Purple Magazine
— The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

jean-marc janvovici


in 1972, the club of rome commissioned a study from mit: a computer simulation of  globaleconomic and population growth with finite resources. “the limits to growth” estimates that the current system will star to collapse around 2050  

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM

OLIVIER ZAHM — “Alternative groups today are the children of catastrophe,” Peter Sloterdijk writes. “What differentiates them from previous generations and recommends them as prime candidates for a panic civilization is their expert eye for the potentialities of the catastrophes that surround them.” Are you able to distance yourself from the apocalypse that your expertise enables you to gauge?
EAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Yes. I’ve developed an aptitude for thinking about catastrophe without hysteria — that is to say, thinking about
it analytically, objectively, and with detachment. It’s vital that I position myself outside the problem I’m studying. Besides, I have kids — so I have to keep a cool head. Maybe this has to do with having a split personality or just an ability to separate things.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you still an optimist? Do you think we’ll start learning from the disasters already taking place, or will we stay in denial?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — We can grasp the threats to our future only with our mind, not our senses. That’s what makes these threats seem totally unreal. We’re animals, guided by our senses: we know what we touch, breathe, feel, see, etc., but
we can’t know the meaning of energy shortages in a technological civilization —
or the meaning of climate change or the loss of biodiversity — except as highly abstract notions. Some part of us can’t quite believe they’re actually happening, although we’re the first generation to start to see and feel the effects of climate disorder.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do we go on living as if there were no limits to growth and no limits to the Earth’s resources for sustaining our
way of life?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — To a large extent, our modern Western world is still influenced by the American vision of things. The American identity was forged in a world without limits: endless space, minerals, energy, resources — endless amounts of anything you want. If you don’t get on with your neighbor, for example, you just move a bit farther away. Americans are individualists — everyone lives the way they want, with the idea that problems must be solved by scientific and technological progress. Here in Europe, in this old civilization that has been shaped by constraints over thousands of years, we find it easier to accept the idea of limits, the idea of collective action to deal with climate and environmental challenges. Europe needs to lead these changes in the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about China?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — China wants to take its place in the community of nations in order to become the leading global power, but I think the Chinese are in a very ambiguous position. Yes, they’re obsessed with being at the forefront of nations — meaning above the United States — but they also know that this race is going to force everyone to change their model. The strength of the Chinese is that they know about limits, and they know how to set limits. If the central power says, “You are going to do this,” then “this” — corruption aside — is what happens.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Can you give me an example, apart from controlled births?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Well, right now they’re digging a gigantic irrigation canal running from north to south, which means they’re fully aware of what’s going to happen in terms of lack of water for irrigating crops due to climate change. Imagine us making an enormous canal going from Norway right down to the Mediterranean! In a way, the Chinese system is better adapted than the American one to a constrained world. The American system is capable of only one thing: trying to get rid of limits.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s why they’re going back to conquering space — with SpaceX, for example — as a way of relieving the population strain on Earth by colonizing space.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — That’s the American ideology right there: break free of limits, thanks to technology and belief in the future. Still, they’re going to find it kind of boring, all alone in space.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Isn’t it human nature to want to keep going beyond the limits, to transgress them?

OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you become aware of the problem of resources, growth, and climate change?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It was thanks to the extraordinary book I can see on your desk there: The Limits to Growth, written by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III in 1972. It was my great honor to write the preface to the French version of the updated edition that came out 30 years later, The 30-Year Update, in the early 2000s.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, that’s a seminal work for you?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Oh, yes! It’s a real lesson in systems dynamics. They made a schematic model simulating the evolution of the human population on Earth in a natural environment with finite resources and energy. They modeled a limited-Earth system, in contrast to classical economic modeling, which doesn’t recognize barriers and rejects the idea of limits in the name of perpetual growth. In classic economic theory, nobody says, “When GDP hits this number, it’ll stop.” That simply doesn’t exist.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this model of unlimited growth is a metaphysical or religious illusion?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Exactly. It’s fiction, with the reassuring, dreamlike, and comfortable aspect of a fairy tale.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This book immediately invalidates all economic science.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Quite apart from climate change, this book announces that growth will one day collapse for physical reasons — the lack of resources and raw materials. The reason is very simple: our production of manufactured objects can’t exist without the physical world. Everything around us is made from transformed natural resources — this vinyl record is petrochemicals, this ’70s turntable on your desk is just plastic and metal, etc. Dennis Meadows points out a simple fact, which we have refused to admit since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: shrinking natural resources means falling production and therefore falling revenues — and therefore falling growth. Meadows’s book came along in the ’70s with the conclusion that that “growth cannot last.” This generated massive anxiety for people at the time. He was accused of all kinds of things and called all sorts of names. On top of that, Meadows put a date on his prediction: on our current course, as long as we try to maintain perpetual growth, the system is going to collapse sometime in the 21st century. I don’t know if that means 2050 or 2080, but I don’t see how all this can keep going beyond 2100.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Was Meadows the only person to reach this alarming conclusion at the time?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It wasn’t just him — there was a small team. He was the disciple of a professor at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] called Jay Forrester. Meadows become famous internationally because his book happened to come out just before the oil crisis, and that sudden shock made people aware that the world is finite. At that point, Meadows’s fame reached its peak. Then the countershock came along, and the book was forgotten.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What caused the oil crisis in ’73-74?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Just before the crisis, global oil production was increasing at a rate of 8% to 9% a year. That couldn’t continue. The oil crisis came at a moment when production was struggling to maintain this annual rhythm, but the world had gotten used to a growing oil supply. If you look at it in physical terms, the oil crisis occurred when global oil supply per person reached a high. Oil consumption per person was never higher than it was in 1980. After that, the system stabilized again. Oil supply per person fell, up until about 1985, before stabilizing until about 2006. So, the increases in individual energy supply from 1985 to 2015 were due mainly to the development of other energy sources, like nuclear and gas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You say very clearly in your books that all these energy sources accumulate — they don’t replace each other.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — At a global level, they accumulate. Oil is the most advantageous form of energy for man because it’s very dense — you can pack a lot of energy into a small volume. You can carry it with you, and it can be used in small machines. A coal-powered steam plant is bigger, and a uranium machine is even bigger. You can make a gas machine smaller, but it’s not very efficient. A car engine is not very big. Because oil is transportable and has a high energy value, it really has given people all over the world independence from local conditions of energy availability, of the availability of the sun and the wind, etc. Theoretically, human beings have always been transitioning in terms of energy. At first, all they had was their bodies, then they moved on to renewable energy — wind, sun, wood, etc. — followed by coal, which is more practical, denser. They then moved on to oil, and since then, we haven’t found anything better. Gas isn’t as good. Uranium is less convenient because, although it’s very dense in terms of energy, it’s also very rigid — you can’t just carry a reactor around with you.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, where are we heading?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — We’re in the process of coming back to wind and sun — but these energies are not very easy to use, and we abandoned them two centuries ago. This means that a return to renewable energies won’t happen in a context of growth.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why are we so dependent on energy?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Let’s take the example of a pair of cotton jeans that you put on this morning. For this to happen, we’ve used a whole army of machines without being aware of it. First, machines in the fields planted the cotton and cropped it. Machines — we call them trucks — transported the cotton to the mills. Machines also made the bags used to carry the cotton to the mills. Then the mills used machines to spin. Then the thread was dyed, and for that we used machines that made the dye, which involved a whole set of machines in the chemical industry. Machines were used to weave, cut, and sew, then to pack the jeans that would be transported in their individual packaging. Then the clean jeans you put on this morning were transported again by boats and trucks — yet more machines — all the way to the store, which was constructed or renovated using machines. Stores aren’t built with manpower alone: you need a mechanical digger, cranes, cement works, etc. Then you go to the store using a machine, which was built by other machines. It’s endless. Putting on a pair of jeans takes two seconds, but it involves thousands of machines, all of which use energy. We live in a world of machines and are totally dependent on them. We have become real-life Iron Men — we have an exoskeleton made up of multiple machines, all around our body. And I’m not even talking about digital machines, which gobble up so much energy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, coming back to energy and the economy…
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — If there are fewer and fewer energy resources, then there will be fewer machines working and producing, and therefore fewer objects produced and services supplied, and therefore a fall in gross domestic product and growth.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This is when the system starts to collapse?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Yes. This is the early stage, the harbingers.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about the depletion of energy resources. Is this a fact?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It will happen gradually. All countries are going to experience energy stress, but not at the same rate or at the same time. Energy shortages will occur in certain zones and not in others. When you have all the coal you need, then even if there’s a little less oil, you can always fall back on coal. The United States, which has a lot of shale gas, has partially fallen back on gas. Note, by the way, that in the ’70s and ’80s, France resorted to nuclear energy, for which you need to import uranium, but that’s a drop in the ocean compared with oil imports. But all countries, one after another, are going to end up short of energy. Because oil, gas, and coal take 50 million to 300 million years to form, and that’s long in relation to the time frame that concerns us. So, it’s running out.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In terms of global warming, is the risk of an increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2100 — or 5 degrees?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Over 5 degrees in 2100 means war everywhere.

JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — That’s the average temperature variation that the Earth went through from the time of the mammoths and the last Ice Age to the present. Back then, France looked like northern Siberia, and Canada and part of the northern United States were covered by a glacier 1.86 miles thick. The part of the United States that was not under ice was like northern Siberia or Alaska today. The ocean level was 394 feet lower than it is today. With just 5 degrees less, that world was completely unlike anything we know today. And if we are sitting here around this table, chatting away merrily, one reason is that the climate has been stable and warm for 10,000 years. Because the climate is 5 degrees warmer than in the last Ice Age, land has become cultivable, and nature much more prolific. This climatic stability allowed the emergence of sedentary civilizations, cities, trade, fashion — a whole load of things that are now part of our everyday life. In other words, we are the children of 10,000 years of climate stability, and we are also the children of the abundant energy that enabled machines to offer us everything in such profusion.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But why would an increase of 5 degrees Celsius by 2100 mean war everywhere?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Large-scale population movements will occur because huge areas will have become incapable of feeding the societies that live there. Add to that energy shortages and the collapse of growth, and I hardly need to describe the chaos that lies ahead.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is an increase of 2 degrees by 2100 more acceptable?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Well, with 2 degrees Celsius, we’re still going to take quite a beating. But here’s the point: we’re not going to make it. Because if we want to stay below this 2 degree increase over the next century, then the use of fossil fuels — which power our cars and make planes fly and heat our houses, and that our industries run on — will have to be reduced to zero over the next 30 years or so, by 2050 to 2080. But the cautious date is 2050. That’s the difference in time between my generation and my children’s generation.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean we must replace fossil fuels with other energies by that time?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Yes! This means that in the United States, for example, there will no longer be any gas plants, coal-fired power stations, or gasoline-powered cars. To sum up, we can allow ourselves to pump into the atmosphere a third of the emissions that we have already put out since 1850, and no more! If we put out more, we guarantee that the consequence will be more than 2 degrees of warming. And if we’re allowed to put out another third of what was put out over the past century, that tells us, roughly speaking, that our emissions are going to have to reach zero sometime between 2050 and 2070.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Zero for all fossil fuels?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Yes, for all so-called carbon-based energies, which emit carbon dioxide. We have to reach zero within 30 years. By the time my children reach my age, there must be no more coal-fired power stations in the world, no more gasoline-operated cars, no more jet fuel planes, no more industries powered by coal or gas or oil.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Not even just a few?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — You could allow it for a million privileged people among the world’s seven billion, if you like, but overall we won’t be able to keep to those 2 degrees.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This means that in the next 100 years, we have to move completely away from carbon-based energies to non-carbon-based
energies, or so-called renewable energies?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Absolutely. That means we have three areas for action. First, consume less. Scaling down consumption is recessionary. We have to accept the idea that going on a diet is an acceptable thing to do — people aren’t really thinking this way. But still, it’s possible.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s the second possibility?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — We can also act on demographic growth. Two centuries ago, the Earth had a diameter of about 8,000 miles. It’s still 8,000 miles today, but with seven billion humans and counting. I’m not sure that Elon Musk has a solution for transporting two billion people to Mars.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Then there’s giving up carbon-based energy in favor of new energies?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — There are two kinds of non-carbon-based energies: renewable energies — or wind and sun, to put it simply — and nuclear energy. Or, to be precise, nuclear energies — because there’s more than one way of harnessing nuclear energy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Today, new energies represent about 20% of the total. So, we have to go from 20% to 100%!
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Yes. And we’ll never get there if energy consumption stays the same. It calls for an enormous collective effort, a societal program applied on a global scale. The Americans are capable of such efforts in wartime. That’s why I was saying that the Chinese are paradoxically better equipped for this kind of challenge.

