Is there a democratic path to civilizational survival?

by Chris Bertram on August 16, 2022

A few weeks ago, faced with yet another disappointingly cautious announcement from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party, I quipped on twitter that it seemed impossible to get elected in the UK without promising not to do any of the things that are necessary to fix the country and, perhaps, the world. It is indeed hard not to be gripped by pessimism about the capacity of democratic politics to solve the problems we face, especially if solving them imposes any sort of cost or inconvenience on the more prosperous among the electorates of the wealthiest countries on earth. Yet we face a series of interlocking crises, several of which even threaten our survival as a species and perhaps life of earth itself. When I set about enumerating those crises, I have a sneaking fear that I may have forgotten one or two of them, but this looks like a reasonable list:

  1. Climate change and the risk that global temperatures will rise so much that it will be difficult to sustain life anywhere near the equator and so that life in coastal areas will be overwhelmed by sea-level rise.
  2. Nuclear warfare and the risk that an exchange that starts off conventionally escalates quickly to the use of tactical and then strategic nuclear weapons, with nuclear winter a likely consequences. The obvious immediate danger is over Ukraine, but it is quite possible that a confrontation between the US and China could spin out of control quickly. While nuclear weapons look like the most likely military threat to human survival, there are, let us not forget, other weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological agents, that could also kill lots of us.

  3. Pandemics and disease, and risk that a new strain of flu or a new coronavirus ends up killing very large numbers of people very fast, leading to civilizational collapse.

  4. Fascism, and the danger that liberal and democratic institutions are destroyed and that in their place nationalistic oligarchies use increasing violence against one another and against minorities within their borders.

  5. Crises of insufficiency and inequality, as crops fail and many people have insufficient means to meet their basic needs.

(To these we can add that in many countries, after decades of underinvestment in basic infrastructure and health-care systems desperately need public spending that only increased growth and tax revenues can provide.)

Obviously each of these various crises intensifies and affects the others. Climate change can lead to crises of insufficiency and from there to forced displacement with the displaced stigmatized as a threat of “great replacement” by authoritarian nationalists who feed off the ensuing ethnic conflict. Climate change also leads to species movement and to a rising threat that viruses jump the species barrier. There’s the further problem that measures to solve any of these particular crises risk making others worse. Suppose, as someone suggested to me the other day on Facebook (citing Jason Hickel), that in order to address climate change we need to reduce consumption in wealthy countries to, say, about the average for Latin America. Now according to Geoff Mann’s review of degrowth books in the London Review of Books, Hickel is also committed to the expansion of democracy just about everywhere. But it would be surprising if there were a democratic majority in North America or Western Europe for a deliberate reduction in living standards to those levels, even if it is necessary. Attempts by parties of the left and liberals to campaign on such a basis would likely lead to their defeat by Trumpists, Le Penists, Farageists and the like, and it looks as if there’s a lot of mileage for the right generally in defending “our” right to consume, drive our private cars and all the rest of it. Victory by such parties would probably increase the risks of international conflict (nuclear war) as well as make it all but impossible for states to act effectively in the face of pandemics. Once in power, such parties would likely not relinquish it.

So, is there a democratic path through all this? If not, is there a non-democratic (technocratic) one that we should accept as the necessary price of survival and which could be sufficiently legitimate?



Frank Wilhoit 08.16.22 at 1:26 pm

To an infant, nothing is legitimate. All power is arbitrary, every institution a weapon. Civilization has lost its fan club. For each person who understands how they have benefited from it, a hundred or a thousand others will tell a story of how they have been victimized by it. Stories win. They won when they destroyed feudalism. They are winning again.


Bruce 08.16.22 at 1:33 pm

Nothing about capitalism, amazing. As if it wasn’t behind all of the things you mention. Amazing.


Chris Bertram 08.16.22 at 2:31 pm

@Bruce, I’m glad to hear that the solution is as simple and near-at-hand as stopping capitalism.


steven t johnson 08.16.22 at 3:29 pm

Betteridge’s Law of Headlines should be phrased as, any title that is a question is usually meant to be answered, “No.”

Be that as it may, not sure these threats are perceived by everyone in the same way.

The decline of property value in coasts threatened by sea level rise is not an existential threat to civilization, strictly speaking, though it seems to be perceived as one in most quarters. Radical population declines in equatorial regions are different, since, unlike urban real estate, life is cheap.
Probably the greatest nuclear threats at this moment are posed by India and Israel, though the US may be moving towards implementing its plans for using nukes. The peculiar situation where the Ukrainians, armed by the “West”/Christendom, are attacking a nuclear power plant with full approval suggests that the people in power have no fear at all of limited nuclear disasters. The insouciant surety that Fukushima is over is another symptom of this.
It is likely civilizational collapse that leads to massive loss of life, rather than the massive loss of life turning money into mere paper, or whatever vision of civilizational collapse. It is likely the loss of state capacity, the ability to simply get things done, that will turn a tragedy like an epidemic into catastrophe. Even the Black Death did not destroy feudal civilization in the sense apparently meant. Apocalypse doesn’t look like in the movies, that’s Hollywood wishful thinking.
Nationalistic oligarchies are one form of liberal and democratic institutions. The US has had elections from day one, for one. The whole point of liberal democracy is to protect private property, which is conceived as a, if not the, defining trait of civilization. And the nationalism is conceived as the protection of the nation against its enemies. The hope that the most powerful among the liberal and democratic nationalists either rule the world or force the “fascistic” others to peacefully divvy up the spoils and fairly share the costs seems very modest in its goals for humanity but rather utopian in its pleas to the rulers.
A crisis of insufficiency is a shortage of profits or a falling stocking market or a decline in property values. People going hungry is not deemed a crisis.

The additional remark about insufficient investment in the substance of civilization is sort of correct, but the prevailing opinion is not just that investment should be for profit; that government should be profitable; that government expenditures are theft from civil society; that the government budget must ensure that current expenses must be cut so that government bonds serve as safe liquidity for the financial system. Even more than that, the prevailing opinion is that no sacrifice is too great to prevent the emergence of a government that runs the economy. You know, “Better dead than red!”

But of course not everyone welcomes clarity on their opinions. The tacit premise that “we” are nice and “our” system is fundamentally benevolent in its aims despite flaws in its functioning is a kind of straw man. If you inspect it closely, it easy to see it isn’t a real man. But you can’t possibly kill it for exactly the same reason. Or to change the metaphor, this invincible complacency is a fog, which you can never pin down to say, here it is. Fog is never right in front of your eyes. But you still can’t see very far.

Whether or not Betteridge is correct it is entirely unclear how technocracy can solve any of these problem. Central bankers are the leading examples of technocracy. To me it seems obvious they are part of the problem, not the solution. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is science fiction.


Bruce 08.16.22 at 3:38 pm

I’m not trying to be snarky. But, if capitalism is at the root of our problems, shouldn’t it be mentioned? Do we believe that we can continue to ensure profits and societal well-being at the same time? (This is the delusion we seem to believe.) Why is capitalism just assumed?


dneus 08.16.22 at 3:58 pm

It is possible that there is no democratic solution. At least, I no longer have much faith that such a solution is forthcoming. However, there is certainly no question of “legitimacy” apart from democracy. We have no other concept of legitimacy unless you want to talk about divine right, or the mandate of heaven, or the coming of the Ubermensch, or another such unlikely proposition. It seems to me that it’s democracy or nothing.

