This piece was written for a mainly-academic think-tank, nearly a year ago. While the short-term discussion is all about the virus and ‘the economy’, I suggest both are part of a bigger picture.
My own path began with an interest in energy and an anticipation that things would change post-2005. 2008 therefore came as no real surprise, but the discussion then and since, has. The more I have learned about our growth-requiring system and our choice of accounting method, the less I have been impressed. Much is, I suggest, illusion.
I have added the ‘growth’ section in light of the different audience, and the ‘update’ section in light of the last few days. A reading and reference-list is attached; I suspect interest.co.nz readers would appreciate Doughnut Economics, The Long Emergency and Short History of Progress as starters. The spin/avoidance literature, well-funded for obvious reasons, has become progressively more sophisticated, Norberg, Lomborg and Ridley being examples of the genre. The trend is to acknowledge the problem(s) as real – which puts them way-and-above outright shock-jock denial – but end in advocating continuance. Picking the inevitable flaw can be fun. Recently McAfee https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STpNXut3zic has raised this approach to new levels.
Warning: money-thinking folk may find the first paragraph counterintuitive ...
The overarching fact is that energy is required for all life, and for the maintenance of all social arrangements; in physics terms cities are just giant heat-engines and the Laws of Thermodynamics apply.
There is the ‘now’ energy which is sun-originated and can be thought of as solar acreage.
There was also a one-off store of old solar acreage, buried underground in super-concentrated form.
We made the fatal mistake of growing our species numerically, our infrastructure spatially, our resource draw-down exponentially and our consumption extractively, based on those temporarily-available underground acres. It was no more intelligent an approach, than hunter-gatherers eliminating mammoth herds or moa flocks.
We have been increasingly in draw-down-supported overshoot since 1800, and cannot support 9, 10, 7 or even 4 billion (Catton, Meadows, Erlich, Brown, Bartlett, etc.), on a long-term, daily-solar-energy, non-drawdown basis. Nor can we physically maintain our current collection of infrastructure (references below). And the vast majority of us still believe we can grow – or buy or tech – our way around the problem. The question is: Where to from here?
A brief history
200 years ago, one section of our species (Europeans) were overrunning their sunlit acreage and went looking for more. Because they were packing more energy than those they encountered, they won ownership of the ‘new’ acreage (diseases helped, granted). In the process they displaced the local belief-sets, using one with which they had repressed their own lower-orders. Some of the displaced cultures included sustainability components – as in contemplating the seventh-generation hence. Some did not. We need to note that unsustainable energy-use always overpowers sustainable energy-use in the short term (bigger/faster projectiles, etc.), irrespective of political/moral/belief factors. We need to remember that the commandeered territories were ecologically ‘full’ in long-term-maintainability terms, while appearing ‘empty’ to overshoot-tainted eyes. And we need to bear in mind that unsustainability always ceases; the victory is therefore a temporary arrangement and the only question of its cessation is: ‘When’?
Having covered the planet – a Bounded System, note – they dug into every down-acre they could. And they drew down every resource stock; finite, renewable and sink, at exponentially-increasing rates – always cherry-picking the best, first. Which meant that every ‘next’ option was ‘worse’; more dispersed, of lesser quality and/or requiring more energy to extract/construct/maintain. This is an important point – the Resource return on Energy Invested (and in particular the Energy-resource return) is our most pertinent equation.
They transferred their belief-inclination to money and GDP. Given that money is created as debt – which is a bet on future energy and resources being available to pay it back – and that GDP avoids inconvenient counts (like resource reduction) while including retrograde ones (think: Chch rebuild), they essentially chose to believe a lie. They used words like ‘produce’, rather than the more accurate ‘extract’; ‘consumer’ rather than ‘person’ and ‘funding’ rather than ‘providing future energy and resources’. A succinct statement of the case is: https://ourfiniteworld.com/2019/07/10/why-stimulus-cant-fix-our-energy-problems/
They also avoided the fact that they fought others over resources, extracted other’s resources, offshored their pollution to others and took monetary advantage of others, while telling themselves a more comforting tale. (To the point of embedding it in their formal histories and mainstream media - Wikileaks would/could not exist without this divergence between narrative and truth). The fact is that communist, capitalist, democratic and totalitarian constructs are equally in trouble if they draw down their resource-base. Physics is entirely agnostic that way.
