Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation

by Samuel Alexander

When industrial civilisation collapsed in the third decade of the 21st century, a community living on a small island in the South Pacific Ocean found itself permanently isolated from the rest of the world. With no option but to build a self-sufficient economy with very limited energy supplies, this community set about creating a simpler way of life that could flourish into the deep future. Determined above all else to transcend the materialistic values of the Old World, they made a commitment to live materially simple lives, convinced that this was the surest path to genuine freedom, peace, and sustainable prosperity. Seven decades later, in the year 2099, a narrator emerges to describe the results of this remarkable living experiment. That is the premise of my new book, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, and I’d like to briefly address the question: why did I write it?

In recent decades, much has been written in criticism of growth-based economics, and ecological economists have been leading the way in developing the most coherent alternative model — the steady state economy. However, with very few exceptions, little has been written on what daily life would actually be like in an ecologically sustainable economy. This makes it difficult to envision the alternative society that a steady state economy implies, and this is problematic, I feel, because if people cannot picture the alternative society, it is very difficult to desire it. And if people do not desire it, no social or political movement will arise to bring it into existence. For this reason I attempted, in Entropia, to describe in detail what everyday life might be like in a steady state economy. How would we feed ourselves? What clothes would we wear? What forms of transport and technology would we use? How much and what types of energy would we require? And what material standard of living would we have if we were to successfully decarbonise the economy? Most importantly, perhaps, what would the quality of daily life be like? Those are some of the questions the narrator addresses as he documents the economy, culture, and politics of Entropia, in the aftermath of the industrial age.

EntropiaIn answering those questions, the narrator highlights the point that sustainability proper, as opposed to greenwash, implies an extremely radical agenda for change. True sustainability is not merely about taking shorter showers, composting, and turning the lights off; nor is it about a carbon tax here, and a few wind turbines there. It requires a fundamental reorientation of the nature and purpose of economic activity. In particular, Entropia labours the point that a steady state economy must be based on lifestyles of material sufficiency, with the focus being on providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever,’ not universalising consumer affluence. Presently, the global economy is in gross ecological overshoot, while billions of people still live lives of material deprivation. To achieve sustainability in the overdeveloped world, the richest nations need to go through a process of planned economic contraction — or degrowth — on the path to a steady state economy. Technology will never be able to globalise consumer affluence, and the sooner we can introduce this point into public discourse, the sooner we can begin reimagining ‘the good life’ beyond consumer culture. A central theme of Entropia is that working toward sustainability in an age of converging crises, far from being a hardship, is actually an opportunity to rethink the nature of human progress. It suggests that the Great Transition needed will actually be in our interests, provided we work together and negotiate the changes wisely.

One criticism that may be levelled against the book is that it is set on small island and therefore lacks relevance to the rest of us, especially to those of us who live in dense urban or suburban contexts. Although I feel it would be a terrible misreading to take the book so literally, it is an objection that is worth anticipating. Of all literary genres, utopian writing is the genre that readers must always read metaphorically. Utopias are never about the society itself — utopia, of course, means ‘no place.’ Beneath the surface, utopias are always about the place that is not utopia — which is here and now. In writing Entropia it was certainly my intention to speak to our present situation, and this should be perfectly clear to all those who are prepared to read between the lines.

A second objection that may be worth anticipating is the objection that the genre of Entropia is confusing. To be honest, it probably is a confusing genre, because it is a book of fiction, and yet not a novel, as such. When people pick up a book of fiction, they tend to expect a novel, with all that implies, but I would rather call Entropia a fictional documentary, with a twist. When reading other works of eco-fiction, I generally felt disappointed with the author’s attempt to turn ideas into a narrative, and so I wanted to avoid that literary pitfall. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach, for example, has many interesting and worthy ideas in it, but it tries to be a novel and, let’s face it, it is a terrible novel. In a similar vein, William Morris’s, News From Nowhere, which is the best in its genre, may well deserve its place in the history of ecological literature, but one can hardly deny that in many places Morris forces an essay into a narrative, without being able to disguise this clumsy literary technique. In my book, I was a bit more honest about the fact that what I wanted to do was describe a way of life, rather than tell a story. Again, Entropia is a fictional documentary not a novel, and should be read as such – not as entertainment (although I hope it entertains), but primarily as an attempt to enrich the conception of a steady state economy.

