Doughnut economics

I didn’t intend to break my ‘History of the world’ cycle again, but the good folks of Dark Mountain have just published my review of Kate Raworth’s book Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a Twenty-First Century Economist. And since I’m feeling stretched a bit thin between the blogosphere and the farm, I feel the need to curate the hell out of everything I write…So I’m appending my review below (which, as if to prove my foregoing point, attentive readers of this blog may notice borrows a few sentences from an earlier blog post here). Back to the history of the world next time.

There was a bit of toing and froing with drafts of this review, which my editors felt was overly negative in tone. That bothered me a little, because I’d wanted to convey the considerable merits of Raworth’s book in my review as well as my doubts about it. Suddenly, a self-image opened up for me that I’d not much scrutinised in myself previously despite a few past scrapes, in which I figured as just another windy old nay-saying online opinionater, or perhaps the “two-bit greentard” I was once accused of being. Meanwhile, Marc Brazeau keeps sniping at me on Twitter for misrepresenting his views in this recent post, but is so caught up in the process issues around how he thinks I should have checked what I was going to say with him ahead of time that he still hasn’t actually said what the problem is. Ah well, one truth is that you can’t please everybody. And another one for me is that the world seems so replete with bad choices and impossible trade-offs too glibly resolved in contemporary thinking that maybe a bit more windy nay-saying is exactly what we need. I’d certainly apply that critique to some of my own writing as much as to Raworth’s. And I’d definitely, definitely apply it to Brazeau, from what I’ve seen of his ideas. But, memo to self, perhaps I need to stay politer while I’m about it, and be more willing to apply it to myself.

Anyway, enough of this navel-gazing. Here’s the review (expurgated version).


Book review:
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist 
(Random House, 2017)
by Kate Raworth

I doubt many people would have betted that this year’s hot new concept for a healthy economy would be that bad food staple, the doughnut. But with the publication of Kate Raworth’s book, it’s come to pass. The idea of the ‘doughnut’ is that there is (1) a lower social limit for human flourishing, beneath which welfare is limited by shortfalls in such things as food, education and housing, and (2) an outer ecological limit for human flourishing, beyond which welfare is limited by overshoot in such things as climate change, ocean acidification and nitrogen and phosphorous loading. These two limits constitute respectively the inner and outer rings of the ‘doughnut’, the sweet spot within which humanity must try to remain. I have to confess I’m not greatly moved by the metaphor, which doesn’t seem to go much beyond the truth that individually people can have too little, and collectively they can take too much. And too much of what – is there really a conceptual equivalence between taking too much water or fossil energy, and taking too much health, as Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ diagram (p.51) seems to imply? Whatever the case, she hangs a lot of sensible and lucid analysis off the concept in a genuinely thought-provoking, if for me ultimately unsatisfactory, book.

In the first part of the book Raworth dissects orthodox economic theory, showing how it frames the world in questionable but powerful and largely hidden ways that buttress right-wing, ‘free’ market politics, while silencing other modes of thinking. She places a lot of emphasis on the way that our stories and pictures condition how we see the world, and generally puts this to good use in deconstructing the ideology of mainstream economics – for example in the notorious ‘circular flow’ diagram of Paul Samuelson, founding father of modern economics, which depicted the economy as a kind of frictionless and endless flow of value through society, like water through a closed plumbing system. This ignores the open character of the energetic and biotic systems, with their sources and sinks, to which human economies are mere accessories. Doubtless Raworth’s view that we now need to tell different stories, and draw different pictures, resonates with the Dark Mountain Project.

Raworth characterises the old story of economics as one that unconditionally celebrates markets, business, finance and trade, deprecates the state and ignores households, commons, society, the earth and power. In the new story that she wants to tell, those elements that were ignored or deprecated in the old story are brought centre stage, and old elements like markets, finance and trade are put in service of wider human flourishing, rather than assumed to be unconditionally beneficial.

