Sunday, July 05, 2009

A brief ecological manifesto

I'm not a European, but I play one on the Internet--at least for the next month. Comment: Visions, a website which "explores the personal views of thinkers, innovators and scientists about possible solutions to global warming, overpopulation and dwindling resources," asked me and other "European intellectuals and leaders" to respond to the following question for the month of July posting: What can we do to ensure that generations to come have a sustainable future?

Comment: Visions is a collaboration between The European Voice, a newspaper which covers the European Parliament, and the euronews [sic] television channel, both of which are owned by The Economist Group, owners of The Economist magazine and other publications. The Comment: Visions site is produced in association with Shell, a fact which gave me some misgivings. But as I looked at the previous questions and responses, I discovered a wide range of views, some of them quite radical, at least by the standards of The Economist and Shell. And so, I decided to participate.

I attempted to write a concise, blunt assessment of our ecological predicament in hopes that perhaps at least one person of influence might read and understand what I believe we face. I have reproduced my answer below. For the other answers, go to the Comment: Visions home page for July. Here is what I wrote:
We are in overshoot. Failure to recognize this fact and act on it will ultimately condemn humans worldwide to nature's cure for this condition: collapse. Overshoot is a well-defined ecological term; it means an organism is temporarily living beyond the long-term carrying capacity of its environment, that is, the ability of the environment to provide it with the needed food, energy and other resources for the long-term and to absorb the pollution it produces without destroying that carrying capacity.

Collapse is a more indefinite term, but it does not mean annihilation. Collapse in the case of human society implies a fairly rapid decline in population over perhaps many decades and the reorganization of society into smaller and far more decentralized units.

For those who say that this cannot happen, the onus is on them to show that the record of history (which is replete with such instances) and the findings of science no longer apply to humans. Our predicament is probably most aptly described by ecologist William Catton Jr. in his book entitled "Overshoot." The enabling substances for this overshoot have been fossil fuels. They have provided a one-time endowment of exceptionally concentrated energy which we have used to extract large yields from farms, forests, mines, fisheries and factories. Fossil fuels have enabled us to increase our population and our wealth exponentially in the last 150 years.

But once these finite fuels are burned, they are gone forever. The long-run alternative is solar, its derivatives of wind and water power, and possibly nuclear power. However, our problems run deeply across multiple natural systems--climate, fisheries, water, farm fields, and forests to name a few. Merely deploying alternative energy quickly enough to replace fossil fuels will not solve all our problems. In fact, increasing our use of energy could put even more pressure on the very natural systems upon which our lives depend.

How then are we to climb down off this ledge of overshoot and avoid crashing headlong into the valley of collapse? And, what should our destination be? The historical record has only a handful of examples of long-term sustainable societies, and they are based on agriculture and hunting and gathering. The Indian agricultural village and the Australian Aboriginal culture come to mind. But few people in industrialized nations desire a return to such forms of human society. When modern people speak of sustainability, they mean a sustainable industrial society. And so, we are in uncharted waters for there is no historical example of such a society to guide us.

We must rely instead on certain principles to tell us what to do. The bedrock principle that nature suggests is this: We cannot have infinite growth in the consumption of resources inside a finite system, the Earth. If we are in overshoot, as I suggest, then we are beyond the point of growing and must recede from our current consumptive habits.

How can we achieve this? I admit that my solution is one no sane politician would embrace: a steady-state economy, that is, an economy in which neither the throughput of material resources nor the associated pollution would grow. The quality of goods and services, however, could continue to increase so long as that increase in quality does not demand the use of additional resources. And, the satisfactions we obtain from nonmaterial sources such as friends and family, athletic and artistic pursuits, and religious practice could continue to deepen and grow indefinitely. Note, however, that while this is the description of a steady-state economy, it is not one of a steady-state society. Both the economic and cultural life of such a society would continue to evolve.

All of this seems hard enough to imagine, let alone implement. But we must go even further for we cannot achieve a sustainable, steady-state economy by merely ceasing to grow. Rather, because we are already in overshoot, we need to reduce drastically our use of resources, especially energy. This will doubtless require new technology to make us vastly more efficient. But it will also require that we rearrange our lives and change our habits so as to accomplish our goals by using far fewer resources than we do today. We will also need to bring down population gradually over time to a level consistent with long-term sustainability.

While what I'm suggesting may seem like an impossible political task, it is the only feasible solution for a sustainable industrial society. Either we summon the will to bring about a steady-state economy or nature will tragically and remorselessly implement one for us. These are our choices.


gbenz said...


I couldn't help but be disheartened by the responses provided by many of the "thinkers, innovators, and scientists" at the Comment/Visions site. From Jerry Stone, who advocates moving electrical production and industrial processes into space, to Sam Vaknin, who states that future generations "have no rights and we have no obligations towards them", to Ross Kaminsky (a derivitives trader!) who proclaims flatly that the planet is "NOT warming" and "we're not running out of oil", I was struck by the lack of understanding of limits.

