20 September 2011

EADI-DSA Conference, Day 1: Peak Everything

Mario Giampietro opened up the EADI-DSA Conference giving the Dudley Seers Lecture by asking whether the development community wanted to take the blue pill or the red pill.

This is a reference to the film The Matrix where the main character is offered the choice between the bliss of illusion (blue) or the sometimes painful truth of reality (red). Prof Giampietro argued that the world is taking lots of blue pills and it needs more red. His argument goes something like this

1. The narrative of economists--that we need economies to grow forever--is unsustainable because we are not only at peak oil (we get it out of the ground slower than we consume it) but near peak everything (water, land, energy).

2. As long as the size of the economic pie is increasing, marketisation of services and globalisation in general reduce tensions in the system because the size of the pies is increasing.

3. But peak everything ("the real inconvenient truth") means that the size of the global economic pie is reaching limits and this means that debt cannot be repaid and that we begin operating in a zero sum way which undermines the tendency to cooperate.

4. Economics has contributed to this situation, because (a) it has prioritised growth to policymakers, (b) lacks the ability to deal with complexity in a reflexive way that puts our own behaviour into the centre of the picture (rather it tends to lead to technical fixes), and (c) cannot speak truth to power because this will undermine its position of power ("it is difficult to get someone to understand something if their salary depends on them not understanding it")

5. All of this means that we will have to use less energy, work more and marketise less (e.g. draw on cultural traditions instead of the market). We still have to grow in order to pay off the debts we owe, but we will have to do so using less energy (not only per unit of GDP, but in an absolute sense)

Diagnosis is always stronger than prescription in these kinds of presentations, but Prof Giampietro did say that we need to create a new reality (he just did not know how we would reach it, nor what it would look like) and ditch the fairytale that current consumption patterns can prevail.

I agree with the need for rich countries in particular to drastically change the way we consume resources, but for me there were 2 big questions (a) can we discard the "human ingenuity will fix this with technology with no need for a great change in behaviour" counterargument as Giampietro suggests? Simply because industrial production is not getting more energy efficient does not mean it could not under any circumstances, and (b) what will be the triggers for either a dramatic upsurge in new technology development or a drastic change in behaviour around energy use? What would concentrate our minds? What discomfort will represent a strong enough signal? And once concentrated, will we --like boiling frogs--realise we must do something once it is too late to change anything?

A stimulating seminar--for more on Prof Giampietro and his work see here.

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