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Gunther’s “ruralisation” scenario
Unlike Trainer and Holmgren, Gunther actually envisages a future in which most people live in the country; stripping the cities of most of their population. But the differences are not perhaps quite so large as this broad summary suggests – his rural farming communities could also be considered to be low density suburbs.
The logic of Gunther’s position begins with a discussion of nutrients used to grow crops. In our present arrangement, food is exported from farms to the city. Along with this food we also export to the cities a good proportion of the essential nutrients for agriculture that were used to grow the crop in the first place – the key essential nutrients are nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. What happens next is that we eat and throw away this food and the nutrients in our sewerage are buried or deposited in the ocean – causing further environmental damage later on as nutrients necessarily escape from ground water and fertilise waterways and oceans. On the rural farms, we replace the nutrients lost from our soils with artificial fertilisers.
All of this process is dependent on cheap oil – to make fertilisers, to transport food, to remove wastes, to mine nutrients to turn into artificial fertilisers. Nitrogen is the least problematic nutrient in that we can use legume plants to pull it out of the air and make it available to soils. We do not have to use artificial fertilisers to supply nitrogen, although cheap oil makes this a cost effective option. Gunther envisages phosphorus as the crucial problematic nutrient. We are now mining rock phosphates to extract phosphorus for nutrients. As this mineral becomes scarcer it costs more and more to mine. The price of extracting and treating and transporting phosphates also goes up as the price of oil rises – the peak oil problem (Gunther 2004). Combining these two considerations, Gunther calculates the cost of phosphate fertilisers to be about to multiply by a hundred times – to the point where agriculture using such methods is impossibly expensive:
Phosphorus costs about 15 SEK [Swedish Kroners] /kg today, and the cost of the energy required for its extraction is 3 SEK. If energy prices rise at 5% per year in real terms and the amount of energy required rises at 3% a year because of the poorer ores, the energy cost for extraction will exceed 400 SEK/kg within 75 years, an increase of two powers of ten. (Gunther 2008)
How ruralisation could work
Gunther claims these problems are inevitable so long as food is exported from the country to the city. To deal with the problem at source we must recycle all the nutrients that are present in food and replace them in the soil for the next round of food growing. To do this we must recycle all human excrement and recover the nutrients for agriculture. The only way we can do this without a huge and impossible cost in transportation (given the oil peak) is to ruralise the population so human excrement is composted in short walking or donkey distance from the fields in which food is to be grown. There is no doubt that this is a truly horrifying scenario for most people brought up in modern affluent societies! Nevertheless I like the way it works from a somewhat obvious set of scientific issues to a radical social program. Gunther writes:
The heavy dependence on transportation in the current food production system can be ascribed to two or three infrastructure modes:
- Fertilisers and other support material for the agriculture are externally produced, often very distantly.
- Agricultural sites and end-users of food are often much separated spatially.
- Animal fodder is commonly produced very far from where it is needed.
These transportation dependencies could be diminished radically by a closer spatial, and social, integration of agriculture and settlements, together with a re-introduction of a balance between animal husbandry and plant production on individual farms. (Gunther 2004: 18)
How would a farm like this work? All animal feed would be produced on the farm and animal traction used to power farm machinery. The manure of animals would be composted and recycled onto the fields, supplying between sixty and ninety percent of nutrient requirements. Gunther also envisages all human manure being composted to remove pathogens and to supply it readily to plants. He summarizes the requirements in two points:
- Animal feed is produced on the same farm, or in the vicinity, allowing the manure to be returned to the land where the feed is produced.
- Nutrients actually exported as human food, should be returned as uncontaminated as possible, preferably as human urine and (composted) faecal matter. (Gunther 2004: 19)
He argues that the phosphorus content of the excrement of five to seven people (in a year) is the same as the annual loss of phosphorus in soil nutrients from one hectare of cropping land. So the area of land per person would need to be at least one fifth of a hectare (2000 square metres) to ensure that phosphorus was adequately recycled (Gunther 2004: 20). This is pretty close to Holmgren’s figure of 1500 square metres for one person. Using this figure he suggests a farm for 200 people would take up 40 hectares. Given this kind of rural development we could recycle all nutrients in a wheelbarrow – across an area that would be no more than 2 km wide. The cropping fields would also be surrounded by wetland strips which would trap nutrients being washed off fields. These could be periodically excavated to re-supply cropping land.
