Options for the future

That damn edge, embrace it or ….. or what?

It’s some ago that I read Lester Brown’s book World on the Edge but I still recall the effect it had on me.  Namely, this is not some environmentalist’s ‘willy waving’ but something that has the potential to hurt, I mean HURT!  Since the book was published the stream of information and evidence has turned into a flood of awareness that if we don’t change our ways soon then we, as in the vastness of human life, will go over the edge.

So it was a good reminder to come across a recent extract on the Earth Policy Institute website that is republished in full, as follows:

No previous civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural supports. Nor will ours. Yet economists look at the future through a different lens. Relying heavily on economic data to measure progress, they see the near 10-fold growth in the world economy since 1950 and the associated gains in living standards as the crowning achievement of our modern civilization. During this period, income per person worldwide climbed nearly fourfold, boosting living standards to previously unimaginable levels. A century ago, annual growth in the world economy was measured in the billions of dollars. Today, it is measured in the trillions. In the eyes of mainstream economists, our present economic system has not only an illustrious past but also a promising future.

Mainstream economists see the 2008–09 global economic recession and near-collapse of the international financial system as a bump in the road, albeit an unusually big one, before a return to growth as usual. Projections of economic growth, whether by the World Bank, Goldman Sachs, or Deutsche Bank, typically show the global economy expanding by roughly 3 percent a year. At this rate the 2010 economy would easily double in size by 2035. With these projections, economic growth in the decades ahead is more or less an extrapolation of the growth of recent decades.

But natural scientists see that as the world economy expanded some 20-fold over the last century, it has revealed a flaw—a flaw so serious that if it is not corrected it will spell the end of civilization as we know it. At some point, what had been excessive local demands on environmental systems when the economy was small became global in scope.

A study by a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel aggregates the use of the earth’s natural assets, including carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere, into a single indicator—the ecological footprint. The authors concluded that humanity’s collective demands first surpassed the earth’s regenerative capacity around 1980. By 2007, global demands on the earth’s natural systems exceeded sustainable yields by 50 percent. Stated otherwise, it would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our current consumption. If we use environmental indicators to evaluate our situation, then the global decline of the economy’s natural support systems—the environmental decline that will lead to economic decline and social collapse—is well under way.

How did we get into this mess? Our market-based global economy as currently managed is in trouble. The market does many things well. It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planner could even imagine, much less achieve.

However the market, which sets prices, is not telling us the truth. It is omitting indirect costs that in some cases now dwarf direct costs. Consider gasoline. Pumping oil, refining it into gasoline, and delivering the gas to U.S. service stations may cost, say, $3 per gallon. The indirect costs, including climate change, treatment of respiratory illnesses, oil spills, and the U.S. military presence in the Middle East to ensure access to the oil, total $12 per gallon. Similar calculations can be done for coal.

We delude ourselves with our accounting system. Leaving such huge costs off the books is a formula for bankruptcy. Environmental trends are the lead indicators telling us what lies ahead for the economy and ultimately for society itself. Falling water tables today signal rising food prices tomorrow. Shrinking polar ice sheets are a prelude to falling coastal real estate values.

Beyond this, mainstream economics pays little attention to the sustainable yield thresholds of the earth’s natural systems. Modern economic thinking and policymaking have created an economy that is so out of sync with the ecosystem on which it depends that it is approaching collapse. How can we assume that the growth of an economic system that is shrinking the earth’s forests, eroding its soils, depleting its aquifers, collapsing its fisheries, elevating its temperature, and melting its ice sheets can simply be projected into the long-term future? What is the intellectual process underpinning these extrapolations?

We are facing a situation in economics today similar to that in astronomy when Copernicus arrived on the scene, a time when it was believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Just as Copernicus had to formulate a new astronomical worldview after several decades of celestial observations and mathematical calculations, we too must formulate a new economic worldview based on several decades of environmental observations and analyses.

The archeological record indicates that civilizational collapse does not come suddenly out of the blue. Archeologists analyzing earlier civilizations talk about a decline-and-collapse scenario. Economic and social collapse was almost always preceded by a period of environmental decline.

For past civilizations it was sometimes a single environmental trend that was primarily responsible for their decline. Sometimes it was multiple trends. For Sumer, rising salt concentrations in the soil, as a result of an environmental flaw in the design of their otherwise extraordinary irrigation system, led to a decline in wheat yields. The Sumerians then shifted to barley, a more salt-tolerant crop. But eventually barley yields also began to decline. The collapse of the civilization followed.

For the Mayans, it was deforestation and soil erosion. As more and more land was cleared for farming to support the expanding empire, soil erosion undermined the productivity of their tropical soils. A team of scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has noted that the extensive land clearing by the Mayans likely also altered the regional climate, reducing rainfall. In effect, the scientists suggest, it was the convergence of several environmental trends, some reinforcing others, that led to the food shortages that brought down the Mayan civilization.