Even if an undemocratic response could be “legitimate”, I find it hard to believe that any such “solution” is any more plausible than a democratic one. If Churchill quipped that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, the obvious comeback is that the best argument in favor of democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average wealthy elite. I certainly don’t know of any dictatorship with a better record on these existential issues than democracy has, and I don’t expect to see one.


Frank Wilhoit 08.16.22 at 4:28 pm

Bruce, @2, @5,

Newborns don’t care about money. They care about revenge for the birth trauma. The human race has an emotional age of three seconds. This is what post-materialism means.

There was never such a thing as greed. The thing that looked like it was only a manifestation of sadism.

There was never such a thing as capitalism. The thing that looked like it was a universal intellectual conspiracy to conceal the fact that, by definition, there can be no economic “growth”, only reallocation.


J, not that one 08.16.22 at 5:09 pm

There is a lot to be said about the issues raised here, but a peeve of mine for some time is wobbling between “there’s currently no majority for it, so forcing it through would be undemocratic,” and “there’s currently no majority for it, so arguing for it in public is undemocratic.” (Not to mention “it wouldn’t pass in a popular vote, so the democratically elected legislature voting for it is undemocratic,” which is something that could regularly happen in a legitimate system, I think.)

But we can’t have democracy if large swathes of the culture are committed to never abandoning the unnuanced attitude, “the system is corrupt,” and define progress as more people agreeing with them that everything existing is unredeemable. At best, they don’t really mean it and think they’re not affecting anything in the real world by insisting on it, but that isn’t a very good “best.”


B 08.16.22 at 6:24 pm

There is. Nuclear power. The reason we have a climate crisis is the anti-nuclear movement [1], which has been, and remains wrong about everything they have to say. I say this as a once upon a time youthful idealist distributing anti-nuclear pamphlets. Chernobyl’s real lesson is that in the 25 years following there were 9 deaths from cancer, all of them thyroid cancer because of consuming dairy from grazers on contaminated land. Mammary glands concentrate iodine, and without that, you cannot get enough to matter. There were no increased leukemia or lymphoma cases. Other solid cancers declined slightly.

The fantasy of solar and wind (renewables) is farcical malarkey, and quite debunked for years [3]. But these renewables force the grid to generate most of its energy from fossil fuels. Do the math on why renewables get all the press and legislation, but the one real solution is attacked mercilessly at all times. Three guesses who orchestrates that.

Yes – Climate change is as real as a heart attack and as deadly to civilization. That will be clear to everyone by 2060 or so, and quite possibly much earlier. So take your pick. Right now, global nuclear war that leaves half a billion to 1 billion people alive, and causes a nuclear winter (that ends global warming) is the default best scenario. Why? Because by the time it becomes apparent to everyone, it will be too late and the runaway train will cause 6-7 billion to die of starvation, while war takes care of much of the rest. But by that time, a nuclear winter won’t end the warming.

Because you all, dear voters, are cozened fools, and too craven to get up and fight. So, probably it will be dictatorships that survive into the next century.

Lang (2017) Nuclear Power Learning and Deployment Rates; Disruption and Global Benefits Forgone.
UNSCEAR. Report to the General Assembly with Scientific Annexes. New York: United
Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation; 2008
Clack, et al. (2017) Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar.


Daniel Hooley 08.16.22 at 6:24 pm

If you haven’t already checked them out, Toby Ord’s book the Precipice and Will MacAskill’s just-released book, What We Owe the Future, are really important books on the topic. I highly recommend them.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by a ‘democratic path’ through the existential risk we face over the next century or so. Is the idea that particular types of existential risks increase the risk of authoritarianism? Could you clarify?

Certainly substantial state funding and work to reduce the threats of nuclear war, future pandemics, artificial general intelligence, and other problems is very important. To date, it seems like much of the serious exploration of the problem of existential risk, and work on ways to reduce it, has come from effective altruists and has been funded by forward thinking billionaire philanthropists (Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna through Open Philanthropy; Sam Bankman-Fried through the Future Fund; along with some others).


Adam Hammond 08.16.22 at 7:07 pm

At some point in any future that includes human beings, passionate curation of the remaining genetic diversity (ecology if we are lucky) will become the valued and supported central focus of some or all remaining people. I believe this to be inescapably true given long times, and would value a different opinion. Getting to the point of curation as quickly as possible seems to be what we should be working on now. That is my “vote,” anyway. (This position isn’t narrow self-interest, I am not the right kind of scientist, and probably too old to contribute to the coming great work.)
But, humanity is unprepared for this global crisis. I do not expect any form of democracy to be able to rise to the challenge in the next 100 years, if ever.
1) The sciences of climatology and ecology are very young and never got the military boosts that older fields have had (yes, we all benefit from computing power). Our models of the current course are accurate enough to be certain that the future is grim, but not accurate enough to help us evaluate potential interventions without catastrophically large error bars. So, we are left with the knowledge that we should stop it with the CO2, but also that will not be enough on its own.
2) Political Philosophy has yet to come up with a governing system that avoids being selfishly owned by powerful people, or one that forces the powerful to give up stuff when necessary for the long term greater good.
I say “yet,” because I hold out hope that there are ideas that we have not yet had!


bekabot 08.16.22 at 9:10 pm

“there’s currently no majority for it”

No, there’s not. OTOH, there’s currently no majority for the two basic propositions which power conservative politics; one of which is that mankind ought allow itself to be ruled by a corps of self-appointed specialists in morality, while the other is that mankind ought to be ruled, willingly or not, by hook or by crook, by their natural superiors, whether those superiors are genetic or financial or technological or military or all four. A conversation of five minutes with any voter who actually bothers to vote would convince the the most skeptical inquirer that this is the truth.

So, here’s my question: conservatives (obviously) don’t allow their knowledge that their notions are universally unpopular to stymie them. Why should we? Surely it’s at least as possible to promote a product people like than to flog one they despise.


Alex SL 08.16.22 at 10:31 pm

I am not optimistic that there is a path to civilisational survival, based on my reading of historical failures. From empires to city states, world history is full of cases where a state failed because its citizens or nobility cared more about advancing or maintaining their interests relative to competitors inside the state than about ensuring the future of the state.

I see no immediate reason why the electorates of today’s democracies should be fundamentally wiser than any other human in history. Worse, in most Western nations, over 50 year olds and in particular retirees have an outsized influence because they are the most reliable voters and, thanks to modern medicine and reduced birth rates, unprecedentedly numerous compared to other age-groups. And they lean towards conservatism, fear of change, maintaining existing arrangements, or even nostalgia for outdated arrangements. Even if climate change were solved, we would probably continue to paint ourselves into a corner through the ongoing hyper-concentration of wealth and media influence in the hands of a few billionaires who use their outsized power to create oligarchies in all but name, and then collapse in the face of some external crisis because most ordinary people will ultimately have little attachment to such an oligarchy.

But, as dneus wrote, there is no reason to assume that non-democratic governance would fare any better. Of course, if one could have a wise, selfless, farsighted dictator, governance would be wise, selfless, and farsighted. But that kind of person tends not to erect tyrannies in the first place, so that seems like a non-starter. Just like there are certain types of person that self-select to become a politician in democracies, there are certain types of person that self-select to become dictators.


The problem can be seen even in your own choice of terminology. There is nuclear power, and then there are renewables. By definition that concept, only renewables are long-term sustainable. If renewables are “farcical malarkey”, then no complex civilisation that needs an electricity supply is long-term sustainable.