Eventually, the entropic exhaust-gases of their exponentially-growing energy-use became planet-forcing enough to have them worrying about climate change. Actually their problems are multiple, intermeshed, and climate-change ranks 3rd at best. Energy supply (including food) and overpopulation both outrank it; let’s be very clear about that (we can halt CO2-exhausting tomorrow, but global finance would be dead within 24 hours and half the global population would follow it within a month or two). And it is time to state that avoidance of population as an issue, is lying about the human existential problem in the same way GDP lies about future well-being.
The world is changing fast and we now need your support more than ever. Quality journalism is expensive and in these very troubled times our ad revenues are becoming very uncertain. We provide our coverage free to readers, and if you value that, we ask that you Become a Supporter. To do that, either click on the Red button below, or on the Black button at the top of this page. The level of your support is up to you. Thank you. (If you are already a Supporter, you're a hero.)
The late Albert Bartlett stated that the biggest failure of the human race was in not understanding the exponential function. It’s simple, is exponentiality….. Growth is expressed in terms of Doubling Time; the time it takes to double whatever you are doing. 3% growth doubles in 24 years, 7% growth in 10 years, 10% in 7.
Doubling sequences thus: 1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256,512,1024,2048….. you get the picture. By 19 doublings, we’re at a million times what we started doing. If that was chewing into a finite resource (or capacity) then without knowing what our total stock is, or what our ‘1’ represented, we can know what happens at the end. The last doubling (better thought of as an equalling of all that has gone before) will take us from 50%-depleted, to all-gone. The doubling before, took us from ¼ gone, to ½ gone. The one before that, from 1/8th to ¼ gone. 3 doublings from 1/8th consumed, to all-gone.
Of course, if your growth is dependent on the resource, the last half will find your growth somewhat compromised! You can force growth slightly beyond the mid-point, but you’re taking it from the end (think: from the right-hand end of a bell-curve, time going from left to right), so total time must be being truncated and your drop-off must be steeper. The more growth is pushed, the steeper the drop-off.
Substitution cannot support doubling (regardless of price-point; economics has it wrong). Half a planet becomes a planet, becomes two, four, eight……
So growth, lauded as it is, cannot continue physically. Grow virtually by all means; just don’t expect to always buy physical stuff with your exponentially-increased virtual wealth. If decoupling really could happen, we wouldn’t need dairying, tourism, transport etc.; we could all get rich virtually. The fact that those things exist, tells us we can’t.
The Titanic is a useful example of a complex society undergoing a paradigm-change. The population parallel is obvious – not enough lifeboats (real-time sun-drenched acres) for all onboard. As the lower decks become saturated, upward migration will increase. Doors will be locked. Gates closed. Fences erected. Wars initiated. There isn’t room for any more on the upper decks, something overlooked by those who fail to factor fossil energy, resource acquisition, draw-down and entropy into their societal equations. Neither the upper-deckers nor the wannabes, realise that the perceived upper-deck dryness is physically supported by the sequentially-succumbing lower decks; a very temporary arrangement.
Child – and other - poverty
At that stage it is patently pointless to take coins from the pockets of upper-deck passengers and put them in the pockets of Steerage children – booking children a place in a lifeboat has become the only valid goal. The proviso is that lifeboat life will only be possible in a spirit of co-operation – read: by being egalitarian. We can observe onboard the altruistic and the selfish, the arrogant and the meek, the believers, the deniers, the fearful and the specialists, in usual proportion. But we know the paradigm-shift is coming to them all, we know there will be population-reduction and we know that lifeboat-life will be orders-of-magnitude different from the current arrangement (but will be the only option available, post-event).
