5: Book reviews
1. Power Down – Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World
Richard Heinberg Clairview Books, December 2004 £10.95
Coming less than two years after his last book, The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies, which I reviewed in SustEc 11/4, July 2003, this book is an update, reviewing further the options for a near-future which will inevitably experience collapse of the world ‘economy’, and demand adjustment to this, either through intelligent, informed, cooperative means or through destructive competition for the diminishing resources.
As in his last book, he realises that the collapse will have many
causes, but regards the imminent peaking of oil supplies, and the
inability of alternatives to fully replace it, as the most likely one to
precipitate it. With the ongoing pollution and exhaustion of the
environment, he estimates that if humanity is to survive far into the
future, its population must be reduced one way or another, to an eventual
global figure of about 2 bn.######He then posits four possible, likely
strategies for survival and coping with the collapse:
1/ Last One Standing: competition for remaining resources – with the powerful fighting ruthlessly for control of these;
2/ Powerdown: cooperation, conservation and sharing – to achieve a controlled reduction of pressure on the environment;
3/ Waiting for a Magic Elixir: wishful thinking, false hopes and denial; and
4/ Building Lifeboats: attempting community solidarity and preservation of knowledge, artefacts and tools.
While his clear preference is for the second option, he is clear that there are many obstacles, which he sets out, making this a difficult, if not most unlikely route. He commends aiming for a combination of this and ‘building lifeboats’.
Having explored these possibilities, and acknowledging that they are not mutually exclusive – in all probability the future will contain elements of all – he then looks at the likely responses to these options of three groups: the ‘power elites’, organised opposition to these, and ordinary people. His hope is that this book will contribute to positive action in support of options 2 and 4 above.
Overall, he makes a convincing case that collapse of the world ‘economy’ is imminent, noting that increasing cost and diminishing supplies of oil will make impossible the continued ‘economic growth’ needed to avoid collapse of the debt-driven economy (debt-driven, as he notes, because of the nature of modern money-creation). Development of renewable alternatives cannot even near-fully compensate, to avoid this, while exhaustion and poisoning of other natural resources add to the need to ‘downsize’.
In general, he paints a well-informed and convincing picture of possible futures, and these are not rosy. However, on some points I believe he is over-pessimistic.
It is certainly true that modern agriculture cannot continue without major inputs of oil for power, fertilisers, pesticides etc., and to feed the present world population will require a rapid change to organic/permaculture methods, for which he considers the current farming population inadequate. However, the example he quotes, of the Cuban experience, coupled with the (all-too slowly) growing acknowledgement of the benefits of organic methods in government and conventional farming circles, with consequent growing support for it, I think give more grounds for optimism than he finds. Various trials indicate that organic farming methods can near-match, if not considerably exceed the output of orthodox methods, while improving the nutritional value and soil condition; and a change to near-vegetarian/vegan diet would allow far more to be fed adequately, than continuing with a high meat- content (this message is especially important for Americans!).
He also does not contemplate the possibility of changing the debt-money system, or of issuing Citizens’ In- comes, which in combination, would allow a rapid change of production to concentrate on efficient production of basic needs, with durable, easily repairable goods and elimination of waste. The need for these changes, while still strongly resisted by the vested interests benefiting from the present system, is becoming more widely recognised, and so more hopeful of implementation. To further the move to this, the ‘Simultaneous Policy’ movement, to bring citizen pressure on those standing for election to pledge support for such measures ‘when all/most other countries do so’, potentially could transform the situation.
The corporations’ influence on governments and media ownership/ control are major problems, but even despite this, Green Parties are a growing force, and if they will ‘stick to their guns’ in daring to recognise population-growth as a problem, and take on board the issue of monetary reform, while continuing to gain popular support, there is more hope of following the ‘powerdown’ path to the future than Richard thinks possible or probable.
The growing support of the Establishment for the proposal for Contraction and Convergence put forward by the Global Commons Institute for the global reduction in emissions of CO2 in a way that gives financial benefit to the Third World is another ray of hope.
The increasing vulnerability of the US to economic collapse due to its massive debt, and the threat posed by the Euro, especially as an alternative for oil trading, could bring the issue of monetary reform to the fore as a means of saving the situation. It was widely discusses after the crash of 1929, and influenced the changes that followed, even if only partially.
Despite these caveats, with which not everyone will agree, the book deserves the widest possible readership, by everyone with a concern for the future.
His website,http:// www.museletter.com, is well worth a look at, if not a subscription to his Museletter. As a taster, try http:// www.museletter.com/archive/148.html
2. The Natural Step – Towards a Sustainable Society
David Cook Schumacher Briefing No.11 Green Books November 2004 £6 ISBN 1 903998 47 6 210
The Natural Step is an idea dating from 1989, when its originator, Karl-Henrik Robèrt, started promoting it in Sweden. Since then, The Natural Step International has developed teams in 10 countries including the US and UK, and activities in many others. There are three main programmes: research and development, advisory services, and outreach.
Its aim is to promote the application of systems theory to the promotion of deeper understanding and commitment to ‘sustainable development’, especially among decision-makers, throughout society.
It claims success with several large corporations in Europe and America, as well as with small and medium-sized enterprises, communities and the public sector; the book cites examples of its work starting with Carrillion (formerly Tarmac) in an early example of a PFI project, the building of a new hospital which opened in Swindon in 2002; with Starbucks, reducing its environmental impact by increasing its use of organic, fair-traded tea and coffee and of recycled paper in its packaging, among other changes for the better; and the Canadian resort town of Whistler, planning to co-host the Olympic Games in 2010.
Promoting the concept of ‘sustainable development’ to top management in business, government and civil society and the need to incorporate it from the start, as a fundamental need, into planning decisions is a necessary step toward the changes urgently needed. It is good to learn of the growth and influence of this organisation, and it is to be hoped that it can eventually reach a majority of decision-makers.
It is a variation on the idea of CSR – Corporate Social Responsibility. The spreading of these ideas among decision-makers is a necessary process, though inherently limited in potential to achieve the fundamental changes needed. Like CSR, it does not address the built-in causes of the unsustainable nature of the current world ‘economy’ covered in previous Schumacher Briefings, notably its usurious debt-money basis, nor the psychopathic nature of corporate ‘persons’, as highlighted in the recently released film, ‘The Corporation’. These impose severe limits on how far any personnel within corporations can work toward ‘sustainable development’. Nor does the book envisage the breakdown of the world economy, which ‘Powerdown’ and The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies' predict, and so the extreme urgency of preparing to cope with this.
– Brian Leslie