Book reviews 2018 - #14

‘Heat, Greed and Human Need’ by Ian Gough

The view was originally published in The Mint magazine.  You can also see Ian discussing his book here.

Every time I think about what Ian Gough has achieved with this book, I am overawed.  Not only has managed to draw together and think through some of the most daunting challenges currently facing us: he has used his analysis – as well as his formidable erudition – to set out a possible pathway from the world we have to the kind of world we need.

It helps to separate out the respective challenges:

Climate change – how can we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to the sort of levels that would be consistent with a planet suitable for habitation by a few billion humans without going through some sort of catastrophic collapse?

Justice – how on earth can we redress the world’s manifest inequalities – in terms of both the health and wealth inequalities within countries, as well as those between countries - and how could we possibly do that at the same time as we tackle climate change?

Capitalism – is there really an alternative to capitalism?  Should we be aiming for ‘green capitalism’ or ‘de-growth’ or a ‘sustainable economy’ or a ‘steady state economy’?  And – if an alternative can indeed be described or modelled or theorised – which of them might really meet the climate change challenge AND deliver a more just world?

Politics – finally, if you can think through all that – tackling climate change, addressing inequalities, conceptualising a new type of economy – how on earth might one meet the political challenges of bringing such a transformation about?  This, let us not forget, is a world of Trump, Putin and Brexit, of popularism in Europe and absolutism in China, of collapsing trust in both politicians and the media, and an increasingly dysfunctional UN.

Any one of these would be enough to keep you awake at night.  Each challenge is associated with an entire edifice of research, argument, campaigns, institutions, history, theorists, ideologies, claims and counter-claims.  Imagine trying to look at all of this at the same time!  It makes me dizzy just thinking about it.

Yet this is the challenge Gough set himself; and it is a challenge he meets.  He really does cover the ground.  He really does join these things up.

Not only that.  He does it in fewer than 300 pages.  He does it with language that, whilst academic (he is, after all, a Professor at both LSE and University of Bath) is nevertheless accessible.  He does it with a calm authority far distant from the kind of lurid and shrieking polemic that often affects those arguing for radical change.

And make no mistake: radical change is his case.  He shows, in the analytical chapters comprising the first half of the book, just how intertwined are the elements of our present malaise.  In particular, by grounding his analysis in his work on a theory of human needs – as distinct from our more malleable ‘wants’  – he is able to show how inequalities and unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions are the outcome of the conjoined economic and political system that has evolved over the post-war period.  Each step of the argument is reasonable, secure, well-referenced and – once you’ve got there – obvious.  By the time you reach the end of part one it feels simply ridiculous to deny the case for radical change.

But what might that look like? This is the focus of the book’s second half.

Gough wisely avoids prescription; and, in so doing, avoids the (possible) critique of utopian thinking.  He focuses, instead, on broad strategic direction: he uses the division drawn in the first half between needs and wants to sketch what ‘sustainable consumption’ in a future economy might actually entail; and he uses carefully chosen examples to explain his thinking.  (At which point, and in the interests of full disclosure, I must declare an interest: one of the examples he uses is the idea of ‘smart VAT’ that I set out in my 2016 book ‘BadHabits, Hard Choices’.)

Crucially, he considers not only what sort of future social, economic and political set up might be consistent with both human justice and planetary health; he considers, too, the pathway from here to there.  This, perhaps, is the most important part of the entire book.  It’s the kind of thinking that has become reasonably well-established in the domain of climate change (think carbon budgets and descent trajectories, for example) but remains rare in economic thinking and utterly absent when thinking about politics and institutions.

Such forward (and sophisticated) thinking runs risks, of course.  In lesser hands, the argument could have fallen into the trap that afflicts much futurology in which guesswork and bunkum produce output more akin to ‘self-help’ literature than proper analysis.

Because it is, in the end, Gough’s analysis that does the heavy lifting.  So re-assuring and persuasive is the first half of the book that the second riskier and more speculative half stands on a secure platform.  It is strong, powerful and benchmark stuff; and I heartily recommend you read it.  You may not agree with everything (particularly in the second half of the book); but, if you choose to disagree, and you wish to do so in a robust fashion, your arguments will need to be very good indeed.


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