It is also patently pointless, to put aside (or borrow, or ‘invest') onboard ‘money’, given the predictable lack of commodities and energy afloat tomorrow morning ...
A smooth transition to lifeboathood may well have been desirable, second only to iceberg-avoidance, but the time for smooth transition has passed globally (we are too overshot; Catton noted that in sustainable-population terms, the USA was ‘full’ 30 years before the real Titanic sailed. Those ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ are no longer welcome in the New World. We should seriously consider the fact that it took Trump to articulate this fact, and that our societal narrative has studiously avoided it). This passing renders the ‘don’t scare the passengers’ approach, obsolete. And we need to stick to facts – lifejacket-issuance is of no use given the water-temperature, temporarily reassuring though that transaction may be to both parties.
Importantly too, we must resist back-casting-to-project-forward. On the basis of our Plunket books, we’d all be Skytower-tall by late middle age; all growth ceases in Nature, for obvious ecological/physical reasons.
There seems to be a cohort who wish to de-rate the urgency of the problem. One way is to concentrate on climate-change alone, thus pushing the ‘worry-date’ out into discount territory while pretending that continuance of all else (growth, population, First-World-level consumption-rates) is otherwise possible. The other is the advocation of soothing messaging. Or are they the same thing? At some reasonably predictable point, society – including children – had to be told that lifeboat-life is the future, that the Titanic is actually unsavable. And we have to stick to truths: Hayward (Children, Citizenship and Environment, 2012 p10) states: “There is a risk we will make the same mistakes as the Limits to Growth team, if we overlook the sustainability implications of contemporary struggles of citizens”. Actually, the Limits to Growth team (Meadows et al, MIT) made no mistakes. Two recent peer-reviews (Turner, and Jackson/Webster) say they were right on the money, meaning that no ‘struggle of contemporary citizenry’ has halted the progression, or even slowed its rate. (As Jackson/Webster noted: This early response remains conspicuous by its absence, particularly in policy, even forty years after the Club of Rome’s clear warning). Nor can they do so, outside of crashing their ‘economy’ through energy-use reduction (renewables cannot displace fossil energy quantitively, although they will inevitably succeed it via depletion or abstinence), which citizens will never willingly do. Globally, of course, the struggles of contemporary citizens will indeed have sustainability implications – via war(s) over ‘what’s left’.
And for every person effectively kicking the systems debate into the scuppers at upper-deck level, there are twenty others drawing-down resources just to stay alive on the overcrowded lower decks – the sinking will happen before they become global-issues-aware at all, let alone have the surplus energy to allow the leisure time to discuss why they are getting wet. Or to worry about the niceties of democracy.
Regardless of manner, the rapid descent to a much lower level of energy and resource availability is inevitable, soon, and better addressed than ignored. There is a legitimate place for painting an optimistic view of future living-arrangements – but not by avoiding realities/truths. In other words, “Lifeboat life can be fun, challenging and rewarding” but not “If we all change to electric cars, we can keep this ship afloat”.
Since the GFC – misnamed in my opinion, it should have been ‘the planet cannot underwrite growth anymore crisis’ – the financial world has been puzzled. It has proven incapable of getting off life-support, gone ever-deeper into debt and failed to support interest at any rate. There are good underlying reasons for this, but at all levels – politics predictably but the media and most of academia more tragically – we have avoided discussing them. I find it no cranial trouble at all, to equate the reduction of EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) with the need to introduce, then increase, student debt; but it appears to be beyond the cranial capacities of University hierarchies right throughout the country. What’s more, when challenged they hide like everyone else.
