Can we avoid ecological collapse? Prof. Julia Steinberger

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Professor Julia Steinberger: can we avoid ecological collapse?

Can we avoid ecological collapse? This is part 2 of a conversation with Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and a member of the intergovernmental panel on climate change – the IPCC. Part 1 is here.

I read a survey recently that close to half of US under-24s consider themselves to be anti-capitalist.

Yes, youth is going in a completely different direction. I think that’s very heartening, but it’s also a reflection of the hardships they’re facing. They’re a generation that has no assets, born into debt, and the only way they can do anything is with more debt. Exploitation isn’t an abstract concept to them

Here’s something a bit more contentious. You criticised those who criticised lockdown because of the damage it’s causing to the economy – you said that well-being is more important than the economy. Agreed. But – it’s small businesses that are being destroyed. Meanwhile Amazon is hoovering up everything. And Sweden hasn’t had a lockdown, but I don’t think its figures are much worse than other places, and I read recently that their deaths per million are lower than ours. Couldn’t we just have got vulnerable people to self-isolate rather than everyone, and closing down all the small businesses?

So Sweden has a much better performance than the UK. The UK’s performance is terrible. But a lot of countries in Europe have done better than Sweden. Lockdown saves lives. If you’d started lockdown early, you got the whole thing over in a couple of months. A government that responded in a timely fashion was able to protect their economy that much more. In terms of small businesses suffering more – it’s true. There’s real economic hardship and misery for tons of people, whilst Jeff Bezos is getting rich as Croesus. Amazon is a horrible business that exposes workers to Coronavirus in its warehouses. Amazon is taking over – but it’s not natural, God did not make that happen. The government made that happen. The economy does not have natural laws. It’s man-made. Boris Johnson made choices that did not protect small businesses, because he allowed the disease to progress too far before he did anything, and didn’t provide mortgage / rent amnesties etc. It’s a patchwork of little actions that’s causing suffering for a lot of people.

A tiny steer away from GDP and / or Covid. It’s not often I talk to someone so qualified to answer scientific questions. Could the current global economy run entirely on renewables? Or would it have to shrink significantly before that could happen?

Do you mean the current level of renewable energy or a future potential level of renewable energy?

A potential future level.

I think the answer is still no. The global economy is currently too big, and too much of it is tied up in things that require fossil fuels and material resources. And renewable energy itself takes a lot of materials. So not only would we need to shrink the economy, we’d need to re-orient it too. However, I think that a perfectly good economy, that prioritises human well-being, could run on renewables. This is something we modelled, and we have a paper coming out soon. It’s possible to provide everybody with decent living standards at levels of energy that are compatible with renewable production. But it mustn’t involve over-consumption.

Living well with low resource use can be achieved with efficient technologies – insulation, induction stoves, LED lighting. So it’s a three-pronged approach: 1. renewable generation; 2. efficient consumption; 3. sufficiency – i.e. no over-consumption.

And what about nuclear? I know a lot of environmentalists are coming out in favour of nuclear now. I guess my problem with it (apart from the hazardous waste and the zillions of tons of concrete) is that it has to be corporate – it can’t be owned by communities. So it ends up sucking wealth away from communities and concentrating it, and concentrated wealth prevents democracy. Plus having the control of our energy supply completely in the hands of those people is a bad idea I think.

I have mixed feelings. Nuclear has a better claim to being a bridge fuel (between the current system and a renewable system) than natural gas does. Natural gas was touted as the bridge, but when the gas companies were asked about the end of the bridge, they didn’t have an answer – they just wanted to sell gas. But I’m not in favour of building new nuclear generation – just keeping what’s there going until we have built up renewable capacity and reduced demand levels. So nuclear might enable us to get there whilst burning less fossil fuel. Germany turned away from nuclear after Fukushima, but now they’re using a lot of coal. And that’s a disaster as well.

And, fun fact: the coal industry in the US is responsible for more radiation than the nuclear industry, because the coal is a dirty fuel that has lots of radioactive elements in it. It’s spewed out of stacks – and is responsible for huge amounts of mercury pollution too.

In a sustainable future (and there’s no other kind), is there a place for the aviation industry? Bearing in mind that if Westerners can fly on holiday, then soon 10 billion people will be aspiring to fly on holiday. And there’s no way to fly people around the world without burning fossil fuels.

I’m very strongly anti-aviation. I don’t fly, I don’t see family members in the US. I don’t think it’s sustainable to have aviation. There’s no such thing as a low-carbon flight, and nothing on the horizon either. The aviation industry say that there is, and they’re lying.

I hear a lot – ‘oh, I only fly once a year’ – as if that’s OK. But if they can do it, then everyone can do it. And 10 billion people (soon) flying once a year is not OK.

It’s not. And there are a lot of people who fly a lot more than that. That was another study we did this year. We looked at inequality in energy use around the world. And flying is very unequal. There are some people who fly a lot, some who fly once a year, and a lot of people who’ve never flown and never will, because they can’t afford to.

Academics can learn how to use video conferencing software, instead of flying around the world.

That may be a good thing that comes from COVID – that people learn how to do that. Talking about academics, how can academics influence policy makers when the corporate world has so much sway, and the corporate world sure as hell don’t want anyone to question economic growth?

That’s a good question. Some policy-makers would like to be on the side of the majority rather than the corporates. They’ll be looking for evidence from academics to help them out. My view is that it’s going to take popular movements. I’m an academic who can’t talk politely or in diplomatic ways. I’m trained as a physicist and I’m very blunt. So I’ve decided to go and talk with the people. I think it’s going to take people power. It will be a fight. We need popular power to take away social licence to operate away from these companies. We will stop them by sheer force of power when we’re strong enough.

