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Sustainability with Prosperity: Part 1 The Need

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This is the first of two collections of website entries or posts on one of the key challenges of the century: sustainability with prosperity. The first part will look at the needs for change and the second on ways forward for the future: innovative solutions and different ways of seeing and doing things, different goals – and the processes of innovation, learning and change in society.

For example, the need to attend to:                                                                                         How the way we use materials and generate energy in our economy affects all life systems on our planet, on which we depend,                                                                           How can we use limited resources more effectively and                                                     How we can meet everyone’s basic needs and ensure equal opportunity for there to be stable and healthy societies.

I will address such questions as:

What does it mean to live sustainably within our natural environment in the 21st century? What do we need to change in both our understanding and behaviour and why? How are we to achieve sustainability with prosperity and at the same time maintain and improve the quality of life for all? 

Our technology is now very powerful in its effects on nature and each other, our population continues to grow, and what happens in any one country can affect others across the globe much more than before. Is there a need for greater collaboration and synergy:                                                                                                                        Between us and nature – the living systems of which we are a part, and                  Between us, richer and poorer, within and between societies

Does this mean a new kind of economy and technology? A fundamental change in the way we see and do things, and in how we identify our needs and get them met – a change in our culture and mentality?

Are these changes to co-exist with a changing capitalism?

Has social evolution towards another kind of economic and socio-cultural system started? How far is there a shared felt need for a change and what are the signs of it?

How much do we need to change, how can we make this attractive and possible, and how can technology help?

Does economics need to be a multidisciplinary subject covering all natural and social sciences?

Part 1: Forces for change, felt needs and challenges in adapting to them        

1. Destruction of our Habitat

Human activities are now causing dangerous damage to the earth’s living systems and the sphere of life (biosphere) on which we depend – on land, in water and in the atmosphere: “ravaging” them as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and recently President of the Royal Society, put it.

Martin Rees

Martin Rees

This is now called the anthropocene period due the impact we are having. As E. O. Wilson puts it: us humans have “palaeolithic emotions” (i.e. useful as hunter-gatherers), institutions that can bring out the worst in people (“evil” as he calls them) and “God-like power”. Gregory Bateson wrote around 40 years ago: the power of our technology demands an equal sense of responsibility towards our habitat and that Darwin should have given his book (Survival of Species) the title of “survival of species and habitat”.

We run the risk of causing irreversible serious damage to our habitat and its ecosystems in four key areas:

(1) Global climate change                                                                                                          Virtually all climate scientists agree now that we are fast approaching a point of irreversible temperature increase, and that this is largely due to human activity, population growth and the nature of our technology. Rising temperatures can cause extreme weather conditions leading to drought and flooding that can affect food production, and in turn cause death, disease, mass migration and extinction of many plant and animal species. It can damage or destroy oceans, rain forests and soil. For the effects of temperature increases at each stage up to six degrees and how the effects accelerate see the book by Mark Lynas . It received the Royal Society Prize in 2008. For a summary see the effects of climate change by degree of temperature increase see this six page PDF .

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

James Lovelock  proposed in the 1960’s that the living and non-living parts of the Earth form a complex interacting system, and that the living parts, the biosphere, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment that acts to sustain life. Refinements of this hypothesis resulted in the ideas framed by it being used in fields such as Earth system science,  biogeochemistry, systems ecology, and the emerging subject of geophysiology.

He has argued that the lack of respect humans have had for the biosphere, through the damage done to rainforests and the reduction in planetary biodiversity, is testing the earth system’s capacity to minimize the effects of the addition of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that give rise to global warming. This in turn warms the oceans, which prevents the rise of oceanic nutrients into the surface waters and eliminates the algal blooms of phytoplankton on which oceanic food chains depend. The phytoplankton and forests are the main ways in which the interacting system draws down greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, to take it out of the atmosphere. This eliminates the planet’s negative feedbacks and increases the likelihood of homeostatic positive feedback potential associated with runaway global warming. Predictions about this, initially extreme from Lovelock, are uncertain as the systems involved are complex. For more on the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating increase in global temperatures see the work of David Wasdell in videos here: first an explanation and introduction to a new study and then an update .  And further updates on his own website.

David Wasdell

David Wasdell

There is hope that we can keep the rise to 2.7C by 2100 following the 2015 Global Climate Change conference if the intended nationally determined contributions of 146 countries accounting for 90% of emissions are adhered to, and a five year review process agreed for ratcheting up to nearer the 2% limit considered to be safe by scientists. But there is much doubt about this due to the uncertainties in predicting the accelerating effects.

Sceptics remain and vested interests are fighting to maintain the technologies that

Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett

emit carbon. But in many ways the tide is turning around climate change at lease (see “The winning of the carbon war by Jeremy Leggett, and his e-mail summaries and commentaries on the Great Transition drama.

Lord Martin Rees sees the debate now to be about the ethics around our obligations to future generations more than about climate change itself. For more on his views see the TED talk .  He calls for the commitment of scientists, engineers, economists and all disciplines, of politicians and the general public – a commitment similar to putting a man on moon in the 1960’s, but from all countries, The Global Apollo Program as it is now called. This needs to attend to both stopping putting so much carbon and other greenhouse gases into the air and to taking carbon out of the air through carbon sinks and other methods that mimic nature. We will watch for updates on progress on this.

(2) Extinction of plant and animal species and loss of biodiversity There does not seem to be sufficient awareness and appreciation of the implications and importance of this for us: the quality of our life is linked to that of all living species – see the work

Kathy Willis

Kathy Willis

of Kathy Willis Professor of Biodiversity at Oxford University  and Director of Science at Kew Gardens, UK, where she has initiated the Kew World Report . All species (microorganisms, plants and animals) within ecosystems have a function and some are more key than others for the survival of the system as a whole, due to the interdependencies between them. Extinction rates of plants and animals are rising (destruction of their habitats through other uses of the land being a prime cause), and there could be mass extinction in the biosphere – which, as the Nobel prize winning scientist E. O. Wilson put it, future generations will least forgive us for. For the urgency of the situation see the iBooks on Life on Earth free to download from his Biodiversity Foundation

(3) Pollution Limits to maintain the Resilience of Ecosystems                                         The most intractable wastes are nuclear wastes, hazardous wastes (like human synthesized chemicals), and greenhouse gases (such as CO2 and methane). They are chemically the hardest to sequester or detoxify, and economically and politically the most difficult to regulate. A recent report by the Stockholm Resilience Centre highlights the high risk of the biogeochemical flows of phosphorous and nitrogen, pesticides and fertilisers alongside changes in land use and the loss of genetic biodiversity, and the increasing risks of climate change (including 1 and 2 above). See a report and TED talk on all the nine planetary boundaries, or safe limits to keep within, to maintain the resilience of our ecosystems. 

(4) Demands on our Planets Resources and Ecosystems: the Limits to Growth – An integrative model

We are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. For a video interview with Peter Jones on this website go to.

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows

Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome published the Limits to growth in 1972 and then Beyond the limits in 1992 when we had in many areas “overshot” our limits or expanded our demands on the planet’s resources and sinks through exponential growth in population and industrial production or output per capita, beyond what could be sustained over time; our “ecological footprint” had moved beyond the “carrying capacity” of one earth. The model integrates climate change, pollution the loss of biodiversity and habitat and the degradation of soil and oceans, population growth, poverty and inequality, linking to sections 1, 2 and 3 above and to 5, 6 and 7 below.

