Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

How a post-carbon World might look

with 16 comments

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…

16 Responses

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  1. It’s odd to read statements that dismiss EVs (and other things) because it takes fossil fuels to make them. More optimistic people acknowledge that this will happen during the transition to renewables (we’re at the beginning now), but that a post-carbon world will have manufacturing processes based on renewables. Similarly, more optimistic people anticipate that biofuel will support some air transport.

    His worldview is certainly a return to medievalism. I don’t think we’ll go *quite* that far! Though I certainly agree that the over-consumption of current lifestyles will have to go. And THAT will be a hard sell.

    Gillian King

    30 November 2012 at 00:16

    • Hi Gillian. Thanks for commenting. This has been a perplexing journey for me (trying to reconcile Schalk Cloete’s comments with the mainstream view of environmentalists), but I think I have now done it. Furthermore, I think the statement of his that you appear to highlight is the key:
      — Using fossil fuels to manufacture the equipment that will replace them is the only truly sustainable thing we can do with them; and
      — Finding a way to manufacture that equipment and/or infrastructure without using fossil fuels is not a problem we need to yet face.

      Martin Lack

      30 November 2012 at 11:24

      • Hi Martin, I don’t agree that we don’t yet need to face the problem of manufacturing without fossil fuels. I hope there are rooms full of boffins working on unsolved technologies right now. We don’t really need a better wind generator or better CST, but we do need to work out how to smelt steel using renewables. I understand that isn’t sorted yet… I could be wrong. I wonder about other industrial processes that need more than grid electricity. Have they been sorted? Have we figured out how to make concrete without emissions? Lots of problems that we need to be working on NOW. Surely there’s no time to defer?

        Gillian King

        1 December 2012 at 05:00

        • Yes, of course. You are right. I was merely trying to distance myself from Schalk’s defeatism.

          Martin Lack

          1 December 2012 at 10:27

      • I may be naive, but I believe that the day we put pressure on ourselves to manufacture without fossil fuels will be the day we start finding the solutions. Having said that, I agree that this is “not a problem we need to yet face”. If we stopped burning the majority of our fossil fuels, we would have more to use for other purposes, giving us more time to find alternatives.


        1 December 2012 at 23:03

        • Thanks JP. I think, however, Gillian provided a good rebuttal to the the assertion of mine that you have quoted.

          Martin Lack

          2 December 2012 at 11:21

  2. Thanks Paul (and Martin). I think there is a lot to disagree with Dr Alexander’s outlook, but it is evident that it has made people think and that is part of the debate. If it were simply a pragmatic road map then the problem with agreeing is it doesn’t confront one’s own thinking.

    On an optimistic note; I recently took a friend (who is buying and will redevelop a green home [to my design!]) to the Centre For Alternative Technology in mid-Wales 20 years ago it was all rather cutting edge, techno-hippy, stuff with an important message for the country. Now it is all rather dated: My local high street has more solar and my county exports wind energy; we even have a Zero Waste recycling collection which processes every bin by hand [it is completely unfeasable without large subsidies but it is a test project]. 30 years ago my town [Presteigne] was on Country File; it hit the news just for having a recycling centre!

    The UK even has a Carbon Reduction Act making it law. But unless the markets [or subsidies] drive down solar and drive up gas/oil it is unlikely to be a people -green roots driven future.

    My prediction – it will happen by 2020 because of peak oil- or sooner when the Arctic is ice free most years [2015] and Europe has similar poor weather over the summer if…if the jetstream is effected as it seems to be this year. Grumpy Europeans who have had continuous wash out summers will be a very loud voice on the global scene.


    30 November 2012 at 11:13

    • Now that you are working (or about to work) for VSO, I wonder if you have been missing the news recently, Jules?

      You appear to refer to the Climate Change Act 2008, which supposedly committed the UK to reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. Sadly, this has been all but repudiated in the new Energy Bill – simply because the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Tea Party-esque wing of the Conservative Party (i.e. all those with a business background) have been duped by fossil fuel lobby propaganda.

      As was implied by my previous comment, the strategy the UK government is adopting (to make conventional electricity bill-payers subsidise renewable investment) will happily fail if demand for solar PV now sky-rockets. I say “happily” because such a sudden increase in demand for Solar PV might just force them to re-consider the feasibility of their chosen strategy (and the objectivity of the those whose advice they have blindly followed).

