Enough: a worldview for positive futures

Anne B. Ryan

While the adoption of new technologies is crucial, so too is the need for a new, self-limiting worldview recognising that “enough is plenty”. This philosophy of “enough” is about the optimum — having exactly the right amount and using it gracefully. Adopting such a worldview would nourish a culture of adapted human behaviour in which social justice could prevail and at least some of the Earth’s ecosystems would have the chance to renew themselves.

It seems that at no time in recent history have people had as many questions as they do today. Here are just a few:

  • How can we live in harmony with nature? How do we stop global warming, associated climate change and the destruction of ecosystems?
  • How can we eliminate poverty, provide security and create sufficiency for all?
  • How do we restore an ethic of care for people and for the Earth?

In short, how can we put human and planetary well-being at the heart of all our decision-making? In this paper I propose a philosophy and practice with the potential to answer these questions. It is in essence a worldview, and I call it Enough. This worldview applies insights from flourishing ecosystems and from moral thinking to the big philosophical questions about how we should live.

Given the crises of ecology and social justice now facing us, the need for a new worldview is as crucial as new technology. We’re all born with the capacity for enough; everybody has a part to play in the creation of a culture of enough, as a way to understand the world and live in it. It is not a new idea, but I believe it has new resonance and value in today’s world and that it should be revisited and revived as a way to deal with life and the challenges it will bring.

In the modern world, we tend to equate happiness with success, and in turn we define success as material possessions and external achievement. We emphasise constant activity and visible, measurable wealth over experience and reflection. Even our notions of what is beautiful are limited: we’re not sensitive to the inherent elegance of restraint and limits. However, many languages have proverbs or sayings that reflect the insight that enough is as good as a feast. In Irish, for example, the same phrase — go leor — means both ‘enough’ and ‘plenty’. Enough is about optimum, having exactly the right amount and using it gracefully. It is about being economical with what we have, without waste of resources or effort, but without being stingy either.

Ideas concerning the beauty and value of enough are not alien or distasteful, although embracing them fully is not a well-developed option either, because they are so countercultural. [1] Many of us recognise the value of enough at the same time as we receive strong messages to keep growing. In the contradiction between two different messages there lies the potential for wisdom. Striving for enough in the midst of a world of more is a way to cope with the demands of the modern world. It can help us to balance the different roles we occupy and the worlds we inhabit, and to make sound decisions and choices.

Modernist culture currently values untrammelled economic growth above all other types of growth. At this time, as many countries experience recession, most people are fixated on getting growth started again. Such growth ‘works’ in the sense that it brings short-term material wealth to small groups in countries where it’s practiced. But we know that many of its activities create the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. We also know that the industrialised agriculture favoured by a growth culture creates food insecurity, puts small farmers out of business and uses cruel practices in ‘growing’ animals. The emphasis on economic growth at all costs has encouraged us to deny the consequences of always using resources from communities and eco-systems, but never giving to those same communities and systems.

This culture also affects our understanding of the term ‘development’. Development comes to mean increasing levels of consumption. It implies that the ideal state for all is to live some version of a suburban lifestyle, commuting to work, with salaries, pensions, cars and various other possessions seen as essential to a modern lifestyle, along with speedy foreign travel. This ideal state is available to anybody who complies with the work-earn-spend system and is willing to be productive and to compete with others. We are required to use our creativity and imagination in the service of profit and ‘growing’ our economies in this narrow sense. But our imaginations have been constrained by this worldview, so that we have largely lost any understanding that progress and advancement for the human race can take many other forms. Throughout the minority world, there is a reluctance to ask hard questions about the nature of progress; as a collective, we’re unwilling to question the very system that is causing our problems.

Within a worldview of enough, it would be more appropriate to say that all societies (the so-called underdeveloped as well as the ‘developed’) require transformation. In other words, all societies on earth today need a fundamental shift in values and worldview: they need to converge around the idea of deep security. And this security has to be based on equity and justice: sufficiency for all, without excess for some and misery for others. It is not simply ‘security of the fittest’ while the weak die off.

In the past, we did not need to make a big deal of enough; it was built into our lives in many ways. Our language recognised it in phrases like ‘enough is as good as a feast’, and ‘waste not, want not’. But in modern life the sense of enough is badly underdeveloped; in affluent societies we have largely forgotten the wisdom captured in the old sayings. Enough is radically different from our current affluent Western obsession with expansion and accumulation. We would benefit from exploring its value for us in the future. It is knowledge recognized by earlier generations; its value has become obscured in the world of more, but it has the potential to be very useful to us at this time. Knowledge takes many forms, including practical skills, interpersonal skills and critical thinking. All forms are essential and of equal importance.

Thinking about progress

This is a time in history when we need to make collective plans in ways we didn’t have to do in the past. Some very serious planning for us as a global, connected species is required, because developments have for the most part gone beyond the optimum. We need to make choices that will ensure all aspects of human security, including climate, food, water and peace.

One of the most important choices we have to make is to stop denying or ignoring the consequences of economic growth. Never has so much information been available to us about the effects of our actions. We know that we need to reduce demand and slow consumption, in order to stop global warming and climate change, and to nurture forms of economic activity that would be more life-enhancing than relentless growth. A second choice is even more important: to apply wisdom and passion in acting on the information we have. We need to examine our situation honestly, profoundly and self-reflectively. This is not about inducing a guilt trip or causing a paralysis of blame, but about acting responsibly.

