Since at least the Club of Rome’s 1972 report on “Limits to Growth,” the most consequential intellectual debate at the intersection of social and natural science has been between Malthusians and Cornucopians.
Malthusians point out that nothing can go on forever. In mathematical language, exponential growth of anything must run into constraints, and if that growth is not controlled the constraints will come in the form of a catastrophe. They see the growth in human use of energy, land and other scarce things and become deeply pessimistic about the future of modern civilization.
Cornucopians acknowledge that other animals and preindustrial peoples were subject to this logic. But they are impressed by the institutions that the modern world has used to get the exponential growth that worries the Malthusians – science, engineering, markets, democracy, free speech. They point out that wealthy, educated societies have all reduced their birthrates voluntarily and that this is now happening throughout the world. Energy use continues to rise and humans continue to displace other species from their habitats, but Cornucopians are confident that these problems too will be overcome by the complex structures through which modern societies find truths, develop useful technologies and innovations, and regulate themselves.
As our generation reels from increasingly unstable weather and faces the challenge of transitioning from a modernity based on fossil fuels to a “net zero” economy in which we stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, this debate is of more than academic interest. Will some combination of renewable generation of electricity, better storage and transmission, and electrification of transport, heating and industry allow a better, cleaner industrial society? Or will we be buried in our own wastes?
Jared Diamond’s 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed was an intervention in the debate, mostly on the side of the Malthusians. Diamond – an ornithologist and biogeographer with a personal familiarity with a number of very different societies – is a polymath who had already demonstrated his willingness to take on hard questions about human history without deference to disciplinary boundaries and somehow turn these thoughts into bestsellers. Collapse looked at how a number of different cultures, past and future, traditional and industrialized, had dealt with or been overwhelmed by problems arising out of their relationship with their environment.
In my review in Inroads 17, I argued that the book was ambitious and challenging, but ultimately flawed by a failure to consider how prices regulate the relationship of market societies to natural scarcities. I thought he missed the strength of the Cornucopian argument: that market economies will not inexorably deplete finite resources so long as they are priced, because facing those prices will encourage enterprises built on using exponentially more to economize. At the same time, he missed its biggest weakness: that actually existing capitalism left some of the most important scarcities unpriced and therefore unvalued. The principal example of an unpriced and unvalued resource is the finite capacity of the atmosphere and the oceans to assimilate carbon dioxide wastes from the combustion of fossil fuels without catastrophic warming and acidification. I was not impressed by his invocation of consumer activist pressure on corporate “brands” to do more about greenhouse gas mitigation, which I felt would get nowhere without political action to create a price signal for use of the atmosphere and oceans to store carbon dioxide.
Looking back 17 years later, I have to admit that pressure on corporations – and especially on investors – has had more results than I thought it would. More importantly, the political obstacles to effective carbon pricing have proven sufficiently imposing that many observers sympathetic to the technocratic elegance of pricing have argued that we are better off with less efficient, but more politically practical, ways of dealing with the problem.¹ This reality has made me reconsider one of the principal messages of Collapse: that the cultural patterns that societies develop to help them in their survival and reproduction at one time turn out to be what destroy them in the end. If this is right, it is not just that the economic system has to be corrected by a political intervention – an idea I certainly agreed with in 2005. Rather, a broader change of political institutions is also called for by the crisis. But the solutions to past problems create identity-defining inhibitions to any solution.
In 2005 it was clear that both the Bush administration and China’s massive demand for resources were problems for the kind of market-oriented approach I was advocating. But I saw some hope in the European Trading System built up after the Kyoto Accord. It clearly was not sufficient but I thought it could be an “institutional base for future progress.”
That hope grew dim in the ensuing decade. The European Trading System suffered low prices as a result of a glut of licences until reforms were introduced in 2017. Even once the Bush regime was gone, the Waxman-Markey bill to bring a cap-and-trade system to the United States could not pass a Democratic Congress. Closer to home, Stéphane Dion’s proposal for a “green shift” involving a carbon tax lost to Stephen Harper’s policy of opening up tar sands development. British Columbia’s carbon tax, although it helped reduce carbon emissions per capita, has also never been priced at a level that did heavy policy lifting. No government anywhere introduced pricing at the level where it could have more than a modest incremental effect on emissions. But the inexorable logic of finitude meant that every tonne added to the atmosphere was a tonne less that could be emitted in the future without catastrophic consequences.
By the beginning of the 2010s, it was easier to maintain pessimism of the intellect than optimism of the will. In most of the rich West, it had become common political wisdom that a carbon price was a political disaster – any progress at all had to be kept quiet from the voters. Despite the failure of Waxman-Markey, the Obama administration funded some farsighted developments in technologies that are now paying off, but the only politically relevant aspect of this program was a single ill-fated loan to Solyndra.
