Technology in a Post-Growth World: Lessons from the 1970s AT Movement

Hello again! This post about lessons we could learn from the 1970s Appropriate/Alternative Technology movement is derived from a presentation I gave at Helsinki Sustainability Science Days 2019, 9.5.2019. The entire presentation can be found here.

The above presentation and this essay are an outgrowth of my innocent plan to just write up some short notes about technology for would-be authors who are interested in developing an internally consistent, believable and positive vision of a future sustainable society. We need such positive visions more than ever: I for one am 100% convinced that the vast majority of humans, those in the rich countries included, could have a far more meaningful and happy lives in a society that scales down and earnestly starts its way towards sustainability. However, big changes are always scary, and I do not blame anyone for being afraid: the coming change may be the biggest one since the Industrial Revolution, and it may unfold quickly in some places. To keep our wits with us, we need positive visions – and if they are grounded in the latest research and decades of experience, they tend to be more convincing.

(As a context, note that this was presented at “Degrowth and Postgrowth” track, so I won’t be spending time on defending degrowth as such.)

We humans are a technological species that lives in an increasingly technological society. No matter which kind of a future we have, if we have a future, then it’s safe to say it’s going to be technological at least to some extent. We cannot even survive without technology, let alone thrive.

However, the “shape” of that technology remains an open question. Is our future going to be a high-technology one, or an Arcadian agricultural vision? Lately, there has been increased academic interest in the role of technology in the transition towards post-growth, sustainable society, as is evidenced by e.g. a 2018 special issue on degrowth and technology in the Journal of Cleaner Production. In brief, the basic question remains the same as it has been in critical technology studies for decades: is technology a friend or a foe, and what kinds of technologies might be “compatible” with the ideals of degrowth?

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This question matters, because, as noted above, we humans are a technological species. Scholars of technology generally agree that it is hard, if not pointless, to separate technology and human society: our technologies are shaped by our society, and our societies are shaped by our technologies. What these technologies then are, and what values they promote or inhibit, is therefore an important question. If not for anything else, discussing what kinds of technology a future sustainable society might use would help that most valued profession, authors, to come up with more internally realistic, positive visions of the future. (See Doctorow, 2017 for one great example.)

Despite the question’s importance, the discussion related to “degrowth technologies” has been largely theoretical in nature. This is somewhat odd, because there exists a well developed body of research and experience from an earlier attempt to develop a technological choice to the current, destructive growth machine. This alternative movement had many names, such as “radical”, “intermediate”, “soft”, or “low impact” technology, but perhaps the best known names were the Alternative or Appropriate Technology movement.

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While the movement is mainly remembered today from its inordinate fondness towards small scale biogas production and its endless designs for “self sufficient” living, what has been almost forgotten is that for more than a decade, this movement produced an alternative, compelling and very successful narrative for the use of technology. Instead of gigantic technological infrastructures that today remain largely hidden from the view and the thoughts of an individual consumer (and “consumer” tells you what is the position of an individual in this scheme), the AT movement advocated for human-scale, understandable technologies that ordinary humans could at least begin to control. What’s more, the movement was extraordinarily successful when compared to most counterculture movements today: at its heyday, its leading figures were invited to meet presidents and royalty, and its ideas were discussed seriously in bodies like the United Nations and the OECD.

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What this movement sought was to change the technology-practice of our societies so that research and development would be aimed towards human-scale technology, that is, ensuring that technology is compatible with its psychosocial and biophysical context. In other words, the movement sought appropriate technologies and, even more fundamentally, the option of technological choice that went beyond which of the ready-made, prepackaged technological ensembles one would purchase. In brief, the movement sought to democratize technology, while at the same time working towards reducing the human footprint to nature to sustainable levels.

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While the roots of this movement can be traced to the 1800s and even beyond, the critique towards “technological society” inherent in the movement began on its earnest in the 1930s. I would argue that the 1950s DIY movement was in its way a precursor as well: taking control of technology in an increasingly technological age was and remains a subtly subversive act. More generally, the AT movement drew its inspiration from spreading disaffection with modernity and was influenced by e.g. Gandhian philosophy of voluntary simplicity; experience in Asia and Buddhist philosophy were fundamental to the intellectual development of the one person who might be called the father of the AT movement, British-German economist E.F. (“Fritz”) Schumacher.

Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful (1973) jump-started a movement that had been bubbling under in the countercultural settings of the 1960s. By arguing that we humans could and should choose technologies and even entire technological systems (ensembles) to suit our needs, instead of taking as granted the technological ensemble offered by the corporate-capitalist world, Schumacher perhaps inadvertently tapped into a vast reservoir of resentment towards modernity. Much as it is today, this resentment had built upon radical changes in the people’s lives, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of faceless systems and corporations, and a rising awareness that the system was not and perhaps could not be sustainable.

 

However, by the late 1980s, the AT movement had largely disappeared from the view. Critics such as Rybczynski (1980) and Willoughby (1990, 2005) note that the movement was to an extent a fad that had never really defined what “appropriate” technology is; others (e.g. Harper & Boyle 1977) lamented the movement’s focus on technological gadgets rather than political and societal action. It should be noted that while the movement produced all sorts of fanciful schemes for “appropriate” living, it also produced major successes: the entire practice of eco-design largely stems from the ideas first tested in the AT movement, and AT schemes such as utilization of passive solar heat are increasingly standard practice in the construction business. The vision of a sustainable yet comfortable future the AT movement espoused was technically viable and surprisingly popular: what really killed the vision was the rise of radical, anti-environmentalist, pro-business right-wing politics in both the United States and in Europe. Combined with decrease in the price of oil and coal, the alternatives to alternative technology became simply too cheap and convenient, as long as one didn’t have to look under the hood to see the damages this path was causing.

