Danger ahead: prioritising risk avoidance in political and economic decision-making

Brian Davey

Now that the financial and political components of the present system have discredited themselves, a fluid situation exists that might allow more viable options to emerge. Local green initiatives, in particular the Transition Towns movement, are gaining in strength and number(s), but do they have the potential to develop the capacity needed at a national level to transform societies’ energy and transport infrastructures?

In a commentary on the Great Depression of the 1930s, the German economic historian Werner Abelshauser noted that the scale of the crisis in its early stages was often underestimated. While still in office, President Hoover saw the worst as being over, and when he came to power in 1933, Roosevelt thought the same. According to Abelshauser, the main actors in the drama lacked what he called “Catastrophe Consciousness.” They simply could not comprehend the scale of what was happening.

In this paper, I argue that the same now holds true for elite thinking and preparedness across a range of issues that were predicted in the 1970s by the group that wrote the Club of Rome Report, the “Limits to Growth”. At the time, this report received a lot of attention but it was widely rubbished by mainstream economists, who helped create a conventional wisdom that the “Limits to Growth” theorists “had been proved wrong”.

Unsustainable growth, “overshoot” and collapse

The subsequent period was marked by the rise of Thatcher, Reagan and market fundamentalism and by the collapse of the communist bloc. A long period of expansion occurred from which most people in the world either did not gain or emerged worse off. The cheap energy powering modern transport and communications enabled globalised capital to move easily to where it wanted — to take advantage of the cheapest pay, most favourable tax opportunities and lowest environmental standards. It is therefore not surprising that while the index of market-based transactions (GDP) soared, the other, less-publicised well-being measures — like the Genuine Progress Indicator or the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare — stagnated or declined. While the media was full of adverts for the latest energy-guzzling toys and stories showing the luxurious lifestyles of the celebrities, most people could only have a taste of this lifestyle if they ran down their savings or got deeper into debt on a gamble that the equity on their home would continue to rise. The consumer toys they then purchased were bought “on the cheap” because the environmental filth generated in production is offloaded onto people living in or near the new industrial zones in India, China and elsewhere.

In short, this kind of development was highly unbalanced, characterised by the running down of financial savings and natural capital, followed by the piling up of financial debts — and ecological debts too. As the system became grotesquely unequal it became correspondingly unbalanced. The money, and hence the purchasing power, accumulated to the benefit of a few. They then lent it back into circulation, which maintained aggregate demand. After a point however, those who borrowed the money were too poor to service their debts. And when energy prices rose, this finished them off. The financial debt crisis has been very painful for millions of people but they will mostly survive it; what is not clear is whether humanity will survive the crisis of ecological debt.

The “Limits to Growth” theorists had a phrase to describe all of this: “overshoot”. They didn’t deny that growth could occur for a time at high rates, but they argued that it couldn’t last because humanity cannot permanently run down natural capital and degrade sinks — the air, seas and lands that absorb the wastes of economic activity.

Oil and gas depletion is a run-down in natural capital because natural gas and oil are non-renewable. Using them can only be described as sustainable if a proportion is set aside to build up a renewables-based infrastructure that will deliver not only an equal or greater amount of replacement energy over its lifetime, but also the energy needed to replace the renewables infrastructure itself. To date, nothing of the kind has happened.

Wherever one looks in the world, fossil water supplies have not been used sustainably. Soils are being eroded and not restored at anything near the rate required. Perhaps most seriously of all, the use of the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas dump far exceeds safe levels. In a now well-known article, scientist James Hansen and colleagues calculate that a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is probably far below 350, possibly as low as 300-325ppm. Yet the atmospheric concentration is already 387 ppm and rising.

Humanity is thus taking from future generations to feed its consumption now or, rather, a very tiny minority is doing so. And this tiny minority — the political and economic elite — is steering planet Earth towards a catastrophe far greater than the credit crunch. They are steering us directly towards an eco-system crunch.

Seeing the trends together: Nature does not do
ceteris paribus

The true magnitude of this crisis can only be ascertained by viewing all the different problems together. Typically, the various threats and problems are examined by specialist media correspondents and editors, specialists in academia and specialist departments in government and local government. These experts are all working within certain conceptual and administrative conventions that parse reality into bite-size chunks that journalists, researchers, officials and policy makers can cope with. The specialisation seems to help them get a better grasp of the issues.

In a generalised system crisis, the opposite is the case: the compartment-alisation that specialisation brings with it precludes a clear overview, one that would tell us that things are far more dangerous and the dangers likely more imminent than we thought. Thus specialists can tell us that a 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures will probably lead to a fall in global crop yields of 10%. But to calculate figures like these, specialists have to make assumptions about the context in which 1 degree C rise will happen. The normal assumption is ceteris paribus: all other things being equal or staying the same. However, in a general system crisis, most relevant “other things” are NOT staying the same. They are changing, and very often in an unfavourable way, because one problem exacerbates the others in a chain reaction that becomes a cascade of knock-on effects. Thus, for example, plants grown in warmer temperatures than they are acclimatised to will need adequate water to suit those altered conditions, and if there is a depleted level of fossil water to draw upon, then crop yields may fall a lot more.

The food crisis

If runaway climate change or the Energy Winters predicted by peak-oil theorists are not gloomy enough for you — if you really want to be frightened — then just consider together some of the well-established trends in global food production:

  1. Climate change, leading to a rise in surface temperatures and a decline in crop yields.
  2. Declining regional water availabilities. Falling water tables in countries populated by half the world’s peoples. According to figures quoted by Lester R. Brown, 175 million Indians consume grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon be exhausted.
  3. Soil degradation and erosion, bringing increasing desertification.
    Top soil is eroding faster than new soil formation on perhaps one-third of the world’s cropland.
  4. Increased urbanisation and non-farming activities out-compete food production for land and water use.
  5. Fossil-fuel depletion impacting on fertiliser/pesticide availability and costs, reducing access to the inputs that have increased yields over the last few decades.
  6. Decline of biodiversity of food crops, bringing vulnerability to disease just as pesticide costs rise.
  7. Crops used to feed animals rather than humans as affluent meat-based diets become more common.
  8. Biofuels; grains and crops used to feed cars rather than humans.
  9. Depletion of global phosphorous inputs. There’s no research on peak phosphorous but according to the European Fertiliser Association, phosphorous may begin to run out in the second half of the century. And without phosphorous, crop yields will fall by 20-50%.
  10. Global diseases of bee pollinators. British bee populations slumped 30% in the winter of 2007/8, the result either of pesticides, disease, mites and/or milder winters that encourage them to forage too soon. (The Independent)
  11. Rising world population, increasing at 1.14% per annum or an extra 75 million per year (Wikipedia). The cultivated area per person fell from 0.6 hectares per person in 1950 to 0.25 hectares in 2000. (Limits to Growth 30 Year Update, p. 62)
  12. Overfishing, marine pollution and decline of world fish stocks. A 2003 study by a Canadian-German research team published in Nature concluded that 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans had disappeared over the last 50 years.
  13. The bulk of global grain market in the hands of just three companies. Development of “terminator” seeds to concentrate all seed sales in the hands of a corporate elite.

Failed states

In a May 2009 article “Could food shortages bring down civilization?” in Scientific American, Lester R. Brown argues that some of these trends are creating the context for conflict, the breakdown of political administrations and the emergence of “failed states”. Of course, the disintegration caused by resource wars is one other reason for failed states. As oil, natural gas, water, agricultural land and mineral resources become scarcer, so land grabs or destabilising manoeuvres are made to secure privileged access to them; this often underpins conflicts that, at least on the surface, are about ideology or religion.

The growing number of conflicts then has its own self-feeding dynamic. Increasingly “the market” reacts by growing a security, prisons and armaments sector with a vested interest in further sales, while mass psychology becomes more paranoid and sociopathic. Frightened, hostile groups find it more difficult to co-operate to find positive responses to the situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, quite apart from the misery of living in them, failed states become sources of refugees, disease, piracy and drugs and, arguably as a consequence, breeding grounds for psychopaths.

Disease, ill health and a global public health crisis

The risks of disease and ill health are crucial. Once again, if we put the trends together the picture is far more alarming than if we look at each issue in isolation:

  1. Climate change, bringing extreme temperature and natural catastrophes, and shifting boundaries for insects and pests like mosquitoes.
  2. Weakened immune systems due to malnutrition, stress, and water, air and soil pollution.
  3. Water shortages, creating problems of basic hygiene and health
  4. A combination of resource wars, corruption and collapse of political administrations, leading to weak or non-existent public-health infrastructures and large populations forced into migration.
  5. Extreme concentration of animal factory farming, creating ideal conditions for mutations of pathogens
  6. Urbanisation and globalisation. Rapid travel between densely populated centres creates optimal conditions for rapid transmission of diseases.

Naturally, there are trends working in the other direction. Most systems have feedback effects, including negative feedbacks that act as stabilisers. Thus, when animal diseases like swine flu sweep around the world, some people stop eating meat either temporarily or for good. That the world is in an economic recession has led to a dramatic decline in air travel, which has probably slowed the spread of swine flu.

Scaremongering versus the reasons to be cheerful

The threats, then, seem both real and in some cases imminent. But to present the picture wholly from the negative side is to be accused of “scare mongering” by those techno-optimists and politicians who are confident that while problems exist, they are still manageable. Such people argue that it is alarmist to emphasise negative trends and worst-case scenarios without also highlighting options for responding to those threats. With regard to food, water and soils there are indeed many options for organic production and ecological agriculture. Possibilities exist to improve soils, manage water resources better, enhance and extend biodiversity, integrate alternative forms of aquaculture and fish production, and disperse the concentrations of animals that have become “disease factories” and, because much of their food is made from it, act as a pressure on the price of grain. There are also ways to improve energy efficiency and to promote renewables and policies like Cap and Share that could lock in the carbon gains made.

The real problem is not a lack of potential responses to the truly colossal threats we face. What is genuinely alarming is that the political-economic establishment has a built-in inertia that stops it responding quickly, effectively and adequately to these threats as they present themselves. And while it is true that it has responded relatively quickly, and certainly on a huge scale, to the banking crisis, this is only because making money is the primary purpose of the economic system. Crucially, even though the threats it poses are far graver, as outlined above, the response to the ecological crisis has been totally different. The vast vested interests and financial clout of the corporate elite are based on a fossil fuel – and carbon-powered status quo that wants to see “business as usual” continue in perpetuity. All of which means that the money men drag their feet when it comes to addressing the ecological crisis.

