Apocalypse cowed

Joanna Depledge is disturbed by advice to be passive in the face of human-induced apocalypse

August 8, 2013

Warning to prospective readers: this book is not what it seems. I thought I recognised the book’s genre: it would demonstrate the inadequacy of energy efficiency policies with entertaining examples, examine alternatives (emissions trading? technology agreements?) and conclude with a call to urgent action. Not at all. More than once I found myself gasping at the turn of Steve Hallett’s argument, and he left me quite giddy by the end.

Another warning. The book’s target audience is predominantly American. Although Hallett’s British origins shine through in valuable ways, the book is full of US-centric material that may escape British readers – I can guess what a household furnace might be, but who is Smokey the Bear?

Hallett starts out, and continues, by lambasting “efficiency”. Most energy analysts would accept the core of the “efficiency trap” argument, namely, that greater efficiency (of televisions, power stations, refrigerators) does not automatically mean lower consumption. On the contrary, greater efficiency can lead – and has led – to bigger products with more bells and whistles, and therefore to overall energy use that is just as high, if not higher, than before.

Hallett documents this tendency with great gusto, but he gets carried away with blaming poor old efficiency for a whole manner of ills (resource depletion, limited spread of renewables, exploitation of dirty shale oil and so on) that have more to do with political choices, markets and conventional notions of economic growth than this essentially technical concept. He also contradicts himself by condemning efficiency yet dismissing certain environmental technologies, notably renewables, for their inefficiency. And the extension of his argument to almost every aspect of US life (health, politics, education, food) gets a bit tedious.

Unexpectedly, he then turns his analysis to…natural ecosystems. Here, as a botanist, Hallett is on firmer ground. This time, efficiency is charged with dangerously reducing complexity, thereby laying systems open to sudden collapse. Nature shows that diversity and resilience, not efficiency, are the goals to strive for. The efficiency of our modern systems should thus be a cause for alarm, not celebration.

What to do? Here comes the clincher. We should not be trying to save the world. It’s just too hard to curb carbon dioxide emissions or stop burning fossil fuels, so don’t bother. We could, Hallett concedes, take a shot at those other greenhouse gases, such as methane, that are (allegedly) easier to tackle. But beyond that, Hallett has a deeply pessimistic view of policy, politics and humanity. Which is odd, because his writing is so cheerful.

So what should we do instead? Well, we must plan for the collapse of civilisation. Frustratingly, Hallett offers few insights into what the collapse might look like, except that fuel and money will be scarce and it will occur in the 2030s (but doesn’t, intriguingly, seem to involve any major climate catastrophe). Amid this apocalyptic talk, Hallett is determinedly practical. Get a solar panel, grow veggies in your garden, promote community cohesion by saying “hi” to your neighbours. It sounds wonderful. But if we admit defeat on carbon dioxide so that, as Hallett expects, atmospheric concentrations reach 700 parts per million, then his idyllic localist vision is laughable. Beyond 700ppm, much of the planet would become virtually uninhabitable.

This book is a personal thought-piece, not a rigorous investigation. It has none of the brilliance and rigour of Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive or James Lovelock’s Gaia: Medicine for an Ailing Planet, but it is still a good read. Just don’t be fooled by the “techie” title and playful style: this is nothing short of a manifesto for global surrender and local retreat. As such, its message is highly political, and deeply disturbing.

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