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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