Hello. I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 3rd July.
Last week I told you about a paper in the journal nature communications entitled “Scientists’ Warning on Affluence”, which explained how affluence leads to overconsumption which in turn leads to environmental damage. I’ve been fortunate to set up an interview with Professor Julia Steinberger, one of the authors, and you’ll hear from her in a moment.
In other news, last week’s report from the U.K.'s committee on climate change says “COVID-19 can be an historic turning point in tackling the global climate crisis”. While businesses met to discuss building back better the British prime minister set out his plans for restarting the economy after Covid and a mass lobby descended virtually on Westminster. And finally, Greta Thunberg has a thing about selfies.
Julia Steinberger Interview
Julia K Steinberger is professor of social ecology and ecological economics at the Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds. We spoke about the sustainability of growth and then I went on to ask whether scientists should just inform or whether they should take action. You'll hear her say,
“Honestly, if we learn the kinds of things that we're learning, how could we not act on them and still have integrity?”
I asked about the practicality of reducing economic growth and then she spoke about leadership and influencing the debate. Here’s how it went.
Anthony Day: I wanted to talk to you about the article in nature communications, , about affluence and over consumption, , which has a certain amount of press comment. You may have seen that James Dyke wrote about it in the i-newspaper yesterday. And I found it in a number of other publications too.
You start off by saying in the introduction, the affluent citizens of the world are [00:01:00] responsible for most environmental impact and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. And as we go through the article, If I summarize it correctly, it says that consumption drives economic growth and as technology displaces jobs, growth is essential to maintain employment levels, but growth is causing environmental damage because it's exhausting both the world's raw materials and its capacity to absorb waste. So must we abandon growth. And how can we do that?
Julia Steinberger: That's is a good question.
I'm trying to separate the article from my own, sort of more general area of research. So just to represent this article itself more fairly, and I don't think that we come out one way or another specifically on, [00:02:00] on growth itself. I think that we basically say that there are different options and that some of these options should include er, that we consider should include degrowth.
I think that what we try to focus on is we try to focus on wealth and inequality more specifically. So one of the things we do is we show how wealth is indeed intertwined. Wealth accumulation is indeed intertwined with the necessity of growth so that our our economics, our economic systems have a growth imperative built into them that is partly, in great part, driven by the wealth accumulation demands of the wealthiest classes of the population. So because there is wealth accumulation and because wealth accumulation comes from extraction and, and exploitation in a lot of cases, in order to keep other people at a decent level, that growth [00:03:00] imperative …the wealth accumulation comes with the growth imperative built into it because you can't have wealth accumulation without massive impoverishment if you don't have growth. So that's one of the things that we tried to sort of, that we try to raise, uh, attention of. And, and we, and we certainly say that growth should be questioned in and of itself. So what is growth serving? Is it just serving to, uh, accrue even more wealth to the wealthy and according to Thomas Piketty, he's one of the probably the foremost economist of our time. And one of the things he's shown is that indeed, if you look at growth and where the wealth or the economic, um, yeah, where growth goes to the wealthiest it accrues to the wealthiest and very, very little of it goes to the poorest or to middle classes. And so in that sense, growth is in fact [helping] the wealthy, and we should question that on that basis [00:04:00] because we see that the wealthy are also driving environmental impacts.
Anthony Day: In my view, an academic paper serves to comment to report and describe, but not generally to prescribe. In other words, not to recommend actions, except perhaps for suggestions for future research as your paper does.
In view of the increasing calls from the IEA, the international energy agency, and many other bodies who are saying that the urgency of the climate crisis is immediate have we got time for more research? And if we look at it, if you would look at it from a personal point of view, do you believe that perhaps you should step outside your academic role and take action?
Because things are so [00:05:00] urgent at this point.
Julia Steinberger: I believe that we need to rethink the role of the scientist. And so the question you're asking here is a very important one, because I do think that we've had a certain role of a scientist. And in fact, the way you said papers should do certain things and it should not do certain things, um, has sort of is in line with that role of the scientist.
So we've had a rule, basically the way we see scientists is we see them, as people who should observe and comment on the reality they see around them. And in terms of taking decisions, based on that reality, or based on that understanding that should be left up to other people. And that's very much an idealized view of what science and scientists should do.
