Can we avoid ecological collapse? Prof. Julia Steinberger
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- … [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.
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1Ian Lillington August 30th, 2020
I’ve enjoyed that two part interview, thanks. Some good points of course … but also some throwaway lines that I’d expect to be more precise from a member of IPCC panel. Eg – Germany from my research seems to be steadily reducing its reliance on coal, and consistently committing to less coal in future. And the thing about coal producing more radiation than nuclear, it’s a popular thing for pro-nuclear folk to say, but it’s not comparing apples wiht apples. Aviation – it had a good airing in this blog not so long ago. I’ll be flying again [occasionally] if I’m ever allowed to – it’s good to let people know how damaging is their 3 day holiday in a far away place, but it seems quite odd to highlight it here, at this no-fly time. The future of many things is uncertain and different to these ‘pre-virus’ cliches.
2Val August 31st, 2020
This is fantastic. Calls herself “blunt” but I would say straight talking and fabulous.
3David Calver August 31st, 2020
That is a fascinating and affirming interview. Thank you, David and Julia, for those exchanges.
Professor Steinberger’s views on societal ‘collapse’ / transition largely coincide with my own. We are already in transition. I also agree with her, in that everything we can do now to make that transition less damaging and less disruptive will be worth it because it will save lives and reduce suffering. That thought is what keeps me going and staves off the sadness of the things humanity has already lost and continues to lose. Also, good to hear her say that being apolitical is fine – personally I prefer to say that sustainability transcends politics, but needs to recognise that political conflict presents one of the barriers to the transition.
Regarding green growth and decoupling of economic growth from material throughput – When contemplating the possibility of doing a phd a few years ago, a professor who might have become my academic supervisor strongly encouraged me to look at that topic for the phd. But things have moved on since then and it seems that decoupling, at a macroeconomic level, is becoming more and more a myth rather than a reality. It seems more likely that we need to reform the economy more fundamentally than attempts to rely on decoupling would suggest.
I agree that an alternative to “accumulation- and growth-based capitalism” is “service-based, people-centric (ecologically sustainable) economy provision”, and that this is not necessarily the totalitarian socialism that opponents of it suggest it is.
However, I’m not yet convinced that there is no room for an amended version of capitalism in that alternative economy, or in several other alternative economies. What might be called “capitalism version 2” could be designed, in my view, to do what it does well within a new bounded economic space, under certain constraints. I talk about the Bounded Efficiency Space concept in my books.
What’s most important is that we transition towards a sustainable World Balance Sheet that sustainably supports all of the peak global population and innumerable future generations and all other life on the planet. The World Balance Sheet is another concept I talk about in my books and at WorldBalanceSheet.com
4Dave Darby August 31st, 2020
David – what do you mean by capitalism version 2? In that version, would corporate branches and websites continue to extract wealth from communities and concentrate it? And would the means of exchange still be bank-issued, interest-bearing debt money? If so, why would version 2 be any better than version 1? If not, a) how would we achieve that, and b) would it still be capitalism?
5David Calver September 1st, 2020
David D, you pose excellent challenges to “Capitalism version 2”. I could respond that nobody has to define it in advance in order to counter the argument that capitalism must be eradicated altogether. All I would need to do is provide an argument that at least one of many modified forms of capitalism could exist, not what form an implemented version would take in any detail. For example, I could say that capitalism 2 would be bound by rules and boundaries that would ensure that it would not compromise the transition to a just and sustainable future, and even that it would have to make a positive contribution towards it. However, I think I can make a stronger argument pointing towards one or two ideas that could form part of the frameworks within which cap2 could be designed. The Bounded Efficiency Space (“BES”) is a logical construct, defined in such a way that the cap2 firms operating within it can grow their activity but that activity is ultimately decoupled from material throughput so that their activities in aggregate do not cross sustainable thresholds. That is, by definition, one of the most important criteria for determining if a firm should be classified as operating in the BES. To avoid the concentration of distribution of wealth and profits earned, there would need to be further limitations. These might consist of rules on share ownership (similar to existing rules on “close companies”) so that there has to be a very spread distribution of shareholders, and no individuals could own more than x%. There could also be a mandated percentage owned by the state, on behalf of the people, and the dividends on those state-owned shares could be used for public goods.
The money and banking system could also be reformed, for example requiring a much larger proportion of money to be asset-backed, and for that asset-backing to comprise sustainably managed land rather than gold or other assets that bear no relation to creating sustainability. And the creation of money (and supervision/verification of the sustainably managed land used as asset-backing) could be done by central banks rather than the private sector.
