Read an Excerpt
The Power of Just Doing Stuff
How Local Action Can Change the World
By Rob Hopkins
UIT Cambridge Ltd Copyright © 2013 Rob Hopkins
All rights reserved.
WHY WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING
How good a society does human nature permit? How good a human nature does society permit?
Abraham Maslow, psychologist (1971)
Why we need a new Big Idea
I have a lot of sympathy for governments that see the immediate problems and strive to deal with them, but I have much less sympathy if they don't have a longer-term vision that makes sense of where we're heading. I'm very concerned that trying to pull out all the stops to re-stimulate economies, to use the cliché 'to get back on track', is actually a formula for far worse things to happen, probably in the not-too-distant future.
Peter Victor, author, Managing without Growth
The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and business can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling 'The Power of Just Doing Stuff'. It's about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. I want to excite you about the possibilities of what we can create in the communities around us, and how, if enough of us do it, it can lead to real impact, to real jobs, and to real transformation of the places we live and beyond.
One of the reasons I wrote this book was that in late 2012 I attended a two-day meeting of local authority Chief Executive Officers from across a region of the UK: an annual occasion for them to relax with each other, share new ideas and be exposed to some new thinking. I was there as part of the 'new thinking' bit, but the most fascinating part was at the beginning, where each was asked to share where they thought we are headed economically. Are we headed for a gradual return to growth, a bumping along a plateau for a while, or a more sustained contraction? I expected most to speak enthusiastically of the new era of growth lying just around the corner, given that that would be what they are stating publically.
In the event, only about a quarter of them shared that kind of optimism. One said "If we ever get out of this recession, nothing will be as it was in the past." Another said "Every generation has had things better than its parents. Not any more." And another, "Future generations will look back and say this was the start of the end of the Western world." The one that stunned me the most was the man who said that he was fascinated by history, and had been reading about the last days of the Roman Empire in England, where in AD 308 there were roads, agriculture, central heating and so on, and 20 years later the country was back in the Iron Age. "No civilisation has lasted forever," he said. "There is a very real chance of collapse."
It was compelling to hear, in that safe space where people felt comfortable with each other, these honest assessments and deep concerns about our situation. In public, of course, these CEOs would be talking up the 'growth agenda', but here they were stating that they just didn't believe it. I have seen the same thing on several occasions since, when I have spoken to people in similar positions who have confided that they have little or no faith that we will ever see economic growth such as we have known in recent decades again. In this book we will go on to look at the reasons why I think that a relentless growth in GDP is no longer an appropriate or desirable idea, and why I think these public leaders were right to be concerned. Their comments reminded me of the story of The Emperor's New Clothes, and how it took a child to point out what everyone knew – that the Emperor was naked.
Current thinking across Europe seems to be that in order to re-stimulate growth we have to remove all obstacles to business doing what it wants to do wherever it wants to do it, and we need big infrastructure projects. The thinking seems to be that if only businessmen can travel faster on high-speed trains, that somehow the economy will haul itself up off the stretcher and start growing again. That if we build new airports, more businessmen will fly into them and create new businesses that will fuel the economy. That growth, in and of itself, is always a Good Thing.
The irony, of course, is that in a world of increasingly scarce resources, with a climate nearing its tipping point into runaway climate change, and an economy groaning beneath staggering levels of debt, this kind of approach is the last thing we need; this is the last kind of economic activity we need.
'Austerity' versus the 'New Deal'
At the moment, when the future of our economy and the question of how we might get out of our financial hole are debated, we hear only two contrasting stories as to where next. I propose that it's time for a third story to take its place by their side – in debates on TV, on the radio, online, at parties ...
The first story we'll call 'Austerity': the idea that we need to cut back government spending in the same way that you might prune a rose bush back hard in the hope of stimulating fresh growth. In practice this means deep cuts in public services, economic hardship and a widening gap between rich and poor, all with the promise that this will lead to renewed economic growth at some point. The second option, which we'll call the 'New Deal', suggests that actually what we need to do is to borrow more money from future generations to spend on trying to stimulate renewed economic activity. Some propose a 'Green New Deal', where money is borrowed in order to stimulate the shift to a low-carbon – but still growth-based – economy.