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While the grand vision died, the AT movement, however, survived, if in a modified form. Various authors have noted that without the AT movement and its questioning of technological choice, and its attempts to bring technological choice to the people instead of having experts to decide, we would not have the current science and technology studies (STS) practice. Quite possibly, we wouldn’t have the hacker culture nor personal computers: the entire hacker culture was to a very large extent motivated by the desire to democratize technology, and was deeply connected to the broader AT movement as well (Markoff, 2005; Turner, 2006). The AT movement was also the testing ground not only for energy and building technologies that are now becoming standard, but also what has become the entire eco-design field, as well as prefiguring recently rehashed ideas such as “bottom of the pyramid” or “frugal” innovation by decades. A movement of such importance should not be forgotten as easily as we have done so. Perhaps, as Greer (2013) suggests, we do not want to look at the future we once had but squandered.

Yet look again we must. We are now again coming face to face with issues we brushed under the carpet in the 1980s. The AT movement was mostly correct in its prognosis of the humanity’s predicament, but an unhappy coincidence of political and geological factors permitted us to remain blind to its observations for more than three decades. I believe it is high time to bring the idea of technological choice back to the table, and start having a serious, adult discussion about what our technological society is really for. Are we building a society whose purpose is to let a few super-billionaires play rocket jockeys – or should we focus our creative energies towards bettering the lives of ordinary people, with technologies they can use as tools and not as components in a vast technological machine?

If we want the latter, and I believe it would be the right thing to do, then some lessons from the 1970s are worth remembering. First, social change does not happen via technological change. A major blind spot for many – though by no means all practicioners of AT was the focus on technological gadgetry as the solution. This tendency has not disappeared: as e.g. Morozov (2013) argues, if possible we suffer even more from “solutionism”, or the faith of there being an app for that. Whenever a technocrat sees a problem, he (and it’s almost always he) also sees that there could be a technical solution. Unfortunately, this approach has never really worked, and it’s unlikely it ever will.

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Instead, technology should be seen as an amplifier of pre-existing tendencies (see e.g. Toyama, 2015). If the underlying societal structure tends to concentrate wealth, then new technologies tend to make wealth concentration more severe; if the society promotes well-being of its members, then new technologies tend to increase well-being.

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We could and should’ve learned that lesson back in the 1970s, but we chose not to. Probably a major reason for that is because technical fix to essentially social problems (like, say, poverty) is like the Dark Side of the Force: it’s the seductive path that brings fast results, but as with the Dark Side, these results tend to be illusory. As Morozov (2013) and Toyama (2015), among others, have documented, the Dark Side is nevertheless the default setting for most technologists and societal decision-makers. Again, the fear and revulsion of having to engage in politics is probably a major driver that leads people towards solutionism. However, if one wants to change the world, one should focus a lot more on the messy job of politics and civic engagement – and far less on technological gadgetry.

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Second lesson we should learn from the 1970s is that creating alternatives in the sphere of consumption is relatively easy, but creating alternatives in the sphere of production is far more difficult (Rybczynski, 1980). That is, we can relatively easily choose what and how we consume, e.g. whether we buy everything from a store or make do with second hand and whatever we can do ourselves. In the picture, I’ve tried to represent the “seamless web” of technology’s infrastructure by the pyramidical network: our individual consumption choices, even Appropriate Technology ones, tend to focus on individual products on top of the pyramid, not in how the the products are produced (the rest of the web).

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In the absence of political action, these limited actions are unlikely to influence the means of production: we may choose to buy less, but the infrastructure that is geared towards producing more remains. As long as individual choices do not result to significant changes in the sphere of production, any changes are not sustainable and will tend to rebound over time. The web will find new uses for its resources; this is, after all, what producers in a capitalist economy have to do to survive.

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Third, we really ought to know by now that we cannot forecast the unanticipated side effects of technology. Good ideas can have bad effects, and sometimes bad ideas can have good effects. Much of the Appropriate Technology literature stressed the need to better anticipate what impacts a given technology (or technological ensemble) would have on the people who have to adopt it. This is a worthwhile pursuit – as our tools become more and more powerful, we really ought to think much more carefully about the consequences of our actions – but we ought to abandon the idea that we could precisely engineer a technosocial system that would deliver the societal results we want like clockwork. Societies and technologies are simply too complex for that.

Instead, what we need is an acknowledgement that we have to be able to make constant adjustments based on feedback from the system. Our current means of regulating technologies date from the 1700s, and they are woefully slow-acting compared to the power and speed of our modern tools. There is a real and constantly increasing risk that we inadvertently use a tool that bites too powerfully before we even realize what is happening or can turn the tool off. This could perhaps be something from biotechnology, for instance, although plain old chemistry has already managed to spring us some very nasty surprises, and arguably social media is another out of control tool.

We also would benefit from favoring technologies that do not foreclose the future options. Megascale technologies tend to do just that: monocultures drive local seed varieties and related knowledge extinct, and massive construction projects create assets that must be run to their expected economical lifetime. However, since we cannot foresee technology’s full impacts, by the definition of violence offered by Hannah Arendt in her famous essay On Violence (1972), all technologies are “violent”. For Arendt, violence is the antithesis of real power, which is based on negotiating and persuading people to act together towards a common goal. Violence prevents such persuasion and replaces it with a necessity; thus, if a technology forecloses an otherwise possible course of action from future humans, it is “violent.” (Of course, there are degrees of violence and culpability.)

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Besides less violent and easier to control technologies, there might be another valuable distinction that could sometimes help us make better technological decisions. That is the distinction between a machine and a tool. For this essay, a machine could be defined as any tool that includes automation: a machine is thus a tool that limits its user to certain predetermined actions. A tool, in contrast, is more an extension and amplifier of its user’s capabilities and powers. While strict separation between machines and tools is impossible, especially today, one could nevertheless recognize that some technologies tend to make people into components of a vast machine, while others tend to be more empowering (cf. Coomaraswamy, 1946). We humans are famously unsuited for a life as a part of a machine, and at least some of the present alienation and disaffection in society must certainly stem from the fact that our technological machinery often treats people as components – sometimes low-cost, easily replaceable ones. Sweatshop workers who sew our clothes because training a robot to handle the variety would be more expensive are perhaps the perfect example, but machines control our lives (sometimes surreptiously) even in the wealthiest households. Choosing between a tool and a machine may not be always possible and is likely never easy, but when it is possible, we probably ought to favor tools over machines.