And I would say a lot of scientists hold themselves to that ideal. Interestingly economists, uh, and especially in, you know, classical economists and I'm thinking particularly of the Chicago School and of Milton Friedman absolutely did never, never held themselves to that ideal. They might hold, they might impose that [00:06:00] idea on other areas, other areas or other types of economists, but they themselves were very activist. In fact, went around the world, destroying various economies in the advancement of their theories. You know, they had this structural adjustment and basically opening up markets for financial capital to be able to do what it wanted in them. So I think that we really need to distinguish between an idealized theory of what science should be and a much more hardnosed understanding of what science and especially economics is or has been.
I mean, William Nordhaus who got the Nobel prize in economics, uh, in 2019. Yeah, it was. Uh, no, it was 2018. Um, right after the IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees came out, they gave the economics Nobel prize to William Nordhaus and a colleague and he was one of the architects of [00:07:00] the ideas that kept the US out of the Kyoto protocol.
You know, and he wrote pieces advocating for the U S to stay out of the Kyoto protocol to stop climate change. So I think we have to, we think of ourselves as scientists or activists we have to understand that there's been a lot of activism. Let's call it the, on the other side. As well, and, and maybe not be so reticent because the other side has not been reticent at all.
So in terms of being more active, do we need more research? What should our role be? I'm very much in favor of questioning the role of scientists. I've written pieces on this , I wrote something on a blog called a post-mortem, uh, Uh, I think it was a postmortem on failure. Um, basically trying to understand where we, uh, oh yeah it was "A postmortem for survival."
That's the whole point is we need to do a postmortem on what, where, what we've gotten really wrong and where science has failed on climate change [00:08:00] in terms of our lack of understanding of the political processes that drive it forward, that worsen it and our refusal to engage directly with those processes.
And so I think we as scientists, we have a role in understanding the reality of the problem, and we have a role in, if we understand that reality, we also have to act with integrity. And act based on our understanding. So if we, if I believe, uh, because my research shows it and I've tried to understand the world as best I could, that certain things are driving our society.
Certain trends, certain actors are driving our society off a cliff. I have a role, the integrity of standing up and trying to stop that as much as I can. And so I think that there's, um, this idea that scientists shouldn't be activists is actually something that also prevents us from speaking, acting with integrity.
Because honestly, if we learn the kinds of things that we're learning, how could we not act on them and still have integrity? That's something I just don't understand.
[00:09:00] Anthony Day: Yeah. The changes that you reveal in your paper are so fundamental that it's going to be a tremendous battle to actually implement them. For example, I wouldn't say that the ultra rich are greedy, but they are certainly driven and they have a strong sense of ownership. And society supports that, um, that they get that they believe that they know best and that's demonstrated by their success.
And that that's all part of societal norms at the moment. But of course they are in the position where they have the power to frustrate change. They have undue influence over governments. So it is going to be a tremendous battle to actually get the fundamental change which is needed, particularly, it says in your paper that some people [00:10:00] have, uh, estimated that the needed reduction of resource and energy use in affluent countries will be equivalent to a GDP decrease of 40 to 90%.
Now that's an unimaginable level. So how are we actually going to achieve all this?
Julia Steinberger: So I think that you're raising two separate issues and to come to the, to come back to them, the first one, which is sort of what the importance of revealing both the urgency and I think the urgency is absolutely clear. I mean, we now have the IPCC with the IEA, which is, um, quite an interesting organization in its own right. It's not necessarily always politically neutral. Uh, I'll just put it that way. And the IPCC, which is very much, um, a collection of scientists, um, both lined up saying, you know, saying basically saying, getting to net zero, getting to zero emissions as fast as it's possible is a matter of survival. So the [00:11:00] urgency could not be clearer.
We're going in a very, very dangerous direction. Indeed. And we are undermining the, the, the basis of civilized life, the possibility of civilized life. And we're, we're facing that down in an extraordinarily short amount of time. So within decades, so either we act now and we protect something. Or within decades, we face, um, really unimaginably, disastrous upheaval, loss of life and loss of living conditions.
So, uh, in ways that can't even be quantified or conceptualized, because we're talking about such deep destruction destruction of, of basic ability. Um, you know, to sustain agriculture, to have functioning cities and infrastructure where we're really talking about very disastrous future, which in some cases has already played out in sort of pockets of the world, you know, like Puerto Rico or New Orleans or places [like] Mozambique that have been hit by for instance, mass weather events.
But we're talking about this much more generalized across the world. [00:12:00] Um, so. That's one area where research is quite established. I would say that another area where, and is necessary to keep up, you know, make that understanding, present to people is I don't think that research has communicated enough. I don't think that either in the media or general communications, that people are education, that people have this awareness of what the science is really telling us.
