Archive for the ‘consumerism’ Category
This post is to mark the impending publication of the latest book from Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilisation: A View From the Future. The authors have already published a summary of this book’s thesis and purpose in the academic journal Daedalus. However, in July, the book itself will be published by Columbia University Press, who summarise it thus:
In this haunting, provocative work of science-based fiction, Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway imagine a world devastated by climate change. Dramatizing the science in ways traditional nonfiction cannot, the book reasserts the importance of scientists and the work they do and reveals the self-serving interests of the so called “carbon combustion complex” that have turned the practice of science into political fodder. Based on sound scholarship and yet unafraid to speak boldly, this book provides a welcome moment of clarity amid the cacophony of climate change literature.
I was tempted to recommend readers look at all previous posts in my ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ or ‘Collapse’ categories. However, this would take quite a long time. Therefore, if you have not read them before, I will just limit myself to recommending that you read:
- The first of two sequential posts in January 2012 about Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; and
- One of my earliest posts from September 2011 (reproduced in slightly modified form below), in which I mention the Civilisation: Is the West History? book and TV series by Niall Ferguson.
Taking these three books – from Diamond, Ferguson, and Oreskes and Conway – together, the one thing humanity will not be able to say is that it was not warned…
The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple of Dagon
I firmly believe that you do not need to be an adherent to any faith to find value in religious texts; and this is one of my favourite historical stories from the Old Testament: It tells of the Philistines (i.e. now Palestinians) capturing the Ark of the Covenant and – eventually – returning it to the Jews because of all the trouble having it caused (see 1 Samuel Chapters 5 and 6 if you’re interested). I think the moral of this story may be twofold: It tells us (1) that God can look after himself; and (2) we should not raise any object to the status of an idol.
Personally speaking, learning the first lesson from this story eventually convinced me in the mid-1980s that there was no point trying to persuade my devoutly-atheistic teachers at Portsmouth Polytechnic (as it was then) that not all Christians were Young Earth Creationists… However, globally speaking, learning the second lesson from this story will be necessary before humanity can dig itself out of the hole it is now in – as a result of (1) pride (in our own resourcefulness); and (2) complacency (regarding the Earth’s sensitivity to our activity)…
This was the warning given by E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful (1973) and, most-recently, by James Lovelock in Revenge of Gaia (2006). Karl Marx called it “money fetishism” and Herman Daly called it “growthmania” but, whatever you want to call it, we need to renounce it; and acknowledge that all human actions – most important of all being waste production – have consequences… Therefore, more than anything else, this is a plea for anthropogenic humility, intellectual honesty, moral courage, and determined action. This is because if we fail to act soon then, yes, I do firmly believe that we face an environmental catastrophe.
If all of the above merely convinces you that environmentalism is a new religion, so be it but, I think you are wrong: I think consumerism is the new religion and, on the contrary, environmentalism is just a natural response to the realisation that humanity is having a terrible impact on the planet; and needs to change its ways before its very existence – in anything like current numbers and at current average levels of affluence – is seriously compromised.
Authors will have to forgive me if they feel I have here plagiarised any of their work, because this is an amalgamation of many different things I have seen or read. However, above all, it is influenced most-recently by watching Civilisation: Is the West History? by Niall Ferguson; and reading Requiem for a Species by Clive Hamilton… I do not believe either of these two men has been ideologically “captured” by any political agenda; they are merely being (at times painfully) honest and objective about the predicament in which we now find ourselves (though to be fair we were warned almost 40 years ago but chose not to listen).
In their latest book, Oreskes and Conway suggest that collapse will occur in 2093. Sadly, I suspect it will be a lot sooner than that. However, far from being mere pessimism, this conclusion is based on a great deal of scientific research. Research that shows that environmental change is now in the process of accelerating beyond our capacity to mitigate it:
- What on Earth are we doing? (19 February 2013).
- A summary of the ‘Climate Departure’ research of Mora et al. (11 October 2013).
|Here’s a great idea for UK residents (one I would definitely pursue if I met the criteria):|
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Please help us today to save the Arctic for future generations.
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Credit facilities are provided by The Co-operative Bank. The Co-operative Bank is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority subscribes to the Lending Code and the Financial Ombudsman Service, and is licensed by the Office of Fair Trading (No. 006110). The Co-operative Bank p.l.c (Registered No. 990937) Head Office, PO Box 101, 1 Balloon St, Manchester, M60 4EP. Rates correct as at 06/13. Calls to 0800 numbers are free from UK landlines. Calls may recorded and / or monitored.
