The uncertain prospects for us multicell types

Also posted on Resilience.

You and I and termites have a lot in common. For one thing, we are all dependent on microbes to stay alive (though few microbes depend on us).

A Natural History of the Future, by Rob Dunn, Basic Books, November 2021

Besides, humans and termites, along with every other multi-celled living creature, belong to just one small branch on the evolutionary tree of life. All of us multi-celled types together – be we plants, insects, fish, birds or apes – are barely a rounding error in the catalogue of life, in which the overwhelming majority of varieties of life are bacterial.

These perspective-correcting points loom large in Rob Dunn’s A Natural History of the Future (Basic Books). If it were merely a compendium of curiosities the book would still make a really good read, given Dunn’s ability to highlight recent work by dozens of other researchers combined with his gift for clear exposition. But in his discussion of key laws of ecology Dunn has a practical purpose in mind: he wants to give us a better chance at surviving this new age of instability which we call the anthropocene.

In spite of all our clever technologies, he argues, human life is and always will be limited by basic principals of ecology. These laws of ecology are particularly important as we leave a millennia-long period of relative climate stability and begin to cope with the climate chaos we have created.

Climate change sometimes recedes into the background in A Natural History of the Future … for a few pages. Dunn takes us billions of years back into evolutionary history, and he spends much of the book reviewing events of recent decades, but his aim is to elucidate our near future. And in the near future no challenges loom quite so large as climate change.

In the big picture, think small

At the outset Dunn helps us understand the scope of our ignorance. When Western scientists such as Linnæus started to classify species, they focused mostly on species which were relatively large, beautiful, or directly useful to us. These scientists also tended to work in northern Europe, an area with very little biological diversity relative to much of the world.

By the second half of the twentieth century this limited world view was being challenged from within academic science. Once they paid close attention, ecologists realized that species of insects vastly outnumber all the species of larger animals. As Terry Erwin wrote in 1982, “there might be 30 million tropical arthropod species.”

Other scientists were exploring the bewildering variety of fungi. Still others, aided by new techniques in genetics, got a glimpse of the staggering diversity of bacteria. A study published in the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 “estimated that there might be a trillion kinds of bacteria on Earth.”

Dunn summarizes the perspective shift in these words:

“By the time I was a graduate student, Erwin’s estimate had led scientists to imagine that most species were insects. For a while, it seemed as though fungi might be the big story. Now it seems as though, to a first approximation, every species on Earth is a bacterial species.” (A Natural History of the Future, page 28)


‘A Novel Representation of the Tree of Life’ (from Nature, 11 April 2016), shows the predominance of bacteria in the tree of life. Dunn includes a simplified version of the same graphic, and he writes: “All species with cells with nuclei are part of the Eukaryotes, represented in the lower right-hand section of the tree. … The Opisthokonta, one small part of the Eukaryote branch, is the branch that includes animals and fungi. Animals, if we zero in, are just one slender branch of the Opisthokonta. … [V]ertebrates do not get a special branch on the tree. The vertebrates are a small bud. The mammals are a cell in that bud. Humanity is, to continue the metaphor, something less than a cell.” (Graphic by Laura A. Hug, Brett J. Baker, Karthik Anantharaman, Christopher T. Brown, Alexander J. Probst, Cindy J. Castelle, Cristina N. Butterfield, Alex W. Hernsdorf, Yuki Amano, Kotaro Ise, Yohey Suzuki, Natasha Dudek, David A. Relman, Kari M. Finstad, Ronald Amundson, Brian C. Thomas and Jillian F. Banfield; via Wikimedia Commons.)


For good or ill, our smaller companions on earth have always played large roles in natural history. Termites, for example, were just another type of cockroach until they acquired the gut microbes that allow them to digest wood. We humans “are probably dependent on more species than any other species ever to exist” – including, to mention just a few, all the insects that pollinate all the plants we eat, and all the gut microbes that help us to digest that food.

While we can’t hope to fully understand or even name all the varieties of life, we can, Dunn says, understand basic rules that influence how new species evolve, how existing species go extinct, and how species interact with each other and with their changing ecosystems. If we respect those rules we lessen the chances that we will threaten our own chances of survival any further.

Islands and corridors

The book covers too many subjects to adequately summarize in one review, but consider two simple concepts. A discussion of island ecosystems highlights the principle that bigger islands tend to have more species. It is equally true that ecosystems with greater diversity of species are more stable through time.

“Islands” can refer to bodies of land surrounding by water – but also to isolated specific habitats surrounded by very different ecosystems. One effect of our own rapidly climbing population and the explosive growth of urban habitats, Dunn explains, is the fragmentation of many ecosystem into an array of tiny islands – small areas of forest or plots of prairie – surrounded by cities or monoculture farms. These fragments – islands – are often too small to support a diverse number of species, and too widely separated from similar fragments for species to move between the islands. The result is that these islands are all highly vulnerable to significant or rapid change – including the change we are now enforcing by our rapid release of greenhouse gases.

The ecology of corridors is attracting wide interest, because it is readily evident that many species will need to move to survive. In some places and for some species, corridors that we carefully preserve or recreate may help plants and animals move along with the warming climate.

Corridor biology can also have unintended and unwanted consequences, Dunn points out. Not only are we building megacities, but these megacities are sometimes merging. In the nearly unbroken urban area from Washington DC to New York City,

“We have already created a corridor, a perfect and immense corridor, but it is not a corridor for rare butterflies, jaguars, and plants. It is, instead, a corridor for urban species, species able to move along roads and live amid buildings, species that live not in green spaces but in gray ones.” (page 72)

A corridor, in other words, for pigeons, Norway rats, and less-beloved species including some of the parasites that plague people in warmer cities, and which will move north with ease as the climate heats up.

Diversity and stability

The global market economy has pumped hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and it has appropriated most of the world’s arable land for monocultures of a small number of staple crops. Taken singly each of these transformations would have destructive effects – but in tandem they put us in a real heap of trouble:

“We have built a food system that thrives when variability is minimized. But … we have also altered Earth’s climate in such a way as to make it much more variable and unpredictable.” (page 150)

The diversity-stability law implies that “Regions with a greater diversity of crops have the potential to have more stable crop yield from year to year and hence less risk of crop shortages” (page 11). Dunn cites analysis by Delphine Renard, who compared nationwide yields from 91 countries, for 176 crop species, over a 50-year period. The yields were summed in terms of calories, so that agricultural yields from corn to potatoes to peaches could be compared in a common unit of measurement. The result: Countries with high crop diversity experienced 25 percent overall yield declines an average of once in 125 years. Countries with the lowest crop diversity experienced 25 percent declines an average of once in eight years.

The coming century will be more challenging than the past century, Dunn says. It would be easier, though still difficult, if we could expect steadily rising temperatures in every area. That is not, of course, how climate change is working. Instead, the general heating trend will be punctuated at unpredictable intervals by damaging cold spells. Dry areas are likely to get dryer, but with occasional damaging downpours, while wet areas get wetter but experience occasional droughts.

Considering climate physics and ecological principles together, then, it is essential that we begin the re-diversification of agriculture.

Other topics that Dunn covers include the dangers in indiscriminate use of biocidal chemicals – be they antibacterial hand creams routinely applied, antibiotics routinely added to animal feed, or herbicides sprayed on nearly every major crop field in whole countries. He discusses why some types of avian intelligence will help birds cope with climate change, while other kinds of birds will be at a terrible disadvantage. He explains that in spite of our advanced technologies, the dense concentrations of humans occupy the same geographic areas today that we tended to favor 6,000 years ago; this is a subject I hope to return to in a coming blog post.

The final chapter focuses once again on bacteria. We humans will die off some day, Dunn says, because no species last forever. If we mess up in spectacular fashion, millions of other multi-celled species will go extinct along with us – mammals, birds, fish, insects, trees and flowers. But uncounted millions of unicellular species – teeming masses of bacteria that thrive in scalding heat, concentrated acids, or intense radiation – will survive any calamities we are able to bring on.

A Natural History of the Future is a big book in its scope and in the degree of detail. Throughout, Dunn makes things clear for non-specialist readers. Highly recommended.


Photo at top of page: A Mastotermes darwiniensis worker termite. The giant northern termite is a large endemic species which lives in colonies in trees and logs in the tropical areas of Australia. Photo courtesy of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), via Wikimedia Commons.

For better or worse, we adapt

Also posted on Resilience.

Affluent owners of seashore properties buy up homes a safer distance from the coast – pricing poor residents out of communities they have called home for generations. Rural residents set up agro-forestry enclaves on mountain slopes, capturing some of the increasingly unpredictable rainfall. Relatively wealthy nations build and guard fences at their borders to keep climate refugees away. Water bombers fly hundreds of sorties from lakes and reservoirs to fires raging in drought-ravaged forests.

All these climate change adaptations have been happening for years now. But among the hundreds of examples of climate change adaption one could identify, some responses simultaneously work against climate change mitigation, and many work against climate justice – they are what Morgan Phillips terms “climate change maladaptations.”

He wants environmentalists to think more clearly about adaptation strategies so that we can get on with the urgent work of what he calls great adaptations. That’s the point of his recent book Great Adaptations: In the shadow of a climate crisis. (Arkbound, Sept 2021)

When he joined The Glacier Trust in support of adaptation projects in Nepal, Phillips learned that

“Lives in the Himalayan villages I have visited are on a knife edge. Landslides, floods, glacial retreat, drought, fire, air pollution, and insect pests are haunting the future of an already fragile country; it is on the brink of being turned upside down. … I knew that climate change needed to be mitigated, but the need to adapt to it is far greater than I’d ever imagined.” (Great Adaptations (GA), page 3)

Yet in 2020 The Glacier Trust “found that only 0.82% of articles written by the UK’s five biggest environmental organisations are focused on climate change adaptation.” (GA p 197)

There are valid reasons why, historically, environmental organizations preferred to focus on climate change mitigation rather than adaptation.1 If global economic elites had put serious work into mitigation 30 years ago, instead of lip service, we might not be in a position today where climate change adaption is, and will remain for generations, an urgent task.

In choosing to focus his book on adaptation, Phillips makes it clear that mitigation remains as essential as ever. We need to begin creative and effective adaptation projects around the world, because climate-induced crises are already happening. At the same time, without urgent mitigation work – primarily through a rapid curtailment of fossil fuel use – the climate crises will become so severe that effective adaptation in many areas will be impossible.

His book is wide-ranging but clearly written and free of obfuscating jargon. It deserves a wide audience because his message is so important:

“In the same spirit in which we call for a just transition to a low-carbon society, we must also call for just adaptation to climate change. They are two sides of the same coin.” (GA p 15)

Some of the adaptations Phillips discusses are as particular as changing one farming practice on one particular landscape. Others span the globe and involve changes to the international economic order, accepted definitions of universal human rights, or both. One great adaptation – forgiveness of debt – could be an effective step towards international justice whether or not it is enacted with climate change in mind:

“Cancellation of historical and unfair debts would save countries millions of dollars every year. This money could be put to use on climate change mitigation and adaptation projects.” (GA p 14)

Migration is another obvious adaptation to the climate crisis. Current citizenship law and current property law result in a crushing burden being paid by those who typically have done the least to cause the climate crisis. To achieve justice in climate adaptation, “we all also need to be free to find refuge and a new life in a country of our choosing if we want to – or are forced to – migrate because of climate change.” (GA p 14)

In some regions permanent migration might be neither desired nor necessary, but seasonal migration may be appropriate. Phillips notes that migratory lifestyles have been freely chosen by many cultures throughout history and we should open our minds – and our legal structures – to facilitate this adaptation strategy.

