Carbon, Capitalism and the Transition from Unsustainability – Prof John Barry

Proj John BarryProf John Barry delivered his inaugural professorial lecture last night, filling a QUB lecture theatre with more than a hundred very wet people. He joked about his dapper attire – grey suit and orange tie – saying that he believed you should “dress to the right and vote to the left!”

Carbon, Capitalism and the Transition from Unsustainability: The Challenge for Civilisation The 21st Century

Barry’s starting point was to state that the world is unsustainable rather than sustainable. Similarly, the world is unjust rather than just. “Injustice and unsustainability go hand in hand.”

The vast majority of thinking scholarship and sometimes activism is around ‘sustainability’, ‘sustainable development’.

Yet unsustainability brings us back to the present and Barry believes that Green politics and activism should start from the reality of unsustainability.

Update – John has made his slides available – so you’ll now be able to read them as you listen to his lecture.

With a very mixed audience – family and friends, academics, political friends and foes – he used rich illustrations and a touch of humour to pull people into his critique of capitalism.

Our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful (Wendell Berry)

leaders sacrificeCapitalism is addicted to “orthodox, undifferentiated economic growth”. However this contradicts the environmental, resource and pollution limits of the planet”. Barry suggests that “economic growth is no longer improving people’s lives in the developed world”. In fact “economic growth manages and requires income and wealth inequality … it does not reduce inequality”.

Barry plotted graphs to suggest how Carbon Dioxide rates, matched economic growth, coal, oil and gas usage.

We cannot innovate and use technology to get us out of our problems. They also rob us of the ethical and political opportunity to reshape the world.

Barry quoted Tim Jackson:

Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries

Not all growth is bad. “A billion members of the human family live on less than a dollar a day” and growth is needed to lift them out of poverty. But those living in big houses in the west may have done enough growing.

We measure GDP, the total expenditure on all goods and services produced within a country. Beer and bikes add to GDP. Divorce, pollution and wars add to GDP. But better communities and participation in democracy don’t add to GDP. It doesn’t encourage us to build new libraries or provide more kidney dialysis machines.

Knowing that the economy is growing doesn’t tell us anything about the quality of economic activity. There’s no correlation between GDP and health, well-being and community flourishing.

We need to use different models – many of which already exist – to measure different things in order to deal with the inherent unsustainability.

Barry distinguishes between “human flourishing” and “constant happiness”. A lifelong analysis is required, not just measurement at the good times (in youth and in good health).

A flourishing human life involves integrating death and sickness into a meaningful human life. Recognition of dependency and interdependency rather than the dangerous and false myth of independence of humanity from nature or from one another and equally dangerous myth of control.

Trickle down theoryBarry asked why capitalist advances have resulted in “fewer people working more rather than more people working less?”

Why not shift from a 40+ hour working week to 20 hours. A gradual reduction would boost productivity, create a less unequal gender distribution of childcare? Trading more meaningful free time (and not unemployment) for less stuff?

Perhaps our politicians adapt St Augustine (“Oh Lord give me chastity, but do not give it yet”) and instead plea “Make me sustainable … but not just yet”.

Barry argues that science and social science need a Green New Deal for “the Academy” with publicly funded research a service for the community which funds it rather than as input into incubators.

Economic growth needs replaced with economic security.

There are three Rs for the 21st century:

  • Resilience – create head room;
  • Redundancy – a principle of long-term sustainability;
  • Reducing resource and energy use.

Barry finished by quoting George Bernard Shaw who said “all progress depends on the unreasonable man” … so let’s be unreasonable.

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  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    ” A billion members of the human family live on less than a dollar a day ”

    A startling statistic -So much poverty around the world it’s almost as if the banks / Rulers / the to much rich need so many to live in poverty so they can have people to work for them-

    Is that a white Poppy that Prof John Barry is wearing – you don’t see many of those these days-( it’s a bit like the Russians in the early 20s- the Reds beat the Whites )-

  • chrisjones2

    Why not shift from a 40+ hour working week to 20 hours. A gradual reduction would boost productivity, create a less unequal gender distribution of childcare? Trading more meaningful free time (and not unemployment) for less stuff?

