The simpler life

Part Two of The Sufficiency Economy.

I do hope that you read Part One of The Sufficiency Economy published yesterday on Learning from Dogs.  There Dr. Alexander of the Simplicity Institute set out the obvious, well obvious if one reflects for even a few moments, as this small extract demonstrates:

…. precisely what consumer capitalism lacks – a purpose, a reason for existence. It is a means without an end, like a tool without a task. What makes this state of affairs all the more challenging is that the era of growth economics appears to be coming to a close, due to various financial, ecological, and energy constraints, and this is leaving growth-based economies without the very capacity for growth which defined them historically.

Before moving to part two, the global predicament, more about the Simplicity Institute, an organisation of which I had been unaware prior to a few days ago.  The Institute’s opening web page reads thus:

Given that the essential factor in our global predicament is overconsumption, the most obvious principle for a sustainable society is that those who are over-consuming must move to far more materially ‘simple’ lifestyles. This does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient to live well. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

The Simplicity Institute seeks to facilitate the rapid transition away from growth-based, consumer societies toward sustainable and more rewarding societies based on material sufficiency. We seek to understand what a society would look like if it were based on this ‘simpler’ way of living and how we might get there.

We are also developing networks of active collaboration between existing participants in the Simplicity Movement, in the hope of providing educational tools and resources to help mainstream the idea that ‘simpler lifestyles’ provide a high quality alternative to consumer capitalist society.

I would also encourage you to read about Their Mission and their Publications, one of which is the subject of this week’s postings. Finally, do offer your own experiences by completing their Simple Living Survey.

So on to Part Two where Dr. Alexander examines the global predicament facing all of us.

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THE SUFFICIENCY ECONOMY
ENVISIONING A PROSPEROUS WAY DOWN
Samuel Alexander
Simplicity Institute Report 12s, 2012

Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

2. The Global Predicament

If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst. –Thomas Hardy

Below I outline various social, ecological, economic, and energy-related problems, which together provide the background against which the sufficiency economy should be understood. Most people, including many environmentalists, seem to believe that Western-style lifestyles, and the growth economies that support them, can be sustained and even globalised, provided the world transitions to systems of renewable energy and produces commodities more cleanly and efficiently. This assumption is reflected especially clearly in international political discourse on environmental issues (e.g. UNDP, 2007/8), which consistently pushes the message that we can decouple economic growth from ecological impact, or even that we need more economic growth in order to fund environmental protection initiatives or otherwise save the planet (Beckerman, 2002). The following review casts considerable doubt on the possibility of any technological ‘fix’ to existing problems. Each of the problems, on their own, provides ground for radically rethinking the nature of existing economic structures and goals. When considered together, I believe the case for fundamental change is compelling.

2.1. Ecological Overshoot and the Limits of Technology

The ecological footprint of the global economy now exceeds the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet by 50%, and overall things continue to get worse (Global Footprint Network, 2012). Old growth forests continue to be cut down at alarming rates; fresh water is getting scarcer; fish stocks and biodiversity more generally continue to decline; top-soil continues to erode; the climate continues to change and become less stable; and overall the pollution and wastes from human economic activity continue to degrade the ecosystems upon which all life depends (see generally, Brown, 2011). While this is hardly news, the full implications of our predicament are typically grossly under-estimated. The mainstream view on how to achieve sustainability is to exploit science and technology in order to produce more cleanly and efficiently, thereby decoupling economic activity from its destructive environmental impacts. But despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, the overall impacts of economic activity continue to increase (Jackson, 2009: Ch 4). To be sure, human beings are getting better at producing commodities more cleanly and efficiently, but we are also producing more commodities, and it turns out that those production increases outweigh the efficiency gains in production, leading to an overall increase in the impacts of economic activity, not a decrease. Efficiency without sufficiency is lost. We must always remember that technology is a two-edged sword, in the sense that it provides us with tools both to protect and destroy the natural environment, and human beings are exploiting both forms enthusiastically, especially the latter. Technology might give us solar panels and electric cars, for example, but it also gives us the ability to cut down rainforests easily, empty the oceans, and drill for oil in thousands of feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.

