A new book argues that the case for moving to a sustainable economic model should use the language of desire rather than sacrifice, emphasising what we might gain, not just what we might lose.

Image for post
Image for post

Early every morning the commuters descend to the underground, crushing onto the choking tube train. Or they queue at the bus stop, shielding their phones from the enveloping drizzle. Or sit, waiting, in their cars as the traffic lights slowly change.

They enter nondescript offices, from which they emerge only fleetingly for the next eight — or more — hours, to grab an expensive coffee and sandwich from the crowded fast-food outlet. During the afternoon the working day stretches endlessly, as the weary eye seeks to refocus on the blinking cursor. …


Image for post
Image for post
IIlustration by David Lupton in the Folio Society edition of The Dispossessed published in 2019.

Can we think without language? The question has entangled itself in my mind since I re-read Ursula K Le Guin’s classic science fiction novel The Dispossessed a little earlier this year.

The book seeks to loosen our fixed ideas about how society might be organised by immersing us in the contrasting political and economic systems of Anarres and Urras, worlds locked into a twin planet system orbiting the star Tau Ceti.

Urras is somewhat like our Earth, rich in natural resources, a swirl of competitive nation states, broadly capitalist, generally socially conservative.

Anarres is something quite different: a spartan desert world of some 20 million inhabitants living according to the principles of the anarchist philosopher Odo, whose followers broke away from Urras several generations ago to build a new society. …


Image for post
Image for post

Reading too many climate crisis books, as your reviewer is prone to do, isn’t good for your mental health. A grim opening chapter presenting the scale of the challenge before us is usually followed by a detailed blueprint for action, which one reads with a sinking feeling as its political unviability becomes apparent.

Dieter Helm, an economics professor at Oxford University, is as well qualified as anyone to try squaring the circle of offering a programme both commensurate to the task at hand and attuned to political reality.

Helm’s prolific publications over the past decade have covered every aspect of the energy transition. The Carbon Crunch and Burn Out considered how we might move beyond reliance on fossil fuels without indulging in wishful thinking that we have reached ‘peak oil’. Natural Capital and Green and Prosperous Land suggested how the often overlooked contribution our wasteful agricultural system makes to carbon buildup might be addressed. And in 2017 he found time to oversee the government’s Cost of Energy review, a major study of how energy market pricing might be rebalanced to favour renewables. …


Image for post
Image for post
Red Army poster detail, Ukraine 1920

What is the connection between the coronavirus and the climate crisis?Andreas Malm’s brilliant polemic Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, written within a matter of weeks as the worldwide lockdown took hold, argues that their common root and cure are in plain view, if we are willing to see, and act.

Covid-19 is not an act of God that came out of a clear blue sky, but, like climate change, the consequence of rapacious extraction of the Earth’s resources. As we pry ever deeper into the primordial wildernesses where viruses lurk for materials and animals to buy and sell, hacking down tropical forests, blowing up limestone caverns, and draining wetlands, we drive out the diseases and their carriers: bats, rats, mice, anthropods, mosquitoes and locusts. …


Image for post
Image for post
Constructon of the Grand Coulee Dam, 1933

The philosophers Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén in their essay Energy and Experience observe that the visions of limitless abundance unleashed by the rise of the modern oil industry in the late 19th century coincided with the death of God. The gleaming new industrial civilisation to be powered by fossil fuels seemed to open a path to a different kind of transcendence.

People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons by Ashley Dawson is a book haunted by the dream of infinite energy and the boundless new forms of life it promises. …


Image for post
Image for post

The byzantine economics of oil and gas can baffle even industry professionals. Just how do companies calculate the risk of committing substantial resources to testing a possible petroleum find amid so many uncertainties?

And how, given those unknowns, can exploration licences be designed respecting the interests of all parties? How can the security oil and gas travelling through pipelines and shipping channels that cross volatile borders be assured? Why have so many countries found the presence of significant oil and gas resources to be a curse as much as a blessing? What on earth are hydrocracking, alkylation, isomerisation, delayed coking, and crack spread? …


Image for post
Image for post
Valles Marineris, the 4,000-kilometre canyon ripping through the Martian equator

The insistent call of the red planet, our neighbour, yet utterly alien, is well expressed by the title of Sarah Stewart Johnson’s lyrical book The Sirens of Mars.

Johnson, a planetary scientist at Georgetown University who has contributed to several of NASA’s recent Mars missions, including the ongoing Curiosity Rover programme, considers the hopes and fears Mars has inspired since ancient astronomers wondered at an enigmatic red star shimmering on the horizon.

It’s a deeply personal work, at times reading like spiritual autobiography, a history of Martian exploration interwoven with episodes from the life of a writer whose vocation has been driven by fascination with the ‘wild strangeness of the planet, with its tawny air and relentless red deserts’. …


Image for post
Image for post
Tour Eiffel

Many histories have been written viewing civilisation through the lens of art, literature, design or science. Not many, however, acknowledge the importance of engineering for its development.

Former BP chief executive turned writer John Browne tries to put that right in his latest book Make, Think, Imagine: Engineering the Future of Civilisation, an extended essay — now available in paperback — considering engineering’s cultural, economic and political significance.

The book is at least as personal as his 2014 memoir. For Browne, who started at BP as a graduate engineer, and has gone on to serve as President of The Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair of the The Francis Crick Institute, engineering creates the very conditions for art, science and commerce. …


Image for post
Image for post
SOCAR Oil Fields #6, Azerbaijan | Edward Burtynsky

‘The hills are shadows, and they flow/From form to form’ wrote the Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson in his elegy In Memoriam, one of the first works of literature to try to make sense of the world from the vertiginous perspective of deep time opened by the then new science of geology.

Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils by David Farrier, an English lecturer at Edinburgh University, is a fresh effort to use myth, narrative and image to situate the brevity of the human story in the context of an ancient world. …


Image for post
Image for post

There are two broad paths to forcing the transition to an ecologically sustainable global economy.

One is to rewire the system. It’s happening — gradually. We’ve known since the 1960s that carbon buildup is heating the atmosphere. As the science has become clearer and the political will has been slowly summoned, governments and international institutions are engineering incentives and toughening laws to shift the world towards more sustainable forms of economic production.

It isn’t yet clear how profound the restructuring will have to be. Can a competitive global marketplace premised on constant exponential growth ever allow long-term sustainability? …

About

Justin Reynolds

A London-based business writer and essayist. Find me at translucence.io and @_translucid.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store