A Difficult Question

Here’s a question for my younger friends: “Would you vote for someone who promised drastically to reduce your standard of living?”

I began this some days ago, prompted by seeing dear old David Attenborough jerking his arms up and down and telling us we are facing a crisis. Most of us agree that climate change is a terrible threat to our future, so why are we wasting so much time and so many billions on a silly idea with a silly name: Brexit? Why do apparently intelligent people talk about “sustainable growth”. There is no such thing. Why isn’t that obvious to anybody? Any organism can only grow as long as its resource base is growing. Our economies and populations can only grow as long as we keep using more oil, more coal, more water, more land. So many people seem to believe that with some kind of technological magic we can enjoy all the benefits of our energy rich lives while dramatically reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide. IT CAN’T BE DONE.

“Nonsense!”  say those who think it’s all to do with the sun. “Look at the figures: all over the world we are less violent, better fed, we have more leisure we are better educated and better housed than ever.” It may well be true that life is getting better for humans, but those that say this forget to look at what is happening in the natural world –  the place where our food comes from.

Climate change is only one of the threats to our future which have been ignored for too long. With the human population still rising, even if we could find a way to keep the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, we are likely to run out of water in, for example, the Indian sub-continent. Unless we can dramatically change the typical meat-based Western diet, we will run out of fertile land. As our population grows and becomes richer, populations of millions of other species are in rapid decline. Without insects we could not survive, yet the total population of insects seems to be in free fall.

The figures, when you dig deeper, are horrifying, but  we don’t have to stick our heads in the sand and wait for it to bury us. There are things that would work, but not the sort of things we would vote for. Would you vote for someone who promised to reduce your standard of living by – at a conservative estimate – a factor of 5? A  draconian carbon tax would work. It would dramatically increase the cost of anything which emitted carbon dioxide, but what happens when a country like France imposes a modest carbon tax on motor fuel?  – riots:  tax abandoned. 

But what about nuclear energy, particularly the prospect of super-abundant clean energy produced by fusion?  Surely that would solve our problems?

I don’t think so. With all that clean energy we wouldn’t have to worry about cutting down all the forests. We could irrigate the deserts to grow more and more food for more and more people.  Can you imagine a world choosing not to use all that power to make all the things that we need? Would we choose not to make any more plastic? Can you imagine us choosing not to have children so that the population could be reduced enough to save the natural world? It’s a law of nature that when resources increase so do populations, and vice versa.

If we won’t vote for it how, in a democracy can it happen? Traditionally democracy is suspended when a country goes to war, and war seems to be the preferred option on the right wing Trump/Brexit, Orban/Putin axis. Yes, a big enough war would reduce the human population but it would also send massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If, however, we could get all the richest nations to suspend democracy in a total war on carbon emissions, that might work.

I even think something like that might happen in my lifetime, so my answer to the question is YES! I would be overjoyed to vote for someone with some grasp on reality.


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8 Responses to A Difficult Question

  1. Peter Twyman says:

    Are your older friends allowed to respond? Or are you just looking for ideas from young people?

    • twynog1 says:

      Please do comment. I feel too old to join demos, but I know several friends who are not that much younger who do.

  2. Hannah (daughter) says:

    Yes I would,, we are crying out for a government to have the balls to put some unpopular changes in place. This Brexit nonsense needs to stop today, and we need to urgently focus on educating people about the crisis that is right here right now. The trouble is this is very stress-inducing, well it was for me. I might be middle-aged, but I have 2 teenagers and I want the world they exist in to be different to where we are heading now.
    I have been trying to find positive ways to think about this and in doing so discovered Tiny Houses. This trend is growing globally, and particularly in the US where people are keen to live a better, less carbon-gobbling existence. It offers a way of simplifying your life, getting rid of a vast amount of belongings, reducing use of electricity as they are mostly off grid solar, use composting toilets, and mostly having freedom from being tied to earning money in the same way. You have hardly any bills. It’s also quite addictive watching youtube videos of how people have done this!
    So I have had a massive rethink, and although I don’t think I could do Tiny tiny yet, I do think a small eco passive house would feel a lot better and reduce bills and dependency on working and earning so much.
    Why do the BBC and Channel 4 not do more programming about this instead of the mostly grotesque, concrete based houses on Grand Designs and other programmes? People should be encouraged praised and awarded for eco builds. There’s a start. This then reduces our consumption, and our space to house too many children!

