When and How Will Growth Cease?

GR:  The three ways that Jason Brent (article introduced below) believes our unsustainable economic and population growth will end make sense, but choosing between the two methods of population control (as opposed to lethal disasters, the first method) requires rational behavior. Nothing in our history suggests that humanity makes rational decisions at global scales. That leaves only Brent’s first way, “Wars, most likely with weapons of mass destruction, disease, starvation, civil strife and other horrors beyond the imagination.” Let’s think about that.

Among the many scientists studying climate, even the most conservative are beginning to accept that global temperature will rise by 4-degrees Celsius by 2100. The accelerated weather extremes that come with the warming will add to the pressure of limited resources on economic growth, even growth at realistic rates of 2% or 1.5%.

The greatest short-term climate change effects on growth will be reductions of agricultural productivity, marine fisheries, and freshwater supplies. These will force migrations and resource conflicts that will begin to trim population and economic growth well before the end of the century. Several uncertain events could further shorten the period of economic growth. Pandemic disease, loss of arctic ice, methane release, and power failure leading to nuclear reactor meltdown are just a few of the possibilities.

As others have pointed out, reducing population will not stop economic growth before current resource limitations and the compounding effect of climate change cause a crash. Disaster preparations at national and local levels are essential. Richard Heinberg recently offered two approaches to preparing for the crash. I recommend reading my and Heinberg’s comments along with Brent’s in the article below.

Jason G. Brent– “Only with knowledge will humanity survive. Our search for knowledge will encounter uncertainties and unknowns, but search we must. The search must persist and adapt as humanity’s present knowledge is expanded and changed. Continued allegiance to the false belief that human population and our current economic system can grow indefinitely, runs directly counter to this search for knowledge. Those that espouse this belief hinder our search for the knowledge critical to humanity’s survival.

“Since Earth and the resources it can provide humanity are finite, both population and economic growth must cease sometime in the future. To use ridiculous examples to prove a point– Earth could not support 1 trillion people for even one moment and Earth could not support an economy 1 trillion times as large as the current economy for even one moment. Therefore, the following questions arise:

  1. When will growth cease? and
  2. How will growth cease?

“We can debate when growth will cease, but we cannot debate the fact that it will cease. Those who take the position that growth in the number of people, the resources they use, and the waste they create can continue on a finite Earth are, again, arrogant fools. While new technologies, recycling and any other actions taken by humanity can reduce the amount of resources used per unit of economic activity/output, neither new technologies, recycling nor any other actions taken by humanity can convert the finite and limited resources Earth provides humanity into infinite resources that will permit economic activity and population to grow forever.

“Almost every resource Earth provides humanity is finite. The more we use today the less we have for tomorrow. Theoretically, Earth provides humanity with two types of resources: renewable resources and nonrenewable resources. Nonrenewable resources include fossil fuels and minerals. Renewable resources include soil, water, forest growth, fish in the ocean, and similar items. In reality, humanity is using almost every theoretically renewable resource faster than it can be naturally replaced and, therefore, for all practical purposes, renewable resources have become nonrenewable. Well before these resources are exhausted, we will find them harder to exploit. Humanity in the past has used those resources which were the easiest to obtain, had the highest concentrations of the minerals desired, the easiest to process, and closest to the place where they would be used. In the future humanity will be forced to use resources which are harder to obtain, have lower concentrations, are harder to process, and further from the place of usage. We will therefore face the challenges of higher prices, reduced returns, and greater processing waste well before the resources are exhausted. In many cases we already are.

“Yet many economists, politicians, and even environmentalists will have you believe that the economy can continue to grow in spite of the fact that resources and sinks are limited. The recent budget proposal from the Trump administration relies on the assumption of 3% growth of the U.S. economy as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP)[1]. Since the economy will grow in a compound manner, a 3% annual growth rate would cause the economy of the USA to double about every 23.33 years. In 233 years there would be 10 doublings resulting in a growth factor of over 1,000 and in 466 years there would be 20 doublings resulting in a growth factor of over 1 million. In under 100 years at the same annual growth rate, there would be over 4 doublings resulting in a growth factor of over 16–2,4,8,16. The resources that will be available to the USA in under 100 years will not permit the economy of the USA to be 16 times as large as the current economy.  Do you have any facts that would support the position that the economy of the USA could become 16 times as large as the current economy in under 100 years?

“Instead, the evidence suggests that attempting to maintain an annual compound economic growth rate of 3% which would result in four doublings in 100 years, or a growth factor of sixteen, would result in the collapse of civilization. Why? Economic growth requires the use of physical resources. Without the use of physical resources, economic growth cannot and will not continue. It is almost certain that the earth cannot supply humanity, on an overall basis, with four times the resources it presently supplies. History suggests that resource constraints are more likely to lead to wars and disease than previously unseen economic flourishing and wellbeing.

