The Sustainable Development Commission is the Government's independent adviser on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.I have been reading the report in fits and starts for the last couple of weeks, and I highly commend it to my readers. It's not a perfect report - in particular I think it's too long and repetitive and should have been edited down to a much tighter written presentation in half the length. But it's the most insightful problem statement I've read for the problems of rapidly growing industrial capitalism on a finite planet.
On 1 February 2009, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) became an executive non-departmental body (Executive NDPB).
The SDC is registered with Companies House as a Company Limited by Guarantee, and registered with the Cabinet Office as an Executive NDPB. It is wholly owned by Government.
As a separate legal entity the SDC will:
reinforce its remit as the UK Government’s sustainable development watchdog and advisor;
have more freedom to make decisions over staffing and finances;
continue to have a close working relationship with the UK Government and the Devolved Administrations.
I personally love many of the benefits of democratic industrial capitalism. I love that I have access to millions of books on any subject, even more masses of information on the Internet, a nice warm house with plenty of highly functional furniture and appliances that would have turned Tutankhamun green with envy, plenty of food, charming cafes with lattes made from coffee grown on the other side of the world, intellectually challenging work. Life is good in many ways. I love that we discovered the principles of relativity and quantum mechanics, enumerated all the chemical elements, figured out the motion of the planets, have understood some of the limits of algorithmic computation, went to the moon, wrote masses of excellent symphonies and poems and novels, made incredible movies, etc.
What I don't like about democratic industrial capitalism is the ever growing sense of being on a runaway train headed over a cliff. I don't like that we are on a trajectory to eat all the fish in the sea in a few more decades, cut almost all the remaining wild forest, destabilize the climate by burning up all the remaining oil and coal, eradicate massive numbers of other species and cultures, and drown ourselves in debt, while living ever more stressed lives, and dying primarily due to various symptoms of chronic stress. I also don't like the degree and speed with which humans are replacing themselves with automation - it's difficult for me to get excited about promoting or defending an economy consisting largely of robotic factories and artificially intelligent decision-making in which humans are basically an irrelevance to the production of goods and services. I can't prove this at this time, but my gut feeling is that now that the core operating principles of western culture have spread from the West to huge population countries like India and China, we are going to go with increasing speed from these problems being alarming trends glimpsed out of the corner of the eye for most of us, to things that impact daily life in an impossible to ignore way for almost all of us.
So I personally would love it if we could figure out a way to reorganize society to keep most of the benefits, while losing that runaway-train-to-hell feeling. Unfortunately, the more I've read and studied and thought, the harder this problem looks to me.
In particular, I have yet to come across any "big idea" for how to fix things that looks to me at all plausible. The last "big idea" in the west for fixing the then-perceived sins of industrial capitalism was communism. I can understand why that seemed appealing to the nineteenth century and early twentieth century mind. Still in the first flush of enthusiasm for the benefits of rationalism and planning, I can see why it was plausible that the government could plan everything and produce a fairer and more satisfying outcome than private enterprise. The idea was exciting and influential enough that the experiment actually got run in a number of different societies, and it's very hard to see that much good came of it.
The nearest thing to an alternative set of ideas at present is what goes under the rubric of relocalization, and I just haven't read any thinker in the set of folks working on those ideas who has even begun to come to grips with the problem of how a relocalized planet of 9 billion people would actually work and provide a tolerable quality of life to all of them (and usually the more sophisticated thinkers, when pushed hard enough in private, will admit that they are only thinking of society feeding a far smaller number of people - it's going to be hard to rally broad public support for a die-off, to say the least).
I don't think "Prosperity without Growth" has any plausible big ideas for solving the problem either, but they do at least seem to me to clearly identify why it's so hard (or at any rate, their judgement matches the understanding of the problem I had come to on my own). A good, clear, problem statement is usually essential to designing any kind of solution, so two cheers for that. Here's my version of the nub of the diagnosis (though I do strongly encourage you to wade through the whole thing):
- People generally, but particularly in western culture, like to invent new things. In a modern economy, technical innovation leads to rising labor productivity (more stuff can be made by a given number of people).
- If rising productivity does not go into an increase in the total amount of goods and services created, it will cause unemployment, which leads to misery and political instability, so the system is unstable without growth. Hence the prime directive of the political system has become to maintain the growth (which has a strong natural tendency to occur anyway).
- Furthermore, in a primarily secular culture, people use material possessions as the main symbols of their identity and social status. High social status is directly beneficial to both the happiness and physical health of individuals. Thus there is a strong and rationally-grounded consumer pull for novel products which effectively advertise social status, and this in turn provides the market for the entrepreneurs and inventors creating the new products.
- These social attitudes - valuing the innovation process and defining social status as displayed through material goods - are deeply ingrained and habitual throughout the entire population in the modern sectors of the global economy.
- Attempts to continue growth in the value of goods and services while reducing the energy and material flows through the system run into Jevon's paradox - any efficiency-generated reduction in the demand for a resource lowers it's price, and thus tends to cause higher use of it, offsetting, or more than offsetting, the benefits of the efficiency gain, and there is no worked example of any modern society successfully producing a serious absolute decline in material throughput while continuing to grow its economy.
These basic dynamics, completely and pervasively habituated throughout our entire culture, strike me as an incredibly powerful force. Now that the Copenhagen process has resulted in a vague, non-legally-binding set of good intentions, which seem likely to be worthless, the runaway nature of the process, even in the face of serious planetary risk, is becoming more transparent. It seems likely to discover most of the potential limitations imposed on it by the planet in coming decades.