A friend of mine wrote me a letter, sharing thoughts about the climate and how worrisome it all is. I agreed completely. I’ve also been thinking about this for a couple years now.
I’ve listened to many voices on this topic. I’m nobody special, my only qualification to talk is that I have made a lot of time to learn about this, and I publish my own blog so ya can’t stop me, hee hee!
WARNING! This information can ruin your day, week, month or year!
If you want to learn about this topic, then recognize that you are entering a zone where you may not understand your own reactions. The Kübler-Ross Stages of Grief provide a good model of what to expect within yourself. You may well already be in one of these stages, because information about collapse is all around us. Many of us are already worrying about it without really being able to put our finger on what’s wrong. I believe I spent years in denial, and I could only begin to exit that stage when I began to cultivate a spiritual life. It was essential that I confronted my fear of death. Only then could I consider facts more clearly.
I say “more” clearly instead of clearly, because as a human being, I’m riddled with biases, and will always be. Some of my more important biases in this space are likely to be
- White male, hence privileged in many ways that still remain hidden to me.
- Well into middle-age, and now separated from my wife. This represents a significant failure in life. I am definitely primed to see “the down side” of things. This is, I feel, the strongest reason to discount what I have to say, and I wouldn’t blame you. If you read further, remember that a man who failed at something big may well take comfort in the idea that everything is going to fail. It’s been pointed out that many of the people harping about collapse are older white men!
- I have a nervous disposition…I’m often scanning the exits of any situation and thinking about how to be safe. I was bullied a lot as a kid, and I became distrustful of people. This may lead to a constrained view on the possibility of people in general to amaze us.
- There are many more, doubt it not!
Despite our biases, we need to think our way forward. The main thing is to understand that you will be wrong again and again as you try to bring your perception of reality closer to reality. Cultivate joy in that process, and you’ll be able to keep taking small steps forward.
So, back to the stages of grief. I expressed anger for years, primarily against what I called über-capitalism, or unapologetic neo-liberalism. I read plenty of Chris Hedges and nodded along enthusiastically. Now, however, I see that our corporations are just the front line of our fundamental shared belief: that we can “grow” as much as we want. That the sky is the limit. That we are free, that we can do anything once we put our mind to it, and that we are going to the stars!
The moment we, en masse, moderate those beliefs into a form that accepts the truth of limits and of connection between all things…then the character of our corporations will lose the “sharp edge” that we can so clearly see is destructive.
We spend a lot of time blaming them. And then we go to work and “become” them.
Other people might express anger from the right instead of the left. Whole books are being written about that too, of course.
Ask yourself this: why are so many so angry people right now in the world?
I believe that what we see in the culture is the messy swirl of processing these emotions. The next stages are a bit quieter, those of bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Personally, I’ve made it through, at least for today.
This information is dangerous for another reason. Some people are very conspiracy-minded, and many of the details of the collapse argument can serve as off-ramps into tin-foil-hat land. We are seeing the Internet do a great job right now of amplifying and legitimizing such ideas (“chem-trails,” the Rothchilds, etc.). But collapse is multi-causal, it’s expression involves complex tipping points, feedback loops, retrenchment, restoration, and just a whole slew of effects that rebound on each other through time. It’s bad enough without getting hung up on the notion that some group of evil busy-bodies are in control of the whole thing.
Nobody can control this. What is happening is emergent from the scale and complexity of what we create all together, from our deepest motivations. If someone was in control, that would actually be good news.
It means this great evil busy-body just might change his mind and put us on a better track, amirite?!
An important note
I want to communicate with love for anybody who is listening. If my words hurt you, then I am sorry… it is my fault on some level. I have failed to speak with sufficient love, empathy and respect for you, who are reading this. You, who are listening to me.
I am a flawed human being, but I like who I am. I think it’s probably similar for you. I think you are more capable than you know. If anything good comes out of this situation we are in, it is likely to come from you.
I am honored that you came to sit here, and listen to me.
This thought is far more important than any of the information that follows. This thought is the melody and the chords. If you lose the thread of empathy when reading, then I have grown tired and I have lost you. Don’t read further. What flows from love is trust and humor. I would rather you know me only as someone who smiles and says nothing than as a man full of facts which he uses to hurt others and himself.
