Thursday, 24 July 2014

Disrupting the world of growth

Here's a book I recommend very strongly. It's
      The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding
      Bloomsbury, 2011

Gilding is an interesting fellow. Former trade union organiser, former military officer, former head of Greenpeace Australia and now an international business consultant.

The book contains a lot of familiar stuff: threat of climate change, history of international negotiations and so on. But the really interesting part is unfamiliar. I think these are his most original points:
  1. The opportunity to avoid a planetary crisis has passed. There will be a crisis and it will involve the whole natural-social-economic system.
  2. We can and will address it. We are "slow but not stupid".
  3. The experience of mobilising for WW2 and addressing the banking crisis shows that we can make big changes fast once we see the need.
  4. We have already entered the crisis period. This can be seen in food price instability, rising energy prices, rising mineral prices, recession and the banking crisis. And, I would add, our inadequate response to these problems.
  5. Once our political leaders recognise the imperative need to act they will create crisis plans which will use existing attitudes and institutions to address the most urgent problem - which is probably climate change.
  6. Only as we work through the crisis will people recognise that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth.
  7. A new and better world will emerge from the crisis.
 More specifically he thinks our response will play out over three phases:
  • Years 1-5, Climate War. Crash programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Uses existing institutions under government direction and proven technologies.
  • Years 5-20, Climate neutrality. Reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Some new institutions and technologies.
  • Years 20-100, Climate recovery. Negative greenhouse gas emissions and the building of a new society.
Despite the negative start this is fundamentally an optimistic picture and there are many things that could go wrong. For instance we could react "too little, too late". Good plans could be undermined by selfish and shortsighted individuals, groups and nations as well as honest error. And, in planning something so novel and dramatic, there will be mistakes in the planning too.

So this transition will need strong leadership, effective systems of governance and a political environment that will at least tolerate the necessary changes and sacrifices. Gilding says almost nothing about the politics and government institutions that will be needed so I'll flesh that out a bit for the Climate War phase.

I believe that the later stages will present different political challenges; no less serious but there will be more time to address them.

Since this has to be a global response we'll need global leaders who are completely committed to the cause and who control the necessary institutions. These leaders will probably be people with substantial political experience that is, experience of both  winning elections and governing states. It's therefore unlikely that they will be drawn from the environmental movement or the existing Green parties except in countries with proportional representation. They will have spent their years studying power, not science or nature, and will be ignorant of ecological thinking.

They will, however, probably recruit people from the environmental movement and the Green parties as advisers.

National institutions
The required programme will include closure of some major plants, eg drilling rigs and oil refineries, and a rapid expansion in industries such as solar and wind power. Industries such as travel will have to shrink. Yet others, eg agriculture, will be transformed. We cannot expect the industries affected to organise their own decline or even transformation at the required pace so there will have to be national and international planning agencies.

It may be that most companies and countries will follow these plans but not all will do so. The selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups whose existence I noted above will have to be compelled to comply. Companies operating in one country are subject to national law and can, where the state itself works, be brought into line through the familiar processes of regulation and inspection - though the level of intervention will be greatly increased.

Or can they?

There are many countries in which laws and taxes are widely evaded by concealment and corruption. These countries will not change their natures just because we face a global crisis. So the more law-abiding countries will have to accept substantial non-compliance. And the less law-abiding countries will have to accept unprecedented levels of international monitoring and direction.

These facts will create backlashes in both kinds of countries.

International institutions
Since this is a global crisis we will need international institutions to ensure that the national actions add up to an adequate global response. And, since many of the largest and most-polluting firms are multinationals, there will have to be international enforcement mechanisms. The WTO provides some useful precedents here with the vitally important difference that participation will not be voluntary.

None of this can happen unless the leaders of the major powers, that is, the USA, China and the EU, support it but just as nations include selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups so the world will include selfish and short-sighted nations. Here, again, enforcement mechanisms will be needed.

It's likely that, with a strong push from the major powers, a good deal can be achieved by courts and negotiation. Gilding seems to believe that this will be enough. I'd like to agree, but I don't.

The whole history of international attempts to address climate change persuade me that some nations will be unwilling to accept international direction and that military intervention will be necessary. This may be by UN forces or by the forces of the major powers.

Public opinion
In the richer countries the Climate War programme will imply restrictions on holidays, travel, fuel, heating, food and employment. Many people will have to change the ways in which they work. This will provoke a substantial backlash both from who can see no further than their own problems and those who see further but hope, by money or privilege, to escape the worst consequences of climate change. Both groups are already visible. Neither will vanish.

In any country with a functioning democracy, indeed, in any country in which people are free to talk and meet, this backlash has the potential to derail the Climate War programme. A variety of responses are available to governments from abandoning the programme through persuasion to suspending civil liberties for the duration.

Since Gilding cites the WW2 experience repeatedly it's worth noting that each of allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, had domestic powers that constituted, or bordered on, dictatorship and control of large military and security forces. Each of them ran a command economy in which the government defined requirements and allocated work, and workers, to the places where it was to be done.

In short, I fear that success in addressing climate change may require some suspension of liberties and of democracy.

These are uncomfortable conclusions for me. I am not a closet authoritarian and I would much rather believe in a solution based on persuasion and democratic politics. But I have to agree with Gilding that the time for that option has passed. That it has passed is the fault of the politicians and commentators who could have provided timely leadership and didn't.

Now someone will have to clear up the mess.