Although we live in a highly urbanized, technologically advanced society, we are as dependent on the earth’s natural support systems as the Sumerians and Mayans were. If we continue with business as usual, civilizational collapse is no longer a matter of whether but when. We now have an economy that is destroying its natural support systems, one that has put us on a decline and collapse path.

The reality of our situation may soon become clearer for mainstream economists as we begin to see some of the early economic effects of overconsuming the earth’s resources, such as rising world food prices. On the social front, the most disturbing trend is spreading hunger.

As rapid population growth continues, cropland becomes scarce, wells go dry, forests disappear, soils erode, unemployment rises, and hunger spreads. As environmental degradation and economic and social stresses mount, the more fragile governments are losing their capacity to govern. They become failing states—countries whose governments can no longer provide personal security, food security, or basic social services, such as education and health care. As the list of failing states grows longer each year, it raises a disturbing question: How many states must fail before our global civilization begins to unravel?

How much longer can we remain in the decline phase, whether measured in natural asset liquidation, spreading hunger, or failing states, before our global civilization begins to break down? We are dangerously close to the edge. Peter Goldmark, former Rockefeller Foundation president, puts it well: “The death of our civilization is no longer a theory or an academic possibility; it is the road we’re on.”

Adapted from World on the Edge by Lester R. Brown.  The message is clear.

But if you haven’t read the book it’s available online, for free!  Just go here and not only will you find the link to the book but also links to other valuable materials.

Founder and President of the Earth Policy Institute, Lester Brown, speaks about his new book World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. The issues, says Brown, are critical — and the big question is whether we can change direction before “we go over the edge.” Among his points: solar, wind and geothermal energy, with energy efficiency, can provide all the power we need, but a massive effort must be made now to fully shift to these clean, safe, renewable energy technologies. He strongly rejects nuclear power.

23 thoughts on “Options for the future

  1. Absolutely brilliant, Paul. Thanks for bringing Lester Brown to my attention (I do seriously need to read more). However, in my defence, I would have to say that I was familiar with Wackernagel; and Brown’sWorld on the Edge sounds like Jared Diamond’s Collapse combined with Herman Daly’s Ecological Economics

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  2. Addendum to my previous comment: The Meadows et al team at MIT have been telling us for 40 years now that, if we put off dealing with Limits to Growth (and/or denied their existence), the Earth would eventually run out of the ability to cope with human activity; and that we would be confronted with more than one Limit simultaneously. Herman Daly called this reaching a point were further expansion of human activity would constitute “uneconomic growth”… Sadly, most of his fellow economists chose to pick a fight with history and science and, I suspect that we may now be arriving at our final destination. Please prepare to disembark in a disorderly fashion.

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  3. Hi Paul,

    Very informative post. Thank you.

    Perhaps I can ask a favor along these lines: I have recently attempted a very challenging task – summarizing our global problems and the most plausible solutions to these problems in a short and understandable way. This summary reads in about 30 minutes and starts here: http://oneinabillionblog.com/summary/. If you have the time, I would like to ask if you could look at it and suggest any improvements that I can make.

    There is no rush though – this is a long-term project.

    Thanks in advance 🙂
    Schalk

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    1. Schalk, I would hope that you know – from my initial comments on viewing your blog – that I think your oneinabillion blog does a tremendous job of summarising a whole raft of inter-connected issues. However, I think you are very wise to get someone like Paul – with a wealth of business experience behind him – to look at what you have now written… For the record though, as a non-economist (and someone rather prone to producing convoluted and lengthy sentences), I think you have once again done a very good job.

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      1. Schalk,

        I have read your summary and found myself reacting in the following ways:

        1. It’s visually complex and shows, in my opinion, the shortcomings of web pages and screens to convey detailed ideas. Not sure what the solution is? Perhaps amending the wordpress theme to accommodate better what you want to communicate? Or breaking it down into a series of shorter posts? Maybe an audio track? Or better still turn it into a video – TED talk??

        2. You are to be congratulated for the research you have clearly done. Many diagrams caught my eye.

        3. Some of the solutions you offer may not be long-term solutions. For example, Sharon Astyk in her latest book Depletion and Abundance writes how such ideas as solar panels and electric vehicles depend hugely on fossil fuels for their manufacture. Still reflecting on that in my own mind. But it throws up a caution in that it is all too easy for environmentalists not to see the full picture. The science underpinning our hopes has to be solid.

        OK, enough for now. And don’t get me wrong! You have completed a major contribution to the debate.

        Paul

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      2. Thanks for getting to it so quickly, Paul. It is much appreciated.