I originally started this paper with an intention to provide some ideas from the history and study of technology for authors who might be interested in developing much-needed positive visions of the future. The above sections may not have answered that question very well, and for that I apologize: however, forecasting is hard, forecasting the future is harder, and forecasting future technology is the hardest. I cannot really say how the technologies in a sustainable, post-growth world would look like. However, I have some guesses: the technologies are unlikely to be thoroughly simple. There are many very advanced technologies that provide genuine value relatively democratically, and these are likely to continue to be developed in most conceivable future scenarios (I leave out the total collapse one, because planning for that is largely useless anyway). However, unless someone pulls an energy rabbit out of the hat and develops an energy system that can truly replace cheap fossil fuels, it seems likely that the world economy will become at least slightly more local. What this probably means is an increase in the competitiveness of technologies that do not rely on global supply chains of raw material, semi-finished products, components, and skills. There is likely to be more regional variation, and if we can get on with really good ideas like Universal Basic Income, most probably a burst of creativity as local tinkerers and would-be inventors become more competitive against mass-market goods from China’s workshops.

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No matter what happens, though, we need to be able to implement social limitations to technology. Our tools are already too powerful for them to be governed the way we governed an axe and a hand-saw, and for the foreseeable future, it seems that our tools are becoming even more powerful. Tools themselves cannot say when they are misused, and it is up to us humans to say “enough!” when those overenthusiastic about novelty want to introduce yet another technology whose consequences are understood poorly, if at all. Technological innovation does not have to and will not cease: but directing it towards more humane ends and perhaps slowing the pace of change somewhat would very probably be a good idea.

All this is not because technology is inherently bad. As famous historian of technology noted a long time ago, technologies are neither good or bad (Kranzberg, 1986). Technology is the ensemble of tools and machines we use to pursue our ends, and we can choose the ends. Technological determinism is thus flawed: it is just as silly to claim that technology is inherently bad as to believe that technological progress is inherently good. To a very large extent, technologies are what we make them to be. However, technologies are also not neutral, and some technologies are probably easier to shape into “technologies with a human face” the 1970s pioneers wanted to gift to us, their children. It is now our task to pick up from where they left, and make a better future – a human-sized future – a reality.

REFERENCES

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1946). Art and Swadeshi. Madras: Ganesh & Co.

Doctorow, C. (2017). Walkaway. New York: Tor Books.

Greer, J. M. (2013). Green Wizardry: Conservation, Solar Power, Organic Gardening, and other Hands-On Skills from Appropriate Tech Toolkit. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

Harper, P., & Boyle, G. (Eds.). (1977). Radical Technology. London: Wildwood House.

Kranzberg, M. (1986). Technology and History: “Kranzberg’s Laws.” Technology and Culture, 27(3), 544.

Markoff, J. (2005). What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry. New York: Penguin.

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: the Folly of Technological Solutionism. New York: PublicAffairs.

Rybczynski, W. (1980). Paper Heroes: A Review of Appropriate Technology. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Schumacher, E. F. (1973). Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs.

Toyama, K. (2015). Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology (Kindle ed.). Philadelphia: Perseus Books.

Turner, F. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth network, and the rise of digital utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, H. (1972). On Violence. In Crises of the Republic. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Willoughby, K. W. (1990). Technology Choice: A Critique of the Appropriate Technology Movement. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

Willoughby, K. W. (2005). Technological semantics and technological practice: Lessons from an enigmatic episode in twentieth-century technology studies. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 17(3-4), 11-43.

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Posted in Economy and the Environment, History of technology, My publications, Notes in process, Politics, post-scarcity | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What climate strikers ought to know about our economic system

Dear participants of the climate strike and all the other friends of a livable future! First of all, I’d like to thank every single one of you for your work defending a future for all of us. In my eyes, all of you are heroes.

Practically all environmental researchers and those who understand the issues are on your side and support your demands. In Finland alone, 1228 university researchers signed a letter supporting the climate strike and other activism for a livable future, while a similar letter circulated in German-speaking Europe gathered over 12 000 signatures. As far as I know, the global scientific community has never before in human history supplied such a clear and unambiguous message in support of any demonstration or political action.

After all, research results are conclusive: there is a 99.9999 percent probability that climate change is happening, and it is likely the most serious threat the humanity has faced for at least the last 50 000 years. The seriousness of the threat is fully comparable to a threat posed by an incoming asteroid. Preventing dangerous levels of climate change is a precondition for the survival of our civilization at least, and possibly for our survival as a species.

Many of you have rightfully wondered why, despite all the research and warnings, humanity has done next to nothing to prevent this deadly serious threat. I shall now try to explain as briefly as possible just why this has happened.

In brief, the central problem is that our current socioeconomic system is built on plentiful fossil fuels, to produce increasing consumption, for the benefit of a small but powerful elite. During the last 30-40 years, wealth distribution has increasingly favored the rich in nearly all so-called western countries. In other words, an ever-smaller share of people owns or controls more of the world’s wealth. This concentration of wealth also means the concentration of political power. A billionaire can hire a veritable legion of communications experts, politicians and economists to influence public opinion, or own entire broadcasting networks to show the public a stream of news carefully selected and framed to make common people support policies that benefit only the richest. In this manner, this development is self-reinforcing: as wealth becomes more concentrated, so does political power, and therefore reversing the trend becomes increasingly difficult.

