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Saving the planet, one recession at a time

Published:Monday | December 17, 2012 | 12:00 AM

John Rapley, Contributor

Not that a country which can elect someone like Silvio Berlusconi prime minister lacks for interesting things, but still - an interesting nugget recently surfaced in Italy. For the first time in generations, car-mad Italians are buying more bicycles than cars.

The reason is obvious. They're broke. With the economy struggling through the Great Recession, Italians are postponing car purchases and getting around on two wheels. It's part of a broader European trend, in which car sales are declining.

Bad news for the economy, perhaps, but good news for the environment. You remember that Happy Planet index that came out a while ago and which said Jamaicans were the happiest folk on the planet. We all toasted the incongruity of it, but still, it was an achievement.

Except that most people obviously didn't read the report. It wasn't the Happy Jamaicans (or Americans, or whatever) report; it was the Happy Planet report. It was saying that the Earth was happy with Jamaica because we were putting so little demand on its resources because, well, our incomes hadn't changed in 40 years. We'd been doing for generations what the Italians were just getting in on, and we were doing it with panache.

apathy about environment

Back in the 1990s, the same politicians - the Bill Clintons of this world - who were telling us we could borrow forever, and grow richer forever, were also telling us not to worry about the environmental consequences of endless growth because new technology would take care of it all. It was rubbish. American greenhouse gas emissions rose every year of the supposedly green Clinton administration. The only green in the Clinton years was all the dosh his friends were paying to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom.

Greenhouse gas emissions only fell once the world went into recession this century. In The Big Flatline, the Canadian economist Jeff Rubin argues that the only thing which will save the planet from getting too warm is overheated oil prices. Despite recent advances in oil-extraction techniques, such as the rapid spread of hydraulic fracturing, it still appears that new supplies will be gobbled up by new growth from the developing world. That will keep energy prices high for the foreseeable future.

Many economists are moving towards the view that slow growth is here to stay. Meanwhile, the high cost of energy is encouraging many people to become more efficient, and in particular to drive less. This is so, especially where population densities and infrastructure facilitate the transition. Most of Britain is, unlike the Italians, buying cars and driving more. But the national average is dropping simply because Londoners are using cars less and less, and relying on the city's excellent public transit.

creating a balance

And also walking a lot more - which further saves recession-weary Britons the hassle and expense of gym memberships. In other words, we can all stop worrying and learn to love recessions. They are the planet's way of returning everyone to a more sustainable way of life.

Overall, that seems like a good thing. But for some, the news will be bad. Those of us who missed out on the era of cheap energy prices and high growth, busy as we were trying to keep the planet happy, will lament the ride we missed. Growth is going to become more challenging. Not only will Jamaica have to become a lot more productive, since it will need to sell into a slowing market. It will also have to become very energy efficient. Ask the minister how easy that is.

There is a silver lining behind a grey cloud. Economic stagnation is a chronic problem in Jamaica. But so, too, is climate change. And if there is the faintest bit of hope that maybe the planet will solve its own problems, it will be one less thing to worry about.

John Rapley, a political economist at the University of Cambridge, is currently on a visiting professorship at Queen's University in Canada. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jr603@cam.ac.uk