Al Gore’s Nobel prize is well-deserved. He has done as much as any person to popularise environmental concerns. But does he really challenge current political views, which have now taken on-board most of his arguments, i.e. they have become mainstream.
For example, offsetting carbon is – albeit slowly -becoming a middle (and business) class habit. But it remains an option. And it does not come close to taking account of our total life-span ecological ‘footprint’.
The scantiness of the debate is endemic in the political elite in the United States and Britain, where economic growth remains the paramount consideration: in such an environment even progressive policies such as carbon trading run the danger of becoming political face-saving accounting exercises.
Herman Daly challenged the primacy of growth in his seminal book “Beyond Growth: the economics of sustainable development” (1996). His basic premise is that the economy is a subset of the environment and natural resources not vice versa as traditional economics assumes, and so there are real limits to its expansion and capacity to sustain human life. The key is to find the optimal use of material resources and energy for a ‘steady-state’ economy – whose aim is to create the “greatest good for an optimum number of people over the long run.” Daly stresses the need for development which equates to a qualitative improvement in our lives, whereby the economic benefits of increased consumption of good and services must be greater than their environmental costs.
Adapting to a steady state economy would of course take time given the extent of our current unsustainable economies. Perhaps gradually substituting income taxes with ecological taxes would be a step in the right direction, which could also form the basis of a fairer system where the poorest no longer pay a higher proportion of taxes than the rich.
Ruskin (quoted above) also said that: “When we build, let us think that we build for ever.”