Today’s post is that which was intended for last Monday. However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which is the best summary I have yet seen of the insidious problems caused by exponential growth. Even if you think you understand the maths – and are familiar with concepts such as doubling time and illustrations such as 264 grains of rice on a chessboard – it is still worth watching the a series of eight 9-minute videos, or entire presentation, posted on YouTube. This is primarily because of all the evidence Bartlett presents, which suggests that anyone who says exponential growth and/or resource depletion is not a problem is either stupid or a liar. It really is that simple.
However, I should also wish to draw attention to two further happy coincidences – two recent posts by fellow bloggers that are well worth reading:
1. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” – another post about Bartlett’s presentation by Jules Bywater-Lees.
2. The Great Unmentionable by George Monbiot – a self-explanatory post by Paul Handover.
Today, then, I will finally get round to summarising the recently-published paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. As I said on Monday, the abstract is viewable on the Science journal website, but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University. Here, then, is my summary of the paper:
‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’, by Partha S. Dasgupta and Paul R. Ehrlich.
Introduction (in lieu of Abstract)
The authors start by pointing out that externalities (i.e. unintended consequences) in economics are widely acknowledged but generally relate to human use of the natural environment. Thus, people talk about our collective failure to value the essential ecosystem services Nature provides. In strict contrast to this, the authors suggest that the adverse consequences of resource consumption and population growth are generally not acknowledged.
The authors then begin by suggesting that birth rates in Europe began to decline 400 years ago as a result of improvements in the standard of living of most people because, almost counter intuitively, it led to people delaying marriage and childbirth until they could afford to set up their own household. However, birth rates in developed countries have since fallen much further and faster with improvements to the education and emancipation of women; and the advent and acceptance of contraception.
The authors note that, today, population growth is greatest in poor countries. However, unlike Bartlett, they do not acknowledge that per-capita rates of consumption make modest population growth in wealthy countries even more problematic. Instead, the authors focus on the factors that continue to encourage high birth rates in poor countries (in sub-Saharan Africa in particular).
Under the title ‘pro-natalist institutions’, the authors discuss societal norms such as the fostering of children by non-biological parents; communal land tenure (as opposed to the division of land amongst children that could discourage large families). Although seemingly careful not to mention the effect of religious beliefs, the largely “unmet need” for family planning is acknowledged. The authors also seem to be optimistic that lowering birth rates can be achieved faster through increasing access to contraception than it may be by improving education. Irrespective of how it is achieved, the authors acknowledge that achieving it will be essential to halting global human population growth. Notwithstanding, for the moment, that the ecological carrying capacity of the planet may have already been exceeded, the authors point out that whether or not global human population growth stabilises depends mainly on average family size in the future.
Under the title ‘conformity’, the authors discuss the reality that people continue to have large families long after the original reason for doing so (e.g. high infant mortality and lack of good healthcare or social welfare) has diminished or disappeared. On a more positive note, the authors suggest that the desire to conform can be broken if a big enough minority can be encouraged to modify their behaviour (i.e. and defy convention).
Under the title ‘breakdown of the commons and the added need for labour’, the authors discuss the externalities arising from the predominance of subsistence economies. These are the things that keep poor people poor, such as the labour intensive nature of many agricultural practices in the absence of mechanisation; and the fact that children who are fetching water, gathering fuel, working the land, or looking after animals are often missing out on being educated as a result.
The authors start by stating the obvious: the consumption (and depletion) of resources has consequences for both current and future generations. In terms of consequences for people alive today, the most obvious adverse consequence of resource consumption – or rather pollution by the waste being generated – is highlighted as being ongoing global climate disruption. The authors then focus on what drives us to consume things and to do ‘competitively’ and ‘conspicuously’ (i.e. to equate consumption with progress, fulfilment, and happiness). Here too, the authors highlight the troubling reality of social conformity as a driver of persistently self-destructive behaviour.
Once again, the authors acknowledge previous discussion (in academic literature) of anthropogenic impacts upon the environment and choose to focus on those that are detrimental. They suggest that these can be categorised as either unidirectional or reciprocal: the former being impacts the authors describe as “externalities each party inflicts… on all others, as in the case of unmanaged common property resources”. The authors then highlight that, unlike commonly owned resources at a local level, global resources that are not owned by anybody (such as the atmosphere and the fish in the sea) tend to be become polluted or over-exploited.
