Tag: Limits to Growth

Is it just me?

Some days, one just wonders about a world that appears to be stark, raving mad!

One of the fundamental things that mankind is not learning from dogs, or from other animals for that fact, is having a sensitivity to danger.

Even happy, domesticated dogs, as with cats, are incredibly quick to pick up on something that just doesn’t ‘feel right’!

For example, take what was written here last Wednesday. About the extreme madness of our dependency on oil for our food!

Why is there no outcry?

Just recently, NOAA reported that “April 2014 was tied with April of 2010 as being the warmest April on record globally for land and ocean surface combined. NOAA also said that – globally – the January 2014 to April 2014 period was the 6th warmest Jan-Apr period on record.”

Why is there no outcry?

Just ten days ago, I wrote a post under the title of The nature of delusions. Included in that post was an essay from George Monbiot he called Are We Bothered? His proposition being, “The more we consume, the less we care about the living planet.

Part of me hates the way that this blog often touches on pain and negativity but my motivation is simply that doing nothing, ignoring what is so wrong in the world, would be the height of irresponsibility.

All of which is a preamble to another George Monbiot essay. Mr. Monbiot is a powerful writer as his many essays demonstrate. But this latest one from him is one of the most powerful essays in a very long time.

It’s not a comfortable read. But sure as hell, it’s a must read!


The Impossibility of Growth

May 27, 2014

Why collapse and salvation are hard to distinguish from each other.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 28th May 2014

Let us imagine that in 3030BC the total possessions of the people of Egypt filled one cubic metre. Let us propose that these possessions grew by 4.5% a year. How big would that stash have been by the Battle of Actium in 30BC? This is the calculation performed by the investment banker Jeremy Grantham (1).

Go on, take a guess. Ten times the size of the pyramids? All the sand in the Sahara? The Atlantic ocean? The volume of the planet? A little more? It’s 2.5 billion billion solar systems (2). It does not take you long, pondering this outcome, to reach the paradoxical position that salvation lies in collapse.

To succeed is to destroy ourselves. To fail is to destroy ourselves. That is the bind we have created. Ignore if you must climate change, biodiversity collapse, the depletion of water, soil, minerals, oil; even if all these issues were miraculously to vanish, the mathematics of compound growth make continuity impossible.

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained (3). But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

On Friday, a few days after scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now inevitable (4), the Ecuadorean government decided that oil drilling would go ahead in the heart of the Yasuni national park (5). It had made an offer to other governments: if they gave it half the value of the oil in that part of the park, it would leave the stuff in the ground. You could see this as blackmail or you could see it as fair trade. Ecuador is poor, its oil deposits are rich: why, the government argued, should it leave them untouched without compensation when everyone else is drilling down to the inner circle of hell? It asked for $3.6bn and received $13m. The result is that Petroamazonas, a company with a colourful record of destruction and spills (6), will now enter one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, in which a hectare of rainforest is said to contain more species than exist in the entire continent of North America (7).

The UK oil company Soco is now hoping to penetrate Africa’s oldest national park, Virunga, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (8); one of the last strongholds of the mountain gorilla and the okapi, of chimpanzees and forest elephants. In Britain, where a possible 4.4 billion barrels of shale oil has just been identified in the south-east (9), the government fantasises about turning the leafy suburbs into a new Niger delta. To this end it’s changing the trespass laws to enable drilling without consent and offering lavish bribes to local people (10,11). These new reserves solve nothing. They do not end our hunger for resources; they exacerbate it.

The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in ten years (12). The trade body Forest Industries tell us that “global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow.” (13) If, in the digital age, we won’t reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don’t need. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that fantasies about the colonisation of space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced (14).

As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we were miraculously to reduce the consumption of raw materials by 90% we delay the inevitable by just 75 years(15). Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.

The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st Century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn’t worthy of mention. That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.



1. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7853

2. Grantham expressed this volume as 1057 cubic metres. In his paper We Need To Talk About Growth, Michael Rowan translated this as 2.5 billion billion solar systems. (http://persuademe.com.au/need-talk-growth-need-sums-well/). This source gives the volume of the solar system (if it is treated as a sphere) at 39,629,013,196,241.7 cubic kilometres, which is roughly 40 x 1021 cubic metres. Multiplied by 2.5 billion billion, this gives 1041 cubic metres.

Since posting this, I’ve received the following clarifications:

From Jacob Bayless:

“… about the volume of the solar system — there is no agreed-upon definition of its diameter, which is why the figures vary wildly. (There are also two definitions of ‘a billion’, which adds to the confusion). Using the radius of Neptune’s orbit, as the farthest ‘planet’ from the sun, gives the 2.5 billion billion figure:

The orbit of Neptune is 4.5 x 10^12 m radius, which yields a 4 x 10^38 cubic m sphere. Multiplying this by 2.5 x 10^18, or “2.5 billion billion”, gives 10^57 cubic m. So that calculation checks out.

The heliopause radius would be another possible way to measure the solar system radius; it’s 4 times as far and thus 64 times the volume.”

From Geoff Briggs:

“Michael Rowan has taken the size of the solar system to be the orbit of Neptune, which is kind of understandable, but the sun’s influence extends a LOT further than that, so his estimate is correspondingly significantly overstated (ie the extra billion).

The 39,629,… cubic km figure from yahoo answers is based on a correct calculation in light years, but then a massive cock-up in the conversion to cubic km. The author seems to have assumed that a light year is about 21,000,000m, which is off by about eight orders of magnitude. 4.2 cubic light years is about 3.6 x 10^39 cubic km (and hence about 3.6 x 10^48 cubic metres).”

From Andrew Bryce:

“Starting volume of Egyptian possessions = 1 m3

after 3000 years volume = 1 x (1.045)^3000

= 2.23 x 10^57 m3

Assume the radius of the solar system is 50 AU (the distance to the Kuiper belt)

1 AU = 1.496 x 10^11 m

radius of the solar system = 50 AU = 7.48 x 10^12 m

volume of solar system = 4/3 x pi x r^3

= 1.75 x 10^39 m3

so the Egyptian possessions would require 2.23 x 10^57 / 1.75 x 10^39 solar systems

= 1.27 x 10^18

= about 1.27 billion billion solar systems

If you consider the radius of the solar system to be 40 AU (about the mid point of the orbit of Pluto), then you would get a figure of about 2.5 billion solar systems.”

But: “if you round off the volume of possessions to exactly 10^57 m3, and you assume the radius of the solar system to be 30 AU (the orbit of Neptune), then you would also get a figure of around 2.5 billion billion solar systems (well, 2.64 billion billion), which might be where the calculation came from. That would be a better definition for the size of the solar system, because it has a neatly defined edge.”

3. EA Wrigley, 2010. Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. Cambridge University Press.

4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/12/western-antarctic-ice-sheet-collapse-has-already-begun-scientists-warn

5. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/23/ecuador-amazon-yasuni-national-park-oil-drill

6. http://www.entornointeligente.com/articulo/2559574/ECUADOR-Gobierno-concede-licencia-para-la-explotacion-de-dos-campos-del-ITT-23052014

7. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/16/ecuador-approves-yasuni-amazon-oil-drilling

8. http://www.wwf.org.uk/how_you_can_help/virunga/

9. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/23/fracking-report-billions-barrels-oil-government-cynicism

10. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/fracking/10598473/Fracking-could-be-allowed-under-homes-without-owners-permission.html

11. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/may/23/fracking-report-billions-barrels-oil-government-cynicism

12. Philippe Sibaud, 2012. Opening Pandora’s Box: The New Wave of Land Grabbing by the Extractive Industries and the Devastating Impact on Earth. The Gaia Foundation. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/opening-pandoras-box

13. http://www.forestindustries.fi/industry/paper_cardboard_converted/paper_pulp/Global-paper-consumption-is-growing-1287.html

14. https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/articles/space-race-over

15. Michael Rowan, 2014. We Need To Talk About Growth (And we need to do the sums as well.) http://persuademe.com.au/need-talk-growth-need-sums-well/


Why is there no outcry!