    Because most of us dont want that and I dont buy the thesis

  • Bryan Magee

    It’s fair to note that poverty in the world has fallen a lot I 30 yrs

  • Surveyor

    You mightn’t have much choice in the future what with the advancement in automation which will make a lot of jobs obsolete.

  • Reader

    “We cannot innovate and use technology to get us out of our problems. They also rob us of the ethical and political opportunity to reshape the world.”
    This seems to be a quote from Tim Jackson, and it seems to be quoted with approval by our local green politico.
    For anyone concerned about actual, serious and progressive threats to human life through mismanagement of the environment, the above sentiment is utter madness.
    For left wing entryists to the green movement, it might make a kind of sense.

  • carl marks

    care to explain how it is “utter madness”

  • Reader

    We shouldn’t pass up a chance to fix the environment just because it might make it easier to hang on to the status quo.

  • Tacapall

    All capitalists are also eugenics and its reality that less than two percent of the worlds population own 98% of the worlds wealth unsustainability to these people simply means lack of natural resources means less profit the remedy being getting access to more natural resources be that through war, depopulation, iimmunisation and the creation of GMOs to feed an increasing population that is fast becoming a drain on what they see as their world. War goes hand in hand with recession and the conditions are created for a rearranging of the deckchairs, destruction is followed by construction, new order replaces the old order and the cycle is once more resumed but the inequality of wealth stays the same. Capitalism and automation followed by bio-nano technology are the three most dangerous threats to the 98% of the worlds population who can only scratch the surface when it comes to doing their bit in reshaping this world.

  • carl marks

    I dont think that is what is being said, what is being said is that technology cannot fix a problem which is related to lifestyle and over consumption.

    As a matter of fact i would say that the phrase “They also rob us of the ethical and political opportunity to reshape the world.”

    is not a call to maintain the status quo but a call to change it from a mad dash to use up resources to a more sensible and equitable use and reuse of of resources!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thanks carl, that’s my reading too! Reader gives himself away with the word “fix”, ie: slap the environment back into shape so that it works the way we want it to, as against an empathic effort to work along with nature and cut out the rather pointless over consumption.

    When I was a kid at school, only the most insane had to “take on” the really big boys in the dorm. And nature is a hell of a lot bigger than even the most macho attempt that could be mounted to alter her attempts to re-balance herself into environmental health, probably at our expense, and possibly even permanently so!

  • SeaanUiNeill
  • Superfluous

    Most resources are reusable – you could get the material from an old car, add a few other small bits and a lot of human knowledge and create 500 iPhones (which have a much greater economic value than the old materials put into them). People need to get out of their head that Capitalism is based on consumption of finite resources, outside of a few rare resources (like helium that floats into space) the market can easily add new value to old materials – the reason it hasn’t done so far is because it’s cheaper to dig the abundant supply of new stuff out of the ground (which may not always be true).

    BTW I’m not saying there are not environmental issues – I believe the market will fix our energy problems, eventually (wind power will work, it’s just more expensive than fossils currently), just hopefully we haven’t reached the point of no-return on carbon emissions before that happens. Our greatest hope in that regard is innovation to reduce costs of renewables…

  • Superfluous

    Here is very enlightening book as to why

    The most surprising conclusion is that it’s not a zero-sum game, they are not poor because we are rich, they are mostly poor because of their own Governments (for instance Zimbabwe and South Korea have managed to create two very different levels of public wealth despite starting from very similar positions at around the same time).

  • Reader

    Just as there are climate change deniers who insist that we don’t have the power to harm the environment, I now see that there are technology deniers who think that we can’t fix it.
    Do you at least accept that we are well on our way to fixing the Ozone layer? And without abandoning refrigeration or aerosols too.

