Beyond Doomsday Prophesies & Techno-optimism?

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A friend from the UK wrote the following email, criticising in part my recent thinking about the future using long-wave theory. His good points raise interesting questions about the adequacy of doomsday prophesies and their opposite, the lyrical and influential babbling of the techno-optimists. Below is his very insightful original email (with names removed), and my response:

Dear …,

Greetings, where the spring continues to fight a long and weary battle in the face of a depressingly vital winter!

So, now to my question – or perhaps rather next episode in an ongoing dialogue.  I have now read Jeremy Rifkin’s 3rd Industrial Revolution.  Rousing stuff and adding further weight to a story that I have already been telling for a while now – building on other thinkers such as Carlota Perez and Robin Murray – though adding new details and providing an intriguing additional dimension in terms of his political contacts (what a class A name-dropper!) and the profile he claims for these ideas among top policy-makers in the EU.


…………I continue to read a strong refutation of such arguments from a number of other thinkers that I have found to be fairly reliable and trustworthy informants in the past – folk like Richard Heinberg, John Michael Greer, Mark Cunningham, Alf Hornborg and others.  The counter-argument has various strands: the renewable energy ‘revolution’ is a myth because it is overly dependent on fossil fuels at every stage in the building, installation, maintenance, replacement process; the EREOI of most technologies is simply insufficient to sustain an industrial civilisation; the sheer volume of metals and minerals required for the necessary replacement of the infrastructure is not in the system; all energy is being diverted to the vain attempt to keep the current system going and there is simply not enough to achieve this and transform the infrastructure in parallel; there is nothing in the history of resource/energy decoupling to suggest that breakthroughs on the scale required are likely/possible.

In short, in my reading we have two poles of a spectrum of ‘green transition’ thought, one of which – Perez, Rifkin (I suspect you as well) – are excited about the technological possibilities that are opening up and that promise to deliver a new Golden Age in the history of capitalism; and techno-pessimists who argue that we are inescapably on the threshold of a Long Descent in terms of energy availability and societal complexity.

So busy are both ends of this spectrum spelling out their visions of the future that rarely if ever do I see them engage with each other in a conversation that throws light on the merits of the two cases.  Can you point me in the direction of any such conversations?  Also interested to learn what are your perspectives on this issue.

My response:



Thanks for this. All important readings in this vexed debate. I agree, the two sides do not engage very often. Interesting that you put me on the optimist wing, though. Very recently I was put in the opposite camp – in the attached Introduction to a special edition of Environmental Innovations and Societal Transitions on the global crisis, van den Bergh (the editor) categorised Perez as an optimist and me as a pessimist. See others on different ends of this debate in Table 1 of the attached pdf. The reason for my pessimism is that I see very few signs that the grip of finance capital on the global economy is loosening. Unless it is loosened, re-investment in the ‘real economy’ becomes unlikely, with the result that the global casino continues to benefit the rich while it is insufficient in developing economies to address the needs of those who are in poverty. However, even if finance capital is disciplined and productive capital liberated, this is not a sufficient condition for a sustainability transition. All the other conditions are what you refer to and like you, I am deeply skeptical that the resources exist to keep things going as they are while patching up the planet. I was at a recent meeting of so-called experts at UN HQ in New York to discuss the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as mandated by Rio + 20 – the background paper was written by Jeff Sachs and Johan Rockstrom. The argument was simple: sustainable development means converging on western levels of consumption, but within ‘planetary boundaries’, i.e. patch up the planet so that we can have ‘development-as-usual’ for everyone by 2050 at 9.5 billion people. This is the ultimate delusion.

No, contrary to your assumption about my position, it is not a techno-optimist one. Nor is it the Sachs-Rockstrom position just because I talk about ‘development’ because of where I come from where I witness every day of my life what poverty really means. Instead, I think the best characterisation of my position was written by the Review of the Just Transitions book by the person who wrote up the motivation for awarding our book runner up in the Harald and Margaret Sprout award that was made at the recent International Studies Association conference in San Francisco. The reviewer captured our intent as follows:

“ Just Transitions does what few others even attempt—namely, redefine global environmental politics in a way commensurate with the nature of the problem, the speed and extent of current changes, and the urgency of transition. Their project is not one of marginal adjustment (either theoretically or politically), of global management for global problems, of describing and critiquing current trends. Rather, it is one of anticipation, of projecting, of futuring. It is one that takes as integral to the current and coming politics both biophysical constraint and unjust benefits and impacts.
More substantively, they frame the problem not as ineffectual management, nor as excess carbon, inefficiencies or lack of technological innovation. Rather, they frame it as a “deepening global polycrisis” where no single approach will do, certainly not an exclusive top-down, managerial, more information, better-consuming, better technologies approach. What’s more, they zero in on that tricky nexus of the local and the global, arguing persuasively throughout the book for taking seriously “the transformative impact of niche innovations” especially at sub-national scales.
Their project is about seeing the world (as unjust, unsustainable and in radical transition), about framing the nature of the problem (now and into the future), and about informing practice, a major criterion in the Sprout award. The primary venues for such practice are cities, where not only are the populations but where key decisions are made. Moreover, they take very seriously issues of excess, deprivation and the long term. The transition of the sort that is beginning to occur and, some of us think, will inevitably occur as biophysical and ethical contradictions mount, is so much more than material transition.
Finally, if “global” connotes, among other things, the global North and the global South, this is one work that effectively situates itself in both. It is not Northerners describing the South, Northerners describing the North, nor Southerners describing the South, what I take to be the normal patterns. Rather, it is simultaneously of, by and through both the North and the South.”