The social cost?
Socially, this all seems very dire and to imagine a transition to this scenario, visions of Pol Pot spring to mind! One doubts very much that most urban people today would happily give up their complex networked social contacts for a rural commune of 200 people. However this could be the wrong way to look at it. For a start, people might develop communal farms with other individuals who were already part of their social circle in the old city, rather than being forced into alliance with people with whom they had no shared history or values. Secondly, given good bike paths and occasional trains and buses to a regional centre, the social possibilities of such an environment might be quite adequate and well compensated for by the joys of a beautiful rural daily environment. When I was teaching this material to my students I started to do some rough calculations to consider whether a steel works such as the one we have had in Newcastle, could actually run in this ruralised environment.
Four farms next to each other would mean 800 neighbours in close walking distance. A distance (radius) of 713 metres if you think of yourself as at the centre of a circle of neighbours. There would be 5,000 neighbours in easy walking distance (1,784 metres radius with yourself at the centre) and 17,000 in a cycling distance of 3 kilometres. If we had a steel works with a total of 20,000 workers and another 80,000 needed to make that regional centre and transport system work, we could spread all these workers out to farms of the kind described. The furthest commuting distance to the centre of town would be 8 kilometres, not an impossible bike ride and certainly quick and easy as commuting on a light rail line – which could be powered by electricity supplied from solar thermal and wind turbines. In other words, we could have Trainer’s one to two days working week to service a steel plant while 4 days of the working week was spent doing other supporting activities on farms in the surrounding region. Weekend events in the city would be quite accessible for a population of 100,000.
To avoid the Pol Pot chaos and coercion, Gunther envisages a slow transition. Buildings in cities are constantly knocked down and replaced. Instead of putting up a new building in the same place, we would build a chain of rural suburbs extending out from the city into the rural landscape, with the land behind each radial rail line mapped into 40 hectare farms. Since buildings in a city are replaced at a rate of 1.6% per year, this process would mean that a city of 36,000 inhabitants would lose 90% of its population to the rural hinterland in 50 years (Gunther 2004: 23).
Gunther has two ways of approaching the economics of this arrangement. In the first, he considers this arrangement in the context of contemporary capitalist economics. He points out that farmers nowadays receive a very small proportion of the retail price of the food they produce – most goes to the supermarket chains that distribute it and to the makers of chemical inputs to replace the nutrients lost to the cities. In one version of his envisaged ruralisation, each farming village of 200 people would function as “Community Supported Agriculture” and guarantee purchase of the products produced by their farm – while also promising to deliver nutrients from their excrement. In this arrangement, farmers could sell at half the current retail price and make up to six times as much money, with no middle players, supermarket chains or input manufacturers to cream off the profits (Gunther 2004).
In another economic vision, Gunther sees farm production as part of a community “Local Economy Trading Scheme” (LETS). The community issues local currency and makes arrangements between people who need to pay back LETS money and those who have tasks which they need done and can pay for with LETS money. So people buy food from farmers with LETS money and farmers use this money to buy goods and services from the other people in the community (including services of labour).
I note that envisaged as part of an overall capitalist economy operating with national government money, the effect of linking food to LETS in this way is localize the economy – LETS only operates in each farm and village or at most in a region and not nationally. People have to buy food with LETS and to get LETS they have to produce goods and services in the community for people who have community LETS to offer them. To allow a broader exchange, Gunther suggests that neighbouring villages become one member each in the LETS of any particular village, meaning that villages function as largely self sufficient but are also trading communes with each other. He also notes that face to face contact between members of the community keeps LETS prices pegged to people’s local knowledge of how long it takes to produce the service in question. In other words, there is a rough equalization of the cost of labour in LETS that is an intended aspect of a local money system.
