Triple Crunch

For much of last year, one of the questions I researched in detail was What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world? My research began with a personal interest in Peak Oil and from there led me to look at climate change and the social and economic impacts of these related subjects. The focus of my research was initially an application for a research grant. You can read the application and the judges comments, which were very favourable but ultimately didn’t secure the grant because it was outside the remit of the programme of funding. Oh well. For months after that, I tried to understand the implications of a future where energy production doesn’t meet demand and the impacts of climate change become more apparent and wrote about it regularly under the tag ‘resilient education‘. Ultimately, my research led me to be quite pessimistic about our ability and willingness to deal with the projected problems. If you read my blog posts, you’ll see that there are really deep structural issues that need to be faced, in particular around the relatively recent obsession with economic growth. I say recent, but the underlying logic of capitalism has always been concerned with the accumulation of surplus value in the form of money, something Marx identified in the 19th century, but it’s only in the last 50 years or so that the idea of ‘economic growth’ has been an explicit political priority.

Anyway, the news over the last week or so has reminded me that the government and mainstream media are literally years behind acting on the research available to them. I was encouraged to read that the UK government seems to be acknowledging Peak Oil and is working with an industry group to model the impact on the UK economy if the price of oil rises to $250/barrel in 2014 (it’s currently around $115). This new relationship might have been forged due to the excellent report that the group produced last year, showing the likelihood of an ‘oil crunch’ in the middle of this decade, or it might have been because the International Energy Agency finally admitted that Peak Oil had actually occurred (in terms of crude oil – not total liquid fuels) in 2006. Energy analysts already knew this – you only had to look at the trend in crude oil production to get an idea – but with the IEA now using the term ‘peak oil’, the issue is bound to get more coverage.

Other news in the last week confirms the problems we face with climate change, too. Again, it takes the IEA to speak out before it gets any real coverage, but thankfully they’ve highlighted the the very tight correlation between economic growth (GDP) and rising emissions, saying that “it is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”

Finally, Larry Elliot, the Economics Editor for the Guardian wrote a column yesterday, which ties everything up together reasonably well. Energy, the economy and emissions are all inextricably linked and point to a ‘triple crunch’ that is yet to fully impact on the UK. I’m pleased to see this kind of reporting in the mainstream media but what’s really frustrating is that it only took me a few months of research to figure this out. The message has been clear for a number of years now and the public discussion is a decade overdue. There is a substantial body of research which I identify in my blog posts, that points to an oil crisis this decade (not what we’re seeing at the moment, but a real crisis where liquid fuel production falls over a number of years), which shows that the -80% emissions target is all but impossible and that when global net energy production falls, so does GDP.

As I’ve said before, this all has significant immediate and long-term social and political implications, including the effects it could have on the provision of higher education. It’s time that a co-ordinated effort was made by the sector to examine these issues in detail, involving academics from across disciplines as well as business continuity managers and VCs. We really do need to start ‘thinking the unthinkable‘…

9 thoughts on “Triple Crunch

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  3. “Choice two: argue that there is an incompatibility between growth and sustainability, so the big developing countries cannot hope to aspire to western levels of consumption, which need to be reduced anyway. Perhaps true, although the deep green road map for getting from A to B is somewhat sketchy and currently lacks political support in both the developed and developing worlds.”

    It’s much more likely that the conclusion of this point would be reversed, namely the developing countries are more likely to get western levels of consumption while the western countries are likely lose it or have it equalize with developing country levels of consumption per capita. The economic crisis in Europe is foreshadowing this.

    Will higher education be affected, obviously, that’s why the business elite have this idea of self-education. They see it coming, and they feel that the best way to deal with it is to let the market work. So you can expect a market outcome out of this mess. It will look something like entrepreneurs and freely funded online programs trying to teach people all sorts of skills, and perhaps unions and guilds will make a come back. In any case, in the near future higher education will cost significant numbers of years of pay, rather than just a year… and therefore fewer people will be able to afford it. Further, the levels of unemployment will rise to perhaps 15% at some point.

    The market will also route around the environmental crisis and life will become a bit harder. To put your doom and gloom into perspective China has lost tens of million to famine this year… and so what? Life goes on. Or look at any of the failing nations of today, so what? … life goes on. People try to participate in the economy and make a living. At certain point they become homeless and starve to death, if you are in that position then you have to deal with that reality. The doom and gloom outlook is sort of stupid, because tragedy has yet to befall you and yet you are complaining as if it has already has done so.

    You can’t change the world. The people that run the show don’t want to change the world in fear that they will lose power; one thing you can be sure of though is that they will do whatever is necessary to maintain their power. The best we can do is wait for the market to work itself out, and in the mean time keep your debt very low and also your desires… and you will survive your lifetime. All human activity is rooted in futility, and yet we still play the game.

