise of a ‘global’ middle class as the handing on of an economic leadership baton from the west to southern/eastern Asia, with other regions such as Africa and Latin America remaining more or less peripheral. Milanovic shows that prior to around 1820 what mattered most to a person’s economic life chances was their class, regardless of their nationality: it paid to be ‘well-born’, wherever you were actually born. But since then, location has mattered more than class. So for example almost anyone born in Britain is likely to have better economic life chances than almost anyone born in Zambia. There is, as Milanovic puts it, a ‘citizenship premium’ which advantages or disadvantages you largely on the basis of what passport you’re entitled to hold.

Going back to the Trump and Brexit results, one issue that loomed large in those campaigns was immigration – in the Brexit campaign, for example, around the issue of migrants from poorer East European countries undercutting the economic chances of the struggling British working class. “It’s not racist to talk about immigration” was the mantra du jour.

Well, no it’s not. But one of the things I admire most about Milanovic’s book is the clear-eyed way in which he does talk about it, and the way that in so doing he confronts the great unmentionable of economics – that is, the hypocrisy of supporting the free flow of capital around the world without supporting the free flow of labour.

Now, I got a certain amount of stick on this site around this issue a while back, for example being accused of ‘xenophobia’ for, among other things, my lack of enthusiasm for rigorous immigration control. No, me neither. But anyway, I’m completely with Milanovic on this one. Poorer people in richer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer national distribution of income. Poorer people in poorer countries can make a sound ethical argument for a fairer international distribution of income – but if that’s not going to happen, which seems likely, then they can make a sound ethical argument in favour of migrating somewhere they can earn more. If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?

I can’t see an ethical answer to that question. And indeed the only affirmative answers I’ve seen to it are pretty avowedly non-ethical and implicitly nationalist: it’s OK for poor people in rich countries to expect a better deal from their richer co-nationals, but not OK for poor people in poor countries to expect a better deal from richer foreigners. Situations of ubiquitous economic growth tend to keep such questions at bay, because things don’t seem so bad if everyone is getting richer, even if some are a lot richer than others. But in a likely future of chronically low and maldistributed growth, these distributional conflicts are only going to sharpen. Arguments against global migration from poor to rich countries are ultimately winner takes all or might is right arguments. Such arguments have an obvious appeal to the currently mighty (in which category, globally, almost everyone in a country like the UK fits), but they tend to lose their lustre if the mighty should fall (in which category, looking at Milanovic’s analysis, the UK might well fit in the future). Be careful what you wish for (Milanovic has some ‘compromise’ suggestions for dealing with global migration which strike me as quite sensible – perhaps I’ll look at these in more detail another time).

No doubt the ethical notion that people should cede current riches to the less well-off seems ludicrously idealistic, although it’s a commonplace nowadays to consider other ethical systems, such as those of foraging nomads, where the idea that you should take the lion’s share for yourself and let others go hungry simply because you can is absolute anathema – a sensible strategy, the anthropologists tell us, in uncertain times when you never know who’ll next be sated and who’ll be hungry. Perhaps that’s worth pondering as we confront an uncertain collective global future. As ever, ‘idealism’ is contextual – to me, the ‘obvious’ strategy proposed by my critics of clamping down on new or recent migrants is only obvious in the context of a certain modern mindset that’s best transcended.

Still, that mindset is deeply grounded in our politics, which has rarely been about ethics, except perhaps occasionally in recent times with the thinnest veneer of liberal internationalism. Generally, it’s been about power. I can’t see the rich world willingly giving up its advantages – so I suspect it will yield them slowly and unwillingly. I foresee a future of intense distributional conflict and quite probably war. If that happens, I hope those who’ve justified the current turn of western politics on distributional grounds (like John Michael Greer…) will keep quiet rather than trying to find non-distributional arguments to justify the status quo ante.

Are there any alternatives to this grim scenario? Well, possibly – but Milanovic isn’t much help in locating them. Despite his economic heterodoxy, he returns to the mainstream fold on the question of economic growth, ridiculing the idea of degrowth as a hypocritical fancy of rich westerners and arguing – albeit with the historical evidence in his favour – that economic growth is much the most powerful tool yet found for improving the lives of ordinary people in poor countries. He adds,

““Deglobalization” with a return to the “local” is impossible because it would do away with the division of labor, a key factor of economic growth. Surely, those who argue for localism do not wish to propose a major drop in living standards or a Khmer Rouge solution to inequality”6

Well, speaking personally I’d say certainly not the latter but possibly the former – especially if the drop in living standards falls mainly on the current rich, as Milanovic himself prescribes. One of the problems with his analysis is the rather crude way he contrasts industrial societies with pre-industrial ones as ‘subsistence’ societies, and uses fiscal income interchangeably with ‘living standards’. I don’t want to succumb to too starry-eyed a version of pre-industrial society, but the pre-industrial Britain of the 18th century, for example, was not a ‘subsistence society’ and there are some things that money can’t buy – indeed, there are some things that the pervasive marketization prompted by rising national incomes may jeopardise. This was true in early 17th century northeast England, for example, which experienced the last clearly documented famine in the country – one that afflicted not ‘subsistence’ peasants, but commercial livestock farmers suffering a market crash that made them too poor to afford grain7. Similar pressures afflict poor cash-crop farmers today8. I’m not altogether against the idea of the rural poor quitting peasant farming for something that pays better, but it’s a risky business. Despite the blandishments of ecomodernists and well-paid university professors, the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy. I don’t think you have to side with the Khmer Rouge to argue that it sometimes ‘pays’ not to seek higher incomes above all else.

Milanovic nicely points out how bad social scientists, including economists, have been at predicting the future, serially succumbing to the fateful temptation to project short-run current trends as long-term structures. But let me put my cards on the table – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones. I can’t exactly see how this will happen on the basis of current economic realities, but I’ll conjure with a scenario where those current realities are breaking down.

This involves chronic economic stagnation and debt in western countries of the kind analysed by political economists like Wolfgang Streeck9, the continuing leakage of economic power to Asia and the curveball (or perhaps googly, to use a more Anglocentric metaphor) of climate change and energy crisis renting the fabric of the global economy. In those circumstances, I think a lot of rural peasant cultivators globally will suffer, but so will a lot of urban merchant bankers in the west, and the balance may tip away from the latter and towards the former a little – perhaps to the extent that being a rural peasant cultivator in a country like England starts to seem less crazy than it presently does.