“It is not my intent to pick on Donald Trump in this essay, as the majority of candidates and major political parties, across levels of politics, have taken the position that growth is the solution to all or almost all of the problems faced today by humanity. Anyone who believes growth is a solution to any of the problems presently faced by humanity ignores the fact that Earth and the resources it can provide humanity are finite, the power of compound growth and the fact that the human population is exploding.  Almost all of the problems faced by humanity today were caused, in whole or in part, by the combined impact of economic and population growth.” –Jason G. Brent (Continue: When and How Will Growth Cease? | MAHB).

Are We Doomed or Can We Survive the Coming Crash?

GR: I read an interesting article by Richard Heinberg published on the Post Carbon Institute website on Thursday. The article offers two responses to the coming crash that improve our chances for surviving The solutions are quite clearly presented and I think you will agree with me that they make sense.

The crash will occur because our energy-dependent industrialized societies cannot sustain their current level of energy consumption. As Heinberg points out, it is possible to live a good life on a smaller energy budget. And this means that our civilization can survive a major reset without total failure. My only quibble with the article is that Heinberg seems to assume that carbon emissions have begun to fall. We just learned that this isn’t true. This is a problem we need to deal with now.

Heinberg explains that the reason the coming crash threatens our survival is that our society is too dependent on growth. If growth fails, we crash. Growth is going to fail because of climate change, energy resource limits, the increase in the food required by our growing population, soil erosion, deforestation, species extinctions, declining fresh water, ocean acidification, and our fragile economic system.

Heinberg’s crash responses control the crash so that civilization can recover at lower population and consumption levels. Clearly, there is no certainty that civilization will survive. Nevertheless, planning ahead for the post-crash recovery is a rational response that delivers a valid hope for our future.

“Among those who understand the systemic nature of our problems, the controlled crash option is the subject of what may be the most interesting and important conversation that’s taking place on the planet just now. But only informed people who have gotten over denial and self-delusion are part of it.”

Here’s a bit more of Heinberg’s article:

Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Conversation.

“Are we doomed if we can’t maintain current and growing energy levels? And are we doomed anyway due to now-inevitable impacts of climate change?

“First, the good news. With regard to energy, we should keep in mind the fact that today’s Americans use roughly twice as much per capita as their great-grandparents did in 1925. While people in that era enjoyed less mobility and fewer options for entertainment and communication than we do today, they nevertheless managed to survive and even thrive. And we now have the ability to provide many services (such as lighting) far more efficiently, so it should be possible to reduce per-capita energy usage dramatically while still maintaining a lifestyle that would be considered more than satisfactory by members of previous generations and by people in many parts of the world today. And reducing energy usage would make a whole raft of problems—climate change, resource depletion, the challenge of transitioning to renewable energy sources—much easier to solve.

“The main good news with regard to climate change that I can point to (as I did in an essay posted in June) is that economically recoverable fossil fuel reserves are consistent only with lower-emissions climate change scenarios. As BP and other credible sources for coal, oil, and natural gas reserves figures show, and as more and more researchers are pointing out, the worst-case climate scenarios associated with “business as usual” levels of carbon emissions are in fact unrealistic.

“Now, the bad news. While we could live perfectly well with less energy, that’s not what the managers of our economy want. They want growth. Our entire economy is structured to require constant, compounded growth of GDP, and for all practical purposes raising the GDP means using more energy. While fringe economists and environmentalists have for years been proposing ways to back away from our growth addiction (for example, by using alternative economic indices such as Gross National Happiness), none of these proposals has been put into widespread effect. As things now stand, if growth falters the economy crashes.

“There’s bad climate news as well: even with current levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases, we’re seeing unacceptable and worsening impacts—raging fires, soaring heat levels, and melting icecaps. And there are hints that self-reinforcing feedbacks maybe kicking in: an example is the release of large amounts of methane from thawing tundra and oceanic hydrates, which could lead to a short-term but steep spike in warming. Also, no one is sure if current metrics of climate sensitivity (used to estimate the response of the global climate system to a given level of forcing) are accurate, or whether the climate is actually more sensitive than we have assumed. There’s some worrisome evidence the latter is case.