  • Reader

    “cannot fix a problem which is related to lifestyle and over consumption”
    Over consumption is a strange term isn’t it? Except to ascetics or hippies it surely means “unsustainable consumption”
    And I certainly believe that a technical fix can sort that out in principle – for instance, cheap, low-carbon energy would make everything recycleable.
    By the way, I thought that Tim Jackson and John Barry were dead set against the status quo, and would hate for a quick fix to get in the way of them toppling it. Sorry if I hadn’t made that clear.

  • carl marks

    your first point is merely pedantry, and perhaps you could explain the wild claim that “cheap low carbon energy would make everything recycleable” (i suspect if you could prove that you would be at least in line for a nobel Prize.
    and you most certainly did not make it clear, try a bit harder next time!

  • Michael-Henry Mcivor

    Looks like a interesting book Superfluous – thanks for that-

  • Reader

    First point merely pedantry? OK then – you used the term “Over consumption”: define it. If your definition doesn’t relate to sustainability, then what is it? One of the seven deadly sins?
    But if you accept my definition, then the corollary is that, if it isn’t unsustainable, then it isn’t ‘over consumption’. And therefore that there can be a technical fix.

  • Ross Brown

    Perhaps there is a technological fix for climate change but you’re betting that we will find and deploy it before the damage is done. And environmental overshoot is about far more than climate change Are you confident we will also find a technological fix for biodiversity loss? What about the nitrogen cycle? Ocean acidification?

  • Ross Brown

    Definition of over consumption… when the consumption of the population requires the regenerative capacity of more than 1 planet for it to be sustained

  • carl marks

    the implication that it is only used by ascetics or hippies. a cheap shot and very inaccurate since i am neither a ascetic or a hippy, both phrases can mean the same thing however some thing have and are being overused and cannot be replaced and are therefore not sustainable but it begs the question as to why you would try to be derogatory about a different use of words, now how long will we wait for proof of your revolutionary discovery that cheap abundant energy will be the cure for over consumption.
    i look forward to seeing how it will recycle the millions of acres of land which is no longer productive from overuse or replace the vitally important rainforest used for palm oil, the coral reefs can they be replaced with megawatts?
    so how about you explain how this magic will work.
    perhaps you think that CO2 from burning fossil fuel is the only problem or recycling is limited only by energy production.

    as i say i await your proof of your wild theory!

  • SeaanUiNeill

    A single particular thing that is only a tiny fragment of a “gestalt” or whole picture solution ! And “technology deniers” eh! One of the most significant characteristics of positivists is their inability to see how their language gives their motivation away. Nature does not need to be “fixed” knocked into shape or compeled to do our biding simply for our benefit. We need to look at what we are doing as part of a much broader pattern and accomodate that. Every act has unintended consequences. No one probably set out to make human life on earth impossible! The “fix” mentality of light switch solutions is itself acentral part of the problem. But I can see that suggesting such a radical critique of a position with widespread support is simply too much to ask.

  • Reader

    I.e. – unsustainable. Thanks.

  • Reader

    There is a technological fix for climate change. It’s called nuclear energy. We are decades behind where we should be in this respect. Guess who I blame for this!
    I assume you know that biodiversity loss can’t be fixed except by time, so it has to be prevented. The main causes are surely human pressure and climate change. The fixes are population control and low carbon energy. We have contraception and nuclear power, the missing ingredient is pensions and health care in the developing world, the fix is economic growth.
    Same sort of thing with the nitrogen cycle (population pressure), and ocean acidification (climate change).
    The green movement knows all of the questions, but is dead set against the answers.
    The Red-Green movement is even worse – they view all of the options through another set of blinkers.
    By the way, I under stand the green movement in the developed world is finally having an internal debate on nuclear power. Have you got any info for us outsiders?

  • Reader

    Addressing the first half of your first sentence, all I had intended was to point out that the only sensible definition of ‘over consumption’ is ‘unsustainable consumption’, and I labelled the sorts of sloppy thinkers who might think it meant anything else. I don’t even think you disagree; but you do seem to be annoyed on their behalf!
    On the second issue, I also didn’t think that it was the least bit controversial – the limiting factor for just about any process in chemical engineering is the energy requirement for endothermic reactions. Once you have enough energy you can decompose plastics and also extract and separate metals and other elements using electrolysis.