If that sounds obvious or trite, Raworth nevertheless does a good job of tracing the implications in some depth, using clear, jargon-free language aimed at the non-specialist, but without sacrificing an impressive level of subtlety. It’s refreshing that she talks about power, the systematic inequalities in human/human and human/non-human relationships, something that she rightly says is generally missing in mainstream economics. But unfortunately her description of it lacks depth, and doesn’t go much further than the observation that the wealthy get to shape the economy’s rules in their favour. OK, but who are the wealthy, and how were they able to accumulate their wealth? I get the sense that Raworth operates in a rarefied world of NGO and policymaker high-ups, whose inevitably bird’s-eye and reformist view of the world inflects her book’s gentle equity talk, its judicious commitment to levelling the playing field and its pervasive emphasis on ‘design’ as the solution to contemporary problems (her 21st century economics is, for example, “distributive by design” and “regenerative by design”).

The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely well designed, locking the majority of the world’s population into specific political relationships which have worked because they’ve convinced sufficient numbers of the relevant people that they have a stake in the status quo. But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change – not least in the identity of the ‘relevant people’ who are invested in the status quo. In the present global political economy, the consumers and business leaders of western Europe and North America have had disproportionate ‘relevance’. But it seems likely that in the political economies to come, their relevance will wane – and this will not be a process of ‘design’ but of messy conflict, violence, compromise, happenstance and political calculation.

For sure, the economic story that Raworth wants to tell is a good one to try to feed into this febrile mix. But I don’t think it’ll have much traction without a richer analysis of how politics and power happens. My feeling is that Raworth pulls her punches in analysing the mechanics of power because otherwise she would undermine the basic premise from which her book proceeds – that political problems get solved in smoothly reformist ways by designers thinking (or storytelling, or drawing) at a whole-system level. It’s an appealing view, perhaps especially to high-level policymakers. But I’m not sure it’s a very convincing one. Maybe there’s some truth in the notion that our stories create our realities. But it’s also true that we only find the stories we want to tell out of the realities messily created in the glacial grind of human history.

In recounting her alternative economic story, Raworth freely borrows from preceding heterodox economists like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson and Ha-Joon Chang. I’m not sure she adds a great deal to what they’ve already said. So I was a bit surprised to be told on page 44 that her key concept of ‘the doughnut’ is a “radically new compass for guiding humanity” derived from “cutting-edge Earth-system science”. There’s a danger here of the ‘radically new’ story succumbing to one of the pathologies of the old, and insisting over-stridently on its novelty and originality – this year’s must-have concept, rather than just another iteration in the long-established idea of sufficiency. Ah well, there’s nothing wrong with re-presenting old ideas anew if it freshens them up for another generation of readers. But Raworth says little that Herman Daly didn’t say, and say better (if a little more technically), in his 1977 classic Steady-State Economics. In that book, Daly distinguished between the three concepts of ‘service’ (human flourishing, the final benefit of economic activity), ‘throughput’ (the entropic physical flow of resources, particularly non-renewable resources) and ‘stock’ (all the things that are moved in the economy). Perhaps Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept is more memorable, but it’s less precise, and it doesn’t much help elucidate the point that some things deliver more service per stock than others.

The spirit of Daly nevertheless invests the later part Raworth’s book, where she lucidly examines questions of economic growth. Advocates for the ability of the contemporary global capitalist economy to generalise wealth while mitigating environmental impacts through technical innovation make much of the evidence for the ‘decoupling’ of economic growth from resource use in the ‘developed’ economies. A good deal of this decoupling turns out to be only relative – in other words, we’re using less resources than we used to in order to deliver a given amount of product (though not necessarily ‘service’ in Daly’s terms), but economic growth is such that we’re still using more resources overall. In some cases, there does appear to be a level of absolute decoupling, ie. a lower total amount of resource use. But Raworth usefully points out that what’s really needed is sufficient absolute decoupling – that is, enough absolute decoupling to bring throughputs back within the safe bounds of her doughnut, which some analysts suggest could, for example, amount to emissions reductions in the ‘developed countries’ of around 10% per annum – vastly greater than is currently being achieved. It seems likely that the ‘developed’ economies can only reduce their resource use at too high an absolute level to stay inside the doughnut. Meanwhile, the only working model available to ‘developing’ economies is to increase their absolute resource use. Raworth succinctly spells out the resulting paradox: “No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one”.

