Will Jevons’ paradox cost the earth?

There has been a lot of debate about whether economic growth and environmentalism can be reconciled. Many politicians are tempted by the idea of green growth. This approach to political economy has a close fit with the United Nations discourse of sustainable development. However, experts like Brian Czech have been keen to support the notion of a steady-state economy. Part of his anti-growth argument stems from Jevons’ paradox.

Dr Czech has outlined the paradox for people who are unfamiliar with economic theory:

“He said that efficiency in the use of a resource never actually reduces the use of that resource- it always does the opposite because it becomes cheaper to use.”  

This principle seems clear enough. In the nineteenth century, William Stanley Jevons came up with the paradox by studying the coal industry. Nonetheless, extending its applicability might be a step too far. There is not necessarily enough evidence to say that the paradox holds when countries take active steps to limit resource use. It is possible that a state can use industrial policy, planning and regulation to prevent the paradox from being confirmed in practice.

It is apparent that there are practical problems associated with green growth. Promoting growth can lead to negative environmental outcomes (even when sustainable development is pursued). Nevertheless, some types of growth are greener than others. Critics of growth can appeal to Jevons’ paradox, but it is a generalisation which might obscure aspects of reality.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak seems to be focusing too much on the wrong type of economic growth. Billions of pounds are being spent on roads. This investment may increase pollution just when the UK should be adapting to mitigate the threat of climate change. One does not need to reach for Jevons’ paradox to suggest that the country is travelling in the wrong direction.

Economic theory is useful for illuminating aspects of reality. However, neat rules do not always match with the patterns of complex adaptive systems. Human behaviour is inherently unpredictable and this chimes with the idea of radical uncertainty. Jevons’ paradox helps actors to think, but making it into a ‘real world’ fact is a jump too far. Critical realists stress that it is important not to confuse economics with the natural sciences.   

Can degrowth be sold in the slump?

Many environmentalists are convinced that degrowth is the answer to the climate emergency. More pragmatic green thinkers advocate sustainable development. It is apparent that getting people to sign up to a degrowth agenda is tricky. And there is little evidence to suggest that slump conditions make it easier to achieve. Any possible Green New Deal is a compromise between saving the planet and job creation.

Degrowth needs further definition. The idealistic vision of expert Jason Hickel is clear:

“If ‘growth’ is primarily a process of enclosure, commodification and elite accumulation, degrowth calls for the opposite: de-enclosure, de-commodification, and de-accumulation.”   

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced that 2020 will see a slump of 11.3 % in the UK. This statistic has not been matched for hundreds of years. While many people hope that the national economy will become greener after the lockdowns, there is not much sign that these individuals are keen to abandon growth.   

Sunak has taken the opportunity of the minibudget to dispose of the 0.7 per cent target for foreign aid. This penny-pinching might be popular in recessionary times. However, it augurs badly for a country that is in desperate need of international goodwill.   

The green movement has always contained a diversity of members. Radicalism is not shared. This means that the language of degrowth has not proliferated as much as one might have hoped. When one thinks of the growing global population, the difficulty of implementing a transition becomes evident.

To conclude, the discourse of degrowth makes a lot of sense. Nonetheless, pitching the idea is really awkward. When people are scared about the economic future it is not the easiest time to urge system change. Perhaps the best policy is to keep promoting the reality of the climate emergency until a critical mass is attained.    

On types of tipping point

Extinction Rebellion is entering a new phase of protest with an emphasis on ‘money rebellion’. The idea is that members of the group will draw attention to the political economy that underpins the status quo. Given that humans may have already passed environmental tipping points, the timing of the action is adroit. However, Professor Tim Lenton has reminded us that there are two types of tipping point.

The first kind of tipping point is obvious. If pollution exceeds certain limits the natural world might move into fresh patterns. For example, the southern part of the Amazon rainforest could suffer from considerable die back. This would prevent ecosystems from stabilising the climate of the planet. Clearly, people need to cooperate to prevent this type of tipping point being attained.  

When it comes to the second type of tipping point, the focus is on society. In the Anthropocene, groups of people can alter their activities. While there may be problems of collective action involving ‘free riders’, it is possible that mass participation can change norms of behaviour. If sufficient people think differently, the level of carbon emissions could be corrected.

It is clear that Extinction Rebellion is committed to converting large numbers of individuals via its propaganda efforts. If the mainstream media was more supportive of its goals then the organisation would find it easier to make progress. Nonetheless, it is possible that a social tipping point could be arrived at in the future. If this was the case then environmental campaigners would not find it so difficult to garner support and governments would not be able to ignore them.  