  • Reader

    “inability to see how their language gives their motivation away. Nature does not need to be “fixed” knocked into shape or compeled to do our biding simply for our benefit.”
    The situation is bad. Nature either needs to be left alone or fixed. Since there are about 9 billion of us in hundreds of countries, nature isn’t going to be left alone.
    Would you prefer it if I said ‘managed’ instead of ‘fixed’?
    By the way, how is your recipe: “We need to look at what we are doing as part of a much broader pattern and accomodate that.” any different from ‘fix’? Are you planning to exclude scientists from the process and leave it all to the hand wavers?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d exclude no one, Reader, its that attitude where the control and dominate option comes naturally that I’d question can even begin to help.

    And a great deal of the solution would be as you say “leaving nature alone”. That won’t happen, I know, but actually thinking that some other fix is out there brands someone as a positivist. The Positivist “there must always be a fix” way of thinking is one of those “outs” that has let governments sit back and do pretty much nothing. The “fix” will simply be developed if they wait long enough……

    That, and a perhaps unconscious preference for the Sir Boyle Roche response ,”Why we should put ourselves out of our way to do anything for posterity, for what has posterity ever done for us?”

  • carl marks

    hate to break this to you but not everything is recyclable and no process involving recycling is 100% efficient and most produce pollutants,
    since your hung up on language you”do not decompose plastics” (except those cellulose based and they are not suitable for recycling being designed to decompose when their useful life is over)
    electrolysis produces highly toxic byproducts and the only limiting factor in chemical engineering is not heat or energy it is merely one of the factors involved.
    the end product of chemical or physical process (including recycling) has to be both useful and needed eg tyres there are only so much playground soft surface and mouse mats that we can use the rest goes to dumps.
    strangely enough your total faith in science to be the answer to all our problems is not shared by the vast majority of scientists and while only a fool would deny that science has much to contribute to solving our problems it is also true that blind faith in science solving all of the issues involved is also foolish!

  • carl marks

    do you have any theory as to where this abundant cheap energy will come,

    Nuclear Fission is hardly a clean power source, since the byproducts are highly toxic for long periods and nobody has figured out a way to dispose of them which guarantees safety for the isotopes half life.

    Nuclear Fusion is at the earliest 15-20 years away from a feasible working prototype (if at all possible) and maybe another 15 years till the first working power station comes on line.
    the amount of energy required for electrolysis is vast and because of several limiting factors involved in renewable energy systems (wind turbines, CHP plants, etc)it is regarded by engineers as being unsuitable for use in conjunction with these systems.
    most electrolysis plants (aluminium plants mainly) are powered by large hydro electric scheme which by themselves have caused major environmental problems,
    Solar panels are becoming more efficient but even if the reach 80% efficiency (this may be possible as the germans are working on a method using artificial chlorophyll to produce hydrogen from sunlight and sugars) would still have to cover vast areas to power even a medium sized electrolysis plant.
    So for your second nobel prize please tell us which power source will feed these plants?

  • Ross Brown

    Many reasons why Nuclear is not the techno fix you claim but that is a debate for another day. As for this idea we are “technological deniers” you admit yourself above that technology will not fix all of our problems. The reality is that some things require social or political solutions. You propose population control so why is that your preferred solution and why do you consider your solution realistic or feasible compared to energy and material consumption control? Of course the Greens have answers to the problems – the whole movement’s raison d’etre is focused on devising the solutions to the environmental crisis we face. John is just one of many green academics across the world who are publishing work on sustainability.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Ross, after a few moments checking if I’d developed serious memory loss in the night after writing a post supporting everything I question, I realised that you were answering the same “Reader” comment that I’d posted on. Perhaps something like “@Reader:” might help and make this clear if you do not want to bounce any intervening comment down below yours. I’d not want to be identified with any solution suggesting possible Eugenics myself…….