In Western democracies, the powers and privileges of this elite group are safeguarded most of all by practices which force people into working as unthinking cogs in the machine. For example, from the viewpoint of this elite, making the prospect of unemployment ever more terrible by constant cuts in unemployment benefits is beneficial not just because it means the rich have to pay less tax and can depress wages further, but it also serves to control the populace: those who have to fear for their employment has no time nor even inclination to think what long term impacts their work or the continuation of the current destructive economic system may have. Increased tuition fees and increasing student loans are another mechanism that produces similar results.

This principle is well known to all armies in the world, where the rule is that ordinary soldiers have to be kept busy at all times. This is to be done even if it means inventing meaningless things to do, because soldiers who have time to think may get second thoughts about why they are fighting in the first place. Similarly, I have no doubt that you too remember schooldays when teacher’s absence meant you would have to do some individual assignments just so that the class would stay in order.

In the end, it’s often easier for us humans to refuse to believe that those who criticise our way of life and our societies could be correct. When someone like you questions just how smart our system is in the first place, you also question and ridicule the life choices and values of those who have been living happily within the system. This is the reason why you and other defenders of our common environment are being attacked by a large group of climate deniers and those who question your intelligence and understanding merely because of your age.

Despite these blowhards, it is an unquestionable fact that our wealth-concentrating economic system is increasingly in debt to nature. A lifestyle that is funded by credit cannot last, however, and sooner or later the debt will have to be repaid. As things stand, you and your children will be those who have to foot the bill. Furthermore, nature is a cruel creditor that cannot be cheated, no matter how much we cheat ourselves. No matter how much we beat our chests and announce that our current socioeconomic system is the best possible one, nature will eventually come to collect its debts – from you.

In fact, if our debts to nature are accounted for, most “rich” countries have probably only gotten poorer since the 1990s. Although the “economy” has grown massively, economic accounting counts only those things that someone is willing to pay for. Because natural world was for a very long time assumed to be worth nothing, and it’s still massively undervalued, our common environment, the source of our common wealth and our only life support system, has been ravaged mercilessly.

But why don’t we change the accounting, then? This is a good question, the answer to which returns to the same problem as described earlier. The current bookkeeping standards benefit those who are the winners of our current economic game. Changing the rules would mean that their wealth and power would diminish. Therefore so many of the world’s richest people do so much to prevent or at least slow down any attempts to change the rules of the game to a more sustainable footing: for instance, full 90 percent of the world’s 200 largest companies are spending money to prevent and slow down climate legislation. This is exactly like when those who are winning a game of Monopoly do not want anyone changing the rules.

Furthermore, the richest have other reasons to oppose all actions that would safeguard our future. Our current unsustainable socioeconomic system rests on a fundamental assumption: that economic growth, which also in practice means resource consumption, will continue forever. Economic growth, in short, means that people can buy more products and services. The vast majority of private firms strive to constantly increase their production, because this means increasing profits. If the economy does not grow and people are not buying more, the firms who invested in increased production will be in trouble. These firms then cannot pay back the debts that were used to finance increases in productive capacity, many will go bankrupt, and their workers will lose their jobs. As people lose their jobs, they will buy less, and they also will find it difficult to survive their debts. If enough people and companies fail to honor their debts, the banks that issued the debt will be in trouble. The owners of both banks and most corporations are on average wealthy investors or powerful pension funds. In this manner the wealth and increase in wealth of the richest people is inevitably tied to continuing economic growth. If this leads to an uninhabitable planet some time in the future, after the individuals are dead, too bad! As long as the collapse is not obviously visible in the near future, the winners of our economic game will be opposing the majority of environmental protection. In this, they are helped by the common people who are afraid that their jobs or lifestyle are on the line if environmental protection is improved. This is an understandable, but nevertheless short-sighted position.

Third, the rich are against environmental measures because they are full well aware that the actions that are now required would be expensive and they’d need to be funded by increases in taxes. What is now needed is a mobilization akin to the one the world saw in response to the Second World War. The richest understand that this would mean heavy taxation for the richest: during the war, the highest income tax bracket in the US was 92 percent, while in the UK it was 99 percent. A proposal circulating in the United States at this point suggests that the highest tax bracket, for earnings exceeding $10 million, would be 70 percent – and the richest are among the most implacable opponents of the environmental movement.

Those who seek to belittle you and still have faith in the current system will claim that it is possible to “decouple” the economic growth from the growth in the use of resources. This is possible in theory, but empirical evidence suggests that such decoupling is not fast enough to prevent a serious crisis. Sustainable economic growth may be possible after our societies and economies have been practically rebuilt. As of now, however, we have dithered for too long, and we have lost our chance for a future where economic growth continues steadily. Economic growth will almost certainly level out and possibly stall. This will cause serious problems in our current socioeconomic system, for instance mass unemployment, but the only alternative to smooth leveling out is an eventual civilizational collapse and the end of global economy.

The situation we find ourselves in bears striking resemblance to a game of Monopoly where those who are winning can also alter the rules of the game and hire armed guards to force the losers to continue playing. The major difference between such a game and our reality is that playing our “real” economic game wrecks the natural world and pollutes our atmosphere with greenhouse gases. You should keep this in mind whenever anyone tries to talk down you or other environmental activism: the winners of our game have considerable resources at their disposal to produce convincing-sounding arguments and hire communications experts to spread them.

However, our socioeconomic system is fundamentally a social contract between humans, not some immutable natural law. Humans have lived happy lives in very different economic systems, and even in the capitalist West, the economic system of 1960s and 1970s bears little resemblance to current predatory capitalism. In other words, if we want we can change the functioning of the economic system and stop it from benefiting only the winners. On the other hand, there is nothing we can do about laws of nature. We cannot negotiate with them, and we cannot just decide that physics, for instance, shall operate differently from now on.

