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.