The low-carbon dream

City traffic 15 September 2011

By Professor Tim Jackson

Sustainability doesn't come naturally to the human species, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins once remarked. His implication was that somehow it's our collective patterns of behaviour that are leading us astray, our natural aspirations for the good life that divert us inevitably from success in addressing ecological challenges.

It's certainly tempting to agree with this idea, as we ponder the failure of decades of environmental policy to make headway on climate change, deforestation, species loss, fish stocks, resource depletion. In the years since 1990 (the Kyoto baseline year), global carbon dioxide emissions actually increased by over 40 per cent, to take just one example. And this happened despite another characteristic of the human species: our undoubted technological ingenuity.

Faith in technology is probably our single most obvious 'backstop' belief. If all else fails, we are a clever species, right? We have extraordinary powers of creativity and innovation. So when it comes to saving our vision of social progress in the face of declining environmental qualities, it’s our own technological capability that we reach for.

But the implications of Dawkins' remark suggest that technology alone just isn’t enough. And this is a conclusion we should already have drawn if we’d paid enough attention to the historical evidence.

To be sure, the average energy intensity of global economic activity decreased by a third across the world in the last three decades – as we might expect in an economy that prizes efficiency. But these predictable efficiency improvements just didn't deliver reductions in energy use – or carbon emissions. As we've seen, the opposite happened.

The truth is, without paying attention to the dynamics of society, to the logic and story of people's lives, it's impossible to differentiate realistic hopes for sustainability from a simplistic faith in technology. Businesses have an incentive to create efficiencies in the use of inputs. The case is unequivocal. But they also have an incentive to expand the markets for their outputs. And banking on a market revolution driven by green consumers is too forlorn a hope.

People do indeed hold deeply felt motivations to protect the environment. Occasionally they can even save money by doing so. But powerful psychological forces still hold them in thrall. The creeping evolution of social norms and the sheer force of habit conspire to lock us into expanding material aspirations.

Scale wages a continual battle against efficiency. And, historically at least, it's almost always scale that wins. Putting scale itself under the spotlight may be unpopular for all sorts of reasons.

Not the least of these is the critical contribution that expanding demand plays in achieving conventional economic growth. But shifting the focus away from a blind faith in technology towards a deeper understanding of consumer society, of people's lives, is critical in addressing sustainability.

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