Can We Still Chart a New Course?

This past week I read several articles exploring Gaya Herrington’s recent analysis of The Limits to Growth,[i] the groundbreaking research by Donella and Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III in 1972. The worrisome but not so surprising conclusion? We’re following their projections almost exactly.

Herrington is not the first scientist to update the Limits to Growth research. In fact the authors, themselves, wrote a 20-year and 30-year update. But Herrington’s work is timely, considering large parts of Siberia and the western US ablaze, the brutal droughts in Iran and Madagascar, the record-breaking temperatures around the world, and the fact that parts of the Amazon are now releasing rather than sequestering carbon (not to mention the many other clear signs of the rapid breakdown of the climate system), all while humans try hard to resume their consumer lifestyles [post]-pandemic.[ii]

As Herrington’s analysis explores, it’s not limited resources but Gaia’s limited capacity to absorb all our waste products that is doing us in. Our continual dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is like that famous scene from War of the Roses, when Kathleen Turner locks Michael Douglas in the sauna. We’re quickly cooking ourselves to death. If we just let go of our pride and amicably fixed our relationship, we might be ok—but out of spite or stupidity, we carry on, pissing on Gaia’s fish, forgetting that she’s the one with the monster truck. And beyond messing with the climate, we’re also poisoning our water, despoiling our earth, riddling our oceans with plastic and nitrogen, and acidifying them with CO2, and cutting down trees to wipe our asses, grow more soy and cattle, and build more (and too often second) homes.

The sad thing is we’re actually doing this. Nitrogen runoff from agriculture is like we’re pissing on the world’s fishes. (Image from Fandango Movie Clip of War of the Roses)

The thing is, Herrington’s conclusions are far too positive. She’s quoted in a Guardian article, saying “The key finding of my study is that we still have a choice to align with a scenario that does not end in collapse. With innovation in business, along with new developments by governments and civil society, continuing to update the model provides another perspective on the challenges and opportunities we have to create a more sustainable world.”[iii]

Notice the inflection points clustering around 2030-2050. But can you find the one line that never curves (at least in this time scale)? (Graph from Herrington, 2021)

In 1972, when the Limits to Growth came out, that was true. We had only 3.85 billion people (half of our current population), we had produced only 331 million tons of plastic in total (compared to 8.3 billion tons today—more than one ton per person!), we extracted less than half the fossil fuels annually that we do now; we even had an oil crisis in 1979 that could have sparked us to turn to conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy and never look back. But we didn’t choose a different path.

Now our population is now just shy of 8 billion, and there are as many world-ravaging consumers on the planet as there were people back in 1972,[iv] and it’s unrealistic that we can turn this colossal ship in time any longer.

Decision Trees

A few weeks ago, I tripped over a funny decision tree on Twitter about when to ask a question after a lecture. It got me thinking about decision trees and after reading Herrington’s work, I created my own on how likely it is that we’ll avoid collapse. Now keep in mind it’s from an individual perspective, not a systemic one. Yes, you could argue that corporations and growth-centric governments should be at the center of analysis, but at the end of the day, if we consumers—from the billionaires to the aspiring—don’t change how we’re living (including how many times we replicate ourselves each generation), we will chew through our last remaining carrying capacity and die as unglamorously as bacteria trapped in their tapped out petri dish. Even I failed to run the gauntlet all the way to the end (though I’m working to answer yes to all of these). But even if I had made it, the point is that the majority of people in the consumer class love their burgers, air conditioners, dogs and cats, visits to far off destinations (now including the thermosphere![v]), and their “freedom” to consume whatever and whenever they want—the hardest element to measure but also the most perilous. Most are not willing to make these difficult changes, and will even actively resist them (and the people who initiate them), and certainly won’t fight to take these “freedoms” away from others.

Not an easy gauntlet to run.

And just to be clear, this isn’t doom and gloom thinking. Good friends and wise colleagues have wrestled with this data, from Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel and their analyses of the ecological footprint, to Jennie Moore exploring what one planet living looks like, to IGES, the Hot or Cool Institute, and others analyzing what a 1.5 degree lifestyle looks like. In Finland a 1.5 degree lifestyle means reducing carbon footprints by 69% by 2030 and 86% by 2050. Even in India (a country where many live in poverty), the population as a whole will need to reduce consumption from current averages by 43% by 2050 to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius![vi] It’s hard to imagine that we still have the opportunity to truly correct course when we’re living in a world where, first and foremost, growth is still celebrated; and where so many refuse to believe the reality of climate change (or science more generally); don’t understand how catastrophic a future we’re creating for ourselves; or frankly don’t or can’t care about future changes (e.g. because of an otherworldly orientation or because they’re barely surviving the present)—all while certain individuals and interests have billion$ of reasons to perpetuate this confusion.