Time, then, for another story? Well yes, but what Raworth offers is mostly just a set of stories-in-the-plural of people doing various positive things. I don’t mean to belittle them. Many of them are genuinely inspiring and uplifting, such as the case of Malawian William Kamkwamba, whose home-made wind turbines brought power to his local community. But Raworth fails to put them into a systemic framework that turns them into a story, rather than simply a collection of stories – a story of how the systemic structuring of contemporary economies and polities can be systemically restructured into something better. And inasmuch as she does have a wider framework, it’s quite a problematic one – based on the notion of both the commons and the state as helpmates to human flourishing. Her text is sprinkled with references to things like ‘the knowledge commons’, ‘the collaborative commons’ and ‘the creative commons’, but this doesn’t amount to much more than a technical-sounding gloss to the notion that people sometimes share things. Well, sure they do. And sometimes they don’t. Raworth refers to the work of Elinor Ostrom, who looked carefully at various commons as defined collective usage agreements, but she doesn’t seem to have taken on board Ostrom’s point that commons sometimes work, sometimes don’t and are only sometimes (quite rarely) the best solution to resource husbandry questions. In Raworth’s treatment, there’s a slippage from commons as ‘defined collective usage agreement’ to commons as ‘free stuff, freely shared’. Take this passage:

The triumph of the commons is certainly evident in the digital commons, which are fast turning into one of the most dynamic arenas of the global economy. It is a transformation made possible, argues the economic analyst Jeremy Rifkin, by the ongoing convergence of networks for digital communications, renewable energy and 3D printing, creating what he has called ‘the collaborative commons’….Once the solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers are in place, the cost of producing one extra joule of energy, one extra download, one extra 3D printed component, is close to nothing, leading Rifkin to dub it ‘the zero-marginal-cost revolution’. The result is that a growing range of products and services can be produced abundantly, nearly for free, unleashing potential such as open-source design, free online education, and distributed manufacturing (pp.83-4)

One issue that goes unexamined here is the extent to which this highly technological commons, with its solar panels, computer networks and 3D printers, is sustainable in the light of the need for a sufficiently decoupled global economy discussed above. Another is that Raworth confuses the marginal costs of circulation, which indeed in the digital age have now sometimes diminished towards zero, and the costs of creative production, which aren’t necessarily much different than pre- ‘digital commons’ times. It takes as much hard thought and hard work to put together a good curriculum, a good political essay, a good poem or a good tractor design as it ever did. But once it’s put together, it can now be distributed almost costlessly around the world, potentially to an audience of billions. The zero-marginal-cost-revolution, if there is one, is a revolution of circulation, not production. No doubt it’s a fine thing, but it’s worth considering its major beneficiaries. Those who control the circulation are in a position to effortlessly siphon off wealth, whereas those who control the production aren’t – which is why Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are a lot richer than any political essayist, poet or tractor designer, delivering a ‘collaborative commons’ based on privately owned, and possibly ‘enclosed’, means of circulation. Meanwhile, much of what really matters to people as physical, biological beings – such as staple foodstuffs and bulky construction materials – doesn’t enjoy zero marginal costs of circulation, and isn’t usually best produced via commons.

Perhaps Raworth’s wider point isn’t so much about commons in the technical sense of common-pool resource use agreements. Rather, it’s a plea to create economies geared to delivering collective human benefit and to abandon the discredited old notion that the pursuit of individual self-interest somehow delivers collective benefit through the magic of the market – a magic that, if it was ever operative, now seems to be wearing off, fooling only a diminishing band of neoliberal fundamentalists. Raworth isn’t the first person, surveying the global political economy, to think “No, not this”, but then to flounder at the question of “But, then what?”, and indeed she makes a better stab than most at answering that question. However, a more comprehensive analysis is needed of the way that economic and political power works and the complex functioning of the modern state. As it is, her prescriptions involve a rather hopeful, voluntaristic and top-down rhetoric that seems destined to go unfulfilled. Her over-emphasis on ‘design’ rather than politics discussed above is one example of this. Another is the need she identifies to “bring on the partner state” to support commons and local economic regeneration, without analysing why contemporary polities so rarely do this. It surely isn’t just a matter of them choosing the wrong story.