Thinking of two kinds of tipping points is of utility because it prevents nihilism. When one thinks of mass extinction and the loss of biodiversity it is easy to become pessimistic. The truth is that humans can mitigate and adapt to climate change. Focusing on both sorts of tipping points means that a balanced mindset can be reached.

One of the problems of postmodernity is a lack of faith in political alternatives. The election of President Joe Biden is an illustration of the openness of the future. And the resilience of Extinction Rebellion is inspirational. If society is a complex (mal)adaptive system, there are opportunities for everyone to make a difference. We must hope that sufficient positive social action takes place before the major environmental tipping points are breached.

Plastic and public opinion

In 2018, a survey indicated that 47 per cent of the British public were in favour of a total ban on single-use plastic. Now an Opinium poll (quoted in The Guardian) has suggested that only 39 per cent of the population may back the measure. This slippage in public opinion on plastic is likely caused by two distracting factors. Regardless of these possible explanations, individuals can raise their game by having conversations on the topic. Climate Outreach has produced some relevant guidance on the type of interaction which may be productive.

When it comes to the primary cause of the decline in support for single-use plastic prohibition, the recession is a contender. Unemployment among the young and the old has risen, while the cost of living remains quite high. During periods of economic turbulence, people tend to focus on materialistic policies. The political scientist Ronald Inglehart suggested that postmodernity led to new values. When people are convinced of their affluence, they may be keener on supporting environmental justice.

It may be the case that the news created the relative enthusiasm for banning single-use plastic two years ago. Many journalists in 2020 have been writing about COVID-19, even if their knowledge of biology is limited. This pandemic-based content has left people without sufficient awareness of the plastic threat.

If you want to persuade others of the plastic peril then Climate Outreach has produced a helpful template:

Respect your conversational partner and find common ground

Enjoy the conversation

Ask questions

Listen, and show you’ve heard

Tell your story

Action makes it easier (but doesn’t fix it)

Learn from the conversation

Keep going and keep connected

Public opinion does not simply translate into public policy. This means that informed citizens can move beyond the bulk of the population. Climate change might be more important than plastic pollution, but the amount of plastic in the sea means that much more regulation is required. The crisis of the overproduction of plastic is such that governments should act quickly, even if they lead public opinion instead of following it.  

Progress on plastic?

“Cheap and disposable, plastic has been a symbol of our throwaway culture. As a result, vast quantities pollute our world. Much of it flows into the oceans, turning them into a plastic soup. A truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute and UK supermarkets produce 800,000 tonnes every year.”

Greenpeace UK

“Plastic in the ocean is set to treble by 2025. The challenge we face is immense and urgent. We believe it is time to negotiate a new global agreement to coordinate action on marine plastic litter and microplastic, one that goes far beyond the existing frameworks.”

Lord Goldsmith 

Progressive people tend to focus their attention on mitigating climate change. However, environmentalists are clear about plastic production being a threat to ecosystems around the world. The excessive manufacture of plastic has implications for the future of diverse creatures.

Of course, the UK is one of the worst plastic polluters on a per capita basis. Neoliberalism has given rise to a selfish consumer culture. However, recent campaigns against plastic have led to more responsible forms of behaviour. The introduction of charges for plastic bags has had some degree of impact, for example.

The pandemic has reminded politicians of the strength of the state. It is apparent to the Conservative Party that they must not seem complacent about the emergent shape of the Anthropocene. Reducing overall consumption may be too unpopular to be contemplated by the ruling class, but cutting down on plastic usage seems to be less contentious.

In the past, supermarkets have been among the guiltiest companies on the plastic front. However, most of these businesses have been gradually changing their ways. Unfortunately, the various retailers have not quite understood the urgency of the problem. Where markets fail to address negative externalities, the case for further state interventions is a strong one.

Plastic production may not appear to be directly related to climate change. However, it is like food waste in that it has a huge environmental impact. It does seem that packaging can be improved by reducing its plastic content. Change will have to come, even if some people keep shopping online for food and using plastic bags.

Disaster Monopoly Capitalism has caused a lot of trouble for the planet, but some of the culpable corporations can be compelled to alter their ways. Birds and sea-life would fare much better in the absence of excess plastic. Progress on plastic is not necessarily dependent on the vagaries of party politics because no party can be comfortable with the status quo.

Two plans go to war?

Politics is not always about personalities and opinion polls. With the UK economy in trouble, a real debate about the future direction of the country has begun. The threat of climate change is causing the ruling class to consider policies outside the scope of neoliberalism. A matter of days after the Labour Party published its plan for a green recovery, Boris Johnson has produced a ten-point plan for the environment. The Prime Minister has committed to spending an extra £8 billion to address the dilemmas of the Anthropocene. And his government is hoping that 250,000 green jobs shall be created.   

