Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it

23 04 2017

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Time to get off the economic growth train?
Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

What does genuine economic progress look like? The orthodox answer is that a bigger economy is always better, but this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, the economy can’t grow for ever. The Conversation

This week’s Addicted to Growth conference in Sydney is exploring how to move beyond growth economics and towards a “steady-state” economy.

But what is a steady-state economy? Why it is it desirable or necessary? And what would it be like to live in?

The global predicament

We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming more resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is likely to increase the burden on ecosystems still further.

Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Degrowth to a steady-state economy

The idea of the steady-state economy presents us with an alternative. This term is somewhat misleading, however, because it suggests that we simply need to maintain the size of the existing economy and stop seeking further growth.

But given the extent of ecological overshoot – and bearing in mind that the poorest nations still need some room to develop their economies and allow the poorest billions to attain a dignified level of existence – the transition will require the richest nations to downscale radically their resource and energy demands.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “degrowth”. To be distinguished from recession, degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

In a world of 7.2 billion and counting, we need to think hard about our fair share.
Karpov Oleg/Shutterstock

At this point, mainstream economists will accuse degrowth advocates of misunderstanding the potential of technology, markets, and efficiency gains to “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. But there is no misunderstanding here. Everyone knows that we could produce and consume more efficiently than we do today. The problem is that efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

Despite decades of extraordinary technological advancement and huge efficiency improvements, the energy and resource demands of the global economy are still increasing. This is because within a growth-orientated economy, efficiency gains tend to be reinvested in more consumption and more growth, rather than in reducing impact.

This is the defining, critical flaw in growth economics: the false assumption that all economies across the globe can continue growing while radically reducing environmental impact to a sustainable level. The extent of decoupling required is simply too great. As we try unsuccessfully to “green” capitalism, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.

The very lifestyles that were once considered the definition of success are now proving to be our greatest failure. Attempting to universalise affluence would be catastrophic. There is absolutely no way that today’s 7.2 billion people could live the Western way of life, let alone the 11 billion expected in the future. Genuine progress now lies beyond growth. Tinkering around the edges of capitalism will not cut it.

We need an alternative.

Enough for everyone, forever

When one first hears calls for degrowth, it is easy to think that this new economic vision must be about hardship and deprivation; that it means going back to the stone age, resigning ourselves to a stagnant culture, or being anti-progress. Not so.

Degrowth would liberate us from the burden of pursuing material excess. We simply don’t need so much stuff – certainly not if it comes at the cost of planetary health, social justice, and personal well-being. Consumerism is a gross failure of imagination, a debilitating addiction that degrades nature and doesn’t even satisfy the universal human craving for meaning.

Do we really need to buy all this stuff anyway?
Radu Bercan/Shutterstock

Degrowth, by contrast, would involve embracing what has been termed the “simpler way” – producing and consuming less.

This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions – a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty.

The lifestyle implications of degrowth and sufficiency are far more radical than the “light green” forms of sustainable consumption that are widely discussed today. Turning off the lights, taking shorter showers, and recycling are all necessary parts of what sustainability will require of us, but these measures are far from enough.

But this does not mean we must live a life of painful sacrifice. Most of our basic needs can be met in quite simple and low-impact ways, while maintaining a high quality of life.

What would life be like in a degrowth society?

In a degrowth society we would aspire to localise our economies as far and as appropriately as possible. This would assist with reducing carbon-intensive global trade, while also building resilience in the face of an uncertain and turbulent future.

Through forms of direct or participatory democracy we would organise our economies to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and then redirect our energies away from economic expansion. This would be a relatively low-energy mode of living that ran primarily on renewable energy systems.

Renewable energy cannot sustain an energy-intensive global society of high-end consumers. A degrowth society embraces the necessity of “energy descent”, turning our energy crises into an opportunity for civilisational renewal.

We would tend to reduce our working hours in the formal economy in exchange for more home-production and leisure. We would have less income, but more freedom. Thus, in our simplicity, we would be rich.

Wherever possible, we would grow our own organic food, water our gardens with water tanks, and turn our neighbourhoods into edible landscapes as the Cubans have done in Havana. As my friend Adam Grubb so delightfully declares, we should “eat the suburbs”, while supplementing urban agriculture with food from local farmers’ markets.

Community gardens, like this one in San Francisco, can help achieve sufficiency.
Kevin Krejci/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

We do not need to purchase so many new clothes. Let us mend or exchange the clothes we have, buy second-hand, or make our own. In a degrowth society, the fashion and marketing industries would quickly wither away. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, where we creatively re-use and refashion the vast existing stock of clothing and materials, and explore less impactful ways of producing new clothes.

We would become radical recyclers and do-it-yourself experts. This would partly be driven by the fact that we would simply be living in an era of relative scarcity, with reduced discretionary income.

But human beings find creative projects fulfilling, and the challenge of building the new world within the shell of the old promises to be immensely meaningful, even if it will also entail times of trial. The apparent scarcity of goods can also be greatly reduced by scaling up the sharing economy, which would also enrich our communities.

One day, we might even live in cob houses that we build ourselves, but over the next few critical decades the fact is that most of us will be living within the poorly designed urban infrastructure that already exists. We are hardly going to knock it all down and start again. Instead, we must ‘retrofit the suburbs’, as leading permaculturalist David Holmgren argues. This would involve doing everything we can to make our homes more energy-efficient, more productive, and probably more densely inhabited.

This is not the eco-future that we are shown in glossy design magazines featuring million-dollar “green homes” that are prohibitively expensive.

Degrowth offers a more humble – and I would say more realistic – vision of a sustainable future.

Making the change

A degrowth transition to a steady-state economy could happen in a variety of ways. But the nature of this alternative vision suggests that the changes will need to be driven from the “bottom up”, rather than imposed from the “top down”.

What I have written above highlights a few of the personal and household aspects of a degrowth society based on sufficiency (for much more detail, see here and here). Meanwhile, the ‘transition towns’ movement shows how whole communities can engage with the idea.

But it is critical to acknowledge the social and structural constraints that currently make it much more difficult than it needs to be to adopt a lifestyle of sustainable consumption. For example, it is hard to drive less in the absence of safe bike lanes and good public transport; it is hard find a work-life balance if access to basic housing burdens us with excessive debt; and it is hard to re-imagine the good life if we are constantly bombarded with advertisements insisting that “nice stuff” is the key to happiness.

Actions at the personal and household levels will never be enough, on their own, to achieve a steady-state economy. We need to create new, post-capitalist structures and systems that promote, rather than inhibit, the simpler way of life. These wider changes will never emerge, however, until we have a culture that demands them. So first and foremost, the revolution that is needed is a revolution in consciousness.

I do not present these ideas under the illusion that they will be readily accepted. The ideology of growth clearly has a firm grip on our society and beyond. Rather, I hold up degrowth up as the most coherent framework for understanding the global predicament and signifying the only desirable way out of it.

The alternative is to consume ourselves to death under the false banner of “green growth”, which would not be smart economics.