Maybe part of the problem is our fateful modern conviction that the stories we tell have to be upbeat and optimistic – a conviction Raworth endorses, insisting on the need to see a “glass-half-full” future (p.286). It strikes me that this may be more indicative of our problems than the solutions to them. If only we could lay aside the quintessentially capitalist trope of ‘optimism’ that sends us scurrying here and there after positive stories as a kind of pick ‘n’ mix while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’, it might be easier to harbour genuine hopes for the future. Raworth herself writes that history has repeatedly demonstrated an association between economic crisis and the rise of xenophobia, intolerance and fascism (p.277). Why insist on a glass-half-full view of the future in the light of this repeated fact? It’s surely preferable to present a sober and systematic unpicking of the mechanics of political power and economic provisioning that can clarify alternative endpoints, than to regale the reader with upbeat stories of how things may just turn out well. At its best, Raworth’s book does some good unpicking. But it still leaves us a long way from home.

14 thoughts on “Doughnut economics

  1. Not so sure what your editors objected to, maybe they were right… but I like this version. Still have my curmudgeonly remarks to offer… but that’s just me. Seems a bit ‘meta’ to review a review…

    The problem, however, is not that the present global political economy is badly ‘designed’. On the contrary, it’s extremely ‘well’ designed

    Interesting approach. Reminds me a bit of an exchange here a week or so ago between you and Jahi and myself where I asserted that our present agricultural food production system works. You and Jahi took umbrage with my conclusion and suggested it doesn’t work “well”. My example being that it works… and yours above – same proof if I’m reading it right. But I do like your take.

    But like every past political economy, the present one will only endure for so long, until a complex of internal and external factors forces radical change –

    Must it be ‘radical’ ? Perhaps our definitions of radical cause a problem. I personally don’t see Brexit as a radical change (nor do I imagine the current populist movement(s) such as Trumpism to be radical). And to be fair I’m not convinced either example could produce the sort of change needed, but my hope is that some sort of political evolution might be possible without a world war or a revolution of the magnitude to be radical. A bloodless coup might serve… and the unseated needn’t be a person per se… raw capitalism as a means to distribute resources could be replaced by a system considerate of a wider swath of humanity.

    So nothing too terribly oppositional thus far between our views. Where I might stake out a different position from yours is in the feel for a tempered prognosis of our future. I like the glass-half-full cliché (in fact I enjoy offering that the glass is completely full… half full of water and the other half full of air… but that’s for another debate). My rationale goes to a personal observation that a large sector of human kind doesn’t appear to me to appreciate bad news. Doom and gloom often set an audience in a despair that too few will rail against. Despondent folk aren’t likely to be much help. Not suggesting we lie or paint too rosy a scene – overselling a position is just as bad as lying in the final analysis. But when we are prognosticating about the future – one where we have only opinions based on past experience – we could do worse than to acknowledge the difficulties and still imagine there is a way out of the box we find ourselves in. Magic thinking? No more magical than the opposite contrarian prognostication that
    …while ignoring inconvenient negativities and acknowledge that we now face potentially insurmountable ‘wicked problems’ that need to be reckoned with rather than ‘solved’ … My complaint being that once ‘reckoned’ with a solution is less likely searched for. Things may be bad – inconvenient negatives and all – but we’ve been to the bottom of the ocean, and to the moon and back. Neither adventure feeds a stomach or pulls a soul out of poverty. But they were accomplished without radical social upheaval. We might be naked apes, but we can, like the cliché blind pig – sometimes find the acorn.

    Before I forget – the ref to Herman Daly’s work… many thanks. Another tome for the inbox.

    • Doom and gloom are separable to some extent. People, like me, who see the doom looming over industrial civilization can also be optimistic about their chances for survival. Why else would they prepare for doom? I see the glass nearly empty, but still have hope that my family can suck up enough of the drops in the bottom to keep going.

