The Real Limits of the Earth

Scientific American Blogs presents Part 1 of a disappointing two-part post on limits to growth: The Limits of the Earth, Part 1: Problems.
Part 1 begins with an explanation of human innovation, by the author of a book, of course, about how human innovation can overcome limits to growth.
“Ramez Naam is a computer scientist and award-winning author. He believes innovation can save the planet and lift billions into prosperity, but only if we make the right choices to embrace it. His next non-fiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, lays out the path to harnessing innovation to maximize our odds of overcoming climate change, finite fossil fuels, and the host of other environmental and natural resource challenges that face us.”
The remainder of Part 1 is a laundry list of some of the problems facing humans due to resource limitations.
I can see where this is going. This is yet another unscientific, anthropocentric paean to technology, human economics and the mythology of perpetual growth in a finite world. This is another young man who has yet to feel his mortality, who thinks that humans with computers can overcome all obstacles, and who is largely ignorant of basic biology, ecology, earth sciences and natural history.
There really are limits to human growth, hard limits that cannot be fantasized away with unreasoning belief in human innovation. We can’t invent our way into a rosy Star Trek future with unlimited energy and natural resources. We can’t turn the world into computer-managed agro-business to feed 10 billion people. We can’t convert all natural habitat into solar and wind farms for human energy demands.

Like it or not, humans are but one species of life on this planet. Humans must relearn how to live in
cooperation with, not at the expense of, all other species. We can do this. We just put away the toys of youth and start acting like responsible adult residents of the planet that sustains us.

And discontinue our subscriptions to the pseudo-science rag formerly known as Scientific American.
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The Irrelevant in the Living Room

  

This week’s “Presidential” debate featured an animal that is seen more frequently clopping clumsily through the halls of the Grand Old Benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless in Washington, DC, The Irrelevant.
The Irrelevant is a four-legged beast, one end elephant, the other end jackass. One end never forgets the past, the other end can never remember the present. Both are stitched together at the hips in a tapestry of lies and misdirection provided by the sponsors of this longest of TeeVee soap operas, the Corporate Oligarchy.
The Irrelevant has lost touch with the people of the United States. You remember them: “Of the people, by the people and for the people?” The Irrelevant has forgotten just who we are, confusing “corporate personhood” with real live, flesh and blood constituents, who live, breathe, work for a living, and raise their children amongst the crumbling remains of the American Empire.
The Great American Dream, if it was ever real, is faded and torn like a flag left too long in the sun and weather. The promise of consumerism has proven to be The Great American Lie, as the people are beginning to realize that all consumerism does is fill your two-car garage full of junk so you can’t get your shiny new SUV in out of the weather. As the Government turns outward to defend The Empire, the people are turning inward, to family, neighborhood and community, finding satisfactions at home that have long gone missing on the national front. As gasoline prices hit $4.75 a gallon in California this week, the people are beginning to make choices about where to spend their overtime pay, and deciding that the latest frippery at the Big Box store is not quite so attractive after all.
What’s a Global Economy to do when the peasants refuse to play Follow the Leader?
The Irrelevant can’t discuss the realities of Peak Oilresilient communities, natural climate variation, limits to economic growth, finite resources and excessive population growth. To do so would mean whipping the blanket off the midsection of the beast, thus revealing the lie of the “Two-Party” political system and its inherent dominion under the economic thumb of corporate consumerism. So The Irrelevant talks out of both ends at once, each end pretending to be different from the other, but emanating the same stinking flatulence.
In the end, we must acknowledge The Irrelevant in the living room, and admit to ourselves that the course of “Progress,” if that’s what it is, is not a viable path to the future. In a world of finite resources, the mania for continued growth is insanity. We can no longer afford to use precious resources faster than they are naturally replenished, nor can we produce wastes faster then they can be naturally returned to the Earth. This is the sane and perfectly natural process that applies to all species on this planet, including and most importantly to Homo sapiens.

It’s time for a new image to inspire our lives, The Relevant, the creature that Recycles, Reuses, Rebuilds, and Reinhabits the world shared by all in the Web of Life.

Economics as if Life Matters

There are a few books that are life changers, that make a lasting difference in the course of society. For me, E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered is one of those books.
I read Small Is Beautiful in 1973, when it was first published. At the time, it didn’t seem particularly radical. This was the normal course of things. This is what we were doing: dismantling the status quo society and building the new with what later became known as appropriate technology. The New Alchemy Institute was foremost in this endeavor, providing an exciting glimpse into the future of solar buildings, renewable energy systems, organic gardening and sensible transportation choices.
Jeremy Williams’ article,  E F Schumacher: A Wealth of Inspiration tells the story of E.F. Schumacher’s arrival on the renewable energy scene as an economist, including his choice of title for the book, The Homecomers,  for which his publisher chose a different, soon to become famous title.
Despite the widespread popularity of Small is Beautiful, and the still resonating influence of it and its followers, the concepts recognized and thoroughly explored by Schumacher were subsumed and co-opted into the modern sustainability movement. 
Sustainability does not mean the same thing as Small is Beautiful. Sustainability is an excuse for maintaining the status quo and pretending one is doing something different, something more desirable, something… sustainable. Sustainability is the prestidigitation used to draw attention away from economic development, the continuing growth economy, trans-national corporate domination, and Big Business as usual. Sustainability is the ineffective chemotherapy applied to the growth philosophy of the cancer cell.
In order to circumvent the truly revolutionary ideas proposed by Schumacher, that economic growth and technological development risk destroying the basis for human life, the concept of sustainability was brought to the fore to forestall the realization of necessary limits to growth.
Thus, sustainable development is defined as economic growth that can be maintained into the future indefinitely without limiting potential development for future human populations. It is an entirely anthropocentric concept that short-circuits the inconvenient revelations of Schumacher and the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s. 