So is this capitalism or not? Gunther says it is not:
LETS is a typical example of a market economy without capitalism. In the LETS system you can buy from people you know, you have a good idea of how much they have had to work for that item, so you know what it is worth. Besides that, the farmer will need a lot of help at certain times of the year. She can pay people with LETS. And people can buy food with the LETS money, so you see we get a system that can work quite well. (Gunther & Hinton 2005)
Envisaged in the context he is developing I think you can argue both sides of this coin. What is not capitalist about such a system? It runs on trust. There are no coercive sanctions – you cannot be thrown into gaol for a LETS debt. Nevertheless there are economic sanctions for debt – local knowledge means that others will be reluctant to run up LETS debts with you and the LETS organization will stop giving you credit. There is no interest on loans in LETS money. It is not premised on constant growth, as are loans with interest in a capitalist economy. While in capitalism, work is rewarded very unequally and in relation to market power, this is not the case with LETS where equal work is rewarded roughly equally with the community supervising prices for labour in LETS. Nevertheless, there are some aspects of such a LETS system that are reminiscent of capitalism. You have to work and get paid in LETS money to eat. Indeed to access any service or product (except gifts from close relatives or friends), you have to work for LETS for anyone with LETS to hire you out and a willingness to employ you to create the product or service. So your work is beholden to the market in LETS. If there is no real need for your services as a guitar player you have to find something else to do that will pay good LETS. So this is a kind of alienated labour in that you are not the person who makes the creative decisions about how to produce the service and what needs to be done.
To me this a classic example of the mixed economy model. Aspects of capitalism, as we know it, are grafted onto a situation which is in many ways quite different. What we can suspect is that the urban and industrial activities that are plainly envisaged by Gunther as necessary to support this agriculture are conducted within a national monetary system – with people doing this work for national money paid to them by either government or private business. How such national money would impact on local money is an interesting question.
Again, we can readily envisage socialist or gift economy versions of the kind of ruralisation that Gunther is proposing. While he situates it within a mixed economy social future, this is far from inevitable.
The two books I am choosing to cover in this section share a number of features. They are both written recently and argue that we need to cut fossil fuel use very drastically to avoid the worst disasters of global warming. In this, they start from the same point as the low energy futures writers. Like these writers they believe that 350 parts per million is the highest concentration of CO2 we should be aiming at and that, ideally, we would move towards that goal by actions that would reduce fossil fuel use to almost zero in fifteen years or less.
While this is not their primary purpose, the books set out a shared vision for future technology use. They maintain that we can replace fossil fuels and retain the basics of an affluent high energy growth economy. Because of this we can consider them as “technological optimists”. Neither book says a lot about the detail of urban design, although earlier works in this tradition have more to say (for example “Natural Capitalism” by Paul Hawken with Amory and Hunter Lovins (2000) and “Greening the North” by Wolfgang Sachs, Reinhard Loske and Manfred Linz (1998). Yet in their technological optimism, both books imply that urban design remains more or less the same as at present. I will explore these two similar visions and consider the kinds of replies to this that are constructed by authors from the first school.
Spratt and Sutton – “Climate Code Red”
Spratt and Sutton envisage transport as being fuelled by second generation biofuels made from “wood, straw or waste from agricultural cropping” (2008: 185). These will become commercially viable in the immediate future. In addition electricity will be used to power rail lines and derived from sustainable energy alternatives. Cars could run the same way – Honda has “unveiled a zero-emission fuel cell vehicle with a top speed of 160 kilometres per hour and a range of 430 kilometres” (2008: 206). Lightweight materials for vehicle construction will mean that less energy is used in transport – cutting fuel use to 10% of the present amount. For example, steel in car manufacture could be replaced by carbon fibre. Freight will not be run on roads but on rail lines. Plane transport will become a thing of the past. Instead state of the art fast train technology will allow the same service without the environmental cost. For example the London to Paris route will be 140 minutes, which is actually a shorter time than plane travel – when you take waiting times and trips to the airport through traffic into account. I am presuming that to travel from Sydney to London you will get a very fast train to Darwin, take a biofuel jet boat to Malaysia and travel on by very fast train to London.
In this context, urban design is the opposite of that proposed by low energy future writers. Instead of moving agriculture into the cities, Spratt and Sutton favour urban consolidation which would cut car use:
Further changes to urban layout to create hubs, and to increase the density of buildings, would also allow cities to use walking as the principal means of mobility, with public transport and bicycles as dominant support modes. (Spratt & Sutton 2008: 206)
In some ways this could be regarded as a strange mixture of scenarios. If, as I shall go on to show, they do not envisage any energy shortage, it is hard to see why private car transport is to be restricted at all. If biofuels are indeed “commercially available” why not run planes on biofuels? In other words, the actual scenario suggests a restriction in energy use but the vision is to replace most aspects of modern life without pause. Food is to be produced with high energy machinery and transported to cities (by trains). Private cars are still available for most people in affluent countries although they may be used a little less. Plane transport has been replaced by trains but there is still a great deal of moving about very fast taking place. Freight is still being transported nationally and internationally in vast quantities, but by trains rather than on roads.
