Surface calm can hide bubbling crises

‘Business-as-usual’ politics predominates at present but it is deeply bankrupt. There is some useful context here for assessing the Trump-Clinton political rhetoric (and, by extension, the EU Referendum ‘debate’ here in the UK), all of which avoid the realities of ‘overshoot’ and the need to ‘think shrink’:


The Boiling Pot Richard Heinberg May 28, 2016 On the surface, things appear normal. The status quo of life in America circa 2016 isn’t to everyone’s liking, but at least the system is still working after a fashion. The price of oil is going up a bit: that means…

Myth of ‘Sustainable Growth’

This is good on the contradictions of ‘sustainable growth’, a contradiction in terms but routinely peddled by all sorts of fraudsters and fools:
See also:
Otherwise on the steady-state:

Ehrlich gives great overview of crisis of crises

Here is a good overview of the most critical aspects of today’s growing crisis of multiple crises from the ever insightful Paul Ehrlich:

Today’s population–resource–environment situation is summarized in comparison with that pertaining in 1968 when The Population Bomb was published. The human predicament is now much more serious, since the human population has more than doubled in size since 1968, key resources are much more depleted…

‘Age of Stupid’: Not so clever!

A review in The Ecologist called The Age of Stupid, the then new film from Fanny Armstrong, director of McLibel, a “fantastic achievement”. Here is a different view.

 Age of Stupid poster

The Age of Stupid has certainly aroused much interest, not just for its message but also for how it was funded, shot and premiered.[i] The finance for the movie’s £450,000 budget came from many dozens of individual or group subscriptions. The crew gave their labour freely or for very basic pay. Few, if any, other films, include in the final credits a ‘carbon budget’, detailing its contribution from its making to global warming (minimal compared to most movies, not least the blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow). Apparently it came to 94 tonnes of CO2, a figure equal to that generated by four average Americans or 185 patio heaters in one month.

Instead of the conventional ‘red carpet’ at the premiere, there was a green one, made from recycled materials. Also novel was the live link from London’s Leicester Square to dozens of other British cinemas to which the film streamed live over the Internet (“People’s Premiere”, March 16th 2009). Audiences in those other venues could text questions to Armstrong and her producer during the post-screening question and answer session. The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle where this reviewer saw the film, was packed, though, of course, many, many more thousands will go to see contemporaneous films like Lesbian Vampire Killers.

Unlike many other radical films, this one has explicit and quite specific campaigning goals, ones linked to the December 2009 Copenhagen international conference on climate change. The film’s star Peter Postlethwaite took the platform after the screening to propose that viewers pledge to take certain actions if the British government failed to make the right decisions about things such as the proposed Kingsnorth coal-fired power station. Labour minister Ed Miliband was there to hear Postlethwaite vow never to vote Labour again and to return his OBE if it gets the go-ahead.


Postlethwaite, Armstrong and Miliband with the Pledge 

The Age of Stupid has a fictional linking device in which an old man (Postlethwaite) looks back from 2055 to the world of today and wonders why people did not take due action over climate change. The film starts and finishes with him, with the intervening documentary sections, conjured to life as he sits touching a computer screen. CGI is used to communicate what has happened in the decades before the 2055. Some sections also employ more traditional animation.

The_Age_of_Stupid posthelwaite

Postlethwaite’s character as narrative link

The contemporary sections, on which shooting started in 2005, feature the boss of a new budget airline in India; a former oil rig geologist from New Orleans whose house was washed away in Hurricane Katrina; villagers from the Niger Delta who live near oil installations owned by Shell; a wind energy developer and his family in Britain facing local opposition to his latest project in Bedfordshire; a young Iraqi refugee whose father was killed and whose cousin was badly burnt during the American invasion; and a veteran alpine guide from Chamonix in France who has seen the local glaciers just shrink and shrink.

 age of stupid_sydney

Thanks to global overwarming and a bit of CGI, Sydney burns


Armstrong and her team have no doubt about the threat posed by climate change, with its potential to wipe out humankind, let alone a myriad of other species. Yet the film’s message is strangely muffled in other ways. Part of the problem is that it contains much extraneous material (the personal ambitions of the Nigerian women, the leisure habits of the American geologist, the war-scarred play of the Iraqi children and so on).

Indeed the narrative tends to wander here and there, losing some of its momentum, though the excellent performance by Postlethwaite does manage to hold everything together. It also attacks other targets such as political corruption and state repression that are not directly pertinent.

At times, it is not clear what the film is saying. Thus the American geologist is shown bemoaning the loss of his home and all his possessions. The point is made that rising sea temperatures, caused by global warming, will increase the frequency and severity of hurricanes. Yet the same man is to be heard praising the oil industry. He also says that he now appreciates the ‘quality of life’ much more than mere material things… as he roars around on his speedboat and motorbike.

Similarly, the film condemns Shell for oil pollution of local waters and the huge CO2 emissions caused by gas flaring. But it also attacks the corporation for not ploughing some of its enormous profits back into the construction of social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals for local people. Yet those monies are the yield of the very oilfields that, if runaway global warming is to be avoided, would have to be shut down.

Building support?

Armstrong clearly wants her film to energise positive action yet some viewers might feel quite the opposite reaction. This is because the inclusion of quite lengthy sequences about the Indian airline entrepreneur. Clearly he is tapping a huge potential market for cheap air travel.

Yet think of the impact of all those intended flights. Then add to it those from similar developments like the new, ultra-cheap Tata Nova cars that are set to flood onto India’s roads (Delhi alone already registers some 1,000 new cars every day). It might be reasonable to conclude that there is actually no hope. Hardly an empowering message!

