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Climate Change – the Price of Prosperity

An open letter to Bernie Bulkin in respect and admiration, while waiting for your next book to appear.

Edinburgh, 29th January 2023

 

Dear Bernie,

Having read and digested Jared Diamond’s excellent Collapse at your recommendation, I would like to try out a theory on you, inspired by the book.

Diamond seems to me to concentrate on two parallel themes, re-stated and cited in the numerous impeccably researched examples he gives of both success and failure of regional and national communities.  In the first place, the Malthusian proposition re-stated so simply that it is hard to credit any controversy around it.  It is an incontrovertible truth that if you cannot renew the resources on which your life depends faster than the rate at which you deplete them, you cannot survive.  It does not matter how you renew them, or whether technology can provide alternative means to nature, nevertheless if you cannot renew them faster than you deplete them, partial or total extinction is the only possible outcome.

The second theme, in which another excellent American historian is quoted extensively, is the failure to respond to the crisis of renewal, most particularly when the crisis is self-inflicted.  In other words, when the community’s behaviour has been in part responsible for the crisis in resource depletion and the accompanying incapacity to renew at the speed required for survival.  Barbara Tuchman’s exploration of the nature of self-defeating government in The March of Folly is used by Diamond to help understand how communities have flown in the face of all available evidence to the contrary, and maintained policies that could only result in failure and destruction even when alternative choices were available. 

Tuchman accounts for this repeated phenomenon in human history by noting that either greed or fear motivated all decisions of this nature.  It is hard to argue, although perhaps she offered an overriding condition in her title.  Folly.  Human beings are foolish.  They can always be counted on to make stupid decisions on a regular basis.

The Price of Prosperity

I want to introduce a different consideration for understanding human communities’ capacity for self-destruction, which perhaps sheds light on the nature of our folly.  The price of prosperity.  In a manner that is relatively benign, and not necessarily characterised by self-interested greed or fear, but much more characterised by an urge to care for and protect family, friend, communities, the history of human behaviour among our various civilisations has always shown an urge to enhance prosperity and comfort, the security with which we can maintain a supply of food, warmth, light and safety, for all of us collectively, and each of us domestically.

But there is a price to pay for prosperity.  Again, it is relatively benign, and requires no form of exceptional explanation of greed or fear.  The price we pay for prosperity is standard and commonplace.  We pay for the gas that has heated our homes for most of our lives; we pay for the coal that has lit our homes for most of our lives; we pay for the cars and buses that have transported us to and from school, work, holidays for most of our lives, and the petrol or diesel that powers them.

 

“…the history of human behaviour among our various civilisations has always shown an urge to enhance prosperity and comfort, the security with which we can maintain a supply of food, warmth, light and safety, for all of us collectively, and each of us domestically.”

 

The prices we have paid seemed barely worthy of note when there were only two billion of us, many of whom admittedly were not actually using gas, electricity or automotive transport.  So the price was only being paid by a relatively small fraction of the two billion humans alive at the time (which was 1927, when global poverty was greater than 50% of the population compared to less than 10% today, according to the OECD).

Even so, our preference for prosperity always begged some questions that might have seemed uncomfortable, even then.  What are we going to do when the coal runs out?  Or the gas?  Even then, we might have noted an obvious point.  The price we were paying was enough to cover the miner’s costs (this is contentious, of course – was it enough?), but it was not enough to cover the cost to the Earth because that had no price.  At the time, and still today, we have no absolute certainty what effect removing entire seams of coal from the Earth’s core will have in the long term.  The best and most qualified scientists today would probably all agree that the effects will be negligible, and they are probably right.

But the same cannot be said about another resource we have been paying for, and still are, on a continuous basis for centuries, indeed millennia.  Forestry.  We pay for the work done to make it available for our use, but we pay the Earth nothing for its material.  We know the short, medium and long term effects of deforestation have been, are, and will continue to be catastrophic in various regions around the world, some now not only deforested but also abandoned by human life.  The price we pay to the logging industry is completely inadequate when measured against the consequences of our consumption of these products – the price some communities pay by compromising the entire eco-system on which they depended for food and water as a result of uncontrolled deforestation without hope of renewal.

 

“We pay for the work done to make it (natural resources) available for our use, but we pay the Earth nothing for its material.”

