Help yourselves

March 1, 2006

We’re all in the same global boat – racing the rapids of capitalism, low on fuel and overheating. Colin Tudge assesses the doomsayers, Ecological Ethics, Half Gone, The Revenge of Gaia and State of the World 2006 and concludes that we need to put those thinking caps on

Ecological Ethics: An Introduction, by Patrick Curry 224pp, Polity, £14.99

Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis, by Jeremy Leggett 320pp, Portobello, £12.99

The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – And How We Can Still Save Humanity, by James Lovelock 192pp, Allen Lane, £16.99

State of the World 2006: The Challenge of Global Sustainability, edited by Linda Starke 244pp, Earthscan/Worldwatch, £14.99

In a world of war, famine and fairly frequent natural disaster, we are bound as sentient citizens to ask: are the powers-that-be who contrive to be in charge actively wicked or merely incompetent? Did they wish this world upon us or did it creep up on them? In truth, there is plenty of evidence for both – lies, plotting, and connivance in the highest places, professionally executed, combined with an inability to assess good advice or take it.

But let’s be fair. The world is too big and complicated and the people within it too numerous and varied to be tightly controlled. Despite the best of scholarship and the most powerful computer models, natural disasters remain beyond our understanding. Even the ones that seem to be understood in principle, including earthquakes and global warming, cannot be predicted in detail. We may think we control some aspects of our lives, not least the economy which we did, after all, create ourselves, but that too is largely illusory. As the ancient Greeks emphasised, Hegel pointed out in the early 19th century and game theorists confirmed in the 20th, history and all economies unfold according to their own internal rules. Once they are set up they run their course, despite the best or worst efforts of politicians to stay in charge of them.

So as the third Millennium gets under way, we find ourselves borne on currents of astonishing speed and power which, though largely our own creations, are outside all human control. The world’s governments, corporations, and the experts who are advising both could do a lot better – wickedness and incompetence are well in evidence. But it is not at all clear that even with the best will in the world and the best available knowledge, we can now do much more than wait and see. I am now past 60, and I don’t anticipate being drowned or starved or bayonetted in the decade or so that I hope is left to me. But I certainly fear for my grandchildren.

If anything useful can be done, it must be done by us. The powers-that-be have had their chance, and blown it. Huge discussions are needed of a truly public and spontaneous kind on just about everything, and for that we need good information, unfiltered by vested interests. A library of what is essentially subversive literature is building up apace, and these four books are valuable contributions to it.

Three great currents are afoot, changing the world for ever, to its roots and perhaps terminally. The first is modern capitalism. Not capitalism per se, the cooperative and cosily transparent trading of Adam Smith, but the grown-up kind, the monster it has metamorphosed into, in which the market has become global and competition absolute, a fight to the death with winner taking all. Indeed the market has become the ultimate arbiter of social norms and of right and wrong – what’s right is whatever people can afford and are prepared to pay for. The law is then adjusted accordingly (or simply ignored, whichever is the cheaper).

Within this market-world we are living through a huge power shift, from the US (plus Europe) over to China (plus India). Everyone has noticed this (we can hardly fail to do so) but the extent of the shift and its importance seem underappreciated – especially, though entirely unsurprisingly, by the powers-that-be, who need to pretend that everything is fine and under their control (give or take a few terrorists).

In State of the World 2006 Christopher Flavin and Gary Gardner, both of the Worldwatch Institute, remind us that India and China between them contain 40% of the world’s people, equal to that of the next 20 countries combined. They remain poor by western standards: the annual per capita income in China is a mere $4,600, and in India it is $2,500. But China’s economy has grown by an extraordinary 9.5% per year over the past 20 years – it has doubled in the past decade – and although India has been slower, Germany’s Deutsche Bank estimates that within 15 years from now India will be growing even faster.

