From the Age of Excess to the Age of Moderation

THE 20TH CENTURY saw unprecedented growth in human population, energy consumption and food production. The pace of life accelerated and cities expanded. Nearly every quantifiable aspect of human existence (including problematic ones, such as economic inequality) increased dramatically.

The next few decades will see the peaking of global oil, natural gas and coal extraction, the maximisation and fall-off of yearly grain harvests, and the commencement of declines in climate stability, population, economic growth, fresh water for drinking and irrigation, and in the availability of many important minerals and ores such as copper and platinum.

We have entered the century of declines, and humanity must

undertake substantial changes in its behaviour, attitudes and expectations if it is to adapt successfully. However, ‘adaptation’ should not be taken to imply a passive process: active work of unprecedented speed and scope will be needed to avert the worst-case scenario: a chaotic collapse of both civilisation and the ecological systems on which it depends.

The transition from the ‘Age of Excess’ to the ‘Age of Moderation’ can only happen if humanity can curtail its expectations of constant growth in material dimensions, make substantial efforts towards reducing energy and material flow-through, and reorient its hopes and ideals towards growth in non-material sectors such as education and culture.


From the Disposability of the Poor to the Dignity of Work

NEVER BEFORE HAVE the actions of one part of humanity become life-threatening for the entire human species. There is a triple convergence occurring, which is threatening human survival:

1) Globalisation and the threat to the work and livelihoods of the poor, and the creation of ‘disposable people’. Disposability of people was built into the substitution of human energy by machines driven on fossil fuels. The very definition of productivity in the industrial paradigm is labour productivity, i.e. the fewer humans beings involved in production, the more ‘productive’ a process is, even though it uses more energy and resources. Industrialisation = Fossil-Fuel Dependence = Energy Slaves replacing human beings and human capacities and human limits. Globalisation is accelerating this trend.

2) Industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture. This has led to 150,000 farmers committing suicide in India alone. The outsourcing of fossil-fuel-intensive polluting industries such as steel, aluminium and automobiles has unleashed a land grab in many countries on an unprecedented scale. People are being rendered disposable in order to create a fossil-fuel-driven economy.

3) The phenomenon of peak oil. The end of cheap oil, which fuelled the industrialisation of production and the globalisation of consumerism, is adding yet another imperative to change the way we live.

We can respond creatively to the triple crisis and simultaneously overcome dehumanisation, economic inequality and ecological catastrophe. Climate change demands that we reduce fossil- fuel use and CO2 emissions. Climate change also demands that we reduce vulnerability and improve adaptation strategies for which we need decentralisation and decreased energy use (Power Down). Peak Oil and the end of cheap oil also demands a paradigm shift in our ideas of human progress so that we can live better without oil. The disposability and dehumanisation of the poor and the marginal call for a focus on the dignity of work. And it is by bringing back dignity to work based on human energy that we can mitigate climate change and make a transition beyond oil.


Conflicts in Transition

IT SEEMS THAT we have passed a watershed in the past year. The message of threatening climate chaos has been driven home; the corporate elite is visibly worried about future growth prospects and the tabloids are rushing to offer their readers 100 ways to save the planet.

Climate worries converge with worries about energy supplies and energy dependency. Calls for action are a-plenty. But what action, by whom, and to whose benefit? These are the questions at the core of future environmental politics. Four scenarios can be discerned.

First, there is the Apartheid Scenario. It comes down to reducing scarcity by social exclusion. The well-to-do will attempt to keep resources and energy to themselves, exerting both political power, for instance in the post-Kyoto negotiations, and economic power, for instance through rising prices.

Secondly, there is the Dirty-Business Scenario. It aims at mitigating scarcity through new supplies, in particular nuclear energy, tar sands, industrial biomass, and carbon-free coal.

Thirdly, the Clean-Business Scenario backs the rise of an eco-capitalism that thrives on offering efficiency solutions to scarcity – from photovoltaics to hypercars.

And finally, there is the Equity Scenario. It suggests reducing scarcity by curbing the demand for speed, air-conditioning, appliances and processed food.

These scenarios will overlap, but they nevertheless indicate the conflicts in the transition – in Richard Heinberg’s terms – from an ‘Age of Excess’ to an ‘Age of Moderation’.

Soft Landing

Richard Heinberg responds

SO FAR THE three of us seem to be in general agreement. So let me propose an idea that may be controversial.