Therefore, we must change what can be changed. For example, we have to demand a system where humans can live happy and prosperous lives with less material and energy use, and with less need to continuously compete with other people in wealth and efficiency – in other words, in how much and how fast they are using up the world’s natural resources. The required changes will produce temper tantrums from those whose sense of self or wealth are tied to the current socioeconomic system, but the only alternative to change is the destruction of our civilization, possibly our species. There is absolutely nothing rational in propping up a system that is rushing towards its doom just in order to help the richest become a little bit richer before the inevitable.

Those who still support the current system will argue that there are no alternatives. Fortunately, they are wrong: no law of nature prevents us from living in a different economic system, for instance in a “doughnut economy” outlined by British economist Kate Raworth. In a doughnut economy, the objective of our society would not be centered in the continuous enrichment of the already wealthy, but in achieving a balance between the needs and wants of all living beings on this planet, humans included. Even a return to an economic system that prevailed until about 40 years ago would be an improvement: those days, when wealth and income disparities were significantly smaller in most Western countries, are generally remembered as the heyday of Western capitalism. The achievements of the West were, in fact, largely achieved or at least their foundations were laid during that era. However, we have no reason to only seek a return to that bygone era. Instead, we should be looking for genuine improvements: how would a three-day working week sound like, for instance? Reducing and sharing work would be an excellent method for dividing well-being more equally without causing a pressure to increase emissions.

If you want to learn more about how our socioeconomic system works and how it could be changed, don’t be afraid to ask. The vast majority of the world’s finest scientists and scholars are on your side and want to help. You can also discuss these issues among yourselves: one way I’ve been recommending is to play a game of Monopoly, preferably with eight or more players, and observe what tends to happen. A perceptive mind can pick up many valuable lessons about how our system works simply by observing such a game: for instance, a Monopoly game with eight or more players will make obvious how our economic system produces very unequal results even though the rules are supposedly equal for everyone. For more detailed but still very readable discussion, I can heartily recommend the following books, for example:

Raworth, Kate: Doughnut Economy.

Chang, Ha-Joong: Economics: an User’s Guide.

Chang, Ha-Joong: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

Klein, Naomi: This changes everything: Capitalism versus the Climate.

I, alongside 1227 other Finnish researchers, over 12 000 German-speaking ones, and tens of thousands others worldwide, wish you the best of luck in all your efforts. You are the best hope for a decent future for us all, and heroes everyone.

Janne M. Korhonen

PhD, MSc

Turku School of Economics

Turku, Finland

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The possible anatomy of coming climate change trials

As I write these lines, we have an ever clearer understanding that 1) humanity is hurtling towards a disaster of unimaginable proportions, and 2) the responsibility for this entirely foreseeable disaster rests to a very large extent on a very small group of people, mostly businessmen and political leaders, who over the last three decades have done their utmost to confound all attempts to actually solve the problem. This has been done in the name of profit and financial gain, as the required actions would’ve hurt the bottom line of some of the world’s most powerful corporations. Despite ample evidence that the present course of action may well lead to millions if not billions of deaths and permanent diminution of the Earth’s capacity to sustain human civilisation, even now full 90 percent of the world’s 200 largest corporations, for instance, are actively spending money to forestall any corrective measures.

I’m convinced that sooner or later we will see an international tribunal that will seek to punish the most responsible parties, provided they are still alive. This will be a messy affair that will cause all sorts of legal issues, and probably unfairly punish mostly the younger persons instead of those who hold the most responsibility. But be it as it may, it is inconceivable that aiding and abetting the widespread destruction of the Earth’s life support systems – ecocide – can go entirely unpunished, even if the acts such as lobbying against emission reductions or failing to act are not crimes today.

As a thought experiment, I shall present below some snippets that illustrate how the Prosecution’s case against perpetrators of ecocide might possibly be argued in the future.

 


 

Regarding the ex post facto problem of accusing persons retroactively of acts that were not crimes at the time, only the most incorrigible legalists can pretend to be shocked by the conclusion that perpetrators of a planetary ecocide act at peril of being punished for their perpetration, even if no tribunal has ever previously decided that acts that materially contribute to a planetary ecocide are crimes. And, in any event, the ex post facto question is rendered much easier by the fact of treaty violation. Someone who violates a treaty, such as the Paris climate pact, must act at peril of being punished by the offended party’s employing self-help.[1]

And what about the argument that these crimes had been committed in the pursuit for greater good for all, in the name of economic growth? It appeared to me that such issues should be ruled irrelevant, on the familiar legal principle that a destitute man who steals groceries is a thief even though his purpose is to feed his starving children.[2]

It is important that the trial not become an inquiry into the causes of runaway greenhouse gas emissions. It cannot be established that economic ideology was the sole cause of the global catastrophe, and there should be no effort to do this. Nor, I believe, should there be any effort or time spent on apportioning out responsibility for causing the ecocide among the many nations and individuals concerned. The question of causation is important and will be discussed for many years, but it has no place in this trial, which must rather stick rigorously to the doctrine that materially contributing to global ecocide is illegal, whatever may be the factors that caused the defendants to do so. Contributing causes may be pleaded by the defendants before the bar of history, but not before the tribunal.[3]

…of course proof of criminality dependent entirely on finding evidence that the “economic defendants” had sufficient knowledge of the probable results of inaction, and shared sufficient responsibility for influencing policies towards inaction, that they might properly be convicted.[4]

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.” [5]

“Leaders of the world deliberately set out to make ecocide an international crime” and carried out that intention “in numerous treaties, in governmental pronouncements, and in the declarations in the period preceding the present day.” He mentioned the numerous intergovernmental treaties of climate change mitigation, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the 2007 Bali action plan, the Copenhagen and Cancun Agreements, and the Paris agreement of 2015, stressing the frequency of global participation in such agreements and declarations. Shawcross thus laid the basis for his conclusion that “International law had already … constituted ecocide a criminal act.” Accordingly, there was “no substantial retroactivity – i.e. no element of ex post facto – in enforcing the Charter’s condemnation of crimes against the environment.” [6]