Napoleon commented that when the sleeping tiger of China awakes, the world will tremble. So we are seeing. Already, say Flavin and Gardner, China and India between them “are shaping the biosphere”. They are having enormous effects on poor countries – riots over rising oil prices in Indonesia, pressures on Africa’s fisheries and forests, booming exports in soybeans and minerals from South America, and huge loss of jobs in the factories of South America and southeast Asia.

And of course the rich world is trembling too. Three Chinese companies dominated the World Petroleum Conference in Johannesburg in September 2005. The Indian company Suzlon was the big player at the meeting in 2004 of the American Wind Energy Association. In the mid-1990s Wal-Mart got 94% of its products from within the US. Now, 80% of the suppliers on its database are Chinese. The Chinese bought a big chunk of IBM in 2005. They could be the world’s biggest manufacturers of cars by 2015.

Nor do China and India simply borrow other people’s expertise as they did in the recent past and poor countries do in general. Between them, they produce 500,000 graduates in science and engineering every year, against 60,000 from the US (and it is almost rare these days to read a multi-author paper in a science journal that does not include Chinese or Indians). In the past, and still, Britain sold the world its financial services. Now India has 2.4 million young finance and accounting professionals, against 1.8 million in the hyper-fiscal US.

Of course, it isn’t obvious that a world dominated by China will be worse or more dangerous than one bossed by Bush and Blair. For many people it couldn’t be worse. Neither is it obvious how Britain, on its present economic course, will make a living at all in 20 years’ time, or less. Gordon Brown pretends he is in charge (surely he must know better?) and boasts of his “prudence”, steering the narrow course between growth and inflation. But hairdressing is our fastest growing industry and inflation is low because, for the time being, China finds it convenient to flog us its T-shirts and white goods cut-price, albeit blasting our own quaint efforts out of the water. We, in turn, are able to provide them with a market because, for the time being, we are relatively rich – not because of Gordon but because we once had an empire, and came out on the winning side in the second world war and the cold war. But our history won’t sustain us for ever. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, the British imperial bubble will finally burst. If Brown were really “prudent”, he would be preparing us for this.

On the grander scale, we must ask which way China will jump. In State of the World, Xie Zhenhua, director of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration, assures us: “The Chinese government is a responsible government [and] we are striving to build a resource-saving, environmentally friendly society.” Meanwhile, in 2005, China consumed 26% of the world’s crude steel, 32% of its rice, 37% of its cotton, and 47% of its cement. The future for China, as for the whole world, surely lies with agriculture, which alone can supply worthwhile jobs for all who need them; yet it plans to transfer half a billion of its people to the cities, although it already has 45 cities of one million-plus and India has long been showing what can happen when cities are unchecked – with more than 30 million each in Greater Delhi and Mumbai.

All this leads us to the second great current of our age: the end of oil. Jeremy Leggett, former oil geologist and a fine writer, spells out the reality in Half Gone – and very different it is from the official blandishments from on high, in which the incompetence seems beyond belief and deception is a way of life.

The world now burns eight billion tonnes of oil, gas and coal every year, and the greatest of these is oil. Our dependence is absolute. It fuels 90% of all transportation. It is involved in the production of 95% of all the goods in shops, including 95% of all food – produced as it is, these days, mainly by industrialised means, and transported, as is now the custom, halfway round the world and possibly back again before consumption. We get through more than 80 million barrels of oil a day, which is 29 billion barrels a year. The US uses one-quarter of this, most of it in automobiles; and, while the rest of the world has developed cars that do 60 miles to the gallon, the US produced the sports utility vehicle (SUV), which often does as little as 4mpg. In 2003 SUVs were 23% of the US market.

The US imports a quarter of the oil it gets through, mainly from the Middle East, though it could cut that to zero if it raised the efficiency of its cars even roughly in line with the rest of the world. It seems we didn’t go to war with Iraq just to protect oil in general. We went to safeguard the SUV in particular. As George Bush senior said in 1992: “The American way of life is not negotiable.”