These are just a few aspects that might form the framework for cap2. However, there might be many others.
I think you were right during the interview to point out that when someone describes something as modified capitalism, or as cap2, you might look at it and say you don’t recognise that as capitalism at all. And that might be OK as well, because perhaps the name we give the system is not important. What’s important is that the new system, or systems, do for humanity what we want them to do, not what they’re currently doing.
I don’t know if I’ve missed out anything, but I’m glad to hear of anything I’ve not addressed.
6Dave Darby September 1st, 2020
David – thanks for the response. Please don’t be offended, but I think your position is really dangerous. It’s been the dominant reformist position (i.e. we can reform capitalism and decouple growth from disaster, don’t worry) for the entirety of our lifetimes, and every year of our lifetimes, the situation has got worse. It’s really dangerous to stay on this path.
I think what you’re not addressing is that concentrated wealth bestows power. Billionaires can’t spend their money on ‘stuff’ – they’d just spend all their time buying things they’d never see, let alone use. They want money to expand their empires and gain influence. I don’t have to tell you the ways that money buys power in capitalism do I? I mean I will if you like, but isn’t it obvious? Which means that all the policies you advocate are impossible. In the real world, who would enforce those rules? Donald Trump? Putin? Boris Johnson? the WTO? the IMF? What do you think the folks at Davos would think about genuine wealth distribution?
Granted, you don’t have to define it, but could you give me a roadmap to something like:
“capitalism 2 would be bound by rules and boundaries that would ensure that it would not compromise the transition to a just and sustainable future”
“To avoid the concentration of distribution of wealth and profits earned, there would need to be further limitations.”
– Who’s going to impose those limitations on the ‘masters of the universe’? Modern economies are state-corporate alliances, and only in China and North Korea is the state not the junior partner.
“to counter the argument that capitalism must be eradicated altogether”
– I’d say transcended rather than eradicated – in the same way that capitalism transcended feudalism, by sucking in its resources and building infrastructure.
“grow their activity but that activity is ultimately decoupled from material throughput”
– It’s really important that people understand that economic growth absolutely cannot be decoupled from material throughput, and that attempts to keep doing so are pushing us towards the precipice.
• If the economy grows, overall spending power grows, and there’s nothing – at all – to stop that increased spending power going on cars, flights, clothes, gadgets, blah blah.
• Material resource extraction broke all records last year – because of economic growth (only recessions slow down material resource use – but recession hurts people. We need a C-M-C economy that doesn’t need to perpetually grow – see below)
• Again, who would pass the legislation needed for the decoupling?
• What would happen to the advertising industry? Their job is to stimulate consumption. They’re the main funders of the mainstream media, and so the consumerist message is going to continue.
• Here’s a much more detailed debunk of the ‘decoupling’ hypothesis, by Jason Hickel – https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/12/why-growth-cant-be-green/ – but here is his research – https://www.academia.edu/38891704/Is_Green_Growth_Possible. It should be compulsory reading for everyone, before it’s too late.
• Here’s another one for good luck – https://eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked/
In a non-capitalist economy – C-M-C – you produce goods or services (commodities, C), exchange them for an exchange medium (money, M), to buy other goods and services you need, that you don’t produce yourself. It’s a free market (capitalism can never be a free market, as it’s skewed towards corporates), and not controlled by the state. In a capitalist economy, M-C-M’ – you invest money M in the production of commodities to produce more money – M’. Wealth concentrates, concentrated wealth is used to corrupt the political system and control the media, resulting in policies that help concentrate wealth even more. In what way is the latter better than the former? All I can see is that it’s much, much worse.
My biggest question is: why do you want capitalism to survive? We’ve had a couple of hundred years of it, and the result is that democracy is effectively dead, which is unfortunate, and nature is on the way out, which is suicidal. What’s the attraction?
7David Calver September 2nd, 2020
Thanks for those further challenges. I don’t take any offence. These are important exchanges that many people are tackling, and so the more debate there is the better.
I can see you believe “capitalism” needs to go (and be transcended).
However, you and I might have different concepts of what we mean by “capitalism”. We might be having the sort of conversation you mentioned in the interview with Professor Steinberger – the part where you remember talking to someone about capitalism, but each having approached the definition of the word and what it means differently. What I call cap2, you might describe in different terms that mean to you it’s not called capitalism.
My main argument is that the case is not yet proven that “capitalism” (or at least a modified version I’m calling cap2) cannot be tamed, modified and placed in a sandbox where it can’t wreak the havoc that it has done to date. An example of businesses that could already be put in that box (and could operate in the Bounded Efficiency Space) is socially just businesses already operating under circular economy principles and practices, so that they are net positive for the biosphere and sustainability more generally and for social justice.
