How Do You Degrow an Economy, Without Causing Chaos?

16 05 2017

An article written by a Facebook friend of mine, Jonathan Rutherford, who is Coordinator of the New International Bookshop and a ‘Simpler Way’ activist. Originally published at the Resillience website.  The real challenge for those in charge is not ‘jobs and growth’, it is how to best manage the looming contraction……

‘Houston, we have a problem’. On the one hand, there is growing acceptance among environmentally conscious people that rich nations and affluent regions of the global economy must dramatically reduce overall resource and energy consumption levels – that is, undergo a process of ‘degrowth’ – if humanity is to bring about a sustainable world order. On the other hand, we have a growth economy that cannot go two steps in this direction without causing huge economic and social problems.

If you doubt the first part of this statement (i.e. the need for ‘degrowth’), consider just one metric – the material footprint (MF) indicator. This measures consumption of all natural resources (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and minerals) extracted from the environment. Humanity’s current MF is about 70 billion tonnes – a figure that has more than trebled since the 1970s. As we know, already this rate of consumption is generating waste, pollution and land-use change that are driving environmental problems such as global warming and species extinction. But now consider the fact that the per capita rich nation (i.e OECD) MF is about 30 tonnes. If the 9+ billion humans expected to be living on earth by 2050 rose to this level, we would need 270 billion tonnes per annum – that is, four times the present rate, which is unsustainable. Using similar figures in the 1990s Friedrich Schmidt Bleek estimated that rich nations need to make ‘factor 10’ reductions in overall resource use (renewable and non-renewable), if we are to move down to a globally fair share and at sustainable levels. And that estimate, it should be noted, does not factor in the likely increase in MF that, recent history suggests, will inevitably result from the continuous pursuit of economic growth by all nations, included the wealthiest.

Many people hope that we can make ‘factor 10’ reductions via technological advance and efficiency gains alone, without having to make cut overall rates of production, consumption (i.e. GDP). But, as argued in a recent peer reviewed article by Giorgos Kallis there are strong reasons to think that this will not be viable. Few want to admit it, but the kind of radical reductions we need to make will require GDP contraction i.e. de-growth.

But if we in the rich world need to degrow the economy, as it appears we do, how is that done without causing utter social chaos and breakdown?  The problem was recently illustrated in a series of articles run by the ABC. The first article highlighted the trend among some young Australians to adopt relatively frugal lifestyles of reduced income expenditure and increased savings. A follow up article, however, asked: what would happen to the economy if everyone did this? The answers were revealing, and implicitly revealed fundamental flaws in our existing economic system.

The article cited data which suggest every year Australians spend $955 billion on all forms of consumption. Of this about $416 billion (44%) is made up items such as ‘food, clothing, housing, utilities, health, transport, insurance’ which the article defined as ‘necessities’ (note: one, of course, may question whether i.e. all clothes consumption are truly ‘necessities’!). The other $523 billion was made up what the article defined as discretionary items. Economist, Saul Eslake pointed out that, even if we exclude from this discretionary figure the $100+ billion worth of imported goods & services, if  all Australian households ceased all the remaining discretionary spending, GDP would be immediately reduced by 25 per cent. But, as Eslake pointed out, the impact on the economy would eventually be far greater than this, due to knock-on effects. The reduced spending, for example, would result in firm bankruptcy and thus laid off workers which, in turn, would further reduce aggregate demand in a cycle of downward depression familiar to students of economic history.

But while all this is entirely correct, reducing societal consumption – degrowing the economy – need not necessarily result in chaotic economic breakdown, as the ABC article implicitly assumed. This is indeed an inevitable outcome within our present economic system, but possibly not others.

Our present system – both in Australia and now most of the world – is, of course, the capitalist market economy. This 500-year-old system has certain defining features that mark it out as unique compared to other economic systems humans have devised.  It is a system in which a) most (if not all) the major means of production are privately (these days corporately) owned by a small minority of the population; and b) where the fundamental economic problems (what, how, and for whom to produce) are solved “automatically”, through the price mechanism, rather than through conscious social decisions.

Importantly, for this discussion, the system is characterised by a growth compulsion. Due to competition, all firms – particularly large shareholder firms – are under constant pressure to invest in new techniques, methods of production and products, to improve competitiveness and their sales figures. If they fail to do this, they not only risk profits margins but also eventually being taken-over by other firms, or made bankrupt. Since no firm wants to perish, and since all must expand if they want to continue to exist, a general growth compulsion arises, not just for individual firms, but for the macro economy as whole. So, while almost everyone wants growth, it is also true that the system needs growth for its basic functioning.

In fact, the system cannot possibly tolerate even a slow-down in the rate of growth, let alone a contraction. Richard Smith points out that even when capitalism approaches a ‘steady state’ of zero GDP growth, such as what happened in the USA in the wake of the GFC, the outcome for society at large is ugly. The situation is characterised by “capital destruction, mass unemployment, devastated communities, growing poverty, foreclosures, homelessness and environmental considerations shunted aside in the all-out effort to restore growth.” Obviously, nobody wants this, including advocates of degrowth.

What then would be required to contract the economy, in an orderly and fair way? The influential ‘Steady-State’ theorist Herman Daly argues that we can do so, while retaining a basically capitalist system, on the condition that the state steps in to play a far more active regulatory role than at present. Among other policy suggestions, Daly proposes that the state impose escalating resource depletion quotes, that can be traded in a market, while retaining private enterprise and the market system.

An emerging school of eco-socialists argue, however, that this will not work. Saral Sarkar points out three flaws with Daly’s plan.