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Feeding 9 billion

16 01 2017

I have just been tipped off to this fantastic Joel Salatin video…… I think it’s ironic that Eclipe, a fan of Polyface Farm, is in complete disagreement with Joel who is totally anti hi-tech farming. In fact, like me, Joel believes in walking away from the Matrix (exemplified in this video by McDonald’s), and he lets both barrels go at the establishment…..

Enjoy.





No really, how sustainable are we?

28 02 2016

 

This is a most interesting piece I found on the interweb, written by Paul Chefurka almost three years ago.  Paul is happy for this article to be reproduced in full, no questions asked, and as I feel it needs to be widely read, the more internet presence it has the better, and now you DTM readers can share it too…

Paul, who is Canadian, has an interesting website chockablock full of insightful stuff you may also want to read.

Enjoy…….

 

Ever since the writing of Thomas Malthus in the early 1800s, and especially since Paul Ehrlich’s publication of “The Population Bomb”  in 1968, there has been a lot of learned skull-scratching over what the sustainable human population of Planet Earth might “really” be over the long haul.


This question is intrinsically tied to the issue of ecological overshoot so ably described by William R. Catton Jr. in his 1980 book “Overshoot:The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change”.  How much have we already pushed our population and consumption levels above the long-term carrying capacity of the planet?

This article outlines my current thoughts on carrying capacity and overshoot, and presents six estimates for the size of a sustainable human population.

Carrying Capacity

Carrying capacity” is a well-known ecological term that has an obvious and fairly intuitive meaning: “The maximum population size of a species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment.” 

Unfortunately that definition becomes more nebulous and controversial the closer you look at it, especially when we are talking about the planetary carrying capacity for human beings. Ecologists will claim that our numbers have already well surpassed the planet’s carrying capacity, while others (notably economists and politicians…) claim we are nowhere near it yet!

This confusion may arise because we tend to confuse two very different understandings of the phrase “carrying capacity”.  For this discussion I will call these the “subjective” view and the “objective” views of carrying capacity.

The subjective view is carrying capacity as seen by a member of the species in question. Rather than coming from a rational, analytical assessment of the overall situation, it is an experiential judgment.  As such it tends to be limited to the population of one’s own species, as well as having a short time horizon – the current situation counts a lot more than some future possibility.  The main thing that matters in this view is how many of one’s own species will be able to survive to reproduce. As long as that number continues to rise, we assume all is well – that we have not yet reached the carrying capacity of our environment.

From this subjective point of view humanity has not even reached, let alone surpassed the Earth’s overall carrying capacity – after all, our population is still growing.  It’s tempting to ascribe this view mainly to neoclassical economists and politicians, but truthfully most of us tend to see things this way.  In fact, all species, including humans, have this orientation, whether it is conscious or not.

Species tend to keep growing until outside factors such as disease, predators, food or other resource scarcity – or climate change – intervene.  These factors define the “objective” carrying capacity of the environment.  This objective view of carrying capacity is the view of an observer who adopts a position outside the species in question.It’s the typical viewpoint of an ecologist looking at the reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or at the impact of humanity on other species and its own resource base.

This is the view that is usually assumed by ecologists when they use the naked phrase “carrying capacity”, and it is an assessment that can only be arrived at through analysis and deductive reasoning.  It’s the view I hold, and its implications for our future are anything but comforting.

When a species bumps up against the limits posed by the environment’s objective carrying capacity, its population begins to decline. Humanity is now at the uncomfortable point when objective observers have detected our overshoot condition, but the population as a whole has not recognized it yet. As we push harder against the limits of the planet’s objective carrying capacity, things are beginning to go wrong.  More and more ordinary people are recognizing the problem as its symptoms become more obvious to casual onlookers.The problem is, of course, that we’ve already been above the planet’s carrying capacity for quite a while.

One typical rejoinder to this line of argument is that humans have “expanded our carrying capacity” through technological innovation.  “Look at the Green Revolution!  Malthus was just plain wrong.  There are no limits to human ingenuity!”  When we say things like this, we are of course speaking from a subjective viewpoint. From this experiential, human-centric point of view, we have indeed made it possible for our environment to support ever more of us. This is the only view that matters at the biological, evolutionary level, so it is hardly surprising that most of our fellow species-members are content with it.


The problem with that view is that every objective indicator of overshoot is flashing red.  From the climate change and ocean acidification that flows from our smokestacks and tailpipes, through the deforestation and desertification that accompany our expansion of human agriculture and living space, to the extinctions of non-human species happening in the natural world, the planet is urgently signaling an overload condition.

Humans have an underlying urge towards growth, an immense intellectual capacity for innovation, and a biological inability to step outside our chauvinistic, anthropocentric perspective.  This combination has made it inevitable that we would land ourselves and the rest of the biosphere in the current insoluble global ecological predicament.

 

Overshoot

When a population surpasses its carrying capacity it enters a condition known as overshoot.  Because the carrying capacity is defined as the maximum population that an environment can maintain indefinitely, overshoot must by definition be temporary.  Populations always decline to (or below) the carrying capacity.  How long they stay in overshoot depends on how many stored resources there are to support their inflated numbers.  Resources may be food, but they may also be any resource that helps maintain their numbers.  For humans one of the primary resources is energy, whether it is tapped as flows (sunlight, wind, biomass) or stocks (coal, oil, gas, uranium etc.).  A species usually enters overshoot when it taps a particularly rich but exhaustible stock of a resource.  Like fossil fuels, for instance…

Population growth in the animal kingdom tends to follow a logistic curve.  This is an S-shaped curve that starts off low when the species is first introduced to an ecosystem, at some later point rises very fast as the population becomes established, and then finally levels off as the population saturates its niche.

Humans have been pushing the envelope of our logistic curve for much of our history. Our population rose very slowly over the last couple of hundred thousand years, as we gradually developed the skills we needed in order to deal with our varied and changeable environment,particularly language, writing and arithmetic. As we developed and disseminated those skills our ability to modify our environment grew, and so did our growth rate.

If we had not discovered the stored energy stocks of fossil fuels, our logistic growth curve would probably have flattened out some time ago, and we would be well on our way to achieving a balance with the energy flows in the world around us, much like all other species do.  Our numbers would have settled down to oscillate around a much lower level than today, similar to what they probably did with hunter-gatherer populations tens of thousands of years ago.

Unfortunately, our discovery of the energy potential of coal created what mathematicians and systems theorists call a “bifurcation point” or what is better known in some cases as a tipping point. This is a point at which a system diverges from one path onto another because of some influence on events.  The unfortunate fact of the matter is that bifurcation points are generally irreversible.  Once past such a point, the system can’t go back to a point before it.

Given the impact that fossil fuels had on the development of world civilization, their discovery was clearly such a fork in the road.  Rather than flattening out politely as other species’ growth curves tend to do, ours kept on rising.  And rising, and rising. 

What is a sustainable population level?

Now we come to the heart of the matter.  Okay, we all accept that the human race is in overshoot.  But how deep into overshoot are we?  What is the carrying capacity of our planet?  The answers to these questions,after all, define a sustainable population.