Part of acting responsibly is to look within and ask how we can promote other ways of knowing the world and acting in it. The philosophy of ‘more’ has channelled human development through a very narrow gate, where the focus is always on outer action and material accumulation. In this channel, the stream gets very fast and turbulent. Survival is difficult and this has resulted in the development of our worst human capacities: indifference, cruelty, denial, a narrow materialism and short-term thinking in an effort to compete with others. In this channel, the claims of ecology, morality, aesthetics and spirituality get lost. We need to reclaim the inner life, where we can reflect on other possibilities for human development, other ways of being in the world, including living according to a philosophy of enough.

It would be easy to dismiss enough as a form of stopping progress or even as a naïve attempt to reclaim the past. But it’s really about creating many different kinds of human growth and expansion. A culture of enough would judge human progress in diverse ways and not just in the quantitative, measurable sense of increasing GDP. Such a culture would always attempt to balance our considerable scientific and scientific achievements with an increase in our moral, ecological, spiritual and emotional development. Humane and ecologically sound cultures would be a mark of progress and human advancement.

Enough and ecology

The words ‘ecology’ and ‘economics’ have the same root; ‘eco’ means ‘home’ or ‘household’. Enough returns economics to the scale of the household, makes it focus on the needs of the systems that sustain us and insists that economics recognise how everything is connected in ‘the wider household of being’. [2] Enough treats markets, money, trade, science, technology, competition and profit — all the elements of modern growth economies — as good, creative activities that can be harnessed for the good of people and the planet if they are kept within moral and ecological boundaries. It distinguishes vibrant economic activity from unregulated economic growth.

Ecology differs from environmentalism, which is a modern way of trying to manage and limit the destructive effects of growth-related activities on the natural world. Ecology is a way of looking at the big picture, including the whole person and the place of humans in the systems of the earth. We need to know more about our planet in order to overcome the ways the modern world can cut us off from eco-systems and from diversity. An ecological outlook encourages a sense of belonging, which helps us to create meaning. And for many, meaning is lacking in the cultures that grow up in tandem with growth economies. [3]

Scientific insights into the natural world have made the marvels of healthy ecological systems available to us. They do not waste; they are economical in the original sense of the word; they elegantly and spontaneously [4] observe limits. They are, in other words, truly sustainable. We could take our cues from these organic systems and encourage human, social and economic systems modelled on them.

We should not idealise nature, however, as it can just as easily be co-opted for fascist ends as for justice. Everyone wants their ideas to be seen as ‘natural’; it is a very powerful concept, because it suggests that what is natural is right and unstoppable — it provides a moral justification of sorts. For instance, nature can be employed to suggest that there is a natural hierarchical order of relationships in human society, among different races or ethnic groups, or between the sexes. Proponents of unrestrained global markets and growth economies say that such systems are a natural progression for humans and that there is no alternative to them, even if they sometimes have considerable downsides.

We can use insights from the study of nature as a way to examine the kinds of systems that support life. We know that healthy ecosystems are rich in diversity and that they can provide more for their ‘inhabitants’ (human, plant or animal) than impoverished systems, even if both kinds of system have the same nutrient resources to start with. For example, an ecologically run garden has a closed nutrient cycle; nothing leaves it in the form of waste, and it uses everything it produces to provide nourishment for the soil and the plants. We also know that healthy systems accommodate growth, but of a cyclical rather than an unlimited kind. Nature favours cycles because they come to an organic end after a suitable period of growth. [5] They do not go on growing because in nature, that is a cancer.

Humans today need to consciously self-regulate. Other species and systems, those which have not developed cultures that devalue limits, know spontaneously when enough is enough, but humans have to choose it. For economic development to be beneficial, it has to conform to very strict ecological and moral limits. Of course, we will never reach perfect agreement on the question of what the limits should be. But rather than try to set absolute rules for them, the important thing is that we start and strive to maintain a wide-ranging conversation about limits. The full potential of enough cannot be seen from where we currently stand in affluent countries. It becomes clear only as we travel along its path and put it into practice.

Enough and aesthetics

To appreciate enough, we need an aesthetic sense that recognises the elegance of sufficiency. Enough has a beauty that is completely appropriate for our time. What if the cutting edge came to mean, rather than the never-ending expansion of boundaries, the art of walking that edge between less and more, sometimes balancing, sometimes slipping? It would be beautiful and challenging at the same time. [6] Wealth could come from achieving balance and wholeness, and would include humour, fun, laughter and creativity.

However, if we consider them to be about mediocrity or deprivation, it will be difficult to embrace enough and its recognition of limits. The notion of limits has come to assume certain negative connotations. Enough can put us back in touch with the parts of ourselves that respond positively to the beauty of scale and sufficiency, the parts that empathise with the rest of creation. The arts — the record in music, painting, writing or dancing of what we have found beautiful or meaningful [7] — also work with a notion of limits. The artist has to prevent the work from exceeding itself, from becoming unwieldy or going on for too long. Otherwise the finished product becomes meaningless.

Enough and morality

Cultural and personal appreciations of the beauty of enough also constitute the beginnings of a moral practice. A conversation about morality — the principles and values that underpin our actions — is essential for a different kind of long-term public culture, one that does not rest on the idea that we are fundamentally economic beings. Morality, like ecology, examines how all things can flourish in relation to each other. Both are concerned with connection and the effect that different parts of a system have on each other.