“1) The contraction of the economies of the world must occur in an orderly way. Otherwise there will be unbearable breakdowns of whole societies. An orderly contraction can only take place in a planned economy, not in a capitalist market economy. 2) Only a socialist political order can achieve, by means of egalitarian distribution of the costs and benefits, a broad acceptance of the necessary contraction, 3) Only in a planned socialist economy can the problem of unemployment be solved, which would otherwise become more and more acute in a contracting economy. To this end, a planned economy can consciously use labor-intensive technologies and methods, which, in addition, result in less use of resources.” (Sarkar, 2012, 325)

Let me just briefly elaborate on the first reason given by Sarkar (for greater detail see Sarkar 1999) – the idea that contracting the economy within a capitalist market system would result in chaotic breakdown. Sarkar points out that the famed ‘efficiency’ of the market system only works well (if at all) when there is a buyers’ market, leading to strong competition between suppliers to meet customer demand. But in a contractionary scenario, most markets would be ‘suppliers’ markets, as there would be, in general, a shortage of supply relative to demand. This would mean even poorly run, high cost firms would be able to survive. And, as with any market economy, you would still have a situation where increasingly scarce resources were tended to be allocated to meeting the money backed demands of the already wealthy, rather than to meeting the vital needs for all – a recipe for social chaos in a context of heightened scarcity.

For these reasons, and as unfashionable as it is today, Sarkar argues that a socialist economic framework will be necessary if we are to contract the economy in an orderly, peaceful and socially just way. This would involve a process in which the state nationalises and/or shuts down most large-scale firms in the economy and actively plans the process of contraction via mechanisms such as quantitative controls, price controls, a quota system etc. But what about smaller firms and co-ops, operating at the local level? Here, it is plausible that a quasi-market economy – albeit operating within a very different no-growth culture and firmly under social control –  would be viable. Another eco-socialist Richard Smith elaborates:

“In arguing for large-scale industrial planning, I’m not saying that we should nationalize family farms, farmers’ markets, artisans, groceries, bakeries, local restaurants, repair shops, workers’ cooperatives, and so on. Small producers aren’t destroying the world. But large-scale corporations are. If we want to save the planet, the corporations would have to be nationalized, socialized, and completely reorganized. Many will need to be closed down, others scaled back, others repurposed. But I don’t see any reason why small-scale, local, independent producers cannot carry on more or less as they are, within the framework of a larger planned economy.”

Eventually the goal will be to move to a situation in which most (if not all) people live and work within highly localised economies, using local resources to meet local needs. As Ted Trainer argues, this is not optional if we want to reduce our ecological footprint to sustainable one planet levels that all can share. Gladly, there is a case that the quality of life could be very high within such communities.

But herein lies a problem for the eco-socialist, and wider degrowth movement. Trainer points out that these new local communities will not work well unless they are based on the active participation and cooperation of most, if not all, ordinary citizens in the locality. This will be necessary to ensure that all are provided for and the economy works within local eco-system limits. Active and inclusive participation by all (or at least most), Trainer argues, is ‘the crucial prerequisite… that will be needed if ordinary citizens are to eventually run highly self-sufficient local communities well.’ Widespread civic participation and cooperation simply cannot be imposed ‘top-down’ via states, even if they wanted to. In any case, Trainer argues, only if movements for localism and simpler living emerge first, is there any chance of building the eventual political will that will make a process of societal degrowth at the national and global levels possible.

For this reason, we ‘Simpler Way’ advocates tend to see the eco-socialist state directed process described above as ‘only’ a final, albeit necessary, step in a long multi phased transition towards sustainability. The first (and hardest) phase of the revolution happens when ordinary citizens, not states or corporations, take it upon themselves to start building today, even in small ways, the new self-reliant economies in the towns and suburbs where they live.

Having said that, the above sets a parallel challenge for participants within existing localist movements such as Transition Towns, eco-village, permaculture, simpler living etc. For it is equally true that we will not make a successful transition to sustainability – and the new local communities and economies will not function well – unless participants within these movements become aware of, and begin advocating for, the eventual need for an orderly process of ‘de-growth’ – a process that, for reasons mentioned briefly above, is only likely to go well within an eco-socialist framework. Ultimately, unless both these local and national-global processors occur, will not make a successful transition to a sustainable society.

Of course, today, across the world we are miles away from the necessary political and cultural awareness needed for such a transition. It is likely that the coming oil crunch and global financial contraction will aid our cause and encourage more people to see the sense in localism and de-growth – but, until then, activists must doggedly go on raising awareness wherever they can. Even if it does not feel like it, every conversation counts!


Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books. 1999.


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.



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.



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.




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.




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.


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


How Unsustainable is PV Solar Power?

27 10 2015

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s post about renewables being unable to even keep up with the growth of the internet’s energy consumption, along come a couple of other articles I just had to share…..

From Low Tech Magazine yet again is an article about the mushy numbers used to ‘prove’ PVs are the way to go in the future. Most followers of this blog will already know how I feel about this, however, this item has some interesting factoids I was not aware of that make a most interesting point.

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate 1% of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW.

Solar PV total global capacitySolar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is 15 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least 30 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

But, as the article goes to great lengths to explain, manufacturing has moved to China, and as was recently revealed, the biggest eighteen ships produce as much CO2 as all the cars in the world……… so shipping those panels (and inverters) from China to Australia, Europe, and the Americas is unbelievably polluting.

Less than 10 years ago, almost all solar panels were produced in Europe, Japan, and the USA. In 2013, Asia accounted for 87% of global production (up from 85% in 2012), with China producing 67% of the world total (62% in 2012). Europe’s share continued to fall, to 9% in 2013 (11% in 2012), while Japan’s share remained at 5% and the US share was only 2.6%.