It should be clear that effective and just adaptation will call into question the deepest foundations of global political economy. Phillips harbors no illusions about the scale and the difficulty of the challenge. “My feeling,” he writes “is that to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, ‘Western’ civilisation needs to be disassembled with great urgency and great care.” (GA p 149)

Citing Rupert Read, he considers the possibility of “a successor civilisation after some kind of collapse [of ‘Western’ civilisation]”. As an example of such a many-faceted response to climate crisis, Phillips discusses the “Make Rojava Green Again” movement in the region Western media refer to as Kurdistan. In his description,

“The ‘Make Rojava Green Again’ movement has strong ecological, multicultural, democratic, and feminist principles. It is based on a political system of democratic confederalism, where power is devolved to as local a level as possible ….” (GA p 167)

The Rojavan example has been inspiring to people around the world, not only because of its egalitarian and ecological principles, but also because the movement has become a decisive force in the wake of the global proxy war in Syria and the failed US occupation of Iraq. The response to this civilizational collapse has been, not an attempt to return to business as usual, but a new way of life: “‘Make Rojava Green Again’, and other ‘Phoenix’ like it, are so important because they help us to imagine different kinds of future. Rojavan’s are willing to challenge the value structures that underpin ‘Western’ civilisation.” (GA p 170)

The adaptation examples Phillips considers come from rich countries, poor countries, megacities, and sparsely populated rural areas. They are equally diverse in their effects: some adaptations reinforce inequalities; some adaptations fuel additional global heating; some adaptations help mitigate climate change while supporting global justice; many adaptations are neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.

But simply ignoring adaptation is a very risky strategy, “especially if the responsibility for adaptation is left in the hands of central Governments, large NGOs, and big businesses that are, by nature, resistant to anything truly transformative.” (GA p 197)

With this book, Phillips writes, “The Glacier Trust is trying to frame adaptation as a positive and transformative process grounded in the principles of social justice and ecological enhancement.” (GA p 204)

We must adapt to climate changes in future, and we are adapting already. But if the adaptations are merely ad hoc and not thoughtfully considered, they are more likely to be maladaptations than great adaptations.


1 Paul Cox and Stan Cox provide an excellent historical overview of the mitigation/adaptation divide in their chapter “Adaptation and Mitigation Amid the Consequences of Failure”. (In Energy Transition and Economic Sufficiency, Post Carbon Institute, 2021.) They conclude that “Societies once could choose between changing direction or dealing with climatic disaster; now it is necessary to do both at once.”


Image at top: Grounding of John B. Caddell (tanker ship) by Hurricane Sandy, November 2012 in New York City. Photo by Jim Henderson, on Wikimedia Common.

Around the world in a shopping cart

Also posted on Resilience.

Christopher Mims had just embarked on his study of the global retail supply chain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. Quickly, he found, affluent consumers redoubled their efforts at the very activity Mims was investigating:

“Confronted by the stark reality of their powerlessness to do anything else and primed by a lifetime of consumerism into thinking the answer to the existential dread at the core of their being is to buy more stuff, Americans, along with everyone else on Earth with the means to do so, will go shopping.” (page 6-7; all quotes here are from Arriving Today)

Arriving Today is published by Harper Collins, September 2021.

More than ever, shopping during the pandemic meant shopping online. That added complications to the global logistics systems Mims was studying, and added another strand to the story he weaves in Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door – Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy. (Harper Collins, 2021)

The book traces the movements of a single, typical online purchase – a USB charger – from the time it leaves a factory in Vietnam until it’s delivered to a buyer in the US. Sounds simple enough – but it’s an immensely complicated story, which Sims tells very well.

In the process he dives into the history and present of containerized shipping; working conditions for sailors, longshoremen, truckers, and warehouse employees; why items are scattered around a “fulfillment center” in the same way data files are scattered around on a computer drive; the great difficulty in teaching a robot to pick up soft packages wrapped in plastic film; and why no supercomputer can calculate the single best route for a UPS driver to take in making a hundred or more deliveries in the course of an average day.

How long can this system continue to swallow more resources, more small businesses, more lives? If there is a major weakness to Sims’ treatment, it is in suggesting that the online retail juggernaut must, inevitably, continue to grow indefinitely.

A key issue that is absent from the book is the energy cost of the global supply chain. Sims devotes a great deal of attention, however, to the brutal working conditions and relentless exploitation of working people in many segments of the delivery system. At the very least, this evidence should lead one to wonder when a tipping point will be reached. When, for example, might workers or voters be driven to organize an effective counterforce to insatiably acquisitive billionaires like Jeff Bezos? When, more grimly, might the portion of the population with discretionary income become so small they can no longer prop up the consumer economy?

“Taylorism – the dominant ideology of the modern world”

The unifying thread in Sims’ presentation is this: “Taylorism” – the early 20th-century management practice of breaking down factory work into discrete movements that can be “rationalized” for greater company profits – has now turned many more sectors into assembly lines. Today, Sims writes, “the walls of the factory have dissolved. Every day, more and more of what we do, how we consume, even how we think, has become part of the factory system.”

The factory system, in Sims’ telling, now stretches across oceans and across continents. It finds clear expression in facilities that are owned or controlled by the management practices of Amazon. In Amazon’s sorting, packing and shipping facilities, what makes the company “particularly Darwinian” is the floating rate that constantly and coldly passes judgment on employees.

With warehouse work divided into discrete, measurable and countable tasks, management algorithms constantly track the number of operations completed by each worker. Those who perform in the bottom 25% are routinely fired and replaced. As a result, Sims writes, “most workers in an Amazon warehouse are constantly in danger of losing their jobs, and they know it.”

There is no paid sick leave, so cash-strapped employees often have no choice but to work even when injured or sick. (Free coffee and free Ibuprofen are made available to help them work through fatigue or pain.) But if ill health causes a drop in performance they won’t “make the rate” and they will be fired. Those who are exceptionally physically fit, and who seldom get sick, are still likely to be worn down by the relentless pace eventually.

To replace workers, Sims says, “the company has all but abandoned interviewing new hires.” Screening and training new employees can be expensive processes, but they are processes in which Amazon invests little. A constant cohort of new employees are dropped into the stream and they simply sink or swim:

“Everyone I talked to about their first months at Amazon said that the attrition rate they witnessed was greater than 50 percent in the first two months.” (page 209)

Some companies might regard high employee turnover as a huge liability. For Amazon, Sims explains, high turnover is not a bug, it’s a feature. The turnover allows the company “to grab only the most able-bodied members of America’s workforce” (page 235) and to constantly replace them with new employees who haven’t yet gotten sick or injured.

If that weren’t enough, the high turnover benefits Amazon in another important way: “it makes it almost impossible for workers to unionize.” (page 210) 

UPS trucks in Manhattan, 2010. Photo by Jeremy Vandel, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial license.

The last mile

“[Amazon’s] relentless measurement, drive for efficiency, loose hiring standards, and moving targets for hourly rates are the perfect system for ingesting as many people as possible and discarding all but the most physically fit.” (page 235-236)

As Amazon’s share of retail shopping grows and it Taylorizes its warehousing, there is another big link in the supply chain in which the company sees opportunity to slash worker compensation and boost corporate profits.

Until recently transportation of packages between sorting centers, and along the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps, has been controlled by a wide array of trucking companies. One of the biggest of these companies, UPS, is a throwback to a day when most truck drivers were unionized, well paid, and received benefits like paid sick days, company health insurance, and pensions.

A driver for UPS is well trained, often very experienced, and learns to “go from stopping their truck to getting a package out of it in nine seconds.” (page 271) But a full-time driver for UPS also makes more than $30/hour plus benefits. Jeff Bezos, who increased his wealth by $65 billion in the first year of the pandemic, covets the paycheque of that UPS driver, along with the paycheque of anyone else in the supply chain whose job, if it can’t be robotized, could be turned over to a minimum-wage gig worker, aka “independent contractor”.

UPS and FedEx, Sims writes, together have 80 per cent of the US package delivery business. FedEx, along with nearly all other parcel-delivery companies, pay roughly minimum wage, with minimal benefits. Care to guess which company Amazon would like to emulate?

Indeed, as of 2018 Amazon itself has roared into the delivery business. “By the middle of 2020s,” Sims writes, “Amazon Logistics … is projected to take the number one spot from UPS.” (page 252)

Citing the research of Brandeis University professor David Weil, Sims concludes:

“Everything about Amazon’s decision to hire delivery companies that hire drivers, rather than hiring those drivers directly, is about pushing down wages, eliminating workplace protections, evading liability in the event of accidents, avoiding workplace litigation, eliminating the expense of benefits, and eliminating the possibility of drivers ever unionizing ….” (page 278)

In the last sentence of his book, Sims cites the 100 billion packages per year now shipped through the online retail supply chain, and he exhorts us to “imagine a future in which that number has doubled or tripled; imagine a future in which it is the way virtually every finished object gets anywhere.” (page 288)

Let’s imagine: Factory jobs in every sector will have moved to the lowest-wage countries with adequate industrial capabilities. Formerly well-paid factory workers in Rust Belt towns will compete for Amazon warehouse jobs that offer them minimum wage, for as many months as their bodies can sustain the constantly accelerating pace of simple repetitive tasks. Robots will have replaced human wage-earners wherever possible. And last mile delivery drivers will take orders from Amazon but receive their meager paycheques from other companies whose names most of us will never see.

In that paradise of capitalist productivity, who besides Jeff Bezos will still have enough income to fill their shopping carts?


Image at top: Your Cart is Full, composed by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain graphics.

‘Zero crashes, zero congestion, zero emissions’ – the perennial myths of autonomous vehicles

Also posted on Resilience.

For a hundred years the auto industry has held out visions of a trouble-free future for drive-everywhere society – and that future is always about 20 years away. Peter Norton urges us to see the current hype about automated vehicles in the cold light of the failed promises of the past.

American automakers had a problem in the 1920s. Cars were selling well in rural areas, but in the cities – home of a steadily growing share of the population – cars were meeting a lot of resistance.

Autonorama, by Peter Norton, is published by Island Press, October 2021.

Parking was scarce, streets were full of people, drivers usually had to go slow – and they still managed to kill a shocking number of pedestrians. Cars weren’t very convenient in cities, and there was so much public outrage over killings that many cities were considering severe restrictions on car use.

The response, Peter Norton writes in Autonorama, came from the coalition of automakers, car dealers, drivers, oil companies, and road builders he refers to as “motordom”. Their strategy had both long-term and short-term prongs. First, it was necessary to win public acceptance of the radical idea that city streets should be generally cleared of pedestrians so that cars could routinely drive faster. Second, local, state and federal governments had to be persuaded to invest millions, and soon billions, in widening streets and in building entirely new highways, not only between cities but within cities.

