The Elephant in the Sustainability Room

Off the keyboards of Monsta666 & A. G. Gelbert

Discuss this article at the Favourite Dishes Table inside the Diner

Often I hear argument that if we deploy various renewable energy solutions then our modern industrial society can transition to a sustainable society. While many of these renewable solutions do indeed provide better outcomes than the current fossil fuel paradigm they will not – on their own – make our economy any more sustainable. The reason this is the case is because of the issue of perpetual economic growth that our economy demands which is largely (but not solely) driven by our debt based currency system. Until this fundamental issue of growth is tackled then achieving sustainability becomes an impossible task.

In the dialogue below is an exchange between me and fellow Diner and moderator agelbert who is one of the strongest advocates we have in the Diner in renewable energy solutions. Just to be clear, even though I do not see renewable energy as the ultimate solution to providing a sustainable environment this is NOT an argument against renewable energy. Moreover, I am of the belief that a technological solution is possible in the process of reverse engineering into a sustainable economy provided the technology is deployed in a sensible manner and is managed properly. For this reason I do support agelbert and his endeavours to getting the word out on the renewable story. However what I think is equally significant with the message agelbert projects is one of HOPE.

His zeal, commitment and pleasant nature offers people hope and in a world that faces so many challenges, some of which could well be fatal, hope is a powerful force on society and its effects cannot be neglected. One only needs to look at the incidents in Greece with people succumbing to drugs or crime in Egypt to see what happens when people lose hope. It is our duty as Diners to offer people hope and not go full doom Guy McPherson style. We must fight until the bitter end in offering a better tomorrow for future generations. We cannot save everyone but we must to strive to save as many as we can!

For this reason we must offer hope to people for without hope there is only anger and when people get angry they become worse than unproductive; they become positively destructive. So because of this agelbert offers a good service in a similar vain to Eustace Conway by offering an alternative living arrangement to Business As Usual (BAU). All such efforts must be supported and I encourage Diners to do the same. On this note by hitting the Donate button for the Diner you will be supporting the SUN project which is another attempt in escaping the trap that is BAU.

Anyhow, I am digressing here and to back to the original topic on hand I will post this debate me and agelbert had about how to create a sustainable economy in this planet:

agelbert said:

JMG has a better handle on the most probable future in the next 50 years or so but I think he engages in hyperbole by classifying all of us techno-weenies as technology clinging denialists who don’t understand the laws of thermodynamics (I.E. he WRONGLY claims we need too much energy just to build the renewable infrastructure so it just can’t be done, won’t be done, the Archdruid has spoken and us chillen need to cut our losses and flush toilets and get with the program of getting used to having less beer and goodies).

I certainly agree with him that the rationalizations bordering on gymnastic pretzel logic that come from people when their predicted apocalyptic imminent scenarios don’t materialize on schedule is worthy of ridicule. Humans have an awful time letting go of ownership bias, whether it be a thing no longer worth what they thought it was, or an idea or a prediction that didn’t pan out.

Clever fellows like JMG try to sound like they are above it all dispassionately observing the poor slobs tied to faddish ideas, religions, pro-environment mantras, new age predictions or whatever. He’s NOT.

As a matter of fact, he is making the very mistake that he accuses others of. He sees any hybrid approach to solving our energy problem by combining a limited amount of fossil fuels with renewable energy technology during a transition phase as impossible.

I must disagree with this. I can certainly agree that renewable infrastructure does have its benefits and should be more aggressively pursued but I think we must recognise that renewables are not sustainable on a BAU basis. What we have to understand is BAU is based on a debt-based currency system and these currencies can only remain viable under the condition of perpetual growth. Perpetual growth is impossible unless we have infinite resources, infinite energy and bottomless sinks where pollution can be contained. To most people it is pretty self-evident we do not have infinite resources but on the matter of energy we must remember that infinite energy is only possible if the laws of thermodynamics are violated.

It is this requirement of perpetual growth that makes any energy platform (even the illuminatti’s wet dream of fusion energy) unsustainable as you will either reach limits in the amount of resources available, energy or the amount of pollution produced. Growth will end due to one of these stocks becoming a limiting factor. In other words growth is limited under the principle of Liebig’s law of minimum which states that total production is limited by the factor that is in most limited supply in the production process. This may either be resources, energy or pollution and so all these factors must be considered and managed if we wish to maintain a sustainable society. This is a basic fact and we must STRESS that the first law of sustainability is this:

Growth in population and/or growth in the rates of consumption CANNOT BE SUSTAINED!

