Citizen Action Monitor

Bill Rees’ Degrowth Vision – Planned descent toward socially just sustainability for all: Part 4

Degrowth, a steady-state solution is not new; it’s been around for at least 150 years. So, if we’re so smart, why hasn’t it penetrated the public policy domain?

No 1553 Posted by fw, December 31, 2015

“But worse, this is the new age of unreason. We have entered the Age of Endarkenment. A period – seriously – of deliberate misinformation to disabuse people of the idea that we have a problem. Hundreds if millions of dollars are being spent – have been spent – and tens of millions more every year to deny climate, to deny evolution, to deny science. Our own government in Ottawa, shutting down libraries, muzzling scientists, firing half the scientific capacities of our major science departments. It’s insane that we put up with it. Remember, where’s that high intelligence? And yet we’ll vote the buggers in next time if we’re not smart.”William Rees

In Part 3 of 4, William Rees, ecological economist, Coordinator of Ecological Footprint Analysis, declares that rejecting degrowth in favour of continuing on a business as usual path will ultimately lead to accelerating climate change, ecological degradation and uneconomic growth, which he defines as growth in which the damage costs exceed the benefits. The damage costs of extreme climate change will be our undoing. The numbers don’t lie: the planet is warming; hot weather events are increasing along with greenhouse gas emissions. Climate scientists are beginning to panic, alarmed by their findings: we’re on track for 4°C of warming, which would be absolutely catastrophic. Two distinguished climate scientists are now arguing that degrowth – a planned economic recession – is a fast, safe way to reduce emissions. Even the World Bank has issued a stark warning – We’re in deep trouble. We should be worried — Rich and powerful elites make the decisions, the rest of us have no voice.

In this, Part 4, the final post of this series, despite repeated warnings, Rees laments that humans have stepped up their use of fossil fuels. If the upward trends in global energy growth continue, there’s no hope for us. Even huge gains for true renewables will fall far short of what we need to just 6% of the global energy budget by 2030. They’re simply not in the cards, says Rees. Moreover, we can expect diminishing returns in fossil fuel exploration and production. Regardless, one way or another we have to get out of fossil fuels. Forced degrowth may be our only option. The steady-state solution is not new; it’s been around for at least 150 years. So why hasn’t it penetrated the public policy domain? In Rees’ view, humans hate change so much that political and corporate propagandists have had little difficulty in socially engineering us to ignore reality. It appears we have entered into an Age of Endarkenment in which truth no longer matters much. We have been had. We are left with two options: Business as usual, which ends in societal collapse, OR Degrowth, a well-planned, orderly, cooperative descent toward a socially just, sustainability for all. What will it be, ladies and gentlemen?

Below is an embedded 35-minute video of Rees’ talk, Why Degrowth, along with my transcript featuring added subheadings. Although my transcript excludes 6 text boxes shown in the video, it includes the passages in which Rees reads from or paraphrases the text box content. The transcript covers the final 9:48-minute segment of Rees’ talk, beginning at the 25:47-minute mark, ending at 35:35 minutes.

Alternatively, click on the following linked title to access the host website, Rees’ video, and two other related videos. There is no transcript available at this site.

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Why degrowth? Dialogue on pathways towards a smaller economy, by William Rees, 2014 The Extraenvironmentalist / Vancouver Degrowth Live Event Series, April 16, 2014

The Video: Why Degrowth

TRANSCRIPT (Start 25:47 – End 35:35)

Fig. 8

Fossil fuel growth

Despite the warnings, we show no hesitation in continuing our use of fossil fuels

Despite all of these warnings, despite the World Bank report, despite, despite, despite, this is the pattern of use of fossil fuels. It’s a continuous upward trend. And we show no hesitation whatsoever of continuing in our use of fossil fuels. Just look at BC and Canada as perfect examples of economies promoting the exploitation and development of fossil fuels. The Kyoto Protocol which was one of the great signal treaties to reverse this trend – there’s no obvious effect of its ever having been implemented.

