Eventorum – Adaptation

Got heat? Global warming, it’s what’s for dinner.

The only viable form of mitigation to “climate change” at this point, is adaptation and resiliency. And a good place to begin is through cooperation and collaboration. The alternatives, competition and violence –the normal “go to” human response– are disastrous for everyone.

Another manifestation of mitigation, would be to reduce the human population. It would make all of the challenges we face today, and will face in the future, more manageable.

Copyright ©️ 2020 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations # 13 — There’s no such thing as “Sustainable Growth”

There is no such thing as sustainable growth.  The two words should never be used in the same sentence, ever.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English,Third Edition, sustainable (adjective) means to be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” (and equally appropriate here it also means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”).  Whereas in this context, growth (noun) means “the process of increasing in size” and “the process of increasing in amount, value, or importance” and “increase in economic activity or value.”

By definition, indefinite growth cannot be sustainable. Yet growth is presumptive in modern economic theory, and is viewed as both necessary and good in virtually all current social and political thinking. 

Image above: Estimates and projections of population change for different continents between 1950 and 2050 according to the United Nations. Note that the vertical axis is millions of people and the scale is logarithmic (in a sense, compressed).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth

A Parable

Why is growth not sustainable? Growth is governed by the logistics equation. But a parable might explain this best.  This story about the invention of the game of chess, seems to appear in different tellings from different cultures in Asia, but they are all the same in their general arc:  A ruler is so impressed with the new game that he wants to reward the inventor.  The inventor replies that she’d like one grain of rice on the first square, two grains of rice on the second square, doubling the number of grains on each square until the 64th and final square is reached.  The emperor laughs at this paltry request, until he realizes his kingdom has been bankrupted.  Versions of this story vary in minor details (rice vs. wheat for example) and as to whether the inventor was executed or appointed to a high-ranking position in court.

Estimated global human population in billions, from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE. (Wikipedia.org). Current world population as of this posting, is approximately 7.6B (the U.S. Census).

This is a clever and amusing tale to be sure, but the lesson here is about geometric progressions; also known as exponential growth.  Which is precisely what is happening with human population growth as well as consumption and waste.  I touched on this theme in Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale.

Resource or Garden of Eden?

Our love affair with consumption and waste belies a resource view of the Earth.  

Aside: This theme comes up in Lauren Oakes’ excellent book “In Search of the Canary Tree“.

Meaning that the Earth is simply a resource to be consumed, and has no other inherent value.  It means exploitation: all taking and no giving back.  It means leaving nothing for the future.  It means leaving nothing for other living beings; for nature, upon which we rely for our very survival.  I hope it is self evident to all why this is wrong on every level. Without fail this leads down a path of ever more desperate and extreme measures, and quite possibly of collapse.  This is not sustainable.  This is the growth mindset. 

Two quick examples of what this looks like:  Because the amount of arable land is finite, as population grows we compelled to employ ever more intensive farming measures, applying more and more on toxic chemicals (as argued by technocrats and massive agribusiness companies), and abandoning husbandry practices, which promote and protect the vital and living top soil.  And another, as the planet warms due to human activity we turn more and more to burning fossil fuels to cool our buildings and homes, emitting more greenhouse gasses.  It is a positive feedback process with negative consequences.  These are examples of compounding problems (Provocations #5).

Humans came to live in and share the Garden of Eden, and ended up creating  ‘Resources-R-Us.’

Green Growth – Not!

Maybe the greatest misnomer of all is “green growth” (for all intents and purposes a synonym with sustainable growth).  This is a dangerous notion because it suggest that we can continue to grow – ‘hey it’s green so no cute little fur balls were harmed in the making of this economy.’  Green growth, while better is still consumptive, it is still growth, ergo it is not sustainable.  

Green “sustainable” humans still takes up an inordinate amount of space.  A growing population requires growing energy production: even 100% green energy will require vast quantities of space, and water, and additional energy to extract minerals produce and transport turbines, solar panels, etc. — it cascades!  And at a minimum, we must consume food and water.  Even good farming practices consumes space, converts forests to tillage, consumes energy, and so on.  And of course what we eat, comes out as human waste which must be processed.  And anything else we consume, even if green (packaging etc), compostable, reusable, recyclable, demands water and energy to produce, transport, and reprocess and/or dispose of (which requires more space for landfills).  More cascading, with gross implications.

On a personal level, I am a pretty conscientious greenie. I live in a modest home (by middle class American standards), I drive a modest vehicle, I ride the bus many days each week, I recycle, I consciously reduce consumption and waste. And yet, when I estimate my global footprint (e.g. https://www.footprintnetwork.org), I still require 6.9 Earths to sustain me. Even if this estimate is way off (say 50% too high), I am still having a far greater impact on Earth than she can sustain.

The logical extension of a world view based on growth, green or not, is that humans are the only thing that matters; not even necessarily future humans.

Society Becomes Tenuous

If we continue with this growth mindset, it is hard to come to any other conclusion that Society as we know it becomes tenuous.  Like the Emperor of old with his rice and chessboard, our growth will bankrupt the kingdom and societal collapse becomes a very real prospect.  And as long as there is growth (population and/or ‘standard of living’) – THERE IS NO HOPE FOR NATURE, nor any reason to have faith that there should be.  I feel that the jury is out regarding the future and fate of humankind.  Because as clever as we are, we still ultimately and fundamentally rely on nature.  We are one and the same – nature and humans.  And the crimes we commit against nature, are ultimately self-inflicted wounds.

Perhaps in our anthropocentrism, people don’t really care? It would seem that as long as humanity goes on, that is all that matters.  This (humanity goes on at the expense of nature) is the most optimistic outcome of the so-called sustainable growth mindset, and even then our future is in question. Irony abounds: the notion of green or sustainable growth inevitably leads to a world that I, and most ironically others, do not want. 

