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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI–Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh VI
October 9, 2020
Infinite Growth, Finite Planet; What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Yet, the issues and underlying dilemmas are much more complex than just exploitive foreign capital and revenue-seeking politicians. Yes, these are problematic; without a doubt. But they are one piece in a multi-layered puzzle that may or may not have a ‘solution’.
Society’s embracing of several self-destructive behaviours must be undone and reversed. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is the pursuit of ‘growth’. Economic. Population. Technological. Et cetera.
We do not live on a planet with infinite resources and the exponential increase of our activities continues to paint us further and further into a corner. While it is unlikely there will be a definitive ‘day of reckoning’ because of our blasting past our natural carrying capacity (since collapse is a process, not an event), the consequences of our actions will be felt as surely as day follows night.
In fact, it could be argued that we are already and have been experiencing the fallout of our expanding and increasingly complex activities for some time now. Decimated species required for food crop pollination. Expanding geopolitical tensions over resources, especially fossil fuels and water. Supply chain interruptions. Environmental disasters. Increasingly authoritarian government policies and edicts to control populations. Currency debasement. Global pandemics. And on and on.
A group of MIT researchers some years ago proposed that there were real biophysical limits to the pursuit of growth and that the time to alter our trajectory was upon us. That was almost 50 years ago (The Limits to Growth, 1972). Unfortunately, humanity has followed the ‘Business-as-Usual’ scenario outlined by the study. The path forward from this point does not look promising. Yet, it is virtually guaranteed to be the one we continue to follow since we have ignored the warnings.
In our haste to believe ‘this time is different’ or that ‘we are smarter’ (usually in the form of the trope ‘human ingenuity and technology’), we have continued to pursue growth in almost all its guises. And it’s almost all of us that are guilty. Yes, our ‘leadership’ has led the way and been the main cheerleaders of the idea that growth only has positive attributes. And, yes, the pursuit has been exacerbated by the fiat currency swindle imposed upon the world. But most of us, perhaps unwittingly, have been consumption machines, endlessly purchasing and expanding our environmental footprints.
Unless and until we all begin serious discussions about degrowth on a global scale (even just local/regional would be a great start), I fear we will continue along our current path; in fact, it would appear we have actually picked up speed in these exploitive and damaging endeavours as diminishing returns (see archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies) have made it necessary to invest more and more effort, energy, and resources into finding and retrieving the resources necessary to hold our complex systems together for a bit longer.
Australia’s investments in Canadian resources is a natural consequence of our growth pursuits. And politicians, whose primary motivator is the control, maintenance, and expansion of the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue stream, will almost always encourage such activities. Negative consequences be damned.
If we cannot change the conversation and our behaviours, then we cannot change the eventual outcome. Nature will do for us what we are unable to accomplish ourselves. And we will likely not enjoy the way nature brings the planet back into balance.
People grow old and die. Civilizations eventually fail. For centuries amateur philosophers have used the former as a metaphor for the latter, leading to a few useful insights and just as many misleading generalizations. The comparison becomes more immediately interesting as our own civilization stumbles blindly toward collapse. While not the cheeriest of subjects, it’s worth exploring.
A metaphor is not an explanation.
First, it’s important to point out that serious contemporary researchers studying the phenomenon of societal collapse generally find little or no explanatory value in the metaphorical link with individual human mortality.
The reasons for individual decline and death have to do with genetics, disease, nutrition, and personal history (including accidents and habits such as smoking). We are all genetically programmed to age and die, though lifespans differ greatly.
Reasons for societal decline appear to have little or nothing to do with genetics. Some complex societies have failed due to invasion by foreign marauders (and sometimes the diseases they brought); others have succumbed to resource depletion, unforeseeable natural catastrophe, or class conflict. Anthropologist Joseph Tainter proposed what is perhaps the best general theory of collapse in his 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies, which argued that the development of societal complexity is a problem-solving strategy that’s subject to diminishing marginal returns. Once a civilization’s return on investment in complexity goes negative, that civilization becomes vulnerable to stresses of all sorts that it previously could have withstood.
There is a superficial similarity between individual aging, on one hand, and societal vulnerability once returns on investments in complexity have gone negative, on the other. In both cases, what would otherwise be survivable becomes deadly—whether it’s a fall on an uneven sidewalk or a barbarian invasion. But this similarity doesn’t provide explanatory value in either case. No physician or historian will be able to do her job better by use of the metaphor.
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