While it was/is hard to pick the timing or the trigger(s) it is dead-easy to predict the event, as readers will know from a decade of my commenting hereabouts. And if you look at things from an energy/resource/depletion POV, strategic moves become obvious (as does the media when they miss it). Such was the Russia/Saudi Arabian oil-price ‘war’. If you factor in the terrible EROEI of fracking (reflected to a certain extent by fracking not turning a buck under 80-100 USD/barrel) you can see that Putin is aiming at crashing the US oil supply. And by implication, the US. To support fracking at $30/barrel, Trump would have to step in with socialized debt, to support an essential industry dying in private debt. The message is clear: society as-constructed can no longer afford itself. We have to assume that the big players know all this; that they realise this is a last-half-of-the-planet, last-echelon-standing scenario. We can expect increasing resentment of ‘others’, and resource-wars.
From here; Systems-meshing, truth, timelines, lifeboats
Obviously, to address a systems problem we need to de-silo. We need a format, perhaps at every level of governance and of academia, which meshes expertise-generated information. This parallels the recent (Boston et al) report suggesting parliament take a long view, but we must bear in mind the short time left before events overtake all existing societal constructs.
We need to acknowledge that you cannot have unfettered ‘rights’ for an unlimited population within a bounded system (Earth, NZ) and that this becomes truer sooner if you are accelerating resource draw-down. A simple for-instance is: You cannot fix child poverty if you do not address population, energy and resource-depletion. Another would be: This isn’t a ‘housing crisis’, it’s a ‘population crisis’, the first label merely indicates arrogance in one species. This rights-vs-population issue tells us the UN Millennium Development Goals are fatally flawed in some respects, as is our RMA.
We have to understand that technology is not energy – a fuel-injected, computer-controlled vehicle runs to a halt with an empty tank, the same way a Model T Ford does. We have to acknowledge that technological improvements can only nudge energy efficiencies up against finite thermodynamic limits. We also have to be sure about EROEI – Energy Return on Energy Invested.
The Royal Society did two building-block reports some years ago (Constraints to New Zealand’s Sustainable Wellbeing. Sustainable Carrying Capacity, both 2013). We are overdue a furthering of that discussion.
Timelines? The Limits to Growth team were ‘lucky’, inasmuch as exponential growth eliminates time-estimation discrepancies rapidly. Their ‘Double resources’ scenario only staved-off our Titanic sinking by 30 years (some say only 20: http://www.ecoglobe.org/scenarios/e/dkimble.htm ). That’s with a whole ‘nuther planet. Here’s the ‘World3 standard run’ graph, and until anyone comes up with meaningful rebuttal of a Systems kind, it stands:
Obviously, democracy goes out the porthole at some point – it’s either every person for themselves, or an authoritarian-ordered evacuation. The proof is that we haven’t yet addressed what Catton clearly identified 40 years ago (and lectured on at Otago more recently). Democracy has proven to be incapable of moving enough, for obvious short-term, hip-pocket, self-serving, advertised-to, kept-in-the-dark voter reasons. Trump and Brexit, refugee-streams, the Alt-Right and the hollowing of the middle-politic are symptoms, not causes, something our false-narrative media (avoiding the too-many-people-ever-less-resources-money-is-a-forward-bet problem) steadfastly fails to grasp.
Money has to be addressed; fiat issuance and interest-charging both challenged. It may be that profit has to be discussed too, being a contributing driver of consumption-growth (but I seem to be almost alone in raising that possibility!). To an energy-studier, it has been unsurprising to watch interest-rates trending towards – and below – zero. It’s the only logical fit as we go over the energy-supply top and down the other side, exacerbated by the increased maintenance required by a never-bigger, never-older collection of infrastructures.
Something like a debt-jubilee (as per Steve Keen) will be required if the existing financial regime is to survive, but is unlikely due to vested-interest veto and is unlikely to be adequate anyway. The mindset of ‘funding for’ has be altered to ‘providing for’- because it’s energy and resources you need to build future seawalls, not computer-held digits. And our complacent approach to ‘investments’ (forward bets on energy/resource availability) has to be re-thought; will Kiwisaver, pension-funds, ACC investments and the like, still exist and what will they ‘buy’ anyway? A resource-indexed currency may be the way forward.