Now, needless to say, it is not the Prosecution’s position that it is a crime to be a managing executive or pursue profit. The profession is an honorable one and can be honorably practiced. But it is too clear for argument that those who commit crimes cannot plead as a defense that they committed them in pursuit of profit. It is not in the nature of things and it is not the Prosecution’s contention that every member of this group was a wicked man or that they were all equally culpable. But we will show that this group … wanted to aggrandize our common environment at the expense of the vast majority of world’s peoples. [7]

…I took up the ecocide charges. Proof of company’s leadership’s complicity in these crimes required us to show that the members of the group knew that lobbying efforts were likely to prevent emission reductions, and that they willingly joined in the execution of those plans. [8]

…I spoke at some length in an effort to clarify these matters, saying in part: I want to make clear again the nature of the accusations against this group. They are not accused merely for doing the usual things that a manager is expected to do, such as making plans and decisions. … It is an innocent and respectable business to be a locksmith; but it is nonetheless a crime if the locksmith turns his talents to picking the locks of neighbors and looting their homes. And that is the nature of the charge against the defendants.[9]

The managerial defendants will perhaps argue that they are pure technicians. This amounts to saying that managers are a race apart from and different from the ordinary run of human beings – people above and beyond the moral and legal requirements that apply to others, incapable of exercising moral judgement on their own behalf.[10]

The prosecution here believe that the profession of management is a distinguished profession. We believe that the practice of that profession calls for the highest degree of integrity and moral wisdom no less than for technical skill. We believe that, in consulting and planning with the leaders of other fields of national activity, the business leaders must act in accordance with international law and the dictates of the public conscience. Otherwise the economic resources of the nation will be used, not in accordance with the laws of modern society, but in accordance with the law of the jungle.[11]

…In the trial of an individual member, Jackson declared, their lack of knowledge of the enterprise’s criminality “might possibly be a factor in extenuation,” but “the test would not be what the person actually knew, but what, as a person of common understanding they should have known.” On this basis, the defendant in a later trial would have to give very particular reasons to explain why they, as a reasonable person, did not also know.[12]

Jackson’s position: “the Prosecution’s test is constructive knowledge. That is, ought a reasonable person in the position of a member to have known of these crimes.” [13]

NOTES

The snippets presented here are very slightly modified excerpts from the book The Anatomy of Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir., written by Telford Taylor, an U.S. counsel for prosecution in the trials. The sections in italics are my modifications from the original; otherwise the excerpts, taken from the sections dealing with the prosecution’s case, are nearly verbatim, with some condensation and changing of the personal pronouns to more modern form. The following citations refer to locations in the Kindle Edition.

It is not my intention to argue that those who aid and abet ecocide are equal to Nazi war criminals, nor that their guilt is at a similar level to those who deliberately murdered millions. However, the coming ecocide may well cause billions of deaths, and I would be extremely surprised if no one is ever punished for complicity – provided that the defendants are still alive when the notion of international trials moves from thought experiments such as this towards actual policy proposals. Personally, if I were working in a fossil fuel company in any decision-making role, I would resign as soon as possible and probably not pursue any options for extending my lifespan or preserving my body in the hopes that future generations might revive it, as the generations come may have very little reason to be grateful to us.

[1]: Location 1151

[2]: Location 1161

[3]: Location 1164

[4]: Location 1785

[5]: From Justice Jackson’s opening argument, quoted in Location 3683

[6]: Location 4195

[7]: Location 5424

[8]: Location 5442

[9]: Location 5478

[10]: Location 5486

[11]: Location 5492

[12]: Location 6138

[13]: Location 6172

 

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Bitcoin is not a good fit for renewable energy. Here’s why.

Recent research suggests that Bitcoin network is using an appreciable fraction – 0.1% – of the world’s total electricity use and is projected to use up to 0.5%, or about what all the solar panels in the world produce, by the year’s end. These troubling developments have been met by claims that Bitcoin is actually a good thing, since increased demand promotes investments in new renewable energy technologies and in any case Bitcoin miners would “soon” convert to low-carbon, renewable energy anyway.

These claims belie a lack of understanding of how energy systems actually work, and why the fundamental economics of Bitcoin mining make it, in fact, one of the least renewables-compatible industrial processes on the planet today. In reality, in most jurisdictions Bitcoin mining most likely promotes increased and continuing use of coal. In the following, I try to explain as briefly as possible why this is so.

Let’s start by examining the economics of Bitcoin mining. As is well understood by everyone with more than a passing interest in Bitcoin, mining these days is the domain of specialized ASIC mining rigs. These mining rigs are relatively expensive investments that have no other profitable use, except as very expensive electric heating elements. As a result, a miner will try his utmost to make the most of the investment in the time available, meaning that the goal is to keep mining rigs in operation 24 hours per day, seven days a week, until they become obsolete.

All this consumes considerable quantities of electricity, so the miner has significant incentives to locate where this 24/7 electricity supply is available as cheaply as possible. We see the results in the concentration of miners in China, where coal power stations and lax environmental rules provide plentiful cheap electricity.

Now, in theory the miners could provide their power, or at least some of it, from renewable energy sources like wind power or solar photovoltaics (PVs). Proponents of this theory note the fall in the price of renewables and the fact that in many situations, the cost of electrical energy produced by these generators – usually expressed as Levelized Cost Of Electricity or LCOE – is already lower than the LCOE of fossil fuel fired plants.

However, the problem with this theory is that these promising renewable energy sources produce only intermittent, or variable, power. For reasons that ought to be obvious, both types of renewable energy are available only when weather conditions are favorable. Typically, the availability of variable sources is expressed as “capacity factor”, meaning what is the actual energy output relative to “nameplate” capacity. For wind power, typical capacity factors range from 25-30% for land-based wind to little more than 45% for the largest offshore wind farms in particularly suitable locations; for solar PV, capacity factors tend to fall between 8 to 15 percent.