All of these points captured exactly our intent, especially the last one. But you will notice how radically different this reviewer’s reading of our position is to your reading of our position.

On the question of decoupling: you don’t like the idea because you share Tim Jackson’s understanding which, in turn, reflects the long-held assumption that economic growth in and of itself is the problem. If the only way to reduce the consumption of resources is to reduce economic growth rates, then development in the developing will be to blame for the crisis of unsustainability. I cannot accept this. For me, decoupling is not just about decoupling the rate of economic growth from the rate of resource consumption, it is about radical absolute reductions in resource consumption no matter what the growth rate may be. In practice this will mean the following:

• Doing less with less – this is a contraction, and is an absolute necessity in developed economies (but not via austerity economics which is about leaving the rich untouched and protecting the banks)
• Doing more with less – this is resource efficiency, which is a developing country context means radically redefining what development means (i.e. development to eradicate poverty but not doing it how the west did it)
• Doing a lot more with stuff we don’t use enough of (i.e. renewables ) – this is a substitution, but it won’t happen via the market

This is what I mean by decoupling, with the precise mix contextually determined. This is not what most people mean who use the notion of decoupling.

I suspect that the key difference between you and me is that I don’t believe in the transformative power of pessimism. As I said in a public lecture in Quito, Ecuador, a few weeks ago (without claiming originality), Martin Luther King did not say “I have a nightmare”. I have lived in a country where crisis forced people to find the best within themselves so as not to mutually destroy each other at a key moment in time. I was part of this. I saw it happen with my own eyes. This made the transition possible (and yes, we have squandered what we won). I sincerely believe this is possible on a grand scale. Yes, I do think there are major catastrophes coming, and indeed they have already begun. 2 billion people in the world already live lives of intense suffering and misery. They will in future die more quickly; more will be pulled down into their ranks, and many middle-class people will suffer fates similar to what the crisis has caused across Europe and the USA but on a larger scale. I anticipate (as argued in our book), intensifying and spreading resource wars – already 2 billion live in failed states. As Lester Brown asks, how many more are needed before we say civilisation has failed. Resource wars in an unsustainable world produce failed states. This will spread. I see no end to the financial crises, and more and bigger crashes to follow. I see new hegemons emerging on the global political landscape, China in particular.

But still, like Paul Hawken, I also see the opposite of all this – what in the conclusion to our book we called the ‘double movement’ (following Polanyi). I see across the world as I travel extra-ordinary achievements. Yes, added up they do not amount to the ‘breakthroughs on scale’ that you would like to see and refer to in your email. But this is not how I judge them. I judge them from the perspective of learning curves, which history shows can be cumulative and, therefore, transformative once you make it through certain tipping points. From a genuine complexity perspective (not just a chaos perspective which tends still to be about repetitions), qualitative shifts at bifurcations points that are impossible to predict are possible. This is theoretically true, and empirically verifiable (with hindsight, of course). To counter this with lamentations about the long descent based on physical laws of motion rooted in a materialist understanding of history is, quite frankly, just not good enough. More importantly, it makes for a politics that allows the powerful to win. What worries me is that the powerful today no longer need optimism on their side to win (like they did in the past when so much store was put in grand narratives about progress), they actually trade on pessimism now – short-termism, uncertainty, fear, immediacy. In short, they want all of us to be pessimists – to give up our dreams, to let nightmares fill our classrooms, to allow hope to become nothing more dangerous than the verbiage of naïve fools (who get branded techno-optimists). For me, like Martin Luther King, the optimism of the dream that a better world is possible is the most subversive force around today. I refuse to kill it because the facts don’t all add up neatly to confirm that it will come true. We live daily with mounting uncertainty, but in the ensuing struggles of so many comes forth the hopes and dreams that lie at the foundations of a new civilisation in the making. Gramsci once wrote about the ‘morbid symptoms of the interregnum between the old that has not died and the new yet to be born’. Morbid indeed. But this morbidity is nothing compared to the immense potential that the interregnum can and does release. This is the energy that drives me, and when I look into the eyes of the people we work with in shack settlements as we install solar on their rooftops, I see the future.

I must say, I was deeply alarmed recently when some students I was teaching in Europe could sit there and talk (in rather too casual a way, I thought) about the ‘sixth extinction’. I could not help asking myself: do they really count themselves as being part of this? Or does privilege allow you to exclude yourself from this? Indeed, is survival the new privilege? Also, I thought, they seem to talk as if this is going to happen in the future sometime, but there is no reference to the fact that hundreds of millions are already experiencing extinction through short lives of intense suffering right now as we speak? Can they empathize with that? Do they? Why the heavy depressed feeling when I talked about Africa’s development challenges? Is this not worth thinking about because after all it will all get swallowed up in the sixth extinction? I really worry about the ethical implications of a doomsday sensibility. What gets justified by this mindset? This is what I say to my students: “How much do you need to know about how fast things are changing before you conclude they are not changing fast enough?” After all, when they start talking about doomsday, it implies they know that things are not changing fast enough. But how would they know this? How does anyone know? And so, surely, the ethical choices we make today should not be affected by whether there is going to be the sixth extinction or not. We need to act as if a new world is brought about today by every little thing we do and say right now. That is my profound belief and is rooted in an ethical tradition that has deep roots across many spiritual traditions. In conclusion to our book, we called it living a generous life in restorative ways.

Regards, Mark