The most detailed replies to this vision are in Trainer’s “Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain Consumer Society” (2007). Most peak oil writers have similar objections to this scenario (for example Heinberg). I will not argue these points here in detail but merely point out the objections made by low energy future writers.
Second generation biofuels could not replace oil use in the United States without using an impossibly huge area of land (see above). In any realistic scenario based on this technology, private car use would just be for the very wealthy indeed. Fuel cells are much too expensive to be used as an everyday choice in mass transport via private cars; carbon fibre the same. The energy required to run existing amounts of freight and passenger transport at the same speeds as today is inconceivable from renewables. These sources will be stretched to provide a much smaller transport load, basic industrial production, domestic lighting and communications – and even this will depend on a rescheduling of the working day to fit with energy supply. Food production and distribution of the kind we have at present depends on cheap oil and there will be no cheap substitute – with obvious implications for settlement design. Huge populations concentrated into high density urban centres would starve to death.
Spratt and Sutton cite “Zero Carbon Britain” (2007) as showing that in 20 years the UK could produce all its electricity without using fossil fuels or nuclear power “while also tripling electricity supply, and using it to power most heating and transport systems” (Spratt & Sutton 2008: 195). Wind power will become competitive and Denmark plans to produce 75% of their energy from wind power. Sliver cell technology will cut the cost of solar photovoltaics so that an energy efficient house can be self sufficient in electricity for A$10 to A$15 thousand. Solar thermal plants will be installed in North Africa and the Middle East and supply 90% of Europe’s electricity needs through a low loss transmission grid. We are “on the cusp” of a breakthrough with this technology and in 5 years solar thermal will be cheaper than coal fired energy. An area 35 kilometres square in Australia could produce enough for Australia’s total power needs. There is also geothermal, wave and tidal power.
Again, the detailed arguments against these optimistic estimates are contained in Trainer’s discussion. To summarize. Both solar and wind power have difficulties in supplying power continuously. Even if you source these from a continent wide grid you still do not get a consistent amount of power. To make up the shortfall one route is to use nuclear or coal fired power stations as back up which is expensive, in so far as you are duplicating your energy system. You are also causing environmental problems with either of these back up systems. Or you can back up by using surplus energy to make hydrogen, melt salt, heat rocks or push water up hill into a dam. All of these storage systems massively increase the cost of meeting anything like our current energy use. Moreover within a capitalist economy, growth, at least as it has actually been experienced, always means energy growth – a 3% per annum growth rate doubles use in 23 years. The costs of these systems is not likely to “come down” with mass production as technological optimists forecast. A large part of the cost is simple costs in steel to create supports, glass for mirrors and the like.
Efficiency, Materials and Industrial Production
As with Lovins’ earlier work in this field, efficient use of energy is a big part of this analysis. We could look to a 60% cut in energy use through efficiency alone by 2050 “without incurring a major impact on consumption patterns or quality of life, and without major technological breakthroughs or lifestyle changes” (Spratt & Sutton 2008: 196). A fridge fitted with vacuum panel insulation might reduce energy needs by 80 to 90 per cent.
Recycling would reduce use of raw materials. Also, energy intensive processes might be replaced by more efficient alternatives to produce equivalent products. Alumino silicate (clay based) products or magnesium rather than calcium based cement would replace cement. Steel would be produced using carbon char sourced from renewable forests. Energy sources for heavy energy use industrial processes would be renewables – for example geo-thermal energy to produce aluminium.
These ideas for making better use of power in industry would certainly be a part of any low energy future. However, low energy writers would see their optimism about energy efficiency as overdrawn at the least. As low energy writers have pointed out, such scenarios do not take into account the growth of energy use that is ingrained in capitalist economies – by 2050 business as usual energy growth would increase by approximately four times, meaning that a 60% cut in energy from today’s use would be well and truly wiped out. As Spratt and Sutton note themselves, earlier attempts at energy efficiency have been frustrated by such new mass products as cheap air travel, air conditioners, ubiquitous four wheel drives and plasma TV sets.