Now that may well be the case, but I really wish online advocates of nuclear power, or online advocates of the idea that renewables are “farcical malarkey” more generally, would at least explicitly acknowledge that their position means that any technological progress beyond mechanical windmills and horse-drawn carriages was a mistake and doesn’t only have to, but will, unavoidably be wound back when non-renewable fuels run low. But no, their statements are always to the effect of renewable energy being unrealistic, and therefore we should … continue long-term with forms of energy that are known to be unsustainable and therefore by definition not a long-term option.

I find this very puzzling. Perhaps a lot of people either don’t think too carefully about what the concept of “not renewable” actually means, or they are satisfied as long as something can be sustained over their own lifetime, making what comes after somebody else’s problem?

I might also add that my territory of residence here in Australia, the ACT, currently has a 100% renewable electricity supply. Tasmania is nearly entirely powered by hydro, plus a bit of wind, and South Australia nearly entirely by wind, plus a bit of residual gas. I would not call this “farcical malarkey” but rather ask how quickly the other states and territory can get there. (Transport is the harder nut to crack, of course, but I don’t see cars having a nuclear reactor under the hood either, so that is not directly relevant to this section.)


J-D 08.16.22 at 11:34 pm

I’m not trying to be snarky. But, if capitalism is at the root of our problems, shouldn’t it be mentioned?

Since the original question was not ‘What are our problems?’ but ‘What are the remedies?’, the answer to your question is ‘Not necessarily: only if mentioning it contributes usefully to the discussion of remedies, which so far it hasn’t’.


jwl 08.16.22 at 11:43 pm

On 4, the UK leadership of both the Conservative and Labour parties are committed to supporting the Ukrainian government against the fascist government of Russia. So there does seem to be a democratic solution to Fascism, as there was in WW2. Unlike Communist movements, which support and sign deals and treaties and support Fascist governments militarily and economically, democratic governments are once again standing up to Fascism. So for 4, the answer appears to be yes.


Timothy Scriven 08.17.22 at 12:01 am

“A few weeks ago, faced with yet another disappointingly cautious announcement from the leadership of Britain’s Labour party, I quipped on twitter that it seemed impossible to get elected in the UK without promising not to do any of the things that are necessary to fix the country and, perhaps, the world.”

Is this true? Corbyn performed strongly especially in his first election, and could have easily won, on a very radical platform, opposed viciously by his own party. Given how close he came the first time round, it’s almost impossible to think he wouldn’t have won had the party been on his side.

Ergo, the problem doesn’t seem to me to be with the electorate.


Peter T 08.17.22 at 6:06 am

steven t johnson: “The decline of property value in coasts threatened by sea level rise is not an existential threat to civilization, strictly speaking, though it seems to be perceived as one in most quarters.”

Sea level rise is not primarily an issue of dwelling relocation (although that will cause a lot of angst). It’s about re-building the basic infrastructure of most coast cities – drainage, ports, airports (a lot are adjacent to water), subways….An airport runway is a kilometer of very high strength concrete full of precisely-aligned pipes. Re-fitting London’s Victorian-era drainage system will not be cheap. And so on.

States have two choices with all this: pull together, enact higher taxes, bring the engineers on board and maintain the current standard (and you need an inclusive, if not democratic, political system to do this), or let stuff go – let roads go back to dirt, accept stuff being out of order for weeks or months – the sort of decay we see in many Rust-Belt cities. On current form much of the US will take the second course.


John Quiggin 08.17.22 at 6:51 am

I don’t know about the first question. But I’m pretty confident, that, if there is democratic path to survival, there is also no way of shifting to a technocratic path. If “we” could be convinced of the need for technocracy, we could also vote for and implement the policies the technocrats would adopt.

There are plenty of possible undemocratic paths (the US is in the process of shifting to one) but these are not technocratic and are less conducive to survival than is democracy.


John Quiggin 08.17.22 at 7:38 am

I’m pretty confident about the technical feasibility of decarbonizing the economy without a significant reduction in living standards. Essentially, it’s a matter of scrapping the existing capital stock of power plants, vehicles etc a bit faster than we would normally do, and replacing them with carbon-free alternatives which are already cheaper. Not saying it will happen in time, but the obstacles are political/social, not economic.


Alex SL 08.17.22 at 8:09 am

John Quiggin,

I would agree if sustainability was only about decarbonising.

However, land use, groundwater use, fertiliser use, consumer plastics, fashion, and electronics, holiday travel, and widespread use of variety of everyday chemicals from pesticides to waterproofing are also completely unsustainable. Bringing all this to sustainable levels is not possible without significantly reducing what most people would (I’d argue, incorrectly) call their living standards (e.g., being able to replay a hardly-used wardrobe every year, having non-stick pans, and holidaying in Bali). Hard to see majorities voting for that.


steven t johnson 08.17.22 at 12:52 pm

PeterT@17 is hard to follow. The current pattern in the US so far as I can tell—these things are not well-reported—is that older cities are not rebuilt in the Midwest and North while new “cities” and suburbs are built in the South. Apparently much of the infrastructure there is much cheaper. Public transportation facilities are more or less nonexistent in particular. The roads are actually pretty cheap (concrete with rubber would be inconceivable it seems to me) but heavily subsidized. But part of this has to do with population density and total area. Some countries like the US and Canada are going to have less “efficient” services than more compact ones. The prevailing wisdom is that commercial property development is much wiser and definitely more moral than tyrannical government planning. The zoning board tends to be viewed as one of the most offensive manifestations of socialism. The thing is, time will ensure that all cities eventually need their infrastructure rebuilt.

But so far as rebuilding things go, the problem is not the rebuilding. In the current system of national accounts this would count as economic growth. Nor is the problem moving private dwellings. The problem is that the main assets of most banks are mortgages on property, and the mortgages on commercial property in large cities is possibly the most lucrative of all. Writing down the value of Manhattan real estate in the current system of national accounts would count as catastrophe. (No, I don’t think so, but my thinking is pretty much unacceptable in polite company.) So I’m not entirely in agreement with the OP that sea level rise is in and of itself catastrophic.

The decadence of the current system (I’m not making Bruce’s mistake!) is why we already have so many cities rotting and the new ones so ramshackle from the beginning, I think. So I tend to disagree with the OP’s suggestion that a little technocratic discipline might be what we need.


Thomas E Cedergren 08.17.22 at 12:55 pm

It seems a bit late for all this handwringing. The time to address these issues was 50 years ago if not earlier. Now the cake is baked, cooled and frosted. You know the next step. And you don’t get to have it too. Read your own list. The coming collapse of the human experiment called civilization is at an end. I offer no solution because none are at hand.


J, not that one 08.17.22 at 2:34 pm

I would guess it is rare that people “decide” not to keep up infrastructure. Rather, either there’s a run of bad luck that they can’t keep up with, or there’s a run of neglect for whatever reason that they can’t recover from. Boston’s public transport may be an example. Years of fairly spaced-out failures, repaired eventually though somewhat slowly, have turned this year into multiple accidents and equipment failures in a short period, resulting in multiple simultaneous shutdowns of large parts of the system. Whether this is a “blip” or the beginning of the end is impossible to know at this point.


J, not that one 08.17.22 at 4:08 pm

Just noticed that the two choices on offer seem to be democracy and technocracy. Surely the idea that these are the choices is a very large part of the problem. Could a dictator impose technocracy effectively? Could people be compelled to accept dictatorship without undermining any technocracy that might actually be effective?

