Meltdown might be avoided

Plan B 2.0 - Capitalism as if the World Matters

September 1, 2006

Apocalypse no longer seems imminent to two veteran eco-warriors - but that is no great cause for celebration, John Adams thinks

Recently a seminar was held at the Young Foundation on the subject of "positional goods" - a concept central to the argument of The Social Limits to Growth by Fred Hirsch. That book was published in 1976, four years after the much more famous Limits to Growth by Dennis Meadows et al. The seminar provided a fascinating context for a review of these two books by Jonathon Porritt and Lester Brown.

In The Social Limits to Growth , Hirsch argued that in affluent societies when most basic material needs had been met, the analyses of environmentalists in the 1970s, preoccupied with physical limits to growth, were "strikingly misplaced". He accepted that, so long as material privation is widespread, "conquest of material scarcity is the dominant concern". But, once these basic needs have been met, the "goods" that people pursue increasingly become "positional". By this he meant that the drive to keep up with the Joneses was a zero-sum game that, he predicted, would end in frustration: "If everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees better."

Or sometimes worse. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the realm of transport. Lewis Mumford observed in the 1960s that "as long as motorcars were few in number, he who had one was a king". But now, hundreds of millions of kings later, he who has one has earned the privilege of sitting in a traffic jam pondering why his "escape" to the suburbs has not made him happier. It has also left urban planners struggling to cope with the amplified misery of the inner city that the kings have left behind.

Hirsch's insight, published and largely ignored in the 1970s, is belatedly gaining a foothold.

The 1970s witnessed an upsurge in environmentalism. Friends of the Earth was started in 1971; its first high-profile stunt was the dumping of non-returnable bottles at the door of 10 Downing Street. The prescience of Meadows et al's Limits to Growth appeared to be confirmed by the energy crisis of 1973. Prominent in this decade were campaigns against new motorways, airports and the Concorde jet: the developments that collectively came to symbolise the heedless trampling of the natural environment and the extravagant consumption of finite resources driven by the pursuit of economic growth.

Porritt in Britain and Brown in the US can fairly claim to be the best known and most influential environmentalists in their respective countries. They are long-serving eco-warriors. Porritt, an active environmentalist in the 1970s, became co-director of Britain's Green Party in the early 1980s and was director of Friends of the Earth between 1984 and 1990. Brown founded the world's best-known environmental think-tank, World Watch, in 1974. Both are battle-hardened and, to judge by their most recent books, at a reflective stage of their careers.

How fares their struggle? Certainly their perspective on the world's problems has been altered by more than three decades of campaigning. In the 1970s and 1980s, they shared the prevailing neo-Malthusian ethos of Limits to Growth : Malthus got the timing wrong, but he was right about the impossibility of never-ending economic growth.

Three decades of growth later, the environmentalist Cassandras of the 1970s have metamorphosed into much-honoured elder statesmen. They are no longer dumping non-returnable bottles on the doorstep of No 10; they are invited inside. Porritt has been chosen by the Prime Minister to chair his Sustainable Development Commission and is accurately described on the book's jacket as a "leading adviser to business and Government". Brown, on his side of the Atlantic, holds more than 20 honorary degrees and is similarly influential.

Not surprisingly, their tone has become less strident; if you are in the room with presidents, prime ministers and captains of industry, you do not need to shout. But the substance of their message has also changed. It has become less apocalyptic and more optimistic. Some of the entrepreneurial spirit of those with whom they now associate appears to have rubbed off.

In 1981, Brown declared: "The period of global food security is over." In 1994, he wrote: "The world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to our numbers." And as recently as 1997, he warned: "Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended."

In Plan B 2.0 , he has become decidedly more cheerful: "There is much to be upbeat about." His first chapter is titled "Entering a new world". One is tempted to preface that "new world" with "brave": "The challenge is to build a new economy and to do so at wartime speed - participating in the construction of this enduring new economy is exhilarating." Worrying about whether there will be enough food has been replaced in Plan B 2.0 by speculating about whether agriculture can feed the world and make a significant contribution, via carbon-neutral biofuels, to the solution of the energy crisis.

Brown's emphasis has shifted from demand restraint to technical fix: "All the problems we face can be dealt with using existing technologies" or, hedging slightly, "new technologies offer hope in dealing with the mounting challenges we face on the environmental front". He now holds out the hope that we can "sustain economic progress while saving money, reducing oil dependence and cutting carbon emissions".

On some issues, Brown's metamorphosis appears incomplete. On transport, he is stranded between his old fears and his new optimism. On the one hand, the car is the enemy, responsible for the degrading of cities and dispersal into low-density unsustainable suburbs. On the other, Brown advocates technological developments in the form of cleaner, more efficient engines and non-carbon fuels that will remove constraints on more increases in car dependence. "Gas-electric hybrid automobiles, getting 55 miles per gallon, are easily twice as efficient as the average vehicle on the road," he enthuses. Plan B 2.0 concludes portentously: "The choice is yours - yours and mine. We can stay with business as usual and preside over an economy that continues to destroy its natural support systems until it destroys itself, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that changes direction, moving the world on to a path of sustained progress. The choice will be made by our generation, but it will affect life on Earth for all generations to come."

The "choice", as he frames it, pretty much makes itself. Would you like to "sustain economic progress while saving money, reducing oil dependence and cutting carbon emissions" or not? In Brown's view, technology makes all this possible.

Porritt's latter-day optimism is more nuanced and qualified. He challenges the mantra of the techno-enthusiasts: "Ever since the publication of Limits to Growth , sustainable development pragmatists have convincingly argued that the best hope of averting ecological meltdown is pervasive technological innovation." While still concerned about damage to the natural environment, Porritt is now much more interested in the problem that troubled Hirsch. What is economic growth for? What is the ultimate objective of Brown's "economic progress"?

He invokes the growing body of evidence produced by Richard Layard and others to demonstrate that, despite three decades of economic growth, affluent societies are no happier now than they were in the 1970s. And he laments with Robert Putnam the decline of social capital that has accompanied economic growth. He concludes that "without high and stable levels of social capital, no society can achieve its collective aspirations" and that "the core values that underpin sustainable development - interdependence, empathy, equity, personal responsibility and intergenerational justice - are the only foundation upon which any viable vision of a better world can possibly be constructed".

The cover of Porritt's book features a quotation from a Financial Times review: "A message that businesses may find they are surprised to agree with." It would indeed be surprising if capitalists, or governments, were to surprise themselves by agreeing with his message. There are no businesses of economic significance that do not aspire to grow, and no governments that do not continue to strive to provide their voters with more of the material fruits of progress.

Affluent societies appear to be on what Layard calls a "hedonic treadmill". If everyone stands on tiptoe, no one sees better. And if everyone on the hedonic treadmill runs faster, no one gets happier. The ethos of capitalism, with its commitment to exponential growth, drives the wheel ever faster.

Although he tries valiantly to be upbeat, ultimately Porritt's vision is more wistful than optimistic. In Redefining Prosperity , a report of his Sustainable Development Commission, he observes: "Rather than 'consume less', the thrust of any new debate here is likely to be 'consume wisely' for the foreseeable future. That may not be sufficient, but it's all that would appear to be manageable right now in terms of mainstream political responses to capitalist economies."

John Adams is emeritus professor of geography, University College London.

Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble

Author - Lester R. Brown
Publisher - Norton
Pages - 352
Price - £18.99 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 393 06162 0 and 32831 7

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