 

Rising population, rising price

Two billion has become eight billion, technology has been instrumental in rising living standards to a level where less than 10% are living in poverty, and while the balance of 90% cannot all be said to live in prosperity and comfort, they do live in the expectation that basic needs of warmth, food, water, health and education will be met.

 

Source: US Census Bureau

The price for this is huge in terms of the resources required for a population of 8 billion.  The price is so great that we can now see we have insufficient natural or technological capital to pay it.  We can now see entire communities in parts of Africa and further afield dying in thousands from drought and famine.  We can see support mechanisms in places as sophisticated as Australia, California and Montana falling apart and failing, so that the future of human life in these places is directly threatened as we speak.

The problem we face is that the price of prosperity is too great for us to bear.  Is this true of the price of survival?  What is the difference between the price of prosperity and the price of survival?  Subsistence cannot cost as much as prosperity, but it certainly costs something.  Has the growth to 8 billion people on the planet depleted resources so heavily that survival is no longer an option, because the resources required are no longer available?

Climate Change: The ultimate price

But before we answer that question, one final consideration has now been brought into play.  The ultimate price being paid for prosperity is climate change.  Climate change is not a cause of the gradual increase in the cost of resources, or their depletion and loss.  Climate change is the consequence.  By paying too little for prosperity as a result of neglecting the need for renewal, the prosperous have ignored the requirements of the atmosphere without which human life on the planet is not viable.  The consequent impact on the atmosphere of the various side effects of the spread of prosperity has already been to make it warmer.  The result of this on the climate is to cause it to change.  The price of prosperity can now be seen to be a warmer world and a changing climate, both inextricably linked, and both threatening the continuation of life as we know it on different parts of the planet.

Source: NASA Climate Change

Isn’t this now the problem we should be considering?  The problem that our politicians should be working night and day to solve?  Isn’t this the single greatest responsibility we have to address, collectively?

If so, we can then learn from history.  The problem of the price of prosperity has dogged human communities from the start.  Stretching resources for a growing population has involved land allocation, access to water, warmth, transport, and food throughout human history.  The successes and failures cover a spectrum which is very instructive and helpful, as Jared Diamond’s book reveals.  

Our problem, however, is that climate change on the scale predicted is, on the other hand, unknown in human history.

 

“The price of prosperity can now be seen to be a warmer world and a changing climate, both inextricably linked, and both threatening the continuation of life as we know it on different parts of the planet.”

 

However, it is also true to say that the solutions to the problems of resource depletion, renewal, allocation and availability are also largely the solutions to climate change as well.  We cannot restore the resources we need to the plentiful levels required to support 8 billion people without lowering the temperature of the globe, which in turn will arrest and reverse the changes in climate, thus allowing our eco-systems to regenerate.  If this does not happen, there are now many commentators, scientists and lobby groups alike, who expect a global collapse.  The movement known as the Extinction Rebellion is perhaps the most melodramatic in its conviction that we are facing the next mass extinction of life on the planet following the sequence of the first five that we know about.

This is an extraordinarily Western-centric First World perspective.  The starving families in Somalia would find the notion of a movement of well-dressed, well-fed Northern Europeans ringing alarm bells about their own extinction insulting.  For them, it has already started.  They are paying the price of other people’s prosperity with their lives.

 

Source: Georgina Goodwin

Are we starting to pay the real price for prosperity?

But the reality is that we too are starting to pay the real price of prosperity caused by the continuous depletion of the resources we need at a rate above which they cannot renew themselves.  Already we are seeing an energy crisis that is directly reflected in the combination of prices and availability.  Prices have sky-rocketed.  Availability is constrained.  The latest attempts to control this imbalance of resource availability to need is to change the need.  Users are being incentivised to use less energy at peak times.  In other words, the price of prosperity reflected in energy usage has become unaffordable, so this manifestation of prosperity is subject to restriction.  Our prosperity is declining.  Alternatively, the price required to pay for what we previously took for granted has become much greater for those who can afford it.

This is our reality.  Examine it further for a moment.  Shelves at Tesco have on occasion in recent months been conspicuously empty.  This would have been a supermarket store manager’s most heinous crime in years gone by, losing him or her their job.  Shelf space is the retailer’s most precious commodity.  But who can be blamed when the stock to fill the shelves is not always available?  Another moment of reality in our First World lives.  This headline in the sports news: “South Coast is like surfing in sewage everyday, says World Championship windsurfer Sarah Jackson.”  It passes almost unnoticed, but here is another price of prosperity that is now beyond us.  Sarah Jackson is paying enormously more for her competitive sporting life, having relocated to Tenerife.