A moral quest asks us to consider things we would often rather ignore. It asks us to reflect on our place in this world, the extent of the damage that humans have done in the world and the responsibility each of us has for creating a just world: what, in short, are our obligations to other people and to the earth itself? We often don’t do enough of this, so enough requires that we do more of what we neglect to do right now. And it requires more than asking what is wrong; it involves going on to ask, ‘how can we behave in ways that are right?’ Morality and ethics require that we examine the consequences of our beliefs and actions in areas beyond ourselves and our immediate environment, and in the long term.

A lack of moral development is distinct from a breakdown in organised religion. Institutional religions have traditionally held a monopoly on moral pronouncements, and indeed have tended to emphasise the guilt and shame aspects of our private lives. Progressive religious leaders are thankfully now recognising the need to broaden moral understanding, and that is to be welcomed. But we must not leave morality to religions; it is something we all need to concern ourselves with, whether we take a religious view of the world or not. Morality can be thought of as another way of naming politics, since politics too is concerned with human and planetary well-being. [8]

World economics needs to be subjected to moral and ecological scrutiny. There is a moral dilemma involved in the way that economics, narrowly understood, has taken away our capacity to live good lives. We produce and consume to ‘keep the economy going’ but in the process, we also destroy many of the less tangible features of life that support and sustain us. ‘Maximum individual choice’ is the big mantra within growth economics: we are promised enormous numbers of choices, which are supposed to make us happy. We often talk about equality as if it means having the right to shop on an equal footing with other people. But many of the choices available are meaningless and cause unwanted and unnecessary complexity in our lives; they are not actually available to all and they often come at a price: ecological destruction and social injustice.

Enough recasts choice as moral decisions that strive for the common good. That means taking into account all other humans, community systems, the earth, and ourselves as individuals or small family groups. This may mean setting limits on certain kinds of expansion and accumulation, because of the ways they close off decent choices for others. Taking a moral stance forces us to inquire into what is really going on in the world around us, not just in our own private or family sphere. So the moral dimension of enough is also concerned with justice and fairness.

Enough and spirituality

Spirituality involves full and constant attention to and awareness of what is happening, even if this is painful. Full attention is spiritual in a sense that has nothing to do with institutional religion. If we truly pay attention to the present, then we cannot ignore what is going on around us, the social and environmental realities that we are part of. And if we stop denying and ignoring, then we will no longer be prepared to live with some of the things we see. [9]

Securing peace of mind is one part of spirituality, and to this end, many contemporary interpretations of spirituality would have us simply acknowledge and accept what we see. But merely to acknowledge the world’s wrongs is more likely to bring despair, when we realise the extent of the wrongs. The only way to find peace is to resist what is wrong [10] and attempt to do right. The public side of the spiritual path — attention to social and economic systems — cannot be ignored in favour of the personal. Spiritual searching today must be infused with a political flavour if it is to be relevant to the contemporary scene.

Many people are already searching for peace of mind in the private realm with activities like yoga, tai chi, reiki, meditation, psychotherapy and poetry. Unfortunately, many spiritual activities, as taught or practiced in the West, emphasise the pleasant and the personal and do not refer to a broader social or cultural search, or offer a sense of the bigger picture. It is not enough to embrace spirituality, if it is only to escape one’s own pain. For example, a spiritual celebration of nature, uplifting and healing as it is, is not complete if it ignores the ways that nature is being violated by economic growth, or if the spirituality fails to defend nature. In any case, ecology teaches us that one part of a system cannot be truly healthy if other parts are in trouble. Spirituality can all too easily become the pursuit of the pleasant, a sort of tranquilliser. It can be used as an excuse for ignoring or denying what is going on in the world. [11]

Morality and spirituality appropriate to our times bridge the gap between public and private. They are political matters, because both are relevant to the world around us and to our inner lives. An ecological outlook enables us to look at context, that is, the bigger picture or web, in which our private lives are lived. The search for enough enables us to broaden our horizons and critique the systems that set the scene for our lives. It brings together resistance to what is wrong in the public domain as well as in the personal; it helps us to see the need for life-giving systems and gives us a desire to work towards them. Spirituality, like morality and ecology, is a recognition of deeper levels within ourselves and between ourselves and the world. [12] All three are concerned with being conscious of how everything in the world functions in relation to everything else.

We cannot know all the aspects of enough without actually doing it. It is a way of being in the world, not a simple set of rules for living. It is like a path whose end point we cannot see before we start out. This is part of its spiritual dimension: although we can understand it cognitively in minutes, it can take a lifetime of practice to come to truly know it. But the beauty of it is that, the more we walk on the road, or practice the philosophy, the more we become aware of the nuances and value of the practice. So enough can be a slow realization along the way, and in the process bring with it dramatic insights or transformations. It can also take the form of new knowledge that nobody has yet envisaged. There are difficult sides to any spiritual way, such as doubt, fear, failure, uncertainty and struggle. These are to be accepted for what we can learn from them; pushing them aside is another form of denial.

Enough has a good history; it is rooted in past generations and has been valued and practised by several great wisdom traditions, including religions, especially those traditions that have an ecological outlook and view humans as part of the great natural systems. Buddhism, Taoism, Jainism, Hinduism, Christianity, and the Ancient Greeks have for thousands of years promoted the virtues of moderation. Although enough does not rely on religious doctrine, neither is it rigidly secular; its spiritual and ecological dimensions take it beyond any view of life and the world that values only the strictly rational, observable and material. Spirituality is about who we are when all inessential trappings are stripped away; it also concerns the most important connections we have in the world.

