Home » Economics » Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX–Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One

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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX–Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LIX

July 13, 2022 (original posting date)

Arles, France (1984). Photo by author.

Infinite growth. Finite planet. What could possibly go wrong? Part One

Today’s contemplation (a two-parter) was begun a few months ago but I’m just now getting around to completing and posting it. As often happens with me and my ADHD, I get thinking about/reflecting upon a topic or idea, record some thoughts while having my morning coffee and the ideas are flowing, and then move on to something else before finishing the task completely (this habit, unfortunately, also impacts my various house ‘projects’ and drives my wife crazy…but after 36 years together she’s aware I just need the ‘occasional’ reminder about the unfinished work — I had forgotten about this writing until coming across it as I was cleaning up some computer files due to ‘extra’ time on my hands given the loss of Internet with the several-day shut-down of one of Canada’s largest providers recently; a blessing, really, as it reduced my screen-time).

A question posed to me recently was: “What does the path forward look like when we say we have to live within our means on a finite planet?”

The answer to such a question is as varied as the people answering it[1]. I am hesitant to provide a definitive answer about what the transition to ‘sustainable’ circumstances might look like given the uncertainty that abounds. I am inclined to believe that any ‘guess’ about the future[2], regardless of the amount of data/evidence one has or the sophistication of the model or the computing power used, is probably about as accurate as reading tea leaves or a bird’s entrails. Not one of us has a clear picture as to what will unfold in the future, for as a few people have been credited with stating (including physicist Niels Bohr, writer Mark Twain, and baseballer Yogi Berra): “Prediction is hard, especially if it’s about the future.”

I’ve long held that complex systems can neither be controlled nor predicted with their non-linear feedback loops and emergent phenomena[3], so predicting complex systems with any degree of ‘certainty’ is a fools’ errand — especially once human actions/behaviours are involved. On top of this, no matter how sincere our attempts at objectivity in such prognostications, personal biases always impact our processing of information as does the paradigm[4] through which we interpret events and project into the future (and we tend to do so linearly since non-linear systems befuddle our primate brains); and, then, of course there are the Black Swans[5] that are persistently circling overhead — those unknown, unknowns that we can’t even contemplate because they’re outside of our personally-confining and -blinding worldview.

When we read about the future we are confronted with a potpourri of thoughts about how it might unfold — most of them, of course, presented with ‘certitude’. We tend to cling to some over others even if the one we tend to gravitate towards holds little in common with observed reality or experience. For as Dan Gardner argues in Future Babble[6], humans do not like uncertainty and despite so-called ‘experts’ being horrible at predicting the future, human psychology compels us to listen and take them seriously — even if we know the prognosticator to have been wrong on countless occasions (I still look at the long-range weather forecasts even though I know quite well that any outside of about 12–24 hours are bound to be incorrect, some drastically so — something that drives me ‘mad’ when my food gardens are in desperate need of rain and the weather forecasters are calling for rain right up until that actual day/hour it is supposed to rain and then change the prediction to no rain, and I am forced to spend a few hours watering my beds — a tendency that seems to be increasing in frequency the past couple of growing seasons; this year, April and May were great for precipitation in my area north of Toronto but as has been happening, it seems, June and so far in July has been way too dry and the 4000 litres of rainwater I have collected in my 20 rain barrels was getting precariously low up until a very recent overnight rain).

I like what Gardner states near the end of his book about discussing the future:

It is informed by the past, it is revealing about the present, and it surveys a wide array of futures. It is infused with metacognition…It offers hopeful visions of what could be; it warns against dangers that also could be. It explores our values by asking us what we want to happen and what we don’t. And it goes no further. It raises issues, questions, and choices, and it suggests possibilities and probabilities. But it does not peddle certainties, and it does not predict.[7]

Where are we on our path into the future given such uncertainty? Well, we have our choice of competing narratives to believe in.

There are some who argue that it matters little or not at all what we do with respect to the existential predicaments we face, for the future is one where we are all FUBAR. For example, 5–10 degrees of average global temperature increase is quite certainly baked into the cake and will in all likelihood lead to the extinction of most species on the planet, perhaps all with the end result being a ‘hothouse’ Earth with an environment similar to Venus. Responses to this eventuality then also range, mostly dependent on whether one holds that the impact will be sudden or drag itself out over millennia. Dystopia, even widespread extinction, is on the horizon and there is no avoiding it.

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe strongly that we can transition somewhat seamlessly to ‘alternative’ forms of energy (or just continue extracting fossil fuels whose ‘scarcity’ is a concerted psy-ops by the ‘powers-that-be’) to keep-on-keeping-on with our status quo complexities and energy-intensive living standards. For most ‘clean/green’ energy aficionados, nuclear fusion or some other as-yet-to-be-discovered technology will provide us with cheap, safe energy; and/or we can mine passing asteroids for any needed finite resources we’ve exhausted, including water. In fact, one day we are bound to leave this over-used rock and colonise other worlds. Perhaps a little bit of tweaking here or there might be needed but given human ingenuity and technological prowess we will solve any and everything thrown our way so there is no need to worry about any ecological system breakdown or resource scarcity ‘problems’ for very long at all. The future is one of unlimited possibilities and utopian dreams, especially if we also redistribute all the wealth tied up in the off-shore bank accounts of the world’s billionaires and slay that evil monster capitalism; then, without a doubt, all eight billion (or much more) of us can live happily-ever-after, holding hands, and singing Kumbayah around the ‘carbon-free’ campfire.

