This paper examines various aspects of moving from high carbon economies and societies to a cluster of low carbon systems. First, some historical material is considered from the Second World War and the 1970s, periods with some lessons for the contemporary ‘powering down’ of whole societies. Second, analysis is provided of some green shoots of a powering down of existing systems identifiable in the contemporary developed world. Third, analysis is provided of the array of systems, social practices and innovations that would have to develop in order to effect powering down on a sufficient scale and within an appropriate time period. Most examples are drawn from transport and mobility. Finally, the paper demonstrates just why developing new systems is so hard, especially as this must involve a transformed cluster of systems. The forces that make a new cluster unlikely are exceptionally powerful and make this a very difficult but not impossible outcome.
1. Low carbon society
This relatively schematic paper explores some aspects of an organized powering down to low carbon lives and systems. Societies need to be planned to cope with reduced energy supplies and increased impacts of climate change. This is an immense challenge. In this section, some historical material is considered from periods with certain lessons for the contemporary ‘powering down’ of whole societies. In §2, analysis is provided of some green shoots of a powering down of existing systems. In §3, some of the systems, social practices and innovations are considered that would have to develop so as to bring about powering down on a global scale. Particular focus is placed upon transport. The final concluding section demonstrates just why developing new systems is so hard, especially as this must involve a transformed cluster of systems.
We can begin with Davis's discussion of how wartime experiences in the USA provide some lessons as to powering down a whole society (http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200707/ecology.asp, accessed 8 December 2011). He suggests that the Second World War home front in the USA was an important participatory green experiment. The war temporarily dethroned the automobile, with Detroit assembly lines almost immediately retooled so as to build tanks and planes. Petrol was rationed and workers were induced to share rides or adopt alternative transport. Tourism was more or less suspended. The average occupancy of cars grew through networks of neighbourhood, factory and office carpools. Car sharing was reinforced by rationing incentives, stiff fines for solo driving and widespread slogans such as ‘When you ride ALONE, you ride with Hitler!’ Hitchhiking became an officially sanctioned form of car sharing. Overall a wide array of social transformations occurred so as to re-engineer not just the economy but American society.
Something similar occurred especially in the USA during the 1970s, following the oil blockade by OPEC and the resulting fourfold increase in oil prices (a modest increase compared with the 2000s). Some effects included switching to smaller European and Japanese cars; significant growth in carpooling and public transport; calls for a tax to subsidize mass transit; a doubling of fuel efficiency of cars; some alternative energy developments such as geothermal, solar and windpower; President Jimmy Carter suggesting keeping homes at lower temperatures; and limits placed upon the use of oil and gas in generating electricity. Elsewhere developments included car-free days especially in New Zealand, government requests in the UK for households to heat only one room, attacks in Australia upon those queue-jumping at petrol stations, the making of various post-oil movies (especially the Mad Max series) and much shifting to natural gas away from coal and oil for electricity generation , ch. 3. But this experimentation not just with the economy but with the society was relatively shortlived as ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism forcibly asserted itself during the 1980s following the elections of Reagan and Thatcher. This 1970s opportunity was lost. Significantly these developments occurred before ‘digital lives’ had become a possible element of a lower carbon future.
The examples of the war period and the 1970s indicate the importance not just of changing the economy but the whole society. But most discussion as to moving to lower carbon systems emphasizes changing the economy especially through altering market signals. This is developed in greatest detail in the Stern Review  which terms global climate change generated by burning fossil fuels over the last two centuries as the world's greatest ever market failure , ch. 1. But this emphasis upon the economy under-represents the role of social institutions and groups in forming and reproducing high carbon systems. There are various points here , ch. 1. First, although economic institutions are important this is often because of their social and political consequences and not just because of their role as market actors. Large global corporations have huge interests in the ‘business as usual’ of what we might term ‘carbon capitalism’.
