Why we are so bad at dealing with Limits to Growth..

15 05 2016

ilargi

Raul Ilargi

I know I am prone to say “this is the best thing I have read in years”, but honestly, this essay by Ilargi of The Automatic Earth fame is something else……  read and enjoy, and share widely.  Originally published here…. and republished with the intent of spreading the word.

 

“As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.”

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I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that’s not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It’s the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here’s the short version:

[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published “The Limits to Growth” together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don’t really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he’s talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it’s a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don’t, but it’s not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.

Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.

That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.

First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I’m talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).

In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it’s dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.

And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they’re not.

It’s quite simple, isn’t it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).

And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn’t survive if we had to do without them.

Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn’t a problem to start with.

Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows’ quote applies “specifically” to a “specific” kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.

We can’t reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn’t feel stupid if we can’t (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it’s a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.

However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can’t solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That’s what that quote is about for me, and that’s what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.

In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.

Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don’t acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don’t avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we’re lucky, come out at the other end.

Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.

Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it’s hard for us to realize that many things don’t scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn’t scale up well.

Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it’s something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don’t have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There’s no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It’s deceptively simple: We don’t.

All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.

There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.

Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:

Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.

The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that’s less polluting.

So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That’s perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.

The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.

We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don’t do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.

Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It’s not that we’re running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won’t someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.

The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.

Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can’t ’cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we’re lucky (though that’s a point of contention) we’ll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we’re done.

Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our “leaders” do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We’ve created a zombie and all we’re trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it’s still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.

We’re like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver’s seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.

Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they’ve been at any point in human history, and all we’ve done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we’re scared stiff and we think we’re too stupid to know what’s going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn’t seem to register.

We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We’re not just bad at it, we can’t do it at all. We’re incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.

We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If we don’t manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.

As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.

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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.





Limits to growth on ‘Mainstream Media’

14 02 2015

KerrynBeach photo ed

Dr Kerryn Higgs

I know not everyone would consider the ABC ‘Mainstream Media’, but all the same, the subject of Limits to growth and that evil Club of Rome crowd appearing there feels like some sort of breakthrough…..  you can listen to the podcast at the above link, or read the transcript below if you prefer……

Australian writer Dr Kerryn Higgs (a Tasmanian no less…) has written a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth On A Finite Planet, in which she examines how society’s commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limit of growth, calling them bogus predictions of imminent doom.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Growth or no growth? You may have heard Dick Smith on Breakfast a couple of weeks ago saying that unlimited growth is impossible and we must do something else. But what? There is, of course, a way of improving what we do more efficiently and stopping waste. Peter Newman from Perth gave an example on Late Night Live late last year: If we used trains instead of trucks for freight, it would halve the costs and save many, many lives. We don’t do it because we always do what we’ve always done. Kerryn Higgs, who’s with the University of Tasmania, has just brought out a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, published by MIT Press and she has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome.

Kerryn Higgs: I came across The Limits to Growth quite by accident in 1972, just when it was published. It was commissioned by the Club of Rome and written by a team of researchers at MIT, led by Donella and Dennis Meadows. The book changed the way I thought about Nature, people, history, everything. It persuaded me that physics matters, and that the idea of ever-expanding economic growth is a delusion. Up to then, I was a mainstream humanities person, history being my main discipline, and writing my passion. I did grow up in the countryside and loved the natural world, but I had no real intuition of an impending environmental crisis. And here was this little book suggesting that if we carried on with our exponential expansion, our system would collapse at some point in the middle of the 21st century.

Although galloping economic growth already seemed normal to most younger people living in the developed world in 1972, the growth that took off after WW2 was not normal. It is absolutely unprecedented in all of history. Nothing like it has ever occurred before: large and rapidly growing populations, accelerating industrialisation, expanding production of every kind. All new. The Meadows team found that we could avoid collapse if we slowed down the physical expansion of the economy. But this would mean two very difficult changes— slowing human population growth and slowing the entire cycle of physical production from material extraction through to the disposal of waste. The book was persuasive to me and I expected its message to have an impact on human affairs. But as the years rolled by, it seemed there was very little—and then, even less. In fact, I gradually became aware that most people thought “the Club of Rome got it wrong” and scorned the book as an ignorant tract from “doomsters”, an especially common view among economists. I want to point out, though, that recent research from Melbourne University’s Graham Turner, shows that the Meadows team did not get it wrong. Their projections for what would happen if we carried on business as usual tally almost exactly with what has actually occurred in the 40 years since 1972.

