Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Age of Reason, Now Closed for Business.

Overall it had a good run going back to the Age of Enlightenment and carrying on through the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and the geopolitical revolution of the 20th century. It wasn't a linear path. There were reverses aplenty but the Age of Reason kept plodding on into and through the progressive era post WWII.

Sad to see it go but that's what can happen given enough time and enough hubris. Reason, unattended, degenerates and gradually fails.

Blame human nature and why not? It takes us off the hook as individuals, doesn't it? When people say what we want to hear, we usually believe them. That puts a huge premium on lying, mythmaking. That sort of thing grows bigger and it gets heavier, ever more clumsy but it never really gets stronger. Eventually it gets too heavy or something comes along that gives it a shake and - boom - collapse.

What if I told you that the world in which you live is governed by an economic model that's a lot like a mental illness? Take our last election for example. All of the leaders, including Elizabeth May, spoke of the need to grow our economy. Same mantra you would hear in Britain or France or just about any country that indulged the notion of universal suffrage.

Growth. Ever greater GDP, gross domestic product. Ever more economic activity, greater production. That's exponential growth. It sounds modest enough. Three per cent this year and three per cent next year and the year after that. But it all adds up and we just don't get it. Ever see that experiment where you take a chess board and begin with one penny in the upper corner and double that as you go to the next square and so on? By the time you reach the opposite corner in the bottom, what began as one cent 64 squares earlier has grown into a sum greater than all the money on Earth. Wowser.

Of course we're not doubling our GDP from one year (square) to the next. We'll content ourselves with a modest 3%.  Only there's nothing modest about it. Let's say in Year 1, the economy, our GDP stands at 1X. Grow that by 3% per year for roughly one adult lifetime, 50 years, and you wind up with a GDP that stands at 4.38X. Run the formula for a century and you have grown GDP by 19.22 times greater than it was in Year 1. Over two centuries GDP expands to 369 times what it was in Year 1. Three hundred years?  That would be seven thousand and ninety eight times the size of the economy in Year 1. Not seven thousand per cent bigger, seven thousand times bigger. 7,098X. Four centuries is even better. That's 136,423X GDP.  Follow it through to five hundred years and its 2,621,877X GDP. That's all from steady growth of 3% per year.

That could never happen, could it? Of course not. Not unless the buying power of a dollar in Year 1 represents roughly the buying power of a couple of million dollars in Year 500, sort of the Weimar Republic on acid.

What can happen is what is happening. Overall economic activity - production and consumption - outgrows the environment. How can that happen? Well, to be honest, we cheat and we've become really, really good at it.

This year we hit a new mark. Mankind now consumes the Earth's supply of renewable resources at 1.7 times their replenishment rate. We're exceeding our planet's environmental carrying capacity by a factor of 1.7. It's called "overshoot." It's something that, unresolved, doesn't end well.

To keep up with our expectations we've learned to cheat. In fact we're mortally dependent on our success at cheating forever and ever on into the future. When our cheats no longer work, it's game over for an awful lot of us.

If you don't believe we're propping up our global civilization with parlour tricks consider that some of them are visible to the naked eye from space. From the gondola of the International Space Station the crew can look down and see the rampant deforestation; wildfires burning from one end of Indonesia to the other; the desertification of once viable farmland evidenced in dust clouds that rise over China and cross the Pacific to North America; dried up lakes and rivers that no longer reach the sea; tundra fires and the vanishing polar sea ice; toxic algae blooms that spread through our lakes and our ocean coastlines. All of those things evidence one species, ours, that no longer lives within the bounds of our environment.

There's Indonesia, Just Behind All that Smoke

NASA's Grace satellite system monitors the surface subsidence triggered by our rapacious reliance on groundwater, our ancient aquifers, for industrial agricultural production. In California's Central Valley the subsidence has reached a foot a year in some places which plays utter hell on foundations, roadways and bridges.

At our docks we see the evidence of overfishing as the far-ranging industrial fleet fishes "down the food chain", collapsing one fishery after the other. In the north, scientists and fishermen alike witness plumes of methane gas bubbling to the surface from melting seabed clathrates.