I mean, my son had a sustainability course in his primary school. It was very sweet. And they said, you can save the world by doing small things. And it's like, no, these are the children that are growing up in this age, you cannot teach them that anymore. That's just not compatible with reality in terms of the frame that you're, you're, you're asking them to adopt.
Um, I would say that research is also useful in terms of telling us what we're up against in terms of the political and power structures and that, uh, so I think that that hopefully our research still is important in helping people gain a sense of not just the natural disasters and their impact on our societies, but the [00:13:00] social upheaval in terms of what we're up against and what we've worked, trying to change.
And that gets to your second point of your question, which is. We're talking about an unimaginable decrease in GDP. If this is what we need do, what does that mean? So I think that, um, there, there are a couple of things here to understand. My research specifically is on, is on something I've called other resource requirements of wellbeing, which is how much stuff and stuff is physical stuff, energy materials, et cetera do we need to live well, do we need to have decent living standards? And, um, there are not many of us working in this area. It's a hard research area to get funding for because it crosses disciplines. But, um, for instance, uh, Prof Narasimha Rao of Yale university is a pioneer in this area and he's done very important work on sort of what are the requirements of decent living.
And we can do, he's done estimates for instance, for Brazil or India. Or for South Africa what this means we've now extended this for the world. Uh, so, [00:14:00] uh, working with him and, uh, we're going to, we publish this soon. And so we have estimates of what it would take to live, live, live a decent standard of life, and we're not talking poverty level.
We're really talking, having access to healthcare, to education, space to live efficient appliances, access to travel, um, a good material standard of living. At existing technologies, we're using efficient technology levels in terms of thermal installation of buildings or whatever. So we're, um, we're able to do this at a fraction.
So for the whole world at a fraction of the total level of energies we have now. So that's one of the things in terms of the material reality of what it means to, to make our standards of living compatible with environmental requirements. That might be possible.
[00:15:00] But that's one thing. What does that mean for our economy? One of the things it means is that we need to protect our wellbeing from economic growth. So one of the things we talk about in the post growth or a-growth or degrowth communities is we talk about growth-proofing our economies. So we need to decouple our ability to provide good conditions of life for each other and the necessity of growth. And when you were talking about the group, the wealthy might not be greedy, but they're driven. I think that that's a key distinction because what they're driven by is a systemic economic structure. And we're going to just call it by its name because that's a convenient shorthand, which is capitalism.
And within capitalism, people are not free agents. You don't wake up in the morning and choose, Oh, am I going to exploit and extract stuff from the environment so that I can help the wealthy accumulate wealth or not? You're caught in that system and you have to participate and competition [00:16:00] and, um, and profit maximization in various types of economic behavior that cause you to have the kind of growth, wealth, wealth, accumulation, environmental disasters that we're seeing. So one of the things we have to do is we have to see our mission as cutting through these structures and destroying them. So we have to see ourselves as building a new kind of economy that allows us to provide a decent living standards for everybody at the sufficient level without over-consumption or deprivation. And that's the mission, uh, it's entirely feasible, but it does require a dismantling, very dominant structures of the economy right now.
Anthony Day: And it does require leadership. Doesn't it? Do you see bodies like extinction rebellion as, as leading on that front?
Because without leaders then nothing will actually change,
Julia Steinberger: will
Anthony Day: it?.
Julia Steinberger: Yeah. So I think that extinction rebellion and the student's strikes are extremely important. Um, I also see, uh, um, [00:17:00] something that maybe we're not paying enough attention to and, uh, in the Europe or in the United Kingdom, which is the Sunrise Movement in the U S because one of the things that I've been,... so extinction rebellion is, is wonderful in general and I can very much consider myself part of that and a supporter of it. But one of the things I don't think is so good is that they have not centered climate justice and environmental justice and economic justice, as much as they should have from the beginning. They tried to sort of have an apolitical stance of the climate comes first.
And I think that one of the things that the sunrise movement did is they immediately sent an ad advocacy, a youth-led, mass movement advocating for the end of fossil fuels in the U S A, demanding that politicians stop receiving money from fossil fuels and demanding a green new deal. And they are extremely well organized um, very, very inspiring, led by people who are still in their mid twenties. Uh, and they really achieved a huge amount just in a couple of years. [00:18:00] So they're the sunrise movement, I think is sort of an example, along with the student strikes as well of being willing to make climate advocacy much more justice oriented.