Take this May 2009 quote [1] from The Guardian, for example

America’s oil, gas and coal industry has increased its lobbying budget by 50%, with key players spending $44.5m in the first three months of this year in an intense effort to cut off support for Barack Obama’s plan to build a clean energy economy.

The spoiler campaign runs to hundreds of millions of dollars and involves industry front groups, lobbying firms, television, print and radio advertising, and donations to pivotal members of Congress. Its intention is to water down or kill off plans by the Democratic leadership to pass “cap and trade” legislation this year, which would place limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

The essence of the problem can be expressed in economic terms: those with access to fossil fuel–based technologies are currently far more productive and therefore have a competitive advantage that allows them to undercut their competitors and make the most money. The wealth thus gained also allows them to undermine their political rivals where it really counts — well-connectedness. It enables direct access to those in positions of political authority so they can influence political agendas. Resources are also made available for campaigns to set agendas within the mass media, and in this way to mould public perceptions and public opinion.

Power arrogance and hubris

There is nothing new in the phenomena of power arrogance and hubris. Since the earliest civilisations, rulers have made decisions and overreached their power in the confident belief that they had God on their side. In more modern times our rulers have believed that nature rewards the fittest, in other words, them.

Irrespective of what point in history they emerge, the starting point of most elites is the comfortable assumption that, as things have typically gone right for them in the past, they will continue to go right in the future. This belief is compounded by the fact that for a long time it has been the “little people” who bear the costs while those higher up the food chain reap the benefits. Power means that they are effectively cocooned from the negative kick-back from their actions. Long before the rulers themselves are successfully challenged and fall — and this typically happens only in the final stages — millions of others have already lost out badly and immense damage has been done.

What we term hubris is the cruel arrogance that arises from a failure of bottom-up feedback in systems where vast social and geographical distances exist between the powerful and the powerless. The punishment of Nemesis, the Greek goddess who was supposed to re-impose limits on those who overstepped their power, typically befalls entire societies before it befalls the rulers. Today the vast distance that separates the global elite from ordinary people is magnified further by the high-power technologies of communications, transport, production and weaponry. Nemesis, when she comes, will be global.

Power relationships in the transition

What to do? Marxist acquaintances of mine would probably suggest armed revolution but that would be futile. It would only enhance and exacerbate the current trends towards greater surveillance, paranoia, police powers and militarisation, a war that the powers-that-be would win before we’re all dragged into the vortex of the ecological crisis.

The situation demands that we re-think what political and economic power involves. Because there are a host of things that can and must be done to re-organise society at the level of the household and local community, there’s no need for people of goodwill to wait for politicians to set an example. The Transition Towns movement has shown that immense potential exists for people to organise to do what they can now to get their homes, gardens, local transport arrangements and communities in order for the coming crisis. Increasingly, local politicians are taking their point of departure from the Transition Initiatives. This shows that power comes not solely, or even mainly, from positions of formal political authority; it comes with having the kind of initiative to which others respond and which acts through the power of personal influence and example.

The exercise of power in human society occurs by means of various initiatives. And these initiatives don’t always need to be big. Many of the biggest and most powerful institutions originally started very small.

As individuals and groups we have both needs and problems. To meet the needs and solve the problems, we structure our activities in purposeful ways. And a purpose pursued over time, through an arranged sequence of activities, is an initiative. When we pursue this purpose with other people, we set up organisations and institutions to help us. We agree (or in an authoritarian system impose!) to shared purposes, develop the skills for attaining them, and then assemble and apply the energy, material and financial resources required.

It is a challenging job to get new organisations off the ground around new purposes, bringing together people who may not know each other, developing and applying new skills, and accumulating the other resources for the job — and all from scratch, too. This process is commonly called “capacity building” and it requires all-round leadership.

Capacity building is a process of empowerment in the sense that the group has a growing capacity to achieve its aims. As groups grow they develop a capacity for planning and designing their activities over time, implementing their decisions and then monitoring and reviewing their results. The more a group can achieve, the more resources it will tend to attract and the more it will get noticed in the political process, irrespective of whether any group member occupies a formal position of political power.

Now that we have exceeded the limits to growth, the new conditions of resource scarcity require many initiatives to meet individual and community needs in different ways, closer to home, with less energy and materials. Transition Initiatives highlight a major area for change, one in which most ordinary people can and must participate: the acquisition of new skills, networking, organising initiatives and developing projects. As this process evolves, it’s inevitable that participants will recognise that the state and politics must also change to complement, rather than undermine, what they’re trying to achieve.

It’s obvious to many that to deal effectively with climate change or environmental chaos, energy is best spent seeking to influence or replace those in power, i.e. people in senior positions in politics and business. Politicians typically pass the buck, however, claiming that citizens should change, that they can’t do much until we are ready. This, however, is nothing but an excuse for not getting down to the issues at hand. The truth is that some things we can do on our own, some with state support and some mainly (or only) at state level. If the state is unwilling to act, we can still get on with things locally and join with others nationally and internationally. And when we do, we build the organisational power and the moral authority to eventually transform the state.

Proximal and distal power

Personal circumstances determine the purposes that people pursue. Most ordinary people have, at best, proximal power — the ability to influence that which is immediate in their lives, e.g. what they buy, who they spend time with and so on. But this kind of proximal influence can be considerably extended by networking together in Transition Initiatives and skilling up on a different model. In the end, more ambitious goals for transformation means influencing and changing the structures of distal power.

Distal power transcends proximal power [2]. It is the world in which high politics, high finance and business operates, often behind the scenes, informally in clubs, in social networks of the well connected, in official offices of state. Distal power is the ability to determine the contexts in which others operate. In terms of political power, this means the ability to influence things like interest rates, public expenditure priorities, programme priorities for grant-aid funding, legal frameworks, minimum standards regulations for health and safety, buildings etc.

The danger of co-option: sticking to transitional purposes

I do not wish to deny the usefulness of intervening in the political arena, nor of trying to influence policy. On the contrary, movements like the Transition Initiatives will hopefully become more able to work the system, i.e. find their way around and use the structures of distal power to develop more resilient communities. At the same time, it is to be hoped that engagement with the system does not lead to compromise. Where movements or individuals engage prematurely with more powerful networks, they tend to get co-opted, lose their own agenda and adopt the agenda of the more powerful players. The danger in our case is that that “involvement” would be manipulated to legitimise “greenwashing” and resource-wasting growth. It is important that we stick to our own purposes.

With the vital caveat about the dangers of co-option in mind, we can nevertheless envisage a process where groups like the Transition Initiatives secure changes in the structures of distal power so that they are more amenable to their different purposes. Specifically, it would involve state structures prioritising resilience as the number one item on the public agenda. Resilience would be seen by all as being not only different from a growth agenda, but incompatible with it. Priorities like public health, social cohesion (a priority for vulnerable people who will otherwise become a source of public-health risk), the conservation and maintenance of sustainable energy supplies, would shift to a position where they have the power to trump the provision of more inessential consumer goods.

We will know we have made it in the U.K. when we rewrite the mission statement of the U.K. Treasury, which currently says that its

aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth, and achieve rising prosperity and a better quality of life with economic and employment opportunities for all.” Its aim ought to be “to secure economic resilience to protect and ensure that the basic needs of all can be met fairly through assisting transformation of the economy in the face of natural capital depletion and environmental limits.

With this kind of state it would be possible to develop a collaborative working relationship between communities, officials and a community economy sector. This last sector would establish ethical living as its goal. It would help communities provide for their basic needs while adjusting to, and coping with, difficult times. The community economic agenda would prioritise fairness and equity to help maintain social cohesion. And as resources become scarcer, social and community enterprise would stand a better chance of surviving conflicts arising from distribution.

Unless and until we can change the state to support these kinds of processes, it will be necessary to grow our abilities to develop purposes in ways that are largely independent of the structures of distal power. This means the development of confidence, skills and resources that do not rely on anything bestowed by the structures of social authority; we will need to development the ability to use our own unutilised energies for the organisation and management of “powerdown” processes.

Contradictions between different parts of the state
and public sector

Firstly, confronted by the limits to growth, current political-economic establishments are having great difficulty acknowledging that citizens will have to change their lifestyles. On the one hand, there is no desire to sponsor a movement in which people might — horror of horrors — lose interest in shopping. After all, what is growth without consumption?

On the other hand, some politicians recognise that many people are having great difficulty holding onto their “lifestyle packages” and these politicians don’t want to give the impression that they’re going to make life even more difficult for these people. Each of us holds in balance a habitat and consumption throughput that must match an income and credit capacity related to our work and sources of income, and which sustains our dependencies and emotional relationships in ways appropriate to our age, health and aspirations. In a time of generalised crisis, people are subjected to agonising decisions because the choices are no longer about which brands to pick on supermarket shelves, but about how to hold the entire lifestyle together without losing one’s home, seeing one’s relationships break up or being unable to cope in a job whose security is in any case precarious. It is therefore no surprise that establishment-based “green” think-tanks and consultants base policy frameworks on the assumption that the public would not be obliged to substantially change their lifestyles. It is simply too unpalatable a message.

As a result, mainstream politics largely cedes the very space where much of the real work of change is needed: the creation of a movement focused on post-consumerist, low-energy lifestyles. I write “largely” because health-promotion agencies and sustainability officials will typically lend their support to projects that promote allotments, community gardens, local food, warmer homes and the like. But such schemes are far from the mainstream and have tiny budgets. And in terms of political traction, they can be a bit toothless.

The politics of the future is therefore one in which these fringe groups, aided and abetted by officials and practitioners working to an increasingly important public-health agenda, are likely to move increasingly into the mainstream, while “economic development”— the industrial and financial activities of the state and the networks in which they operate —come to be seen as largely irrelevant, are discredited or are (rightly) perceived as operating in a way that is eco-socially toxic.

