The machine in the garden revisited

The question “How Much Is Enough?” seems to have been asked for the first time in the 1970s, by radical thinkers and activists interested in “voluntary simplicity.” They were living in the rich world, of course, and could get by in comfort on what they had. Hence the challenge to the idea of indefinite growth. But as well as rejecting their world’s materialism, they were objecting to the idea that even more wealth was needed in the hope of a bit trickling down to less developed nations. If you can find it, that Norwegian classic Revolution in the Affluent Society by Erik Damann says it all.

In 2012, we are hearing a lot more about this idea. This might seem odd given that we are in an economic trough that (economists assure us) can only be cured by upping demand. But maybe those 70s hairy types were what the futurologists term a “weak signal,” an indicator of something that was to get important some time later.

The contemporary anti-growth movement has a number of drivers. One is disgust at the growing greed and visibility of the rich. Another is the feeling that we have all been dropped into economic chaos by a philosophy that we did not design and which benefits far too few of us.

But as a current wave of new wisdom marking the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit makes clear, there is also plentiful scientific underpinning for this view. Yes, there have been green concerns for decades, but the evidence behind them has now got stupidly convincing.

On the up side, the world’s population is stabilising. One the down, it will flatten out at about nine billion of us. At 70kg each, that means 630 million tonnes of homo sapiens. This is a cube of people about 800m on each side. If we give up fossil fuels, a big ask, it will be tricky to keep that number of people happy on continuously-renewed resources. No single species of anything like our body mass has ever existed in anything like these numbers, much less built cars, houses and computers to add to their life satisfaction.

My own belief has long been that this should be manageable for a species that has got where it is by brainpower, not by muscle power, and by being highly adaptable, not by specialising. If people can live in Greenland or in the Sahara, they can adapt to

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most things. Maybe there is an imminent science fiction-quality breakthrough that will let everyone live in comfort and affluence, a bit like Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. If not, there should still be ways to use less and spread it out better.

This week the Royal Society is going to add its old and distinguished voice to the Rio +20 debate, making the point that the human race needs to think about its numbers and the volume

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of resources they are getting through. After all, this one species is already tearing through big percentages of the Earth’s biological activity, as well as burning millions of years of saved-up reserves. (Plug: more on this in the Rough Guide to the Earth.

What might the policies and behaviours that get us to some more rational stasis look like? Well, spending and investment are more vital than ever, I fear. That way we get to throw out all the inefficient machines, buildings etc. But we need to be cleverer buyers. Buy good stuff, but make sure it is also designed and made in a way that could benefit the developing world, not just you in Chicago or Manchester. And of course, driving less, exercising more, wearing the right clothes so you don’t use resources to heat and cool the room…. All those naggish things will still count.

Perhaps most important, there is one big input we need to get the human race to a new point, and that is knowledge. For example, the fact that we are living in the space age means that we have lots of useful information about the mess we are making.

That could just mean, if the climate change denialists get their way, that we will go extinct but know we are doing it. But if we are going to get out of this conundrum, we will need whole new industries, not just cleverer ways of doing stuff we already do. That means basic research, not the applied stuff that politicians can see the point of. For US cultural critic Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden was a striking and dystopian idea of a horrible intrusion into a green idyll, but we have

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to be cleverer than that. The current mobile communications revolution shows how fast we can change the way we do things when there are big, clear advantages and the technology is compelling. Our vehicles, buildings and devices have to follow. So do our ways of living. Fortunately, anyone who has been awake in recent decades knows that people can change long-established ways faster than anyone imagines. “So all things flow.”

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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