Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Towards a post-carbon society 1.

Of course there is no such thing as a no carbon society as carbon is the basic building block of all life. But we can act to create a post-carbon society - one that does not unlock and disrupt the carbon cycle to produce adverse effects such as global warming. As I wrote in my book, 'Systems Practice: How to Act in Climate Change World' we are in a period new to human history and thus we need to critically reassess our thinking, practices, governance, institutions and investment strategies, and do it as soon as we can.

We had the first inkling of what we, as a species, could unleash upon ourselves when we invented and deployed the atomic bomb.  Many of us have lived a large part of our lives with the sense that we could engage in mutual self-destruction through a nuclear war.  The feeling of threat regarding nuclear war has passed although the dangers, with rogue states, and the potential for the incitement of war between nuclear states such as India and Pakistan, remain very present. (If you are sceptical I urge you to watch to the end this interview of Bruce Reidel by Charlie Rose). Unfortunately the big issues that confront us as a species are still framed and discussed in ways that negate the systemic threats they pose.

One can see this with nuclear energy.  Discussions are almost universally framed as if nuclear power was a technical or economic issue.  Rarely is it framed as a technology that, as with all technologies, mediates (or has the potential to mediate) our life on Earth (as well as the lives of other species).  In this sense technology couples humans (lets call it a social system) to the biophysical world (or system) from which flows benign or non-benign effects to either system, or the relationship between them. Thus with nuclear power the failure to solve the waste disposal problem, recognising that it is more a social than an engineering problem, would put us on a trajectory that I, and many others, find unacceptable. Fukushima failed not because of an earthquake but because of the failure of human thinking, institutions and practices. And as our living unfolds in a climate-changing world, so too will much of our past thinking, practices, institutions etc fail us, unless we begin to think and act differently.

I feel inclined to invent a new law to describe the phenomenon that concerns me - I shall call it Ison's Law of Perverse Trajectories. To my example of over investment in nuclear power I would add continued investment in coal mining, fracking and coal seam gas as the most perverse of contemporary trajectories.  Natural gas will join them soon.  We have an emergency of unique proportions yet we resist the intellectual, ethical and moral imperative to move to alternative trajectories, those that will realise a post-carbon society. The Natural Step, as articulated by Karl-Henrik Robert, expressed it simply in their four system conditions: 'In the sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing (i) concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (e.g. carbon, methane etc); (ii) concentrations of substances produced by society (e.g. plastics, fluorocarbons etc); (iii) degradation by physical means, and in that society (iv) human needs are met worldwide."

Given my concerns, and the state of governance today in Australia and the UK (the places I spend most of my time), I was heartened (not something that happens often) by an article written by Michael Green in yesterday's edition of The Age. The article "Mining morality or vilifying coal?" makes a strong case for divestment of shares and other holdings in companies that keep us on what I have just called a perverse trajectory i.e., a status quo trajectory rather than towards a post-carbon future.  For Australia in particular, pursuit of this perverse trajectory commits the nation to being on the wrong side of history. 

I commend the Uniting Church for the stand it has taken and the practical actions it is pursuing:  

"In mid-July, the peak body of the Uniting Church in Australia voted to sell its investments in fossil fuels....

"We didn’t think it was the most earth-shattering news, because it’s a pretty mainstream issue in the Uniting Church now,” explains the church’s president, Reverend Professor Andrew Dutney. Yet its resolution included a moral claim that may be confronting for most Australians, who, by way of their superannuation funds – at the very least – own a stake in coal, oil or gas projects.
“Further investment in the extraction of fossil fuels contributes to, and makes it more difficult to address climate change,” the church states. Given the harm climate change will cause, “further investment and extraction is unethical”. “A number of people have found that to be a strong statement,” Dutney says. “But it’s very hard to argue against.”

Australians have two key facts to consider, he says: we’re among the world’s highest emitters of carbon dioxide, per person; and on top of that, we have enormous reserves of coal set to be exported for electricity generation.

“If we were to extract and burn all those reserves, then global warming will be much more disastrous for the poorer nations who are our neighbours.”

Andrew Dutney articulates well the case for abandoning our current trajectory.  I hope to see the divestment movement grow in strength, the case for which ought to be strengthened by recent decisions in China about coal imports, triggered by the horrific pollution now affecting almost every Chinese city:

"According to an analysis by Macquarie Bank, consultant Wood Mackenzie has indicated the ban could affect more than half of Australia's thermal coal exports to China, although the ban is also likely to hit Indonesian coal."

In the end it may well be coal industry economics that achieves the ambitions of divestment. I cannot help but feel this 'realpolitik' was behind the recent plans to restructure by BHP Billiton.  In the meantime we should all use whatever leverage we have to facilitate further divestment - to move away from the current perverse trajectory.

At the same time there needs to be organised, critical resistance to the fight back by 'big fossil fuel' This is already happening in Australia, where years of successful environmetal legislation is being rescinded in the face of  an ideological onslaught by conservative state and federal governments and their supporters.  In this regard one must view the recent creation of the "Reef Trust" and the Reef 2050 Plan, with deep suspicion.

For some time now governance in Australia and the UK has been systemically failing its citizens - many, if not most, decisions reduce the number of choices we humans will have as circumstances unfold, primarily because most place the relational dynamics between us and our environment on a perverse trajectory. They fail Ison's Law!!   Evidence can be seen in the report today by a cross-party Environmental Audit committee in Westminster:

"The government is failing to reduce air pollution, protect biodiversity and prevent flooding, a cross-party body of MPs has said.  The Environmental Audit Committee dished out a "red card" on these three concerns after examining efforts made since 2010.

The MPs said on a further seven green issues ministers deserved a "yellow card" denoting unsatisfactory progress."

Not surprisingly, though in the absence of evidence to the contrary: 

"The government said it strongly disagreed with the findings. After coming to power in 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron stated he was committed to leading the "greenest government ever"."
The most perverse of perverse trajectories are those where technologies, if they fail, destroy or severely impair the lives of future generations.  Nuclear waste, the irreversible destruction and contamination of aquifers by fracking or coal seam gas extraction, deep mining and toxic tailings (as has happened already in South Africa) are the worst of the worst!


Iona Esq said...

so explicitly Ison's law of perverse trajectories says...?

Ray said...

Good query. My framing is influenced by Heinz von Foerster's aphorism (or cybernetic Law?) 'act so as to maximise choices' which for him is an ethical imperative and has very little to do with choice theory as in classical economics. So my posited law could be seen as a reframing of von Foerster's ethical imperative in that a perverse trajectory arises, thus cutting down our future choices, whenever we fail to act systemically in relation to technology development and investment.

The law I propose could be seen as a means to enact the precautionary principle; at the moment political power aided by tools such as CoBA (cost-benefit analysis)and other inadequate institutions determine much of what is done in terms of projects, infrastructure and the like. However, we could invent new institutions that demand an answer to 'Ison's Law of Perverse Trajectories' whenever we use CoBA or EIA, for example. Or we could invent a new legal apparatus which allows a society more say in the futures which we are knowingly or unknowingly creating.