Government decisions that affect the ways the
public changes

While the state will increasingly recognise that it must urge the public to take action to reduce carbon emissions and unnecessary waste, the reverse of this also holds true: that the public will be more sensitive to whether, and in what ways, major government decisions either enhance or undermine what they are being urged to do. People are increasingly aware that unless society as a whole, and unless nations as a whole, take action on climate change, what they do as individuals and communities is futile.

This is a crucial part of the argument for policies like Cap and Share because it cuts through the backsliding and evasion that currently passes for climate policy. If fossil fuels create climate change they should be banned from sale unless with a permit. Period. The limited permission to sell fossil fuels now is temporary. It arises only because we cannot wean ourselves off our addiction to fossil fuels overnight. The number of permits, denominated in greenhouse gas quantities, has to be reduced as quickly as possible down to zero. A policy like this must also be administered in an equitable manner. In contrast to the European Emissions Trading System, which gives away permits, the fossil-fuel suppliers should have to buy in a Cap and Share system. The bulk of the revenue from these sales should go back to the people, shared out on a per-capita basis. The people need these revenues to invest in establishing their houses and communities as the top priority.

If people are to be encouraged to take action at the proximal level and this action is not to be undermined by actions at the distal level, the frameworks themselves must be changed in a complementary way. Cap and Share is one part of ensuring this happens. But it’s not enough on its own. Consistent industrial, transport and agricultural policies are also needed.

Shaping strategic infrastructure decisions

Over and above the reorganisation of local space (homes, gardens and neighbourhoods), some very large-scale bits of engineering are needed to create the broad-scale renewable-energy and transport systems of the future. The techno systems are so large that national-level strategic political decisions have to be made, with major implications for resource allocation. At this point in time the carbon lobby is far too dominant and well entrenched for government to get behind even the most modest non-carbon energy and transport. It will take time to grow a citizens’ movement with the economic clout, momentum and networked resources needed to change this situation, though the pressure for this change will certainly build.

People who take the climate crisis seriously and start to act in their private lives and community are obviously going to be outraged when government takes the sorts of decisions that they have recently in the U.K. by agreeing to a third runway at Heathrow. In the age of the Internet, people can see now only too clearly what is going on when big government and carbon interests cut deals to develop coal power based on the slender hope that Carbon Capture and Storage will work sufficiently and on time. We are therefore likely to see a growing polarisation against big government and big carbon business alliances that currently have a stranglehold on national energy and transport policy.

The scope for change for millions of people is not simply a matter of individual wishes and willpower. The term “lock in” is often used to describe how our economies and societies operate with a technical infrastructure that is replaced only very slowly and at considerable investment cost. While individual and communities can start to change their lifestyles at the local level to a considerable extent, further change will hinge on decisions taken about engineered infrastructures by the organisations that decide on them.  At some point a full follow-through in ecological transformation will be dependent on huge collective planning and investment decisions about the technical infrastructure of society — the fabric of buildings, the transport systems and the power station architecture.    

I use the word “systems” here deliberately because there is a danger of thinking in terms of individual technologies and not seeing that we are actually talking about larger techno-social systems with cross-economy complementarities. Central to the energy system, for example, is the problem of how to deal with intermittency if renewables are to be used to their maximum capacity. There are clearly ways to deal with this — through matching electricity demand to the supply when it’s available (when the wind blows, batteries for electric cars are charged up) as well as through the development of electrical storage capacity. However, the decisions that need to be taken here are big strategic decisions involving industrial, energy and transport policy.

Furthermore, large-scale engineering and building programmes can develop only at a certain pace, and, while it can perhaps be speeded up if we all accept that an emergency exists or is imminent, limits are still set by the time needed to plan, clarify technological, legal and administrative issues, raise finance, train people and get them together in functioning and effective teams. These time issues cannot be wished away.

Capacity building for ‘Powering Up’

The Transition movement has a good chance, over several years, of making an impact on the “Power Down” agenda, but for a “Power Up” agenda to be realised, well-thought-out, strategic decisions must be made in the fields of energy, industry, agriculture and transport. Ideally, taken together these decisions would comprise a consistent plan. But getting such a plan worked up and implemented is not merely a matter of political will; we also need organisation, resources, logistics and skills. The politics cannot move faster than the build-up of the eco-economic capacity.

Free-market fundamentalists might well say that the state is likely to do a thoroughly bad job if it has too much influence over big infrastructure decisions. They might thoroughly dislike my implied dirigiste argumentation. They might be right. However, rather than states backing the wrong systems, I fear we’re more likely to see a failure of states to back any coherent large-scale system plans at all.

Given the short-term nature of the parliamentary system and the huge scale on which we now have to re-cast the entire energy, transport, agricultural and industrial systems, given the competing vested interests with their rival approaches, given the credit crunch, given peak oil and its capacity to bring the economy to its knees, given the enormous complexity of all these things, I believe that politicians and the state are simply incapable of making strategic decisions on the scale necessary. What we will get instead is a lot of floundering and procrastination disguised with rhetoric. Indeed, although there has been a lot of rhetoric about Green New Deals, there has been almost no spending on climate or environmental agendas.

This situation echoes the ideas of Joseph Tainter: that societies collapse not because of stress surges per se, but because, when stress surges occur, circumstances have become so complex that the authorities are overwhelmed by all the complications to the point of being unable to provide a response and see it through. This dynamic defines the larger and longer term challenge. We are threatened with a future of breakdowns, extreme weather events and epidemics, all observed by an increasingly paralysed state and an elite that masks the collective self-deception using the machines of the PR industry and the mass media. The race will be on to develop a coherent ecological package to forestall the growth of extremist parties. These parties will focus on people’s mass anger and despair and on simplistic messages of hatred — blaming and persecuting scapegoats like ethnic minorities, immigrants, the rich or the growing numbers of environmental refugees.

Can a new movement of ecological activists unfold to the extent that one is needed? Can it move from proximal to distal agendas without co-option? As it evolves, can it find within itself the necessary financial acumen, skills and organisational resources to create realistic and realisable plans? Will it be able to create the minimal necessary renewable-generating capacity and the minimal necessary alternative transport network and cultivational system? Given the collapse in the credibility and legitimacy of the carbon mainstream, can this nascent movement find sufficient popular political support to take over and transform the state in a peaceful process to oversee the development of an alternative ecological resilience package? I believe that yes, of course it can.


  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/may/12/us-climate-bill-oil-gas
  2. This terminology of ‘proximal power’ and ‘distal power’ is taken from David Smail’s The origins of Unhappiness HarperCollins, 1993)

Future global climate institutions

Alex Evans

Any framework for dealing with the climate crisis should be based on a scientifically derived stabilisation target. Such a framework should also distribute the global carbon budget among the world’s nations according to a transparent, equitable formula. To achieve this, global climate institutions will have to change.

In 2009, when David Steven and I embarked on a study for the UK government of future global institutions for tackling climate change, we felt that the world had spent almost nothing investigating the sort of global institutions we’d need in future in order to solve the issue. By comparison, millions of pounds had been invested in understanding the science of climate change — above all through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — and the economics of the issue, especially the Stern Review.

This, we thought, was surprising. In the past, whenever nations or peoples have faced an existential, systemic challenge, the new settlement that follows is almost always marked by new institutions. Think of how national sovereignty evolved out of Europe tearing itself apart in the Thirty Years War during the 17th century, or how the UN emerged, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Second World War.

It’s already clear that climate change is the defining challenge of our age. Why then is so little thinking underway about the kind of institutions needed to solve it? It’s this nagging question that motivated us to produce our May 2009 paper “An Institutional Architecture for Climate Change”.

We were guided from the outset by two principles. The first was that we didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that institutions were the same as organisations. Instead, we liked Douglass North’s definition that institutions are “the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, the humanly-devised constraints that shape human interaction”. He continues: “institutional change shapes the way societies evolve through time and hence is the key to understanding historical change”. That sounded a good starting point to us.

The other principle we wanted to stick to was a really rigorous focus on function over form. As we know only too well, energy spent on reforming the international system all too often gets dissipated in setting up new organisations, closing them down, or otherwise trying to create some sort of perfect international organogram — without necessarily asking what it is we actually need international institutions to achieve.

So, those were the two principles underpinning our study. Which leads on to the question: what do we need international institutions to achieve on climate? David and I argue that the short answer to that question is that they need to send back signals from the future.

Let me explain that phrase. When you look at what determines how policy actors behave on climate change, you realise that how they act today is fundamentally determined by their expectations of what will happen in the future. So if countries — or companies, or citizens — expect a slow transition to a low-carbon world, then it makes sense for them to ‘free-ride’ internationally and to protect incumbents and vested interests. Moreover, given the long investment horizons involved, everyone shares an interest in predictability. If, on balance, people expect a slow transition, then it’s rational for them to reinforce that dynamic by seeking to slow the process down themselves. But if, on the other hand, perceptions tip to the other side — towards expecting a rapid transition to a low-carbon world — then a virtuous circle is much more likely to develop, because actors will have incentives to lead the change, nurture innovators and co-operate internationally.

Where institutions can make a difference, then, is by sending ‘signals from the future’ that shape people’s expectations. Institutions can give people confidence that we are going to solve this problem and, in doing so, create a self-fulfilling prophecy that brings about that very outcome.

This subtle feedback loop shows in microcosm a much wider point about where we are today in terms of international cooperation, with globalisation challenged not only by climate change, but also by the credit crunch, growing resource scarcity, the risk of protectionism and so on. As these and other stresses on globalisation increase, it’s likely that we’ll see either a significant loss of trust in the system, as globalisation retreats and countries focus on narrow, short-term national interests, or a significant increase in trust, as countries move decisively to increase their interdependence and invest in the institutions needed to make globalisation more resilient, sustainable and equitable.

Muddling through in some ways looks the least likely outcome. That’s why we argue that the issue of “signals for the future” is so important, and why we believe international institutions matter so much in this context. How do today’s climate institutions shape up?

Well, let’s start with the good news. Our institutional framework has a clear objective, set out in Article 2 of the UNFCCC: stabilise concentrations of (GHGs) at a safe level that avoids dangerous interference with the climate. That treaty also represents a pretty much universally agreed-upon reference point, with only Iraq, Somalia and Andorra not having ratified it.

