Mass Extinction and Mass Insanity

16 12 2016

I was very taken and moved by this article from the Automatic Earth, written by Raul Ilargi Meijer….

I’m too busy setting up my market garden right now to write anything, so a big thank you to Raul for this content you should all read.

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Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back …

Springsteen, Atlantic City

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”
Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend

 

What drives our economies is waste. Not need, or even demand. Waste. 2nd law of thermodynamics. It drives our lives, period.

First of all, don’t tell me you’re trying to stop the ongoing extinction of nature and wildlife on this planet, or the destruction of life in general. Don’t even tell me you’re trying. Don’t tell me it’s climate change that we should focus on (that’s just a small part of the story), and you’re driving an electric car and you’re separating your trash or things like that. That would only mean you’re attempting to willfully ignore your share of destruction, because if you do it, so will others, and the planet can’t take anymore of your behavior.

This is the big one. And the only ones amongst us who don’t think so are those who don’t want to. Who think it’s easier to argue that some problems are too big for them to tackle, that they should be left to others to solve. But why should we, why should anyone, worry about elections or even wars, when it becomes obvious we’re fast approaching a time when such things don’t matter much anymore?

The latest WWF Living Planet Report shows us that the planet is a whole lot less alive than it used to be. And that we killed that life. That we replaced it with metal, bricks, plastic and concrete. Mass consumption leads to mass extinction. And that is fully predictable, it always was; there’s nothing new there.

We killed 58% of all vertebrate wildlife just between 1970 and 2012, and at a rate of 2% per year we will have massacred close to 70% of it by 2020, just 4 years from now. So what does it matter who’s president of just one of the many countries we invented on this planet? Why don’t we address what’s really crucial to our very survival instead?

 

 

The latest report from the WWF should have us all abandon whatever it is we’re doing, and make acting to prevent further annihilation of our living world the key driver in our everyday lives, every hour of every day, every single one of us. Anything else is just not good enough, and anything else will see us, that self-nominated intelligent species, annihilated in the process.

Granted, there may be a few decrepit and probably halfway mutant specimens of our species left, living in conditions we couldn’t even begin, nor dare, to imagine, with what will be left of their intelligence wondering how our intelligence could have ever let this happen. You’d almost wish they’ll understand as little as we ever did; that some form of ignorance equal to ours will soften their pain.

It’s important to note that the report does not describe a stagnant situation, there’s no state of affairs, not something still, it describes an ongoing and deteriorating process. That is, we don’t get to choose to stop the ongoing wildlife annihilation at 70%; we are witnessing, and indeed we are actively involved in, raising that number by 2% every year that we ‘live’ (can we even call it that anymore, are you alive when you murder all life around you?) in this world.

This is our only home.

 

Without the natural world that we were born into, or rather that our species, our ancestors, were born into, we have zero chance of survival. Because it is the natural world that has allowed for, and created, the conditions that made it possible for mankind to emerge and develop in the first place. And we are nowhere near making an earth 2.0; the notion itself is preposterous. A few thousand years of man ‘understanding’ his world is no match for billions of years of evolution. That’s the worst insult to whatever intelligence it is that we do have.

Much has been made through the years of our ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and much of that is just as much hubris as so much of what we tell ourselves, but the big question should be WHY we would volunteer to find out to what extent we can adapt to a world that has sustained the losses we cause it to suffer. Even if we could to a degree adapt to that, why should we want to?

Two thirds of our world is gone, and it’s we who have murdered it, and what’s worse – judging from our lifestyles- we seem to have hardly noticed at all. If we don’t stop what we’ve been doing, this can lead to one outcome only: we will murder ourselves too. Our perhaps biggest problem (even if we have quite a few) in this regard is our ability and propensity to deny this, as we deny any and all -serious, consequential- wrongdoing.

 

 

There are allegedly serious and smart people working on, dreaming of, and getting billions in subsidies for, fantasies of human colonies on Mars. This is advertized as a sign of progress and intelligence. But that can only be true if we can acknowledge that our intelligence and our insanity are identical twins. Because it is insane to destroy the planet on which we depend one-on-one for everything that allows us to live, and at the same time dream of human life on another planet.

While I see no reason to address the likes of King of Subsidies Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking is different. Unfortunately, in Hawking’s case, with all his intelligence, it’s his philosophical capacity that goes missing.

Humanity Will Not Survive Another 1,000 Years If We Don’t Escape Our Planet

Professor Stephen Hawking has warned humanity will not survive another 1,000 years on Earth unless the human race finds another planet to live on. [..] Professor Hawking, 74, reflected on the understanding of the universe garnered from breakthroughs over the past five decades, describing 2016 as a “glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics”. “Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years and I am happy if I have made a small contribution,“ he went on.

”The fact that we humans, who are ourselves mere fundamental particles of nature, have been able to come this close to understanding the laws that govern us and the universe is certainly a triumph.” Highlighting “ambitious” experiments that will give an even more precise picture of the universe, he continued: “We will map the position of millions of galaxies with the help of [super] computers like Cosmos. We will better understand our place in the universe.”

“But we must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

The tragedy is that we may have gained some knowledge of natural laws and the universe, but we are completely clueless when it comes to keeping ourselves from destroying our world. Mars is an easy cop-out. But Mars doesn’t solve a thing. Because it’s -obviously- not the ‘fragile planet’ earth that is a threat to mankind, it’s mankind itself. How then can escaping to another planet solve its problems?