Let me run with that scenario a little further. Suppose that a post-Brexit Britain manages to control its borders, experiences the huge economic slump that obviously awaits it and, in a moment of clarity, sees that its problems aren’t fundamentally the fault of immigrants, the EU, or the Chinese, and that the solutions aren’t to be found in humbling itself before an uncaring global economy. Milanovic writes,

“An interesting question to ask is what might happen if the growth rate decelerated and fell to zero, and the economy became stagnant, but at a much higher level of income than in stagnant preindustrial economies. It is not inconceivable that Kuznets cycles would continue to take place against the background of an unchanging mean income, producing a picture similar to the one we have for pre-industrial economies”10

…which is one of wildly gyrating inequality in response to exogenous shocks. But a conceivable alternative might be what’s termed a ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which I’ll be looking at in future posts – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour. Managed well, I think this could be the best kind of economy for steering our way equitably, sustainably and resiliently through the future shocks awaiting us. ‘Managing it well’ would involve an attentiveness to resilience rather than to economic growth, an opposition to extremes of wealth accumulation, and a focus on sustainable, labour-intensive local industries. Like peasant farming, for example. I’m not sure it’s an especially likely future outcome. But it’s a possible one, and it’s better than most of the alternatives, which seem to me to cluster around the two possibilities of ecomodernist fantasy-land or internecine nationalist-mercantilist conflict.

But let me round off by returning to Professor Rosling and his washing machines. As I’ve said, the good professor was right that nobody who has access to a washing machine really ought to lecture those who don’t about what consumer items they can or can’t have. But I doubt for all that that what Rosling calls ‘the washing line’ – the level of income at which people can afford a washing machine – is going to encompass a great many more of the world’s people than it presently does, or that the global energy supply will be able to decarbonise at anything like the levels which would be required to greatly lower the washing line while avoiding runaway climate change. I also doubt that the benefits of the washing machine he outlines that accrued to the lucky earlier generations of technology-adopters such as his mother in Sweden – an education instead of hard domestic work, bringing rising income within reach – is going to work the same way for would-be washing machine owners of the future. There are just too many well-educated people chasing too few jobs in an increasingly dysfunctional and stagnant economy. As Milanovic puts it, the difference in skills and abilities between high and low earners in the future is likely to be increasingly small – the main difference being chance and family background11, not washing machines and education.

Another way of putting all this is that economic growth, education and technological development as means of improving the human lot are old stories that are probably going to work less well in the future. Like the ‘science’ discussed in my last post, they’re not bad things in themselves, but if people pin inordinate hopes on them as vehicles for future human betterment I think, increasingly, they’ll be disappointed. Environmentalists have been saying these things for years. However many washing machines or plane flights they personally enjoy, that doesn’t make them wrong. It’s time we started thinking structurally, and stopped shooting the messenger.

Notes

  1. Branko Milanovic. 2016. Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization. Harvard University Press.
  1. Though there are some difficulties of interpretation here, highlighted in this critique by Caroline Freund which I only came across as I prepared to publish this post. I’ll have to think about this some more – there are aspects of her argument I don’t find convincing, but some of her points are quite telling.
  1. Milanovic, p.24.
  1. Milanovic, p.253.
  1. Though, once again, the Freund critique puts a different spin on the figures, reverting us to another familiar response to the Brexit and Trump results – an inexplicable desire for economic self-harm, which in some ways is quite encouraging for my general thesis here.
  1. Milanovic, p.192.
  1. Mark Overton. 1996. Agricultural Revolution in England. Cambridge University Press, p.141.
  1. Peter Robbins. 2003. Stolen Fruit: The Tropical Commodities Disaster. Zed.
  1. Wolfgang Streeck. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.
  1. Milanovic, p.58.
  1. Milanovic, p.215.

37 thoughts on “The hypocrisy of environmentalists and the need for economic growth

  1. Another fine example of your hard work.

    No serious quibbles at this time. But I do want to share a thought about your ‘Kuznets curve’ ideas.

    For longer than the US and UK have had industrialization to feed the fires of discord between haves and have-nots there has been tension between these two camps. One might hold up the Magna Carta as one example of a pushback before steam power was made to bend our civilization’s fortunes.

    At least in the case of US politics the friction between labor and capital tended for many years to be lumped under banners of Democrat and Republican parties. A sort of yin and yang came about and to some extent might still be recognized today, but with much distortion in recent elections. Left and Right as political adjectives (or North and South as geopolitical adjectives of a sort… but not quite hewing as closely to the former dichotomies).

    Having set up this observation then I guess I’m inclined to ditch the Kuznets concept as you have – but with a slightly different future forecast. Rather than contemplate the possibility of chronic future inequality, I might offer the chance for continued back and forth, ebb and flow for the fortunes of humankind. Admittedly this is not a serious difference in outlook – but from my desk the offer of some hope seems, well – more hopeful.

    Perhaps a more significant departure in our analyses actually rises from the length of time under consideration. Using the industrial revolution as a baseline does give us a better read on facts, statistics, and multiple sources of history to hew a line very close to what actually happened and why. But if what has been going on in the last couple centuries is merely a manifestation of what has been going on for many millennia then there may be more space for including pre-industrial history into the mix.

    Should we choose a baseline a few hundred years earlier where scientific influences could be conjured as causal in some way? Gads, I’d rather not go there – but if it serves a purpose. Still I could resort to a similar tactic and suggest that haves and have-nots were certainly a dichotomy with a far longer history than Copernicans or Aristotles’s. Even if I go so far as to reanimate the hunter gatherer tying a sharp rock on a stick from the last post’s comment section I feel safe suggesting haves and have-nots faced off before the spear could help one side against the other. I guess I’m suggesting there is a Paleo (or even pre-Paleo) nature to the tensions between us when resources are being allocated. And it will be an incredible googly tossed at the forces of Nature if we find some means of fairly allocating resources.

    ‘Tis outside my remit. I’ll go back to harnessing photosynthesis in order to drum up more resources to allocate.

    • “At least in the case of US politics […] A sort of yin and yang came about and to some extent might still be recognized today
      […]
      I guess I’m suggesting there is a Paleo (or even pre-Paleo) nature to the tensions between us”

      I’m straying a long way from the topic of Chris’s post with this, Clem, but you might be interested in my proposal for polarised representation.