In all movements for change, including the movement for a steady state economy, it is important occasionally to hold up for examination what one understands to be the clearest expression of one’s highest hopes and ideals. That is what I have tried to do in Entropia, and that is how I would defend the inevitable charge of idealism. It is not that I think Entropia, as I describe it, will ever be achieved. It is just that unless we know where we want to end up, we can’t know in what direction we should be moving. My hope is that Entropia will provide some guidance on what it will actually take to transition to a steady state economy, as well as provide some deeper insight into what life might be like if we were ever to succeed.

Entropia was written by Dr Samuel Alexander, who is a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne, Australia. He teaches a course called ‘Consumerism and the Growth Paradigm: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in the Masters of Environment. He is also co-director of the Simplicity Institute and co-founder of Transition Coburg. He writes regularly at the Simplicity Collective and posts most of his academic essays at the Sufficiency Economy.

The Titanic Code

by Dave Gardner

One hundred years ago April 15, the Titanic disappeared beneath the icy waters of the North Atlantic. Several have marked this anniversary by noting the similarities between the Titanic and human civilization. In Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron, on the National Geographic channel, James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film, Titanic, aptly turned the event into metaphor:

Part of the Titanic parable is of arrogance, of hubris, of the sense that we’re too big to fail. There was this big machine, this human system, that was pushing forward with so much momentum that it couldn’t turn, it couldn’t stop in time to avert a disaster. And that’s what we have right now.  We can’t turn because of the momentum of the system, the political momentum, the business momentum.*

The metaphor is remarkably apt, as the size of the Titanic meant it was not nimble. It could not stop or turn on a dime. The captain needed to look far ahead on the horizon and plan ahead. Doesn’t that sound like the predicament in which civilization finds itself? We have built up an increasingly complex system, and it is a ginormous one (7 billion served), touching all corners of the planet. It’s impossible to change overnight. And looking ahead with only a short time-horizon serves it very poorly.

There’s something else keeping us from changing course, however. It is lack of desire. Our culture is not interested in a course correction because we’re distracted. We don’t see the iceberg ahead because we’re fixated on a cultural story that defines progress as growth, and growth as progress. This worldview has led us to develop a system that depends on everlasting growth.

Fortunately, when Mother Nature says, “enough,” key parts of the system begin to fail. I say fortunately because it’s hard to argue with success. As long as this system appears to be serving most of us well, we are not likely to throw it out. The failure of the system, which we’ve begun to experience, is our best hope for motivation to get moving toward a more enlightened arrangement.

“We’ve written a narrative that was fine in the nineteenth century.  It served us well through much of the twentieth century… but it’s outdated.  And we now need a new cultural narrative.”

— William Rees, ecological economist, in GrowthBusters

In the documentary, GrowthBusters, I refer to perpetual growth as our “operating system,” comparing it to Windows or Mac OS. The belief, the dependence on, and the pursuit of growth are what we’re all about. It’s the computer code that manages everything we do. Many call it our cultural narrative. If we were on the bridge of the Titanic, it would be in our charts, affecting our compass, on our radar. It informs (or misinforms) everything we do.

Without a doubt there are economists, sociologists and activists developing patches for this growth-based operating system. There are also scientists and activists developing apps that help us lighten our load on the planet. Renewable energy, water and land conservation, permaculture, and transit-oriented development are all examples of what I would call improved software applications, but they are still written to run on our old, growth-based operating system. With a system committed to everlasting growth, they will not keep our civilization from running off a cliff.

