Thursday, February 25, 2010

Prosperity Without Growth

I recently came across a report, Prosperity Without Growth by the United Kingdom Sustainable Development Commission, which I didn't know about before, but according to the web page:
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.
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 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.

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.

31 comments:

Gary said...

This has been a topic I have wondered about for a long time as well. First observation is that in mature western capitalist economies, the birth rates are significantly lower than in developing countries. This gives hope that there are some natural sustainable tendencies to the trajectory we are on. Second, I'm convinced that real growth is tightly tied to the ability to exploit external energy sources - e.g. fossil fuels - and that is likely to slow dramatically in the near future. Hence, real per capita GDP growth is likely to come to a halt in the near future as well. But we are left with the remnants of an economic system that requires growth - so what happens. My guess is that the growth incentives and competitive driving forces of capitalism could continue to work - but be balanced either by heavy government regulation and taxation - or by programmed inflation. I see this slide as happening naturally. Meanwhile, meaningful work morphs from "production" to less productive but still valued activities. Services, arts, and education define an advanced culture even if robots are doing all the menial labor.

KLR said...

Has your attitude toward's humanity's potential long term changed since you authored the world power grid/4 billion cars/critiques of reversalism articles at TOD? I have a feeling if I posted some of your paragraphs here back then as commentary in those pieces the old SS would've just skimmed over them; correct me if I misinterpret.

Stuart Staniford said...

KLR - not that much. Those articles were basically, "look, building a renewable future is technically feasible, we have a choice here". I still very much think that is true. But I also didn't, and don't, discount the social inertia - which is why I continue to worry about these things.

I guess the failure of the Copenhagen process, and in particular the intransigence of China, has left me more pessimistic. OTOH, I always thought advocates of near-term cap and trade were underestimating the fact that, in the situation before you have built alternatives to scale, a cap harsh enough to really help the climate problem will tend to depress economic growth (just like oil shocks do) which is going to be politically disastrous. It makes more sense to me to really focus on developing the renewable sector, and then phase in cap and trade after they have reached larger scale.

I also am still a major non-fan of current relocalized thinking. I have yet to see even a reasonably plausible back-of-the-envelope calculation for how 9b people get fed, and what happens to incomes in the developed world (correct me if I'm just ignorant of somebody who is really thinking well along these lines).

Burk Braun said...

What a fascinating and heartfelt post! I agree with most of the problems, especially the ecological. Fishing out the seas is a abomination, and in itself sufficient reason to be for a world government. But automation? I've got no problem with that. Anything that lets me and you (and other people working in sweat shops the world over) do more of what we like and less of what we don't is a good thing, not a bad thing.

The basic problem is two-fold- the metabolism of our developed lives, which needs to move from unsustainable to sustainable energy sources, and secondly, the governance to solve the various tradgedies of the commons that are appearing at a global scale. Every society, once it becomes conscious of its externality problems, has taken steps to extend governance over them, whether it is the grazing field next door or the acid rain from two states over. We are now a global society, and have to take global problems seriously with a revamp of the UN to become a more legitimate and effective body.

Thanks!

Datamunger said...

Tim Jackson, who wrote Prosperity without Growth has done some work that is far bleaker in outlook.

For instance:

Sustainability and the 'Struggle for Existence'

That paper hit me hard when I first read it. Civilization's shadow? Damn right!

P.Coyle said...

"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."

But what if rising productivity requires increasing energy inputs which will no longer be available? Does unemployment follow from decreasing productivity?

Stuart Staniford said...

P. Coyle - I guess I don't really buy the idea that total primary energy faces near term limitations, given the abundance of coal (oil, in particular, may well, depending largely on Iraq IMO).

Stuart Staniford said...

Burk - I really haven't laid any groundwork at all on this blog for my views on automation/AI, but it comes out of a great deal of thinking I did after reading Kurzweil's book 'The Singularity is Near'. At some point, I'll have to lay out a more complete basis for my views.

P.Coyle said...

Stuart: What's your definition of "near term"? I put Peak Coal about 2030. What do you think?

