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Paul Gilding is an avowed optimist, and that optimism was on full display in the first piece of his that I encountered, “Victory at hand for the climate movement?” That was five weeks ago, and I liked the article enough to post it to my Facebook wall. Four weeks ago, at an Earth Day event, I was handed a flyer advertising two meetings to discuss the ideas in Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, and I decided almost immediately to read the book and go to the meetings. I had no idea what was about to happen to my mind.

In a nutshell, the thesis of The Great Disruption is that (1) humanity will not make the drastic changes needed to save ourselves until global catastrophe forces our hand, but (2) when it does, we will still somehow have enough time, resources, and inventiveness to save the climate and transition to a truly sustainable civilization. Gilding’s case for part 1 made perfect sense to me and has had a massive impact on my thinking, despite the fact that I’ve spent the past several years involved in activism aimed explicitly at motivating an earlier course correction, on the assumption that if we wait until our hand is forced, it will be too late to stop the slide into chaos and collapse.

Part 2 of Gilding’s thesis directly contradicts that assumption, and I simply can’t believe in it. Gilding incessantly cites World War II as an example of how we can turn things around at the last minute, completely ignoring the fact that America’s miraculous mobilization took place under conditions of almost total insulation from the catastrophes engulfing Europe and eastern Asia. By contrast, killer droughts, floods, wildfires, and superstorms are already starting to wreak havoc everywhere, America included, and it is that very havoc that Gilding expects to trigger our shift in consciousness. In any case, Gilding himself points out that the time lags in Earth’s systems mean that the climate and other ecological crises will continue to worsen long after we’ve stopped doing damage and started applying effort toward solutions commensurate with the global scale of the problems. So even if we start doing what’s necessary well before we’re crippled by the unfolding cataclysm, our decades-long efforts will almost certainly be swamped by the ever-growing chaos around us, ranging from mass migrations to pandemics to large-scale wars. Plus, to turn these trends around quickly enough when they’re already into the red zone will require using geoengineering, i.e. applying massive force on a planet-wide scale with techniques that are barely understood, whose side effects could easily prove even worse than the problems they’re intended to solve.

And all this doesn’t even touch the other part of the catastrophe that Gilding sees as inevitable: the end of economic growth. As long as the current economic system is in force, it will be necessary for governments to raise massive sums in order to cope with the scale of the climate problems, but Gilding says the global economy is already running up against the wall of planetary resource limits. He sees the 2008 financial crisis as partly caused by the preceding spikes in food prices, which indicate the arrival of a phenomenon far worse than Peak Oil: the edge of our agricultural capacity being reached, due to the combination of rising demand and loss of cropland to desertification. And while we have plenty of fossil fuels left with which to power the needed transitions (including scaling up green power production to replace those fuels), we’ll need to severely curtail our use of those fuels in order to prevent civilization-destroying climate impacts, placing an artificial limit on growth to add to the natural ones. And enforcing such harsh limits on energy use, particularly in the midst of the global chaos described above, will doubtless require an authoritarian crackdown on civil liberties on an almost Stalinist scale, a possibility that Gilding points out when discussing the rise of China.

So why have I suddenly embraced this vision of certain doom, despite having worked for years with the SolSeed Movement to paint a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic vision of the future and work toward making it real? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, but those thoughts will have to wait for a future blog post. I don’t expect it to be more than a week or two away (trust me or not as you see fit), and in the interim I plan to publish a set of movie reviews that relate to Gilding’s predictions, which I’m already mostly finished writing. I also need to update my original review of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which offers more realistic-sounding solutions to the problem of inevitable climate catastrophe.

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

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Link to part 1

E. O. Wilson, author of Biodiversity, recently put out a new book ambitiously titled The Future of Life.  In Chapter 2, he states that far from being a "special-interest lobby" whose proponents are always "exaggerat[ing] their case . . . [e]nvironmentalism is something more central and vastly more important. . . . [Earth's] soil, water, and atmosphere . . . have evolved over hundreds of millions of years to their present condition by the activity of the biosphere, a stupendously complex layer of living creatures whose activities are locked together in precise but tenuous global cycles of energy and transformed organic matter.  The biosphere creates our special world anew every day, every minute, and holds it in a unique, shimmmering physical disequilibrium.  On that disequilibrium the human species is in total thrall. . . . When we destroy ecosystems and extinguish species, we . . . threaten our own existence. . . .

"[Humans] exist as one organic miracle linked to others.  The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness . . . remains our one and only home.  To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life."