The Limits to Growth study and its updates used the theory of systems dynamics developed at Jay W. Forrester’s Institute at MIT to create a model. The model (World3) focuses on key factors or variables that have the greatest effect. It keeps track of stocks such as population, industrial capital, persistent pollution, and cultivated land. In the model those stocks change through flows affecting these such as births and deaths; investment and depreciation; pollution generation and assimilation; land erosion, use and development. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behaviour and the outcome of various scenarios. For example, as more land is made arable, what’s left is drier, or steeper, or has thinner soils. The cost of coping with these problems dramatically raises the cost of developing the land—a nonlinear relationship.

For more than a century, the world has been experiencing exponential growth in a number of areas, including population and industrial production. Positive feedback loops can reinforce and sustain exponential growth, and shorten the doubling time. From 1930 to 2000, the money value of world industrial output per capita grew by a factor of 14—an average doubling time of 19 years.

The model was used to create different future scenarios based on different amounts of resources available, different levels of agricultural productivity, birth control and environmental protection. The authors developed the model to understand the broad sweep of the future – how the expanding global population and materials economy would interact with and adapt to the earth’s limited carrying capacity over coming decades – not to make predictions. But the energy economist Matthew Simmons wrote (around 04), “The most amazing aspect of the book is how accurate many of the basic trend extrapolations … still were some 30 years later.”

In the scenarios only drastic measures for environmental protection proved to be suitable to change the systems behaviour, and only under these circumstances could scenarios be calculated in which both world population and wealth could remain at a constant level.

It has been “business as usual” from 1970 to 2010 with both the population and the economy growing and so we moved into overshoot by 1990. It was expected that delays in human and institutional decision making would lead to overshoot. Delays or mistakes in perceptions and in responses to try and keep the system within its limits can arise from inattention, faulty data, a false theory about how the system responds, deliberate efforts to mislead, or from the momentum that prevents the system from being stopped quickly.

To overshoot means to go too far, to grow so large so quickly that limits are exceeded, where we are drawing on the world’s resources faster than they can be restored, and we are releasing wastes and pollutants faster than the Earth can absorb them or render them harmless. When an overshoot occurs, it induces stresses that begin to slow and stop growth. Most scenarios resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. In 2004 in the 30 Year Updatethe authors concluded that humanity is dangerously in a state of overshoot.

There have been changes and developments in technology but technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability.

If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimise for short-term gain. In short, society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.

While there is more awareness and there are new technologies and institutions, there is no fundamental change yet in our obsession with economic growth as material turnover.

Click here for a little more on this extract and to read full synopsis online or to download as a PDF.

A useful and clear short video summary of the 2004 update of the Limits to Growth explains the basic concepts and the conclusions and corrects misunderstandings or misrepresentations. See the Club of Rome website where you can also find its reports and current projects.

2. Growth in Population

Population growth together with increasing industrial output are key drivers of the problems caused by making excessive demands on our ecosystems for food and resources, creating more waste and pollution than can be handled, taking too much land for habitation or production and, by more greenhouse gas emissions, increasing global temperature to a level that threatens life on land and in the oceans, and makes whole areas uninhabitable and dead. Population growth can give rise to many other challenges too: poverty, lack of healthcare, rising unrest and crime. See the website Population Matters.

David Attenborough

David Attenborough

Jorgen Randers

Jorgen Randers

This is supported by David Attenborough , the English broadcaster and naturalist and Jorgen Randers, one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth. 

In 1650, the world’s population had a doubling time (100% increase) of 240 years. By 1900, the doubling time was 100 years. The world population increased as countries began to industrialise from 1750 on, and dramatically so in the 20th century, due to medical advances and agricultural productivity. When The Limits to Growth was published in 1972, there were under 4bn (billion) people in the world, doubling in 47 years – much faster. There were more than 6bn in 2000, approximately ten times as many people on Earth as there had been in 1700. In 2015 there are now 7.3bn and current forecasts are around 9.5bn by 2050, and between 9.6bn and 12.3bn by 2100, 40 – 75% higher than 2015 – hopefully not more than 10.95 billion (3.9 billion or 50% higher than 2015, a growth rate of 0.59%). The annual global growth rate (percent growth over a period divided by number of years) peaked at 2.2% in 1963, and has declined to 1.14 in 2000 and 1.08% in 2015. If the global population in the last half of this century increases by 1.5bn then the annual rate over those 50 years will be 0.36%.

The decline in population growth rate is due to the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. For the stages countries go through, and variations, go to.

While the decline in population growth rate is forecast to continue for this century it will not down to near zero; population is likely to be still increasing according to the latest projections, as growth remains high in Latin America, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

How far and when all countries reach the stage where birth and death rates are in balance and the rate of population growth goes back to where it was in agrarian economies, 0.5% a year is uncertain, and unlikely in this century. Hopefully though fertility rates will come down to a global average nearer to 2 per woman in the population.

3. Poverty and the Difference between Rich and Poor

(1) Extreme Poverty and The Gap between Rich and Poor Countries

In 1800 poverty evenly distributed across world, then the gap grew between developing and other economies. This gap is closing as China, India and now the more peaceful African economies have been developing over the last 30 years. South Korea invested in improved child mortality and human conditions and then economic growth. This has shown to be one of the shortest routes.

The UN Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 set a target of reducing the extreme poverty rate in half by 2015, a goal that was met 5 years ahead of schedule in 2010; that year the World Bank estimated that around 1.29 billion people (18.4% of the world population then) lived in extreme poverty, as measured by subsisting on less than US$1.25 per day at 2005 prices. On September 23, 2015 the UK-based Financial Times reported that the World Bank intends to revise its income-based benchmark upward, to $1.90 a day. As a result, poverty numbers are likely to swell, according to that paper.

But income alone can be a misleading indicator of poverty. The 2010 Human Development Report introduced the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which measures not only income, but also basic needs. Using this tool, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that roughly 1.5 billion people remained in extreme poverty as opposed to the conventional figure of 1.2 billion. As this figure is considered more “holistic,” it may shed new light on relative deprivation within a country. For example, in Ethiopia, 39% of the population is considered extremely poor under conventional measures, but 90% are in multidimensional poverty.

Another version of the MPI, known as the Alkire-Foster Method, created by Sabina Alkire and James Foster of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI), can be broken down to reflect both the incidence and the intensity of poverty. This tool is useful as development officials, using the “M0 measure” of the method (which is calculated by multiplying “the proportion of people who are poor by the percentage of dimensions in which they are deprived”), can determine the most likely causes of poverty within a region

Regional differences are key as this reduction in extreme poverty over 20 years since 1990 took place most notably in China, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. In other countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, extreme poverty increased between 2005 and 2011.

It seems unlikely that extreme poverty will reach “global zero” (reduced to 3%) of the population by 2030 as the UN and World Bank target suggests. Many think that the global reduction will slow down, especially in Africa, so that it will take five decades to reach this level. The most pessimist predictions over the next 20 years estimates is that 660 million will be still in extreme poverty in 2035. For a more optimistic view see:

Prof Hans Rosling, professor at the Open University. “Don’t Panic: How to end poverty in 15yrs” shown on BBC2 11 Oct 2015.  See also the Open University website .