“But let’s step back a bit. If we’re interested in signs of impending global crisis, there’s no need to stop with just these two global challenges. The world is losing 25 billion tons of topsoil a year due to current industrial agricultural practices; if we don’t deal with that issue, civilization will still crash even if we do manage to ace our energy and climate test. Humanity is also over-using fresh water: ancient aquifers are depleting, while other water sources are being polluted. If we don’t deal with our water crisis, we still crash. Species are going extinct at a thousand times the pre-industrial rate; if we don’t deal with the biodiversity dilemma, we still crash. Then there are social and economic problems that could cause nations to crumble even if we manage to protect the environment; this threat category includes the menaces of over-reliance on debt and increasing economic inequality.

“If we attack each of these problems piecemeal with technological fixes (for example, with desalination technology to solve the water crisis or geo-engineering to stabilize the climate) we may still crash because our techno-fixes are likely to have unintended consequences, as all technological interventions do. Anyway, the likelihood of successfully identifying and deploying all the needed fixes in time is vanishingly small.” –Richard Heinberg (Continue reading: Are We Doomed? Let’s Have a Conversation. Post Carbon Institute).

Here’s an earlier discussion of things we need to do to prepare for the crash. 

Background for World Conservation Day

Nature Conservation Background

World Conservation Day is just around the corner. Here’s a series of background reports on global carrying capacity and human impact from the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB). Stock your neurons with useful information. I haven’t finished reading these reports, but the bits I’ve scanned indicate they are important contributions. My pieces on conservation here and here cover some of the ideas. My ideas are less focused on humanity than on the plants and animals of the natural world, but all approaches to conservation have merit. We need them all now.

Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee (Country Living)

More articles from MAHB.

 

Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Event Under Way

GR: Let’s say we get control of our greenhouse gas emissions and hold global warming to two-degrees. There will be deep long-lasting droughts, coastal flooding, mass migrations, and many deaths due to heatwaves, floods, and fires. Nevertheless, humanity will survive. Can we count this as our greatest triumph? Not really. Most of Earth’s beautiful forests, natural grasslands, and countless wild animals and plants will not survive. Here are two articles that lay out some of the details of the greatest human failure of all; the failure to care for and protect our planet’s precious biological heritage.

Damian Carrington– A “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is under way and is more severe than previously feared, according to research. [The article includes a “video report” and example maps of the dwindling range of the lion.]

Patrick Bentley male lion

“Scientists analysed both common and rare species and found billions of regional or local populations have been lost. They blame human overpopulation and overconsumption for the crisis and warn that it threatens the survival of human civilisation, with just a short window of time in which to act.

“The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, eschews the normally sober tone of scientific papers and calls the massive loss of wildlife a “biological annihilation” that represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”.

“Prof Gerardo Ceballos, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who led the work, said: “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

“Previous studies have shown species are becoming extinct at a significantly faster rate than for millions of years before, but even so extinctions remain relatively rare giving the impression of a gradual loss of biodiversity. The new work instead takes a broader view, assessing many common species which are losing populations all over the world as their ranges shrink, but remain present elsewhere.The scientists found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered and that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Detailed data is available for land mammals, and almost half of these have lost 80% of their range in the last century.

“The scientists found billions of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians have been lost all over the planet, leading them to say a sixth mass extinction has already progressed further than was thought.Billions of animals have been lost as their habitats have become smaller with each passing year.The scientists conclude: “The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe.” (Source: Earth’s sixth mass extinction event under way, scientists warn | Environment | The Guardian)

 

You Don’t Need a Scientist to Know What’s Causing the Sixth Mass Extinction

Paul R. Ehrlich– It’s simple. It’s us. The more people there are, the more habitats we destroy. Human civilisation can only survive if the population begins to shrink

A peacock butterfly rests on a thistle. ‘Cropland is generally not rich in food plants suitable for the caterpillars of the 15,000 butterfly species with which we share the planet.’ Photograph: Silas Stein/AFP/Getty Images

“One should not need to be a scientist to know that human population growth and the accompanying increase in human consumption are the root cause of the sixth mass extinction we’re currently seeing. All you need to know is that every living being has evolved to have a set of habitat requirements.

“An organism can’t live where the temperature is too hot or too cold. If it lives in water, it requires not only an appropriate temperature range, but also appropriate salinity, acidity and other chemical characteristics. If it is a butterfly, it must have access to plants suitable for its caterpillars to eat. A lion requires plant-eaters to catch and devour. A tree needs a certain amount of sunlight and access to soil nutrients and water. A falciparum malaria parasite can’t survive and reproduce without Anopheles mosquitos in its habitat and a human bloodstream to infest.

