Reflections on Flannery’s National Library lecture (final)

So where does that leave us?–‘us’ being here simply the population of the world.  Flannery attempts a rallying call to the troops.  Calling, rather oddly, on the nineteenth century campaign to rid the world of slavery, and on the late twentieth century campaign to rid the world of the CFC’s that deplete ozone, he argues for a positive stance.  In effect one has to take a position of this kind; otherwise, why bother to give lectures and write articles at all? 

Yet there are critical issues largely ignored in Flannery’s lecture.  That is understandable, because these issues are largely the human ones, and Flannery is a natural rather than a human scientist. Flannery’s appeal to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer is made in order to argue that the world can cooperate on global climate when the issue is sufficiently critical and the evidence sufficiently convincing.  At the time (twenty years ago) the evidence for both the existence of the thinning and disappearance of the ozone layer and its chemical mechanism was still accumulating.  There was, however, no doubt about the reality of the threat to the earth’s biological systems.  As Ian Wills points out, however, in this excellent book Economics and the Environment, the ability of the international community to conclude an effective agreement had less to do with international cooperation than with international business.  The deal that secured the Protocol involved the international manufacturers of CFC’s agreeing to cease making and selling these substances in exchange for rights to make and sell their substitutes.  In addition, the potential disruption to the global economy was far less than is the case for GHGs: CFCs operate in relatively confined segments of the economy.

There is indeed little persuasive evidence that the world community can engage successfully in the kind of strong institutional action needed to stablise the world’s carbon dioxide concentration at 350ppm, as Flannery/Hansen propose, particularly in the short times required.  There remains the possibility of devolving action to the local level where there is at least some evidence of achievement.  But there is doubt that a local strategy can succeed on its own: it needs to be complemented by action by the global community at the international level.

There is, furthermore, a larger question facing the Flannery/Hansen view.  It is worth noting–and it is even remarkable–that their analysis is almost exclusively framed in terms of the supply side of the energy equation.  That is, the global demand trends for energy are assumed to be a given.  The developed world will continue at a high, and increasingly higher, level of energy demand.  The developing world will continue its rapid acceleration of energy demand to at least the levels of the developed world; and that is underpinned by ethical imperatives, the right of developing nations to take their citizens out of poverty as developed nations have done.  With these demand trends taken as a given, the question addressed by Flannery/Hansen is how to meet them with lowest impact on GHG levels–hence the set of strategies they recommend. 

Yet there is surely another way to view this strategy, and it is hardly a new one.  It is simply the question of the link between economic consumption and well-being.  For example, Clive Hamilton’s excellent book, Growth Fetish, points to the lack of clear evidence of a link, on one side, between economic growth and well-being, and on the other the evidence clearly suggesting a link between materialistic values and poor psychological health.  He remarks:  “Modern consumer capitalism will flourish as long as what people desire outpaces what they have.  It is thus vital to the reproduction of the system that individuals are constantly made to feel dissatisfied with what they have. . .in reality economic growth can be sustained only as long as people remain discontented.  Economic growth does not create happiness: unhappiness sustains economic growth.”  He goes on to cite estimates of the World Resources Institute that in the US, Japan and some European countries total wastes and pollutants increased by 28% between 1975 and 1996.  Wastes must be absorbed by environmental systems, or they will accumulate, as the growth and impact of GHG’s demonstrates. It has been estimated that over the last four decades human demand for resources has moved from 70% of the earth’s ability to absorb and regenerate to 120%–human populations are now drawing down the natural capital that sustains them. 

There have been many proposals to ameliorate the impact of over-consumption.  A recent one is that of Thomas Princen, in his book The Logic of Sufficiency.  Princen proposes a principle of sufficiency, which can become a principle of management and ultimately a social organising principle.  It is stated as follows:  “Sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration jeopardizes important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion; when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized.”  Princen looks to a revival of what he sees as the three elements inherent in the traditional concept and practice of work: the idea of fit, where individuals seek work that fits their skills and aptitudes; the idea of serving one’s community through production (here Princen is referring to the distinction between producing goods and services which serve the real needs of people, not artificially created feelings of dissatisfaction); and the long-term welfare of present and future generations.  It is here, he argues, that the ecological challenge presented by indefinitely increasing throughput, is ultimately addressed.  Such a view of work “. . .promotes the values of identity, economic independence, and citizenship through self-directed proprietorship.  Inherent in such a vision is self-discipline, striving for purpose, and, not least, limits to ever-increasing material throughput.”  

Surely this is the missing dimension of the Flannery/Hansen analysis.  If increasing energy demands are really a given, the difficulties of achieving a reduction of carbon-dioxide to 350ppm are beyond daunting.  It is with the moderation of demand—in the realisation that well-being and human happiness are not, in the end, bought with material consumption—that the possibility of stabilising the world climate system rests.  The economic system that is built on this value must also change.  But behind this sits the question that has occupied all human societies, and certainly Western civilisation, from its beginnings: what constitutes a good life?  This is a deeply practical and urgent question.  If there is no serious engagement with it, the Flannery/Hansen analysis shows only the environmental fragility of any future that remains open.