This is not to disparage them; it is to keep us from relaxing, thinking they will enable our civilization to become sustainable. They can be meaningful parts of a completely new system. But we do have to throw out the old system and start with fresh computer code. Upgrading from Windows 7 to Windows 2013 won’t do — Windows has to go.

“Only the prospect of worldwide mind-change gives me hope for the future.”

— Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael

Changing our cultural narrative is a tall order. In my film, Paul Ehrlich says, “We’re faced with a gigantic challenge that we haven’t been prepared for, either in our genetic evolution, or more importantly, in our cultural evolution.” I believe it’s the biggest challenge our civilization has ever faced. Who can we call? I’d love to say, just call GrowthBusters. After all, the film is my biggest contribution to the change we need to make.

But this challenge is too big. The film takes only the first step, which is to raise awareness that we have a culture that worships growth everlasting, and to help audiences realize it’s not delivering on its promise. I see the role of storytellers like Daniel Quinn, Dave Foreman, Richard Heinberg and myself as one of preparing our fellow human beings to be receptive to the completely new computer code that steady staters, transitioners, de-growthers and others are developing.

The time is now. The pieces are falling into place. The old system is crashing. We’re not able to reboot and get back to the business of robust growth. It will be key that we don’t rush in with patches or rely only on new apps. We must be relentless in our insistence on adopting a new operating system.

*Thanks to Joe Romm of ThinkProgress for alerting me to Cameron’s words.

Dave Gardner is the director of the non-profit documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, currently screening around the world. CASSE executive board members Brian Czech, Herman Daly and Peter Victor appear in the film. This commentary was published simultaneously here, as part of a series honoring the 40th anniversary of The Limits to Growth. Dave asks that you take his Pledge to Think Small to help speed adoption of a new operating system.

Fitting the Name to the Named

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThere may well be a be a better name than “steady-state economy”, (SSE) but both the classical economists (especially John Stuart Mill) and the past few decades of discussion, not to mention CASSE’s good work, have given considerable currency to “steady-state economy” both as concept and name. Also both the name and concept of  a “steady state” are independently familiar to demographers, population biologists, and physicists. The classical economists used the term “stationary state” but meant by it exactly what we mean by steady-state economy—briefly, a constant population and stock of physical wealth. We have added the condition that these stocks should be maintained constant by a low rate entropic throughput, one that is well within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Any new name for this idea should be sufficiently better to compensate for losing the advantages of historical continuity and interdisciplinary familiarity. Also, SSE conveys the recognition of biophysical constraints and the intention to live within them economically—which is exactly why it can’t help evoking some initial negative reaction in a growth-dominated world. There is an honesty and forthright clarity about the term “steady-state economy” that should not be sacrificed to the short-term political appeal of vagueness.

A confusion arises with neoclassical growth economists’ use of the term “steady-state growth” to refer to the case where labor and capital grow at the same rate, thus maintaining a constant labor to capital ratio, even though both absolute magnitudes are growing. This should have been called “proportional growth”, or perhaps “steady growth”. The term “steady-state growth” is inept because growth is a process, not a state, not even a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Having made my terminological preference clear, I should add that there is nothing wrong with other people using various preferred synonyms, as long as we all mean basically the same thing. Steady state, stationary state, dynamic equilibrium, microdynamic-macrostatic economy, development without growth, degrowth, post-growth economy, economy of permanence, “new” economy, “mature” economy. These are all in use already, including by me at times. I have learned that English usage evolves quite independently of me, although like others I keep trying to “improve” it for both clarity and rhetorical advantage. If some other term catches on and becomes dominant then so be it, as long as it denotes the reality we agree on. Let a thousand synonyms bloom and linguistic natural selection will go to work. Also it is good to remind sister organizations that their favorite term, when actually defined, is usually a close synonym to SSE. If it is not then we have a difference of substance rather than of terminology.