These long-term efforts, however, wouldn’t keep sales up in the short term. As Norton explains,

“No matter what the expenditure on roads and highways, in no given year could it deliver marked improvement. What was needed was a clear vision of a more distant and idealized future toward which motordom was striving. The promise of future perfection can buy tolerance of present affliction.” (Autonorama, from Island Press, October 2021, page 29)

To present this “clear vision of an idealized future”, motordom turned to creative minds in advertising, theater and film-making. During the 1930s, GM, Ford and Shell sponsored increasingly elaborate presentations of future cities where everyone drove, everywhere, without a hint of traffic congestion, and in perfect safety. The process culminated in Futurama, by far the most popular exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In Norton’s view, the Futurama template has been revived periodically by motordom ever since. “Autonorama”, the heavily hyped story that “autonomous vehicles” will soon take over our roads, while ending crashes, congestion and emissions, is the latest iteration of a marketing fantasy now several generations old.

By the late 1950’s, one element of the strategy had been largely accomplished: new standards in traffic engineering had enforced auto dominance on streets, and had defined any delay to drivers – caused, of course, by all the other drivers – as an unacceptable cost to all society which should be remedied by public expenditure on roadways. A second strategic element – a vast new highway-building project – had been approved and was under construction.

Yet traffic congestion grew as rapidly as the number of cars on the roads and streets, as did the numbers of crash casualties. It was time for a new round of Futurama, and motordom answered the call with language that remains familiar all these years later.

“General Motors Avenue of Progress” with concept car “GM-X Stiletto” on display at 1964 New York World’s Fair. Photo by Don O’Brien, from Wikimedia Commons.

“Automobile accidents will be eliminated completely”

In a 1958 episode of Disneyland sponsored by the Portland Cement Association, the narrator intones,

“As Father chooses the route in advance on a push-button selector, electronics take over complete control. Progress can be accurately checked on a synchronized scanning map. With no driving responsibility, the family relaxes together. En route, business conferences are conducted by television.” (quoted in Autonorama, page 51)

The specifics of how the nascent electronics industry might accomplish these wonders had to be left to the imagination. No matter. A 1961 Pennsylvania ad campaign assured readers that “the nation’s finest automotive and scientific brains … predict that someday in the future automobile accidents will be eliminated completely.” If that blissful fantasy remained distant, it was not for lack of industry effort. Technology companies, auto makers, and government transportation departments teamed up to construct automated car test tracks in locations around the US. The vision received its most elaborate portrayal in GM’s Futurama 2, the biggest pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

To the extent that newly widened arterial roads were engineered for greater speed, they also became more deadly for all users, including the fewer and fewer remaining pedestrians. And to the extent that officially favored development patterns induced people to live farther away from work, schools and shopping, even more people became car-dependent and the roads filled with congestion as fast as they were built.

As Norton explains, American cars were and remain the least spatially efficient mode of transportation in common use. It never made sense to think that by putting each driver/passenger in a steel box that takes 10 square meters of road space, we would vanquish the problem of roadway congestion. Though a congestion-free car culture could never be achieved, it remained essential for motordom to keep painting the pretty picture – all to keep consumers buying new cars every few years, and to keep politicians authorizing greater public works expenditures.

The road-building boom begun in the 1950s, with “the biggest public works project in history” justified primarily for its supposed traffic congestion benefits. But “Four decades and $100 billion later, GM was claiming that congestion was worse than ever, and getting worse still.” (Autonorama, page 93) The congestion was cited to promote a new round of public spending in what Norton terms “Futurama 3”. Reflecting public concern about the deadly effects of air pollution, the visions also started to promise the elimination of harmful emissions.

In the 1990s the new focus was on “Intelligent Highway-Vehicle Systems”. A decade of work yielded one viable congestion-reducing technology – but it was not a technology the auto industry could support. Electronics had advanced to the point where it was clearly workable to automatically charge road tolls at times of peak use, or within perennially congested areas such as urban cores. Although congestion pricing has now been used to great success in Europe, the practice does not encourage people to buy more cars, and so it was not a strategy American motordom embraced.

The latest and current flourish of car culture futurism is what Norton terms “Autonorama.” Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted from “smart highways” to “smart cars,” with a promise that smart cars will soon safely drive themselves everywhere, from the wide-open road to city streets teeming with cars, buses, bicyclists and pedestrians. And today, Norton adds, autonomous vehicle boosters want to sell not just new cars and new roads, but also new data.

Stanford Racing and Victor Tango together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge Finals. The 2007 contest was the third in a series sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to promote development of automated vehicles. Six of the 11 entrants completed the 96-km course, through a simulated urban environment at the George Air Force Base in Victorville, CA. Photo from Wikimedia Common.

“Social media on wheels”

If you’re one of the tens of millions who start and end each workday with a long, stressful drive, you might not even be aware of one of the major downsides in driving. A 2016 report from consultants McKinsey & Co. highlighted “the greatest single constraint on personal data collection besides sleep: the attentional demands of driving.” There’s the problem: while you are driving you can’t give your full attention to social media!

And that’s no joke, to the huge industry of data collectors and brokers. Time spent looking at the road is time wasted – because while you’re driving, the data hounds are unable to learn much about your likes, dislikes, what you believe, what you watch, what you share, and what you are likely to buy.

In an insightful chapter titled “Data Don’t Drive,” Norton cautions us to think carefully about the business catch-phrase “data-driven.” Data might guide decisions, but data don’t drive decisions – people do. People make decisions through judgment calls, both about the meaning of data, and about which data matter and which data don’t matter.

Where profit-focused industries are concerned, it is not data that matter but monetized data or at least monetizable data. The engines of consumerism are stoked by data from and about people who can spend money, and preferably lots of it. Which data is likely to be worth more: an hour’s worth of smart-phone data from a person standing in the cold waiting for a bus? Or an hour’s data from the in-car digital entertainment system in a state-of-the-art new automated car?

This in-built tendency to reinforce social inequality is at the heart of Norton’s concerns, not only with Autonorama but with the whole history auto-centered planning. It’s not just that vast sums of public money have been devoted to infrastructure that never comes close to the promise of “no congestion, no crashes.” It’s also that in focusing attention over and over on the needs and wishes of motordom, the needs of those who can’t or won’t drive are systematically downplayed. In the process, industry and government fail dismally to preserve or create safe, efficient, pleasant, healthful, walkable urban environments. The modest expenditures that would make cities safe for non-drivers are declined, while hundreds of billions are spent instead on transport “improvements” that continue to produce more deaths, more congestion, and more pollution.

Norton writes that

“The twentieth century should have taught us that accommodation of expensive transport does not merely neglect affordable mobility; it actively degrades it.” (Autonorama, page 180)

Two decades into the 21st-century, we should heed Norton’s warnings about Autonorama, turn our backs on car culture, and begin the rewarding task of reclaiming urban space for efficient public transit, safe cycling, and healthy and stress-free walking.


Photo at top of page: An official DARPA photograph of Stanley at the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. Stanley, created by the Stanford University Racing Team, won the race and the 2 million US dollar prize. The automated vehicle race was sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Of the 23 vehicles entered in the 2005 running, five managed to complete the 212 kilometer course. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Colonialism, climate crisis, and the forever wars

Also published on Resilience.

Two rounds of negotiation take centre stage, about halfway through Amitav Ghosh’s new masterwork The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.

In one, US State Department and Pentagon officials win agreement that carbon emissions connected with the military are to be kept out of the Kyoto Protocol – an omission that has been preserved in international climate agreements to this day.

At the opposite end of the global power hierarchy, Khokon, a refugee from the Kishoreganj district of Bangladesh, has engaged in desperate negotiations simply to stay alive. His family’s low-lying land had been flooded for six months, followed by long droughts, hailstorms, and unseasonal downpours. The environmental degradation was followed by political depredations, as well-connected people seized increasingly scarce arable land including part of Khokon’s family’s farm. Eventually there was no better option than to sell some land and send Khokon to France – but he was quickly deported back to Bangladesh. There was no paid employment for him so after seven months of hopelessness, 

“his family sold the rest of their land and paid another agent to send him abroad again. Dubai was Khokon’s chosen destination, and he paid accordingly; but the agent cheated him and he ended up in Libya instead. For the next several years he had to endure enslavement, beatings, extortion, and torture. But somehow he managed to save up enough money to pay traffickers to send him from Libya to Sicily in a ramshackle boat.” (all quoted material in this article is from The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh, published by University of Chicago Press, October 2021)

Khokon was penniless, traumatized – but unlike many others he survived the voyage. Assisted by support groups for refugees and by relatives, he was able to stay in Italy and get a job at a warehouse in Parma.

How are these two sets of negotiations related? In Ghosh’s telling, the well-connected lobbyists meeting in posh board rooms, and the refugees simply trying to stay alive, each understand in their own ways how the climate crisis is intertwined with the global power structure.

The strategists at the Pentagon are fully aware that the climate crisis is a serious challenge. Yet their own ability to consume fossil fuels must not be called into question, even though the US military consumes more fossil fuel than any other organization in the world. Their own carbon emissions are not negotiable, because fossil fuel dominance is both the enabling force and the purpose of the vast web of military bases, aircraft carriers, bombers, missiles and drones through which the US exerts influence over global trade. In Ghosh’s words,

“The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.”

Likewise, Ghosh explains, the refugees he meets in the camps around the Mediterranean are keenly aware of the realities of climate change – but they don’t think of themselves as climate refugees. If unstable weather conditions were the only challenge they faced, after all, they could simply buy a first-class ticket and fly to a comfortable new home in another country.

“What migrants like Khokon know, on the other hand, is that every aspect of their plight is rooted in unyielding, intractable, and historically rooted forms of class and racial injustice. …They know that the processes that have displaced them are embedded in very old and deeply entrenched social relationships of power, national and international.”

The exclusion of military emissions, at the very outset of international climate talks, has contributed to a tendency to see the climate crisis as techno-economic problem. Ghosh’s purpose in The Nutmeg’s Curse is to show that the climate crisis has roots as deep and as old as settler colonialism.

The conquest of Jacatra by the VOC in 1619. J.P. Coen decided in 1619 that Jakatra, later Batavia, would be a suitable base for the VOC on Java. (VOC = Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, aka Dutch East Indies Company). After the conquest the whole city was razed to the ground, built anew and renamed Batavia. (File accessed via Wikimedia Commons.)

Terms of trade

“Selamon is a village in the Banda archipelago, a tiny cluster of islands at the far southeastern end of the Indian Ocean,” Ghosh writes in the book’s opening paragraphs. This village and this cluster of islands played an important role in global history due to the presence of an unusual tree – the tree that produces nutmeg and mace.

Nutmeg had been traded in many countries for many centuries, and was one of the substances most sought after and valued in Renaissance Europe. The search for nutmeg’s origins was a key driver of the wave of European explorations which eventually chanced upon the Americas.

When traders from the Dutch East India Company arrived in the Banda Islands, they quickly understood that they could multiply their profits. Trading in nutmeg was a good business, to be sure, but it would be much better if the Dutch had a tight monopoly. There was just one problem: the Bandas were already inhabited by skilled growers and traders, who had no desire to limit their business opportunities by selling only to one buyer.