Second, economists regard energy as generating about 5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of an economy because this is roughly what it costs within economies. But carbon-based energy is a unique bundle of non-renewable commodities. Energy is not any commodity. As Schumacher argues: ‘There is no substitute for energy. The whole edifice of modern society is built upon it…it is not ‘just another commodity’ but the precondition of all commodities, a basic factor equal with air, water, and earth’ .
Third, much of the time people do not behave as individually rational economic consumers. People are creatures of social habituation. And habits can spread within a society through media and advertising. These habits become widespread and are part of established ‘social practices’, which are usually extremely hard to reverse. They are ‘taken-for-granted’ and not reflected upon. They become part of ‘life’.
Fourth, changes in habits do occur and they can occur rapidly, such as the exceptionally rapid growth in mobile telephony around the world. A new system comes to materialize and people cannot imagine how their lives were experienced beforehand. As Virginia Woolf noted after buying her new car in 1927 and developing new car-based habits: ‘Yes, the motor car is turning out to be the joy of our lives, an additional life, free and mobile and airy… Soon we shall look back at our pre-motor days as we do now at our days in the caves’ .
Fifth, low carbon systems and lives will only become significant if they thus become matters of new fashion and habits that spread upon a global scale. Powering down depends upon engendering different social institutions, habits and fashions that come to spread globally.
I consider now some evidence from certain rich countries that existing habits may be changing or at least plateau-ing. I consider some very modest green shoots of a powered down future.
2. The green shoots of a powered down future
First, it had seemed that there was an inexorable growth of greater globalization of economic, social and political relationships around the world. However, this may not now be quite so clear. There is a little evidence that globalization that had been inexorably increasing has at least slowed down and may be going into reverse. This is very difficult to assess but an interesting Index of Globalization developed by ETH examines three dimensions of globalization: the economic, the social and the political, with the Index being disaggregated by continent (http://globalization.kof.ethz.ch/, accessed 2 November 2011).
Figure 1 shows the degree of ‘social globalization’ over the past 40 years. It demonstrates that, while globalization had been increasing up to 2003, this now seems to have stopped and this is so across all continents. Social globalization is measured here by data relating to personal contact, information flows and cultural proximity between people who are living within different societies. A similar plateau-ing pattern can be identified for economic globalization, although political globalization, the degree of cooperation between countries, has continued to increase according to the ETH data.
If we consider particular societies something parallel seems to be happening. Recent research in the UK involving the Material Flow Accounts shows that the peak year for ‘consuming’ goods and services was over a decade ago in 2001. Since then the rate of material consumption has declined. Indeed, by 2009, the level of material consumption reduced to match figures for the 1970s . Since 2001 British people seem to be using fewer materials and generating less waste, with peak oil occurring in the UK in 1999. This Material Flow data measures the consumption of paper and cardboard, heat and power, household waste, purchases of new cars, household energy and food.
Thus, although the UK still uses two billion tonnes of ‘stuff’ each year, this has not recently increased although incomes and population had been rising. In other words, there might be a modest powering down, that the recent history of the UK suggests that it is possible to maintain ‘prosperity’ until at least around 2008 without consuming more goods and services. It is possible to decouple prosperity and growth . There are many complexities in this argument and the claim here is only that a number of wealthy societies may be at a turning point where ‘material efficiency’ could be about to increase . Monbiot (http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/03/peak-stuff/, accessed 4 November 2011) speculates whether this plateau-ing resource use may result from increasingly effective environmental campaigning and some modest transformation of people's high carbon social practices. If so even a tiny downward shift occurring before ‘austerity’ fully kicked in from 2008 onwards would be of major importance .1
There is plenty of potential here for such reductions. The increased use of fossil fuels did significantly occur within recent memory. It is estimated that the average UK family takes only 6 days to use a barrel of petroleum. In North America and Australia the figure is three, while in China and India it is 30, and in some parts of Africa over a thousand. But only 25 years ago the UK figure was 12 days rather than six, so it would not seem impossibly challenging to return to 12 days as a start (http://lornegifford.webs.com/sixdays.htm p. 3, accessed 27 November 2011).