  4. I think that Brian Lamb labelled me with the ‘doom and gloom’ but it’s not at all how I see myself. Pessimistic, perhaps, but not a doomer. Your faith in the market to ‘work itself out’ is, from my perspective, not only deeply flawed but fatal. The market doesn’t work anything out. It lunges from crisis to crisis and restores itself temporarily through state intervention at the expense of the majority of people. You also have a very narrow sense of the world – higher education in Europe is still mostly low cost or free to students. North America and the UK tuition fee rates are exceptions to the rule here. There is another way.

    Your penultimate paragraph is, frankly, offensive and seemingly lacking in any kind of empathy for human suffering. The life you lead today is a result of collective social struggle rather than the free-market libertarian individualism you seem to hold to.

    We can change the world. We do so every day, slowly. There is a dynamic to history rather than a determined logic to power. Don’t get caught in the trap where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

  5. It is hard to believe how much the free market ideology is still the common sense view of so many even after the most dramatic examples of its ideological nature. Just about every aspect of the doctine has been called into question and found wanting – its claimed inherent rationality (which dimishes rather than increases with every movement towards deregulation), its tendency towards stability, its maximisation of utility and ‘goods’ for example. The free market is a distopian myth. In reality markets have always been embedded and structured within political and cultural processes and always will be since markets are and can only be constituted through social processes and have no possible existence outside of them.

  6. By the way, despite what others might say, “the spectacle that is Sami” prides himself on being a gadfly… so be forewarned of that.

    “It lunges from crisis to crisis and restores itself temporarily through state intervention at the expense of the majority of people.”

    I don’t believe that this is the market itself, but rather the nature of the system of control that’s been created by the powers that be… more in line with Foucault than with Adam Smith. I generally believe at this point that the market works, it is modeled after nature and it works much like nature does… and that there really is no better way of organizing a complex economy. Now I might support an argument for a simple economy, but once you get complex as we have gotten you really can’t do much better than the market. I more a collapse of civilization is more likely than changing the economy from a complex economy to a simple one.

    “You also have a very narrow sense of the world – higher education in Europe is still mostly low cost or free to students.”

    You assume a bit much. I know this to be the case… I wonder how long they can maintain this as the case.

    “North America and the UK tuition fee rates are exceptions to the rule here. There is another way.”

    Ultimately, the money comes from taxes. So that again is directly tied to the economic output. Does that cost rise as well, sure it does. In Canada where education is subsidized, the cost continues to increase; perhaps not at the levels seen in the United States — but it still is a battle. I am not sure of what “other way” you are talking about. One could probably hold it at a certain level that may be acceptable, but not under the guise of the system as it is now… and as educational institutions are not open to the market, we really can’t drive down their costs… Not to say that I support for-profit institutions, just that the monoliths that are in higher education don’t change much over time and justify more and more money; while providing less to at least undergraduate students…

    “Your penultimate paragraph is, frankly, offensive and seemingly lacking in any kind of empathy for human suffering. The life you lead today is a result of collective social struggle rather than the free-market libertarian individualism you seem to hold to.”

    I have empathy but I also have a sense of scale. Millions of people are suffering at this very moment, now there are two lines of arguments — that are major lines of thought. One is one of charity and the other is about jobs and that ties to the market and the economy; the old parable of teaching a man to fish. Now the liberal economic system wants to integrate all those people into the complex global economy. It wishes to end their suffering that way. With the way things are, and the way that power and control works within our system I don’t particularly think that there are choice about ending their suffering other than integrating them into the global economy then teaching them how to make designer products that fetch top dollar. Economies have been much like this, as far as I know for as long as trade has existed. Certain people have enjoyed certain position of power simply because their access to certain resources that were in demand, and other people have robbed them through force — this is humanity. Economies are further tied closely to human desire, and human desire itself is closely tied to language and rhetoric. I could go on this for a while, but will leave it out for now.

    “The life you lead today is a result of collective social struggle rather than the free-market libertarian individualism you seem to hold to.”

    Tell that to the 5 billion that live worse than the 1 billion that they support to have the quality of life worth writing about.

    “We can change the world. We do so every day, slowly. There is a dynamic to history rather than a determined logic to power. Don’t get caught in the trap where it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

    And alternative rhetoric is that most of us change almost nothing. That non-linear events are responsible for most of the change, and that what non-linear event will occur when is unpredictable — though the powers that be attempt to tilt the table in their favor using capital and thus far has succeeded rather well because of the coercive power of capital. That market collapses occur for these reasons, the logic of the market being disrupted by some unforeseen contingency of the real world that is not comprehended by the system. So there is both a determined logic of power and random events that change that logic or create sorts of chaos that are not easy comprehensible in language; but the powers that be attempt to undo the damage and restore the system to the state that they prefer. The end of capitalism… I don’t know what that means… Markets are not going away and the economy is not becoming simpler. is the power structure open to change, yes but it will be furiously resisted if and when that happens… and it is not happening now. And as communism showed the powers that be rather destroy the world in a nuclear apocalypse than let the control slip out of their hands… And speech that does not translate to action is empty.

  7. The pace of change really is governed by so much more than individual wants or desires. Until a mass feeling that change is needed develops, individuals will simply feel themselves swimming against the tide.

    Sad really…

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