There are a variety of factors that may reinforce or instigate the existence of extreme poverty, such as weak institutions, cycles of violence and a low level of growth. Recent World Bank research shows that some countries can get caught in a “fragility trap,” in which the above factors prevent the poorest nations from emerging from low-level equilibrium in the long run. Moreover, most of the reduction in extreme poverty over the past twenty years has taken place in countries that have not experienced a civil conflict or have had governing institutions with a strong capacity to actually govern. Thus, to end extreme poverty, it is also important to focus on the interrelated problems of fragility and conflict, which the UN recognises. At the same time ending extreme poverty is an investment as it can prevent conflict and war.

In 2013 The UN published a report by a “high level panel” on post-2015 goals. It stated: “Ending extreme poverty is just the beginning, not the end. It is vital, but our vision must be broader: to start countries on the path of sustainable development.”

Moving out of extreme poverty means families on average have two rather than five children independent of culture and religion which helps to address the issue of population growth. To attend to environmental sustainability countries need to reach higher levels of economic development

(2) Country Differences in Living Standards and Global Co-operation for Environmental Sustainability            

Poor countries naturally seek to address poverty and to achieve the standard of living of the rich countries. This they feel needs to be addressed first before playing their part in addressing the environmental problems of climate change, and depletion of resources and biodiversity. In Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs survival comes first before attending to the needs of future generations and the wider living systems of which we are a part and on which we depend.

They seek compensation for the suffering and costs arising from the environmental effects of the technologies for development used by the richer nations, such as climate change and increases in global temperatures as well as more localised effects on ecosystems, livelihoods and communities resulting from the actions of multinational corporations.

But they also seek at the same the same economic development using these very same technologies that cause such damage to our shared global environment, and so damage to us all, alongside those that are more eco-friendly, such as renewable energy generation. India plans in 2015 to build a new coal power station each month (extracting and burning 1bn tonnes a year) to achieve its goal of 8% growth in GDP, while carbon capture technology is still undeveloped – following the example of China. They aim to eradicate extreme poverty and need to cope with nearly 400m more people over the next few decades. “You did it – it is our right to do the same – you cut your emissions first”.

In the Brandt report in 1980 it was clearly stated that environmental and social sustainability go together.

Rich and poor countries with high and low levels of emissions per person need to be treated differently in the move towards equal emissions per person across the planet – by contraction in permitted emission levels each year until convergence, or by cap and share.                                                                                                                 

(3) Inequality and Capitalism                                                                                

Capitalism helps to reduce poverty through investment to move poorer countries into the next stage of economic development and hopefully beyond. But in the current system, economic growth benefits the rich more than the poor: it generally occurs in the already rich countries and flows disproportionately to the richest people within those countries. It is often easier for rich populations to save, invest, and multiply their capital.

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty

Thomas Picketty published a book in 2013: Capitalism in the 21st C: The Economics of Inequality based on historical research in Europe and the US since the 18th century. The book’s central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth. He argues that when growth is low, then wealth tends to accumulate more quickly from the rate of return on capital than from labour, and tends to accumulate more among the top 10% and 1%, increasing inequality. He sees this continuing in the 21st century, while the last century he sees as an exception to this, due to the great depression, world wars and government policy after world war two. This implies that not only is inequality a feature of capitalism, but that it increases as long as the rate of return on capital exceeds economic growth. If growth needs to be carefully managed to achieve sustainable prosperity, this feature of capitalism needs to be managed also. Unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability.

But he can only see this trend towards greater income inequality being reversed through state interventionism.  He proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce this and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority. Piketty proposes that a progressive annual global wealth tax of up to 2%, combined with a progressive income tax reaching as high as 80%, would reduce inequality, although he concedes that such a tax “would be politically impossible.” Richard Wilkinson (see next section) has other ideas on minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all.

See more on Picketty’s data on inequality and some of the criticism See and also go to  for a summary of the contents and of the responses to it. It is also be made into a documentary film.

See also the studies of global inequality by Branko Milanovic Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalisation 

(4) Degree of Income Inequality within Countries

This affects the stability and health of societies and the quality of life for all: it is a key factor in sustainable living.

The degree of income inequality varies – in the UK for example it increased greatly in the 1980s, then more gradually in the 1990s, but in 2014 fell back to what it was two decades before (early 1990’s). Richard Wilkinson stresses the importance of minding the income gap so that societies can be prosperous and stable and provide a good quality of life for all. Thomas Picketty says income inequality matters as it causes social and economic instability. Richard Wilkinson’s research goes further in setting out the effects of a wider gap. Wilkinson and Pickett have shown in their 2009 book

Richard Wilkinson

Richard Wilkinson

Kate Pickett

Kate Pickett

Spirit Level, and on the Equality Trust website, that there is now a body of evidence that in richer countries income inequality, not the average income of a society, has harmful effects on the health, well being and quality of life in a society, and leads to a variety of social problems. This affects both high and low income groups: everyone is better off if there is a lower gap. Their study focused on 23 of the World Bank listed richest societies, and the income of the top 20% was 8 – 9.8 times higher than the bottom 20% in the more

unequal societies and 3.7 – 4.0 times higher in the more equal. Keeping within a healthy degree of income inequality can be more important than economic growth once material standards of living are at a good enough level.

For more on this in this website see:

Income inequality and social problems,

Social and psychological effects of income inequality,

Human nature and how societies are organised,

Income inequality and sustainability.

See also on YouTube a number of talks Wilkinson gave after publication of this: one in Canada (after 5 mins intro by host), another  and a third

4.  Political Order, Governance, Concentration of power and the Voice of the Citizen

The evolution of forms of political order continues and together with inequalities has a great effect on the stability and health of societies, and their ability to adapt and work with larger systems of which they are a part – both international networks or organisations and the natural environment and biosphere. All this affects the quality of life for all. In both liberal and non-liberal economies and countries, the strength and efficacy of state institutions (and, these days, the rule of law even in countries that are still strongly tribal or controlled by an army) is critical. This includes intolerance of corruption. Whether a government is more autocratic or democratic, it needs to be in touch with and hear the voice of its citizens and to provide for them in order to be stable and effective in the longer term. The centralisation or concentration of power in business corporations or governments or the media is usually destabilising and can be destructive. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” as the saying goes: a balance of powers is needed – and was built into institutions in many countries as the political order evolved over the last millennium.

Over the last century we have seen a growth of large multinational corporations (MNCs). In many cases their income exceeds that of smaller countries. There are of course economic advantages of size, such as economies of scale and influence. But at the same time they are very powerful and influential. National and international regulations may be insufficient to control their actions where these affect local communities and their natural resources and livelihoods or ecosystems – such as forests, rivers and oceans that can also serve an important function in the world and the biosphere as a whole. These might be crucial in maintaining the temperatures and climate that support life and food sources, in preserving necessary species diversity and in absorbing or treating pollution in water, soil or air. There is a risk that, driven by the profit motive, they will pursue one set of goals and values to the exclusion of others unless restrained by institutional investors and shareholders and by government regulation that can be enforced.

Colin Crouch

Colin Crouch

See Colin Crouch on the power of large corporations and the effects of neo-liberalism and trust in the markets

Some trade agreements between countries and global regions can increase the dominance of short-term economic gains over the quality of life for future generations. For example the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) conducted outside the public eye between the EU and US is about reducing regulatory barriers to trade for big business, such as: food safety law, environmental legislation, banking regulations and the sovereign powers of individual nations. The process is undemocratic and secretive.

