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Issue 244
September/October 2007
The Green Imperative

Undercurrents

Kicking the Carbon Habit
by
Residents in Wolvercote, Oxfordshire begin to address their carbon footprint. Photograph: Sam Frost

Residents in Wolvercote, Oxfordshire begin to address their carbon footprint. Photograph: Sam Frost

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Kicking the Carbon Habit

Why global warming could be modern society’s greatest opportunity.THE TWO-DEGREES time bomb is ticking. Human society has just eight years left to peak worldwide carbon emissions if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Cross that two-degree line and we’ll move into very dangerous territory indeed – one with escalating climate damages and an ever-increasing chance of crossing tipping points which could push global warming quickly beyond human control.

These tipping points would see the Amazon rainforest rapidly collapse into a savannah/desert-type ecosystem, releasing billions of tonnes of carbon which is currently locked up in vegetation and soils. The world’s carbon cycle would tip into positive feedback, adding another degree and a half to global temperatures before the end of the century.

Eight years is not a long time, but nor is meeting this challenge an impossible task. I am certain that we have the potential, if we are prepared to countenance significant technological and lifestyle change, to meet this deadline and to do it in a way which leaves our lives richer and more fulfilled than ever before. It is only because we lack the imagination to see this vision and the political will to achieve it that most of us think that this can’t be done.

Technology cannot achieve this transformation all by itself. Of course renewables have a major role to play in delivering power from non-fossil-fuel sources. But they have a fundamental drawback which means they can never replace fossil fuels as a source of cheap energy. Renewables like solar and wind are limited to drawing widely distributed ambient energy out of the immediate environment, whereas fossil fuels represent a source of highly concentrated and easily transportable power, synthesised by sheer geological fluke from millions of years of photosynthetic production. In essence they are concentrated solar energy. In contrast renewables can only extract power from the real-time solar energy budget of today’s biosphere.

This fundamental limitation is most apparent in the case of biofuels. Because ambient solar energy must be extracted from plants grown over a very wide area to be of any use, biofuels set up a competition for the most obviously limited planetary resource: land. For example, meeting the EU’s target of 5% biofuels in today’s petrol stations will require a quarter of the continent’s cultivable land. Food production is already being displaced in the case of ethanol produced from US corn, which is putting up the price of Mexican tortillas – a staple food of poor people. Already cars are being given priority over people in the battle to decide who gets fed.

If renewables cannot replace fossil energy even at current rates of consumption, still less can they power continual economic growth over the decades to come – and any attempt to make them do so will simply displace still more of what little remains of the natural biosphere. The only remaining option then – if we are to avoid setting off the two-degrees time bomb – is to reduce the amount of energy used by humanity. This does not necessarily imply a return to pre-industrial insecurity and austerity – although this may be the result if things go wrong. Instead, if managed intelligently, a transition to a lower-energy path would improve the quality of life for most people in the industrialised world.

It is abundantly clear, for a start, that once basic needs have been met the continual accumulation of material prosperity does not lead to a parallel increase in happiness or life satisfaction. Indeed economic growth above a certain level is linked in rich countries with worsening social ills, such as high levels of stress, community fragmentation, family breakdown and mental illness. This is not an especially radical thing to assert: many recent books, from Oliver James’ Affluenza to Richard Layard’s Happiness, make the same point, and most of us understand it intuitively. When the Beatles sang “Can’t buy me love”, they were simply repeating this commonsense truism.

WHAT IS TRULY radical is to suggest that economic growth, far from being the ultimate measure of social progress, as all mainstream politicians and economists assert, is actually harming society. Yet intuitively this truth is just as obvious. To give a parochial example, the Oxford village where I live, Wolvercote, once had five working farms. Not one is left now, and the land once grazed by cattle and sheep is instead carved up by busy four-lane roads. Whereas at one time most village economic activity was concentrated locally – people shopped locally and sold locally – now most residents drive to Sainsbury’s around the ring road, or even further afield to Waitrose or Tesco, to do their weekly shopping. Supermarkets, with their constantly increasing turnover and economies of scale, represent the apex of economic growth. (Or rather what Herman Daly cleverly calls “uneconomic growth”.)

