We Have A Scalability Issue
At the dawn of the industrial revolution less than 1 billion humans inhabited this earth. We’ve consumed only a small proportion of the easy to access ores of iron, copper and coal. With the power of coal we’ve became capable to tap a vast amount of new resources. Everything we did seemed miniature in scale compared to the vast resources and pollution sinks (the ocean and the atmosphere) of this planet. It was very easy to believe, that this is really an infinite world… An empty world — at least in economic terms — all there for the taking.
Back in 1950's, when the great acceleration has really kicked into gear neoclassical economists started to believe that there are really no limits to growth. Needless to say, this observation was completely blindsided to the fact that this growth was due exclusively to a one-time boom in non-renewable resource extraction of both fossil fuels AND minerals.
This energy and material blindness was combined with a good deal of disregard for those who cared to do the math and begged to differ — an act of hubris lasting this very day. As a result, this ‘great acceleration’ has came at the cost of tipping the only habitable ecosystem (at least in a 4 light-year radius) into an irreversible decline.
If you have only 42 minutes to understand what is really going on our planet besides climate change, and would like to know what is this ‘great acceleration’ I’m blathering about, watch this very informative presentation from Will Steffen, emeritus professor of the Australian National University.
Now, in the early 2020’s we are nearly at eight billion. We have created more stuff than the weight of all the plants and animals combined. We have replaced wildlife with cattle, pigs and chickens. Humans and their livestock now make up 96% of all mammalian life by weight on land.
We have consumed then replaced the natural world with a human world.
This is no longer the empty world our grand-grand ancestors believed it to be. One that can accommodate growth in consumption and pollution. This is a human world in overshoot. A world in which we devour more natural and mineral resources which can be replaced in a year. We have stopped living off the interest and turned towards consuming the capital… about 50 years ago. Back when we were half this many and consumed a quarter of what take every year.
Today we are fast approaching the state of the ‘empty world’ once again — this time in a sense where there is nothing left to take. This is a problem on a scale above and beyond any human system to address.
It doesn’t matter much where you live. Be it New York, which imports all of its produce from far away lands, or Madagascar where people burn and cut down the last remaining forests to grow food. We consume not only the fossil reserves of ancient carbon and rich minerals, but the living world as well. It is happening everywhere: Africa, Asia, Europe, America you name it. This combination of population and consumption is nowhere near sustainable.
Needless to say, what cannot go on forever, and this definitely cannot go on forever, will stop. No matter how deeply we care for social justice or democratic voting rights, no matter how hard we try to detract ourselves with politics, celebrities, football or myths of carbon neutrality, this mass destruction of the Natural world will go on either until:
a) the ecosystem collapses under the weight of human pressure, or
b) we run out of fuel (both diesel, and natural gas)
It’s very important to note however, that neither of these scenarios are distinct events in the future. Both are ongoing as the trends outlined above, and the skyrocketing energy prices show.
Yes, the natural world is in the process of collapsing and humanity is already in the process of running out of cheap energy.
Climate change comes ‘only’ as an added ‘bonus’, as a result of our simultaneous consumption of the natural and mineral world in excess.
In this context we have indeed arrived at a massive scalability issue. In earlier cases, like at the end of the age of coal roughly a hundred years ago, we had vast amounts of easy to extract minerals and liquid fuels — not to mention a well functioning ecosystem to accommodate growth. We had a much-much lower population to crave for much-much lower levels of energy and material use. We had a much-much smaller industry and infrastructure to adopt to a new energy resource requiring much less time and much-much-much-much-much less material and energy resources.
The irony of our present situation is, that no matter how clever an idea we come up with to solve our — let’s say — energy issues, we neither have the time nor the resources, land area or time to carry it out at the scale needed to keep this civilization alive. Be it renewables, electrification, nuclear, fusion etc. all of the proposed solutions to our pollution / depletion problem depend heavily on rapidly depleting, increasingly energy intensive to extract — and as a result — ever more polluting mineral resources. To cite a letter signed by a great number of scientists and addressed to the UN:
Before now, it may have been convenient for politicians, bureaucrats and people in the organisations they fund, to maintain an upbeat message that more technology, capital and management will solve both poverty and environmental destruction. However, the evidence from the UN’s own reports show clearly that is merely a convenient myth, and that billions of people would be better served by more sober analysis of the worsening situation.
Don’t expect the techno-utopist crowd to accept this however. They will dig in their heels insisting that what we have is a temporary problem to which they have ‘the solution’ — ranging from more investment programs to protectionism or to outright fascism — you name it. So the push for increased technology use, together with increased extraction of finite resources and the destruction of the natural world in search for profits and growth could continue unabated…
…until it inevitably comes to a screeching halt in a never-ending series of ‘unexpected’ consequences: pandemics, wars, failing states, supply disruptions, a world order fragmenting into ever smaller pieces, natural disasters and so on.
If this reminds you of the world we’re living in today, well… then your intuition is not entirely misguided. This is a completely normal way for complex adaptive systems — like a world economy built on a one-time resource boom — to unravel. Expect this ‘long emergency’ to continue for decades to come, until those of us who were ready to accept early on, that it is due to perfectly natural causes, start to build out a new world much better suited to meet with reality.
Until next time,