Not surprisingly, the answers are quite hard to tease out.  Various numbers have been put forward, each with its set of stated and unstated assumptions –not the least of which is the assumed standard of living (or consumption profile) of the average person.  For those familiar with Ehrlich and Holdren’s I=PAT equation, if “I” represents the environmental impact of a sustainable population, then for any population value “P” there is a corresponding value for “AT”, the level of Activity and Technology that can be sustained for that population level.  In other words, the higher our standard of living climbs, the lower our population level must fall in order to be sustainable. This is discussed further in an earlier article on Thermodynamic Footprints.

To get some feel for the enormous range of uncertainty in sustainability estimates we’ll look at six assessments, each of which leads to a very different outcome.  We’ll start with the most optimistic one, and work our way down the scale.

The Ecological Footprint Assessment

The concept of the Ecological Footprint was developed in 1992 by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the Earth’s ecosystems. It is a standardized measure of demand for natural capital that may be contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate. It represents the amount of biologically productive land and sea area necessary to supply the resources a human population consumes, and to assimilate associated waste. As it is usually published, the value is an estimate of how many planet Earths it would take to support humanity with everyone following their current lifestyle.

It has a number of fairly glaring flaws that cause it to be hyper-optimistic. The “ecological footprint” is basically for renewable resources only. It includes a theoretical but underestimated factor for non-renewable resources.  It does not take into account the unfolding effects of climate change, ocean acidification or biodiversity loss (i.e. species extinctions).  It is intuitively clear that no number of “extra planets” would compensate for such degradation.

Still, the estimate as of the end of 2012 is that our overall ecological footprint is about “1.7 planets”.  In other words, there is at least 1.7 times too much human activity for the long-term health of this single, lonely planet.  To put it yet another way, we are 70% into overshoot.

It would probably be fair to say that by this accounting method the sustainable population would be (7 / 1.7) or about four billion people at our current average level of affluence.  As you will see, other assessments make this estimate seem like a happy fantasy.

The Fossil Fuel Assessment

The main accelerator of human activity over the last 150 to 200 years has been our exploitation of the planet’s stocks of fossil fuel.  Before 1800 there was very little fossil fuel in general use, with most energy being derived from the flows represented by wood, wind, water, animal and human power. The following graph demonstrates the precipitous rise in fossil fuel use since then, and especially since 1950.


Graphic by Gail Tverberg

This information was the basis for my earlier Thermodynamic Footprint analysis.  That article investigated the influence of technological energy (87% of which comes from fossil fuel stocks) on human planetary impact, in terms of how much it multiplies the effect of each “naked ape”. The following graph illustrates the multiplier at different points in history:


Fossil fuels have powered the increase in all aspects of civilization, including population growth.  The “Green Revolution” in agriculture that was kicked off by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug in the late 1940s was largely a fossil fuel phenomenon, relying on mechanization, powered irrigation and synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels. This enormous increase in food production supported a swift rise in population numbers, in a classic ecological feedback loop: more food (supply) => more people (demand) => more food => more people etc…

Over the core decades of the Green Revolution from 1950 to 1980 the world population almost doubled, from fewer than 2.5 billion to over 4.5 billion.  The average population growth over those three decades was 2% per year.  Compare that to 0.5% from 1800 to 1900; 1.00% from 1900 to 1950; and 1.5% from 1980 until now:

This analysis makes it tempting to conclude that a sustainable population might look similar to the situation in 1800, before the Green Revolution, and before the global adoption of fossil fuels: about 1 billion people living on about 5% of today’s global average energy consumption, all of it derived from renewable energy flows.

It’s tempting (largely because it seems vaguely achievable), but unfortunately that number may still be too high.  Even in 1800 the signs of human overshoot were clear, if not well recognized:  there was already widespread deforestation through Europe and the Middle East; and desertification had set into the previously lush agricultural zones of North Africa and the Middle East.

Not to mention that if we did start over with “just” one billion people, an annual growth rate of a mere 0.5% would put the population back over seven billion in just 400 years.  Unless the growth rate can be kept down very close to zero, such a situation is decidedly unsustainable.

 

The Population Density Assessment

There is another way to approach the question.  If we assume that the human species was sustainable at some point in the past, what point might we choose and what conditions contributed to our apparent sustainability at that time?

I use a very strict definition of sustainability.  It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.”  This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

In order to find a population that I was fairly confident met my definition of sustainability, I had to look well back in history – in fact back into Paleolithic times.  The sustainability conditions I chose were: a very low population density and very low energy use, with both maintained over multiple thousands of years. I also assumed the populace would each use about as much energy as a typical hunter-gatherer: about twice the daily amount of energy a person obtains from the food they eat.

There are about 150 million square kilometers, or 60 million square miles of land on Planet Earth.  However, two thirds of that area is covered by snow, mountains or deserts, or has little or no topsoil.  This leaves about 50 million square kilometers (20 million square miles) that is habitable by humans without high levels of technology.


A typical population density for a non-energy-assisted society of hunter-forager-gardeners is between 1 person per square mile and 1 person per square kilometer. Because humans living this way had settled the entire planet by the time agriculture was invented 10,000 years ago, this number pegs a reasonable upper boundary for a sustainable world population in the range of 20 to 50 million people.

I settled on the average of these two numbers, 35 million people.  That was because it matches known hunter-forager population densities, and because those densities were maintained with virtually zero population growth (less than 0.01% per year)during the 67,000 years from the time of the Toba super-volcano eruption in 75,000 BC until 8,000 BC (Agriculture Day on Planet Earth).

If we were to spread our current population of 7 billion evenly over 50 million square kilometers, we would have an average density of 150 per square kilometer.  Based just on that number, and without even considering our modern energy-driven activities, our current population is at least 250 times too big to be sustainable. To put it another way, we are now 25,000% into overshoot based on our raw population numbers alone.

As I said above, we also need to take the population’s standard of living into account. Our use of technological energy gives each of us the average planetary impact of about 20 hunter-foragers.  What would the sustainable population be if each person kept their current lifestyle, which is given as an average current Thermodynamic Footprint (TF) of 20?

We can find the sustainable world population number for any level of human activity by using the I = PAT equation mentioned above.

  • We decided above that the maximum hunter-forager population we could accept as sustainable would be 35 million people, each with a Thermodynamic Footprint of 1.
  • First, we set I (the allowable total impact for our sustainable population) to 35, representing those 35 million hunter-foragers.
  • Next, we set AT to be the TF representing the desired average lifestyle for our population.  In this case that number is 20.
  • We can now solve the equation for P.  Using simple algebra, we know that I = P x AT is equivalent to P = I / AT.  Using that form of the equation we substitute in our values, and we find that P = 35 / 20.  In this case P = 1.75.

This number tells us that if we want to keep the average level of per-capita consumption we enjoy in today’s world, we would enter an overshoot situation above a global population of about 1.75 million people. By this measure our current population of 7 billion is about 4,000 times too big and active for long-term sustainability. In other words, by this measure we are we are now 400,000% into overshoot.

Using the same technique we can calculate that achieving a sustainable population with an American lifestyle (TF = 78) would permit a world population of only 650,000 people – clearly not enough to sustain a modern global civilization.