      For those of us in the rich world, the collapse of industrial civilization is going to be more like a ship wreck than a plane crash. (Most of those in the poor world are stuck on the shore watching the wreck happen). Most people will perish, but a few lucky survivors will cling to a bit of floating wreckage and make it to shore. How could anyone be more optimistic than to think that they will be one of the lucky ones?

    • Thanks for that Clem. So to link this discussion with the previous one involving Jahi, I’d say the system is extremely well designed to produce money for its key orchestrators while finding ways to buy off sufficient numbers of other people to keep the show on the road. So from the point of the view of the minority of major beneficiaries, it’s well designed and it works very well, in the short term at least. But it’s not well designed and it doesn’t work well from the point of view of the majority of minor or non-beneficiaries, or in relation to various wider parameters. In that sense I don’t see a contradiction between my two comments.

      In relation to change, I’m with you in ideally wanting to see non-radical, evolutionary change (perhaps because I’m undoubtedly one of the major beneficiaries of the status quo, as per above). But all depends on time frames and perspectives. As we know from evolutionary change, non-radical change can become radical change given enough time. And as we know from both human and natural history, radical change eventually affects everywhere. The best that anyone can hope for is that they’re gone before the radical change affects their own particular somewhere. Unless radical change is what they seek.

      On the optimism/pessimism couplet I don’t necessarily disagree with much that you write here, though I’m more upbeat than you about the value of despondency. Linking to the previous para, I’d argue that the best ways out of the box will probably only present themselves to us once we’ve gone through the despondency of realising that radical change is unavoidably upon us. For me, the advantage of ‘reckoning with’ problems rather than trying to ‘solve’ them is that it avoids the pitfalls of adopting a kind of heroically desperate all costs solutionism that all too often is more redolent of the problem itself than a plausible solution to it. This, to my mind, is the corner that the ecomodernists paint themselves into.

      • First – I goofed if I’ve implied that your two comments were contradictory. I was more looking toward the approach taken in forming the counter argument.

        On the value of despondency – I guess I’ve not imagined being despondent as a motivator. If someone has lost hope (is despondent) what else is there? Now being hungry… there is a motivator. Being cold, being lonely, suffering some sort of discomfort… big motivators. For many discomforting things we encounter our bodies automatically seek solutions. Shivering when cold, converting to burn fat stores when hungry, that sort of thing. As discomfort grows and relief is not so simple as a physiological change then a particular stress takes more attention from our mental capacity. We seek food/shelter/security with more deliberate action. We’re more and more motivated.

        And then you said: I’d argue that the best ways out of the box will probably only present themselves to us once we’ve gone through the despondency of realising that radical change is unavoidably upon us

        I’m confused. You want to argue that some solution (way out) will present itself to us? Is this like the spirit that appears to Ebenezer Scrooge? We need to suffer despondency in order to be in a position to witness such an apparition? Goodness sakes.

        There may be redolent ‘solutions’ posited by some for heroic prognostications. But I’d like to argue there might also be well considered avenues of approach that could be tried – vetted if you will – that could steer clear of (or avoid) the pitfalls of adopting a kind of heroically desperate all costs solutionism At least on this I’m hopeful.

        • “If someone has lost hope (is despondent) what else is there?”

          Space for a more realistic hope to be born?

          “I’d like to argue there might also be well considered avenues of approach that could be tried”

          In my experience, unrealistic hopes are often a major barrier to taking ‘well considered avenues’ and I’ve often found I need a period of despair to recognise or accept better options. I’d have thought that’s quite a common experience – as Eric says below “All of my best ideas come when I give up trying to solve a problem and get back to minding my own business”.

  2. Yes, I’ll second your last paragraph there.

    I believe that solutionism is a real problem. All of my best ideas come when I give up trying to solve a problem and get back to minding my own business.
    Maybe I can mash together a few disparate comments – going back to the question of whether industrial agriculture ‘works’. Certainly it works, it has not broken down yet, but who does it work for, as you ask?