        Yes, the idea is to eventually start spreading these ideas via video presentations so that it becomes as digestible as at all possible. Before that can happen, however, I have to get the ideas “peer reviewed” in order to make sure that I am on the right track and that I will not just be adding to the debilitating mess of nice-but-unworkable ideas already out there. Currently, four well-informed people have checked it. I plan to get feedback from at least ten people before I post a video on Youtube.

        By the way, can you recommend any more well-informed people that I can ask to check this summary?

        You touch on a very important point there regarding the fossil fuel cost of renewable energy. I found myself writing quite a bit about this when I was working on the full One in a Billion document. This is another place where the concept of EROEI becomes very important. During this uncomfortable transitional phase we are now entering, we have to make very sure that we will get more renewable energy out than the fossil fuel energy we put in.

        Depending on where you deploy them, the EROEI of solar is between 2:1 and 11:1 while wind is a bit better at 4:1 to 24:1. This is good news in the sense that renewable energy will definitely be sustainable if we just manage to deploy enough units before our fossil fuels run out. For example, if a solar panel has an EROEI of 5:1, you can use 1 unit of fossil fuel energy to make this solar panel today and then use the renewable energy from that solar panel to make 5 more solar panels over its lifetime if you so wish. These five new solar panels can then be used to make 25 new panels which can subsequently be used for 125 new panels etc.

        But this is also the catch: if we do not deploy sufficient renewable energy infrastructure before our fossil fuels really start to dwindle, we simply will not have enough fossil fuels with which to sustain our society and simultaneously build a sustainable energy future. The solar panel mentioned above might have an EROEI of 5:1, but will only return those 5 units over its entire 30 year life cycle, implying that you have to wait around 6 years before you make back you initial energy investment.

        The problem is therefore that we have to invest a lot of our fossil fuel energy initially so that we can transition to sustainable energy. The word “invest” is very important here, but unfortunately the human race has shown itself to be brilliant consumers, but terrible investors. This will have to change ASAP…

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      3. Dear Schalk, my pleasure, genuinely so. Your reply does, however, illustrate the need to find both a simple and powerfully convincing way of inspiring millions across this Planet to change. “To change the world we have to start with self.

        As valid as they are, using concepts like EROEI and similar will leave people cold. That’s why the short video by David Roberts, see /It’s really quite simple/ was such a brilliant presentation.

        How would you emulate that video to convey your own messages?

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      4. Ah, that is a pleasant surprise, Martin. Thank you for also checking the summary. Your positive feedback is very much appreciated 🙂

        By the way, I left one of my more verbose comments on your blog the other day (http://lackofenvironment.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/why-i-am-not-a-capitalist/#comments) in response to a comment from Pendantry, but did not get a response. I was wondering what you thought of that since it talks about the very concept where I dwell a little off the beaten track.

        In short, I am very concerned about the way in which we are rapidly losing our sense of personal liberty and personal responsibility, relying more and more on our broken government systems and consumer economy for our very livelihood. I think this is a very dangerous trend indeed.

        The analogy I always use when talking about this is that of children staying with their parents. Currently, all of us grown-ups are gradually moving back in with our parents (our governments) and relying totally on these “parents” to provide for us (through ever increasing welfare, state medical insurance, cheap credit, quantitative easing etc.) without giving any thought to where our parents’ money actually comes from. .

        There is a very important difference though: we have the power to elect these “parents” of ours and can simply vote them out if they don’t give us what we want. What would happen if kids could elect their parents? Well, they would simply elect parents that let them watch TV and eat McDonald’s every day (and then go totally broke and die of some degenerative disease by age 35). Essentially this is exactly what we are doing, hence our financial woes and our degenerative disease epidemic.

        Even though One in a Billion is primarily a call to contribute to a sustainable future, it is also a plea to take back responsibility for one’s own life. If we rely on our “parents” to solve our sustainability crisis while we continue to elect only the parents who will keep on allowing us to consume as much as at all possible, the next decade or two will bring some serous pain…

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      5. Hi Schalk. As you say your comment was addressed to Pendantry (who often only comments at weekends – he is a busy man). Also, as I am sure you appreciate, I agree more with you than I do with him, so I did not answer.

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      6. Dear Schalk, I may have a nasty habit of either seeming aggressive or offering empty platitudes; whereas Paul has a gift for getting to the knub of a problem fast. I think he has done this with his most recent comment; and I would could like to concur with his suggestion that the presentation of David Roberts is one you should try to emulate… He managed to boil things down to their essentials and acronyms like EROEI are very opaque.

        I would be more inclined to serve up the EROEI message under the title “When in a hole stop digging!”… We know burning fossil fuels is the problem, therefore we should substituting their use wherever we can; not going to increasingly desperate lengths to find more of them to burn… Another piece from David Roberts does an excellent demolition job on this very subject:
        ‘Collective hypnosis or hysteria’ on natural gas?

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      7. Martin, don’t be hard on yourself – we are all part of a movement to change the world.