Maybe, a technocratic solution that was already worked out could be put into effect by a dictatorship. One would then want to be very, very sure that nothing had been left out of that solution, however. For example, early opponents of the USSR often noted that technical issues were frequently subordinated to political ones. Possibly they were writing in bad faith. That assumption would seem to rely on a belief that people just don’t do things like that, in which case one’s mileage may perhaps vary. At any event, at present, our choices in the US seem to be: (1) progressive Democrats, who are well-meaning and like to think of themselves as technocrat-humanists, and who believe in deferring to the scientists and experts but are reasonable, not absolutists, (2) techno-libertarians, who are proudly absolutist and believe the methods and personnel of a small sector of the commercial economy can be extended to run all of society, and (3) a sector of conservatives pushed off the cliff, from anti-vax to anti-medicine, by the Republican response to the pandemic, who will do whatever their “betters” tell them (including suffering) so long as their “betters” don’t claim to be acting on knowledge and science, with a smattering of (4) more or less progressive or leftist thinkers who believe science (whether in principle or as currently constituted) is unreliable and should always and in every instance take a back seat to politics, morality, or something else more “human.” The second and third are forming a coalition, but the first and fourth are still constantly at odds and therefore we can’t oppose conservatism effectively. Maybe the UK and Europe are luckier than we have been.


Charlie W 08.17.22 at 7:41 pm

To echo John Q at #19: decarbonisation is often presented as technically formidable, but an awful lot of the carbon economy is maintained and preserved by special interests (i.e. mine owners). Removing them may be not be easy, exactly, but it is not going to come at a cost to living standards, and can be democratic.


John Quiggin 08.17.22 at 8:59 pm

“I would agree if sustainability was only about decarbonising. However, land use, groundwater use, fertiliser use, consumer plastics, fashion, and electronics, holiday travel, and widespread use of variety of everyday chemicals from pesticides to waterproofing are also completely unsustainable.”

Disregarding decarbonization, where do you see the unsustainability? Water is a problem, but a surmountable one. Pesticides and other chemicals are used far more cautiously than they were in the past, even in relatively poor countries. Planes are problematic mainly because of carbon dioxide emissions, other issues are secondary.


Bob 08.17.22 at 9:27 pm

John Quiggin sums up very nicely my own thoughts on this topic:

“I’m pretty confident, that, if there is democratic path to survival, there is also no way of shifting to a technocratic path. If “we” could be convinced of the need for technocracy, we could also vote for and implement the policies the technocrats would adopt.”


Alex SL 08.17.22 at 11:28 pm

To clarify, I am not saying things can’t be done, I was responding to the idea that they can be done without reducing perceived quality of life, which is difficult to get a democratic mandate for.

Land use: Natural areas get smaller and smaller, which leads to erosion, reduced soil quality, long-term extinction of most species as isolated remnant reserves aren’t large and connected enough to maintain sufficient genetic diversity, and collapse of ecosystem services such as pollination. Much of our best agricultural land is disappearing under concrete, because large cities tended to start where farming was possible (exceptions apply to some port and mining towns). Will only get better if we effectively switch to vegetarianism and build denser cities (and reduce population). People used to steak and large suburban homes and gardens will see that as a reduction of their quality of life.

Transport: We will have to see if it can even be decarbonised without ruining significant parts of the planet with lithium mining and waste. Compared to public transport, cars waste enormous space in roads and parking, so land use again. The only solution may be to vastly reduce the number of cars, which people used to them will see as a reduction of their quality of life.

Chemicals: See recent news items about forever chemicals already pushing rain water (!) above the threshold where it becomes technically non-drinkable because it contains high levels of substances recognised as carcinogenic and sterilising. We can filter our water, but animals don’t. Also, accumulation of microplastics in the food chain. We have put so many new substances out into the environment that science hasn’t kept up at all re their effects, and now they are so well-established in everyday life making things non-stick, water-repellent, soft, etc, that it will be very hard to outlaw all this convenience again even if it turns out, as I suspect, that this complex of issues is behind decreasing fertility (not so problematic if it were just us humans, admittedly) and decreasing insect populations.

As an aside, if current use of pesticides is cautious then I really don’t want to see incautious use. My complex has an exterminator come twice a year to generously spray the entire courtyard against “ants and spiders”, and I have yet to figure out what the problem is with those critters living in the lawn. Most parts of the planet won’t even ban neonicotinoids, although it seems fairly well established that they threaten pollination services (at least that is my understanding?). Admittedly, this more about inertia and ignorance than quality of life, thus only an aside.

Planes: Hard to see how they can be decarbonised, from what I have read so far. Maybe concentrated, liquid fuels could be made from renewable energy sources, but I expect that would still multiply the cost of flying compared to current oil-based fuels. People used to flying around all year for meetings or holidays will see that as a reduction in their living standards.

General resource use by consumer goods ranging from plastic toys to fashion to electronics: Reduced levels of consumption will certainly be seen as reduced living standards.

I admit that some of these items become non-issues if one assumes that a loss of >80% biodiversity is both acceptable and unlikely to have negative effects on humanity. I assume, however, that widespread ecosystem collapse would have unacceptable negative effects on humanity, and that informs my perception of unsustainability.


John Quiggin 08.18.22 at 12:03 am

Alex SL: Urban land accounts for about 1 per cent of total area. Peri-urban agricultural land is valuable, not necessarily because it’s great soil, but because it’s close to urban markets

As regards forever pesticides and herbicides, none of those currently being used come close to DDT, dieldrin, dioxins etc. which were used liberally in C20. As you say, we need to ban neonicotinoids, and probably will.

“General resource use by consumer goods ranging from plastic toys to fashion to electronics” Which resources do you have in mind? There’s no general shortage of mineral resources (contra the Club of Rome’s claims in the 1970s) and there will be plenty of hydrocarbons available for plastics if we stop burning them as fuel. “Fashion” again raises issues with water use for cotton, but I don’t see it as a threat to human civilisation.

Transport including planes is about decarbonization, which we had set aside. Biodiversity is also a big problem, largely arising from our failure to deal with global poverty. But we should focus on real issues, rather than a grab-bag of second-order problmes


Alex SL 08.18.22 at 1:11 am

I think we are talking past each other. I completely agree that we should focus on issues proportionate to their immediacy and severity, and e.g. peak phosphate is rather lower down the list than phasing out black coal.

But a variety of less immediately threatening habits we have are also unsustainable, changing them for the better would be perceived as a reduction in living standards, and this means finding a democratic path to those changes will be challenging. The OP itself did not only mention carbon, after all. It is also possible that whereas several of these problems are manageable or tolerable in isolation, they become unmanageable by compounding each other (e.g., water desalination is much more affordable if we don’t have an energy crisis at the same time as a water crisis).

Two quick responses to details: You will know, of course, but Australia, for example, has the land with most reliable water supply along the east coast, and it also happens to have the most urbanisation in those same areas, wasting valuable agricultural land for everything from suburban lawns to golf courses. Re fashion, I was recently surprised to learn that at least a third of microplastics come from textiles, and some estimates are higher.

What really confuses me about your comment, however, is “Biodiversity is also a big problem, largely arising from our failure to deal with global poverty”, and this is where we may have different interpretations of what standard of living means, or even poverty. To me, lifting people out of poverty means increasing their level of consumption; in fact, I find it difficult to visualise how becoming wealthier can be quantified otherwise. In other words, the end of global poverty equals turning currently unsustainable consumption of energy, water, land, etc., plus waste production, into even more unsustainable consumption and waste production.

The solution is the exact opposite: to reduce living standards in wealthy countries to where the median European or Australian family doesn’t have even a single car but uses tram or bike, doesn’t have an oversized house, doesn’t holiday in Tenerife via plane, doesn’t buy hundreds of dollars worth of plastic and entertainment electronics each children’s birthday and Christmas, etc. And that is an impossible sell, so nobody wants to say that out loud. Much more comforting to think we can have our sustainable civilisation cake AND eat it up through not changing our standard of living.