    A complicated question probably, but I think we all can agree that industrial ag has other goals besides just producing food. There’s the money question again. I didn’t get a sense from the book review, but I am wondering what Kate Raworth’s doughnut is made of.

    It is popular to talk about ‘resources’ but often the conversation drifts off to be about money instead. I won’t belabor the difference, except to say that when I want resources, I find it much more profitable if I am able to get resources more directly, not mediated through money. That is to say that there is a lot of value just laying around that the money economy is not interested in. I see plenty of opportunity there. Probably still doesn’t make me an optimist though.

  3. I dunno Eric – whether I agree that industrial ag has other goals. I would stipulate that industrial ag encompasses other market segments than food alone. Fiber (ala flax and cotton) is an industial ag product. Fuel (ala ethanol from sugar cane or corn; biogas from corn, biodiesel from rape or soybean) is also an industrial ag product. So from that perspective then, yes, industrial ag would appear to have other goals. And I’ll also agree that money is certainly a prime mover in agriculture. But I think money is a prime mover in most human pursuits. You either do everything you need to provide for yourself, or you trade for what you’d rather not (or can’t) do for yourself. Money comes in handy in the latter situation.

    Are there greedy players in the industrial food production space? I’m sure their likely are, but I don’t know any personally. Are there scientists trading their efforts for wages in the food production space – I’d like to think I qualify in this latter regard. I have no further motive than to improve the yield and quality of soy so that more and better food can be grown from the same resource base currently in use (and yes, so that my employer can earn enough money to prevent my paychecks from bouncing). Improving (increasing) yield and quality (protein and oil content) should lead to better food security for all. Improved food security might reduce stresses among us and potentially postpone conflicts over resource scarcity. This is the sort of longer term thought process that I hope delays or prevents us getting corned in the metaphorical box in the first place.

    Genetic changes to our domesticates (read plants and animals) don’t automatically require industrial inputs. There is no additional fertilizer required by a new variety, no seed treatment chemical that must be dosed upon the seed so that it will grow. These latter industrial inputs can (and do) offer food security benefits, but they aren’t obligatory amendments. So for plant breeding anyway I fail to see the alternative goal that must be there.

  4. I’m new here so I apologize if I’m stating the painfully obvious and already well worked over but the “solution” is pretty clear – drastically lower energy usage all around – however, the reduction required is almost unimaginable in our current social paradigm. Energy use is bound up with how we measure personal success, belonging, being normal, and even personhood. And so we are stuck with the doom and gloom of trying to envision and plan for the unimaginable, in other words social death. Every social and physical instinct tells us to resist at all costs.
    And yet, and yet, it doesn’t really have to be that way, there is life – or there might be – on the other side. But we can’t be sure, and we especially can’t be sure that all 7(or is it 8 now) billion of us are going to be able to make the transition to that lower energy social paradigm, as Joe points out in that very American Donner Party way.
    And oh God, I have an allergy to that word “design.”

  5. Clem, Michelle – thanks for your comments. I don’t want to get too hung up on the hunger/despondency debate – I guess much depends on interpretation and context. Maybe the threat of hunger is a motivator, whereas actual hunger (chronic malnutrition) isn’t – it causes apathy and, er, despair. Maybe, also, you’re right Clem that despondency in the proper sense of the term isn’t a spur to action. But then why should people feel despondent in that sense simply at the thought that present lifeways will inevitably have to change? What I really meant is that trying to come to terms with the implications of the probable changes can be painful and difficult, but out of that might emerge some better responses to present dilemmas than trying to cling on to the status quo through an increasingly desperate and implausible high-energy solutionism.