Price of silicon solar cells wikipedia

Compared to Europe, Japan and the USA, the electric grid in China is about twice as carbon-intensive and about 50% less energy efficient. Because the manufacture of solar PV cells relies heavily on the use of electricity (for more than 95%) this means that in spite of the lower prices and the increasing efficiency, the production of solar cells has become more energy-intensive, resulting in longer energy payback times and higher greenhouse gas emissions. The geographical shift in manufacturing has made almost all life cycle analyses of solar PV panels obsolete, because they are based on a scenario of domestic manufacturing, either in Europe or in the United States.

Compared to the original manufacturing scenarios of Germany, Japan, Spain, and the USA, the carbon footprint and the energy payback time of Chinese PVs are almost doubled in the asian manufacturing scenario. The carbon footprint of the modules made in Spain (which has a cleaner grid than the average in Europe) is 37.3 and 31.8 gCO2e/kWh for mono-Si and multi-Si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 1.9 and 1.6 years. However, for the modules made in China, the carbon footprint is 72.2 and 69.2 gCO2e/kWh for mono-Si and multi-Si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 2.4 and 2.3 years.

Carbon footprints solar cells produced in china and europe

At least as important as the place of manufacturing is the place of installation. Considering that at the end of 2014, Germany had more solar PV installed than all Southern European nations combined, and twice as much as the entire United States, this number is not a worst-case scenario. It reflects the carbon intensity of most solar PV systems installed between 2009 and 2014. More critical researchers had already anticipated these results. A 2010 study refers to the 2008 consensus figure of 50 gCO2e/kWh mentioned above, and adds that “in less sunny locations, or in carbon-intensive economies, these emissions can be up to 2-4 times higher”. Taking the more recent figure of 30 gCO2e/kWh as a starting point, which reflects improvements in solar cell and manufacturing efficiency, this would be 60-120 gCO2e/kWh, which corresponds neatly with the numbers of the 2014 study.

Solar insolation in europe

Solar insolation in north america

Solar insolation in Europe and the USA. Source: SolarGIS.

So far, I expect most DTM readers already knew this….. but now for the clincher, and it’s growth, yet again totally unsustainable. The author calls this Energy cannibalism, a term I just love!

Solar PV electricity remains less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity, even when solar cells are manufactured in China and installed in countries with relatively low solar insolation. This seems to suggest that solar PV remains a good choice no matter where the panels are produced or installed. However, if we take into account the growth of the industry, the energy and carbon balance can quickly turn negative. That’s because at high growth rates, the energy and CO2 savings made by the cumulative installed capacity of solar PV systems can be cancelled out by the energy use and CO2 emissions from the production of new installed capacity.

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. For example, if the average energy and CO2 payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net CO2 and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and GHG emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems.

Several studies have undertaken a dynamic life cycle analysis of renewable energy technologies. The results — which are valid for the period between 1998 and 2008 — are very sobering for those that have put their hopes on the carbon mitigation potential of solar PV power. A 2009 paper, which takes into account the geographical distribution of global solar PV installations, sets the maximum sustainable annual growth rate at 23%, while the actual average annual growth rate of solar PV between 1998 and 2008 was 40%. [16] [21]

This means that the net CO2 balance of solar PV was negative for the period 1998-2008. Solar PV power was growing too fast to be sustainable, and the aggregate of solar panels actually increased GHG emissions and energy use. According to the paper, the net CO2 emissions of the solar PV industry during those 10 years accounted to 800,000 tonnes of CO2.

Which totally puts paid to the hopes of ‘green people’ wanting a quick transition from coal to PVs. The faster it happens, the worse greenhouse emissions are…… Is this the ultimate limit to growth? I find the irony almost too much to bear. I heartily recommend reading the article at its original source where all the facts and figures are referenced. It makes for sobering reading……..

But wait there’s more. Just last night on TV I saw an item on 7:30 on ABC TV showing some guy who built a modern mansion with all the bells and whistles, 300m from the grid. he claims it was going to cost $200,000 to connect to the grid (seems rather excessive to me…) so decided to go off the grid. The TV item was about how we will all go off the grid within ten years, and look at this guy’s amazing green bling…… four inverters no less! Anyone with four inverters is using four times too much power (and hence energy), and he proudly claimed to have batteries capable of backing the whole lot for…. three days. I can guarantee he will soon be disappointed. Anything less than a week would not suit me, I’d opt for ten days. But then again, I don’t need four inverters, we’ll only have one. Watch it here.

Why am I so certain he will be disappointed? Well Giles Parkinson and Sophie Vorrath are, like me, not convinced your average electricity consumer understands any of the dilemmas they face.

So for those of us left, and interested in battery storage as a means of saving money, how do the numbers stack up?

Before tackling those numbers, it is worth noting that the numbers for battery storage are more complex than they may first appear.

Making the economics work will depend on how much your household consumes and when, the size of your solar array, if any, and the local tariff structure. Then you have to consider how you will use that battery, and how the grid might use it to.

Because batteries are left lying around doing nothing much of the time, ‘the sweet spot’ for consumers lies in the range of 3.5to 5.0 kWh/day. Or less, I would add. And that, my friends, leaves out 90% of the electricity consumers as they stand right now. That Adelaide guy in the 7:30 show is well out of his league, and when he’ll have to replace his underworked Li ion batteries after just 10 years, if he can still get some, he will be wondering why his green bling is so expensive to keep running… and to top it all off, the article raves about what will happen way out to 2030, assuming that business as usual will continue forever, and that there will still be a grid to hook up to, unlike Gail Tverberg, the optimist!

If everyone lived in an ‘ecovillage’, the Earth would still be in trouble

27 06 2015

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

We are used to hearing that if everyone lived in the same way as North Americans or Australians, we would need four or five planet Earths to sustain us.

This sort of analysis is known as the “ecological footprint” and shows that even the so-called “green” western European nations, with their more progressive approaches to renewable energy, energy efficiency and public transport, would require more than three planets.