What exactly is wrong with saying that we will have to make it here on planet earth? Is it that we’ve already broken and murdered so much? And if that’s the reason, what does that say about us, and what does it say about what we would do to a next planet, even provided we could settle on it (we can’t) ? Doesn’t it say that we are our own worst enemies? And doesn’t the very idea of settling the ‘next planet’ imply that we had better settle things right here first? Like sort of a first condition before we go to Mars, if we ever do?

In order to survive, we don’t need to escape our planet, we need to escape ourselves. Not nearly as easy. Much harder than escaping to Mars. Which already is nothing but a pipedream to begin with.

Moreover, if we can accept that settling things here first before going to Mars is a prerequisite for going there in the first place, we wouldn’t need to go anymore, right?

 

 

We treat this entire extinction episode as if it’s something we’re watching from the outside in, as if it’s something we’re not really a part of. I’ve seen various undoubtedly very well-intentioned ‘green people’, ‘sustainable people’, react to the WWF report by pointing to signs that there is still hope, pointing to projects that reverse some of the decline, chinook salmon on the North American Pacific coast, Malawi farmers that no longer use chemical fertilizers, a giant sanctuary in the Antarctic etc.

That, too, is a form of insanity. Because it serves to lull people into a state of complacency that is entirely unwarranted. And that can therefore only serve to make things worse. There is no reversal, there is no turnaround. It’s like saying if a body doesn’t fall straight down in a continuous line, it doesn’t fall down at all.

The role that green, sustainability, conservationist groups play in our societies has shifted dramatically, and we have failed completely to see this change (as have they). These groups have become integral parts of our societies, instead of a force on the outside warning about what happens within.

Conservationist groups today serve as apologists for the havoc mankind unleashes on its world: all people have to do is donate money at Christmas, and conservation will be taken care of. Recycle a few bottles and plastic wrappings and you’re doing your part to save the planet. It is utterly insane. It’s as insane as the destruction itself. It’s denial writ large, and in the flesh.

It’s not advertized that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not how it works. Saying that ‘it’s not too late’ is not a call to action as many people continue to believe. It’s just dirt poor psychology. It provides people with the impression, which rapidly turns into an excuse, that there is still time left. As almost 70% of all vertebrates, those animals that are closest to us, have disappeared. When would they say time is up? At 80%, 90%?

 

 

We do not understand why, or even that, we are such a tragically destructive species. And perhaps we can’t. Perhaps that is where our intelligence stops, at providing insight into ourselves. Even the most ‘aware’ amongst us will still tend to disparage their own roles in what goes on. Even they will make whatever it is they still do, and that they know is hurtful to the ecosystem, seem smaller than it is.

Even they will search for apologies for their own behavior, tell themselves they must do certain things in order to live in the society they were born in, drive kids to school, yada yada. We all do that. We soothe our consciences by telling ourselves we mean well, and then getting into our cars to go pick up a carton of milk. Or engage in an equally blind act. There’s too many to mention.

Every species that finds a large amount of free energy reacts the same way: proliferation. The unconscious drive is to use up the energy as fast as possible. If only we could understand that. But understanding it would get in the way of the principle itself. The only thing we can do to stop the extinction is for all of us to use a lot less energy. But because energy consumption provides wealth and -more importantly- political power, we will not do that. We instead tell ourselves all we need to do is use different forms of energy.

Our inbuilt talent for denying and lying (to ourselves and others) makes it impossible for us to see that we have an inbuilt talent for denying and lying in the first place. Or, put another way, seeing that we haven’t been able to stop ourselves from putting the planet into the dismal shape it is in now, why should we keep on believing that we will be able to stop ourselves in the future?

Thing is, an apology for our own behavior is also an apology for everyone else’s. As long as you keep buying things wrapped in plastic, you have no right, you lose your right, to blame the industry that produces the plastic.

 

 

We see ourselves as highly intelligent, and -as a consequence- we see ourselves as a species driven by reason. But we are not. Which can be easily demonstrated by a ‘reverse question’: why, if we are so smart, do we find ourselves in the predicament of having destroyed two thirds of our planet?

Do we have a rational argument to execute that destruction? Of course not, we’ll say. But then why do we do it if rationality drives us? This is a question that should forever cure us of the idea that we are driven by reason. But we’re not listening to the answer to that question. We’re denying, we’re even denying the question itself.

It’s the same question, and the same answer, by the way, that will NOT have us ‘abandon whatever it is we do’ when we read today that 70% of all wildlife will be gone by 2020, that 58% was gone by 2012 and we destroy it at a rate of 2% per year. We’re much more likely to worry much more about some report that says returns on our retirement plans will be much lower than we thought. Or about the economic growth that is too low (as if that is possible with 70% of wildlife gone).

After all, if destroying 70% of wildlife is not enough for a call to action, what would be? 80%? 90? 99%? I bet you that would be too late. And no, relying on conservationist groups to take care of it for us is not a viable route. Because that same 70% number spells out loud and clear what miserable failures these groups have turned out to be.

We ‘assume’ we’re intelligent, because that makes us feel good. Well, it doesn’t make the planet feel good. What drives us is not reason. What drives us is the part of our brains that we share in common with amoeba and bacteria and all other more ‘primitive forms of life, that gobbles up excess energy as fast as possible, in order to restore a balance. Our ‘rational’, human, brain serves one function, and one only: to find ‘rational’ excuses for what our primitive brain has just made us do.