Today, in the 2010s, we know that even Schumacher’s 1970s revelations fall short. We can have small and beautiful appropriate technology that still causes harm to non-human species, that still pollutes and still reduces critical habitat and biodiversity. Sustainability for humans is insufficient, when human action limits well-being for future non-human populations. All life must thrive in order for any species to continue.

We should extend Schumacher’s original premise to include all life, in effect saying: Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if Life Mattered

Toward a Post Growth Society

This is an important concept, well articulated in the article: Toward a Post Growth Society.

Economic growth is viewed as the ultimate panacea for civilization. Grow or die; if you’re not growing you’re stagnating. No other species on the planet lives this way or can possibly live this way. Any species that outgrows its resources declines and ultimately dies. There’s no way around it.

Continual economic growth in a world of finite resources is impossible. At some point, human growth must stop. And yet, human societies seem bent on pushing this natural limit, well… to the limit.

A truly rational and sane species, such as Homo sapiens is supposed to be, equipped with a brain, supposedly capable of projecting the consequences of our actions into the future, able to contemplate our own demise,  would indeed see the inevitability of natural limits to economic growth and would rationally decide that enough is sufficient and by golly, we’d better find a way to develop a steady state economy before we destroy our ability to exist on this, the only planet we have at our disposal.

For many very complex cultural reasons, the dominate human societies on this planet are caught up in a story of how to be a functioning human being that is radically dysfunctional in the real world we inhabit. This story tells us that we are disconnected from the natural world, that there are no consequences to our actions, and that we can continue in this state indefinitely.

This turns out not to be the case.

There are indeed limits to human growth. The resources on which we have built human societies are finite and limited. There are consequences to human actions in this world, consequences that will turn on humans if continued much longer.

It may be possible for humans to develop a steady state society that can continue into the future without destroying it, but I see no reason for optimism on that score.

Energy Trumps Economy


In this article: The Future of Capitalism – Profits and Growth George Mobus describes, in systems language, why continued growth is impossible in a world of finite resources, that is, our world.

It seems logical and self-evident, but in a world dominated by the totalitarian philosophy of capitalism, that logic gets washed away in a barrage of propaganda, advertising and sleight of mouth. Consumerism is the norm, the expected reality. Any attempt to point out the illogic of unlimited consumerism is met with disbelief and open hostility.

One would think that Peak Oil and Climate Change (aka, Global Warming) would bring a note of reality to popular awareness. But the Capitalism propaganda machine is incredibly efficient at gobbling up realities and shitting false promises. Peak Oil is discredited with promises of Tar Sands, Oil Shale and deep ocean oil discoveries, ignoring the rapidly increasing energy costs of these marginal sources. The realities of climate change are obfuscated with the imposition quasi-scientific governmental organizations such as the IPCC, who fix the data around politically determined policy.

The public lack of understanding of the science and reality of global and cosmic energy and their effects on energy availability here on Earth, results in a political inability to come to turns with societal profligacy and waste. Mobus points out an important distinction between efficiency and waste. Efficiency is the reduction in the loss of energy in the process of conversion from source to useable work. Waste is the depletion of energy without producing useable work. We can eliminate waste with no effect on our physical environment. Efficiency has a steep diminishing return result: we are rapidly approaching the limits of efficiency in conversion of fossil fuels into useable energy.

Despite their promise, there is a limit to the amount of renewable energy that can be put to use for human consumption. Renewable sources have a much lower ratio of energy return on energy invested (EROEI), meaning we get less energy out of them for the same energy invested in their development. The result is that we are entering into a future with less energy available for human use than we have enjoyed in the past.

The upshot is that we must cut back somewhere, and that somewhere is growth. We no longer have the excess energy availabile to permit continued economic and consumption growth. We have two pathways open to us, one desirable, the other inevitable: a steady state society and economy, or decline and ultimate collapse.

Unless we can somehow take control over the political process and make these economic and physical realities a critical part of the political decision-making process, we will be very soon left with just the one future – economic decline and collapse.

Choices

As we contemplate the real world of finite resources, it’s important to consider the opportunity costs of decisions we make each and every day.

In R. Crumbs Epilogue to “A Short History of America,” we see three possible outcomes: environmental collapse, the technocratic imaginarium and the ecotopian solution.

There is insufficient energy and “natural resources” to achieve and sustain the Technocratic Imaginarium, leading inevitably to environmental collapse, pitiful metal hulks in the streets, crumbling facades, sturdy plants growing through the pavement. While this vision strikes horror into the hearts and minds of most humans, the birds and flowers smile at the prospect.

The Ecotopian Solution, however, makes room for humans among the birds and flowers, as one of them, not as rulers over them.

The decisions we make every day will determine the outcome. If we invest today in the Technocratic Imaginarium, we set our course irresolutely toward environmental collapse. The opportunity cost of the Technocratic Imaginarium is a sustainable future for the human species.

Which will it be, my Pretties? PRT and the technocratic graveyard, or Mr. Natural and a thriving world for all life?