Other items on the ‘credit’ side of the institutional ledger include the IPCC, which has been not only a neutral arbiter of the science but also a kind of anchor for the global conversation about climate change; Kyoto’s system of binding targets, plus cap-and-trade, for developed countries; some basic mechanisms for emissions abatement in developing countries, including the Clean Development Mechanism; and methodologies for countries to report on their emissions.

Unfortunately, these elements don’t add up to a clear signal back from the future. Here are a few reasons why not:

First, although we’ve defined stabilisation as the goal, our institutional framework doesn’t actually cohere with that end. We’ve neither quantified, nor even seriously discussed, the level at which GHG concentrations should be stabilised to avoid dangerous climate change, much less agreed a binding global ceiling on GHG levels in the air.

Second, Kyoto’s targets for developed countries weren’t in any way scientifically derived. Instead, they were based on countries’ own political and economic assessments of what they could manage.

Third, the lack of quantified targets for developing countries makes it impossible to forecast overall global emissions with any certainty. On top of that, there’s the problem of ‘carbon leakage,’ so in the UK, for instance, while production of GHGs fell 12.5% between 1990 and 2003, consumption of them grew by 19% over the same period. Why? In effect, it’s because the UK, like other rich countries, has ‘exported’ its dirty industries to the developing world, which then have to pay the cost of investing in clean technologies.

Fourth, Kyoto’s enforcement system is weak. Sanctions on countries that fail to meet their targets are weak; systems for monitoring, reporting and verification are ineffective; and there are no penalties on countries that refuse to join in the first place. Indeed, the fact that the US stayed out of Kyoto is likely to help it to generate a much more generous target this time around.

Fifth, there’s a similar lack of clarity on finance, adaptation and technology.

  • On technology, there are now numerous funds, but they lack clear terms of reference or a sense of exactly what they’re supposed to deliver. The amount of public R&D spent on energy, meanwhile, is half what it was 25 years ago.
  • On adaptation, debate is focusing more on the question of “how much?” than the question of “how?” National Adaptation Plans of Action are highly focused on short-term measures and far less on the challenge of really mainstreaming resilience through development programming.
  • On financing, there’s a lack of clarity over how financing flows on mitigation, adaptation and low-carbon technology cut across each other, and how they relate to other flows like development aid and private-sector investment.

And last but not least, there’s a lack of coherence between climate change and other key policy areas, such as trade, energy, food security, land use and economic stability.

Ultimately, for all that policymakers stress the scale of the climate challenge and the need for radical action, the fact remains that our current institutional set-up is saying something different. In effect, the signal actually being sent back from the future by today’s institutions is that:

  1. The likely impact of climate change will be considerably less than that predicted by the IPCC.
  2. The cost of reducing emissions far exceeds the benefits, while there is little need to insure against catastrophic impacts.
  3. Short-term economic imperatives outweigh longer-term interests, including both economic and, especially, non-economic ones.
  4. The needs of the poor should be given less weight than those of the rich.

All of which poses the question: what would it look like if we had an institutional framework that provided the opposite signal from the future — the unequivocal message that the world was clearly resolved to tackle climate change over the full term of the problem, and that individual countries, companies and citizens should position themselves to get out of carbon as swiftly as possible?

Let’s start by being clear about the three most fundamental functions for the system. It must:

  • Constrain emissions and manage sinks in a way consistent with stabilisation
  • Provide mechanisms to take account of equity, in both the mitigation and the adaptation contexts
  • Include enforcement mechanisms tough enough to make the regime effective and credible

So what might these mean in practice? Well, first and foremost, we think countries will need to agree a quantified, binding stabilisation target as the bedrock of the whole system. Today, we work from the short term — 5-year emission targets — out towards the long term: an aspiration of eventual stabilisation, at some unspecified level.

It’s time to reverse this trend and ensure that what happens today is driven by what needs to happen over the full term of the issue. A defined stabilisation target, like 450 parts per million CO2, would achieve that. And once we have it, we can use it to derive the size of a safe global emissions budget over the same period.

The next question is how to share out this budget. In the scenarios we did for the report, David and I argue that the only way that 192 countries are going to agree on the distribution of emission permits is through some kind of standard allocation formula to reconcile countries’ different equity claims. We call this “the Algorithm”.

At one end of the spectrum, emerging economies like China and Brazil want permits allocated in proportion to historical responsibility; at the other, many developed countries assume that ‘grandfathering’ permits in proportion to GDP is the only feasible approach.

Somewhere in the middle is a compromise, probably with allocations ending up on an equal per-capita basis at the end of a negotiated convergence period.

Even then, the problem with a per-capita allocation is that it’s impossible for developed countries to deliver in the short term, and a tough sell politically. At the same time, it’s also inequitable for poor countries, which receive a disproportionately small share of emissions while convergence to equal per capita equity takes place; these countries are also not rewarded for having low emissions prior to taking on targets.

Happily, there’s quite a lot that policymakers can do to increase equity. One is to make emission permits a tradable property right, so that emissions trading provides compensatory finance flows during the convergence period. Another approach involves directing resource flows through non-market mechanisms, like technology transfer. A third is resource flows for funding adaptation.

But we need to take a far more integrated approach to climate finance than we do today. At present, most of the push on financing is around making adaptation finance additional to the 0.7% of GNP target for development aid. And it’s far from clear to me how we put ourselves on strong ground by arguing on the one hand that adaptation is all about mainstreaming, while on the other insisting on separate financial flows.

More fundamentally, imagine what a truly global cap and trade system, coupled with an equitable allocation algorithm, could do for finance for development. Official Development Assistance is currently worth about $100 billion a year. Emissions trading markets are already worth two-thirds of that level a year — $64 billion in 2008, according to the World Bank — and they’re still in their infancy. Yet because they have no targets and hence own no assets, developing countries are missing out on these markets. Instead, they get the Clean Development Mechanism, which doesn’t deliver real finance for development or real emissions reductions. Such inequity is startling. You couldn’t make it up.

Finally, let me say just a word about enforcement. Our current set-up does not work — not on enforcing targets, not on penalising countries that stay out of the regime and not on checking that financial commitments actually get delivered.

In the long run, David and I argue that a climate deal will have to require an ‘all or nothing’ approach to international participation. Either countries play a full part in the system, and thus have access to international frameworks on finance, trade, development, energy and other resources, and perhaps even security; or they sit outside the international system and are effectively barred from all forms of international co-operation. Carbon default would therefore become as weighty an issue as sovereign debt default or failure to comply with a UN Security Council resolution. Right now, of course, such a scenario seems totally inconceivable, but it does indicate the extent of the shift in understanding that is still needed.

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers about future climate institutions, nor does our report purport to be a full blueprint. Our aim is simply to start a broader, deeper, more engaged conversation about a dimension of the climate challenge that’s been seriously under-considered. This is also why we call for a ‘Stern Review’–type process to look at climate institutions much more comprehensively. Only when we embark on both of these can we begin to glimpse a real, workable model for our global institutions on the horizon.

Cap & Share: simple is beautiful

Laurence Matthews

Cap & Share is a fair, effective, cheap, empowering and simple way to reduce emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. It could form the basis of a wider global climate framework but how realistic is it to call for its introduction?

Humanity faces many challenges in the current crisis: development issues; global poverty and inequality; security of energy, food and water supplies; and a range of environmental problems which stretches far beyond limiting carbon emissions. Maintaining greenhouse gas concentrations at safe levels is just one requirement for survival but it is a prominent, important and symbolic one. Any response to it needs to be effective and, if possible, efficient in economic terms. But in order to be effective it has to be adopted and this means it must be acceptable in terms of issues such as equity, development agendas and parochial political struggles. If a framework is simple, it can more easily be tested for alignment with these other concerns.

Simplicity has other virtues too. Simplicity is important when rallying emotional support for a measure — no matter what the economic incentives might be. Inspirational ideas are usually simple. Simplicity fosters a feeling of inclusion, rather than the alienation and exclusion that results from discussions by ‘experts’. An insistence on simplicity also forces naysayers to state clearly what they object to, which clarifies the discussion immensely. We are facing a planetary emergency here and we need to be clear-sighted if we are to solve our problems in time.

Simplicity should not be confused with naivety; indeed naivety is often displayed by concentrating on some aspects of a problem in sophisticated detail while completely ignoring others. Concocting elaborations and complications may be useful for addressing technicalities and can be useful for finessing stumbling blocks in negotiations, but this process risks getting out of hand and is prone to being blind to errors which would be elementary to others less immersed in the details. Proponents of a simple system might do well to consent to discussions on elaborations only if the basis for the simple framework is agreed first.

The next section describes Cap & Share, recently selected by the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission as one of its ‘Breakthrough Ideas for the 21st Century’ (SDC 2009). Cap & Share is an example of an effective, fair, efficient and, above all, simple method for capping carbon emissions.

Cap & Share

Cap & Share (C&S) is a system for limiting the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels (Feasta 2008); it is an alternative to carbon rations or carbon taxes. It could work on a global scale, or nationally for a single country’s economy. We’ll return to this later, but for the moment imagine a national scheme. As the name implies, there are two parts to C&S:

Cap: The total carbon emissions are limited (capped) in a simple, no-nonsense way

Share: The huge amounts of money involved are shared equally by the population

There is a trick to each of these. First the cap. This is set in line with scientific advice, at a level each year that will bring concentrations (of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) down to a safe level. But how do we ensure this cap is met? The trick here is to go ‘upstream’. This is often explained (Barnes 2008) by the analogy of watering a lawn with a hosepipe connected to a lawn sprinkler, with lots of small holes spraying water everywhere. If you wanted to save water, you could try to block up all the holes one by one — but wouldn’t it be simpler to turn off the tap a bit? It’s the same with fossil fuels, where the sprinkler holes correspond to the millions of houses, factories and vehicles, each emitting carbon dioxide by burning these fuels. By controlling the supply of fossil fuels coming into the economy (corresponding to the tap) we automatically control the emissions that occur when those fossil fuels are burnt somewhere down the line. So instead of focusing on the emissions, we focus on the fossil fuels themselves. The primary fossil-fuel suppliers (e.g. oil companies) are required to acquire permits in order to introduce fossil fuels into the economy (by importing them or extracting them from the ground). A permit for, say, 1 tonne of carbon dioxide entitles the fossil-fuel supplier to introduce that amount of fossil fuel that will emit 1 tonne when burnt. The number of permits issued equates to the desired cap.

