The Political Will to Face Environmental Affairs

By Nick Nakorn


This is an ancient piece from 1996 posted here following a Facebook conversation in which these issues cropped up.  There are things I would change if I were to write it today but the basic premise is, I think, still as valid and history has, sadly continued to unfold as predicted.

Apologies for the bad formatting – I copied from an equally ancient file.

Nakorn, N.C., Green Shift Symposium 1996, (Green Audit Research Group and The Centre for Alternative Technology, 1997, ISBN 1 899999 03 5)

 NOTE: the piece below was originally delivered as a talk and later transcribed and edited to make sense in print. Please excuse the conversational style. My thanks to Bryan Gould for asking me to take part in the Symposium, for organising the transcription, and to Kingston University for hosting the event. This version is as published in 1997 but with a few of my original typos corrected and minor additions made clear.

The Political Will to Face Environmental Affairs

 My paper is about the differences between the way environmentalists and politicians view the world. Such differences present stumbling blocks to environmentalists regardless of their specialisms. I earn a living as an energy conservation officer and I’m a general environmentalist too: somewhat of a hybrid. (I was for 7 years the Energy and Sustainability officer at Watford Council in the UK; I have since left that post: N.N. 2006)

 I’ll start at the global scale and then look more at the personal aspects of the political economy of sustainability. It’s worth reminding ourselves of the scale of the problem. If, for example, we are to establish climatic stability we will have to make massive cuts in emissions within the next century.

What needs to be done – see note 1.  
GAS % cuts required
Carbon Dioxide 50 – 80
Methane 10 – 20
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) 75 – 100
Oxides of Nitrogen 80 – 85

This is a huge task. At the global level we have to be quite goal-oriented; politically and socially. But at the level of the individual, it may be too much to expect people to be goal oriented towards environmental issues as we each have pressing daily concerns; indeed, the population in general is barely touched by these issues – if at all.

Modern environmentalism has a long history in the industrialised world and there have been a succession of publications and events since the 18th century, which are thematically similar such as Malthus’s “Principles of population” in 1798, Gifford Pinchot’s Conservation Movement of the 1860’s and George Perkins Marsh’s Theories of Environmental Modification of 1864. But the political will to bring these ideas into the mainstream, most notably in the United States by Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930’s, was soon eclipsed by the Second World War and the post-war boom of the 1950’s. Seminal works such as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1968), Donella Meadows’ “limits to Growth” (1969), Fritz Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” (1974), James Lovelock’s and Lyn Margolis’s “Gaia Hypothesis” (1979) and the rise of green politics have reinvented environmentalism for a new audience. By the 1980’s a critical mass of people within key institutions world-wide led to the Rio conference in 1992 and the three international agreements; Agenda 21, The Climate Convention and The Biodiversity Treaty.

So we have these big problems, such as global warming, and we have this extra-ordinary build up to Agenda 21. I’m quite pessimistic about Agenda 21, it is already part of the bureaucracy, but I support it as it is better to support it, just, than not to support it. The history of environmentalism has polarised popular opinion between the impossible; a utopian, sustainable agrarian economy filled with twee people who all love each other, and the unsustainable; a highly industrialised planet in its death throws.

A global utopia is not really an option. The planet is a seething cauldron of politics, wars and famines. We can head towards an imagined utopia but we can’t have it right now. The two extremes present us with images that are very difficult.


                                                                                     Note 2.

 So before we talk about solutions, we need to understand how things are at the moment now. We could argue about how doomed our society is but I think my interpretation that follows would be accepted by most environmentalists and many economists. NOTE 3.

      1. The object of industrialisation is to convert resources into consumable and capital              products (goods and assets)

  1. The object of mechanisation is to increase output and throughput per unit of input

  1. Mechanisation requires an increase of investment and the production of capital products

  1. The consumption of goods ensures the continuing production of goods and the continuing use of diminishing resources

  1. As goods are consumed, the global stock of resources including those tied up in capital goods and those about to be consumed is diminished.

