Exceptionalism 2.0 – further reflections on the Battle of Ideas

by Tim Jackson

Originally published at http://www.earthscan.co.uk/blog on 24 November 2010

In this blog post Tim Jackson offers the third exchange in a blog debate with Daniel Ben-Ami.

Read Part 1 – by Tim Jackson
Read Part 2 – by Daniel Ben-Ami

Looking back at Daniel Ben-Ami’s latest blog in the wake of our exchange at the Battle of Ideas I confess I’m still puzzled. Daniel claims I’ve been disingenuous about poverty and hazy about the desirability of development. I don’t believe I’m either. Both of us premise our arguments, it seems, on the need to lift the poorest out of poverty. Certainly that is the underlying position of Prosperity without Growth. It’s a common thread through every chapter of the book. And I’m not at all hazy on the desirability of this. There is no question at all that the poor should have the same right of access to material goods – to prosperity itself in a wider sense – as the rich. The only question is, what level of material consumption is compatible with this universal right to prosperity.

I realise that this is a challenging position. It’s meant to be. It raises quite explicitly the question of whether the richest nations may already be living beyond their means, and in the process making it impossible for others to live at all. If it’s impossible for us all to aspire to such material wealth, then it’s irresponsible for some of us to. Live simply that others may simply live, is the way that Gandhi put this. And in the same token, my position is also designed to challenge the idea that living well is simply a matter of having more material things. More Ferraris, in Daniel’s currency, don’t necessarily make for a better life.

To me the most fascinating part of this debate is that it challenges us to rethink what it means to be human. What is a decent human life? How should we live? Particular when the planet is finite and, as I believe, subject to certain physical laws. And here my puzzlement deepens, for Daniel seems absolutely convinced that this is not the case. In fact he says explicitly that we are ‘not constrained by limited amounts of energy (or “the second law of thermodynamics”) and accuses me of failing to take up his central point on this. Perhaps it’s true that I’ve underestimated his determination to flout the laws of physics. All my training as a scientist rebels against me, the moment I try to base my ideas on a world in which the second law of thermodynamics (for example) no longer holds. Delightful though such a place would obviously be, I find it hard to understand how it helps us to depart so far from this (undeniably harsh) reality. Wishful thinking will not deliver us prosperity.

And it’s not enough here to claim that Malthus got his numbers wrong. That was two hundred and twelve years ago. This is now. We know with a good deal more precision the kinds of impacts we’re having on the climate, on the soils, on the water, on fish-stocks, on mineral reserves, on habitats, on biodiversity. In our encounter last month, Daniel also made much of the failings of the Limits to Growth work from the 1970s. But a recent CSIRO paper has highlighted just how close the Club of Rome projections accord with actual numbers. And the truth is Meadows et al never predicted scarcity before the end of this century. They suggested it would come in the first few decades of the 21st Century. Any minute now. Their ‘business as usual’ numbers on resources are uncomfortably close to the way things actually turned out. I suppose we could hope that was a lucky guess. If we’re absolutely intent on pure escapism.

To be more generous, I guess what Daniel intends to say here is that humans are ingenious (exceptional, in his terminology) enough to find a way round those limits. This is a variation on the common theme that technology will save us. Nothing very exceptional about that belief. It’s just that there’s no evidence for it. Technology has achieved some wonderful things. I wouldn’t deny that. Heart and lung bypass is one of them. It’s also done some really dumb things. The leafblower is one of them. It did make some things more efficient. Energy use is one example. But in the same token it also led to massive expansion in our use of finite resources which shows no sign of slowing down.

The one thing technology has signally failed to do is to reduce our overall impact on the natural world, slow down the exponential growth in population, or reverse the apparently inexorable depletion of finite resources. But those are the very things we need it to do, if Daniel’s vision of Ferraris for all is to be remotely possible without entirely trashing the planet. Exceptionalism is all very well. But escapism isn’t going to save us.

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