And I think that that, uh, is the li the kind of leadership we need. And you have political leaders that are now aligning themselves with this vision as well. So in the U S maybe the most prominent one is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Um, and so she has been quite influential in driving this debate forward, but she's certainly not alone.
And there's a whole generation of new democratic socialists who are getting elected, um, and, and waging very good campaigns that are, that are bringing this agenda forward in the U S, but it's very much aligning environmental justice, economic justice, climate justice, and bringing them together, um, demanding a green new deal.
And I think that's, that's basically what we, what we all need to be doing. I would say, in the UK as well, we have very good politicians and leaders on this, sadly, they're not in positions of great prominence, certainly not in the government. That [00:19:00] means they're completely absent from the Tory party. Um, uh, Clive Lewis is an example, Alex Sobel in the Labour party, um, Rebecca Long Bailey sadly, and, uh, Caroline Lucas is obviously a tremendous force for this.
So Caroline Lucas is probably worth 20 other politicians in terms of her advocacy and moving this forward. And in the European union, there are others as well. So we're advancing a green new deal, but then really trying to make sure that it doesn't get watered down and too cozy with industry as it is now. So the European green new deal is currently at great risk of getting watered down, um, and, and not having any teeth to it.
And hopefully there's going to be enough political mobilization to stop that.
Anthony Day: Julia, Thank you very much for all those thoughts. I think you've given us a tremendous amount to think about, and you've put a great, a much wider perspective on the thoughts that we started with. So I really appreciate that and thank you on behalf of the listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Julia Steinberger: Well, thank you so much and I hope it all made some kind of sense.
Many thanks to Professor Julia Steinberger.
Working with Narasimha Rao of Yale and others, Julia is co-author of a paper “Providing Decent Living with Minimum Energy: A Global Scenario” to be published shortly in Global Environmental Change.
Our interview reminded me of Professor E F Schumacher who wrote Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered back in the 1970s. One of the things he said was that you never miss what you've never had, but of course the other side of that is that most people will fight tooth and nail to hold on to what they've already got.
I also thought I should learn more of the work of economist Thomas Piketty, so I went out and bought his latest book, Capital and Ideology. I've read War and Peace, so I should have no problem at all with his 1100 pages. I’ll keep you posted.
And in Other News…
“Ministers must seize the opportunity to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change,” the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said in a report published last week.
CCC Chairman, Lord Deben, said: “The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation. Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it’s there for the taking. The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience. Choices that lock in emissions or climate risks are unacceptable.”
Chair of the CCC’s Adaptation Committee, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, said: “COVID-19 has shown that planning for systemic risks is unavoidable. We have warned repeatedly that the UK is poorly prepared for the very serious impacts of climate change, including flooding, overheating and water shortages. Now is the moment to get our house in order, coordinate national planning, and prepare for the inevitable changes ahead. The UK’s domestic ambition can be the basis for strong international climate leadership, but the delivery of effective new policies must accelerate dramatically if we’re to seize this chance.”
Specific recommendations included low carbon retrofits and buildings fit for the future, tree planting, green infrastructure, strengthened energy networks, infrastructure to make it easy for people to walk, cycle, and work remotely, and a movement towards implementing a circular economy. All this would require re-skilling and retraining as well as building on the positive behaviours developed during lockdown, and expanded and targeted science and innovation investment.
The authors give a serious warning: “Over the past year, the UK Government has made a range of important new announcements on transport, buildings, industry, energy supply, agriculture and land-use. These steps do not yet sum to meet the size of the net-zero challenge. Nor do steps taken in recent years deliver adequate progress in addressing even the unavoidable impacts of climate change, let alone the risks of expected levels of global warming of around 3°C above pre-industrial levels.”
As I asked last week, is anyone listening? Not much sign of it in the PM’s economic statement reported below.
Meanwhile think-tank The Green Alliance claimed that an extra £14bn would be needed each year to help the UK meet its climate commitments.
At the Council for Sustainable Business leaders’ event this week Alok Shama, Business Secretary, who will be president of next year’s COP26 UN Climate Conference, said,
“Ahead of the summit, we have defined five areas which need particular attention: clean energy, clean transport, nature-based solutions, adaptation and resilience, and, tying the whole thing together, finance.”
