What a privilege it is to be alive in these times, in such a significant period in human history. It’s not always easy to see moments of great historical importance when you’re in the middle of them. Sometimes they’re dramatic, like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the landing on the moon. But more often the really big ones appear, from within them, to be unfolding in slow motion. Their actual drama and speed then only becomes clear in hindsight.
That’s how it will be with this. But in the end we’ll look back at this moment and say, yes, that’s when it was clear, that’s when the end game began. The end game of the industrial revolution.
Hang on, you’re thinking. The industrial revolution? With its belching smokestacks, dirty industry and steam engines? You thought we left that behind long ago, right? You look at your smart phone, robots on Mars, the rise of Facebook and Google and think ‘we’re well past all that’. Isn’t this the age of knowledge, when we’re all hyper-connected in a 24/7 information rich economy? Think again.
Hiding behind those entertaining devices, information overload and exciting new companies, the real bulk of the economy is still being driven by those dirty belching smokestacks and is still being shaped by those who inherited the economic momentum of 19th century England – the coal, oil and gas industries. Look at any list of the world’s 20 largest companies by turnover and you’ll see around three quarters are either producing fossil fuels, trading them or converting them into transport or energy. So I’m afraid the proverbial belching smokestacks still underpin our economy. But they are now in terminal decline. Yes, after 250 years, their time is coming to an end – and faster than you, or they, think.
I’m writing this on my way home from speaking at the annual TED gathering in Long Beach California, where 1,500 people gathered to listen to what the organisers call “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED has always been an influential gathering, but then they put some of the talks online and, with over 500 million views, their global reach as a spreader of ideas has become quite a phenomenon.
There is nothing quite like this event, with its eclectic mix of investors, entrepreneurs, activists, think tanks, corporate execs and philanthropists. There’s owners and CEO’s of companies like LinkedIn and Amazon alongside enthusiastic founders of young start-ups hoping to emulate their success. There’s people with big picture ideas about where the world’s going, alongside social entrepreneurs taking today’s practical ideas into the field in the developing world. The latter included many examples of beautiful hope and simplicity, like the guy leaving a good corporate job to help run a social start-up called Wonderbags, which uses insulated bags to dramatically reduce the dangers and expense of cooking fuel in poor villages in Africa.
The optimism is infectious and so the opening session sparked quite a controversy. I gave my worldview with a talk titled “The Earth is Full”, arguing a major economic crisis was now being triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water. While I argued humanity was good in a crisis and we’d get through it, my argument left the techno-optimists a little shell-shocked, as they are more used to being uplifted with stories of optimism and endless opportunity.
Although I’ve done a hundred or so public talks around the world in the last few years around my book The Great Disruption (see link on side bar), speaking at the opening session of the annual TED event is an experience and opportunity like no other. Another speaker backstage, feeling similarly hyped about the opportunity, described it to me as being like “the world series of public speaking”!
For me the pressure was really on because I was going into the lion’s den of “techno optimists” – those who believe that technology can solve everything. My message is a tough one for this audience – that sure technology will do wonderful things for us, but the reality is we are going to face some very difficult consequences of our overloading of planet earth and its too late now to stop those consequences. I argue strongly that humans are amazingly capable and will recover from this inevitable crisis and indeed in the end build a stronger and happier society.
My focus in life is to motivate and inspire people to act on the urgent challenges of climate and sustainability and it is a real honour to speak to the TED crowd. This passionate and engaged community has an amazing capacity to make a difference in the world with their creativity, influence, innovation and entrepreneurship, so I was delighted to make a contribution in the opening session.
Whenever anyone questions the way things are, from the Occupy protestors through to people like me arguing that economic growth will end in tears and crisis, the response is very often, but “markets are wonderful and efficient way of organising our society”. I say what? That’s like saying to someone who says “I don’t like oranges” that “you’re wrong, you haven’t tasted this great cheese”. It’s an irrelevant and illogical response.
The term “markets” does not mean “infinite growth based capitalism that is destroying the ecosystem and preferentially serving the interests of the rich”! Markets don’t have to do that, and don’t always do that, including today. Indeed, markets as an idea have proven themselves as a resilient mechanism for many objectives. From the food markets of ancient Rome to the emerging boom in renewable energy, markets touch something very powerful in the human psyche and can deliver great good for society.
As Tom Friedman recently wrote in the NYT, “There’s Something Happening Here”. There sure is. The market system that has delivered so much to the world over the last century – brought great technology, alleviated so much poverty, produced a better life for billions – is now destroying itself.
Some say this process is now inevitable. That like an empire in decline, the system is deluded by its grandeur and historical power and thus fails to see its weaknesses – so is unable to respond. I disagree. The crisis is certainly inevitable, indeed that is well underway. The ecosystem is breaking down, and the economy is in hot pursuit in the collapse stakes. But the path into and through this crisis is a choice we get to make. The future doesn’t just happen, we create it.
But who gets to make these choices? Some argue it’s “the 1%” and that the victims of their decisions are “the 99%” – that the rich beneficiaries of the current system control it, and do so in their own interests. This analysis says that’s why we have low taxes, bailouts of wealthy investment banks, lack of action against those who caused the financial crisis and a failure to deal with climate change – because the rich 1% want it that way. But is that correct? And if so, are they making the right decision even for themselves?
It’s going to hit hard and it’s going to hurt – made worse because most aren’t expecting it. They think the world is slowly returning to our modern “normal” – steadily increasing growth, with occasional annoying but manageable interruptions. After all, the global recession wasn’t so bad was it? Sure there was pain and things got shaky but Governments responded, bailed out companies, stimulated economies, got things back on track. While it’s still a bit bumpy, Greek wobbles, US debt, extreme weather, high oil and food prices etc, it’ll work out. It always does….
If only it were so. In fact we are blindly walking towards the next in a series of inevitable system shaking and confidence sapping crises, deluded in the belief that the worst is behind us.
Each crisis will be a little worse than the last. Each one will shake our denial a little more. This is what happens when systems hit their limits. They don’t do so smoothly, but bump up against the wall, hitting hard, then bouncing off equally hard. It is the behaviour of a system trying to break through. But if the limits are solid, as is the case with our economic system hitting the limits of the planet – defined by unchangeable physical capacity and the laws of physics, chemistry and biology – then it can’t find its way through. So eventually, when the pain of hitting the wall gets too much, it stops.
Then it will hit. Like a grenade in a glasshouse, shattering denial and delusion and leaving it like a pile of broken glass on the floor of the old economic model. Then we’ll be ready for change.
Economic growth is slowly but surely coming to an end, not for a few quarters or years, but to an end. It will still take some time given the mighty momentum behind it, as well as the power of our denial, but the signs are clear that both processes have begun.
Let me be clear that I’m not talking here about the long philosophical debate on the relative merits of growth – that rich countries getting richer does not improve their quality of life. What we face now is not a political choice – it’s too late for that. We have put in place the processes that will force the end of growth and nothing can now be done to change course.
China is perhaps the best example, exaggerating all that is good and bad about the growth model. We have seen spectacular rates of growth in recent decades and with it, many hundreds of millions of people being brought out of poverty. These people are now enjoying the fruits that global growth has delivered to many of us over the last century in technology, health and easy access to food. On the other hand China has paid an enormous price for this growth, in air pollution, degraded soil quality, spoiled waterways and longer term risks to food supply. It is now even taking from the USA the ignominious title of being the world’s largest current contributor to climate change (though we mustn’t forget China’s per capita emissions are still dwarfed by the pollution rate in the OECD countries).