But while scientists from Rachel Carson onwards sounded alarm about numerous problems associated with growth, this was not the case in our govern­ments, bureaucracies, and in public debate, where economic growth was gradually being entrenched as the central objective of collective human effort. This really puzzled me.

How come the Club of Rome got such a terrible press?

How did scientists lose credibility? When I was young, science was almost a god. A few decades later, scientists were being flippantly brushed aside.

How did economists displace scientists as the crucial policy advisers and the architects of public debate, setting the criteria for policy decisions?

How did economic growth become accepted as the only solution to virtually all social problems—unemployment, debt and even the environmental damage growth was causing?

And how did ever-increasing income and consumption become the meaning of life, at least for us in the rich world? It was not the meaning of life when I was young.

Answering these questions took me back through human history. A few developments were especially decisive.

Around 1900, the modern corporation emerged. Over just a decade or two, many of the current transnationals came into being in the US (with names like Coca Cola, Alcoa and DuPont). International Harvester amalgamated 85% of US farm machinery into one corporation in just a few years. Adam Smith’s free enterprise economy was being transformed into something very different. A process of perpetual consolidation followed and by now, frighteningly few corporations control the majority of world trade and revenue, giving them colossal power. The new corporations of the early 20th century banded together into industry associations and business councils like the immensely influential US Chamber of Commerce, which was formed out of local chambers from across the country in 1912. These organisations exploited the newly emerging Public Relations industry, launching a barrage of private enterprise propaganda, uninterrupted for more than a century, and still very healthy today. Peabody coal, for example, recently signed up one of the world’s PR giants, Burson-Marsteller, for a PR campaign to convince leaders that coal is the solution to poverty.

Back in 1910 universal suffrage threatened the customary dominance of the business classes, and PR was an excellent solution. If workers were going to vote, they’d need the right advice. No-one expressed it better than Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who is credited with founding the PR industry. Bernays was candid:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the… masses is an important element in democratic society (he wrote). Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism … constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

PR became an essential tool for business to consolidate its power right through the century, culminating in the 1970s project to “litter the world with free market think tanks”. By 2013, there were nearly 7,000 of these, all over the world; the vast majority were conservative, free market advocates, many on the libertarian fringe, and financed by big business. They cultivate a studied appearance of independence, though one think tank vice-president came clean. “There is no such thing as a disinterested think tanker,” he said. “Somebody always builds the tank, and it’s usually not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.” Funding think tanks is always about “shaping and reshaping the climate of public opinion”.

Nonetheless, the claim to independence has been so successful that most think tanks have tax-free charity status and their staff constantly feature in the media as if they were independent and peer-reviewed experts.

Another decisive development was the “bigger pie” strategy. Straight after World War 2, governments took on a new role of fostering growth. The emphasis increasingly fell on baking a bigger pie, so the slices could get bigger but the pie would not have to be divided up any more equitably. Growth could function as an alternative to fairness. Thorny problems like world poverty were designated growth problems and leaders in the decolonising world often embraced a growth-oriented version of development, a version that rarely helped their poor majorities. Growth allowed the privileged to maintain and even extend their opulence, while professing to be saving the world from poverty. It’s frequently claimed that growth is lifting millions out of poverty. But, apart from China, this is not really the case. China has indeed decreased the numbers of its extreme poor, though this has been achieved with disastrous environmental decline and increasing inequality.

Meanwhile, progress is patchy elsewhere. After 70 years of economic growth, with the world economy now 8 to 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, there are still 2 and a half billion people living on less than $2 a day, more than a third of the people on earth, and about the same number as in 1981. Growth has not been shared. Underlying the popularity of growth, there’s a great clash of values between mainstream economics and the physical sciences.

Economists see the human economy as the primary system—odd when you consider that the planet’s been here for about 4.6 billion years, and life for something like 3.8 billion.  The human era is less than a whisker on this timescale, but for economists Nature is just the extractive sector of their primary system, the economy. For scientists and ecological economists, the primary system is the planet – and it’s self-evidently finite. The human economy with its immense material extraction and vast waste, exists entirely within the earth system. Self-evident as these boundaries might seem, they remain invisible or contested in mainstream economics and are of little concern to politicians or citizens in most countries. Hardly a news bulletin goes by without stories of growth expected, growth threatened, or growth achieved. Growth is the watchword of both major parties here and around the world and remains the accepted solution to poverty, pollution and debt.