  1. As goods are consumed, the economic value of the global stock of resources is increased by the value of the labour entrusted to the resource stock and by the diminishing possible supply of resources

  1. The potential value of all resources is thus tending to the very high while the supply of resources tends to the very low

  1. Wealth is created in the growing global economy which must service a naturally diminishing resource and goods potential:



That is how the economy operates at the global level. Because inflation is built-in from the beginning, it cannot be subject to fiscal policy: anti-inflation measures in one area will force inflation elsewhere. But show this scenario to political economists working at the nation-state level and they absolutely refute it! They say, “No, this isn’t how it works because there are markets out there”. But on a planetary level there is no “out there”. You’re already in it. A different perspective is required. There are limits to what we can do. Add to this the way in which the global stock of resources is being depreciated by pollution and poor environmental practices and you have a perfect picture of non-sustainability.

Unpack Agenda 21 and you find the inevitability of limits. The Herman Daly version of sustainability (when human activity remains within the carrying capacity of the planet) and the Brundtland version (development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs) both require a long-term global view to take the place of a nation-state short-term view. The Daly version is in the scientific realm and the Brundtland version is in the social realm. I am more interested in the scientific realm.

Let me put my cards on the table. I’m not in favour of aggressive, manipulative, powerful, technocratic social forms. I’m more of a tread-softly-upon-the-earth type of person. But I’m also very pro-science so I make no apologies for separating out social mechanisms from scientific reality.

Now, the above statements bring sustainability into the mainstream. We have reference points. We can measure sustainability. We can say something about what we have, and what we want, in scientific terms. Daly has a simple formula for this. Sustainability is when:

RP – AD ≥ C

Note 4

When Renewable Production, RP, less Asset Depreciation, AD, is greater or equal to Consumption, C.  Renewable Production encompasses renewable energy (solar, tidal, hydro, wave and other sources) and renewable industrial feedstocks such as timber, oil crops, biomass, medicinal crops, textile crops, grown chemical feedstocks and so on. There will always be a need for non-renewable industries in the short and medium term but they need to be balanced in the general equation by decreased consumption and increased renewability elsewhere. New composite and plastic materials derived from organically grown organic compounds can replace virtually all sheet metal and the only products not able to be made renewably are those which require, absolutely, minerals and metals (such as for electrical or thermal conductivity). Everything else is possible if directed to fulfilling needs rather than wants.

This encompasses the scientific realm and the economic realm. Environmental problems can be included under Asset Depreciation and can be countered by renewable production within the asset base, or within another asset. The difference with environmental economics is that environmentalists value a natural habitat as an asset that is producing renewably while conventional economics sees it as a free good. Conventional economics sees production where we see depreciation – that is why unlimited growth looks good in conventional economics.

Now this presents businesses wanting to go green with a real problem. At present, the selling line from national and local government bureaucracies is that green business and sustainable development is good for the environment and good for individual and collective bottom lines. Energy efficiency, recycling, waste reclamation, and so forth, save resources and money and thus improve sustainability. This idea, sad to say, is rubbish. It would be true is resources were a free good. But, as resources are, in fact, a depreciating asset, efficiency gains will only improve sustainability under strict conditions:

  • Firstly, efficiency gains must be ring-fenced and ploughed back into either more efficiency gains (i.e. less asset depreciation) or renewable production.

  • Secondly, volumes of product sold (i.e. consumption) must displace non-renewable products in the market place (not create new markets or expand existing markets).

In both cases the bottom line is unlikely to be improved (no dividend or, possibly, reduced volume), and the financial incentive for shareholders is zilch. It’s bad business practice. Businesses realised this immediately and adopted green tokenism with their eyes open. But environmentalists, bureaucrats and planners – who, in my view, have more of a moral duty to protect the environment than self-confessed profiteers – have much to answer for.

Why are bureaucrats so blocked about this subject? The information is available to them, and their jobs cannot be threatened by putting forward the best available professional view – technically, the reverse is true. But far from clarifying these issues and forcing the political establishment to deal with the dilemma, they obfuscate to protect the status quo.

The answer lies in the way in which the social fabric of the last 200 years has bred a number of beliefs which are strongest amongst the educated arts and social science graduates who now run just about everything. These are the stumbling blocks that prevent our society from having the will to face environmental affairs.