Limits to Growth
In the early 1970s, scientists built the first rigorous computer model around our use of finite and renewable resources, combined with projections of our growing population. The news was alarming, and created a real stir. The “Business as Usual” of their model predicted major problems around 2030. The authors who are still alive, and who have continually revised the model say we are right on schedule. The work, published in “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, was heavily ridiculed and only recently received a more thoughtful reception. In an article from The Guardian in 2014, we read:
The task was very ambitious. The team tracked industrialization, population, food, use of resources, and pollution. They modeled data up to 1970, then developed a range of scenarios out to 2100, depending on whether humanity took serious action on environmental and resource issues. If that didn’t happen, the model predicted “overshoot and collapse” – in the economy, environment and population – before 2070. This was called the “business-as-usual” scenario.
The book’s central point, much criticised since, is that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc would eventually lead to a crash.
The article gathers current data and concludes that it checks out very closely with the original predictions.
There are many reasons to dislike these conclusions. To talk about the danger of overpopulation risks going against religious beliefs and raises the specter of totalitarian population control and even mass murder or genocide. To talk about the need to limit growth goes against government and corporate policy and invites ridicule from all sides. But not talking about uncomfortable or delicate subjects is a sure way not to solve your problems, but to pile them up for later.
We are now in the “later.”
Our inability to understand exponential growth
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” –Albert A. Bartlett
I was born in 1971. Since then, our world population has doubled, from 3.78 billion to 7.4 billion people. This doubling occurred with a “moderate looking” growth rate of between 1 and 1.9%. How can this happen?
Al Bartlett was a physics professor at the University of Colorado, and dedicated the latter part of his life to explaining the nature of exponential growth in an accessible and good-natured way. He attacked the mindset of constant, steady growth in all human endeavors, and believed that population growth in the USA was leading to misery, both for the people and their environment.
“Prove it,” you’ll say. I suggest getting a pencil and paper and watching his famous presentation. At the very least, it’ll remind you of university and some of your better instructors.
It’s also the case that the earth has lost half of it’s wildlife since I was born. I don’t even have to recite the facts about the depletion of ocean life and the warming of the atmosphere, because you already know these things. I don’t have to point out that our political systems are getting more volatile as they whipsaw between pro- and anti- immigration policy, with charges of racism on the one side, and people getting used to being called racists on the other.
We have exploded our impact on the planet, displacing all other Earthlings in favor of ourselves. The animals are also Earthlings, and we are taking their lands and filling their bodies with plastic.
Population, both in sheer numbers and in their multiplicative effect on resource use when that population lives in a first-world country is the driving issue for all the rest. In fact…
Climate Change is just a side-effect
We know that burning fossil fuel is heating up the planet. Why, then, are we burning fossil fuels? Because of evil oil companies? Partly, I suppose. But the primary reason must be that we consider fossil fuels useful as a society. I am surrounded by plastic, which come from fossil fuels. I’m in a warm building in the middle of winter, wearing a T-shirt. This likely comes from coal, or maybe Russian natural gas…piped over long distances and maintained with an infrastructure of trucks, heavy equipment, and roads.
For lunch today I ate salmon and a fresh salad. Neither of these ingredients come from anywhere close to me. It takes a vast global built infrastructure to make this happen. This is great – we are marvelously ingenious! But we are unlikely to be able to change away from fossil fuel dependence very quickly.
The size of the population matters, and the size of their impact. Someone in America uses twice as much energy as someone in Europe, due to more driving and air-conditioning. And someone in Europe uses still many times more than someone in Africa.
Often, if people finally reach agreement that population is a thing worth talking about, there is a turning away from it again based on the idea that it’s impossible to talk about without endorsing hideous and coercive “solutions.”
Some people say the problem is in the third world, where population growth rates are higher than 1%. Other people say the problem is in the first world, where the growth rate is much less, but the impact of each person is many times greater.
Like many things, the answer here is “yes, and.” That is…they are both right. As a first-worlder, it makes sense for me to “care more” about getting to zero (no, negative!) growth in the first world. People in the third world are paying disproportionately for the emissions from the first world, anyway. I’d probably better leave them the heck alone as they have many problems to deal with!
A family in India is more likely to respect me, as a denizen of the first world, if I put my money where my mouth is: I must reduce my population and my impact per capita. If I can do this, then I’m not such a hypocrite if I ask others to think along the same lines.
The Resource Crunch
In all parts of the world, fights can break out when shared resources are no longer enough. Growing populations side by side along a national border might have no problem with each other at all, but when access to a key river is important for life, competition and conflict can change things very, very quickly.
I am talking about this problem of population not because I like to make people uncomfortable, but because I don’t want any human being on this planet to end up sending their children to be soldiers in a war for water.
Better to talk about having less children, now.
Notice how quickly we got away from climate change here. Now, that is an enormous looming problem! But it’s clear to me that even if we didn’t have that problem we’d already be victims of our own success.