Enough has an immediate value for individuals in our current culture; it can help us cope with the personal and social effects of what can sometimes seem like a runaway world. Working out what is enough in one’s life is a way to get some peace of mind and capacity to deal with hectic daily activities. It is a way to be content, not in the sense of tolerating poor quality, but in the sense of knowing what is valuable and what is not, and relishing the good things we have already. It provides security in times of boom and recession.

Public policies based on the concept of enough

Enough is at the heart of many concrete proposals and frameworks for making the changes we need in order to live well in the future. Such proposals include Contraction and Convergence and Cap and Share, [13] both based on the idea of a fair distribution of carbon-emissions quotas to all citizens of the globe. Another framework concerns basic financial security for everybody, which can in turn contribute to general security and a global retreat from growth, while also encouraging local development. This has developed into the idea of a universal basic income, which provides sufficient cash for every citizen to have the basics for a decent life. [14] Enough also underpins a growing worldwide food movement, based on intelligent local agricultural practices and the renewal of a food culture in places where it has died out. The basic premise of intelligent agriculture is that food production and food consumption should take place as close together as possible. [15]

In an ideal world, governments make laws based on such frameworks, creating structures for sustainability. With key structures in place, citizens would see an improvement in the quality of life. In turn, this would give a new culture of enough a chance to flourish; its full potential could emerge, co-created by government and citizens. It is important, therefore, that activists continue to push for such frameworks to be formally introduced. In the meantime, though, we live in a gap between what is and what might be, and in the absence of formal public policies based on enough, citizens need to take up the role of leaders and promote a culture of enough.

Citizen-leadership for enough

We cannot all be official, designated leaders, but if leadership is about taking risks and bringing other people along in a new vision, then we can all do it. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that only experts can lead us. A leader is anyone who wants to help [16] and leadership is an everyday thing, not something apart from day-to-day living. It’s not confined to those who have decision-making power in institutions or states. We can all, irrespective of age, occupation or role, regularly ask questions about how we should live, what is good, how we can achieve well-being for everybody, how we can respect the earth and how we can take the long-term view and try to see the whole picture. We can engage in conversation with others about these issues. A society that does not cultivate the art of asking questions cannot count on finding answers to its most pressing issues. [17]

As citizen-leaders, we have to find ways to amplify the attractive identity of enough and related concepts. We have to get them into public awareness and get people talking about them and seeking others who are interested. [18] This includes providing information, but crucially, it is also about building influence for those ideas. We need the world to pick up on the message of enough in a thousand different ways, in all its different expressions, whether in personal or public life. We can draw on key attitudes such as stability, creativity, equity and participation. We can lead a movement for quality, wholeness, sufficiency, well-being, morality, ecology and full human potential. At the same time this movement resists injustice, quantification, monetarism, denial, isolation, cruelty and the deskilling of human beings.

The choice to live by a key attitude like enough is political in the broadest sense of the word. Politics is about public, collective choices and is closely connected to morality. Political and moral concerns include the values, culture and mindset that underpin the overt laws or rules that govern society. Party politics and parliamentary democracy are only a tiny part of politics.


Enough is a concept that is intrinsically moral, intrinsically ecological and intrinsically healthy. Practising it allows us to get what is needed from the world to sustain human flourishing, but without taking too much from individuals or from social and natural systems. It is also about how to give adequately to the world around us. So it is about the relationship between humans and the world, how we get and how we give. In our modern worldview, we have limited our understanding of how everything is connected to everything else.

The problems are all connected with each other. But just as importantly, the solutions are also interconnected. A sense of enough creates the conditions that will allow a critique of growth. It can also nourish a culture of adapted human behaviour which will give at least some of the earth’s ecosystems a chance to renew themselves and at the same time allow social justice to emerge.

Enough is neither cynical nor utopian, but hopeful. It is based on our potential for good. Simple but not simplistic [19], it is a principled way of understanding and being that requires us to get the balance right between the inner world of contemplation and the outer world of observable action. We can think about the future in a hopeful way, grounded in the belief that humans can live up to their potential for good and for moral action. The problems facing us are very serious, but if we look only at the extremely hard realities and avoid the language of possibility, then the realities seem just too much, and we risk slipping into cynicism, denial or despair. We need to lay claim to the notion that human beings have the capacity to intervene in, influence and shape the forces that structure our lives.

There is no perfect worldview; anything taken to an extreme will show its shadow side or become dogma. But a reflexive attitude can prevent the way of enough from becoming rigid. This means sticking with the questions and not flinching from the challenges inherent in them. Enough is a key concept for the future. Living, adaptive and dynamic, it encourages creativity and diversity for groups and individuals around the world. It can help us to forge connections and discover common ground. And right now, as a positive first step towards an increasingly precarious future, it might just be enough to bring us real hope.


