After the sands: Demand less

| October 9, 2015
After the sands: Demand less

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming. has been presenting exclusive excerpts of Gordon Laxer's latest book this week. Laxer's book sets out just what Canada's political parties have not done, despite the fact that they're all on the campaign trail: a plan to transition Canada to a low-carbon society.

After the sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians is a roadmap to end oil and natural gas exports and ensure that all Canadians get sufficient energy at affordable prices in a carbon-constrained future.

Here is the last excerpt of five, selected by the author himself. Laxer was the founding director and former head of the Parklands Insitutute. Today -- how to make progress on this complex and controversial issue:

We can't afford to follow a neoliberal economy based on excess. It won't be easy, though, for people to forego luxuries many perceive as their birthright. People are no happier, but material expectations are much higher now than they were on the working-class street in Toronto where I grew up in the 1950s. People will condemn consuming less energy and fewer products as an unjust imposition. We'll see plenty of infantile refusals to face the new reality. 

"The campaign against climate change is unlike almost all the publicprotests that have preceded it," George Monbiot writes. "It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but against ourselves."  As we lower material consumption, it's important to make a huge cultural shift to remaking and thinking of work as intrinsically rewarding rather than assuming its main reward is a paycheque that enables you to relax after work by buying stuff and passively consuming entertainment. 

It's not only the political right and centre that need to switch to sufficiency. The political left and unions must, too. Theirs is a history of fighting for better pay. The unstated assumption is that workers and most citizens don't have enough. That was mostly true in the Global North until the 1950s. A sizeable minority still don't have enough, but the majority do. Instead of more stuff, the latter need fewer work hours, good working conditions and economic security and they need to become active creators in their work, their communities and the regeneration of local environments. A few embrace ascetic lifestyles and poverty vows so they can contemplate creation, beauty and the sublime. Think of monks, nuns and starving artists. But most people are not drawn to self-denial. How can they adjust to a society of sufficiency?

People accepted it in World War II. With slogans like "use your cook stove to cook Hitler's goose" and "put your family on the Victory diet," Ottawa convinced Canadians that rationing helped the war effort. Would such appeals work in today's affluent, individualistic times? Do we need a common enemy or a wartime sense of crisis to accept limited energy use? The response in Japan after a giant tsunami struck the Sendai coast in 2011, killing 15,884, shows how ordinary people can react to peacetime emergencies. Japan closed its fifty-four nuclear reactors and lost a quarter of its electric power. Blackouts never happened because people followed the government's request to reset temperatures to twenty-eight degrees Celsius in homes, offices and stores, and turn appliances and electronic devices to low-energy settings. They shut off lights and escalators. Power demand dropped 15 percent the first summer after Fukushima, and a still-impressive 10 percent the next summer. People conserved for the common good. 

Although ordinary Japanese citizens had to adjust, they overwhelmingly preferred conservation to restarting nuclear plants. Must people outside Japan experience a similar crisis before demanding that their governments initiate major cuts carbon-energy use? No one wishes a repeat of Japan's tragic loss of life. But we should stop doing reckless things like building nuclear reactors beside oceans to cool them with seawater so we can have excessive power. The best way to avoid another Fukushima is to seriously conserve now.

How much is sufficient? 

Boosting renewables and finding energy efficiencies isn't enough. Like it or not, a conserver society is coming. Will we direct it to maintain equity, energy security, social cohesion and enjoyable ways of life? Or will we let the market take us where it will? Not acting chooses the latter by default. It could lead chaotically to Thomas Hobbes's dystopia, in which life is "nasty, brutish and short." The success of citizens' movements such as food sovereignty and Transition Towns show the shift to a conserver paradigm is occurring. Four principles can guide us:

• Sufficiency to replace efficiency as the central economic goal

• The move to using less energy based on equitable sharing; energy as a human right

• Co-operation and de-globalization to replace the greed of each as economic guides

• Loosely linked national and local economies run in bottom-up democracies to replace a single global, corporate economy

These principles may be fine for armchair philosophers. Will real people want to or be able to follow them? Will they make life better? Efficiency is central to the progress story. The succession of wondrous new technologies based on cheap carbon fuels leads many to believe that we can escape scarcity and that growth will continue forever. The progress faith goes like this: When easy oil ends, science will surely invent substitutes and we will continue our upward climb. Human ingenuity almost replaces the Creator among the progress flock.

