Monday 16 September (2013) was the deadline for submissions to the little-discussed draft Deregulation Bill, which threatens to put “a duty on persons exercising certain regulatory functions to ‘have regard’ to the desirability of ‘promoting economic growth’.” The Bill is intended to reduce the burden of regulation on business, civil society and individuals but is also a classic example of the entrenched economic narrative regarding growth. I’m not convinced the Committee will pay heed to my contribution focusing, as it does, on fundamentals like energy returns. But after hearing Tim Jenkins of nef give a great session on the urgent need for a new economic narrative two days later, I was glad I did.
After a 10-month absence, on Friday I finally posted to the excellent Social Reports’ site again, this time on the issue of involving the wider public and making a breakthrough. “A fundamental change took place in society because the ‘truth’ of the civil rights movement could no longer be ignored. What has to happen for the truth of the environmental and social justice movements to be heard?”, I mused. As Tim Jenkins said, we have to discredit the old narrative and repeat the new narrative confidently, over and over, at every opportunity. That’s the tricky bit: getting rid of the old narrative of perpetual economic growth and ever-accumulating wealth – even in this era of resource depletion and ecosystem loss. It’s difficult because it works for those in power today who are unlikely to give it up without a fight.
The best analogy I’ve heard for our current reality is that of Wile E. Coyote flapping his arms, hoping for flight, long after having run off the edge of the cliff. Fossil fuels are a vast, one-off bank of energy which we have drained in the pursuit of industrial capitalism. In just 15 decades, we’ve gone from an abundance of cheap and easy shallow onshore reserves of good quality oil to kiddding ourselves that tar sand oil and shale gas are just the same as conventional oil & gas. Flap!
The energy bank is now struggling to pay out what we require to keep growth economics growing. Flap, flap! We refuse to reduce energy demand (for that’s what’s needed, not just reducing carbon emissions) and we carry on hoping for some technological breakthrough. But technology uses energy, it doesn’t create it. Uh-oh! All renewable devices have a fossil fuel input and it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to know that biofuels grown today can never release an amount of energy comparable to that contained within fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form. At this point, Coyote waves solemnly and plummits.
Society is in a kind of free-fall. We were just beginning to wonder if movements like the Transition Initiative might be onto something when out of nowhere, the mainstream decided that peak oil was a myth. I’ve no time to expand on that just now but you can read my thoughts on page 8 of Greenprint.
We have to understand what makes people tick and that is their perceptions of the world. For several generations now, the marketing machine has been manipulating our minds, our common sense, our perception of the world to the point that we now think a TV and diet Coke are human rights. This is what we have to counter – our whole cultural narrative, which still wants to ‘civilise’ those without industry and electricity. I’m not denying that bringing electric light to the developing world provides huge advances in education, health, women’s rights – of course it does. But what’s being talked about isn’t localised schemes, built from local materials by local people and potentially sustainable. It’s a continuation of the system which builds centralised coal-fired power stations and thinks they’re somehow clean if you toss a bunch of trees in there too.
Unlike Coyote, we can make the landing softer – IF we accept the laws of physics and work to change how we live. A shock can sometimes bring us to our senses but I fear we may hit the ground first.