Fig. 9

Global energy by fuel type

If the upward trends in global energy growth continue, “there’s no hope”

Moreover, most authorities come up with curves like this when talking about the energy future. This is going out to 2030, at which point, by the way, western countries should be down to about 50 to 70% reductions in fossil fuel use. But what everybody’s expecting is that we will have increased continuously through that whole period.

Despite the hype about huge gains for true renewables, they are expected to be only 5-6% of the energy budget by 2030

Despite everything you hear about solar and wind power making huge gains in the markets in this country or that country or some other place, the reality is that in the aggregate – excluding hydro for the time being – in the aggregate, alternative and renewable energies, about two and a half percent of the global energy budget scheduled to be maybe 5 or 6% by 2030, as the fossil fuels continue to increase. Hydro will play about an equivalent part. So, only 12% will be truly renewable energy if we stay on the business as usual track. So renewables, including hydro reach 6% of market share by 2030, up from 2% a couple of years ago. So there’s no hope if that’s the trending for true alternatives.

There’s another reason for not being very hopeful, diminishing returns in fossil fuel exploration and production

Fig. 10

diminishing returns

There’s another reason for not being very hopeful about this, and that is the diminishing returns. Remember I said this was one of the primary signals of systemic collapse. Here are curves for the three largest oil companies on the planet, among the three – Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and Chevron. The orange lines show the expenditures on exploration for new deposits of oil. The blue lines show the production. So despite trillions of dollars in expenditures, production is in decline.

In other words, we’re not finding anything. This is an example of uneconomic activity in the sense that the costs aren’t being even paid of by the benefits of those activities.

(28:16 text box omitted)

One way or the other, we have to get out of fossil fuels

Here’s quotes [in 2013] by Richard Miller, a BP geologist a couple of months ago:

  • New discoveries have not matched consumption since 1986;
  • Better technology raises the amount we can recover, but conventional production is still declining at 4%, some say 6%, per year;
  • Thirty-seven countries are post-peak, oil producing countries;
  • We need new production equal to a new Saudi Arabia, still the largest, every 3 or 4 years just to maintain pace with the decline.

So, one way or the other, we have to get out of fossil fuels. It may be because we’re going to be beaten back by climate change. It may be because we simply can’t handle it.

And the same is true for key industrial minerals

Fig. 11

minerals

And it’s not just fossil fuels. The same is true in most other areas, of critical minerals essential for the maintenance of industrial society. These again are curves produced by one of the largest mining companies on the planet, BHP Billiton. And we see the green representing investment, and the yellow and blue bars representing discoveries. And you can see there’s been no discoveries in recent time we’re talking about.

(29:30 text box omitted)

From Fig. 9, renewable alternatives are simply not in the cards

So, renewable alternatives are simply not in the cards.

Any practical substitute for petroleum in key uses must be cheap, abundant, increasingly affordable, transformable into a liquid fuel similar to oil and non-polluting. Most are not, they produce electricity. Most of our activities don’t involve electricity. Electricity is 18% of our energy budget, the rest is fossil fuel.

Any form of – here’s the kicker – any form of renewable energy must be able to produce itself, in other words produce all the equipment needed to produce that renewable energy, plus provide the surplus necessary to run society; and when you put it all together, today, we’ve just passed the point where all the renewable energies in the aggregate are barely producing enough energy to produce the equipment that are used to produce that energy; there’s no surplus to keep the rest of society going.

So in the aggregate, we’re not anywhere near the point where we can think of replacing fossil fuels.

Fig. 10

Forced degrowth

We may have seen the end of growth whether we like it or not — Forced degrowth may be our only option —

In which case, this may be the future scenario. Not a continuous increase, but in fact a peaking and decline beginning about now. And in fact, the economy is in an undulating plateau. And it’s because energy production is in an undulating plateau. And every time the economy starts to tick up, energy consumption goes up, so costs go up and suppresses the economy again. We may have seen the end of growth whether we like it or not. So the question is: Are we going to go into a planned degrowth or something else?

