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‘…

Web 2.0 and endless growth

I’ve just read The Digital Given: 10 Web 2.0 Theses (2009) and found it to be one of those rare pieces of writing that makes me feel like I’m not alone. Here is thesis 9:

Soon the Web 2.0 business model will be obsolete. It is based on the endless growth principle, pushed by the endless growth of consumerism. The business model still echoes the silly 90s dotcom model: if growth stagnates, it means the venture has failed and needs to be closed down. Seamless growth of customised advertising is the fuel of this form of capitalism, decentralized by the user-prosumer. Mental environment pollution is parallel to natural environment pollution. But our world is finished (limited). We have to start elaborating appropriate technologies for a finite world. There is no exteriority, no other worlds (second, third, fourth worlds) where we can dump the collateral effects of insane development. We know that Progress is a bloodthirsty god that extracts a heavy human sacrifice. A good end cannot justify a bad means. On the contrary, technologies are means that have to justify the end of collective freedom. No sacrifice will be tolerated: martyrs are not welcome. Neither are heroes.

We know that the advertising-based consumerist model of the web is as fragile as the pursuit of growth but what alternatives to growth are there? Over the last year, looking at energy, the economy and its impact on the environment, it’s become clear to me that the pursuit of economic growth is deeply flawed and limited. This was the subject of a conference in Leeds in June, on Steady State or no-growth economics. Yesterday, the conference organisers produced a report, Enough is Enough, which is an attempt to outline an alternative to a growth-based economy. You might remember that the new economics foundation also produced a report in January called Growth isn’t possible. The publication that first drew my attention to this subject was the government commissioned report, Prosperity Without Growth.

Thanks to Richard Hall for pointing ’10 Web 2.0 Theses’ out to me. It was first published on nettime, which is a mailing list I can recommend.

Non-profit media and Life after capitalism: Two talks by American activist and social critic, Michael Albert, at University of Lincoln

Michael Albert is visiting the university later this month. Below are details of his class and public seminar. I’m looking forward to meeting him. I doubt he’ll remember the few months I spent volunteering as an editor of one of Z-Net’s web pages, back in 2000. I tried to impose standards-based XHTML onto their then, M$ FrontPage ‘driven’ website and lost the battle 😉

Journalism Research Seminar Series, Lincoln School of Journalism

Basics of independent media organisation and production

Seminar room MC 0024, Ground floor MHAC-Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 4-6pm on 27 October, 2010

School of Social Sciences Seminar Series

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Jackson Lecture Theatre, Ground floor, Main Building, Brayford Pool Campus, 7.30-9.30pm on 27 October, 2010 Talk is open to the public

For further info and speaking dates of Michael Albert in the UK see:

Michael Albert is a longtime political and media activist with a tremendous record. He has authored 15 books and published widely on topics such as radical politics, economics, social change, peace and media. Furthermore, he is known for developing participatory economics (PARECON), an alternative model to capitalism and socialism. He cofounded the Boston (USA) based book publisher South End Press and the independent media platform ZCommunications. Until today, South End Press and Z have published works from renowned authors including Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Amy Goodman, Dahr Jamail, Robert Fisk, Vandana Shiva, Edward S. Herman and Howard Zinn.

In his first talk, eminent US social critic Michael Albert will reflect on more than 30-years experience working in non-profit, alternative media organisations. The talk will focus on issues such as how to finance non-profit media in a capitalist/market system, how to develop online media and how to structure an organisation to be truly participatory and democratic. Albert will do examine ways of how to cope with economic and political challenges and how students and non-professionals can produce and distribute independent media. The talk will be followed by Q&As.

His second talk (followed by Q&As) will be particularly interesting for everyone seeking a more just and peaceful world. This is what you can expect:

PARECON – Life After Capitalism

Today’s capitalist system has brought with it war, economic crisis, ecological decay, massive wealth inequality, alienation, authoritarianism and social breakdown. Are these problems inevitable, or could they be overcome in a different system? And if so, how? These issues, perhaps for the first time in history, have become a matter of survival.

Michael Albert, co-author of ‘ParEcon: Life After Capitalism’, co-founder of ZCommunications and leading US social activist will present ‘Participatory Economics’, a Vision for a type of democratic economy based on equitable co-operation that is put forward as an alternative to capitalism and also to other 20th century systems that have gone under the label ‘socialism’. It includes new institutions that seek to foster self-management, equity, diversity and solidarity. Parecon is a direct and natural outgrowth of hundreds of years of struggle for economic justice as well as contemporary efforts with their accumulated wisdom and lessons.

Information Technology is a fundamental driver of income inequality

Stuart Staniford is one of the sharpest bloggers I know of and I just wanted to point to something he posted a few days ago which examines the significance of your level of education and ability to use technology in relation to your income. He’s commenting on US data and projections, but it’s still of interest to the rest of us. Click the image to go to his original blog post.

Clearly, using technology always increases your value, but the more education and skills you have, the bigger a multiplier technology gives you.  Thus information technology is a fundamental driver of income inequality.

Climate change and the language of war

A few posts I read this morning seem to complement each other by showing how inadequate the current political and economic climate (pardon the pun) is for meeting the targets set out in the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008.

