The 21st century presents a fascinating paradox: never before in its history has humanity reached such an advanced and refined level of technological development, but never has it come so close to the ecological precipice and global collapse. If this contradiction is to be overcome, political ecology must focus on two priorities: the relocalisation of the economy and the democracy of self-limitation.
Together with the growth in GDP, increased productivity or buying-power, technological progress is one of the central driving forces of “the growth society” and is based on the following principles:
- Everything that is technically possible is acceptable.
- Nature exists primarily for our benefit and control, thanks to techno-science.
- And, above all, technology will enable us to overcome the social or ecological problems that confront us.
However, that approach does not take account of:
- The risks associated with technologies which exceed a human being’s capacity to control them (nuclear energy, genetic modification, etc.). As Illich explained, only a “convivial” society which agrees to impose limits on certain technologies (mega-technologies, mega-infrastructures) in its production methods, which is not operated by a body of specialists and which allows more room for autonomy, has political alternatives available to it. Therefore, without an act of blind faith in techno-science, we need to adopt principles of precaution and responsibility so that we can jointly decide which technologies are appropriate for an orderly ecological transition.
- The fact that, as Riechmann reminds us, this is one of the foundations of the ecological economy: “The environment does not form part of the economy; rather, the economy forms part of the environment. It is the human economic subsystems which must be integrated into the encompassing ecological system, and not the other way round”.
- What is known as the “rebound effect” (or the Jevons paradox) which means that, however much the environmental impact declines per unit produced, technological improvements are systematically cancelled out by the multiplication of the number of units sold and consumed in absolute terms.
An energy complexity spiral
Added to that, the development of the northern countries, which includes the “European way of life“, is based on the ability to have access to abundant sources of good, cheap energy (principally oil). However, Europe – like the other industrial regions – is now facing the end of the era of fossil fuels and their extremely high energy yields. We have now entered the era of energy sobriety in which new sources (whether renewable or not) provide much lower returns than fossil sources and, a priori, do not allow the level of complexity of industrial societies (and hence their way of life) to be maintained. In this sense, the use of increasingly sophisticated and modern technology as a magic potion to solve the structural problem of a model society usually succumbs to the temptation of complicating the system which, in turn, becomes impossible without a high availability rate of cheap energy. As Tainter explains, there is an energy-complexity spiral: energy and complexity “tend to intermingle and either increase or decline together. In fact, they can only increase or decline together ( … ): you cannot have complexity without energy and, if you have energy, you will have complexity”.
In this context, political ecology must make it clear that if there is to be a solution – which is neither ecological collapse nor eco-fascism – it will imply a radical change in the “European way of life”, away from a system based on endless growth (and all the characteristics associated with it, technological progress in particular) to one based on material and energetic sobriety and self-limitation. That is to say a society capable of living well and happily within the planet’s ecological limits. In particular, and not exhaustively, the energy challenge makes us think in terms of decentralisation and simplification through the relocalisation of the economy, while the cultural change necessary for self-limitation leads us directly to posit the central nature of the democratic question.
Relocalising the economy (and “glocalising” socio-political action)
Emphasis must be placed on activities which are socially and ecologically useful, promote short production and consumption circuits, create wealth at local level with a low ecological footprint, a high level of resilience and the democratic management of common property. Whether it be by having control over food production and agro-ecology, being self-sufficient as regards energy, ethical banking, local currencies, cooperative organisations (concerning energy, housing, consumption, etc.) or cities in transition, such decisions are made so that the economy can serve the people in harmony with nature and citizens’ power and control over the economy and the future of our societies can increase.
Two further conditions are also necessary so that the transition can be as peaceful and orderly as possible:
1) To institutionalise and generalise the practices and initiatives carried out from below. Once the think-tank and ideas laboratory-testing phase is complete, the new successful initiatives will need to be regulated (at local and supra-local level) so as to fix the new rules of the game and enable them to expand. Political action is fundamental to complement social action and make it sustainable beyond local experiments.
2) To coordinate and accumulate strengths at supra-local level (regional, European and global) so as to guarantee inter-territorial solidarity, transition to a framework of
peace and cooperation, and policies and networks capable of standing up to the world’s political and economic powers and being alternatives to them. The route taken by Via Campesina, which is fighting simultaneously for agricultural relocalisation and the construction of worldwide alliances, is a good example of this dynamic in which relocalisation is a global project. In this sense, the relocalisation of the economy and the European project (always provided it does not fall into the trap of technocracy and added complexity) are two indispensable foundation stones for “glocal” thought and action.
At the same time, further consideration needs to be given to the conjunction of a dynamic of relocalising the economy and other proposals such as the Green New Deal, and the possible contradictions between them. Just as Jackson argues, the proposal of a green stimulus through a Green New Deal has potential, especially in the short to medium term, because the phase of transition to a sustainable economy needs investments in green sectors and jobs. At the same time, reactivating the flow of the economy through the Keynesian logic of increasing credit, consumption, productivity, GDP, etc. remains a strategy based on the dead end with no structural way out, and the unsustainability of long-term growth, with fairly high faith in technology that does not pay sufficient attention to the rebound effect. Something more than changing the present growth driver for a “green driver” will be needed. The stability and resilience of the no-growth system will have to be guaranteed.
Democracy and self-limitation
Changing personal and group expectations about production, consumption and work, that is to say bringing about a socio-cultural change which will make it possible to leave the productivist and consumerist system, inevitably implies rethinking and democratically deciding on:
- The nature of desirable and realistic social projects according to the ecological load capacity available.
- The collective needs and the acceptable level of consumption associated with them.
- How and where to invest the labour force in order to bring about that change.
In fact, considering the wastefulness and injustice of the current model, one of the decisive factors is self-limitation (on a finite planet, resources are, by definition, finite, and limits have to be established) and the equitable implementation of this. In more institutional terms, the global management of demand is a priority, not only in more widely accepted matters such as water or energy, but also in all aspects of mass consumption: the consumption of meat and fish, CO2 emissions, the use of natural resources (renewable or otherwise), available land space, acceptable material and economic extravagances.
Deciding limits through debate
Therefore, debate and assessment by citizens are of central importance, whether in order to define other indicators of wealth or the “ability to live well”, to fix collectively what are desirable and possible needs in a shared and finite world, to choose what kinds of work (and where to invest in them) are therefore required to cover these needs and to discuss and choose the right technologies for this projected society (all offset against the danger of an authoritarian and violent transition).
Now is the time to make life in general, and technology and science (including economics) in particular, the subject of extensive democratic debate, both locally and globally (increased trans-frontier communication). These forums for the “collective self-management of needs and the means for their fulfilment” are where it becomes possible to make a plural, participative and multi-criteria assessment of production and its efficiency, the distribution of work and of economic, ecological and social wealth, the reproduction of life or equality between men and women, faced by the need to fulfil the necessities of a fair and sustainable society. In other words, it is where the European way of life of the future is planned and put into practice.
What is ecological progress?
In a “living well” society based on autonomy, solidarity, participation, citizenship and ecology, “ecological progress” would have to be understood as a multi-dimensional perfecting process – neither deterministic nor linear – of our personal and collective capacities (manual, intellectual, emotional, relationship-based, etc.) within the limits of the biosphere, with local and international, intra-generational and intergenerational solidarity, and solidarity with all other living things. It is what has been defined as “post–development“, that is to say “the evolution of a community or society towards levels of life compatible with the planet’s ecological limits which covers the basic needs of its components and their legitimate aspirations for autonomy and happiness“.