Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Demanding less. Or not.

Today, a friend of mine who is active in the Green party in Northern Ireland posted a link to a new report on his Facebook wall. The report is called “Demanding less: why we need a new politics of energy” and offers some familiar ideas about the future, such as that we need demand-side reductions in energy use and that we should begin shaping a “low energy society”.

As you can imagine, I could not disagree more.

Instead of an “energy descent”, I think we should invest in a high energy future which can offer fast and reliable transportation, advanced material flows, and the energy necessary for everything from desalination of sea water to greenhouse gas remediation. I strongly believe that the rich countries need to take the lead in developing the kind of energy technologies that will make possible a world in which ten billion people can sustain a decent material life. Focusing on "degrowth" and "low energy" will obscure this global responsibility.

Moreover, the "low energy talk", especially if it focuses on the need for individual sacrifice, will alienate people and lead to unnecessary polarization while being ineffective when it comes to solving our global challenges. Already today we have seen how climate change has become almost as much an act of faith as abortion rights in the United States. To even suggest the amount of sacrifice that would be necessary to achieve sustainability through reduced energy and material flows in a world of seven billion people would be paramount to political suicide. That is why no politicians do that. The most worrying problem with all this is, as I have pointed out before, that we risk falling in between, i.e. not accelerating modernity enough to achieve sustainability through advanced technologies yet not slow modernity down enough to ensure sustainability through reduced metabolism.

In order to make progress towards a prosperous and equitable future, we need the support of all good forces, in particular the people who write these kind of reports. The choice is simple, either continue demanding that everyone, everywhere, subject themselves to the planetary limits and learn to “live within our means” or instead join the effort to finally and completely lift those limits.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Gabriel said...

In your last paragraph: a false, and dangerous, dichotomy.

And in short: No, individual "sacrifice", as you like to call any self imposed or self acknowledged constraint of any form, does not per se alienate. Desires are "acts of faith" as well, even the desire for a lounge bagel.

You are utterly on the wrong way, as usual :) It is not like we have a "modernity potentiometer" to decide in which direction to turn. And why, oh why, again and again, waste time on the few "dismantlers" (yes, yes, they do exist in Academia, I suppose), when you could have a reasonable argument with the mainline?

8:02 pm  
Blogger Rasmus said...

Precisely because there are good reasons to think that the “mainline” may be our real cause for concern. Let me explain. Solutions for sustainability that may seem adequate in a small, scarcely populated rich country liked Sweden (and which may theoretically even win some electoral support, yet remember how fiercely people tend to resist even marginally higher gasoline prices etc.) are still woefully inadequate to solve the global challenges we face. When travelling through China and India it becomes obvious that no matter how many “organic and local” restaurants or new tramlines they open, it will not deliver long-term sustainability. It is a simple matter of numbers.

In that sense, suggesting “dismantling” is at least an intellectually honest though politically impossible position (unless everyone suddenly goes through some kind of quasi-mystical inner change). While moderation and ambivalence may be very good strategies for solving smaller and more limited problems, I believe that they are particularly problematic strategies when dealing with this kind of extreme macro-level problems.

So yes, I believe there is a kind of "modernity potentiometer" as in how we relate to the great trends of our time, in particular globalization and the remaining Enlightenment legacy (do not forget your Toulmin, this is not about one-sided rationality but rather about critical thinking, pluralism and limits on political authority). Either we seek the kind of total epistemological homogenization necessary for a “dismantling” of modernity or we seek to radicalize modernity through massive social investments, open borders and global political agency. The middle road, to not commit ourselves to anything while being ironic about everything, is clearly not going to work, especially since we can expect that future environmental changes may be both non-linear and abrupt in ways that will have far-reaching cascading effects on society as a whole and in particular on our ability to maintain a liberal society.

3:33 am  
Blogger Rasmus said...

And, by all means, go ahead and sacrifice seeing other countries, bagel eating or whatever. Just do not mistake these acts of individual environmental stewardship with long-term strategies for global environmental sustainability.

3:43 am  

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