The reply might be made that the film is trying to show ‘flesh-and-blood’ people and be even-handed. But the last thing we need is yet another dose of BBC-style ‘balance’. What is required is robust, engaging polemic. In this sense the film is surprisingly apolitical. Perhaps all the time given over to the airline magnate and to the ‘padding’ in other sections might have been better given over (employing the rather good animation and CGI techniques) to forceful rebuttals of the ‘denialist’ brigade who mock the global over-warming thesis (see, for example, Melanie’s Philip’s tirades in her on-line column on the Spectator website). The film might then have been a more effective tool for winning over non-converts.

Quite a bit of screen time is also handed over to protestors against a proposed wind farm development on an old airfield in Bedfordshire. They are caricatured as selfish not-in-my-backyarders and the film gives them a sort of come-uppance by pointing out that the area not long ago suffered bad floods that probably owe something to the growing impact of climate change.

Age of Stupid wind farm

Wind farm developer who faces local opposition in the film

Yet there are serious questions about the efficacy of wind energy (net energy yield, variability, reliability, pollution at factories producing turbine magnets, bird kills, salt-water corrosion of offshore turbines and cables). Even with the most generous assumptions, such energy sources could never underwrite anything remotely resembling the dominant lifestyle of countries like the UK. Veteran campaigners like Teddy Goldsmith put their cars on the table with books with titles such as Deindustrialising Society. Other authors such as Ted Trainer and Ernest Callenbach have painted detailed pictures of what a sustainable society would be like. It is not obvious whether The Age of Stupid team has a clear vision of just what we will have to give up.

Missing conceptions

Far worse, the team cannot see the realities of human overpopulation. Like the vast majority of documentaries and other media products, even including many publications from the ‘world development’ movement, The Age of Stupid virtually ignores the population ‘elephant in the room’. The growth of human population over the century is briefly mentioned but its significance is ignored.

Thus the section on Nigeria ignores the fact that the country has one of the highest population growth rates in the world. Apparently women there typically say that 7 is the ideal family size (men 10).[ii] The country is expected to have more than doubled its numbers to more than 300 million people by 2050. This trend is a recipe for disaster but the film focuses instead on poverty, and pollution by profiteering oil companies. These are all good causes but utter ruination can be the only result if the country’s exploding numbers are not curtailed.

Contrary to a widespread belief, the overpopulation crisis is not a problem just of poorer countries. The birth rate in the USA reached record levels in 2007. The biggest growth is amongst recent immigrants who now have higher living standards than they had in their country of origin and parent more children than otherwise would have been the case if they had not migrated.

Yet groups like Oxfam, who have actively dismissed the population factor, have always clung to the fallacy that affluence is the best contraceptive. Clearly it can also stimulate child-bearing. Such growth can only increase the USA’s overall contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, while making just about every other environmental problem not just worse but harder to resolve.

The population of the UK too is growing. Prior to the economic downturn (usually a bigger contraceptive effect), its growth had been at its fastest rate since the 1960s, increasing by 2.5% between mid-2001 and mid-2006, according to the Office for National Statistics. Fertility rates are at their highest level since 1980. The British population is now 61million and is set to pass 70m by 2028. Will land become less scarce, water shortages ease, housing shortages grow smaller, pressure on transport systems, schools, hospitals, and other services congestion diminish, biodiversity losses decline… and greenhouse gas emissions go down, as a result of that growth?

Governments are not only bailing out failed bankers but handing out baby bonuses in countries where birth rates are ‘stagnant’. They are seeking to kick start renewed population growth, as if the countries were not already overpopulated. Such policies will only make it harder for them to cope with what Professor John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientist, recently predicted as a “perfect storm” of food shortages, water scarcity and insufficient energy resources by 2030.[iii]

Immigration is a related issue, pregnant with adverse ecological consequences. But, true to type, the film has nothing to say. Yet current migration patterns are quite unsustainable. The problem is not just movement between countries but also within them. The population of the NW of the USA, for example, has grown at a rate of 1.9 p.a. since 1990 with over two thirds of that growth caused by people moving into the region.

Across in Australia, the New South Wales government two years ago instructed Sydney’s councils to accommodate an extra 1.1 million people within 25 years, such is the rate of both natural increase and net migration. In recently fire-swept Victoria, there are plans to increase the state’s population by one million by 2025. On current trends, the country’s population will reach 42 million by 2051. By the end of the century, it will pass 100 million.[iv]

Poorer countries face disaster still sooner. Population growth again plays a decisive part. Uganda’s population, for instance, is expected to double to 55 million in the next 20 years and, if unchecked, will reach 130 million by 2050. The woes of the Palestinians have many causes but they will not be eased by the surge in their numbers. The population of Gaza was 1 million in 1950. It is now 3.1 million and on line for 9 million by 2050.

Indeed in many areas there is a large pool of young men, with few opportunities, economic or sexual. It will be the perfect breeding ground for even worse terrorism, let alone even more unsustainable pressure on local ecology, where water in particular is already scarce.

Age of Stupid Fanny Armstrong

Fanny Armstrong on location

Contrary to what might be complacently assumed from so-called Demographic Transition theory, the middle class in poor countries is the fastest-growing segment of the world’s population. While the total population of the planet will increase by about 1 billion people in the next 12 years, the ranks of the middle class will swell by as many as 1.8 billion, with 600 million in China alone.

Members of this burgeoning middle class not only consume more meat and other ecologically profligate foodstuffs, but also buy more clothes, medicines, refrigerators, toys, cars, computers and the like. China and India, with 40% of the world’s population, most of it still very poor, already consume more than half of the global supply of coal, iron ore, and steel. It is sheer myopia not to see the ecological catastrophe inherent in such trends.

Of course the Age of Stupid team are not alone in suffering Overpopulation Denial Syndrome. George Monbiot frequently uses his Guardian column to sneer at those who recognise the threat from human numbers. In the week the film was screened, The Journal, the daily paper in Newcastle where this reviewer lives, published a feature headlined “Mum’s battle to deal with climate change”. That she was a mother of 4 was mentioned with no hint of a possible contradiction.