Next, the Share. Since the fossil fuel suppliers have to buy the permits, they will pass on this cost by increasing the fuel price. This flows through the economy (like a carbon tax), making carbon-intensive goods cost more. This sounds like bad news for the consumer. But the trick this time is to share out the money paid by the fossil-fuel suppliers, back to the people, which compensates for the price rises. There are two possible mechanisms for getting the money to the population. In one, the version called Cap & Dividend (Barnes 2008) in the US and based on the Alaska Permanent Fund, permits are auctioned and the auction revenue distributed to the citizens on an equal per capita basis. Under ‘classic’ C&S (Feasta 2008) each adult receives free of charge — say, monthly or annually — a certificate for his or her share. These certificates are then sold to the primary fossil-fuel suppliers (through market intermediaries such as banks) and become the permits. Under ‘classic’ C&S people thus receive certificates instead of money, so that if they should wish to, they can retain (and destroy) a portion of their certificates — and thus are able to reduce the country’s carbon footprint by that amount.

That’s Cap & Share in a nutshell.

To many people, however, the ‘obvious’ mechanism is not Cap & Share but either a carbon tax (discussed below) or a version of cap and trade applied ‘downstream’ where the emissions take place. Such a cap and trade system has two parts, as follows. The first applies to the fossil fuels we buy directly (petrol, gas, coal) and burn ourselves, causing emissions; these direct emissions account for half of our ‘carbon footprint’. For these direct emissions, some form of personal carbon trading is envisaged, typically based on ideas of ‘rationing’ familiar from petrol and food rationing during the Second World War. Personal Carbon Allowances (PCAs) typically involve giving an equal allowance to each adult citizen, and each purchase of petrol, oil or gas is deducted from the allowance (typically using swipe card technology). The other half of our carbon footprint consists of indirect emissions, the ’embedded’ emissions in goods and services, which arise when companies produce these goods and services on our behalf. These indirect emissions are controlled with an Emissions Trading System (ETS) for companies, such as the European Union ETS. (The EU ETS is already up and running, and has had its teething problems; but its faults — lax caps through too many permits being issued, free allocation windfalls to large utility companies, partial coverage only of the economy, leaks through dubious CDM projects — are now widely accepted and these shortcomings are being addressed in the next phase).

Taken together, PCAs and an ETS-like arrangement for companies can constitute an economy-wide scheme; variants have names such as Domestic Tradable Quotas or Tradable Energy Quotas (Fleming 2005). Under the scheme individuals or companies who use more than their allowance can buy extra from those who can make do on less, but the total amount in circulation is finite, set by the cap. This downstream approach is compared with Cap & Share’s upstream approach in research commissioned by Comhar, the Irish sustainable development commission, and carried out by AEA Technology and Cambridge Econometrics (Comhar 2008). C&S came out well from the comparison.

Benefits of Cap & Share

It is worth listing the benefits of C&S because they are so multi-faceted. Firstly, there are some obvious consequences of the way C&S works:


C&S delivers; it is not just an aspiration. Individual countries like the UK and blocs like the EU may have targets (and various institutional arrangements), but so far they have no mechanism to ensure that the targets are achieved. C&S guarantees a cap.


The framework clearly has at its root a simple, robust form of equity. This serves as a focal point for agreement, in the same way that one-person-one-vote serves as the basis for democracy. C&S is exactly as fair as rationing would be, or more so, given the inequity typically built in to the ETS half of such systems.


A typical country will have at most 100 or so fossil-fuel suppliers, so C&S is simple to operate and police. Meanwhile all other companies, and all individuals, are free to go about their lives without the need for swipe cards or carbon accounting, making their decisions based on price alone. Contrast this with the EU ETS, which has been described as ‘more complicated than the German tax system.’


A result of this simplicity is that the system is easy to introduce very quickly — and we don’t have the time to wait another decade before getting started.


This is also a direct result of the simple, upstream nature of the cap.


With scrutiny focused on the small number of fossil-fuel suppliers, there is much less scope for cheating than with a complex system like an ETS.

Next, there is an important political point:


This arises from looking at the winners and losers under C&S. Although the payments to people compensate them for price rises, this is only true on average. If you have a lower carbon footprint than the national average, you will come out ahead: your payments from C&S will more than compensate for any price rises. People with higher than average carbon footprints will be worse off, but the skewed nature of income distributions means that there are many more winners than losers (for the same reason that there are more people on below-average incomes than above-average incomes). There is thus a natural constituency (McKibbin & Wilcoxon 2007) in favour of maintaining a tight cap, to counterbalance the vested interests that would push for a cap to be relaxed or abandoned. Indeed, C&S could be sold politically under the slogan ‘save the world — and get paid for it.’ This gives a certain robustness in the face of shocks and political events, necessary for a scheme that will need to survive for decades. (Consider, by contrast, carbon taxes. These are also simple, and a carbon tax is equivalent to an upstream cap if the tax level is set high enough. But the robustness incentives disappear if the money disappears into general taxation, and so taxes are unpopular. So it is much less likely that the tax level would be set high enough).

Next come some technical benefits of C&S:


Because permits are subject to supply and demand, and price signals then flow through the economy, C&S uses markets to guarantee that the cap is met with optimal economic efficiency.


C&S can operate at the level of a country, a bloc like the EU, or globally. This is discussed further in the ‘Global/International’ section below.


An upstream system can easily form part of hybrid schemes (see the next section).

And last but not least, C&S has some intangible, psychological benefits:


People can relax slightly, knowing that this problem, at least, is being addressed. They no longer need to feel guilty; on the contrary, the people are part of the solution rather than part of the problem. (Even the ‘losers’ mentioned above have non-monetary compensations; for example, since everyone knows that the problem is being addressed, the rich can counter criticism from environmentalists by responding, ‘my emissions are all within the cap too, so stop criticising!’).


C&S has a lack of intrusiveness and micromanagement. People are free to get on with their lives, without any need to keep to an ‘allowance’. There is no hassle and no intrusive tracking of individual purchasing transactions. Better still, people are in control: they are controlling the system rather than the system controlling them. You have control over ‘your share of the country’s carbon footprint.’


C&S has an ‘all in this together’ feel to it, and resonates with many other movements concerned with equality (Wilson & Pickett 2009), justice and development issues; it also resonates with initiatives at a local community level, which need to have national and global frameworks in place if their work is not to be undermined.

To summarise, we have a combination of emotional appeal, psychology and hard cash.

Of course, C&S is not the answer to everything. A framework such as C&S is a complement to, not a substitute for, measures closer to home. On the ground, people will be making behavioural changes (improving home insulation, shopping more locally, etc.) for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons will be financial, driven by the economic incentives provided by the framework. But technology standards can help here, as can tax regimes (e.g. support for renewables), education, and efforts to envisage and communicate a low-carbon future as a desirable one. It will not be sufficient to put the framework in place and ‘let people get on with it’. But it is the framework that ensures that the numerical target set by the cap is met.


The basic idea of C&S is capable of embracing a number of elaborations quite easily. All these have merits, although each eats into the basic simplicity so should be undertaken with care.


C&S is based on simple equity between all adults. Now one can argue about whether or not this equity represents justice (Starkey 2008), and arguments can be made for adjustments to simple equity — allocating extra to rural households, partial shares to children, etc. Everyone can claim to be a special case, but equity is the undoubted starting point, just as it would be for food rations in a lifeboat. Recognising that special-case pleading could go on indefinitely, in practice there will be a compromise between adjustments that target particular groups and the simple guideline of equity. One could argue that the details of the distribution are less important than the fact that the cap is in place: the Cap is more important than the Share. But equity is an important factor in rendering the scheme publicly and hence politically acceptable, thus allowing the introduction of the cap in the first place. It may be better to keep it simple and tackle special needs with explicit, separate arrangements.


As mentioned above, C&S is scalable, applicable to a nation alone, or on a global scale. But instead we could introduce C&S just for personal direct emissions, or even just in a single sector (for example, an initial introduction for the transport sector only).


As an upstream system, C&S also could adopt a ‘hybrid’ approach (Sorrell 2008) to dovetail with an existing ETS as a transitional measure (Matthews 2008). It is thus flexible enough to accommodate other ideas — within an underlying simple framework.


Hybrids are one way of introducing C&S ‘gently’ to allay fears and incorporate learning from other schemes. Other pathways are possible too. For example, a government initially reluctant to impose a cap might introduce a carbon tax levied upstream; but this can easily morph into an upstream permit system with ceiling prices (see below), and then (by raising the ceiling prices) into an upstream cap.


Although leakage through spurious offset ‘projects’ should be avoided, offsets might be allowed against sequestration, either capture at the point of combustion or direct sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (by high-tech scrubbers, or low-tech methods like biochar).


C&S is presented here for carbon dioxide, but the same principle applies to other greenhouse gases (which would be hardly feasible for a downstream system). In fact any other common resource such as a fishery could be incorporated: it is easy to maintain a cap using permits, and distribute the share to the population. This has a deep resonance with emerging ‘commons thinking.’


Some of the revenue could be kept back to fund collective projects to smoothe the transition to a low-carbon economy. There could also be a fund to help specific countries (or individuals) with adaptation. Some proposals in fact, such as Kyoto-2 (Tickell 2008), commandeer all the funds for such purposes. However, hiving off a significant fraction of the revenue undermines the ‘robustness’ incentives, and there is again a strong argument for separate arrangements to tackle these issues. C&S would complement, not replace, parallel efforts to encourage R&D, set technology standards, aid with adaptation and so on.

International / Global

In an ideal world, C&S would operate as a global scheme, a single policy for the planet considered as a whole, A global scheme needs a global institution such as a Global Commons Trust, presumably run by the UN, to operate a worldwide system of permits (which in this case would apply to extraction of fossil fuels only, since there are no ‘imports’ from other planets), with the resulting revenue returned to the (world) population. Global schemes thus bypass nations, except perhaps as a vehicle for transmitting the funds to their populations.