Meantime, I challenge those who say things like ‘Don’t panic, we have decades to solve climate change’. I suggest they are doing society no favours at all. The stark evaluation of our problem was never more clearly expressed than in Garrett Hardin’s 1974 ‘lifeboat’ treatise. It stands, 45 frittered years later.
Someone needs to show leadership. Beyond fossil energy availability, with or without global collapse, NZ will be hard put to feed its current population (remembering the post-battle protein source favoured by much lower numbers of prior citizenry). If a sudden event happens (as per 2008, very nearly, and we’re exponentially further down every tracking since then) we would have seed/seasonal/planting/tending/security/delivery food-issues of near-insurmountable proportions, let alone service-delivery, maintenance, control – and a leadership only familiar with money-allocation. We need to be a long way past our present narrative.
Only a fact-seeking society can optimally negotiate the coming bottleneck, anything else will be some degree of blindsided. A good hard look at ‘belief’ (we are now ‘God’ in player terms; Catton rightly called us ‘Homo Colossus’) and a critique of the media will be needed too (neither media genre rate ‘the truth’ as a yardstick; ‘balanced’ is the nearest they get and ‘the Editor’s decision is final’ is a convenient and commonly-used hide-behind – trust me on that!).
Interestingly, the most prescient global commentators are commonly engineers/physicists and often just unfettered amateurs. One of the most though-provoking treatises of them all is Kunstler’s ‘The Long Emergency’ – but there are puzzlingly (to those of us who occupy it) few in this space.
What can New Zealand do?
I suggest a meshed/systems report:
New Zealand facing the Limits to Growth; scenarios and suggested actions
There is some urgency about this – my appraisal is that the ‘sinking’ (most likely a global financial belief-loss event but maybe macro war and certainly a retreat behind borders reducing trade, with the background drumbeats of overpopulation, energy depletion, climate change, resource draw-down, sink-filling and entropy) is somewhere between tomorrow and 2030 (Update – note that was written a year ago ...). It’s already overdue debt-wise and we are 13 years past the peak supply of light sweet crude, traversing ever-lower EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) energy sources, and worsening-quality or worsening-option other resources. And entropy never sleeps.
The big questions are how we feed New Zealand in a non-imported-energy scenario (unrealised by most is the ‘fossil-fuel calorie in’ to ‘food calorie out’ equation); what infrastructure we need to keep; what we will have to triage, adapt or invent; and how nutrient/resource-circular we can become. The future of living arrangements (an exodus from cities to food-producing land, life in the absence of pension arrangements, identifying locally-achievable technologies and governance/trading options) would be part of that. Debt/ownership issues may be a major headache (Govt may have to guarantee/forgive – presuming Govt survives in present form). Regeneration would have to be addressed, as would population. So too, would the teaching of future-appropriate skills.
Such a report would – by its very nature – be anathema to most New Zealanders, but news of the sinking was probably unwelcome to a majority of Titanic passengers too. It was – and is - still valid to tell them, and even more valid that someone has a crack at ascertaining the best way to negotiate the biggest change the human race has ever faced. Politics won’t do it until it is dragged kicking and screaming. Mainstream media has chosen not to do it. Academia has so far proven fragmented, at best. And ‘when it is happening’ will be too late. But someone should write the Abandon Ship protocol so it is ready when needed. As stated by Jason Bradford in The Future is Rural; In a crisis people will want quick answers. If you have anticipated needs and considered some answers, then under the right circumstances you can foster appropriate responses.
After ten years of sounding the warning, I suspect we’ll be in the lifeboats before our leaders open the manual. They were too preoccupied consulting the purser.
It was an energy surplus which allowed us to migrate from the land to cities, during the last 200 years. It is reasonable to expect that tide to reverse, perhaps rapidly. This can be accommodated in New Zealand. First moves would likely be re-establishment of historical towns/villages, fragmentation of Big Ag land into plots, allotments and holdings, formal house-shifting and informal communities.