The solution to the problem was simple and brutal, but was not unusual in the annals of colonialism: the Bandanese people had to be exterminated, so the Dutch could bring in slaves to harvest nutmegs, take sole control of the world-wide nutmeg trade, and sell the product for whatever the market would bear. This transfer of power took place in the early 17th century, and the profits fueled a burst of commercial and artistic development in The Netherlands which is known as The Golden Age.

“There are innumerable books on the art of the Dutch Golden Age,” Ghosh writes, but “few indeed are those that mention the Banda genocide.” He finds the story in obscure archives, told in the words of the very people who carried out the massacres. Even at the distance of four centuries, the events in Banda in April 1621 make for nightmare-inducing reading. And the events in Banda were not unique – they were part of a widespread pattern.

About the same time as the Banda massacres, Sir Francis Bacon wrote that there are  “nations that are outlawed and proscribed by the law of nature and nations, or by the immediate commandment of God.” It is only right, Bacon continued, that “godly and civilized nations”, when encountering such outlawed nations, should “cut them off from the face of the earth” (quoted by Ghosh from Bacon’s An Advertisement Touching An Holy War). This call to genocide, Ghosh says, was echoed by other European “Enlightenment” figures – and enacted all too frequently through the centuries of colonial conquest and domination.

European elites also began to tell themselves that the meaning, the very reason for existence, of all the world was to become resources for human industry. Those who believed the contrary – that the land and seas, plants and animals, had their own stories and their own spirits – were clearly unfit for survival:

“To believe that the Earth was anything more than an inanimate resource was to declare oneself a superstitious savage—and that, in turn, was tantamount to placing oneself on the waiting list for extinction or extermination. Vitalism, savagery, and extinction were a series in which each term implied the next.” 

Several centuries of frenzied extractivism have followed, with increasingly severe costs to earth’s ecosystems, deadly results to the indigenous peoples who were colonized, but exponential growth in wealth for the colonizers. By the time European industries learned how to exploit fossil fuels, the pattern of insatiable consumption was well established.

Today the spice trade is a minuscule part of international trade. The most valuable commodities in our era have been hydrocarbons. But these resources, too, are heavily concentrated in certain parts of the globe, and when exported must pass through a handful of maritime choke points including the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the southern tip and the Horn of Africa – “the exact locations,” Ghosh writes, “that European colonial powers fought over when the Indian Ocean’s most important commodities were cloves, nutmeg, and pepper.”

Today it is not the Dutch, nor the English, nor the Spanish, who rule the seas and set the terms of trade. But the basic order of colonialism remains, for now, intact:

“This empire may be under American control today, but it is the product of centuries of combined Western effort, going back to the 1500s.”

As in centuries past, preserving the dominant position of the empire results in immense loss of life outside the empire. In the cascading ecological catastrophes through the Middle East and South Asia, coupled with the vast numbers of civilian casualties categorized as “collateral damage”, Ghosh hears many echoes from centuries past. The “forever wars” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and many other countries have their analogues through the long centuries of European conquest in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

The “surly bonds of earth” – or “all our relations”

The Nutmeg’s Curse is a very big book considering it weighs in at a relatively modest 336 pages. In exploring his theme Ghosh dives into Greek mythology, contemporary geopolitics, classic Dutch literature, American popular culture, the history of botanical science, all in addition to his primary focus, the colonization of several continents over several centuries. His gift for both narrative and exposition make The Nutmeg’s Curse compulsively readable.

One area in which his explanations fall short, in my view, is Ghosh’s discussion of socio-technical ramifications of energy transition. He accepts and repeats, with little apparent critique, two viewpoints that have been influential in US media in recent years: one, that since the onset of fracking the US has become energy sufficient, with no need for hydrocarbon imports; and two, that the technologies for a seamless transition from hydrocarbons to renewable energies are already available. But these arguments play a relatively minor role in the great sweep of The Nutmeg’s Curse.

 The story Ghosh tells is often appalling, sickening in its portrayal of human cruelty, and frightening in what it says about the daunting challenges we face to achieve a just world through coming decades. It is also enlightening and, in the end, hopeful.

Consider these lines from a poem by Canadian-American pilot John Gillespie Magee, written shortly before his death in World War II:

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”

Magee “was almost instantly canonized as the American poet of World War II,” Ghosh writes, and these lines soon appeared on headstones throughout the United States, they were used in the midnight sign-off for many television stations, a copy of the poem was deposited on the moon in 1971, and Ronald Reagan recited the lines to dramatic effect after the space shuttle Challenger disaster. But Ghosh asks us to consider:

“What exactly is ‘surly’ about the Earth’s bonds? [W]hy should the planet be thought of as a home from which humans would be fortunate to escape?”

The deep-seated disdain for the earth was not a mere mid-twentieth-century fad. Ghosh finds the same sentiment expressed in stark terms, for example, in the work of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “perhaps the most celebrated English poet of the late nineteenth century.” But it is an unfortunately logical outcome of a perspective that sees all the Earth, that sees Nature – soil, minerals, plants, animals, and even people – as resources to be consumed for the profit of those clever enough to dominate.

Today, Ghosh says, this earth-disdaining ethos of domination has expanded well beyond traditional colonial powers. With the global hegemony of neo-liberal economics, ruling parties in Brazil, India and China are eagerly joining the extractivist project; that is one key reason why rain forests are shrinking so rapidly, and why half of all carbon emissions from the entire industrial age have happened in just the past thirty years.

In the face of all this destruction, where can one find hope? Perhaps here, Ghosh writes: a revival of vitalist beliefs, with deep love for the sacredness of earthly spaces, is spreading in many countries. In many cases led by indigenous peoples, this vitalist revival is at the forefront of environmental struggles. He notes the legal victories, from New Zealand to South America, “that Indigenous peoples around the world have won in recent years, precisely on vitalist grounds, by underscoring the sacredness of mountains, rivers, and forests, and by highlighting the ties of kinship by which they are bound to humans.” He is inspired by Native American resistance movements which honour “the familial instinct to protect ‘all our relatives’—that is to say, the entire spectrum of nonhuman kin, including rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.”

Is it naïve, wishful thinking, or even anti-scientific, to find hope in loving “all our relatives”? Ghosh asks that question too, and we’ll close with his answer:

“Is this magical thinking? Perhaps—but no more so than the idea of colonizing Mars; or the belief, now enshrined in the Paris Agreement, that a new technology for removing vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere will magically appear in the not-too-distant future.

“The difference is that a vitalist mass movement, because it depends not on billionaires or technology, but on the proven resources of the human spirit, may actually be magical enough to change hearts and minds across the world.”


Photo at top of page: A Dutch men-of-war and small vessels in a breeze, by Dutch Golden Age painter Lieve Verschuier (1627–1686). Now in National Museum of Warsaw. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Sunshine, wind, tides and worldwatts

A review of Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons

Also published on Resilience

Fun physics fact: water carries so much more kinetic energy than air that “A tidal current of 3 knots has the same energy density as a steady wind stream at 29 knots (a fair old blow).”

And consider this: “Ninety-nine per cent of planet Earth is hotter than 1,000 °C (1,832 °F). The earth is, in fact, a giant leaky heat battery.”

Stephen Peake uses these bits of information and many more to lucidly outline the physical bases of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, geothermal energy, wave energy and tidal current energy. But the book also touches on the complex relationship between the physics of renewable energy, and the role energy plays in human society – and the results aren’t always enlightening.

Peake takes on a formidable task in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons. The book is part of the “Pocket Einstein” series from Johns Hopkins University Press (or from Michael O’Mara Books in Britain). He has less than 200 small-format pages in which to cover both the need for and the prospects for a transition to 100% renewable energy.

Key to his method is the concept of a “worldwatt” – “the rate at which the world uses all forms of primary energy.” Peake estimates the rate of energy flow around the world from various potential renewable energy sources. Not surprisingly, he finds that the theoretically available renewable energy sources are far greater than all energy currently harnessed – primarily from fossil fuels – by the global economy.

But how do we get from estimates of theoretically available energy, to estimates of how much of that energy is practically and economically available? Here Peake’s book isn’t much help. He asks us to accept this summation:

“Taking a conservative mid-estimate of the numbers in the literature, we see that the global technical potential of different renewable sources adds up to 46 worldwatts. There is a definite and reasonable prospect of humans harnessing 1 worldwatt from 100 per cent renewable energy in the future.” (page 31)

But he offers no evidence or rationale for the conclusion that getting 1 worldwatt from renewable sources is a “reasonable prospect”, nor how near or far “in the future” that might occur.

A skeptic might well dismiss the book as renewable energy boosterism, noting a cheery optimism from the opening pages: “There is an exciting, renewable, electric, peaceful, prosperous, safer future just up ahead.” Others might say such optimism is the most helpful position one can take, given that we have no choice but to switch to a renewable energy way of life, ASAP, if we want human presence on earth to last much longer.

Yet a cheerfully pro-renewable energy position can easily shade into a cheerful pro-consumptionist stance – the belief that renewable energies can quickly become the driving force of our current industrial economies, with little change in living standards and no end to economic growth.

Peake briefly introduces a key concept for assessing which renewable energy sources will be economically viable, and in what quantities: Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). He explains that as we exploit more difficult energy sources, the EROEI goes down:

“As wind turbines have become larger and moved offshore, the EROEI ratio for wind over a twenty-year lifetime has declined from around 20:1 in the early 2000s to as low as 15:1 in recent years for some offshore wind farms.” (page 84)

Affordable renewable energy, in other words, doesn’t always “scale up”. The greater the total energy demanded by society, the more we will be impelled to site wind turbines and solar panels in areas beyond the “sweet spots” for Energy Return On Energy Invested. Peake’s book would be stronger if he used this recognition to give better context to statements such as “Renewable electricity is now cheaper than fossil electricity …” (in the book’s opening paragraph), and “solar is now the cheapest electricity in history” (page 70).

While Peake expresses confidence that a prosperous renewable energy world is just ahead, he doesn’t directly engage with the issue of how, or how much, affluent lifestyles may need to change. The closest he comes to grappling with this contentious issue is in his discussion of energy waste:

“We need to stop wasting all forms of energy, including clean renewable sources of heat and electricity. The sooner we shrink our total overall demand for energy, the sooner renewables will be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy we need to power our zero-carbon economies.” (page 141)

Near the end of the book, in brief remarks about electric cars, Peake makes some curious statements about EVs:

“Millions of [electric vehicles] will need charging from the network. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity in terms of managing the network load.” (page 130, emphasis mine)

And a few pages later:

“In the future, new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (page 134 emphasis mine)

In my next post I’ll take up this concept of the electric vehicle as energy storage, supply and load management resource.

In conclusion, Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons is a valuable primer on the physics of renewable energy, but isn’t a lot of help in establishing whether or not the existing world economy can be successfully transitioned to zero-carbon energy.


Photo at top of page: Wind Turbines near Grevelingenmeer, province of Zeeland, Netherlands

 

Reclaiming hope from the dismal science

Also published on Resilience

Post Growth is published by Polity Press, 2021.

“Empowering and elegiac” might seem a strange description of a book on economics. Yet the prominent author and former economics minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, chooses that phrase of praise for the new book Post Growth, by Tim Jackson.

In many respects the book lives up to that billing, and in the process Post Growth offers a hopeful vision of its subtitle: Life After Capitalism.