  3. Chris Robertson says:

    Well, my first thought, being me, was to respond with humour so I came up with this… I have a solution that works well for me but every time I try to tell people about it my mouth fills with sand!
    But my second thought was to be sensible (and boring) and give a reasoned response.
    No amount of persuasion would make turkeys vote for a Christmas and I believe that most of the younger generation would not look up from their screens (he says, looking down at his screen) long enough to notice that the world as we know it had ended. Maybe one in ten/twenty are aware and active? So realistically we can’t expect ‘civilisation ‘ to go backwards. I saw this FaceBook page – https://www.facebook.com/FuturismEnergy/ – and it I believe that humankind will lurch through this crisis through different technologies simply because it can’t bear the thought of having all the toys.
    Mind you, some of the dystopian worlds that you authors write about sound really exciting….

    • twynog1 says:

      Presuming you meant “. . . not having all the toys.” I had a look at Futurism/Energy and obviously there are a lot of exciting new technical developments which could work as long as they have low “embodied energy”. too often we forget that to build a wind turbine for example, takes a huge amount of energy. If we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow we would not be able to make the things we need to burn less of them.
      Another way to have our cake and eat it would be to kill half the human population (preferably the other half). Then we could perhaps have our toys and be sustainable.

  4. Peter Twyman says:

    I don’t think this is a difficult question. You are recycling Malthus, who some 200 years ago postulated that population growth would inevitably out grow the resources available. His idea was that there wold be food shortages because of the finite amount of land. This problem would be solved by population reduction by famine war and disease.
    You seem to want to replace famine war and disease with government action – maybe like the chinese one baby policy. You also speculate that a dictatorship might be required because policies to solve the problem you forsee would be unpopular.
    But the problem hasn’t arrived yet. Malthus may have thought it would have happened long ago. When he was writing the UK population was ten times smaller than it is now, and we certainly haven’t discovered ten times more land.
    All he signs are that one way of another we will carry on coping. But please not by the agency of a dictatorship making unpopular rules and regulations.

    • Richard Turner says:

      I must admit that the Green movement has got many things wrong. We vastly underestimated the ability of humans to find new ways of borrowing from the future. We thought that with the arrival of “peak oil” the price of oil would go up and we would use less of it. What actually happened was that the oil companies found clever ways to get to exploit deposits which were difficult to get at – fracking for example. We found clever ways to get more food out of the same amount of land. The point is that none of these things can go on indefinitely. In the end the human population will be reduced. We all know this in our hearts. Why do we seem to prefer not to do anything about it now?

      • Peter Twyman says:

        I don’t know it in my heart. It’s obviously a possibility but on current trends I can see the population stabilising. In the more developed world that’s already happened – population growth being mainly due to immigration. So in my heart (!) and because I’ve seen evidence to that effect I expect stabilisation, though I think there’s plenty of capacity for further growth in the short to medium term. And of course oil is a limited resource and when the shortages start the price will rise, perhaps prohibitively. At that stage alternatives will already have arisen as we see now with electric vehicles. But where does the electricity come from? Not from oil fired power stations that’s for sure. You never know. We might see a resurgence of horse drawn transport for shorter journeys, Unlikely! But we will adopt and adapt just as we have been doing constantly since the time of Malthus. I’m amused by your phrase ‘borrowing from the future.’ It’s like eating your cake today rather than saving it ’til tomorrow. But if you eat it tomorrow it’s still gone! ‘Borrowing’ of course implies the idea of repayment, so I’m forced to conclude that in this context ‘borrowing from the future’ is an inapposite turn of phrase. Peter

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