We’re all intelligent enough to understand that driving a hybrid car or an electric car does nothing to halt the havoc we do to our world, but there are still millions of these things being sold. So perhaps we could say that we’re at the same time intelligent enough, and we’re not.

We can see ourselves destroying our world, but we can not stop ourselves from continuing the destruction. Here’s something I wrote 5 years ago:

Most. Tragic. Species. Ever.

We have done exactly the same that any primitive life form would do when faced with a surplus, of food, energy, and in our case credit, cheap money. We spent it all as fast as we can. Lest less abundant times arrive. It’s an instinct, it comes from our more primitive brain segments, not our more “rational” frontal cortex. It’s not that we’re in principle, or talent, more devious or malicious than more primitive life forms. It’s that we use our more advanced brains to help us execute the same devastation our primitive brain drives us to, but much much worse.

That’s what makes us the most tragic species imaginable. We’ll fight each other, even our children, over the last few scraps falling off the table, and kill off everything in our path to get there. And when we’re done, we’ll find a way to rationalize to ourselves why we were right to do so. We can be aware of watching ourselves do what we do, but we can’t help ourselves from doing it. Most. Tragic. Species. Ever.

The greatest miracle you will ever see, that you could ever hope to see, is so miraculous you can’t even recognize it for what it is. We don’t know what the word beautiful means anymore. Or the word valuable. We’ve lost all of that, and are well on our way, well over 70% of it, to losing the rest too.

 

 

 

PS Please note I could not gather all sources for all pictures here, but I’d be more than happy to add them. It’s not that I don’t recognize the effort that goes into them; it’s an emotional thing.





On decommisioning nuclear reactors

25 07 2016

Some of the stuff in this article simply beggars belief…..  like “they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind”.  Seriousy..?  That is just mindboggling.  And the decommissioning costs, at a time the world’s financial system is on the verge of collapse is similarly gobsmacking…… I’m so glad there are no nukes in Australia after reading that lot.

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[Below are excerpts from the 7 March 2012 NewScientist article: How to dismantle a nuclear reactor ] about the costs and challenges of dismantling nuclear power plants in Europe] Hat tip to energyskeptic.com

decommisioning-nuclear-reactor
By the start of 2012, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 138 commercial power reactors had been permanently shut down with at least 80 expected to join the queue for decommissioning in the coming decade – more if other governments join Germany in deciding to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

And yet, so far, only 17 of these have been dismantled and made permanently safe. That’s because decommissioning is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

A standard American or French-designed pressurised water reactor (PWR) – the most common reactor design now in operation – will produce more than 100,000 tonnes of waste, about a tenth of it significantly radioactive, including the steel reactor vessel, control rods, piping and pumps. Decommissioning just a single one generally costs up to half a billion dollars.

Decommissioning Germany’s Soviet-designed power plant at Greifswald produced more than half a million tonnes of radioactive waste. The UK’s 26 gas-cooled Magnox reactors produce similar amounts and will eventually cost up to a billion dollars each to decommission. That’s because they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind.

The many variations also mean that there is no agreed-upon standard for how to go about the process. If you want to decommission a nuclear power plant, you have three options. The first is the fastest: remove the fuel, then take the reactor apart as swiftly as possible, storing the radioactive material somewhere safe to await a final burial place.  The second approach is to remove the fuel but lock up the reactor, letting its troublesome radioactive isotopes decay, which makes dismantling easier – much later.  The third option is to simply entomb the reactor where it is.

Even when the reactor can be dismantled, where do you put the radioactive waste? Even the least contaminated material – old overalls, steel heat exchangers and toilets – must be carefully separated and sent to specially licensed landfill sites. Not every country has such designated facilities. Intermediate-level waste, contrary to its name, is even more of a problem because it may require deep ground burial alongside the high-level spent fuel.

In 1976, a British Royal Commission said no more nuclear power plants should be built until the waste disposal problems were resolved. Thirty-five years on, nothing much has changed.

sources:





TIME IS SHORT: REASONING TO RESISTANCE

6 07 2016

15 Realities of our Global Environmental Crisis

By Deep Green Resistance

  1. Industrial civilization is not, and can never be, sustainable.

Any social system based on the use of non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. Non-renewable means it will eventually run out. If you hyper-exploit your non-renewable surroundings, you will deplete them and die. Even for your renewable surroundings like trees, if you exploit them faster than they can regenerate, you will deplete them and die. This is precisely what civilization has been doing for its 10,000-year campaign – running through soil, rivers, and forests as well as metal, coal, and oil.

  1. Industrial civilization is causing a global collapse of life.

Due to industrial civilization’s insatiable appetite for growth, we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity. Once the carrying capacity of an area is surpassed, the ecological community is severely damages, and the longer the overshoot lasts, the worse the damage, until the population eventually collapses. This collapse is happening now. Every 24 hours up to 200 species become extinct. 90% of the large fish in the oceans are gone. 98% of native forests, 99% of wetlands, and 99% of native grasslands have been wiped out.

bossen-wereldwijd-steeds-verder-gefragmenteerd-

  1. Industrial civilization is based on and requires ongoing systematic violence to operate.

This way of life is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. All land on which industrial civilization is now based on land that was taken by force from its original inhabitants, and shaped using processes – industrial forestry, mining, smelting – that violently shape the world to industrial ends. Traditional communities do not often voluntarily give up or sell resources on which their communities and homes are based and do not willingly allow their landbases to be damaged so that other resources – gold, oil, and so on – can be extracted. It follows that those who want the resources will do what they can to acquire these resources by any means necessary. Resource extraction cannot be accomplished without force and exploitation.