 

“…the reality is that we too are starting to pay the real price of prosperity caused by the continuous depletion of the resources we need at a rate above which they cannot renew themselves.”

 

We should also examine the position of our leaders in considering this changing reality in our daily lives.  Every Prime Minister for the last fifty years has pursued the goal of growth.  Our economy has indeed grown at times.  But this growth has been gained by further irrecoverable down payments in the price of prosperity.  It has to end, and has almost certainly already reached that end.

The situation in the UK

If we consider the situation in the National Health Service in the UK, we can see an even more stark illustration of the increasing price of prosperity escalating beyond our means.  Since the creation of the NHS by Clement Attlee’s Government in the late 1940’s, the sums generated by the taxes paid by the British population have been sufficient to pay a living wage to the nurses and doctors required to deliver a certain level of service.  Since the financial crash in 2008 ushered in austerity in the public sector, compounded by the exodus of foreign workers caused by the isolation of Britain through Brexit, this is no longer possible.  Nurses on the lowest salaries are resorting to Food Banks because our taxes are not sufficient to pay them a living wage.  Nurses and junior doctors are leaving the service.  The service itself now faces demand beyond its capacity to deliver.  In other words, the price of our prosperity has increased beyond our ability to pay for it, in the context of our national healthcare system.

Are our Western politicians too heavily conditioned by the culture of democratic power gained by popularity at the ballot box to recognise that growth is no longer a practical option?  The reality is that it is impossible to grow when there is nothing to grow.  Once again, this is a biological certainty.  If you deplete faster than you renew, you will run out.  It is a biological certainty and a mathematical certainty.  We can’t stock Tesco’s shelves if there is no food.  We can’t warm our houses if there is no energy.  We can’t surf in clean water if there is no clean water.  We can’t maintain health provision for all if there is not enough money to pay for it.

What should we do?  We cannot keep paying a higher price to maintain the level of unsustainable depletion.  This only makes the problem worse, but it is what many societies all over the globe are doing, including ours.

“We can’t stock Tesco’s shelves if there is no food.  We can’t warm our houses if there is no energy.  We can’t surf in clean water if there is no clean water.  We can’t maintain health provision for all if there is not enough money to pay for it.”

 

Option one: use less. Option two: fight climate change itself

We have only two options that take account of the reality we are experiencing – but we have to admit it first.  The first option is to use less.  A thrift economy, a contracting economy, an economy that values saving more than growth, is a good thing.  It is the economy of rationing that our parents and grandparents lived through in the war years that filled so much of the first half of the 20th century.  Save, don’t spend.  Replace consumption with restraint.  Limit, don’t indulge.  Governments need to make this happen.  It will not be possible otherwise.  This option reduces the price of prosperity by redefining prosperity.

The second option, which has to accompany the first, is to address the problem head on, and fight climate change itself.  If this is the ultimate price we are being asked to pay for our historic prosperity in the West, then let’s pay the piper enough to make him/her go away.  If we can arrest and reverse global warming, it will arrest and reverse climate change, and we can cause the eco-systems which we have destroyed to regenerate.  These are the eco-systems on which our lives depend.

Let’s transfer all our efforts at innovation and invention to those technologies which will change our destructive practices, the leading of which are the causes of climate change.  So many of the battles that we should have fought to maintain our resource supplies have been lost in different parts of the world – soil erosion, fish stocks, marine habitats, deforestation – that no amount of technology innovation can correct them.  Hence a degree of Climate Change is now already in train and bound to go further.  But there are still so many more that are still in the balance.  Energy supply, energy storage, crop production, transport options, all have huge potential for remedial correction that will preserve the price of prosperity to an affordable level.

 

“Let’s transfer all our efforts at innovation and invention to those technologies which will change our destructive practices, the leading of which are the causes of climate change.”

 

Bernie, I am aware there are many more questions than answers in this letter.  Indeed, there are hardly any answers to those who think that humanity’s collapse on Earth is already decided.  But I don’t think so, and I am pretty certain that you don’t think so either.  We are both old, but we are both looking to a future over which we still feel we can bring influence to bear.  So let me end with the simplest question before any answers are attempted to those above.  Where shall we start?

With my best wishes and thanks for all the considered thought and input you have already offered with such generosity, and the work you have already done,

 

Nick

 

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