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The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that’s happening is happening because it had to happen

The pandemic as the end of consumerism. Everything that’s happening is happening because it had to happen

 These Medieval ladies look like fashion models. With their splendid dresses in silk brocade, they are displaying their wealth in an age, the 14th century, in which Europe was enjoying a period of economic growth and prosperity. They couldn’t have imagined that, one century later, Europe would plunge into the terrible age of witch hunts that would put women back to their place of child-making tools. It is the way history works, it never plans, it always reacts, sometimes ruthlessly. And all that happens had a reason to happen (above, miniature by Giovanni da Como, ca.1380)

Can you tell me of at least one case in history where a society perceived a serious threat looming in the future and took action on it on the basis of data and rational arguments? With the best of goodwill, I can’t. Societies react to threats using a primeval stimulus-reaction that may be aggressive or defensive, but that’s almost never rational.

Curiously, our society, that we call sometimes “The West,” was the first in history to have a chance to do something rational to avoid the destiny awaiting it much before the threat was clearly visible. It was in 1972 when the newly developed digital computers were coupled with a powerful analytical tool, “system dynamics.” The result was the study called “The Limits to Growth” that foresaw how the gradual depletion of natural resources coupled with increasing pollution (that today we call “climate change”) would cause the whole Western economic system to collapse at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The study also suggested rational solutions to avoid collapse: reduce consumption, stop population growth, manage pollution, and the like.

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What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

What If Preventing Collapse Isn’t Profitable?

The real downside of the green-profit narrative has been that it created the assumption in many people’s minds that the solution to climate change and other environmental dilemmas is technical, and that policy makers and industrialists will implement it for us, so that the way we live doesn’t need to change in any fundamental way. That’s never been true.

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

Smoky skies from the northern California wildfires casts a reddish color in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. (Photo: Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

The notion that modern industrial civilization is fundamentally unsustainable and is therefore likely to collapse at some point is not a new one. Even before the Limits to Growth report of 1972, many ecologists were concerned that our continual expansion of population and consumption, based on the ever-increasing rate at which we burn finite supplies of fossil fuels, would eventually lead to crises of resource depletion and pollution (including climate change) as well as catastrophic loss of wild nature. Dystopian outcomes would inevitably follow.

This apprehension led environmentalists to strategize ways to avert collapse. The obvious solution was, in large measure, to persuade policy makers to curtail growth in population and consumption, while mandating a phase-out of fossil fuels. But convincing political and business leaders to do these things proved difficult-to-impossible.

It’s time to ask: is there something fundamentally wrong with the eco-opportunity message?”

The folks in charge used the following arguments to justify their refusal to act.

Population Growth: The choice of whether or not to reproduce is a basic human right, said the authorities. Seeking to interfere with that right also violates religious freedoms. Besides, population growth helps economic growth (see “Economic Growth,” below).

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Can Changing Habits for Self-Reliance and Resilience help society avoid the worst of unfortunate futures?

Our release of chapter 25 from RetroSuburbia: the downshifter’s guide to a resilient future as a free downloadable pdf is another small gesture to spread positive messages in a time of pandemic. This is especially so for all those locked down in Melbourne, the geographic focus of the book and our further efforts to stimulate a wider a retrosuburban response in the wake of the pandemic. While our primary appeal is to people already voting with their feet to retrofit their own lives, not having these strategies recognised, let alone debated, in the mainstream media continues to act as a break on their wider adoption. Even the much-vaunted capacities of social media to allow communities of interest to share and adapt their activities are increasingly constrained by corporate and other powerful interests’ ability to manage and manipulate the proliferation of content through social media platforms.

A lesser recognised constraint is the dearth of academic investigation of options for more radical behaviour change. It is still true that most ideas to change society get a good working over in academia and policy think tanks before they surface in the mainstream media. For example, mainstream media discussion of the concept of “degrowth” is recent and introductory, even if the academic discourse and activism in this field has been intense for nearly twenty years.

Permaculture was unusual in the way it burst into public consciousness after very little exploration in academia. Research and investigation into the logic behind permaculture strategies has always been sparse, but in recent years we are starting to see increasing recognition that permaculture (including retrosuburbia) is more than a fringe green lifestyle choice. Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary is the first academic book to recognise the critical nature of retrosuburbia and kindred strategies in dealing with the Limits to Growth crisis.