He called on companies to commit to 100 per cent renewable sources by 2050, he confirmed that the government was consulting on bringing forward the end of the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars and vans from 2040 to 2035, or earlier if possible and he urged organisations to sign up to the UN Race to Zero Campaign, a coalition of leading net zero initiatives, representing 449 cities, 21 regions, 995 businesses, 38 of the biggest investors, and 505 universities. So far, so green.
The following day Prime Minister Johnson issued his plan for the recovery headlined BUILD BUILD BUILD. In a wide ranging speech which sounded rather like a campaign message, he promised to crack down on crime and recruit 20,000 police officers, to protect the statue of Winston Churchill and claimed that “..we lead the world in quantum computing, in life sciences, in genomics, in AI, space satellites, net zero planes, and in the long term solutions to global warming, wind, solar, hydrogen technology, carbon capture and storage [and] nuclear…”
He promised that there would be no more austerity. There would be investment in education, schools, colleges and hospitals, new green buses and new broadband. There would be new flood defences and 30,000 hectares of trees planted every year. He re-affirmed commitment to HS2 and NPR (Northern Powerhouse Rail) and better roads, better rail, 4,000 brand new zero carbon buses and a massive new plan for cycleways. There would be beautiful and low carbon homes, radical reforms of planning laws and Project Speed would cut through red tape.
The speech ended with the hype and hyperbole that we have come to expect, as he called for the UK to develop Jet Zero, the world’s first zero-emissions long-haul aircraft.
Unsurprisingly the Opposition were unconvinced.
Labour leader Keir Starmer warned that the announcement was insufficient and said that the plan must match the scale of the crisis.
“The Prime Minister promised a ‘new deal’ – well, there’s not much that’s new and there’s not much of a deal. We’re facing an economic crisis, the biggest we’ve seen in a generation and the recovery needs to match that.”
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that Johnson had simply “rehashed old promises”, pointing out that the spending commitments amount to just 0.2% of GDP.
F D Roosevelt’s New Deal which revitalised the US economy in the 1930s - and New Deal was a phrase the PM repeated several times - invested not 0.2% of his nation’s wealth but 40%.
It’s true that much of what was announced this week was already in the government’s manifesto long before the coronavirus was heard of.
Was it green? He mentioned flood defences, planting trees and low-carbon homes, but he also mentioned pressing on with HS2 and building more roads. If planning laws are to be radically reformed, will new homes and domestic extensions and shops converted to housing be subject to world-beating insulation standards? And disparaging newt-counting as an obstacle to development does not suggest much concern for wildlife and the environment. Nothing about insulating the existing housing stock or about converting the transport fleet to electricity or expanding renewable energy.
Next week the Chancellor will announce exactly how much money will be available and how it’s going to be spent.
Also on Tuesday this week the Climate Coalition organised the first virtual lobby of Westminster MPs. Citizens requested their parliamentary representatives to meet them on line to discuss the economic recovery from COVID, in the framework of the Climate Coalition’s Plan for a Green, Fair and Healthy Recovery. About 13,000 people actually met in 300 meetings.
I joined a group of 25 people talking to my local MP. The meeting lasted for 90 minutes and covered a wide range of topics from a very well informed group. We spoke about many things, including linking business support to low-carbon obligations, the need to re-assess future transport requirements, forestry and flood prevention, quality of life, Doughnut economics, the risk to zero-carbon housing regulations from new legislation, the polluter pays principle, the Local Electricity Bill, training for insulation installers and favourable tax rates for improving insulation, the Green New Deal, climate consequences for developing nations, inequalities, debt cancellation, government support for electricity from biomass and its opposition to large scale heat pumps, and the future of growth. We hope such meetings will continue, because any one of these topics could be a session in itself. Our Member of Parliament, Rachael Maskell, was very supportive of the ideas put forward, although as an opposition MP she can do little more than hold the government to account with repeated Parliamentary questions.
Greta Thunberg complains that whenever she goes to international events political leaders will try and cosy up to her for a selfie. They want to put the pictures on their Instagram accounts to bolster their green credentials.
Greta is not happy with it at all, but I'm afraid that must be the price of fame - as well as a demonstration of the cynicism of the political class.
And that's it…
… for another week. This is one of the longer episodes so thank you very much for staying to the end. All that remains is for me to thank you for listening, to thank you for the feedback and ideas which I have received and to promise that I am going to come back to you individually. I’m working on it.
So that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I'm Anthony Day and there will be another episode, as always, well nearly always, next week. I'm not going out to enjoy the sunshine now as it's all gone.
Enjoy your weekend and particularly in the UK, stay safe on Saturday.