An alternative approach is the international one, which seeks to add up and link together actions taken by sovereign nations. In this approach a global cap is apportioned using a formula agreed by all; each nation then operates its own scheme (such as national C&S). The apportionment formula is of course a thorny question: the formula might be based on Contraction & Convergence (C&C), promoted by the Global Commons Institute (Meyer 2000) and accepted at various times by various national governments, and under which national shares of a global emissions budget start at the current shares of global emissions and converge over (perhaps a short) time to equal per capita shares. If countries sign up to the general principle of a global cap, it is quite possible that the actual pathway ends up resembling the framework proposed by Frankel (2007), which is an ingenious set of elaborations on C&C performing a tricky balancing act of incentives. Or, as soon as the world recognises the extent of the emergency, we may be into Greenhouse Development Rights territory (Baer et al 2007) — an approach that also explicitly addresses inequality within nations. The negotiations might get messy, but the rallying cry must be simple.

Global C&S is equivalent to C&S in each nation with national caps calculated on an equal per capita basis, so the eventual destination of many global and international frameworks would be the same. Global C&S is just C&C with immediate convergence, and with ‘the permits going to the people.’

Now, global frameworks would require global institutions (and probably other things like monetary reform). Many authors regard this overruling of national sovereignty as hopelessly unrealistic — although others see climate change as a catalyst for wider reform, perhaps ushering in some form of global democracy (Holden 2002). Global institutions would seem to be an obvious long-term goal, but many would see the problem as simply too urgent and complex: we should not attempt to tackle too many things at once. Advocates of this view would stick with an international system. Of course, even international systems need global elements too: greenhouse gas concentrations are global entities and the cap must be set accordingly. Whatever one feels about this, it seems certain that the current emergency caused by humanity bumping up against the finite limits of the planet will force a reassessment of many of the tacit — but clearly unrealistic — assumptions underlying ‘conventional’ economics, politics and much else.

Which leads us finally to asking, ‘what is realistic?’

A choice of realisms

There is no sign of Cap & Share being introduced by any nation, never mind as a global scheme, any time soon (although Ireland has been considering C&S for the transport sector). Instead, government communication to the public concentrates on individual ‘small actions’: on doing one’s bit, with exhortations to switch off standby electrical equipment, use low energy light-bulbs, and calculate personal carbon footprints. There is a nagging tone and a strong implication that ‘people are the problem.’ This message fosters guilt, perpetuates ignorance and misconceptions (e.g. that climate change can be halted by recycling), and encourages the perception that climate change is not important (or else the government would be doing something serious about it).

It is easy to read into this a picture of governments scared of facing up to the truth and of telling that truth to the people. But there is some truth in government assertions that the public is as yet unwilling to curb its carbon emissions. Despite a blossoming Transition Towns movement in the UK and elsewhere which seeks to build local resilience ahead of climate change and peak oil, at the moment it appears that the majority of the population want to tackle climate change only if it isn’t too much ‘hassle,’ and only if it doesn’t cost too much money.

So, what can we ‘realistically’ hope for?

In the international arena, proposed international climate architectures (Aldy & Stavins 2007) lie on a rough spectrum from top-down formula-based plans aiming at universal participation by all nations, through to bottom-up arrangements of piecemeal actions taken by nations unilaterally. Let’s call proponents of these schemes ‘Builders’ and ‘Growers’ respectively (with no disrespect intended to either group). A Builder wants to plan, and suggests building a tower; while a Grower wants to let things happen, and suggests planting trees. Growers, pointing to game theory, say that building a tower is ‘unrealistic’. Builders, pointing to the urgent need to avert runaway climate change, say that waiting for a tree to grow is ‘unrealistic’. These are clearly different uses of the word ‘unrealistic’.

This Builder-Grower spectrum is correlated with another spectrum concerning transfers of wealth from rich countries to poor. Suggestions for allocation of the global ‘pie’ range from grandfathering (pegged to current emissions, that is, rich countries get more) through equal per capita allocations (everybody gets the same) to proposals ‘beyond’ equal per capita allocations that compensate for the legacy of historic emissions (rich countries get less). Planners’ frameworks typically involve transfers of funds, whereas unlinked and unilateral actions (by default based on grandfathering) typically don’t. Large transfers are dismissed by some in the developed world as utopian, unrealistic or unacceptable. But there is also hostility from developing countries to proposals that seem to limit their development, especially if these ignore ‘ecological debt’ (Simms 2005, Roberts & Parks 2007).

There is also a correlation with another spectrum concerning strength of caps. Should they be tight, quantity-based targets related to ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases; softer price-based targets balancing benefits and costs; or should targets be abandoned altogether in favour of encouraging unilateral ‘efforts’? A Grower might say that a quantity-based target, or cap, is unrealistic as costs must be taken into account. A Builder might say that any cost-benefit analysis that tries to put a price on a stable climate is unrealistic. Which sort of ‘unrealistic’ do we choose?

Price-based policies often involve ‘ceiling’ prices. To guard against the price of permits rising unacceptably high, governments undertake to issue more permits and sell them at the ceiling price. (The government may also agree to buy permits at a ‘floor’ price, should the demand for permits fall ‘too much’ and undermine green investment). A ceiling price offers to convert a quantity-based policy, based on ‘safe levels’ of greenhouse gases, into a price-based one, balancing benefits and costs, when the going gets tough. Ceiling prices are often described as a ‘safety valve’.

The safety valve metaphor conjures up the image of a steam engine or pressure cooker, where if the pressure builds up excessively it can be released before there is an explosion. By analogy the pent-up demand for permits might put excessive pressure on the permit price. (Even the phrase ‘ceiling price’ has a comforting ring of ‘limiting the anguish’ to it). Governments naturally seek the reassurance of a mechanism existing to release this (political) pressure, and this seems eminently sensible; after all, letting off steam is a benign image. Yet this image contains no hint of any external limits or constraints.

Consider instead the following story. Passengers are queuing at check-in at the airport; they are attending a coin-collecting convention and each wants to bring his coin collection along. Unfortunately there is a weight limit, and the passengers are unhappy about being refused their requests. The check-in supervisor nervously watches anger mounting, and worries that this might explode unless the weight limit is relaxed. Yet now we can clearly see the problem with giving in to this pressure: the plane crashes on takeoff. In hindsight it would have been better to face up to the metaphorical explosion — of anger, of tantrums at not getting one’s way — in order to avoid the literal explosion (at the end of the runway).

The analogy with the global climate is clear. Seemingly sophisticated arguments about ‘stock-pollutants’ notwithstanding, it is surely better to come to terms sooner rather than later with what a finite planet means. The view that it is naive to expect governments to agree to any scheme that does not have a ceiling price is offered as ‘realism’. But there is a choice of realisms here.

As debate continues, the problem is increasingly urgent as scientists point to feedbacks and tipping points. To avert catastrophic climate change we will need a mobilisation of resources akin to that in wartime, and if this mobilisation is to be forthcoming, we need to realise and accept that we are all in the same boat — and a sinking one at that, despite claims from some that “it’s not sinking at our end yet.” It is in the self-interest of all that the boat does not sink. Yes, it is political realism to recognise that the temptation is to ‘free-ride’ — to leave the effort of doing something about it to someone else — but pointing to this situation and shrugging is a wholly inadequate response. This type of realism is only a starting point. A tougher — and necessary — biophysical realism insists that this situation is addressed robustly.

A global cap may be agreed by policymakers, but should be based on science (for example as recommended by the IPCC); that is, it should be based on what is required to stop runaway climate change, not merely ‘what is politically feasible’ or ‘the extent of popular or political support’. In one sense it is tautological to say that the extent of popular support will set the cap, but the onus must be to change this support to align with scientific necessity. An emergency demands a scale of response commensurate with the gravity of the situation.

It is too easy to regard an acceptance of current political realities as pragmatic, and regard as utopian any insistence that they change. Human nature might be pretty fixed, but ‘political realities’ are more malleable. We need to think through which realism we are choosing. Some types of realism are not an option — at least not an option consistent with survival. As the residents of Easter Island could tell us, scientific realism will trump political realism in the end.


One of our overriding needs is for statesmanship, deploying rhetoric of the calibre of Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, Confucius or Churchill, to prepare the world for, and lead it into, swift and far-reaching changes. The messages are not easy, and the rhetoric will need to draw on simplicity and to extend the discussion beyond economics. Governments might engage in cool calculation, but people are inspired by rhetorical appeals to deeply held values and visceral feelings. At the moment, the populations of most countries are largely in psychological denial, ‘yearning to be free’ of the knowledge, deep down, that we are collectively on the wrong road. The abolition of slavery overrode economic arguments by appealing to basic human values. Surely averting climate chaos, and hence ensuring our survival and that of much of the natural world, is an equally inspiring goal?

Any framework such as C&S would be adopted alongside other measures, such as a push on R&D, infrastructure projects and funding for adaptation; research into geo-engineering and sequestration technologies; agreements concerning land use; and so on. We will need them all. But we will also need a dramatic change in global popular opinion — a change of world-view. Adoption of a simple, fair and realistic framework for cutting global carbon emissions — such as Cap & Share — would be inspirational, resonating with this change and with efforts to solve the other problems that face us collectively on our finite planet.


  1. Aldy, Joseph E. and Stavins, Robert N., eds. (2007). Architectures for Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Baer, P., Athanasiou, T. and Kartha, S. (2007). The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World: The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework. Berlin: Heinrich Boll Foundation. (www.ecoequity.org)
  3. Barnes, Peter (2008). Climate Solutions. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green.
  4. Comhar (2008). A Study in Personal Carbon Allocation: Cap and Share. Dublin: Comhar.
  5. Feasta (2008). Cap and Share. Dublin: Feasta. (www.feasta.org; see also www.capandshare.org)
  6. Fleming, David (2005). Energy and the Common Purpose. London: The Lean Economy Connection. (www.teqs.net)
  7. Frankel, Jeffrey (2007). Formulas for quantitative emission targets. In: Aldy & Stavins (2007), pages 31-56.
  8. Holden, Barry (2002). Democracy and Global Warming. London: Continuum.
  9. Matthews, Laurence (2008). Memorandum submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee. In: Environmental Audit Committee (2008). Personal Carbon Trading. London: The Stationery Office, pages Ev 99-112. (www.parliament.uk)
  10. McKibbin, Warwick J. & Wilcoxon, Peter J. (2007). A credible foundation for long-term international cooperation on climate change. In: Aldy & Stavins (2007), pages 31-56.
  11. Meyer, Aubrey (2000) Contraction and Convergence. Dartington: Green Books. (www.gci.org.uk)
  12. Roberts, J. Timmons & Parks, Bradley C. (2007). A Climate of Injustice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
  13. Simms, Andrew (2005). Ecological Debt. London: Pluto Press.
  14. Sorrell, Steve (2008). Memorandum submitted to the Environmental Audit Committee.
    In: Environmental Audit Committee (2008). Personal Carbon Trading. London: The Stationery Office, pages Ev 84-98. (www.parliament.uk)
  15. SDC (2009). Breakthrough Ideas for the 21st Century. London: Sustainable Development Commission. (www.sd-commission.org.uk)
  16. Starkey, Richard (2008). Allocating emissions rights: Are equal shares, fair shares?
    Working Paper 118. Manchester: The Tyndall Centre. (www.tyndall.ac.uk)
  17. Tickell, Oliver (2008). Kyoto2. London: Zed Books.
  18. Wilkinson, Richard & Pickett, Kate (2009). The Spirit Level. London: Allen Lane.