Difficulties in Enacting Policies to Counter Externalities
The authors begin their discussion of all of the above by lamenting the popular misconception by economists of Nature as something that is “a fixed, indestructible factor of production”. This rather opaque statement incorporates a variety of fallacies, including that Nature has only instrumental value; that it has an infinite capacity to provide resources for our use; and that it has an infinite capacity to assimilate (or recycle) the wastes we generate. These are all serious misperceptions of reality: Nature’s resources are finite and its essential ecosystem services are non-substitutable. For example, if human activity continues to decimate bee populations, at what point will it start to impact upon our ability to grow fruit and cereal crops? Indeed, is this not already happening?
As in many other discussions of the environment, the authors highlight the non-linearity of many processes in Nature; and the existence of positive (i.e. self-reinforcing or mutually-destructive) feedback mechanisms. Thus, they construct the population consumption environment nexus as three corners of a triangle with each having an effect upon – and being affected by – the others. Towards the end of their discussion, the authors highlight the fact that 15 of the 24 major ecosystem services examined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were found to be either degraded or currently subjected to unsustainable use.
Even more worryingly, they cite the conclusions of numerous other studies that, if all 7 billion of the people on the planet today were to squander resources at the rate at which those who are already wealthy do, “at least two more Earths would be needed to support everyone on a sustained basis”. Considering the consensus view of UN statisticians that, on its current trajectory, the world population could exceed 10 billion by 2050, the authors make the obvious point that, if realised, “the demands made on the Earth system will prove to be even more unsustainable”.
So it is, then, that the authors end their discussion of the issues by considering the prospects for technology alone to solve this problem. They start by noting that technology does not operate in a vacuum (i.e. it too consumes resources) and that innovators respond to incentives (so government policies are important). Reflecting recent pronouncements by the IMF, the authors highlight the fact that Nature’s essential ecosystem services are currently grossly under-valued (e.g. the price of fossil fuels does not currently reflect the damage our use of them does to our environment). The authors also cite historical and empirical evidence that suggests that innovation and technology has historically increased unemployment; and archaeological evidence that past civilisations collapsed as a result of degradation of their environment or an inability to respond fast enough to environmental change. This should be of great concern to all humans alive today, because the current rates of environmental change are almost certainly unprecedented in the period of time over which such civilisations have existed.
I will let the authors’ conclusion speak for itself:
Although their magnitudes are likely to differ across societies, owing to differences in societal histories, institutions, customs, and ecologies, the reproductive and consumption externalities we have identified here share striking commonalities. Moreover, the analysis has uncovered reasons why technological innovations since the Industrial Revolution have been rapacious in their reliance on natural capital. We have shown that the externalities studied in this paper are not self-correcting. Therefore, the analysis we have presented points to a spiralling socio-environmental process, giving credence to the presumption that the pattern of contemporary economic growth is unsustainable.
Today is Earth Day 2013, apparently. This would be a good day for everyone on Earth to accept that, given the incontrovertible operational reality of the exponential function in Nature, technological optimism is not a good idea.
I am grateful to a couple of my regular readers who have, completely independently, directed me towards complementary sources of information that go right to the core of what this blog is all about. Before getting into the detail, I will start by simply stating what these two sources of information are, as follows:
1. Thanks to Pendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation (circa 2002) of Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which High School science teacher Greg Craven (who gave the World the ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ video) has been posted on You Tube as a series of eight 9-minute videos.
2. Thanks to Mike (of uknowispeaksense fame), I have been alerted to the very recent publication of a paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. The abstract is viewable on the Science journal website but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.
Although a daunting task, I will now attempt to summarise both works; starting today with the presentation by Bartlett. So as to do both works justice, I will publish my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich separately.
‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’ by Albert A. Bartlett
Even if you have watched them before, I would encourage all readers to defy the viewing statistics and watch all eight videos. However, here is a summary: Bartlett starts and finishes his presentation by asserting that, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. Somewhat incongruously, he repeatedly describes exponential growth as “steady growth”. This is a shame because exponential growth is anything but “steady”. Exponential growth describes any situation “where the time that is required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant”. This is most commonly expressed as percentage growth on an annual basis. Bartlett then goes on to highlight the curious coincidence of many things that have historically doubled every 10 years by growing at a rate of 7% per annum (including crime in Colorado, inflation in the USA, and the global consumption of oil). Having carefully explained all the mathematics, Bartlett spends a very large proportion of his presentation quoting from a bewildering array of journalists, economists and politicians who are either completely ignorant of – or deeply disingenuous about – the consequences of exponential growth.