And yet, however necessary growth is to our current economic arrangements, and however desirable from the point of view of our expectations of material well-being and comfort, it’s hardly a practical aim if it’s based on a misperception of reality.

While we assume that a high and increasing level of material consumption is normal and desirable, we ignore the peculiarity of our times and the encroaching threats to us and our planet.

We are well into dangerous territory in three areas:

Firstly, species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than the background rate.

Secondly, the nitrogen cycle is completely disrupted. In nature, nitrogen is largely inert in our atmosphere. Today, mainly through making fertiliser, nitrogen is flooding through our rivers, groundwater and continental shelves, fuelling algal blooms that lead to dead zones and fish kills.

And thirdly we are on the way to a very hot planet. Unless we change rapidly in the extremely near future, we risk an increase of 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. So far, an increase of less than 1 degree is melting the West Antarctic icesheet, glaciers nearly everywhere and even the massive Greenland icecap.

Meanwhile, the rate of carbon dioxide and methane emissions continues to rise. In fact, right through the decade it took to write my book, I was staggered as these emissions defied all protocols and agreements, and rose faster and faster every year, setting a new record in 2013. Four degrees may be a bridge too far, and yet our culture is cheerfully crossing it.

I started out as a student of human history and ended up studying the intersection between human history and natural history. Humans have had local effects for thousands of years but on a global scale, the collision is new. Humans were a flea on the face of the earth for most of our history and it’s probably true to say this is the very first time one species—ours—has taken over the entire planetary system for its own sole use. In human-focused terms, this may seem perfectly reasonable. In planetary terms, it’s weird and completely impractical.

While our best agricultural land, last remnants of white box woodland and the Great Barrier Reef are put at risk for the extraction of gas and coal, which we should aim to stop burning anyway if we want a liveable world, it seems that only citizen revolt is left to counter it.

Let’s hope we succeed.

The ground of our being is at stake.

Robyn Williams: Kerryn Higgs. She’s with the University of Tasmania and her book, published by MIT Press, is called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. Kerryn has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome. Next week I shall introduce the proud Professor who’s just moved into that crumpled brown paper bag designed by Frank Gehry for the University of Technology, Sydney: Roy Green on innovation in Australia and what’s not right.  





Mark Cochrane on Age of Limits….

17 06 2014

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Sorry for the long absence but after Aol I had some long overdue vacation and then came back to another bout of ‘could be’ climate change. Yet more flooding….sigh.

AoL was a great experience again this year. Orren Whiddon and the group at Four Quarters do an excellent job of bringing together a collection of speakers with different view points on the various challenges that we face and an audience that is much more aware than your typical collection of conference goers. From all reports, this is a unique experience. The venue allows for deeper discussions both in the presentations and in the intervening times since everyone is immersed together for the whole event. Dennis Meadows said that it was the first presentation he’d ever been able to give where he didn’t have to first defend Limits to Growth. Similarly, I didn’t feel any need to assume much of the audience was unfamiliar with climate change.

Although several of the speakers were also present last year the talks themselves were new. Albert Bates gave an interesting overview of ecovillages through time, combined with his extensive insights from all of his years participating in ‘The Farm’. Offline, my talks with him about biochar were fascinating. I thought I knew something about the subject but he gently disabused me of that idea! I haven’t received it yet, but I look forward to reading his book “The Biochar Solution” link. Dmitri Orlov provided his insights on the parameters that define ‘communities that abide’ which really provided a wide ranging look at the ways in which human communities have found to persist. It can be disturbing to our sheltered sensibilities in the current age to consider such things. John Michael Greer, an ever eloquent speaker, gave his interpretation of what could be “Dark Age America” and provided an amazing depth of historical comparison and interpretation. Gail Tverberg laid out her belief that “Converging Crises” would basically send us on the fast road to a low energy future as EROEI limits bite hard when the resource limits and the financial shenanigans combine to make the back side of Hubberts curve a cliff. Since I know there is interest I will comment further here on her contention that the inevitable energy collapse means we will be at or below RCP 2.6 so there is no point in worrying much about climate change. Though it would be horrific, we may well hope that she is right since it would limit the climatic damage. Alas, she apparently does not realize that aerosols are currently shielding us from roughly 0.8C of warming that is in the so-called ‘pipeline’ so that even her ‘rosy’ climate scenario is less than benign. Few seem to realize that 2C is not a pleasant outcome and has no scientific basis as safe goal for international efforts. The star attraction, and rightly so, was Dr. Dennis Meadows’ presentation about “The Dynamics of Societal Collapse”. It was a low key but powerful presentation about the progression of ‘Limits to Growth’ from possible to inevitable. We have squandered the decades of forewarning we were given and now will have to pay a painful price to try to adapt at a time when resources are increasingly limited. Never was a presentation of such dire gloom received with such sustained applause.

