Read an extract from Richard Douthwaite's introduction to Fleeing Vesuvius: overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse

Fleeing Vesuvius

Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse

Edited by Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon

Fleeing Vesuvius: overcoming the rjisks of economic and environmental collapse 

Introduction: Where we went wrong 

Richard Douthwaite

This book grew out of a conference in 2009 called the “New Emergency”. What emergency was that? Most people didn’t think that there was an emergency then and they don’t think there is one now. They know that the world is facing a lot of problems at present but they probably would not elevate any of them even to the status of a crisis, still less an emergency. The world has always had problems, they think, and it always will. Very few of them think that there’s anything going on at present that requires Ireland to mobilise all its resources in the way that it did in response to the old Emergency, the Second World War.

However, once you recognise that most of the worst problems the world faces have a common cause and that time is running out to solve them, you have an emergency. That’s my position. I believe that the “development” path that the world has followed for the past three centuries has led to a dead end and that immediate action is required if humanity is to have any chance of getting on to a more sustainable path. Every day lost makes a satisfactory future less likely for billions of people, both born and yet-to-be-born, because our options are trickling away with our life-blood, natural resources.

That’s the emergency. We need to apply a tourniquet immediately to give us time to take more drastic action. But who is conscious of this? How many people really grasp the severity of the climate crisis? Or the fact that the production of conventional oil has almost certainly peaked and the amount of energy that is going to be available for the world to use is going to shrink rapidly? Or that energy and water shortages are going to curtail the world’s food supply? What proportion of the general public is really worried about the rate at which species are being lost?

True, everyone knows that several countries have problems with debts or with their banking systems (or, like Ireland, with both), and that they, or people they know, are losing their jobs because of them, but they might not elevate these problems to the status of a crisis unless they live in Greece. They think that, in Ireland’s case, these financial problems began when the housing bubble burst and that the burst was somehow linked to the credit crunch that began when worthless securities generated by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US triggered what was, for a time, an international banking crisis. There’s been almost no recognition that resource depletion was the underlying cause of that international banking crisis and there probably won’t be for as long as the conventional wisdom is that the world economy is looking up and the crisis itself has come to an end.

Even at its height, the financial crisis was only an emergency for those responsible for handling it. A country faces an emergency if an enemy is mobilising on its border to invade, or if its people are dying in thousands from a plague. A family faces an emergency if its house is on fire or if one of its members has been hit by a car and needs to be rushed to hospital. An emergency is a period in which everything else is ignored in favour of immediate action.

From time to time, the chronic problems that face the world erupt and cause a minor emergency such as that on the evening in September 2008 when the Irish banks told the government they might be unable to open the following day. When something like that happens, people stay up late, the eruption is dealt with and then life goes on until the next eruption occurs. Few of us think that anything radical has to be done. We assure each other that minor tinkering, like holding an inquiry, beefing up the regulatory system and limiting bankers’ bonuses, will be enough to allow us to carry on living pretty much as we do now for the foreseeable future.

We are ignoring these eruptions in the way the inhabitants of Pompeii ignored the earthquakes which preceded the volcanic blast that destroyed them in 79 AD and which had been doing considerable damage for at least the previous sixteen years. Some of the earthquake-damaged houses were actually under repair at the time Vesuvius erupted, with piles of plaster and tools lying where the workers had left them. Rather than moving out, the Pompeiians wanted to carry on with life as usual. They had every reason to do so. The whole Bay of Naples area was booming and the holiday villas of the rich provided a lot of work. Interestingly, those who dropped everything and fled immediately when ash and pumice started raining down probably survived. However, many thought their best chance was to take shelter. They died when the avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments and volcanic gas began.

The common cause of all our crises today is our use of fossil fuel. Just as addictive drugs alter the metabolism of the human body in ways that create dependency and make it difficult to give them up, fossil fuels have profoundly altered the metabolism of economies and societies. As a result, the systems of production and distribution we have now, and the types of relationship we have with other people, including those within our own families, will be changed out of all recognition as the energy drug is withdrawn. The withdrawal period will be particularly painful in countries that fail to ensure that they have a decent supply of renewable energy methadone available to them. Cold turkey will mean that many people die. Thinking of Pompeii, if we leave it too late before we rush towards a new type of civilisation, we will have to leave behind all our high-tech, high-energy tools, and we may not survive without them.

Extracted from Richard Douthwaite's foreword to Fleeing Vesuvius: overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse

Edited by Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon

Published by Feasta – the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability

Distributed by Green Books

Fleeing Vesuvius: overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse

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Richard DouthwaiteRichard Douthwaite is an economist and writer with a special interest in climate and energy issues and in local economic development. His best-known book, The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many and Endangered the Planet explores the effects that the pursuit of growth has had on the environment and society.

He is a co-founder of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, the Dublin-based international network of people who believe that the world's sustainability problems are due to the use of dysfunctional systems and are trying to develop better ones. His current projects include the design and introduction of novel financing arrangements for community energy projects and the management of the Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network which explores ways in which land-based greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced. He lives in Westport, Co. Mayo.

Gillian FallonGillian Fallon studied French and Psychology at university before going to work as a cook, eventually opening a restaurant with a friend. She then re-trained in publishing and has worked as a writer, journalis and editor for 15 years, most reently in academic publishing. She has a particular interest in food security and in the challenges involved in communicating the many complex messages derived from systems thinking to a non-specialist audience. She has been a memeber of Feasta's Executive Committee since 2006 and currently divides her time between Dublin and Co. Kerry.