What this means in practice is that variable renewable sources are and will always remain a poor fit for industrial processes where maximizing returns to the investment requires steady 24/7 operation. This problem has been understood and acknowledged by most existing industries, and even smelters are these days redesigning their technologies to better cope with variable production of electricity. For example, Swedish steelmaker SSAB is experimenting with hydrogen reduction techniques, where a major component of the steel plant would be a hydrogen storage tank that is filled when excess power is available and withdrawn for the process when it is not. (Additional benefit: no need for coal in the process, saving CO2 emissions in that way as well.) Bitcoin mining, however, cannot adapt easily, because there is no method for “saving” any energy-intensive component of the produce for less energy intensive processing in periods of low production.

It needs to be stressed at this point that the LCOE figures, which are the most commonly cited figures for the cost of renewable electricity, by definition do not account for this problem. LCOE simply means what it costs to produce an unit of electricity by a given source: whether or not that unit of electricity is produced when it is actually needed is a question LCOE figures cannot answer.

Of course, these problems can be mitigated to some extent by various solutions and combinations of solutions. One solution would be to construct large interconnector networks so that renewable generators somewhere would always produce at least some power. This helps to some extent, but it is not a panacea, and increases costs significantly: in effect, the total cost is the cost of all the generators required plus the cost of interconnectors. In energy researchers’ jargon, this is known as “overbuild” and various studies suggest a 24/7 energy system would require overbuild of something between 2 to 5 times of nominal capacity – in other words, at 2 to 5 times the nominal LCOE cost of electricity from a single renewable energy generator. Furthermore, there are significant political problems involved: local opposition to transmission lines is already a bottleneck to renewable energy increases in Germany, and constructing a grid that would markedly help Europe with solar PV’s inherent tendency to produce only during daytime would require installing the demand’s worth of solar panels along every longitude between Moscow and the Canary Islands.

For these reasons, energy researchers don’t see grid expansion as more than a partial solution to the problem. Energy storage methods, ranging from pumped hydro stations to synthetic gas to vast battery banks, are another partial solution. Again, these solutions entail additional costs that are not captured in the LCOE figures, and again, for various technical and economic reasons, these are nevertheless unlikely to amount for anything else than a partial solution at best as well. A basic problem here is that fossil fuel sources, which are the baseline against which all other solutions have to compete, are at the same time a source and a very convenient store of energy: a lump of coal stores energy very effectively until such a time as it is needed.

This leaves the third option: demand flexibility. If energy demand were to flex according to production, the problems with low-carbon production not quite matching the demand would diminish significantly. Therefore, literally every energy scenario produced during the last two decades concludes that switching the world’s energy supply from easily controllable (or “dispatchable”) fossil fuel supplies to energy sources whose drawbacks don’t include a probable collapse of human civilization requires a combination of vast interconnector networks, energy storage, and demand flexibility – and that the latter is extremely important. Google any energy report you want, and you will see that it stresses the essential importance of increasing demand flexibility. This means, simply, that we should shun processes that cannot be or are not easily throttled in response to variable supply.

Which brings us back to Bitcoin. Unless a way is devised to cheaply “store” hash rates achieved during periods of peak electricity production, Bitcoin mining will continue to require steady, inflexible 24/7 supplies of power. Theoretically, Bitcoin miners could certainly invest in battery banks or other energy storage methods to produce such energy services: in practice, this would very greatly increase the cost of electricity used.

For the foreseeable future, the cheapest source of steady 24/7 electricity supply will be coal or gas, except in few locations that are blessed with extremely abundant hydropower reserves. Bitcoin mining creates a stable, predictable demand coal power stations in particular love: throttling coal power up or down is generally difficult, and in fact one of the main reasons why renewables sometimes can shut down coal power plants is because coal plants have problems coping with flexibility demands. The more there is Bitcoin mining, the less need there is for coal plants to close, the more revenues they can collect, and the more political clout they have. In fact, there have already been news of shuttered coal plants being opened to power Bitcoin mining.

So for the foreseeable future at least, Bitcoin mining will promote and extend coal use in most places, most certainly in China. More inflexible demand is not great for renewables, and in general, inflexible uses should be shunned, not promoted these days.

Bitcoin enthusiasts might have a better case if they claimed that Bitcoin mining promotes the use of nuclear power, whose characteristics match more closely those of coal plants. However, I at least haven’t seen such a case made yet, and somehow I doubt the people who claim to be decentralizing everything are that enthusiastic about large, centralized power plants.

PS. Before anyone asks: yes, hydro and geothermal power plants could produce steady 24/7 power. However, 1) building more hydro plants in particular is very problematic, 2) geothermal electricity is competitive only in places where there is significant volcanic activity, 3) there are many other industrial processes where flexibility is difficult to increase, and dispatchable low-carbon power sources like hydro would be more gainfully employed either there or in smoothing out variable production.

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Practical policies for transition towards post-capitalist, post-scarcity society

One question I get asked a lot is that post-capitalism and post-scarcity sound like good ideas in theory, but how do we get from here to there in practice?

In other words: What are the actual, concrete political projects we should be advancing?

This is a good question and I don’t have as many good answers as I’d like to have. While I’m working on it, I’ll outline others’ suggestions for practical policies that could, in the long run if not in the short, make a difference.

This is a living document and I’ll append more examples as I find and get around to typing them. Please, feel more than free to leave suggestions!

Mason’s transition to a post-capitalist society

First off are Paul Mason’s five principles of transition from his worthy book, Postcapitalism: A guide to our future (Mason, 2015). The book includes a discussion of potential large-scale postcapitalist project called “Project Zero” (for zero-carbon energy system, the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs, and the reduction of necessary labor time as close as possible to zero).