As for my own talk, it was well received, despite coming at the end of a 7 hour nonstop marathon by Tverberg, Greer and myself on day 3 of the conference. I was literally amazed at the stamina and attention of the audience. It was truly a special collection of people who not only put up with another 1.5 hour presentation but were clamouring for more even after another 1.5 hours of questions. It was a pleasure to meet several of you who frequent this thread in addition to many others who do not.

If there was one common thread amongst the talks that I would point out it was the lack of ‘catastrophist’ visions. No one was under any illusions that the troubles we face are trivial but neither was anyone foreseeing an apocalypse or ‘near-term human extinction’. There is no easy out from this predicament.

Mark

P.S. I am told that all of the talks will be made available on a DVD in the coming months.





Age of Limits 2014

31 05 2014

I first heard of this Age of Limits 2014 conference over at Chris Martenson’s website when our resident climate scientist, Mark Cochrane, announced he was to be one of the speakers.  If ever thare was a conference I would have loved to attend, it was this one, but just the thought of flying half way around the world, not to mention the utter lack of funds to do this, ensured there was no way I was going to be there!

Nevertheless, already reports of what an excellent event this was are filtering over on the interweb……  starting with Dmitry Orlov who writes…:

The intellectual part of the experience is a sort of Epicurean feast for the connoisseurs of collapse. (There are plenty of conferences at which the topic of collapse has been banned; consequently, I am no longer invited to them—to my relief, because life is short, and speaking at these conferences makes it that much shorter.) Virtually all of the attendees without exception have successfully navigated their way through the grieving stage of denial prior to showing up, and there is almost no discussion of whether financial, economic, social or civilizational collapses are possible and/or likely, or whether this is something that beautiful people shouldn’t even worry their pretty little heads about. If you show up while still grappling with denial, then, in all likelihood, your head will explode, and while there will be helpful people on hand to help you find scattered pieces of your cranium in the tall grass, you will spend most of the conference gluing the pieces back together, and will miss out on all the fun. So, if you are new to the topic of collapse but curious about it, please acquaint yourself with the Kübler-Ross model and do whatever you have to, prior to showing up, to get past Stage 1. For maximum effectiveness, try to make it all the way to Stage 5 (acceptance).

In addition to the usual suspects, Gail Tverberg, Albert Bates, John-Michael Greer and Orlov himself, this year featured a couple of star speakers: Dennis Meadows and Mark Cochrane.  I would kill to hear Meadows….  or meet Mark.  But there you go.  Mark may very well write his own report on this conference, watch this space, because I will ensure you get to know what he thought of it all….

ageoflimitsDennis is Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, former Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire, and Lead Researcher and co-author of the Club of Rome’s 1972 publication, The Limits to Growth. He successfully predicted the collapse of industrial civilization four decades ago—successfully in that the model he presented back in 1972 has been in remarkable agreement with observations ever since. Since then, he has collected several large boxes of articles attempting to disprove his claims, and a slender stack of articles pointing out that he was right. Even in science, getting it right is not the path to recognition if the truth contradicts the dominant paradigm (of infinite economic growth on a finite planet).