I would suggest that it is time to make a distinction in the equity discussion. With regard to ecological space (water and land), we should aim for rough per-capita equity between and within nations, and for a reduction of human population to fit Earth’s long-term carrying capacity. With regard to fossil fuels, we should aim for equal rates of reduction in consumption rather than equal rates of consumption.

The desire for equity in access to ecological space is ethically incontrovertible – even if its fulfilment seems remote in today’s world. But the notion of equal decline rates for fossil-fuel consumption is more problematic. Among climate activists, there are strong calls for industrialised nations – which have profited economically from using fossil fuels – to reduce coal, oil and gas consumption much faster than less industrialised countries, which have yet to benefit from fuel-based mechanisation.

It seems to me that equal rates of reduction are better for three reasons.

First, it makes better climate sense. China will soon be the world’s foremost CO2 emitter, and India’s consumption rates for coal and oil are climbing fast. If most people in these countries attempt to achieve a Western fuel-based lifestyle, the planet is cooked.

Second, it is more practical. Reduction by Western nations at more than about 3% per year would destroy their economies, which would throw the world into turmoil.

Third, it’s a new game. During the 20th century, fossil-fuel consumption meant greater wealth. In the 21st century, fossil-fuel dependency means vulnerability to supply shortfalls, skyrocketing prices, and disruptions from war and terrorism. Nations that reduce dependency faster benefit more – so long as they avoid economic collapse. Therefore giving less-industrialised countries proportionally greater access to fossil fuels does them no favour; it merely fosters greater dependency and vulnerability.

Sooner or later activists must accept that less industrialised countries will industrialise according to the model set by Europe and the US. This may seem unfair, but the model set by the wealthy countries is unsustainable and should not be emulated.

However, fossil fuels are not needed for subsistence. Everyone lived without them a couple of centuries ago and everyone will live without them a century or two from now. The only question is how we make the transition. I would suggest that the industrialised countries can best foster equity now by

1) adopting the principle of equity in ecological space;

2) agreeing to uniform rates for reduction of fossil fuel consumption; and

3) transferring to less industrialised nations renewable energy technologies free of intellectual property rights for domestic implementation.

Equity in Transition

Vandana Shiva responds

IN THE DEBATE on peak oil and climate change, there are two dimensions of equity. The first is the commonly addressed dimension of North–South equity. The best approach for this is Contraction and Convergence, proposed by the Global Commons Institute.

However, soon after the Earth Summit in Rio, economic globalisation was imposed on the world through the establishment of the World Trade Organization. On the one hand, this has allowed global corporations to grab the world’s markets. On the other hand, it has encouraged outsourcing of energy- and resource-intensive production, which translates into an outsourcing of pollution. Much of China’s and India’s increased emissions are corporate emissions.

The unit of accountability in emission reductions should be corporations, wherever they produce, not the countries where they relocate to maximise profits. In the context of globalisation, climate equity is not merely a North–South issue but, more importantly, an issue of corporate accountability and responsibility.

But there is an even more important equity issue in the context of climate change and peak oil. This equity is based on the rights of people, especially the rights of the poor. The same corporations that emit greenhouse gases also uproot the poor from their land and homes to establish industrialised agriculture, mega cities, malls and supermarkets, golf clubs and super highways – for the privileged.

The increased resource demands and the resource ownership of giant corporations with limitless access to finance are not a ‘dignity line’ for the poor. They are a threat to both the dignity and the survival of peasants and tribal people. That is why peasants are rising up against the hijack of their land and resources. It is the rights of communities that should guide the debate on ecological equity in times of climate change and peak oil. The concept of a ‘dignity line’ based on false assumptions of participation in a fossil-fuel economy, when what people experience is exclusion, is no ‘dignity line’ at all.

The peasants are being driven off their land to make way for a globalised consumer society based on intensive fossil-fuel use. This will lead to peak poverty, peak dispossession and peak civil unrest and will disintegrate societies long before peak oil and climate change do. The land and livelihood rights of the poor are at the core of ecological equity and sustainability. Equity in the atmospheric commons grows out of equity in land rights and the protection of peasant economies based on small farms and renewable energies.

Ethics of Transition

Wolfgang Sachs responds

AS RICHARD EXPECTED, here comes the disagreement. In my view, his proposal of equal reduction rates for fossil-fuel consumption across developed and developing countries is a non-starter politically. Moreover, I am afraid it is questionable on ethical grounds.