Spratt and Sutton envisage this change being organized as a kind of wartime mobilization of capitalist societies today. Massive government funding, intervention and regulation would be necessary to move transport, energy and industry into this new setting. They point out that in the second world war up to 40% of national economies were devoted to wartime production. While rationing of some consumer goods took place, there was full employment and GNP growth – 55% in the USA between 1939 and 1944. Their estimate for Australia is that we would need to set aside A$300 to A$400 billion to invest in this restructuring. Over a ten year period this would represent a mere 4% of our total economic production (Spratt & Sutton 227).
Ultimately, they do not see this kind of detailed control of energy production as inimical to a capitalist growth economy:
Importantly, when the focus is on the qualitative growth of service-value, rather than on pumping out more and more material production, economic growth could continue indefinitely, without clashing with ecological sustainability. (Spratt & Sutton 2008: 250)
They envisage a fixed quantity of materials, energy use, raw material use and water use which is reduced dramatically from that which obtains at present.
Low energy writers are sceptical of this proposed disconnection of growth from growth in energy use. Trainer notes that the supposed de-coupling associated with electronic communication and the growth of the service economy has not actually taken place (1995). As well, the political control vested in owners of industry within capitalism makes it difficult to believe that any effective governmental control of energy and raw materials use can be maintained so long as they are in charge. In a democracy, any economic downturn can be plausibly related to employment rates with a consequent voting impact (see McLaughlin 1993).
More of a worry, the left is sceptical of this vision of wartime mobilization in so far as it is a licence for authoritarian control. While we might like to believe that this would work and might like to vote in a government with this sort of authority to restructure the economy, it is hard to trust this scenario. In particular, it might either lead to a lot of window dressing and little action – as vested interests pulled strings behind the scenes – or to a scenario in which the rich continued to live well and were supplied by sustainable technologies, while the vast majority slid into dire poverty and starvation. This concern is strengthened if we move to Monbiot’s version of this scenario with a world government making decisions.
Writers like Trainer and Holmgren put a lot more faith in local citizen mobilization to re-make the economy and bring about the decentralized, low energy future that they think could work. In so far as this does not happen, they predict social collapse of the kind that would make it unlikely that any government could actually have the political authority to carry out the technological optimist scenario – especially if we start to think realistically about what might be taking place in developing countries as the oil peak and climate change disasters wreak havoc.
Dyer’s “Climate Wars”
There are some key points where Dyer’s position fits with Spratt and Sutton. Like them he envisages a “wartime style mobilisation and government controls” to close down the fossil fuel industry in fifteen years (2008: 128). Like them, the goal is to maintain the affluence of the growth economy:
I like living in a high-energy civilisation, and I don’t want to give it up. If it can be managed without causing a climate disaster, I would like everybody on the planet to live in wealthy societies that have the resources and the leisure to start looking after all citizens and not just the top dogs. (Dyer 2008: 128)
Science is a great boon and is “definitely only possible in a high energy societies”. He enjoys “flying to distant places” and would like to see everyone in the world able to do so (Dyer 2008: 128). While this suggests he is more of a technological optimist than Spratt and Sutton, there are points of divergence in the other direction. He notes the problems with wind power and solar thermal that writers like Trainer talk about.
Dyer cites a long statement from Dennis Bushnell, a NASA scientist, to introduce two key technologies to replace current fossil fuels. One is algae used to produce oil in salt water ponds. He claims algae are 30 to 60 per cent oil and 20,000 gallons of oil per acre per year can be produced. To replace all the petrol used in the United States, you would need to use only one percent of the land area. The second technology is geo-thermal energy. This is seen as producing the base load power needed to back up other alternative energy systems:
On half of the land masses, if you drill down some two kilometres, you get 200-degrees Celsius rock. If you drill down five kilometres, you get 300-degrees Celsius rock. (Dyer citing Bushnell - 2008: 126)
As oil wells can go 10 kilometres deep, this does not pose any real problems; you introduce water into one hole and it forms steam and passes through rock fractures to come shooting up as steam in another hole to run a turbine and generate power.
Trainer considers both these technologies so it is interesting to see what he has to say about them.