For the sake of comparison, it is estimated that the historical world population just after the dawn of agriculture in 8,000 BC was about five million, and in Year 1 was about 200 million.  We crossed the upper threshold of planetary sustainability in about 2000 BC, and have been in deepening overshoot for the last 4,000 years.

The Ecological Assessments

As a species, human beings share much in common with other large mammals.  We breathe, eat, move around to find food and mates, socialize, reproduce and die like all other mammalian species.  Our intellect and culture, those qualities that make us uniquely human, are recent additions to our essential primate nature, at least in evolutionary terms.

Consequently it makes sense to compare our species’ performance to that of other, similar species – species that we know for sure are sustainable.  I was fortunate to find the work of American marine biologist Dr. Charles W. Fowler, who has a deep interest in sustainability and the ecological conundrum posed by human beings.  The following three assessments are drawn from Dr. Fowler’s work.

 

First assessment

In 2003, Dr. Fowler and Larry Hobbs co-wrote a paper titled, Is humanity sustainable?”  that was published by the Royal Society.  In it, they compared a variety of ecological measures across 31 species including humans. The measures included biomass consumption, energy consumption, CO2 production, geographical range size, and population size.

It should come as no great surprise that in most of the comparisons humans had far greater impact than other species, even to a 99% confidence level.  When it came to population size, Fowler and Hobbs found that there are over two orders of magnitude more humans than one would expect based on a comparison to other species – 190 times more, in fact.  Similarly, our CO2 emissions outdid other species by a factor of 215.

Based on this research, Dr. Fowler concluded that there are about 200 times too many humans on the planet.  This brings up an estimate for a sustainable population of 35 million people.

This is the same as the upper bound established above by examining hunter-gatherer population densities.  The similarity of the results is not too surprising, since the hunter-gatherers of 50,000 years ago were about as close to “naked apes” as humans have been in recent history.

 

Second assessment

In 2008, five years after the publication cited above, Dr. Fowler wrote another paper entitled Maximizing biodiversity, information and sustainability.”  In this paper he examined the sustainability question from the point of view of maximizing biodiversity.  In other words, what is the largest human population that would not reduce planetary biodiversity?

This is, of course, a very stringent test, and one that we probably failed early in our history by extirpating mega-fauna in the wake of our migrations across a number of continents.

In this paper, Dr. Fowler compared 96 different species, and again analyzed them in terms of population, CO2 emissions and consumption patterns.

This time, when the strict test of biodiversity retention was applied, the results were truly shocking, even to me.  According to this measure, humans have overpopulated the Earth by almost 700 times.  In order to preserve maximum biodiversity on Earth, the human population may be no more than 10 million people – each with the consumption of a Paleolithic hunter-forager.

Addendum: Third assessment

After this article was initially written, Dr. Fowler forwarded me a copy of an appendix to his 2009 book, “Systemic Management: Sustainable Human Interactions with Ecosystems and the Biosphere”, published by Oxford University Press.  In it he describes yet one more technique for comparing humans with other mammalian species, this time in terms of observed population densities, total population sizes and ranges.

After carefully comparing us to various species of both herbivores and carnivores of similar body size, he draws this devastating conclusion: the human population is about 1000 times larger than expected. This is in line with the second assessment above, though about 50% more pessimistic.  It puts a sustainable human population at about 7 million.

Urk!

 

Conclusions

As you can see, the estimates for a sustainable human population vary widely – by a factor of 500 from the highest to the lowest.

The Ecological Footprint doesn’t really seem intended as a measure of sustainability.  Its main value is to give people with no exposure to ecology some sense that we are indeed over-exploiting our planet.  (It also has the psychological advantage of feeling achievable with just a little work.)  As a measure of sustainability, it is not helpful.

As I said above, the number suggested by the Thermodynamic Footprint or Fossil Fuel analysis isn’t very helpful either – even a population of one billion people without fossil fuels had already gone into overshoot.

That leaves us with four estimates: two at 35 million, one of 10 million, and one of 7 million.

The central number of 35 million people is confirmed by two analyses using different data and assumptions.  My conclusion is that this is probably the absolutely largest human population that could be considered sustainable.  The realistic but similarly unachievable number is probably more in line with the bottom two estimates, somewhere below 10 million.

I think the lowest two estimates (Fowler 2008, and Fowler 2009) are as unrealistically high as all the others in this case, primarily because human intelligence and problem-solving ability makes our destructive impact on biodiversity a foregone conclusion. After all, we drove other species to extinction 40,000 years ago, when our total population was estimated to be under 1 million.

 

So, what can we do with this information?  It’s obvious that we will not (and probably cannot) voluntarily reduce our population by 99.5% to 99.9%.  Even an involuntary reduction of this magnitude would involve enormous suffering and a very uncertain outcome.  It’s close enough to zero that if Mother Nature blinked, we’d be gone.

In fact, the analysis suggests that Homo sapiens is an inherently unsustainable species.  This outcome seems virtually guaranteed by our neocortex, by the very intelligence that has enabled our rise to unprecedented dominance over our planet’s biosphere.  Is intelligence an evolutionary blind alley?  From the singular perspective of our own species, it quite probably is. If we are to find some greater meaning or deeper future for intelligence in the universe, we may be forced to look beyond ourselves and adopt a cosmic, rather than a human, perspective.

 

Discussion

 

How do we get out of this jam?


How might we get from where we are today to a sustainable world population of 35 million or so?  We should probably discard the notion of “managing” such a population decline.  If we can’t even get our population to simply stop growing, an outright reduction of over 99% is simply not in the cards.  People seem virtually incapable of taking these kinds of decisions in large social groups.  We can decide to stop reproducing, but only as individuals or (perhaps) small groups. Without the essential broad social support, such personal choices will make precious little difference to the final outcome.  Politicians will by and large not even propose an idea like “managed population decline”  – not if they want to gain or remain in power, at any rate.  China’s brave experiment with one-child families notwithstanding, any global population decline will be purely involuntary.

Crash?


A world population decline would (will) be triggered and fed by our civilization’s encounter with limits.  These limits may show up in any area: accelerating climate change, weather extremes,shrinking food supplies, fresh water depletion, shrinking energy supplies,pandemic diseases, breakdowns in the social fabric due to excessive complexity,supply chain breakdowns, electrical grid failures, a breakdown of the international financial system, international hostilities – the list of candidates is endless, and their interactions are far too complex to predict.

In 2007, shortly after I grasped the concept and implications of Peak Oil, I wrote my first web article on population decline: Population: The Elephant in the Room.  In it I sketched out the picture of a monolithic population collapse: a straight-line decline from today’s seven billion people to just one billion by the end of this century.


As time has passed I’ve become less confident in this particular dystopian vision.  It now seems to me that human beings may be just a bit tougher than that.  We would fight like demons to stop the slide, though we would potentially do a lot more damage to the environment in the process.  We would try with all our might to cling to civilization and rebuild our former glory.  Different physical, environmental and social situations around the world would result in a great diversity in regional outcomes.  To put it plainly, a simple “slide to oblivion” is not in the cards for any species that could recover from the giant Toba volcanic eruption in just 75,000 years.

Or Tumble?