Such patterns can be seen specifically with regard to travel.2 The year 2006 was when distances travelled by cars started to decline in the UK. The peak of new car purchases was back in 2003 . This pattern is similar to data for the USA where a similar downturn in vehicle miles travelled is shown in figure 2, after continuous increases in the preceding 25 years.
Connected with these reductions in distances travelled are large falls in the sales of new cars, especially gas-guzzling SUVs. All US car manufacturers recently posted huge losses and sought federal government bailouts, with some European subsidiaries of American firms going ‘independent’. The US car market halved in about 3 years, with increasing numbers of cars scrapped and a failure to replace them with new vehicles , pp. 124–126. The collapse of peak traffic in the USA dates from 2005, more or less as global oil supplies peaked. Americans seem to be driving less as petrol prices have been skyrocketing. It is being reported in parts of the USA that most county roads will return to gravel since there is no money to have them continuously repaired  (http://www.postcarbon.org/article/299173-fight-of-our-lives-moore-s-law#,accessed 8 December2011).
Millard-Ball & Schipper  report that in eight industrialized countries motorized travel has either levelled out (in most European societies) or declined (USA). Car ownership is going up more slowly than before and these cars are being driven less and also it seems more slowly. There is also less reported congestion by UK motoring organizations. This drop in vehicle mileage began to occur before the recent financial collapse of 2007–2008 with some commentators arguing that travel demand is now ‘saturated’ , pp. 364–365 (for the UK, see http://www.bbc.co.uk?news/magazine-12664047, accessed 3 November 2011). This seems implausible but certainly oil price increases are part of a much more general process by which vehicle miles travelled in the rich North appear to have stopped rising and may be going slowly into reverse.
Central to rising car use in the past has been the tendency for each new generation (especially of young men) coming to adulthood to be more licensed to drive and be more likely to own a car. But this has now gone into reverse. Thus, it seems that amongst young people in the developed world, owning a car is now less valued than it was and certainly less than owning a smartphone. German research conducted for Siemens shows that the car is no longer a ‘must-have’ status symbol for many young people (see the account on the future at http://www.siemens.com/innovation/apps/pof_microsite/_pof-fall-2011/_html_en/networked-mobility.html, accessed 13 March 2012).
Likewise in the USA, 46 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they would choose Internet access over owning their own car, while the figure is 15 per cent for baby boomers (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15847682, accessed 4 March 2012; http://www.newgeography.com/content/002601-the-driving-decline-not-a-sea-change, accessed 4 March 2012). There is no question that fewer teenagers are now on the roads in the USA (http://www.michigandaily.com/news/study-shows-younger-drivers-decline, accessed 5 March 2012). In 1978, 50 per cent of 16-year-olds had a driving licence, while by 2008, it was just 30 per cent according to the US Transportation Department. The number aged 19 and under with driving licences has also been in steady decline since its 1978 peak when nearly 12 million had one. By 2010, it was fewer than 10 million. And of course with falling real incomes for young people this also reflects the realities of a powered down and poorer future. Two-thirds of people in the UK now believe that the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents; this is a major turnaround from even 7–8 years ago and almost certainly will lead to further falls in obtaining a car licence and owning one's own car (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/dec/03/britons-children-lives-parents-poll, accessed 4 December 2011).
This peaking of car traffic is reflected in the rise and dramatic fall of Detroit. Although Detroit had possessed one of the best public transport systems in the inter-war years, it developed into the world capital of car production , pp. 117–118. Henry Ford built the first mass production car plant, employing 90 000 workers producing the iconic Model T Fords. By the 1950s, the city was home to almost 2 million people with very many employed directly or indirectly in the car industry. But Detroit's population has now fallen to less than 750 000. It has been described as a forgotten place. The film/DVD Detroit: The Last Days shows rusting hulks of abandoned car plants, empty freeways, blackened corpses of burnt out houses, trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers, half the children living below the poverty line, and almost half adults functionally illiterate (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/mar/10/detroit-motor-city-urban-decline, accessed 3 November 2011). The decline of Detroit may provide lessons as to what might unfold more generally if the powering down of various high carbon systems does indeed take root.
