Another revolutionary era?

Anthony Giddens future-gazes

To have a revolution means replacing one social system (or subsystem) with another. What aspect of modernity does Anthony Giddens, a much celebrated sociologist and social theorist writing for a popular audience in the Guardian, believes to be on the skids? We are witnessing, he claims, "…the demise of the fossil-fuel economy."

If Giddens is right about this, if the world is now entering an epoch that will be characterized by diminishing fossil–fuel use, one obvious and possible benefit would take the form of securing the long-term survival of life on the planet, a possible future which a resource-wasteful modern economic system has already made uncertain. Fossil fuel use is, as many have come to accept, a key source of the pollution which drives the global warming which threatens life on the planet. The present moment may be dire, but it contains a real opportunity, namely, to replace an unsustainable social system with one that could endure. Another benefit, paradoxically enough, would be the economic renewal this revolutionary transformation would require. Considered thusly, it would count as a beneficial instance of Schumpeter's creative destruction.

Gidden's continues:

On the nitty-gritty side, one major concern has to be jobs. A climate change new deal will create new jobs, its proponents argue. I'm not so sure, if by this they mean net jobs — that is to say, larger numbers than existed before. As more energy is produced from low-carbon sources, and energy efficiency increases, some workers in the fossil fuel industries, like coal mining, will be put out of work. Most forms of technological innovation reduce the need for labour power.

Naturally, a transformation of this kind and magnitude would also radically change the modern form of everyday life:

Jobs will be created not so much through renewable technologies themselves, but through the lifestyle changes that coping with climate change and energy security will bring about. The emerging economy will be even more radically post-industrial than the one we have now.

Less can be more, Giddens suggests. Less carbon use can provide the basis for a better form of modern life than the kind known since the advent of modern industrialism. Giddens thus proposes consciously and qualitatively altering this everyday life so that those fated to live it can also enjoy a greater degree of well-being than they had beforehand. But this new life would not be one that depends upon the astonishing resource-use and, to put it bluntly, waste typical of modern industrial economy. The current situation has revealed that growth for the sake of growth is irrational:

Pondering what form recovery from recession should take must cause us to think seriously about the nature of economic growth itself, at least in the rich countries. It has been known for a long while that, above a certain level of prosperity, growth does not necessarily lead to greater personal and social welfare. Now is the time to introduce more rounded measures of welfare alongside GDP and give them real political resonance. Now is the time for a sustained and positive critique of consumerism which can be made to count politically.

The market fundamentalist scourge has been routed, Giddens avers:

The period of Thatcherite deregulation is over. The state is back.

… Now is the time to work out how to ensure that recovery does not mean a reversion to the loads-of-money society.

Complex financial instruments are out of fashion, blamed for the economic collapse. Yet we will have need of them again because, properly regulated, they are often the key to long-term investment, rather than a force against it.

And this fundamentalism must remain defeated if the human life is to survive and even thrive:

Both economic institutions and climate change and energy policy will need active planning, though the mistakes made by previous generations of planners have to be avoided.

Although it seems ironic to do so, we may give thanks for the global economic crisis for this emerging opportunity, Giddens' concludes:

The financial crisis and its aftermath have given a jolt to established ways of thinking that could and should prove massively important. We're at the end of the end of history.

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