  1. In order for the world as we know it to exist on a day-to-day basis, a vast and growing degree of destruction and death must occur.

Industrialization is a process of taking entire communities of living beings and turning them into commodities and dead zones. Trace every industrial artifact back to its source­ and you find the same devastation: mining, clear-cuts, dams, agriculture, and now tar sands, mountaintop removal, and wind farms. These atrocities, and others like them, happen all around us, every day, just to keep things running normally. There is no kinder, greener version of industrial civilization that will do the trick of leaving us a living planet.

  1. This way of being is not natural.

Humans and their immediate evolutionary predecessors lived sustainably for at least a million years. It is not “human nature” to destroy one’s habitat. The “centralization of political power, the separation of classes, the lifetime division of labor, the mechanization of production, the magnification of military power, the economic exploitation of the weak, and the universal introduction of slavery and forced labor for both industrial and military purposes”[1] are only chief features of civilization, and are constant throughout its history.

  1. Industrial civilization is only possible with cheap energy.

The only reason industrial processes such as large-scale agriculture and mining even function is because of cheap oil; without that, industrial processes go back to depending on slavery and serfdom, as in most of the history of civilization.

  1. Peak oil, and hence the era of cheap oil, has passed.

Peak oil is the point at which oil production hits its maximum rate. Peak oil has passed and extraction will decline from this point onwards. This rapid decline in the availability of global energy will result in increasing economic disruption and upset. The increasing cost and decreasing supply of energy will undermine manufacturing and transportation and cause global economic turmoil. Individuals, companies, and even states will go bankrupt. International trade will nosedive because of a global depression. The poor will be unable to cope with the increasing cost of basic goods, and eventually the financial limits will result in large-scale energy-intensive manufacturing becoming impossible – resulting in, among other things – the collapse of agricultural infrastructure, and the associated transportation and distribution network.

At this point in time, there are no good short-term outcomes for global human society. The collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable, with or without our input, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is that every day the gears of this destructive system continue grinding is another day it wages war on the natural world. With up to 200 species and more than 80,000 acres of rainforest being wiped out daily as just some of the atrocities occurring systematically to keep our lifestyles afloat, the sooner this collapse is induced the better.

  1. “Green technologies” and “renewable energy” are not sustainable and will not save the planet.

Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing.  These “green” technologies are made out of metals, plastics, and chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported vast distances, processed and manufactured in big factories, and require regular maintenance. Each of these stages causes widespread environmental destruction, and each of these stages is only possible with the mass use of cheap energy from fossil fuels. Neither fossil fuels nor mined minerals will ever be sustainable; by definition, they will run out. Even recycled materials must undergo extremely energy-intensive production processes before they can be reused.[2]

1280px-Havvindparken_Sheringham_Shoal

  1. Personal consumption habits will not save the planet.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption for organized political resistance. Personal consumption habits — changing light bulbs, going vegan, shorter showers, recycling, taking public transport — have nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet. Besides, 90% of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. Three quarters of energy is consumed and 95% of waste is produced by commercial, industrial, corporate, agricultural and military industries. By blaming the individual, we are accepting capitalism’s redefinition of us from citizens to consumers, reducing our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming.

  1. There will not be a mass voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living.

The current material systems of power make any chance of significant social or political reform impossible. Those in power get too many benefits from destroying the planet to allow systematic changes which would reduce their privilege. Keeping this system running is worth more to them than the human and non-human lives destroyed by the extraction, processing, and utilization of natural resources.

  1. We are afraid.

The primary reason we don’t resist is because we are afraid. We know if we act decisively to protect the places and creatures we love or if we act decisively to stop corporate exploitation of the poor, that those in power will come down on us with the full power of the state. We can talk all we want about how we live in a democracy, and we can talk all we want about the consent of the governed. But what it really comes down to is that if you effectively oppose the will of those in power, they will try to kill you. We need to make that explicit so we can face the situation we’re in: those in power are killing the planet and they are exploiting the poor, and we are not stopping them because we are afraid. This is how authoritarian regimes and abusers work: they make their victims and bystanders afraid to act.

  1. If we only fight within the system, we lose.

Things will not suddenly change by using the same approaches we’ve been using for the past 30 years. When nothing is working to stop or even slow the destruction’s acceleration, then it is time to change your strategy. Until now, most of our tactics and discourse (whether civil disobedience, writing letters and books, carrying signs, protecting small patches of forest, filing lawsuits, or conducting scientific research) remain firmly embedded in whatever actions are authorized by the overarching structures that permit the destruction in the first place.

Strip_coal_mining

  1. Dismantling industrial civilization is the only rational, permanent solution.

Our strategies until now have failed because neither our violent nor nonviolent responses are attempts to rid us of industrial civilization itself. By allowing the framing conditions to remain, we guarantee a continuation of the behaviors these framing conditions necessitate. If we do not put a halt to it, civilization will continue to immiserate the vast majority of humans and to degrade the planet until it (civilization, and probably the planet) collapses. The longer we wait for civilization to crash – or we ourselves bring it down – the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.

  1. Militant resistance works.

Study of past social insurgencies and resistance movements shows that specific types of asymmetric warfare strategies are extremely effective.