    But I’d like to push my comments in a different direction suggested by Michelle. I do value differences of opinion on this site, so I’m glad that Clem and people like David and Andy (if they’re still reading) weigh in with ideas about a smooth ‘evolutionary’ clean energy buildout from where we are, alongside the views of those like Joe and Ruben who see it differently. I guess I vacillate somewhat between the two camps, but am generally pulled more towards the latter. Still, the main point I want to make is that a lower energy, more localised agrarian future looks to me like a better future for numerous reasons regardless of energy prospects. There’s not necessarily a need for doom or gloom there. Where the gloom comes in for me is the extraordinary foot-dragging over energy transition which has left the world still fundamentally reliant on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future, and therefore mired in numerous increasingly intractable problems. So Clem, when you say that ‘Trumpism’ isn’t a radical change, surely that’s part of the problem? The leader of the world’s largest economy doesn’t think anthropogenic climate change is occurring and wants to rebuild its coal industry. Some fine grounds for genuine despair right there.

    Michelle, I’m glad to hear of your allergy to the ‘design’ word – especially since I’ve just been taken to task on Twitter about my comments on design in Raworth’s book by someone called @nickbell_design. I feel another blog post coming on…

    • So Clem, when you say that ‘Trumpism’ isn’t a radical change, surely that’s part of the problem? The leader of the world’s largest economy doesn’t think anthropogenic climate change is occurring and wants to rebuild its coal industry. Some fine grounds for genuine despair right there.

      The reference to Brexit and Trumpism wasn’t to imply that either was a potential solution to our situation (or necessarily a move in the right direction). And I do agree with you that the election of Mr Trump adds lumps of coal to a fire better tended by others. My use of these current political sea changes to illustrate ‘non-radical’ political movement was more to illustrate that somewhat significant change can be made without bloodshed. That the change may not be best for all of us is a very valid point. But so long as dissenters keep a cool head and work within the institutions (or work to peacefully establish new institutions) I don’t find an apriori requirement for radicalism. And here I appreciate that I may be taking a more strident sense of the word radical… nearly conflating it with bloodshed or violent upheaval.

      To the issue of Trump’s support of coal here… really more window dressing than substance (as per most of what emanates from Pennsylvania Ave these days). Perhaps more significant, and to your point that his administration heads the wrong direction, is the role coal can play to deflect or absorb resources of dissenters from work that might actually help. But this still draws us away from the point about how severe a change in politics is needed to head in a better direction.

      I think I once used a metaphor here about sawing a log with a cross-cut saw to illustrate how I envisage our two party political system here in the States appears to have been working of late. [NB, ours is not technically – or constitutionally – a two party republic… and this could be a fertile field for discussion too… but by practical experience the shorthand of Red and Blue covers pretty much of the issue] But to the sawing of a log by political opponents… so long as the sun shines and there is food in the larder the two opponents may cuss and fuss over who is working harder or better holding up their end of the bargain… but let storm clouds gather or some snow flakes start to fall and cooperation will increase. Likewise, if the larder should appear to be bare the call to hunt or harvest should also increase cooperation. No blood (yet).

      Forecast and prognostication – what we’re really talking about here – can still be folded into this metaphor if we stretch it to consider that the need for cooperation is multiplied by the required size of the woodpile or the coming expansion of the larder. Once it may have been adequate to look to the sky to see what the weather might bring in the coming minutes to hours. Now the lead time to affect meaningful change has a far longer time horizon But we do have better forecasting tools as well. We also have better ‘saws’.

      Where I see the debate between an ecomodernist ‘we’ll find solutions’ and the contrarian ‘solutions won’t solve the problem’ is in the gradation of how steep the slope into oblivion. Yes, there may be ostriches who don’t want to acknowledge a problem even exits. Yes, there is the Henny Penny crowd who imagines it is already too late. Yes, there are Bluebirds of happiness who imagine we’ll invent our way out any difficulty. What have they in common? All bird brains. We naked apes like to disparage bird brains as inadequate. And as complex as the present issue appears I might suggest we could do with more than bird brained debate. And the matter is so complex it might stretch beyond the power of mere naked apes as well.

