Book review:

Factor Five

Transforming the Global Economy through 80% Improvements in Resource Productivity

A Report to the Club of Rome

– by Ernst von Weizsäcker and others - Earthscan, 2009

This book builds on – updates – the book Factor Four, published in 1997, which detailed 50 case studies to demonstrate that, for energy, materials and/or water-use, significant –‘Factor Four’ – improvements to resource-productivity could profitably be achieved while still increasing wealth, by using an integrated, ‘whole-systems’ approach. To do this, the authors have sought out examples from around the world to demonstrate the possibility that, using the latest advances in knowledge and technology, 80% – ‘Factor Five’ – reductions as compared with typical use could now be achieved – and urgently must be achieved, to achieve ‘sustainability’ into the future, and avoid destruction of our life-support systems.

It notes, however, the potential for a ‘rebound effect’: the tendency for increased efficiency of resource-use to lead to increased use of the product. This, it notes, can be addressed by predictable increases of resource-cost, imposed by taxation, as with the UK’s Fuel Price Escalator (abandoned, but now to be reintroduced), even if not by increasing scarcity.

To support its message, it opens with 33 messages of recommendation from academics, journalists and NGOs, and 6 quotes from its sponsors, before we reach its title-page. It starts with a 3-page list of Acronyms and Abbreviations. It is then loaded with numerous notes following each of its 11 chapters, and ends with a reference list of 28 pages.

Its main author is Ernst von Weizsäcker, who authors the Introduction and Part II, but he is supported by contributions from Directors of The Natural Edge Project, of Australia, who authored Part I of the book – A Whole System Approach to Factor Five.

The dust-jacket notes that its ‘Sector Studies’ are ‘further supported by additional online Sector Studies of important sectors …’, but I could find no link to these in the book.

Its main concern is to urge widespread adoption of means to reduce demand for fossil-fuel based energy, for water and for other materials, urging co-ordination of action by a wide variety of services. While ideally designed-in at the start of a project, these means can usefully also be retro-fitted to existing buildings, etc. Many can be applied on a small scale, but others require regional or national action; and are appropriate for both advanced and ‘developing’ economies.

Examples include rainwater harvesting, by micro-dams, channels and stream-diversion over flood-plains to preserve water tables, and treating and re-using urban wastewater for peri-urban agriculture.

It makes a strong case for the widespread adoption of its recommendations, and at the end, briefly discusses their context in the continuing growth of world population and the current failure of neo-liberal economics – though it is too gentle in its criticisms of this!

While expressing concern for the continuing growth of world population, it regards it as an issue outside the scope of its subject. I regard this as a mistake, as the fundamental cause of this growth lies in the inequitable and growing inequality of distribution of resources and opportunity for education. This, too, impacts on the perceived ‘need for growth’ beyond meeting reasonable needs.

Until this final chapter, it uncritically accepts the need for continued ‘economic growth’, ‘jobs’ and ‘full employment’, albeit with ‘Factor Five’ reductions of resource-consumption.

It notes that reduction of resource-consumption commonly involves increased labour-use, and sees this as an advantage. Only in the final chapter is the lack of leisure seen as a problem; and it importantly ignores the driving, distorting influence of outstanding debts due to the debt-based money system, on the multitude of problems around the world.

In omitting this last point, it is driven to recommend a slow but predictable change to resource taxation, progressively reducing or replacing taxes on employment as resource-productivity improves. The urgency of the need for reform makes this unacceptably slow!

It notes that increasing resource taxation hits the poor, and advocates some means of compensation, but does not suggest the most effective means: the introduction of Basic Incomes. Reform to end the debt-based money system, in its place introducing money created and spent into circulation by government without the creation of debt, would make it a simple matter to introduce this, almost overnight.

Given this measure, the ‘Transition Towns’ movement, which is noted with approval but seen as marginal, could become the norm: local production for local needs, a growing sense of community and mutual aid, with minimal need for wider exchange of surpluses for mutual benefit, and with products designed for long life and easy repair.

– Brian Leslie