Trainer is not convinced that algae can outperform more obvious forms of bio mass energy. He cites a claim that the average growth rate of algae as 36.5 tonnes per hectare per year dry weight – more or less equivalent to sugar cane (Trainer 2007: 79). The oil content can be 40% of dry weight. Another researcher cites the oil content of this algae as only 8% dry weight, whereas for soybeans it is 18%. A major problem is that high growth rates depend on high temperatures, but the aim is to site large scale production in deserts where temperatures fall severely at night. Ponds cannot be deep; sunlight has to reach the ponds so 30 cm is the maximum depth. The result would be that ponds could not be closed units for large scale production. There would be problems with weeds, seepage and contamination. Algae grow best in the tropics where heavy rains would wash out the ponds. You would need to input NKP fertiliser, using energy to produce and transport this to the ponds. CO2 would also have to be bubbled through the ponds. Trainer reports one researcher, who worked with the CSIRO on this technology, as saying that “they found that the energy cost of the process is so high that the energy return is negative” (Trainer 2007: 80). The energy required to grow and harvest and process the algae is so high that you use more energy than you produce. Trainer considers various more optimistic estimates and points out that they do not include any calculation of energy required for processing. While 36.5 tonnes is the figure cited in optimistic scenarios, other researchers find that 9 to 11 tonnes of dry weight per hectare per year are more likely – not that different to wood harvested at 7 tonnes per hectare per year. Overall, Trainer concludes that claims for algae are very far from conclusive at this stage.
Trainer also considers geo-thermal energy. He argues that a lot of energy would be required to drill holes 4 to 5 kilometres deep and force water up to a kilometre through the fractured rock. To establish a 1000 megawatt power plant (a normal size) you would need to drill 154 kilometres of holes to create a field of holes. The steam rising to the surface is between 170 and 270 degrees – not a lot of power to run turbines. Hot rock is not a renewable resource because any set of holes will use up the heat in that area, which has accumulated over millennia. After 20 years the in-out temperature difference would have fallen to 156 degrees. It might well be difficult to tap the steam created which would escape from the field through the fractured rock underground rather than coming up through the designated exit pipes! As with algae, Trainer concludes “it is by no means clear that [geothermal energy] can make a major contribution to solving the global electricity task” – the task of running an affluent society on renewable energy (Trainer 2007: 110).
I consider the above in some detail because supposedly new cheap alternative energy technologies are constantly being promoted in popular journalism and popular science magazines. There is such a barrage of this kind of publicity that it is rare to see a detailed critical analysis of the research foundation of these reports.
Dyer is not that optimistic that a wartime mobilisation to replace fossil fuels is politically likely. As he correctly points out, apart from the obvious difficulty of getting this started in rich countries, any realistic program would require large scale funding of energy infrastructure in the developing countries with the money coming from rich countries. He is equally pessimistic about the option of reducing energy use drastically:
… the likelihood of an entire society being persuaded to abandon its whole lifestyle in order to avoid a hypothetical disaster that is several decades in the future is very small. (Dyer 2008: 137)
In this context he maps out various options for geo-engineering to reduce temperatures or remove carbon from the air. A similar strategy is envisaged by Spratt and Sutton. Possible techniques are to seed the oceans with iron or fertiliser to increase algae growth and the intake of carbon into the oceans. As the algae dies it sinks to the bottom taking the carbon with it. Another solution is to spray seawater below strato cumulus clouds to increase cloud cover and reflect heat back into space. Suphur dioxide could be sprayed in the stratosphere to reflect heat. While he recognizes problems with these technologies, he thinks they may well be necessary to avoid worse disasters.
None of the low energy future writers discuss these options. They are all hoping for serious cuts to emissions to come about from a broad social commitment to restructuring energy, transport and urban design.
Maybe the political path proposed by low energy writers is the block which prevents them from favouring geo engineering options. Could citizen initiatives engineer the world’s climate? The technological optimists certainly believe that international cooperation and global political control is necessary to monitor geo-engineering solutions. However this is not in fact the case. Seeding the ocean with iron filings or urea is not a high tech operation and could be carried out by a city, let alone a nation. The impact could be readily monitored from any point on the globe by checking atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. An even more low tech solution is that proposed by James Lovelock – placing long tubes in the ocean to bring cold nutrient rich water up from the depths to increase algal (phytoplankton) growth on the surface. Again, this solution is no more difficult than gardening really! Another low tech geo engineering solution is creating bio-char from crop wastes by burning wastes in low oxygen kilns (to make charcoal) and burying it in the fields. I note that all these three bio-engineering technologies take carbon out of the air and consequently relieve oceanic acidity at the same time as they reduce global warming. Watch this space!