When one looks at the proposals of the Conservative Party, they are quite modest. The banning of the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030 is offset by the leniency shown to the continued sale of hybrid vehicles. The envisaged move towards the adoption of more nuclear power is controversial, given the pollution record of the industry. “It’s a shame the prime minister remains fixated on other speculative solutions, such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, that will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever,” stated Rebecca Newsom of Greenpeace UK (quoted in The Guardian).

The Labour Party is unimpressed by the new strategy. According to the New Scientist, Ed Miliband MP said: “[It] falls well short of what is required.” The point here is that the amount of new resources is open to question. It may be the case that only £4 billion of the total ‘green’ spending is being deployed for the first time. In addition, the Shadow Business Secretary has argued that 400,000 new jobs could be created by an adequate plan.

From a cursory study of the media, it is not at all obvious how committed the Treasury is to the Conservative strategy. There were rumours of disagreements between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor about the policy. Rishi Sunak was prepared to spend a lot of money to support the economy during the pandemic, but there have been some signs that his enthusiasm for largesse is waning.

It is clear that green ideas are finally becoming part of the mainstream. However, there has been too little urgency and too little imagination. Neither the Labour plan nor the Conservative plan are ambitious enough. Nevertheless, there will be pressure on the government to raise its game prior to its hosting of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties next year. With the climate emergency intensifying, other countries may inspire the British government to do much more.  

Is system change possible?

There have been some thought-provoking sessions at the From the Ground Up conference. One of the most interesting sessions discussed the possibility of system change. This begged several questions of the participants. The diverse activists live in a world characterised by incremental change, so should they be reformists or revolutionaries? Are there periods when anything other than a gradualist approach makes no sense? Are there governments trying to do the right thing for people and planet?

Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC France has spent some time thinking about the issues in question. For him, the world has changed over the last four decades. He feels that it is no longer sensible to expect the working class to become the motor of history. His post-Marxist perspective suggests that there is a plurality of social movements. There is a similarity between his philosophy and that of André Gorz. For Gorz, the working class had fragmented and lost much of its agency. Given the importance of workers’ rights, trade unions seem to demand support.

In contrast, Zo Randriamario of the Womin African Alliance believes in socialist feminism. For her, the modernist metanarratives of struggle still make sense. Her activism is premised on the political importance of the proletariat. And she remains an articulate advocate of ecofeminism.   

Similarly, Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South is not reconciled to the global status quo. However, she puts her faith in the youth. She believes that her generation failed to make the most of its opportunities with regard to radical change. Her optimism seems to suggest that governments can implement good policies if sufficient pressure is put on them.  

Meanwhile, Pablo Solón Romero has done a lot of thinking about the future of the left. He is clear that a reassessment of the South American experience is necessary. For him, the threat to the Amazon was not relieved by left-wing regimes. In his view, the legacy of the Pink Tide is a disappointment in as much as an “extractivist left” came to power and did not do enough to save the planet. He does not view capitalism as the only threat and argues against an anthropocentric mindset. It is clear that the Paris Accords do not go far enough for him.

The session did not lead to an easy conclusion. Relief about the defeat of President Trump is widespread. But this does not translate easily into political action. We live in a reformist era, and gradualism seems to be the only game in town. However, the reality of man-made climate change means that urgency is required. It remains to be seen how the contradiction between reformism and necessary action can be resolved.  

The value of Utopian thinking?

One reason why contemporary politics is unedifying is the relative absence of Utopian thinking. Fortunately, this gap has been filled by a demand for the restoration of the climate. Scientists like James Hansen and Michael Mann have signed an optimistic letter. They contend that reducing carbon emissions to zero is not enough. Without specifying how, they want large amounts of greenhouse gases to be removed from the atmosphere.   

All the signatories to the letter share “the basic aim of trying to restore the climate”. In other words, they want to Make Weather Great Again. However, there are practical obstacles to any extensive roll-out of carbon capture and storage. Furthermore, there is no sign of what kind of climate they want to create. Therefore, critics might question the realism of the proposal.   

A potential problem with carbon capture and storage is that major corporations may prefer to develop this approach rather than limiting their emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. It is essential that governments regulate companies to avoid this kind of drift. Planting trees on deforested land is the type of measure which should not be open to this type of manipulation.  

It is important that Utopian thought is not dismissed out of hand. One of the flaws of orthodox Marxism is its critique of optimistic visions. The value of a positive goal is not always related to the likelihood of it being realised. By challenging ‘business as usual’, a Utopian dream can get people thinking. And these thoughts might help to shape political action.

Pessimism is seldom progressive. If people don’t believe that they can make a difference then vested interests can dominate political systems. The virtue of a Utopian call to arms is that it has the potential to inspire activists. It is reassuring that informed people do believe that something big can be done.