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The Arc Of Our Future

The Arc Of Our Future

In last week’s open post, I noted that I didn’t have anything in particular planned for this fifth Wednesday of the month, and asked my readers what they wanted to hear about. Quite a few subjects got brought up for discussion—among others, the novels of Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity, and the metaphysics of sex—but the largest number of readers asked for something less abstract.

During more than half of the fourteen years plus that I’ve been blogging weekly, the main focus of my essays was the future of industrial society, and in particular the slow-motion train wreck set in motion by our society’s frankly brainless attempt to pursue infinite economic growth on a finite planet. More recently, and especially from 2015 on, my focus has been elsewhere, but the issues I raised in those days haven’t gone away—the political convulsions of the last few years have simply distracted attention from them. Many of my readers are aware of this, and what they asked for was an update on the ongoing historical process I’ve called the Long Descent.

Since some of my current readers weren’t yet reading me when I last discussed these issues, I’ll start with some general points and go from there. One of the great mental blind spots of our society is the notion that there are only two possible futures: on the one hand, business as usual stretching endlessly into the future, with a side order of technological progress dished up at intervals; on the other, sudden apocalyptic mass death, with or without a small band of plucky survivors sitting around a campfire as the final credits roll. An astonishing number of people these days literally won’t let themselves think about any other possible future, and will either change the subject or get furiously angry at you if you should be so bold as to suggest one.

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Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicament

The world’s number one problem today is that the world’s population is too large for its resource base. Some people have called this situation overshoot. The world economy is ripe for a major change, such as the current pandemic, to bring the situation into balance. The change doesn’t necessarily come from the coronavirus itself. Instead, it is likely to come from a whole chain reaction that has been started by the coronavirus and the response of governments around the world to the coronavirus.

Let me explain more about what is happening.

[1] The world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as described in the book with a similar title.

One way of seeing the predicament we are in is the modeling of resource consumption and population growth described in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows et al. Its base scenario seems to suggest that the world will reach limits about now. Chart 1 shows the base forecast from that book, together with a line I added giving my impression of where the economy really was in 2019, relative to resource availability.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” with dotted line added corresponding to where the world economy seems to be have been in 2019.

In 2019, the world economy seemed to be very close to starting a downhill trajectory. Now, it appears to me that we have reached the turning point and are on our way down. The pandemic is the catalyst for this change to a downward trend. It certainly is not the whole cause of the change. If the underlying dynamics had not been in place, the impact of the virus would likely have been much less.

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The most accurate model-based prediction of all times

The most accurate model-based prediction of all times

The “base case” scenario from the 1972 edition of “The Limits to Growth.” This scenario described the trajectory of the world’s economy on the basis of the data and assumptions that were judged to be the most reliable ones. This run might turn out to have been amazingly accurate some fifty years after it was proposed.

One of the most remarkable features of the story of the “Limits to Growth” study of 1972 is how effectively it was possible to convince almost everyone that it was completely wrong. Amazingly, though, the most vituperated model-based prediction in history may turn out to have been perhaps the most accurate one.

Note how the scenario above, the “base case” scenario, saw the start of the decline around 2010 and the start of the collapse maybe a decade afterward, that is now. If the oil collapse generated by the coronavirus takes the whole economy with it, as it may well happen, then this scenario turns out to have been unbelievably accurate. And that for a prediction made 50 years ago. Truly amazing!

Now, of course, this story has to be taken with some caution, predictions can be right even by mere chance. But, in this case, there is a certain logic in this result: the base case scenario had been already noted by Graham Turner to have been following the real-world data. But that was true for the growth side of the diagram: even standard economic models had been predicting economic growth. The crucial test for the model was to be the sharp change in slope expected to take place around 2010-2020.

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Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

Collapse: The Coronavirus is not a Cause, it is a Trigger

Is the epidemic going to cause civilization to collapse? It may happen for good reasons

This is a version of the article that I published on the English version of “Al Arabiya” On March 26, 2020. It is not the same text I published there — but I kept the wonderful illustration by Steven Castelluccia. It perfectly conveys the concept of “Seneca Cliff

Do you remember the story of the straw that broke the camel’s back? It is an illustration of how overloaded systems are sensitive to small perturbations. Could the COVID-19 epidemic be the straw that breaks the back of the world’s economy? 