The Roller Coaster to Hell

Last month, I took my son, along with my mom and her friend, to an amusement park. That was my son’s first outing to a hyper-consumeristic theme park, and one of the first rides we hopped on was a roller coaster—an old rickety wooden one that we all thought would be a good introduction (scary but not too scary). Boy, were we wrong. It was the shakiest, wildest rollercoaster I ever remember riding. In part, I think that’s because I worried my son was being traumatized at every dip, curve and twist, and that my mom, now 72 and frailer than she was, might not actually survive the ordeal—at least not without serious injury. It was two minutes of terror, and I was relieved when we reached the end.

The reality is, we’re on a much scarier roller coaster right now. We’ve been tick-tick-ticking up the beginning belt of the Collaps-o-Coaster for years now, with the tension building every day. In 2020 and 2021 we just felt the first little drop, a small one, just to spook riders a bit, before our continued climb. But soon, the drop will be dramatic. And this roller coaster was designed by sadists. There are low hanging bars that will decapitate the unwary, some seatbelts that’ll spring open, and some cars that will catapult from the rails. Many will not survive the ride, some simply because they die of the shock of it all.

Hang on…. (Image by Incygneia from Pixabay)

But the one thing none of the riders can do? Get off. We’re locked onto this trajectory now. We can take care of each other (even as we’re thrown back and forth and up and down), and offer each other soothing words, but there’s no emergency break, no intercom system to reach the operators, no way out.

I know that’s terrible. I don’t want to believe it either. And we can certainly collectively attempt to slow things down,[vii] help our neighbors duck, hang onto them when their seatbelts pop open, and share our water or snacks, but the coming years are going to be wild.

Hanging On

One final story: my family just watched Daraya: A Library Under the Bombs, about some young Syrians who together collected books from bombed out houses in the city of Daraya to create an underground library. It became a symbol of learning, resistance, and humanity in the midst of horrific and nearly total destruction. While the library, too, was eventually bombed, efforts like these, even in failure, will mean the difference between despair and chaos, and the retention of culture, compassion, even literacy in the horrible times ahead.

So what’s that all mean in these final moments of our climbing up the track of the Collaps-o-Coaster? Prepare, resist, consume less, build a community you can trust, and hang on tight—to your neighbor and to your humanity.


[i] You may be wondering if Gaya is related to Gaia as she has the same name. Yes, she is. We are all related to Gaia—indeed we are all just aspects of Gaia. Only when we realize that will we truly get it….

[ii] I put post in brackets as we may temporarily be post, in the west—at least those who have gotten vaccinated. But much of the world has not been able to access the vaccination yet, or foolishly fears it—as they have for many vaccines throughout history, so the idea that this pandemic is truly over is a bit nonsensical. (We’re at half a million new cases and ten thousand deaths a day, about 50% of the peak, but considering we’ve had an effective vaccine since the beginning of this year, that’s horrible.)

[iii] In her report, Herrington notes there are two scenarios that align most closely with current data: the Business-as-Usual 2 scenario, which equals collapse. And the CT or comprehensive technology scenario where population stabilizes in 2050, growth and food slow but then keep growing, and pollution somehow peaks in 2050 and then declines. Sure, theoretically still possible (though climate tipping points suggest otherwise), but politically, this is highly unlikely.

[iv] This assumes those earning $5.50 a day are in the global consumer class, which gives them access to many of the simpler consumer luxuries, from meat to smartphones (which in 2021 was 3.8 billion). But even at the more limited $10/day middle class level, there are still 2.995 billion consumers.

[v] It turns out Branson and Bezos didn’t actually go into space. Yes, they traveled 50 and 66 miles up in Earth’s atmosphere (the thermosphere) but that is still Gaia’s realm. Even the International Space Station is five times higher, circling at about 250 miles above the planet. In fact, according to NOAA, space starts 6,200 miles above the Earth. It’s like a toddler jumping as high as he can and declaring that he’s flying. It may be cute, but it’s not true. (And unlike with a toddler, exploring their fantasy worlds created massive amounts of pollution.)