Our appetites are crowding out the other species with which we share our biosphere. The Living Planet Report 2014 surveyed terrestrial life of all forms and found that it had declined by half over the past 40-years. This year's Living Planet Report focused on marine life and found almost identical decline. Meanwhile species are enduring an extinction rate gauged to be 1,000 times normal.

What's happening? I am. You are. And about 7-billion more of us. That's what's happening. Those other things can't live if we don't leave them the clean habitat and resources they need to survive, if we continue to predate them to extinction. Did I mention we want an even bigger share of the planetary pie next year and every year after that?

We've broken the hydrological cycle, this loop whereby surface water that supports life on Earth is eventually released to the atmosphere as water vapour through evaporation or transpiration, cleansing it in the process, until it is returned as some form of precipitation - rain, show or hail - to go through the cycle again.

Throughout the Holocene the hydrological cycle was benign, steady and predictable. It traveled west to east, bringing passing rain storms with it that transited from one region to the next, delivering the right amount of precipitation to permit civilization-building agriculture. Released from subsistence farming we gradually developed villages and towns and cities and transportation and industry and even that remote control you pick up at night to catch the news.

Today's hydrological cycle - the one we created - is no longer benign or steady or predictable. We're now visited with extreme weather events and two in particular - droughts and floods. Neither of those are good for the agricultural foundation of civilization.

In my lifetime the Green Revolution swept the world allowing mankind's population to swell from the sub-3 billion at my birth to today's 7+ billion and heading, we're told, to 9+ billion around mid century and then on to even bigger numbers thereafter.

When it comes to ecological parlour tricks, there's Numero Uno. We discovered that, with enough agricultural chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides) and enough irrigation (both surface and groundwater) you could produce crops out of just about anything barely better than gravel. And so we did and so our numbers soared. Only we didn't realize in time that this industrial agriculture was exhausting our stocks of farmland, stripping them of essential carbon and destroying humus. This has been thoroughly researched in recent years and the word from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warns that our stocks of farmland will be collapsed within about sixty years.

Do any of these things sound like they have any place in the Age of Reason? Any of them - exponential growth, anthropogenic climate change, overpopulation, over-consumption, species extinction and the loss of biodiversity, agricultural exhaustion. How 'bout when you take them all together, how do they square then with the Age of Reason?


Anonymous said...

Anyong said....May I use some of your statistics from you blog? Thanks.

Hugh said...

I think that infinitely growing the GDP is how governments deal with the infinitely growing debt, since they measure debt as a ratio, debt/GDP.

If GDP rises along with debt, that ratio remains the same. It obviously can't work because neither can keep growing infinitely.

They're trying to cure debt by growing the GDP. It's delusional.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sure, I can't imagine why not. If the search function still works on this blog you should be able to find links directly to the source material I've mentioned.

CV SoG said...

A lot of the blather from government and elected officials about things like 'growth' and terms like 'GDP' really just their election campaign funders talking - namely large multi-national corporations that aren't alive and don't think. They only see the world in terms of 'markets' and 'fiscal year'- and 'fiscal quarter' and 'growth'; all of which really translates into their source of existence - money.

Most if not all systems of government today are inherently broken because these non-sapient entities have co-opted them, manipulated them, and re-designed their mechanisms to redistribute money as well as re-direct precious finite global resources to themselves.

Anonymous said...

Now tell me Mound, why you were pouring scorn on me for pointing out that Mr. Gore has 4 kids while Dr. Suzuki has 5...
Is anything wrong with reasoning that those who preach saving the Gaia do not walk the talk?

Dana said...

All those 'kids' are in their 30s and 40s.

What were you thinking about in the 70s and 80s coward.

Many, many people have no idea what 'reason' is, Mound.

They conflate the word with 'motive', as in 'I have a reason I'm an asshole.'

Ben Burd said...

"They're trying to cure debt by growing the GDP. It's delusional."

Bloody right it is How in hell can we have a consumer society when the society is destroying the consumer by relying on the "precariat" and contract minimum wage earners?

Anonymous said...