It might be noted in passing that the wind energy developer and his partner featured in the film have three children. They clearly have done much to ‘green’ their lifestyles. Yet the biggest single thing they could have done is to have stopped at two children maximum.

It might seem too personal and indeed quite impertinent to make such comments. But population growth is nothing but the product of many, many private decisions. It is everyone’s baby and, as Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, has been arguing in the media recently, the time to face the fact that numbers do count (and multiply the effects of consumerist overconsumption and of unsustainable technological choices) is long overdue. Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party, was billed as a participant in the premiere’s post-screening discussion. In the event, she did not appear but it would have been interesting to see if she would have mentioned the dreaded ‘P’ word.

Total ecological crisis

The Age of Stupid may be making another mistake by focussing so much on climate change and the calamities it will bring. Its case is certainly cogent, though, rather oddly, it does not spotlight one immediate and already disastrous consequence of fossil fuel burning, the acidification of the seas. Yet there are still many uncertainties and, perhaps, never-to-be-knowns. A volcanic eruption tomorrow might trigger cooling effects, for example. Yet, all warnings about the threat from global warming were to turn out to be nothing but intellectual hot air, the overall prospect would not alter due to the size and severity of many other forms of ecological ruination.

Soil erosion and aquifer depletion, for example, will pull out the rug from beneath contemporary society just as lethally, albeit more slowly and less spectacularly (which is why movie makers persistently ignore them). Nonhuman species are being wiped out already by activities that often have nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions (habitat clearance, fragmentation of surviving habitat, introduction of invasive alien species, overfishing, overhunting, other forms of pollution etc.). The film does touch upon ‘peak oil’ but its significance is not integrated into one coherent picture of the total ecocrisis.

Additionally, global warming is largely treated as the product of the accumulation of just one gas, carbon dioxide. This may encourage a one-sided focus on issues like “carbon footprint” and pseudo-solutions like “carbon trading” and “carbon sequestration”. In reality, global warming is driven by a variety of gases (including methane which is largely impervious to any sort of ‘capture’). Furthermore, it is driven not just by such sources but also by the loss of ‘carbon sinks’ such as wetlands and forests. The changing albedo (reflectivity) of areas like the ice caps is also a discrete contributory factor.

So far the film rather simplifies a complex matter, perhaps as a result of a one dimensional framework in which everything is blamed on the big, bad energy corporations. In reality humble paddy fields and farting cattle play their part too. Those businesses only thrive because many millions of people want cheap petrol and the like, resenting any attempts to curb their profligate ways.

This is the fundamental reason why mainstream politicians are so reluctant to act. But The Age of Stupid functions within a populist framework: perish the thought ordinary citizens may play an active, willing and indeed wilful part in the destruction of the Earth’s life-support systems: The Age of the Human Lemming!

Cheap shots

The Age of Stupid is also guilty of other crude simplifications. There is the rather one-sided view of imperialism in the animated sections. Basically, history is reduced to very bad white imperialists stealing from non-white victim nations in what used to be called the ‘Third World’. Yet many non-western civilisations committed ecological suicide without any help from European/American imperialists, as books like Clive Ponting’s Green History of the World document. The fact that the destruction of Amazonia has speeded up under the supposedly radical Lula government shows the same pattern at work today. Again it is doubtful whether the film’s level of argument will win over sceptics.

Its analysis of the Iraq War beats a similar drum. The film fails to rise above that vulgar leftist analysis that Nick Cohen effectively dissected so well in his critique What’s Wrong with the Left. This is not to say that Cohen’s position is correct (specifically his views on Iraq). Rather the point is to recognise the sophistication of what he says and counter it with a much more nuanced response than is evident in this film … or only mention the issue in passing.

At one point in the post-premiere discussion, The Age of Stupid team seemed to be utterly naïve or quite dishonest. It was claimed, on the basis of the combined membership of bodies that have made noises about global warming, a sixth of Britain’s population is already demanding strong action.

These organisations ranged from the Church of Scotland to the National Trust. In the latter case, its members probably join to get cheaper entrance to country houses and the like for a ‘nice-day-out’. To claim such people as supporters is a bit like the leftist self-delusion of thinking that statements by Trades Councils are the voice of the local rank-and-file working class.

The political weakness of the film is shown in other ways. It leaves open the door the to the illusion that salvation can be found by new technology. So, in The Guardian (March 18th) one of its columnists Jonathan Freedland argued that the government must embrace so-called ‘green cars’. Leaving aside the daunting ‘rate and magnitude’ problem for any such technological rearmament, ‘clean’ is often far from ‘green’.

In the case of all cars, conventional, hybrid or electric, more damage is done at the stages of raw material extraction and manufacture than in their use and final disposal. Electrically powered ones would still need sources of fuel, production lines, storage compounds, roads, traffic lights, car parks and garages, all of which come at unsustainable ecological cost.

There is also a issue of good tactics. The film and post-screening discussion were totally geared towards the December 2009 Copenhagen international conference. It was depicted as ‘make-or-break’. In other words, if it doesn’t agree a global deal to act decisively, then we are all doomed.

Yet the outcome is more likely to be some sort of fudge, a mix of some good initiatives coupled to other failures to act appropriately. In that event, the Age of Stupid team and their allies in the Stop Climate Chaos coalition would seem to be suggesting that we should pack our bags and go home. Yet nothing is so clear cut as to warrant such decision. Perhaps too many eggs are being put in one basket.

Such shakiness over core issues allowed Labour minister Ed Miliband to score some unnecessary goals at the post-film premiere question and answer session. The movie team seemed to have no effective rejoinders to his arguments about economic growth and the need for nuclear power. Of course he is a practised politician while the film-makers were — quite rightly — enjoying their night of triumph too much to engage in a bare knuckle fight with him. But the thought lingers that perhaps The Age of Stupid rest on some shaky foundations.