Dennis had agreed to present at this conference reluctantly. He has retired from Club of Rome discussions, and has found more cheerful uses for his time. But he seemed happy with the outcome, saying that this is the first time he faced an audience that did not need convincing. Instead, he took the time to add some details that I think are crucially important, among them the fact that his WORLD3 model is only accurate until the peaks are reached. Once the peaks occur (between 2015 and 2020) all bets are off: past that point, the model’s predictive ability is not to be relied on because the assumptions on which it relies will no longer be valid. Thus, the author of this particular plot, claiming that peak population will occur in 2030, committed the exact error that Dennis warned us against: of looking too far to the right. Once the initial peaks come and go, we will be in a different world than the one he modeled in 1972—a world in which, I foresee, accurate population statistics will no longer be available. We know that the dynamics of global growth are very different from the dynamics of global die-off, but perhaps that is all that we will ever know, because there won’t be anyone left to model or measure the die-off.

Orlov’s remarks on Mark’s talk are most interesting…….

a very thorough demolition job on the various shibboleths that haunt what passes for discourse on climate change in certain intellectually stunted corners of the world. He demolished the denialist claims, and then proceeded to demolish the techno-utopian “solutions,” such as seeding the oceans, seeding the clouds, space mirrors and so on. In doing so, he did not use climate models, explaining that models are quite complicated and open to dispute. Instead, he relied on climate theories which are not in dispute because they agree with observations, and on historical measurements of climate change—its known causes and its apparent effects.

Mark’s conclusions included some tongue-in-cheek “good news”—“We’re all gonna die!”—which I took to be a nod in the general direction of Guy McPherson, who presented at this conference last year, and who predicts near-term human extinction—whereas he clearly feels that “nature bats” (vespertilio naturalis?) do last. But Mark also gave a much more nuanced summation: that while global effects of climate change can be predicted to some extent, the local effects are unpredictable but are certain to be sufficiently dramatic to make life very difficult and perhaps impossible for the vast majority of us. Apparently, there is no place on Earth where you can hide from climate change. Be it the boreal forests of Siberia or the tropics of Borneo, the local destructive effects of climate change on ecosystems are unpredictable. Most of the species alive today have evolved long after the last time such conditions occurred anywhere on Earth, plus the rate of climate change is now very fast, giving them insufficient time to adapt. Consequently, no historical data exists on which such predictions could be based. We do know some things: fish, corals and shellfish will do badly; sea grass and jellyfish will do well. (I hope that there is a sea-grass-and-jellyfish soup recipe out there that results in something palatable!) Overall, his presentation reinforced my feeling that it will be essential to remain mobile, because no one place can be expected to continue to reliably produce food.

Well, that remains to be seen.  Sure, producing food in the ways we currently do has no future, but if Geoff Lawton can do it in the Jordanian desert, then clearly alternative farming methods have some future somewhere, and there are no possibilities of farming ever being mobile, a contradiction in terms.





“There is nothing we can do” – Meadows

31 03 2013

Dennis_Meadows3/6/2012FORMAT interviews Dennis Meadows, author of “The Limits to Growth”, about the shocking position of the planet. 40 years ago, Dennis Meadows presented the best seller “The Limits to Growth”. In it, he predicted, not the exact date of the apocalypse, but the U.S. researchers showed by means of computational models, that by mid-century, the resources of planet Earth will be depleted.

The book sold 30 million copies and Meadows is now regarded as the most famous “Sunset prophet” of the world. FORMAT’s writer Rainer Himmelfreundpointner met Meadows on a visit to Vienna for an exclusive interview. The message of the nearly 70-year-old is now no more optimistic as then, and is not for the faint of heart.

FORMAT: Mr. Meadows, according to the Club of Rome, we are currently facing a crisis of unemployment, a food crisis, a global financial and economic crisis and a global ecological crisis. Each of these is a warning sign that something is quite wrong. What exactly?

Meadows: What we meant in 1972 in “The Limits to Growth”, and what is still true, is that there is simply no endless physical growth on a finite planet. Past a certain point, growth ceases. Either we stop it … by changing our behaviour, or the planet will stop it. 40 years later, we regret to say, we basically have not done anything.

FORMAT: In your 13 scenarios the end of physical growth begins – that is, the increase in world population, its food production, or whatever else they produce or consume – between 2010 and 2050. Is the financial crisis part of that?

Meadows: You cannot compare our current situation that way. Suppose you have cancer, and this cancer causes fever, headaches and other pain. But those are not the real problem, the cancer is. However, we try to treat the symptoms. No one believes that cancer is being defeated. Phenomena like climate change and hunger are merely the symptoms of a disease of our earth, which leads inevitably to the end of growth.

