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How We Stop the World From “Burning Up”

Whether we stop runaway carbon emissions is dependent on how deeply we transform society as a whole.

Part of the Series

One way or another, society will move away from fossil-fuel-dominated systems. There are dystopian scenarios in which natural phenomena – the climate changes arising from global warming, resource constraints and so on – compel a collectively paralysed society to change. It is much more likely, though, that society will react, somehow, to the crisis it faces. This discussion of how it might do so starts from two questions. First, what is meant by ‘transition’ away from fossil fuels: a move to new technological systems, within existing social and economic ones – or the transformation, too, of those social and economic systems? Second, given what we know about global warming and other changes in natural systems, how long might, and/or should, the transition take?

Climate scientists have drawn parameters within which to discuss this second question: there is a consensus among them that humanity collectively has, in the period starting in 1870, a ‘carbon budget’ of about 3200 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions to work with, if the most dangerous effects of global warming are to be avoided. At the current rate at which greenhouse gases are being emitted, this budget would be used up entirely, well before the middle of this century. Beyond that, global warming effects (in particular, sea level rise, higher temperatures and weather volatility) could play havoc with humans’ living conditions on an unprecedentedly destructive scale. These forecasts suggest the need for a transition away from fossil fuels within two or three decades – over a much shorter period than is usually envisaged. One damaging aspect of the public discourse around the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process is that this contradiction is constantly ignored, downplayed or, worse, normalised.

What might the history of previous transitions from one energy system to another tell us about the character, and speed, of the transition now facing us? A recent research project pointed to four conclusions:

  1. That such transitions are ‘predominantly characterised by changing types and amounts of energy end-use services’ – that is, the way that energy is supplied depends on how it is used by final consumers. For example, industry’s thirst for motive power (steam) drove the transition to coal in the early nineteenth century.
  2. Technological innovations ‘tend initially to be crude, imperfect and expensive’. Neither the steam engine in the nineteenth century nor the solar panel in the twenty-first could easily become cost-competitive with incumbent technology.
  3. Technological change from innovation to widespread diffusion ‘is generally slow, lasting as a rule many decades,’ and technologies come in clusters, with their infrastructure.
  4. The ‘transformative potential of energy technologies arises through clusters and spillovers,’ not through ‘eureka’ moments, implying, again, ‘slower potential rates of change.’

During the second Industrial Revolution, electricity for industry, and fuel for car-based transport systems, were among the drivers of fossil fuel demand; demand for these forms of useful energy was in turn determined by social and economic systems. In the late twentieth century, fossil fuel demand was driven by these, and other, technologies, underpinned by urbanisation, industrialisation, growth of mass consumption and so on. Much public discussion about future energy systems takes for granted that these trends will continue. It is often framed by ideas of ‘progress,’ according to which ever-expanding US-style personal consumption (car-based cities, detached homes with multiple energy-guzzling possessions, and so on) and China-style industrial consumption (production of energy-intensive materials, such as steel and aluminum, with export of manufactured goods at great energy cost for energy-inefficient use), are inevitable, if not desirable. This, after all, is ‘economic growth.’ These ideologised assumptions need to be challenged. The prospect of changes not only to technological systems, but also to social and economic ones, opens up bolder and more attractive scenarios for the energy transition.

An energy transition could not leave untouched the inequality inherent in present social, economic and technological systems. Arnalf Grubler and Charlie Wilson, lead researchers on the programme referred to, argued that the post-second-world-war transition to an oil- and electricity-dominated system was ‘incomplete,’ in that it left behind 1 billion people with no electricity access and a larger number with limited access. But this transition was not directed at providing electricity access or improving lives; if we can speak of an aim or direction, it was to do with capital accumulation and the concentration of wealth and power; the inequalities were reproduced and deepened by the dominant social relations. A future transition that leaves these social relations intact, while switching technologies, will surely not tackle inequalities.

Prospects for Social, Economic and Technological Change

Potential future changes to technological, social and economic systems, in the course of a transition away from fossil fuels, may be grouped in three types.

First, there are changes to, or adaptations of, existing technological systems that could reduce fossil fuel use rapidly. One such change, deployment of electricity generation from non-fossil sources, has begun. Other technologies have for decades amounted to unrealised potential – what Amory Lovins in the 1970s called ‘roads not taken’: ways of changing energy transformation and distribution (such as CHP [Combined Heat and Power or cogeneration] and decentralised electricity grids), or of conserving energy in consumption (for example, in industrial processes, construction methods, or car manufacture and fuel use). Abundant reports from official bodies and researchers contain details. At numerous turning points, such changes could have been made, and were even under discussion by political and business elites, but either did not happen or happened only in a watered-down form. Experience shows that governments can either push, or obstruct, such changes; civil society can also intervene.