I agree that some currently wasteful production processes could be made sustainable. But I would argue that current affordability and convenience is often based on being wasteful and unsustainable, because that is cheaper*. Recycling, using only regenerative energies with lower ROI, insulating better, using less pesticides, all of that either costs more effort per output that is then not available to provide luxuries. And other items, such as billions of people all desiring a suburban mansion as the benefit of having left poverty behind, cannot possibly be made sustainable.

*) This is also where capitalism enters the argument. I do not buy that our problems are all due to twenty billionaires, as many leftists argue. But a problem is that many of us buy what is most convenient and cheapest, and in fact many of us have no choice due to their limited budgets. And that means that the market signal is to go cheap instead of sustainable. Only unpopular regulation could solve that, by directly outlawing certain packaging types or entire product lines.


Z 08.18.22 at 3:35 am

Help out a layperson Prof. Quiggin. If I wanted to become better informed about technocracy, can you suggest some literature? I am a student that has access to academic databases.


John Quiggin 08.18.22 at 5:20 am

Alex: Comments threads aren’t the right place for this kind of discussion. I’ll try to write something more comprehensive later.

Z: There was a thing called the Technocracy movement popular in the US in the 1930s/ Some remnants survive, but it’s of purely historical interest. Otherwise, technocracy is a general term for putting decisions in the hands of (supposedly neutral) experts rather than having them made through political processes. A related idea is restricting voting to well-informed people “epistocracy” which I criticise here
Searching, it looks as if this book would be interesting and would probably have plenty of useful reference


Chris Bertram 08.18.22 at 5:23 am

@John Q: Surely the land use problem isn’t mainly about urban land but about habitat destruction, which is also about logging, the use of vast areas for livestock grazing etc. Even in the UK, the built-up area is small but there’s very little natural habitat left, and the rivers are dying from a combination of agricutural runoff (poultry farming), sewage dumping and drought. In an area the size of the continental US, there’s not much forest left. Etc


John Quiggin 08.18.22 at 5:42 am

Chris: That’s right, but the problem is mainly in poor countries not in rich ones. Forest cover (not exactly the same thing as natural habitat, but a reasonable proxy) is increasing in Europe.
It’s declining in poor countries largely because of the need for firewood, which would be obviated if people had access to cheap solar or wind energy.

More generally, better human development goes with more forests and less loss of biodiversity.

That’s a comments thread oversimplification of a complex topic, neglecting things like palm oil exports, but it’s still broadly correct.


John Quiggin 08.18.22 at 5:45 am

This report shows big loss of forests in Russia and Brazil, offsetting the gains mentioned above. That’s a reflection of corruption and exploitation, not an inevitable outcome of modernity

I’m not absolutely sure about the reliability of this. Most other evidence I’ve seen suggests stable or increasing forest cover in North America.

And all of this could be wiped out by global warming, which is already driving increases in wildfire.


Chris Armstrong 08.18.22 at 6:50 am

I think the biodiversity crisis could be the biggest crisis we face. It attracts less public attention than climate change, perhaps partly because it’s a somewhat more complex phenomenon (climate change is quite easy to get a handle on, for most people). But, being more complex, it may also be harder to solve. The point also goes for political theorists, who have written vast reams on CC, just responses, etc. Biodiversity loss suffers from a striking comparative neglect here.


Chris Bertram 08.18.22 at 7:01 am

@JohnQ I’m not sure that “stable or increasing forest cover in North America” tells the story. If you’ve cut down a lot of ancient woodland containing many and varied species of trees, plants, fungi, animals and replaced it with new growth saplings, then you may have maintained or even increased the area of cover but that fact doesn’t really measure what’s important.


Alex SL 08.18.22 at 10:03 am

Chris Armstrong,

I am saying this as a biodiversity researcher myself, with a lot of extinction grief, but I actually disagree. Warming the planet by 5C will collapse civilisation and crash our population to a fraction of what it is now. I am not sure driving 80% of all species extinct would do the same, by itself. It would still be A Very Bad Idea, of course.

IMO we face two main crises: (1) climate, and (2) we are taking up too much of everything on this planet, to a completely unsustainable degree. The biodiversity crisis is largely caused by the second and could therefore largely be solved through a combination of thrift and population decline. The extinction risks caused by invasive species is the main factor that would still require ongoing management.

It is illuminating to look at the stats such as what percentage of animal biomass is livestock, what percentage of annual global primary production is consumed by humans (e.g., DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211349110), or how little natural habitat is left. We are but a single species, and we are squishing millions of other species into an ever-decreasing corner of our shared ‘space’.


MisterMr 08.18.22 at 10:15 am

A big question is how much living standard for the average or lower income person in the west really have to fall, and how much is just waste during the production process (that might therefore be eaten by the producing business).

Assuming that there is this waste, there is a problem of pushing businesses into working with lower profit shares.
This is where “leftish” economic policies enter into the equation.


Jonathan 08.18.22 at 1:45 pm

It seems to me in facing climate change there are 3 options:

1) We go all in on renewable and battery technologies and get to net zero carbon emission without reducing standard of living. This will be expensive and there will be environmental impacts from mining for various necessary materials such as lithium and rare earth metals.
2) We continue business as usual with adaption to global warming. This means eventually abandoning the current coastline and large chunks of the warmer parts of the planet. Eventually it will require replacing significant chunks of the ecological services provided by nature with technological alternatives and an eventual transition to renewable energy as fossil fuel supplies become too expensive to extract. This will be a nasty and brutal process. We’ll end up significantly poorer and lots of innocent people will die in the process.
3) We adopt a degrowth agenda that gets us to what we can support with a low tech net zero carbon emission economic system. I figure this will require only an 80-90% reduction in human population. This probably requires some sort of super-plague cooked up by a secret conspiracy, because I don’t see how any government could steer a course towards self-genocide on this scale much less all of them.

I think option 1 is the clear winner and I think it’s a plausible option. We have the technologies to replace almost every major source of carbon emission. Yes, some cost significantly more currently than the carbon emitting option (steel and concrete production for example), but none of them are so expensive as to render our civilization impossible. There will probably be changes in how we live our lives as relative costs for goods and services shift significantly. I don’t think that’s a deal breaker, people are adjusting all the time to major societal trends driven by policy and technological changes that that get little or no discussion.

How do we get to option 1 under democracy? I think the solution is to go big and not sweat the small stuff. In each wealthy country, we actually propose a plan that will get that country to zero emissions on the necessary time scale. Not setting a goal or commitment or a good start. We bring the voters a plan that will solve the actual problem. The plans will have to be flexible as we don’t know what the most efficient way to do some things as we advance in technology, renewable percentages get high, etc… The plan will also need to include plenty of pork to buy off current interests and make it palatable, but such is politics. I see a mix of subsidies and direct investments, backstopped by hard cutoffs of when certain technologies can no longer be sold, followed by no longer used.

Once the wealthy countries have their plans in place, we’ll have basically forced the hands of the poor countries. Without the investments of the wealthy countries, maintaining the fossil fuel infrastructure will likely be more expensive than transitioning. Ideally, we’d support them out of good intentions, but self-interested ones are okay too.


Chris Armstrong 08.18.22 at 2:55 pm

Alex SL, a lot of it comes down to how you define biodiversity, which I wouldn’t reduce down to number of species. If we include genetic and ecosystem diversity, I think we’re perhaps concerned about the same thing: humanity is squeezing everything else out, and this is unsustainable. We could solve climate (ha!) and still face massive environmental problems because of the kind of ‘biomass reallocation’ you mention.


