Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Environmentalists should live in the Real World

Many times, I have seen someone arguing for reduced ecological damage, a carbon tax, a transition to renewables, etc. A response I regularly see goes something like "environmentalists should get out in the REAL WORLD" or "this sounds nice in theory, but it won't work in the REAL WORLD" or "in the REAL WORLD, people don't have time for this"

I think the underlying thinking behind these blanket statements is that the human world of the economy, jobs and politics (referred to as the real world) places hard limits on what is possible for us to do as a society. For example, we can't transition to renewables because of the needs of industry for cheap power. People can't ride bicycles to work because they don't have time. A carbon tax is bad because it is a burden on the economy.

The interesting thing to me, is that this thinking is precisely backwards.

In actuality, all of our prosperity comes from natural systems:
  • food
  • water
  • fuel (including fossil fuels)
  • air
  • materials (eg. plant fibres, mineral ores, chemical feedstocks, animal skins)
The natural systems that provide these services to us are the real world.  Conversely, the worlds of
  • money 
  • economy 
  • finance 
  • politics
are actually completely dispensable. If you doubt this, reflect on the fact that for most of history (say until 5000 years ago) no human society had these things. Even today, some human societies lack one or more. Money, by itself, has no inherent value, meaning or worth -- it is merely a token of exchange. The only reason people see money as valuable is because it can be exchanged for goods and services (all of which eventually come from the natural systems that support us).

So, when someone says "this sounds nice in theory, but it won't work in the REAL WORLD", what they area really saying is "forget about the biophysics of our natural support systems, we must at all costs maintain our arbitrary system of exchange tokens -- that is what is really important"

When put this way, it sounds stupid. That is because it is stupid. It is like the Easter Islanders chopping down their last tree to put up another stone statue (so that they couldn't build more fishing boats and starved). In fact, the similarities are very troubling.


  1. Hi Angus,

    JMG wrote an excellent book delving into this massive topic at a serious length. It is called the Wealth of Nature - economics as if survival mattered. Interestingly, I only just finished reading it last week. Your points line up exactly with the book so you are in good company.

    I hope you are getting some rain? It started raining here at about 5.30pm and hasn't stopped yet. Pity the water tanks are all full, with the exception of the brand new 4,000 litre tank which I haven't quite gotten around to installing the overflow on yet. Here's hoping it doesn't fill and spill over the next few days (it is about 80% full now).



  2. Hi Chris,

    I've been meaning to read that book for years. I have a lot of respect for Greer's writing. I've just finished a 1970's book on solar power which has been very interesting -- all about heat collectors, etc, and I'm reading "the natural navigator" about reading the land and plants. Very interesting.

    We've had a bit of rain -- haven't had to water the garden in quite a while. Walked down to the park with my almost-3-year-old yesterday (he wheeled his barrow) in the rain and stomped through all the puddles. That was fun ;-) Our tanks aren't quite full yet, but I'm sure they will be by the end of winter.

    Cheers, Angus


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