Towards a good social life of energy
The evidence for the need of radical change
Last newsletter I mentioned I wanted to do more with the fact that staying under 1.5 degrees warming requires more radical change than just replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources. There are various reasons for this. For instance, building out renewable infrastructure requires huge material investments – and thus environmental cost. These costs could well become prohibitive, if on the demand side nothing changes except that we electrify everything. There are optimistic accounts that we can work it out (🎶🎶), but today I’d like to present some circumstantial evidence that no, no, we’re not gonna make it. (🎶🎶).
The evidence comes from a recently published article in Nature Sustainability called The Social Shortfall and Ecological Overshoot of Nations (pdf). It is written by Andrew Fanning, Daniel O’Neill, Jason Hickel and Daniel Roux.
The starting question of the article is simple: has any society actually been able to achieve sustainability?
To answer that question, first: what is ‘sustainability’? For these authors it’s not just ecological, but also social. That is to say, beyond carbon emissions and biodiversity, it is also about creating a social system that doesn’t prey on itself through crippling and polarizing inequality. In other words, a society that in which everyone can lead a decent life.
Then, the next question is: how do we turn these two principles of sustainability into something we can research, measure, understand? That's where the authors draw on the idea of the doughnut economy. Famously, the doughnut economy is the economy that lives in the circle between the foundation (the inner circle) and the ceiling (the outer rim). The foundation consists of minimum requirements for decent living, whereas the ceiling consists of ecological constraints.
For this study, the authors broke down the foundation and the ceiling into the following indicators. Six “biophysical boundaries” for the ceiling:
As for the foundation, they used 11 indicators called “social thresholds”:
access to energy
With that out of the way (see postscript for a note about methods), the authors were in a position to ask: what countries have been able to pass the social thresholds, while not exceeding the biophysical boundaries? They looked at every country in the period between 1992 and 2015 and… no country has been able to this, not then and not now.
More specifically, there are countries that showed a high social shortfall (that satisfy very few of the 11 social requirements) and low ecological overshoot in 1992, which moved on the scale towards meeting more social indicators, but also moved into the high ecological overshoot category. Meanwhile, there is a set of stable countries, with one group of countries maintaining high social shortfall and low ecological overshoot (like India and Nigeria) and another group low social shortfall and high ecological overshoot (like Germany and the United States).
Their paper doesn’t ask why; nor does it offer up any solutions. Instead, the authors dryly state the fact that thus far it has been impossible for us to combine social progress with sustainability. It thus provides circumstantial evidence for the ‘pessimistic’ view: we haven’t been able to do it so far, why would we expect we could in the future? No such thing as green growth.
I will explore the optimistic view as well. However, for now, I’m taking this fact as the starting point for my new series of bigger swings. How can we meet the social indicators without violating the biophysical boundaries? Does this require a civilizational paradigm shift and if so, what would that look like?
The new paradigm need not necessarily come out a sci-fi playbook. Remember that the period that Fanning and colleagues describe coincides basically with the period of full-on ‘globalization’ and the period in which more than half (!) of the world’s total emissions has occurred. The period was characterized in the Global North by the replacement of the old Keynesian ideal of a decent life for all by the promise of purchasing power for all. This promise was fulfilled by shifting production definitively to the Global South, where self-determination was (largely and often unsuccessfully) exchanged for participation in the ‘free market’. The explosion of the consumer market looks like it’s directly related to the modest improvements in social indicators in poorer countries, stagnating social welfare in richer countries and ecological overshoots overall.
So maybe if we stop buying shit we can already take a decisive step towards something more sustainable. But what that means exactly and what steps would follow from that – well, I’d like to explore that with you in this newsletter. If you already have some ideas or references, please share them with me! For now, I’ll start exploring the idea of a good life that demands less in the way of material production and therefore asks less of our planet.
This exploration will take me a bit farther away from the ‘energy system’ proper, which has been the core of this newsletter so far. I’ll always bring it back to energy though. It’s just that I’ll be looking at the social life of energy a bit more comprehensively. 😎
That’s all she wrote for now, till next time!
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PS While Fanning & Co’s article is quite straightforward in its basic setup, the methodology is quite a bit more complicated, and gets its own appendix at the end. If you’re wondering exactly how they arrived at these results, fret not therefore: it’s extensively documented! Find the document here.