How a post-carbon World might look
Yesterday, on Paul Handover’s Learning from Dogs, Paul Handover posted the 4th and penultimate part of his serialisation of the recent work of Dr Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute under the title ‘Down is the new up‘. As Alexander himself says, it “…is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation”. However, whatever else it may be, it is an amazingly thorough analysis of our predicament. Here are my main take-aways:
4.1 Water – it’s the reason I first got into hydrogeology – and the statistics presented here are very sobering “…we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion… high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness…”
4.2 Food – Air transportation is one activity where fossil fuel use is not substitutable. However, what I had not considered before was the fact that localism is essential in food production because the current globalised system “will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.”
4.3 Clothing – At last I have found someone who shares my distaste for the fashion and advertising industries that sell only discontent. However, an organised boycott would simply put a lot of people out of work… But, of course, they will be needed to cultivate the land… Oh boy, is this going to be a hard sell…
4.4 Housing – Sadly, much of the UK’s Victorian housing has been demolished in the misguided belief that new is better. It might be if the new stuff was being built to the highest-possible energy efficiency standards but often it is not – and it is unlikely to be as long-lasting as that which it replaced. Refurbishment is the much better option; it is a form of recycling.
4.5 Energy – “energy consumption per capita in a sufficiency economy may be in the vicinity of half that of Western European economies today” – now there’s a challenge! Here again, Dr Alexander appears to endorse Schalk Cloete’s arguments (see yesterday’s post on this blog) regarding the implications of the end of the era of cheap, abundant and dense forms of energy (i.e. fossil fuels) – “The major obstacle in the way of completely decarbonising the economy is the fact that, currently, fossil fuels are required to make renewable energy systems, such as the solar panels and wind turbines.”
4.6 Transport – Again, yet more unemployment seems an inevitable consequence of the end of globalisation. Freight transport by air appears doomed but Tourism is not even mentioned. However, its demise seems to be assumed – this too will be a hard sell. Electric cars are expensive; and making them requires the use of fossil fuels.
4.7 Work and Production – Dr Alexander’s vision of the future looks like a return to medieval feudalism. If so, there are an awful lot of young people wasting racking up ludicrous levels of debt to get themselves a Tertiary education that will be totally useless.
4.8 Money, Markets and Exchange – An interesting conflict appears inevitable between the hitherto relentless advance of technology towards a paperless economy (i.e. electronic funds transfer) and a return to much older forms of trade (i.e. bartering). What is certain is that Alexander conceives globalised Capitalism as destined to become the economic equivalent of a cosmological Black Hole – “It may be that as economies are suffocated by expensive oil in coming years, and find themselves at the ‘end of growth,’ debt-based systems which require growth will collapse under the weight of their own debts and the alternative system will arise in a very unplanned, ad hoc, and possibility decentralised way.”
4.9 Miscellaneous – Both Marxism and Anarchism are critiqued. However, Alexander fails to note the fact, which many other authors have pointed out, that Marxism is merely growthmania without the Capitalism: It is focussed on production rather than consumption; but it still pre-supposes quantitative economic growth as the only way to measure progress (and has thus always failed). Alexander seems to see localism and grassroots revolution as the most likely way in which a post-carbon era will emerge. To me, this seems to pre-suppose the institutional failure of globalised Capitalism but, I guess we shall soon find out…