What If? Or the Age of Diminishing Returns

08 October 2010

Organically reared cows at pasture by the sea

Photo: the Soil Association

Andrew Simms, Policy Director of the new economics foundation (nef), spoke to a meeting organised by the Soil Association on Wednesday at their annual Lady Balfour lecture in London. The talk was entitled "What If" but it emerged that the real title was: The Age of Diminishing Returns.

Simms is an engaging, humourous and passionate speaker. Starting with the theme, Food is DNA for society - it is life itself, he moved on to the difficulty we have in discerning that tomorrow might be different to today. We live in a veneer of timelessness, thinking our society will exist in an eternal present. Simms countered this view with the fact that civilisations have repeatedly grown, flourished and disappeared. Quoting Joseph Tainter's academic classic "The Collapse of Complex Societies" and the more recent, and less dry "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, he noted that the Norse Greenlanders, the Western Roman Empire, the Mayans, the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the Mesopotamian Alluvium (7-10th Century CE), and of course Easter Island, had all collapsed. He warned in a parody of finance advertisments, that "Civilisation can go down as well as up."

What can we do about this? How we will fare will depend on how we respond to stress surges, in an Age of Diminishing Returns. We have to manage the Great Transition. This means that we have to reduce our overconsuming lifestyle to match the energy and resources we will have available in the future.

The older civilisations ended, but they did not have the tools and mechanisms we have today, so we can see what is happening and we should stop over-stretching our planetary life-support systems. 74 months from now the atmospheric threshold of Greenhouse gases will reach 2° C above pre-industrial levels - this is the danger zone and we may trigger uncontrollable feedbacks which may result in runaway global warming.

He outlined some of the threats to our existence, including mass extinction and loss of biodiversity, peak oil and the depletion of fresh water systems. He reminded the packed audience that it was 10 years since the fuel protests almost brought Britain to a standstill and showed how starkly vulnerable we are to food shortages - supermarket executives warned the government that there were only three days worth of food on the shelves - in other words the UK was "Nine meals away from anarchy".

He turned to the banking crisis, which he said had dumped 100 million people into hunger. We have also ignored the structural problems of our rising dependence on imported energy. Food self-sufficiency is at a 39 year low. Simms quoted some humourous - or appalling - statistics about how our system of consumerism ships goods around from one country to another with logic-defying fuel emissions - we exported 43,000 tons of toffee to France, and imported 39,000 tons. We swapped 4000 tons of toilet rolls with Germany, bringing in 5000 tons.

As this was the Soil Association, Simms moved on to GM foods, which the association has long campaigned against. He concluded that organic agriculture was the way forward and that GM was a misdirection of scientific endeavour.

He then outlined some broad principles for the Great Transition. Our society as a whole has failed to respond to environmental change. We have not identified limits to our expansion. Nor have we noticed the diminishing returns to Business As Usual. We have missed key lessons from the natural world, where ecosystems stay in dynamic balance and return to equilibrium.

He looked at the paradigm of continuous growth, beloved of governments. He likened it to a baby hamster which doubles its weight every week. If this continued, in a year it would weigh Nine Billion Tons and be able to eat all the corn produced annually worldwide in a single day.

The lesson of this is that we have to operate within the tolerance levels of the ecosphere. Or suffer the consequences. He took a stance against "Law of the Jungle" free marketeers, showing that co-operation is more effective than competition. Optimum diversity is the key to success in nature. He thought that co-operative were more resilient than business culture only concerned with bottom-line profit. Nef has studied the economic outcomes of small island societies and they scored the best on resilience. Isolation made co-operation essential and they were more aware of ecological limits because these were much more visible. "Scale that thinking up and you can see our planet is a small island in space."

He briefly covered Cuba's move to organic, community agriculture when the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that it could no longer export sugar and receive Soviet fuel in return. This is a fascinating subject and to delve further readers should watch the film "The Power of Community: how Cuba survived Peak Oil."

Citing the government's Civil Contingencies committee (called Cobra), Simms suggested that concerned citizens should form Mongoose, a non-governmental organisation to encourage preparedness and prevention, as it is much easier to be prepared than have to clear up after a disastrous event.

Research has shown that above a certain limit, increasing wealth does not increase happiness. Many people overwork. A shorter working week would reduce stress and we would be able to employ more people as well. He quoted the State of Utah, where because of financial cuts, government workers were made to go on a four day week, absenteeism dropped and there was a 14% carbon reduction too. The employees found they had better lives with more time to devote to their own families and other pursuits.

A free range chicken shed

Photo: the Soil Association

The Soil Association could promote Gardening Leave for the Nation - encourage people to plant fruit trees in urban areas. We should build a vibrant, better food culture. We should use empty properties on the high street for food hubs. This would mean the UK would be less dependent on volatile global markets. He spoke of a Green New Deal for Food and Farming. Over-dominant large retailers corrode the fabric of the community and the richness of human relationships. We should also ensure that our overseas aid programme supports diversity and organic farming.

In The Age of Diminishing Returns Simms defined Utopianism as "Living in a state of hope." He quoted Zygmunt Bauman: "The Good Society is one that is convinced it is not good enough." We need to ward off the threat of collapse by introducing more resilience into the system by more organic farming. Andrew Simms believes, to quote the environmental slogan, that "Another World is Possible."


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