“The human population has grown so large that roughly 40% of the Earth’s land surface is now farmed to feed people – and none too well at that. Largely due to persistent problems with distribution, almost 800 million people go to bed hungry, and between one and two billion suffer from malnutrition. As a consequence of its booming population, Homo sapiens has taken much of the most fertile land to grow plants for its own consumption. But guess what? That cropland is generally not rich in food plants suitable for the caterpillars of the 15,000 butterfly species with which we share the planet. Few butterflies require the wheat, corn or rice on which humans largely depend. From the viewpoint of most of the Earth’s wildlife, farming can be viewed as “habitat destruction”. And, unsurprisingly, few species of wildlife have evolved to live on highways, or in strip malls, office buildings, kitchens or sewers – unless you count Norway rats, house mice, European starlings and German roaches. Virtually everything humanity constructs provides an example of habitat destruction.” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/11/sixth-mass-extinction-habitats-destroy-population.)

We’ll Soon Be Using More Than Earth Can Provide: How Myopic Humanity Committed Suicide  

Soybean farm in Brazil.

GR: Each year, the Global Footprint Network calculates the date at which we humans have used as much biomass as the Earth/Sun system produces in a year. In other words, it’s the date after which we live by overdrawing our resource bank account. This year its August 2.

There is much that we need to do. Here’s a sample.

“Four days after President Trump announced the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, the Global Footprint Network (GFN) reported that Earth Overshoot Day 2017 will fall on Aug. 2. Most Americans likely have no idea what that means.

“The basic point is quite simple: From Jan. 1 to Aug. 2, the world’s 7.5 billion people will have used as much of Earth’s biological resources—or biocapacity—as the planet can regenerate in a year. During the remaining five months of 2017, our human consumption will be drawing down Earth’s reserves of fresh water, fertile soils, forests and fisheries, and depleting its ability to regenerate these resources as well as sequester excess carbon released into the atmosphere.

Stated slightly differently, humans are depleting living Earth’s capacity to support life.

“The GFN methodology can also generate an ecological footprint for individual cities, states and nations, based on the burden each generates relative to its local biocapacity. It can also compare a personal footprint generated by a distinctive lifestyle to both national and global averages.

“The U.S. has a relatively abundant per capita biocapacity compared to most other nations. We are also one of the world’s highest per capita consumers. Consequently, the net outcome is a total national biocapacity deficit second only to that of China—a country with a population roughly four times ours.

“Knowing that, collectively, the world is consuming far more than the planet can sustain, how do we bring ourselves into balance with Earth’s capacities? GFN outlines four critical global priorities:” –David Korten (Continue: We’ll Soon Be Using More Than Earth Can Provide.)

The Economics of 7.5 Billion People On One Planet

GR: Joe Bish of the Population Media Center directed my attention to this story published last week. It is a clear, short exposition of the population problem that I highly recommend. Note that the best solution to overpopulation is freedom, the freedom to choose. Are women just maids and baby producers or are they individuals with rights of their own?

“The most disheartening story in today’s Seattle Times is about the 38 million pieces of trash, almost all plastic, strewn on remote and uninhabited Henderson Island in the Pacific Ocean. When some future alien starship discovers post-apocalyptic Earth, their first impression will be, “What a bunch of slobs once lived here.”

“This story can be told in many ways: A runaway consumer culture, globalization and the 10,000-mile supply chain, more affluence even in developing nations, environmental catastrophe from polluting the oceans. But don’t forget the latest estimate of the planet’s population: 7.5 billion. At the turn of the 19th century, it was only 1 billion. It took more than another century to add another billion. Since then, the billions have been piling on with astonishing speed. The world held “only” a little more than 6 billion in 2000.

“Virtually every major problem, from climate change and wars to mass migrations and resource scarcity has its root in too many people. Economics are not immune. The lowered prospects of the politically potent white working class, for example, have much to do with millions overseas who can do the same jobs for a fraction of the cost. When you hear about theories of “secular stagnation” and the like, think 7.5 billion.

“The enormous and growing costs of human-caused climate change are juiced by those 7.5 billion. Globalization has created large middle classes in nations such as China and India — and its members want the sprawly car-dependent “American lifestyle” and the rights to their share of the atmosphere to heat in order to get it. The greatest deprivation, and lost economic potential, happens in countries with the biggest population overshoot.” –Jon Talton (Continue reading:  The economics of 7.5 billion people on one planet | The Seattle Times)/

The Human Ecological Predicament: Wages of Self-Delusion | MAHB

GR: Here’s a thoughtful article about the absolute necessity to reject the global “growth at all costs” philosophy that dominates our businesses, governments, and churches. Because we have failed to choose our actions objectively, we are approaching major “tipping points” where choices will slip away. We might still avoid the crash by learning to use basic reasoning. Our children (and adults) should learn to recognize the many forms of faulty reasoning, the fallacies, that obscure truth. We must all learn the value of skepticism and we must learn to ask how (will we get Mexico to pay for the wall) and why (do we need a wall), and we must learn to insist on verifiable facts offered as proof.