We won’t be able to turn this ship around
Our monetary system is based on debt, which requires profit to pay back. The “weight” of existing obligations put a very real brake on changes to that system, despite growing misery caused by unjust distribution. That would have to be fixed.
The oil-based food and transportation system would have to be overhauled in order to stop burning fossil fuels. In places like Europe there is plenty of goodwill and excitement about this, but we’ll need coal for electricity for a long time. Happily, many cities were built before the age of the automobile so they are walkable/ridable. But a “just-in-time” inventory system prevails and is profitable. Whereas, in the USA, there is active hostility to any measure that “looks like” something hippies would like to do, and therefore such measures won’t be taken while the culture war rages. Tribalism is already impeding the chances of progress there.
A conservative bias in science
Scientists are conservative, and they know that the news they have threatens our economic model. So they become very deferential about speaking truth to power. Now, before you get mad at me for saying that, consider how our school and university systems work. You go further by following the rules, and doing so with ever-more sensitivity. Science has taboo areas of study, and these shift over time. Successful people in our technocratic society mostly get ahead by navigating this landscape with a minimum of churn in the water.
Since this is an unstated rule, it’s existence co-creates the “Contrarian” position. The contrarian gets a long ways because if people actually articulate the rule that consensus is required, they will feel silly. So the contrarian moves ahead through the system with the support of others precisely because his or her existence appears to disprove the great hidden assumption which can’t be named.
David Wallace-Wells wrote an article for New York Magazine where he put some effort into fully describing the likely scenarios involving climate change rather than the most hopeful ones, which is mostly what we get in the mainstream media. Writing in the introduction to the article:
The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it.
The article goes on to describe the likely effects on our bodies due to rising temperatures, on the air and the production of food, presenting very worrisome conclusions. And wow, was he ever lambasted for this, especially by climate scientist Michael Mann who didn’t have any issue with the facts as Wallace-Wells presented them, but because he thought that if we read something so bracing we would crumple up and fail to act.
I find that insulting.
“The problem isn’t the amount of food, it’s the distribution of it.”
People like to say that…and there is some truth to it. But if we haven’t been able to fix the injustice in our distribution yet, decades after a War on Poverty in the United States, and decades after the “triumph” of capitalism over communism and socialism…what chance do we have of fixing it, ever?
Many intelligent and energetic people devoted their lives to eliminating unfair distribution of necessary resources, and while they may have moved the needle a few degrees here and their, our capitalist system breeds inequality even more quickly. And growing populations means that now there are more people in desperate poverty than ever with narrowing prospects of improving their lot as our societies get ever more technocratic and oriented around credentials which require expensive education.
I submit that to say that distribution is the “main problem” is a way of giving up, because you’d have to believe in magic to imagine that we suddenly find an answer there.
Distribution will always be unfair and distorted by greed and complexity. A more empowering solution to the problem of distribution is to withdraw your participation from vast and complex distribution networks. Have your food nearby, in your garden, or the woods.
A smaller population can more easily do that.
What is the carrying capacity of the planet?
I’m going to ignore these silly statements like “we could fit 10 billion people in an area the size of Texas,” because they ignore that it’s not the amount of space a human body takes up that is the problem, it’s the amount of resources required to sustain it, which is far greater.
Scientists estimate the carrying capacity of the earth to be between 1 and 2 billion people living at a standard of modest affluence (think more Europe rather than the USA…and go back a few decades for good measure). We are almost 8 billion, and now we use up 1 “whole” earth every 6 months…we are cutting deeply into our reserves with water, mineral resources, oil, ocean life, and the remaining carbon budget. In my lifetime, the population of the planet doubled, while the mass-by-weight of wild animals was cut in half. The takeaway? We are only a part of a whole system, and what happens to the system happens to us. We only like to think we are apart from it and special.
Can I just rail against “infinite growth” one more time?
Our economic system is actually insane. It pretends to offer infinite growth on a finite planet. The monetary system is a pyramid scheme that creates debt out of thin air, and then asks that it be paid back “with interest.” That interest is profit, and profit has to come from somewhere. It comes from our rivers and lakes, from our dead forests and polluted oceans. From people without power or knowledge who work like slaves. Anyone who speaks against this system, against “growth,” will be discredited very quickly.
Joseph Tainter’s work on complexity
Joseph Tainter has an interesting theory of civilizational collapse which rings true to me because of what I’ve seen in my computing career. His idea touches on the problem of diminishing returns, which you can see in aging codebases. The system becomes “more itself” with each change you make, and each change in an ever larger and more complex system is unlikely to produce radical or fundamental change. The risk then becomes that another change will finally destabilize the system, which has grown too large to understand as a whole.
