ecostory 49-2006
"Dematerialize" and "Decarbonize"

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Thoughts on the sustainability of us and our ancestors

Copy of an email sent to Mr. Suren Erkman, professor at the University of Lausanne and Mrs Elisabeth Gordon, journalist at L'Hebdo weekly.

Dear Mr. Erkman,

I hit on your interview with Mrs Elisabeth Gordon and then wanted to know from which background you are speaking.

The terms "Dematerialize" and "Decarbonize" I took from slide No. 7 of your Bangalore - NIAS Lecture - August 18, 2006. ( )

I would respectfully submit that "dematerialisation" is a concept that probably originates from the discipline of economics.

In that context it is meant to defend economic growth by claiming that growth can continue if the economy is dematerialized. This, however, fails to take into account that economic growth is accounted in monetary units and that each Dollar or Euro represents a given quantity of material resources, except for art, like paintings etc..

When - for ecological or efficiency/financial reasons - the material content of an industrial product or service is reduced, this reduces its cost. In a market economy the costs reduction should normally also reduce the price. This in turn has a negative effect on the GNP. Therefore dematerialisation will not lead to economic growth but to economic retraction.

This is good for the environment since fewer resources are depleted and pollution is reduced. This is not good for the discipline of economics because it falsifies their theory that economic expansion could continue by dematerialization and thereby would not lead to an increased impact on the environment.

"Decarbonize" is probably to be understood as developing an economy that does no longer use the fossil fuel natural gas, coal and petroleum and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For stopping the increase in greenhouse gas content in the air, however, we should leave the remaining fossil fuels where they are, i.e. in the ground. We should only use them when there is no alternative. This means a massive reduction in consumption and a total restructuring of our economy, from a high-speed globalized to a low-speed relocalized one. Kyoto and other solutions are ilussionary.

"Decarbonize" suggests that we could continue our economic structures and activities by replacing fossil fuels by energy sources without CO2 emissions, such as wind power and photovoltaic. These power sources produce electricity only and existing technology - which is the only technology we can count upon - does not allow for our present high-speed transportation and commuters society. Biofuels are no serious alternative, and competing with agriculture for food production.

One problem with a transition to a 100 per cent solar energy (and wind) is that solar panels and wind power are subsidized one hundred per cent by fossil fuels.

In a sustainable economy, however, these producers of electricity must provide in the energy needed to construct and maintain these installations. I have no data that suggest that the energetic return on investment of wind power and solar power is sufficient to produce a (sufficient) surplus of electricity for basic societal needs.

Basic societal needs are shelter, heating, food production and some transportation. They do not include industrial age extravagancies of all kinds.

A second problem is that some industrial production (steel, for instance) need high temperatures. Can this be done with electricity? This is just one example of a multifold of modern life's needs. One may also think of equipment that is used in the health sector.

In slide No. 27 I read "the Achille's heel the Westeners, when they imagine that the technoscience-economy will be the last word of the Destiny of humankind. (Pierre Legendre)".

I tend to agree with that, except that the word "Westerners" can safely be left out, as there are hardly any indigenous self-sustaining peoples left.

This leads to the subject of simplicity. Peoples such as the Inuit (Eskimos), Amazonean Indians and the Kalahari Bushmen can, when uncontaminated by Western life style, sustain in there environments. One may assume that this was the case for all humanity as long as we were foragers/hunters.

The transition to agricultural humankind can be seen as the transition to unsustainability. That is where a process of socialisation and cultural inheritance towards our present belief systems could have started - beliefs of dominance, suppremacy, competiton and unrestrained exploitation of nature including people. Even the belief in God could be seen as part of this hierarchical mindset that put humankind separate from nature. These interpretations of our history can be found online in Bill Kötke's book, the "Final Empire", an integrative study of ecology, consciousness, agriculture/culture, and politics ( ).

A quotation from chapter 9 reads as follows:

/// quote ///

"The Cultural Inversion"

large question that we seek to answer is, "What is it about the culture of empire that has produced the prospect of planetary suicide for us?" To understand this we must look at how this culture functions, its functional basis, its dynamics. When this change to empire occurred, human culture in effect inverted. In forager/hunter societies we were ecologically balanced. The archeological evidence from one area, southern Africa, is that humans lived stably for 130,000 years without overwhelming the ecosystem upon which they depended.

In the inversion,
  • human culture changed from one of sharing and cooperation in clan society to one of deliberate inequality of goods.

  • The culture changed from one of social equality to one of hierarchies of authority and despotism ruled by the Emperor and associated elites.

  • The culture changed from emphasis on fecundity, Mother Nature and what anthropologists call matrilocal culture, to patriarchy- control and ownership by males.

  • The culture changed from emphasis on cooperation in clan society to an emphasis on the cult of the warrior and violence. This is a change from cooperation to coercion.

    The emphasis in tribal society was on sharing. In most tribal societies the chief spokesperson for the group was generally the poorest in material terms. This is because that person had shared the most and was therefore held in esteem by the group. This changed to an emphasis on materialism symbolized by the emperor who possessed riches amongst his peasant subjects who had little."

    /// end quote ///

    So, if "we should not forget the other question, even more challenging: «What kind of children are we going to leave to the planet?" (slide No. 22), one should take great care to specify this is not to mean that our children need a better education than we have had.

    It should mean that we, the present adults and parents and grandparents, have the most urgent duty to reexamine our own belief system and its outcome - our present economic systems that devour and despoil the planet until nothing is left for our own children.

    Finally and most definitely, this planet Earth is finite indeed. Therefore, the policy of economic growth on this planet - a planet Earth that is suffering under overpopulation and overconsumption and pollution - is a suicidal policy.

    Now here we reach a point where defenders of the staus quo often become aggressive, unreasonable and sometimes outright insulting. Radical ecological views are sometimes said to be "fanatic" (Hebdo 5.10.06 p. 81), which carries the notion of disrespect of the warranted needs of others. Using such terminology is in itself a proof of disrespect. It replaces serious discussion by simplistic discrediting of those who have a different viewpoint.

    By questioning the validity of the strongly held beliefs of continuous economic expansion, people may feel threatened in their belief systems, in their perceived needs to continue living as usual. Some are problably insufficiently trained in science to understand the principle of limits.

    It is hard to leave the safe ground of what one has learnt and reproduced in one's academic or business career. It is even harder to be exposed to the stark realities of environmental trends that - if unchanged - may lead to environmental and societal catastrophy within possibly even our life time. It is hard to recognise that what one has lived for - economic expansion (growth) - must now be seen as the mechanism that leads us with increased speed to the demise of humanity.

    One easily rejects the new information because it is far too dark and somber. Realities may have to be denied because they are too enormous and to bleak. The task of restructuring to a relocalised society without mass transport and individual motorised transport may be seen as too huge.

    It is true, the task is huge. But closing the eyes to material realities through denial and/or an escape into speudo-solutions means giving up. Even if some technologies can extend our time with the private car and a multifold of modern gadgets by one or two generations - which is not likely - ultimately we will no doubt reach the point where resource scarcities will force us to reduce.

    But the longer we wait the more difficult adaptation will be. The more likely it seems that the last period of the modern age will end in wars over the last resources, like fuel, fresh water, arable land and food.

    I would be happy to receive your comments.

    With kind regards ... Helmut Lubbers ecological psychologist

    -- Helmut Lubbers, 14 Carl-Vogt, CH-1205 Geneva +41 22 3212320 - helmut(at)ecoglobe(dot)ch
    Economic growth is not ecologically sustainable = Wachstum ist ökologisch nicht nachhaltig = La croissance économique n'est pas écologiquement durable
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