        Schalk, there are many metaphors that would better convey the efficiency of a process than the acronym EROEI. It just struck me that eating food might be a way of putting this important idea across.

        As in, most humans know instinctively that spending, say, a couple of hours a day eating food gives us energy to function for the other 22 hours. Clearly if we had to eat for 22 hours a day to function for 24, you and I wouldn’t be here today discussing this stuff!

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      8. Thanks Paul. Hope Schalk does not find me aggressive :-).

        Your food analogy is indeed a good one. However, it makes me wonder: We hear a lot about the Earth not being able to support anything like 7 billion humans if we all eat meat everyday (because livestock have to spend all their time eating an awful lot of grass). But, if we are to avoid having to spend all that time eating grass ourselves, we will have to find a high EROEI food source (and may even have to manufacture it in a laboratory)…?

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      9. Thanks for the advice, guys. Yes, it is indeed one thing to do the research and a totally different thing to disseminate this research in an concise, understandable and engaging manner. I’ll stay away from EROEI in the later presentation of these findings 🙂

        But just grant me one last EROEI observation regarding food… Interestingly, EROEI is just another very good argument for a more vegetarian lifestyle. Today it takes somewhere between 6-20 kg of grain to produce 1 kg of beef. The caloric content of beef is actually lower than that of grain products, implying that the energy that we get from eating meat has been massively diluted compared to the energy we would have gotten from just eating the grains directly. This kind of massive energy inefficiency is something that we can ill afford at the moment considering that our grain stocks are already under pressure…

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  4. Nice post, indeed: all the nicer, since I have been saying these things for many years. I am not saying this to boast, but because there is therein several important warnings (related to the EROI considerations of Schlak above)..

    Here is a hint: Copernicus did not invent his heliocentric system. Buridan, who was hyper famous did, 2 centuries before. But then he was censored, cancelled by the Church, more than 120 years after his death, in Copernicus lifetime. Meaning Copernicus was a case of partial plagiarism…. most probably. The case of Buridan is much more interesting than that of his parrot.

    Buridan was the head of the university of Paris, so he is not even mentioned in Wikipedia as a predecessor of Copernicus. French bias is alive and well. As the environment is rather better preserved in France than in some other places, this is somewhat telling.

    Humankind sits on the most formidable nuclear fission reactor known. Thus, to reject nuclear is to reject the Mother Earth herself. Stupid ingratitude comes to mind. Except for an unforeseeable technical miracle, ecologists who reject nuclear fission research are just ill informed, or hypocrites, who don’t care about facts, having turned ecology into a business. There are very safe, no waste, non Plutonium nuclear technologies.

    Wind energy will, in the fullness of time, peter out as the temperature rises and the wind dies down. Even ocean currents are threatened that way. The only sure thing is tides. Photovoltaics will work, especially if one is in a very sunny place, and cheap ways can be found to store the energy. I explained somewhere on my site the giant fuel cell project in Corsica.

    The first line of action should be to press for massive carbon and energy taxes. To reach European levels, gasoline in the USA ought to be 10 dollars a gallon. And that should be accompanied by a carbon tax. This is probably why American ecologists will prefer to talk about something else. Like the horrors of nuclear, and how bad Romney is. meanwhile pass the gasoline, and drink it every day.
    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/

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    1. “Wind energy will, in the fullness of time, peter out as the temperature rises and the wind dies down. Even ocean currents are threatened that way. The only sure thing is tides. “

      This is an interesting idea, Patrice. Presumably, you mean that tthe wind will die down once the Earth’s 0.6W/m2 energy imbalance is eliminated? Unfortunately, even if we manage to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect (that melts all ice in 200 years and starts to boil the oceans dry) scientists seem to agree that, even if we stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, re-establishing equilibrium (and stablising the Earth’s temperature at a new higher level) is a very distant prospect (i.e. 50-100 years after cessation). In the interim, we have the opposite problem: More moisture in the atmosphere more of the time is creating more wind and more extreme weather, more often.

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      1. Earth, as it is, is a Carnot engine. Heat in tropics, cold sink in Arctic. As later will heat up, engine, that means winds, currents, will die. Non linear effects are at play. Gigantic deployment of a wind infrastructure, complete with artificial lakes will fall victim to this effect. Only me talks about it, the lonely preacher of that disaster…

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      2. Like I said Patrice, your temperature equilibrium is a long way off and may never happen. You also omit to mention the fact that there are 3 cells in each hemisphere (with convergence zones at approx. 0, 30 and 60 degrees latitude).

        Either way, as a consequence of greater temperature and pressure differences between the poles and the the nearest of the convergence zones, that part of the Earth’s surface where a lot of us northerners live looks set to get a lot worse before it gets better.

        On the tides, of course, I agree with you; and it is good to see the EU putting money into research and development off the northern tip of Scotland.

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