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The Jehoshua Novels


John Quiggin: Is Utopia Still Possible in the Face of Impending Doom?

John Quiggin

Yesterday steeleweed linked to Chris Hedges’ latest feel-good hit of the impending environmental apocalypse, in which Hedges called on liberals to drop any icky pretense of hope (hisssssssssss) and instead fully embrace the inevitable secular eschatology of Gaia’s gruesome revenge with a bear hug and a shit-eating grin. But apparently Crooked Timber’s John Quiggin didn’t get the memo that contingency planning for a future that doesn’t necessarily end with humanity’s collective death rattle is, like, totally futile:

Economic development and technological progress provide the only real hope of lifting billions of people out of poverty and destitution, just as it has done for the minority in the developed world. Yet the living standards of the developed world have been built on cheap energy from carbon-based fossil fuels. If everyone in the world used energy as Americans or even Europeans do, it would be impossible to restrict climate change to even four degrees of warming.

For those of us who seek a better life for everybody, the question of how much our environment can withstand is crucial. If current First World living standards can’t safely be extended to the rest of the world, the future holds either environmental catastrophe or an indefinite continuation of the age-old struggle between rich and poor. Of course, it might hold both.

In my first contribution to Aeon (‘The golden age’, Sept 27, 2012), I looked at an idea put forward by John Maynard Keynes: that within a few decades, with the right use of technology, we could achieve a society where people worked because they chose to rather than out of material necessity, a society in which working hours averaged 15 per week with no decline in quality of life. I focused on the technological and social constraints that could prevent us from achieving all this.

However, there is no point in drawing up a utopian vision if it can be realised only in one part of the world, leaving the global poor permanently locked out. In my previous essay, I argued that, with another 50 years of technological progress and a modest effort to help the poorest onto the path of rapid growth, poverty could be eliminated.

But can we share the advantages of the developed world with the entire population of the planet without running into limits on mineral and renewable resources? Not according to many environmentalists. They say we can’t even maintain them for the few people who presently enjoy them; that it’s technologically impossible to sustain current consumption levels on a global scale, let alone to spread prosperity more broadly.

Having spent much of my professional life as an economist studying problems of this kind, I’m convinced that this is not true. The question is not: ‘Can we let everyone live like prosperous residents of the First World without destroying our natural environment?’ It is: ‘Will we?’ A balance is achievable, if we want it. That goes against a lot of powerful convictions, of course. So, although arithmetic might not be part of everyone’s idea of utopia, we need to look at the numbers.

As they say, read the whole thing (before returning to your regularly scheduled confirmation bias, of course — btw will the last one to die a slow, agonizing-yet-poetically-just demise please turn out the light?)

6 comments to John Quiggin: Is Utopia Still Possible in the Face of Impending Doom?

  • Synoia

    Not going to happen:

    If current First World living standards can’t safely be extended to the rest of the world, the future holds either environmental catastrophe or an indefinite continuation of the age-old struggle between rich and poor. Of course, it might hold both.

    The 1% know there are not enough resources. The have to reduce their 99% down toward the current mean (which depresses the current mean), aka: austerity.

    within a few decades, with the right use of technology, we could achieve a society where people worked because they chose to rather than out of material necessity, a society in which working hours averaged 15 per week with no decline in quality of life.

    What’s this a prediction from the 60s? How did that prediction work out?

  • The problem with climate change is that heading off disaster means changing the way we do lots of things and not heading off disaster means just keeping on doing the things we do. Guess which one humanity tends to default to.

    That said, back in the 60s we were headed for a massive world food crisis around now if we didn’t start doing things differently – and we changed that with the farming revolution. And in the 80s, we all were certain we were headed for nuclear-caused winter any day now.

    OK, so the farming revolution made the pace of climate change worse so we only staved off one impending disaster to head for another, but I cannot say for certain that this will not happen again. There is a possibility, however remote, that human civilization will survive by lurching from one almost-disaster to another by continually changing how it does things just enough, just in time. It seems to me that it’s a heckuva way to run a species, though, and that gambling against the house (mother earth) means you have to come up snake-eyes eventually.

    • Synoia

      That said, back in the 60s we were headed for a massive world food crisis around now if we didn’t start doing things differently – and we changed that with the farming revolution. deferred that by using energy to produce fertilizer and mining water to increase farm yields temporarily.

      Please do your research.

      • I also wrote “OK, so the farming revolution made the pace of climate change worse” because I already knew that, having done my reserach but not wanting to write a mile-long comment on it all. Please read more carefully in future and don’t be needlessly and dismissively snarky. :-)

      • Jeff Wegerson

        Every 60′s, as current, prediction came preceded by an if. So that was a cheap shot.

        Producing and consuming and then living amidst a continuous flow of trash is not really a high standard of living. But it certainly is energy intensive. Having a lot of children is the poor persons social security. Building your food system around expensive red meat is likewise very energy intensive.

        So yeah, making the necessary changes for a world wide “high” standard of living as well as reversing climate change is technically and economically and resourceably doable (and yes thank you and apologies 60′s).

        But yeah, the politics are hugely dicey sucky.

  • Lex

    I seriously doubt that our leaders want us to work only 15 hrs/week. All that leisure with less debt fueled consumption is bound to lead people towards thinking for themselves and not doing what they’re told because they owe too much to rock the boat. So the short answer to “Will we?” is simply, “No.”

    Some of the agriculture topic has been addressed above, but allow me to add that cattle belch methane because they’re designed to digest grass, not grain. Properly grazed, ruminants are an ecologically sound part of a perennial grass system that is a marvelous carbon sink. Better than forests because trees do the bulk of their sequestration when young.

    And i can’t speak for Australia, but in the US “free range” on a pack of eggs only requires “access” to the outdoors. That’s something that can, and regularly is, achieved by putting one door in the chicken house leading to a concrete pad outside. If there’s no food and water out there, no chicken will ever venture to that halcyon and bucolic splendor of hot concrete.

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