“Sustainability” Chris Goodall

Goodall_SustainabilityISBN 978-1-4441-7440-3. The “All That Matters” book on “Sustainability” by Chris Goodall was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2012. This is a small book that fits nicely in your pocket with only 154 pages. The blurb says that “All That Matters” books are written by “the world’s leading experts”. Certainly Chris is that. We are a big fan (we admit it). We will read anything he writes including his excellent blogs. So it is interesting to see how his work has evolved over the years. Those who have followed his work can’t help but notice that THIS book reveals a lot about the current state of Chris’s mind. So, what does he think today about sustainability?

Those of you who remember Chris back in the days when he was a candidate for the Green Party may not even recognise the new Chris. We have had several causes to contact him over the years and he has always had time for us. [He is so nice that we hope he doesn’t mind if we call him “Chris”.] This new book “Sustainability” gently moves him up into the league of “New Greens” – a realm occupied by British Government Adviser David MacKay, controversial author Mark Lynas, Newspaper Columnist George Monbiot and maybe even the Skeptical Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg. Is that going to far? May I add that he has also been influenced by that very Rational Optimist Matt Ridley? He might not agree and certainly these leading thinkers may not enjoy the label of “New Green” but they have a certain number of aspects in common. All will increasingly downplay the concept of “limits”. For example few of them may be too concerned about population. They mostly believe that economic growth is a good thing and can be good for people and the environment. They are pro-Nuclear and pro-GM foods.

Those of you who were expecting a re-hash of some Richard Heinberg books may well be in for a bit of a shock. Or a pleasant surprise – depending on your point of view. “Sustainability” is certainly not a book for anyone who wishes to send humanity back to some communitarian past. This book may well provoke extreme reactions. Chris now calls his own views “unconventional”. When he writes that he means unconventional in comparison to the Green movement. His belief system is now largely VERY “conventional” and we are sure that he would be welcomed into Government as an adviser. He simply isn’t controversial now; he is a hard-nosed Green.

So, do we have a sustainability problem or not? In a short book Chris hits the ground running with an overview of fresh water and deep water fish stock depletion. Yes, Houston, we have a problem… But those of you who hoped he would kick off with Peak Oil will be sorely disappointed. In fact Chris, in common with the new breed of Greens is somewhat dismissive of the Peaking Fossil Fuel story. So much so that he doesn’t bother to explain what it is. He shoe-horns a very brief mention into an early chapter called (drum roll please) “Are We Going To Run Out of Anything?”. Of course “Peak Oil” is NOT about running out of anything.

In his previous books one of the few criticisms I had for Chris is that he would torture the numbers to prove the point he wanted to make. He was doing good work but some of his back-of-the-envelope calculations took some liberties. It is a common problem that we identify over and over again in books about Carbon Foot-printing; you get the result you want depending upon the assumptions you make and the numbers you choose. Chris will go on to conjure up a arguments that suit his pre-formed beliefs:

“In the case of fossil fuels, we have at least a century of reserves at current levels of use. […] fossil fuel use is not unsustainable in terms of the first condition […that we should not deplete resources excessively]”

Hence with one flourish Chris makes the depletion of Fossil Fuels a non-problem. Most of us would find this breath-taking. Peak Oil is not a “theory” about stuff “running out”. It is a macro-economic problem caused by a geological certainty – sooner or later global energy supplies derived from fossil fuels will start to decline per capita. When this does then economic growth can only be guaranteed if something else comes along that is as plentiful and cheap. That is a BIG “IF”.

Seeing as most of the world has not yet reached first world wealth standards that leaves a lot of the world’s poor finding the fossil fuel ladder has been kicked away. Expanding economies are a necessity to forestall economic collapse caused by over-whelming debt. Our economies have a money supply based 97% on debt. This money supply can only be maintained by if extra debt is created to pay the interest on the existing debt. It must always expand, if it does not it collapses.

Thus Peak Oil has never been about ‘stuff running out’. It is about the sustainability of our post-industrial economies. Chris simply take the reserve numbers and looks at current consumption to yield supply lifetimes for minerals. This method is widely used and has been widely debunked as meaningless. Such a faux pax happens quite early in the book. But bear with it; this is a book you must take in its entirety as Chris does express quite a wide number of opinions. It is almost as if this book chronicles Chris’s own struggles to reconcile all the information before him. Sometimes the most surprising thought patterns arise adrift amongst the pages. For example this gem:

“Here is a forecast for the next 100 years or so: frequent but unpredictable periods of short-term scarcity, followed by price rises and then huge bursts of billions of dollars of investment into new but increasingly lower-grade deposits.”

Guess what he was talking about? Sounds familiar doesn’t it? This is straight from the Peak Oil playbook. It could be lifted from Richard Heinberg’s “Blackout” yet Chis was not writing about coal. He was talking about steel. Why he should he wax so lyrically about iron ore deposits despite the fact we all know they are globally abundant? Why devote such writing for steel, which apparently has little or no sustainability problems, yet not find the space to explain the global economic repercussions for a decline in fossil fuel energy?

The reason appears to be Mark Lynas-style iconoclasm. It is almost as if Chris wants to mess with our heads. This is not always a bad thing. It is good to be challenged and see the issue in a new light. However these books are meant to be “all that matters”. So is climate change, water, fish, clothing and steel all that matters? Where are the wider economic impacts? Of course it is difficult to describe sustainability in such a small books but Chris narrows his narrative to stories about commodities, pollution and technological solutions. For those of us who have read broadly on this topic this seems barely sufficient. To be honest it isn’t “all”, not by a long shot.

So, how did Chris start his journey to this most confusing of places? The turmoil for Chris started when he heralded the age of “Peak Stuff” a few years back:

“The literature on sustainability is riddled with the incorrect assumption that human needs are infinite.”

