The issue of climate change is ultimately one of sustainability. Can humans develop systems that allow us to live within the mathematical boundaries of the planet on which we reside? Can we recognize our environmental constraints and guide our development towards balance with the natural world?
Climate change is serious and immediate, but unfortunately it’s not the only sustainability problem we have right now. The other big problem is GROWTH.
In 1972 a group of systems dynamics professors wrote a book called The Limits to Growth. The book explored future scenarios through a computer model dubbed World3, which crunched real world data (resource consumption, fertility rates, etc.) in an attempt to predict the path of human civilization. When finished, what World3 spit out was not very encouraging: it predicted complete system collapse roughly halfway through this century (see chart above). Think of this collapse as the Mad Max scenario: due to dramatic declines in food and resources, the human population plummets as it suffers from starvation, pollution and war.
The culprit? Economic growth and human consumption. Every year our economy grows, our population grows, and our standard of living increases. We consume more and more resources at a faster and faster rate, outstripping the earth’s ability to sustain us. We’re talking all kinds of resources here…fossil fuels, precious metals, but also fish in the sea, water for drinking, and arable land. Right now we’re in a period of overshoot…think of Wiley E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff. For a few comical moments he blinks and curiously scratches his head…right before realizing his predicament and crashing down to terra firma.
Don’t look now, but we’re running in midair.
Science tells us we’ve gone beyond what the system can endure, and so it will change. I don’t mean that humans will change it, I mean that we’ve hit the physical limits of our environment and so change will be thrust upon us. If you run a car engine for too long without oil, it will fail and your car will stop (and you’ll ruin your engine). It’s going to stop no matter how much gas you have in the tank, who’s with you in the car, or how you feel about it. It’s going to stop because a car can’t run without oil—you ignore these physical limitations at your peril.
So it is with the environment. If we cut down more trees than we can grow, we run out of trees. If we fish faster than fish can breed, we run out of fish. If we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than it can be absorbed, the planet gets warmer and weather patterns change. These are not controversial statements, it’s just common sense.
From this already overstretched point we plan to grow the economy – and why not? Growth is the very drum beat of our economic model. It’s our panacea for fixing joblessness, poverty, and myriad other social ills. If we budget growth rates of 3% a year (a very conservative estimate actually…countries try to budget 4-5% and China has been growing at around 8% for a decade) in 2050 we’ll have a global economy three times larger than the one we have today. That means three times more oil being burned, three times more water needed to drink and grow crops, three times more pollution in the air, three times more paper on our desks, and that many fewer trees to soak up our C02. When we’re already past the carrying capacity of the planet, asking for three times more from it borders on the absurd.
In 1972 The Limits to Growth exposed this glaring absurdity in detail, causing quite a stir. Since then, its authors remain busy trying to make people pay attention. Beyond the original report they have reconvened every ten years to put out an addendum where they compare their projections against observable real world outcomes. The chart below is one such report (published Scientific American, May 2012). It clearly shows data tracking very closely to Limits to Growth projections, with little shift towards sustainability. In short human civilization plows on unheedingly, ignoring plain evidence as it crashes crashing headlong towards certain collapse.
What’s going to happen as the world follows these projections to their logical end? The first and most obvious result will be that economy will simply not grow. We’ve gotten a taste of this phenomenon recently. Since 2008 we’ve seen a period of agonizingly slow growth, and prospects for continued growth seem fairly dim. Europe’s monetary problems will soon be pulling us down even further. Of course we’ll try mightily to get things moving again. We’ll throw everything we’ve got at the problem. But we will be prevented from making any real progress by limits on resource availability and the physical response of the global ecosystem.
This is happening. What does it mean? Two things:
- It becomes very clear that the system we have now is headed for collapse. So we need a new system, and we need it soon. We can either choose this new system, or like the car engine example we can allow the old one to break down and let circumstance choose for us. I don’t know about you, but for me this seems too important to just roll the dice and hope for the best.
- Laid plain before us is the lie that we have all internalized but never questioned: that we can have INFINITE GROWTH on a FINITE PLANET. It sounds ridiculous when we speak the words aloud, but this the story of our culture. No one is immune to it, we act out this story every day of our lives.
Now if you’re truly freaking out by this point, don’t. If we can find the grit and determination to solve climate change, we’ll have all the tools we need to solve this problem as well. Furthermore, the inevitability of this problem is something I actually find very comforting. Let me explain.
Like many of us I’ve always had the idea that something was wrong with the world at large, but could never quite put my finger on it. Call it a feeling…a vague sense of frustration, incompleteness, being a half step out of sync with the rest of the world. I know I’m not alone in that feeling, because there are entire industries dedicated to peddling the idea that humanity is broken or incomplete, and must be told the right way to live. Religion wants to save our souls, Dr. Phil harps on your emotional deficiencies, and a never-ending stream of self help books preach total life transformation. These kinds of “fixers” offer answers to life’s great questions: what is man’s purpose on earth, what is his place in the natural order, and how can he feel complete and part of something larger than himself?
At a cultural level, we’re supposed to know these answers already. Western culture teaches us to find satisfaction in the world of work, to find self expression through consumption, and to pursue success through growth. Spend your weekdays climbing the corporate ladder, and your weekends picking out the coffee table that really say “you”. For many of us this narrative falls short…we take little joy from our working lives and defining ourselves through products feels hollow. This breeds alienation, and we end up asking ourselves the question “what’s wrong with me?” When stories come along that address this feeling, they resonate with us. Movies like The Matrix or Fight Club and books like Brave New World speak of this unease and validate the idea that the world you know is wrong.
My question is: what if you’re right? What if humans are fine, and it’s the narrative that’s broken? What if any flaws that we have are not ours but reflections of a flawed system that promotes man’s sole pursuit as boundless growth and consumption? Even if we can’t speak it aloud, we know that infinite growth on a finite planet is a losing proposition? That deep down we know that our path is unsustainable and will ultimately lead to our own destruction?
Collectively, this feeling of discontent appears to be taking hold. Increasingly people are rejecting the drumbeat of identification through relentless consumerism. Researchers studying the millennials (defined as people born from the late 70’s to the early 2000’s) have dubbed them The Cheapest Generation, as they are more frugal than previous generations and don’t seek to define themselves through traditional big ticket items such as cars and homes. Why is this?
“They made an ingenuous and disorganized effort to escape from captivity but ultimately failed, because there were unable to find the bars of the cage.” – Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
Quinn is talking about the counterculture 60’s, but he could well have been talking about millennials or the Occupy movement of 2011. When I look at charts that expose an unsustainable system, what I see are those bars taking shape, being given mathematical form and substance. The inevitability of collapse is thus a cathartic revelation. It validates our unspoken feelings of discontent, and gives them a name: The Limits to Growth.