May 29, 2015
In early May, 2015, I wrote to our local newspaper editor expressing the following:
I have been contemplating the authoring of a series of articles focusing upon one of my core interests–growth and its consequences for a finite planet–for some time and have finally put ‘pen to paper’. I am hoping that the Tribune would consider them for publication, perhaps on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.
I have in mind about 11 articles as outlined here:
2) Growth is progress mindset
3) Problems of growth
4) Overshoot and collapse
5) Exponential growth
6) Limits to growth
7) Peak resources
8) Environmental impacts
9) Economic impacts
10) Sociocultural impacts
My main goal was to bring the topics upon which I would be writing to the minds of my community through our local paper–they don’t get much play in the mainstream media available in this area. Unfortunately, I was informed that the paper no longer accepted op-ed pieces due to the cancellation of its Saturday issue (it’s now only published once a week, on Thursdays). However, they did agree to accept the initial entry in a condensed form to publish as a letter-to-the-editor which follows.
Stouffville is growing. There is no disputing that. In fact, Stouffville has been one of the fastest growing towns in Canada over the past couple of decades that I have resided here. When my wife, six-week old daughter, and I moved into our home two days before Christmas 1995, Stouffville’s population stood at close to 20,000; it has more than doubled in the intervening twenty years to over 45,000, a growth rate of more than 3 percent per year.
Now, a 3% per annum increase may not seem catastrophic but I would argue that given the power—and consequences—of exponential growth it is, in fact, very problematic on a number of levels. I have come to believe that if we are to meet the challenges of a world beginning to experience the limits to growth inherent on a finite planet, then we need to better appreciate the quickly-approaching chaos that we are likely to encounter.
I have spent the past five years in a rabbit hole looking for answers to a series of questions. A series of questions that arose after I watched a very disturbing documentary entitled Collapse that looked at the impending collision of an economic system dependent upon infinite growth with the limits imposed by a finite planet, particularly cheap energy. The message resonated with my educational background in archaeology that among other things documents the rise and fall of societies.
My goal—in a series of articles that will be published on my website (http://olduvai.ca) for anyone interested—is to raise awareness, challenge some fundamental assumptions that the majority of people hold (particularly around the concept of growth as beneficial), and shift attitudes towards the view that we need to start acting immediately if we are to meet some inevitable predicaments.
I believe that the greater the number of people that come to recognise the imminent challenges and attempt to meet them head-on, the better our chance of being successful; especially at the local level where we can have the greatest impact.
‘Transition Town’ and ‘Degrowth’ movements have taken hold in various places around the world and it’s time to begin a conversation about it here, in one of the fastest growing regions of Canada that for some time has not reflected its moniker, ‘Country close to the city’, because of the ongoing pursuit of ‘growth’ by our decision-makers.
The next article will explore the growth mindset that is common and the psychological phenomena that tend to act on our perception of how and why the world works. It is important to note that there are many competing narratives about how the world behaves and the reasons for the events we experience. As you read my writing, I would simply ask you to maintain an open mind, explore the concerns raised by reading widely, reach your own conclusions, and then act and/or behave accordingly.
June 4, 2015
Growth is progress mindset
Growth does not mean progress or improvement. In fact, the first definition of the online Oxford Dictionary states it is simply “the process of increasing in physical size”. However, listen to any politician or economist and implicit in their discussion of growth is the idea that growth has primarily, if not solely, positive attributes. It is something they both seek and encourage. There are a variety of reasons people do this. The cynic in me believes that growth is pursued by particular segments of society because it benefits them directly (in terms of power, prestige, and/or monetarily), but perhaps they do truly believe that growth is only a positive force that benefits us all. This belief is repeated so often that the vast majority of people accept it as a given without the slightest challenge to its veracity.
What the cheerleaders of growth do, however, is tend to ignore or downplay the negative consequences that growth carries and this is important in creating a view that growth is beneficial. However, growth places a number of stresses upon our environment. The unfortunate thing is that many of these stresses can remain hidden for some time before they accumulate to a level where ignoring them can no longer be done. It is also easy to keep these stressors hidden from public view in a number of ways, particularly through control of the dominant narrative. A recent and increasingly problematic example can be seen with the water situation in California where for the first time in its history fairly draconian water restrictions have been legislated (except of course for big industry) despite ongoing warnings by some that this problem was fast approaching.