The first mistake is the belief that we are a materialistic society. If only. While we are in love with the idea of materialism, in that the need to possess material objects is embedded in our culture, we are profoundly unmaterialistic in the way we make decisions.  Let me give an example: A Rolls Royce is undoubtedly a finer motorcar than a Skoda (remember this was in 1996, N.N.2006). But does it provide more transportation? More comfort, yes. But twenty times more? More speed: but twenty times more? No. The advantages of a Rolls Royce are largely symbolic. Even its positive utility advantages (for which the car is deservedly famous) must be set against its utility disadvantages. Sustainable? Actually, a Rolls is often so pampered and lasts so long that it is no worse than any other car. In truth, all transportation is a sustainability overhead that has to be paid for by a renewable production surplus in the rest of the economy. Sustainable transport using non-sustainable inputs is an impossibility. In fact, the whole consumer society is geared to producing goods for which attributable material utility is outweighed by attributable symbolic benefit. The “USP” (Unique Selling Proposition) for most products is what makes them competitive in the market. While there is a Potato Marketing Board (a high utility renewable product) all the advertising goes into potato crisps (a low utility luxury with more calorific value in the packaging and transport than in the food).

So far from being materialistic – in the sense that we are somehow driven by a rational understanding of the material – industrialised society is driven in almost every respect by the consumption of goods in which a greater proportion of their embodied energy is given to symbolism than their predecessors. Technological efficiency has improved net utility standards but the dividend has been squandered with dramatic negative environmental consequences.

This lack of a genuine feel for, and an understanding of, materials takes place within a cult of materialism that is largely symbolic. Furthermore, it has developed hand in hand with a misunderstanding of science. Technology has become more advanced yet more distant. But while technology is already able to deliver sustainable production using renewable inputs and benign outputs, the “fixes” to the environmental crisis offered up by our bureaucracies are unrealistic. I have characterised such fixes as being driven by three connected but distinct societal mind-sets in which

the non-materialistic society:

  1. cannot accept the idea of limits, thus:

  • all problems can be fixed in the future
  • nature will always survive
  • tomorrow will be the same as today only different
  • everywhere can become developed
  • there is no such thing as underdevelopment
  • a surplus of wealth will pay for environmental protection
  • therefore, wealth creation leads to sustainability

 The above can be called the Technocratic Fix 

   2. does not accept the idea of science revealing reality, thus:


  • truth is in the eye of the beholder
  • the new physics overturns Newtonian physics
  • the spiritual aspects of ecology are the most important
  • the power of meditation and prayer can heal the world
  • Gaia is listening so all we have to do is have a sympathetic attitude

 The above can be called the New Age Fix


 3. sees all problems as relative, thus:

  • science, technology and truth are sociological
  • sustainability is measured by social and political indicators
  • we should strike a balance between growth and environmental protection
  • don’t let technicians run anything
  • we are not extremists
  • try to explain this in simple terms and we’ll let the people decide

The above can be called the Community Fix

In one way or another, we (politicians, bureaucrats and professional environmentalists attending the symposium and generally, NN 2006) are all involved in attempting to operate one or more of these unrealistic fixes, by default and commission, as part of a strategy or as an ad-hoc project – we recognise these traits. Local Agenda 21 is chock-a-block with them. But all three fixes have in common an inability to be materialistic, a denial of the physical limits to making real our desires and a mystic belief in the inevitable efficacy of well-intentioned ignorance. A non-scientific worldview has taken over and corrupted our ability to act in the common interest.

Though I have painted a bleak picture of our political bureaucracy, I do not mean to include a great many people who form a sizable minority who are quite sound on these issues. They always are outvoted and under employed but they are, nevertheless, there. They too will recognise the politician’s or boardroom’s answer to the above critique:

“We are political realists!


  • We’ll support you when we get into power
  • If you want us to help, couch it in acceptable terms
  • If I don’t stay in power the other lot will get in and they’re worse
  • Even if it’s true, the electorate/shareholders/customers aren’t ready for it
  • You can’t expect wholesale change just to accommodate your views
  • The environment is just one aspect of a packed agenda so

Don’t be so naïve!”