Stuart Staniford said...

P. Coyle - I think it's far enough off that it's very hard to say how far off it is. Once you get more than a couple of decades out, it gets very hard to say how technical progress will impact the situation. The resource in place is enormous - low estimates of reserves (eg by Heinberg) make the assumption that recovery factors are going to be much lower than was once thought, but this is highly dependent on assumptions about available technology that are speculative so far off in the future. And there are things like the 3000 GT of coal under the North Sea, some fraction of which could potentially be retrieved by in-situ gasification. Who's to say how much of that primary energy will eventually be retrieved, but it completely dwarfs current annual emissions of O(10GT) of carbon.

Datamunger said...

Great piece, Stuart. Well put.

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.

Several years back during x-mas dinner with my wife's folks, they shocked the heck out of me by saying in the course of conversation that their successful, highly focused professional careers were a matter of 'survival', not career satisfaction or anything like that. The tone was serious & dour. Yet, these folks own several properties debt-free on 2 continents! Further conversation revealed that status and a certain lifestyle were perceived basic to their being. They saw themselves as pitted in a struggle to get and maintain it.

So, when I read the Jackson piece I linked to upthread, i was somewhat prepped.

Ultimately though, I don't see the options as constrained to simply industrial capitalism or relocalization. We currently seem thus constrained simply because the big WE (i.e. civilization) is committed to business as usual while the little we's are small groups of highly opinionated dissenters who realistically can only take on modest tasks like relocalizing themselves. They can indeed do it (and write books about it).

But as pressure builds, can't we expect that medium-sized groups will emerge? Some of those may have the prestige and power to influence the globe. If not, they can still effect big change on a smaller scale.

Stuart Staniford said...

DM: I agree larger groups could potentially emerge as the issues become clearer and more serious. My point was rather that, at present, we lack any clear and persuasive theory for how a different model of civilization should actually operate in a way that's both sustainable and scalable to the whole globe.

What would the central values of a sustainable culture be, how would it inculcate those in it's members, how would it provide a tolerable standard of living to everyone, and how would it be appealing enough when partially implemented to have a plausible strategy for gradually enticing more and more members of the dominant culture to join it? (Ie, how could a no-growth movement grow rapidly enough to reach global scale :-)

P.Coyle said...

Stuart: Check out the link from your blog to Gregor McDonald's blog article, "Transition Back to Coal." He asserts that an estimate of 4% annual growth in global coal consumption would be "conservative," since it is actually 4.7-5%. Given a growth rate of 4%, the world would be going through its coal reserves at twice the current rate by 2028.

It seems to me that, regardless of whether you want to play the game of guessing at a date for peak coal, it is unlikely to be so far off that we shouldn't take seriously the possibility that economic growth may not only cease to be desirable, as Tim Jackson argues, but that it may, in what may reasonably be called the "near term," cease even to be possible -- if continued increases in primary energy inputs are required.

bmerson said...

It seems to me that the energy issue is one of availability relative to demand. While there is certainly lots of fossil fuel out there, switching between them is neither cheap nor instantaneous. Those kinds of expenses will not be incurred until the NPV looks good, which, discounting at ridiculous 10-20% discount rates used in many commercial decision making processes (or even at 5%), is unlikely to happen until the lights start going out and the factory lines stall out. You don't have to run out, or even short, of fossil fuels to increase price and/or volatility enough to cause financial and economic havoc, throw many more people into unemployment, stall projects that might result in new jobs (or new energy), and generate much confusion, fear and anger amongst the natives.

As for automation, it seems to me that in the current economic system, "automation", "efficiency", and "technology" have all lost their true meanings and are all basically euphemisms for replacing people with energy. This is a "sustainable" system for precisely as long as your available energy resources are growing. After that, toast.

Finally, and this is purely a personal opinion based on my interpretation of the information I've read, I don't think that there is any system that can sustainably support 9B people on this rock. That number is simply too large, probably by a factor of something like 3-6x (but could be more). Once the concentrated stored energy of fossil fuels are no longer available in ever increasing amounts, those who are least able to deal with increasingly volatile and increasingly expensive energy prices will start losing out to those who can. Or, the time-honored version of the Golden Rule... Those with the Guns and the Gold make the Rules.