These are perhaps the two extremes of the gamut of possibilities for our future. Where each of us ends up on this continuum of beliefs depends on the worldview we hold and how we process information through that narrow keyhole we necessarily each peer through. And I would argue that what we believe also very much relies upon our personal biases and what we wish to happen, not necessarily upon any ‘factual’ evidence. We are constantly seeking out confirmatory evidence for our beliefs and ignoring or denying counterfactual data or rationalising it to fit into our preconceived notions. There exist very strong psychological mechanisms to ensure ‘facts’ seldom, if ever, alter firmly held beliefs.

So, before I lay out my personal thoughts on what our future may or may not look like (and I am in no way ‘certain’ about any of this, although I do lean towards the more ‘dystopian’ possibilities), let me provide some cognitive context for why I believe what I believe. The paradigm through which I view the world, as it were, and necessarily impacts my perception of this crazy and totally unpredictable world.

I find that pre/history demonstrates pretty clearly that every complex sociopolitical organisation (i.e., complex society) before us has eventually ‘declined’ to a point that it can no longer be considered a ‘society’[8]. The social fabric that held the population together became frayed and people opted out, leading to its eventual ‘collapse’.

In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies[9] archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues that a human society is a problem-solving organisation. This organisation requires energy inputs for its maintenance with increasing complexity necessitating increased energy inputs. These inputs eventually encounter the law of marginal utility or diminishing returns because the solutions we adopt in dealing with problems that arise tend to be the easiest-to-implement and cheapest-to-maintain, but eventually more difficult and costly approaches must be pursued as the ‘easy’ ones have been exhausted. People are attracted to participating in a sociopolitical organisation (i.e., society) so long as the benefits accrued are at least — but preferably better — than the costs incurred. Once the costs exceed the perceived benefits, people choose to withdraw their participation. When a tipping point of participants have opted out, the organisational structures that have held complexities in place ‘collapses’.

It’s obviously much more difficult to abandon the sociopolitical sphere and organisational structures one is born into today than it was in the past. There is not only limited to no space left to flee to as every portion of the planet has been claimed by some nation state or another, but the vast majority of people lack the skills/knowledge to survive without their society’s supports. Self-sufficiency has been ‘bred’ out of us in just a few generations as we have embraced a future based upon different imperatives but especially complex centralised-systems and technology.

This shift has been afforded us by our leveraging of a one-time, finite cache of fossil fuel energy; a cache that has encountered significant and world-altering diminishing returns.

On top of this leveraging of fossil fuel energy and the paradigm shift it has led to in how we perceive the world — and create organisational structures and knowledge within in — we have the very real prospect that we are in the midst of ecological overshoot because we have significantly surpassed the planet’s human carrying capacity[10].

In the past we could overcome carrying capacity limits by migrating to a region as yet unexploited or underexploited by others (wars and colonisation are pretty well always about resources/economics; see U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler’s essay War is a Racket[11] for more on this perspective). When we pushed up against or exceeded the biophysical limits imposed by our environment in the past, this ‘takeover method’ (taking over from other species and eventually other humans) allowed us to expand for many millennia. We spread into virtually every niche across the globe.

More recently, however, we have depended upon a different means of procuring our needed resources termed the ‘drawdown method’, where we have extracted finite resources to supplement our existence. We have pushed human carrying capacity well past its natural limit by relying upon various resources drawn from our environment. The past couple of centuries has seen this approach focused primarily upon limited resources that have been extracted far, far faster than their renewal rate. Such use could only be limited in scope and temporary in time.

As William Catton argues in Overshoot[12], any species that overshoots its carrying capacity experiences a ‘rebalancing’ of its population eventually. Where the takeover method is precluded, a loss of necessary resources (usually food) results in a massive die-off to bring population numbers down to a level where the environment can recover. Sometimes a species experiences physiological changes that reduces fertility. Either way, population is reduced dramatically from its peak and often to a level far below the natural upper limit of ‘sustainability’ because of the damage to the environment that overshoot has caused.

Given our reliance upon fossil fuels, their finite nature, and the diminishing returns we have encountered because of this — and the way in which their use and the industrial processes they have ‘powered’ have overwhelmed the various planetary sinks that normally help to filter and purify the waste products we produce — it is increasingly clear that we have overshot our carrying capacity and have but the negative consequence of that to experience (or as many argue, are already experiencing).

In Part Two of this ‘essay’ I will paint a somewhat blurry picture of our possible future…

[1] Here I am reminded of a statement by a visiting psychology professor at a lecture on human ‘intelligence’ I attended at Western University when I was an undergrad. During his introductory remarks, with a goal of defining what we would be discussing, he stated (and I am paraphrasing given it’s been about 40 years): “Ask a hundred psychologists the definition of intelligence and you are bound to get a hundred different answers, perhaps more.”

[2] See this recent article by Charles Hugh Smith on the difference between a forecast and a guess: https://www.oftwominds.com/blogjun22/forecast-guess6-22.html.

[3] I highly recommend some reading on complexity and complex systems. A good beginning text is Donella Meadows’s Thinking In Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008. (ISBN 978–1–60358–055–7).

[4] For an introduction to the concept of paradigms see Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press, 1962. (ISBN 978–0–22645–811–3)

[5] See Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Improbable. Random House, 2010/2007. (ISBN 978–0–8129–7381–5)

[6] Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail–And Why We Believe Them Anyway. McClelland & Stewart, 2010. (ISBN 978–0–7710–3513–5)

[7] Ibid. p. 266–267.

[8] My graduate degree was concentrated in archaeology (Master of Arts, 1988, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario).

[9] The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988. (ISBN 978–0–521–38673–9)

[10] Note that my first university degree was primarily concentrated in biology/physiology (Bachelor of Arts, 1984, Western University, London, Ontario).

[11] War is a Racket. https://ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.pdf

[12] Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 978–0–252–00988–4)

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