There are a variety of psychological phenomena that keep us from accepting or viewing information that challenges our beliefs and/or assumptions. The most powerful is one called cognitive dissonance. Simply put, humans tend to strive for internal consistency in their belief systems. To this end, there is a tendency to dismiss or ignore facts or ideas that challenge our beliefs. So, if we have been conditioned to believe that growth is positive, then any facts or information that contradicts this belief will tend to be dismissed or interpreted in a way to maintain our prior beliefs.
Another powerful mechanism for maintaining belief systems is confirmation bias, the likelihood that data that conforms with our beliefs will be acknowledged and serve to reinforce us positively with the notion that we are correct in our assumptions. And, of course, the corollary of this is that any facts that challenge our view will be ignored or perceived as unimportant.
Given such phenomena, it is easy to see why it is often so difficult to shift people’s opinion on issues, especially if the belief system is well-ingrained and widely held. Edward Bernays–often referred to as the father of propaganda–understood these qualities of the human mind and leveraged them for various corporations and governments to assist them in framing important narratives and I would recommend his 1920 book, Propaganda, for anyone interested in the subject.
The first step in coming to a better appreciation of the predicaments we face is to challenge the ‘growth is progress’ mindset and the propaganda that supports it. In fact, as these articles evolve my hope is that readers will come to appreciate that the opposite is true: growth is a problem and one that is contributing to the difficulties to come.
Next week’s article will explore some of the negative consequences that tend to be ignored in discussions that advocate continued or more growth.
A great site that explores the conflict or cognitive dissonance we experience in trying to make sense of our world is Two Ice Floes.
June 13, 2015
Problems of Growth
Those who advocate growth tend to highlight the perceived benefits of growth without discussing the ‘costs’ at all, and growth of a community or economy does not come without costs. As previously discussed, most of the negative consequences of growth can remain out of sight (and mind) for long periods of time; thus one of the difficulties of connecting growth with its problematic impact.
Dumping toxins into our environment is a pertinent example. The environment can serve as a ‘sink’ that absorbs the toxins but there are limits to the absorptive ability of sinks. Sooner or later, if one is to avoid escalating health issues, the pollutants must be dealt with via expensive remediation or cessation of the dumping (and therefore a halt to whatever system was creating the pollutants—industrial activity for example).
Another consequence of unimpeded growth is the ecological phenomenon termed overshoot and collapse. In any environment in which a species comes to rely upon finite resources, there comes a point in time when the carrying capacity—that is, the maximum number of individuals an area can sustainably support—is surpassed and leads to a collapse in the population of the species. I would argue that the situation with water in California may serve to show this happening in real time. California has begun to experience a water shortage for its millions of inhabitants and has been able to live on borrowed time through its exploitation of underground aquifers; aquifers that are close to exhaustion because they have been drawn down faster than they can replenish through precipitation. It seems only a matter of time before the population of California will be forced to decline via migration because of a lack of water.
The Law of Diminishing Returns can help to explain the economic decline that can accompany continued growth, but also the conundrum that arises as we reach limits in various resources. This law holds that the benefits accrued through investment in some activity eventually peaks and soon requires ever-increasing investments just to maintain itself. Our extraction of oil is a case in point. The easy-to-retrieve, and thus cheap-to-extract, reserves have been the first to be exploited but as those resources have begun to dwindle the world has been forced to devise new and more expensive technologies, and take advantage of harder-to-access reserves (i.e. tight oil, bitumen, deep sea) that require increased expenditures resulting in higher energy costs, decreasing the energy returned on energy invested..
In the economic realm, the monetary easing policies of the world’s central banks (e.g. quantitative easing, interest rate reduction) have been shown to demonstrate the Law of Diminishing Returns with each iteration. The goal of these policies is to make credit more available to goose economic activity but what the world seems to be experiencing as these policies pick up speed and frequency is slowing economic growth and consumption.