Granted, technology never ceases to amaze, but the very awe it evokes seduces many into faithfully investing it with limitless powers. When we actually do the math, however, the impossibility of a technological fix to environmental problems becomes perfectly clear. If the developed nations were to grow their economies at a modest 2% over coming decades and by 2050 the poorest nations had caught up – which more or less seems to be the goal of ‘development’ – then by that stage the global economy, which is already in ecological overshoot, would be almost 15 times larger than it is today (Jackson, 2009: 81). This means, for example, that if we are to meet the moderate emissions targets of the IPCC (2007) then the carbon intensity of global economic output must be 130 times lower than it is today, requiring 11% reductions every year. Even with the unprecedented technological advances of recent decades, the efficiency improvements over the period 1990-2007 were merely 0.7% per year (Jackson, 2009: 79). These hard numbers ought to shatter the faith of techno-optimists. They show that it is delusional to think that technology alone is going to be able to solve the ecological crises we face, because the extent of absolute decoupling required is simply too great (Trainer, 2012a). Humanity must exploit appropriate technologies at every opportunity, of course, but first and foremost what is needed is a new mode of economy, one that recognises and accepts that growth-based, energy-intensive consumer societies are grossly unsustainable and certainly not universalisable.

2.2. Poverty amidst Plenty

The fact that the global economy is already in ecological overshoot is even more challenging when we bear in mind that in the poorest parts of the world today great multitudes are living lives oppressed by extreme poverty (World Bank, 2009). The global challenge, therefore, in terms of humanitarian justice and ecological sustainability, can be stated as follows: The human community must find a way to raise the material standards of living of the world’s poorest people – who surely have a right to develop their economic capacities in some form – while at the same time reducing humanity’s overall ecological footprint (Meadows et al, 2004: p. xv). What is clear is that the current ‘trickle down’ approach to poverty alleviation is neither working nor ecologically sustainable, as evidenced by a report from the New Economics Foundation (Woodard and Simms, 2006). This study shows that between 1990 and 2001, for every $100 of growth in the world’s average income per capita, merely $0.60 contributed to reducing poverty below the ‘$1 per day’ line. This means that to achieve $1 of poverty reduction at that ratio, an extra $166 of global production and consumption is required. Not only do these figures expose global growth as an extremely inefficient means of reducing poverty, it also implies that the amount of growth needed to alleviate poverty would be, without question, environmentally unsupportable. Accordingly, we must find a new path to poverty alleviation beyond the conventional ‘development’ agenda, one based on equitable distribution and new structures, not limitless growth.

2.3. Overpopulation

What exacerbates the ecological and humanitarian crises outlined above is the fact that, according to the United Nations, global human population is expected to exceed nine billion by mid-century and reach ten billion toward the end of the century (UNDSEA, 2011). Obviously, this will intensify greatly the already intense competition over access to the world’s limited natural resources and it will put even more pressure on Earth’s fragile ecosystems. It is of the utmost importance that population stabilises as soon as possible and is significantly reduced in some equitable manner. But we have known about the ‘population bomb’ for many decades and still it continues to explode, albeit at a slowing pace. We need either new strategies here or much greater commitment to existing strategies (and probably both). But even if humanity somehow managed to stabilise population at once and thereby avoid the expected increases, the global economy would nevertheless remain in gross ecological overshoot. The primary task, therefore – given we have the population we have – must be to reduce the ecological impact of our economic activity, partly by exploiting all appropriate technologies, and partly by stabilising and reducing population over time, but mainly by reimagining ‘the good life’ beyond consumer culture and learning how to step more lightly on the planet (Alexander, 2011a; 2009). This means giving up the destructive dream of ‘consumer affluence.’ The developed nations certainly cannot lecture the developing nations about how expanding populations are putting immense strain on Earth’s ecosystems while at the same time indulging in ever-higher levels of consumption. Accordingly, if the developed nations are serious about reducing global impact on the environment, as they claim they are, then before looking overseas they must first show the world that they are prepared to step more lightly themselves. Overpopulation is too easily used as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from the more fundamental problem of overconsumption.

2.4. The Fantasy of Limitless Economic Growth

Despite the fact that the global economy is already in dangerous ecological overshoot, every nation on the planet still aims to grow its economy, without apparent limit. Economic development of some form is still obviously required in the poorest parts of the world, as noted, simply in order to provide for basic needs. But if the poorest nations are to have any ‘ecological room’ to do so – especially when population growth is taken into account – it follows by force of logic that the overdeveloped rich nations should not continue growing their own economies. Indeed, sustainability demands that the richest nations initiate a process of planned economic contraction, or ‘degrowth’ (Alexander, 2012a), with the aim of eventually arriving at some ‘steady-state’ economy within ecological limits. This confronting logic has proven easy enough for the rich nations to ignore, but it is impossible to escape. Not only must the growth paradigm inevitably collide with biophysical reality, it is in fact in the process of doing so (Meadows et al, 2004).