  1. We must build a culture of resistance.

Some things, including a living planet, that are worth fighting for at any cost, when other means of stopping the abuses have been exhausted. One of the good things about industrial civilization being so ubiquitously destructive, is that no matter where you look – no matter what your gifts, no matter where your heart lies – there’s desperately important work to be done. Some of us need to file timber sales appeals and lawsuits. Some need to help family farmers or work on other sustainable agriculture issues. Some need to work on rape crisis hot lines, or at battered women’s shelters. Some need to work on fair trade, or on stopping international trade altogether. Some of us need to take down dams, oil pipelines, mining equipment, and electrical infrastructure. [NOTE: I am NOT in favor of taking down dams…]

We need to fight for what we love, fight harder than we have ever thought we could fight, because the bottom line is that any option in which industrial civilization remains, results in a dead planet.

 

Parts of this article were drawn from Deep Green Resistance: A Strategy to Save the Planet, by Aric McBay, Lierre Keith, and Derrick Jensen.

[1] Lewis Mumford, Myth of the Machine, Volume 2,  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, page 186.

[2] Recycled materials also usually degrade over time, limiting their recycling potential.





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

15 05 2016

ilargi

Raul Ilargi

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

 

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

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

Here’s the short version:

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

And here it is in its context:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Limits to growth: policies to steer the economy away from disaster

21 04 2016

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

If the rich nations in the world keep growing their economies by 2% each year and by 2050 the poorest nations catch up, the global economy of more than 9 billion people will be around 15 times larger than it is now, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). If the global economy then grows by 3% to the end of the century, it will be 60 times larger than now.

The existing economy is already environmentally unsustainable. It is utterly implausible to think we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact so significantly, especially since recent decades of extraordinary technological advancement have only increased our impacts on the planet, not reduced them.

Moreover, if you asked politicians whether they’d rather have 4% growth than 3%, they’d all say yes. This makes the growth trajectory outlined above all the more absurd.

Others have shown why limitless growth is a recipe for disaster. I’ve argued that living in a degrowth economy would actually increase well-being, both socially and environmentally. But what would it take to get there?

In a new paper published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, I look at government policies that could facilitate a planned transition beyond growth – and I reflect on the huge obstacles lying in the way.

Measuring progress

First, we need to know what we’re aiming for.

It is now widely recognised that GDP – the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy – is a deeply flawed measure of progress.

GDP can be growing while our environment is being degraded, inequality is worsening, and social well-being is stagnant or falling. Better indicators of progress include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Cap resources and energy

Environmental impact is driven by demand for resources and energy. It is now clear that the planet cannot possibly support current or bigger populations if developing nations used the same amount of resources and energy as developed nations.

Demand can be reduced through efficiency gains (doing more with less), but these gains tend to be reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing impacts.

A post-growth economy would therefore need diminishing “resource caps” to achieve sustainability. These would aim to limit a nation’s consumption to a “fair share” of available resources. This in turn would stimulate efficiency, technological innovation and recycling, thereby minimising waste.

This means that a post-growth economy will need to produce and consume in far less resource-intensive ways, which will almost certainly mean reduced GDP. There will of course be scope to progress in other ways, such as increased leisure time and community engagement.

Work less, live more

Growth in GDP is often defended on the grounds that it is required to keep unemployment at manageable levels. So jobs will have to maintained in other ways.

Even though GDP has been growing quite consistently in recent decades, many Westerners, including Australians, still seem to be locked into a culture of overwork.

By reducing the average working week to 28 hours, a post-growth economy would share the available work among the working population. This would minimise or eliminate unemployment even in a non-growing or contracting economy.

Lower income would mean we would have less stuff, reducing environmental impact, but we would receive more freedom in exchange. Planned degrowth is therefore very different to unplanned recession.

Redirect public spending

Governments are the most significant player in any economy and have the most spending power. Taking limits to growth seriously will require a fundamental rethink of how public funds are invested and spent.

Among other things, this would include a swift divestment from the fossil fuel economy and reinvestment in renewable energy systems. But just as important is investing in efficiency and reducing energy demand through behaviour change. Obviously, it will be much easier to transition to 100% renewable energy if energy demand is a fraction of what it is today.

We could fund this transition by redirecting funds from military spending (climate change is, after all, a security threat), cutting fossil fuel subsidies and putting an adequate price on carbon.

Reform banking and finance

Banking and finance systems essentially have a “growth imperative” built into their structures. Money is loaned into existence by private banks as interest-bearing debt. Paying back the debt plus the interest requires an expansion of the monetary supply.

There is so much public and private debt today that the only way it could be paid back is via decades of continued growth.

So we need deep reform of banking and finance systems. We’d also need to cancel debt in some circumstances, especially in developing nations that are being suffocated by interest payments to rich world lenders.

The population question

Then there’s population. Many people assume that population growth will slow when the developing world gets rich, but to globalise affluence would be environmentally catastrophic. It is absolutely imperative therefore that nations around the world unite to confront the population challenge directly.

Population policies will inevitably be controversial but the world needs bold and equitable leadership on this issue, because current trends suggest we are heading for 11 billion by the end of this century.

Anyone who casually dismisses the idea that there is a limit to how many people Earth can support should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria. Watch as the colony grows until it consumes all of the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The first thing needed is a global fund that focuses on providing the education, empowerment and contraception required to minimise the estimated 87 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year.

Eliminating poverty

The conventional path to poverty alleviation is the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. But, as I’ve argued, a rising tide will sink all boats.

Poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a post-growth economy would eliminate poverty not by baking an ever-larger pie (which isn’t working) but by sharing it differently.