As Steve Randy Waldman has pointed out on his website  technological change creates new concentrations of power (such as Google) that demand state action to protect a more broad based sharing of wealth and democratic government.

When a regional common market moves to form a federation with a parliament, a shared bureaucracy and a common currency demanding shared fiscal and monetary policies as in the European Union, it feels as if an undemocratic regional super-state is being created, with a complex process of negotiation between ministers from a number of countries. The movement towards ever greater union rather than close co-operation between nation states creates a backlash in which the demand for more local control can override the economic and other advantages of co-operation between the countries in many areas as seen recently in the UK voting to leave the EU.

In an age of increased globalisation and interdependency through innovation in the technologies of information, communication and transportation, international organisations and forms of governance are needed. But national sovereignty and identity prevails. International organisations such as the UN need the full agreement of the Security Council to intervene for peace and to protect against the excesses of war, and international agreements, such as the Climate Conferences, can only progress at the pace which most nations feel ready for, facilitated by international co-operation between countries.

Some Westernised liberal democracies are in dire need to reform as whole segments of a society can feel unheard and forgotten without their interests and needs being represented or even understood. This can be lower income groups or second or third generation immigrants. This can be destabilising both from within (as with the UK exit from the EU and the growth of extremist movements or political parties) or from without (vulnerability to the import of terrorism). Reform is not only necessary to address this but also to build a social consensus where needed on different important issues as they arise in an age of continuing turbulence and change.

In the 1980’s with the growth of neo-liberal ideology and belief in free markets, political party newspapers disappeared or were bought up by commercial media and broadcasters who then became the most important builders of social consensus. Elections became a battle fought out in the media for the favour of voters. (See Colin Crouch 2004 book called Post-Democratic Society) Organised civil society lost ground. Because civil society has become weaker, a gulf has opened up again between the state and the individual.

But elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. An example of this the citizen convention. This is assembled by returning to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called (similar to selecting juries). Experiments with sortition have been successfully applied in the US, Australia, the Netherlands and Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic together). (See Reybrouck on citizen conventions ). There is a social movement promoting sortition.

David Van Reybrouck

David Van Reybrouck

This can be a mixture of 33 elected politicians and 66 citizens, drafted by lot, a random group put together by an independent research, taking account of age, sex and place of birth. The group might meet one weekend per month for more than a year. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens.

The decisions made by such a convention do not have the force of law but it is essential that action is seen to be taken by the government as a result. Legislation arises from the interaction between the convention and an elected chamber, and may involve a referendum.

By talking to a diverse cross-section of society, politicians can get further than they can by just talking to each other. By exchanging views with elected officials, citizens can give much more relevant input than they could have in an election or a referendum. The rest of society has a chance to follow and contribute to the deliberations. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.

Elections and referendums become dangerously outmoded tools if they are not enriched with more sensible forms of citizens’ participation. Structured deliberation with a random sample of citizens promises to generate a more vital, dynamic and inclusive form of democracy. Voting on the basis of gut feeling is replaced by sensible deliberation, as those who have been drafted are exposed to expert opinion, objective information and public debate. The risk of corruption is reduced, election fever abates and attention to the common good increases.

5. Unstable financial and economic systems: Regulation of Markets and Size and Diversity of Suppliers

The crash of the financial system in 2008 had three main underlying causes: deregulation of markets, alongside the globalisation of the economy and the development of information and communications technology. Deregulation began in the early 1980’s, the Reagan and Thatcher years. It followed a neo-liberal ideology that discarded contradictory evidence and was not based on a sound understanding of how economies function, the limits of markets and how to make them work – as the economist Joe Stiglitz has stressed. The safeguards set up after the Great Depression in the 1930’s were abandoned – such as the separation of investment banking from retail banking.

As Colin Crouch Professor of Governance and Public Management at Warwick University Business School has said: We know that when markets are extended they generate what is known as “negative externalities” – damage caused by market behaviour that does not enter into the cost calculations of those producing it. The most obvious and biggest examples concern pollution, climate change and exploitation of nature to the detriment of future generations. Left to itself, the market only rarely gives firm incentives to reduce any damage it causes to the general environment. But there are many other less obvious examples of such externalities, such as the exaggerated and highly disruptive effect produced on the economy by the movement of vast funds of speculative finance. Or the need to control food processing businesses that supply convenient tasty food that affects health and life expectancy, and which in turn increases demands on the health services. The single-minded concentration on profit maximisation undermines values and common decency. In his book on the non-death of neo-liberalism he emphasizes the power of large corporations and the effects of under-regulated markets.

Governments had to bail out the banks as they were so big that they could not be allowed to fail as the effect on the economy would be disastrous. This removed the natural boundaries set by the market itself, going out of business as a consequence. On top of that those who had profited from the excesses did not seem to suffer – but the poorest in society did suffer as there was a hole in public finances and the reduction on government spending hit them hard. This increased the sense of injustice and the anger at the failures of the capitalist system.

There has been an increase in regulation of banking since. Barclays in the UK began separating its investment and retail businesses in 2016, eight years later. The German banking system has more diverse set of institutions of different sizes and constitutions, where regional savings banks and co-operatives, which make up 70% of the banking sector, are mandated to provide credit for productive use, the common good and for financial inclusion, and local savings are used for local loans and small businesses, with profits staying within the region. This was previously looked down on, but is now seen as a sound model. Alternative forms of exchange and finance have emerged since the crash. There are blogs on this site on the instability of the financial system (from a talk by Lord Adair Turner) and on conference on

Lord Adair Turner

Lord Adair Turner

transforming finance and our money system held by a network of organisations in the UK that co-ordinates innovation in this area and how money is created through credit offered by commercial banks.

We have known how to reduce the degree of leveraging in financial markets, how to tax the volume of transactions in those markets, and how to protect banks’ main holdings   from speculative activity. But the power of big business and the predominant ideology of the time prevented government action until there was a disaster.

Hopefully now the learning from the crash of the unstable financial system can be applied generally to the managing of markets and the economy in ways that meet more comprehensively the needs of human beings and living systems of which we are a part, around a set of goals that put the quality of life, indeed all life, first, in which a sound and stable economy would be a part.

Reforming capitalism and regulating markets sufficiently, and allowing a diversity of institutions and models of the economy and ownership to flourish together (as in German banking and in alternative forms of finance and exchange) might then be seen as the way forward in facilitating the emergence of an economy and ways of governance that fit the needs to the 21st century and beyond.

6. Will Capitalism remain the dominant economic paradigm?

The capitalist system helped improve the material standard of living immensely but at a cost, to people and more recently to our natural environment. It may have fulfilled its function and had its place in history while still having a role –in a different kind of economy that fits the needs of the 21st century.

In the last 250 years capitalism has been the dominant organising framework for economic activity with an accompanying narrative on human nature. As Rifkin points out, every economic paradigm has a source of energy, and a means of communication

Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin

and mobility. In the first century of capitalism these were coal mining, railways, and the telegraph. To build the infrastructure for these and to provide cheaper products affordable to larger numbers of people, companies needed national rather than local markets and to raise massive capital. To do this they needed to integrate economic activity across markets, regions and then countries. All this raised living standards and provided many benefits. But the rich got richer as the flow of wealth was to the top, to those controlling these big corporations. Some economic paradigms create more concentration of wealth and power. Recently it has been noted that the accumulated combined wealth of 65 people equals that of half the population of the world. Many have been excluded from the benefits of capitalism, despite the attempts of left wing governments to redistribute them through taxation. The capitalist system also tries to turn and package everything it can into a commodity that can be priced and exchanged in a market as property, even trying to price the priceless. The market mentality can then enter into areas of life and human activity and exchange for which it is not suitable, and erode the ethics and values that underpin civil society and the quality of life. In Part 2 we will look at both changes in what people feel they need and also at signs of new forms of organising our economy and society so that it meets our needs more comprehensively, including our needs for a healthy natural environment.