These examples may seem distantly removed from our local circumstances but my point is that growth carries with it negative repercussions that are often hidden but universal. In any environment, the negative impact of growth remains regardless if we can see it or not. For me, perhaps the most significant issue for us locally is stress being placed upon our local resources as our population grows, particularly our paving over our agricultural land as suburban homes multiply.
Next week’s article outlines a historical example of what happens when a society overshoots its local carrying capacity.
June 20, 2015
Overshoot and Collapse
There was at one time in the not-too-distant past a complex society of close to 20,000 that lived on a lush, tropical island and whose elite erected massive statues in honour of their ancestors. However, when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen happened upon that island on Easter Day, 1722, what he discovered was less than a shadow of that once thriving society. That island, Easter Island, is a great example of a society surpassing its ecological carrying capacity and then collapsing.
Research indicates that a small group of Polynesian people happened upon an uninhabited tropical island and over time developed into a complex society of thousands. Amongst its most well-known accomplishments were the construction of enormous statues by the population’s elite. These moai (pronounced mo-i) and their stone bases (ahus) weighed thousands of kilograms and originated from a quarry well removed from their eventual construction sites. Given the living standards and small population found there, myths about how these statues were produced proliferated; in fact, one researcher suggested alien contact.
Eventually it was determined that the islanders used wooden ‘ladders’ and ‘sleds’. The reason it took so long for researchers to figure out how the stone work was transported to its construction site is that when Roggeveen landed there were no trees on the island to speak of, only small scrub and brush. Studies have shown that the giant palm tree that once covered the island and supported the island’s complexity had been totally eliminated by the inhabitants over the years. Used in moving multi-ton stones as discussed above, for constructing large dugout canoes, and for firewood and shelter, the people of the island as they expanded in complexity and size slowly but inexorably drove one of its most important resources to extinction. This had repercussions throughout the society’s various systems that supported its complexity, and resulting in its collapse in as little as three generations.
Destruction of the palm and forests led to soil degradation and loss, and a decline in plant food resources. Soil had only slowly been regenerated through the deposition of ash from distant volcanoes and what did exist was kept from blowing and washing away by the island’s vegetation, especially its large trees. When the trees disappeared, it was only a matter of time before the soil was also lost through wind and water erosion.
One of the main sources of protein for the population was the abundant, deep-water sea life that existed but was accessible only via large outrigger canoes. The loss of the palm extinguished the source of wood for these canoes restricting catches to shallow water fish only. Deep-water sea life eventually declined to zero in their diet.
What followed the loss of the palm tree was nothing short of a stupendous collapse of a once complex society. In fact, it appears that things fell apart fairly rapidly—the quarry was abandoned with several excavations in progress yet incomplete—and not in a civilized manner as many of the status-symbolizing statues were damaged and toppled (an unfortunately common occurrence when a society collapses).
There are countless examples of groups from smallish tribal units to vast empires apparently overshooting some limit to their continued growth and collapsing. The reasons for such falls are numerous and rarely, if ever, straightforward. Geographer Jared Diamond tends to focus on environmental causes, archaeologist Joseph Tainter fingers the Law of Declining Marginal Returns, and historians Carroll Quigley blamed self-serving social institutions while Arnold Toynbee argued it was due to militarism, nationalism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. It is likely that many factors contribute to the fall of a society or civilization, but every one to date has eventually followed the downward slope of decline after peaking in complexity. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it is not a question of if a society/civilisation will collapse, but when.
Being isolated from others allowed Easter Island to experience the real limits to growth that a closed system hits sooner or later, and resulted in overshooting the carrying capacity of the island and then a collapse of the complex society present. Something to consider is that our planet is also a closed system. Larger, yes, but still a closed system with limits to our carrying capacity.
Next week’s article looks at the importance of exponential growth and how the impact of such growth can come upon an unsuspecting populace relatively quickly and without warning.