How can we live within the means of our planet? When we delve seriously into this question it becomes clear that almost all environmental literature grossly underestimates what is needed for our civilisation to become sustainable.

Only the brave should read on.

The ‘ecological footprint’ analysis

In order to explore the question of what “one planet living” would look like, let us turn to what is arguably the world’s most prominent metric for environmental accounting – the ecological footprint analysis. This was developed by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees, then at the University of British Columbia, and is now institutionalised by the scientific body, The Global Footprint Network, of which Wackernagel is president.

This method of environmental accounting attempts to measure the amount of productive land and water a given population has available to it, and then evaluates the demands that population makes upon those ecosystems. A sustainable society is one that operates within the carrying capacity of its dependent ecosystems.

While this form of accounting is not without its critics – it is certainly not an exact science – the worrying thing is that many of its critics actually claim that it underestimates humanity’s environmental impact. Even Wackernagel, the concept’s co-originator, is convinced the numbers are underestimates.

According to the most recent data from the Global Footprint Network, humanity as a whole is currently in ecological overshoot, demanding one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. As the global population continues its trend toward 11 billion people, and while the growth fetish continues to shape the global economy, the extent of overshoot is only going to increase.

Every year this worsening state of ecological overshoot persists, the biophysical foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

The footprint of an ecovillage

As I have noted, the basic contours of environmental degradation are relatively well known. What is far less widely known, however, is that even the world’s most successful and long-lasting ecovillages have yet to attain a “fair share” ecological footprint.

Take the Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland, for example, probably the most famous ecovillage in the world. An ecovillage can be broadly understood as an “intentional community” that forms with the explicit aim of living more lightly on the planet. Among other things, the Findhorn community has adopted an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, produces renewable energy and makes many of their houses out of mud or reclaimed materials.

Findhorn Ecovillage in Scotland.
Irenicrhonda/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

An ecological footprint analysis was undertaken of this community. It was discovered that even the committed efforts of this ecovillage still left the Findhorn community consuming resources and emitting waste far in excess of what could be sustained if everyone lived in this way. (Part of the problem is that the community tends to fly as often as the ordinary Westerner, increasing their otherwise small footprint.)

Put otherwise, based on my calculations, if the whole world came to look like one of our most successful ecovillages, we would still need one and a half planet’s worth of Earth’s biocapacity. Dwell on that for a moment.

I do not share this conclusion to provoke despair, although I admit that it conveys the magnitude of our ecological predicament with disarming clarity. Nor do I share this to criticise the noble and necessary efforts of the ecovillage movement, which clearly is doing far more than most to push the frontiers of environmental practice.

Rather, I share this in the hope of shaking the environmental movement, and the broader public, awake. With our eyes open, let us begin by acknowledging that tinkering around the edges of consumer capitalism is utterly inadequate.

In a full world of seven billion people and counting, a “fair share” ecological footprint means reducing our impacts to a small fraction of what they are today. Such fundamental change to our ways of living is incompatible with a growth-oriented civilisation.

Some people may find this this position too “radical” to digest, but I would argue that this position is merely shaped by an honest review of the evidence.

What would ‘one planet’ living look like?

Even after five or six decades of the modern environmental movement, it seems we still do not have an example of how to thrive within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Nevertheless, just as the basic problems can be sufficiently well understood, the nature of an appropriate response is also sufficiently clear, even if the truth is sometimes confronting.

We must swiftly transition to systems of renewable energy, recognising that the feasibility and affordability of this transition will demand that we consume significantly less energy than we have become accustomed to in the developed nations. Less energy means less producing and consuming.

We must grow our food organically and locally, and eat considerably less (or no) meat. We must ride our bikes more and fly less, mend our clothes, share resources, radically reduce our waste streams and creatively “retrofit the suburbs” to turn our homes and communities into places of sustainable production, not unsustainable consumption. In doing so, we must challenge ourselves to journey beyond the ecovillage movement and explore an even deeper green shade of sustainability.

Among other things, this means living lives of frugality, moderation and material sufficiency. Unpopular though it is to say, we must also have fewer children, or else our species will grow itself into a catastrophe.

But personal action is not enough. We must restructure our societies to support and promote these “simpler” ways of living. Appropriate technology must also assist us on the transition to one planet living. Some argue that technology will allow us to continue living in the same way while also greatly reducing our footprint.

However, the extent of “dematerialisation” required to make our ways of living sustainable is simply too great. As well as improving efficiency, we also need to live more simply in a material sense, and re-imagine the good life beyond consumer culture.

First and foremost, what is needed for one planet living is for the richest nations, including Australia, to initiate a “degrowth” process of planned economic contraction.

I do not claim that this is likely or that I have a detailed blueprint for how it should transpire. I only claim that, based on the ecological footprint analysis, degrowth is the most logical framework for understanding the radical implications of sustainability.

Can the descent from consumerism and growth be prosperous? Can we turn our overlapping crises into opportunities?

These are the defining questions of our time.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander is Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute at University of Melbourne.

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

The Fingerprints of Sea Level Change

18 02 2015

I tip my hat to the follower of this blog who calls him/herself rabiddoomsayer for pointing to this excellent video featuring Jerry Mitrovica, an Australian physicist who specialises in rising sea levels.  It never ceases to amaze me how much can be learned on the internet.  I hope you find this as fascinating as I did…..

Jerry X. Mitrovica

Jerry X. Mitrovica joined Harvard in 2009 as a Professor of Geophysics. His work focuses on the Earth’s response to external and internal forcings that have time scales ranging from seconds to billions of years. He has written extensively on topics ranging from the connection of mantle convective flow to the geological record, the rotational stability of the Earth and other terrestrial planets, ice age geodynamics, and the geodetic and geophysical signatures of ice sheet melting in our progressively warming world. Sea-level change has served as the major theme of these studies, with particular emphasis on critical events in ice age climate and on the sea-level fingerprints of modern polar ice sheet collapse.