Five principles

In Mason’s opinion, this transition needs to involve five principles (pp. 266–269:

  1. Understanding the limitations of human willpower in the face of a complex and fragile system. The solution to this problem, which hobbled the previous revolutionaries, is to test all proposals at small scale and model their macro-economic impact virtually many times before attempting them on a large scale.
  2. Ecological sustainability: transition and its technologies need to be designed to be sustainable.
  3. The transition is not just about economics; it needs to be a human transition. New networked economies create new kinds of people with new kinds of insecurities and new priorities. Any project cannot be simply about economic and social justice (important though they are), but needs to be a democratic one where people will see their lives improve meaningfully.
  4. Attack the problem from all angles. Meaningful action is not limited to a certain place or at certain levels; grassroots activism is just as important as high-level negotiations, particularly so because we need new kinds of regulation and governance to manage a zero marginal cost society. Solutions should be looked for through a mixture of small-scale experiment, proven models that can be scaled up, and top-down action by states.
  5. Maximize the power of information. Use social technologies, the internet of things, and whatever you can. The goal is to decentralize economic control; Internet could be the perfect tool for that.

Top-level goals (or “victory conditions”)

A list by Mason, not in any order of importance! (pp. 269–270)

A Precaution: WHENEVER POSSIBLE, TEST EVERY PROPOSAL VIRTUALLY WITH SIMULATION TOOLS BEFORE IMPLEMENTATION.

  1. Rapidly reduce carbon emissions so that the world has warmed by only two degrees Celcius by 2050, prevent an energy crisis and mitigate the chaos caused by climate events.
  2. Stabilize the finance system between now and 2050 by socialising it, so that ageing populations, climate change and the debt overhang do not combine to detonate a new boom-and-bust cycle and destroy the world economy.
  3. Deliver high levels of material prosperity and wellbeing to the majority of people, primarily by prioritizing information-rich technologies towards solving major social challenges, such as ill health, welfare dependency, sexual exploitation and poor education.
  4. Gear technology towards the reduction of necessary work to promote the rapid transition towards an automated economy. Eventually, work becomes voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free, and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labor.

References

Mason, P. (2015). Post-Capitalism: A Guide to our Future. London: Allen Lane.

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Post-scarcity: a research review (in progress!)

I’ve been slowly going through research literature on post-scarcity and so-called scarcity, abundance and sufficiency (SAS) school of thought.

TL;DR version: post-scarcity economy, where the economic problem of production has for all intents and purposes been solved and all the basic needs are met for all the people, seems to be a much more feasible proposition than many people believe. However, it will require development of new institutions to govern the new commons and political action to end the inequalities that threaten the world.

My presentation at the Finnish Political Science Association’s 2018 conference, 8.3.18:

(click here to go to Google Slides; feel free to comment!)

Paper will follow once I get it to some sort of shape.

 

 

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Pragmatic, inclusive energy discussion works

Here’s one data point for the debate about communicating nuclear power: The approval rating of nuclear power in Finland has risen by a whopping seven percentage points in a year. In Pyhäjoki, where the Russian Rosatom is building its highly-contested reactor, the approval of nuclear power hovers around 75 percent despite all the media attention given to the very real problems with the project and the way it was handled.

At the same time, the Finnish Ecomodernist Society has been more and more active in calm, measured discussion about energy and climate issues and the positives of including nuclear power as one energy option among others. While it would be an overstatement to say that the work of Finnish ecomodernists is responsible for this increase in public approval, at the very least it shows that thoughtful, balanced approach does not prevent the increase in popularity of a contentious energy source.

For some years now, I’ve firmly believed that all maximalist energy plans are mistakes on both practical and political levels. While plans and ideas that call for 100% renewable or 100% nuclear energy to decarbonise the world may be physically possible, I don’t think they represent the most reliable, nor the fastest, nor the cheapest ways to required near-total decarbonisation. Furthermore, I don’t believe we can know with any certainty the details of the energy system of the 2050s; therefore, arguing that one route or the other is clearly superior seems to me a case of hubris.

Instead, I believe that we ought to encourage all approaches that have the potential to reduce emissions to the atmosphere, or draw down greenhouse gases that are already there. I also believe that at this juncture, we don’t have the luxury of opposing any major low-carbon energy projects, unless for very good and fairly specific reasons.

We need to remain critical of energy technologies and, in particular, energy projects. There are no unproblematic technologies, and despite the obvious need for vast amounts of low-carbon energy, no technology or project should go unchallenged. But there is a fine line between being a critic, and coming off as an arrogant, obsessed devotee. Coming off as a latter – even if one is technically speaking correct – is a surefire way of alienating people who might actually be otherwise open to a discussion. Being obnoxiously certain of the superiority of one’s chosen solutions is just another way of being a jerk. (Note that I don’t claim to be innocent here, but I do try to make amends.)

And since we also need a lot higher public approval for all low-carbon energy and climate mitigation projects, we all ought to focus on promoting what we like instead of bashing what we don’t like. By all means, be critical – just don’t overdo it. The Finnish example shows, in my mind, that thoughtful discussion goes a lot farther a lot faster than bashing the opposition.

(As an aside, we’ve benefited from having a previous example. Back in 1993, the Finnish Parliament voted for a permit for the fifth nuclear reactor in Finland. The permit was denied, and latter post mortems noted that a major (though not the only) reason was the smug, alienating approached used by the promoters of the fifth nuclear reactor. They came off as arrogant, technocratic know-it-alls who disparaged every other idea and solution, called the opposition unscientific and irrational, and managed to alienate even some dyed-in-the-wool nuclear supporters. In contrast, the 2003 decision was lobbied very differently, with an approach that envisioned nuclear power as one solution among others and was by far more courteous to the critics. Since I read those post-mortems, I’ve done my best to cultivate similar approach in my advocacy.)

Thanks to Rauli Partanen for the idea for this post, and particularly for his hard work in energy advocacy. You should follow Rauli in Twitter, @kaikenhuippu, and check out our book, Climate Gamble.

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