A young Jeff Bezos and Rickie Branson jumping. Branson looks adorable in his froggy rain boots. Bezos seems to be imagining that the rain puddles he’s jumping in are the lives of his future employees. (Image by Erik Assadourian from and lubovlisitsa and DivvyPixel via Pixabay)

[vi] Note: the US, which was not included in the analysis, would have required even more impossibly large reductions.

[vii] Using this metaphor, I’m not sure what that means. Individuals sacrificing themselves to grab the tracks? Throwing the dead under the wheels to slow things down? But in real terms, every true effort to reduce emissions, to reduce consumption, to reduce new additions to the global population (of humans, of livestock, of pets) matters, even if its total effect is imperceptible.

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4 Responses

  1. Ugo Bardi

    Very nice post, Eric. Just one note. The 2012 book by Jorgen Randers is NOT the 40 year update of the original book. It is a completely independent book, written by Randers and a number of coauthors (including myself).

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Ugo. I edited accordingly. I remember hearing Jorgen speak about the book and remembered it as a riff on the original work, but I see now it is a separate 40 year projection. It has been removed from the essay but for those interested, here is the link to it.

  2. Dan Fiscus

    Erik,

    Excellent Reflection as usual – thought provoking, courageous, connected to a great web of resources and ideas. Here are a few more ideas I see as connected to this web…

    Where you write:

    “It’s hard to imagine that we still have the opportunity to truly correct course when we’re living in a world where, first and foremost, growth is still celebrated; and where so many refuse to believe the reality of climate change (or science more generally); don’t understand how catastrophic a future we’re creating for ourselves; or frankly don’t or can’t care about future changes (e.g. because of an otherworldly orientation or because they’re barely surviving the present)—all while certain individuals and interests have billion$ of reasons to perpetuate this confusion.”

    I would offer two main things and maybe more after I ponder longer. The first is that I recommend we consider that “science” is not a single or monolithic thing, process or system. In fact, I suggest that we should consider that one aspect of science is directly connected to the root cause of the global ecological crisis (and linked social and economic crises) we now face. Thus unless we inspect and change our science, it is unlikely we will succeed at anything and more likely we will continue to make matters worse. As a reference I cite over and over, from one of the authors of Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows wrote that the “power to transcend paradigms” is the number one source of leverage for change in complex systems.

    Next, where you say “growth is celebrated” that idea is not only in economics, but again in the dominant mainstream paradigm of science. In the Charles Mann essay you link for the book discussion, he wrote:

    “This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range.”

    Mann states the purpose of “all living creatures” as if this is unquestionable truth and conventional consensus wisdom. Connected to this same paradigm is the (mistaken or incomplete) belief that life is a property of organisms, end of concept.

    As an alternative paradigm of Life, in our book (Fiscus and Fath 2018, Foundations for Sustainability) we cite Gregory Bateson (1970) who wrote:

    “It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line of the subspecies or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its “progress” ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself. And we may very easily see this process carried to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the next twenty years. The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society.” (p. 32)

    And a bit later:

    “The flexible environment must also be included along with the flexible organism because, as I have already said, the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.” (p. 32)

    To “chart a course” toward any goal of any sort of positive future, we need a valid destination as well as a way to steer. If we use science as it now exists to define these two, we are in fact doomed. If we change science to a paradigm like that by which all other life forms live – in unity with environment and in ways that IMPROVE the environment over time (soils, oxygen atmosphere, etc. etc.) – then we may have a snowball’s chance on a rollercoaster into, through and back out of Hell.

    Best wishes,
    Dan

  3. Thomas Ellis

    Thank you, Erik, for this insightful, well-researched article.However gloomy our collective prospects are, it is still better to look our grim and desperate reality in the face, as you have done, than to live in denial.

    And I agree entirely with Dan Fiskus on this: as Gregory Bateson said, the true unit of survival is species + environment, since any species that destroys its biological support system inevitably destroys itself as well. That is, of course, exactly what we are doing, collectively, with our industrial consumer civilization (“Glomart” as I call it). But is it all we CAN do?

    No. We can begin with Bateson’s definition, and work with it as our new paradigm. We can, but will we? Collectively, probably not. But among small aggregates of Gaians, here and there, we can and must, if any of us has a remote chance of surviving the inexorable collapse of Glomart. And in my view, the most systematic and pragmatic approach I have come across yet to actualizing this new Batesonian paradigm (i.e. Species+environment as the unit of selection) is the Permaculture movement: a tried and true recipe for designing human communities that are symbiotic with, rather than parasitic upon, Gaia.

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