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What are the politics of our survival as a species? Introducing the Climate Change Trilemma

November 22, 2017
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So a physicist, an anthropologist, and two political economists have lunch in the LSE canteen and start arguing aboutclimate change Noah climate change…..

I was (very notionally) the physicist; my other lunchtime companions were Robert Wade, Teddy Brett and Jason Hickel (the anthropologist). Jason was arguing for degrowth and reminded me of the excellent debate on this blog a couple of years ago between Kate Raworth and Giorgos Kallis; I responded by asking him (as I do) ‘where’s your theory of change?’ It boils down to this: what future paths are feasible, when science appears to be incompatible with politics? Here are four scenarios (I’m sure there are more):

Optimist: The world listens to the science and the scientists and somehow finds a way to stay within the planetary boundaries (decarbonization, broader shift to sustainability, including shift in norms around consumption etc)

Pessimist: Can’t be done in any system short of an absolute dictatorship (see my earlier conversation with Tim Jackson on this) – we’re going to fry or drown, or both.

Political Realist: Can’t be done and is going to get very nasty. Sea level rises, mass displacement, a tide of chaos which may bring back Scheidel’s four horsemen. Millions will have to die and suffer before a political path to sustainability can be found.

Technophile: Relax guys, we’ve got this. Some combination of renewables, geoengineering, dematerialization of production etc can bail out our dysfunctional politics in time to avert a meltdown.

degrowth 4Jason’s point is that we are between a rock and a hard place. The science is absolute, as are the planetary boundaries. He argues that there is no evidence for the technophile escape and that ‘in a real democracy’ (i.e one magically not distorted by power and inequality) we can jointly agree a way out. The politics may be difficult, but it has to be more malleable than science.

I want to believe him, but fear the political realist scenario is more likely, hopefully eased by a dash of technological breakthrough.  I don’t think capitalism is compatible with de-growth and neither is democracy, at least not as currently constituted. Companies compete on the basis of price and productivity. That means producing more stuff in most cases. Whatever the well-justified criticisms of GDP as a measure of wellbeing, Governments don’t get elected when the economy is shrinking.

So de-growth has to be predicated on some alternative to capitalism, and has lots of ideas about what such an alternative could look like, but no convincing theory of change for how it might actually come about, politically. Lots of ‘If I Ruled the World’ grand plans, hand waving and cries of ‘have you got a better idea?’ (to which the answer is usually no, but that doesn’t constitute an answer).

Globally it feels like we may have a trilemma: take 1. Capitalism (which to date has proved the most successful system, at least in some variants, in terms of ending poverty and expanding their freedoms to be and to do, Amartya Sen style); 2. Democracy and 3. Environmental Sustainability: you can have 2 out of 3 but you can’t have all of them:climate change science v politics cartoon

Capitalism + Democracy without Sustainability: the current model

Capitalism + Sustainability without Democracy: Tim Jackson/China (maybe)

His checklist of what needs to happen to is extraordinarily long and sounds like a political equivalent of the economist ‘assume a can opener’ joke: in an exchange on the first draft of this post, he spelt out ‘restoring the commons.  So, decommoditize healthcare and education and housing; get rid of the fractional reserve banking system, set up a positive money system (or 100% reserve banking), abolish GDP as a measure of progress and as a political objective, redistribute existing resources to take pressure off growth, change shareholder value rules; think a basic income.’ Only then will the trilemma be solved. But what are the politics of achieving any/all of these?

Can anyone lighten my gloom?

Jason is also having an argument with Branko Milanovic along these lines. Branko isn’t impressed: ‘If put to test in real life, rather than at conferences and blogs, Jason’s program would receive support from almost no one.’

And if you find this a worthwhile topic, are anywhere near London, and want to hear a top writer and thinker tell me where I’ve got it all wrong, come along to hear Kate Raworth debate Doughnut Economics with LSE Economist Oriana Bandiera tomorrow (Thursday 23rd). I’ll be chairing, so will have to bite my tongue.

6 comments

  1. Few comments on this piece, which really gets to the heart of the matter.

    Not surprised really, those of us who work on CC just feel like so many Cassandras. (“… human kind cannot bear very much reality” [Eliot]).

    Duncan – you need to talk about (to) Kevin – he’s brilliant
    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-10-06/the-gordon-goodman-memorial-lecture-2017-kevin-anderson/

    J Magrath is right, the Monbiot piece is well worth studying.

    As for the scenarios, sorry but I think Costanza did it best nearly 20 years ago:
    https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol4/iss1/art5/ (I think we are in the Mad Max box at the moment).

  2. Steeped in Kate’s book now, (thanks for that nudge). I’m optimistic enough to believe that our love affair with growth will one day prove itself a daft infatuation. We want better, deeper lives not more stuff, and somehow someday, politicians will parse that choice better (i’m betting in the next US election). That doesn’t mean markets won’t markets won’t matter. It just means that they retake their rightful place as means, not ends in life.

  3. hi Duncan,
    Yes, I think our biggest challenge is to change the dominant economic neoliberal paradigm,so just wanted to share with you (and your large following!), this Huffington Post article I came across the other day, which gave me some hope regarding how we can perhaps start to mainstream the alternatives that are often already out there – sure, at a small scale still – but that need to get known more widely so that they can inspire further change. I think this is a great initiative, especially when combined with the Presencing Institute, and hope that more will come of it – it needs all our support! https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/5a06ef9ce4b0f1dc729a6b39 (by the way, suggest you write a blog on this :))
    Keep well!
    Lucia

  4. I agree that realistic and pragmatic strategies to address climate change are too often subject to technological reductionism. simplifying the problem by suggesting that our salvation can be found merely through the adoption of green technologies is short-sighted. The answers for reversing climate change exist. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, written by Paul Hawken is an important catalogue of the policies necessary to bring about decarbonization. However, the book is overly optimistic in the sense that it doesn’t pay credit to the reality that finding the political will necessary to enact our strategies to reverse climate change is probably the greater issue. Certainly, re-thinking our definition of growth (à la Paul Hawken’s “Natural Capitalism”) and greater limits to corporate influence in our political institutions are needed if we hope to save capitalism and democracy while solving climate change.

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