Until we address the issue of economic growth and the continued rise of consumption then all talk about sustainability is futile. Alternate energy systems such as renewable energy are only viable if they do not operate under the paradigm of constant growth. Now this isn’t an argument against renewable energy and I agree with you they must be pushed but I do think a big part of this sustainability debate must centre on the fact that economic growth must end.

At the end of the day we need to recognise that our economic and environmental crises are – at their core – the result of man’s behaviour on planet Earth. Until we change our behavioural patterns then all technology does is postpone the day of reckoning. I say this because humans have a predisposition to increasing their population and consuming their resources as quickly as possible as they wish to pursue more prosperous lifestyles. This disposition towards population growth coupled with increased consumption of resources results in humans utilising technology and energy as an enabler of resources. As more sophisticated technology is developed; the resource base available to man increases; this increase in available resources allows a rise in living standards. Now if man simply stopped population growth and material standards at a certain level then they could enjoy the increased productivity this new technology would bring. Unfortunately it never works out that way because as living conditions improve human population increases until people live at a subsistence level at this new technological level.

The best example I can offer of this phenomenon at work would be the green revolution. The green revolution caused food production to rise rapidly resulting in food prices declining rapidly. This cheap food enabled human population to grow rapidly, so much so that man has become dependent on this unsustainable food production system at even a subsistence level in many places across the globe. In fact if current populations continue to rise and people move towards a more resource consumptive diet i.e. eating more meat that requires more resources to produce then even this system cannot even sustain future populations at a subsistence level. This creates pressure in developing another “technical solution” such as GM food or some other monstrosity. Even if we assume this technical solution could deliver its promised returns and had no blowback (I know this is never the case but for arguments let us suppose this is the case). What would happen then? Populations and consumption would just rise again until we hit the limits of this new technical solution.

This pressure of population and consumption rises creates the need for technical solutions and because of this nothing really changes if taken on a long-term basis. We are on a constant hamster wheel to hell unless we change the way we behave. Man has a behavioural problem and NOT a technical problem. If we want to develop a manifesto that is truly sustainable we need to include some part that addresses population control and control of consumption. Doesn’t necessarily have to be direct eugenic style of population control nor do we have to set real limits to consumption. You can limit consumption by rewarding society in ways other than increasing material consumption. Some means of population is required and I would be interested in reading how the Japanese maintained their relative steady state economy during the Edo period where population was maintained around 30 million people for hundreds of years. This move towards a steady state economy that recognised the need to preserve the environment never gained traction in the “enlightened” European countries hence the push for empire building and later fossil fuel solutions to keep the hamster wheel spinning faster and faster to support growing populations/consumption patterns. Off course greed and other vices made all these issues worse. And the pigs and parasites have made things immeasurably worse and they must be punished accordingly.

agelbert said:

No kidding! When did I say it NEEDED to be sustained? Population growth is going tits up ALL OVER THE PLANET! Check the stats. The top priority is to clean up the environment while getting off fossil fuels. Dealing with population pressures is secondary and, as I just mentioned, is less of a problem in numerical projections every year. If you want to get all flustered about how many humans there are, well go right ahead but SHOW ME SOME FACTS!

Whilst I would agree you never said BAU needed to be sustained; in fact I believe you are actually an advocate of ending BAU like me. However the reason I did mention this point was because I feel you do not stress the fact that business as usual can only work on the basis of continued growth. I feel this point really needs to be HAMMERED home if sustainability is the name of the game. In fact by stressing the madness of BAU with it requirements for constant economic growth and the inevitable end-points this mindless pursuit would entail (such as resource collapse, environmental catastrophe and global bankruptcy) people will become more agreeable to alternate means of living which can include renewable energy systems as you advocate. When promoting a sustainable lifestyle we got to understand that renewables by themselves are not going to deliver a sustainable lifestyle if the growth side of the equation is not tackled. What we need to do is address this aspect but that does not mean renewable energy cannot be part of the package.

But you wanted facts so let me offer you some. The rate of human population growth is indeed declining as you say but that does mean population is declining. It is still increasing but the rate of increase is decreasing. If we are to believe the figures provided by the UN Population Fund then world population will hit 9 billion by 2043. Like you have already alluded to the time to reach each successive billion from here on out will rise with the next rise of 1 billion taking 14 years while the one after that will take 18 years followed by 40 years for the final billion. So according to the UN world population should peak at just over 10 billion souls. I have ENORMOUS doubts this will actually transpire but those are the figures the UN currently projects. In any case though the fact of the matter is human population is still increasing so the problem is getting worse.