Actually the assumption of infinite human wants comes from the field of economics. It is the field of sustainable economics that gives us the concept that humans can have all their needs met by a steady state economy. (We reached peak happiness back in 1970 and have been deriving less and less well-being ever since, at least in the rich north.) According to Chris’s own Peak Stuff thesis the developed world does not have an infinite desire to consume. After we reach a certain peak of prosperity our need for material consumption starts to decline. The facts to prove this have been cherry-picked from several studies around the world in a manner than might make even Bjorn Lomborg blush.

Chris may well have a good point but his conclusions are contentious. The Peak Stuff argument is quite a game changer because, if you believe it then it becomes justification for a “growth is good” argument. Chris now suggests that “Growth may be compatible with a sustainable society.” [page 30] Clearly this cannot be true in the rich north. Growth is not compatible with well-being.

Now it seems the only reason why Chris is against growth is NOT the matter of depletion of raw materials but ONLY as a matter of causing Climate Change. It is for the latter reason that Chris champions the circular economy. Three cheers for that. Chris cannot be caricatured as a New Green Bad Guy but like Mark Lynas he has no faith it organic farming.

“Are organic methods more ‘sustainable’ than conventional agriculture? The answer is probably ‘no’ because the total amount of food produced per hectare under organic rules tends to be lower – often sharply lower – that standard agriculture.”

Of course there is also plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite. You choose the evidence to prove the point you are trying to make. Here again Chris presents a more sophisticated argument that rescues him from simple good-guy/bad-guy dynamics:

“A carefully planned programme of intercropping other plants between rows of cotton, crop rotation, reduction in pesticide use, better targeting of irrigation and the use of organic manures can hugely reduce the environmental impact of cotton growing.”

Chris walks a fine line. However his initial objections to organic yields miss the big picture. What if organics are simply good business? I have never been a Green hence cannot class myself as a New Green. Where sustainability comes alive when it is injected with an intellect that has never wallowed in Environmentalism. Sustainability is a thriving concept today because so many people have entered the field from outside of the Green mainstream. The best ideas come now from economists, engineers and business leaders. These new champions no longer see humankind as a pollution problem. They don’t always see technology & growth as a panacea. For them the world is not a simple matter of what is “good” or “bad” for the “environment”.

Green ideas have a certain baggage that blinds the devout to new ways of thinking. I cannot believe that nuclear power and GM foods are either unmitigated good things or the work of the devil. They are simply tools to solve problems. They are complicated tools that achieve diminishing returns in a world running out of ideas. We need that old cliché; a ‘paradigm shift’ in thinking. That new paradigm must have a social and community resilience dimension. If you see the world as purely mechanical with push-button corrections then you will always manage to conjure more of the same problems.

Chris can only see coal, oil and gas burning as being a matter of “ecological limits”. Whether materials are good or bad are reduced to a simple matter of their carbon footprint:

Perhaps surprisingly, artificial fibres such as polyester probably have far lower carbon footprints. Once source estimates a figure of nor more than 2 – 3 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of plastic, including polyester [..] less than a tenth the impact of cotton.”

If we learnt anything from Transition it was that carbon foot-printing is not holistic enough. We need resilience indicators. Chris’s only argument against carbon footprints is how they are calculated! Regardless of this button-pressing-techno-fixing mentality Chris sees no dichotomy in then writing:

“Why do we think that humankind shouldn’t take out as much as it can from the Earth’s crust, and do so as quickly as possible? The reason is ethical: a simple matter of fairness and equity, and nothing more.”

Whilst many would agree I cannot. To reduce the sustainability down to a challenge of mere ethics suggest it is a simple matter of choice. Since Chris makes it clear that climate change is an extinction event how can he reduce this to just ethics? By the same measure everything is ethics. Even genocide. This isn’t useful. To solve this problem it has to be an economic opportunity for communities and business. Reducing is solely to “ethics” doesn’t quite cut it.

Chris goes onto muse that reaching sustainability

“…will require a long and difficult commitment to using science and technology to significantly reduce human impacts on the environment as we spread the benefits of prosperity to all. In my view, there is no alternative to this approach.”

Once again this portrays humans as the problem, the environment as the victim, and technology as the solution. Is this all? How would Chris characterise the concept in Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of Complex Societies” whereby adding greater complexity to solve all our problems only leads to diminishing returns? At what point would Chris accept a lower level of complexity and scale as the way forward? We doubt that Chris could comprehend a way forward along Greer’s “Long  Descent“. In short; Chris’s views may be unconventional amongst Greens but they are hardly profound. There is no historical perspective. It is as if civilisation was born yesterday with an infinite array of toys and a few problems that could be solved simply by making more complicated toys.

Criticisms about the lack of scope aside; this work is still a good read. We like Chris and his work is always a kick-in-the-pants. His “How to live a low-carbon life” is still a massive milestone in the development of Post Carbon Man, Post Carbon Homes and Post Carbon Living. We owe him so much and he remains a breath of fresh air. But his thinking will not be to everyone’s liking. He glosses over some arguments that most people really need to know about sustainability.

If this books is meant to be “all that matters” it should have gone way beyond questions of minerals, climate change and food. How our species succeeds or fails requires an understanding of the broad sweep of history. If you want to know sustainability you will need to know about globalisation and community resilience, not just technology. Chris makes it clear that he disagrees. We will beg to differ. Sustainability is not a matter to be fixed by simply inventing a better battery. We will need better ways of living too. Without a wider perspective of this challenge I am afraid this book read like nothing more than a massive CV for a job advising Government alongside a man Chris clearly idolises; David MacKay.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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