Needless to say, however, there are no signs that the richest nations are prepared to give up the pursuit of growth, certainly not for reasons of global equity or ecological conservation. The great obstacle that lies in the way of a macroeconomics ‘beyond growth’ is the dominant ideology of growth economics that quite explicitly treats growth in GDP as the best measure of national progress and politico-economic competency (Purdey, 2010). In fact, the growth paradigm is so deeply entrenched in mainstream political discourse in the developed nations (and increasingly elsewhere) that it is hard to imagine any of the major political parties, whether on the Left or the Right, daring to pursue or even seriously contemplate a post-growth alternative. This arguably gives rise to an acute and disturbing contradiction: We must give up the pursuit of growth, but cannot.

Empire thus marches on.

2.5. Expensive Oil and other Energy Issues

Even if the world never chooses to question the growth paradigm – which seems the most likely scenario – the peaking of crude oil suggests that the era of global growth is coming to an end nevertheless (Heinberg, 2011; Rubin, 2012). While there is still debate about the exact timing of peak oil, it is now widely accepted that crude oil production, if it has not already peaked, will peak sometime in the foreseeable future, and then, after a corrugated plateau, enter terminal decline. Since oil demand is expected to keep on rising, however, the reduction of oil supply will inevitably lead to sharply increasing oil prices (Hirsch et al, 2010). This dynamic is already well underway, with the price of oil multiplying several times during the last decade or so. There are of course vast reserves of non-conventional oil still available in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela, and in the shale oil deposits in the United States and elsewhere, but these non-conventional reserves have a far lower energy return on investment (Murphy and Hall, 2011), making them much more expensive and slower to produce. Accordingly, the issue is not that human beings will ever run out of oil; the issue is that we have already run out of cheap oil.

This is hugely significant because oil is not just another commodity – it is the lifeblood of industrial civilisation. This is evidenced by the fact that the world currently consumes around 90 million barrels every day (IEA, 2010a). When the costs of oil increase significantly, this adds extra costs to transport, mechanised labour, plastics, and industrial food production, among many other things, and this pricing dynamic sucks discretionary expenditure and investment away from the rest of the economy, causing debt defaults, economic stagnation, recessions, or even longer-term depressions. That seems to be what we are seeing around the world today, with the risk of worse things to come (Tverberg, 2012a).

Moreover, as Ted Trainer (2012b) and others have argued, renewable energy, even if it were embraced whole-heartedly and on a global scale, would never be able to sustain the expansion of complex, energy-intensive consumer societies, especially with the global population growing. If this diagnosis is basically correct, it provides further grounds for thinking that the growth paradigm has no future. I hasten to add that this is not an argument against renewable energy. The climate science is very clear that we must abandon fossil fuels as far as possible and as soon as possible (e.g. Hansen et al, 2008). But the limitations of renewable energy do suggest that we cannot respond to climate change by embracing renewables and have a growth-based economy.

Furthermore, nuclear energy’s potential to provide the energy required to maintain growth economies is fiercely debated. What is beyond debate, however, is that nuclear energy also has a long list of limitations, time lags, dangers, and huge financial costs, and ever since Fukushima the prospects of a nuclear renaissance have looked very slim indeed. At best nuclear energy would only assist in decarbonising the economy to some extent, but it would not solve the myriad other ecological and social problems inherent to the growth paradigm, and could well exacerbate some of them. Accordingly, nuclear provides no escape from the limits to growth. What is needed is a transition to renewable energy systems, but this implies a civilisation with much lower social complexity, and with very different structures and non-affluent lifestyles. We cannot run an industrial civilisation on renewables, and an industrial civilisation powered by nuclear (if that is even feasible) remains unsustainable due its underlying growth imperative.

Whether the transition beyond growth occurs voluntarily or is imposed by force of biophysical limits remains to be seen. It scarcely needs remarking that a planned, voluntary transition would be the desired path (see Alexander, 2012b).

