Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Limits of the Earth

Here's an article on Scientific American about the problems that we face in the future. It's a pretty good rundown of the situation:

The Limits of the Earth Part 1 (Scientific American)

He identifies the following major areas of concern:

1.) Feeding The World

2.) Deforestation

3.) Fresh Water

4.) Ocean Overfishing

5.) Climate Change

All that means the end of growth right? No, according to the author. Why not?
The first is the moral ground.  Roughly one billion people alive today on the planet have access to automobiles, air conditioners, and central heat.  The other six billion do not.  Two billion lack access to a toilet.  One billion lack access to electricity.  The bulk of the growth to come over the next few decades – in global GDP, in energy consumption, in CO2 emissions, in food consumption, in water use – will all come from the developing world.  That growth isn’t trivial.  It isn’t about building McMansions or driving SUVs.  It is, by and large, growth that reflects the aspirations of billions of people around the world to rise to a level of comfort that nearly everyone in the rich world – even those we consider poor – enjoy.  A path forward that doesn’t allow room for billions to rise out of poverty and to at least this modicum of comfort is not a very appealing one.

The second is the practical grounds.  What power do we have to stop those in the developing world – where almost all the real growth is to come – from consuming more?  Very little.  Perhaps it is resource scarcity itself that will halt the growth of consumption.  But if so, that won’t happen easily or peacefully.  As demand for energy, food, and water all rise, if supplies remain stagnant (or even drop) prices will rise, unrest will kick in, and violent conflict is a very real possibility.  Already we’ve seen that drought helped start the civil war in Sudan’s Darfur region that took hundreds of thousands of lives, and that China, India, and Pakistan – three nuclear armed powers – have exchanged sharp barbs over scarce water resources in the region where the three countries meet.

A world where growth is over is not a world we’re very like to enjoy.

We are in short, up against immense resource problems at the same time that we’re facing incredible growth in demand.  We’re between a rock and a hard place.

Is there a way out of this mess?  Can we grow wealth for billions while solving the environmental challenges facing us?  I think we can, if we make smart choices, and fast.
Er- really, aren't those a question of  distribution? That really has nothing to do with growth, per se. Are we being distracted?

The Limits of the Earth Part 2: Expaning the Limits (SciAm)
And the ultimate solution to those problems is innovation – innovation in the science and technology that we use to tap into physical resources, and innovation in the economic system that steers our consumption.
Ah, yes, the magic of innovation. Where have I heard that before? Perhaps he doesn't realize that all of these problems were ultimately caused by earlier innovations!

The solutions are pretty standard – better agricultural techniques in the third world combined with genetically modified crops will fix the food problem. A cresting population caused by industrial prosperity will solve the overpopulation problem. Fish farming will solve the overfishing problem. Better membranes for desalinization will solve the water problem. And solar panels and better batteries will solve the energy problem.

The rub is: we’ve already solved all the problems once before. I’m sure you could have argued that the harnessing of electricity would have solved all our problems at the beginning of the century. Instantaneous communication could be achieved via the telegraph and later, radio, bringing about a new era of world peace. Anywhere in the world could be accessed within a matter of months by steamship, zeppelin, and later, airplane. ”Feeding the world” would be solved by artificial fertilizers and mechanized agriculture. Add to that fact that the internal combustion engine meant that we would no longer require horses for transport or plowing, freeing up more land for food and ridding the filth from city streets. The division of labor, mass production and the assembly line would solve the problem of production once and for all. Indoor running water and plumbing would prevent disease. And antibiotics would eliminate many of our most feared diseases, forever.

A paradise, right? Do you feel like you’re living in paradise where we’ve solved all our problems?

Now we’re fretting about feeding seven billion instead of one billion. As discussed here, artificial fertilizers have caused massive dead zones via runoff, dependence upon natural gas and exacerbated global warming. Cars have caused pollution, sprawl, ghettos, and more deaths collectively than all the world’s wars every year, not to mention wars for fossil fuels. We’re worried about terrorists blowing up airplanes. The majority of humanity lacks sanitation and running water, stuff we've known how to do for over a century, now. Overproduction has caused waste, incessant advertising and joblessness. And antibiotics are rapidly losing their effects due to disease resistance caused by natural selection. Oh, and let's not forget permanently fucking up the climate. I could go on.
Are we on track to win this race?

That’s not at all clear. Consider, for a moment, climate and energy.  Multiple groups have proposed plans by which the world could be powered almost entirely by renewable energy by 2050, or, in the most ambitions plans, by 2030.

Yet even as those plans are articulated, worldwide CO2 emissions are rising, not falling.  In 2012, the planet as a whole emitted a record-breaking 35.6 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.  And the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is surging along with our annual emissions. In 2012, atmospheric CO2 concentrations rose by the largest amount in 15 years to a new level of 395 ppm, most of the way to the 450ppm that climate scientists have articulated as the threshold for dangerous warming.

The fundamental driver here is economics.  Consumers, businesses, and industry want energy. They need energy.  That’s true everywhere in the world. And they will buy whatever sort of energy is cheapest. Indeed, if a new source of energy is sufficiently cheaper than the old, consumers will switch their energy consumption from the old to the new.

If we want to win the race against climate change, one thing matters more than all others:  make renewable energy (including storage) cheap.  Dirt cheap.  And do it fast.