Mitrovica is the Director of the Earth Systems Evolution Program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He is a former J. Tuzo Wilson Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto, where he also received his Ph.D. degree. He is the recipient of the A.E.H. Love Medal from the European Geosciences Union and the Rutherford Memorial Medal from the Royal Society of Canada. He is also a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, a past Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a former Visiting Miller Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

What is it We’re Trying to Sustain?

11 09 2014

This article first appeared in Spirit of the Times, September 2013, written by Kari, aka The Overthinker…….

NB….. the link above no longer works, and all the images that came with it have disappeared, and were therefore edited out by me.

“‘Sustainability’ is, as far as I can see, a project designed to keep this culture — this lifestyle — afloat…”

– Paul Kingsnorth, Dark Mountain Project co-founder

What springs to mind when you hear the word ‘sustainability’? Is it images of wind farms, earthships or permaculture gardens? Is it recycling, energy-saving lightbulbs or greenbags? Is it organic versus GMO? Is it to fly or not to fly? What is the question?
Much of the sustainability movement is wrapped up in either so-called clean energy lobbying or piecemeal ethical consumption initiatives, causing them to compartmentalize the broader issue and lose sight of the wood for the trees. That’s not to say that people’s lifestyle changes aren’t helpful or worthy of merit in their own right. But these behaviours won’t normalize until – perhaps unless – something more fundamental changes.

What is sustainability?

“The word sustainable has become widely used to refer merely to practices reputed to be more environmentally sound than others.”

–          Richard Heinberg

While this may be the case there is somewhat of a consensus around what sustainability means. In the 1980’s Swedish oncologist Dr. Karl-Henrik Robert gathered a team of leading scientists to develop a consensus on the requirements for a sustainable society. Their efforts culminated in the founding of an organization, the Natural Step, and four system conditions for sustainability:

In a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

  1. concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust;
  2. concentrations of substances produced by society;
  3. degradation by physical means; and, in that society,
  4. people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

In examining how our civilization is treating the Earth and our fellow Earthlings it is clear we are fundamentally unsustainable. We have extracted natural resources at far above the rate of renewal whilst pumping out wastes at far above the rate of absorption. We have degraded our water, air and soil, thus reducing the carrying capacity of our landbases. And we have subjected huge proportions of our populations to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs, effectively enslaving people in a vicious cycle from which there are few chances of escape, much less opportunities to engage as responsible global citizens.
The Post Carbon Institute have gone a step further in outlining five axioms of sustainability that together form the bedrock of any sustainable system, if applied.

The first axiom: Any society that continues to use critical resources unsustainably will collapse.

An exception to this axiom would occur in the case of a society avoiding collapse by finding replacement resources. However, there are limits to the exception. In a finite world, the number of possible replacements is also finite. In this case it is not a matter of whether, but when, a society will collapse.

Archaeologist Joseph Tainter demonstrated in his classic study The Collapse of Complex Societies that collapse is a frequent, if not universal fate of complex societies. Collapse results from declining returns on efforts to support increasing levels of complexity using energy harvested form the environment. In our example, the fossil energy that has enabled our current level of complexity is close to depleted, and we are experiencing diminishing returns on our financial and energy investments. We will not be able to sustain society’s current level of complexity for much longer.

The second axiom: Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A mere 1% rate of population growth would result in a doubling of the Earth’s population in the space of 70 years. With this rate of increase, the Earth would need to sustain 13 billion humans by 2075, 26 billion by 2145, and so on. Our current rate of global population growth is higher than this, suggesting that we are heading for a crunch.

The third axiom: To be sustainable, the use of renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is less than or equal to the rate of natural replenishment.

Renewable resources include forests, fish stocks, and topsoil, to name a few examples. While all of these resources are fully renewable, they replenish at a certain rate that cannot support the level of usage our society demands. Hence we are overexploiting renewable resources at far beyond the rate of renewal, thus rendering these resources effectively non-renewable.

The fourth axiom: To be sustainable, the use of non-renewable resources must proceed at a rate that is declining, and the rate of decline must be greater than or equal to the rate of depletion, which is calculated as the amount extracted during a particular time period as a percentage of the remainder.

Sadly we are doing precisely the opposite of this, with our growing populations and increasing affluence placing demands on the system. Purchasing power, not availability, determines “production” for the time being, and we have become unused to being constrained by scarcity. It will not be too long until we experience what unavailability looks like.

The fifth axiom: Sustainability requires that substances introduced into the environment from human activities be minimized and rendered harmless to biosphere functions. In cases where pollution from the extraction and consumption of non-renewable resources has proceeded at expanding rates for some time and threatens the viability of ecosystems, reduction in the rates of extraction and consumption of those resources may need to occur at a rate greater than the rate of depletion.
Humanity’s ecological footprint is, at present, 40% larger than the earth can sustain through regeneration. This is, by definition, unsustainable, and if we do not address the issue ourselves then Mother Nature will take matters into her own hands, restoring to balance that which we have unbalanced. “Earth Overshoot Day” falls earlier and earlier each year, demonstrating quite plainly that we are doing precisely the opposite of what we need to be doing. This year’s Earth Overshoot Day fell on August 20th, while 10 years ago it was on September 22nd, and 20 years ago it was on October 21st.

The truth about sustainability

It seems that much of what we refer to as “sustainable” is far from it. So-called ethical consumption partakes of the globalized industrial economy in most cases, perhaps slowing the rate of resource depletion and destruction slightly, but by no means getting off the carousel. Money is the motivator of any business, and to limit production to only what is necessary is anathema to profit. With resources finite as they are, we are all going to have to consider quantity as well as quality: we are going to have to want less stuff, locally produced stuff, not just greener stuff.