My dictionary defines an elegy as “a poem of serious reflection, typically a lament for the dead.” In writing an obituary for capitalism, paradoxically, Jackson also gives us a glimpse of a far richer way of life than anything capitalism could afford us.

Along the way he takes us through the origins and later distortion of John Stuart Mill’s theory of utilitarianism; the demonstration by biologist Lynn Margulis that cooperation is just as important an evolutionary driver as is competition; the psychology of ‘flow’ popularized by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi; and the landscape-transforming campaigns of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai.

Jackson accomplishes all this and more, elegantly and with clarity, in less than 200 pages.

The dismal science and its fairytales

Since the mid-19th century, under the influence of the ideals of competition and survival of the fittest, economics has earned the sobriquet “the dismal science”. At the same time, contemporary economics grew in significant part from the theories of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, in which the goal of economics would be the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. During our lifetimes, mainstream economics has proclaimed a gospel of unending economic growth. What gives?

In Mill’s day, Jackson writes, the word ‘utility’ was “a kind of direct proxy for happiness.” But meanings change:

“Economists today use ‘utility’ to refer to the worth or value of something. They tend to measure utility in monetary terms. The argument that we are driven to maximize our expected utility then assumes a very different meaning. But perhaps it’s easier to see now why the pursuit of GDP growth is seen as an irreducible good by economists and policymakers alike.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Speaking to the UN Conference on Climate Change in September 2019, Greta Thunberg famously dismissed economic orthodoxy as “fairytales of eternal economic growth.” Jackson devotes much of Post Growth to demonstrating, first, that this fairytale contradicts fundamental laws of physics, and second, that capitalism does not deliver ever-greater happiness, even for the minority in the upper half of the income scale, even during the brief and anomalous burst of growth following World War II. He explains,

“An infinite economy (the ultimate end of eternal growth) means infinite depreciation. Infinite maintenance costs. An infinite need for available energy to turn back the tide of entropy. At the end of the day, the myth of growth is a thermodynamic impossibility.” (Post Growth, page 79)

Jackson’s elegant discussion of thermodynamic limits notwithstanding, I found his discussion of the end of economic growth less than fully satisfying. He notes that labour productivity grew greatly up to about 1960, that this growth in productivity was the major enabler of rapid economic growth, and that as labour productivity growth stalled over the past several decades, so too has economic growth. He mentions – without clearly endorsing – the idea that this labour productivity was directly tied to the most easily accessible fuel sources:

“A fascinating – if worrying – contention is that the peak growth rates of the 1960s were only possible at all on the back of a huge and deeply destructive exploitation of dirty fossil fuels ….” (Post Growth, page 31)

But his primary focus is to outline why we not only must, but how we can, lead prosperous lives that give freedom to limitless human potential while still respecting the unyielding limits that thermodynamics set for our economy.

Growth when necessary, but not necessarily growth

Is money – and therefore, also GDP – a good proxy for happiness? In an important but limited sense, yes. Jackson cites what is now an extensive body of evidence showing that

“more income does a lot to increase happiness when incomes are very low to start with. Looking across countries, for instance, there’s a rapid increase in measured happiness as the average income of the nation rises from next-to-nothing to around $20,000 per person.” (Post Growth, page 52)

Beyond that modest income, however, the measured increase in happiness that goes with increased income dwindles rapidly. At the same time, research shows that “Society as a whole is less happy when things are unequal ….” From a utilitarian viewpoint, then, trying to constantly provide more for those who already have more than enough is pointless. But by closing the inequality gap – “levelling up our societies” – we can greatly increase the happiness of society as a whole.

Jackson doesn’t stop, however, with merely making that assertion. He dives deeply into discussions of the true value of care work, human creativity, the psychology of flow, and love. In the process, he goes a long way toward fulfilling a major goal of his book: presenting a realistic vision of a future “in which plenty isn’t measured in dollars and fulfillment isn’t driven by the relentless accumulation of material wealth.”

Late-stage capitalism, in fact, goes to great lengths to ensure that people are not happy.

Merchants of discontent

In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, Jackson says, the industrialized economies were able to produce material goods beyond the needs of citizens. The response of capitalism was to develop ways of ensuring that consumers constantly feel they “need” more. The burgeoning advertising industry “drew on another metaphor, borrowed from an emerging ‘evolutionary psychology’: the insatiability of human desire.”

This development “turned Mill’s utilitarianism completely on its head”, trading not in happiness but in discontent:

“Anxiety must tip over into outright dissatisfaction if capitalism is to survive. Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to spend. Consumer products must promise paradise. But they must systematically fail to deliver it. … The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs but in its spectacular ability consistently to disappoint us.” (Post Growth, page 91)

Fortunately there are ways to pursue fulfillment and satisfaction which do not depend on ever-increasing consumption. In this respect Jackson draws extensively on the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi and his classic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990).

In Jackson’s description, 

“People ‘in flow’ report an unusual clarity of mind and precision of movement. They experience a sense of confidence and control over the task. But there is also a sense of being lost in the moment, sometimes even being carried along by a momentum that is entirely outside of oneself. People describe a sense of wonder, a connectedness to the world, a feeling of satisfaction that goes beyond happiness or the gratification of pleasure.” (Post Growth, page 101)

Fleeting pleasure can be bought and consumed. By contrast enjoyment, in Jackson’s use of the terms, typically takes work – the enjoyment from playing a sport well or playing music well may involve an investment of hundreds of hours of focussed attention. This work need not and often does not have adverse environmental impacts.

Clearly one needs a basis of material prosperity – beginning with adequate nutrition and housing – in order to pursue what Jackson describes as high-flow activities. But in a relatively egalitarian society which provides basic needs for all, people can achieve lasting satisfaction in activities which, Jackson and colleagues have found, tend to be both high-flow and low-impact.

“Flow exemplifies with extraordinary clarity the kinds of dividends that remain available to us in a postgrowth world,” Jackson writes. “Flow offers us better and more durable satisfactions that consumerism ever does.” (Post Growth, page 102)

While celebrating human creativity, it is equally important to restore the dignity of “the labour of care.” Some activities are fundamental to maintaining human societies: providing the food we need every day, taking care of children, providing comfort and care to those stricken with illness or in the fragility of end-of-life. Jackson notes that many people suddenly realized during the pandemic how fundamental the labour of care is. But we have done precious little to afford workers in these sectors the respect and security they deserve.

When we honour and reward all those who perform the labour of care, and we promote the lasting enjoyment that comes from flow activities rather than the resource-sucking drain of consumerism – then, Jackson says, we will have the foundation for a resilient, sustainable, postgrowth society.

Can we get there from here?

Jackson cites an oft-told joke in which a tourist on a road-less-travelled asks an Irish farmer about the best way to Dublin. The farmer replies, “Well, sir, I wouldn’t start from here.” The point being, of course, that no matter how inauspicious our present location may be, we can only start from exactly where we are.

Unfortunately I found Jackson’s road map to a post growth society unconvincing, though he makes an honest effort. In successive chapters he relates the work of Kenyan environmental justice activist Wangari Maathai, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich That Hanh. Their examples are moving and inspiring and Jackson draws important lessons from their achievements and from the obstacles they faced.

But Jackson’s book is likely to reach primarily an audience in wealthy countries, and primarily readers who have at least a basis of material prosperity if not far more than they need. If we are to reach a post growth society soon enough to avoid both environmental conflagration and social collapse, a large number of relatively wealthy people need to realize they can be much happier by escaping the treadmill of constantly greater wealth accumulation and constantly greater consumption. I think Jackson is right on the mark in his discussion of flow, and I’d like to believe that his vision will catch on and become a civilization-defining vision – but Post Growth doesn’t convince me that that appealing future is likely.

In the concluding chapter Jackson writes, “In the ruins of capitalism, as I hope to have shown in this book, lie the seeds for a fundamental renewal.” I believe he has identified the seeds we need, and I dearly hope they will grow.


Illustration at top of page, from clockwise from top left: Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai, in photograph from Wikipedia; author Tim Jackson, photo copyright by Fernando Manoso-Borgas, courtesy of press kit at timjackson.org.uk; philosopher John Stuart Mill circa 1870, photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Healthy, peaceful and more equitable – life in the low-car city

Also published on Resilience

“For as long as humans have been living in cities, and until only recently, streets were the main site where children grew up,” write Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett, in the opening pages of their new book Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives. 

Curbing Traffic is published by Island Press, June 2021.

Unfortunately city streets in the twentieth century became unsafe spaces for humans, especially young humans, when so much prime urban real estate was ceded over to cars. The Bruntletts discuss the negative effects of car culture for children, for care-givers, for social cohesion, for social justice, for mental health, for the ability of the elderly to age in place – plus the positive effects in these realms when urban planners carefully and sensibly curb traffic.

In a previous book, Building The Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (reviewed here), the Bruntletts described the policies and practices that have transformed cities throughout the Netherlands and have turned the nation into a world leader for active transportation. Their new book deepens the analysis from a distinctive personal perspective: two years ago the couple and their two children moved from Vancouver, British Columbia to the Dutch city of Delft.

Visitors to the Netherlands are rightly amazed at the extensive network of dedicated bike lanes which go to every section of every city, as well as through the countryside. But just as importantly, the Bruntletts explain, is how the Dutch deal with myriad residential streets that do not have dedicated bike lanes: these streets must be safe for human interaction, whether that means kids playing games or biking to school, neighbours standing and chatting, elders strolling along while admiring gardens.

“The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality” isn’t really about bicycles. It’s about refusing to sacrifice vast amounts of the public realm to the private automobile; instead reserving space for commerce, community, and social connection. The ubiquitous bicycles are simply a by-product of that larger process; a tool to achieve the end goal of what policy makers call an autoluw (low-car or nearly car-free) city.” (Curbing Traffic, page 4)

Where Building the Cycling City focused on the freedom to bike safely, Curbing Traffic pays more attention to the benefits of a low-car city for those who are not, at any given time, on bikes.

The Child-Friendly City

It starts with children.

Historians of the cycling revolution in the Netherlands cite the key role of the “stop de kindermoord” – stop the child-murders – protest movement nearly fifty years ago. Alarmed and outraged by the ongoing tragedy of children being struck down by motorists, Dutch citizens began what would become a far-ranging reclamation of street space.

Fittingly, the first chapter of Curbing Traffic is entitled “The Child-Friendly City”. Prior to the automobile era, the Bruntletts write, urban children could take care of themselves for hours every day, playing on the street close to home within sight of a parent or trusted neighbours.

The dominance of cars turned that safe space into a violent space. In the words of University of Amsterdam geographer Dr. Lia Karsten, in most cities “cars occupy the street and the space in front of the house. What we see is parents are more afraid because of the danger of motorized traffic. This danger is directly in front of the house, which should be one of the safest places for children.”

Making residential streets safe again for children has involved a complex of modified street  design, driver-responsibility laws, and strong social norms that tell drivers they are guests on these streets. Dutch streets have become, once again, places for socializing for people of all ages. And because the safe space starts right outside most urbanites’ front doors, children can take off on their own to bike to school, to sports fields, libraries and stores.

The success of the famous Dutch cycling lane network, then, depends on people of all ages being able to safely navigate their neighbourhood streets before reaching the cycle lanes along major roads.

Care is essential

Child care is one important type of care work, and the freedom to let children play outside on safe streets is itself liberating for child-caregivers, who tend to be women. That is one advantage a low-car city has in becoming a feminist city, but there is more.

