The reality of growth

In Dagens Nyheter, Bo Ekman points out the political need to formulate solutions to the energy, environment, economy equation.

The solutions must be based on people’s essential living conditions and sought in collaboration with the pragmatists in business, energy and environmental technology and research in civil society and politics.

Please see the English version of the article further below

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Bo Ekman skriver i Dagens Nyheter hur politiken måste formulera lösningar på energi/miljö/ekonomiekvationen med utgångspunkt i människans grundläggande livsvillkor samt söka systemlösningar hos pragmatikerna inom näringsliv, inom energi- och miljöteknik samt inom forskning i civilsamhälle och politik.

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The environment is in worse shape than fifty years ago. Why have environmental research, policies, agencies, organizations and advocacy all failed to stabilize the ecosystem?

Isn’t it high time we find out the reasons for this ineffectiveness? Why do we still cling to a torpid UNFCCC process? Why do issues of survival remain at the periphery of politics?

Energy-environment is an indivisible whole. So too is energy-environment-economy. No nature, no energy. No energy, no economy. All production – biological or human – requires inputs from living or inert matter in an ongoing evolutionary process. If we fire shots into nature’s functionality we also shoot at social welfare and existential security.

Since the 1960s and 70s, the politics of energy, growth and the stabilization of climate and ecosystems have squared off in ideological duels. Both sides – “growth huggers” and “treehuggers” – look with suspicion and sometimes with contempt on the other. Growth is pitted against contraction, faith in technology against fear of technology, market against regulation, globalization against the local community.

The task of politics is to keep things in order—the relations between people and society’s relation to nature. But nature is neither ideological or political. The principal means of keeping social and political unrest at bay in modern society is economic stability and growth: creating resources to share, save, invest or consume.

Many countries, societies and billions of people are pressed to the bone of poverty. But they are also squeezed by progressive changes in nature’s behavior: monsoons, floods, fires, droughts, sea depletion, melting ice. When Russia cancels wheat exports, others starve. Is it possible to prove that 800 fires (this year) are due to the greenhouse effect? No. But the evidence is compelling.

Governments and businesses have over-promised the future for citizens and shareholders. We experience times of havoc in financial markets and fiscal crises in one country after the other. Political logic dictates that the economy must be solved first. Climate and the environmental crisis must wait for a later turn, to the extent that resources from growth would then suffice at all.

Any lasting political agenda must be shaped by the real self-interests of people. Power is based on the ability to cater to these self-interests. Civic solidarity is of course a part of self-interest. Historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her brilliant book, “The March of Folly”, what happens to rulers and nations who set off down the abstract paths of principles and utopias.

The Copenhagen debacle was such a step down the path of folly. It turned out, as could have been anticipated, that economic and national interests would trump the common energy-environmental problems. But it was politically safe to fail. No minister had to leave his post.

To become central issues in the political arena, energy and environment questions must be defined in terms of people’s basic life needs: jobs, finances, health, family, security. It must be a “wallet issue,” a growth issue. Without the support of the broad middle class, there is no politics of consequence.

The environmental movement must decide: whose interests does it represent? Nature’s or people’s? Growth-huggers must take a stand the ecological viability of future production and expansion. It is a prerequisite for future value growth. How long do you dare saw into the branch you are sitting on?

The original idea behind environmental movement was to “represent” nature’s interests and protection from human interference. But animals and plants do not vote. They consume and do not invest. The future depends on how people define their interests. Energy-environmental policy must be defined in terms related to and understood by each voter.

Since the environmental movement stays clear of formulating the concrete economic and social consequences of proposed actions for individuals and businesses, it is viewed as abstract, utopian or dystopian. The environmental movement seems at times to be a self-appointed higher moral class of people, as though it would be a little more noble to take care of a defenseless nature than people who consume.

Parts of the environmental movement still nourish the dream that a “No thanks” to growth  would take us out of our predicament. But they must specify how this should be done in our political reality: the rationing and allocation of energy and environmental resources for consumption, limiting the number of children per family …

It’s not the economy that creates technology. It’s the other way round. New technology comes from combinations of existing technologies that connect and create new needs. Saying no to growth puts the reins on the new solutions to all the problems created by the technology that we previously relied upon. One can also be quite sure that the new technology in turn will create problems that we have not yet foreseen. Everything is a flow, everything is change.

No growth, no technological development. Without technological development no solutions to energy-environmental problems. But if there were sufficiently strong economic incentives for voters and consumers to have the energy-environmental problems under control, then it’s likely that solutions will emerge. Promising technology is hurtling forward in many areas.

New technologies will continue exploding the notions of “limits to growth”. We will continue to experience incredible leaps in efficiencies and performance. But there are also limits that are absolute, in nature and in the human body. A person can not survive a temperature of 42°C.

From nothing comes nothing. Everything comes from energy and ecology. Energy, ecology and economy constitute an unbreakable triad. It’s the pragmatists in business, in energy-environmental technology, and in research into civil society and politics that can arrive at the necessary system solutions. Our age’s utopia is perpetual growth, dystopia is the ecological collapse. To fix the energy-environment-economy equation the political mandate must be formulated.

The mission of politics must be formulated to solve this equation—not to represent the special interests of extremists.

Published in Dagens Nyheter on November 28, 2010