      If it ultimately requires bloodshed or violence to get the birds to flock together then I suppose I’ll go along. But I’d rather try everything I can imagine before I go to the gun cabinet to polish up the shotgun. Like your countrymen famously sang, I hope… We don’t get fooled again

      [any need for more metaphor pounding or cliché abuse – you know where to find me]

      • I have been waiting all my adult life (since the energy crises of the 70s and publication of Limits to Growth) for evidence that society at large is willing to make the changes needed to transition to a sustainable, steady-state civilization. So far, virtually nothing. I’ll continue to vote for people who just might lead us in the right direction, but I don’t have much hope for the efficacy of the democratic process in preparing industrial civilization as a whole for a low-energy future.

        I do think you are right that “when the larder is bare” there will be very many local attempts to work together to keep as many as possible fed. Ideally there would be some kind of collective preparation at the local level in advance, but I see little of that happening, except in a few intentional communities amounting to a tiny percentage of the population. Though they don’t seem to really do much concrete preparation, the Transition groups do at least have the wherewithal to discuss the future with some realism.

        Jason Heppenstall, at his 22 Billion Energy Slaves blog, recently made some disparaging comments about “community leaders” and the difficulty of organizing a local community. His attitude shows how difficult it might be to establish the level of interpersonal trust that will be required to work together in a time of great stress. My approach, motivated as much by personal inclination as long term strategy, has been to make a commitment to a rural community (evidenced by decades of residency), work with others in community groups (community associations, service clubs), be a good neighbor (offer skills and help whenever possible) and hope that when things start to really fall apart in earnest my input will be taken seriously and trust in my family will be sufficient to allow us to band together to do what needs to be done, however radical that may be.

        Of course the biggest evidence of trustworthiness will be that one has prepared to be a giver of food rather than a taker. Even being able to feed one’s own family will be seen as the height of responsibility, even without having a surplus to share. “Will work for food” just might be a plea that could be taken seriously if coming from the right person, but “join us for lunch” will always be seen as coming from people who have their act together. We will need as many of those people as possible in the bare-larder future to come.

        • Hi Joe, thanks for not taking umbrage. Yours is an excellent strategy. I too live in a rural community. I think the most important thing about “organizing” a rural community is that you cannot let anyone know that is what you are doing. Maybe not even yourself. First of all because it’s arrogant and rude to think you are all that. And organizing is so linear, whereas a rural community likes to meander, quite maddeningly at times. But other times it’s the best thing about it.

      • I’m with you Clem in wanting to avoid bloodshed if at all possible – we’ve kind of lost that one already to be honest, but it’s still worth trying. Of course, many people historically have been up for a fight in the cause of change, and there are those today ‘on many sides’ who are supportive of purifying violence to move things forward, including the likes of Professor Morris at Stanford. I don’t want to join their number. Joe’s advice strikes me as a sound policy in these circumstances, regardless of future events. On the issue of democracy and low energy futures, I hope to write some more on that soon.

        • Hadn’t heard of Professor Morris yet. Interesting dude. But I still prefer the company of doves to hawks [why do we use birds in so many analogies to us??]

          I will second the notion that Joe’s approach is a good one. And Michelle’s point about organizing in a small community seems spot on to me as well.

          One common meme we discuss here is how likely it will be that ag technology in a post fossil fuel future will resemble the ag of a century ago. A century ago here in the US the whole of the interior was not yet ‘filled in’. Actually, if one were to use the UK’s population density as the standard, we are still not close to being ‘filled in’… but I digress.

          When my Great-grandparents farmed on the prarie here they started out with animals and steam power. Communities had to be self sustaining or they disappeared. As transportation infrastructure developed within the settled parts of the Midwest lots of communities survived or died due to proximity to rail heads, canals, or ,eventually, good highways. But if the residents of the communities experiencing loss were capable of providing for themselves before, what happened to cause their decline? One might suppose the lure of opportunity for a “better” life in a growing burg next door could have an impact. The situation was confounded by several decades of participation in global unrest (WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam) which pulled much of the rural youth into the military and exposed them to a world outside their birth community (how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after…).

          Sociologists have likely ruminated on the issue for a while – but I’ve not traveled in their circles so I look for guidance in that department from our host.

          I think Joe’s notion that in the small community it’s better to be a provider than a taker is especially prescient. Accountability is much harder to avoid when everyone knows everyone else.

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