Growth or Scale?

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Demonstrating that growth can’t continue on a finite planet has been a favorite sport of mine in the past (e.g., here, here, and here). But it’s child’s play, really: not a difficult accomplishment. Still, as blatantly obvious as it is, a surprising number of people are surprised to hear that growth can’t last. I guess that’s what happens when an entire system is predicated on growth’s continuance. Exposing the foundation to be shaky can come as seismic news.

But let’s say that we (collectively) were able to accept that growth is a no-go for the future. Fine. Let’s just stay here, then, shall we? Maybe we fashion a steady-state economy that continues to support the present scale of the human enterprise (perhaps redistributed for better equity) but without those nasty ills of growth.

In this post, I do the simple “math” of presenting graphs (Do the Graph?) to try and ascertain whether the ills stem primarily from growth, or primarily from scale.

Death by Hockey Sticks was a simpler precursor to this post, comparing exponential-looking trends side-by-side and making the simple observation that this moment is highly anomalous, exceedingly brief, and surely can’t continue. Here, we separate growth from scale to see who deserves more of the blame.

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What's the Point?

Time for a new paint job on the house?

Having developed a perspective that modernity is fated to fail, and that many of our culture’s current pursuits and institutions are misguided efforts to prop up temporary structures, I often encounter the reaction that I am being defeatist. If what I am saying is true, then what’s the point? Yeah: what is this point that others believe justifies all the craziness? Whatever they think “the point” is could well be based on unexamined and incorrect beliefs.

I will attempt in this post to explain what I mean by this, in multiple passes. A starter example may seem a little patronizing, but could still be helpful. If your world only makes sense and has meaning on the premise that Santa Claus exists, then you’ve put yourself in an unfortunate place. Others have found ways to appreciate life without that requirement based on a falsehood.

Let’s also try generalizing the concept before getting to specific examples.  We start with something I present that happens to be essentially true (or indeed comes to pass in due time), whether or not we can say so with absolute certainty. Then imagine that the reaction is: “well, if that’s true, then what’s the point of living?” Well, we obviously are living, and if we do so in the context of this truth, then it makes little sense to say there’s no point in living. The problem must then lie in what the person believes “the point” to be, and therefore must be wrong about that. In this sense, a “what’s the point” challenge might be taken to signal a flawed worldview.

Okay. That’s the template. Let’s do a few practice cases (optional if you want to cut to the chase), and work our way toward the main event regarding modernity.

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Outside the Fishbowl

Image by Jazella from Pixabay

One consequence of having developed a perspective on the long-term fate of modernity is a major disconnect when communicating with others. Even among people who have a sense for our predicament, my views often come across as “out there.”

Let me first say that I don’t enjoy it. Having different views than those around me makes me uncomfortable. I was never one to make a point of standing out or of having a contrary opinion for the sport of it (we all know those people). My favorite teams as a kid were the local ones (Falcons, Braves, Mocs), like everyone else around me. I wear blue jeans basically every day, blending in to Americana. No tattoos, piercings, or “non-conformist” affectations. It is, in fact, because of my continual discomfort at having stumbled onto a divergent view that I am compelled to write and write and write about it. I feel trapped between what analysis suggests and what almost everyone else around me thinks/assumes. The discomfort means that I keep trying to discover where I’m wrong (my life would be easier!), but the exercise usually just acts to reinforce the unpopular view.

In this post, I want to try to turn the tables: make members of the mainstream feel uncomfortable for a change. It probably won’t work, but I’ll try all the same. I could have titled the post: “No, You’re Crazy.”