      My view is that the tension between haves and have-nots is a result of something more fundamental. As I see it, there are polarities in the requirements of living (and hence in the functions of government) and in the way people think, which need to be reflected in the structure and processes of government. Basically, I see an ever-present tension between the need for consolidation and security, and the impulse for expansion and betterment, which is compounded by the fact that people view government from diametrically opposed positions. The solution I’ve been advocating is to separate out the policy areas that Left and Right regard as their core territories and have them overseen by two sets of representatives, with shared responsibility for neutral functions.

      But, when people won’t even look properly at the more obviously necessary reforms …

      • Malcolm, my sense here in the States is that a more fundamental difference between our (U.S.) Democrats and Republicans has to do with the size of government. Dems typically favoring a government with major responsibilities for many things as opposed to the GOP position of government being smaller and doing much less. And even setting it out that simply will get feathers ruffled. Size as a metric itself is not even agreed upon. One might measure the number of agencies, bureaucrats employed, number of regulations, size of budget, percentage rate for taxes, and on and on.

        The polarized representation idea – at least as I get it from a quick read – has a kernel of an idea there, but I’m yet to be persuaded one could pull it off here. Better perhaps on our shores to have a smaller governmental entity, say one of the States, try to implement something of the sort and see how it evolves. Some may argue that most of the States here in the U.S. are already ‘colored’ either blue or red – and I’d be very sympathetic to that argument myself. So long as we’re hypothetically tossing this about, I’d hope the governmental entity that served as the test tube for this experiment might be a purple State (aka battleground State).

        Have you seen any discussion of polarized representation outside of your own blog?

        • I think what you describe, Clem, is essentially what I meant by people having diametrically opposed viewpoints (as I put it on my page, ‘some people emphasise individual responsibility and collective rights, while others emphasise collective responsibility and individual rights’). The federal structure of the US gives a dimension for that to play out in that is largely lacking in the UK, so size of government is perhaps a more obvious issue there. Though, below the surface, the relationship between local and central government is a major issue here, too – which is why I picked the name ‘Local Sovereignty’!

          It might be better if I emphasised that as the primary polarity, and said that it’s compounded by the functional one. But, given how little success I’ve had getting anyone to discuss the idea, I probably won’t bother re-writing it. My feeling, currently, is that the only way any country is likely to develop a healthy system of government is through an ‘imago’ society that grows from nothing inside the rotting remains of a system that has tied itself up in its own contradictions.

          • An ‘imago’ society as the operational starting point for a new system of government… interesting. I suppose one might consider the rebellious framers of the early U.S. had this sort of landscape to work with – wanting as little as possible carried forward from colonial British government. And there were plenty of small collective societies that sprang up early on these shores while the nascent federal government strove to define responsibilities and limitations to various levels of governing.

            While I would much rather search for silver linings and witness the efforts of the ‘better angels of our nature’, the recent developments in the larger halls of government have been polluting the view and making my ‘bluebird of happiness’ stick more difficult to deploy.

            Perhaps a healthy dose of imago is what we need.

  2. Amazing post, and far too much to think about!

    To start with a quibble, and one directed at some of your sources rather than you. Income levels are not classes – it’s amazing how often this comes up. Income level doesn’t necessarily say anything about class position, although there is admittedly a close connection between the two; the point is it’s not necessarily a simple one. Just had to get that off my chest.

    And one more thing – Milanovic’s use of the Kuznets curve looks like an example of the classic belief that history can be reduced to laws, that it’s a mechanical system whose workings simply have to revealed. I’m very happy to back up your scepticism on that idea!

    The Elephant graph was new to me, so thanks for that. I’ve only really just begun to think about it, but it strikes me that the inequality it describes is linked solely to monetary income, and therefore has an important relationship to the extent of monetisation in any given part of the world. In that sense the degree of inequality does not simply equate to ‘good’ low levels and ‘bad’ high levels (although there’s bound to be something of that in there). For example, the rising ‘real’ income of developed societies presumably owes something to the degree to which mass-farmed food has become cheaper over the last few decades, and the larger increases in Asian income are perhaps partly down to the penetration of commercial farming into more peasant-like forms of production. I guess this is just a riff on your ‘subsistence’ critique, but it does illustrate for me the fact that the graph is as much about what it obscures as what it reveals. It’s a great springboard for discussion though.

    Anyway, back to thinking all this through again…

  3. Just a quick note about environmental hypocrisy before further contemplating possible options for a future of continuous recession everywhere…

    The one thing that folks in the rich world can do that swamps all other carbon emission reducing behaviors is to have fewer kids.

    http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aa7541/pdf

    No amount of non-flying, non-driving, or washing clothes by hand is going to make up for having a child. So for older folks like me and my wife, who had two children right around 1980, well before carbon emissions became quite the sin it is now, the damage is done. I can’t very well kill my children to atone, and nothing much else I do now will make any difference compared to having those kids back then.

    We did know then that we were bringing children into a world of limited resources, which might have mean an eventual reversion to peasant living standards, and we were happy to do so, having recently learned while in the Peace Corps that absolute economic status had little to do with life satisfaction. We were OK with limits to growth, but didn’t really comprehend in 1980 that we were going to be major contributors to climate change.

    In addition to the fact that as you rightly note, all the big predicaments are structural, not individual, the fact that I can’t reverse my biggest environmental mistake keeps me from anguishing too much over my hypocrisy of also wishing for and advocating for a more sustainable civilization. And since it is too late to get a society that can be described as both sustainable and still be what we now think of as a civilization, what little hypocrisy-anguish I feel is reduced even more.

    I think people would be better off spending as little energy as possible on casting aspersions about hypocritical environmental behavior and concentrating all their attention on what to do about their surviving the next couple of decades. That’s a big enough task for anyone.

  4. Thanks for those comments. Only time for a few quick responses:

    Clem: inequality has indeed been around a long time. But many of the grossly unequal arrangements of the past were easily justified on the grounds that inequality is in the nature of things and the poor could suck it up. We now have a grossly unequal arrangement which is often justified on the grounds of equity and the benefits it brings to the poor, which to my mind is a harder line to spin. I agree with you that inequality in the future will likely see-saw…I guess I’d prefer a politics that was more consistently oriented to the issue, though.