More generally, Rubin describes ‘why your world is about to get a lot smaller’ as it will be increasingly difficult to move people and objects about that world , ch. 7. (It should be noted that most of these observations on the ‘green shoots’ only apply to the rich North. Energy consumption and emissions related to transportation seem to be rising as ever in emerging economies: http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate1332.html, accessed 8 December 2011.) There seems to be a broad peaking of travel. Domestic air travel is stable or falling away in these once rich countries, especially with the ending of the era of cheap holiday air fares developed by budget airlines. Especially, European airlines have increased prices to cope with rapidly rising fuel costs. Leisure air travel fell away as passengers rejected soaring fares. Europe suffered the biggest decline in traffic. IATA recently stated that airlines had increased fares because the price of jet fuel jumped by more than half over the previous year (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/soaring-fuel-costs-and-taxes-spell-the-end-for-cheap-flights-2294309.html, accessed 3 November 2011).
Millard-Ball & Schipper thus conclude from their comprehensive study that: ‘travel activity has reached a plateau in all eight countries’. Thus, in the rich North of the world societies seem to have reached or are even passing the point of ‘peak travel’ , pp. 373–374. The combination of high oil prices, stagnating economic growth, an ageing population and a renaissance of walking and cycling would indicate some slowing down of travel within the rich North of the world. In this section, I have thus suggested that there may be peaking of globalization, of stuff and of travel.
3. Systemic powering down
In this section, I examine how a more general powering down of societies could come to develop. There are many suggestions being developed as to how to engender future energy and especially future low carbon energy. But most do not deal with the specific issue of replacing oil, the supply of which according to the chief economist of the International Energy Authority, Fatih Birol, peaked back in 2006. There is reasonable agreement that there are around two trillion barrels of conventional oil; and the world's total oil production during the last century has used up about half of this at one trillion , p. 452 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-bbAJ5dk6y8, accessed 27 December 2011; http://www.good.is/post/international-energy-agency-s-top-economist-says-oil-peaked-in-2006/, accessed 27 December 2011). Also changing climates over the next few decades will increase energy requirements especially for oil as well as mostly making energy resources harder to obtain [14,15].
There are different societal models which explore the nature and possibilities of developing a post-carbon world [16–23]. The key question is how to get to such a powered down future and to get there fast enough. It would necessitate some combination of the following features that would cluster together to engineer ‘systems’ of low carbon social practice, with no necessarily smooth progression from the present to this lower carbon future. It took something like 50 years in the rich North to bring about significant reductions in tobacco smoking even though the scientific evidence was unambiguous. So probably at least a similar length of time would be needed to effect major powering down so as to meet say the UK's 80 per cent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target by 2050.
The first feature of a powered down society is that there would have to be reasonable levels of wellbeing even though in terms of normal economic measures most of the population would be ‘poorer’. Measuring this ‘hidden wealth of nations’ is difficult since many forms of wealth are not well captured by relative levels or growth of a society's GDP . GDP measures the sum of measurable market transactions within a country and can rise even though many would say that some of what is measured is unproductive of wellbeing and of the environment. Indeed increases in GDP can go along with worsening emissions and reducing levels of happiness and well being (as arguably happened in the USA over the past 20 years). Such transactions will not represent what generates a good society with high levels of wellbeing.
There have been various efforts to develop more effective measures of wellbeing and the environment. One example is the ‘Happy Planet Index’ devised by the New Economics Foundation in which Costa Rica was rated number one in 2009 (http://www.happyplanetindex.org/public-data/files/happy-planet-index-first-global.pdf, accessed 3 November 2011). Societies should be measured in terms of the quality of life for all their citizens and not only in terms of GDP or GDP per person.