Looking at your article you open with the following sentence:

agelbert said:

Why the 1% is responsible for more than 80% of humanity’s carbon footprint and why Homo sapiens is doomed unless the 1% lead the way in a sustainable life style.

While this sentence is true this fact does not cover the whole issue here and there are several problems with it. As I mentioned in my previous post there will be several potential limiting factors that will make further economic growth impossible. The example you highlight represents mainly C02 emissions which as we all know is a pollutant. Increasing pollution will wreck the environment and if it is severe enough will cause irreversible damage and will limit economic growth. However we need to remember that consumption of resources is also increasing at an exponential rate and I would figure these consumption rates are not the primary result of what the 1% consume. After all there is only so much a person may eat or drink. Posted below are rates of consumption of food and water. However look up the consumption of fish and other various commodities and all these will exhibit exponential growth and are likely to continue posting exponential if the economy does not collapse.

On top of these resource depletion issues the other problem comes from the implicit assumption that if we somehow eliminated the 1% who committed the 80% of the emissions then we would reduce carbon emissions by 80%. This is unlikely to happen as a new 1% (the Orkin Men perhaps?) would takeover. Why would this happen you say? This is because one of the emergent properties of our economic systems is to reward people who can maximise their consumption of resources. If you are clever and can find a means of extracting more resources then you will be given a good paycheck. In addition to this we need to remember money buys you not only POWER but STATUS also. If a person has lots of money they are deemed to be a “successful” member of society and people will look favourably upon you and tend to ignore mistakes, character flaws more easily and may even ignore FATAL defects if you are rich enough. Just ask Corzine for proof of this! You see this all the time with the most powerful and successful getting away with murder. All these factors act as powerful social cues that provide strong positive reinforcement to pursuing a lifestyle that maximises consumption as such behaviour is actively rewarded from a financial, social AND mating standpoint. Considering one of the primary objectives of all animals is to reproduce then this effect cannot really be understated. I feel even in your article you hinted at this point (please correct if I have misinterpreted something here):

agelbert said:

The chimps engage in rather brutal wars with other chimp tribes where the victors set about to kill and eat very young chimps of the vanquished tribe. This is clearly a strategy to gain some evolutionary advantage by killing off the offspring of the competition.

agelbert said:

I repeat, excessive aggression or same sex sexual activity as a dominance display is a downside to the “strong sex drive” successful evolutionary characteristic.

agelbert said:

This “downside”, when combined with a large brain capable of advanced tool making, can cause the destruction of other species through rampant predation and poisoning of life form resources in the biosphere.

I would agree with these points and would also agree with the viewpoint that our increased sized brains have meant we have exploited our environment to an extent no other animal has been capable off and in a way our evolution has lead us into a bit of a dead end. I also agree with the bit you mention how more complex organisms tend to be less resilient as they tend to sacrifice resilience for increased efficiency in a particular environment. If the parameters of the environment were to change sufficiently then the organism’s capability to survive will decline more rapidly than a simpler more resilient life form like the bacteria you describe. This I feel only applies on a species level however as it is possible for there to be complex ecosystems that is highly resilient. This is possible because complex ecosystems can consist of a complex web or interdependent organisms that forms a very resilient network of animals so we must be specific on what level we are talking about when bringing up the efficiency/resilience debate.

Going back to my earlier point though, the big issue we have with the current BAU system is the destructive behavioural patterns that it actively promotes namely excessive consumption. If we wish for people to lower per capita energy consumption more rapidly we need to devise a means where lower capita is rewarded and status can be conferred through means other than greater material consumption. Mating can offer a strong incentive to a certain pattern of behaviour and this picture demonstrates a good example of this:

Why the dimorphism in the pheasants? It takes more energy to maintain a larger body; you become more conspicuous and obvious to predators with those bright colours. On top of that escape will become more difficult from an energy prospective as not only is there more mass to move but it is likely the pheasant will have run that bit further to escape the notice of predators. All these evolutionary costs are acceptable however because the result is more mating. If animals can change their composition by this degree on the basis of increased mating opportunities then imagine what we can do if we rewarded people with status by developing the right habits! Got any ideas how to go about this? 😉 I don’t think this point can be understated, BAU rewards destructive behaviours and if we want sustainability we need to tackle this issue otherwise there will always be a 1% to take over the last one.