Chillingly, Bartlett highlights the reality that, if the human population of planet Earth does not stop growing exponentially, Nature will intervene to stop it. We can either choose to stop it or it will be stopped; and doing the former (whilst involving some very difficult choices) will be a lot better than allowing the latter to happen. Bartlett’s presentation of population dynamics has been repeated many times before and since (but people are still ignoring it). Even more devastating, however, is Bartlett’s presentation of the history of global fossil fuel consumption (which has given rise to many misleading statements and a great deal of misplaced optimism). He points out that, even if it were safe to extract them, all the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic will be consumed by the USA in one year. There is so much in Bartlett’s presentation that I could mention but I will focus on his examination of resource depletion in the face of exponential growth of consumption – it requires the perpetual discovery of double the cumulative total resource consumed. On a finite planet, this is quite simply impossible. Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food. Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game.
However, most sobering of all, is Bartlett’s presentation of Dr M. King Hubbert’s predictions regarding Peak Oil. With regard to US production, history has found Hubbert was correct – production peaked in 1970 and exhaustion can be expected by 2050. Furthermore, since global oil production has now peaked, it is guaranteed to be exhausted by 2100 (because we cannot continue to find double what we have already historically used).
Bartlett’s discussion of Growthmania is devastating and, to me, the logic is incontrovertible: The First Law of Sustainability is that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. There can therefore be no such thing as sustainable growth. This is not an opinion. On a finite planet, this is mathematical fact. Somewhat surprisingly, in a roundabout way, this leads Bartlett to point out that the country with the World’s greatest problem with regard to population growth is the USA. This is because, in the USA, the per-capita consumption of the World’s resources is four times global average (and some thirty times that of the World’s poorest people).
Towards the end of his presentation, Bartlett counters all the misinformation and misplaced optimism with some telling quotes from a variety of people including Galileo Galileii and Aldous Huxley. However, perhaps the most telling quotation of all is that from Martin Luther King Jr:
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.
At the best part of 1000 words, this may seem like a long summary but, in truth, I have barely scratched the surface of all the information Bartlett presents. Therefore, if any of this is unclear or, in your mind, appears to be unjustified pessimism, please watch the videos.
As promised, my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s new paper will appear later this week.
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy - and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
Dear George Osborne, Chancellor Merkel, EU Commission, Citizens of Cyprus, and people everywhere,
Please accept my condolences for your loss(es) and my sincerest wish that you will now stop lying to yourselves; and face-up to the nature of reality.
Further to the comment by Lionel Smith (below), this is what page 159 of Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell looks like:
This is the problem that we have with exponential growth.
With apologies for the delay, here is the latest email received from Greenpeace:
Right now, we have a huge chance to help save the Arctic.
To tackle the threats posed by the disappearing ice and the invasion of oil drillers – like Shell – we need to reduce the world’s thirst for oil. We can do that by making greener cars. And the good news is we’ve already begun.
We know this can be done. When we first asked VW to make their cars cleaner and more efficient, they said it wasn’t possible. Then 526,000 of us piled pressure on VW and helped persuade the biggest and most powerful car company in Europe that clean technology is possible. That’s something we can be proud of. Now it’s time to move the whole of Europe (and the world) forward.
This isn’t just about our continent. If we make these big wins here, the global car market will feel the pressure to keep up with innovation in Europe. That means we could see less polluting cars in countries like China and the US too. That’s better for the Arctic, the air we breathe and the stability of our global climate.
Over the next few months European politicians are making decisions that will affect every new car in Europe – this is a huge opportunity – so let’s make sure we send the strongest possible message. We know that these politicians aren’t used to getting thousands of messages from people like us, so this could really have an impact.
Together we can show the world what can be done,
Nic and all the Greenpeace crew
PS Of course, not everyone drives – I don’t – and your bicycle is the most efficient vehicle you can use. But cars are a big part of society today, so please help make cars cleaner in Europe (and the world).
PPS You may have heard about the No Dash For Gas heroes who shut down a polluting gas power station last year and were being sued by owners EDF for £5m in an attempt to stifle peaceful protest. This week, we heard the amazing news is that, after nearly 65,000 people signed a petition, EDF have backed down! The activists still face criminal charges and you can get the latest updates on their website.