Still, there are those physical limits I mentioned above.  They are looming ever closer, and it seems a foregone conclusion that we will begin to encounter them for real within the next decade or two. In order to draw a slightly more realistic picture of what might happen at that point, I created the following thought experiment on involuntary population decline. It’s based on the idea that our population will not simply crash, but will oscillate (tumble) down a series of stair-steps: first dropping as we puncture the limits to growth; then falling below them; then partially recovering; only to fall again; partially recover; fall; recover…

I started the scenario with a world population of 8 billion people in 2030. I assumed each full cycle of decline and partial recovery would take six generations, or 200 years.  It would take three generations (100 years) to complete each decline and then three more in recovery, for a total cycle time of 200 years. I assumed each decline would take out 60% of the existing population over its hundred years, while each subsequent rise would add back only half of the lost population.

In ten full cycles – 2,000 years – we would be back to a sustainable population of about 40-50 million. The biggest drop would be in the first 100 years, from 2030 to 2130 when we would lose a net 53 million people per year. Even that is only a loss of 0.9% pa, compared to our net growth today of 1.1%, that’s easily within the realm of the conceivable,and not necessarily catastrophic – at least to begin with.

As a scenario it seems a lot more likely than a single monolithic crash from here to under a billion people.  Here’s what it looks like:


It’s important to remember that this scenario is not a prediction. It’s an attempt to portray a potential path down the population hill that seems a bit more probable than a simple, “Crash! Everybody dies.”

It’s also important to remember that the decline will probably not happen anything like this, either. With climate change getting ready to push humanity down the stairs, and the strong possibility that the overall global temperature will rise by 5 or 6 degrees Celsius even before the end of that first decline cycle, our prospects do not look even this “good” from where I stand.

Rest assured, I’m not trying to present 35 million people as some kind of “population target”. It’s just part of my attempt to frame what we’re doing to the planet, in terms of what some of us see as the planetary ecosphere’s level of tolerance for our abuse.

The other potential implicit in this analysis is that if we did drop from 8 to under 1 billion, we could then enter a population free-fall. As a result, we might keep falling until we hit the bottom of Olduvai Gorge again. My numbers are an attempt to define how many people might stagger away from such a crash landing.  Some people seem to believe that such an event could be manageable.  I don’t share that belief for a moment. These calculations are my way of getting that message out.

I figure if I’m going to draw a line in the sand, I’m going to do it on behalf of all life, not just our way of life.

 

What can we do? 


To be absolutely clear, after ten years of investigating what I affectionately call “The Global Clusterfuck”, I do not think it can be prevented, mitigated or managed in any way.  If and when it happens, it will follow its own dynamic, and the force of events could easily make the Japanese and Andaman tsunamis seem like pleasant days at the beach.

The most effective preparations that we can make will all be done by individuals and small groups.  It will be up to each of us to decide what our skills, resources and motivations call us to do.  It will be different for each of us – even for people in the same neighborhood, let alone people on opposite sides of the world.

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that each of us will do whatever we think is appropriate for the circumstances, in whatever part of the world we can influence. The outcome of our actions is ultimately unforeseeable, because it depends on how the efforts of all 7 billion of us converge, co-operate and compete.  The end result will be quite different from place to place – climate change impacts will vary, resources vary, social structures vary, values and belief systems are different all over the world.The best we can do is to do our best.

Here is my advice: 

  • Stay awake to what’s happening around us.
  • Don’t get hung up by other people’s “shoulds and shouldn’ts”.
  • Occasionally re-examine our personal values.  If they aren’t in alignment with what we think the world needs, change them.
  • Stop blaming people. Others are as much victims of the times as we are – even the CEOs and politicians.
  • Blame, anger and outrage is pointless.  It wastes precious energy that we will need for more useful work.
  • Laugh a lot, at everything – including ourselves.
  • Hold all the world’s various beliefs and “isms” lightly, including our own.
  • Forgive others. Forgive ourselves. For everything.
  • Love everything just as deeply as you can.

That’s what I think might be helpful. If we get all that personal stuff right, then doing the physical stuff about food, water, housing,transportation, energy, politics and the rest of it will come easy – or at least a bit easier. And we will have a lot more fun doing it.

I wish you all the best of luck!
Bodhi Paul Chefurka
May 16, 2013

 





All people are not equal…in terms of climate

19 02 2015

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane who this time speaks up on the touchy issue of population.  And economics.  It’s refreshing to see anyone tying all the loose ends together and seeing the big picture, which is why I love Mark…  we need more Mark Cochranes, and his musings need to go far and wide.

The population issue is a contentious predicament. Few people would argue that we don’t have a population problem but there are even fewer willing to do anything about it. Who dies or loses the rights to procreate? Our exponential population growth fits right in with our crazed economic model of infinite exponential growth. Our economy needs exponentially increasing consumption of resources to support the exponential increase in money and that requires exponentially more consumers to drive the process. Look at those places where populations aren’t keeping up their end of the growth curve (Japan, Italy) and you see major economic problems. Nobody talks about this little predicament. For now, developed countries can import needed consumers (immigration) as their populations slow their procreation rates but if this ever becomes a global problem where human beings are a globally limited resource our house of economic cards is going to collapse, assuming any number of other problems don’t bring it down first.

Since we are debating Anthropogenic Climate Change (i.e. human-caused climate change) it goes without saying that the number of us on the planet is one of the root causes of our current dilemma. However people are not all equal or exchangeable in terms of their impacts on the planet.

A few years ago, I provided a book review for “Developing Ecological Consciousness” and the author posed an interesting question. Which country is more overpopulated, the United States or India? At the time, a typical American used 20 times as many resources as a typical Indian. Therefore, our 300 million strong population is equivalent to 6 billion typical Indian people. India has over 1.2 billion people right now. We need less people everywhere but the US is heavily responsible for driving our global environmental problems.

I recently read the 30-yr update for Limits to Growth and had the good fortune to spend time with Dennis Meadows when we were both presenting at last years Age of Limits conference. As Les reports, Dennis doesn’t see intervention as being plausible at this point. We were warned, but instead of preparing we turned up the music and partied harder. We’ve vastly overshot the reasonable carrying capacity of the planet and will have to face a reckoning at some point. Our fears are of a catastrophic collapse of famine, disease and zombies with massive death over a short period but it doesn’t have to be that way.  We could string things out by working it such that our death rate exceeds our birthrate in any number of ways to get there but it doesn’t have to happen suddenly. We can even grow populations more (stupid) or soften the downward slope to coast down to a more sustainable population by simply using less resources per capita (gasp). If Americans all suddenly shifted to Indian consumption rates it would be the equivalent of dropping 285 million people from our resource-use population draw-down rate on the planet. Unfortunately, instead of doing something sensible like this, we are instead trying to lift the consumption rates of the 1.2 billion Indians to American living standards. That will be equivalent to having an additional 22.8 billion previous Indian consumers joining us on the planet! Nothing could go wrong with that…

The incentives of our misguided economic system are what is driving us off the resource cliff in the Limits to Growth graph and we will soon meet the population cliff too if we don’t start planning for a serious transition to reduced energy, resource and food use.