More now doubt the progress story. In 1972, the Club of Rome think-tank cast doubt with its million-selling book The Limits to Growth. The MIT authors showed that "continued growth in the global economy would lead to planetary limits being exceeded sometime in the twenty-first century." Population and economic collapse is likely. Although the authors said collapse is not inevitable, mainstream opinion dismissed the book with that charge. Forty years on, many accept that we live on a small, finite, lonely planet. David Suzuki compares continual growth in a finite world to "the creed of a cancer cell." Many non-renewable resources are being depleted. Book titles containing "The End of" are in vogue. End of growth, end of food, end of nature. While they over-dramatize, they reflect an awareness that doubts endless progress and sees human activity leading to widespread destruction. Environmental economist Herman Daly developed a steady-state economy model based on the following principles:

• Renewable resources must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.

• Non-renewable resources such as minerals and carbon fuels must be used no faster than renewable substitutes can replace them.

• Pollution and wastes must be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb or recycle them.24

Living by Daly's rules means burning much less of the carbon fuels that enabled unlimited global travel and transportation. They won't stop, but will greatly diminish, ending globalization in the sense of the death of distance. But a conserver society should still be able to support the best of globalization -- rapidly advancing communications that connect the globe and shrink the psychic, social and cultural distances among people. Daly is right, but his "steady-state economy" implies stagnation. We need to grow the good and shrink the bad. Jean Lambert, a British Green Party member of the European Parliament, wants to shift the debate. "You have the growth of children, which we all think is very important and very positive, and then you have the growth of cancer, which we all think is very negative." They're both growth. What do you want and not want to grow?

Stories of coming climate change and peak everything are part of current culture. Instead of hoping great new inventions will allow us to carry on as usual, I explore the cultural turning we need to make, adjust to and thrive under the limits we face. It is more a returning than a turning to sufficiency.

That ethic guided us through most of human history. By sufficiency standards, the majority in the Global North have enough to live the good life. Today, the ethics of frugality and prudence that once guided most societies are seen as stultifying. Few realize that only the abundance of cheap oil has allowed us to chuck out thrift along with hot water bottles. Must a thrifty society be joyless and puritanical? Only if we insist on pursuing insatiable wants and fruitlessly working long hours to fill constant yearning for material baubles. We need to learn how to live on less stuff and do leisure again. Once the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are met, most of us get our greatest pleasures from valuing each other and nature.

Energy as a human right

Ten thousand years ago, writes Andrew Nikiforuk, "a hunter-gatherer collected the equivalent of 1.5 barrels of oil a year from plants and animals. ... But by 1880, coal and steam slaves had exploded the amount of energy available to the average person to the equivalent of fifteen barrels of oil .... A hundred years later, Europeans gorged on twenty-six barrels per person annually." Americans supergorged on twice as much—fifty barrels per capita. Canadians were in between. Pre-industrial revolution people couldn't support what we now consider essential to developing everyone's capacities -- freedom from endless toil, access to universal public health care, and time for leisure and education.

Canadians love to complain about outrageous gasoline prices. The reality is they're way too low. Even after oil spiked to $147 a barrel, a litre of gasoline in Canada was still cheaper than a litre of free city water bottled and sold as "nature's own." What other liquid sells for a dollar and change a litre? That litre replaces four-and-a-half weeks of human labour. When oil prices spike again, it could cost five dollars. That may still be a bargain, but many Canadians wouldn't be able to afford it. Access to energy is a necessity.

Ever since humans discovered fire, we've sought fuels with which to cook food and stay warm. The latter is especially important in cold countries. In earlier times, gathering firewood or cow dung and keeping draft animals to do heavy lifting met most energy needs. Now more than half of us live in cities where such energy sources are rare or non-existent. Current energy needs go far beyond traditional ones. Getting an education, health care and citizen participation all require expenditures of energy.

Lighting is crucial for reading and education. Women are often denied opportunities because of the traditional, time-consuming burdens of collecting water and fuel wood and cooking without labour-saving appliances. Street lighting enhances safety and the right to pursue educational, employment and social activities in the evenings. Internet and computer use are key to getting work. All require electricity. Space conditioning, defined in India as keeping homes at comfortable temperatures, is another widely recognized right. Those without basic energy are energy-poor, defined by the United Nations as "lack of choice in accessing adequate, affordable, reliable, high quality, safe and environmentally benign energy services to support economic and human development." In 2000, oil was very cheap. Even so, almost a thirdof humans, and 99 percent in the Global South, were deemed energy-poor.