It’s highly unsatisfying to work on such a codebase!
When applied to a civilization, it goes like this:
- Civilizations grow by solving their problems. They solve them by adding complexity. For example…people live too long and run out of money. No problem, we create a retirement system. This is quite complex!
- But then new problems arise. One by one, we solve the problems…but there is a cost –> things get too complex and expensive, and ultimately it’s harder and harder to live inside the system.
- People start falling out in large numbers. But then the burdens of the complexity fall more on those remaining inside.
- Which causes more to fall out. Repeat all the way down!
Civilization is getting very expensive for it’s residents. We face increases in mental illness and deaths of despair. We have municipalities “rent-seeking” against their poor residents, just one example of the strata in society beginning to feed on each other. I look at the way we rush forward into automation and artificial intelligence without much thought as an expression of a society faced with too much complexity that can only (helplessly) go through the motions.
What I mean is, there used to be real optimism around such techno ideas. But now the enthusiasm is limited to the corporations and stockholders that expect to make a lot of money from that, and the young scientists likely to implement the technology. Everyone else is just tiredly looking on, too busy holding their lives together to actually participate in what should be a society-wide debate.
If you disagree with me that’s fine, but really consider how broad your base of support is. Do you represent working people who don’t have advanced degrees or much prospect of attaining them? There are many such people, and we should keep in mind that they might prefer to gain dignity through work rather than being given a basic income. Just look at the path we are on, however, and you’ll see they aren’t being given any choice at all. Our thought-leaders are either stubbornly asserting there won’t be a problem, or blithely imagining that a basic income will come into existence at the right moment and that it’s even possible for a society based on work for it’s whole existence to just turn on a dime and change to a very different model.
I should elaborate.
I have no problem imagining quitting my job and living on a basic income because holy heck, that would be such fun! I would finally get to do all those projects I have waiting in the wings! This is not because I’m amazing…it’s because of the way I was socialized.
I was brought up to believe that:
- I can do what I set my mind to
- My creativity is a gift, and expressing it is a high and noble purpose
Therefore, I’d take a basic income as my “just due,” and feel fantastic.
My argument here is that I am incredibly priviledged to be able to see my role in life that way. In fact, I’m dangerously privileged, in that I can only dimly imagine another way to live. However, it’s essential that I do so.
If you take people who were socialized to believe that their worth is bound up in useful work, and who don’t have the gall to define “useful” themselves, then they are going to feel useless under a basic income scheme. It’s all fine and well if a few individuals feel out of tune with the world, but when millions feel that way, you’ve got a serious problem. You’ll see despair, alcoholism and opioid abuse:
Scholars in sociology tell us this is closely connected to the fact that men in later-born cohorts can’t marry if they don’t have “a good job”. Those jobs – jobs with on-the-job training, jobs with benefits, jobs where, if you work hard, you can expect to move up – are harder and harder to come by now. While marriage rates fell, rates of cohabitation rose. However, unlike what one sees in many European countries, these cohabitations are fragile in the US. Taken together, this leaves less structure (in religion, in jobs, in marriage). If things go well, this is fine, but if things go poorly, this can lead to suicide.
When you have a solution for the problem we already face then I’ll quite describing technological boosterism as naive, blithe, careless and dangerous.
We have a wicked problem. Trying to solve one part of it may make other parts worse. For example, a moratorium on fossil fuel usage will stop our economies cold. The pain action like this creates will start them up again furiously, and this time we’ll say “never again” to ideas like that! Alternatively, ignoring the problem just piles up more pain later.
I don’t have any answers. I also don’t have the ability to ignore the problem just because I don’t know what to do about it (would be nice!). The best I can come up with is:
- Be good to people around you. Don’t respect hierarchy. Don’t place yourself above any other.
- Try to find joy in living smaller. Walk to the mountains for a vacation, don’t fly.
- Have less children. A fulfilling life can also be had with no children.
- Be skeptical of people who assert the future will be rosy. Call them out on bullshit.
- Don’t give in to “hating” humanity. We are creatures with limits, like all other animals. Whoever said we were going to be capable of steering a global civilization of 7+ billion people into smart directions? Nobody. That’s just an idea in your head. Just because we may well fail isn’t a reason to lose your sense of humor.
- Winning isn’t everything. We’ve played a grand game. Now…
Turn your thoughts away from what may or may not be. Turn and kiss the miracle of your day – the toast with butter…the girl with strawberry lips that you married so long ago…the hot shame of being caught cheating on a test…the first time the boy rode his bike around the block.
I don’t have anything that can compete with that.