2.6. Economic Instability

Closely linked to the rising price of oil, but with some independent issues too, is the economic instability that has been plaguing the world economy in recent years. In the prosperous decades after World War II, developed nations especially became accustomed to consistently high levels of economic growth, and this gave them and their governments and inhabitants a false confidence that they could borrow vast amounts of money and rely on future growth to pay those debts back. In other words, the enormous national and private debts that have been taken on in recent decades were based on the assumption that future growth would be similar to growth in recent decades. But because there is such a close relationship between energy and economic growth, expensive oil is suffocating the debt-ridden global economy, just as it is trying to recover. Without systemic change or some debt ‘jubilee,’ the trillions of dollars of outstanding debt essentially ‘locks’ the world into continued growth. But as Michael Hudson (2012) states, ‘debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be,’ and the consequences of widespread debt defaults will not be good news.

Unfortunately, mainstream economists, including those in government, seem oblivious to the close relationship between energy, debt, and economy, and this means they are unable to see that expensive oil is one of the primary underlying causes of today’s economic instability. Consequently, they craft their intended solutions (e.g. stimulus packages, quantitative easing, low interest rates to encourage borrowing, etc) based on flawed, growth-based thinking, not recognising that the new economics of energy (Alexander, 2012c) means that the growth model, which assumes cheap energy inputs, is now dangerously out-dated. When growth-based economies do not grow, household, firms, and nations struggle to repay their debts, and quickly things begin to unravel in undesirable ways.

2.7 Consumer Malaise

Finally, what makes the problems outlined above all the more troubling is the fact that high consumption lifestyles, so often held up as the peak of human development, are in many cases engendering an unexpected discontent or malaise among those who live them (Lane, 2000; Pickett and Wilkinson, 2010). There is in fact a mounting body of sociological and psychological evidence (Kasser, 2002; Alexander, 2012d) indicating that lives orientated around achieving high levels of consumption often result in such things as time poverty, stress, physical and mental illness, wasteful status competition, loss of community, disconnection from nature, unhappiness, and even a sense of meaninglessness or alienation in life – to say nothing of the ecological impacts associated with consumer lifestyles.

This evidence, however, troubling though it is, arguably provides something of a silver lining to the admittedly grim situation outlined above (Jackson, 2005; Brown and Kasser, 2005). If high consumption lifestyles are not even a trustworthy path to personal well being, this raises the tantalising possibility that members of the global consumer class could live more fulfilling and meaningful lives by reducing their consumption, perhaps in exchange for more time, while at the same time reducing their ecological footprint, reducing their dependence on oil, and leaving more resources for those in greater need. Indeed, when considering the problems outlined above – especially when considering them together and their interrelatedness – it would seem that any effective response to our global predicament depends to a large extent on those overconsuming moving to far more materially ‘simple’ ways of life, with far lower energy requirements. This implies not merely huge lifestyle changes, but fundamental systemic change. Understandably, perhaps, this is not a message many people seem to want to hear, but I contend that the strength of the line of reasoning makes embracing some form of ‘sufficiency economy’ the most coherent response to the global predicament.

(The full set of references will be included in the concluding Part Five to be published on Friday.)

Part Three – Embracing Life After Growth (Before it Embraces Us) will be published on Learning from Dogs tomorrow.

16 thoughts on “The simpler life

  1. Only drastically new science will cut our way prosperously to survival. We need to direct our energy towards that.

    With all dues respect all the rest is baloney, or fluff at the margins. People do not realize how much we depend upon energy in this civilization, and how much energy means CO2 or nukes.

    Modulo giant public works (to store the energy) photovoltaics could work in some countries with new technology (Saudi Arabia) or enormous dams and power lines everywhere (in mountainous countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Japan, China, USA).

    Cutting down CO2 emissions radically would make transportation nearly impossible, and require the immediate evacuation of vast areas of the globe right away (because food could not reach them anymore). It would also require a crash nuclear program. Worldwide. Only nuclear can provide clean base energy, but it has some drawbacks, although fewer than dams-everywhere.

    The Simplicity Institute should become less simple. There are around 100 nuclear technologies possible, it’s too simple to focus on the 1950s Fukushima Uranium 235-Plutonium technology. By the way, the problem at Fukushima was the lack of back-ups, on top of a super giant 40 meters wave arriving at 100 kilometers per hours. Plants up the coast which had back-up generators had no problems.