The coming crash. (photographer unknown)

“Techno-industrial society is in dangerous ecological overshoot—the human ecological footprint is at least 60% larger than the planet can support sustainably (Wackernagel et al. 2002; Rees 2013; WWF 2016). The global economy is using even renewable and replenishable resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and filling waste sinks beyond nature’s capacity to assimilate (Steffen et al. 2007; Rockström et al. 2009; Barnosky et al. 2012). (Even climate change is a waste management problem—carbon dioxide is the single greatest waste by weight of industrial economies.) Despite the accumulating evidence of impending crisis, the world community seems incapable of responding effectively. This situation is clearly unsustainable and, if present trends continue, will likely lead in this century to runaway climate change, the collapse of major biophysical systems, global strife and therefore diminished prospects for continued civilized existence (Tainter 1987; Diamond 2005; Turner 2014; Motesharrei et al. 2014).

“The proximate drivers are excess economic production/consumption and over-population—human impact on the ecosphere is a product of population multiplied by average per capita consumption—exacerbated by an increasingly global compound myth of perpetual economic growth propelled by continuous technological progress (Victor 2008; Rees 2013). While there is evidence of some ‘decoupling’ of economic production from nature, this is often an artifact of faulty accounting and trade (e.g., wealthy countries are ‘off-shoring’ their ecological impacts onto poorer countries). Overall, economic throughput (energy and material consumption and waste production) is increasing with population and GDP growth (Wiedmann et al 2013; Giljum et al. 2014). Consequently, carbon dioxide is accumulating at an accelerating rate in the atmosphere (NOAA 2017) and the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 sequentially shared the distinction of being the warmest years in the instrumental record (Hansen et al. 2017).

“There is widespread general support for the notion of ‘clean production and consumption’ but in present circumstances, this must soon translate into less production and consumption by fewer people (Rees 2014). It complicates matters that modern society remains highly dependent on abundant cheap energy still mostly supplied by carbon-based fuels. Despite rapid technological advances and falling costs, it is still not clear that renewable energy alternatives, including wind and photovoltaic electricity, can replace fossil fuels in such major uses as transportation and space/water heating in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, in the absence of effective carbon sequestration technologies, reducing fossil fuel use remains essential to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Resolving this energy-climate conundrum will require major conservation efforts, the prioritizing of essential non-substitutable uses of fossil fuels and the banning of frivolous ones.

Source: The Human Ecological Predicament: Wages of Self-Delusion | MAHB

Call For Population Papers: Spring 2018

GR: The European Journal of Literature, Culture, and Environment recently issued a call for papers to appear in a special section of the Journal. I’ve reproduced the call here because of its useful summary of the recent history (since 1970)  of attitudes toward overpopulation. Joe Bish of the Population Media Center brought the call to my attention. Bish’s weekly essay is essential reading. This week he points out that those who argue population is not a problem “. . . completely fail to acknowledge the existence of any other creature on the planet.” Let me illustrate the population problem and its impact on nature with a few words about population trends in Arizona, the U. S. state where I live.

Arizona urban growth.

From 1970 to 2016, Arizona’s resident population grew from 1.78 million to 7.0 million. Much of the growth is due to immigrants from colder states in the upper midwest and the crowded east and west coast states of the U. S. The total growth rate from this simple formula, Rate = births + immigrants – deaths / current population has decline from 3% in 1970 to1.5% in 2016. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the rate has been fairly stable for since 2010. If Arizona’s population continues to grow at this rate, the population will double by 2063.

In Arizona and other regions to the north and south, people have replaced portions of the wild vegetation habitat with cities, roads, and farms. Much of the undeveloped landscape has been grazed by cows and cleared by loggers. The result has been a decline in wildlife.

During the 44-year period from (1970-2014), the research by the World Wildlife Fund and others found that the total number of wild animals on Earth had declined by more than half. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the same is true for Arizona.

Only the narrow “growth-at-all-costs” philosophy of corporations (including cities and towns) in Arizona and the U. S. can explain the continued disregard for the effect of the human population on nature. Here are a few more thoughts on the consequences of continued population growth.

Call for Population Papers

Population growth is accelerating in China despite the almost insoluable pollution costs.