Curbing Traffic notes that historically the traffic planning profession has considered “work” to mean paid work, which in turn has emphasized commuting to full-time jobs away from home. Planners have focused on facilitating these longer-distance commuting trips, which happen once at the beginning of the work day and once at the end.

Care-givers, on the other hand, typically engage in many shorter trips – to a day-care centre, grocery store, or children’s after-school activities. These trips, which often add up to more kilometres per day than a bread-winner’s commuting, are ignored in many traffic planning studies. (“The Canadian census, for example, only asks about journey to work data, as do countless other countries,” the Bruntletts write.) When these trips are made by a care-giver who also works a paid job, they often involve detours on the trip to or from a paid workplace – “trip-chaining.”

Even in cities which are now putting significant resources into cycling infrastructure, the focus is often on the type of major-thoroughfare bike lanes used by bike commuters to get far beyond their own neighbourhood. (As an example, the Bruntletts discuss new cycling infrastructure in their former home city, Vancouver. See also my discussion of the “cycle super-highways” in London, UK, here.)

In most Dutch cities, by contrast, many short trips that go along with care work happen on streets that are just as quiet, relaxed and safe as the dedicated cycle lanes are. That is one important reason that in the Netherlands, in strong contrast to most industrialized nations, the urban cycling population is more than half women.

Car noise makes us sick

The air pollution caused by motor traffic is frequently discussed, for good reason. Less understood, the Bruntletts write, is the pervasive effective of noise pollution caused by motor traffic:

“While air and water pollution tend to receive the most attention from environmentalists, noise is, in fact, the pollutant that disturbs the greatest number of people in their daily lives. It is a universal stressor, one that stimulates the fight-or-flight response in virtually all animals. An astonishing 65 percent, or 450 million Europeans reside in dwellings exposed to levels above 55 decibels, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) deems unacceptable.” (Curbing Traffic, page 92-93)

The noise falls into two primary categories, propulsion noise and rolling noise. The arrival of electric vehicles, with their silent engines, should significantly reduce propulsion noise. Rolling noise – caused by the friction of tires on surfaces – goes up dramatically with vehicle speed, and is not ameliorated by electric motors. Unfortunately, Curbing Traffic notes, rolling noise is trending worse, “as the automobile industry continues to push out larger and heavier vehicles, which also require wider tires.”

Constant motor traffic noise, which reminds our senses that streets are dangerous places, stimulates a flow of “fight-or-flight” hormones and contributes to stress. This happens whether or not we are “used to the noise.” In the words of Dr. Edda Bild, a soundscape researcher at McGill University, “People who live in big cities are used to the churning sounds of passing cars. But just because we don’t perceive it, doesn’t mean our body isn’t having a physiological response to what’s happening.” As with air pollution, noise pollution tends to be worst in low-income and otherwise disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The ill health effects associated with the pervasive presence of noisy, dangerous vehicles go beyond the physical to the mental. Canadian neuroscientist Robin Mazumder summarizes what urban planners can do to help address the global mental health crisis: “Primarily, we need to eliminate the threat that cars pose. Whether that’s through traffic calming or car-free streets, that’s the first thing I would target.”

Through reflections on their personal experiences and through discussions of the work of diverse urban life researchers, the Bruntletts cover far more  issues than this review can touch on. Curbing Traffic is both entertaining and deeply thought-provoking. Let’s give them the last word.

Living in Delft, they write, has shown them “what is possible when we reduce the supremacy of motor vehicles from our lives and prioritize the human experience.” They add,

“With the right leadership, traffic evaporation policies, as well as those aimed at improving social connection, reducing noise, addressing mental health and equity, and ensuring resiliency regardless of what environmental and health challenges are yet to come, cities of all sizes can provide the quality of life our family now cherishes. We understand why it is so important to have fewer cars in our lives. The critical next step starts today. Now is the time to make it happen.” (Curbing Traffic, page 218)


Photos in this post taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, in September, 2018.

The fat-takers cross the oceans

Also published on Resilience

Ecological overshoot is a global crisis today, but the problem did not begin with the fossil fuel age. From its beginnings more than five centuries ago, European colonization has been based on an unsustainable exploitation of resources.

In Seeker of Visions, John (Fire) Lame Deer says “The Sioux have a name for white men. They call them wasicun – fat-takers. It is a good name, because you have taken the fat of the land.”

The term, often also written as “wasi’chu”, has engendered discussion as to what the words originally meant in the Lakota language.1 In any case, the phrase “fat-takers” seemed fitting to Lame Deer, it caught on quite widely – and it took literal meaning to me as I learned more about the history of European colonization.

When I wrote a newspaper review of a then-new book by Farley Mowat in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but recall Lame Deer’s words. Nearly thirty years later, I’ve come to regard Mowat’s book, Sea of Slaughter, as a foundational study in biophysical economic history.

Here, Canadians may ask incredulously, “Since when was Farley Mowat a biophysical economist?” And readers from everywhere else are likely to ask “Farley who?” A brief bit of biography is in order.

Farley Mowat (1921 – 2014)  was one of the most successful Canadian writers of all time, author of dozens of best-selling books beginning in 1952 and continuing into the twenty-first century. He wrote in a popular style about his own experiences in Canada’s far north, the maritime provinces, travels in Siberia, and his life-long love of the natural world. Never shying from controversy, Mowat became a hero to many Canadians when he was banned from entering the US, and he was vilified by many for his support of the direct-action Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which named two of its ships in his honour. His books also received withering criticism from some writers who questioned Mowat’s right to use the label “non-fiction” for any of his books.2

Later in this post I will touch on Mowat’s shortcomings as a historian. First, though, a personal note in the interest of full disclosure. For ten years I lived just a few blocks from Mowat’s winter home in Port Hope, Ontario. Although we crossed paths and occasionally shared a few words while walking the Lake Ontario shoreline, I was formally introduced to him only once, near the end of his life. He had decided to sell off much of his collection of his own books. Though he was famously computer-averse, he recognized that the new-fangled “world wide web” could help sell his library. I was part of the team that built him a website, and at the launch party he honoured me with the title “the big spider”.

Of more lasting significance for me, though, was a brief correspondence with Mowat in 1985. After reviewing Sea of Slaughter, I wrote to Mowat that the systematic exploitation of animal resources, over several centuries starting in the 16th, likely played an important role in the dramatic economic advance of western European societies. Mowat sent back a courteous note agreeing with this observation and encouraging me to carry this line of thinking further. Decades later, I’m following up on Mowat’s suggestion. 

A 1985 trade paperback edition of Sea of Slaughter

While many of his books were written and received as light reading, Sea of Slaughter was anything but cheerful. He often said it was the most difficult of all of his books for him to complete, because the content is almost unrelentingly brutal.

In the opening pages Mowat writes, “This is not a book about animal extinctions. It is about a massive diminution of the entire body corporate of animate creation.” (page 13)3 With a primary focus on the North Atlantic coasts of North America, but moving across the continent and to far-away oceans, Sea of Slaughter spotlights the price paid by many species – in the sea, on land and in the air – wherever colonizers determined that slaughter was profitable. Some of the species he discusses were hunted to extinction, but far more were reduced to such small remnant populations that the killing machines simply moved on.

A key reason for the slaughter, Mowat explains, is that so many animals of the North Atlantic necessarily carry a generous layer of fat to protect them from cold water. And animal fat, he took care to remind readers of the current era, has throughout history been a key nutrient and a key energy source, especially for people in cold climates. This was no less true in Europe during the Little Ice Age of the 14th to the 19th centuries, but Europeans had a problem – they had already taken unsustainable numbers of the fattest marine species from the eastern North Atlantic.

The Basque people of what is now northwest Spain and southwest France had become the unquestioned leaders in hunting whales on the open seas, and it was due to this prowess that they feature so prominently in Sea of Slaughter.4 Discussing the intertwined histories of the Basque culture and marine mammals, Mowat writes:

“By 1450, a fleet of more than sixty Basque deep-sea whalers was seeking and killing sardas [black right whales] from the Azores all the way north to Iceland. They wrought such havoc that, before the new century began, the sarda, too, were verging on extinction in European waters. At this crucial juncture for the future of their whaling industry, the Basques became aware of a vast and previously untapped reservoir of “merchantable” whales in the far western reaches of the North Atlantic.”

The same was true, Mowat argued, of many other fat-rich species that lived in cold northern waters. Several types of whales, walrus, water bears (known today as polar bears), and other species had become scarce or non-existent in European waters – but were found in great abundance at the other side of the Atlantic.  

Fishermen spearing whales from the safety of their boats. This image also depicts other fat-rich species which were intensively exploited by Europeans in North American waters, including the narwhal, a “morse” – the Old English term for walrus – and plump waterbirds. Coloured etching. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Before the fur trade

Though Canadians learn that the fur trade was the essential economic development in our early history, Mowat says that fur trading was a relatively late development. The first economic resource, in chronology and in priority, was the oil known as “train” (from the Dutch traan, meaning “tear” or “drop”) rendered from fatty marine animals. This was followed by fish, then hides for durable leather, and finally by furs.

“Late fifteenth-century Europe found itself increasingly short of oil,” Mowat wrote. “In those days, it came mostly from rendering the fat of terrestrial animals or from vegetative sources. These were no longer equal to the demand …. As the sixteenth century began train became ever more valuable and in demand ….” (page 206)

Only the Basques had the ship-building, provisioning, ocean-going and hunting expertise to find new sources of train across the ocean, and they did so at the dawn of European colonizing of the “New World”, Mowat writes. He notes that “the municipal archives of Biarritz contain letters patent issued in 1511 authorizing French Basques to whale in the New World ….” (page 213) Within a few decades, Basque whaling stations dotted the coast of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There were dozens of rendering factories, where the whales were cut into pieces so the blubber could be dropped into cauldrons and rendered into high-quality oil that was shipped in barrels to European markets.

The major whale species near shore could not long withstand such intensive depredations, but the heyday of the Basque whale “fishery” was not destined to last much longer in any case. Most of the Basque fleet was dragooned into the ill-fated Spanish Armada and destroyed in 1588, and by then plenty of foreign competitors were moving into the train trade.

By the late 16th century, fleets from several other nations were taking fish, seabirds, and marine mammals in great numbers. Though there was specialization, even ships outfitted primarily for fishing or whaling would capture and consume seabirds by the thousands.

The cod fishery, Mowat explains, rapidly became an industry of huge importance to the European diet. But cod is lean, and “if eaten as a steady diet in cold latitudes can result in chronic malnutrition because of a low fat content.” (page 28) The crew of a sailing venture were not going to earn a profit unless they had high-energy provisions. Fat-insulated seabirds, found by the tens of thousands in coastal rookeries, met the need:

“The importance of seabird rookeries to transatlantic seamen was enormous. These men were expected to survive and work like dogs on a diet consisting principally of salt meat and hard bread. … Some Basque ships sailing those waters displaced as much as 600 tons and could have comfortably stowed away several thousand spearbill [great auk] carcasses – sufficient to last the summer season through and probably enough to feed the sailors on the homeward voyage.” (page 28 – 29)

The great auk, a flightless bird which stood nearly a meter tall and weighed 5 kg, originally numbered in the millions. Not a single live great auk has been seen since the mid-nineteenth century.