(31:00 text box omitted)

Now, in theory we can manage this. And I’ve already mentioned these unique qualities of human beings: high intelligence, capability to plan ahead, to exercise moral judgment, and so on and so forth.

(31:12 text box omitted)

We’re not using ideas that came out 150 years ago

But we’re not anywhere near using even ideas that came out 150 years ago with John Stuart Mill who talked about the stationary state economy. He hoped that we’d reach the point very soon – and this is going back to the middle of the 19th century – at which no further growth would be necessary because people would have sufficiency to simply enjoy life. What’s the point of going beyond that? He even made an ecological connection. He saw further growth as destroying the beauty of the planet, the ecological basis of existence. A 150 years ago when the economy was a fraction of what it is today, 10% or less I would imagine.

(31:58 text box omitted)

So, the problem is that all our contemporary variants – the steady state economy, the de-growth initiative, the kind of language we’re using is already a 150 years old. And yet it penetrates nowhere into the public policy domain.

There’s been no action on the degrowth front because humans don’t like to change

Why no action? Well, I love this cartoon.

Fig. 11

Im with stupid

Humans are spatial and temporal ‘discounters’, — Those are my words but the cartoon is perfect, okay — We favour the here and now over other places and future generations. We’re behaviourally conservative. We don’t like to change when we’re in comfortable positions.

There’s good neuropsychological and cognitive reasons for this we haven’t got time to get into.

We have entered the Age of Endarkenment in which truth has ceased to matter very much

But worse, this is the new age of unreason. We have entered the 21st Century Endarkenment. A period – seriously – of deliberate misinformation to disabuse people of the idea that we have a problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent – have been spent – and tens of millions more every year to deny climate, to deny evolution, to deny science. Our own government in Ottawa, shutting down libraries, muzzling scientists, firing half the scientific capacities of our major science departments. It’s insane that we put up with it. Remember, where’s that high intelligence? And yet we’ll vote the buggers in next time if we’re not smart.

Nobody likes to hear me talk like this.

Human beings are programmed to prefer and act upon a reassuring lie rather than to understand the inconvenient truth.

Here’s another brilliant cartoon.

Fig. 12

Reassuring lie

Human beings are programmed, programmed to prefer and act upon a reassuring lie rather than to understand the inconvenient truth.

I hope much of what I’m talking about is penetrating and I hope it’s true. I mean I may be wrong, but I don’t think so based on the material evidence out there. So we need to act on that.

(33:40 text box omitted)

Here’s the choice: Business as usual or degrowth – What’s your choice?

So the bottom line is really quite simple –

In coming years, — listen to this – in coming years, the human enterprise will likely contract. We’re already, perhaps, in that plateau leading to contraction.

But as an intelligent, forward-looking, plan-capable, moral species, we can – theoretically, understanding something of our own behaviour — choose between:

Business as usual – that’s what our governments are urging us to do — which would risk, in my view, a chaotic implosion of the economy, imposed by nature: dramatic climate change; collapses of ecosystems, which we’re seeing one by one, bit by bit around the planet, cod stocks are just one example – or economic upheaval followed by geopolitical turmoil and resource wars.

If we actually run out of fossil fuels, and were in a competitive scramble for the last mineral deposits – China’s already embargoing the exports of key industrial minerals. If this reaches a critical point, we will see the chaotic implosion of global geopolitics to the point where any reasonable approach to this problem becomes impossible.

The option is degrowth. A well-planned, orderly, cooperative descent toward a socially just, sustainability for all. A recent study, just two weeks ago was published, partly funded by NASA, became very controversial – NASA actually had nothing to do with it, they did fund the study, — it’s on the collapse and the likelihood of collapse of our current society. They concluded – “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.” [Source: Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’? by Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian, March 14, 2014.

That’s almost a mock-up of the definition of degrowth that I talked about right at the outset.

So that’s the situation as I see it.

***** END OF PART 4, END OF SERIES *****

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