The Anthropocene is a disquieting era. The impact of climate change is everywhere. There are primroses flowering in November. It is easy for the imagination to conjure up dystopian futures. It is not necessary to believe in the possibility of climate restoration to work towards that end. And one need not abandon net-zero thinking to press for ambitious restoration schemes.

Building From the Ground Up?

A free conference called From the Ground Up is being held. This will facilitate teaching and learning about climate change and environmental degradation. Thousands of online participants should pick up valuable knowledge. But what will they find out?

It is quite hard to pre-empt the conference, but the line-up shows where people may glean insights. There will be a chance to learn from feminist activists. The link between gender and Disaster Monopoly Capitalism is quite hard to establish, so a session of this sort might be particularly worthwhile. Populism has sometimes been sexist, so there could be plenty to say about it. In addition, the voices of indigenous groups shall receive a hearing. Several of the demonstrations against resource extraction have been led by indigenous people so listening should be especially productive.

Interestingly, a Slack group has been activated in relation to the conference. While Slack is often used by firms, political activists have utilised it in the past. If people have questions, Slack can be an effective tool. At the same time, Slack can be used to showcase content to individuals who might be too busy to attend the diverse sessions.

One way of assessing the impact of From the Ground Up will be measuring the number of activists who get involved in the conference. However, ideas are particularly powerful things. Looking at raw statistics cannot measure inspiration. When it comes to political change, structuralists can underestimate the causal impact of ideas. In contrast, critical realists try to have a balanced view of structure and agency- this means that individuals make choices based on a perception of their strategic context. If the conference attracts media attention then its influence could exceed what a statistical analysis might suggest.

Importantly, the conference is an inclusive environment. This augurs well for the likely outcomes of the event. The fact that it is being held during the second UK lockdown should stimulate a high level of attendance.  

Is a green recovery probable in the UK?

The pandemic is having a significant impact on the evolution of the British economy. Despite increased government spending, the official unemployment rate is ticking up towards five per cent. Meanwhile, the self-employed are not being protected in the same way as other groups. And the Guardian has highlighted a shortage of graduate jobs. Given the serious difficulties facing the Conservative Chancellor, is it reasonable to expect a green recovery?

It has to be conceded that any government would struggle with the pandemic. Essential lockdowns do make it awkward for businesses of all types. There is no reason that green firms should be exempt from the problems. Nonetheless, interest rates are low so there is scope for public investment in future-oriented sectors. There is no need to balance the books as yet.

One further complication has to be mentioned. At the moment, the UK can choose between a bad deal with the European Union and no-deal. No-deal could pitch the economy into a slump, while a poor agreement might not quite patch up relations with the country’s nearest neighbours. The threat to break international law has antagonised Britain’s allies, as well as alarming part of the British ruling class.  

At last, the Labour Party has published a document which contends that something different should be done. The report underlines that successive Conservative governments have not quite stepped up to the plate. Tellingly, the Climate Change Committee has commented that the UK is currently missing its net-zero carbon target by 2050. In addition, the Tories sold off the Green Investment Bank in 2017. Moreover, they have failed to support solar power with enough resources. The recent Tory embrace of wind power may be deemed to be insufficient progress. 

Anneliese Dodds MP and Ed Miliband MP are clear that three things must happen. At least 400,000 jobs could be created in the green sector. Other workers should be retrained to cope with the new economy. And businesses should benefit from a new trust-based arrangement with the state. But can the three goals be pursued by a government that is reacting to the vicissitudes of the pandemic?

Any government should have the capacity to correct market failure. However, the philosophy of an administration is key. There is a growing feeling in the Conservative Party that combatting the pandemic is interfering too much with the economy. These laissez-faire backbenchers are not likely to endorse state intervention at the level envisaged by the Shadow Chancellor.

When people lose their jobs through no fault of their own, they often focus on getting rehired. Postmaterialist politics does not always appeal to people affected by poverty. Nevertheless, the planet will not wait for the establishment of full employment. With the world on the brink of another mass extinction event, everyone has to try to put green issues first. The Labour plan might not be the most ambitious response to climate change, but it is a step in the right direction. Given the enormity of the threat to the climate, it would be nice if political partisanship could be avoided. However, the reality of the polarised politics of the UK is such that harmony is unlikely to be attained on green issues. Rishi Sunak has successfully demonstrated that he is a chancellor who is not weighed down by ideological baggage, but he would have to be extraordinarily flexible to alter course in line with a suite of Labour proposals. Therefore, it seems improbable that we will witness a green recovery. Some ecologically sensitive policies will be pursued, but radical measures are quite unlikely in the short-term. When the economy is drifting, the Chancellor may well conclude that almost any sustained recovery will do.