For ease of reference, however, here is the relevant part of that quotation once again:
…Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
So, then, what are these “failed evolutionary experiments”; and why might we be about to join them in the dustbin? Indeed, what does it mean to suggest there is a dustbin? I ask this latter question because, as I often seem to find myself saying, the concept of waste disposal is an illusion: Nature does not do waste disposal; it only ever does recycling.
However, there is an even more fundamentally-challenging aspect to xraymike79’s turn of phrase, which is the suggestion that the emergence of complex life on Earth is the result of an unguided process. Jean-Paul Sartre’s question “Why is it that there something rather than nothing?” is answered with the following equation: Nothing + Time + Chance = Something.
Some scientists, such as George Smoot (Wrinkles in Time) and Paul Davies (The Mind of God) have asserted that the Universe appears to be perfectly designed to accommodate us – effectively a statement of the Anthropic Principle. However, I find it hard to refute the argument, made by people like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, that we are here because the Universe is the way it is – effectively a statement of existential Selection Bias.
For people of a theistic persuasion (like me for example), such notions are very challenging. However, I dislike the arrogance of people like Dawkins and Hawking, who – rather than just assert that they do not believe in God – appear to want to insist that they have proven that God does not exist. Although they present cogent arguments and justifications for their atheism, I prefer the position adopted by Stephen J. Gould – that science and religion represent non-overlapping magesteria. This is the proposition that science seeks to answer “how” questions, whereas religion seeks to answer “why” questions. If so, it would appear to be self-evident that trouble ensues when either party steps outside the boundaries of their legitimate enquiry.
It was for this reason that Young Earth Creationism had been rejected by the vast majority of Christian theologians even before Charles Darwin was born. They had, in essence, followed the advice of St Augustine (354-430AD) in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74AD) in Summa Theologica. For example:
Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, [and] one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing… (Thomas Aquinas, 1273AD)
As I said to my son recently, “just as scientific theories like evolution should not be used to reject religious beliefs; Biblical texts should not be used to reject scientific facts”. I hope you will agree that this is a nice turn of phrase too, but, it belies the fact that all knowledge in science is provisional. However, in my defence, I must protest that “should not be used to reject things most scientists consider to be beyond reasonable doubt” …does not sound quite so good.
So then, back to big question: Is evolution a random process with no pre-ordained purpose; or has it been guided by someone or something? Well, I think I am going to dodge the bullet on that one; but I will say this: I was astonished recently to learn about the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ – as proposed by Howard T. Odum – that suggests that Darwinian-style natural selection tends to produce organisms “that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency”. For background to this, please see this comment (and those that follow it) by Paul Chefurka on Guy McPherson’s Nature Bats Last blog.
If you look at Chefurka’s comments, you will see that he blames the ‘Maximum Power Principle’ for the fact that humanity seems set on a path to self-destruction (and unintended ecocide), i.e. that our consumption of resources is biologically-driven. Some may say, as I did initially, that this explains an awful lot but, upon further reflection, I am inclined to think that this could be used as an abdication of ultimate responsibility for our not leaving this Earth in as good a state as we were fortunate enough to find it.
Be that as it may, the evidence from the fossil record suggests that the vast majority of species that have ever lived are probably no longer with us today. However, that does not make them “failed evolutionary experiments”. Indeed, I would argue that some species that have survived through to the present time look like failed evolutionary experiments (and I do not mean humans). What sense is there in that? Why do some species appear to have got stuck in a time-warp? Is it enough just to say they are adapted to their niche environments?
I am therefore ambivalent about the question of whether evolution must be seen as purposeful or self-selecting process. However, I think xraymike79’s turn of phrase is useful because it has the potential to shake us from our anthropocentric complacency. Furthermore, I think it almost demands that – instead – we embrace the ecocentric reality around us: Apart from a few dairy cows that might experience some significant discomfort for a while – most of life on Earth would not even notice if we humans disappeared. As Edward O. Wilson observed, we may be the most intelligent life form on Earth – and we may be at the top of every conceivable food chain – but humans are not the most important life form on Earth. That honour probably goes to fungi – Nature’s most effective and efficient recyclers.