Countdown

28 11 2014

Alan Weisman

Another very good Youtube clip, this one on population.

To avoid the scenario laid out in his bestselling The World Without Us, Weisman formulated a series of questions about sustainability and population limits, then traveled to some twenty countries to find out what leaders and scientists think. Here’s his report on the future of humanity on this planet.

Founded by Carla Cohen and Barbara Meade in 1984, Politics & Prose Bookstore is Washington, D.C.’s premier independent bookstore and cultural hub, a gathering place for people interested in reading and discussing books. Politics & Prose offers superior service, unusual book choices, and a haven for book lovers in the store and online. http://www.politics-prose.com/





You don’t know shit

21 11 2014

I’m well known for predicting the demise of large modern cities.  Utterly convinced of their massive unsustainability I am…  apart from the vulnerability of their food distribution systems in a collapsing fossil fuelled world, there is the issue of sewerage.  People in cities just flush and forget, but have no idea of what happens afterwards.  Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants to know what happens to their shit!  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t find it the most palatable of subjects myself, but if you’re interested in sustainability, then shit is a major issue.

Then, along comes this film past my intray.  It’s times like these you’re glad they haven’t yet worked out how to make your computer generate smells as well as sounds..!  All the same, it’s a real eye opener.

There is no doubt that sewerage saved London (the first sewered city in the world, if you don’t count Rome a couple of thousand years ago – though it wasn’t sewers as we know them that they used back that far., but sewers did not save us from cities.  Cities MUST have sewers, they are simply too big and there are too many people to deal with.  At one million inhabitants, Rome had it easy compared to those cities today that count their citizens in the tens of millions…..

So, watch this……:

I knew these things were complex, but this blew me away nonetheless, because all I could think about as the film advanced was “what will they do when the oil runs out…?”

It is simply extraordinary how I can achieve the exact same results they do, using just a couple of 4W fans…..

toilettoiletchambers

Complexity will kill complex civilisation.  it was built off the back of huge amounts of surplus energy.  For me, the future of civilisation comes down to just those two words: SURPLUS ENERGY.  Nothing else matters.  Here is Susan Krumdieck on ERoEI and nett or surplus energy….





The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

15 05 2014

heinbergA guest post from my friend Richard Heinberg, originally published as MuseLetter #264 in May 2014.  This is a long but important essay. I recommend a large cup of your favourite poison, and a biscuit or two….  Enjoy!

Download printable PDF version here (PDF, 126 KB)

 

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favours, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: a world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to the Earth system. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris (who admits to having spent almost no time in wilderness), argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because . . . it’s all about us!

*          *          *

The viability of the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” version of the Anthropocene—let’s call it the Techno-Anthropocene—probably hinges on prospects for nuclear power. A concentrated, reliable energy source will be required for the maintenance and growth of industrial civilization, and just about everybody agrees that—whether or not we’re at the point of “peak oil”—fossil fuels won’t continue energizing civilization for centuries and millennia to come. Solar and wind are more environmentally benign sources, but they are diffuse and intermittent. Of society’s current non-fossil energy sources, only nuclear is concentrated, available on demand, and (arguably) capable of significant expansion. Thus it’s no accident that Techno-Anthropocene boosters such as Mark Lynas, Stewart Brand, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger are also big nuclear proponents.

But the prospects for current nuclear technology are not rosy. The devastating Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 scared off citizens and governments around the globe. Japan will be dealing with the radiation and health impacts for decades if not centuries, and the West Coast of the US is gearing up for an influx of radioactive ocean water and debris. There is still no good solution for storing the radioactive waste produced even when reactors are operating as planned. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build and typically suffer from hefty cost over-runs. The world supply of uranium is limited, and shortages are likely by mid-century even with no major expansion of power plants. And, atomic power plants are tied to nuclear weapons proliferation.

In 2012, The Economist magazine devoted a special issue to a report on nuclear energy; tellingly, the report was titled, “Nuclear Power: The Dream that Failed.” Its conclusion: the nuclear industry may be on the verge of expansion in just a few nations, principally China; elsewhere, it’s on life support.

None of this daunts Techno-Anthropocene proponents, who say new nuclear technology has the potential to fulfill the promises originally made for the current fleet of atomic power plants. The centerpiece of this new technology is the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR).

Unlike light water reactors (which comprise the vast majority of nuclear power plants in service today), IFRs would use sodium as a coolant. The IFR nuclear reaction features fast neutrons, and it more thoroughly consumes radioactive fuel, leaving less waste. Indeed, IFRs could use current radioactive waste as fuel. Also, they are alleged to offer greater operational safety and less risk of weapons proliferation.

These arguments are forcefully made in the 2013 documentary, “Pandora’s Promise,” produced and directed by Robert Stone. The film asserts that IFRs are our best tool to mitigate anthropogenic global warming, and it goes on to claim there has been a deliberate attempt by misguided bureaucrats to sabotage the development of IFR reactors.

However, critics of the film say these claims are overblown and that fast-reactor technology is highly problematic. Earlier versions of the fast breeder reactor (of which IFR is a version) were commercial failures and safety disasters. Proponents of the Integral Fast Reactor, say the critics, overlook its exorbitant development and deployment costs and continued proliferation risks. IFR theoretically “transmutes,” rather than eliminates, radioactive waste. Yet the technology is decades away from widespread implementation, and its use of liquid sodium as a coolant can lead to fires and explosions.

David Biello, writing in Scientific American, concludes that, “To date, fast neutron reactors have consumed six decades and $100 billion of global effort but remain ‘wishful thinking.’”

Even if advocates of IFR reactors are correct, there is one giant practical reason they may not power the Anthropocene: we likely won’t see the benefit from them soon enough to make much of a difference. The challenges of climate change and fossil fuel depletion require action now, not decades hence.

Assuming enough investment capital, and assuming a future in which we have decades in which to improve existing technologies, IFR reactors might indeed show significant advantages over current light water reactors (only many years of experience can tell for sure). But we don’t have the luxury of limitless investment capital, and we don’t have decades in which to work out the bugs and build out this complex, unproven technology.

The Economist’s verdict stands: “[N]uclear power will continue to be a creature of politics not economics, with any growth a function of political will or a side-effect of protecting electrical utilities from open competition. . . . Nuclear power will not go away, but its role may never be more than marginal.”

*          *          *

Defying risk of redundancy, I will hammer home the point: cheap, abundant energy is the prerequisite for the Techno-Anthropocene. We can only deal with the challenges of resource depletion and overpopulation by employing more energy. Running out of fresh water? Just build desalination plants (that use lots of energy). Degrading topsoil in order to produce enough grain to feed ten billion people? Just build millions of hydroponic greenhouses (that need lots of energy for their construction and operation). As we mine deeper deposits of metals and minerals and refine lower-grade ores, we’ll require more energy. Energy efficiency gains may help us do more with each increment of power, but a growing population and rising per-capita consumption rates will more than overcome those gains (as they have consistently done in recent decades). Any way you look at it, if we are to maintain industrial society’s current growth trajectory we will need more energy, we will need it soon, and our energy sources will have to meet certain criteria—for example, they will need to emit no carbon while at the same time being economically viable.