Willam Catton Jr. wrote an excellent book entitled Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Evolutionary Change describing how overshoot works. See Jared Diamonds Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed for a summary of Easter Island research and the collapse of other sociocultural groups.
July 6, 2015
Exponential growth is a type of growth that exhibits significant consequences over time. It differs from linear growth in that linear growth simply adds a fixed number whereas something growing exponentially adds at an ever-increasing quantity.
Exponential growth begins slowly and can thus be mistaken for linear growth early on. But don’t be fooled, exponential growth can overwhelm with the speed of growth that eventually takes place. If looking at a graphical representation of such growth, it would resemble a hockey stick with the blade facing left along the bottom showing a slow rise until the shaft of the stick is reached and then shooting upwards in tremendous growth.
There is an anecdote that the man who invented the game of checkers (or chess) was offered a reward by the king he designed the game for. He requested that the king provide him with a single grain of rice on the first square of the game board and that the king merely double the quantity for each square of the 64 squares on the board. So, 1 grain for the first square, 2 on the second, 4 on the third, 8 on the fourth, etc.. The king agreed, believing that this was a reasonable, if not underwhelming, remuneration. The problem, however, was that there was not enough rice in the world to get even half way through the squares on the game board; that’s how quickly growth on top of growth occurs—which is what exponential growth is.
The doubling inherent in the above narrative is a vivid means of understanding how exponential growth works and how impactful it can be when there are limits to growth.
As another example, imagine a system with limits to how large it can grow, a population for example. The continued doubling of a population can, in no time, exceed the safe confines of the environment and the various limits of its resources, even space. Picture a lab flask with a single bacteria that doubles in quantity every minute, with the only limit being the space of the flask. If it takes an hour for the bacteria to reach a number that has wholly occupied the flask, how much of the hour remains when fifty percent of the space has been used up? Twenty-five percent? How about when only three percent was filled with bacteria? The answers are very important in helping to determine how little time a system has in responding to the consequences of exponential growth—BTW, after three percent of the space has been filled (leaving ninety-seven percent of the resource unused) there are only five minutes of the hour remaining; it has taken most of the hour just to reach a point that still appears to have unlimited space.*
The late Dr. Albert Bartlett was a fierce proponent of how poorly humans understand the power of exponential growth and the consequences of it for our species. If you have not seen his presentation called Arithmetic, Population, and Energy, I strongly recommend it.
Exponential growth is a concern in a number of areas. Our species population, for example, has been growing exponentially for the past few centuries and thus also has our impact on the planet from the buildup of pollutants to the drawdown of finite resources. As can be seen by the last decade, our economic system encounters serious problems when exponential growth is absent—resulting in numerous sociocultural issues.
Given the speed at which exponential growth can reach limits, I would argue it is imperative to take note very early on with regard to resource use and possible exhaustion of important ones—especially those that support basic necessities such as food, water, and shelter (and heat for Canadian winters). The dependency of our economic system on exponential growth is also of particular concern as we can see from the problems that arrive when economic growth slows or contracts.
Perhaps the most important point to remember is that exponential growth of anything with finite limits is impossible to sustain and almost always leads to overshoot and collapse.
*There is a simple mathematical formula for determining the time it takes for a quantity to double when growing exponentially; divide 72 by the rate of growth. For example, something growing at a 5% rate per year takes 14.4 years to double–>72/5.
The next article will focus upon the limits to growth that exist for any system. Please note that writing may be sporadic over the summer as I help my two children prepare for beginning their transition to college…
July 18, 2015
Limits to growth
What are limits to growth? I defer to the authors of the definitive study on them by the same name to explain: “…the limits to growth are not limits to the number of people, cars, houses, or factories, at least not directly. They are limits to throughput—to the continuous flows of energy and materials needed to keep people, cars, houses, and factories functioning. They are limits to the rate at which humanity can extract resources (crops, grass, wood, fish) and emit wastes (greenhouse gases, toxic substances) without exceeding the productive or absorptive capacities of the world.”*
As the authors of the above quote state, the limits to our continued (exponential) growth are: 1) the resources we depend upon for life; and 2) the ability of our planet to absorb the waste from our various growth processes. It is a fact that we live on a finite planet. There are, therefore, limits to the growth that can take place; particularly given the quantity of non-renewable resources we depend upon. Even if we drawdown ‘renewable’ resources faster than they can be replenished (think underground aquifers), then we eventually hit a point similar to our continued use of non-renewable resources: collapse of the resource base. On the other hand, if we overload a ‘sink’ that can absorb wastes, we risk the ecological health of the sink and the species that depend upon it—including humans.