Significantly societies that have high levels of economic and social wellbeing tend to be relatively equal with good levels of social connectivity (such as Norway) , p. 155. This significance of what has been termed ‘fraternity’ is not measurable in terms of most official statistics. Fraternity involves strong indebtedness or obligations between people within a given society often stretching over generations . After a level of income in a society has been reached, increasing personal incomes do not necessarily turn into more wellbeing or fraternity. Many extra goods and services are in effect ‘wasted’. Examples would include ‘unnecessary’ consumer industries (bottled water, cosmetics, non-medical cosmetic surgery), very short car journeys, or the temperature of buildings kept unnecessarily high or consistent (see [26,27] on heating comfort). Wilkinson & Pickett  document how various measures of wellbeing, such as life expectancy, children's welfare, literacy, social mobility and trust, are higher in more equal societies. Society as a whole is weaker if there is more inequality. Wilkinson & Pickett show that more equal societies almost always do better. Powering down would seem more or less impossible if there are exceptional levels of inequality in a society.
Indeed some of these extra goods and services may engender resentment on the part of those unable to access them and actually make everyone feel significantly worse off. More goods and services which most people cannot acquire generate greater resentment and less wellbeing in a society. More can generate less we can say. One consequence of inequality is that resentment is felt by the deprived against richer people. This was said to have helped to generate riots in the UK in August 2011. A report for the UK Cabinet Office argued that a materialistic culture fostered greed among young people. This was especially because of the profound gap between what is portrayed in the media as representing the ‘good life’ for young people, and what those young people in their communities can legally acquire. One young person in Tottenham reported that: ‘Those people without hope, they see others with these things, and they want them, getting trainers and stuff, TVs’. Another young adult reported: ‘This country is quite cold—greed, advertisement, money, adverts on TV, greed, greed, greed and family. Like the iPhone advert: “If you haven’t got it, you haven’t got IT”’ .
Thus, powering down necessitates developing not just low carbon economies but also low carbon societies in which all elements of a society power down. This would involve many transformations across all systems, which Jackson summarizes as enhancing the ‘capabilities for flourishing’ rather than for merely ‘income’ . High status in a powered down society would need to stem from not possessing extensive connections with others around the world. Re-engineering the nature of ‘success’ in societies involves emphasizing the achievements of those living relatively ‘local lives’ (being ‘local heroes’). This requires analysis of the complex social organization and alternative normative structure that low carbon communities would need to develop .
This is a challenging requirement because of the power of ‘high carbon advertising and marketing’. The world's media endlessly circulate images of the good mobile life and of the importance of global brands, products and services as being essential to that life. So reducing the power and reach of the media, both old media but especially new media, is a crucial challenge here and at odds with the features of a possible digital world future. The ‘celebrity-ization’ of the media is inconsistent with developing a powering down future.3
Part of powering down is redesigning places (and buildings) to lessen energy use. This redesign should foster higher density living and heighten the possibilities of using slow travel alternatives and shifting towards lifestyles that are more local and smaller in scale. Neighbourhoods and patterns of living would need to be redesigned so as to facilitate the development of ‘post-suburban’ social lives. As Latouche , p. 70 brings out, this could though provide much opportunity for ‘good talk’ and for developing meaningful relations with others. Friends would have to be chosen from neighbouring streets, families would not move away at times of new household composition, and distant family members would not be regularly visited (except by skype or whatever replaces skype). Households would not live apart and status would be have to be re-localized and based upon contributions that are made locally. Norms would need re-localizing. Owen provocatively argues that the greenest of metropolises in the USA is actually New York although cities in general generate much higher carbon emissions than do agricultural areas of the world .4
Some of these processes can be specifically seen with regard to the production of food. This would have to be sourced more locally as long as this did not entail much higher growing costs. The transformation of Cuban agriculture after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of cheap oil provides an interesting case study here. During the 1980s, agriculture in Cuba was mechanized and more oriented to a few products (sugar, tobacco, citrus) than any other Latin American country. It developed a Soviet-style agriculture highly dependent upon oil as well as upon food imports from the Soviet Bloc.