7. Looking ahead to Part 2: Ways forward for the Future                                                                                                                                                                          Sustainable Prosperity within ecological limits and a Good Quality of Life for all – are these incompatible needs within the current system?

As seen in Part 1 for our survival and the survival of the habitat on which we depend we need not just to reform capitalism – though this may be part of the solution – but change our concepts of wealth, growth, and quality of life. This would entail a broader understanding and a greater social consensus on what the quality of our life, and of our wellbeing, depend on: the quality of our societies and the quality of our natural environment alongside material living standards. We have seen how, once material needs are sufficiently met the degree of income inequality and the balance in social organisation between reciprocal co-operation and status or dominance hierarchies (the health and stability of a society) affects our health, our access to information and our opportunities to progress through access to more than basic education and through personal rights and freedom, choice and inclusion (see Wilkinson and the Social Progress Indicator). There is a felt need for more mixed forms of organising, sometimes enabled by the internet, such as horizontal networks and collaborative circles alongside hierarchy, and the humanising and localising of economic exchange, and more local control over it.

As the updated Limits to Growth stated in 2004, a sustainable scenario for the future would mean stabilising population and output per person and creating technologies to preserve resources and the biosphere. See summary of the update. But technology and markets by themselves are unlikely to prevent overshoot and collapse, as they are merely tools to serve the goals of society as a whole. For this we would need to have a different concept of growth as an Increase in the quality of life in all its senses rather than an increase in material turnover. This would mean more security, greater happiness and wellbeing and sustainability. This requires a richer concept of the quality of life, which would include the quality of the natural environment. This in turn requires an ecological awareness and a connection with nature, preferably from early years.

So two themes are emerging around which a social consensus can form for a redefinition of the goals of society as a whole:

Growth as the increase in quality of life rather than the quantity of material turnover

An economy that emphasises collaboration and reciprocity both between us and with nature

There is a growing awareness that if society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain – rather than be working in tune with the environment and needs of all, now and in the future. In short, society has been developing technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it. The signs of this, alongside the human needs that are not met by our current economic system, are disrupting the current economic paradigm.

While there are signs too of the development of low carbon technologies and greater efficiencies in the use and reuse of materials and resources the concept of growth remains the same while the need for change is all the more urgent.

The Limits to Growth model was used to create different future scenarios. Most of them resulted in an ongoing growth of population and of the economy up to a turning point around 2030. This is now fast approaching. There is a greater awareness than there was and for some a greater sense of urgency. There is a growing consensus at a global level as shown in the Climate Conference in Paris in 2015 as many countries have begun to address climate issues at local level since 2011. But there is not yet a comprehensive social consensus in countries that incorporates an integration of sustainable social, economic and environmental objectives. This would create a new paradigm for our societies, economies and technologies as well as our relations with our natural environment. There are encouraging signs of innovation which demonstrate realistic alternatives in technology and in ways of doing things. But until a new way of thinking about quality of life in all its aspects (economic, social and environmental) takes shape any hope stemming from these signs is not likely to be well grounded yet. It seems we are in what the Chinese have called a spring-autumn period: the old ways of organising society and our lives are dying and the signs of new ones are emerging. Maybe in such a period of transition the new and old will coexist in society while experimentation with, confidence in, and attraction to, the new in diverse forms reaches a critical mass, perhaps accompanied by the emotional shock of disasters in a larger scale caused by the outmoded old system. Many have seen an epochal change or major paradigm shift occurring in society with the onset of a new millennium. Once problems or issues arise that cannot be explained or resolved well enough within the current paradigm and system, inconsistencies build up and fester until there comes a point at which there is a strong felt need for change and people see that the fundamentals of the current system need to be questioned and changed. In such times of turbulence we need to work together, with a clear sense of what is needed and important, and how to go about it, so that we can build our confidence and hope and exercise our creativity, with a sense of urgency and realism – rather than becoming the victims of the anxiety, powerlessness, anger and despair that lead to escapism, distraction and denial.

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy

Joanna Macy’s writing on the great transition has inspired many in finding an way of participating actively with others in it. The founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung, described what he saw to be a major transition and the key role human beings play in being part of it, both unconsciously and consciously.

In Part 2 we will explore all this further.

For the full synopsis by Donella Meadows and her co-authors in 2004

For more information on how change the drivers, structure and dynamics of a system such as the one described in the Limits to Growth see Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows (Earthscan) and chapter six on leverage points and places to intervene in a system to enable change – see also a paper on this. This is based on the system dynamics model developed by Jay Forrester at MIT (Pegasus Communications 1990) and see for the system dynamics society.



Personal Carbon Trading

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Research in this area has shown that personal carbon trading would be a progressive policy instrument – redistributing money from the rich to the poor – as the rich use more energy than the poor, and so would need to buy allowances from them. This is in contrast to a direct personal carbon tax, under which all lower income people are worse off, prior to revenue redistribution – though a direct carbon tax may be applied to businesses, after a period in which they have time to adapt and prepare.

See for an update on research

Proponents of personal carbon trading claim that it is an equitable way of addressing climate change and peak oil, as it could guarantee that a national economy lives within its agreed carbon budget and ensure a fair access to fuel and energy. They also believe it would increase ‘carbon literacy’ among the public, while encouraging more localised economies.

But personal carbon trading has been criticised for its possible complexity and high implementation costs. As yet, there is minimal reliable data on these issues. There is also the fear that personal “rationing” and trading of allowances will be politically unacceptable, especially if those allowances are used to buy from industries who are already passing on costs from their participation in a carbon levy or trading schemes such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme

Analysts have noted that to implement any effective carbon rationing system, “the government must convince the public that rationing levels are fair, that the system is administered transparently and fairly, and that evaders are few in number, likely to be detected and liable to stiff penalties if found guilty.”

The UK’sTyndall Centre for Climate Change Research has been researching this scheme since 2003, and produced a report in 2009.

The scheme was the subject of a UK government pre-feasibility study in 2008, with an All Party Parliamentary Group report in 2011. In May 2008 the government department DEFRA completed a pre-feasibility study into Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQ’s) with the headline finding that “personal carbon trading has potential to engage individuals in taking action to combat climate change, but is essentially ahead of its time and expected costs for implementation are high”. Based on this DEFRA announced that “the (UK) Government remains interested in the concept of personal carbon trading and, although it will not be continuing its research programme at this stage, it will monitor the wealth of research focusing on this area and may introduce personal carbon trading if the value of carbon savings and cost implications change“. The UK’s Climate Change Act 2008  grants powers allowing the UK Government to introduce a personal carbon trading scheme without further primary legislation.

Later that same month the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee produced their report on the subject, which concluded that ”personal carbon trading could be essential in helping to reduce our national carbon footprint” and rebuked the Government for delaying a full feasibility study, stating that “although we commend the Government for its intention to maintain engagement in academic work on the topic, we urge it to undertake a stronger role, leading and shaping debate and coordinating research”.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce (RSA) after its CarbonLimited project published a report in 2009 proposing personal carbon quotas.