An Inconvenient Truth[v] was not the film the crisis demands but there is still a need for one that really does paint a full ecological picture. Of course there are limits to the story any film can tell. Yet rather weak ecology, overly populist politics, and too much laxity in the editing suite have led The Age of Stupid team not to make the most of their opportunity.


[i] The film’s history can be followed at


[iii] See

[iv] See

[v] See

Peak Oil still a fundamental fact of life

This is a useful reminder of the significance and realities of ‘peak oil’, a phenomenon many short-sighted people foolishly deny, including some who ought to know better:

The Peak Oil Dilemma David Blittersdorf May 12, 2016 We live in a finite world. Fossil fuels–oil, coal, and natural gas–are our number one energy source. Oil, being the biggest, drives almost everything we do. And we’re rapidly reaching the limits of how…

Tim Jackson and Prosperity without Growth

Lecture by Professor Tim Jackson (author Prosperity Without Growth), Newcastle University, September 2011

Professor Jackson’s lecture was unusually erudite and engaging. Fortunately the big Curtis Auditorium was packed so many people got to hear his words of wisdom. Above all, he conclusively demonstrated that what he called the ‘old economy’ was finished, even though politicians, civil servant and business leaders run around helplessly trying to find some means of reviving it. He outlined the contours of a new economy that can satisfy genuine human needs, whilst not trashing the ecological base on which any form of economy inescapably depends.

The language with which it is conducted however, often befogs debate about these critical matters. Thus Newcastle-Gateshead councils’ One Core Strategy local development plan uses much of the language employed by Jackson (‘prosperity’, ‘sustainability’ and so forth) to justify a concerted attempt to revive the ‘old economy’. The government’s changes to the National Planning Policy Framework have also been presented by ministers as a step towards more ‘sustainable development’.

Elsewhere there are individual commentators like Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand who are using ‘sustainability’ to justify a radical expansion of both genetic engineering and nuclear power. Others like Amory Lovins argue that ‘smart growth’ can do the trick, avoiding any need for more radical change. So there is an unavoidable battle over the very meaning of such language.

Nice one Tim

Professor Jackson could not possibly cover even a fraction of what needs to be said in his allotted time but, hopefully, it may not be too churlish to note one or two absences, ones to do with words not said. First, however, a certain politeness in Jackson’s approach might be noted. Perhaps this stems from his personality, perhaps from too much time Jackson has spent in academia and the (outer) corridors of power (the recently chopped Sustainable Development Commission etc).

However, a bit more anger might be in order, not least to mobilise ordinary people. It might help to denounce more full-bloodedly the rottenness of our socio-economic order: the sheer stench of the present economic structures, the greed and irresponsibility, the breadth and depth of human suffering, the repression of protest, the violence against other forms of life… Indeed a TV show like Tamara Ecclestone: Billion $$ Girl or the exposés of the ‘City’ in Private Eye might perhaps do more to open eyes about individual profligacy or corporate abuses than the most technically correct economic graph. Certainly we need to pack emotional punches as well as sharpen rational arguments.

What did not come through forcefully enough from Jackson’s lecture was the way certain individuals and groups gain profit and power from ‘business-as-usual’. They systematically deny problems, witch-hunt those who raise alarm (witness the story of Rachel Carson), disown their responsibilities (remember Bhopal), drag their feet when action becomes unavoidable (crawling pace over global warming) and sabotage alternatives that threaten their exalted position (look at how the nuclear industry has tried to strangle solar rivals). We cannot ‘work together’ (as ‘reformists’ so often advocate) with people who, deep down, have no intention of co-operating with us.


Perhaps the biggest word missing from Professor Jackson’s talk was a small five letter one: ‘scale’. It was absent in several ways. One of his slides, for example, featured the conventional economic model centred on the circular interaction between firms and households. But Jackson did not directly address the issue of the very size of some of those firms, something that can make them “too big to fail” (at our collective cost… to their further profit) and which gives them such political ‘clout’ that mainstream politicians quail before them.

There is still more important matter of the ‘scale’ of all those households and the people they contain. But human numbers did not get a proper emphasis. It is not just a matter of their pressure on physical space and resources. The ‘weight’ of each voter in society’s ‘household’, for instance, inevitably goes down with a growing number of voters, not an argument against democracy per se, but still something to be taken into account, not least in gargantuan excrescences like the EU. It might also be noted that some of the world’s worst violence is happening in lands with the most rapidly growing populations: it is no mere coincidence.

Then there is the scale of the total human economy (numbers x. per capita consumption x. type of technology used) in relation to the total ecosystem as well as equivalent local and regional carrying capacities. There must be some proportion or else ruin must follow, as surely as night follows day. Obviously if we have fewer people, the ecosystem could cope with greater consumption per person (not just goods and services but comparative intangibles like ‘privacy’).

But it is total pressures that tell. So we need ways of regulating the quality and quantity of human interactions with the rest of nature. Jackson tended to focus more on the need for new indicators and targets within the human economy (all necessary) rather than measures advocated by the likes of ‘steady-state’ economist Herman Daly to set limits to those total impacts. Daly also stresses the need for limits on economic differentials within society. If we must bake a smaller cake, it is even more urgent to share it out fairly.

Jackson effectively demolished one assumption after another of the ‘old economy’ loyalists, the growth boosters and the snake oil salesmen. Yet, at the end of his talk, the audience was not left with a crystal-clear presentation of the fundamental ‘paradigm’ choice: growth (of any shape or form) or the steady-state. [The latter is not some fixed point: rather it is more like the dynamic balance that a successful cyclist has to maintain] John Stuart Mill recognised this back in the 1840s so it is scarcely a modern insight. But it is still one that needs to be loudly voiced midst all today’s clamour “to get the economy growing again”.