The richest 62 people on the planet own more than the poorest half of humanity. Dwell on that for a moment, and then dare to tell me that redistribution is not an imperative of justice.

So what’s stopping us?

Despite these post-growth policy proposals seeming coherent, they face at least four huge obstacles – which may be insurmountable.

First, the paradigm of growth is deeply embedded in national governments, especially in the developed world. At the cultural level, the expectation of ever-increasing affluence is as strong as ever. I am not so deluded as to think otherwise.

Second, these policies would directly undermine the economic interests of the most powerful corporations and institutions in society, so fierce resistance should be expected.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that in a globalised world these policies would likely trigger either capital flight or economic collapse, or both. For example, how would the stock markets react to this policy agenda?

Finally, there is also a geopolitical risk in being first to adopt these policies. Reduced military spending, for instance, would reduce a nation’s relative power.

So if these “top-down” policies are unlikely to work, it would seem to follow that if a post-growth economy is to emerge, it may have to be driven into existence from below, with communities coming together to build the new economy at the grassroots level.

And if we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.

In the end, it is likely that only when a deep crisis arrives will an ethics of sufficiency come to inform our economic thinking and practice more broadly.

The Conversation

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

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





The other side of the global crisis: entropy and the collapse of civilizations

6 03 2016

This is a post from Ugo Bardi’s website. When I first read it, I found so many errors of spelling and syntax that I found it hard going….. but then I realised it had been written by an Italian, and frankly, if I could write an article as good as this in Italian (or even in French, my ‘native language’), I’d be very happy with myself.  So I went through it with a fine tooth comb and re-edited it.  Once or twice, I wasn’t actually sure what the author meant, so I hope I haven’t run astray with my effort to ‘fix it’…….  well worth the read, especially if ‘you’re into’ entropy.

Guest post by Jacopo Simonetta

When we discuss the impending crisis of our civilisation, we mainly look at the resourcesjacopo-6 our economy needs in growing quantity. And we explain why the Diminishing Returns of resource exploitation pose a growing burden on  the possibility of a further growing of the global economy. It is a very interesting topic, indeed, but here I suggest we turn 180 degrees around and take a look at the “other side;” that is to what happens where the used resources are discarded.

Eventually, our society (as any other society in history) is a dissipative structure. It means that it exist only because it is able to dissipate energy in order to stock information inside itself. And there is a positive feedback: more energy permits to implement more complexity; and more complexity needs, but also permits a larger energy flow. This, I think, is a crucial point: at the very end, wealth is information stocked inside the socio-economic system in different forms (such livestock, infrastructures, agrarian facilities, machines, buildings, books, the web and so on). Human population is peculiar because it is a large part of the information stocked inside the society system. So, from a thermodynamic point of view, it is the key part of “wealth”, while from an economic point of view people can be seen as the denominator of global wealth.

The accumulation of information inside a system is possible only by an increment of entropy outside the same system. This is usual with all the dissipative structures, but our civilisation is unique in its dimension. Today about 97% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass is composed of humans and of their symbionts and we use about 50% of the primary production (400 TW?), plus a little less than 20 TW we get from fossil fuels and other inorganic sources.

At the beginning, our modern civilisation performed in the same way as all the others in history: appropriating energy forms such as food, livestock, commodities, slaves, oil, carbon and so on, and throwing entropy to the biosphere in different forms such as pollutants, ecosystems transformations, extinctions, heat and so on; while throwing entropy to other societies as war, migration, etcetera.

As the industrial economy overruled and substituted all others, it became the only economy in the world, and so, necessarily, found more and more difficulties in dissipating energy outside itself. In practice, sinks become problematic before wells do. But remember that in order to implement its own complexity, a dissipative system needs a growing energy flow; that is, it needs cornucopian energy wells.

Today, both global pollution and massive immigration into the more industrialized countries is evidence that our system is no longer able to expel entropy out of itself. But if entropy is not discharged out of the system, it necessarily grows inside it. And when there is more energy, there is more entropy in a typical diminishing returns dynamic. Maybe, we can see here a negative feedback which has stopped economic growth and that will possibly crash the global economy in some decades.  [Ed- this is highly optimistic, the crash has started, and ‘in some decades’ the economy will simpy no longer exist!]

If this reasoning is correct, the political and the economic crisis, social disruption and, finally, failing states are nothing less than the visible aspect of the growing entropy inside our own meta-system. Eventually, global society is so large and complex as is obvious in many correlated sub-systems that we are now managing it in order to concentrate entropy inside the less powerful ones: some yet problematic countries, lower classes and, especially, the young. But these phenomena produce political shifts, riots and mass migrations at the core of the system. This also means that the elites have lost the capability to understand and/or control the internal dynamic of the global socio-economic system.

In the meantime, the overloading of the sinks is starting to cause the deterioration of the wells. This is evident, for instance, with air and water pollution, ocean acidification, mass extinction, ecosystems disruption, and much more. In the end, as the economy grows, the global system necessarily loses the capacity to dissipate energy, condemning itself to disruption.

We can find the same phenomenon at smaller scales, such as for a single organism, or such as in a single human being. If a good energy flow is available in the form of food and heat, a baby can develop into a strong and healthy adult. Good flows of energy during adult life mean a better life and the possibility to develop culture, skills, art, science and to keep one’s health for a long time. Insufficient energy means starvation and illness. But it is also true that if the body absorbs a quantity of energy larger than its capacity to dissipate it, then we have problems such as, illness, obesity and, finally, a bad life and premature death.

