Monday, June 29, 2009

Loose and Tight models of Sustainability

For some sustainability optimists, the simultaneous crises of climate change and peak oil (to which we must now add the economic slump and debt crisis) is also a great opportunity. The need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to live within our planet's needs is, they hope, a wake-up call for our civilisation, and the chance to move towards a different way of living.

This new way would be based on a deliberate, conscious decision to reduce the complexity and inter-dependence of our civilisation. It would involve re-localisation, a reduction in consumption of many unnecessary goods and services, a degree of de-industrialisation and re-engagement with more fundamental aspects of life such as food growing. We'd have less stuff, and our 'standard of living' as measured by conventional indices like GDP would reduce, but our quality of life would improve.

This kind of vision is sometimes accompanied with an evocation of the wartime spirit, with fond memories of digging for victory. The Slow Food movement, and even more the Transition Towns movement, are good examples of this kind of thinking. In essence, this view says Loose rather than Tight is the key to resilience, which in turn is the key to sustainability.

But there is another vision of a low-carbon, more sustainable society, which is more or less the polar opposite – even though it is also a plan for sustainability. It argues that we need less Loose – that Tight, and efficiency, are the only route to a sustainable society.

Here, sustainability depends on more technology and more centralisation to deliver efficiency gains; it's these that make it possible to reduce energy consumption and emissions without reducing the quality of life. So energy efficiency based on “smart grids” that link generation more closely to consumption – real-time monitoring of your electricity meter is a must. High-tech communications equipment in our homes substituting for travel – both for work and for leisure. We'd be less likely to have our cars, and we'd be more urbanised and densely packed, not less – especially since high-energy modes of transport would be less affordable.

This second vision is the one implicit in some of the plans for a sustainable future drawn up by business, by the big consulting firms and the technology industries, like the “SMART 2020: Enabling the Low Carbon Economy in the Information Age” drawn up by the “Global e-sustainability Initiative”and The Climate Group.

Most of the time there is little contact between the two different visions. For the most part, the Green movement simply pretends that the high-technology model of sustainability doesn't exist; there are a few exceptions. Simon Fairlie at least confronts the issue head-on in his revisit to 'Can Britian Feed Itself?', in which he attributed to James Lovelock a plan whereby “a third of the land is given over to wilderness, and a third to agribusiness, while the majority of the population is crammed into the remaining third and fed on junk food”.

Mainly, though, Greens prefer to think that when business talks about the transition to a low-carbon economy as an opportunity, they are only interested in a bit of greenwash and marketing spin, and to sell us more stuff with a green label on it. And of course, business doesn't think much about the Loose model either – except to caricature anyone who has doubts about the possibility of growth without end as a know-nothing who wants to return us to the Middle Ages if not to the Stone Age.

As a Green, my heart, and my sympathies, are with the proponents of Loose, but increasingly my head is with a version of Tight. A more sustainable society will de-centralise some things, but it almost certainly will need to centralise others. It's fun to play around with local currencies, but funding social services and health requires a proper tax system. The Transition Town vision of re-localisation is great for Totnes and Lewes, but we need a different vision for the great urban conurbations that have arisen because of the existence of a global economy and don't make sense without it – this is true not only of the City of London, but also for Haringey and Brixton.

Those who invoke the wartime spirit tend to forget that 'dig for victory' was part of a bigger picture that included rationing and the massive bureaucracy that went with it. Running an integrated transport system will need lots of real-time information processing about the whereabouts of vehicles and passengers.

Personal carbon quotas will require massive databases and data collection systems; Enforcing rationing and preventing 'off-ration' carbon consumption will require an extension of state surveillance and powers; anyone who tells you otherwise hasn't thought much about the huge infrastructure that organised crime has built up around the transhipment of narcotic drugs, a commodity with much more minority appeal than energy.

It seems unlikely that carbon rationing will be based on little paper books and cardboard coupons; I am not at all sure that we can simultaneously oppose ID cards on civil liberties grounds while calling for the introduction of any kind of carbon rationing or quotas, and perhaps it's time to stop automatically resisting any initiative like this. Otherwise, we end up sounding like the nutters who oppose speed cameras on civil liberties grounds.

And the later we leave preparing for transition, the bigger the shock is going to be. When the lights start to go out and the food stops arriving in the supermarkets, many people will be grateful for the smack of firm government, and not too fussed about who gets hurt or what gets taken away in the process.

What's important, then, is not to reject Tight versions of sustainability out of hand, but to start a proper political engagement with them. Who is going to be in control? What safeguards will there be on surveillance? Who decides what the ration allocations are going to be? It's fun to brew our own beer and grow our own vegetables, and it helps to rebuild communities and help think about priorities. But it's no substitute for a proper plan to save civilisation that starts from where we are now, not where we'd like to be.


David Flint said...

Jeremy, you raise a good point here and your conclusion, that sustainability requires new technology and regulation, must be sound. Climate change is at least as great a challenge as Hitler. In WW2 we needed central planning, mass mobilisation and sacrifice. Any effective response to climate change will need the same elements - but for much longer.

Running parallel to the loose/tight divide that your mention is a split within the environmental movement (recently reported in New Scientist by Fred Pearce and also in New Humanist). This is between those who want to maintain as much as possible of our standard of living consistent with sustainability and those who demand no change to nature.

The second group cannot have what they want because people will not, even in non-democratic states, accept that degree of austerity. There are real choices to make but, regrettably, preservation of all of nature is not one of them. I for one shall be sorry to see the loss of peaceful hills and seascapes, but I should be sorrier still to see the collapse of civilisation across Europe.

David Flint said...

One specific point. Mark Lynas has pointed out that we can get emissions control without PERSONAL emissions quotas. We can control upstream instead.

Most emissions come from fossil fuels. We can require fuel extractors and importers and power station operators (a small number of substantial businesses)to buy permits. They will pass on the price of the permits in the prices of their electricity and in the fuel they sell to, eg motorists, thus restricting usage. Pricing permits is a serious issue (which I discuss at

One disadvantage of this scheme, relative to personal quotas, is that it increases costs to the poor. This could be addressed by suitable adjustments to the tax and/or tax credits systems.

Both personal and upstream schemes will need to be supplemented by measures to regulate emissions not due to fossil fuel consumption, eg those from farming and cement production.

The advantages of the upstream scheme are manifest. No individuals and relatively few companies would be directly effected and all of them have already to make reports to government. It therefore avoids the need for every citizen to have a ration card and every shop to have a reader.

Anonymous said...

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