Unfortunately, we humans seem determined to go down fighting and, unless we wake up to the reality that we cannot subdue and dominate Nature – we must seek to live in harmony with it – it seems increasing likely that we will cause the widespread breakdown of many essential ecosystem services upon which all life on Earth depends. This is because we are currently in the process of deconstructing the benign and stable environment that has made life possible. As such, the Hockey Stick may have now turned into a Scythe:
That being the case, we must all hope this does not herald the arrival of the Grim Reaper himself. :-(
I must credit recent subscriber xraymike79 with apparently coining this term, in his recent post, entitled ‘Mankind’s Infantilism and the Death of the Planet‘. However, before clicking, please note that this contains adult themes that some might find disturbing. For example, here is just a snippet:
This Earth is all we really have. Start caring for it and respecting it with the same reverence and homage we pay to our electronic toys of mass distraction, i.e. TV, iphones, video games, computers, etc.. Know that this culture of self-worship and materialism is sending our species to the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments, most certainly by the end of this century if not mid-century. The evidence is all around us if only we care to open our eyes.
Now is probably not a good time to admit that I have been tempted back to Sky with a 75% reduction on my subscription for 9 months. However, the above chimes with an item written by John Hulburt, posted on Learning from Dogs yesterday, entitled ‘E Pluribus Unum’. For example, take this:
We know we’re in trouble when our legislatures have been purchased, when faith in our financial system has been willfully damaged, when political leaders engage in childish tantrums to get their way regardless of anything or anyone else, when awareness of moral reality has become meaningless and when we fail to appreciate the depths of a looming abyss. What do we gain by purposefully destabilizing our economy, reopening settled social issues and blatantly risking our inclusive future as a species for a mess of pottage? Who do we think we are?
Good questions, gentlemen. Who do we think we are; and when are our politicians going to stop lying to themselves and us? Here is a quote from James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren:
Ladies and gentlemen, your governments are lying through their teeth. You may wish to use softer language, but the truth is that they know that their planned approach will not come anywhere near achieving the intended global objectives. Moreover they are now taking actions that, if we do not stop them, will lock in guaranteed failure to achieve the targets they have nominally accepted. (p.184)
Hansen then goes on to at least six ways that governments are planning to fail (because they assume carbon capture and storage can be made to work fast enough to prevent catastrophe), by encouraging (1) construction of new coal-fired power plants; (2) construction of new plants to turn coal into oil; (3) development of tar sands (the dirtiest of all unconventional fossil fuels); (4) exploration for fossil fuels in wilderness areas; (5) hydraulic fracturing despite methane release; and (6) opencast coal mining everywhere. For more on this topic see: ‘Hansen says we should FART‘ (i.e. fundamentally alter resource trajectories).
It is little wonder, then, that Thomas L Friedman, writing in the New York Times on Sunday, said this:
Face it: The last four years have been a net setback for the green movement. While President Obama deserves real praise for passing a historic increase in vehicle mileage efficiency and limits on the emissions of new coal-fired power plants, the president also chose to remove the term “climate change” from his public discourse and kept his talented team of environmentalists in a witness-protection program, banning them from the climate debate. This silence coincided with record numbers of extreme weather events — droughts and floods — and with a huge structural change in the energy marketplace.
What was that change? Put simply, all of us who had hoped that scientific research and new technologies would find cheaper ways to provide carbon-free energy at scale — wind, solar, bio, nuclear — to supplant fossil fuels failed to anticipate that new technologies (particularly hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling at much greater distances) would produce new, vastly cheaper ways to tap natural gas trapped in shale as well as crude oil previously thought unreachable, making cleaner energy alternatives much less competitive.
Friedman’s ambivalence to hydraulic fracturing (elsewhere in his piece) may be deeply flawed but, sadly, I think his analysis of recent history and prediction of what Obama will now do are both probably right.
Therefore, it is also little wonder that James Hansen’s Fee and Dividend system is not being taken up: because it is not in the interests of big business to take it up. It is only in the interests of the Environment; and the Environment does not seem to matter. See Hansen’s recent ‘Fork in the Road’ [PDF].
The Earth is being sold to the highest bidder and most of its inhabitants are too busy distracting themselves to even notice. The whole thing is like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror…
* “Sustainable Growth” is a term invented by World Leaders last year at the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil. On a finite planet with finite resources, it is a physical impossibility; it is an oxymoron; to talk about it is as delusional as pretending you will live for ever. I’m sorry, but, as with climate change, denying the nature of reality changes nothing.
As an experienced geologist and hydrogeologist, I am a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (GSL) and a Member of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). As such, the GSL has previously published a 500-word “soapbox” item written by me, entitled ‘Know Your Limits!’, in their Geoscientist magazine.
However, I believe this has now been surpassed by an article written by CIWEM’s Executive Director, Nick Reeves, just published in CIWEM’s monthly WEM magazine. Having obtained the permission of both author and publisher, I am delighted to reproduce the article, entitled ‘The Growth Delusion and Handlebar Tape’, in full below.