The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster inspired what was, from a climate perspective, an unhelpful backlash against the only carbon-free source of thermal electricity. The global South was clearly in no mood to allow concerns about the small greenhouse gas budget left by the industrialization of the North to get in the way of its own industrialization: China, India, Indonesia, South Africa and many other countries doubled down and expanded coal-fired electricity. Technology, democracy, markets, capitalism, state socialism and industrial policy all seemed to be pointing in the same direction: many degrees of warming.
A decade later, the situation is paradoxical. Some of the developments in politics and technology have gone beyond the most optimistic forecasts of a decade ago. A virtuous cycle in at least some countries of subsidized development followed by deployment has driven down the costs of solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, lithium ion batteries and (soon) hydrogen electrolysis. This means that solar and wind are now cheaper than fossil fuels as a source of electricity on the “levelized cost” basis that energy wonks use. Since the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, they must be “integrated” on the grid, but much progress has been made in doing this.
In the rich world, natural gas and renewables have already put coal into sharp decline: the situation in newly industrializing countries is more complicated, but in the long run it seems that cheap solar will enable the dream of cheap, clean, domestic energy, and no government is going to be against that. If coal seems doomed, the future of oil and gas is more contested. In the fall of 2021, both have recovered their price and much of the world is facing a serious energy shortage. Demand for oil appears likely to recover to prepandemic levels at least for a while. But if the market (and the Chinese government) are to be believed – and they are – the victory of electric vehicles over internal combustion now seems like just a matter of time. It is difficult to believe that Saudi Arabia will allow higher-cost producers to retain much share of a declining petroleum market.
Politics also has shown some ability to process the information about what the future will hold and turn it into concrete steps. At the elite level, the Paris Accord of 2015 created a framework in which every country has been expected to put forward, on a purely voluntary basis, a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC) with a goal of reaching net zero emissions for the whole world somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius above preindustrial times. The NDCs, taken collectively, in fact imply considerably higher levels of warming, but there is now a recognition that total decarbonization is necessary and that “ambition” will have to increase. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on what was implied by 1.5-degree warming had more impact than any other such report in getting governments to at least make commitments to reach net zero by midcentury. And at the popular level, the 2018 Friday school strikes for climate seem to have led to a movement with more staying power – and certainly greater breadth of support – than any of its predecessors.
The paradox is that all of this is better than any concerned climate watcher of 2012 would have had any right to expect, and yet the “future” reality of unfolding disasters is now truly upon us and there is no prospect that it will get better in the lifetime of anyone alive today. There is no prospect of avoiding climate disasters – they have already happened at about 1.1 degrees above preindustrial averages. There will be more Lyttons. And a 1.5 degree endpoint is unlikely to be achieved: while it may just be technically feasible, it is not realistically consistent with the vagaries of politics, international and domestic, as we are almost certain to experience them. Moreover, as former B.C. Green leader Andrew Weaver has recently warned, it is possible that the fetishization of the 1.5 degree endpoint will lead to despair and demobilization as it becomes clear that this endpoint will not be reached – even though the difference between 2.0 and 1.9 is as great as between 1.6 and 1.5, if not greater.
The truth is we can no more leap out of our existing institutional and cognitive frameworks than could the Norse in Greenland or Polynesians in Easter Island. Although there are examples of the capitalist institution Diamond favoured in 2005 – the consumer brand – leading to useful investments, there has also been a lot of greenwashing, of nonsense “offsets,” of empty symbolism and insincere blather. But the capitalist institution I was favouring – prices determined by caps on quantity or vice versa – has also not yet turned out to be able to be both politically viable and meaningful. Less efficient policies – feed-in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, tax credits and, above all, good old-fashioned command-and-control regulation – have done what lifting has gotten done.
What was most valuable in Diamond’s original book was the eye of the natural scientist and geographer on the products of cultural evolution – the eye that saw how varied societies created governance structures, systems of symbolic knowledge and tacit behaviour as adaptive responses to the challenges of their environment, as well as to their own social cohesion and the threats of neighbours. The reason that this should not lead us to Cornucopian delusion is that these structures and systems are accumulated through a process of trial and error, not foresight, and there is no guarantee that the next error will not be our last.
Prices are just one way modern societies learn, but I continue to think they are a critical one. Europe and Canada are now beginning to see prices at a level that can realistically bring about significant change. The electrification of transportation and heating and the cleaning of electricity supply now seem unstoppable, if unfortunately not unslowable. In the end the lesson from Collapse and from the paradoxical energy transition of the intervening 17 years is that there are no guarantees, either of success or of failure.
¹ Mark Jaccard, Mikela Hein and Tiffany Vass, “Is Win-Win Possible?”, Simon Fraser University School of Resource and Environmental Management (September 2016); Danny Cullenward and David G. Victor, Making Climate Policy Work (London: Polity Press, 2021).