Category Archives: sustainability

Overcoming the growth mania through the social economy

In his splendidly provocative Tools for conviviality, Ivan Illich (1973) describes the pursuit of growth as a general affliction of industrial society. He writes that “While evidence shows that more of the same leads to utter defeat, nothing less than more and more seems worthwhile in a society infected by the growth mania” (p.8). His conclusion is that

society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. (p.10)

The analysis of the ‘growth mania’ is taken further by Herman Daly (1974) in “Steady-State Economics versus Growthmania” (pdf here). Daly decries the growth orthodoxy, the desire for “growth forever and the more the better,” calling it “a rigorous exercise in wishful thinking” (p.154).

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Preparing for the future: civil society, adult education, and Transition Towns

The massive upheavals and traumas that befell the nations of the former Soviet-bloc following the collapse of the Communist regimes provided a kind of ‘natural experiment’ for social scientists: their different experiences and outcomes can be compared, contrasted, and lessons drawn.

One of those lessons is about the value of civil society – that is, that sphere of voluntary collective interaction not organised by the institutions of government or markets. From this, I’d also like to draw a bow to what I see as the key value of adult education/ life-long learning and the Transition Towns movement.

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The new republicanism, part 2: The green republic

As I described in my previous post, republicanism is founded on key concepts such as public politics and self-government. In an article published in The Good Society in 2008, John Barry notes that this “language of civic republicanism has been largely absent from debates within green politics” and from discussions of the politics of sustainability (p.5). In his article, Barry sets out to do something about that omission.

Drawing on ideas from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Barry notes that “humans’ relative weakness, our vulnerability to natural dangers, makes us not just dependent creatures, but interdependent.” The republic, he continues, is therefore founded on the desire to build “an enduring home for human lives in a world ruled by contingency and filled with potentially hostile agents, both human and non-human.” This is in stark contrast to the widely accepted individualistic and “optimistic view of humans’ ability to transcend their limits” (p.6).

Thus, in many respects, the republican understanding of the human condition is much the same as the green understanding. Republicanism has both a realistic understanding of “human’s complex relations of dependence on natural forces outside our control” and an appreciation of the importance of sustainable living (p.6).

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Some evidence in favour of our suggestions

Brief notes and (and links to) a few studies providing evidence in favour of some of our suggestions, and one looking at the case for a Financial Transactions Tax.

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Just sustainability

The concept of sustainability is well described as “a big, sloppy term for a big, complex subject” (Prugh et al, 2000, p.2). The meaning of ‘sustainability’ is highly contested and subject to a wide variety of (often self-serving) definitions.

So how can this “big, sloppy” concept – and all that it tells us about global limits to resource consumption and waste production – be translated into recommendations for practical action?

One way of achieving this translation that appears in the policy documents of various green parties around the world is to work with the notion of ‘carrying capacity.’ In particular, carrying capacity features as a key principle of many green population policies.

Unfortunately there is often a serious defect in the way carrying capacity is applied, as explained in an article by Steve Vanderheiden (2008). Usefully, though, for those who wish to see sustainability policy become a reality, Vanderheiden also shows how sustainability policies be formulated differently, along lines that take proper account of issues of justice.

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If not capitalism, then what?

We’ve done a fair bit of criticising contemporary capitalism in this blog. One of the follow-up questions we have been asking ourselves all along is: “if not capitalism, then what?’

Well yes. If not life as we know it, with all its enormous ‘reality’, complexity, and slow-turning, apparently unstoppable power and momentum – then what? And how do we get from here to there? It’s quite a topic for a couple of part-time bloggers to tackle. The hubris! But then we’re not tackling it on our own – human society is always and inescapably a collaborative venture – we’re hitching a ride with the thinkers whose work we’ve commented on, hopefully in return bringing it to some who would not otherwise have met it.

So where have we got to so far, in our hitching, in our answer to this big question?
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Copenhagen and the politics of unsustainability

COP15 in Copenhagen has made a “modest start” to dealing with climate change – according to participants such as UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and NZ climate change ambassador Adrian Macey.

Oh, the irony of such half-hearted spin … COP1 took place in Berlin in 1995. Now, fifteen conferences later we’ve finally got around to making a start.

In fact, of course, Copenhagen has simply been a failure followed by much dissembling. Action has been deferred yet again by the politicians and their sheepish accomplices who have found it too hard to be decisive. They have chosen to leave “making a start” to someone else at some point in the future.

When, as everyone knows, it will all be far too late.

This is – let’s be honest – dangerously self-destructive behaviour: a recognition of the need for change hand in hand with an absolute refusal to change. It is the politics of unsustainability in the most disastrous form imaginable.

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Shell to Sea campaign vindicated

In February 2008 I wrote about the 10-year long campaign in Co. Mayo, Ireland, opposing pipeline construction in relation to Shell’s development of the Corrib gas field.

It is great to be able to report that the campaign has been vindicated by a recent decision of An Bord Pleanala (The Planning Board). The Bord describes the risks to people living close by the intended pipeline route as “unacceptable”. See the report in the Irish Independent, here, and analysis of the decision by campaign supporters here.

Of course, the struggle is far from finally won. But as a result of the campaign, and the decision of An Bord Pleanala, Shell has to submit a new plan.

There is much inspiration to be taken from this campaign. The patience, tenacity and commitment required for successes in such situations is considerable; mutual support and solidarity is essential; maintaining the vision throughout is absolutely critical.

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Decoupling: green capitalism’s cunning plan

Baldrick: 'I've just thought of a cunning plan.'‘Decoupling’ is green capitalism’s cunning plan: break the link between ecological degradation and economic growth, and voila! The ecological crisis of capitalism is overcome.

If decoupling is achieved, growth can continue, profits can be taken, standards of living can be raised, and there will be no discernable ecological consequences.

In their recently published article “The emperor’s green clothes”, urban planning academics Petter Naess and Karl Georg Hoyer have reported on their search for signs of decoupling. Their conclusion is that the possibility of decoupling is  “not valid.”

Like many another cunning plan, decoupling is simply an empty promise.

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Ecological citizens: do they exist?

The basic principles of a theoretical ‘ecological citizenship,’ as sketched out by Andrew Dobson, were summarised in my previous article. The obvious question to ask immediately of such a theory is whether it has any connection with the real world: do ‘ecological citizens’ actually exist?

Some social research which is able to answer this question has been published recently. Swedish political scientist Sverker Jagers (2009) has carried out a survey “to verify, identify and explain the presence of ecological citizens” (p.21).

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