Whole earth vision

20Jan10

This started as a response to Peter Madden’s blog post on Stewart Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline. But it grew into a blog post of its own.

I haven’t read the book yet, but I think Brand is probably on the right track. In the end it is not good intentions, visions or values that count, but whether we are going far enough and fast enough at transforming economies towards clean, green prosperity before we slam up against nature’s buffers. It’s the numbers.

Climate change is not the only issue, but it is an important and pressing one. To get anywhere near a sustainable emissions pathway and defend the ‘status quo’ (in terms of growing global prosperity) we have to be able to get ten times more value out of every tonne of carbon we emit by 2050. If not, we would have to accept a major drop in lifestyle in developed countries and stagnation everywhere else. Or as the Mckinsey Global Institute calculates we would have to make a daily choice on our carbon budget between a 40 kilometer car ride, a day of air conditioning, two T-shirts from a local store OR two meals.

So yes we have to focus on the numbers and do what works. Anything else is  feel-good futility. As David Macay says in Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air ‘every BIG helps’.

I think we need to find ways to tell this story in ways that are not dispiriting, but doesn’t settle on a complacent message of ‘don’t worry, technology will sort it out’. We need to worry. We need to invent, and invest, and think differently, and do differently, and organise differently. And we need to do it in ways that add up.

As for vision, I don’t think we should ever forget that the ‘status quo’ is extraordinary. The freedoms and choices, comfort, security, abundant food, education and health we enjoy are an exception from the norm that has prevailed for most of human history (and still does for many). The ‘get out of jail free’ card from short, hard lives where you bury as many children as you raise, came at the cost of burning fossil fuels, and through generations of human ingenuity to harness that power.

Isn’t completely transforming the basis for that prosperity, vision enough?



3 Responses to “Whole earth vision”

  1. Maya, I saw Stewart Brand speak last night at the RSA about his new book. He’s been a hero of mine for many years. I am sure he is right about this one, too. I was convinced a few years ago already that nuclear power had to play a big role in climate stabilization – already then, the numbers didn’t otherwise add up. Brand’s big argument is that we need to stop being suspicious of technology, not only because it can in many respects do mountains of good for the least suffering in exchange, but because we actually don’t have any choice. Another strain of his argument – which I think is completely correct – is that the high-minded, romanticized moralism that environmentalists are known for doesn’t really do anyone any good. We should be in favor of cheap, wildly abundant green energy that the world could afford to squander, and not insist that denial and conservation are morally better for their own sake. Amory Lovins always used to say that the bottom line for Americans (and probably most of us, come to that) is “hot showers and cold beer”. We need to recognize that not only won’t we give ours up, the rest of the world wants theirs, too.

  2. Re: “The freedoms and choices, comfort, security, abundant food, education and health we enjoy are an exception from the norm that has prevailed for most of human history (and still does for many)” – I disagree; it’s something ONLY the rich have had access to, and mainly only since we found ‘cheap’ fossil fuels.

  3. 3 Maya

    Hi Green Muslima,

    I am not sure we disagree at all.

    When I said ‘we’ here I meant it to mean people with enough education, free time and computer literacy to be reading my blog. These folks, who in general can turn on the lights with a flick of a switch, get clean running water just by turning the tap, and flush the loo, are certainly rich, in historical terms, and compared to much of the world, but I am not sure they fit the description ‘The Rich’ as most people would think of it?

    As I said the ‘get out of jail free’ cards that we, the rich, for want of a better word, have used to escape from short hard lives (the freedom from subsistence agriculture, the ease of transportation, the modern homes and electricity, the luxury to spend upwards of ten years of our lives in education, the medicines etc….) have all come at the cost of burning fossil fuels.


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