“Overpopulation has become the ‘third rail’ of contemporary environmentalism: no major organization wants to touch the issue anymore. While it had been one of the driving concerns of early environmentalism up until the 1970s, exemplified by such seminal texts as Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet (1948), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and the Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth (1972), concern with population control has since dropped off the list of popular environmentalist causes. One of the primary reasons for this is undoubtedly that the discourse of overpopulation was found to be freighted with unsavory political associations: in many cases, concern over population seemed like a threadbare cover for racist and classist resentments, or just plain misanthropy, as when James Lovelock famously diagnosed the planet with a case of “disseminated primatemia,” likening humans to pathogenic microbes. Concern with overpopulation was impugned as the expression of a neocolonialist mindset, one that implicitly dehumanized the peoples whose population was said to be in need of control. Environmental problems, it was argued, were not an issue of overpopulation in the Third World, but rather of overconsumption in the First. Famine and poverty were not effects of resource scarcity, but of a failure to distribute properly what resources were available.

“However, recent years have seen a quiet resurgence of Neo-Malthusian thinking, and of the apocalyptic scenarios with which it has been so often aligned, that makes it imperative to revisit these debates. Since the turn of the century, a growing choir of political and military analysts has been prophesying an imminent era of resource wars. Anxiety over economic competition from migrants has fueled nativist movements around the globe. Stephen Emmott’s incendiary pamphlet 10 Billion (2013) closes with the response of one of his colleagues to the question how to best prepare for life on an overpopulated, ecologically degraded planet: “Teach my son how to use a gun.” Such developments seem to bear out the dire warnings of historian Timothy Snyder: in Black Earth (2015), he argues that just as Malthusian fears were an important ideological driver of Nazi Germany’s genocidal warfare in Eastern Europe, they might once again be used to justify the abrogation of basic human rights. Yet all of this only makes it more pressing to find responsible ways of addressing the issue. Even if one does not consider population growth as a primary cause of ecological degradation, there is hardly any environmental problem that is not compounded and aggravated by it. While it is true that overconsumption in the “global North,” where populations are shrinking, must bear most of the blame for climate change and many other large-scale problems, it is also clear that rapidly expanding human numbers in poor countries produce problems of their own. Often, traditional methods of resource extraction and land cultivation which were sustainable while the human population was small have become ecologically destructive simply because more people are now practicing them.

“The aim of this special section is not only to re-assess the long-standing debate on overpopulation in light of these developments, but more importantly to examine the cluster of tropes, narratives, and images which have become attached to this idea, and which we propose to designate as the “Malthusian Imagination.” Even while the issue of overpopulation disappeared from mainstream environmentalist discourse, it continued to flourish in the realms of literature and popular culture. The “mad environmentalist” hatching a secret plan to rid the world of surplus population became something of a stock character (e.g. in Lionel Shriver’s Game Control, 1994; Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, 1995; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, 2003; Dan Brown’s Inferno, 2013; or Dennis Kelly’s TV series Utopia, 2013-14). Many of these texts and films engage in complex balancing acts, acknowledging the legitimacy of the concern even while they disavow the violent means by which it is pursued.

“The questions we would like contributors to address include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • “How do particular works of literature, film, or visual art deal with the representational challenges posed by population growth? How do different representational strategies relate to the ethical and political stance these works take? How do they dramatize a Malthusian “lifeboat ethics” (Hardin 1974), and to what extent do they articulate alternative positions?
  • “How can a concern over population growth be reconciled with an emancipatory politics? How do gender equality and female education figure within the discourse on overpopulation, or the pro-natalist views advocated by many of the major religions? How do recent concerns over the “refugee crisis” intersect with the issue?
  • “What theoretical framework should we adopt in order to conceptualize the problem of population growth? How can, for example, theories of biopolitics, postcolonial theory, critical feminism, queer theory, actor network theory, object-oriented ontology, or social systems theory help us to get a better grasp of the issue? –Editors (Continue reading:  CFP: Spring 2018).

Paul Hawken: “Game on” for global warming

GR:  What can we do to reverse global warming? Lots. The list of proposals contained in this work is by far the most comprehensive I’ve seen (Project Drawdown). Recommended. The rest of this blog post is an interview of the project’s leader.

“In this interview, environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author Paul Hawken discusses Project Drawdown, “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” Hawken, who leads the project and edited the just-published book Drawdown, explains why his team felt it necessary to create a master list of the most substantive current solutions to global warming, and how they went about their extensive research. Surprisingly, many of the top solutions they identified and modeled do not involve energy systems, but instead focus on changes in food, land use, and other categories. Hawken speaks about global warming in positive terms, describing it as useful “feedback” that enables humans to take responsibility for what they have done – and to devote themselves to fixing the problem rather than to laying blame.

“If you had asked the thousands of experts at the Paris climate talks to make a list of the top five or 10 solutions to global warming, in any order, I don’t think anybody could have done it. We don’t know. And isn’t that odd? A sixth grader can tell you the five biggest states, but we can’t name the five biggest solutions to the biggest problem humanity has ever faced?” –Paul Hawken.