My mental image for this post is one of a fishbowl in a vast and varied space devoid of other fishbowls. The fish living in the bowl have each other, the enveloping water, a gravel floor, fake plants, a decorative castle, and manna from heaven morning and night. Concerns of the fish need not, and in a way cannot extend beyond the boundaries of the bowl. The awkwardness is that the bowl is wildly different than the rest of the space in all directions. It’s the anomaly that the inhabitants deem to be normal. The analogy to ourselves in modernity should be clear…

What happens when the caretaker of the fishbowl disappears: when the food stops coming, and the environment becomes fouled? The artificial context of the bowl ceases to function or even make sense. The best outcome for the fish might be to get back to a pond or stream where they could live within their original context: woven into the web of life, enjoying and contributing to a rich set of “ecosystem services.” But getting there is not easy. Once there, figuring out how to live outside of the dumbed-down artificial construct presents another major challenge. As good as the fish seemed to have it, the fishbowl turns out to have been an unfortunate place to live. I invite you now to re-read this paragraph, substituting modernity for the fishbowl.

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Humans: the Movie

What follows is a story involving a movie watched by animals. The pacing of the movie to be described might seem like a very odd choice, but it simply mirrors the pacing of human life on the planet. A vivid visual imagination on your part will help to bring the story to life. So, put on your creative cap and let’s dive in!

Picture a small-town movie theater on a street so quiet and unimposing that the surrounding prairie and forest sidle right up to the back of the theater. The marquee advertises a feature film called The Human Saga.

As the afternoon shadows lengthen, a trickle of woodland creatures start to emerge from the forest, mosey up to the theater, pay for tickets, and go in. You notice rabbits, a fox, a group of turkeys, a band of raccoons, some stoats, newts, a skunk (who will be lucky enough to sit next to it?), a hoppy group of frogs, some chittering squirrels, a family of porcupines, a pair of doves, an ancient looking tortoise, a doe and her two fawns, and even a mama bear with cubs. They and many others have all come to absorb a tale of what these humans are all about. It’s a long movie: almost three hours chronicling the almost 3 million years of humans on Earth. But it’s fine: no one is in a big hurry.

The animals amicably settle into their seats, enjoying candy, popcorn, and a hot dog here and there. They’re relaxed, but wide-eyed with excitement for this special treat.

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Post-Modernity

As sketched in the previous post, I believe modernity to be an unsustainable flash that will not persist into future millennia. Uncomfortable with untethered speculation, I have said little about what might come after, but feel I owe something in this vein. Semantically, what follows the modern age must be the post-modern age, right? Except that name is already taken by a rather inane school of thought that may be even worse than modernist thought (it actually does not fundamentally refute modernism anyway, just throws sand into any conversation).

Despite my disdain for post-modernism, I will appropriate the term for what it will likely come to mean in centuries hence (long after people have finally forgotten the silly modern version of post-modernism). I feel better already.

The simplest explanation for why I have not written much on post-modernity is that I don’t feel I have much to say. The range of possibilities is quite large, and I would be a fool to pretend that I—or anyone, really—can paint a credible picture. I’m virtually certain I know how humans will live on the planet tomorrow, fairly sure I could paint an accurate picture for life one year from now, reasonably confident about a decade out, pretty damned fuzzy on a century from now, perhaps a little more clear a millennium into the future (as most of modernity has melted by then), have a decent guess for several million years hence (less likely to still have homo sapiens), and am increasingly certain when the number turns to billions of years (complex life on Earth extinguished). For me, the hardest part is the century scale: the messy, chaotic transition likely characterized by de-industrial scavenging.

Ignoring my discomfort of wading deep into the unknown, it may at least help some folks to get a screenshot of my fuzzy imaginings in this space.

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Distilled Disintegration

Photo by Nigel Brown; licensed under Creative Commons

My adult life has run on two diverging tracks. On one, I played science. The other track branched off at age 34—twenty years ago this month—when I started teaching a class on Energy and the Environment. I was eager to piece together our likely energy future: how we would beat climate change and leave fossil fuels in the dust. Against my wishes, this fork presented unexpected turns that took a long time to sink in. The two tracks eventually became too divergent to keep a foot on each. At this stage, I can’t seem to muster the denial it would take to disregard what I have learned so that I might return to the more blissful play-time track.