agelbert said:

Look what the biologist in Africa has discovered and PROVED! Desertification can ONLY be prevented by INCREASING THE SIZE OF THE HERDS MASSIVELY! ??? Can you handle that? This is exactly the opposite of what science had always believed!.:icon_scratch: It’s there in my channel. The man is an eminent authority on the environment. You can reject his counterintuitive FACTS but they are still going to be facts. :icon_mrgreen:

Is there a lesson there for human populations? Maybe, maybe not, but it does make you think. 😉

This is the case that the biologist killed the elephants but unfortunately the study was flawed because they missed an even bigger ELEPHANT in the room which was man being the main culprit. Was this due to overpopulation or due to the excessive consumption lifestyles of pigmen wishing to gain more profit? This could be a matter of contention however what cannot be disputed is that man has been creating the larger deserts by either farming the land too extensively or through excessive emissions of various pollutants most likely C02 and other greenhouse gases.

agelbert said:

Just to avoid arguments, lets say you are right about the population issue, can you get past that for a moment to consider the viability of a techno-fix? THAT’S my main beef with JMG. I know you want us to “reduce” ourselves because our carbon footprint is “unsustainable”. I’ve already dropped mine considerably for over 20 years! Tell me how many miles YOU drive each year and how many square feet YOUR house has (I drive less than 1,200 miles a YEAR and live in 980 sq, ft.).

First of all, congrats on reducing your C02 emissions! Good work and keep up the good fight! As for me, I don’t personally own a car so my mileage in terms of actual driving is flat out zero. However I do get lifts and the miles travelled in those journeys would probably amount to something like 1,200 miles per year. Reason for not driving is I am not going to spend lots of money financing an automobile. In addition to that I would have to pay around $9 for one gallon of gas not to mention over $3000 dollars a year on insurance for owning the said car. With my limited income this investment makes little sense so I depend on public transport and other good old fashioned walking. My worst C02 emissions likely come from the fact I travel on a plane about 2 or 3 times a year.

Back to your question however: I do think that the human population has to drop considerably especially if we consider the blowback that will come from climate change and the likely other environmental disasters that are to come such as nuclear meltdowns due to a breakdown of JIT supply lines. Because of these unpredictable events it is hard to determine what population will be sustainable exactly. It will not be 7 billion however especially when the rate of fossil fuel extraction declines.

As I said in my previous post; technology enables humans to increase their resource base by increasing productivity. By applying renewable energy systems the carrying capacity of humans can be increased so renewables can help. However it is hard again to say what the carrying capacity will be. You see, in my eyes total consumption rates is a product of population and per capita consumption. If you wish people to have a higher standard of living then the carrying capacity of society must be lower. If you want to increase carrying capacity then you must sacrifice per capita consumption. These sorts of decisions can only really be made on a local and not global level.

If a society wishes to work on a sustainable basis then they must decide what balance they require in terms of optimal population size and per capita consumption. On this note I don’t think it makes sense to maximise population as I feel it is more important to focus on QUALITY and NOT quantity of life (BAU and various religions seem to promote the latter). To me, quality and happiness of the people in the community is the thing we must strive to maximise and to do this we need to insure that nearly all people in society can meet their basic needs comfortably i.e. living comfortably above the subsistence level. It should be noted that on a general historical basis in the absence of rigorous checks on population there will be a tendency for the population to rise until most members can only survive on a subsistence level given the current level of technology deployed. To maximise happiness it is my personal opinion that populations must be kept below this natural limit. I can understand perfectly well if our views on this are matter are different as it is a highly contentious issue. I imagine the final decision made would vary quite markedly for each community.

Saying all that you don’t want population to be too low as that will mean that the amount of per capita consumption will become too great and too high an income will make people more susceptible to greed, other vices not to mention unequal power issues between different local communities which will pose a threat to maintaining a sustainable economy over a larger region. As always there needs to be a balance and what you deem as optimal will vary so I think it is impossible to give an exact figure. I do hope you see where I am coming from in this however. Again though, carbon emissions are only part of the story here as we need to consider resources, pollutants and energy as separate components when considering issues of sustainability. To achieve a truly sustainable economy all these components need to be addressed and we cannot simply put our focus on pollution.

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