These essential criteria can be boiled down to four words: quantity, quality, price, and timing. Nuclear fusion could theoretically provide energy in large amounts, but not soon. The same is true of cold fusion (even if—and it’s a big if—the process can be confirmed to actually work and can be scaled up). Biofuels offer a very low energy return on the energy invested in producing them (a deal-breaking quality issue). Ocean thermal and wave power may serve coastal cities, but again the technology needs to be proven and scaled up. Coal with carbon capture and storage is economically uncompetitive with other sources of electricity. Solar and wind are getting cheaper, but they’re intermittent and tend to undermine commercial utility companies’ business models. While our list of potential energy sources is long, none of these sources is ready to be plugged quickly into our existing system to provide energy in the quantity, and at the price, that the economy needs in order to continue growing.

This means that humanity’s near future will almost certainly be energy-constrained. And that, in turn, will ensure—rather than engineering nature on an ever-greater scale—we will still be depending on ecosystems that are largely beyond our control.

As a species, we’ve gained an impressive degree of influence over our environment by deliberately simplifying ecosystems so they will support more humans, but fewer other species. Our principal strategy in this project has been agriculture—primarily a form of agriculture that focuses on a few annual grain crops. We’ve commandeered up to 50 percent of the primary biological productivity of our planet, mostly through farming and forestry. Doing this has had overwhelmingly negative impacts on non-domesticated plants and animals. The subsequent loss of biodiversity is increasingly compromising humanity’s prospects, because we depend upon countless ecosystem services (such as pollination and oxygen regeneration)—services we do not organize or control, and for which we do not pay.

The essence of our problem is this: the side effects of our growth binge are compounding rapidly and threaten a crisis in which the artificial support systems we’ve built over past decades (food, transport, and financial systems, among others)—as well as nature’s wild systems, on which we still also depend—could all crash more or less simultaneously.

If we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns and potential crisis with regard to our current strategy of constant population/consumption growth and ecosystem takeover, then it would seem that a change of direction is necessary and inevitable. If we were smart, rather than attempting to dream up ways of further re-engineering natural systems in untested (and probably unaffordable) ways, we would be limiting and ameliorating the environmental impacts of our global industrial system while reducing our population and overall consumption levels.

If we don’t proactively limit population and consumption, nature will eventually do it for us, and likely by very unpleasant means (famine, plague, and perhaps war). Similarly, we can rein in consumption simply by continuing to deplete resources until they become unaffordable.

Governments are probably incapable of leading a strategic retreat in our war on nature, as they are systemically hooked on economic growth. But there may be another path forward. Perhaps citizens and communities can initiate a change of direction. Back in the 1970s, as the first energy shocks hit home and the environmental movement flourished, ecological thinkers began tackling the question: what are the most biologically regenerative, least harmful ways of meeting basic human needs? Two of these thinkers, Australians David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, came up with a system they called Permaculture. According to Mollison, “Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”  Today there are thousands of Permaculture practitioners throughout the world, and Permaculture Design courses are frequently on offer in almost every country.

Permaculture principles

Other ecologists didn’t aim to create an overarching system, but merely engaged in piecemeal research on practices that might lead to a more sustainable mode of food production—practices that include intercropping, mulching, and composting. One ambitious agricultural scientist, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina Kansas, has spent the past four decades breeding perennial grain crops (he points out that our current annual grains are responsible for the vast bulk of soil erosion, to the tune of 25 billion tons per year).

Meanwhile, community resilience efforts have sprung up in thousands of towns and cities around the world—including the Transition Initiatives, which are propelled by a compelling, flexible, grassroots organizing model and a vision of a future in which life is better without fossil fuels.

Population Media Center is working to ensure we don’t get to ten billion humans by enlisting creative artists in countries with high population growth rates (which are usually also among the world’s poorest nations) to produce radio and television soap operas featuring strong female characters who successfully confront issues related to family planning. This strategy has been shown to be the most cost-effective and humane means of reducing high birth rates in these nations.

What else can be done? Substitute labour for fuel. Localize food systems. Capture atmospheric carbon in soil and biomass. Replant forests and restore ecosytems. Recycle and re-use. Manufacture more durable goods. Rethink economics to deliver human satisfaction without endless growth. There are organizations throughout the world working to further each of these goals, usually with little or no government support. Taken together, they could lead us to an entirely different Anthropocene.

Call it the Lean-Green Anthropocene.

*          *          *

The Techno-Anthropocene has an Achilles heel: energy (more specifically, the failings of nuclear power). The Lean-Green Anthropocene has one as well: human nature.

It’s hard to convince people to voluntarily reduce consumption and curb reproduction. That’s not because humans are unusually pushy, greedy creatures; all living organisms tend to maximize their population size and rate of collective energy use. Inject a colony of bacteria into a suitable growth medium in a petri dish and watch what happens. Hummingbirds, mice, leopards, oarfish, redwood trees, or giraffes: in each instance the principle remains inviolate—every species maximizes population and energy consumption within nature’s limits. Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum called this rule the Maximum Power Principle: throughout nature, “system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency.”

In addition to our innate propensity to maximize population and consumption, we humans also have difficulty making sacrifices in the present in order to reduce future costs. We’re genetically hardwired to respond to immediate threats with fight-or-flight responses, while distant hazards matter much less to us. It’s not that we don’t think about the future at all; rather, we unconsciously apply a discount rate based on the amount of time likely to elapse before a menace has to be faced.

True, there is some variation in future-anticipating behavior among individual humans. A small percentage of the population may change behavior now to reduce risks to forthcoming generations, while the great majority is less likely to do so. If that small percentage could oversee our collective future planning, we might have much less to worry about. But that’s tough to arrange in democracies, where people, politicians, corporations, and even nonprofit organizations get ahead by promising immediate rewards, usually in the form of more economic growth. If none of these can organize a proactive response to long-range threats like climate change, the actions of a few individuals and communities may not be so effective at mitigating the hazard.

This pessimistic expectation is borne out by experience. The general outlines of the 21st century ecological crisis have been apparent since the 1970s. Yet not much has actually been accomplished through efforts to avert that crisis. It is possible to point to hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of imaginative, courageous programs to reduce, recycle, and reuse—yet the overall trajectory of industrial civilization remains relatively unchanged.

*          *          *

Human nature may not permit the Lean-Greens’ message to altogether avert ecological crisis, but that doesn’t mean the message is pointless. To understand how it could have longer-term usefulness despite our tendency toward short-term thinking, it’s helpful to step back and look at how societies’ relationship with the environment tends to evolve.

The emblematic ecological crises of the Anthropocene (runaway climate change and ocean acidification, among others) are recent, but humans have been altering our environment one way or another for a long time. Indeed, there is controversy among geologists over when the Anthropocene began: some say it started with the industrial revolution, others tag it at the beginning of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, while still others tie it to the emergence of modern humans thousands of years earlier.