      Martin Lack

      30 November 2012 at 12:45

      • I detect a hint of sarcasm, no I haven’t gone yet and yes I read the news, but not a perfect bill by any means and the lack of protection for the poor is a key issue. The carbon act has not been repealed at least.

        I think the point we should not export heavy industry and heavy industry pollution is valid. End users paying for the transition also has pros as well as cons, in the first instance it does impose personal responsibility. There are plenty of wealthy people I know who waste energy, likewise there are ‘working class’ less well off families who insist on a couple of holidays in the sun costing 1000s. If the government pays and energy remains cheap why should people insulate or invest in solar?

        The poor and poor pensioners do need to have index linked welfare, I do find it illogical that the pensioner winter payment is not means tested. That £2 bn should to those who need it.

        As for paying for nuclear- well we always have, the reason ‘green’ subsidies were introduced was to support the nuclear industry. I am in two minds, from being v anti nuclear to my main issue being cost [and the fact they have their own armed police force].

        how mad is this conversation- a conservative arguing for a supply economy and a socialist defending a demand one! But so much better than coping with the UKtp lala land economics.


        30 November 2012 at 19:10

    • Thanks Jules and please do send me details of that green home design of yours. Paul.

      Paul Handover

      30 November 2012 at 14:45

      • I’m afraid nothing so material as plans yet. Currently looking at a few houses that meet a retrofit strategy. So far it has been looking at criteria where lifestyle is less energy intensive, like being close to town shops, work and social life, choosing 60s-70s properties that have big south facing roofs and enough garden for a heat pump. 60/70s properties are ideal and cheaper than a new build or older refit, one we are looking at is an ex doctors surgery, ugly but if bought we will stick 6inches of insulation on the outside and clad it in galvanised wriggly tin.

        The other issue is investment, UK energy prices will double in less than 10 years [and that is being optimistic] and the clients working career is 20 years so currently it is looking at investment now to protect income in the future. £20,000 of investment should give a good return, also looking at EV use in a few years which allows for greater investment. And water harvesting to flush the loo and recycle the washing machine water.

        It is a fun project, and will write up contract via email. Hopefully will get plans up of my low material house/wood cabin design on tiny house blog soon.


        30 November 2012 at 19:29

  3. I have 3/4 written an essay to blow the good Dr. Alexander out of the water… Basically simplicity is what mussels do.

    This striving for, and glorifying of Medievalism (as Martin say) will hurt the cause of de-carbonization. It would also lead to the death of billions, so it won’t happen.

    Another point is that nuclear will not be avoided, so researching and developing safe nuclear (such as Thorium) is of the essence.
    (This is a hook I leave in the water for the anti-technological salmons.)

    Patrice Ayme

    1 December 2012 at 06:08

    • Thanks Patrice. I look forward to reading that essay, Patrice. Will you return with a link to it when it is finished? For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t much like Alexander’s medievalism either; and I do not believe modernity we will descend to it without a colossal fight. However, we do not have time for CCS or nuclear to make modern rates of consumption sustainable. Therefore, we must learn to get by on less; or face the reality that less of us will get by on what there is.

      Martin Lack

      1 December 2012 at 10:37

      • dear Martin: The problem is complex. It’s very far from simple. It’s about who, where, consumes how much, how. There is little doubt that the EU or the USA could get in autarcy quickly. So that’s neither the problem, nor the solution… (BTW, speaking of links, I thought my name already linked to my site on your site!)

        Patrice Ayme

        1 December 2012 at 23:56

        • Yes, but what would be useful is a direct link to the specific post that you may or may not have now published? This is the only way to ensure that, in days, weeks, or months to come, people can go straight to the post you want them to read.

          Martin Lack

          2 December 2012 at 11:24

  4. Good point, Martin, I did not think about that… I did not write the essay yet, as I went first on a wild tangent about complexity making us human. Dr. Alexander is typical of pop ecology, this time with “number crunching”. As I explained in my essay on The Economist “number crunching”, number crunching can be an excuse for thoughtlessness, or, worse, outright manipulation:

    Patrice Ayme

    2 December 2012 at 13:18

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