But, the official forecasters tell us, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The US government predicts the world will use 120 million barrels a day by 2025 – 43 billion gallons a year. The International Energy Agency in its Energy Outlook for 2004 said much the same. But, asks Leggett, where exactly is all this extra oil going to come from? Bullish predictions of new giant fields have not come to pass. The two “super-giant” fields in Saudi and Kuwait were discovered either side of the second world war. Billions have been spent on the search for new fields, yet discovery peaked in the mid-1960s. The last big ones were found in the 70s. Serious experts who aren’t being paid to say otherwise now suggest there are no more biggies to be found. All the rest, from deep-sea oil to “unconventional” sources such as tar, are too small-scale to make much difference or far too costly to extract.

What really matters is not when the last of the wells runs dry but the “topping point”: the point at which traders finally acknowledge that supplies cannot increase further, but are already running out. Then, prices will reach $100 a barrel and more, and stay there. Current economic projections, both among producers and consumers, take $30 as the acceptable norm. At $100, the projections don’t work. High prices will lead to panic, panic leads to depression, and depression brings the chaos that breeds fascism. It has happened before, and seems to follow as night follows day. But it will be worse than before: there is far less room for manoeuvre in the present world than in the last great crash of 1929. Official forecasters chuckle indulgently and assure us that the topping point is a long way off. But the super-giants already seem past their peak (“seem” because, oddly, this is not an exact science) and many suggest that the topping point worldwide is already with us, and will be undeniable by 2010. It would be good when the time comes if all countries could tighten their belts and fall back on their own resources. But thanks to Thatcher and Blair and Brown, we in Britain have run down our agriculture and given our industries away, in line with the brilliant observation that as things were we could buy stuff cheaper from overseas. Nice one.

But this brings us to the third great change of our times. Burning fossil fuel releases CO2, which acts as a “greenhouse gas” and causes the world to warm and raises the sea level, as land-locked ice is melted. We may well drown or cook before the oil runs out, but at least when it does we won’t have the means to make it even worse. The role of CO2 and of water vapour in keeping the world warm has been known since the 19th century; but we were into the 1980s before the rise in CO2 was recognised as a threat.

In raising awareness James Lovelock has been a key player. In a series of books he has presented the Earth as a whole as a quasi-organism, named for the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Cogently and lyrically he has shown how the living creatures of the biosphere affect the behaviour and fate of the planet itself, and are in turn affected by it. His partial short-term solution to our present ills – nuclear power – will prove controversial. But the idea behind it is surely right: that we need big alternatives fast if we are to give ourselves anything like a soft landing when the oil-based economy has run its course.

But what the world really needs is a sea-change. The present economy – maximum competition, maximum consumption, maximisation of disposable wealth, and a vague hope that everything will turn out all right if we just keep doing more of the same – just won’t do. New technologies are needed, new economic models geared expressly to human wellbeing and biological reality, but above all, perhaps, a change of attitude. This is Lovelock’s prime achievement. Like Rachel Carson in Silent Spring and Jane Goodall with her books on chimps, he has not merely informed us. He has changed the way we look at the world.

The deepest problems in the end are moral – what we think it is right to do – and to this end Patrick Curry’s Ecological Ethics is timely. We need the world to stay intact, and to achieve that we need to take it seriously, and stop thinking of it simply as a cornucopia. A good and obvious place to begin is with our fellow creatures: to regard them neither as pests nor as pets but beings in their own right, to be treated with respect and indeed reverence. If we had begun with such an attitude, we surely would not have been so careless these past 100 years or so and got ourselves into such a convoluted mess.

We won’t get a sea-change, of course, if we continue to elect the present leaders, or people exactly like them, in the present way. While we are addressing the techniques and the deep moral principles we must also discuss governance. But that’s another story.

· Colin Tudge’s latest book is The Secret Life of Trees (Allen Lane).

Colin Tudge

Colin Tudge is co-founder of the College for Enlightened Agriculture, which is a project of the Real Farming Trust. His latest book, The Great Re-think, to be published later this year, puts flesh on the bones of all the above.

Tags: Geopolitics & Military, Overshoot