Yet one more word was not heard loud and clear at this point: overshoot. There are, of course, dangers in voicing an excess of ‘bad news’ and, in any case, it must be presented sensitively. But facts are facts. Indeed, it only compounds the crisis if the reality is not faced that humankind – in toto – has already transgressed several ecological safety margins. Pursuit of growth of any kind at that point is like shovelling coal into the boiler of a runaway train heading for a cliff.[1]

The proliferation of all sorts of social ills suggests that, beyond a certain point, pursuit of more growth triggers parallel breakdowns within the purely human community too. Both individuals and whole communities can only be ‘stretched’ so far, before the social fabric begins to tear. Here Jackson did indeed make some excellent points about the absence of any linear correlation between economic growth and increased consumption, on the one hand, and, on the other, personal and social well-being. It is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing, let alone bad ones.


Discussion of these matters particularly suffers because of a veritable fog created by vague words like ‘growth’ and ‘development’. Those two in particular have come to mean whatever their users want them to mean. Indeed, they can be used to justify all sorts of unsustainable and unworthy things. The grossly over-praised Brundtland Report thus advocated an expansion of nuclear power, the putting of more land under the plough and a big growth in world trade. Another word is sometimes added: ‘quality’ (as in ‘quality of life’) or ‘qualitative’ (as opposed to quantitative) growth. Then ‘choice’ is also used promiscuously.

It might be wondered if all those heads nodding in agreement with Professor Jackson at the Curtis Auditorium event were actually agreeing with quite different things. In any case, the whole ‘old economy’ was denounced in generalities and, like sin, no-one was likely to stand up and publicly demand more of it. Of course, where it comes down to reducing, let alone banning of, specific activities and products, that unanimity might rapidly disintegrate. Thus calls for something as simple as a lowered motorway speed limit, desirable on many grounds, trigger virulent opposition.

But there are also deeper problems. ‘Personal development’ may be very worthwhile for the individual, while most of us welcome some choice in our lives. Yet all these things do not exist in a vacuum. They depend on physical things. One might develop ‘musically’, for example, but it might help to have musical instruments, hi-fi systems and concert halls, all of which come with ecological price tags.

Furthermore, individuals can only do so much; usually one (worthy) option comes at the expense of another, if only for reason of time constraints. Limits-to-growth and trade-offs apply again… and again, it is something lost in the verbal fog of ‘personal development’, ‘quality’ and ‘choice’.

Wreckers’ Ball

Professor Jackson’s picture of the world tended to be somewhat lacking in flesh and blood. Real people and real organisations were absent. It sometimes seemed as if the ills he so deftly described were happening of their own accord or were simply due to misunderstandings and misinformation. But forces like so-called Big Tobacco, Big Sugar, Big ‘Pharma’, the Fossil Fuel Barons and their ilk know exactly what they are doing and how much they stand to gain from doing more of it. Have we forgotten names such as Monsanto, Enron, Halliburton, BP, Cargill, Dow, BAE, Goldman Sachs and their ilk?

And we haven’t started on assorted religious fanatics, political crazies (Peru’s ‘Shining Path’, etc.)… not to forget a certain Jeremy Clarkson. Governments too play their malign part (Trident, foreign wars, new nuclear power programmes, support for genetic engineering, a wealth of ‘perverse’ subsidies, tax cuts for the super-rich, blind eyes to tax havens, etc… and, in some countries, economic incentives for large families). Then there are the assorted kleptocrats (Suharto, Marcos, Duvalier and so forth, though it seems unfair to leave out the likes of Warren Buffett, the Koch Brothers, the Duke of Westminster and their kind too), ‘mafia states’ (Russia, etc.), non-states (Somalia and co.) plus a weird and not wonderful variety of ‘rogue states’: Syria, Iran, Israel, North Korea… oh yes, and the USA

So we need to be frank and forthright about all those vested interests. That includes full recognition of those large sections of the general public who, either as workers or consumers, support, in one way or another, destruction-as-usual (Jackson’s work, it must be noted, is very perceptive about the psychology of consumerism). Many ordinary citizens play a willing, indeed wilful part of the waste and despoliation around us (from ‘litter louts’ to ‘petrolheads’). There is indeed a vast ‘anti-sustainability’ army with many generals and many, many more foot soldiers.

There are plenty of examples of this mass zeal for consumerism. The average wedding cost around £18,600 in 2011. It is not just a conspiracy by retailers to flog more stuff (an average bride’s outfit now costing £1500, for example) but something in which millions enthusiastically participate. The list could go on and on. The point is to be honest about the breadth and depth of opposition to what Professor Jackson called the ‘new economy’. It certainly can be discouraging. But naïveté will lead to even greater discouragement.

It is all very well to call for a ‘national conversation’, a ‘great debate’, and ‘dialogue’. But what if they – the massed ranks assaulting the Earth – are not prepared to listen and will not talk. Look how long it took to take lead additives out of petrol even though the hard evidence was overwhelming. How many died quite unnecessarily in the meantime? Look at the failure to stop the hunters, trappers, poachers, poisoners, forest clear-cutters, ‘wall of death’ commercial fishers, factory farmers … and the consumers of their products who – together – are wiping out biodiversity. Will sweet words of reason stop them? If not, what? We certainly need to talk about that.

Blocked passages

Another word might help disperse the fog created by the language of ‘growth’ and ‘development’. It is throughput: in other words, the physical space, energy and raw material passing through the human economy, whatever its actual form, capitalist or otherwise. A comparison might be drawn with the ‘throughput’ of food in the ‘economy’ of the human body: it has to come from somewhere, it creates side-effects as it passes through, and, of course, it has to go somewhere. An excess of even the healthiest foodstuffs does more harm than good.