Much of my writing in the last few years has tried to capture why I have become convinced that modernity can’t last, likely to begin disintegrating in the near-term. In this post, I attempt to distill core elements informing this sense. My apologies if this seems like a rehash. For what it’s worth, the packaging exercise is something that helps me address the question I constantly ask myself: what part of this might I have wrong? It’s a way to take stock.

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They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

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Unsustainable Goose Chases

As we look toward the uncertain future, it may occur to some among us that we’ll need energy on Mars. How are we going to get it? Presumably Mars has no fossil fuels—although on the plus side its atmosphere is already 95% CO2, compared to Earth’s 0.04%, so they’re likely to be less uptight about carbon emissions on the red planet.

At this point, we could launch into an extensive discussion, full of quantitative detail and analysis about the solar potential: insolation, materials availability, dust storm mitigation, and on and on. But the real answer to how we will get energy on Mars is probably: we won’t. We’re extremely unlikely to set up a permanent presence on Mars, if humans ever even go there at all. So the exercise would be of questionable value.

I feel similarly about discussions of full-scale renewable energy and associated storage and grid shenanigans. How will we rise to the challenge to keep modernity powered into the future? In all likelihood, we won’t. Besides the misdirection of “inexhaustible flows,” keeping modernity powered by any means looks like game-over for ecological health, and therefore humans, if pursued at all costs. So, enough with the fantasy schemes.

Why so bold? Glad you asked.

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Sustainable Timescales

Image by günter from Pixabay

The word “sustainable” is overused to the point of becoming almost meaningless in our culture. In principle, though, it’s an easy enough concept. Unsustainable things fail: unable to continue indefinitely. By this logic, sustainable implies the opposite of failure: success.

Note that “sustainable” does not mean some mythical equilibrium, which has never existed for life on this planet. The key condition is that major changes are gradual enough to allow ecological adaptation. When they aren’t, we get mass extinctions—even when it takes tens or hundreds of thousands of years for the precipitating changes to fully develop.

So, step one in assessing sustainability is to ask: what can continue without failing? But the question needs an associated timescale to be meaningful. This post explores timescales on which it makes sense to assess sustainable practices.

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A Story of Mice (and Men)

Picture a natural prairie, boasting an explosive diversity of grasses and flowers. Every year, at different times of the year, the grasses and flowers produce seeds. Some of these seeds, naturally, propagate their respective species so that the grasses and flowers will survive into the next year and the next.

But the plants are generous, generating more seeds than are necessary. Being the only form of life on the prairie capable of harvesting solar energy and turning it into food, they know they have sole responsibility for supporting their entire community. And why would they want to share their wealth? Well, they rely on insects for pollination, fungi for trading nutrients, worms for turning the soil, birds for spreading seeds far and wide, mice for planting their seeds and providing rich fertilizer, and on and on. Open-ended generosity pays back via other gifts in a spirit of reciprocity.

The mice in the prairie have done well for countless generations. While they are capable of explosive reproduction, they can’t expand willy nilly because food resources are limited: if they overgraze, fewer plants will survive into the following year. Meanwhile, hawks, owls, foxes and snakes are always looking for a snack. And so the prairie has settled on a roughly stable mouse population that works in concert with the rest of the ecological community. The population of mice (and of their predators) is not rock-solid: it fluctuates from year to year, but seldom strays very far before self-correcting. When mice are few, their predators diminish, seed abundance goes up, and the stage is set for a resurgence.

Then one day a foraging mouse notices a new hole at the base of an abandoned silo on the edge of the prairie that’s been dormant and irrelevant for all these years. Out of this hole some grains of wheat have spilled out. Tasty! Excited by her find, she brings her friends and they all have a feast. Within weeks, the mice are growing in number and exploiting this seemingly endless resource. All troubles would appear to be over.

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