We found the very same phenomenon at larger scales as well. The Earth as a whole is also a dissipative, complex system. It does not have any problems with its main energy well, the Sun. We can be sure that the 86,000 TW that we receive from the sun on average are not going away, although they will gradually increase over very long time spans. But the whole biosphere is collapsing in one of the most serious crisis it has ever faced during the 4.5 billions years of its history. This crisis is the result of human activity that reduces the capability of the ecosystem to dissipate the energy input, in particular as a result of the greenhouse effect caused by the combustion of fossil fuels. So the internal entropy grows with the consequence of harming even more the ecosystems and reducing complexity, possibly leading to a global disaster at a geological scale.

In conclusion, I suggest that, in the coming decades, entropy will be a much more challenging problem than that of the energy supply. Only a drastic reduction in the energy input could save the biosphere. But this is a high price to pay because a reduction of energy flow means necessarily a reduction of complexity and information stored inside the human sub-system. It means misery and death for much of the human population, although it also means hope for the future one (assuming that it will exist, but humans are too adaptable and resilient to go extinct as long as a functioning biosphere exists) So, new civilizations will appear but, in order for that to occur, the present civilization will have to collapse fast enough to leave a livable planet to our descendants.





Ugo Bardi on Food Systems Complexity

19 07 2015

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

Can you think of something worse than a wicked problem? Yes, it is perfectly possible: it is a wicked solution. That is, a solution that not only does nothing to solve the problem, but, actually, worsens it. Unfortunately, if you work in system dynamics, you soon learn that most complex systems are not only wicked, but suffer from wicked solutions (see, e.g.here).

This said, let’s get to one of the most wicked problems I can think of: that of the world’s food supply. I’ll try to report here at least a little of what I learned at the recent conference on this subject, jointly held by FAO and the Italian Chapter of the System Dynamics Society. Two days of discussions held in Rome during a monster heat wave that put under heavy strain the air conditioning system of the conference room and made walking from there to one’s hotel a task comparable to walking on an alien planet: it brought the distinct feeling that you needed a refrigerated space suit. But it was worth being there.

First of all, should we say that the world’s food supply is a “problem”? Yes, if you note that about half of the world’s human population is undernourished; if not really starving. And of the remaining half, a large fraction is not nourished right, because obesity and type II diabetes are rampant diseases – they said at the conference that if the trend continues, half of the world’s population is going to suffer from diabetes.

So, if we have a problem, is it really “wicked”? Yes, it is, in the sense that finding a good solution is extremely difficult and the results are often the opposite than those intended at the beginning. The food supply system is a devilishly complex system and it involves a series of cross linked subsystems interacting with each other. Food production is one thing, but food supply is a completely different story, involving transportation, distribution, storage, refrigeration, financial factors, cultural factors and is affected by climate change, soil conservation, population, cultural factors…… and more, including the fact that people don’t just eat “calories”, they need to eat food; that is a balanced mix of nutrients. In such a system, everything you touch reverberates on everything else. It is a classic case of the concept known in biology as “you can’t do just one thing.”

globalfoodsystemOnce you obtain even a vague glimpse of the complexity of the food supply system – as you can do in two days of full immersion in a conference – then you can also understand how poor and disingenuous often are the efforts to “solve the problem”. The basic mistake that almost everyone does here (and not just in the case of the food supply system) is trying to linearize the system.

Linearizing a complex system means that you act on a single element of it, hoping that all the rest won’t change as a consequence. It is the “look, it is simple” approach: favored by politicians (*). It goes like this, “look, it is simple: we just do this and the problem will be solved”. What is meant with “this” varies with the situation; with the food system, it often involves some technological trick to raise the agricultural yields. In some quarters that involves the loud cry “let’s go GMOs!” (genetically modified organisms).

Unfortunately, even assuming that agricultural yields can be increased in terms of calories produced using GMOs (possible, but only in industrialized agricultural systems), then the result is a cascade of effects which reverberate in the whole system; typically transforming a resilient rural production system into a fragile, partly industrialized, production system – to say nothing about the fact that these technologies often worsen the food’s nutritional quality. And, assuming that it is possible to increase yields, how do you find the financial resources to build up the infrastructure needed to manage the increased agricultural yield? You need trucks, refrigerators, storage facilities, and more. Even if you can manage to upgrade all that, very often, the result is simply to make the system more vulnerable to external shocks such as increases in the cost of supplies such as fuels and fertilizers.

There are other egregious examples of how deeply flawed is the “‘look, it is simple” strategy. One is the idea that we can solve the problem by getting rid of food waste. Great, but how exactly can you do that and how much would that cost? (**) And who would pay for the necessary upgrade of the whole distribution infrastructure? Another “look, it is simple” approach is ‘if we all went vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone’. In part, it is true, but it is not so simple, either. Again, there is a question of distribution and transportation, and the fact that rich westerners buy “green food” in their supermarkets has little impact on the situation of the poor in the rest of the world. And then, some kinds of “green” food are bulky and hence difficult to transport; also they spoil easily, and so you need refrigeration, and so on. Something similar holds for the “let’s go local” strategy. How do you deal with the unavoidable fluctuations in local production? Once upon a time, these fluctuations were the cause of periodic famines which were accepted as a fact of life. Going back to that is not exactly a way to “solve the food supply problem.”

