28 April 2007

Are we digging ourselves into a hole?

By Andrew Boswell

This year's BBC Reith lectures by development economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs discuss how "with global co-operation our resources can be harnessed to create a more equal and harmonious world" but does he really solve the problem?

Sachs knows that one billion people are just too hungry, ill and poor to even get on the development ladder, and that climate change is likely to put another billion into such structural poverty. With disease, hunger, eco-damage, increasing military tensions and widening gaps between rich and poor, the pessimists amongst us feel that things are sliding out of control. I hoped that self-confessed optimist Sachs might offer fresh thinking after calling in his introductory lecture for a radical, new politics – 'Open Source' politics.

This week's lecture addressed the threat of massive war, asking "are we heading for a 2014 like 1914?". He was visionary as he invoked the ghost of by President John Kennedy through his prophetic June 10th 1963 speech, when Kennedy told America "we must re-examine our own attitude - as individuals and as a nation". Sachs called for that same self-examination now, and to re-allocate military spending to fighting poverty and climate change. Right on!

But Sachs approach to the environmental crisis has been disappointing. He vividly describes the Anthropocene – that new geological era since the industrial revolution when human activities have significantly impacted on the Earth's climate and ecosystems. So much so, that the planet is changing like a new geological era in which natural cycles - the carbon and nitrogen cycles, water cycles, the climate, habitats, biodiversity, evolutionary processes – are reduced to human influence and control.

But remember the adage "If you are in a hole, don't keep digging". If the Anthropocene is the hole, then surely we shouldn't keep digging deeper, making our impact of the planet and its natural cycles worse?

But, Sachs is looking for a way that the global economy can grow six fold by 2050 with wealthy nations needing to make few changes and solve climate change. And that essentially means keep on digging.

His high-level, three fold technical approach - energy efficiency, substitution of non-fossil energy sources for fossil ones, and better use of fossil energy sources - sounds good in theory, but what does it mean?

Energy efficiency and switching to renewables is crucial now. Sachs is right that the US should divert $70 billion to it per year from the military – the EU/UK should do likewise. However, even this will not deliver enough clean and saved energy for decades as these industries have suffered chronic and massive under investment and poor political support for years.

So we come to the hidden part of Sachs 'substitution and better use' message. He would make up the energy needed by the economic growth God via very large scale engineering projects – mega-scale biofuels, 'clean' coal and GM agriculture.

These each take us deeper into the hole of Anthropocene abuse. Monoculture crops for energy and food detrimentally affect biodiversity, water, soil and carbon cycles, and mass scale 'clean' coal - filling huge underground geological spaces with CO2 - is not proved safe.

Even if the hole were safe, we don't have enough time to dig it. As little further emissions are safe, Sachs says clean coal is needed immediately, yet it is unlikely to be viable on a significant commercial scale until 2020. Also, large scale biofuels will not make any significant reduction on vehicle emissions any time soon.

Sachs evades the real choice between going deeper into the hole or developing alternatives to climb out of it – alternatives to economic growth and our addiction to affluence such as a steady economy (see The steady state economy). Here he is no different to many techno-fix politicians – Al Gore, David Cameron, Chris Huhne, David Miliband. They understand the crisis well, but won't forgo economic growth.

Sachs' open source politics would be far-sighted if he meant new social and political structures to develop quality of life whilst winding down economic growth, and giving active citizens greater participation and grass roots control of their destiny.

Pockets of such Open Source citizenship are emerging – Transition Towns, CRAGS and One Tonners. These are recent community initiatives that are reducing consumption of fossil fuels, strengthening local economies and helping people become more self-reliant for a post fossil fuel future. Here in Norwich, the WAKEUP ladies are making Norwich a plastic bag free zone.

Can his final two lectures do some justice to his optimism by offering radical alternatives to free market economics and politics? Tune in to Radio 4 on Wednesdays at 8pm and see what you think!