Like access to safe water and sanitation and the right to a healthy environment, energy should be recognized as a human right. Campaigning around energy as a human right can be effective. Once their government signs on, citizens can hold it to account. But it must be framed around transitioning off carbon fuels. Otherwise, Big Oil will try to co-opt the right to sell their lethal products to a new market -- the world's poor.

ExxonMobil is ready. In 2000, the world's biggest corporation supported "access to affordable energy by all and [the] alleviation of poverty in developing countries."  Big Oil would love to see government and aid money funnelled to the poor so they can buy oil at prices Big Oil sets. To forestall this, the demand must be for the right to energy from ecologically benign sources at affordable prices.

Ending fuel poverty in Britain

Britain partially recognizes energy poverty, calling it "fuel poverty" or the right to a heated home. Britain's regional governments have pledged to wipe out fuel poverty by 2018. Brenda Boardman, at Oxford University, is the lead campaigner, casting the issue around the health concerns of living in cold homes. The ultimate aim is to reduce energy demand.

Beyond Britain, the European Union requires all member states to address fuel poverty. Although we live in the second-coldest country in the world, most Canadians haven't thought about or discussed energy poverty issues. Should households have to spend more than 10 percent of their income to keep their homes warm, for instance? Britain is ahead of Canada on fuel poverty because so much of their housing stock is so bad. Many British houses have no space for insulation. Of those that do, only 35 percent have insulation. Largely because of inadequately heated homes, England and Wales saw 24,000 winter deaths in 2011–12. Necessity can spur invention. Each regional government in the United Kingdom has its own fuel poverty plan. Wales has the best principles:

• Work on affordable housing should focus on making running a home affordable.

• Policies on child poverty should be linked to measures to tackle fuel poverty.

• Promoting public health should be linked to ensuring affordable warmth for all.

Grants are available to improve insulation and energy efficiency, including providing heat pumps to some low-income families. The regional governments recognize that incomes must be raised, too. Much better insulation and greatly raised incomes are enough to end fuel poverty.

The shift to co-operation and de-globalization

Every successful economic and energy revolution has been accompanied by a cultural revolution that inspires people to change their lives. It's true there must be more windmills and public transit, energy efficiency gains and urban redesign. But even combined, these things won't get us energy security and climate justice. Given the scale of changes needed, we can't do it one light bulb at a time. We need a paradigm shift that challenges the petro-elites' power and their dangerous myths. A lower-energy, inwardly directed shift is the most convincing and most demanding solution. Change our relations with nature and call on different aspects of human possibility, including the empathy gene. Fortunately, such a shift, incorporating but going beyond sufficiency, is underway. David Korten, a leading thinker on the coming transformation, sees a shift from "Empire" to "earth community." Many citizens' movements subscribe to a version of the co-operative-ecology model. Korten's vision contrasts the corporate, neoliberal model of being hostile and competitive with an existence that is supportive and co-operative.

Korten's earth co-operative paradigm addresses the crises of oil depletion, out-of-control financial and corporate power, and climate change chaos. Three years after the world reached peak conventional oil in 2005, it reached "peak globalization," as Jeremy Rifkin calls it. Many are unaware of that turning point. Unless low oil prices remain low for the long term, it's unlikely the world will return to a hyper-globalized economy. Cheap oil won't be there to underwrite it, nor will the deregulated international financial system that supported global trade and investment before the 2008 financial crisis likely return.

The de-globalizing and renationalizing consequences of the oil and financial crises coincided with the less visible climate change crisis. Real solutions to the latter require cutting carbon fuel use by 80 percent by 2050. Even with growing renewables, intense global trading cannot run on such drastic cuts to carbon fuel use. Economies must renationalize and relocalize: much of the manufacturing that fled North America and Western Europe for the Global South will return. Instead of basing development on exports, even China is increasingly finding its main market at home. The world is returning to more "inwardly directed economies" on ideas that were thrown out when neoliberal globalization took charge. It's time to retrieve and update them to construct sustainable societies built on conservation and greater equality.

Renationalize and relocalize

After continually denouncing Keynesianism for throttling entrepreneurship and taxing the wealthy, the political and corporate elites who imposed neoliberalism on the world got spooked in 2007–08 when giant banks and investment firms fell like bowling pins. They suddenly reverted to Keynesianism—but only to save themselves. Governments used trillions of taxpayers' dollars to bail out giant banks and corporations deemed "too big to fail." Conservatives George W. Bush and Stephen Harper jointly nationalized General Motors, while ordinary people lost their homes and jobs. It was socialism for the rich and laissez-faire capitalism for the rest. It should have been the reverse: let corporations and banks who advocate cut-throat competition die by their own shibboleths; let the rest create a low-carbon, caring-sharing society based on reciprocal relations that nurture life.