  1. McKibben, Bill (2004) Enough: Genetic Engineering and Human Nature. London: Bloomsbury, page 227
  2. Le Guin, Ursula K (2003) ‘Life in the Wider Household of Being’, an interview with Ursula K le Guin by Erika Milo for North by Northwest, Nov. www.northbynorthwest.org
  3. O’Sullivan, Edmund V (1999) Transformative learning: Educational vision for the 21st century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, page 231
  4. McKibben, Bill (2004) Enough: Genetic Engineering and Human Nature. London: Bloomsbury, page 214.
  5. Brandt, Barbara (1995) Whole Life Economics: Revaluing Daily Life. Philadelphia, PA and Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
  6. McKibben, Bill (2004) Enough: Genetic Engineering and Human Nature. London: Bloomsbury, page 217
  7. McKibben, Bill (2004) Enough: Genetic Engineering and Human Nature. London: Bloomsbury, page 218
  8. Eagleton, Terry (2003) After Theory. Cambridge, MA: Basic Chapters
  9. Gottlieb, Roger S. (2003) A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, page 32
  10. Gottlieb, Roger S. (2003) A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.
  11. Gottlieb, Roger S. (2003) A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, pages 13-18.
  12. Selby, David (2002) ‘The signature of the Whole: Radical Interconnectedness and its Implications for Global and Environmental Education, pages 87, 88 in O’Sullivan, Edmund V., Amish Morell and Mary Ann O’Connor (eds), Expanding the Boundaries of Transformative Learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pages 77 – 93.
  13. Meyer, Aubrey (2005) Contraction and Convergence: The Global Solution to Climate Change. Schumacher Briefing no 5. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.
  14. Lord, Clive (2003) A Citizens’ Income: a foundation for a sustainable world. Charlbury: Jon Carpenter . Also see www.citizensincome.org
  15. Tudge, Colin (2004) So Shall We Reap: What’s gone wrong with the world’s food — and how to fix it. London: Penguin. Also Tudge, Colin (2007) Feeding People is Easy. Pari, Italy: Paripublishing
  16. cf Cornelius Castoriadis, cited in Giroux, Henry A (2001) Public Spaces, Private Lives: Beyond the Culture of Cynicism. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, page 81.
  17. Meg Wheatley calls this getting the idea into the relational or communication networks, in her chapter (2006) Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publications, page 87.
  18. Distinctions made in Goodman, Anne (2003) Now What? Developing our Future: Understanding our Place in the Unfolding Universe. New York: Peter Lang, pages 303-4.
  19. Distinctions made in Goodman, Anne (2003) Now What? Developing our Future: Understanding our Place in the Unfolding Universe. New York: Peter Lang, pages 303-4.

Introduction: Where we went wrong

by Richard Douthwaite

This book grew out of a conference in 2009 called the New Emergency. What emergency was that? Most people didn’t think that there was an emergency then and they don’t think there is one now. They know that the world is facing a lot of problems at present but they probably would not elevate any of them even to the status of a crisis, still less an emergency. The world has always had problems, they think, and it always will. Very few of them think that there’s anything going on at present that requires Ireland to mobilise all its resources in the way that it did in response to the old Emergency, the Second World War.

However, once you recognise that most of the worst problems the world faces have a common cause and that time is running out to solve them, you have an emergency. That’s my position. I believe that the “development” path that the world has followed for the past three centuries has led to a dead end and that immediate action is required if humanity is to have any chance of getting on to a more sustainable path. Every day lost makes a satisfactory future less likely for billions of people, both born and yet-to-be-born, because our options are trickling away with our life-blood, natural resources.

That’s the emergency. We need to apply a tourniquet immediately to give us time to take more drastic action. But who is conscious of this? How many people really grasp the severity of the climate crisis? Or the fact that the production of conventional oil has almost certainly peaked and the amount of energy that is going to be available for the world to use is going to shrink rapidly? Or that energy and water shortages are going to curtail the world’s food supply? What proportion of the general public is really worried about the rate at which species are being lost?

True, everyone knows that several countries have problems with debts or with their banking systems (or, like Ireland, with both), and that they, or people they know, are losing their jobs because of them, but they might not elevate these problems to the status of a crisis unless they live in Greece. They think that, in Ireland’s case, these financial problems began when the housing bubble burst and that the burst was somehow linked to the credit crunch that began when worthless securities generated by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US triggered what was, for a time, an international banking crisis. There’s been almost no recognition that resource depletion was the underlying cause of that international banking crisis and there probably won’t be for as long as the conventional wisdom is that the world economy is looking up and the crisis itself has come to an end.

Even at its height, the financial crisis was only an emergency for those responsible for handling it. A country faces an emergency if an enemy is mobilising on its border to invade, or if its people are dying in thousands from a plague. A family faces an emergency if its house is on fire or if one of its members has been hit by a car and needs to be rushed to hospital. An emergency is a period in which everything else is ignored in favour of immediate action.

From time to time, the chronic problems that face the world erupt and cause a minor emergency such as that on the evening in September 2008 when the Irish banks told the government they might be unable to open the following day. When something like that happens, people stay up late, the eruption is dealt with and then life goes on until the next eruption occurs. Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.

We are ignoring these eruptions in the way the inhabitants of Pompeii ignored the earthquakes which preceded the volcanic blast that destroyed them in 79 AD and which had been doing considerable damage for at least the previous sixteen years. Some of the earthquake-damaged houses were actually under repair at the time Vesuvius erupted, with piles of plaster and tools lying where the workers had left them. Rather than moving out, the Pompeiians wanted to carry on with life as usual. They had every reason to do so. The whole Bay of Naples area was booming and the holiday villas of the rich provided a lot of work. Interestingly, those who dropped everything and fled immediately when ash and pumice started raining down probably survived. However, many thought their best chance was to take shelter. They died when the avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas began.