The actual economy too depends on certain sources (limited by nature) and sinks (their number and assimilative capacities similarly limited) while the use of the actual good and services thus obtained can be disruptive beyond a certain level (e.g. more cars > more congestion > demand for more roads…).

The very title of Professor Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth rightly draws attention to the need to curb growth and strive for greater ‘service’ (fulfilment, contentment and so forth) from lowered impacts on the Earth’s life-support systems. But there does come a point beyond which we cannot keep on squeezing more satisfaction from fewer things. Indeed the disruptive impacts of Peak Oil and so forth suggest that the landing might be a hell of a lot bumpier than the common narrative of a comparatively painless readjustment suggest.

No mention has been so far of that other variable: information. But it too depends on physical ‘holders’ (books, computers, cabling, CDs, DVDs, libraries, and so forth) and is therefore constrained. Human brains and sensory organs too suffer, beyond a certain point, from ‘overload’, i.e. excess throughput. Anyone who attends committees will be painfully aware of the counter-productive nature of excess throughput in terms of overladen agendas. Similarly, excessive throughput of data, targets, instructions and general co-ordination activity bedevils planning processes.

So all claims about smart growth, better planning, more research, the unleashing of human creativity, the construction of a ‘knowledge economy’ (a.k.a. the ‘weightless economy’), ‘dematerialisation’/’postmateriality’ and so forth do contain some wisdom but ultimately it all comes back to the ground: the Earth and the ‘rules’ that have enabled it to sustain life. It might not be a popular thought but perhaps the real challenge is not ‘prosperity without growth’ but ‘sustainable contraction’.

At your service

The ‘new economy’, as presented by Professor Jackson, seemed to depend a great deal on an expansion of the so-called service sector, including health, social care and education as well as opportunities for leisure and what he called ‘creativity’. Now many of these things are very useful. The collective and individual costs of sickness, neglect and ignorance should need no underlining. Most of us welcome the chance to go walking, do some gardening and in all sorts of other ways pursue what might be seen as ‘re-creation’.

But this whole sector of society does not necessarily carry a lower ‘footprint’ than the dark satanic mills of yesteryear. For a start, as noted above, these activities all come with price tags. Nature’s accounts do not distinguish the energy and matter embodied in armoured cars or ambulances, for example. Generally the service sector still depends on extractive and manufacturing industries for the buildings and equipment it uses, even if some of those items might now be made out of sight, in faraway places like China (and thus charged to their, not our, ecological bills). Large-scale transportation, with all its impacts, is central to much ‘service work’ (look at all the car journeys by care workers, for example).

These activities also have their own direct impacts. Hospitals, for example, generate considerable amounts of toxic waste. Education buildings have covered large areas of land with brick, concrete and tarmac. [Professor Jackson’s lecture took place in a building that typifies the hideous carbuncles that many universities have thrown up; indeed much of the central campus at Newcastle University was carved out by destroying working class housing]

Communication systems, not least the banks of servers underpinning the Internet, consume large amounts of electricity and, in some cases, scarce minerals (a cause of war in places like the Congo). Indeed the scale of so-called ‘e-waste’ is now becoming quite unsustainable. Surely little needs be added about the costs of sport and tourism, be it the ‘green cancer’ of golf courses, the environments gouged out by all terrain vehicles of one sort or another, the waters polluted by leisure craft[2]… An increasing number of footpaths have been eaten away simply by the sheer number of walkers.

Limits-to-growth apply to the service sector in other ways. Many of its institutions have grown so big and become so bureaucratised that they frustrate the goals they were created to serve. Well documented cases of abuse, neglect and incompetence in hospitals and social services abound, suggesting that the problem is not just under-investment and poor training.

The incidence of iatrogenesis, for example, should discourage simplistic thinking that more ‘health care’, ipso facto, means more health. Schools, college and universities also suffer from a gigantism that make the whole experience more like a factory production line (one, with hugely rewarded managers at the top, as in the NHS,) than a rigorous and rich education. The inequalities inherent in private health provision, private schooling, private sports facilities and so on need no comment.

More generally, the allegedly ‘weightless’ and ‘placeless’ economy in the making, built on knowledge and innovation, is actually totally dependent on material things. This does not change just because a lot of those things are manufactured in sweatshops on the other side of the world. Many of the new ‘creative industries’, ‘digital hubs’ and so forth often pay poor wages on short-term contracts and offer sub-standard working conditions. Gender equality is often worse than in older businesses while pay hierarchies are often extreme.

So perhaps we ought to be a bit cautious about Professor Jackson’s bright ideas about a new economy resting on an expansion of the service sector. It also has to be stressed that no new economy can be considered truly sustainable if the goods and services on which it rests could not be sustainably generalised across the planet.

In other words, we have to keep asking what would happen if the 1.3 billion inhabitants of China had, say, the same number of computers, hospital beds, or golf gear in equivalent per capita terms as, say, the UK.


In any discussion of economics, words like ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ soon pop up. Again it is vital not to take them at face value. Thus mainstream economists, agribusiness representatives and many others will, for example, extol what they claim to be the high output from modern farming. Genetic engineers go further, claiming that GMOs are vital to feed the world (they never say anything about the number of mouths nor the hugely wasteful diets but that is another matter)

Such language must be contested. Perhaps Professor Jackson might have tried to find time in his admittedly short presentation to stress the central question of weighing output against total costs (cost of all inputs, side-effects and all other costs). Thus the ‘success’ of high output farming has to be set against not just the energy and raw materials it needs but also the nutrient depletion, soil compaction, aquifer depletion, water pollution, the destruction of biodiversity and so forth. It ought to include other costs like the nutritional decline of many foodstuffs yielded by the system. Full accounting would also include the break-up of rural communities due to the loss of local jobs due to intensive farm mechanisation.