    Andrew – income/class, yes good point. Traditionally, socioeconomic class was measured by occupational classification in the UK and by income in the US, which probably tells us something. Though, as you concede, there is a relationship… Good point about monetization, a point I was striving for rather obliquely in my famine example. I think there will be a lot of people defined as ‘poor’ who have access to non-monetized assets (albeit not necessarily in a very egalitarian way) – but also a lot who don’t, and one of the dangers of advocating too mechanistically for higher incomes for the poor is the possibility of reducing access to these other assets.

    Joe – perhaps you’re right about having kids, something on which I’m certainly in no position to lecture anyone else. Though again I’d question the methodology of imputing an endlessly receding fraction of future projected emissions to individuals on the basis of their children – another example of false projections of present trends, and the tendency to think in terms of amelioration without radical change to the established order. Perhaps there’s an element of denialism in all this, along the lines of “those people who are saying we have a big problem aren’t above criticism themselves – so let’s ignore them”. It’s tragic, I think, that we’ve got ourselves into a situation where having children is seen as an anti-social act. Anyway, I’d endorse your final paragraph – wise advice indeed.

  5. I noticed a small but interesting slippage between “access to a washing machine” and “owning a washing machine” and also between “using a car” and “owning a car”. These are not the same thing – but the distinction makes a difference. Can I, as a single person household, justify a washing machine all to myself when there’s a perfectly good one (in fact a better one ) round the laundrette? (and I can do a quick bit of “paleo lifestyle” by toting my clothes there and back, up and down a hill). If we owned a few more machines in common, would it be more feasible for everyone in the world to have access to them?

    Structural issues – well ab-so-bally-lutely. But …

    this issue interests me a lot and at the risk of using your blog to pimp my own, I’ll mention my own take on the reasons for taking personal environmental action that don’t get spelt out explicitly. The main one is that it buys you the right to talk about these things.

    • There is certainly a difference between having one machine each or haring. In Sweden, it has been normal in apartments that there is a collective laundrette for those living there. For cars it is easy to see that in poor countries people “share” them a lot. If you see someone riding alone in the car it is either some UN or other aid worker or some local elite that wants to show off wealth (but they mostly have a driver). Having constant access also means you use sth a lot more. People wash their clothes and bes sheets very often nowadays, and once you have a car you start to use it for all sorts of things – having got my license and a car at the age of 59, I know all about it…

      Having said that there is also the quetion of the kind of technical infrastructure is needed to creat “cars” and “washing machines”, which actually encompass a lot more than the items themselves (things like roads, petrol stations, mechanics, driving schools etc). Mass use of a thing will make it a lot cheaper per unit, and there will be used ones for us who can’t afford a new one. I am not sure about the conclusion. But the main question for me is, can a radically different society and economy “create” the conditions for shared car and washing machine use?

    • Martin,
      I read your linked post, and I especially like the part about seeing what it is like to try a different way of doing things. When I first moved to Kansas, I met a man who said he rode his bike to his job all through the winter. I was so impressed! I arrived here in June, and either walked or rode my bike to my job too. It turned out to not be much trouble at all to ride all year long, only a matter of wearing appropriate clothing.

      As for communal washing machines, I think it is a really good idea, and can even imagine a social space fitted with pedal powered washing machines where you can visit with your friends while you do your chores. But that is nothing like my experiences of Laundromats. As you, and Chris below both say, they tend to be stripped-down utilities for extracting money from poor people. Which people are not having a very good time, and don’t know each other.
      And nearly everyone carries their laundry back and forth in a car, so I doubt there is any energy savings.

    • Good for you, Martin. An admirable list of personal initiatives. Re your comment about mental infrastructure, you may remember a comment I posted on this blog a while ago about the benefits of action vs talk. The more we have positive examples of low environmental impact lifestyles in a western society the better.

      And now back to actually doing something about resource depletion and GHG emissions. Spent yesterday getting a detailed quote together for a hotel developer who approached us to fix up a pilot, mostly offgrid, decarbonised residential project. With a piquant mix of Smart Grid technologies, well characterised renewables, thermal and battery storage and some backup generation, aggressive energy efficiency and a strong focus on defining and delivering what the customer wants with some expectation management we should be able to get that sorted. And be good if we can get the followup work on low carbon hotels. Both in the embodied energy and stationary energy. I’ve just sent off a quote for doing some work on high-grade heat recovery from very hot metal at a recyclers and using waste woody biomass (AKA pine pallets) to provide process heat. Now I need to status a recently commissioned boiler control project aimed at reducing gas consumption using a dash of Internet of Things (IOT) at a large site and to review a subcontractor quote on how we can use thermal storage there with a view to introducing high-efficiency heatpumps again with a dash of IOT. And down the track possibly some solar thermal and/or excess PV generation. We currently have 100kW PV installed there and have just submitted a quote for another good sized whack of PV. I had a very skilled building retrofit guy through there a few weeks ago who has come back with a load of excellent suggestions on how to make the building envelope a lot tighter. I need to wrap all that up in a quote. And a load of other stuff but that should give a flavour of what can be done. And all of this is dependent on complex supply chains, IC’s etc as IMO they aren’t going away anytime soon. What is happening is that we are demonstrably trashing the atmosphere and perhaps it would be a good idea if we got on with doing something about it.

  6. Thanks for the further comments. Re Malcolm’s polarised representation idea, it’s certainly an interesting one – I’ll have to ponder it further. I’ve been thinking along similar lines about the possibility of a more healthy system of government developing in the form of an ‘imago’ society that pulls away from the remnants of the old. Perhaps it’s a more plausible scenario at present for the US rather than UK, but I’m not sure. There’s a danger of course that such societies may produce extremely “unhealthy” systems of government. I’m planning to post something about that here in due course.

    Re Martin & Gunnar’s points. A good spot indeed – use isn’t the same as ownership, and I can’t claim never to have driven a car at all for 20+ years. However, as per Gunnar’s point, I did drive one a lot less before owning one, and it’s only this year that instead of broken-down old vans I wouldn’t trust to drive more than a few miles I’ve had a car I’d happily take on long trips. Professor Jevons beckons…

    Yes, sharing such resources makes sense – this was the ‘road not taken’ in early 20th century home economics. But now launderettes work out to be much more expensive in the long run than a domestic machine – another bit of regressive, anti-poor economics. Agree with Gunnar, it’s interesting to think about the kind of political economy that might create shared use of such resources. Well, of course there’s the community fridge here in Frome: http://edventurefrome.org/enterprises-initiatives/fridge/

    And more broadly what level of technological complexity can a sustainable agrarian society realistically maintain? An issue we’ve batted around on this site a bit recently without, inevitably, resolving…

  7. 1 – the fact is that many of the rural poor keep a foot in subsistence production as a risk-insurance strategy

    2 – a stable, efficient, dynamic but stagnant economy in which the primary asset is human labour

    3 – I think it would be a good idea if people in the rich countries had lower living standards, and people in the poor countries had higher ones.