Ships which specialized in bringing back oil could and did switch species when their primary quarry got scarce. They learned that “as much as twelve gallons of good train could be rendered from the carcass of a big water bear” – with the result that in North America as well as in Europe, the ursus maritimus was soon confined to arctic seas that were hard to access by ship. The same pressures applied to walruses, which were highly valued not only for oil but also for ivory and for hides which were tanned into the toughest grades of leather.

The Gulf of St. Lawrence was home to huge numbers of walrus. In 1765, a Lieutenant Haldiman was asked to report on the prospects for walrus hunting at the Magdalen Islands. “The Magdalens seem to be superior to any place in North America for the taking of the Sea Cow,” he wrote. “Their numbers are incredible, amounting, upon as true a computation as can be made, to 100,000 or upwards.” (page 318)

Just 33 years later, the British Royal Navy asked for another report on the walrus population of the Magdalens. Captain Crofton’s report was terse: “I am extremely sorry to acquaint you that the Sea Cow fishery on these islands is totally annihilated.” (page 319)

The various species of seal were more numerous and geographically dispersed. Yet the colonial exploitation system showed itself capable of taking seals at a far faster rate than could be sustained. Mowat writes,

“The period between 1830 and 1860 is still nostalgically referred to in Newfoundland as the Great Days of Sealing. During those three decades, some 13 million seals were landed – out of perhaps twice that number killed.” (page 361)

By the end of the 19th century, seals, too, were in steep decline. Whales and walruses, meanwhile, were being slaughtered in the most distant seas, with steep drops in their populations occurring within decades. Once Yankee whalers had reached the far northern reaches of the Pacific in about 1850, “It took the Americans just fifty years to effectively exterminate the Pacific bowhead.” (page 240) It was difficult for ships to get around the coast of Alaska into the Beaufort Sea, but high prices for train and baleen made the trip worth the trouble – for a couple of decades: “By 1910 the Bering-Beaufort-Chukchi Sea tribe of bowheads was commercially and almost literally extinct.” (page 241) 

Arctic Oil Works, in San Francisco, about 1885. Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library. John R. Bockstoce writes that this facility was capitalized at $1,000,000, and adds: “the Arctic Oil Works had the advantage of allowing the Pacific Steam Whaling Company’s ships (upper left) to unload directly at the refinery. Oil could be pumped into the 2,000-gallon tanks …. Refining was done in the three-story structure at the right.” (In Whales, Ice, & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic, University of Washington Press, 1986).

Facts or fictions

Several of Mowat’s books were criticized as being more fiction than fact. His angry responses did not, in my eyes, enhance his credibility. Professing to work in service of fundamental truths, Mowat said “I will take any liberty I want with the facts so long as I don’t trespass on the truth.”5 In that attitude, he sounds like a pioneer of “truthiness”, “telling my truth”, and “alternative facts”.

Rereading Sea of Slaughter twenty-five years after its publication, I find it frustrating that the wealth of statistics is accompanied by very few footnotes or references. But I have not seen the same type of criticism of Sea of Slaughter that some of his other books attracted, and much of the story he tells has been corroborated in other books I have read in the ensuing years.

As I was working on this essay, I was particularly glad to see an excellent new article by editor and writer Ian Angus. Entitled “Plundering a New Found Land”, published on the site Climate & Capitalism, the article not only confirms the picture Mowat paints of the Newfoundland cod fishery, but also provides important context and scale about this venture. Angus writes,

“While Spanish ships carried silver and gold, a parallel trade involving far more ships developed far to the north. Historians of capitalism, including Marxists, have paid too little attention to what Francis Bacon called ‘the Gold Mines of the Newfoundland Fishery, of which there is none so rich.’”

Mowat had quoted Charlevoix, writing in the 1720s about the cod fishery in similar terms: “These are true mines, which are more valuable, and require much less expense than those of Peru and Mexico.” (page 169)

While Mowat described the drastic reduction, over a few short centuries, of the once abundant North Atlantic cod, Angus tells us what this fishery meant to the recipients of the bounty:

“The Newfoundland fishery drove ‘a 15-fold increase in cod supplies … [and] tripled overall supplies of fish (herring and cod) protein to the European market.’ Cod, formerly a distant second to herring, comprised 60% of all fish eaten in Europe by the late sixteenth century.”

Back in 1985, when I wrote to Farley Mowat in response to Sea of Slaughter, I suggested that the resources taken from the oceans were likely far more important to European economic advancement than were the gold and silver taken from mines. Years later, viewing the world through a biophysical economic lens, it seems clear that the gold and silver would have been of little or no value unless the populations of Europe had been adequately fed, with adequate energy for their work, plus adequate fuels for heat and light in their homes and workplaces.

Angus’ research confirms that the North American cod fishery was of huge dietary importance to Europe. And I think Mowat was correct in saying that meals of lean cod also needed to be supplemented with edible oils, and that a hard-working labour force in cold northern Europe must have benefited greatly from the thousands of shiploads of fat taken from the animals of the northern seas.6

Angus also tells us about the important work of Canadian researcher Selma Huxley Barkham, whom he credits with having “radically changed our understanding of the 16th century fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador.” It was Huxley Barkham, Angus writes, who unearthed in the 1970s the evidence that the Basques pioneered the large-scale exploitation of both cod and whales off the coasts of Newfoundland, starting at the very beginning of the 16th century.

The name Selma Huxley Barkham does not appear in Sea of Slaughter. Yet I was to learn that her work was essential to the next chapter of this story.

The sheltered harbour at Pasaia, on the Basque coast near San Sebastian, was home port for  many of the whalers who ventured across the Atlantic in the early 16th century.

Epilogue

In November of 1565, a storm blew up along the coast of Labrador, striking the Basque whaling station at Red Bay. Farley Mowat tells us how one ship ended far beneath the waves:

“The 500-ton San Juan has begun to drag. … Having torn her anchors free of the bottom, the ponderous, high-sided carrack, laden to her marks with a cargo of barrelled oil and baled baleen, swings broadside to the gale and begins to pick up way ….

“Nothing can stop her now. With a rending of oak on rock, she strikes. Then the storm takes her for its own …. She lurches, and rolls still farther, until she is lying on her beam  ends and is flooding fore and aft. Slowly she begins to settle back and slips to her final resting place five fathoms down.

“She lies there yet.”

She lies there yet, and was all but forgotten for centuries. But due in no small part to the archival research of Selma Huxley Barkham, the San Juan was located in the mid-1970s. The wreck had been exceptionally well preserved by the nearly freezing waters, and divers gathered a wealth of documentation about its design, Basque construction techniques, and its contents of crew, cargo and provisions.

I have not been to Red Bay, but in October of 2018 I paid a visit to the Basque port from which the San Juan and so many other ships were launched. In this port today, a dedicated team at the Albaola heritage centre is partway through a difficult and lengthy process: they are building an exact replica of the San Juan, using only materials and tools that would have been available in the sixteenth century.

Visitors can see the shipbuilding in progress, along with extensive exhibits about Basque shipbuilding history, the sources of materials for the ships, and the provisions the ships carried for their trans-oceanic voyages. They have also published a beautiful and informative book, The Maritime Basque Country: Seen Through The Whaleship San Juan. (Editions in French and Basque are also available.)

The Albaola centre’s research paints a picture of a sophisticated, highly organized industrial enterprise that reached far beyond the shipbuilding yards. Because the Basques of the 16th century built so many ships, which each needed lots of strong timber in a variety of configurations, some areas of the Basque region specialized in growing oak trees in particular ways: some trees were kept very straight, while others were bent while still supple, so the wood was already shaped, and at maximum strength, for use many years later in parts of the ship that needed angular timbers. Clearly, this industry could only have developed through the accumulated experience of many generations.

A worker at the Albaola centre shaping a timber piece for the San Juan replica, in October 2018. For this project, the builders were able to search area forests for oak trees with sections naturally shaped to approximately the dimensions needed. Centuries ago, when many such ships were built every year, foresters through the region carefully trained growing trees for these purposes, producing “grown-to-order” pieces that had maximum strength but required minimal carving.

Similarly, the barrels used for holding cider – safer to drink on long voyages than water, and consumed by sailors on an everyday basis – and for packaging the whale oil, required vast numbers of barrel staves, all made to standard sizes, with the ships’ holds designed to carry specific numbers of these barrels. Even the production of ship’s biscuit or hardtack – the dry bread which kept for months and which was the monotonous basis for sailors’ diet – was a big business. The Maritime Basque Country says that before the whaling fleet left port each spring, 250 tons of hardtack had to be baked by bakers throughout the region.

Seeing the replica of the San Juan under construction, it was impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity of the sixteenth century society which built the original San Juan and so many ships like it. Centuries ahead of what we term the Industrial Revolution, there were highly sophisticated and complex technologies and forms of social organization at work, making possible what we refer to today as “economic development”.

At the same time, it is clear from Sea of Slaughter that European societies were already practicing ecological overshoot, centuries before the Industrial Revolution and centuries before the fossil fuel phase. Europeans had already taken the fat from many of the nearby ecosystems, and though they found apparently abundant sources of fat across the oceans, within a few short centuries those resources too would be drawn down.

In biophysical economic terms, Europeans (and colonizers with roots in Europe) boosted their economies through rapid and unsustainable exploitation of resources, including, in particular, energy resources, and they did so long before fossil fuels came into use. The challenging implication is that in the coming decades, faced simultaneously with a climate crisis, a social equity crisis, dwindling accessible supplies of the energies we have taken for granted, and a biodiversity crisis, we must do far more than return to pre-fossil-fuel practices. We must learn to live within the earth’s means. We must un-learn patterns that have shaped European civilizations for more than five centuries.


Next in this series: The reality behind the illusion. Lame Deer understood that the green frog-skin world, in which everything is measured in dollars, is a bad dream – but in the mid-20th century that dream seemed to have immense real power. To conclude this series, I will examine the ideas that helped me to make sense of this riddle, and to make sense of economics. (Previous posts: Part I and Part II)


Image at top of page: A whale being speared with harpoons by fishermen in the arctic sea. Engraving by A. M. Fournier after E. Traviès. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


Footnotes

 

The marginal uselessness of muscle-cars

Also published on Resilience

Waiting at a stop-light, sitting on my bicycle while leaning against a telephone pole, ready to step down hard on the pedals, it was only natural to think about the economic concept of “marginal utility”.

I enjoyed my little game of beating fast cars through intersections after stopping for lights. Having taken up biking in downtown Toronto in the early 1980s, I quickly realized that for all the power in their absurdly oversized engines, many, perhaps most, cars could not accelerate their great bulk through an intersection any faster than an ordinarily fit cyclist could accelerate a bicycle. As long as we both started from a dead stop, and as long as I had already downshifted to a torque-maximizing low gear, and as long as I sprinted away the second the light changed, and I shifted gears smoothly at least twice while getting through the intersection, I could make it to the other side before a single car had gotten up enough speed to overtake me.

And when an aggressive driver in an expensive Camaro or BMW did beat me through the intersection, the advantage was fleeting: I would catch up and pass that car, in the typically congested city traffic, before we reached the next stoplight.