  • Comrade Stalin

    In fairness is scares the absolute bejaysus out of me when anyone talks about taking the opportunity to reshape the world. It’s no different when the left do it by pushing for change on the environment, or the crazy right wing think tanks linked to George Bush try to do it by supporting the invasion of Iraq.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Nuclear fission may not be a clean power source but running safe nuclear power plants properly is clearly better than running coal and oil plants that dump all their crap into the atmosphere. At least nuclear waste is actually contained.

    We’re not spending as much money on Fusion as we should. When we do, though, I doubt it will be cheap. Plentiful yes, cheap no. The reactor will need a lot of maintenance and component replacement during its life.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I wish Greens would tell us what their solutions are, rather than what the problems with other people’s proposed solutions are.

    If the solution to providing base load power isn’t nuclear, then what is it ?

    What sort of social solutions do you have in mind ?

  • carl marks

    CS, nuclear fission when run properly is a clean power source, but when it goes wrong it goes wrong big time, while i think it has a role in the future a lot of things still worry me about it ,
    the fact that nobody has dismantled a nuclear power plant yet and nobody knows what to do with the tens of thousands of tons of low level radioactive waste that decommissioning a plant will produce which by it sheer mass will be a big a threat as the hundreds of tons of highly radioactive waste,
    there has to be a informed debate on this whole issue, knee jerk reaction’s such as readers don’t contribute in any meaningful way to the discussion.

  • carl marks

    point out where anybody even hinted that scientist’s should excluded, you seem to have pulled that one out of your hat!

  • carl marks

    the status quo is unsustainable, thing will change that is inevitable we can wait for the whole thing to fall apart or control that change.
    i share your concerns about true believers on any side, but the need for change is obvious.

  • Ross Brown

    Hi Seaan sorry about that! Yes it was to Reader

  • Ross Brown

    These are not new proposals – its what we’ve been talking about for a long time. Smart metering/grid, far greater interconnection & reduction in demand. 100% renewable energy is entirely possible and nuclear is not necessary Social solutions include changing our consumption patterns and moving away from a disposable economic model

  • Comrade Stalin

    So let’s start with smart metering. Why do you think that is going to be a significant contributor to solving this problem ?

    If you don’t have nuclear how do you provide base load power ? In Northern Ireland the peak power output of Ballylumford and Kilroot combined is about 2000 megawatts, which is probably what our peak load is. What are you claiming that the peak load will fall to when your proposals are implemented ? Have you accounted for the effect of your other proposals, such as the increase in electric cars ?

    Can you explain what “reduction in demand” means ? Does that mean I should do fewer laundry loads, or let my house get a bit colder in winter ?

    BTW Posting endless links to other people who agree with you doesn’t automatically lend credibility to your case.

  • Ross Brown

    Id rather not get into a full on debate about this – unfortunately my time is short. The links are there to read if you’re interested. My reason for posting them was to show that serious academic research is taking place to back up what we’re saying. A smart energy system will enable the system to better match demand / supply – again look it up. Lots of great technology exists and should be rolled out. Grid connections allow demand to be balanced across a much wider area – see proposals for european super grid. Demand is about our lifestyle in terms of how energy intensive it is – eg. live close to where you work and you don’t need to use a car etc, reuse resources before recycling or before disposing and energy is saved in the process -but it is also about having a more well insulated buildings and more energy efficient appliances. It is also about challenging the growth imperative in the economy. Let’s have a shorter working week rather than more production/consumption when productivity increases

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No great shakes, Ross! the way Disqus works, even if you’d answered him directly an earlier comment might still have been placed between his posting and your answer, so anyone reading consecutive postings without checking the “arrow, who is being answered” in grey at the top can get very confused. I’ve started putting names in, as some vain attempt to let the casual reader know who I am actually answering!

    And just for the record, thank you for your very much to the point postings!

  • John Barry’s slides are available to view – may be useful if you’re listening back to the lecture.