Proponents of Big Green Tech claim that sustainability can be achieved by installing large-scale hi-tech “renewable” energy production infrastructure. While it is true that so-called renewable energy sources emit significantly less greenhouse gases and other pollutants than fossil fuels, they are hardly a panacea, and are far from being ecologically neutral, if we are to accept axiom five. They are also far from renewable, if we are to accept axioms three and four.

All energy sources require infrastructure, all requiring the use of finite resources. Concrete and steel rebar are essential components of wind farms and hydro dams, and these, aside from being finite, have a hefty impact on the environment in terms of their production. Rare earth metals used in wind turbines, such as neodymium and dysprosium, and in solar panels, such as yttrium, are complicated to extract from the Earth as they are found dispersed in small deposits, and their extraction is anything but environmentally friendly, pumping toxic wastes into the environment in a manner no better than fracking or conventional mining. Make no mistake: a carbon-free world is not a toxin-free world, and we are poisoning the world – our air, water and soils – with or without fossil energy.

The water footprint of “renewable” energy is also something we should be concerned about. Solar farms require water, usually groundwater, for washing mirrors, replenishing feedwater, and cooling auxiliary equipment. Geothermal power plants are failing to allow for the replenishment of groundwater supplies at the rate of depletion, with some projects peaked and running out of steam. Hydropower dams have the nasty propensity to hoard sediment, thus killing river life – a knock-on effect being loss of riverine biodiversity. The production of biomass requires extensive irrigation in many parts of the world, and this is already leading to depleted water sources and insufficient water (and land) for food-based agriculture.

Another issue with “renewable” energy, particularly the large-scale centralized big-green tech sort, is land use. Land is cleared to make space for solar farms, often in delicate desert ecosystems where water is scarce to begin with. Electricity transmission requires infrastructure, and power lines and roads disrupt wildlife corridors, fragmenting and thus weakening ecosystems. Do not make the mistake of disregarding the grid overhauls necessary to restructure a nation’s power supply, this is no small infrastructure project and engineering companies will profit greatly. Perhaps most insidious of all is the clear-cutting of forests and grasslands for the purpose of producing biofuel. Deforestation and removal of carbon sinks for the sake of growing materials to burn doesn’t sound all that green to me. Not to mention the
usurpation of food sources, which will undoubtedly hit the third world hardest as the world’s wealthy minority continue to make demands on the world’s ever-scarcer resources while the poor starve.

According to science writer Dawn Stover, meeting the world’s increasing energy demands with renewable energy alone may prove impossible. To meet our projected demands in 2030 it is estimated that we would need 3.8 million wind turbines (each with twice the capacity of today’s largest machines), 720,000 wave devices, 5,350 geothermal plants, 900 hydroelectric plants, 490,000 tidal turbines, 1.7 billion rooftop photovoltaic systems, 40,000 solar photovoltaic plants, and 49,000 concentrated solar thermal systems. We cannot be so sure of a global renewable energy future with this demand on our rare earth metal deposits, groundwater, and limited available land.

Interestingly mainstream sustainability advocates do not mention approaches such as downshifting, eating fewer (or no) animal products, re-wilding domesticated tracts of nature, and localizing our resource production and consumption. Consuming less and more modestly, and eating in accordance with the constraints of our local landbases isn’t as appealing as being able to continue with business as usual pending the wave of a magic wand that establishes boundless renewable energy. It is also not an approach much advocated by proponents of our growth economy, which few of us even think to question.

Sustaining a way of life

With the emphasis on ethical consumption and Big Green Tech one could be forgiven for thinking we want to have our cake and eat it too. We don’t want to destroy our environment, you see, but we would really love to be able to keep all of the shiny toys and gadgets that we’ve become so attached to.

Our efforts toward sustainability have been largely focused on sustaining our way of life, rather than sustaining nature in a way that makes any life at all possible. Apparently the term sustainability, as used by many advocates, does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the expanding empire of homo sapiens; it means sustaining one particular human civilization in the manner to which we have become accustomed.
So often we put our faith in techno-fixes. We trust that salvation will appear in the form of a distant and magical technological advance that will unpick the damage we have done and set us straight on course to sustainability – without us ever having to alter our own lifestyles. We conflate needs with wants, rationalizing our desires for the latest iCrap with a confused expression of “need” in lieu of “desire”, and perpetuating a paradigm of escalating consumption and depletion. It is as though we simply do not understand that one day things will run out, and we will be forced to embrace simplicity. It seems we will not go voluntarily, and the few that do are not viewed as the positive role-models that they are, instead portrayed as fringe radicals who want to return us all to the Stone Age. So we turn away from the bigger picture, and look only at what can be tweaked with little or no adaptation required.

Our reductionist mentality leads us to compartmentalize our problems and reach obvious conclusions that do not necessarily solve them. For example, if we understand that carbon emissions are a problem, then going “zero carbon” is clearly the solution. So long as we can build enough of the right kind of technologies to generate the power we “need” without producing CO2 then we’ll be fine – we’ll never need to downshift our consumption or alter the foundations of our economic system. In precisely this way many so-called sustainability advocates have reduced the entire notion of sustainability down to a single component, usually carbon, and treat the matter as an engineering challenge alone. We fail to think integratively about the whole issue, addressing components in a linear manner, completely blinded to the holistic picture we need to see.