So, my basic argument is that a non-materialistic, irrational mind-set prevents the political machine from accepting that there are physical limits to making real our collective desires. This is exacerbated by the fact that the green movement itself attracts people already distrustful of technology and who are mistakenly anti-science and anti-rationality due to a profound belief in the incorrect proposition that we live in a materialistic society. The result is a confused public, a cynical and manipulative political machine and a divided and misunderstood green agenda.

Rational argument leads inevitably to supporting a stable-state economy, i.e. limiting economic growth. But even well respected environmentalists of international stature are now promoting economic growth as if resources were, again, a free good. They argue that, as an individual company can grow and displace its existing resource base with renewables, the global economy can do the same. On the face of it, it’s a plausible argument. But, even if, by magic, all economic inputs could be made renewable overnight, the mathematics does not allow growth as a sustainable strategy. Note 5

Consider an economy growing at 2.5%. It doubles in size every 35 years. So all the inputs, renewable or not, have to double too. In around 100 years, the inputs will have doubled 3 times, increasing the size of the economy 8-fold. After another 100 years the economy will have increased 64-fold. At the end of a third century, the economy would be 500 times bigger. Even in a renewable economy, that sort of scenario would be unsustainable.

Back to reality. The situation is far worse. The growing global economy is 80% resident in the industrialised nations and is about 95% non-renewable. If every industry on the planet converted from non-renewable to renewable inputs at the rate of 2.5% per year – a very hard task indeed and not hugely likely – the net reduction in non-renewable inputs would be precisely zero, as would be the reduction in pollutants. Note 6

(Some, NN 2006) environmentalists have been saying much the same for 200 years. I, and many others, have been saying it for 20 years or more. The political response to this crisis was supposed to have emerged from Rio 5 years ago (now 15 years ago NN 2006). If latest global warming figures are correct – and I hope they are not – a positive feedback effect is reducing the amount of carbon able to be fixed in the ocean sinks.  If we have to wait another 5, 50 or 100 years for some concerted political action – which must include a new economic agenda – we may be too late to stop the fastest growing and most devastating change in climate since humans first walked the Earth.

I put this scenario to a well-known environmentalist, reputably one of the UK’s foremost experts on sustainability, an advisor to central and local government (in the UK, NN 2006) and star of the conference circuit. He said, “don’t worry about it, your argument is redundant! We can have as much growth as we like in the service sector, in the arts and in leisure!”

“Such as?” I asked.

“Violins!” he replied, “high value and renewable!”

No wonder no one listens anymore.

References and notes

Note 1. Leggett, Jeremy, Global Warming: The Greenpeace Report (Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1990) p. 43

Note 2.  Adapted by Nick Nakorn from images by Victor Lunn-Rocliff in Nakorn, Nick, Energy Conservation in the Home (Watford Council, UK, 1991) 1994 edition pp3, 20

Note 3.  This concept was more fully discussed in a previous paper: Nakorn, Nick Coming of Age: The Convergence of two Ideologies(Middlesex Polytechnic, unpublished) pp 7-9. I’m not sure if my precise conclusion has been taken up by other writers before or since but Galbraith was very influential: Galbraith, J, K, Economics and the Public Purpose (Andre Deutsch, London 1975)

Note 4. From my notes of Herman Daly’s Schumacher Lecture of 1993.  Also in Daly, Herman E. Steady State Economics (Freeman, San Francisco, 1977).

Note 5.  One of the best explanations of the need to limit growth – and such explanations are abundant – is in Rifkin, Jeremy. Entropy a New World View (Paladin Books, London, 1985). The whole book and in particular pp 135-151

Note 6. Again, a well used statistic: see (for example) Our Global Neighbourhood (Oxford University Press. UK 1995) pp 144-149

Note: when originally asked to prepare this talk, I did not know it would require referencing and wrote it ‘from the top’. If any readers would like to know more than the scant notes supplied, please get in touch.


About Nick Nakorn

This is the blog of a concerned citizen.
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