Influencing high-level, strategic decision-making towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy

Julian Darley

Decision-making at a global level is governed by both economic and non-economic factors. If the new systems required to deal with climate change effectively are to be introduced, and a sustainable, low-carbon economy established, more knowledge of the non-economic factors will be required.

The world has changed a lot since 2008. America now has a president who is deeply concerned about climate change, the environment and renewable energy. China is showing much greater awareness of these issues and so are many smaller economies. The world economy is going through an extraordinary phase of contraction which, while both alarming and destructive, is also generating new and unexpected opportunities for change.

Across the world many thinkers are working on economic, social and policy frameworks designed to address carbon emissions, fuel insecurity and a host of environmental problems. These problems of sustainability are being confronted by scholars in an ever greater range of disciplines and analytical streams, from many of the physical sciences through to the social sciences of risk, organisational theory, decision science, behavioural economics, ecological economics, econophysics, game theory, choice theory, management science, leadership research, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, cultural research, and political science. Research approaches include both quantitative and qualitative techniques, scenario building, modelling, systems analysis, and increasingly frequently, combinations of different techniques and disciplines.

On this reading, the world should therefore be well on the way to a sustainable low-carbon economy. In reality, many of the government policies and industrial strategies being discussed and developed, no matter how well backed up by economic, physical and social evidence, remain calls and exhortations rather than action. They are all too rarely turned into government mandates and business plans. There are exceptions to be sure, but these still tend to be isolated, and we won’t know for some time whether the economic crisis will stall these efforts.

Increasingly there is a palpable sense of frustration in some corridors of power. We know at least some of the measures we should take, but at every level, from the individual to the institutional, we see that the right action is not taking place, either at the scale or speed that is needed. Often we are still going in the wrong direction, and even when we are not, as the International Energy Agency points out, we must consider non-economic barriers concurrently with more conventional economic factors [6].

Getting ‘there’ from ‘here’

The question that comes through powerfully from these considerations is how do we get ‘there’ from ‘here’? In other words, what are the obstacles to developing a sustainable, low-carbon economy and what are the conditions that could enable such an economy?

Unless we actively and deliberately discover how to remove the obstacles and create the enabling conditions, we risk a continuation of decades of difficulties that policy researchers and sustainable business strategists have had in seeing good ideas turned into action. Civil society finds similar frustrations. Over a number of years, many people have witnessed the burnout that so often happens when good intentions at the citizen level are carried out largely in isolation from government and business.

Closing the ‘sustainability gap’

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that without high-level action, vital civil society efforts will continue to be stranded. It is arguable that the efficacious, long-term involvement of citizen and consumer may in reality depend, however ironically, on ‘sustainable’ high-level decision-making. There is of course a reciprocity in the sense that high-level decision-making is not sustainable in any sense without the active agreement and participation of civil society.

Even as civil society has tended to have an uneasy relationship with power (be it corporate or political), so business is often not sure of what government is going to do, on the one hand, and on the other, government has tended to reduce its policy levers to market mechanisms, correlating with, though not necessarily caused by, the rise of public choice.

There are now many reasons why the relationship between those primarily engaged in supply-chain decision-making (business) and those primarily engaged in setting the direction of society (government) need to develop a different and more reflexive relationship—one that can begin to close the ‘sustainability gap’ [1]. That already complex relationship will also need to engage and keep civil society involved. The rising new tools of social media (particularly instant broadcast platforms such as Twitter) seem set to play a new and fascinating role in future relationships and engagement between the different sectors of society.


Even if government, business and civil society do engage with each other in ways that we have not often witnessed yet, there are important questions about the potential to create a sustainable economy within a democracy. Although there are clearly special difficulties for democracies in addressing energy security and climate change, the problematic can be framed in the positive light of the dynamic possibilities of ‘path creation’. 

More specifically, on the one hand, in democratic systems, there is bound to be competition at every level, meaning that ‘pure strategies’, such as green blueprints, tend not to fare well. On the other hand, dynamic strategies, which feature continual adjustment and frequent decision-making, are likely to be essential in a sustainable economy and will likely be much easier to foster in a democracy than in other political systems, which tend to discourage citizen innovation and be more centralised.

Innovation will be vital—and challenging—in terms of sustainable decision-making, most likely at every level. There is far more literature on business innovation than either political or civil society innovation – it is possible that the latter could learn from the former. How different kinds of innovation are perceived by high-level decision-makers and wider society will become an important factor in how different groups engage, accept or reject sustainable policies.

Against the hope of dynamic strategies there will be opposition from actors who prefer the status quo and there will be manifestations of path dependency and ‘lock-in’. Since surely we all have an interest in discovering what can influence decision-making towards sustainability (not just what is blocking it), it will be important to investigate attitudes to and possibilities of path creation, which is an emerging positive response to policy-technology ‘lock-in’ [9].

This leads to another key question: what influences or can influence high-level decision-makers towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy? This question focuses attention on key decision-makers in the economy, such as those running fossil-fuel and renewable-energy companies, and politicians in departments dealing with energy and climate.

The Feed-in Tariff lens

To say anything usefully specific about the question of influence, however, one must the narrow the scope. For this essay, consideration will be given to national experiences with the Feed-in Tariff (FIT). FIT is a ‘policy mechanism designed to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources and to help accelerate the move toward grid parity’ [13]. Generally, looking at FIT adoption allows some exploration of certain vital parameters (in particular risk) and the drawing of some larger conclusions about society, sustainability and decision-making. Here, and in brief, using the FIT lens, I shall focus on some interesting factors in decision-making and make some tentative observations based on or drawn from existing literature.

Proponents of FIT claim that it has been dramatically successful, and many nations that have adopted it have higher penetrations of solar renewable energy generation than those that haven’t [10]. However, this is not the issue of most help in understanding and developing decision-making for sustainability; the real question is: why is a new and important policy, such as FIT, so much easier to introduce in some nations than in others?

Furthermore, using FIT as a case study can offer the possibility of including, in greater or lesser detail, some of the most intractable decisions now before us, including how we can shift from an economy dominated by an oil-based transport system to a renewable electricity-based system.  

FIT also encourages the study of the cultural dimensions that may be some of the most significant non-economic factors influencing high-level decision-making. For instance, Hofstede [5] alludes to the possibility that nations with a high MAS (Masculinity) Index combined with high levels of individuality find collective decisions for the common good very challenging. This may be in part because liberal economics is built on privileging means over ends. Certainly, in most of the Anglophone world, despite early beginnings in California, FIT has not (yet) been adopted and implemented. This may be changing; for instance, the Department of Energy and Climate Change in the UK announced in October 2008 that it will bring in FIT. However, it will remain the case that nations like Germany are far in advance of Britain and the USA in developing a renewable-energy industry, and understanding why this is so could shed light on better decision-making in future.

Path dependency

I mentioned path dependency. This can be split into physical and policy path dependencies. An example of a physical path dependency is that of the conventional power industry, which has built an enormous physical infrastructure, including the transmission grid with its associated control systems and power generation units, which until the advent of wind power have usually been very large centralised objects. FIT is an example of a policy path dependency, though one imagines it could in extremis be revoked (if there were a war or some other cataclysm). Nevertheless, for practical purposes a 20-year legally binding FIT is an example of a path that cannot easily be changed and is going to enable or disable many other major decisions. There are many other vital but occluded factors in current decision-making, including historical, business and geographical factors, which may also create path dependence.

Path dependence can shed light on complex interlocking mechanisms. Two quite different examples are Prohibition in the US and the advent of collateralised mortgage obligations. Both developments have had extraordinary unintended consequences, from the growth of the Mafia to the recent financial crisis. Though not as dramatic, the development of a certain type and layout of power grid can of course have short- to medium-term benefits, but in the long run, if the grid is not flexible, as conditions change, a nation may be left with problems not dissimilar in scale to the two rather unfortunate examples just mentioned.

FIT is also an example of the kind of long-range policy making that is surely to be considered vital in combating climate change [3]. Thinking long term is also clearly indispensable for national and international energy policy, and FIT may be an example of how energy policy, as opposed to climate change policy, could be an easier pathway to the twin goals of energy security and carbon reduction.  

FIT is not only a significant long-term policy with energy and climate implications, but it may also shed light on other long-term strategic policy-business problematics with inter-national dimensions, such as cultural dimensions. Germany, for instance, has some measurable cultural similarities with the US and UK, but also some major differences, along with major differences in terms of their economic systems.

Cultural dimensions are important for any long-term policy designed to combat climate change and enhance energy security. FIT is therefore a good example to examine, since it requires government to create the long-term conditions that then allow business to create the supply chain in reality. But government can create these conditions only if the public participates and accepts higher power charges, and by implication is willing to balance long-term benefit against short-term cost. Any future study on this issue would also have to consider FIT in different economies and cultures, as this offers the possibility of examining different long-term reflexive government-business relationships, with the public’s attitude measurable both at the ballot box and by survey. We already know that some nations are much more willing to think long term than others; the question that needs to be answered in detail for different nations is why and what, if anything, can be done about it. This is one of the key questions for future research.