John Quiggin 08.19.22 at 4:14 am

Here’s a piece from 10 years ago, making the case that , given political will, we have the technological capacity to decarbonize the economy and end poverty, while improving living standards for everybody. On the whole, technology has surprised on the upside since then, politics on the downside

A partial draft of this was posted here and led to some lively discussion


David Duffy 08.19.22 at 5:06 am

Only a brief note,
argues that the socio-political barriers to “energy descent” (to, say, rural Mexican levels)
are greater than any technological barriers to 100% renewable energy in the given time frames. Says Clack et al (upthread) long since refuted.


valuethinker 08.19.22 at 8:26 am

Alex S

Tasmania is an anomaly. The rest of Australia does not have the typography or climate for extensive hydro power? (Realising there are Snowy Mountains project plus presumably Queensland). Tasmania has (relative) mountains and lots of rain.

Australia’s blessing in the past was vast amounts of thermal coal. To move to a post Carbon world the vested interests that creates are a major barrier (your PM and his lump of coal in Parliament).

The good news is that you have solar, where Australia has one of the highest takeups of residential solar in the world. The climate would support a mass move to heat pumps – goodbye gas heating.

Australia has lots of space & lots of sun. It also seems to have decent onshore wind – although I am unsure as to what the opportunity is in offshore wind (it should be good, but may require floating turbines due to a narrow continental shelf?).

So there’s no difficulty getting Australia to 100% renewables some of the time. There’s a practical need for huge transmission corridors, but again it’s a country with a lot of space. (I am sure you have your own NIMBY issues like the rest of us – or you wouldn’t have the housing prices you do).

The problem is what to do if the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? Pumped storage hydro for some, and there must be a market opportunity for battery storage.

To deal with multi-day lulls in wind, I suspect you are going to need hydrogen. The “brown/blue hydrogen” programmes are a trap, locking you into further supplies of fossil fuels. But green hydrogen must be possible given the amount of sunlight you get.


steven t johnson 08.19.22 at 11:10 am

Excuse me I’ve lost track? I’ve forgotten how decarbonization (even if that were the panacea for climate change,) is going to be profitable?


Miriam Ronzoni 08.19.22 at 2:57 pm

Three thoughts:

Green New Deal-type proposals seem to address exactly the kind of issue you are concerned with – as in, not just how to address climate change equitably, but also (and largely, as a result) in a way that might reasonably gain democratic support.
Relatedly, it largely boils down to what a “democratic path” is: if you mean something akin to what we actually have been calling democratic in the real world, it might involve framing issues in specific ways, and indeed even some borderline lying. Democratic politics has been doing this all along. Even Green New Deals, say, will plausibly involve some contraction in living standards, but they promise job security and equity. Democratic leaders can choose what to emphasize…
My own conviction is that a democratic path out of this mess also requires some cross-border mobilization, but that is a huge Pandora’s box so I am just going to mention it and search for cover :)


Alex SL 08.19.22 at 10:27 pm


The point was not that all countries have the same solutions available, but that it is incorrect to say that renewables are a non-starter, and therefore nuclear power is the only way.

100% renewables some of the time

Again, if we cannot get to 100% renewables all of the time, industrial civilisation was a mistake, and our technology needs to be wound back to late-medieval levels.

John Quiggin,

Thanks, I will read your aeon piece, which I had not seen before.

With the caveat that I have yet to read it carefully and in every detail, three quick thoughts that occur to me now.

First, I see that at least at the beginning, the premise appears to be 90% reduction of fossil fuel use. See again second paragraph of this comment. 90% is not enough, it will just take a bit longer before the catastrophe happens.

Second, the piece seems to argue exactly what I argue: Yes, we have all the solutions at our hands to do better. Yes, I, personally, would not see the abolition of cars, plastic waste, beef consumption, and annual overseas vacations as a noticeable decline in my living standards. But hundreds of millions of people would see that as a devastating decline in their living standards, they would fight it tooth and nail, and that is the problem for the democratic mandate that the OP seemed to be about. Entrenched interests aren’t just the CEOs of twenty large companies, they are Bob and Jane down the road who see it as an assault on their very identity if they don’t get to drive their SUV to the school three blocks away every morning to drop off the kids.

Third, simply on the economics of it, I find it difficult to understand how the same level of prosperity can be achieved using energy sources with a lower energy return on investment. I assume that has to mean we will have less energy available for all the things other than replacing energy infrastructure, so that is less economic output available for wasteful consumption and luxuries. But again, the OP was never only about decarbonisation, so all other unsustainable behaviours for whose abolition it will be difficult to get a democratic mandate are also relevant, not only energy.


Thomas P 08.20.22 at 4:34 pm

Humanity has a long history of coming up with technology that seems great at the time but turns out to be a disaster later on. Starting with weapons that gave us plenty of food, but made us so good hunters that we wiped out easily hunted megafauna, irrigation that destroyed soil through salination, and in the last century stuff like leaded gasolene, DDT, CFC:s etc.

What are we doing today that we will find out in a decade is a big problem, and how do we stop causing new environmental problems that we don’t even know about yet?


steven t johnson 08.20.22 at 5:34 pm

“‘It is not Madness, ma’am, replied Mr. Bumble after a few moments of deep meditation. ‘It’s Meat.'”

It is not clear that pre-industrial civilizations are sustainable in the indefinite sense apparently meant in the people advocating a radical reduction in popular consumption. The disappearance of many civilizations should attest to that. The continuity of civilization in the “West” since ancient Rome is not precisely illusory. But it is not the same civilization just transformed, it is a succession of peoples/states with cultural heritage appropriated from predecessors. Even there sometimes there is a permanent decline. The wonders of Sumer are today’s deserts of Iraq. The great cities of central Asia like Samarkand and Bokhara are misty legends. Even the apparent exception, China, is a chronicle of repeated collapse. The grim examples of Cahokia or the Mayans or the mysterious people of the Amazon should be well known proofs even to the people of the US that progress is not an eternal ascent.


John Quiggin 08.20.22 at 8:05 pm

ALex SL, lots to discuss, more than I can deal with at the moment. But you don’t need to worry about energy return on energy invested (EROEI). Here’s some calculations from 2015

Things have improved a lot since then, not only because of tech progress but because a growing share of the energy used to produce solar PV is itself derived from solar PV or wind.


KT2 08.20.22 at 11:13 pm

Chris Bertram @37 said ”  “If you’ve cut down a lot of ancient woodland containing many and varied species of trees, plants, fungi, animals and replaced it with new growth saplings, then you may have maintained or even increased the area of cover but that fact doesn’t really measure what’s important..”

And created a young forest feedback loop until these eucalyptus trees reach 80-100yrs old.

“and just 1.16% of forest being unburned and unlogged.”
David Lindenmayer.

As old growth acts fire suppression and does not happen until trees 80-100 yrs old. New plantings act as a negative feedback during fires intensifying fires and further destroying forest.

And Melbourne clean water catchment.

Try to see the dark blue patches in this map;

“Interacting Factors Driving a Major Loss of Large Trees with Cavities in a Forest Ecosystem
David Lindenmayer et al

…”These latter factors have resulted in all landscapes being dominated by stands ?72 years and just 1.16% of forest being unburned and unlogged. We discuss how the features that make Mountain Ash forests vulnerable to a decline in large tree abundance are shared with many forest types worldwide.”

Great to watch Lindenmayer in;
… and see “Australia’s Panda” in his opinion, and I agree.