OLIVIER ZAHM — In your books, you denounce certain fictions, such as the idea of a green economy.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — What I denounce is the facile slogan, which can be taken to mean that the problem has been solved, when it really hasn’t. I’m denouncing the lie that we’re tackling the problem, when we’re doing something perfectly negligible, infinitesimal in relation to the problem we think we’re tackling. Imagine someone who drinks half a bottle of whiskey a day switching to a bottle of whiskey a day plus a glass of orange juice, and who says, “Look, I’ve increased the proportion of healthy beverages I drink.” Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing today with the green economy. Nearly all my clients are trying to increase their turnover in the brown economy, but they want to add a little bit of green economy so they can feel good about themselves or give the impression that they’re doing something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s cosmetic.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Of course it’s cosmetic. It’s not serious. Personally, I’d rather that people say they didn’t care — then at least we’d know what we’re up against. But the actors of the green economy are kidding themselves. In this race against time, I don’t believe in an ecological transformation of our production systems. That’s not going to save us.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Another fiction you call out is the idea that we can eventually replace carbon-based energies with renewable energies. Isn’t that possible in the race against time?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It’s true locally in countries that are especially advantaged, with the indispensable help of nuclear energy. Sweden is a perfect example. It has a very low population density over a vast territory, with 70% forestland, lots of wood for heating, lots of mountains with big rivers for hydroelectric dams. What’s more, Sweden isn’t really an antinuclear country, so nuclear power plants produce close to half of its electricity. The ratio of reactors to population is the highest in the world, ahead of France. The country still has the problem of gasoline for car travel, but they’re switching to electric cars. The Swedes are quite close to solving the equation of a non-carbon economy. But there are only nine million Swedes, spread across an area of about 143,000 square miles. I think the Canadians, too, could manage this for the same reasons: they have lots of dams, forests, and wood, and so they, too, could become very nuclearized — that’s necessary if you want to forget oil and coal.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What about other countries?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Europe, generally speaking, forget it. China, forget it. These are all densely populated countries… Australia, perhaps, could make it because it has lots of sun-drenched areas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But what about Africa, with solar panels everywhere?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — If people in Africa want to live like Westerners, then they won’t manage, either. Yet they could do it. Concerning solar panels, many people — including myself, for a while — have difficulty understanding that the sun is renewable, but the panel isn’t. That’s why an energy chain is like a business or a family: the whole is only as strong as its weakest link. And the weakest link is being able to renew the panel and manufacture it.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it’s fragile?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — You need copper, steel, electronics, cement — none of these are renewable. In France, for example, people say, “It’s local energy.” Sorry, but no: France doesn’t have copper, steel, or silicon — the things needed to make the panel. Nothing today is more globalized than the solar panel. The top 10 leading makers of solar panels are Chinese. It follows, then, that the large-scale deployment of these renewable-energy solutions are going to come up against other limits, such as spatial limits in developed and overpopulated countries. Solar energy also consumes 200 times as much of the Earth’s surface as nuclear for a given output, which really is a lot. We’re going to come up against the problem of the quantity of materials needed. We need to remember that a good part of this energy transition toward renewables will have to be done during a period of degrowth — because when you have less fossil fuel, the productivity of work falls. Nowadays, renewable energy is not so expensive because we have as much gas, coal, and oil as we want to make solar panels and wind turbines, and to transport and install them, etc. The day you have only wind turbines and solar panels to power the whole production chain of these renewable energies — the mines, chemical factories, steel furnaces, and the trains, boats, and trucks that carry these parts all over — I’m not sure we’ll still be at today’s price.