A different way to tackle the problem is focussed on reducing the human population. But, also here, we often make the “look, it is simple” mistake. What do we know exactly on the mechanisms that generate overpopulation, and how do we intervene on them? Sometimes, proposers of this approach seem to think that all what we need to do is to drop condoms on poor countries (at least it is better than dropping bombs on them). But suppose that you can reduce population in non traumatic ways, then you intervene into a system where “population” means a complex mix of different social and economic niches: you have urban, peri-urban, and rural population; a population reduction may mean shifting people from one sector to the other, it may involve losing producing capabilities in the rural areas, or, on the contrary, reduced capabilities of financing production if you could lower population in urban areas. Again, population reduction, alone, is a linear approach that won’t work as it is supposed to do, even if it could be implemented.

Facing the complexity of the system, listening to the experts discussing it, you get a chilling sensation that it is a system truly too difficult for human beings to grasp. You would have to be at the same time an expert in agriculture, in logistics, in nutrition, in finance, in population dynamics, and much more. One thing I noticed, as a modest expert in energy and fossil fuels, is how food experts normally don’t realize that the availability of fossil fuels must necessarily go down in the near future. That will have enormous effects on agriculture: think of fertilizers, mechanization, transportation, refrigeration, and more. But I didn’t see these effects taken into account in most models presented. Several researchers showed diagrams extrapolating current trends into the future as if oil production were to keep increasing for the rest of the century and more.

The same is true for climate change: I didn’t see at the conference much being said about the extreme effects that rapid climate change could have on agriculture. It is understandable: we have good models telling us how temperatures will rise, and how that will affect some of the planet’s subsystems (e.g. sea levels), but no models that could tell us how the agricultural system will react to shifting weather patterns, different temperatures, droughts or floods. Just think of how deeply agricultural yields in India are linked to the yearly monsoon pattern and you can only shiver at the thought of what might happen if climate change would affect that.

So, the impression I got from the conference is that nobody is really grasping the complexity of the problem; neither at the overshootlevel of single persons, nor at the level of organizations. For instance, I never heard a crucial term used in world dynamics, which is “overshoot”. That is, it is true that right now we can produce roughly enough food – measured in calories – for the current population. But for how long will we be able to do that? In several cases I could describe the approaches I have seen as trying to fix a mechanical watch using a hammer. Or to steer a transatlantic liner using a toothpick stuck into the propeller.

But there are also positive elements coming from the Rome conference. One is that the FAO, although a large, and sometimes clumsy, organization understands how system dynamics is a tool that could help a lot policy makers to do better in managing the food supply system. And, possibly, helping them device better ideas to “solve the food problem”. That’s more difficult than it seems: system dynamics is not for everyone and teaching it to bureaucrats is like teaching dogs to solve equations: it takes a lot of work and it doesn’t work so well. Then, system dynamics practitioners are often victim of the “spaghetti diagram” syndrome, which consists in drawing complex models full of little arrows going from somewhere to somewhere else, and then watching the mess they created and nodding in a show of internal satisfaction. But it is also true that, at the conference, I saw a lot of good will among the various actors in the field to find a common language. This is a good thing, difficult, but promising.

In the end, what is the solution to the “food supply problem”? If you ask me, I would try to propose a concept: “in a complex system, there are neither problems, nor solutions. There is only change and adaptation.” As a corollary, I could say that you can solve a problem (or try to) but you can’t solve a change (not even try to). You can only adapt to change, hopefully in a non traumatic manner.

Seen in this sense, the best way to tackle the present food supply situation, is not to seek for impossible (wicked) solutions (e.g. GMOs) but to increase the resilience of the system. That involves working at the local level and interacting with all the actors working in the food supply system. It is a sensible approach. FAO is already following it and it can insure a reasonable supply even in the presence of the unavoidable shocks that are going to arrive as the result of climate change and energy supply problems. Can system dynamics help? Probably yes. Of course, there is a lot of work to do, but the Rome conference was a good start.

H/t: Stefano Armenia, Vanessa Armendariz, Olivio Argenti and all the organizers of the joint Sydic/FAO conference in Rome

Notes.

* Once you tackle the food problem, you can’t ignore the “third world” situation. As a consequence, the conference was not just among Westerners and the debate took a wider aspect that also involved different ways of seeing the world. One particularly interesting discussion I had was with a Mexican researcher. According to her opinion, “linearizing” complex problems is a typical (and rather wicked) characteristic of the Western way of thinking. She countered this linear vision with the “circular” approach that, according to her, is typical of ancient Meso-American cultures, such as the Maya and others. That approach, she said, could help a lot the world to tackle wicked problems without worsening them. I just report this opinion; personally I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge it. However, it seems true to me that there is something wicked in the way Western thought tends to mold everything and everyone on its own image.

** In the food system, the idea that “look, it is simple: just let’s get rid of waste” is exactly parallel to the “zero waste” approach for urban and industrial waste. I have some experience in this field, and I can tell you that, the way it is often proposed, the “zero waste” idea simply can’t work. It involves high costs and it just makes the system more and more fragile and vulnerable to shocks. That doesn’t mean that waste is unavoidable; not at all. If you can’t build up a “zero waste” industrial system, you can build up subsystems that will process and eliminate that waste. These subsystems, however, cannot work using the same logic of the standard industrial system; they have to be tailored to operate on low yield resources. In practice, it is the “participatory management” approach, (see, e.g.,the work of Prof. Gutberlet). It can be done with urban waste, but also with food waste and it is another way to increase the resilience of the system.