But – woodchips and paper!”


Alex SL 08.21.22 at 1:31 am

steven t johnson,

Yes and no. Many previous civilisations collapsed due to unsustainable practices, mostly, I believe, land use (soil salinisation from irrigation, erosion, nutrient depletion, deforestation). But others, and I believe this includes the Roman empire, were weakened by some combination of institutional weakness, infighting, and plagues, and then given the coup de grace by external enemies. I think those two scenarios are very different, and only the former is directly comparable to our most urgent current crisis.

For the same reason I also wouldn’t count the end of a nation or dynasty if it is merely part of a much larger sphere of civilisation that happily continued on. The end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation doesn’t really matter if German principalities directly continue the previous trajectory of technological and economic development. Pre-industrial China may have been sustainable on the scale of tens of thousands of years in the sense of its rice- and wheat-based village agriculture being sustainable on that scale, even as ruling dynasties rise, become stagnant, and are replaced by the next dynasty in a bloody civil war. This political turnover is much different than finding that the entire technological and economic system underlying the daily life of all the people in a civilisation, and thus its population density and prosperity, was a terrible mistake all along and was never going to work long-term because it exhausts some non-renewable resource within two to three centuries.

Sorry for commenting so often on this particular thread. This topic is important to me, and I hope my comments have at least always been respectful and relevant.


engels 08.21.22 at 9:26 am

Why is capitalism just assumed?

Perhaps the same reason class is never discussed (except in the coded language of “pessimism” about democratic decisions, “technocracy” as the necessary price, etc).


engels 08.21.22 at 9:42 am

I think the assumption on which the dilemma is based, that democracies can’t be trusted to do the right thing because they’re beholden to “the more prosperous among the electorates of the wealthiest countries on earth” but technocracy won’t suffer from this problem, requires more interrogation.


engels 08.21.22 at 10:03 am

Since the original question was not ‘What are our problems?’ but ‘What are the remedies?’, the answer to your question is ‘Not necessarily: only if mentioning it contributes usefully to the discussion of remedies, which so far it hasn’t’.

“What are the remedies to the mound of elephant shit in our living room? Please don’t bother mentioning the elephant unless you think you can get it to leave, which I’m certain you can’t.”


steven t johnson 08.21.22 at 2:01 pm

Alex SL@52 is thoughtful. One thing though I have to strongly disagree with is the implication that plague is some sort of external factor. Plagues are in every way an outcome of environmental change and population distress. The oppressed are weakened even against disease. The ability to maintain state order within and state integrity against enemies without is not so deeply implicated (I think?) but I suspect state capacity is also related to environmental factors.

I can’t be so vehement in arguing that “the previous trajectory of technological and economic development” is what matters. I’m not sure that it is quite so factually true, or else as I already hinted Bokhara and Samarkand would still be great centers of learning and research and cultural innovation?

Nor am I quite so sure that the shifts from Byzantine to Arab or Persian to Seljuk or Ottoman were quite so superficial. Or, to look east of Asia instead of eastern Mediterranean, that the shifts from Zhou to Warring States to Chin/Han to Three Kingdoms to Sixteen Dynasties to the northern and southern dynasties to the Sui/Tang to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms to the Song/Yuan/Ming/Qing. The notion of a real China at village level while meaningless names were plastered over the top hiding a technological and economic trajectory from Qing to Republic to People’s Republic isn’t so obvious to me? It seems that the Buddhist China of the Tang is just different from the syncretic state sponsored Confucianism of the later Ming and this difference matters. Alex SL mentions that continuity of the Holy Roman Empire with modern Germany, but isn’t the very notion of a continuity between the (west) Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire is vehement assertion of a nonexistent continuity, an appropriation disguised as an inheritance?

Apologies for the potted history of China but sometimes details are needed to adequately convey complexity, especially by an unskilled writer.


Alex SL 08.21.22 at 9:04 pm

steven t johnson,

Collapse of civilisations happens on a gradient, so we can reasonably disagree about some of these cases. What I wanted to say was that a political collapse accompanied by a 90% population contraction because the soil runs out is different from 90% of the population being slaughtered and/or driven away into slavery because a technologically superior outside enemy conquers them.

However, I have to disagree about plagues. I do not see how, for example, the Roman empire could have done better against the plague of Justinian, or the Inca empire against the smallpox. These were at the time newly introduced diseases, and the relevant societies had no antibiotics, no vaccines, no germ theory. How would less ‘population distress’ have helped in these cases?


Peter Dorman 08.22.22 at 5:11 am

Sorry to be so late to the party, but I just got back from a camping trip, where I was blissfully out of cell coverage.

Very briefly, my book Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them: Science, Economics and the Challenge of Catastrophic Climate Change, which has just/finally been published, goes into a lot of detail about what it would take to keep warming to 2 degrees C and what such a program would entail economically. The bottom line is that it would be difficult, but if there is sufficient will we can do it. John Q and others who think the low MC of renewables means the cost of rapid, large scale decarbonization would be minor ought to examine Ch. 5 of this book or at least take a look at the mitigation pathway model intercomparisons curated by the IPCC.

I adopt an upbeat tone in the book, and in fact, when I wrote it I was cautiously optimistic. The gross failure almost in most countries (including the US) to sustain cooperation for public health purposes in the face of the Covid pandemic has now made me much more pessimistic. If slipping a mask on when you go into a store is such a big deal, how will societies manage the vastly greater inconvenience of a breakneck energy transition?

Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the “degrowth” (Hickel et al.) delusion, which I spent many pages tearing apart.

I don’t know what alternative there is to acting as if we could be optimistic about a democratic path to climate sanity, but at the moment it feels rather like a performance.


Citrakayah 08.22.22 at 2:53 pm

“Now according to Geoff Mann’s review of degrowth books in the London Review of Books, Hickel is also committed to the expansion of democracy just about everywhere. But it would be surprising if there were a democratic majority in North America or Western Europe for a deliberate reduction in living standards to those levels, even if it is necessary.”

But consider–the living standards of North America and Western Europe are subsidized through the disregard of other people’s welfare elsewhere in the world. The Niger Delta, the Atacama, and the suppression of workers in places like China are all good examples of this. Giving people more autonomy and choice in their lives would enable them to cut off the flow of resources to the developed world, causing consumption to plummet.

There is more than one path to degrowth. While trying to appeal to consumers is a vital one, setting barriers in the way of consumerism that some people will vigorously defend is another.


John Quiggin 08.22.22 at 8:23 pm

Peter D @58 Thanks for this. I’ll try to get the book, but in the meantime I just looked at the chapter outline, and some extracts. I agree that early scrapping of existing capital stocks is the big issue in the transition. On my analysis, that cost is big (several % of income annually) but not overwhelming. I also agree that we probably need Direct Air Capture starting 2050 or early, but not clear why you describe this as “yet to be developed”. It exists, and I’ve seen cost estimates as low as $100/tonne, which would be a bargain.
Our collective failure on masks etc is discouraging. But a more relevant example is the German Energiewiende. I think the early phase-out of nuclear was and is misguided, but it shows that prematurely scrapping a large part of the capital stock is politically feasible.


Peter Dorman 08.22.22 at 8:40 pm

Thanks, John. My reference for carbon removal technologies has been the series of NAS reports that have appeared in recent years. According to them, the jury is still out about feasibility and cost at scale. And as you may know, there is also considerable concern in the mitigation modeling community about the reliance on CR. The strategy I adopted in the book is to adopt a carbon budget that doesn’t rely on being able to overshoot. The greater risk, IMO, is to accept a much less demanding emission reduction schedule, only to find out down the road that it won’t be enough.