Sustaining the Earth

If we are to sustain our planet, and any chance we have of any way of life at all, we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that Mother Nature doesn’t negotiate, and that her rules are already mapped out. We are not at liberty to break them. As it is, our species has, in the words of Stephanie Mills, “deforested, plowed, bulldozed, dredged, drained, dammed, polluted, or paved one-half to one-third of the land surface of Earth.” According to the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, “The structure and function of the world’s ecosystems changed more rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century than at any time in human history,” which has resulted in a “substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth.” Clearly this is a trajectory that cannot continue. But what are we doing to stop it? Changing our lightbulbs, recycling more, and eschewing plastic bags? Waiting for a Big Green Tech revolution?
We need a more fundamental change. We need to downshift, we need to live localized lives, we need to live fully in accordance with the limitations of our landbases, we need to take the five axioms of sustainability as seriously as the laws of thermodynamics, for they are unshakeable dictates that we have no power to alter.

It is unlikely that we will be able to combat issues such as climate change as long as we are able to unlock carbon and pump it into the atmosphere. The reality is that people want to continue using the fruits of carbon’s labour more than they want to save the world, and renewables technology isn’t capable of delivering the same. We are far too removed from the effects of our actions and desires, living in a technological bubble that separates us from nature and obscures our view of its destruction. Until – or unless – we are threatened directly (and that does not include threats to those in the third world, for they are not the global decision-makers), we are unlikely to take action to reverse our trajectory.

We need to grow up. We need to learn that we cannot have our cake and eat it. We need to move away from an anthropocentric worldview that places humans at the centre, with the world our playground to do with as we wish. We are not the chosen ones, there is no promised land, and we do not have dominion over nature.

Ultimately, sustaining this system that we have grown to depend on is not worth it. The only thing that is worth sustaining is that which sustains life itself, not just a way of life.

Mon Abri – For Sale!

19 04 2013


By all means read on……..  but if you were thinking of buying, I’m afraid you’re too late.

When I built this place, never in a million years did I ever think we would sell it.  Just yesterday, a permaculture friend (who lives in Black Mountain – see below)  asked me why were we selling after doing all that work?  I only had one reply to that, my ageing body no longer tolerates the heat…… I start struggling when the mercury hits 27 degrees.  She thought it was odd, she told me she was sad to see Summer ending….  whilst I’m glad to see the back of it!  So if you like Queensland’s hot weather, come buy a piece of Paradise.  I want to live in Tasmania. POSITION They say there are only three criteria for picking somewhere to live: position, position, position! Noosa COORAN is in the Noosa Hinterland area.  It’s Noosa Shire’s best kept secret.  Just 30 minutes from Noosa, famous for its National Park, beaches, fishing, sailing, surf and surfing, restaurants, and laid back living, it’s truly affordable real estate.  There isn’t one single traffic light here – but you’ll have to learn to use roundabouts, which I personally think are great!

Cooran's main street

Cooran’s main street

Cooran has its own small shop/Post Office (owned by our neighbours), a hairdresser, a restaurant/takeaway, a brand new business selling organic seedlings, and a large hall – where monthly quality music concerts are held – and it’s serviced by buses and trains.  It also has its own primary school, all within walking/cycling distance. Just five minutes down the road by car is Pomona where you’ll find doctors, an IGA supermarket, shops, restaurants, a [great] hardware store, landscaping supplies, a cinema, two petrol stations, an excellent car mechanic, and I could go on.  Less than ten minutes further down the road is Cooroy, like Pomona only bigger.  There are two High Schools, one in Pomona and one in Cooroy.  There’s a school bus service to take students there from Cooran. There is also a bus service to the Noosa Pengari Steiner School operating from Pomona just 6 or 7 minutes away. Central Queensland University has a hub at Noosaville where my wife was studying. Alternatively, you can shop in Gympie where some things are cheaper. They have great local Sunday markets where I buy all my vegetable seedlings which are top quality. It’s the same distance away as Noosa… (more Farmers markets)  but there are traffic lights! Cooran to Brisbane is a two hour drive, or two and a half hours by train.  There are two daily trains between Brisbane and Cooran.  More if you’re prepared to drive to Cooroy or Nambour. OUR BLOCK Our land covers approximately 1.5 acres. It is part of an estate, for want of a better word, that consists of 1 to 5 acre blocks subdivided from the original dairy farm which existed here until about 1990. The road past our place is a dead end, with perhaps another 25 houses further up the road.  It’s generally very quiet, we never lock the place, and nothing’s ever disappeared!  As a community, we look out for each other, and help looking after friends’ animals when they need to go away for a few days. It all started as a totally blank lawn, and I suggest you visit this page where you can get another idea of what the property lookscooranaerial like.. bearing in mind in never ceases to change…. High and dry and out of all flooding, 95m above sea level.  The original [German] farmer who subdivided his 130 acres has personally told me he never sprayed, and hoed all weeds by hand!  So while it’s not registered organic…. it is.  The land slopes gently to the West and South.  The soil is pretty good, and wherever I’m growing food, it has been substantially improved with loads of goat and chicken poo and compost.  Whatever you plant here just leaps out of the ground!  Rainfall is normally 1200mm a year. noweedsThe whole block has been designed to Permaculture principles, with greywater recycling (which we use to water and produce our own mulch), animals for manures, milk, meat and eggs.  There’s a 200m² vegetable garden which in the past has produced (and still does in season!) Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Onions, Garlic, Leeks, Corn, Peas, Beans, Beetroots, Carrots, Artichokes, Capsicums, Chillies, Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes, Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Pumpkins, Sorrel, Lettuce, Tahitian Spinach, English Spinach, and I’m sure I’ve left something out……. oh yes, ginger and turmeric, and of course herbs galore.  And of course loads of Comfrey, Arrowroot, and Cassava, the Permaculture stalwarts….

Zone 1, seen from the roof

Zone 1, seen from the roof

A NOTE ON PERMACULTURE We have had people here inspecting the place and obviously had no idea of what Permaculture is all about.  Permaculture is NOT gardening.  If you are unsure about what Permaculture is all about, I suggest you read this….