Our economic systems and other ‘rules of the game’ are designed by people, and can be altered (reformed) by people. I’m with Professor Steinberger on this aspect. While democracy is alive, there is hope that future democratic systems will mean that the will of the people prevails and changes the game, sweeping aside the toxic power imbalances that currently keep a damaging form of capitalism in place, enabling cap2 to be designed or to emerge.
Almost everyone admits that capitalism has made a significant contribution to the great strides of progress in many fields, including health, alleviation of poverty for many, housing, infrastructure, education, especially of women in developing countries, emancipation from older forms of serfdom. The gains have come at heavy cost, but we need to be careful in our analyses in order to give due credit to capitalism’s positive impacts and not just focus on all its negatives.
Also, my concerns (with the most radical anti-capitalism stances) are as follows (and I’m not saying you’re a radical anti-capitalist here):
1) Enabling the people who are currently ardent practitioners of “capitalism 1” at least one stepping stone into a just and sustainable future, so that they are less likely to fight back if/when push comes to shove. After all, the art of war is often to provide helpful solutions that avoid a head-on conflict. It’s rarely wise to back someone into a corner without giving them a feasible way out that they can see themselves taking.
2) The suffering and damage of a potentially poorly-enacted transition to sustainability are a big concern. Paul Gilding’s “The Great Disruption” is a useful reference here
3) I’m minded to protect the ability of future generations to have the freedom to use some form of tamed / sandboxed capitalism (within constraints exercised democratically by the people) when their turn comes, which would be facilitated by modifying capitalism rather than removing it altogether – ie not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If capitalism 1 is demonised and outlawed, future generations’ freedoms could be significantly impaired, and their outcomes compromised.
I know that capitalism 1 has been good at overcoming limits, but that doesn’t mean this will always be the case. I remain optimistic that the will of the people will eventually prevail.
8David Calver September 2nd, 2020
A footnote. Thanks for the references regarding green growth and decoupling. I had already read some of them, and have looked through others. I’ve also read some of Jason’s other recent writings, which I find very compelling and useful. I think there’s a difference between an aggregate, global-scale, macroeconomic analysis and a sector-specific, more nuanced one. Some of those sources suggest that green growth and/or decoupling are not, in themselves, the answer. Some of them do state that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do them. The researchers do point out that green growth and decoupling (to the extent possible) are necessary but not sufficient to achieve sustainability. I agree with them.
In cap2, only firms capable of operating with absolute decoupling of their financial growth from material throughputs would be put into the Bounded Efficiency Space. (It is the space that is bounded, not the efficiency). All other firms would be outside the BES and would have to act within government-mandated resource throughput constraints consistent with planetary limits and Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics.
The World Balance Sheet would be one of numerous mechanisms for monitoring the progress towards achieving a sustainable outcome of the transition to a just and sustainable future at global scale.
9David Calver September 2nd, 2020
Dave, I also think that my initial concept of cap2 is not inconsistent with low-growth or degrowth economics, but that’s something that would have to be tested and fleshed out more, to build it into a set of robust proposals and take it beyond being a general emergent concept.
10Steve Gwynne September 2nd, 2020
Dave. I know you are very skeptical about reforming capitalism but global business leaders aren’t.
I’m not arguing for or against in this instance, just pointing out that the WEF is taking on the challenge.
11Steve Gwynne September 2nd, 2020
Regarding Julia’s perspectives on the need for economic contraction, I’d certainly like her perspectives on how much she thinks the economy needs to be contracted. Presumably, she is referring to rich Nations, so I’d also be interested in knowing what she thinks regarding contracting incomes and contracting tax revenues which will inevitably contract prices due to lower levels of demand.
Therefore what is her view on affordability issues for companies providing energy at contracted prices and incomes.
At a global scale, what is her view regarding the global ripple effect of contracting incomes, taxes and prices in major economies. How will economic contraction affect the global economy.
Lastly, what is her view of population growth within the context of a contracting national economy. I ask because a contracted national income along with population growth will clearly further contract incomes per person, which will further contract taxes and further contract prices which is will deepen affordability issues for service providers.