These supermarkets give access to a huge range of produce, but at the price of eliminating most local shops and reducing net levels of employment. The local shop represents a point of social interchange that the anonymity of a supermarket can never replace. To return to my Wolvercote example, our local shopkeeper recently got married. The nearby village hall was hired out for the party, the beer flowed and a local band played Johnny Cash hits. It felt like a real community celebration, and I remember feeling sorry for those who were not invited because they only ever shop in Sainsbury’s. (I should make clear that this was not down to any malice or political point-scoring on the shopkeeper’s part – he can’t be expected to invite people to his wedding that he has never met.) Needless to say, shopping locally is also the low-carbon option, both because there is no need to use a car and because there is more chance to buy locally produced goods.

Increasing material affluence also has hidden effects that most of us never acknowledge. It has made us independent rather than interdependent. Whereas once neighbours would have shared tools and common food items from necessity, now we all have plenty of everything. Each household is now an island supplied from faraway places. We don’t need to pop next door for a cup of sugar or half a pint of milk – so we no longer need to talk at all. This is why the tragic examples of old people dying alone in their houses and not being discovered for months have such resonance. They give us a cold shudder, because we know that something has changed, that social support networks are no longer as strong as they used to be. With no guarantee that family and neighbours will care for us, we actually feel more insecure and isolated – whatever the strength of our index-linked pensions.

Along with affluence, the other big reason for this fracturing of community is the dramatic increase in modern mobility. Governments talk about ‘labour market flexibility’ as if it were an unmitigated good, but each time a family moves house social bonds are severed. New ones may of course form in time, but as a rule the more transient a community is, the less it tends to coalesce. Today most households have one or two cars, and daily commutes of forty or fifty miles are not uncommon, meaning people spend long hours away from the house – at great cost both to their personal lives and to the cohesion of their community. Again, the low-carbon option here would surely be beneficial to everyone except the beneficiaries of mobility – car corporations and large employers.

This is not to deny that many people experience their car as a great liberation, allowing them to move enormous distances speedily and with no expenditure of bodily energy. But for everyone except drivers the car is more an agent of enclosure. Streets that were once public space are now empty of anything except noisy lanes of traffic. Children who might prefer to play outdoors are now under virtual house arrest – as the environmental thinker Mayer Hillman puts it – because of the traffic menace and paranoia about strangers. Whereas once a child might have experienced freedom through building dens in trees or fishing for minnows in a brook, now many children may only leave the house with their parents as minders – or in the family car. Again there is a substantial body of academic literature showing that children’s emotional and physical development is hindered if they can’t find things out for themselves.

This development – together with the gradual elimination of green space for housing and shopping malls (economic growth again) – also means that children are less able to experience nature at first hand. I am reminded of a recent experience at my allotment when a couple of young boys spotted me digging up potatoes and were horrified to find out that their oven-ready chips may ever have been in contact with ‘dirty’ soil. One American writer, Richard Louv, has coined the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’, and suggests that many of the mental health conditions in young people (which are commonly treated with drugs) may be linked with this emotional and spiritual disconnect.

Much – though not all – of this social change comes down to the over-use of energy. Without electricity, children on my street would be talking face to face instead of through the mediated electronic space of Facebook. With fewer cars, the average community would be better integrated and more emotionally supportive. With less work, people would have more time for their familes – extended families in particular – rather than farming out their children to a nanny or childminder. None of this is to argue that modern society is 100% bad, or to deny that in many ways our quality of life far outstrips that of even our nearest predecessors. It is simply to argue that once consumption and affluence cross a certain threshold, less can be more.

Nor would I argue that this applies to people in non-

industrialised countries, most of whom have tasted the honey of material wealth (or at least seen it on television) and now want a slice of the pie. Economic growth may still be largely beneficial in countries where the level of economic activity is so low that basic needs go unmet. Indeed, this need for growth in the poor world is a second reason why levels of consumption (of energy in particular, but also of other resources) must fall in the rich world. If we can converge internationally at a sustainable level of energy consumption – and do it soon – then there is still a good chance that human society will survive the ravages of climate change.

Mark Lynas is author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, published by Fourth Estate, and is a columnist with New Statesman.

Mark will be giving one of this year’s Schumacher Lectures on the 13th October 2007 in Bristol. For further information visit www.schumacher.org.uk

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