Other than to say that Nick Reeves has an admirable track-record for speaking his mind and saying things very few people in positions like his are willing to say – such as his support for Latin American style environmentalism in ‘The Human Rights of Mother Earth’ (July 2011) – I do not really want to comment further at this point. However, the conflict between notions of sustainable development and resource depletion will be picked-up in another longer-than-normal post later this week. Therefore, without further ado, here is the 1800-word article by Nick Reeves:
The world is running on empty says CIWEM executive director Nick Reeves
How do you successfully break a mistaken and destructive intellectual and economic consensus? How do you persuade world leaders that 21st century problems cannot be fixed with 20th century economics?
The UK is no longer a front-line developed nation and has fallen behind Brazil in the league table of economic powers. It will take a lot more than handlebar tape to get a grip on things. We need to think in different terms and get a proper fix on our place in a world that is running on empty.
The economic crisis of 2007 was a car crash in slow-motion. The driver wasn’t fit. And it was frustrating because nobody warned us and the banks danced to the speculative tune. Now economists can calculate a much more dangerous event that is being greeted with even less concern: our world is rapidly running out of resources – of water, energy, metals, phosphorous and food. The data is not in dispute. The market is reflecting what our leaders ignore.
The Industrial Revolution allowed us to make technological progress in delivering resources, outweighing the increasing marginal effort to dig ever deeper and chase lower-quality ores, for instance. The average price of 33 commodities (equally weighted) declined by 70 per cent (after inflation) between 1900 and 2002. Then, abruptly and without any particular crisis, prices reversed and in ten years the average commodity tripled to give back the advantage of the previous 100 years. It is perhaps the most important ‘phase’ change of modern times, yet it attracted, remarkably, little attention or concern.
The causes are not hidden: there has been an explosion in population and consumption since 1800 and the birth of the ‘Hydrocarbon Age’. Global population has increased from one billion to seven billion, tripling even in my lifetime. At the same time, consumption of hydrocarbons and some metals increased one hundredfold. Initially, with few people and extensive high-grade resources, this did not show in prices, but more recently, with population growing still faster than ever in absolute terms, we have had to absorb an unprecedented surge in demand per capita from India, with its 1.2 billion people (growing at over seven per cent a year) and China, with almost 1.3 billion (growing for over 20 years at ten per cent a year), a rate that will double consumption every seven years. China last year accounted for a jaw-dropping 53 per cent of the world’s cement use, 48 per cent of its iron ore and 47 per cent of all the coal used. How could reserves not wither away under this attack and prices not rise? We have every reason to be fearful.
Low-cost, high-grade coal, oil and natural gas – the backbone of the Industrial Revolution – will be a distant memory by 2050. Much higher cost remnants will still be available but they will not be able to drive our growth, our population and, most critically, our food supply, as before. Conventional food production is dependent desperately on oil for insecticide, pesticide and fertiliser, and for transportation over thousands of miles. Modern agriculture is an industry that converts oil into food.
It will require brave political decisions to survive the loss of depleted hydrocarbons without risking economic collapse. If we permit the population to grow to the levels predicted, and if we don’t curb our greed, we must find the capital – while we still have it – to build very large-scale, very smart electricity grids, across Europe and North America, fed by increasingly efficient wind and solar power and other renewables that may come on stream.
Once they are built, the marginal operating cost will be much lower than our present hydrocarbon-dependent system and, critically, cost will be constantly falling while hydrocarbon costs rise. This will be a great threat to the giant hydrocarbon multi-nationals, several of which fund well-organised obfuscation and propaganda campaigns to reinforce our wishful thinking. Carbon dioxide has lost its greenhouse effect, they say, and coal is clean! In the US, even larger investments are made: Congress is bribed (legally) to ignore both climate science and the logic of finite resources.
Metal resources are the stuff of nightmares because entropy is merciless. Every time you use a metal, some is lost. European countries recycle between 40 per cent and 80 per cent – the US is worse – yet at even 90 per cent these precious resources will slip through our fingers. So frugality is needed, because even an economy with zero increase in physical output will slowly lose its metals. But which politician has the nerve to talk about the necessary zero growth in population and physical output?