FORMAT: cancer as a metaphor for uncontrolled growth?

Meadows: Yeah. Healthy cells at a certain point stop growing. Cancer cells proliferate until they kill the organism. Population or economic growth behave exactly the same. There are only two ways to reduce the growth of humanity: reduction in the birth rate or increase the death rate. Which would you prefer?

FORMAT: No one wants to have to decide.

Meadows: I don’t either. We have lost the opportunity of choice anyway. Our planet will do it.

FORMAT: How?

Meadows: Let’s stay on diet. Do the mathematics, take food per person since the 90s. The production is growing, but the population is growing faster. Behind every calorie of food that comes to the plate, ten calories of fossil fuels or oil are used for its production, transportation, storage, preparation and disposal. The less oil reserves and fossil fuels, the more the increase in food prices.

FORMAT: So it’s not just a distribution problem?

Meadows: Of course not. If we share it equitably, nobody would starve. But the fact is, it needs fossil fuels such as oil, gas or coal for food production. But those supplies are running low. Whether or not new shale oil and gas reserves are exploited, peak oil and peak gas are past. This means tremendous pressure on the entire system.

FORMAT: According to your models the population, which in 2050 will be around 9.5 billion people, even with a stagnation of food production for another 30, 40 years.

Meadows: And that means that there will be a lot of very poor people. Considerably more than half of humanity. Today we can not feed a large portion of humanity sufficiently. All the resources that we know of are declining. One can only guess where this will lead. There are too many “ifs” for the future: If people are smarter, if there is no war, if we make a technological advancement. We are now already at the point where we cannot cope with our problems, how we should do it in 50 years, when they are bigger?

FORMAT: And blame is our way of doing business?

Meadows: Our economic and financial system, we do not just get something. It is a tool that we have developed and that reflects our goals and values. People do not worry about the future, but only about their current problems. That is why we have such a serious debt crisis. Debt is the opposite of that, worrying about the future. Anyone who takes on debt says: I do not care what happens. And when for many people the future does not matter, they will create an economic and financial system that destroys the future. You can tweak this system as long as you want. As long as you do not change the values of the people, it will continue. If you give someone a hammer in his hand and he uses it, and it kills his neighbour, it helps nothing to change the hammer. Even if you take away the hammer, it remains a potential killer.

FORMAT: Systems that organise the kind of coexistence of people come and go.

Meadows: But man remains the same. In the U.S., we have a system in which it’s okay that a few are immensely rich and many are damned poor, yes even starve. If we find this acceptable, it does not help to change the system. The dominant values are always the same result. This value is reflected in climate change enormously. Who cares?

FORMAT: Europe?

Meadows: China, Sweden, Germany, Russia, the United States all have different social systems, but in each country rising CO2 emissions, because the people really don’t care. 2011 was the record. Last year there was more carbon dioxide produced than in all of human history before. Although all want it to decrease.

FORMAT: What is going wrong?

Meadows: Forget the details. The basic formula for CO2 pollution consists of four elements. First, the number of people on Earth. Multiplied by the capital per person, so how many cars, houses and cows per man, to come to Earth’s standard of living. This in turn multiplied by a factor of energy use per unit of capital, ie, how much energy it takes to produce cars, build houses and to supply or to feed cows. And finally multiply that by the amount of energy derived from fossil sources.

SIZE: Approximately 80 to 90 percent.

Meadows: Approximately. If you want the CO2 burden to decline, the overall result of this multiplication must decline. But what do we do? We try to reduce the share of fossil energy as we use more alternative sources like wind and solar. Then we work to make our energy use more efficient, insulate homes, optimise engines and all that. We work only on the technical aspects, but we neglect the population factor completely and believe that our standard of living is getting better, or at least stays the same. We ignore population and the social elements in the equation, and focus totally on just trying to solve the problem from the technical side. So we will fail, because growth of population and living standards are much greater than we would save through efficiency and alternative energy. Therefore, the CO2 emissions will continue to rise. There is no solution to the climate change problem as long as we do not address the social factors that count.

FORMAT: You mean the Earth will take things into its own hands?

Meadows: Disasters are the way to solve all the problems of the planet. Due to climate change, sea levels will rise because the ice caps are melting. Harmful species will spread to areas where they do not meet enough natural enemies. The increase in temperature leads to massive winds and storms, which in turn affects precipitation. So, more floods, more droughts.