With the collapse of the Soviet system these food imports, fertilizers, pesticides and oil for tractors and machinery disappeared (assisted by a stringent US blockade). Production fell by over one-half, calorie intake dropped by over one-third, there was undernourishment and a large weight loss experienced by most Cubans. These conditions provided a test of whether it is possible to respond to such dramatic societal collapse by a planned powering down. Pfeiffer argues that there has been since the mid-1990s a ‘Cuban miracle’, with GDP now increasing each year , p. 71.5 Daily food intake has been more or less restored. But this has been achieved not through conventional oil-intensive agriculture but through its opposite. Cuba has led the way in organic agriculture, agroecology, small markets, worker cooperatives and urban gardens.
Even the World Bank reports that Cuba is more or less the leading country in the developing world according to most measures of human development. Cuban life expectancy is almost identical to the USA but uses only about one-tenth of its energy (http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2009/04/la-revolucion-energetica-cubas-energy-revolution, accessed 5 March 2012). Pfeiffer more generally describes the enormous potential of urban gardening, farmers’ markets, the growth of allotments and related small-scale production systems although the key issue is how to scale up these developments so that the world's seven billion people could be fed.
These local patterns would have to be more generally reinforced by work being found close to where people lived and education provided within local schools and colleges. There would need to be a huge scaling back of ‘international students’ around the world. Many goods and services would thus need to be simpler and produced, consumed and especially repaired nearby. This requires shifts in people's norms of behaviour.
This would involve innovation through users of commodities and services modifying products, making fashionable alternatives and developing new collective innovation. Various analysts such as von Hippel increasingly emphasize the importance of ‘democratizing innovation’. He describes how many ‘users’ of goods and/or services engage in and develop new products and services . Likewise, consumer communities seem to gather around particular obsessions, sometimes ‘as mere interest groups, sometimes fickle fans, sometimes hobbyists, and sometimes cults’ . The development of apps for mobile phones is a good recent illustration of widespread consumer innovation. ‘Sustainable innovation’ would likewise require ‘consumer communities’ highlighting, advocating, developing and making fashionable new low carbon actions and objects.
It would be necessary that heroic consumers innovate low carbon, localized goods and services upon a vast scale, with states and corporations providing the preconditions for starting up and for scaling up. The Transition Companion developed through the transition towns movement well describes many different aspects of how this can be engineered though starting out, deepening, connecting and building new products and services. Some of the innovation features of this transition movement are that it is viral, open source, self-organizing, iterative, historic and fun!  One example of this is the Swedish city of Växjö's development of a ‘fossil fuel free future’. It is almost halfway there without apparently sacrificing lifestyle, comfort or economic growth. In the underground car park of the local government offices, there are no private vehicles, just a communal green-car fleet. Staff who cycle or take the local biogas buses to work can book ahead for the green-car fleet. Petrol is still available but carbon emissions in Sweden are heavily taxed. The plan is to reach zero carbon emissions within the next few decades. (Växjö's model of investing in bioenergy, combined heating and power systems and district heating is being copied in other parts of Sweden. See http://vaxjo.se/upload/www.vaxjo.se/Kommunledningsf%C3%B6rvaltningen/Planeringskontoret/Fossil%20Fuel%20Free%20V%C3%A4xj%C3%B6%20-%20the%20story_2010.pdf, accessed 27 November 2011.)
Alongside these features there would have to be the extensive simulating of physical co-presence through virtual travel so as to reduce the probable frequency of physical travel. We can expect software (many apps) would ‘intelligently’ work out the best means of undertaking tasks, whether this means meeting up, getting to some place or event, or bringing the activity to fruition through virtual connections.
Also there is the rapid growth of three-dimensional or additive manufacturing. Some commentators believe that this would be game-changing since a completely new ‘system’ could transform the very notion of ‘manufacturing’. For the past 200 years, this has been conducted in workshops or factories distant from consumers. But there may be forming a system where ‘manufacturing’ is relocalized and undertaken on a small scale. This ‘system innovation’ would relocalize manufacturing rather than continuing with the widespread movement of goods through the vast containerization and airfreighting of goods, food and components .