Do you know about mutual credit?

Tell me.

A group of us are starting something called mutual credit clubs. It’s a way of trading without money, therefore doesn’t require banks or interest. You trade on account. If you buy, your account goes down; if you sell, your account goes up. In its simplest form, that’s it. Obviously you need lots of tech, governance, membership agreements and regulations too. But we’re building these clubs, and we’re talking with accountants, local authorities, social enterprise networks and business networks to set up these clubs. And the really interesting thing is that these clubs will be able to inter-trade. So if a business can’t find what it needs from another business in its club, it can trade with a business in another club. If it gets traction and starts to grow, it can go global. I’ll send you some information.

But it seems to me that there’s an ecological shitstorm coming. How likely is it that there will be some sort of collapse? And what might that look like?

I think the notion of one single collapse is a bit too much like the movies. So if you think about collapse – Puerto Rico had a collapse. New Orleans had a collapse. And in Bangladesh, in Mozambique last summer, Barbados, and some parts of Australia have collapsed, places that have been hit by mega-typhoons in the Philippines, places that have suffered horrific drought in India. So I don’t think collapse is one thing. Many ecosystems and communities have already collapsed.

We don’t often hear first person accounts of climate disasters, because journalists find it difficult to make it to the worst areas. So collapse is already happening, driven by environmental degradation. In terms of mega-events, I think things are going to get worse. I’m thinking about social tipping points, about how we’ve had this idea that the transition to sustainability would be smooth. But I think it will be a transformation that happens in some places first, some places later, and it will be sudden. We’ll get to the point where the damaging industries no longer have traction, no longer get subsidies, we can throw cars out of our cities. This is going to happen some places first, some places second, then everywhere. The good stuff is going to happen suddenly.

The thing that worries me the most in all of this is the rise of fascism and anti-democracy. Totalitarian governments are fossil fuelled. They’re tied into existing industrial powerhouses – the oil industry, the car industry etc. Trump is making himself into Mr. Coal. Bolsonaro is set on destroying the Amazon. China, India, are all tied to those industries, and they stand against people power in a very brutal way. So standing up to these governments is very important.

If I look at the figures on biodiversity loss and climate change, it seems to be accelerating and unstoppable. I’m still up for the fight, but I’m not convinced we’re going to win it. Do you think human extinction is a possibility?

Yes. If you think of the probability spectrum, it would be foolish to rule it out. I’m not saying it’s probable – humans are resilient, and there are a lot of us. In terms of wiping us out completely it will probably take a bunch of unlucky events. But in terms of eliminating what we call human civilisation – the ability to feed billions of people with a stable agriculture, I’d say that’s a probable threat, and if we continue on our current course it’s a near certain threat.

I guess if we get knocked back to something resembling the Stone Age, it’s not going to be like the Stone Age the first time round. There will be much less biodiversity, no easily-available resources, much higher temperatures, much more desert, much less soil, much lower human sperm count, much more difficult to develop from.

But Ice Ages have almost wiped us out too. I think all we can say is that we’re looking at an avoidable disaster – avoidable in that we can stop some things getting worse. Some things we can no longer avoid. Some extinctions and ecosystem loss are already locked in. Any emissions that we don’t emit are going to save lives.

Just to finish – I think a lot of people see the solutions as coming from the state, and the problem with that for me is that the state is not somehow a counter-balance to corporate and financial power – and I think both right-wing libertarians and most of the left think that it is. And the right want to shrink the state and the left want to grow it for that reason. I think we have a state-corporate alliance now, and that if the state shrinks, the corporate and financial sectors will inevitably shrink with it. The state props up the corporate sector. I don’t think there are really economies of scale. Smallholdings are more productive than industrial agriculture, but only the latter get government subsidies. And anyway – look who’s winning elections. I think it’s hopeless to look to the state for solutions. I mean if it happens, great – but I really, really can’t see it. If anyone gets close who will actually transfer power from corporations to communities, like Corbyn, they’ll get slaughtered in the corporate press, which will stop them getting elected. I think the solution has to come from us – ordinary people, in communities. What do you think?

I don’t think the state is one thing or another. I think the state is whoever has enough power to make it in their image. And if people in communities are doing all the things you’d like to see, they’ll also have enough power to take over state functions, and take us in a very different way. We’re in a period of right-wing ascendancy, and the idea of the right wanting to shrink the state is just a slogan. What they really want is what you just described – a state that is complicit, that’s captured by corporate interests. And we need to take power back. I agree that the state isn’t the solution. The state isn’t rational, or a benevolent dictator. The state is what we make of it. I’ve been kept alive by the NHS, multiple times. That’s a state institution, created by the state. We have examples of the state doing things differently. Corbyn was an attempt, and you’re right that it’s difficult for people like that to win. But the young vote left. That demographic wave is there in the US and the UK. But in the UK, first past the post is a disaster as well. We’ll only get a decent government through coalition and proportional representation. And if the state is doing bad things, we can stop it. We shouldn’t allow it to ride roughshod over the things we’d like to see.


  1. It’s possible to provide everybody with decent living standards at levels of energy that are compatible with renewable production. But it mustn’t involve over-consumption.
  2. I’m very strongly anti-aviation. I don’t fly, I don’t see family members in the US. I don’t think it’s sustainable to have aviation. There’s no such thing as a low-carbon flight, and nothing on the horizon either. The aviation industry say that there is, and they’re lying.
  3. … [the extinction of] what we call human civilisation – the ability to feed billions of people with a stable agriculture, I’d say that’s a probable threat, and if we continue on our current course it’s a near certain threat.