FORMAT: For example?

Meadows: The land which today grows 60 percent of wheat in China will be too dry for agriculture. At the same time it’s going to rain, but in Siberia, and the country will be more fruitful there. So a massive migration from China to Siberia will take place. How many times have I told people this in my lectures in Russia already. The older people were concerned. But the young elite has merely said: Who cares? I just want to be rich.

FORMAT: What to do?

Meadows: If I only knew. We come into a period that calls for a dramatic change in practically everything. Unfortunately, changing our society or government system is not done quickly. The current system does not work anyway. It did not stop climate change, or prevent the financial crisis. Governments are trying to solve their problems by printing money, which will almost certainly result in a few years of very high inflation. This is a very dangerous phase. I just know that a person has, whenever he in uncertain times, has the choice between freedom and order, and chooses order. Order is not necessarily right or justice, but life is reasonably safe, and the trains run on time.

FORMAT: Do you fear an end of democracy?

Meadows: I see two trends. On the one hand, the disruption of states into smaller units, such as regions such as Catalonia, and on the other hand a strong, centralised superpower. Not a state, but a fascist combination of industry, police and military. Maybe there will be in the future even both. Democracy is indeed a very young socio-political experiment. And it does not currently exist. It produced only crises that it cannot solve. Democracy contributes nothing at the moment to our survival. This system will collapse from within, not because of an external enemy.

FORMAT: You talk of the “tragedy of the commons”, ( Allmendeklemme )

Meadows: This is the basic problem. If in a village everyone grazes his cows on the lush meadow – called in old England “Commons” – the short term benefit goes most to those who choose to have more cows. But if that goes on too long, all the grass dies, and all the cows.

FORMAT: So you have here an agreement, such as the best use of the meadow. That can be democracy at its best.

Meadows: Maybe. But if the democratic system can’t solve this problem on a global level, it will probably try a dictatorship. After all, it’s about issues such as global population controls. We are now 300,000 years on this planet and we have ruled in many different ways. The most successful and effective was the tribe or clan system, not dictatorships or democracies.

FORMAT: Could a major technological development to save the earth?

Meadows: Yes. [But] Technologies need laws, sales, training, people who work with them – see my above statement. Moreover, technology is just a tool like a hammer or a neoliberal financial system. As long as our values are what they are, we will [try to] develop technologies that meet them.

FORMAT: All the world currently sees salvation in a sustainable green technology.

Meadows: This is a fantasy. Even if we manage to increase the efficiency of energy use dramatically, use of renewable energies much more, and painful sacrifices to limit our consumption, we have virtually no chance to prolong the life of the current system. Oil production will be reduced approximately by half in the next 20 years, even with the exploitation of oil sands or shale oil. It just happens too fast. Apart from that you can earn more than non oil with alternative energy. And wind turbines can be operated, with no planes. The World Bank director (most recently responsible for the global airline industry) has explained to me, the problem of peak oil is not discussed in his institution, it is simply taboo. Whoever will try to anyway, is fired or transferred. After all, Peak Oil destroys the belief in growth. You would have to change everything.

FORMAT: Especially with airlines the share of fossil fuels is very high.

Meadows: Exactly. And that is why the era of cheap mass transport by air will end soon. This will only be affordable in large empires or countries. With a lot of money you might buy the energy, and cause food shortages. But you can not hide from climate change, which affects both the poor and the rich.

FORMAT: Do you have solutions to these mega miseries?

Meadows: This would change the nature of man. We are basically now just as programmed as 10,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors could be attacked by a tiger, he also was not worried about the future, but his present survival. My concern is that for genetic reasons we are just not able to deal with such things as long-term climate change. As long as we do not learn that, there is no way to solve all these problems. There’s nothing we could do. People always say again: We need to save our planet. No, we do not. The planet is going to save itself already. It always has done. Sometimes it took millions of years, but it happened. We should not be worried about the planet, but about the human species.

Dennis Meadows, 70, shattered the belief in progress on a sustainable basis with his study, commissioned by the Club of Rome, “Limits to Growth” 40 years ago . The economist has been Director of the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a visiting lecturer in the world and has taught at Dartmouth College and at the University of New Hampshire, where he now teaches.

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