The Austerity story recognises that we have partied too hard, that rather than just coming up with more clever mechanisms for dumping our huge accumulated debts on to future generations we need to be grown-up about the debt crisis and get our excesses under control, to learn to cut our coats to suit our cloth. It is interesting to note that in other languages and cultures, the term 'austerity' has different implications. For example, in Germany, Greece, China and Italy it has a positive meaning, referring to simplicity, frugality, sobriety, whereas in the UK, the Netherlands and France it is regarded as being puritanical and severe. There is a potentially positive way of looking at austerity, where other things in life that we value (family, friends, creativity, stillness, helping others) fill the hole that consumerism has filled. The failure of the austerity approach, though, is that the cuts made in its name fall hardest on the poorest and most vulnerable in society, and the pursuit of growth at all costs can lead to the 'unfettering' of large businesses at the cost of worker protection, local economic resilience and diversity.
The 'New Deal', which we hear a lot less about but which is usually presented as the only alternative to austerity, recognises that we need to roll up our sleeves and do something proactive about our situation, that we need to protect the most vulnerable in society, and also that we need to invest what remaining financial reserves we have in the creation of a society more appropriate to the future we are moving into. As Howard Reed of Landman Economics and Tom Clark point out, "Today, our [the UK's] national debt is significantly lower than Japan's (about 200% of GDP), and comparable to Germany's (83%) and the US's (80%). By international or historical standards, the national debt is not high."
But, as we shall see, assuming that we can look back at how easy it was to service debts at times of ongoing economic growth, and extrapolate from that, might well be a dangerous gamble. I'd argue that a unique convergence of issues strongly suggests that this is really not a sensible time to be deeply indebted. Also, both the New Deal and Austerity approaches fail to recognise the climate-change impacts of creating new infrastructure, 'green' or otherwise, and make unrealistic assumptions about the amount and quality of energy that will be available into the future – the energy that makes most economic activity possible. Both approaches bring to mind for me a TV hospital drama where a patient has died and the medical team are trying to revive him with those electric paddle things where you have to shout "clear!" loudly before you use them. Economic growth is coming up against some very real constraints. For example, Dr Tim Morgan of Tullett Prebon, a FTSE 250 company, has argued powerfully that:
... the critical relationship between energy production and the energy cost of extraction is now deteriorating so rapidly that the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries is beginning to unravel.
He adds that when the amount of energy expended in order to maintain our access to useful energy passes a certain point – a point, he argues, that we have very nearly reached – "our consumerist way of life is over".
Any approach that explicitly questions assumptions around economic growth remains distinctly at odds with what is currently being pushed by our leaders, so my argument here is that it is vital that we, as individuals and as communities, take the lead in showing what is appropriate in the face of these extraordinary times, and what a future based on more realistic assumptions might look like. Inherent within that approach are huge opportunities for creativity and entrepreneurship. While the concept of a 'Green New Deal' has much going for it, if it is based on the thinking that it will allow us to get back to economic growth as we previously enjoyed it, then I would argue that it has a huge, if not fatal, flaw at its heart. But why?
The New Normal
A lot of opportunity is going to arrive in the next 20 years disguised as loss. Dr Martin Shaw
The thing with change is that when we're in the middle of it, it doesn't really look like change. It's only when we pause and look backwards that we see the scale of what's afoot. But things are changing so fast at the moment that we could think of the times we live in as being like a 'New Normal', where what we expect from the future is already significantly different from what we expected three or four years ago.
It's in the rising cost of your weekly shopping, the fuel for your car or your energy bills; in the unusual weather around you; in the amount of money that was given to bail out the banks. Or perhaps you have a deeper sense that something is shifting – that, beyond your control, things are rearranging themselves in new and not altogether pleasing ways. José Martín, whom you'll hear more from later and who has been coordinating a response to this in his community in Spain, puts it like this: "People feel there is a big shift happening, but they don't know what it is a shift to." I think there are three key areas of this:
Street sign spotted by the author.
1. The New Energy Normal
2. The New Climate Normal
3. The New Economic Normal
The 'New Energy Normal'
You know, the world's not running out of oil. There's all kinds of oil left in all kinds of places. We're never going to run out of oil. But what the world is going to run out of, indeed, what the world has already run out of, is the oil you can afford to burn.
Jeff Rubin, energy expert & former chief economist, CIBC World Markets
Rising and volatile energy prices are affecting all aspects of our lives. The abundant and cheap energy that has characterised most of the last 150 years is over. Bar a couple of blips, every successive year until recently was characterised by having access to more energy than the previous one. Not any more. Oil production, for example, has been largely on a plateau since 2005 as the world has come up against very real supply constraints.