It also seems increasingly clear that we have surpassed the limits to growth for a number of variables. I would argue that the two most pertinent are cheap energy resources, especially oil, and atmospheric absorption abilities. These two limits are connected as our exponential increase in the extraction and burning of fossil fuels has overloaded the atmosphere with pollutants, leading to exacerbated climate change due to various feedback loops.
Running short of cheap energy is one of the major issues of our time. It has repercussions that are rippling through our planet due to its underpinning of industrial civilization and its economic system. When energy becomes more expensive (here, the concept of energy-returned-on-energy-invested is very important) it leads to more costly production of everything from basic necessities to consumer goods, and eventually results in contraction of the physical economy and all the sociocultural consequences of this (e.g. unemployment, inequality, poverty, social upheaval, etc.). The current fall in commodity prices has been interpreted by some as the direct result of the 2008 spike in energy prices that then led to global demand destruction and economic contraction—what Peak Oil analysts forecast as an undulating plateau of activity where energy cost increases destroy demand, then falling demand reduces costs, leading to increased demand again until prices get too high and then the cycle repeats.
The other important limit of atmospheric absorption of pollutants has become increasingly popularized because of its most noticeable consequence: anthropogenic climate change. The dilemma has perhaps finally reached the tipping point where even the Catholic Pope has made it the main component of his latest encyclical pronouncement.
I close this post with two quotes, the first from The Limits to Growth that sums up our dilemma: “The set of possible futures include a great variety of paths. There may be abrupt collapse; it is also possible there may be a smooth transition to sustainability. But the possible futures do not include indefinite growth in physical throughput. That is not an option on a finite planet. The only real choices are to bring the throughputs that support human activities down to sustainable levels through human choice, human technology, and human organization, or to let nature force the decision through lack of food, energy or materials, or through an increasingly unhealthy environment.”
Or, as Dr. Albert Bartlett opined regarding what could be considered the underlying problem—exponential growth in human population: “…here we can see the human dilemma—everything we regard as good [e.g. healthcare, sanitation, education] makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad [e.g. war, famine, disease] helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.”
*Limits to Growth. Meadows, D., J. Randers, and D. Meadows. 1972. Pp. 8-9 and 13.
The next article will focus upon peak resources…
I would recommend reading Meadows et al’s 30-Year Update to Limits to Growth.
August 13, 2015
Key to the argument that there are limits to continued growth is the concept of resource peaks. We must acknowledge the incontrovertible fact that a non-renewable resource that is being drawdown in quantity cannot last forever. When the production, or productive ability, of the resource in question reaches its maximum and then begins its inevitable decline, we say that it has ‘peaked’. A resource peak does not mean a resource has suddenly disappeared from existence. It refers to the maximum production or productive ability of that resource, a point when production has maxed out and will not be seen again as it is followed by declining levels of production. Contributing to peaks can be the speed a resource is drawn down, our tendency to focus our initial extraction efforts on the easier-to-retrieve and higher concentrations, and/or declining investment in production (something we may be witnessing now in the commodity sector as prices for these collapse).
From a purely mathematical point of view, any finite resource (and renewable, if not properly managed) will experience a peak in production. The timing of peak production cannot be accurately forecast but only been seen in retrospect (although, good models for estimating peaks have been developed). Marion King Hubbert, a geophysicist, discussed this process early on in his research on mineral extraction and then applied the model to oil production when he began working for Shell Oil in the 1950s.