As much as it pains me to say it, I don't think die-off is an option that people will get to choose. I think that the planet will, over time, provide the resources that support a much lower number of people and the human population will, over time, move towards that number. How long that takes and how orderly the transition will be are probably the issues that really lay before us whether we like it much or not (and I certainly don't; like you, I enjoy the benefits of burning way more than my fair share of energy).

If we used the remaining resources, energy, and wealth (hmmm, wealth?) intelligently, perhaps we could ease the transition and raise the number of people that could truly be sustained. But, as you point out, such policies would require levels of effort, cooperation and sacrifice that are politically unacceptable to the world's "haves". Which brings us back to the diagnosis in your post.

But here's the thing... despite all the factors working against a positive long-term outcome, I remain hopeful... not optimistic, but hopeful.

Brian

Mark Nicholson said...

Stuart, I realize that we have a good deal of coal I just wonder if without a CHEAP energy source for transport (oil) if the current economic and political system holds together to extract it. I am still unable to form a clear picture of how the world is going to be affected by the end of cheap oil. But I don’t think it is going to be real smooth sailing. Great post however, I enjoyed it.

Stuart Staniford said...

Brian - well I'm pretty convinced it's *technically* feasible to get close to a renewably powered fairly sustainable situation. The thought process in the pieces KLR mentioned here and here still seem more-or-less right to me.

The social/political/economic feasibility is very much in question however.

Stuart Staniford said...

P. Coyle - I'm happy to grant you 5%, and then it will take till 2075 for the world to use up just the coal under the North Sea, never mind similar situations elsewhere, by which time we'd be burning more than 10x as much as we do currently.

So you'd need an argument for why that coal under the sea is irretrievable, and will always remain irretrievable despite technical progress of an unknown nature in extraction technology. So the reality is that it's not "unlikely to be so far off". Instead, we have no clue when it might occur.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mark - I agree with you that there are definitely nearish-term risks there.

Stuart Staniford said...

I guess I should also say to the peak coal fans that, whenever it does occur, I share the sense that it will be a very big deal if we haven't gotten an energy transition well underway first.

Datamunger said...

Stuart:

Today a fed president raised the possibility that it may take years for the US economy to reach the size it was 2+ years ago. For all intents and purposes stagnation is now a credible mainstream scenario. It may not matter that most people are pro-growth. If growth is too difficult to achieve, maybe they'll take a page from the ancient Egyptians and begin to rearrange their lives around a more cyclical view of the economy (which of course was never completely absent).

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.

I'm with you 100% on that. I think part of the solution is to initiate organizations that insist on very long term planning, despite all the reasonable objections. Maybe a 200 - 300 year max horizon (but updated every couple of years with new info). Can't wait to read you on Kurzweil btw. Technology might have to be tamed.

[Such planning might be all twaddle, but it's important that our descendants living in 2110, say, start to become more real to us. A fixed part of our public rituals. Maybe even a legal abstraction]

Datamunger said...

SS: Ie, how could a no-growth movement grow rapidly enough to reach global scale :-)

Time's already up, likely, for the change of consciousness that I envision to effect a seamless transition. But maybe such things don't happen absent hardship, anyway.

Derek said...

SS: Ie, how could a no-growth movement grow rapidly enough to reach global scale :-)

But if easily-extractable-cheap-high-density fuels have (are) peaked, then really I see two curves; one is the no-growth localization movement going up (ie more proponents and practitioners) and the BAU growth culture descending.

So it isn’t that the no-growth movement must grow to meet the BAU scale of 2005, but that the BAU idea/culture must be decimated by financial paralysis to the point that no-growth/localization becomes appealing.

I see this already in 1st-worlders (those from capitalist economies) acquiring small subsistence sized (under 2 hectares) plots, in 'less-than' 1st-world parishes.

I’m not talking about Chinese land grab deals in Africa, but more like Dutch, German and English expats in backwater Portuguese agri. towns and 2000 year old farming villages in Italy or France.

It looks like an exodus of rats (maybe just survivors) relocating to places that have a heritage that spanned pre-fossil-fuel economies.

People used to pushing buttons and 'designing' things picking up shovels and trying to learn 'peasantry' from the few remaining old-timers.

This functions as an exchange of wealth also. the 'Wealth' of some 1st-world 'average Joe' is just enough to outfit a simple hardworking lifestyle; enough farmland and hand tools to substantially generate food, and maybe with a little ingenuity some value added or unique product for bringing in the €300/year cash needed to cover taxes.
It is true that eventually (assuming this stepping-away from the BAU world continues) land in these communities will be taken up with none left for the late-comers to ‘buy-in’. So the real question is what about these millions (billions) who tried to hang on to BAU too long?
Is the fate of having to work in the equivalent of an 1800’s factory for the ‘hangers-on’ worse than the brutal (but voluntarily opted for) life of self imposed peasantry? As use of coal (what, steam powered looms and lathes) grows to meet the demand of these factories, life expectancy in these cities of the mid-term future will be reduced dramatically, a sort of London mid-1800’s quality of life will find an equilibrium until peak coal that is. Meanwhile those expat peasants are living about 70 years healthy and rough handed, and not but two teeth to their grins.

Sam Norton said...

"in a primarily secular culture, people use material possessions as the main symbols of their identity and social status"

And there you have it. Our present system is built upon a certain framework of values. Those values are reinforced by perceived success. They will only be removed, forcibly, by perceived failure. And then we won't be secular any more; we'll be happier too.

The important thing about relocalisation is not about preserving the status quo, it is to have some sort of sustainable (or potentially sustainable) plan B ready to go when the existing system not just breaks down, but is seen to have irreversibly broken down. That will take some time.

dcoyne78 said...

Hi Stuart,

I have read your work with great interest both when you published at the Oil Drum and here.

I agree with much of what you write and my attitude is hopeful though it does look like things may be bad in the not too distant future.

On coal: there may be some technological solution to extracting energy from coal beneath the North Sea, but I am not convinced that it would be cheaper than renewable energy. If China continues to grow at recent rates and does not start to either bcome more efficient or switch to nuclear power for electricity generation it will use up its current coal reserves by 2027. It could import from US and Australia, but hopefully we will be smart enough by then to tax these exports heavily to reduce coal use.

Though it seems unlikely to happen smoothly, a possible solution to low or no growth with increasing productivity is for shorter work weeks with higher per hour wages so that income remains the same. It seems that many or at least some Europeans have shorter work weeks than North Americans.

It is also possible that people's attitudes could change over time as more start to realize that sustainability matters. Imagine a world where a 5000 sq ft McMansion is seen as an abomination and that the more modest 1000 sq ft passive solar house with the Chevy Volt parked outside is the status symbol. Or better still, there is no need to keep up with the Choi family.

Granted such thinking seem pretty far from reality for the average person (although it is not far from how I see things).

KLR said...

Stuart and others - you might get a laugh - or cry - out of A free-market energy blog — MasterResource. This is not to be confused with the Master Cleanse, which is about removing parasites from your intestinal tract. Initially I figured there had to be a connection...

No, MasterResource is hagiography of that nut nut Julian Simon, with his trillions of people living in an advanced civilization for billions of years; or was it billions for trillions? Have to dust off my copy of Olaf Stapledon to see what's plausible.

Our old buddy Michael C Lynch regularly posts there, sinking his fangs into Peak Anything. The most prolific writers seem to have a bone to pick with AGW, a rather odd stance to take. I think. I'm rereading the Shock Doctrine, perhaps there are columns at MR supporting governments' rights to perform extraordinary rendition, too.

Also keep an eye out for columns (at other sites!) by the confusingly named Michael E Lynch, who writes excellent pieces about the O&G industry.

Stuart Staniford said...

KLR - thanks! Yeah, it definitely looks like right wing propaganda, but still right wing propagandists have their uses if one's main goal is to figure out what's really going on (chiefly finding the holes in the arguments of left wing propagandists :-). I added them to my reader.

Stuart Staniford said...

DCoyne - thanks.

One of my worries is that the grand bargain we in the US are going to have to make with China is to send them a lot of our coal in order to pay off our debts to them, and to ensure continued flow of manufactured goods.

Manolo said...

Stuart, thanks for a great post. I really like your positioning in the first paragraphs. The "glass half full" attitude is always great.
Well, there is my 2 ct. of pragmatic vision. As DataMunger already pointed out, what is needed is time (and a plan). To change anything on the global scale one needs to build a critical mass of motivated people, capable to move things along. At the present, a minuscule little base of "normal" (non-elite) people have conscience of the bigger picture, and even less are willing and able to act. And even if and when things get it to the top decision makers, too many conflicting interests paralyze the desired outcome (see Copenhagen).
Politicians will always act after the fact, to further their agenda.In the coming great scheme of things, we do know this attitude will be fatal to civilization as we know it. Time, the ultimate limiting factor to change BAU into something hopeful, is running up. Mingling through looks unlikely. So, short of a miracle, civilization will hit the wall. The planet will recover (takes some time), but how about us ?
Our "leading elite" knows all this very well, and some are bunkering in (lots of references to this on the Internet).
People like Heinberg seem to think that we can save a few places well enough organized to restart a new "normal". Perhaps.
The whole thing is terrifyingly complex. A simple answer, in time, seems out of reach... but boy, is it one hell of an intellectual challenge!
Anyway, thanks for keeping up the fighting spirit, as the saying goes, hope dies last !

bmerson said...

Stuart,

I'm pretty certain that the concept is technically feasible in the "snap your fingers and here it is" scenario. I'm not as sure about the feasibility of scaling the manufacturing processes (including energy and resource usage) to the scale required to achieve the results you describe.

The manufacturing requirements, in terms of resources and energy, are substantial for the wind and solar future you describe. It assumes that all of the specialized resources required for the future energy systems (especially for solar and nuclear, but also steel for wind, wave, and grid) are available in sufficient quantities and sufficiently affordable prices that the system outputs can be scaled to replace future declines in fossil fuel energy. This may or may not be the case. I have seen very rational analysis on both sides of that discussion, but don't personally have the expertise to judge definitively. At the very least I think it would be safe to say that it is not a given.

And, of course, as much as we may want to, we cannot ignore the social/political/economic influences. Will capital be available to finance all of this? Where will it come from? You are talking about the kind of costs that generally require government involvement, but will our government (or many others) have the resources? Where will the capacity come from? If this project is taking large amounts of capital, labor and resources out of the economy, what is losing out? How will people, economies and governments deal with that?

These kinds of issues are legion, and incredibly complex (in all senses of the word). It's very difficult for me to be really confident that, outside of the theoretical "snap the fingers and there it is" scenario, everything necessary will actually be available in the volumes, scale and time frame (and without serious negative feedbacks) required to maintain anything like our existing lifestyle and attendant energy use (especially if the world population continues towards the 9B mark). I hope it does, but I'm not quite as optimistic as you. Still, I think it's one of our best available options and, personally, I would be full speed ahead because our current approaches are clearly not going to result in any outcomes that I really want to inflict on my kids.

Brian

Datamunger said...

Stuart,

Neil Ferguson, writing in latest Foreign Affairs, likes runaway train metaphors too:

Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos (reprinted elsewhere under a variety titles).

observationcloud said...

I'm a great fan of this report and its message of needing to find something to replace consumer culture, thinking of prosperity as something more than peoples ability to acquire material assets (largely for social status) is more meaningful, fulfilling etc. - time with family, friends, doing things we love etc.
It doesnt look like we're on the path to sustainability, which will have to be driven by future crises, unfortunately. During such crises people will use the ideas that are around at the time; I think ideas such as the Transition Towns initiative are very important in this respect.