A simple route to climate disaster

I’ve mentioned quite a few times the spurious calculations offered by Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute, purporting to prove that renewable energy can’t sustain a modern lifestyle. But I haven’t looked hard at the other side of the coin; the idea that ‘degrowth’ could provide us with a sustainable, low-tech but still comfortable way of living, based on local self-sufficiency.

Samuel Alexander, also of the Simplicity Institute, has a piece in the Conversation, making this claim. Presumably, unlike energy technology, this is an area where the Institute ought to have some special expertise. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.

Alexander makes two points of particular interest.

First, he suggests that we (that is, urban dwellers) could meet our food needs through a combination of suburban gardening and trade with nearby farmers. This is illustrated by a picture of a community garden in San Francisco.

Second, he observes that this is not a process that should be sought through top-down measures from government, but rather through ‘bottom-up’ initiatives from individuals and groups.

I’ll deal with the second point first. Rather than putting this discussion in the future tense, why not look at attempts to move in this direction, which have been going on for at least forty years (there was a big movement to Nimbin on the NSW North Coast in the early 1970s, for example). As far as I know, none of these have got anywhere near achieving self-sufficiency in food, let alone fibre for clothing, timber for building and so on. And, as far as I can see, there is less going on in this direction now than there was 40 years ago.

That’s not to say of course, that self-sufficiency is impossible. For thousands of years, the majority of the world’s population lived by subsistence agriculture, and a billion or more still do. The only problems were
(i) It’s a life of miserable, back-breaking work from which people have always fled at the earliest opportunity, even when the alternative was near-starvation in a disease-ridden urban slum or shantytown
(ii) The current world population could not possibly be fed (even on a meat-free diet) with the yields typical of traditional subsistence agriculture

Perhaps the Simplicity Institute is counting on using more modern (but sustainable) technology to achieve high food yields. At one level, this might just be feasible. ‘Organic’ farmers have shown that it’s possible to achieve commercial yields without using pesticides or manufactured fertilisers, though other costs are higher, so that it is necessary to charge a premium price. But this only works on a significant scale if, in other respects, standard energy-intenisve industrial technologies (farm machinery, food processing and so on) are used.

Alexander makes it pretty clear that (as with the Institute’s attacks on renewable energy) this kind of modest tinkering is not what he has in mind. So, let’s take a look at the community garden he uses to illustrate the simpler approach. The photo shows about 20 people and a dozen or so garden beds, each about 1-2 sq m in area.

I’m not much of a gardener, but the total area looks pretty comparable to the backyard patch we had when I was a kid, which certainly didn’t feed our family. Rather than rely on such impressionistic stuff, though, it seems better to look at some proper data. Alexander doesn’t offer any and neither does the Simplicity Institute website, but the Internet has plenty of information.

Typical estimates seem to be that you need somewhere from 100-400 sq m to supply enough vegetables for a single person.

That includes a carbohydrate source such as potatoes, and perhaps fruit, but no meat, eggs, milk, grain or plant protein sources like soybeans.

Taking the most optimistic numbers possible, the garden plots illustrated by Alexander would meet less than half the vegetable needs of one person. This isn’t a remotely serious analysis: it’s more like claiming that a household could supply its own electricity by pedalling a stationary bike.

A more immediate objection relates to the transition path. Suppose that the Simplicity Institute managed to convince everyone that it is necessary to adopt the ‘degrowth’ approach they advocate. This would require a comprehensive restructuring of the entire economy: food production and distribution systems are just one example.

How rapidly could such a transformation be achieved? An obvious answer is to run the tape in reverse. The shift from a largely agricultural economy to our current post-industrial economy took about 200 years in the leading economies, and has nowhere been achieved in less than two generations (say 60 years). It seems reasonably to assume that reversing the process would take just as long, even granting the improbable premise that we started tomorrow[^1]

We don’t have 60 years to spare. If the world economy isn’t thoroughly decarbonized by 2050 (a little over 30 years away), the chance of holding global warming to 2 degrees C will have been lost.

The only chance of decarbonization is an approach that is focused much more narrowly on reducing CO2 emissions, through energy efficiency, renewable energy and a shift away from the most energy-intensive forms of consumption. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, this can be done at very low cost, but we need to move much faster than we are doing.

Those, like Trainer and Alexander, who oppose any effective action to reduce CO2 emissions, while demanding a massively larger agenda reflecting their social and ideological preferences, are effective (and sometimes actual [^2]) allies of the rightwing denialists.

fn1. The UN Climate Change Framework Convention process started more than 20 years ago, and is only now producing any significant (though still inadequate) action. ‘Degrowth’ isn’t a process or even the basis of a movement, it’s just an idea.

fn2. One notable meeting place was Barry Brooks’ Brave New Climate site, where denunciations of renewable energy from Trainer and Peter Lang, a denialist who used to comment here, sit side by side

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