How do we do that?  Fundamentally, we need to increase the pace of innovation. 
The author recognizes the need for reforms like carbon taxes and subsidies for alternative energy. Yet how likely are these in a world wracked with debt crises, collapsing economies, increasing inequality, police and mass surveillance states, and governments riddled with corruption and cronyism, from the United States to Russia to China? That's missing from his analysis, but is a crucial part in comprehending the likelihood of a solution (and what's preventing it). I don't he's truly thinking through the magnitude of the changes required. See the quote from Steve Keen here.

That said, there are a lot of good and interesting ideas here, and some good facts. Clearly he's done his homework. But the shrinking the size of the human enterprise to a manageable scale, distributing the surplus we already have more evenly, eliminating waste and inefficiency, and social/political reforms would be my preferred solutions. Innovations are a subset of that.
I’m an optimist. I believe in humanity’s ingenuity. Even on the path of the hard way, I think we’ll prevail. We’ll scramble and find solutions. Yet the cost will be far higher a decade or two from now than it would be if we started today. And the scars will run deeper, in species lost, in acidified seas, in forests chopped or burned down, in climate-created famines and pestilence, in wars and conflicts born of resource scarcity. Or perhaps I’m wrong, and on that hard path we simply won’t respond in time, in the way that other cultures of the past failed to respond to the disasters that ultimately led to their collapse. It’s not a chance any of us should be eager to take. Easy way or hard way. The choice is ours.
I wish I could agree with that. But the way it stands now, the choice lies with the elites. I know which one I choose.


  1. I may read the article this weekend, but I've read the exact same article before, written by others. Or perhaps Mr. Optimist has multiple pen names.

    I like how he ends with the standard cliche: "The choice is ours."

    No it's not.
    There is no "ours." As large groups, humans are almost incapable of taking the long view. Other species are even less able to make choices which prevent the usual and inevitable cycle of population overshoot and contraction.

    It's called a bottleneck.
    Innovation is not energy. Innovation uses energy, more or less efficiently. Efficiency itself takes energy: to make the new, more efficient infrastructure. And the increased efficiency is used to consume more, grow the population more, and deplete the remaining resources, both renewable and non-renewable, more.

    I think the author of this article is expressing a religious faith, but by simply admitting the possibility of failure, he is pretending to be a realist. I see the admitting that we could fail, and pursue the course of other cultures "of the past" is a statement of hubris and a religious incantation to summon the god of progress. The subtext is that we are better, smarter.

    No, we are not better or smarter. We are the same old humans with fancy cars and tools and way too much dependence on fragile, complex systems.

    The limits of the earth are only expandable through the use of fossil fuels and to a limited extent other energy sources, which are used to decrease the entropy of the systems we depend on. Once that energy is gone or less available, the carrying capacity of the earth will go down. The undershoot will mean that the carrying capacity will be less than it was before the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    Almost all species change their environments in ways that make it less hospitable to the species.

    Since we are now a global species, we are making the globe as a whole less hospitable.

    Things are bad in many places right now: Greece, Cyprus, parts of Africa, and war torn places everywhere are loci if collapse and disorder that will spread and expand.

  2. Well put. Yes, this really is a groundhog day sort of column. I’m beginning to wonder if automation has been applied to these things and robots are cranking these articles out now. The ending is almost like those legal form letters.

    Here’s the thing – innovations never really solve anything. They are just a dodge out of the problems you’ve already created. And once you implement them, you become utterly dependent upon them, with the consequences for their withdrawal ever more dire. And the living standards for the majority get ever worse. This is the message of Dilworth’s “Too Smart For Our Own Good.” And it ignores the elephant in the room – that rethinking growth means rethinking the capitalist system and how it distributes it material benefits and decision making power. “Carbon credits” are just another chip for the bankers to gamble with. How about we end gambling as the allocator of goods in the society? One of the best innovations I’ve seen recently is Richard Wolf’s call for employee-owned businesses and co-ops. I think that would do far more to help us out than a bunch of windmills and solar panels owned by energy conglomerates like the former Enron. But that’s not even in the cards, is it? Innovation is just a way to preserve and extend the status quo.

    And I had the same thought – “who’s we, kimo sabe?” And how exactly, is the choice ours? That assumes we live in a democracy, not a neo-feudal system. I’m not the president. I’m not Rupert Murdoch. I’m not a Koch brother. I’m not Bill Gates. I’m not the CEO of Monsanto or Exxon. How, exactly, is the choice mine? Can I get a vote on no fracking? How about GMO crops? The farm bill? Propping up the banks? I already vote, but somehow it’s just not working!

    It is indeed a religion, and technology is a fetish.

  3. I am interested in knowing how you are personally changing or directing your life and activities in response to the way the world is evolving. Do you have a plan? A philosophy? A strategy?
    You are an obviously smart and perceptive person...
    Your doomer but optimistically trying to adapt penpal,

    1. I started to write a response, but I think it deserves a post of it's own. I hope you're okay waiting a bit :)

    2. Fine. I would also be interested in corresponding one-on-one via email or something sometime. No pressure. We are both in the midwest, though, and seem to have similar agendas and interests. I am personally trying to build a small community (real and virtual).
      And hey, I have architect friends, and generally get along with such artist-engineers.


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