Thursday, September 29, 2016
Let's Stop Digging this Hole
Shortly after I started my blog, 2005 if I recall correctly, I began putting together a list of the major challenges confronting mankind, indeed all life on Earth. Let me see if I can recall it from memory - global warming and severe storm events of increasing intensity, frequency and duration; both cyclical and sustained droughts and floods; sea level rise; ocean acidification; deforestation; desertification; the freshwater crisis; the accelerating loss of biodiversity; pest and disease migration; species extinction and migration, especially the collapse of global fisheries; accumulating waste and pollution of all descriptions; the energy crisis including the transition to clean alternative energy; nuclear proliferation; the spread of terrorism and organized crime; overpopulation and unsustainable consumption of natural resources.
As I assembled my list I realized all of these problems had to be connected, inter-related. I would regularly challenge my readers to identify the common threads that ran through them even as I lacked the answers myself.
Slowly it emerged that what linked all of these troubles and woes was the manner in which we, mankind, had become organized - socially, politically, economically, industrially, even militarily. Go back to the pre-industrial era, remove just one species, and none of these existential threats occurs. Turn the clock back 200 years, eliminate humanity from the mix, and the world would continue in a state of natural equilibrium. The world would remain in the gentle geological epoch called the Holocene. Eliminate but one of the 8.7 million eukaryotic species of life on Earth. Just one. Wowser.
What flowed from that epiphany was the realization that our modes of organization - social, economic, political and industrial - had outlived their utility to mankind even as they increasingly served the narrow interests of a very small and select group of humans. We had created our own plague.
In Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse," I found the compelling argument that we face a host of existential threats that are so powerfully yet subtly interconnected that, to have any hope of solving any of them, we had to accept the remedies necessary to solve them all. If you've got five guns pointed at your head, removing the bullets from one or two won't be of much help.
The problem with our modes of organization was how well they served mankind across most of the span from the industrial revolution until quite recently. Much of it was rooted in our mastery of cheap energy - first wind power, then coal and finally oil. Without that there would have been no industrial revolution. But thanks to people like Watts we were able to redesign civilization, expand and grow. Growth of every description.
Here's an example. It took until the early 1800s (1814 is often used) for mankind to grow to one billion in number. That's almost all of the 11,000 year history of civilization. Then look what happened. Just one century later that number had doubled. When I was born, a few years after the end of WWII, the global population stood at just over 2.5 billion. Today, in the span of less than one lifetime, we've trebled that again to 7+ billion heading, we're told, to 9 billion or more. There aren't many lifeforms that grow that way - bacteria and cancer the exceptions.
Our modes of organization facilitated this incredible growth and, in the process, achieved a powerful inertia that propels them along today. We still cling tenaciously to this dogma of perpetual GDP growth. Even Adam Smith, in his 1776 classic, "The Wealth of Nations," knew that the sort of growth we pursue today could not last more than a century or two before we would have to revert to some form of "steady state" economy.
Every prime minister that I know of has been a faithful disciple of growth. In the west we've settled on 3% annual growth as the ideal. What madness. I can illustrate this by using any of the compound interest calculators on the internet.
Let's start with Year One. The total GDP in Year One is 1. Now let's grow that by 3% per annum. Year Two will be 3% greater than Year One. Year Three will be 3% greater than Year Two and so on.
Let's assume an adult lifespan to be 50 years - 30 to 40 years of working, the remainder retirement. Over the course of that first 50 year term the economy at 3% annual growth would swell by a factor of 4.38. That's 4.4 times as much economic activity. 4.4 times as much production. 4.4 times as much consumption. 4.4 times as much waste and pollution. Wow, that's really something - 438% growth in GDP.
Add another adult lifespan, make it a full 100 years. At the end of that century of 3% annual growth, GDP would have grown to 19.22 times the entire GDP of Year One. How about 3 adult lifespans? Now you're up to 84.25 times bigger than Year One. 4 lifespans? You're up 369.26 fold. 370 times as much economic activity as you had in Year One. 370 times as much production and consumption. 370 times as much waste and pollution. Just for a giggle, how about three centuries of 3% annual growth. Brace yourselves. The GDP in Year 300 would be 7,098.5 times bigger than it was when you began at Year One.
The biggest problem with even modest exponential growth is that we have a decidedly finite planet, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. It's all we got, you and me and every other living creature. Just the one.
Some time in the early 1970s we hit a wall, the point at which human consumption of Earth's renewable resources - air, water, biomass - exceeded our planet's carrying capacity. Since then we've been in a state of what scientists have named "overshoot." They've even pegged Earth Overshoot Day. When I first stumbled upon it, Earth Overshoot Day fell in late October. Yet we've been rapidly increasing our consumption, rapaciously wading through the planet's resource reserves, something called "eating your seed corn." This year Earth Overshoot Day had moved up to early August. That means we exhaust the Earth's production of renewables on August 8th and go after the seed corn for the remaining five months of the year. We're getting to the point where we need 1.7 planet Earths worth of resources. Sort of like taking home $1,000 a month and spending $1,700. It doesn't end well.
The worst part isn't that we're doing this. It's that we have made ourselves absolutely dependent on doing it. We can't stop. We have neither the political will nor the public will to doing anything but continue, year by year, ever faster. Sort of like the closing scene in Thelma and Louise where you've just slammed the pedal to the metal as the cliff edge draws ever closer.
So what are the solutions? I could say there aren't any. I thought that until a friend put me on to Thomas Homer-Dixon and his 2006 book, "The Upside of Down." THD is a professor and the former head of the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.
Like me, Homer-Dixon doesn't see any easy way out of our predicament. There are too many tectonic forces in play, building a negative synergy, and nearing confluence. We've left it too late to stop what's coming. This eminently level-headed thinker sees two options. One is Jared Diamond's hypothesis, collapse. The other is something akin to a civilizational equivalent of a crash landing - seat tray and back in the upright position, shoes off, bend over and brace for impact sort of thing. THD thinks, if we prepare for it correctly, this landing could be hard but survivable. He argues that we have to accept decline as a best-possible outcome, certainly preferable to outright collapse. He sees it as a way to discover our "reset" button and liberate ourselves from what I have described as our outdated modes of organization. We have to start anew, re-invent our civilization. That, among other things, means a new form of capitalism, a rebirth of democracy.
Homer-Dixon's caution, however, is that to have much chance of a survivable, crash landing we must do the essential preparation in advance which starts with acknowledging what confronts us and resolving to prepare for it. We're not there yet, not even close.
Maybe the way forward begins by having these conversations. I hope so.