12David Calver September 2nd, 2020
if you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend the growing collections of materials now considered mainstream ecological economics which draw on analytical examples such as LowGrow SFC (Stock Flow Consistent) economic modelling, developed by the likes of Jackson and Victor. This type of modelling can be used to create scenarios where there is low growth, zero growth (steady state) or degrowth, and see the possible effects on various things like unemployment, debt, prices, environmental impacts, wellbeing etc in the short, medium and long term. They use Canada as an example to do some of their modelling through to the latter half of this century. These models provide a response to some of your questions. Generally, convergence on a global average for wellbeing is the likely outcome, within a sustainable envelope, and this will mean better wellbeing for most people. This is a rapidly developing field.
13Dave Darby September 3rd, 2020
David – you haven’t acknowledged any of the points I made above.
“While democracy is alive”
– I guess democracy is also a word that can be interpreted differently by different people. If it’s interpreted as ‘decision-making power spread equally across the population – i.e. the general public make the big decisions about the direction in which humanity is moving’, I don’t understand how you could believe that democracy is anything but superficial – a sham.
I do acknowledge the benefits that capitalism has brought, not least that it delivered us out of feudalism. There was a time when capitalism was a radical, progressive force. But you can’t take the perpetual growth out of capitalism, and you can’t dematerialise growth, which is why it’s now toxic in ways that can’t be reformed out of it.
“1) Enabling the people who are currently…”
– Yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.
“2) The suffering and damage of a potentially poorly-enacted transition…..”
– Sure, but no transition at all is suicidal. It’s a bit like saying that people might hurt themselves getting into the lifeboats on the Titanic.
“If capitalism 1 is demonised and outlawed…”
I really, clearly said transcended, not demonised or outlawed.
“In cap2, only firms capable of operating with absolute decoupling of their financial growth from material throughputs would be put into the Bounded Efficiency Space.”
– again, David, I’ve already answered this. Financial growth can’t be decoupled from material throughputs because it’s not possible to ring-fence the increased spending power so that it’s not spent on material things. Plus you seem to have a massive blind spot when it comes to corporate power. Who will ‘put’ Amazon where they don’t want to go?
14Dave Darby September 3rd, 2020
“Dave. I know you are very skeptical about reforming capitalism but global business leaders aren’t.”
Which is exactly why I’m skepical – https://www.lowimpact.org/beware-the-great-reset-power-grab-by-billionaires/
David (again, no offence) – from everything you’ve ever said, I imagine that you tend towards trusting the Davos gang, but I’m suprised at you Steve. I’m also surprised by your second comment, I thought you understood the implications of climate change and biodiversity loss, and their connection with the size of the human economy. No-one, including Julia, knows the details that you mention. But if we don’t stabilise (which, granted, is unlikely, but our only hope), it’s looking quite grim.
15Steve Gwynne September 3rd, 2020
Dave. Of course I’m aware of the implications of climate change and biodiversity loss in relation to the size of the economy but I’m also trying to work out the implications of increasing social instability and increasing relative poverty in relation to a contracting economy and how a contracting major economy will ripple through the global system.
The latter needs to be addressed because that is probably going to be an enormous obstacle to overcome in order to sell degrowth, especially within the context of population growth. Ecological economists need to be working this out and informing the rest of us the likely hazards that will need to be navigated.
David. Yes I was aware of the LowGrow SFC (Stock Flow Consistent) economic modelling by the CUSP team. I’ll have to have a look at it in more detail and try to better understand the technicalities.
Dave. As I said I wasn’t supporting the Great Reset by posting that link. Just making people aware that the Davos crowd are copting the terminology. However as I’ve suggested before, I am of the view that the growth of global corporations is a direct product of human population growth, especially in terms of providing import dependancies for ecological debtor countries or resource poor countries. The extraction, processing and distribution of oil and oil derived products is obviously a classic example. As is rubber, sugar, spices, cotton, plastics, telecommunications, chemicals, smart technologies, vehicles etc etc. All these are provided by corporations who have the scale to operate globally.
How else would they be provided?
16Dave Darby September 3rd, 2020
Steve – well, we’re going to see over the next year or so I guess. There may be trouble ahead. But generally, no government is going to deliberately de-grow its economy anyway (I don’t tend to use the term degrowth, as it’s way too scary for most people), so I guess if it’s going to happen, it will happen organically as individuals, small businesses and communities use various coping mechanisms in response to economic depression. I’m not into blueprints, but we just have to go in that direction. As capitalism grew out of feudalism, there weren’t (I assume), smoke-filled rooms with discussions about what would replace feudalism, or what society would look like, or how it would get there. They just built stuff and attracted feudal resources in, until the momentum just pulled society in a certain direction. That’s what I’m banking on, and spending all my time trying to get rolling. No, that’s not fair – it is rolling. So many people are working hard on community energy, land co-ops, platform co-ops, community land trusts, csa schemes and so on – a many are succeeding. And it’s slowly seeping into communities and into people’s consciousnesses. I just wish we had as much time as during the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
The social instability and ecological breakdown is coming anyway – I can’t see a better way of dealing with it.