Like an overloaded camel, the world’s economy is strained by at least two tremendous burdens: one is the increasing costs of production of mineral resources (don’t be fooled by the current low prices of oil: prices are one thing, costs are another). Then, there is pollution, including climate change, also weighing on the economy. These two factors define the condition called “overshoot,” occurring when an economic system is consuming more resources than nature can replace. Sooner or later, an economy in overshoot has to come to terms with reality. It means that it can’t continue to grow: it must decline. 

These considerations can be quantified. It was done for the first time in 1972 with the famous report The Limits to Growth sponsored by the Club of Rome. Widely disbelieved at the time, today we recognize that the model used for the study had correctly identified the trends of the world’s economy. The results of the study showed that the double burden of resource depletion and pollution would bring economic growth first to a halt and then cause it to collapse, probably at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century.

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Limits to Growth and the COVID-19 epidemic

Limits to Growth and the COVID-19 epidemic

World_bannersnack

Forty-eight years ago I led an 18-month study at MIT on the causes and consequences of growth in population and material production on the planet earth through the year 2100. “If the present growth trends … continue unchanged” we concluded, “the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.”

To illustrate this conclusion, we published a set of 13 scenarios generated by World3, the computer model built by my team. In those scenarios major global indices, such as industrial output per capita, typically stopped growing and began to decline between 2015 and 2050.

The current epidemic does not prove we were right.

When climate scientists are asked if a particular storm proves their theory of climate change, they point out that a model of long-term continuous change can not predict, nor be corroborated by a short-term discrete event. There have always been catastrophic storms. But, the climatologists  point out, increasingly frequent and violent storms are consistent with the climate change thesis.

World3 is a model of continuous interactions between population, resources, and capital over the long term.  In the context of 200 years, the COVID-19 pandemic is a short-term, discrete event. There have always been plagues, but increasingly frequent and violent epidemics are consistent with the limits to growth thesis.

There are two main causative links.

First, the explosive growth of humanity’s population and economy has stressed natural ecosystems, lowering their capacity to self-regulate, and making breakdowns such as epidemics more likely. In the recent past global society has been confronted with MERS, Ebola, Zika, SARS, and H1N1 plus major outbreaks of measles and cholera. And now we have COVID-19.

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Part Two of Surveillance Capitalism at the Limits to Economic Growth – social controls through digital infrastructures have bio-physical limits

Part Two of Surveillance Capitalism at the Limits to Economic Growth – social controls through digital infrastructures have bio-physical limits

Part Two

For Shoshana Zuboff, to be human involves using one’s will to shape one’s own future. In this respect she draws on the philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt analysed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and saw the frustration of the will of each person to shape their future as crucial to her analysis of totalitarianism. For Arendt the will is “the organ for the future.” In Chapter Eleven Zuboff uses the writing of her book – or her commitment to write it – as an example of what it means “to have a claim to the future tense”. 

“Just as the past always presents itself to the mind in the guise of certainty, the future’s main characteristic is its basic uncertainty, no matter how high a degree of probability prediction may attain.”….with freedom of will we undertake action that is entirely contingent on our determination to see our project through. These are acts that we could have left undone but for our commitment. “A will that is not free”, Arendt concludes, “is a contradiction in terms.”

Zuboff adds: “The freedom of will is the existential bone structure that carries the moral flesh of every promise and my insistence on its integrity is not an indulgence in nostalgia or a random privileging of the pre digital human story as somehow more truly human. This is the only kind of freedom that we can guarantee ourselves, no matter what the weight of entropy or inertia….These bones are the necessary condition for the possibility of civilisation as a ‘moral milieu’ that favours the dignity of the individual and respects the distinctively human capacities for dialogue and problem solving. Any person, idea or practice that breaks these bones and tears this flesh robs us of a self authored and we-authored future” (p331)

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Defending degrowth is not Malthusian

Defending degrowth is not Malthusian

 Jenny Downing

Self-limitation is not about constraining, but about defining collectively as societies our limits.