Joni Mitchell can have the last word: “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”

Copyright ©️ 2019 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Leaving no Room

Perhaps Agent Smith from the Matrix (“and we are… the cure“) was right about humans: two stories from this past week.

No room for elephants: “Botswana mulls lifting elephant hunting ban” (BBC).

And this, so that the wealthy can have their second (or third) rarely occupied homes, the locals (elk, deer, bear, lynx, cougar) must forfeit theirs: “Forest Service Approves Road Across Public Land For Wolf Creek Village Project” (Colorado Public Radio).

Copyright ©️ T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Eventorum – Didn’t See This Coming…

Image:  Excerpted from Washington Post article cited herein.

The law of unintended consequences strikes again:  changing population demographics unbalances the representativeness of our representative system of government has described in this Washington Post article on July 12th, 2018: “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states.

Eventorum explained.

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved

Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale

Provocations #4 is a wake-up call that should scare the bejesus out of you.  Here we take a look at questions of scale, the second of the ‘trinity of the unwise’.

In this context I am referring to the scale of the problems that we are facing.  The factual reality is that everything is amplified by the sheer scale of humanity and by how we chose to live.  There are two sides to this same coin: the explosive growth of the human population, and the increasing rate at which each person is consuming resources.  In the simplest terms, there are more people and each person is having a greater impact on the planet.

Let’s Start With the Numbers

As I write this, the world is very quickly approaching 7,500,000,000 people according to the US Census Bureau.  That is seven and one half BILLION people (7.5B)!

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka's Airport rail station ahead of the Muslim festival Eid-al-Adha

An overcrowded train leaves Dhaka’s Airport rail station.

This is the scaling factor: take everything that you might do over the course of a day —flushing the toilet, commuting to and from work (consuming and emitting hydrocarbons), throwing away your old plastic toothbrush, whatever— and multiply it by 7.5B.  There is of course nuance and variability from person to person, and from region to region, but the general argument holds.  The point is, that the scale of humanity is staggering. It is so mind-bogglingly huge, that it is likely beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Exponential Growth

But … it gets worse. The population is growing exponentially, presently at a rate of 1.1% per year.  This looks like this:

World Popluation

Estimated global human population (billions) from 10,000 BCE to 2000 CE.  Source: Wikipedia.org

If the growth rate were to remain constant at 1.1%, the human population will double approximately every 63 years. Informed estimates put the global human population at about 9.8 billion by 2050 (e.g. the United Nations).  The population scale factor is growing, and our future generations will face much greater challenges than we do today.

Never before has the world seen a single species (Homo sapiens) become so absolutely dominant, so quickly.  The Earth, as an ecosystem, is in uncharted territory.  It is entirely novel, so much so in fact that scientists are now considering (and debating) that we may have entered a new epoch, the Antropocene.  But we know from systems and complexity theories that this does not bode well. These topics will almost certainly be the subjects of future blogs.

Impact

While the population is growing explosively, the impact on the planet that each person has is also growing.  It’s a scaling factor double whammy. Let’s take the example of a simple and seemingly (to some) harmless plastic bottle of water.  Twenty years ago, give or take, most of us were content to drink water from a public source, out of a cup or a drinking fountain. Today bottled water has become commonplace and is now globally ubiquitous. The simple arithmetic is scary.  PET-water-Bottle

You think, “Hey, it’s just one plastic water bottle, what impact can that have?” Now imagine that every person thinks the same thing: one bottle a day for one year: that’s suddenly 2,737,500,000,000, nearly 3 trillion water bottles per year.  We’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction.  Once estimate from 2014 had us using more than 100 million bottles per day.

Let’s think about those water bottles a little bit more (to say nothing of soda, juice, plastic-lined paper cups from the ‘green mermaid coffee company,’ etc.).  These bottles are filling our landfills, clogging our waterways, hell they’re even beginning to overwhelm the oceans.  Beyond the simple disposal of this bottle, the waste is equally staggering.  The oil for that bottle has to be extracted from deep underground, shipped, refined, shipped some more, turned into plastic, shipped again, turned into a bottle, shipped once more to a bottling plant, filled with liquid, shipped yet again, and so on.  It is endless!

A vast supply chain is needed and it too is driven by the consumption of raw materials and energy, and the production of waste.  It is fractal-like, in that the deeper you dig, the more similarities you see in consumption at every level of the process.  Do you see? The global impact of your humble bottle of water is almost infinite. I could go on and on, the ship to transport the oil is made of steal which had to be mined; so too for the oil rig…

In just a few decades there has been an explosion of personal disposable stuff.  Everyone didn’t need to have their own smartphone, tablet device and laptop, bluetooth speakers, printers, toys, and what not.  And all of these are designed with planned obsolescence and destined for the landfill after a very short period of use.  Virtually everything we consume is toxic. Each year we invent more things we didn’t and don’t need.  Now, multiply that by 7.5B.

To Recap

There are two dimensions that amplify mankind’s impact on the planet: exponential human population growth and a similar growth in our per capita consumption and waste. These scaling factors greatly exacerbate all of our problems.

Our civilization is based on an economic fallacy: the need for endless growth and insatiable consumption.  This is patently unsustainable, as the planet on which our lives depend is finite, it has limited resources. This is a form of insanity.  It cannot continue.  We can choose to confront this reality directly and immediately and act accordingly, or we can allow it to confront us.  Either way, this confrontation is inevitable.

Final Thoughts

In the next installment, Provocations #5 will look at Compounding Problems, the third and final of the Trinity of the Unwise.

The final word belongs to Prof. Albert Bartlett (1923 – 2013):

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

Copyright ©️ 2018 T. Schneider All Rights Reserved