Humans have become world-changers as a result of two primary advantages: we have dexterous hands that enable us to make and use tools, and we have language, which helps us coordinate our actions over time and space. As soon as both were in place, we started using them to take over ecosystems. Paleoanthropologists can date the arrival of humans to Europe, Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and the Americas by noting the timing of extinctions of large prey species. The list of animals probably eradicated by early humans is long, and includes (in Europe) several species of elephants and rhinos; (in Australia) giant wombats, kangaroos, and lizards; and (in the Americas) horses, mammoths, and giant deer.

People have also been deliberately re-engineering ecosystems for tens of thousands of years, principally by using fire to alter landscapes so they will produce more food for humans. Agriculture was a huge boost to our ability to produce more food on less land, and therefore to grow our population. Farming yielded storable food surpluses, which led to cities—the basis of civilization. It was in these urban social cauldrons that writing, money, and mathematics emerged.

If agriculture nudged the human project forward, fossil-fueled industrialism turbocharged it. In just the past two centuries, population and energy consumption have increased by over 800 percent. Our impact on the biosphere has more than kept pace.

The industrialization of agriculture reduced the need for farm labour. This enabled—or forced—billions to move to cities. As more people came to live in urban centres, they found themselves increasingly cut off from wild nature and ever more completely engaged with words, images, symbols, and tools.

There’s a term for the human tendency to look at the biosphere, maybe even the universe, as though it’s all about us: anthropocentrism. Up to a point, this is an understandable and even inevitable propensity. Every person, after all, is the centre of her own universe, the star of his own movie; why should our species as a whole be less egocentric? Other animals are similarly obsessed with their own kind: regardless of who furnishes the kibbles, dogs are obsessively interested in other dogs. But there are healthy and unhealthy degrees of individual and species self-centeredness. When individual human self-absorption becomes blatantly destructive we call it narcissism. Can a whole species be overly self-absorbed? Hunter-gatherers were certainly interested in their own survival, but many indigenous forager peoples thought of themselves as part of a larger community of life, with a responsibility to maintain the web of existence. Today we think more “pragmatically” (as an economist might put it), as we bulldoze, deforest, overfish, and deplete our way to world domination.

However, history does not portray a steady ramp-up of human hubris and alienation from nature. Periodically humans were slapped down. Famine, resource conflicts, and disease decimated populations that were previously growing. Civilizations rose, then fell. Financial manias led to crashes. Boomtowns became ghost towns.

Ecological slap-downs probably occurred with relatively great frequency in pre-agricultural times, when humans depended more directly on nature’s variable productivity of wild foods. The Aboriginals of Australia and the Native Americans—who are often regarded as exemplar intuitive ecologists due to their traditions and rituals restraining population growth, protecting prey species, and affirming humanity’s place within the larger ecosystem—were probably just applying lessons from bitter experience. It’s only when we humans get slapped down hard a few times that we start to appreciate other species’ importance, restrain our greed, and learn to live in relative harmony with our surroundings.

Which prompts the question: Are the Lean-Green Anthropocene prophets our species’ early warning system whose function is to avert catastrophe—or are they merely ahead of their time, pre-adapting to an ecological slap-down that is foreseeable but not yet fully upon us?

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Throughout history, humans appear to have lived under two distinct regimes: boom times and dark ages. Boom times occurred in prehistory whenever people arrived in a new habitat to discover an abundance of large prey animals. Booms were also associated with the exploitation of new energy resources (especially coal and oil) and the expansions of great cities—from Uruk, Mohenjo-daro, Rome, Chang’an, Angkor Wat, Tenochtitlan, Venice, and London, all the way to Miami and Dubai. Boom-time behaviour is risk-seeking, confident to the point of arrogance, expansive, and experimental.

Historians use the term dark ages to refer to times when urban centres lose most of their population. Think Europe in the fifth through the fifteenth centuries, the Near East after the Bronze Age collapse around 1200 BCE, Cambodia between 1450 and 1863 CE, or Central America after the Mayan collapse of 900 CE. Dark-age behaviour is conservative and risk-averse. It has echoes in the attitudes of indigenous peoples who have lived in one place long enough to have confronted environmental limits again and again. Dark-age people haven’t skirted the Maximum Power Principle; they’ve just learned (from necessity) to pursue it with more modest strategies.

Needless to say, dark ages have their (ahem) dark side. In the early phases of such periods large numbers of people typically die from famine, also from war or other forms of violence. Dark ages are times of forgetting, when technologies and cultural achievements are often lost. Writing, money, mathematics, and astronomy can all disappear.

Still, these times are not uniformly gloomy. During the European Dark Ages, slavery nearly disappeared as new farming methods and better breeds of horses and oxen made forced human labour less economic. People who previously would have been bound in slavery became either free workers or, at worst, serfs. The latter couldn’t pick up and move without their lord’s permission, but generally enjoyed far more latitude than slaves. At the same time, the rise of Christianity brought new organized charitable activities and institutions, including hospices, hospitals, and shelters for the poor.

Today nearly everyone in the industrialized world has adopted boom-time behaviour. We are encouraged to do so by ceaseless advertising messages and by governmental cheerleaders of the growth economy. After all, we have just lived through the biggest boom in all human history—why not expect more of the same? The only significant slap-downs in recent cultural memory were the Great Depression and a couple of World Wars; in comparison with ecological bottlenecks in ancient eras these were minor affairs; further, they were relatively brief and played out three or more generations ago. For most of us now, dark-age behaviour seems quaint, pointless, and pessimistic.

It would be perverse to wish for a Great Slap-Down. Only a sociopath would welcome massive, widespread human suffering. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore these twin facts: our species’ population-consumption fiesta is killing the planet, and we’re not likely to end the party voluntarily.

Will we avert or face a Great Slap-Down? We’re already seeing initial signs of trouble ahead in extreme weather events, high oil and food prices, and increasing geopolitical tensions. Sadly, it seems that every effort will be made to keep the party going as long as possible. Even amid unmistakable signs of economic contraction, most people will still require time to adapt behaviourally. Moreover, a slap-down likely won’t be sudden and complete, but may unfold in stages. After each mini-slap we’ll hear claims from boom-time diehards that a techno-utopian takeoff has merely been delayed, and that economic expansion will resume if only we will follow this or that leader or political program.

But if urban centres feel the crunch, and if widespread Techno-utopian expectations are dashed, we can expect to see evidence of profound psychological disruption. Gradually, more and more people will conclude—again, as a result of hard experience—that nature isn’t here just for us. Whether this realization emerges from extreme weather, plagues, or resource scarcity, it will lead an ever-expanding share of the populace grudgingly to pay more attention to forces beyond human control.

Just as humans are now shaping the future of Earth, Earth will shape the future of humanity. Amid rapid environmental and social change, the message of the Lean-Greens will gain more obvious relevance. That message may not save the polar bears (though ecosystem protection programs deserve every kind of support), but it might make the inevitable transition to a new species-wide behavioral mode a lot easier. It may lead to a dark age that’s less dark than it would otherwise be, one in which more of our cultural and scientific achievements are preserved. A great deal may depend on the intensity and success of the efforts of the small proportion of the population who are currently open to Lean-Green thinking—success in acquiring skills, in developing institutions, and in communicating a compelling vision of a desirable and sustainable post-boom society.

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.