Playing with fire!

A republication of a powerful essay from Martin Lack.

Martin and I haven’t seen eye-to-eye on everything, as each of us would readily admit.  But there’s no taking away the power contained in many of Martin’s essays over on his Blog Lack of Environment.  Unlike me, Martin has strong academic credentials that he uses well to support his position.

Martin recently published a strong Post called It doesn’t have to be like this and has kindly given written permission for it to be republished on Learning from Dogs.

Tomorrow, I plan to expand on the fruit crop disaster that Martin refers to below.  So here is the essay,


Planet Earth is not just another business!


It doesn’t have to be like this

In 1974, the former World Bank economist Herman E Daly published an article on ‘The Economics of the Steady State’, beginning with a quote from the famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington: “But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Daly is also on record as having quoted Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (from Letter to the Soviet Leaders [i.e. published in 1974]), who said: “Society must cease to look upon ‘progress’ as something desirable. Eternal ‘progress’ is a nonsensical myth. What must be implemented is a not a steadily expanding economy but a zero growth economy; a stable economy.”

The essential point of Thomas Malthus’ (1798) ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ was that populations increase faster than the supply of food can be made available to meet their needs. With this in mind, in 1972, Meadows et al predicted that the biophysical limits to growth would be exceeded at some point within 100 years: “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

Recent strange weather in the USA – specifically a very warm March followed by unseasonal frosts in May – has all but wiped out all kinds of fruit crops. This may not have been the industrial collapse envisaged by Meadows et al (that is yet to come), but it is evidence of the way in which anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) – or what some would have us be more precise and call human induced rapid global overheating (HIRGO) – threatens our ability to feed ourselves.

In 1992, the Meadows et al team summarised their revised conclusions as follows:
— 1. Human use of many essential resources and generation of many pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable. Without significant reductions in material and energy flows, there will be in the coming decades an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use and industrial production.
— 2. This decline is not inevitable. To avoid it two changes are necessary. The first is a comprehensive revision of policies and practices that perpetuate growth in material consumption and in population. A second is a rapid, drastic increase in the efficiency with which materials are used.
— 3. A sustainable society is still technically and economically possible. It could be much more desirable than a society that tries to solve its problems by constant expansion. The transition to a sustainable society requires a careful balance between long-term and short term goals, and an emphasis on sufficiency, equity, and quality of life rather than on quantity of output. It requires more than productivity and more than technology; it also requires maturity, compassion, and wisdom.

In general, Meadows et al have been consistently ignored. In 1993, frustrated by the absence of discussion on population growth in international politics, Garrett Hardin pointed out that: “Two centuries of intermittent wrestling with population problems have produced useful insights about the reality and nature of limits… Four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric… From this it must be inferred that someday political conservatism will once again be defined as contented living within limits. The limitless world view will have to be abandoned.”

In this context, the words growth and development should not be confused. As Daly has pointed out:
“the Earth may be developing but it is not growing.”!

In their 30-year update of Limits to Growth, in a section entitled ‘Why Technology and Markets Alone Can’t Avoid Overshoot’, the Meadows et al team pointed out that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously. With regard to the computer modelling undertaken, they observed that in most cases the simulations ran out of the ‘ability to cope’ when too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems; and concluded: “Growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious because it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.”

Just because Meadows et al have not yet been proven right does not mean that they were wrong.

In Small is Beautiful (1973), E. F. Schumacher wrote: “The illusion of [mankind’s] unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production… based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most… A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital…”

What he meant was:

There is something fundamentally wrong in treating the Earth as if it were a business in liquidation. ― (Herman E. Daly)