FIT does not present an issue of dramatic, sudden or catastrophic risk, the kind that, in some ways, humans find easier to comprehend. It is not the sort of policy that is likely to elicit great fear even though it may be disliked by some with certain economic or other beliefs.  FIT may be compared with nuclear power, which certainly evokes strong emotions and offers a much larger risk profile. Nuclear power is slated to undergo a major renaissance. It would be interesting indeed to explore a scenario in which nearby residents were offered a nuclear power station versus a wind farm. With nuclear power now very much part of the debate on climate change and energy security, such a comparison is no longer of merely academic interest.


Although specific research on how to create the conditions for and actually influence high-level, strategic decision-making for a low-carbon economy remains to be undertaken, some provocative conclusions can be drawn now in addition to the suggestions already made. 

The key contention here is that there may be some non-economic factors which are more important than economic factors in strategic decision-making. If so, far more attention should be paid to non-economic factors than appears to be the case at the moment. A summary of these factors follows.

Path dependency and lock-in often severely constrain what a government or business can do to make major or sudden change in policy or product. It is true that Roosevelt famously switched the US auto industry from cars to planes and tanks practically overnight, but that was in the face of the type of threat that homo sapiens knows how to deal with — an external attack. Whether President Obama will be able to do something similar — for instance turning Detroit into a hub of wind turbine manufacture and electric car production — remains to be seen and, given the difficulties he faces, looks unlikely. If major change is to become feasible or acceptable to decision-makers and/or the public, either climate change or energy security will have to seem far greater threats than they do now.

There are a number of often interlocking cultural factors that make long-term decision-making for a distant benefit difficult, such as, societies that

  1. favour the individual over the collective;
  2. attenuate the idea of the common good;
  3. stress means over ends, in effect being unwilling to discuss the good whether it be common or personal;
  4. stress competition as a very high virtue;
  5. promote aggression as an acceptable way to solve problems and an aggressive attitude as a preferred modus operandi.

Attitudes to risk, innovation, entrepreneurialism, fairness, justice and economic polarisation also have a vital effect in enabling or disabling strategic and long-term decision-making. The level of democratic participation and engagement may play a significant role in many ways, including in the ability of policymakers to deploy policies known to be effective but only if the public is engaged at a very granular level, such as by direct personal contact with someone representing a government agency operating a particular policy.

Increasingly, it appears that much will depend on human psychology, at the individual, group and societal levels. Nowhere is this more true, perhaps, than in the matter of leadership, which is closely related to decision making. New work on leadership, informed by recent advances in the understanding of how evolution has shaped human and primate psychology, may offer powerful tools in comprehending why good decision-making is so hard to do and so hard to enact [12]. It is emerging that there are core contradictions between the kinds of leadership that we have evolved to accept (and are able to offer) and the conditions of work and decision-making we have created in late industrial society.

We evolved in quite flat, small societies where leadership was often distributed according to performance: the best hunter led hunting, an elder would administer justice and peacemaking, and so on. There should be no illusion that this was utopia; conflicts, often leading to homicide, abounded. It is only to say that we found evolutionary advantage with a very different kind of leadership from the kinds we are now usually faced with. There are several further factors compounding our difficulties with modern leadership—and by implication decision-making—including, ironically, that leadership by prestige (akin to leadership by performance), which can be a more acceptable leadership mode, may find itself in competition with and overwhelmed by leadership by dominance, or aggression, to put it more crudely.

These leadership contradictions appear to be so legion that it is not clear that it will be possible to implement many strategic decisions for sustainability without understanding these factors and putting in place some measures to ameliorate the more difficult conditions. The same can be said for the kinds of cultural factors mentioned here. They too could doom efforts to create a sustainable economy, though it is possible that cultural factors may be more malleable, at least in theory, than evolutionary factors, such as our propensity for certain kinds of leadership and our concomitant willingness to follow or not.

It may seem daunting that not only do we face the prospect that much of the low-carbon, physical infrastructure of the 21st century will need to be different from that of the high-carbon 20th century, but also that we will need to make major societal and cultural adjustments. Approached in the right way, however, these challenges could become opportunities to develop conditions to which human beings are better adapted and in which they might actually flourish and be happier. Right now, this may not seem the most likely path, and clearly some pathways are locked in, at least for the moment. But there are new pathways opening up, and sometimes the demise or contraction of a system (such as the conventional car industry) can allow something much better to be developed to replace it. Armed with careful research and appropriately prepared, we could influence decision-making in meaningful ways that effect meaningful change. That is something devoutly to be desired and clearly possible – if not yet obviously probable.


  1. Ekins, Paul (2000) Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: The Prospects for Green Growth. London: Routledge.
  2. Ekins, Paul, Sandrine Simon, Lisa Deutsch, Carl Folke, and Rudolf De Groote (2003) “A framework for the practical application of the concepts of critical natural capital and strong sustainability.” Ecological Economics Volume 44, Issues 2-3, March 2003.
  3. Giddens, Anthony (2009) The Politics of Climate Change. London: Polity.
  4. Heap, Shaun Hargreaves, M Hollis, B Lyons, R Sugden, A Weale (1992) The theory of choice: a critical guide. Oxford: Blackwell.
  5. Hofstede, Geert (2001) Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations. London: Sage.
  6. Frankl, Paolo (2008) Deploying Renewables: Lessons learnt from IEA RE Policy Analysis. Paris: IEA REMAP Conference. 16 December 2008.
  7. Jackson, Tim (2005) Motivating Sustainable Consumption: a review of the evidence on consumer behaviour and behavioural change. London: Policy Studies Institute.
  8. Jackson, Tim (2009) Prosperity Without Growth. London: Sustainable Development Commission.
  9. Stack, Martin & Myles P. Gartland (2003) “Path Creation, Path Dependency, and Alternative Theories of the Firm.” Journal of Economic Issues Vol. XXXVII No. 2, June 2003.
  10. Mendonca, Miguel (2007) Feed-in Tariffs: Accelerating the Deployment of Renewable Energy London: Earthscan.
  11. Stern, Nicholas (2008) The Economics of Climate Change. American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings.
  12. Van Vugt, Mark, Robert Hogan and Robert Kaiser (2008) “Leadership, Followership, and Evolution: Some Lessons From the Past” American Psychologist April 2008.
  13. Grid parity, is ‘the point at which alternative means of generating electricity is equal in cost,
    or cheaper than grid power’.
    – Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feed_in_tariff (accessed 2 September, 2010.

Featured image: More questions. Author: Chris Baker. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=1238452

Preface by Eamon Ryan (Irish edition)

by Eamon Ryan, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Ireland

Managing a retreat is the most difficult of all political tasks. It is always easier to offer something new rather than to try to take back an existing benefit. But when it comes to our use of fossil fuels, which have provided huge benefits to our society, it is now time for an organised retreat.

We need to retreat because the emissions from burning coal and gas threaten the climate system upon which our lives depend. We also need to do so because we face a peak in global oil production and we have to start changing our food and transport systems to cope with the decline in oil supplies that will follow.

I remember Colin Campbell setting out the need for such a retreat at a Feasta conference in Autumn 2002. Like several of the members of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, he spoke with expertise as a former oil exploration geologist but also with a certain independence as he no longer had any vested interest in the oil business.

Rather than relying on the claims from governments and oil companies about their reserves, he was one of the first people to conduct an oil-field by oil- field analysis to try and determine the actual flows of oil we could expect. His analysis estimated a global peak in production in the early part of this decade. Despite a trebling of oil prices in the interim period, global oil production has shown no real growth. New wells, tar sands and gas to liquid production are only managing to replace declines in existing fields. The peak in global oil discoveries occurred in 1963 and, with fewer big fields being discovered each year, the task of covering production declines has become increasingly difficult.

The retreat from over-reliance on oil needs to start two decades in advance of a future decline in production, as this is the half-life of much of our machinery which depends on relatively cheap oil supplies. The power infrastructure we build today will be in place for a lifetime. The cars we buy today will be still on the road in ten years’ time and our air and shipping fleets would take decades to modernise even if we had easy alternatives to these oil-dependent transport systems.

The retreat will have to be organised on a global scale by all the major oil- consuming countries, if we are not to see huge transfers of wealth and political power to the producing countries. Estimates vary about the speed of decline that we can expect but even the more optimistic figures would require us to reduce our demand for conventional oil products by three or four per cent annually to keep below supply limits.

Some will argue that new natural gas supplies will allow us get off this hook. It is true that new shale gas supplies have altered the international gas markets. However, as Dennis Meadows and others showed in the 1972 book The Limits To Growth, the challenge this century will be to avoid breaching one of a number of constraints that come with living on a finite planet. Even if gas is more easily available and even if it has relatively low carbon emissions in comparison to some other fossil fuels, the reality is that simply replacing oil with natural gas will still see us breach the greenhouse gas limits that the best scientific advice says we have to avoid.

After the failure to achieve a global climate agreement in Copenhagen, it is up to individual countries to start showing some leadership and start cutting out the carbon. In Ireland we have the motivation to make that change as we are one of the most imported oil dependent countries in the world. However, we also have the good fortune of being rich in natural resources in wind power, ocean energy and in having a good climate for growing crops which can provide alternative energy supplies. We are also in the right time and place to consider new financial instruments to help make such a switch as we pick up the pieces from our banking crisis.

We have shown that we can change. We are one of the few countries in the world that has put a price on carbon across the economy. At times earlier this year, new renewable wind power supplies were providing some 50% of our electricity. We will be one of the first countries to have a national network of electric vehicle charging points. We are developing real expertise in using new information communication technologies to improve energy efficiency. We are changing our energy utility model to favour the delivery of energy savings in our buildings rather than just selling power supply. However, we are only at the start of the process and it will take consistent effort from our public, political and business system if we are to make the necessary changes.

At a public event recently Richard Douthwaite was asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the world in 2050. He replied that he was neither, but would rather adopt the philosophy of a wise man he had met once in India who said that the Bhagavad Gita taught that we should be neither optimistic nor pessimistic but just do the work which God had put before us.

Feasta has been working for the last ten years raising the alarm, looking for fundamental reforms in our money systems and promoting new ideas as to how we can generate and use energy differently. It has been helping to advance the retreat.

Photo by bjearwicke.