Multiple, dense forms of localized movement could also be expected. This would involve small, ultra-light, smart, probably battery-based, deprivatized ‘vehicles’. Smart ‘cards’ would control the access and payment for the use of such vehicles. There would be a mixed flow of slow-moving micro-cars, bikes, hybrid vehicles, electric bikes, pedestrians and mass transport integrated into networks of physical and virtual access. Such personal vehicles would become electronically integrated through information, payment systems and physical access connecting with collective forms of transport [36,37].
Already car makers are experimenting with ‘pay-as-you-go’ schemes for especially electric vehicles (EVs). Daimler, Peugeot and other suppliers expect such systems to be attractive to younger customers familiar with making ‘access’ payments for mobile phones and Internet services. And this connects to already-noted survey evidence that in the developed world (but not elsewhere!) owning a car is now less valued than owning a smartphone. The company/non-governmental organization Better Place that is building EV infrastructures in Israel, Japan and Denmark expects to charge by the mile. Indeed it considers whether the ‘car’ might be highly subsidised or even free (and then effectively recycled) while the payment charged to customers would be by distance  (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dba162ba-5980-11df-99ba-00144feab49a.html#axzz1facGGRwO, accessed 4 December 2011). This involves putting the mobile into the automobile.
There would need to be policies and practices to ensure that if the main power form was battery-driven then these were not additional to but would form a new system with the capacity over time to make petrol-based vehicles obsolete (of which there are now close to 1 billion). It is said that there are 350 000 ‘eco-prestige seekers’ who are willing to buy electric cars in addition to their existing vehicles even if they are much more expensive (http://web.hbr.org/email/archive/dailystat.php?date=021110, accessed 4 December 2011). What would be necessary is that EVs are not a set of vehicles additional to the existing car system. Although EVs may depend upon fossil fuel generated electricity they can be up to four times per mile more efficient than petrol-based engines. However, there are formidable technological, economic, organizational and social problems in ‘engineering’ an EV system that would push the ‘steel-and-petroleum’ car system into the sidings of history [39,40].
But it would also be a feature of a powering down future that societies must be prepared for surprises and that efforts to impose the solution such as a particular version of EVs would be disastrous. Gross  refers to the need for extensive social and technological experimentation, for a ‘mindful openness to surprises’.
The main issue here is the systemic nature of high carbon worlds and of the need for engendering low carbon systems, and not just changes of value, or belief or individual behaviour. So I have shown in this paper that moving to a low carbon economy and society involves developing new systems rather than continuing with those set in motion during the twentieth century. There are many reasons why developing such new systems is so troublesome.
First, there is the power of carbon interests. This set of interests is itself bringing about rising GHG emissions and is using up too much energy. And yet those interests are also expected to solve these problems. This is one kind of wicked problem. The economic and social forces that are causing system problems are those which also expected to generate solutions to those problems. These interests have dominated governments and made it very difficult to develop powerful alternative interests such as around low carbon energy . Moreover, moving to low carbon systems will reduce short-term levels of income and consumption and this makes it difficult to induce the population to embrace low carbon forms of life and social practice.
Also in the early twentieth century a cluster of high carbon systems developed. In order to render those systems redundant, there needs to be a new low carbon cluster developing within the next couple of decades, and not just changes in single systems.
Moreover, the long-term path dependencies of existing systems including habits engender much momentum which makes it much more difficult to make redundant systems in which much of the population are strongly implicated. These systems make up what contemporary life is like. They mean that societal change is slow, as can be seen in the enduring car system dating from the nineteenth century. There is also a lack of time available to make the seismic shift since changes in the atmosphere and the decline in energy security are already locked ‘into the system’ and will mostly happen anyway and certainly before many low carbon changes can come about and make their impacts.