Some of John Maynard Keynes's more obscure but best ideas were those around national self-sufficiency, the perils of borderless capitalism and the failure to pin a value on nature. We need to retrieve them. Keynes's 1933 article on national self-sufficiency goes far beyond the demand-side, countercyclical, government-spending ideas he is known for. He begins by explaining that he was brought up "like most Englishmen to respect free trade ... almost as part of a moral law." But Keynes ultimately argues that "most modern processes of mass production can be performed in most countries and climates with almost equal efficiency...National self-sufficiency...may be becoming a luxury we can afford." National self-sufficiency, Keynes stated, is not an ideal but a means to pursue other goals.

Keynes was critical of foreign ownership because of the divorce between ownership and real responsibility of management. "I am irresponsible towards what I own and those who operate what I own are irresponsible toward me." He was also critical of international financialization. "Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality and travel -- these are the things which should of their nature be international," he argued, but do not internationalize everything, especially not finance: "Let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national."

Departing from most of his contemporaries, Keynes opposed what we now call globalization. He recognized that political communities need enough autonomy from international forces to gain democratic control over their economies. "We need to be as free as possible of interference from economic changes elsewhere, in order to make our own favourite experiments towards the ideal republic of the future....A deliberate movement towards greater self-sufficiency and economic isolation will make our task easier." Keynes's critique of liberal economics extended presciently to the environment: "We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the unappropriated splendours of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend."

Defend the local nationally

It may seem outlandish to suggest that the best way for the most citizens to fight for conservation, energy security and sufficiency is to call on environmental nationalism. Nationalism is often a great people mobilizer but can also be a minefield. Sufficiency advocates often support a "no-growth" economy to limit greenhouse gases and the depletion of non-renewable resources and to preserve nature. These goals are easiest to reach when the population does not grow. But limiting population can be tricky in the Global North, where birth rates are below replacement levels. Under the guise of environmental protection, nativist movements in places like Ireland and Australia promote low population policy when their real agenda is to bar immigrants and minorities.

It's a mistake to steer clear of all types of nationalism to avoid the odious ones. Racist nationalisms are best countered with positive nationalisms committed to inclusivity, anti-racism and support for popular sovereignties everywhere. Nationalism can be progressive and ecological without being anti-immigrant. I've not seen racist "eco-nationalism" in Canada and I hope it never arises. My kind of enviro-nationalism aims to get Canada to abide by international norms on carbon emissions and gain the democratic control and sovereignty necessary to protect residents' energy security, resource inheritance and natural habitats.

Australian philosopher Arran E. Gare promotes a new kind of grand narrative that, instead of one proclaimed truth, recognizes a range of voices, viewpoints and cultures. He contends that while environmental problems are global, it's impossible to orient people for effective action without stories relating to individuals' lives and local problems being integrated into broader eco-narratives: "To be successful, environmentalists will have to...liberate themselves from the destructive imperatives of the world economy. What is required is an environmentalist nationalism which can harness the legitimate anger against global capitalism to carry out the massive transformations necessary to create an environmentally sustainable civilization." Gare's prescription is at least partially borne out. Framing ecological and energy issues is largely specific to each nation and country; mass mobilizations, social organizations and targeted opponents are primarily national and local.

Local action to preserve a loved slice of nature often mobilizes the most people to resist destructive pipeline or oil production projects. The success of "blockadia," as Naomi Klein terms resisters, though, depends on a country's degree of national sovereignty and whether central or regional governments support or oppose their efforts. Does their country have enough sovereignty to defend them, or is it hindered like Canada is by neoliberal agreements like NAFTA? The corporate-initiated and overused concept "think globally, act locally" was developed to neutralize the powerful appeal of resource nationalism. Herman Daly champions national economic sovereignty as crucial to environmental protection: "To globalize the economy by erasure of national economic boundaries through free trade, free capital mobility, and free, or at least uncontrolled migration, is to wound fatally the major unit of community capable of carrying out any policies for the common good."

To here more about Canada's energy future, you can join Gordon Laxer at launches for After the Sands: Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians in Ottawa and Toronto.

To read all five excerpts, click here.


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