The most immediately threatening shortage is in our food supply, and not just from oil constraints. The bigger threats lie in four limiting inputs: water, soil, potassium and phosphorus. We build homes and grow food in deserts and over-pump irreplaceable underground water. (Already, about 300 million Indians and Chinese, among others, are fed by over-pumping reserves that will inevitably run out.) We waste over half our global water supply and we totally mis-price it. For most countries, all of this can be fixed. Yet some over-populated, poor nations have a more intractable problem and water scarcity will cause increasing friction for them. Water wars is here. It’s happening now.
Land availability and erosion are also limiting our ability to grow food. Over the millennia, we have lost about one-third of our land, turning it into desert and stone. We build new cities on our best river valley soil, which is replaceable only with more marginal land. There are no New Worlds or new Midwests. The land we have – eroded by wind and water – loses one per cent of its soil each year, about 100 times the rate of natural replacement. If sustained, this erosion would bring our species to its knees. But the problem can be solved relatively easily by moving towards no-till, in which crop residues protect the soil against the elements. We need to move rapidly, though: to 100 per cent from less than ten per cent, globally, today.
The limits on phosphorous and potassium are terminal potentially. They are elements and cannot be made. There is no substitute for them. They are vital for the growth of all living things, vegetable or animal (we humans are one per cent phosphorus by body weight). And these irreplaceable nutrients on which modern agriculture depends are mined and are steadily depleting. So what will happen when the reserves run out?
The only glimmer of hope would be if the world went organic – nurturing the soil with worms, fungi and complex micro-organisms and avoiding use of pesticides and insecticides. Organic farming extends critical fertiliser resources many times, perhaps at best approaching the rate of natural replacement from bedrock. However, organic farming is just one per cent of the agricultural total, and we will, typically, wait for a greater crisis in fertiliser prices before we move.
Finally, global warming’s most reliable consequence is weather extremes – droughts and floods, which have badly hit production, will continue to do so. Far from being alarmist, scientists have consistently under-predicted the speed of environmental decline, failed to address population growth, and so we slalom our way to hell. Scientists, with a few brave exceptions, are fearful of being criticised as doom-sayers and exaggerators – a terrible academic crime – even though underestimating, in this case, is far more dangerous and irresponsible. (Arctic ice-melt is already at levels that, 15 years ago, were predicted for 2050.)
Both population and yield per acre for grains are growing at 1.2 per cent a year. A stand-off? You bet. Population growth will slow, but so will productivity as we approach the limits of each grain species. How, with no safety margin, will we find the extra grain necessary to produce meat for the growing middle class of developing nations when a single pound of dressed beef displaces 30 pounds of grain?
There will be a single painful answer to all of these questions – rationing through price. We the rich nations can and will be careless with our resources for decades longer, but only at the cost of pushing prices up unnecessarily fast and thereby inadvertently forcing the poor into malnutrition and outright starvation. A typical developed country now spends ten per cent of its income on food; Egypt spends 40 per cent. You can see easily that, if food prices triple again in the next 30 years as they did in the past ten, the numbers will not compute. A growth-reducing and lifestyle-eroding irritant for us will become life and death for them.
Greater income equality in such countries and better education, especially for women, would help lower population growth and increase productivity. Less corruption and more efficient distribution of the food available, especially in India, would buy decades of time. But this is who we are: a species given to corruption, incompetence and self-interest. Capitalism sucks because it believes that its remit is exclusively to make maximum short-term profits – come hell or high water.
We could solve all our problems if only we were the efficient, rational human beings of standard economic theory and had politicians willing to think in the long-term interest of their people rather than their own. Perhaps later, as the crisis grows, as failing states threaten to destabilise global politics (resource pricing already played its part in the Arab spring) and China throws its increasing weight around in its correctly perceived great need for more resources, the developed world will act with resolve, as the US, the UK and others did so well in the World War II. We must hope so.
Fortress North America with (per capita) five times the water and seven times the arable land of China, has the capability and willingness to ignore this global problem for now. Yet eventually it, too, will be dragged kicking and screaming into world turmoil – just as it feared would happen in the 1930s – and share the pain.
In the meantime, countries such as Egypt, with surging populations, escalating food import bills and widening trade deficits, cannot afford to feed their people. Who will do it for them? We rich countries cannot even make the tough political decisions required to keep our own resource prices down, let alone worry about others. This attitude is epitomised by the use of one-third of the US corn crop (the world’s biggest) for desperately inefficient ethanol production as a subsidy for already rich farmers. To fill a 4×4′s tank once would displace enough maize to feed one Indian farmer for a year. One day, this will be seen as the moral equivalent of shooting some of the world’s poorest people, but more painful.