Relevance of Mainstream Sustainability to Energy Descent
Mainstream approaches to sustainability tend to assume stability if not expansion in the energy flows available to humanity even if there are major transitions in the nature of the energy sources. Consequently, continuity of many of the structures underpinning current social and economic systems is assumed.
For example, modern affluent urban life in a society dominated by service economies may be transformed by revolutions in efficiency but will remain the norm for future sustainable society. Further, it is widely assumed that food production and management of biological resources to provide for human needs will remain a minor part of future economies, and that geopolitical stability will allow globalised trade and other global governance regimes to become increasingly effective as instruments to establish sustainable systems.
These are not so different from the business as usual assumptions about constant growth, but they require not only herculean efforts to build a new energy infrastructure before energy becomes too expensive and unreliable, but also massively reducing our greenhouse gas emissions today, if not yesterday.
There is also the small problem of reforming the monetary system away from dependence on perpetual growth without inducing financial collapse. I say “small problem” with irony of course because growth in economic activity is essential to support the debt based currency which is the very foundation of our money and banking system stretching back to the beginnings of capitalism and its economic precursors.
For these reasons I feel the Techno Stability long-term future has even less prospects than the default future of Techno explosion. Maybe this also helps explain the deep resistance and antagonism in the centres of political and economic power to questioning of the logic of growth. Whether it comes from an ecological or sociological perspective questioning economic growth threatens the very basis of our economic system. The lip service to environmental sustainability – so long as it can maintain essential growth – reflects this understanding.
Consequently more idealistic notions of steady state green economics are automatically rejected as throwing the “baby out with the bathwater”. While I have been as critical of the concept of continuous economic growth as most environmentalists and scientists, I also recognise that attempts to avoid the ecological precipice by reducing economic growth could bring down the whole system just as Gorbachev’s Glasnost contributed to the unravelling of the Soviet system. The economic hard liners could be right. There is no way to stop the train of global industrial capitalism (other than by crashing).
Despite these doubts about the logic behind many mainstream approaches to sustainability, they have contributed greatly in spreading new environmental thinking. For example the Natural Step concept64See Wikipedia for summary and links http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Natural_Step aims to protect biophysical systems by creating closed loop industrial manufacturing through continual improvements in performance. It has been very influential in Scandinavia and has been adopted by some of the more progressive manufacturing corporations. Rapidly rising costs of energy and commodities will reinforce many of the Natural Step strategies but these will also increase the costs of adopting some of the more elaborate environmental technologies that have been used to ensure no contamination of natural or human environments.
Natural Step might work to some degree in the Green Tech world but would seem futile in the Brown Tech, technically and organisationally impractical in the Earth Steward, and meaningless in the Lifeboat. The vast majority of sustainability concepts and strategies to reduce ecological footprint and greenhouse gas emissions could be similarly analysed as having uncertain relevance at best to energy descent scenarios.
In general, fundamental principles will have more utility than specific strategies and technologies
The following table quantifies my view that mainstream approaches to sustainability have quite low relevance to energy descent scenarios. Low scores do not mean that these ideas will completely disappear but that they will tend to shift from their current status as the innovative cutting edge of the economy to reflecting a past era – rather than their objective of becoming the norm within a sustainable society. The table also shows that in general, fundamental principles will have more utility than specific strategies and technologies that are currently being applied as good examples of these concepts.
The next section considers the relevance of permaculture and environmental principles to an era of energy descent