While we may go back to the land, we will be doing so with much more knowledge than on the way up, re breeding and soils. What we will have to triage, is energy. We may find that simpler, more resilient technologies will be a better choice than more efficient but maintenance-brittle ones.
As we became more mobile on the way up, expect to become less so on the way down. Food transportation will be paramount. Right behind food are the other resources a city needs to inject and eject. Rail will make sense, as will electrification near urban clusters (diesel-electric is very efficient and likely to remain, long-haul). Roads will be triaged; seal deterioration and abandonment are predictable. Discretionary travel is likely to be more by bicycle if close, less likely at all as distance increases. Walking – and therefore physical fitness- will increase.
Infrastructure will be triaged – some will be abandoned. Some will be re-purposed. Some will simply decay. All of these will have knock-on effects.
Trading will have to be related to reality (bets on an ever-greater future will be increasingly unsupportable, although useful disruptive technologies will presumably be popular enough to back. Many activities which were parasitic on the energy/resource flow (I write, which is a perfect example of a parasitic activity) will be dropped, outlawed or bypassed (as on-line is bypassing retail). Without the permanent assumption that inflation will deal with future bets, borrowing, issuance and collateral will be very different animals. I have long agreed with those who advocate a Joule-based currency.
The sun will still rise. Fun will still be had. Jokes will still be cracked, music played, all the things we call culture can be continued. What could not be continued, was endless growth of consumption. Those were processed parts of a finite planet we were buying and throwing way. It was never going to last and there is a better way. Whether this event will trigger the great re-set, or whether it is merely an abseil to the next col down, only time will tell. Much collective effort will be put into trying to re-establish activities globally, the way they were last month. It should be put into establishing something with a long-term future instead.
References / useful reading:
Thinking in Systems: A Primer - Meadows
Limits to Growth (and updates) – Meadows et al
LTG reviewed – Turner
LTG reviewed – Jackson/Webster
The End of Growth - Heinberg
Short History of Progress – Wright
Guns, Germs and Steel – Diamond
Overshoot – Catton
10 Billion – Emmott
Collision Course - Higgs
Endgame – Jensen
The Long Emergency - Kunstler
The Last Oil Shock – Strahan
Societies Beyond Oil – Urry
Powerdown – Heinberg
Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels – Heinberg
Without Hot Air - MacKay
Pollution: the World Crisis – Hamblin
Collapse - Diamond
Collapse of Complex Societies – Tainter
Failing States, Collapsing Systems - Ahmed
The Collapse of Globalism – Saul
Five Stages of Collapse – Orlov
Moron’s guide to Global Collapse - Orkin
Collapse now and avoid the rush - Greer
This Civilisation is Finished – Alexander/Read
Brief History of the Future – Attali
Doughnut Economics – Raworth
The Economy of Nature - Ashworth
Carbon Neutral by 2020 – Harre &
Children, Citizenship and Environment – Hayward
‘The Big Questions; What is New Zealand’s Future?’ – various
Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a Fast-Changing World - James
Safeguarding the Future: Governance in an uncertain world – Boston
Future Shock - Toffler
A Question of Balance – Mercer
Approaching the Benign Environment – Fuller et al
Bottleneck – Catton
The Confidence Trap - Runciman
How Democracy Ends – Runciman
Out of the Wreckage – Monbiot
To Live on Earth – Brubaker
The Divide – Hickel
The Spirit Level – Wilkinson/Pickett
Prosperity without Growth – Jackson
Prosperity without pollution – Hirchhorn/Oldenberg
Fostering Sustainable Behavior – McKenzie-Mhor/Smith
the new zealand project – Harris
Transition Engineering - Krumdieck
Principles of home - McCleod
Creating Regenerative Cities – Girardet
For the Common Good – Daly/Cobb