OLIVIER ZAHM — When it comes to the climate issue, you’re in favor of developing nuclear energy.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It’s a fact that nuclear is one of the immediate solutions for reducing pressure on the environment and the climate.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are electric cars a good solution for reducing our carbon footprint?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — In today’s world, electricity is made above all with coal and gas. This means that the carbon dioxide you don’t emit from the exhaust pipe of your electric car is emitted by the electricity plant if it works on coal or gas. You are simply shifting the emissions from your car to the electricity plant that feeds your batteries.

OLIVIER ZAHM — At the same time, you’re not losing hope, and you have lots of solutions. With the Shift Project, you’ve produced a book packed with solutions [Décarbonons! 9 Propositions pour que l’Europe Change, by Zeynep Kahraman, André-Jean Guérin, and Jean-Marc Jancovici]. I’m really surprised by the multiplicity of these solutions: more trains, saving energy in construction and heating, changing our agriculture. You’re not a doom merchant.
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — The trick is to transform the problem into a challenge. We need to inspire enthusiasm to meet a collective challenge. We need a collective spirit and to be ready for an adventure. The hedonism that we must all give up needs to be offset by the hope for a better world tomorrow. That’s the direction I take.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But can tomorrow’s world be better?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It can be better in certain respects. Here is a very concrete example. I almost never use a car for moving around near my home. Whether I’m going to the market or somewhere else, I walk or bike. I’m very happy to do that because it means I get some physical exercise, and I feel rather better than I would if I were in my car all the time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you saying that these small changes will change our civilization?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — It’s about sharing — sharing apartments, cars, swimming pools, transport, etc. Young people are much more comfortable with the idea of sharing than my generation was, let alone the baby boomers, or the Trente Glorieuses generation [the prosperous postwar generation], who are totally individualist. It means thinking that sharing isn’t so hard to bear. For example, using the public swimming pool rather than having a pool at home — it’s a considerable reduction in energy use. Sharing was the rule in traditional societies, which had to deal with strong physical constraints. This sharing could sometimes be a bit forced. It seems to me that today, the faster we get to a society of agreed and organized sharing, the longer we can delay or lessen the impact of the moment when we are forced to share, whether we like it or not.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think that’s going to excite people?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Well, I think a lot of young people can find something to enthuse about in all that. Youth is the time of change. There is quite a big generation gap regarding all this, and it’s no coincidence that more and more young people today are mobilizing around these issues. It’s the power of the young against the power of the old. Nor is it a coincidence that the most reluctant countries in Europe today are the oldest countries — starting with Germany. Germany really is the most conservative country of all when it comes to these issues. It refuses to take on debt even to save the planet. It refuses to give up coal because it’s good for industrial competitiveness.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Societies based on sharing… We’re not so far from the return of communist ideas?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — Maybe. France is well armed for this particular battle because it’s the only communist country in Western Europe. We love egalitarianism — not equality but egalitarianism. After all, historically, the French have been the world champions of long-term planning. When you look at all the big systems — transport, hospitals, the electrical system — that require long-term planning in order to be well run, we have often created the best systems in the world.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m really surprised that a scientific engineer like yourself isn’t afraid of the term “communist.”
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — No, I’m much more afraid of nasty surprises a few decades down the road than I am of constraints that are agreed upon, shared, accepted, and managed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What nasty surprises?
JEAN-MARC JANCOVICI — War, poverty, permanent insecurity, going back to the Middle Ages. Each community withdrawing into itself and everyone else becoming hostile, and a world where everyone is at war with everyone else.



[Table of contents]

The Cosmos Issue #32 F/W 2019

Table of contents

Subscribe to our newsletter