To be sure, for any agreement on climate protection it is essential that non-industrialised countries come on board. However, under what conditions will they be ready to enter reduction commitments? Most of all, any climate deal will need to be fair because non-industrialised countries will not co-operate so long as they fear that a climate agreement will enshrine global inequality. Saving the climate at the price of perpetual inferiority is not an option for them. Against this background, it is unlikely that reduction by the same annual percentage in both North and South will be seen as a path that offers sufficient redistribution of economic power.

In any case, surely poorer countries have a right to attain at least a ‘dignity line’ of resource consumption? Without access to kerosene or natural gas, without electricity for irrigation pumps or rice mills, without buses and trucks, it is hard to guarantee basic social and economic living standards. Therefore, equity requires that most non-industrialised countries are given the space to expand energy use. Yet, any rise will only be temporary and will eventually have to drop to a globally sustainable level.

However, non-industrialised countries are glaringly different: they comprise both high- and low-emitters. Newly industrialised countries such as Saudi Arabia or South Korea need to stabilise emissions after 2010, bringing them down after 2020. Rapidly industrialising – and populous – countries such as Mexico, China and Brazil will be expected to restrain their rise in emissions, entering the path of decline in 2020. And poorer countries will be able to increase emissions, stabilising them after 2020. But industrial nations will have to assume most obligations: about a 30% reduction with respect to 1990 by 2020, reducing further to 85% by 2050. Such a rapid exit from fossil fuels is called for in order to keep global warming below two degrees while equalising access. As a result, unequal reduction rates between North and South will be necessary for the time being. Equal rates of reduction may be right only for the time after 2020.

Pragmatic Reduction

Richard Heinberg concludes

MY PROPOSAL FOR equal reductions in fossil-fuel consumption by all nations may be a non-starter and may even be questionable on ethical grounds. But here is the current reality.

Global production of crude oil has been stagnant or declining since early 2005. The amount of oil available to the export market has shrunk by over a million barrels per day. As a result, oil prices have found a new ‘normal’ range roughly 600% higher than that of a decade ago, and there are indications that prices will continue to increase sharply. The wealthy industrial nations have so far been able to pay the steeper price: US oil demand continues to grow, and Europe’s is remaining steady. However, the world’s poorest countries cannot afford to import any oil to speak of at these prices; in many cases they have simply stopped bidding for what is available.

And so we have exactly the reverse of what any of us would consider an ethically acceptable situation: the consumption gap between the rich industrial nations and the poorest less industrialised nations is actually growing at an accelerating rate.

An Oil Depletion Protocol that mandated equal reductions in oil consumption by all nations would have the effect of stabilising and perhaps lowering prices, enabling poor nations to afford more than they can now while helping the rich nations keep economic chaos at bay while they reduce their much greater dependence on oil and other fossil fuels.

The insistence that rich nations reduce fossil-fuel consumption at truly breathtaking rates far in excess of rates mandated for less industrialised countries is already a non-starter. The key nation in this regard, the US, is unwilling to freeze consumption even at current levels, never mind reducing it. Yet maintaining current consumption levels will be impossible due to declining global production of oil and shrinking domestic supplies of natural gas and coal.

The idea that equal reduction rates would effectively make current levels of economic inequality permanent assumes that, at the end of the day, industrialised nations will continue to use proportionally more fossil fuels. In fact, depletion ensures that consumption declines will continue, effectively, to zero for all nations. By the latter decades of the 21st century, economic ranking will not be determined (as it is now) by annual rates of consumption of oil, coal and natural gas; rather, the most successful nations will be those that have managed to build sustainable economies based on renewable energy. If today’s least industrialised countries become mired in dependency on fossil fuels, this will indeed consign them to a longer term of second-class economic status if, in the interim, industrialised nations succeed in developing proprietary renewable energy sources.

I agree with Vandana that land and livelihood rights should be at the centre of the equity discussion. This is, I hope, clearly implied by my use of the phrase ‘ecological space’. Her suggestion that the “unit of accountability in emission reductions should be corporations . . . not countries” is interesting and worthy of further development.

It seems appropriate to end on a note of agreement. In the final analysis, I believe that all three of us share profound concerns that our world reduce its reliance on fossil fuels as quickly as possible, that all nations build for themselves truly sustainable economies (whether rural or urban) based on renewable energy (whether of high-tech or traditional varieties), and that extreme economic inequality become a thing of the past.

We also agree that the last point must happen through reducing consumption levels among those who are currently consuming the most. Given what I have written above, some may find that last statement surprising, but it is in reality only the tactics of transition that separate us on that score, not the goal.

Richard Heinberg is author of Peak Everything, Wolfgang Sachs is co-author of Fair Future and Vandana Shiva is author of Earth Democracy.