One of the great virtues of the low energy writers is to present a scenario in which we do reduce energy use very drastically and live rather well despite that. I am not sure how the low energy utopia strikes other people but for someone such as myself, raised in the hippy counterculture, with some experience of how people make do in developing countries and with a background in alternative agriculture, the scenario they depict sounds quite attractive. Firstly, boring industrial repetitive work is cut to a minimum. Most work is community work, carried out in a suburban/rural environment surrounded by farms, woodlands, bike paths and ponds. Food, housing, furniture and the like are all produced locally by people you know. Long distance travel and one to two days a week commuting to industrial work is not in cars but in buses, boats and trains. The joys of global international communication technology are not impossible so long as we watch our overall energy consumption. We cut energy where we now use it most - in transport, in food production and distribution, in domestic heating and cooling, in our cooking and our industrial production. We need to make things to last, and repair useful machines, recycling all raw materials. While government action to assist this development is certainly something to hope for, action on the ground here and now to set up urban food alternatives and develop local energy production is something that can be initiated and worked on as soon as you are ready to do so. There is even a movement that you can join that has this specific objective – the Transitions Towns movement.
I have to say that for me the vision proposed by the technological optimists seems a bit unlikely. I doubt whether we can have growth and untroubled continuation of the affluent society without the fossil fuel energy subsidy. I realize that there is a woeful lack of funding for alternative energy options. In this context it is hard to be sure about whether these options could work to replace current levels of energy provision and to expand energy growth in the future.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that we are going to be told that this energy technology replacement is all very possible and will happen in the fullness of time – do not worry or do anything too drastic politically please, we are sorting it out! Equally we will be told that all these new alternative technologies are just too expensive to be implemented at the moment and that we need to wait till something comes up that will be cheaper. In the meantime we need to put our faith in nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration! Do not do anything drastic while you are waiting, we are all in this together.
Politically, the low energy future scenario sidesteps these delaying tactics. Well, let us assume that the worst that the business class tells us is true. The alternative technologies that we have today cannot produce the kind of energy levels and consumption levels we are used to. So, how bad is that? We could live very comfortably in the Trainer and Holmgren future suburbs or the Gunther villages. The situation is drastic enough that we need to do something now.
My sense is that it is only when a mass of people start operating according to the low energy future model that we will really see politicians decide to come to the party and actually do something to support a “wartime mobilisation” to replace energy and transport structures. At present there is an understandable belief that whatever the public says in surveys about their concern about global warming, they are not really concerned enough to put anyone’s job in question (Gow & Leahy 2005). Hence in Australia, the PM talks up very minor adjustments to the economy through a cap and trade system – that he hopes will not have an adverse impact on the economy – and goes on increasing our coal exports, mumbling on about carbon capture and sequestration.
The lay down misere card of technological optimists is always that nothing else is possible – because the public will not wear the reduction in consumption that is the premise of a low energy future. So we will either have a high tech restructuring of affluence or a global collapse with global warming.
This is really a big mistake in so far as it looks only at one side of the equation of daily life – the side of consumption. What is missing is the side of work. What we now have are forty to fifty hours of compulsory work a week, a harried, relentless and insecure lifestyle beset by economic uncertainty, where we are daily elbowed around by endless petty dictators in work and government. The low energy future avoids this in two ways. Firstly, by giving people much more leisure. Secondly, in any of the three political versions it promises more control at work and in the local community. This is not an accidental accompaniment but comes directly from the model’s insistence on localized production. Most resources are produced locally and we do not need to depend on large scale bureaucracies to get our daily necessities. We depend on industrial production to get the icing on the cake of world travel, global communication and high tech science and medical technology. This means that the “peasantry” which is also the part time industrial workforce of the low energy future has massively more leverage than consumers today – who depend constantly on money from work or welfare to fund their next meal. It is hard to think of consumers in affluent societies today as wage slaves – with their plasma TVs and four wheel drives they seem anything but this. But the current crisis is stripping away this mask as it undermines faith in secure growth and the expectation of endless increases in consumption.
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