“They call it “the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming.” It’s a set of 80 solutions that already exist, and 20 “Coming Attractions” that are still emerging. The solutions include the obvious, such as wind and solar power, but the plan doesn’t focus exclusively on renewable energy or even on energy sources in general. The solutions also involve food, buildings and cities, land use, transport, materials, and initiatives aimed specifically at women and girls. Two of the solutions – family planning and educating girls – would be at the top of the list if combined.” –Dawn Stover (Continue: Paul Hawken: “Game on” for global warming: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Vol 73, No 3.)

Learn more about Project Drawdown here.

Moving Away From the Pro-Growth Economy | MAHB

GR:  Here’s an annotated bibliography that explores alternatives to perpetual growth. Perpetual growth is the idea that economies will fail without continuous growth. It assumes that there are unlimited resources for growth. The idea guides our business enterprises and spills over into our social beliefs including our definition of well-being. The bibliography is part of the effort at MAHB to avoid global catastrophe.

Economy by spDuchamp | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

“The current economic system being utilized and internalized relies on perpetual growth. It has long operated counter to the reality that we are confined to a finite planet with finite resources. Yet, this system continues to be practiced and promoted globally. As the environmental and social repercussions of disbelief in limits become increasingly clear, so does our need for a new economic system —one that is not wedded to growth. Neither growth in the number of consumers nor growth in the amount consumed.

“But what would an alternative to the pro-growth economy look like? There are multiple thinkers and organizations taking on exactly this question. However, these efforts can be disparate and focused on their differences rather than their common agreement that an alternative to pro-growth economics is not only possible but required.” –Erika Gavenus (Continue reading: Moving Away From the Pro-Growth Economy | MAHB

Here’s a sample of annotations from the bibliography section on “Limits to Growth.”

Meadows, D. H., D. L. Meadows, J. Randers and W. W. Behrens (1972) The limits to growth. New York: Universe. (http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Limits-to-Growth-digital-scan-version.pdf).

This seminal work on the analysis of limits to economic growth was published in 1972. The team used the innovative model World 3 to consider. World 3 “is based in system dynamic—a method for studying the world that deals with understanding how complex systems change over time. Internal feedback loops within the structure of the system influence the entire system behavior.” Among the analysis’s conclusions:

Meadows, D., Randers, J., and Meadows, D. (2004) Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing. http://donellameadows.org/archives/a-synopsis-limits-to-growth-the-30-year-update/

Three of the authors of The Limits to Growth (1972) revisit the original report’s findings and consider if and how the situation has changed over the 30 years since the original publication. They find:

“While the past 30 years has shown some progress, including new technologies, new institutions, and a new awareness of environmental problems, the authors are far more pessimistic than they were in 1972. Humanity has squandered the opportunity to correct our current course over the last 30 years, they conclude, and much must change if the world is to avoid the serious consequences of overshoot in the 21st century.”

Ackerman, F., Stanton, E.A., DeCanio, S.J., Goodstein, E., Howarth, R.B., Norgaard, R.B., Norman, C.S., Sheeran, K.A., 2009. The economics of 350: the benefits and costs of climate stabilization. Economics for Equity and Environment. http://e360.yale.edu/images/features/Economics_of_350.pdf

Stopping global warming and protecting the earth’s climate is a daunting challenge. To prevent a climate crisis we have to move quickly to transform the ways in which we create and use energy, develop petroleum-free transportation, and much more. These changes will not be free; there is already resistance to paying for the first steps along this road. Some think that reaching for more ambitious mitigation targets, and quicker reductions in emissions, would mean economic disaster. Some economists have become known for advocating only slow and modest responses to climate change, lest the costs of mitigation become too large. This report demonstrates that the ‘go slow’ recommendations are unjustified. A number of economic analyses, informed by recent scientific findings and using reasonable assumptions, suggest that more ambitious targets and quicker action make good economic sense. The warnings about climate change are growing steadily more ominous — but it has not, as a consequence, become impossibly expensive to save the planet. We can still afford a sustainable future. The bad news about climate change relates mostly to the costs of inaction. As greenhouse gas emissions grow, it is the cost of doing nothing that is becoming unbearable, not the cost of taking action. If there is reason for optimism amidst the dire warnings it is this: the costs of insuring the planet against climate disaster are not prohibitive. The best estimates of the costs of a vigorous, immediate effort to rebuild the world economy around carbon-free technologies are still in the range of one to three percent of world output (GDP) per year, even with the more stringent emissions reduction goals we are supporting. Scientific research continues to yield evidence that climate change is occurring faster, and its consequences could be more severe, than previously expected: the costs of climate inaction, or even of delay in mounting a large-scale response to the climate crisis, are getting worse and worse. We cannot afford a little climate policy, half-measures that would leave us all vulnerable to the immense risks of an increasingly destructive climate. We need a big initiative, a comprehensive global deal on protecting the earth’s climate by rapidly reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. Because the status quo is not sustainable, the most economical choice is to change, as quickly, cost-effectively, and comprehensively as possible. This study looks at both sides of the equation, beginning with the worsening news about climate risks (i.e., the costs of inaction), then turning to the costs of an adequate response.