About the Energiewende, I have several pages on it in the book, which can be previewed in a piece I wrote for Challenge a few years back, The Climate Crisis and the Green New Deal: The Issue Is the Issue, After All. Short version, the Energiewende is both inspiring in its accomplishments and as a model of how industrial policy can be conducted, but in the absence of measures to directly curtail fossil fuel use it has had little effect on mitigation performance. Germany has actually lagged peer EU countries in this respect.


Peter T 08.23.22 at 1:49 am

On the history (Alex SL and steven t johnson) – the Western Roman Empire was definitely weakened by soil depletion. In particular, areas near Rome became malaria-infested swamps, and key regions in Italy became much less productive. Western Europe has been de-forested three times and then, after population collapse, re-forested twice: in the neolithic, in the late Roman Empire and from late medieval times.

On plagues – there is a connection between social disruption and their impact. In the Americas, many populations suffered minimal loss until invasions or raids were added to the mix of stresses. War spreads disease, weakens resistance and erodes the ability to take counter-measures (eg quarantine). Probably true for the Antonine plague as well, although we lack the sources. Certainly true for the Black Death.


MFB 08.23.22 at 7:28 am

It’s entirely possible that converting the entire power generation, agricultural, manufacturing and transport elements of the global economy from being based upon fossil fuels to being based upon solar energy will be easy and cheap. However, it is extremely unlikely that this is the case, especially since in order to avoid catastrophic global warming it has to be done within the next decade.

I am rather worried that the people who claim that such a gigantic project, dwarfing World War II, will be easy and cheap, are doing so because they are not really interested in solving the problem (or because they have been deceived by people who are not really interested in solving the problem). After all, if you are mobilising people with the argument “It’s no problem, we don’t have to make sacrifices, just give some of our money to different people than we do now”, then while it is easy to get people to do this, well, if it turns out that sacrifices really need to be made — and in my judgement they do, huge ones — then such an argument undermines the pursuit of such sacrifices.

I don’t believe that business as usual will save us. It hasn’t saved us for the sixty years that we’ve known about the problem, and I see no evidence of any change, magical technological promises aside.


engels 08.23.22 at 8:49 am

Corbyn performed strongly… Ergo, the problem doesn’t seem to me to be with the electorate.

Rather surprised no one else mentioned this (I probably shouldn’t be).


engels 08.23.22 at 9:02 am

Clearly the solution is less democracy…

Every year, the poorest 50% of the US population emit about 10 tonnes of CO2 per person, while the richest 10% emit 75 tonnes per person. That is a gap of more than seven to one. Similarly, in Europe, the poorest half emits about five tonnes per person, while the richest 10% emit about 30 tonnes – a gap of six to one. (You can now view this data on the World Inequality Database.) Where do these large inequalities come from? The rich emit more carbon through the goods and services they buy, as well as from the investments they make. Low-income groups emit carbon when they use their cars or heat their homes, but their indirect emissions – that is, the emissions from the stuff they buy and the investments they make – are significantly lower than those of the rich. The poorest half of the population barely owns any wealth, meaning that it has little or no responsibility for emissions associated with investment decisions.


TM 08.23.22 at 1:05 pm

“the poorest 50% of the US population emit about 10 tonnes of CO2 per person, while the richest 10% emit 75 tonnes per person”

Sure but in international comparison, those 10 tonnes emitted by the “poorest Americans” are way above average. Per capita emission France, Italy, UK are 5-6 tonnes, Indonesia, Brazil about 2 tonnes. Of course we need to “take on inequality” (both within and between countries) but we can’t pretend that the mass consumerism in rich countries doesn’t matter.


TM 08.23.22 at 1:22 pm

“I don’t believe that business as usual will save us.”

Definitely not. Governments must enter into crisis mode to take decisive action now. This isn’t impossible, democratic governments have been able to master severe crises before. But they must start acting like they understand the gravity of the moment (which they have totally failed to do these past decades). They must be ready to act against powerful interests, give up the “leave it to the market” bullshit, embrace a far more activist role, a robust economic interventionism.

The only sliver of hope that I see is that with the Covid crisis, the Ukraine war, and now the catastrophic heat and drought wave, finally they can’t deny the severity of these crises any more. Now they still need to do the right things…


Ingrid Robeyns 08.23.22 at 1:53 pm

This is both an informative and also a depressing thread – I am not an optimist by nature, but so much hope that John Q.’s optimism is right.

John @60 – could you share a link/some links to papers/reports that show that exists and can be done for $100/tonne? I’d like to understand the technological feasibility issues here.

Peter Dorman – your book got advertised earlier this week in a CUP direct mailing, I’ve just bought an e-copy and am looking forward reading your book.


engels 08.23.22 at 10:51 pm

we can’t pretend that the mass consumerism in rich countries doesn’t matter

It matters, but nothing like as much as the hyper-consumerism of the richest 10%, a group that probably includes most of the people calling for eco-authoritarianism on this thread.


John Quiggin 08.24.22 at 12:59 am

Hi Ingrid,

A couple of links, one on a plant under construction in Iceland

and one claiming a feasible cost of $100/tonne

I agree with the points Peter Dorman makes. The issues of scale are unresolved, and we shouldn’t let this possible backstop slow down the process of decarbonization.

Replying to MFB, the costs are nowhere near those of WWII, at least as a share of income on an annual basis. We are talking about maybe 3-4 per cent of total world income. That’s still a huge amount of money, of the order of $100 trillion between now and 2050, and there’s no guarantee that we will deliver it. We could wipe out global poverty much less, and we haven’t got anywhere near doing that.


steven t johnson 08.24.22 at 3:46 pm

Alex SL@57 “How would less ‘population distress’ have helped in these cases?”
In the case of the Roman empire, the Antonine plagues were I believe so severe because of overcrowding fostered the spread, poor nutrition weakened the people and the social weakness concealed under the historical aura of “the Good Emperors” impaired the ability of simple nursing to moderate the casualties. I don’t think any of these factors are outside forces beyond the science and technology of the day. But yes it is true that the historical sources to prove that are lacking for that period.

In the case of the Incas, it seems to me the defeat in war (not just the Spaniards’ war but the civil war that set the stage for Pizarro’s victory) was the primary factor in turning a terrible epidemic into civilizational erasure. Compare the non-disappearance of feudalism after the Black Death. Perhaps that was due to the difference between a mortality of 25-50% in parts of Europe and, what?, in South America. The notion of quarantine was not a surprising development due to Pasteur’s confirmation of the germ theory. If the medieval Europeans could devise it, so could the Incan empire if it weren’t shredded by civil war and invasion. As we all know, quarantines are not magical but melioration of the disease might have left us able to read the quipu?

Peter T@67 I agree that the effects of disease are drastically compounded by war, though I would still emphasize that disease epidemics are endogenous factors. The presence of dense populations where disease can easily spread is baked into many civilizations (in the strictest sense of the word, meaning “living in cities.”) The powers of military resistance are also highly constrained by purely endogenous factors. I am a little puzzled at what kinds of soil depletion lead to swamps.

Peter D is obviously far more expert at the technical questions about what it would take to preserve the environmental status quo. But I’m still lost. In this system what will be done is what is profitable. The generally unspoken, and therefore all the more unquestionable, assumption is that this system is more like a law of nature than a choice and even if it weren’t, then this system is the only acceptable choice. I suppose ultimately the only real question is how it can be profitable to reduce population? The desirability of which seems to be the majority position.

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