Proper ‘book-keeping’ would also adopt a long-term time frame. Modern farming systems might be yielding – at the moment – an unprecedented amount of produce. But they are fast undermining their own foundations. The impact of ‘Peak Oil’ alone will doom this way of producing food. So in many respects what seem to be lower yield systems actually will produce more and more of better quality, albeit only over the long run.

In reality, genuinely sustainable production systems and associated technologies will be slower and smaller than today’s superficially productive farms and factories. The sustainable cake will cater only for greatly reduced demand. The reason is simple. Any stable system has to use a lot of what it produces simply to protect, repair and generally maintain itself: there is less left over for other uses.

So an agriculture based on the cultivation of perennials (as advocated by the Kansas Land Institute, for example) would be much more ecologically sustainable than one that cultivates annual crops but its yearly food yield would be lower. It is true that there are areas where there is avoidable waste such as planned obsolescence which offer scope for a better use of the existing throughput. Beyond that, increased productivity is possible only at the cost an increase in overall entropy within a system.

This is the absolutely critical point that many ‘anti-austerity’ campaigners seem unwilling or unable to grasp. One may criticise the gross unfairness of current austerity programmes and the things they target. But any government committed to sustainability would have to make deep cuts, ones that dramatically lower the overall ‘throughput’ in the human economy. Those cuts would, in turn, mean less wherewithal for many current goods and services.

Are resources running out?

In his frequent – and obviously important – references to the finite planet on which we all live, Professor Jackson tended to stress resources per se. In doing so, he did not give due attention to the other side of the coin: the side-effects of resource extraction, manufacture, consumption and disposal. To be sure, he certainly was making a critical point. As the ‘low hanging fruit’ model suggests (most accessible and finest fruit picked first), there is an inevitable shift, in a growing economy, from the best resources to lower grade, more distant and less secure sources of supplies as high quality ones are depleted. So the peak of high-grade coal is not far away, even if total reserves of that substance might seem voluminous.

Furthermore, some resources possess special qualities, ones that make the traditional practice of substitution far from sustainable. To be sure, the old ‘biofuel’ economy (wood-burning) was replaced by fossil fuels. Similarly, powered vehicles replaced horses. Uses were found for substances like uranium that were previously ignored.

But past practices may not be replicable in the future as we begin to deplete the cheap and ready availability of all sorts of resources at more or less the same time. Then society becomes locked into a deadly game of musical chairs. We will need to do things differently in the future.

So, often, the problem is not supply per se. Rather it is ‘collateral damage’. There might be mountains of coal: what is more unsustainable is the wreckage wrought by extraction and the equally harmful impacts of burning the coal once it has been mined and transported to the point of use. Indeed, the human economy mobilises all sorts of minerals such as uranium, lead and mercury, ones present ‘naturally’ but not in the locations and concentrations that their extraction, use and disposal create.

Even the most carefully controlled mining, processing, milling and all the other processing will degrade and pollute as well as cause direct harm to people (silicosis, pneumoconiosis, cancers, direct injuries etc.). All such activities deplete wildlife habitat, regardless of the abundance or otherwise of the resource itself. So to do monocultures of any kind. Just look at the biological deserts that are coniferous plantations, compared to unmodified old-growth woodland.

It has to be stressed that the second law of thermodynamics tell us that there will always be unrecoverable ‘losses’ in the throughput of energy and matter. Heat loss, material dissipation, wear and tear are unavoidable. Notions of a ‘zero waste economy’ are absurd, contradicting everything that science teaches us. That is not to say that we should not try to maximise reuse, repair and then recycling. But again there are limits!

Carbon con?

Of course Professor Jackson is perfectly aware of much of this. He duly stresses certain instances of such ‘collateral damage’, mostly notably global (over)warming. There is a danger, however, of falling into what has been called the ‘carbon discourse’. In other words, what in reality is a many faceted ecological crisis is reduced largely to one (albeit extremely alarming) manifestation: carbon emissions. This can divert attention from other dangers, both within the threat from adverse climate change and beyond, as well as cast in a favourable but undeserving light certain policy options, ones that often go under the label of ‘low carbon economy’.[3]

For a start, greenhouse gases and carbon emissions are discussed so often together that they almost become one and the same thing. As a result, other ‘overwarming agents’ like methane may not get the attention they need. It might be wondered if there may be an element of self-censorship amongst many critics of the status quo. Gases like methane are intimately linked to basic activities like food production and therefore the number of mouths to be fed. That, in turn, leads to that most politically incorrect word ‘population’ (or, worse, the unwelcome thought that there may be too many mouths already).

At the time, there is not just an excessive growth in greenhouse gases from human sources but also a contraction, again to human activity, of balancing ecological ‘sinks’ as well as changes to the albedo of the Earth’s surfaces. The result is further overwarming and an even greater danger of a sudden flip into runaway climate change and resulting catastrophe. Complex and uncertain though these developments undoubtedly are, it is surely critical to use every opportunity to challenge widespread public perception that offsetting a few tonnes of carbon will do the trick.

The same goes for the idea of ‘low carbon economy’. To some extent this idea has roots in an older misperception that the problem is primarily pollution. Instead what humans put ‘into’ ecosystems may be less dangerous than what is taken ‘out’, by way of general degradation and simplification. In other words, many destructive activities are comparatively ‘clean’. One only needs to look at hydro-electricity. This energy source has arguably done more harm than nuclear power (to date!). In some areas it is eve thought to have increased seismic activity due to the sheer weight of impounded waters. But there are many such ‘clean-but-unsustainable’ activities such as overfishing, poaching, wetland drainage, aquifer depletion, salinisation, dredging, river engineering (e.g. replacement of vegetation with concrete embankments), tree felling, monocultural planting, importation of alien plants and animals, and the paving over of land.