Hall, C. and J. Day (2009) ‘Revisiting the limits to growth after peak oil’. American Scientist 97(3): 230-237. http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/revisiting-the-limits-to-growth-after-peak-oil

Hall and Day take a critical look at some of the leading publications from the 1970s, particularly The Limits to Growth (1972),  that brought attention to the diminishing resource base for humans. Comparing values predicted by the limits-to-growth model and actual values the authors suggest that, “there is growing evidence that the original ‘Cassandras’ were right on the mark in their general assessments, if not always in the details or exact timing, about the dangers of continued growth of human population and their increasing levels of consumption in a world approaching very real material constraints.” (p230). Hall and Day argue that The Limits to Growth along with other seminal publications of this era, need to be revisited and included in contemporary conversations.

Bardi, U. (2011) The Limits to Growth Revisited. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.

“The Limits to Growth” (Meadows, 1972) generated unprecedented controversy with its predictions of the eventual collapse of the world’s economies. First hailed as a great advance in science, “The Limits to Growth” was subsequently rejected and demonized. However, with many national economies now at risk and global peak oil apparently a reality, the methods, scenarios, and predictions of “The Limits to Growth” are in great need of reappraisal. In The Limits to Growth Revisited, Ugo Bardi examines both the science and the polemics surrounding this work, and in particular the reactions of economists that marginalized its methods and conclusions for more than 30 years. “The Limits to Growth” was a milestone in attempts to model the future of our society, and it is vital today for both scientists and policy makers to understand its scientific basis, current relevance, and the social and political mechanisms that led to its rejection. Bardi also addresses the all-important question of whether the methods and approaches of “The Limits to Growth” can contribute  to an understanding of what happened to the global economy in the Great Recession and where we are headed from there.

  • Shows how “The Limits to Growth” is a subject more relevant today than when the book was first published
  • Demonstrates how scenario-building using system dynamics models or other methods is an essential tool in understanding possible futures
  • Examines the factors that may lead to the rejection of good science when the conclusions are unpleasant
  • Separates the reality that the future can never be predicted with certainty from the need to prepare for it.   http://www.springer.com/us/book/9781441994158

Turner, G. (2014) Is Global Collapse Imminent?, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne. http://sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/MSSI-ResearchPaper-4_Turner_2014.pdf

Turner provides another review of the Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), this time specifically comparing that report’s modeled “standard run” or business-as-usual to forty years of economic and population data. Limits to Growth called for considerable change in social behavior and technological progress early in the advance of environmental or resource issues. Turner finds that these were not achieved, and that data collected since the publication of the Limits to Growth most closely aligns with the projected “standard run” of the Limits to Growth World3 model. This “standard run” resulted in “collapse of the economy and human population (i.e. a relatively rapid fall)… in the 21st century, reducing living conditions to levels akin to the early 20th century according to average global conditions” (p4). Turner concludes that this paper “aims to forewarn of potential global collapse–perhaps more imminent than generally recognized–in the hope that this may spur on change, or at least to prepare readers for a worst case outcome” (p5).

Ehrlich, P.R. and A. Ehrlich (2016) ‘Population, resources, and the faith-based economy: the situation in 2016’. Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality 1(3). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-016-0003-y

Paul and Anne Ehrlich summarize today’s population-resources-environment situation in comparison to the situation in 1986 when their seminal book The Population Bomb was published. In concluding that the human predicament is now much more serious than in 2016, the authors specifically discuss “faith-based macroeconomics” and the assumptions current neoclassical economics hinge on. Specifically, the authors criticize “faith in continuous economic expansion through technology, markets, and the so-called knowledge economy” and provide the example of Paul Krugman’s position that further growth is a cure for problems. (p3). The authors also question the assumption that people make rational, informed choices –an underpinning of how markets are thought to be efficient. The authors do praise the work of multiple ecological economics to push the discipline towards recognizing real-world constraints. Ultimately, the authors conclude that a profound change of society is required to “provide a slim hope of avoiding a collapse of civilization,” a change that would include moving away from myths of continued economic growth.