Norfolk Island, an island in the pacific ocean between Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia is trialling the world’s first personal carbon trading programme, starting in 2011 (NICHE – Norfolk Island Carbon Health Evaluation – project).

A review of research into personal carbon trading was published in 2014



Income Inequality and Sustainability: Healthy Societies and Healthy Ecosystems

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It is now become clear in the first two decades of the 21st century that further economic growth in the most developed economies does not improve health, happiness and wellbeing. The degree of income equality is as important as, if not sometimes more important to, the quality of life than growth, once a certain level of net national income is reached. More equal societies are safer, have better health, have fewer social problems, and, with better quality of social relationships, are nicer to live in. The savings in public expenditure that come from a healthier, safer society can be used to invest in health, education, culture and support for those in need, as well as research, and the transition to green technology and infrastructure. From this we can see ways of improving the quality of life without more economic growth, while choosing carefully where material growth is purposeful and environmentally sustainable within specified limits for a set time. This comes at a time when there are many factors disrupting our current economic system and capitalism as we know. But for a low growth economy to be acceptable there has to be a shift in societies to a high quality of life and human satisfaction coming more from being in a more sociable society than from simply from the goods and services that can be bought.

Achievements, creativity and innovation in all spheres of life can be the same in more equal societies, and perhaps even greater as those lower in status positions would be less likely to see themselves as inferior and so be more confident in fulfilling their potential in different ways. Having smaller income differences does not mean that people are any the less different in their potential and achievements.

As Donella Meadows and her colleagues pointed out in the studies of limits to growth, economic growth can also happen in a sustainable way. A society less obsessed with growth in itself would be “interested in qualitative development, not physical expansion. It would use material growth as a considered tool, not a perpetual mandate. Neither for nor against growth, it would begin to discriminate among kinds of growth and purposes for growth. It would ask what the growth is for, who would benefit, what it would cost, how long it would last, and whether the growth could be accommodated by the sources and sinks of the earth”. It would attend to fair distribution of wealth and to sufficiency and security for all. Rules, standard, laws, boundaries, social agreements and constraints would be there to protect freedom and the quality of life and not be rigidly controlling.

The WWF report Living Planet positions countries on their ecological footprint per person and the UN Human Development Index to measure the quality of life (based on life expectancy, education and Gross Domestic Product per person). This shows that a good quality of life can be achieved while living within the limits for sustaining all life on earth. Only a few countries are both above the threshold for high human development and also relatively low on ecological footprint – at, or near the limit of, the world’s biocapacity per person. Cuba and Costa Rica are examples where the quality of life is above the threshold and the eco footprint low – as GDP per person is only one factor. Costa Rica has around 97% of its electricity generated by renewable sources (hydro, solar etc) and scores high on wellbeing and happiness. Cuba has life expectancy and infant mortality rates as high as the USA and achieves a low eco footprint without access to the greenest technologies. Others above the threshold have a very high footprint (United Arab Emirates, USA, Finland, Canada, Kuwait, Australia, Sweden, UK, New Zealand for example). In countries with colder winters a low carbon economy and overall resource efficiency can take longer to achieve.

Global warming, and the risks of climate change and its effects such as reducing agricultural yields, food and water supply and increasing conflict over resources, require us to work together to prevent it and to adapt to it rather than for individuals, companies and countries to be finding ways around regulations for their own short-term gain, in a similar way to tax avoidance. Reducing inequality over time encourages more collaboration and reciprocity in societies. Societies that are more collaborative are more likely to collaborate with each other to keep within limits to address climate change and maintain the resilience of life on the planet in a sufficiently diverse variety of form. (See Australia’s Planet Ark Environmental Foundation Trust). More equal societies are more are more public-spirited and ready to collaborate with nature.

More equal societies – and societies wanting to address some of the inequities and costs of capitalism, having enjoyed the improved material standards of living it can bring – are also likely to have a more people participating in developing a more collaborative economy with collaborative forms of investment, ownership and control, production and consumption. This will help maintain income equality and lead to as much emphasis being put on benefits to local communities and their economies and on environmental sustainability as on the economic and financial health of the business. The economy is more likely to be more mixed in its forms of ownership and control than it is now, with capitalism, as we know it, likely to change too. A more diverse mix of forms of organization in a society’s economy means that it can evolve and adapt more easily to changes. Part 2 will address building the future, ways of organizing our economy, different forms of governance in organisations.

Greater income inequality heightens people’s sensitivity to, and anxieties about, social status as it becomes more important as an indicator of self-worth and is seen as a key aspect of identity. So conversely a more equal society is less prone to hyper-consumerism. People are less likely to buy products just to keep up with others – and maybe advertising will play less on this too. This extra consumption of course affects both carbon emissions and resource depletion. If more income and status equality means better health and social relationships does that mean we can maintain or improve our quality of life while consuming less? It certainly helps – but other factors come into play here too. What richer countries consider to be an acceptable material living standard is of course important – but material needs may be less prominent when social and self-esteem needs are also met through better social relationships and social networks. Changes and improvements in technology can also lead to greater efficiency in the use of energy and material resources, and near-zero waste of course. So what is saved at the beginning and end of the product life cycle reduces consumption in a broader sense too. Part 2 will look at the contribution of technology and the internet and the circular economy.

Policies to cut emissions and increase energy efficiency must be applied fairly, and this might be easier to do in more equal societies. Richer people and countries may cause 10 times the carbon emissions that are caused by consumption than poorer. Carbon rations have been considered with equal amounts of allowable emissions for a whole population. Those requiring less sell their unused rations at the end of a set period to a carbon bank for those who want and can afford to buy more. Research in this area has shown that personal carbon trading would be a progressive policy instrument – redistributing money from the rich to the poor – as the rich use more energy than the poor, and so would need to buy allowances from them. This is in contrast to a direct carbon tax, under which all lower income people are worse off, prior to revenue redistribution.




Addressing Climate Change Denial

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Denial of Climate Change and its Effects images-1

Sometimes we humans look as though we are running over a cliff to our downfall by denying or ignoring the destruction we inflict on our habitat, the biosphere and its ecosystems: causing climate change by greenhouse gas emissions, exhausting natural resources, converting almost all wild habitats for our use and polluting air, water and soil through waste and chemicals.

There is now seen to be a risk that the average global temperature will rise by 4 0 C   during this century. Any average global temperature increase above 4 0 C is hard to adapt to. For example it would make life difficult if not impossible in much of the tropics, and eventually lead to the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and the rising of seal levels by many metres. To find anything comparable we have to go back to the Pliocene – last epoch of the Tertiary period, 3m years ago. There were no continental glaciers in the northern hemisphere (trees grew in the Arctic), and sea levels were 25 metres higher than today’s. In this kind of heat, the death of the Amazon is as inevitable as the melting of Greenland.

We are already beginning to experience extreme weather more often, resulting in drought or floods, loss of  crops and human life, and destruction of the living environment.   We do not know how much it will accelerate as one effect of it leads to another (such as ocean acidification meaning less CO2 absorbed by the ocean).

A three-degree increase in global temperature – possible as early as 2050 – would throw the carbon cycle into reverse. Instead of absorbing carbon dioxide, vegetation and soils start to release it. So much carbon pours into the atmosphere that it would pump up atmospheric concentrations by 250 parts per million by 2100, boosting global warming by another 1.5C.   There could be runaway change (See David Wasdell’s video interviews on this site  and his own papers). The chances of avoiding four degrees of global warming are poor if the rise reaches three degrees and triggers a runaway thaw of permafrost. The chances of avoiding five degrees of global warming are negligible if a rise of four degrees releases trapped methane from the sea bed.