A ‘low carbon economy’ would defuse none of these timebombs. Take the ‘green car, for instance. To be sure electric engines have a number of advantages over petrol and diesel ones. But the problem is not just the question of where the electricity comes from. ‘Green cars’ would still consumes vast acres of space for roads and parking as well as infrastructure such as traffic controls and street light. Pedestrians and other forms of life would still be killed and injured in big numbers. ‘Green cars’ would still drive urban sprawl further out into the countryside. There might be a case for some electric vehicles, e.g. taxis and delivery vehicles, but limits still apply.

Economic form

Another word does not figure prominently in much discourse about sustainability and prosperity: ‘capitalism’. Of course, it is one where, again, there is much debate about its meaning. Some restrict their definition of capitalism to ‘private production for private profit’. Others define it more broadly (as in ‘state capitalism’). Certainly the Occupy movement has given the phrase ‘anti-capitalism’ more resonance. Whatever the vagueness of statements from that source, perhaps its supporters are closer to the truth than those who propose a ‘caring capitalism’, one with a ’human face’, one operating “as if the world matters”, to use Jonathon Porritt’s phrasing.

Whatever definition is used, there seem to be fundamental and irresolvable contradictions between capitalism and long-term sustainability. The growth imperative is fundamental to the system: it cannot be reconciled to the finite nature of the Earth. The ‘cash nexus’ and the market mechanism discounts the needs of those who, for one reason or another are able to bid enough in the market place (the poor, those yet to be born, other species). Market-based systems also tend to destroy competition as the more powerful players gobble up weaker rivals.

So a radical economic restructuring will be necessary. There will still be a role for small and medium size private businesses but they will have to operate within a framework characterised by strong public regulations and a strong public sector, with a large number of activities performed by co-ops and other such associations.

There is not the space to go into detail regarding the systemic shortcomings of capitalism or the alternatives to it (on which, to be fair, much work still needs to be done). The point here is that the ‘plutocrats’ – or whatever one wishes to call them – are a major menace as are all the structures that create and sustain them. This needs to be said loud and clear. There should be no truck with the likes of Will Hutton who seem to think that a few reforms (curbing ‘excess’ bonuses, etc) will suffice. Nor should we make the mistake of blaming just one sector, finance, or a few rogue traders when the real problem is a whole system, of which the banks are but a part.

The Big Plan?

Of course ‘planning’ is not some cure-all. Frank Dikötter’s latest book Mao’s Great Famine documents in grisly detail how planned economies can go disastrously wrong. That was an extreme example. But socialist economists such as Oscar Lange came to advocate a degree of competition because of the very real difficulties encountered in the operation of a planned economy. Clearly Stalinist tyranny and foreign hostility made the problems worse in the case of the Soviet Bloc.

That said, it is hard to create the conditions required for successful planning. Accurate data collection, analysis, projections, co-ordination are all easier said than done. Furthermore, planners do have a habit of treating, people and places as mere units to be moved around at will or least on their charts. Look at the many disastrous urban redevelopments and big housing projects that now scar modern cities.

However, if attempted more modestly and at a human scale, with full transparency and accountability, planning can really serve sustainability. Indeed there have been some remarkable examples of planning, though often it seems to require the stimulus of war (e.g. D-Day) or international competition (e.g. the Apollo programme). The Victorian public health programmes provide a more benign example of what collective action can achieve.

It might be noted that there is a considerable degree of (effective) planning inside big businesses while the introduction of market mechanisms in the public sector has often has been downright harmful. Step forward the NHS! [We will leave aside notions of ‘popular planning’ since it is far from clear how many can really participate in such processes, as, again, limits-to-growth theory warns us]

But, regarding issues of ownership and control, we have to avoid dogma and judge cases individually. Beer production might be best done in private micro-breweries while inherently ‘collective’ things like water utilities and the railways should be in public hands. At times, some half-way house like Land Trusts or Housing Associations might be best. But only the state can attempt an overall limit to the size of an economy. Capitalism can never do that… until it is too late.

Beyond economics

Last but not least, we have to avoid the dangers of economic reductionism, of seeing today’s problems only in narrow economic terms. Many problems pre-date capitalism (however defined) and indeed have no necessary connection with any kind of economic order. Mention might be made of sexism, racism, bureaucratism, anthropocentrism and what Professor David Orr has called ‘biophobia’.

Indeed the conservation of non-human species cannot rest upon any kind of economic calculation. It depends upon the ethics of ‘intrinsic value’. Indeed the allocation of ‘shadow prices’ to ecological services, including biodiversity, could actually make things worse since it might show that there could be ‘cost-free’ eliminations of, say, certain flora and fauna.

Conversely there is much more to sustainability than just economic changes (vital preconditions they might be). Professor Jackson is to be thanked for pointing out many things that could and should be done. But perhaps we need to stop talking so much about targets and indicators, with more effort put into the details of what the carrots (and sticks) that will be needed to ensure that they are achieved.


Czech. B. (2013). Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. New Society.

Daly, H. (1992). Steady-Sate Economics. Earthscan.

Dietz, R. & D. O’Neill (2013). Enough is Enough. Earthscan.

Fodor E. (1999). Better Not Bigger. New Society

Greer J. (2008) The Long Descent. New Society.

Hamilton C. (2003). Growth Fetish. Pluto Pr.

Heinberg R. (2011) End of Growth. Clairview Books.

Henwood, D. (2005). After the New Economy. New Press.

McKibben, B. (2011). Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. St Martin’s.

Ophuls, W. (1993) Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. Freeman

Trainer, T. (1995). The Conserver Society. Zed.

Zovanyi, G. (2013). The No-Growth Imperative. Earthscan.


and of course

Tim Jackson’s own Prosperity and Growth (Routledge, 2011)

[1]. Some of those margins – or, rather, ‘minefields’ – are listed here:

[2]. See:

[3]. See: