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George Monbiot is arguing with me… that has to be good

The words “holy crap” were pretty much the first ones to my lips this morning, when several people sent me George Monbiot’s latest column www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/25/climate-change-carbon-emissions

He writes:

The costs of a total energy replacement and conservation plan would be astronomical, the speed improbable. But the governments of the rich nations have already deployed a scheme like this for another purpose. A survey by the broadcasting network CNBC suggests that the US federal government has now spent $4.2 trillion in response to the financial crisis, more than the total spending on the second world war when adjusted for inflation. Do we want to be remembered as the generation that saved the banks and let the biosphere collapse?

This approach is challenged by the American thinker Sharon Astyk. In an interesting new essay, she points out that replacing the world’s energy infrastructure involves “an enormous front-load of fossil fuels”, which are required to manufacture wind turbines, electric cars, new grid connections, insulation and all the rest. This could push us past the climate tipping point. Instead, she proposes, we must ask people “to make short term, radical sacrifices”, cutting our energy consumption by 50%, with little technological assistance, in five years.

There are two problems: the first is that all previous attempts show that relying on voluntary abstinence does not work. The second is that a 10% annual cut in energy consumption while the infrastructure remains mostly unchanged means a 10% annual cut in total consumption: a deeper depression than the modern world has ever experienced. No political system - even an absolute monarchy - could survive an economic collapse on this scale.

She is right about the risks of a technological green new deal, but these are risks we have to take. Astyk’s proposals travel far into the realm of wishful thinking. Even the technological new deal I favour inhabits the distant margins of possibility.

Can we do it? Search me. Reviewing the new evidence, I have to admit that we might have left it too late. But there is another question I can answer more easily. Can we afford not to try? No, we can’t.

After being so flattered I could die, I suffered the irresistable desire to argue back, and I’m going to.  But I don’t want to understate how pleased I am to encounter Monbiot’s critique.  After all, we named “The Riot for Austerity” for him, from a passage in his remarkable _Heat_.  I’m particularly grateful that he takes seriously the real question of what the climate impact a massive build out might actually be - this is a drum I keep beating, not because I wish to undermine efforts to expand renewable energy, but because I think living in a 5 degree warmer world with wind turbines will be small, sad consolation.

I’m also grateful that Monbiot’s analysis begins from the hard truths.  The drum I keep beating is that we cannot simply rely on IPCC analysis, which was already outdated when it was released, and which understates the truth.  The sum of the data that has come in over the last two years suggests that whatever we do, we must do it quite rapidly.  This is not a problem that can be put off for our kids, to the next administration, or even until we are done with the economic crisis.  On this, Monbiot and I have absolutely no disagreements.  He has done more than anyone in the world to raise awareness not only of climate change, but of its immediacy. 

So let us start with our agreements - and one of the places we agree is that voluntary self-sacrifice is a hard nut to crack, and that a renewable build out is a lot more palatable to people.  I agree that this is true.  But like Monbiot, I believe there is a real and serious possibility that a renewable build out on the scale needed to keep things fundamentally the same may well fail.  Monbiot uses the example of the sheer amount of funding marshalled for the bail out as proof of what societies can do in a short time.  But there are two problems with that example.  The first is that the very fact that we did marshall huge sums make it not more likely we can do it again, but much less likely.  That is, finding the money for a build out just got radically less feasible as our government gave future wind turbines and insulation to bankers who jumped up and down on it and set it aflame.

The other danger is that the example of the bail out might be a little too accurate - despite pouring massive quantities of funds into finance, the combined efforts of many nations have manifestly failed, and at a huge price - not just a lot of money wasted, but a deep destruction of our future capacity to adapt to climate change.  My deepest fear about climate change is not that we won’t begin to address it, but that we will falter in the middle of our massive industrial projects, having emitted the carbon, invested ourselves in one strategy, and have little or nothing left to begin any other shifts.

Finding money isn’t exactly easy, but it is achievable, once a crisis comes to enough of a head.  But from the access of money to the fulfillment of any given project are millions of small steps, and many years.  There is the very real danger that even if we could come up with the initial funds to begin a massive renewable build out, we might well falter somewhere in the middle, as cost overruns and delays, combined with the real manifestations of peak oil and climate change altered our trajectory and dashed our hopes of success.  The truth is that up to a point, nations can borrow and print money - but only to a point.  Ask Iceland “started any major new infrastructure projects lately?”  Dmitry Orlov, author of _Reinventing Collapse_ observes that such projects inevitable grind to a halt during severe crises - and unfortunately, the only point of crisis we’re facing is not a climate driven collapse. 

Now Monbiot speaks of “voluntary abstinence” not working - and I agree that this is mostly true, if one construes the term to mean “people acting in isolation to try and cut their emissions without measure and without support or enforcement.”  Fortunately, we both agree this would be silly.  That said, however, organized, collective, often government supported self-sacrifice *from necessity* and *to protect one’s future from a vast disaster* has worked, and Monbiot and I can both think of some obvious examples.  During World War II, the British endured far tighter rationing than the US - but in the US, rationing was overwhelmingly popular and accepted despite the fact that there was no actual shortage of many of the rationed goods.  And, while it is true that pure voluntary self-restraint often doesn’t work, what voluntary models do successfully do is engage the populace, make rationing acceptable, and provide structures for enforced rationing.  So, for example, the voluntary food rationing in the US of WWI, which had mixed success, was adopted as part of the model and structure for enforced food rationing.  The Victory Garden movement of WWI, largely popularly driven, was adopted as part of the plan for addressing possible (and in Britain real) food shortages.  In both the US and Britain, Victory Gardens eventually provided more than 40% of all produce. 

 An even better example is this - when faced with a national crisis, young men and some women from many nations, including the US and the UK, chose voluntarily to go to war.  Yes, we instituted a draft, but in both World Wars, in both the US and the UK, the military enrolled literally tens of thousands of volunteers, people volunteering not to give up hot showers, but life itself.    They still do it today.  I find Monbiot’s claim that we cannot convince people to cut energy usage unlikely - we’ll die for a patriotic ideal, but we won’t carpool?  I admit, I find the idea that we won’t sacrifice somewhat mystifying - the world is full of people who defer all sorts of gratification for a greater cause - they give money to charity even when they are short themselves, they make voluntary choices to deny themselves gratification for reasons of religion or cultural preference, they serve their nation whether in the military or at protest, trying to improve it.  They die doing this.  They go to jail doing this.  The idea that we are soft cowards who will not sacrifice maligns us, and I think it is fundamentally wrong.  I do not claim that Monbiot believes this, but I think that underlying the notion that sacrifice doesn’t work is this deep doubt about the kind of people we are at heart.  I don’t really blame anyone who has that doubt - after all, we have been called upon over the last decades, not to sacrifice, but to ever greater self-indulgence, but what I do not believe is that the self-indulgence has driven out the capacity for sacrifice -instead, they are sides of the same coin.  We indulged because our collective definition of goodness was defined by consumer culture.  But the vast void and emptiness of this has left people literally longing for something richer and deeper.  Service to community, nation and family is likely to be bread and meat to many who have been starving for something other than the empty calories consumer culture has served them. 

It is true that the impulse that led to the military recruiters may not have lasted long, or been unregretted, and I doubt the impulses that move people collectively towards self-sacrifice to preserve the planet will be unregretted, or sustained every second.  That’s why we urgently need reinforcements - people teaching others how to live with less, and national movements and structures to enable, enforce and remind.  With those reinforcements, I can think of dozens of examples of nations in crisis who have convinced their people to make sacrifices, to ensure a decent future for their posterity.  We can simultaneously encourage others to use their best impulses, and then create structures that enable them to resist the temptation to slack, to compromise.  Voluntary abstinence can never exist in a vacuum - that is, the will helps us choose a course, and enough other people making that course seem feasible makes it appealing and accessible.  Then, we create models that make it harder, more costly, or bring about social disapproval when one is tempted to take the easy road. But the volunteer element is just as important as the formal elements of constraint - that is, the sense that people are choosing to work together towards a difficult goal makes possible formal moves to enforce participation.  People will put up with being required to do what everyone is doing anyway. 

Monbiot’s other claim is that the reason a radical shift such as an emissions cut of 50% in five years ”with minimal infrastructure change” would be impossible,  in that it would plunge us into an economic crisis that would destroy our economy and lead to the overthrow of governments.  It is possible that he’s right. Now in the essay Monbiot refers to, I advocate investment in infrastructure - in health care, agricultural, educational and some renewable infrastructure (at a pace that doesn’t push the climate over the edge), which would offset some of that decline, say, half.  But Monbiot is also right that even 5% decline year over year would represent a massive crisis, and a threat to the stability of governments and economies.  Again, we agree.  In fact, there is a very real chance that whether or not we address climate change, we’re about to see what 5% decline in consumption year over year looks like - because the reality of our economic crisis is that it has come before the most acute stages of the climate crisis, and whatever we do must be done within those parameters.  If we cannot address climate change while managing a massive economic decline, there is a good chance that we cannot manage it at all.

And this, I think is where Monbiot and I finally do disagree, but where that disagreement is most fruitful and interesting.  Because Monbiot’s assumption is that his solution - a green build out, might have a chance of success - that is, we may be too late, and there’s a real chance that the chance of success is actually 0, but there’s a possibility that his model could save us.  As I pointed out, there’s also a chance that attempting it could actually speed up climate change - that doing a massive build out on top of all of our other emissions might actually push us over the edge faster, and Monbiot admits this, but says we have to chance it.

But let us imagine that we could know that it really is too late to achieve a massive build out - that the only possible solution is to tank the economy, cut emissions radically and pay the price, or to accept a world with a tanked economy (climate change will certainly take care of that) that may not be fully liveable for our kids and grandkids.  In that case, Monbiot presumably would be an advocate of my plan, which also might not work, but which has a non-zero chance of success, because it requires fewer resources and more rapidly addresses climate issues - if we could make massive cuts, close to what is needed, while gradually bootstrapping renewables with the promise that if we are willing to endure difficult times, we will have more for our kids.

Monbiot’s solution works only if it isn’t too late.  My solution actually works regardless of whether it is too late for a build-out, but is a harder sell.  And so we confront the question of odds.  Does a higher chance on a game that may already be rigged or a lower chance on a game that probably isn’t come out better?  Let us imagine that Monbiot’s scenario has a 20% chance of success if it isn’t already too late to invest in a build out,  0% chance of success if it is too late for a build out, but not too late to stabilize the climate at all with rapid cuts, and 0% chance if we’re already past the tipping points.  Let us further imagine that my scenario has a 10% chance of succes if we still have time for a build out, a 10% chance of success if we don’t have time for a build out and a 0% chance if we are past the tipping points.  Let us also assume that we will not know which category we fall into until it is too late, and we’ve taken our shot.

Monbiot concludes that we have to try.  And again, we agree - we have to try something.  And we have to choose with imperfect knowledge, and deep uncertainty.  I can see the appeal of his solution - indeed, I would almost certainly prefer it myself, were it likely to succeed. But I would argue the very likelihood that the outcome has already been decided makes my own solution a better deal, with better odds.  Not good ones - but better.  2 times out of 3, Monbiot’s analysis leads us to no hope at all.  2 times out of 3, mine gets us faint hope.  My own contention is that faint, feathery hopes always win - the possibility that we might be striving earnestly, only to fail, to have failed before we start, is not a danger we can eliminate, but it must be minimized. 

Frankly, I’d love to have a better set of choices, and in this, again, I suspect Monbiot and I deeply agree. And I’m grateful to him for making clear the dangers - much of the rhetoric of climate change has been studded with a cheery, Bob the Builder style “Can We Fix It?  Yes we can!”  narrative that doesn’t ask hard questions.  No, we can’t afford to give up the game, to throw up our hands in despair.  But we can’t make good choices without understanding just how close we are to disaster, and where the odds are highest.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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