    Here’s the problem. I agree with all three statements, by my agreement with 3 is emotional, empathetic and a mistake. It is almost impossible to have 3 without being incompatible with 1 and 2. The living standards of the people in poor countries cannot rise to a level in which they are no longer subsistence farmers without making them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

    This speaks to the core of the problem. Too many people are too rich, but rather than redistribute those riches to the poor in any country, their wealth should be destroyed and everyone should be poor. I’m all for equality, but any equality that requires the redistribution of the products of a vast industrial machine, especially one powered by carbon, is doomed to failure and risks destroying the ecosphere.

    The elephant graph, which describes the rising of millions of Chinese and other Asians out of poverty by their joining an urban middle class is describing a process that is doing neither the world nor those millions any good, though they don’t realize it yet. By leaving the farm, they have put themselves and their families at great risk and they are following in the footsteps of those who created the western industrial economies in making a huge mistake.

    Now, how can anyone like me, a wealthy westerner, say such a thing without being a hypocrite? I admit I am a hypocrite. I retain my wealth when I know I should be dirt poor and living in a tiny hut.

    But I live in a society that requires a minimal level of wealth to even function, to pay the taxes needed to stay on any piece of land, to live without extended family surrounding me for support, etc. Developed countries lack the social and legal infrastructure for actually being a poor peasant farmer. We can play at it, but need to keep more than a foot in the rich world even to do that.

    When the time comes that all money becomes worthless, everyone will be left with the resources at hand, one of which will need to be the ability to grow food. Everyone will be poor, but only the food growers will live. I expect that time will come as a shock and surprise to almost everyone (except people like me) and I also expect and hope that it will come soon.

    In the meantime, I try to convert some financial assets into resources-at-hand as judiciously as possible while I wait for the rest of them to vaporize. I will then cease being a hypocrite, but will have too much to do to be able revel in my new-found integrity.

  8. I guess I’d like to register some slight disagreements with recent comments.

    Martin, I liked your post and I agree that it would be a bit odd to profess concern about the environment without attempting to modify personal behaviour in any way. But I don’t really agree with the notion of ‘buying you the right to talk about these things’. Looking outwards to others from that starting place, I think people are hyper-sensitive to preachiness and will be primed to search for some kind of hypocrisy rather than engaging more openly with the issues. Looking inwards to self, I think it puts too much emphasis on a sense of personal virtue to be healthy. But I agree with you that it’s good to try some different ways of living.

    I’m wary of the ‘action not talk’ duality implicit in David’s comment. I think different people have different kinds of contribution to make, and I’m all for people getting on with whatever practical projects they think will make a difference. But ultimately I’m not sure that much difference will be made unless the bigger political and economic frameworks within which we operate change – and they won’t change without us talking. I started farming with an ‘action not talk’ mindset and made quite a play on the sustainability credentials of what I was doing at first. I still do my best to farm well or ‘sustainably’, but I don’t like to present myself in that way any more – partly for the same reasons I outlined above in relation to Martin’s post, and partly because I think I could take a long hard look at what I do (and what just about anybody else does) and question such claims. I’m glad that there’s a practical side to what I do and that I’m no longer confined to the pure word-work of being an academic social scientist. But personally I don’t elevate practice over word-work – as I see it, history is made as fully if not more so by our mental constructs than by our practical ones. There are some kinds of wordiness in the environmental world that don’t much interest me (often of the overly-spiritual kind) but ultimately I think we’re all trying to reach for some kind of context that gives sense to our practical and social interactions and I’m inclined to try to be as forgiving as possible (which isn’t always very…). We need the words and the contexts, and – just as with practical work – sometimes we’ll fail or make mistakes with them. Maybe that’s how we learn…

    In relation to Joe’s points, much to agree with there (I like the idea of destroying rather than redistributing wealth…at least within the present economic context) but I’d say that (along with Milanovic) you’re making an overly stark contrast between subsistence and capitalist/growth societies (admittedly on the basis of an overly simple contrast of my own between poor & rich countries). I think there are numerous ways in which people at both the poorer and the richer end of the spectrum could have better quality of life within a more egalitarian economy that was much smaller in its drawdown of non-renewable resources. More ‘income’ for the poor perhaps mis-specifies the point inasmuch as it’s not ultimately about cash but about the call upon certain kinds of resources relative to other people. However, I agree that the kind of ‘development’ that is often promoted, as in the developing Asian economies highlighted by Milanovic, will most likely prove a dead end in many respects. And also that ‘escaping’ peasant poverty into wage work is a very high risk strategy, as emphasised by the likes of Banerjee & Duflo’s ‘Poor Economics’ – especially in the context of the global onslaught against labour migration and the enthusiasm in the developed world for building walls.

    • I think there are numerous ways in which people at both the poorer and the richer end of the spectrum could have better quality of life within a more egalitarian economy that was much smaller in its drawdown of non-renewable resources.

      Perhaps, but the need now for reducing “drawdown” is of such great magnitude that the prospective changes in living standards for the richer end will look like an apocalypse to them.

      There may be ways to enhance the lives of subsistence farmers that actually help rather than do harm (incorporating biochar into their soil amendment practices for example), but their change in circumstance will have none of the drama required for rich folk to actually reduce their drawdown to an appropriate level. It would look like a continuation of everything they now do, with a few helpful perks added in.

      After all, subsistence farmers already have the kinds of things that really enhance their lives, like steel tools, metal cookware and durable jugs and buckets. And real luxuries, like plastic pipe and small pumps for moving water around are also common. Most of those goodies will be around for many generations, if just as salvage from the remnants of the industrial world.

      The real dividing line in technology in the peasant world is the one between wood/stone tools and metal tools. The gains in labor efficiency by crossing that line are tremendous. Aside from metal tools, if you described the technology available to an agrarian peasant that had reached the pinnacle of sustainable affluence, what kinds of stuff do think we would find?

    • But I don’t really agree with the notion of ‘buying you the right to talk about these things’

      Ah, well if you disagree with that, then I think I must have expressed it poorly because I was not saying was “it gives you the right to preach” or “it gives you the right to tell others what to do”. I was saying it gives you a position from which to merelytalk about certain possibilities (what would a world with less flying be like? Would it we dreadul?) – it just looks badto even mention footprints if your own is huge. (See Kevin Anderson on this).

      People will search for hypocrisy if you say anything so you might as well have a “well, I try to do this and that” in reserve. Surely you aren’t saying one shouldn’t talk about these things? You yourself have bought an awful lot of talking rights by changing from an ex-marxist academic to an actual, grubby-fingered, farmer.

      Perhaps my use of the word “buy” (intended to be soothing to default consumerist sensibilities) has put you off?

  9. Hi Chris,
    I just re-read your post, and (re)discovered that it wasn’t about washing machines much at all. Hmm. So I will get my washing machine comment out of the way as quickly as I can.

    I have not been to all that many places, but I have been to a number of places where many people do not own washing machines. New York City, for example. I have never been any place where people did not have access to a washing machine. As you and others have said, the distinction between ownership and access is huge. So who are the people who don’t have access to washing machines? If we are talking about non-urban Africa and central Asia, I have gotten the impression that access to clean water is a major issue. Should we buy those people washing machines when they don’t have reliable access to water?

    Also, I am right with you about not being able to restrict global immigration if we allow free global flow of capital. So let’s restrict the flow of capital. Not going to happen this week, but it might be just the thing for relocalizing, and might also be a way to make our inevitable descent to general poverty slightly less painful.

    But as for hypocrisy, yes, we are all hypocrites. All of us. Even my rapacious land-raping, unrepentant former employer would cast aside his libertarian capitalist ideals when he was dealing with his friends and family. Though that generalizing of hypocrisy won’t help anybody win any arguments.

    So maybe arguing environmental principles is not the best approach. I have never really considered myself an ‘environmentalist’, probably because I already had enough other things to feel hopeless about, but I am sympathetic to the cause. It didn’t take long though, to notice that the common approach doesn’t work.
    It doesn’t work to tell people not to do things. No one likes to be scolded. It seems to me that rather than pushing people, we should pull them. Use a positive approach. Live a (slightly more) environmentally friendly life, and be seen as living better. Lead by example. Answer the arguments against by saying ‘Well, it is just more pleasant this way’.

    Admittedly this takes a long time to show any effect, but I am encouraged by what progress I see here with you and your merry band of commenters.

    Also, I agree that it is important to consider what part words & actions play. I enjoy an amusing story or novel idea as much as anybody, but I have very little patience for bold prescriptions for society if the prescriber is not at least making an effort to walk his talk. And you are right that all action and no talk produces very little effect beyond the site of the action, but I don’t see ideas and actions excluding each other in a healthy lifestyle. Ideas are best expressed in action, but should be shared verbally as well. Any concerted action will have an idea behind it. An idea with no action attached to it is a funny story at best, noise at worst.

    And more generally, regarding your vision of a stagnant economy coming to a greater reliance on human labor, and the greater equality that comes from smaller flows of energy, I am looking forward to something like that. Though I have a feeling that it is a bit optimistic to hope for stagnation rather than decline.

    Thanks.

  10. Thanks for the responses, all nicely informative.

    Joe, yes agreed the reductions needed at the richer end of the spectrum probably would seem apocalyptic to many. I think that’s at least partly to do with a story we endlessly tell ourselves that equates high income with high status and general wellbeing. It’s the story that I think is playing in the Angry Chef’s head when he makes the fanciful remark that every past society would gladly trade places with ours. We’d surely lighten the landing if we could find a way to tell a different story. At the poorer end of the spectrum, I see the problem more in terms of lack of access to land and subordinate incorporation into an economic system that relentlessly extracts value and delivers it elsewhere than in terms of access to any given technology. I think I’ll pass on your question of what sustainable affluence would look like in material terms, because I don’t know and it depends on so many imponderables. I recall that Ivan Illich somewhere suggested it as access to a bicycle – how does that sound? Anyway, I’m probably not so far from you on this one – yep, metal tools. A scythe, perhaps, as in the Vallis Veg mowing trial: http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=799. Though in the meantime I’m going to (hypocritically) hang on to my tractor…

    Martin, I’m sure the misunderstanding was mine. I see what you’re saying…maybe it’s my guilty conscience, but I’d rather short-circuit the whole ‘hypocrisy’ mindset altogether, because what I’m trying to do probably isn’t nearly enough – and what’s enough ultimately doesn’t have much to do with how I live now. But yes, talking is good – though I think talking is a birthright, not something that’s earned! Have I earned talking rights by becoming a grubby-fingered farmer? Well maybe – my fingers certainly are physically grubby often enough. But I’m also a landowner, which perhaps makes them metaphorically grubby (in Marxist terms…) Mind you, most of the Marxist academics I used to know seemed happy enough to get a mortgage on a big house…

    Eric, yes good point about water supply re washing machines (…and also power). I think Rosling was using it as an example somewhat metaphorically – you might find his talk linked above interesting to watch. I like your ‘already had enough other things to feel hopeless about’! Maybe that’s it – maybe I feel sufficiently hopeless that I don’t want to ‘lead by example’ … I’d just like to do a few practical things and talk about how we might get out of the shit we’re in, without feeling that currently I’m part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I agree that an idea without an action is only a story – however, I think we need some pretty radically different ideas about how we should be living, and at the moment those ideas are only going to be stories. Also agreed it’s a fine line between mellow stagnation and hard-pressed decline, a hard one to tread.

  11. I see the problem more in terms of lack of access to land and subordinate incorporation into an economic system that relentlessly extracts value and delivers it elsewhere than in terms of access to any given technology.

    I agree that access to land and the depredations of the global market economy are big problems for peasantry now, but I think those problems will fall away when the current system’s legal structures lose their force. When everyone is poor, land that now belongs to corporations and large land owners will become available again to poor homesteaders. The movement of people onto that land may become chaotic, but the land will be there for the taking. Sorting out land use absent any kind of overarching state is one of the most problematic aspects of our future.

    I have come around to the idea that in the end it will not be access to land that will be the big stumbling block, it will be knowing what to do with it when it becomes available. I think it would be very valuable for most people, especially the young, to learn as much as possible about subsistence farming (even if they can’t have land of their own) so as to get as big a chunk of the farming learning curve under their belt as as soon as possible, well before it is desperately needed.

    Perhaps the young could pay for an internship on some peasant farm in a place like Burundi or rural Indonesia for a few years to learn the ropes (assuming that farmers in Burundi would accept payment for hosting such dumb labor).

    As far as the technology goes, a bicycle is getting very sophisticated, with the chain and ball bearings and all. We would be lucky to produce such a high tech contraption. Certainly anything that can be produced by a smithy or even a small foundry will be available, but I have my doubts about anything that requires machining. Anything electrical will be a thing of the past.

    I did read your very excellent mowing trial post for the first time. I don’t blame you for keeping your tractor, but your trial showing that a scythe is the most energy efficient method of mowing just illustrates your brilliant observation that “a bit of technology is a wonderful thing, but the trick is knowing when to stop.” We’re not very good at knowing when to stop, probably as an evolved trait, but if we overshoot our boundaries, nature has a habit of slapping our hands and shoving us back in place.

    • Joe:

      I have come around to the idea that in the end it will not be access to land that will be the big stumbling block, it will be knowing what to do with it when it becomes available. I think it would be very valuable for most people, especially the young, to learn as much as possible about subsistence farming (even if they can’t have land of their own) so as to get as big a chunk of the farming learning curve under their belt as soon as possible, well before it is desperately needed.

      I think you have a fair argument here, I agree there should be more widespread appreciation for what it takes to raise one’s food. But I would quibble with how long it takes to acquire the basics. Growing up on a small farm my sibs and I learned to plant, maintain, harvest, and even market veges while we were also engaged in the regular childhood pursuits of formal education, scouting, sports, etc. I would offer that we had the benefit of a marvelous teacher – and the issue of land tenure was not held over our heads… but before I even anticipated going off to college I could have held my own as a peasant grower. Almost all I’ve learned about science, genetics, breeding and so forth has come from college and a career since the farm experience – but I’d argue this training is beyond the needs of getting a tomato from seed to salad.

      I’ve frequently been disheartened by how ill informed our city cousins are concerning issues of agriculture and where their food comes from. But I’ve also seen how quickly one’s focus is concentrated when the stomach complains of inattention. I agree with you – lots of turmoil may be avoided if some outreach were taken advantage of before the storm. But if too few avail themselves of such efforts, they’ll come around when it starts raining.

        • At the funeral today of my children’s great grandfather, who died recently aged 85 after a career in agriculture on the Great Hungarian Plain (and lengthy retirement), the following from the village chaplain made me smile: “He was born into peasantry, and studied, in order to remain a peasant”.

          • Brilliant! An excellent mantra for the latter-day neo-peasant. Condolences for your loss.

      • I think at least a few young people have considerable interest in farming. Perhaps some of them are more perceptive than we might think.

        My neighbors are a couple who have three young sons. Both the parents are lawyers and one son is now in law school after an eight year hiatus as a restaurant manager.

        But the other two sons have been farming for several years. They have told me that they think that growing food is interesting and really authentic work. They just made a step up from a 5 acre farm to a 16 acre organic market garden growing mostly lettuce for restaurants and supermarkets, 19,000 heads a month. They have six employees.

        One of the reasons they moved on from their other farm was that they can live on this one. There are lots of opportunities for inexpensive land leases for diversified agriculture (even with ag water) around here, but they don’t allow any residences on the leases, which has a lot of disadvantages, as Chris well knows.

        You are correct that the need for food and work will eventually instill a strong motivation to farm, but I worry that things might fall apart so rapidly that there will be little time for that motivation to come to fruition in actual farms before times get really hard. It will be interesting to see what happens.

  12. Thanks for the further comments. I’m going to be offline for a week, but please do carry on debating. Perhaps we can come back to the issue of how & where to learn farming skills again in the future. Meanwhile, I’m delighted to be running a blog where we can entertain the notion that a bicycle is too high tech for a sustainable future. I’d be equally delighted to host counter-arguments, but we need a bit more of this heterodox thinking in the world. Still, for now I’m pinning my hopes on my bike as the acme of sustainable affluence…

    But if you’d like a different perspective altogether, have a look at what the ecomodernists are up to: https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/voices/ted-nordhaus/decoupled-but-not-detached

    • The Breakthrough site is fascinating. Just decouple all human activity from nature (except for pleasant hikes in the wilderness) and everything will be fine. The problem is that all energy and resources humans need comes from nature. It’s true that with enough energy, just about anything is possible (look at the last hundred years), but where is the energy going to come from to do the decoupling?

      Our efficiency in the use of energy and resources could certainly be improved, but it still amazes me that anyone could propose that we can greatly reduce our land use for agriculture, leave the oceans pretty much alone so that they can recover and move all 11 billion-to-be of us into cities that will be powered 100% by renewables. And I presume that all this transformation will be accomplished while we drastically reduce our use of fossil energy.

      It looks to me like ecomodernism is just science fiction. Perhaps the next version will be that we just move everyone to domed cities on the moon or mars and let the earth recover for a few thousand years before we move back. Easy peasy.

      • I think ecomodernism can be reduced to a seven word mantra that has all the answers to your questions, Joe: cities, nuclear power, GM crops, wilderness, anthropocene. Simple! Though to me it has an uncanny resemblance to the up-itself delusions of the wholesomely organic bubble that Marris castigates at the start of her article.

        • It may be that, like most of us, ecomodernists like the accouterments of modern industrial living and are grasping at any straw that offers the hope that it can continue.

          Combine that desire with a pinch of hypocrisy and you have a recipe for absolution from our common predicament. “Hey, it’s not our fault that nobody is following our prescriptions. We can continue to live large just as we always have if only those farmers would grow three or four times as much food on the same acreage, if only those utilities would just convert all the energy supply to non-carbon sources and all we have to do is distribute all those sustainable goodies equally. Plenty for everyone (especially us)!”

          While there is a modicum of truth in every ecomodernist prescription, adding up all those modicums (modica?) doesn’t begin to approach a real solution to the predicament of the scale we are facing. The predicament is just too big and the time available is just too short.

          Agrarian peasantry may not be politically feasible in the industrial world, but at least it has a proven track record of being able to support human life while minimizing human impact on the planet. It’s good enough to be the main component of a solid Plan B for when modernity fails, especially since it doesn’t require changing out the industrial infrastructure of the whole world.

          I like to think I’m getting in some practice doing dry runs of Plan B while I wait.That’s something even one person can do, which is more than ecomodernists can say.

  13. Call me sustainably affluent if you want, but I hope the bicycle will be with us for a long while yet. Some of the simple old single speed models are still going strong decades on. But I guess the chain is its weakest link – it would be hard/impossible to make a strong enough one yourself. At that point the steed would have to revert back to its origin as a Hobby Horse to be scooted along using the feet, much like children’s ‘balance bikes’ today. This in itself is still a big improvement over walking, where speed is of the essence. But there are also scooters made for adults using just a pair of handlebars steering front forks with a low platform on which to stand between front and rear wheels. An example of the efficiency of these came when I once biked 350-plus miles from from Paris to Brest in a couple of days, and a Norwegian on a scooter did exactly the same in almost exactly the same time (this was all part of a marshalled event would you believe). He then turned around and repeated his feat, and so did I.
    It may be part of bicycling myth as I am unable to trace the quote, but I once read somewhere that an American Indian had called the bicycle ‘white man’s greatest invention’. If only they’d shown him a fully-faired recumbent! These are now reaching speeds approaching 90mph along a flat road in Nevada at the annual speedbike championship every September. That’s one amateur rider, often a university student, pedalling about 30kilos of recumbent bike housed within an aerodynamic shell. I mention this not just to unleash my nerdiness, but because it truly astounds me what human power alone can achieve, particularly when harnessing an optimum amount of technology, in this case rubber and steel but some carbon-fibre too, the latter not such an easily recylable material. Now if we could only decouple these bikes from the aerodynamic limits imposed by Earth’s atmosphere, cyclists might give even Elon Musk’s Hyperloop dream a run for its money.

    • Just because I think bikes are high tech, doesn’t mean I don’t like them. They are by far the most efficient form of land transportation possible in terms of Mj per mile and they should be catered to by transportation planners everywhere.

      I spent what seems like half my waking hours on a bike in my youth until I was old enough to get a motorcycle. When I was 15, my 13 year old brother and I spent four days biking from Portland, Oregon to my grandmother’s farm on the Idaho border. I had a one-speed and my brother had a three-speed bike. We walked up the mountain passes. After our visit to the farm, we boxed up our bikes and took the bus back to Portland.

      Wonderful as they are, modern bikes still require a panoply of industrial supply chains to enable their assembly. The good news is that, since many bikes are robust, even after those supply chains disappear there will be lots of bikes around for many years (just like solar panels). If well cared for, a single speed bike with solid tires would probably last a young person for the rest of their life.

      • I didn’t get the impression you don’t like bikes or high-tech. I believe you’ve thought through your relationship to technology with more rigour than most and you’re right to point out the similarity between bikes and PVs in terms of usefully long lifespan products (of long industrial supply chains). I guess I prefer the former over the latter as the bike becomes useful in so many ways when I power it (perhaps power is too strong a word here:), while the latter supplies power I can use. Mainly I like PVs because they are quiet, though visually often quite ‘noisy’. But I’m chiefly labouring under the delusion that I could do without electric power, and would be better of without it: I don’t feel the need for electrical power in the garden, or to prepare firewood, cut grass, or for most essential ‘work’ I can do using my labour. I do use it occasionally to pump well water (though there’s a bucket and windlass), light the house (we cook on bottled gas for, er, ‘convenience’), and, well, run a washing machine, fridge and of course a computer (ever since Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has had ‘WiFi’ firmly at the bottom of the triangle). Alas we are on the grid and mains water. It’s easy! But back to the garden, it’s only when I’ve used power tools (electric or petrol) that it’s clear I’m overshooting. With a pointy stick, it’s timeless work. But sure, it’s complicated.

        • The only times I have lived without electricity (two years on an island in the Pacific and one year on a homestead in the Olympic Peninsula) I somewhat compensated for it by an increase in the use of kerosene, mostly for light but also for cooking.

          In the Olympics we used wood for cooking for many years before switching to propane. In the Pacific we carried all water in buckets from a cistern two hundred feet from the house; in the Olympics we had piped-in water from a mountain stream.

          Living without electricity is not too bad, but living without lights at night would be tough, especially in higher latitudes. I have never tried living with only candles or oil wick lamps, but it would be pretty dim. I have read that the pre-electric level of lumens production for an entire house was about equal to that coming out of a refrigerator with the door open.

          I have only lived on-grid for seven years since 1970. Thanks to modern technology, off-grid feels pretty much the the same as on-grid. The labor saving electric devices they both enable get more and more precious the older I get.

          I hope I can keep my off-grid system going for many years after component parts become unavailable, but we’ll see. If not, it will be back to chop wood, carry water.

          My ranking of priorities for electricity would be: lights, pumping water, washing clothes, refrigeration. Washing clothes would come after refrigeration only if one is in possession of a hand cranked wringer. The wringer takes a lot of work out of doing laundry.

          • A family in the village where I live don’t have electricity, though not through choice. When I asked them about it once, the response was “it’s miserable in winter”. And in winter when I walk by you occasionally see candlelight through a window. Either that or someone left the fridge door open 🙂
            Personal experience of doing without the niceties, apart from cycle touring with a tent, was a year living in a van. It had a small interior light just bright enough to see your own breath, and it was indeed miserable in winter until I treated myself to a balaclava to wear while sleeping. Before that I would be woken by a freezing cold nose, touch it, and realise it was my own. But there was a campus with showers nearby, bars, restaurants, and a 24-hour Shell garage which occasionally came in handy. I look back with fondness on the stripped back simplicity of it, a year of many cold sandwiches and my mother doing my laundry almost every weekend. Ah, sweet independence!
            Bestdryingrack dot com’s hand wringer/washer looks well-made.

  14. “If people in richer countries think migration of that sort is unacceptable, then how can it be acceptable for the (relative) ‘have nots’ in a given rich country to expect redistribution from the ‘haves’?”

    They don’t want “redistribution.” They want higher wages, lower rent, lower taxes, cheaper healthcare, and if that requires subsidies paid for by higher taxes on rich liberals, OK, as long as we don’t *call* it redistribution, which is taking money from people who “earned” it and giving it to losers.

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