“How else would they be provided?” – well ideally oil wouldn’t be, it would stay in the ground. Every gallon burnt is another nail in our coffin. You could say something similar for sugar and plastics, and for cotton in the current fast-fashion, high-pesticide world.
Spices – https://www.lowimpact.org/how-we-got-olive-oil-from-a-small-farm-in-portugal-brought-over-in-a-sailboat-by-a-co-operative-based-in-brighton-and-how-you-can-do-the-same/ (now started to bring chocolate and coffee from Central America and the Caribbean).
Telecommunications – https://www.lowimpact.org/low-impact-the-city-12-switching-to-the-phone-co-op-do-it-today/
and hardware – https://www.lowimpact.org/co-operative-smartphones-are-coming-nithin-coca-interviews-the-chair-of-kdim-co-op/ (don’t even know if they’re still going – the point I’m trying to make is that it’s possible.)
Remember, the first capitalists were itinerant merchants and reviled Jewish money-lenders – really, really unlikely to take over the economy from a feudal perspective. And what’s the alternative now? Yes, those things are mainly provided by corporations at the moment, but that can’t continue, can it, because they’re wealth-concentrating machines that don’t allow us the democracy to prevent the quest for perpetual growth. Giant centralised institutions aren’t the only things that can have a global reach. Replicate and federate! (cf Credit Commons).
17Steve Gwynne September 6th, 2020
Thanks Dave. I certainly think there is scope for the infrastructures that have been created by capitalistic corporations to be reinvented along mutualistic lines. It would certainly be interesting if the Great Reset narrative deeply incorporated sociocracy for example. Even more substantial would be for corporations and even societies to be organised via sociocracy with ecocentric principles at their heart.
Having watched Bladerunner 2049 last night, let’s hope this happens sooner rather than later.
18David Calver September 8th, 2020
I don’t have all the answers to all the things you raise (eg addressing incumbent political and corporate power and influence). I nevertheless don’t think you have proved that capitalism cannot survive in a modified form that is planet friendly and operating within rules that create distributional justice. The Bounded Efficiency Space is one such potential mechanism for keeping capitalist businesses (for appropriate sectors where absolute decoupling is possible) within Kate Raworth’s doughnut. [other sectors would have to operate under even stricter government-enforced rules to limit material throughput]. Another is the use of governmental measures (eg taxation, Universal Basic Income, Universal Basic Services etc) to ensure distributional concentration and accumulation of wealth under “capitalism 1” is addressed and not repeated in “capitalism 2”. Capitalism 2 would ensure that the physical impacts of growth in capitalist businesses was within limits and that the accumulative aspects of capitalism were no longer an issue (becasue of distributional measures). Capitalism 2 would operate alongside all the other good things such as those you have suggested, and which you believe will transcend capitalism 1. Perhaps one of the few things we disagree on is that you think that, as well as capitalism 1, capitalism 2 will either not ever be allowed to come into effect, will not survive if it does, or cannot be operated within appropriate limits, and will, in turn, be transcended by something that could not be called capitalism at all?
19Dave Darby September 10th, 2020
David – I think I have. A C-M-C economy doesn’t have to perpetually grow. But an M-C-M’ economy – i.e. capitalism – does. Attempting to achieve perpetual GDP growth will destroy nature, which is, predictably, exactly what’s happening. Again, I’m not sure why you’re trying so hard to excuse / keep something so damaging. If you ‘modify’ the economy so that it’s not M-C-M’ any more, great – but that isn’t capitalism.
If we can’t agree on whether the link between wealth and power can be severed in capitalism (it can’t), then let’s just talk about promoting, building and supporting mutual credit clubs, community energy, CSA schemes, community land trusts, free software, housing coops, land coops etc. There’s not enough time to argue about whether to reform or replace capitalism. If the above says ‘reform’ to you, fine, you call it reform, I’ll call it replace. If you want to try anything else, I’ll judge it on how it helps or hinders building this kind of democratic, community-based economy. If you don’t like the idea of a community-based, democratic economy, or even if you want to stop it growing at some point, then that’s different – we’re not on the same team. But either way, I don’t think it’s productive to argue about ‘angels on the head of a pin’ stuff – let’s just build.
20Dave Darby September 10th, 2020
PS capitalism is not at all the same thing as a market economy.