He argued that a production curve, “starts slowly and then rises more steeply until finally an inflection point is reached after which it becomes concave downward….during the initial stages all of these rates of production tend to increases exponentially with time.…This rapid rate of growth shown by the production curves makes them particularly deceptive with regard to the future length of time for which such production may be sustained.”* The resulting production curves have become known as Hubbert Curves.
There are an increasing number of non-renewable resources that have been thought to be near or past their peak of production: oil, uranium, coal, rare earth minerals, natural gas. It is also argued by some that various important ‘renewable’ resources have reached the limits to their productive capacity and further growth in their use is unlikely: forests, arable soil, water, fish stocks.
The peak for any one of these resources in a world with an exponentially-increasing population and economic system that depends upon continued growth spells trouble on a number of levels. One of the most significant peaks we are experiencing would seem to be of cheap fossil fuel energy.
The peak of cheap energy, oil in particular, has huge implications for the smooth functioning of industrial society (to say nothing of the environmental impacts on the planet as a result of exploiting fossil fuels). It has allowed for the massive expansion of human population and a complex, interconnected global trade (and associated financial) system. And perhaps, most significantly, it underpins our agricultural system and fuels our transportation and trade systems.
*Nuclear Energy and Fossil Fuels. 1956.
The next article will begin to look at how the environment is impacted by the exponential growth of our population and its physical support systems.
I would suggest reading Richard Heinberg’s Peak Everything: Waking Up in a Century of Declines.
August 27, 2015
The impact on the environment of humanity’s exponential population growth (and the physical systems that support it) are monumental and increasingly problematic. The ability of the environment to absorb and cleanse the various waste products are limited and appear to have been surpassed on a number of levels.
The earth has geological and ecological systems that help to absorb, disperse, and cleanse most waste products. These systems that help breakdown waste products are, however, limited in their ability and are becoming, or have become, overloaded. They are becoming less or completely incapable of handling further waste, leading to problems in ecological and human health. It’s also important to note that some human-made waste (e.g. nuclear, micro-plastics, many chemical agents) cannot be quickly or easily rendered harmless by the planet.
One overloaded sink appears to be the atmosphere with increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases that have created imbalances in a complex physical system with numerous feedback loops. The climate has shifted often in the past with ice ages and warmer periods alternating as the various systems were thrown into greater volatility for one reason or another (e.g. volcanic activity, meteor impact). But at no time in the past has the concentrations of various atmospheric gases been as high as the present time and the cause of this increase is, with little doubt, caused by an increase in the burning of fossil fuels over the past several centuries. And with the exponential increase in human populations, the extraction and use of these fuels has grown in tandem. The gases are causing the atmosphere to trap more of the planet’s heat and gradually warm the planet, leading to larger and more frequent storms and weather-related anomalies (e.g. droughts, wildfires, polar vortexes).
Another overloaded sink would appear to be our planet’s oceans. They are a massive and convenient depository for our wastes (allowing the impact to be ‘out of sight’—and, thus, out of mind—for the most part). For centuries, humans have simply allowed their various waste products to be washed downstream by local streams, rivers, and lakes. The oceans have also helped to absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide. There is increasing evidence, however, that the oceans have reached their limits in absorbing both waste and CO2.
Increasing human populations and their physical support systems are also placing significant stress upon potable water and arable soil. The necessity of keeping seven plus billion people fed and the associated global trade and transportation systems that the agricultural system are dependent upon place increasing demands upon both our soil and water systems, both of which are finite. We are increasingly having to depend upon marginal land (that also removes an important carbon sink: forests) and access slowly-replenishing aquifers (especially as drought ravages agricultural areas such as California) to keep crops growing. In addition, the food system is highly dependent upon cheap fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, heavy equipment, and transportation.
Quite simply, as humans and their physical support systems continue to increase in size and scope, the stresses upon the environment rises concomitantly.
The next article will discuss some of the consequences of exponential human growth and its supports for our economic system.
I would suggest reading chapter three (The Limits: Sources and Sinks) of Meadows et al’s Limits To Growth.
I’ve put this portion of my writing on indefinite hold while I focus upon completing Olduvai III: Cataclysm…