We could then repeat some of the crises in the past that took 1m years to recover from, but this time with it man-made. When temperatures were between 4 and 5 degrees higher 55m years ago, following a very sudden burst of global warming in the early Eocene, alligators and other subtropical species were living high in the Arctic.  With 5 degree increase it can mean large-scale extinction of plant and animal species and the loss of millions of human lives, like 65m years ago with the extinction of the dinosaurs. It could then rise higher as at the end of the Permian, 251m years ago, when global temperatures rose by six degrees, and 95% of species were wiped out. For the effects of temperature increases by degree see an overview online.

This can all be avoided if we act now both to reduce carbon emissions and take carbon out of the air (which we can now) and store it safely, geologically or biologically, copying natural processes, or by drilling deep underground (See for example artificial trees and also in the journal Scientific American)  More research funding is needed for this. Clean BioChar or biological charcoal that does not reduce the oxygen in the air and does not put the carbon back over time could be part of the solution but research is essential to ensure safety with this and other solutions. See the Permaculture network’s warning on BioChar.

Part of the failure to take these risks on board and address them fully is denial, and defence against feelings of anxiety or despair and powerlessness.

Part of it is due to the limitations of our unchecked cognition as it has evolved so far.

Mixed together this is a powerful cocktail.

For an overview see the New Scientist 18 August 2014 article by George Marshall “Hear no climate evil”.

George Marshall is the author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, which was published by Bloomsbury between August and October 2014 in 3 countries. He is the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network in Oxford, UK

Defence against anxiety and powerlessness

The overwhelming and seemingly hopeless struggle portrayed by the media and many campaigners provokes feelings of anxiety and powerlessness.

Our response to climate change is uncannily similar to an even more universal disavowal: unwillingness to face our own mortality, says neuroscientist Janis Dickinson of Cornell University. She argues that aggressive assertion of group identities, political polarisation, and angry denial found around climate change is consistent with “Terror Management Theory” (TMT) which is used to explain behaviour in the face of reminders of mortality. See J. L. Dickinson (2009) The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change in Ecology and Society, Vol 14 (1). Online

And more recently her paper on How Framing Climate Change Influences Citizen Scientists’ Intentions to Do Something About It published online by Taylor and Francis

This shows how mentioning dangers for humans did not increase participants’ interest in taking personal action on climate change, but mentioning dangers for birds was highly effective! Others, such as psychoanalytic psychotherapist, Rosemary Randall on the Question Time on Climate Change event organised by the RSA in London describe typical defences too. See the video of this discussion

Limitations through Unchecked Cognition and Cultural Biases

The Noble prize winner in (behavioural) economics, the psychologist Daniel Kahnemann, has studied human cognition and behavior in the market place. Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel prize in economics for his research on the psychological biases that distort decision-making, in the market place and elsewhere. One of these is “loss aversion”, which means that people are far more sensitive to losses than gains. One form of this is ignoring the compound interest on debt and credit card loans the increase of which was part of the recent debt crisis. This is hard enough to do mathematically. Take J. Zinman’s powerful analogy for compound interest using a chessboard of a $1 of interest per square that doubles until the 64th. Try estimating it. It is by then $9000 quadrillion.

Kahnemann regards climate change as a perfect example as it seems like a distant problem that requires sacrifices now to avoid uncertain losses far in the future. So some argue that we have to experience, see and feel the effects in the present to act, have an emotional shock and feel the hurt, if you like – but that might be too late and result in panic.

Many of us have no spare time, energy, money or attention to address it with others either – immediate survival or earning enough to support our families occupy us.

Nicholas Stern, author of the influential Stern Review on the economics of climate change, describes it as the “perfect market failure”. As Marshall points out, discussions about economics invariably turn into self defeating cost-benefit analyses:

Stern offers a choice between spending 1 per cent of annual income now, or risking losing 20 per cent of it in 50 years’ time. This language is almost identical to that Kahneman used two decades earlier in his experiments on loss aversion. Is it surprising that when a choice is framed like this, policy-makers are intuitively drawn towards postponing action and taking a gamble on the future?

Another of Kahneman’s biases is an “assimilation bias” that bends information to fit people’s existing values and prejudices. If cost/loss and uncertainty around climate change really are universal psychological barriers, it is hard to explain why 15 per cent of people fully accept the threat and are willing to make personal sacrifices to avert it. Most of the people in this group are left wing or environmentalists and have managed to turn climate change into a narrative that fits with their existing criticisms of industry and growth.

Uncertainty and ambiguity leave room for people to choose to believe what they want. Scientists reinforce distance with computer predictions set two generations in the future and endless talk of uncertainty. One of the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses the word “uncertain” more than once per page. The “uncertainty principle” in the original global climate change conference statements for assessing and guarding against risk  does not counteract this. Climate change is complex, there is a lot of difference in the effects in different countries or locations, and the models currently cannot predict accurately all the time, leaving room for the doubters to point out where there are contradictions. Scientists need to have amongst them specialists in communication who can provide the information on what is known and agreed on, and what the effects and risks are, while being clear on what is uncertain, especially in the details; constructive scepticism and disagreement is necessary for good science but it does not have to lead to inaction.

The media in the UK like to promote debate – but this can be without regard to how much the key participants on each side have valid knowledge and information. This makes it all the more uncertain. Up till recently such debates have not been between climate scientists with a similar knowledge base – though now 97% of them agree on the serious fast increase in greenhouse gases and the human contribution.

Conservatives may justify climate inaction on the grounds of cost and uncertainty but they, too, are able to accept both as long as they speak to their core values. As former US vice-president and climate sceptic Dick Cheney said: “If there is only a 1 per cent chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, we must act as if it is a certainty.”

Strongly held values can explain the convictions of those at the ends of the political spectrum, but they do not adequately explain the apparent indifference of the large majority in between. If asked, most agree that climate change is a serious threat, but without prompting they do not volunteer it. This indifference is another form of denial, with which we started.

The law of unintended consequences and Lock-in

This is another example of the limits of unchecked cognition. Robert Merton, the creator of many key concepts in sociology in the last century, first named this and identified five factors involved: ignorance (including info not available), error, immediate interest or gain overriding any long term damage, basic values and self-defeating prophecy.

Merton, Robert K. (Dec 1936). “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action”. American Sociological Review 1 (6): 894–904. See online

What is called “lock-in” – habits, routines, social norms and cultural values, unquestioned assumptions, and of course locked-in longer term investments (as in energy infrastructure or the extraction of coal, oil or natural gas) – are all part of this. This can put the response time globally into 3 or 4 decades, even if we act as fast as we can now.

Ways Forward

The problem itself is far from being what Stephen Gardiner of the University of Washington in Seattle calls a “perfect moral storm” or market failure, and the situation is not hopeless; but dealing with it will require a more sophisticated analysis of human cognition and the role of socially shared values in building conviction, and a mutually reinforcing multi-pathway approach going in the same direction to make the necessary transition.

Take the presentation of information to raise awareness. Facts can be produced on waste and pollution such as the production of each laptop generating waste that is 4000 times its weight, see Hawken, R. and others Natural Capitalism (1999). But this may not have an emotional impact or leave a lasting memory.