In the city traffic game, the marginal utility of each additional horsepower in a car’s engine was awfully close to zero.

All the cars on the road, whether their engines produced 70 horsepower or 370, could move far faster than a bicycle on an open road, and all of them could easily surpass the speed limits on highways. Yet they were all hard-pressed to accelerate from 1 – 20 km/h faster than a bicycle, with its human engine of less than 1/2 hp, could do.1

The marginal utility of the first 10, 20, or 50 horsepower, in pushing a car and its human passenger down the road, was significant. But the next 50 or 100 or 200 hp in a car engine accomplished very little, even on an open road – much less on the crowded city streets where these cars burned so much of their gas.

Following the magazine version in 1973 Energy and Equity was expanded into a small book, which is now available as a free download from various sources including Internet Archive, here. Quotes and page numbers cited in this article are from the Internet Archive edition, as originally published in 1974 by Harper & Row.

These musings on the intersection between physics and economics spurred me to have another look at a curious little book I’d come across a few years earlier – Ivan Illich’s Energy and Equity.

Illich was a controversial Catholic priest who eventually settled in Mexico. He published a flurry of books in the early 1970s questioning many of the most cherished practices of “first world” countries. His work was particularly popular in France, where Energy and Equity was first published by Le Monde in 1973.

I briefly attended the school Illich founded in Cuernavaca, Mexico, an experience which enriched my life and challenged my thinking in many ways. Yet Energy and Equity struck me as engagingly odd but hyperbolic on first reading, and it had little immediate impact. That changed when I started to experience city traffic from behind the handlebars instead of behind the steering wheel. Today, more than forty years later, I’m amazed at how clearly Illich summed up both the comedy and the tragedy of industrial society’s infatuation with high-powered travel.

Once I had taken up cycling, and I realized I could accomplish my daily travel routines in the big city as fast on bike as I could do in a car, Illich’s trenchant critique of car culture was no longer threatening – it was a broad beam of illumination.

Illich didn’t fall for the idea that North Americans moved around at 100 km/hr, therefore getting around 10 times as fast as our ancestors had. Instead, he looked at the immense amount of time Americans devoted to building cars, building roads, paying for cars, paying for insurance, washing cars, fixing cars, trying to find parking for cars. To find the true average speed of travel, he said, one needs to tally all the time society puts into the effort, and divide that time into the total amount travelled. Or, you could do the same on an individual basis:

“The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. … The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.” (page 19)

Car ads, of course, encourage us to think only of that rush of acceleration when we’re able to step on the gas – never of the time spent waiting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, never of the time we spend earning the wages that go to monthly car payments. But once I’d absorbed Illich’s way of thinking, I could understand how much time I saved by not having a car. In the mid-1980s I calculated that owning and operating a car instead of a bicycle would have cost about six weeks of my wages each year. Getting around by bike, then, meant I could take six extra weeks of annual vacations. Some hardship, eh?

A class structure of speed capitalists

My initial reactions to Energy and Equity, you may have noticed, were rather self-absorbed. They were shaped by Illich’s observations, but equally by my varying degrees of privilege. Male privilege meant I could ride the city streets at all hours without fear of sexual harassment. White privilege meant I could move around the streets openly, for years, and only once be stopped by a police officer (who gave me just a polite scolding). I took for granted the blessings of good health and the ability to find a reasonably well-paid job. Perhaps most significant, bicycling for me was a choice, and I could, if and when I chose, also rent a car, get on a train, or buy a plane ticket to fly across most of the world’s national borders.

Thus I wasn’t as quick to catch on to Illich’s more fundamental critique of car culture and the traffic-industrial complex: that the reorganization of life which affords some people the privilege of high-powered, high-speed mobility, inevitably results in many other people having less effective mobility and less free time. In Illich’s summary, “Energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. … Above this threshold, energy grows at the expense of equity.” (page 5)

To explain his viewpoint, Illich gave his particular definitions to three key terms: “By traffic I mean any movement of people from one place to another when they are outside of their homes. By transit I mean those movements that put human metabolic energy to use, and by transport that mode of movement which relies on other sources of energy.” (page 15)

For most of history, traffic and transit were pretty much the same. Most people got around on their own two feet using their own power. As a result people were generally capable of mobility at roughly the same speed. Ideally, Illich said, improvements in traffic should not impair the pre-existing ability of anyone to engage in transit under their own power.

Unfortunately, motorized transport has played out much differently so far. Soon after passenger trains came into use, and particularly following the introduction of motorcars, impediments to the non-passenger class began to be built into daily life. Streets became deathly dangerous to pedestrians, crossings became highly regulated, soon vast areas of cities had to be devoted to parking for the car-owning class, neighbourhoods were razed and new controlled-access highways created wide barriers between districts for those unfortunate enough to depend on foot-power. Distances became greater for everyone in cities, but the problem was worst for pedestrians, who now had to detour to find relatively “safe” road crossings.

This Google satellite view of downtown Chicago shows how infrastructure built to support high-speed travel pushes cities apart, increasing the distances that pedestrians must walk even within their own neighbourhoods. Of course, in Chicago as in all other industrialized cities, the “high-speed” infrastructure still fails to provide high-speeds when these speeds would matter most – during rush hour.

Illich was fond of a quote from José Antonio Viera-Gallo, an aide to Chilean president Salvador Allende: “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.” By contrast, he wrote, “Past a certain threshold of energy consumption for the fastest passenger, a worldwide class structure of speed capitalists is created. … High speed capitalizes a few people’s time at an enormous rate but, paradoxically, it does this at a high cost in time for all.” (page 29)

It was possible to estimate the total time a society devoted to the construction, maintenance, and operation of traffic. In doing so, Illich found that “high-speed” societies suck up much more time than “underdeveloped” societies: “In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people … allocate only three to eight percent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent.” (page 19)

On average, of course, the people in high-speed societies both need to and do travel much farther every day – but the averages conceal as much as they reveal. The well-to-do travel much greater distances than the average, but due to all the infrastructural barriers and regulations necessitated by high-speed travel, even impoverished pedestrians devote much extra time to their daily rounds. (And, just one small step up the ladder, those who need to ride buses in congested cities are held up daily while their buses crawl along behind private cars.)

The traffic-industrial complex not only restructures our cities, Illich said, but it also restructures our perceptions and our imaginations:

“The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. … Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed.” (page 25)

Unfortunately, “All those who plan other people’s housing, transportation or education belong to the passenger class. Their claim to power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration.” (page 53) The impetus for positive change, then, will need to come from those who still get around by the power of their own feet. In that respect, Illich argued, the bicycle is one of civilization’s greatest advances, on a par with just a few other developments:2 “Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. … The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion.” (page 60) 

Final bike-raising at the April 22, 2006 Critical Mass rally in Budapest, Hungary. From Wikimedia Commons.

Illich, it is important to note, was not a human-power absolutist. In his view, motored transport could be a very useful complement to foot-powered transit. The key, he said, was that when motorized transport remains relatively low-powered and low-speed, its advantages, for society as a whole, can outweigh the disadvantages:

“If beyond a certain threshold transport obstructs traffic, the inverse is also true: below some level of speed, motorized vehicles can complement or improve traffic by permitting people to do things they could not do on foot or on bicycle.” (page 68)

Where is that “certain threshold”? Regarding speed, Illich said that historically, the threshold was crossed when motorized speeds topped “±15 mph” (about 25 km/h). Regarding power, Illich summed it up this way:

“The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.” (page 8)3

For personal transportation, that “reasonable limit” on power use struck me as sensible in the 1980s, and even more so today. The VW Beetle engines of that time produced roughly 50 horsepower. Today, of course, automotive engineers know how to get far more efficient use out of engines, even though they mostly use that increased motive efficiency simply to push around a much bigger and much heavier car (increased efficiency, directed to the cause of decreased efficiency). Using lighter materials, with an electric drive-train, and more aerodynamic shaping, a car with less than half the horsepower of a 1980s VW Beetle would be entirely adequate for occasional personal transportation at speeds surpassing bicycle speed. Of critical importance, a limited number of cars powered by, for example, 10–20 hp engines, might be integrated in an equitable society without sucking up absurd quantities of materials or energies.4

Almost 50 years after the first edition of Energy and Equity, some of Illich’s ideas on traffic planning have moved beyond the fringe and almost into the mainstream. Fifty years of hard work in the Netherlands, and in cities such as Copenhagen, have proven that densely populated places function more smoothly, and populations are healthier, when people of every age can walk and cycle through their cities in safety – as long as people-powered transit, not motor-powered transport, is given priority. Even jurisdictions throughout North America are now making formal commitments to “Complete Streets” with safe access for walkers and bikers, though the follow-through is usually far behind the noble ideals.

But as to the amount of energy that average people should harness, and the desirability of “time-saving high-speed travel”, the spell that Illich tried to break has scarcely loosened its grip. Mainstream environmentalism, while advocating a swift and thorough transition to zero-carbon technologies, clings to the belief that we can, will, indeed, we absolutely must retain our high-speed cars and trains, along with the airliners which whisk us around the world at nearly the speed of sound. Nobody knows how we’ll manage some of the major parts of this transition, but nearly everyone “knows” that we’ll need to (and so we will) convert our entire traffic-industrial complex to green, clean, renewable energy.

Illich has been gone for nearly 20 years, but I think he’d say “Wake up from your high-speed dream – it’s a killer!”

* * *

At the outset of this series, I discussed my personal, winding journey to an appreciation of biophysical economics. Ivan Illich is not considered a biophysical economist, or an economist of any stripe, but he played an important role for me in focusing my attention on very simple facts of physics – simple facts that have profound implications for our social organization. In the next installment, we’ll look at energy issues in a different light by examining the way European colonizers embarked on a systematic, centuries-long extraction of rich energy sources from around the world – well before the fossil fuel age kicked energy use into hyperdrive.

Epilogue

If in 2021 I were to replay the cyclist’s game of racing cars from a standing start through intersections, I’d have a lot more difficulty. Age is one factor: I’m a good bit closer to being a centenarian than a teenager. But it’s not only that: the average horsepower ratings of car engines have more than doubled since 19805, though speed limits have not changed substantially and city streets are generally just as congested. A big selling-point of these twice-as-powerful cars, however, is their increased ability to accelerate. Whereas the average car in 1980 took 13 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph (96.6 km/hr), by 2010 the average car could do it in just under 9 seconds – a savings of over 4 seconds! Think of the time saved on your daily commute! Or, in busy city traffic, think of the joy of having extra seconds to wait behind the line of traffic at every stop-light. Think, in other words, of the marginal utility you’ve gained by doubling the horsepower in your car. But is your life twice as fast, twice as rich, do you have twice as much free time, as a result?

As a part-owner of a car today, I can readily see that the joke of the marginal utility of big-horsepower engines is on car buyers, and the car-makers are laughing all the way to the bank.

But as Illich saw so clearly, back in 1973, the joke of high power consumption is also a tragedy. The hyper-powered cars of today (mostly in the shape of SUVs or four-door, five-passenger “trucks”) are even more dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists than were the sedans of the 1960s.6 Energy use goes up – and equity goes down.


Photo at top of page: Mansory at Geneva International Motor Show 2019, Le Grand-Saconnex, photo by Matti Blume, from Wikimedia Commons.


Footnotes