Out of France now comes the “degrowth” (decroissance) movement. This arises from the recognition that the present scale of the economy is too large to be maintained in a steady state—its required throughput exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem of which it is a part. This is almost certainly true. Nevertheless “degrowth”, just like growth, is a temporary process for reaching an optimal or at least sustainable scale that we then should strive to maintain in a steady state.

Some say it is senseless to advocate a steady state unless we first have attained, or can at least specify, the optimal level at which to remain stationary. On the contrary, it is useless to know the optimum unless we first know how to live in a steady state. Otherwise knowing the optimum level will just allow us to wave goodbye to it as we grow beyond it—or as we “degrow” below it.  Optimal level is one thing; optimal growth rate is something else. Once we have reached the optimal level then the optimal growth rate is zero; if we are below that level the temporary optimal growth rate is at least known to be positive; if we are above the optimal level we at least know that the temporary growth rate should be negative. But the first order of business is to recognize the long run necessity of the steady state, and to stop positive growth. Once we have done that, then we can worry about how to “degrow” to a more sustainable level, and how fast.

There is really no conflict between the SSE and “degrowth” since no one advocates negative growth as a permanent process; and no one advocates trying to maintain a steady state at the unsustainable present scale of population and consumption. But many people do advocate continuing positive growth beyond the present excessive scale, and they are the ones in control, and who need to be confronted by a united opposition!

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, adopted by the “degrowth” movement as its posthumous founder, indeed recognized that the very long run growth rate must be negative given the entropy law and the final dissolution of the universe. But he did not advocate speeding up that cosmic result by negative growth as an economic policy, nor for that matter did he in the least advocate a steady-state economy! In fact he speculated that the destiny of mankind might be to have a short, fiery, and exciting life rather than a long and uneventful one. He did, however, tentatively suggest a “minimal bio-economic program”[1] that would surely reduce growth. In general he was interested in what is possible more than in what is desirable. The question—given the limits of the possible, what is the most desirable policy for mankind?—was not his main focus, although he did not entirely ignore it. The closest he came to explicitly dealing with that question was in the following footnote[2]:

Is it not true that mankind’s problem is to economize S (a stock) for as large an amount of life as possible, which implies to minimize sj (a flow) for some “good life?

In other words, should we not strive to maximize cumulative lives ever to be lived over time by depleting S (terrestrial low-entropy stocks) at an annual rate sj that is low, but sufficient for a “good life”? There is no point in maximizing years lived in misery, so the qualification “for a good life” is important. I have always thought that Georgescu-Roegen should have put that question in bold in the text, rather than hiding it in a footnote. True enough, eventually S will be gone and mankind will revert to what he called “a berry-picking economy” until the sun burns out, if not driven to extinction sooner by some other event. But in the meantime, striving for a steady state at a resource use rate sufficient for a good (but not luxurious) life, seems to me a worthy goal, a goal of maximizing the cumulative life satisfaction possible under limited total resource constraints. This puts at the very center of economics the questions:

Needless to say these questions have not been central to modern economics—indeed, not even peripheral!

Georgescu-Roegen did not like the idea of “sustainability” any more than that of a steady-state economy because he interpreted both to mean “ecological salvation” or perpetual life for our species on earth—which of course flies in the teeth of the entropy law. And he was right about that. So sustainability should be understood as longevity, not eternal species-life in the sense of perpetuity. Clear scientific thinking about “forever” seems, interestingly, to lead to the religious model of death and resurrection, new creation, not perpetual continuation of this creation. Perpetuity in this world is just a glorified perpetual motion machine! To think about forever we must cross from science into theology. But longevity (a long and good life for both individual and species), even if it falls short of forever, or “ecological salvation”, is still a worthy goal both for scientists and theologians, not to mention economists. A steady-state economy is arguably the best strategy for achieving longevity—regardless of what we call it.

[1] N. Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths”, reprinted in H. Daly and K. Townsend, Valuing the Earth, MIT Press, 1993, p. 103-4.

[2] Ibid. p. 107, fn 11.