In Chapter 5, Wilson gives us a similar warning from ecological economists: "To supplant natural ecosystems entirely, even mostly, [with technological substitutes] is an economic and even physical impossibility. . . . [A] much greater dependence on artificial means--in other words, environmental prostheses--puts at risk not just the biosphere but also humanity itself.

"Most environmental scientists believe that the shift has already been taken too far. . . . Ancient and vulnerable, [Mother Nature] will not tolerate the undisciplined appetite of her gargantuan infant much longer."

And yet, Wilson's projection in Chapter 3 of a future after biosphere collapse is nowhere near as bleak as that of T. C. Boyle in his novel, A Friend of the Earth. 
Read more )


Feb. 12th, 2005 12:20 pm
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Fordism/consumerism is a system that is generally good for people but bad for everything else. Given time, its lack of concern for the environment will be its downfall unless reforms are made.

Henry Ford saw that corporations needed to spend money on two main things: making as many products as possible, so as to realize economies of scale; and paying their workers, not just enough to survive, but enough to allow the working population to buy all those products. A consumer society would have been impossible without this diffusion of wealth, which is only partially attributable to the efforts of unions.

However, Ford ignored two other necessities for the perpetuation of the consumer society: maintaining the sources of renewable natural resources, for example by preventing urban sprawl that eats up farmland; and establishing efficient recycling systems for nonrenewable resources, principally metals and petroleum products, to prevent them from running out. Obviously, a power grid based on the irreversible consumption of fossil fuels doesn't fit these requirements. Somewhat less obviously, population growth can't be sustained under this system because of the upper limits to the production rates of renewable resources and the total extractable quantities of nonrenewable ones.

Corporations tend to assume that they can leave these issues to governments, but as any economist will tell you, internalizing these externalities into the market system is the best way to make sure that they are handled efficiently.
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According to Dr. Rob Lempert of RAND corporation, economic growth doesn't have to be based on growth in the amount of physical resources used. It can depend on services and other intangibles--and indeed, the United States and other "industrialized" nations have become largely service economies. Now, this doesn't mean resource use isn't increasing--it has to in order to support the still-growing world population; it's just that most of the resource-intensive production has been moved to the second and third worlds.

However, if Lempert is right, stopping the dangerous increase in the physical scale of the human presence may not require quite as drastic a restructuring of the economy as I thought. Unbounded growth may be possible if it's only growth in the production and consumption of ideas.

On the other hand, information requires matter and energy to store it, so in the long run this may not disprove the hypothesis that the economy can't grow forever.
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If you've watched the movie Advertising and the End of the World and were confused by the graph showing the curves representing "natural resources" and "production" intersecting in about the year 2070, here's an explanation.

"Probably the best index of the scale of the human economy as a part of the biosphere is the percentage of human appropriation of the total world product of photosynthesis. Net primary production (NPP) is the amount of energy captured in photosynthesis by primary producers, less the energy used in their own growth and reproduction. NPP is thus the basic food resource for everything on earth not capable of photosynthesis. Vitousek et al. calculate that 25% of potential global (terrestrial and aquatic) NPP is now appropriated by human beings (BioScience 1986 vol. 34, no. 6, pp. 368-73). If only terrestrial NPP is considered, the amount rises to 40%. The definition of human appropriation underlying the figures quoted includes direct use by human beings (food, fuel, fiber, timber) plus the reduction from potential NPP due to alteration of ecosystems caused by humans. The latter reflects deforestation, desertification, paving over, and human conversion to less productive systems (such as agriculture). Taking the 25% figure for the entire world, it is apparent that two more doublings of the human scale will give 100%. Since this would mean zero energy left for all nonhuman and nondomesticated species, and since humans cannot survive without the services of ecosystems, it is clear that two more doublings of the human scale would be an ecological impossibility, even if it were arithmetically possible. Assuming a constant level of per capita resource consumption, the doubling time of the human scale would be equal to the doubling time of population, which is on the order of 40 years."

1986 + 40*2 = 2066, which is close to 2070. But wait, there's more.

"Of course economic development currently aims to increase the average per capita resource consumption and consequently to reduce the doubling time of the scale of the human presence below that implicit in the demographic rate of growth. Furthermore the terrestrial figure of 40% human appropriation is really the more relevant one since we are unlikely to increase our take from the oceans very much. Unless we awaken to the existence and nearness of scale limits, then the greenhouse effect, ozone layer depletion, and acid rain will be just a preview of disasters to come, not in the vague distant future but in the next generation."

-Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., For the Common Good.

For some idea of what such a future might be like, see the novel A Friend of the Earth by T. C. Boyle.
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"Production is more important than profits: Essentially, all manufacturing would lose money without massive subsidies from the public by way of the state..." -Derrick Jensen, The Culture of Make-Believe, p. 353

If Jensen is right about this, it means that all we have to do to curb overproduction is get the government to cut those subsidies. Not that this is easy, but it's easier than Jensen's solution, which is to dismantle civilization. It may even be easier than curbing consumerism, which is a very deeply entrenched aspect of our culture.

(originally posted September 2, 2003)
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A Basic Trend

1. According to modern “scale” economics, producing more and selling more results in more profits. As a result, corporations tend to produce as much as they can, as fast as they can.

2. Continuing technological development ensures that the maximum production rate keeps going up.

3. The living natural resources used by corporations to make products, however, reproduce themselves at relatively steady rates according to the delicate balance of Earth’s biosphere.*

4. Therefore, beyond a certain point, nature can no longer keep up with humanity’s accelerating use of its resources.

5. These resources are then depleted at an accelerating rate, eventually leading to a spectacular and terrible economic and ecological collapse.

Possible Ways to Alter This Trend

1. Alter the basic nature of the economic system: very difficult. Mass production and economies of scale are part of a global system of intertwined economics and politics which is itself enormously resistant to change, despite the massive changes it is making to this planet.

2. Increase the rate of natural resource reproduction: also very difficult. Since life has covered the planet so thoroughly, an increase in the reproduction rate of one species almost always occurs at the expense of another. If we keep expanding production of the species that are useful to us, we run the risk of destroying enough other species to cause the collapse of the entire biosphere, which is one of the few events that could result in the complete extinction of humanity. Giant space colonies may eventually solve this problem by creating new habitat areas, but don’t hold your breath.

3. Start an anti-consumerist movement, to prevent the corporations from continuing to sell more and more products: difficult, but not as difficult as the first two alternatives. A rising standard of living doesn’t necessarily mean consuming more products faster. If people refuse to buy products that are designed to be short-lived or aren’t useful enough to justify the resources put into them, the corporations will eventually be forced to change their strategies. We need to convince them now rather than wait for them to wake up to the consequences of continued resource depletion and find real solutions.

* The dangers of running out of petroleum, metals, and minerals are minor compared with those of damaging or destroying the biosphere on which we are still dependent.

(originally posted August 4, 2003)

First post

Mar. 21st, 2004 06:20 pm
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The fight to save the environment must take precedence over battles against terror and tyranny as well as poverty and inequity. Here’s why:

Millions, if not billions of people currently face the serious threat of death from starvation, disease, or war. At the moment, starvation is largely a problem of the poor nations, whose populations increase regardless, and does not threaten the entire human species. Also, as yet even the most virulent diseases can be contained using quarantine, unless they are used in large-scale warfare.

Terrorists have yet to obtain anywhere near enough weapons-grade viruses to pose such a threat. They also have yet to obtain even one nuclear device; it takes at least dozens, possibly hundreds of mushroom clouds to produce nuclear winter and/or deadly global fallout levels.

So, barring improbable celestial events, there are only two main threats to the existence of the human race: global war between nations, and biosphere collapse. This site deals with the latter.

Because the species we use as food are dependent on so many other species, biosphere collapse will make starvation a truly universal problem; if it significantly affects algae populations as well as forests, it will eventually threaten even our air supply. An elite may manage to keep power stations running and use them to produce oxygen and nutrients chemically, but at present there is little hope for the vast majority of humankind if biosphere collapse occurs.

There are a variety of views on the current situation and the necessary counteractions:

1. The root problem is overproduction, i.e. overuse of natural resources. The expansion of production under capitalism must be slowed to a halt. For example, see the film Advertising and the End of the World by Sut Jhally.

2. The fantastic power of technology got us into this mess; it can get us out, if we apply it in the right ways before it's too late. For example, see Rachel Carson's famous book, Silent Spring, and the end of Arthur Clarke and Stephen Baxter's novel, The Light of Other Days.

3. We may not be able to undo the damage we've done, but a large-scale artificial replacement for the biosphere is possible, one that could support at least a sizeable fraction of the current human population. For example, see Stanley Schmidt's novel, Lifeboat Earth.

4. Biosphere collapse is already underway, and the only way to prevent a mass extinction is to dismantle civilization and return to the Stone Age. For example, see

(originally posted May 24, 2003)

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