Permaculture Food Forest

Organic Gardening

If you’re after manicured gardens and beautiful lawns, this is not the place for you, and that’s because neither are sustainable.  The first rule of Permaculture is Thou shalt not mow.  Soon enough, there will not be enough fuel to mow.  How will you cope with six foot high grass everywhere unless you get rid of it and transition to edible zero waste landscapes?  We emulate nature, we don’t fight it…  it’s a losing battle anyway.

Sunrise over Mt Cooroora

Sunrise over Mt Cooroora

We have views of three volcanic plugs, Mt Pinbarren to the East, Mt Cooroora to the South, and Mt Cooran to the South West. The aerial photo above shows we have added a small shed parallel to the boundary to the right of the house, and more solar panels have been added to the W roof .  All the fruit trees are considerably larger now. You can see two water tanks, one at each end of the house.  I’m planning to add a third tank at the North end of the shed to drought proof the garden… THE HOUSE (click all photos to enlarge) monabri2909 glossyMon Abri is a unique house.  You won’t find anything remotely like it, anywhere.


Because of its resource saving features, we won a Glossy Award for the design way back in 2007.  I like to think it’s also Australia’s most energy efficient house.  Prove me wrong, I’ll cop it on the chin…….  we are very very proud of our effort here…..  and if you need convincing it’s not hard to get it all wrong, even with the best of intents, watch this.


Sunset at beer o'clock on the deck

Sunset at beer o’clock on the deck

Mon Abri Floorplan

Mon Abri Floorplan

It’s a split level design with just seven steps between downstairs, the living space, and upstairs, where all the bedrooms are, and the bathroom and toilet.  It’s 145m²  in area, plus a veranda and large 25m² deck at the rear overlooking the view, and another veranda at the front; it has four bedrooms, or if you prefer three plus an office.  The bathroom has a double corner bath, a shower, a bidet and a hand basin.  The toilet (composting) has its own separate handbasin… and is unique in that it opens to the outside as well as the inside, a most handy feature when gardening…..


Tiling in living area


North Point at the front door

The living area is tiled with Terracotta, in a French Provincial style.  Pretty well everyone who walks in is blown away by the character of the place…. no one has ever said they didn’t like it!  The entire house is tiled (except the kitchen which has a cork floor for comfort), and tiled with creative flair at that……

Glenda being a Ceramic Artist, has put a lot of effort in making sure no floor was boring!  There’s even a mosaic of a Black Cockatoo (the emblem of the Glossy Awards) outside the bathroom, which itself is finished in turquoise Balinese river stones…. has to be seen it to be believed..

The kitchen is entirely “hand made”, with not a sign of chip board or MDF board to offgas nasties for you to breathe.  In fact there are none in the whole house…….  And the food garden is right outside for quick access. IMG_0216IMG_0215 Unless you really really object to our hyper efficient fridge, it comes with the house.  We cook on a five burner gas

Walk in pantry

Walk in pantry

cooktop, and the AGA……. which holds a certain place of pride here…  the kitchen is the stereotypical “country style”, and it has a walk-in pantry to store the home brew and preserves with a light that comes on automatically when you walk in…..  It’s the kitchen I’ve always wanted, and I will build another one just like it in Tasmania. SHD2014 finishedcobovenThe kitchen now also has an addition…  our treasured cob oven which we intend to use in Summer so that we can still bake bread and pizzas, and cook roasts without heating up the house.

All the ceilings are raked pine, and mini orb corrugated iron has been tastefully used as features in the kitchen and bathroom to give it that “Queensland feel”…. and it’s so easy to keep clean too.  The windows are either louvres or recycled casement windows from old Queenslanders to maximise ventilation, a must in this climate.  An explanation of the house’s solar passive design can be found here.


Entrance to bathroom




Master Bedroom

Mon Abri has three bedrooms.  The Master Bedroom is 3.6m wide by 4.8m long and easily accommodates a king sized bed.  It has excellent ventilation with windows on the North and South sides, and its own door to the outside, which are fitted with curtains and pelmets to keep the heat out in Summer, and in during Winter….  It is also just steps away from the toilet and bathroom. The other two bedrooms have queen size beds, and are also both fitted with curtains and pelmets, as well as ceiling fans.  They both have built in wardrobes, and one has its own door to the outside. All the bedrooms are wonderfully warm in Winter and cool in Summer as they all have substantial thermal mass with Gympie Block walls and turquoise tiles to match the decor….

Bedroom 2

Bedroom 2


Bedroom 3

Night time view from the Master Bedroom.... I never tire of this aspect last thing before going to sleep!

Night time view from the Master Bedroom…. I never tire of this aspect last thing before going to sleep!

The house tank has never run out, and is in fact half full as I write this.  With 45,000 L of garden water, I estimate it would be possible to keep zone 1 watered even if it didn’t rain for six months at all. The house is plumbed to what must be the most ecologically sustainable drainage system, described in detail at this page on this blog.

Formal Lounge

Formal Lounge

The asking price has now been reduced to $425,000.  This is a bit more than what other houses around here might cost (though our neighbour just put their unsustainable house on the market for $550,000!), but we are selling an established self sufficient lifestyle, and besides none of them offer potentially cost free living.  Apart from the $1000 a year rates, with simple commonsense management, anyone living here would have zero electricity bills (in fact an income), zero water bills, and zero sewerage bills…… IMG_0037 The house also comes with a year’s supply of firewood. Bear in mind we also plan to move as little of our stuff as possible to Tasmania… it is a long way!  So we are prepared to throw in all the furniture as part of the cost. This page is work in progress.  As I make more finishing touches, I will update it with fresh photos, so if you are interested or know someone who might be, return soon to see what else is new. To contact me re buying Mon Abri, email me at damnthematrix at riseup dot net.  My mobile is 0447 500 566.  Seriously interested buyers only please, no tyre kickers.