The common cause of all our crises today is our use of fossil fuel. Just as addictive drugs alter the metabolism of the human body in ways that create dependency and make it difficult to give them up, fossil fuels have profoundly altered the metabolism of economies and societies. As a result, the systems of production and distribution we have now, and the types of relationship we have with other people, including those within our own families, will be changed out of all recognition as the energy drug is withdrawn. The withdrawal period will be particularly painful in countries that fail to ensure that they have a decent supply of renewable energy methadone available to them. Cold turkey will mean that many people die. Thinking of Pompeii, if we leave it too late before we rush towards a new type of civilisation, we will have to leave behind all our high-tech, high-energy tools, and we may not survive without them.

Here are some of the ways in which fossil energy use has perverted our economies and our lives.

  1. It has transformed manufacturing methods by displacing human labour.
  2. It has transformed agricultural methods, replacing human labour, animal power and sunlight.
  3. It has enabled the world population to grow to a level that may well be unsupportable without its use.
  4. It has devalued human labour and led to widespread unemployment.
  5. It has made the economy reliant on economic growth to avoid collapse.
  6. It has enabled extremes of wealth and poverty to develop.
  7. It has led to the development of industrial capitalism.
  8. It has produced profits that had to be recycled. This led to the growth of the banking system and debt-based money.
  9. By fuelling powered transport, it has destroyed self-reliant local economies and the nature of local relationships.

Once fossil energy began to be used, these perversions were inevitable. About seven years ago, I wrote the concluding essay for Before the Wells Run Dry, a book about future energy supplies which emerged from a previous Feasta conference called Ireland’s Transition to Renewable Energy. That conference was the forerunner for a lot of the thinking in Feasta that laid the foundations for the New Emergency event so I’m going to draw rather liberally on what I wrote in 2003. The essay asked where humanity had gone wrong. When did we take a path which, because ‘one path leads to another’ in Robert Frost’s phrase, inexorably led us to becoming totally dependent on a grotesquely unsustainable energy system?

I argued that the wrong turn was taken in England in the 16th Century as the population began to recover from the Black Death. The increased numbers – a rise from 1.6 million to 5.5 million in less than 200 years – naturally put greater pressure on resources and caused communities to have problems living within the limits imposed by their local environments. In 1631, Edmund Howes described how this had forced them to start to burn coal:

Within man’s memory it was held impossible to have any want of wood in England. But …such hath been the great expence of timber of navigation, with infinite increase of building houses, with great expence of wood for household furniture, casks and other vessels not to be numbered, and of carts, wagons and coaches, besides the extreme waste of wood in making iron, burning of bricks and tiles, that at this present, through the great consuming of wood as aforesaid, and the neglect of planting of woods, there is so great scarcity of wood throughout the whole kingdom that not only the City of London, all haven towns and in very many parts within the land, the inhabitants in general are constrained to make their fires of sea-coal or pit coal, even in the chambers of honourable personages and through necessity which is the mother of all arts, they have in late years devised the making of iron the making of all sorts of glass and the burning of bricks with sea-coal and pit-coal 1

That was it. The thin end of the wedge. The slippery slope. For the first time, humanity was starting to depend on a non-renewable, and hence unsustainable, energy source for its comfort and livelihood. It was understandable that it did. Which of us would have worried about the long-term consequences of burning black stones collected from beaches in Northumberland, or which had been dug out of shallow holes in the ground?

I then pointed out that as the demand for coal increased, the easiest, shallowest mines were soon exhausted, and deeper and deeper pits had to be dug. This posed enormous problems since a shaft floods if it is sunk below the water table and a pump has to be installed to keep things reasonably dry. The early pumps consisted of rags or buckets on continuous chains which were turned by horses or, if a stream was handy, a water wheel. However, the deeper a shaft went, the longer the chain had to be and the more friction the horse or the wheel had to overcome. As this placed a real limit on how deep a mine could go, mine-owners were keen to find other ways of powering their pumps. Around the time Edmund Howes was writing, coal-fired steam power began to be used for the first time for pumping water out of mines. In a somewhat incestuous way, coal energy was being used for mining coal.

The transformation of manufacturing methods

The first steam engines just moved a piston back and forth, which was all that was required to work a cylinder-type pump. It was only during the following century that the piston was attached to a crank to turn a revolving shaft, an innovation in response to a demand for rotary power from cotton mills unable to find additional sites for their waterwheels. This was the type of engine, of course, that powered the industrial revolution and, in my view, led with an alarming inevitability to the problems we have today. It was steam power, in fact, which made the widespread use of machines possible and then, for competitive reasons, absolutely necessary.

The essence of industrialisation is that it produces lower-cost goods by using capital equipment and external energy to replace the skilled, and thus relatively expensive, labour used in hand crafts. Since less labour is used per unit of output, unemployment develops unless sales expand. The mechanisation of sock and lace production in the English midlands led to such widespread job losses that riots broke out in 1811 and 1812. Troops were sent to the area to stop the Luddites, as the bands of destitute working men were called, from breaking into the new factories and destroying the machines. Indeed, had the Napoleonic War not ended in 1815 allowing the factories to increase their sales in Europe and elsewhere, the disturbances might have become serious enough to kill off the industrial revolution. Without wider markets, firms using powered machinery would have either consumed themselves in a competitive frenzy, or seen their technologies banned as a result of popular unrest.