It’s not unusual to find reports calling for the need to tackle climate change with the kind of national attention and effort that was mobilised around World War II. A good example is a recent report from the The Royal Academy of Engineering, Generating the Future. A report on UK energy systems fit for 2050. I’ll have more to say about the report in another post, but they join the chorus of experts referring to the Act as “a huge challenge”, arguing that nothing less than our entire manufacturing base needs to shift focus and be “on a war footing”, if we are to meet the targets set out in the Act.

Last night, Ed Milliband was challenged during the Guardian’s Climate Debate over Roger Pielke Jnr. paper which argues that to meet the Climate Change Act’s targets for decarbonisation, the equivalent of 30 nuclear power stations would have to be built before 2015. Pielke’s position is that the Climate Change Act was always doomed to fail and that Milliband or whoever succeeds him will have to face up to it sooner or later.

So given the “huge challenge” (or delusion if you agree with Pielke Jnr.), what would it mean to be “on a war footing” in order to address the targets set out in the Act?

In a post yesterday, Stuart Staniford (one of my favourite energy/environment blogger analysts), notes that in 1943, the UK was spending 55% of GDP on the war. His source, the Cambridge Economic History of Great Britain, states that UK expenditure on the war went from 7% of GDP in 1938, to 53% in 1941, to 55% in 1943. So, in economic terms, that is what being “on a war footing” means. Half of national productivity is mobilised towards a single goal.

However, again in yesterday’s news we find that the UK’s annual deficit is the highest since records began in 1946, or as Edmund Conway in The Telegraph puts it this morning, we’re already experiencing a “war-sized” annual public deficit (overdraft) of £163.4bn (or 11.5% of GDP). Perhaps we should take some comfort in the Guardian’s Data Blog which shows that public debt (the accumulation of deficits) currently stands at 63.6% of GDP, far from the 250% of 1946.

This would suggest that if we are to shift our entire manufacturing base towards decarbonisation, as The Royal Academy of Engineering thinks we should, then Ann Pettiford’s argument for mobilising (I guess that includes educating/training) a “‘carbon army’ of ‘green-collar’ jobs”, through additional borrowing would seem to fit quite nicely into this apparently necessary vision of a ‘war on carbon’ (my phrase). For people working in education, it might be a useful exercise to consider what tertiary education might look like if half of national productivity was directed towards meeting the Climate Change Act, a law that each of us in the UK is bound too, after all.

The problem I have with all of this talk of war and climate change, aside from the hot air and inaction, is along the lines of what George Monbiot, in his book, Heat, has to say on the matter. That is, the enemy is no other than ourselves.

Most environmentalists – and I include myself in this – are hypocrites … I would like to believe that the changes I suggest could be achieved by appealing to people to restrain themselves. But though some environmentalists, undismayed by the failure of the past forty years of campaigning, refuse to see it, self-enforced abstinence alone is a waste of time . . . I have sought to demonstrate that the necessary reduction in carbon emissions is – if difficult – technically and economically possible. I have not demonstrated that it is politically possible. There is a reason for this. It is not up to me to do so. It is up to you . . . The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.

I would add though that the enemy is not simply ‘ourselves’ – you, me, us – but capital’s laws of motion that have been turning since the late seventeenth century. We might find some comfort in reading that there is nothing natural about these laws of motion – there are alternatives – yet in another post I read this morning, it looks like the enemy has already won.

JISC Greening ICT Keynote Presentation

Here are the slides I used for JISC’s Greening ICT Programme Meeting. There are 25 slides with lots of notes and references from slide 26 onwards.

The bottom line of energy, efficiencies and the economy

Some visual note-taking from documents I’ve been reading. No big surprises but useful reminders of some fundamental observations. In summary, they show that:

  • global energy production is increasing
  • global energy consumption is increasing
  • global energy use per capita is increasing
  • increasing energy efficiency does not lead to an overall reduction in energy use
  • correspondingly, global emissions are rising
  • economic growth is tightly coupled to energy use
  • taking current climate pledges into account, we’re currently on course for a 4c increase in temperatures by 2100

Click on the images to go to the source. Some are direct links to PDF files.

World energy supply

World energy consumption

Energy use per capita

World C02 emissions

Economic growth


The rebound effect of efficiency

Decline of net energy

Climate Scoreboard

‘Green ICT’ : More efficiently unsustainable?

My slides for the Digital 2020 GreenICT mini-conference:

There are quite extensive notes which can be read from slide 21 onwards.


In retrospect, I think these slides are pretty incoherent. I tried to make up for this by adding notes and references and figured that when I gave the presentation, I’d smooth all the joins. Alas, I didn’t really get time to do that, either.

During the presentation, the slides which seemed to have the most impact were 2 & 3, which introduce the Jevons Paradox of ‘efficiencies’ and then the actual increase in global energy use. I should also add that despite efficiencies and taking population increases into account, per capita energy use is still increasing globally. You can see how individual countries compare here:

The slide (16) where I ask ‘Why be Green?’ and say ‘Resilience’ is meant to refer to Green being about dematerialisation, energy efficiency, and a zero or planned negative growth economy. Each of these ‘green factors’ could contribute to reduce the impacts of energy depletion and climate change and therefore contribute to resilience. I don’t think they would mitigate the impacts, but individuals and organisations that understand the principles of ‘being green’, would be better placed and more resilient against those impacts.