There are also huge difficulties in organizing a global polity to reset global agendas, especially because resources are in short supply and massively contested. Also even if there were global agreements then states are rarely able to bring about change from the top partly because of resistance and opposition to instructions for developing low carbon practices and systems. The global media circulate stories and accounts of how corporate, political and media celebrities live ultra-high carbon lives which thus make them inappropriate to lecture others on reducing their carbon footprint. By 2010, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair had acquired nine houses many in London or close by and yet he regularly lectures the world on the need to reduce carbon emissions! (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/tony-blair/7968858/Blair-home-number-nine-1m-house-for-student-daughter.html; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/7054986/Tony-Blairs-climate-change-project-paid-for-by-Oleg-Deripaska-oligarch-who-entertained-Lord-Mandelson-and-George-Osborne.html, acc- essed 5 November 2011).
One element of the lives of such ‘celebrities’ is high levels of tax avoidance and evasion. This comes about through an ‘offshore world’ with an ultra-high carbon footprint. The growth of offshoring is disastrous for minimizing carbon emissions and for moderating energy use and especially oil, in part because these ‘treasure islands’ of tax limitation are regularly visited by ultra-high carbon households. But more importantly the tentacles of these treasure islands reduce the capacity of states to tax revenues in those locations where companies and individuals generate their income and wealth. More than half of world trade now passes through tax havens. Eighty-three out of the USA's top hundred companies have subsidiaries located in one or more of these secrecy jurisdictions. A quarter of all global wealth is held ‘offshore’ (see the listing of 70 or so tax havens based upon the index of financial secrecy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_Secrecy_Index, accessed 28 January 2012). It is impossible for a robust localism to develop without income that is public and accountable and not lost offshore  (see http://www.taxjustice.net/cms/front_content.php?idcat=2, accessed 26 November 2011).
Indeed, a new low carbon world requires a very strong sense of the public indebtedness of people around the globe and especially of current generations of people towards future generations. The importance of this public or social indebtedness is expressed in many ‘global documents’, such as the UNESCO Declaration from 12 November 1997. This sets out the responsibilities of present generations towards future generations. However, this social indebtedness has been more recently swamped by a financial indebtedness that ties much of the world into current systems of obligation through the financial indebtedness of people, states and corporations. This financial indebtedness prevents such ‘fraternity’ from developing. There is a kind of good or fraternal indebtedness but in the past neo-liberal decades was overlain by financial indebtedness.
Harvey summarizes such neo-liberalism as involving ‘accumulation by dispossession’ , pp. 159–161. Peasants are thrown off their land, collective property rights are made private, indigenous rights are stolen and turned into private opportunities, rents are extracted from patents, general knowledge is turned into intellectual ‘property’, the state forces itself to sell off or outsource its collective activities, trade unions are undermined and financial instruments and flows redistribute income towards finance and away from productive activities. Since 1980, neo-liberalism became the dominant global discourse. It is acted upon within most corporations, many universities, most state bodies and especially international organizations such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Harvey , p. 3 summarizes how neo-liberalism was: ‘incorporated into the common-sense way many of us interpret, live in, and understand the world’.
Powering down involves taming the scale and global reach of such financial indebtedness and replacing it with social indebtedness. Elsewhere, I refer to this as the need to replace neo-liberal with resource capitalism [3,25]. This is a hugely demanding precondition since, as Crouch recently laments, there is a ‘strange non-death of neoliberalism’ even after its apparent responsibility for more or less ending the world economy in the Great Crash of 2007–2008 .
Thus for these reasons developing a cluster of new systems is ‘almost’ impossible. Futurist Richard Buckminster Fuller once maintained: ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete’ (http://challenge.bfi.org/movie accessed 4 November 2011). Building that cluster of powered down ‘models’ that make the high carbon world obsolete is the ultimate challenge. The forces preventing these are awesome but the modest green shoots outlined in this paper suggest that powering down might just be ‘in the air’ in some places. The rapid developments of new systems do occur although they usually take decades to come to fruition. This is indeed a grand challenge.
One contribution of 15 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Material efficiency: providing material services with less material production’.
↵1 Incidentally, the UK has produced more greenhouse gas emissions per person than any other country in the world because of its ‘cumulative historical emissions’.
↵2 This paper does not deal except in passing with energy production and especially the potential shift from fossil fuel energy for heating and power to so-called renewable energy.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.