Eventually, however, British exports put most continental craft producers out of business and left the remainder with no alternative but to adopt more fossil energy–intensive methods too. A sales pyramid developed. The early participants in a sales pyramid get rich because they receive commission on the goods they sell to people whom they have persuaded to become dealers too; dealers who, in turn, can earn a commission from others they induce to join the pyramid as dealers later on, who themselves recruit and stock further dealers. And so it goes on, setting up a situation in which everyone in the pyramid can only fulfil their income aspirations if the pyramid does the impossible and expands indefinitely, eventually involving infinitely more people than there are in the world.

The fossil fuel-based production system became dominant by expanding on exactly the same lines. Just as British factories had needed to take over the markets previously served by craft-scale manufacturers in Europe to survive, industrial Europe had to oust artisanal producers elsewhere in the world, and the British sold them the machinery to do so.

Tariff barriers were maintained to allow the new continental industries to build themselves up until they could not only compete with their British rivals but had acquired export markets in which to sell themselves. It was the need for exclusive external markets to solve the problem of mass unemployment at home that led the European powers to scramble to assemble competing empires and eventually to confront each other in the First World War.

As each successive group of countries was forced to adopt mechanised production methods themselves in the hope of escaping poverty, so those who had mechanised earlier sold them the equipment. The pyramid this created grew and grew until it reached the point some years ago when there were no more markets supplied by craft producers to take over. This left firms in the pyramid with no-one to displace but each other, and since then, international competition has become so intense that only certain specialised types of manufacturing such as armaments, aerospace and pharmaceuticals thrive in high-wage countries, arguably because of the subsidies they receive through government contracts or patent protection.

How the economy came to rely on economic growth to avoid collapse

The use of fossil energy not only displaced sustainable manufacturing methods, it also made the economy dependent on economic growth. In a stable, stationary economy, there is no net investment and no net saving. Everything produced in the course of a year either gets consumed or goes to replace things that have worn out. The return on capital is so low – somewhere between 2 and 3% – that it’s only just worth using part of the sales income to maintain the buildings and equipment rather than the business owners spending it on themselves. In other words, the average rate of profit is just enough to balance the society’s desire for income now against its desire for income in the future.

Suppose a new technology – steam power, perhaps – is introduced to this stable economy which enables much higher profits to be made in a particular business sector. The firms in the sector will race to adopt it because those that get it first will be able to cut prices a little and drive the laggards out of business. The would-be leaders won’t be content to wait until they have saved up enough of the money they would normally have spent on maintaining the old equipment until they can afford the new type. No, they will want to borrow the money they need to get ahead. But where is the money they wish to borrow to come from, since their society has no net savings and no spare resources? The answer is that the money and resources can only come from those that would have been spent on maintaining capital equipment in other sectors. The output from the other sectors will therefore shrink, shortages will develop and prices will rise, putting up the return on the remaining capital until it reaches the rate that the sector with the new technology is able to offer.

The arrival of a new technology in one sector therefore increases the rate of return on capital in all sectors. Profits in excess of those needed to maintain production appear for the first time and workers get a reduced share of the amount the society produces. Moreover, the profits belong to the business owners. This creates a capitalist class with potential investment power. I say potential because what happens next depends on whether other innovations follow the first. If they don’t, once the investment needs of the new technology are met, prices will fall and profits drop to the level set by people’s time preference, the 2 or 3%. If, on the other hand, there is a stream of innovations, profits could grow to become a substantial part of national income.

This creates the problem noted by Major C. H. Douglas, the founder of the Social Credit movement, who realised that the wages paid to workers could not buy everything that they had produced and that if there was to be full employment, the profits firms produced had to be spent back into the system. It doesn’t matter how it is spent, but people whose lifestyle is already satisfactory will probably either save it or use it for more investment. If they save it, someone else needs to borrow it and spend or invest it instead.

The situation in a typical country today is that just over 20% of its income needs to be invested back each year as, if it was all saved, 20% of the workforce would find themselves without jobs. But the people doing the investing demand a satisfactory return and only if economic growth takes place and incomes increase will they be able to get one. If the broad mass of investors fails to get a return one year, they will not invest the next. Unemployment will increase and prices will fall, pulling profits down with them. The amount available for investment will be reduced and the economy will move along a low-growth or no-growth path until another series of innovations comes along.

For the past 200 years, however, a flow of innovations has brought about rapid growth. Many of these innovations have involved the substitution of fossil energy for energy from human, animal and solar sources because, if a worker’s efforts can be supplemented in this way, he or she can produce much, much more. An averagely fit man can apply about 75 watts to his work. If he is assisted by a one-horsepower motor, the sort you might find on a hobbyist’s circular saw, he can apply ten times more power to the task and consequently work much faster. A positive feedback develops, with the greater productivity leading to higher profits and incomes and additional investment and energy use. The income gap between those using fossil energy and those who don’t gets wider and wider. In 1960, the average income in high-fossil-energy-using countries was 30 times that in low-energy countries. By 2001 it was almost 90 times larger. Moreover, the 20% of the world living in high-energy, high-income countries enjoyed 80% of world income, investment and trade.

It is therefore reasonable to say that the use of fossil energy facilitated a greater division of income and wealth than was usual between worker and business owner in artisanal societies. It also led to industrial capitalism and the development of the banking system because, once some enterprise owners were making more profit than they needed to plough back into their own companies, a mechanism was required to take their savings and lend them out to people who did want to invest. A structure was also needed to handle the profit-sharing part of those investment funds – the limited liability company.