Aside from your entry and those from a few other insightful contributors, I was downright depressed by the emphasis on yet-to-be-developed technologies as tickets to an energy rich, ever wealthier future. Few of them seem to grasp the magnitude of our overshoot. We are not an airliner about to go 20 feet past the end of the runway with the potential to get the tires muddy, we are 35,000 feet up with a broken fuel gauge and no airport in sight.

Anonymous said...

"I admit that my solution is one no sane politician would embrace"

I suggest that the word sane be replaced with the word successful. I believe most politicians are either psychopaths or sycophants engaged in the mass delusion that denies what you assert.

Greg Yurash said...

Thank you for your efforts. The one thing that people throughout the developed world seem to be clinging most tightly to, is their culture. The general organization of our civilization represents the emotional investment in social status we each make, and the thought of shaking that up is so abhorrent to most people that they can not even acknowledge it. Yet it is precisely our culture that needs to change before anything else can be accomplished. The truth is, we don’t need any new technology, just a change in our choices. We chose our shelter, sustenance, and occupation within the cultural context we live in. Technology is nothing more than which tools we choose to use. As an extreme example, we may have atomic bomb technology, but we may also choose not to use it.

While I agree that the world’s population is in overshoot, the degree to which it will need to be stabilized or shrunk is difficult to foresee. Yet I wonder how comfortably we may all continue living if we make different choices and accept different cultural norms. As an example, I am starting a farm in Oregon using principles of Permaculture and Forest Gardening. I expect that when mature, the farm will be feeding about twice the number of people per acre that mechanized monoculture farming can do, but it will require many more farmer laborers per acre. Then the question becomes, how will the food be distributed? If it needs to go to far suburban style living arrangements, it may not work out well during energy descent for suburbanites.

Claude Lewenz work can be found at He did 20 years of research into what made for the most enjoyable places to live. He found old world villages of Europe, which have streets too narrow for cars, had the highest quality of life. These villages are clearly sustainable, given that they have been occupied for a thousand years or more, provided that they are serviced by local agriculture. His book “How to build a Village” is a guide on how to design these villages. Most of the requirements for planning such a place have more to do with the cultural arrangements as the physical architecture. They have finally started building a least a couple of these new “Village Towns” down there.

If we were to reorganize our lives around smaller eco-minded communities supporting a rich social infrastructure, with local agricultural, we might be a great deal better off than we are now. The cost of starting fresh in this way would be no higher than starting a new subdivision. The two main stumbling blocks to such a scenario are, the psychology of prior investment, and resistance to cultural change. As an example, I have been a member of the Mayor’s Green Committee in Sunnyvale, CA. We got the city to require all new commercial construction to use LEED efficiency standards, but the council refuses to even incentivize it for residences. They feel it would infringe on the individual owner’s personal freedom, and the cost burden would loose them votes. The city also has adopted a general planning document with no less than 27 key points encouraging reducing traffic and increased walkability and alternative transit. There is just one line in the document supporting reducing traffic congestion through new road construction. Shortly after adopting these guidelines, they approved the only project that fell within the guidelines purview; A new $10M freeway auto overpass to support a yet to be built Auto Sales Mall. It needed zoning changes to accommodate. Tax revenue is king. They don’t see energy efficiency helping their tax base or winning votes.

Until we have attractive concrete examples of what people can do as an alternative to the current arrangements, I fear all the dire warnings will go unheeded, until it is far too late. Maybe the Transitions Towns movement can contribute something to the cultural change that is needed, at least they present a positive attitude about change. It is perhaps ironic that cultural change is at the same time the easiest thing to change, and the hardest.

Sebastian Ernst Ronin said...

Kurt, re "Either we summon the will to bring about a steady-state economy or nature will tragically and remorselessly implement one for us."

I am afraid it will be the latter to which socio-political institutions will adapt after the fact/event.

Minus the incentive, i.e. your "will," of hurt, the degree of social changes required will not materialize. Wishful thinking is just that.

Entropy rules. There is no dodging that bullet, i.e. time's arrow.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if you are familiar with the Archdruid Report. Here's the link

He tries to look at what the future will bring based on different looks at the available academic material.
Personally being British, I'm looking forward to the failure of the state, as it is so authoritarian and malevolent in the UK.
I think a lot will depend on the reactions of the unaware, as they are in for a rude awakening. If they decide to riot, then a lot of knowledge and culture would be lost. If instead we can live less frenetic lives, devoting ourselves to self improvement and study, then I am optimistic a better way of living can be developed.
Having said that when I realised our current predicament a few years ago, my first reaction was to hit the bottle and sink into despair. I'd guess a lot of people will do something similar at first.