Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Great Transition: toward the end of growth

"The Great Transition", a recent book by Mauro Bonaiuti; an economist, presently teaching at the University of Torino, in Italy. With this book, he tackles several themes well known to those who study the interplay of resource depletion, pollution, and economic growth (and de-growth). Among these, the effects of overpopulation, decline in EROEI, environmental degradation and more. He adds, however, the economist's point of view in examining how the economy of a post-growth society could be organized. The book has been extensively reviewed by Nafeez Ahmed. Here are some excerpts from  Ahmed's article; you can read the whole text on "Motherboard"

The End of Endless Growth: Part 1

Written by Nafeez Ahmed


Some argue that even as the economy descends into madness, the seeds of hope are being planted. Even as global crises are accelerating—encompassing the risk of climate catastrophe, energy instability, and many others in addition to economic breakdown—a range of interconnected systemic revolutions are converging in a way that could facilitate a positive transformation of the global economy: from one that maximizes material accumulation for the few, to one that caters for the needs and well being of all.
That’s the conclusion of a major new book published as part of the Routledge Studies in Ecological Economics series, The Great Transition, by Mauro Bonaiuti, an economist at the University of Turin in Italy. Bonaiuti’s book applies the tools of complexity science to diagnose the real dynamic and implications of the global economic crisis that most visibly erupted in 2008.

That crisis, Bonaiuti argues, is a symptom of a longer “passage of civilization.” Advanced capitalist societies are in a “phase of declining returns” measured across the period after the Second World War, including GDP growth, energy return on investment (how much energy is put in compared to what we get out), and manufacturing productivity, among others.
Bonaiuti’s graph of GDP growth rate in Europe from 1961 to 2011, illustrating a fluctuating but consistent long decline.

For Bonaiuti, the declining returns are a consequence of the “the interaction between limitations of a biophysical nature (the exhaustion of resources, global warming, etc.) and the increasing complexity of social structures (bureaucratisation, the reduction in the productivity of innovation and in the educational, health and productive systems, etc.).”
Civilization is thus undergoing a huge, momentous phase shift as the current form of global predatory capitalism crumbles beneath the weight of its own mounting unsustainability. As this process unfolds, it simultaneously opens up a range of scenarios for new forms of society, within which there is an opportunity for “a great transition towards new institutional forms” that could include greater “democratic self-government of communities and their territories.”
Despite the very real  disru​ptions this phase shift entails, many of which have been explored in depth here at Motherboard (the unprecedented spate of global unrest being a major example), the Italian economist is cautiously optimistic about the potential long-term outcomes.

“When the framework changes, as the sciences of complexity teach us, there will be other forms of economic and social organization more suited to the new situation,” Bonaiuti wrote. “In particular, in a context of global crisis, or even stagnant growth, cooperation among decentralized, smaller scale economic organisations, will offer greater chances of success. These organizations can lead the system towards conditions of ecological sustainability, more social equity and, by involving citizens and territories, even increase the level of democracy.”

If Bonauiti is right, then even as conventional economic tools turn out to be increasingly impotent, we should expect to see more and more signs of this changing framework, and with it, the emergence of potential new forms of economic and social organization that work far better than the old industrial paradigm we take for granted.

And that’s exactly what’s happening.


That’s not to say any of this will happen in a simplistic, easy-peasy manner. Bonauiti identifies four potential scenarios for the future, and one of them involves “collapse”—which somewhat speaks for itself. Those who benefit from the old paradigm are likely to resist the most. Quite literally, the future of our species and the planet will be defined by the entirely unpredictable way people everywhere might respond to the reality of change, whether through resistance, disbelief, apathy, engagement, adaption, or action.

So welcome to 2015: a year when our choices could determine the future of the planet.


  1. Sorry to be pessimistic, but I think what during the next decades we will live an "Age of Scarcity Industrialism" as John Michael greer argues in the post with the same title.(*)

    In support of this argument have the following historical examples:

    1) On the other hand we have the historical example of Japan in the Tokugawa era, in which the collapse was averted by overpopulation by severe measures imposed from top to bottom.

    2) We also have the Emperor Diocletian, who he tried to stop the collapse of the Roman Empire, by measures from top to bottom


  2. Excuse me:
    I forgot to say that the Tokugawa period is commented in the book "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (Jared Diamond)



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)