I need hardly say that, just as the use of fossil fuels drove people out of manufacturing, it also drove them off the land. The use of fertilisers, tractors and sprays made each farm worker much more productive so less labour was required. In 1790, at least 90% of the US labour force worked in agriculture. In the year 2000, less than 1.4% did while still, producing enough to meet home and export demand. The average American farmer produced 12 times more an hour in 2000 than his predecessor did in 1950 2. Again, these changes were irresistible. Food prices fell by about 90% in relation to average incomes between 1920 and 1990. This meant that farmers had to increase their output by at least 1,000% for their income to keep up with the rest of society. As this could only be done by using fossil energy and industrial sector inputs, their output had to increase further to pay for them.

In May 2005, however, this period of rapid income growth for some and the displacement and poverty for others came to an end when world oil production ceased to increase. Indeed world energy supplies, and the supplies of other commodities, had been struggling to keep up with growing demand for two years previously and their prices had begun to rise. In dollar terms, the price of oil had risen to five or six times its 2003 level by 2008, while there was, on average, a tenfold rise in the price of other commodities over the same period. To give two examples, the price of copper quadrupled between 2003 and 2006, while the lead price peaked in 2007 at eight times its 2003 value.

These price rises caused the international financial crisis, as I explain in a later chapter. They were a signal that we should stop doing our Pompeii-style repairs and move away from the present system by devoting all our resources to building a civilisation on a different basis, just as we would in a military emergency.

This book is all about how such a new civilisation might be built, the resources that might be available for the transition and how our attitudes will have to change to bring it about. Many of the perversions listed at the top of this article need to be undone. Some we can do for ourselves and our families. Some can only be achieved on a community scale. In other cases, national and/or international action is required. Suggestions for action are given in the final chapter.

The task is immense and, on a global level, our version of Vesuvius will probably overwhelm us while we are doing it. Only those countries and communities that have made a determined break with the past will have a chance of surviving at a comfortable level. The rest of us will find that the systems on which our lives and livelihoods depend are overwhelmed and break down entirely, never to recover, and that we have no alternative support systems upon which to fall back. We cannot expect to get any clearer warnings of impending disaster than the people of Pompeii received. There are already financial fires around the economic cone. If we are to survive we need to move out quickly. Now.

But which way are we to go? Is there a map? It would be a poor book about an emergency situation which did not provide one. So, for the final chapter, my co-editor and I asked the contributors to suggest actions which readers could take or support at four levels – personal, community, national and global. In general. it is only at the national and global levels that fairly firm suggestions can be made and these are exactly those over which our readers have least influence. There is, in fact, a continuum. Influence diminishes the more people are involved. Readers can do a lot to change their own behaviour and probably have appreciable influence over their immediate families. They have less influence over what they could do, or try to get done, in their communities, and at a national and international level they have almost no influence at all.

There are two problems with this. One is that, at the personal level, circumstances vary so much that it is hard to find even broad general principles which apply to everyone. For example, should people spend their resources on cutting their household’s energy use or would it be better to invest the money involved in a community renewable energy project? And the answer is…. it all depends. There is no single right answer.

The other problem is that the key actions to ensure our survival can only be carried out at the national and international level. This is where the Pompeii analogy breaks down. The workmen who left their tools when the ash began to fall had somewhere they could run to with their families to be safe. People today don’t. Nowhere on the planet will be left undamaged by the environmental and economic catastrophes that will occur if the nations of the world continue on their present path. So it’s not just a question of some of us heeding the warning fires and running away, leaving the rest to their fate. We have to convince the majority of the world’s population to come along too.

We should therefore adopt collective solutions wherever possible rather than personal ones. This does not mean that individual acts are unimportant, of course. Indeed, they often ease the way for everyone else. The more individuals who decide to cycle to work, for example, the better the collective provision that is likely to be made for them. Similarly, the more people who fit triple-glazed windows, the easier and cheaper such windows are likely to become for others to obtain. However, it would make no sense for you to buy your own single-house wind turbine unless you cannot get a connection to the electricity grid. Its cost would be high in relation to its output and the energy and materials used in its construction would have been more productive had they been used to make a bigger machine. Nor would you be able to regard yourself as a worthy eco-pioneer because your solution could never be adopted by everyone else. Power needs are better met collectively; and it was three neighbouring families’ battle to develop a collective supply that led to the development of the Danish wind energy industry 3. The Transition Towns movement is potentially so important only because it has adopted a collective approach to energy, food and money supplies.

So Gill and I suggest that you should ask yourself three questions as you work your way through this book. The first is “What can I do myself?”, the second “What can I do with other people?” and the third is “What can’t I do anything about at all?” Each person will gather his or her individual set of answers because of their particular circumstances and we expect that they will find it interesting to compare them with those suggested by our authors in the final section.

Overall, we think you will find that this is an optimistic book because, although the world is facing huge problems, there are also a lot of potential solutions. Consequently, there’s a lot that can be done. We hope that, by the time you have finished reading, you have found there are some things which you, personally, are in a better position than anyone else to do or to help others do.


1. Quoted by Richard G. Wilkinson, Poverty and Progress, London: Methuen, 1973, p115.
2. Productivity Growth in U.S. Agriculture, by Keith O. Fuglie, James M. MacDonald, and Eldon Ball, September 2007, downloadable at http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/EB9/eb9.pdf
3. See “How three families started a movement and created an industry” at http://www.feasta. org/documents/shortcircuit/index.html?sc5/windguilds.html or pages 203-7 in my book Short Circuit, Green Books, Totnes, 1996.