    If the Simplicity Institute has never heard of U 233-Thorium technology its reptilian simplicity cannot help us mammals…
    PA

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    1. Patrice – Well done for pointing out the over-simplicity of dismissing nuclear power on the basis of Fukushima. Were it not for the fact that I have made this comment, I might have said you saved me the trouble of doing so myself…! 🙂

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    2. “…require the immediate evacuation of vast areas of the globe right away (because food could not reach them anymore).

      Todmorden.

      “…the problem at Fukushima was the lack of back-ups…

      2d: more generically, the problem with all projects is overconfident risk assessments.

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      1. I’m not sure what you mean, Patrice; perhaps I was trying to be too succint.

        Being able to say that one has completed a risk assessment is a good soundbite, but too many corners are cut, too often, when assessing risk, and, of course, one can assess a risk and then decide to accept it. Such decisions are taken all the time so as not to harm the bottom line. A risk can be considered “acceptable” and still end up causing a disaster. And of course there are risks that are dismissed out of hand as ‘too unlikely’, and others that are simply not considered at all (such as how to deal with coastally sited nuclear power stations that are threatened by unexpectedly high sea level rise in a time of social upheaval…).

        See for instance: Nuclear power: how we got into this mess:

        Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, US, March 1979: “… my principle concern is that we got an accident that we’ve never been designed to accommodate… this is a failure mode that’s never been studied.”

        Apologies for wandering off-topic.

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  2. dear Paul: You are too generous! The good Dr. Alexander may find me a bit too rough, a bit too complex, my roar may scare him… To aggrave my case, I am actually expanding my opinion in a little essay on my site…
    PA

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  3. Even though I have quite a good rapport with my Conservative MP, I suspect she has tired of my emails pointing out to her the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. I suspect all such comment is dismissed as ecosocialist propaganda… However, sadly, in reality, it is just mathematics:
    “If the developed nations… grow their economies at a modest 2% over coming decades and… the poorest nations [succeed in catching up by 2050]… the global economy… [will] be almost 15 times larger than it is today”

    Growthmnia does seem to be a very strong form of collective hypnosis amongst our politicians and, sadly, I think it will take more than the collapse of the EU for them to acknowledge they are deluding themselves (and most of the people they supposedly serve). It is hardly surprising, then, that I find it hard to contemplate going back to work (i.e. getting back on my hamster wheel) while almost everybody ignores the reality of our predicament.

    In terms that are reminiscent of Schalk Cloete’s recent comment on Climate Denial Crock of the Week, Dr Alexander provides the solution to the conundrum that has been troubling me: He too acknowledges that we have no way (neither renewables or nuclear) to power anticipated economic or population growth growth but says that we must also get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible… His solution is not just energy efficiency or even self-sufficiency (i.e. independence) – it is far more radical. What scares me, however, is that this too is impossible: in 1968, Garrett Hardin (Tragedy of the Commons) said that solving the problem would require mutual restraint to be exercised by all of us, but this is never going to happen. Therefore, I think I know how the story will end… Humanity will refuse to change and therefore William Ophuls will be proven correct – If we fail to heed the warning signs, like an aeroplane landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is brought to rest by a steel cable, nature will intervene (to re-establish a balance between supply and demand).

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    1. Martin, what a long and thoughtful reply. In my darker moments, I sense these are, indeed, the last decades of humanities long run on Planet Earth. But, then again, I never forget the power of the ‘law’ of unintended consequences! Higher sea levels threatening New York might focus some minds. Paul

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      1. Indeed it already appears to have done so – was it the Governors of NY and NJ that both said Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call to all those in denial…?

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  4. “To be sure, human beings are getting better at producing commodities more cleanly and efficiently, but we are also producing more commodities, and it turns out that those production increases outweigh the efficiency gains in production, leading to an overall increase in the impacts of economic activity, not a decrease.”

    The Jevons paradox is still just as valid now as it ever was. And most who should know better are still in denial of it.

    “While there is still debate about the exact timing of peak oil… “

    That’s news to me. Someone should tell the the International Energy Agency (IEA) this, too. In November 2010, the IEA finally acknowledged that production of conventional crude oil peaked — in 2006. According to Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA):

    “It would have been better if governments had started to work on this at least ten years ago.”

    (See Risk Creep + Peak Oil = Big Trouble.)

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    1. Indeed. Peak Oil happened. Lots of problems since. People do not realize that fracking is a new form of CO2 energy, much more costly and dangerous than nuclear it will prove to be.

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