Half of the world's petroleum comes from just 110 giant oil fields, and there are over 70,000 oil fields in the world. Of the 20 largest, 16 are seeing their production in terminal decline. Most of those 110 fields were discovered in the 1930s or 1940s and are getting very tired. Globally, production from existing fields is declining at 4 per cent a year, and just to maintain current production we need to find 3 million new barrels of production per day – the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia every four years. And we're not finding it.
Conventional oil production peaked in 2006:we have seen the end of the Age of Cheap Fossil Fuels. We are now in the Age of Extreme Energy, where tar sands, deep water production and gas fracking – what are known as 'unconventional' sources, with their environmental impacts and high carbon footprints – are considered a reasonable price to pay for continued access to fossil fuels. We are having to work a lot harder to get lower-grade fossil fuels from increasingly inaccessible places at an ever-greater cost. We are having to put more and more energy in to get less and less energy out. It is a reliance on the unreliable that does nothing other than make us increasingly vulnerable, and prolongs the carbon-intensive activities that we can no longer afford.
There are alternatives, but political support is still largely going to fossil fuels rather than renewables, with the world spending an estimated $509 billion every year subsidising the fossil fuel industry. In spite of the huge energy potential from wind, tides and the sun, the new renewable economy is proving frustratingly slow to emerge; indeed, the UK and other regions stand on the verge of a new 'dash for gas', built on the 'fracking' of shale gas, hailed by many as the Golden Age of Gas but in reality more like a fossil fuels' retirement party. We cling to fossil fuels, with all their negative impacts.
The New Energy Normal is characterised by:
Oil prices generally between $90 and $120 a barrel, with volatile upward spikes
Rising energy bills
Increasing uncertainty about the future of supplies
More energy coming from 'unconventional' fossil fuels, which require more energy to produce while yielding less useful energy
More conflict over access to fossil fuel reserves
Little, if any, growth in oil supply
Oil prices creating a glass ceiling to economic growth in OECD countries.
The 'New Climate Normal'
The door is closing. I am very worried. If we don't change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the safe minimum [for climate safety]. The door will be closed forever. Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency
2012 was the year of extreme weather. The UK had the worst summer anyone can remember, which began with the driest spring for over a century, followed by the wettest documented April to June and the wettest summer since 1776. At the same time, the US had one of the hottest summers on record and a severe drought, second only to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, leading to 50 per cent of US states being declared disaster areas. Brazil experienced floods and landslides, Australia had massive floods, the Sahel suffered devastating droughts, heavy rains and flooding led to 5 million people being evacuated in China, two weeks of rain fell in one day on Manila, flooding half of the city, and 60,000 homes in eastern China were damaged by typhoons. And then, of course, there was Hurricane Sandy.
Although we can't say categorically that these extremes are caused by climate change, it is entirely consistent with what we would expect to see as the world's climate warms. I asked Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the UK Tyndall Centre (one of the leading centres of climate change research), whether if the world had remained at 280 parts per million concentration of CO in the atmosphere (the level prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution – at the time of going to print it has just passed 400ppm) it would be much less likely that we'd be seeing such extreme weather:
Yes, I think that would be a fair comment. It would be much less likely. We are starting now to see events that it's difficult to explain in terms of normal probabilities. We get extreme weather events, we always have had such events; extremes do occur. But if extremes start to occur regularly they're no longer extremes, and what you're then seeing is not a weather extreme, you're seeing change in the climate.
At the moment, the steps we are taking to reduce our carbon emissions aren't even coming close to what is needed. PricewaterhouseCoopers recently stated that "even doubling our current rate of decarbonisation would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century". Although emissions are falling modestly in the West, those falls are being far outstripped by increases from emerging economies such as India and China. (Although it should be noted that a significant proportion of those increases are linked to the manufacture of goods for export to wealthier nations which outsource most of their manufacturing.)
Can we talk about a New Normal in relation to our changing climate? The consensus seems to be that any 'new normal' will be defined by an increase in extreme weather and by its sheer unpredictability. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the 2012 Doha climate summit, "The abnormal is the new normal." Kevin Anderson also feels that to talk of a 'new normal' for climate change would be to miss the point. If there were to be a new normal, he says:
It would probably be a very short normal; I don't think this is the normal at all. It's the normal for today, but I think the rate of increase of emissions, and there is no sign at all of that rate significantly coming down, would suggest that we'll be reaching a new normal, and then another new normal, and then another new normal.
Excerpted from The Power of Just Doing Stuff by Rob Hopkins. Copyright © 2013 Rob Hopkins. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.