A second type of change, which borders on and overlaps with the first type, would amount to superseding the technological systems in their current form. These systems are only likely to be dislodged as a result of far-reaching social change and, where necessary, breaking the resistance of incumbent interests that control them. Four such changes are:

  1. Remaking the relationship between cities and countryside, by making the divisions between them less extreme, and moving urban built infrastructure away from the currently dominant energy-intensive model. This could end construction of energy-inefficient buildings using energy-intensive materials, and cut sharply the demand for fossil-fuelled space heating and other energy-intensive practices. Land ownership patterns would have to change.
  2. Transforming urban transport infrastructure, (a) to decentralise goods distribution, and (b) to gear cities and towns to public transport, bicycles, walking and other modern transport technologies, thereby superseding the age of car-based transport systems. This would involve overcoming the resistance of corporate interests (fossil fuel, car, steel and aluminium makers, road builders, and so on).
  3. Moving to fully integrated, decentralised electricity networks, geared to multiple small electricity producers, managed by ‘smart’ technology, thereby reducing or ending the need for centralised fossil-fuel-fired power stations. This would be (is being) resisted by electricity companies.
  4. Changing the character of widely diffused energy consumption technologies (household heating and electricity systems), and other products, to make them repairable by users, thereby reducing waste, overproduction and the effects of planned obsolescence – changes that are incompatible with current profit-based marketing.

These deeper-going shifts, involving technological change together with social and economic change, point towards the third and most thorough-going type of change, the transformation of the social and economic systems that underpin the technological ones. We can envisage forms of social organisation that supersede corporate and state control of the economy, advance collective and community control, and, crucially, in which employed labour – a central plank of profit-centred capitalism – is superseded by more meaningful types of human activity. This is what I understand by socialism: a future social form antithetical to twentieth-century state ‘socialisms.’

Changes associated with this could include:

  1. Transformation of productive activity (industry) beyond the constraints of the wage labour system, and corporate control, unleashing human creative capacities to make things that are truly useful and desirable. Such production, coordinated with twenty-first century information technology, would supersede the production of little-needed or unneeded goods, waste in processes, and the egregious use of energy-intensive materials.
  2. The continued transformation of domestic labour with energy-efficient technologies.
  3. A transition away from industrial agriculture, reversing the tendency towards the production and transportation of fossil-fuel-intensive meat and luxury foods for a minority at others’ expense; and reversal of the trend towards long-distance and international bulk transportation. This could enhance human health, minimise waste and slash fossil fuel inputs.
  4. A society where employed labour is superseded by useful and creative activity (production for use) could move away from consumerism and ideas that material goods are essential means to happiness and fulfilment.

These are speculations, not blueprints. Their purpose is to indicate the gigantic potential opened up by thinking about the transition away from fossil fuels in the larger contexts of developing sustainable technological systems better to meet human need, and changing technological systems together with social and economic ones.

Forces for Change

An obvious objection is that this sounds like a long process, and that the timescales set by climate science do not allow that luxury. An obvious riposte is that we have 25 years of evidence that this problem is beyond the capacity of political processes to resolve. Together with that, we have very clear evidence of how the world’s most powerful governments are likely to react to the effects of global warming as it advances. Here are three examples:

  1. The flooding of New Orleans in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. It is not known whether this was caused by global warming, but it is known that such extraordinary weather events are becoming more common as a result of global warming. Although the victims were citizens of the world’s most powerful country, hundreds perished and thousands lost everything, sharing the fate of the much more numerous victims of natural disasters in countries outside the rich world. Hopes were expressed at the time – and again during the extraordinary storms in the USA in 2012 and 2015, and the flooding of southern states in 2017 – that these events might push the political elite into revising its stance on global warming. They did not.
  2. The effects of hotter weather and flooding on tropical-zone agriculture in recent years. Global warming is among the underlying causes of the hardships, in many cases fatal, visited on agricultural communities in Africa and southeast Asia as a result. The international political reaction has been one of indifference.
  3. The sharp increase in 2016–17 in the number of refugees travelling to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. This was caused primarily by military conflict, not global warming – but it prefigured the type of migratory movements researchers see as likely to be caused by future climate change. The grim response of many European governments – that in various degrees allowed refugees to drown en masse, confined them to detention camps, and used them as a cynical bargaining chip in geopolitical haggling with the government of Turkey – indicates how they might deal with future effects of global warming: by building walls, real (as commended by president Trump) or virtual.

So we do not need to imagine the future international political response to global warming effects. The prototypes are here: handing the transition away from fossil fuels to the markets, with disastrously ineffective results; and cordoning off the rich world from the most violent and damaging consequences. For civil society to take matters into its hands cannot possibly be a simple or easy answer — but it can and will find better answers to problems than these. In a study of social responses to disasters, the writer Rebecca Solnit demonstrated convincingly that people tap into resources of solidarity and collective action that they might not have known they had. The global warming disaster — which has been produced socially, on a much greater scale and over a much greater time span, than other disasters — demands a collective response from us all that we, too, might not have thought possible.

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