Sometimes visual presentations have more impact. A video was produced to show the accumulated impact of used car waste. Carbon Visuals: Animating the world’s cars

This has to be done alongside practical examples of how people are tackling the problem.

To see how the sun-earth system together with the biosphere determine our climate is very complex, possibly beyond our modelling capacities. This requires scientists working together. Historical studies going back millions of years need to be combined with mathematical modelling based on more recent data (see again David Wasdell). But as James Lovelock said recently we cannot afford to spend too much time on the details of climate modelling. He points out that “all the modelling we do shows that the climate is poised on the jump up to a new hot state. It is accelerating so fast you could say we are already in it.” He says we need to focus on learning more about climate change so to be able to adapt to it better. We cannot afford to “fiddle while Rome is burning” as he put it. He points out that global warming has hardly been mentioned in the UK election campaign in April 2015.

There is a growing awareness that we need to focus equally on reducing carbon emissions and on taking carbon out of the air by mimicking nature, geo-engineering that is very low risk, as mentioned above (6th paragraph). This is beginning to be addressed in the recent reports from the IPCC.

Again as with leaders in other systems, people’s assumptions, agendas, reputations, research grants and the years they have invested in research or models can be at stake. Trust, and real collaboration in the service of something bigger than any individual, alongside the commitment to the principles of good scientific method and truth, is needed for this to happen.

One way of counteracting the inability to see or comprehend and feel the accumulated impact of a number of small actions at a collective level is shown by the work of Peter Senge and colleagues. They point out the need for – and give examples of – systems leaders who bring people together who represent different parts of a system within society. They then use tools and skills to help them break down the barriers to trust, real dialogue and reflection between them so that they can see and make sense of the system and its interacting parts together. They can then work together on generating a future vision, creating solutions, trying them out in practice and learning by doing. Others can then follow. For methods and examples see their paper. They give examples of projects in cities bringing together the public and private sectors with community-based organisations, and multinational companies designing more sustainable products, production processes and product life cycles involving their supply chains throughout the world.

We need a critical mass of leaders who have the capacities for this. Senge and others identify some of these capacities, such as to:

(1) See and map the larger system with others sharing the same question, with the humility, based on an awareness of their own limitations, to go beyond their own vantage point or areas of knowledge or interest.

(2) Foster reflection and more generative conversation to:

Open minds to surface assumptions and see that the problems may be in and between each of us in the system, as well as “out there”,

Open hearts to listen,

Open the will to let go of pre-set goals and agendas,

and so build relationships in the process.

(3) Shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future by sharing aspirations and building a common vision, then trying things out and learning in a safe way, building confidence by joint accomplishments and working through tensions and frustrations on the way.

This can lead to a mature understanding of the situation and of the conditions for positive social change and innovation

At the same time “massive small change” at the local, national and international level is a key driver of change as ideas can be tested and examples and role models created for others to follow, while empowering groups and networks. At the international level this can be a small enterprise of young engineers creating affordable and easy to use technical solutions to problems in the less developed economies where there is lack of access to electricity, poor irrigation or drought, crops failing, etc. (The massive small change and engineers without borders network organises occasional conferences that support this). Or local community groups and enterprises around the world, in rich and poor economies, creating more sustainable ways of living that are  attractive and at the same time fit the needs and realities of the 21st century (The Transition Towns Network and the older Natural Step Movement are examples of these). Local businesses wanting to explore a more environmentally aware approach to prosperity and growth, within ecologically safe limits can form socio-economic networks for sustainability in the full sense in their local communities, supported by their local universities and by national or international knowledge and learning networks and alliances. Local community networks are often involved with scientists too in regenerating local ecosystems or in protecting animal and plant species from the effects of rising global temperatures or the destruction of  natural habitats. This means looking for the type of ecosystem best adapted to this century and not trying to conserve the type of wild area we are used to. For UK and Ireland Rewilding and for a Wildlife Trust’s comments on it go to.

System leaders, groups and networks like these can transform anxiety, doom and denial into a sense of urgency with a realistic confidence and hope as more and more practical, cost-effective and attractive solutions are found and demonstrated. People can feel empowered, able to do things together with others. Innovators like these in businesses and local communities, within networks, can be a key force for change that national governments and international forums or agencies can encourage, support and be informed by.

This can counteract the defences and the limits of unchecked cognition that lead to a breakdown of co-operation and our fears becoming a reality, an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy (to use another of Merton’s concepts) at work.


The Energy of Nations – an Update

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From Jeremy Leggett: An update on how the dramas described in his book are playing out, April 2014. The Book:    


  The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance by Jeremy Leggett 2013

(Reviews of the book, and ways to order, can be found here)      -<>



In April 2013 he finished writing the book during the Easter break a year ago, and made predictions about      three systemic risks being run by the energy incumbency:

the risk of a shale “surprise” (wherein an incumbency narrative-of-plenty in long-term extractable unconventional gas proves wrong),

the risk of an oil crisis (wherein another incumbency narrative-of-plenty, involving growing global supplies of affordable oil far into the future, turns out to be flawed), and

the risk of carbon-fuel asset stranding (wherein policymaking on climate change, or the possibility of it, causes investors to abandon significant amounts of oil, gas and coal assets underground, unburned).

During the year since, he has kept a log of developments relevant to these predictions, as he encountered them, on his website. He also covers the related themes of climate-change risk and the risk of renewed financial crisis. Jeremy invites you us to have a scan of that log<>, if you haven’t already, at the level of headlines only, and check the direction of things. The log would suggest that all three predictions are on course. And if any or all of this is right, the implications for all our lives will be enormous.

Some extracts from the log over the year since the book came out:

– Shale “surprise”: We have learned that the top 15 players in US shale drilling have written off $35 billion since the boom started, and that investors are beginning to pull out. Meanwhile, production has peaked and is now falling in all but one of the major shale-gas drilling regions. The boom is looking like it could turn into a bust before too long.

– Oil crisis: We have learned the extent to which capital expenditure on finding new reserves has soared, and discoveries by major oil companies have dropped. Meanwhile, crude oil production, which meets some three quarters of global demand, peaked in 2005. Who says so? For example, a man BP asked to compile estimates of global oil supply when he worked for the company.

– Carbon-fuel asset stranding: We have seen major financial institutions start pulling out of carbon-fuel investments. Other institutions holding their investments in place for the moment are pressuring carbon-fuel corporations to rein back capital being expended on efforts to turn resources into reserves. This is good news for those of us who worry about the risk of a carbon-fuel asset “bubble”, and wish to deflate it sustainably, abating climate-change risk in the process. It is bad news for an incumbency needing ever more capital to keep its narratives of carbon-fuel-plenty on track.

Over the course of the last year, instead of retreating from the comforting narratives they spin us as you might think the above would warrant, much of the oil and gas incumbency becomes ever more shrill in hyping mantras. They speak of America becoming the new “Saudi America” – a nation self-sufficient in oil and gas that exports to help allies in trouble, like Ukraine. The reality behind the myth is that America imports both gas and oil – and a lot of oil. US oil consumption is 18.5 million barrels a day. Production is 8.9 million barrels a day. What part of that equation are they going to export any time soon to save Ukraine and others from the clutches of Kremlin-controlled pipelines?

The strangeness in the air over this and other aspects of energy “policymaking” encourages him to redouble his efforts in sounding an alarm.


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