Political ecology ‘has made strong arguments against natural limits’ and is in friction with ‘degrowth’s .. urgency of less’, writes Paul Robbins. Indeed, political ecologists developed the field as a response to 1970s neo-Malthusianism. Nancy PelusoLyla Mehta or Betsy Hartmann have exposed the racist, classist and patriarchal underpinnings of neo-Malthusian discourses of environmental degradation, overpopulation, or scarcity.

I am a political ecologist. I love these books. How do I square then this with my defense of limits and degrowth?

It took me sixteen years after my PhD to figure it out. We should distinguish, I always felt, reactionary notions of limits, like the ‘coming anarchy’ of prophets of doom like Robert Kaplan or Garett Hardin; and limits like those defended from activists at places like Standing Rock. Lumping all defenses of limits as Malthusian is analytically sloppy and politically wrong.

I felt this in my skin when, as a late-night twitter intellectual, I was told by fellow travelers that I am a baby-killer and a Malthusian (Me, a Malthusian?!). But the catalyst that got me going was an essay by Gareth Dale, in which I learned that Malthus was actually in favour of growth, not limits.

Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population is one of those classic works that academics feel comfortable citing without taking the trouble to read. I followed Gareth’s lead and sat down to read it again – line by line. And here is the story I have to tell.

First, Malthus was not a Malthusian, he was an economist. Second, radical environmentalism has always been romantic – and romantics were the fiercest critics of Malthus.

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“The Limits to Growth” continues to make waves

“The Limits to Growth” continues to make waves

The Club of Rome is holding its annual meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. In the image, you see the co-president, Sandrine Dixon-Decleve, speaking

Now heading toward its 50th anniversary, “The Limits to Growth,” the 1972 study sponsored by the Club of Rome, continues to generate interest. Past is the time of the “Limits-Bashing” fashion, when no one would dream to cite the study except to say that it was wrong. But there are still plenty of people who blindly repeat the legend that the study had predicted shortages that never occurred. As Daniel Dennett said, we are apes infested with memes and the Limits to Growth is an especially virulent one.  

Here, Marc Cirigliano writes a balanced review of the story, citing my book on the subject and giving some credit to one of the main critics of the study, Julian Simon, who in my opinion would deserve some more bashing but I admit that he may have been, at least, well-intentioned. 

The Best People: Ignoring the American Need for Environmental Deliverance for Over 50 Years
By Marc A. Cirigliano

Popular journalism seems to have finally caught up with what the scientists have been telling us for well over five decades about the environment. You really can’t read anything in mainstream news or commentary without coming across articles about such ecological matters as overpopulation, pollution, resource use and climate change. The main topics related to these stresses include human excesses, noticeable changes that affect the day-to-day well-functioning of a society somewhere on the planet or the long-term viability of human life as we now know it.

It has not been an easy matter for science to get to the point where environmental problems are part of the grist of everyday reporting and opinion pieces. The opposition has been fierce, well funded and plays upon people’s primal fears.

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The school of economics as a suicide academy?

The school of economics as a suicide academy?


“Anyone who thinks that economic growth can continue for ever on a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.” Kenneth Boulding

The Limits to Growth Study of 1972

In 1972 economists became embroiled in a controversy with a group of systems scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and declared themselves the winners. It became the conventional wisdom that the economists won the argument. This complacent judgement now turns out to be premature.

The systems scientists had been commissioned by a group called the Club of Rome to research the impact of economic growth on the ecological system. Their book, published in 1972, was titled “The Limits to Economic Growth”. It argued that two things would set a constraint on the economic growth process – an accumulation of pollution and wastes and the depletion of resources. The damage from pollution – for example from greenhouse gases – would require the diversion of increasing amounts of resources to mitigate and adapt to increasing difficulties. At the same time depletion – eg of fossil fuels, oil, gas, minerals and biological resources – would mean that harder and costlier to access resources would have to be accessed as time went by and that would raise costs and choke off growth too. (1)

Crucially the LtG authors did not say that the Limits to Growth (LtG) constraints would be immediate – their modelling, done with early computer technology, dated the end of growth, followed by a period of involuntary contraction, in and after the first two decades of the 21st century. Quelle surprise – in recent years mainstream economists have been puzzling over what they call “secular stagnation”.