"There was a time when population size was a central concern within the environmental movement. Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 treatise, The Population Bomb, sat alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring on environmentalists’ “must read” list."
And I remember that population control was as central to environmental movement as global warming is today.
What were Dr. Suzuki and Mr. Gore thinking about in the 70s and 80s? At time where some of their children were conceived?
My take is that both of them are far too smart to profess ignorance...

Anonymous said...

Interesting. You all know how to criticize well! Do you have anything new to add?

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm familiar with your critique, A..non, as you've made it before. When it comes to overpopulation there's not much to be gained by fighting it in underpopulated territories such as Canada. But for immigration, Canada's population would be stagnant at best and, if I recall correctly, in decline. At under 4 people per and with a total population equivalent to Tokyo, I doubt we're posing much threat to the world situation.

On the other hand, we can certainly be faulted for our greenhouse gas emissions, especially per capita. We in the Developed World are also to be faulted by our over-consumption of the planet's resources.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Hugh & CVSoG -It's remarkable how powerfully we embrace something as "normal" based mainly on the limits of our personal experience. This whole GDP growth model really only took hold post WWII yet we treat it as immutable as some law of physics.

As I wrote above, we've more than doubled the human population in my lifetime and I probably have another decade or so to go. China and India emerged from WWII with populations in the mid-300 millions, about the size of the US today. Now both expect to be at 1.5-billion by 2030. If you want to see something scary have a look at the population bomb, the reproductive demographics, in much of Africa.

We're told we'll be consuming 40% more energy and 50% more food in a couple of decades. Yet we're already in a terminal deficit for our existing (and growing) over-consumption of resources.

What do we do when these challenges loom? We go into massive denialism. There are plenty who take the 'religious out' - telling themselves that we'll figure out solutions to all these things just in time. And then they bury these questions as deeply distant from their consciousness as they can. Out of sight/out of mind.

Here's the thing. What I just described, albeit clumsily, is how we process "normalcy". We just keep changing the dial. Today rapidly becomes normal, the status quo, nothing to worry about just as tomorrow will in its turn. In this way the past is erased from our consciousness. And that is a more powerful killer than cancer.

Anonymous said...

Mound, this was my last time I have mentioned those innocent 4/5 kids on your blog. False prophets are my weak spot ;-)
My stance is that both Dr. Suzuki and Mr. Gore have no legitimacy to lecture minions about environmental issues including global warming. Unless they publicly repent and state that overpopulation is actually a MUCH more important driver of degradation of Earth that overconsumption...

The Mound of Sound said...

Where we differ, A..non, is that I don't think their suggested failure to "walk the walk" discredits their actions. Suzuki's legitimacy comes from his message which is valid. How he atones for his reproductive history doesn't particularly vex me as it plainly does you. As for Gore, does he even matter any more? Maybe in some strata he does but not in any of mine.

Anonymous said...

"their suggested failure to "walk the walk" discredits their actions"
I do not want to be lectured about, let's say, a rape by unrepentant rapist.
"Suzuki's legitimacy comes from his message which is valid."
I have no beef with validity of (nearly all) Suzuki's message. However, by KNOWINGLY omitting/marginalizing ~80% (estimation by yours truly) of the problem (which constitutes overpopulation) he leads folks astray and makes a great disservice to solving the issue of destruction of the Earth ecosystem.

The Mound of Sound said...

As you know, A..non, I've long argued that climate change is a branch of a greater problem that includes overpopulation and over-consumption of the planet's resources. I too fault the climate science types for seeking solutions that are focused on climate change in isolation of the others. It's self-defeating to expect the world to slash greenhouse gas emissions when nations become destabilized and fail due to the strains of excess population and resource shortages. Finding collective solutions to problems this immense requires enormous trust and cooperation which is not to be had in a destabilized world.

I sometimes suspect that a lot of this advocacy on one issue to the exclusion of the other two reflects what glaciologist Jason Box said when he inadvertently tweeted "we're so fucked."

BTW, Suzuki has weighed in on the over-consumption issue which, perhaps indirectly, encompasses the overpopulation issue.