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Why it (sort of) makes sense for the US to impose tariffs

Why it (sort of) makes sense for the US to impose tariffs

Nearly everyone wonders, “Why is Donald Trump crazy enough to impose tariffs on imports from other countries? How could this possibly make sense?”

As long as the world economy is growing rapidly, it makes sense for countries to cooperate with each other. With the use of cooperation, scarce resources can become part of supply lines that allow the production of complex goods, such as computers, requiring materials from around the world. The downsides of cooperation include:

(a) The use of more oil to transport goods around the world;

(b) The more rapid exhaustion of resources of all kinds around the world; and

(c) Growing wage disparity as workers from high-wage countries compete more directly with workers from low-wages countries.

These issues can be tolerated as long as the world economy is growing fast enough. As the saying goes, “A rising tide raises all boats.”

In this post, I will explain what is going wrong and how Donald Trump’s actions fit in with the situation we are facing. Strangely enough, there is a physics aspect to what is happening, even though it is likely that Donald Trump and the voters who elected him would probably not recognize this. In fact, the world economy seems to be on the cusp of a shrinking-back event, with or without the tariffs. Adding tariffs is an indirect way of allowing the US to obtain a better position in the new, shrunken economy, if this is really possible.

The upcoming shrinking-back event is the result of too little energy consumption in relation to total world population. Most researchers have completely missed the possibility that energy limits could manifest themselves as excessive wage disparity. In fact, they have tended to assume that energy limits would manifest themselves as high energy prices, especially for oil.

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The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

This is a modified version of an article that was published on “Il Fatto Quotidiano” in Italian on Jan 31, 2019

Behind the simian mask, there is yours truly, Ugo Bardi, sitting at his desk.  The sign is in Italian, but you can understand that it is against biodiesel and in favor of Orangutans. 
Sometimes it happens that you are asked a question that forces you to reflect. So, a few days ago, I was at a public meeting on energy and climate and I was telling about the work we do at the university and with the Club of Rome. In the debate, someone asked me: “But, professor, from all these models of the world you make, after all, what did you learne?”.

Some questions are not easy when the topic is complex and you have to summarize the answer in a few sentences. And you have to come up with something right away! But I think I could put together a good answer when I said, “The main thing we’ve learned is that the models work well. Even the famous model of ‘The Limits to Growth’ that the Club of Rome had proposed in 1972 still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today. But this has a consequence: the system is predictable because it tends to move in a certain direction. And this means that changing things is very difficult “.

The problem of the difficulty of changing things, even when it would be necessary, came back to me by later on, when reading a recent report on biodiesel. This stuff is really terrible: it causes deforestation and destruction of the fertile soil. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse than traditional diesel fuel.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

2019: World Economy Is Reaching Growth Limits; Expect Low Oil Prices, Financial Turbulence

Financial markets have been behaving in a very turbulent manner in the last couple of months. The issue, as I see it, is that the world economy is gradually changing from a growth mode to a mode of shrinkage. This is something like a ship changing course, from going in one direction to going in reverse. The system acts as if the brakes are being very forcefully applied, and reaction of the economy is to almost shake.

What seems to be happening is that the world economy is reaching Limits to Growth, as predicted in the computer simulations modeled in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth. In fact, the base model of that set of simulations indicated that peak industrial output per capita might be reached right about now. Peak food per capitamight be reached about the same time. I have added a dotted line to the forecast from this model, indicating where the economy seems to be in 2019, relative to the base model.1

Figure 1. Base scenario from The Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil with dotted line at 2019 added by author. The 2019 line is drawn based on where the world economy seems to be now, rather than on precisely where the base model would put the year 2019.

The economy is a self-organizing structure that operates under the laws of physics. Many people have thought that when the world economy reaches limits, the limits would be of the form of high prices and “running out” of oil. This represents an overly simple understanding of how the system works. What we should really expect, and in fact, what we are now beginning to see, is production cuts in finished goods made by the industrial system, such as cell phones and automobiles, because of affordability issues.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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