Haudenosaunee, Two-Road Wampum, early 18th Century
Whether humans will be able to reverse catastrophic climate change in time to avert their own extinction depends upon many unknowns and a few unknowables. Like Operation Warp Speed to discover a coronavirus vaccine, studies and clinical trials have helped us to better understand what will or won’t work. We know that tree planting alone won’t suffice. We know that everyone switching to grass-fed beef wouldn’t save us either. We know that there are no magic bullets in solar radiation management or direct air carbon capture systems. Decarbonizing energy and transportation are necessary but insufficient. If we add it all together — do everything we can — we still have some major, possibly insurmountable, hurdles and the biggest one may be our addiction to the “progress” we made to become an affluent, wasteful, globalized consumer culture.
Haudenosaunee, Two-Road Wampum, early 18th Century
That sort of “progress” is merely an illusion. Along the way we two-legged ones lost what the Haudenosaunee call “the original instructions.”
Take progressive agriculture. Only under intensive management (i.e., irrigation, fertilization, biodomes, greenhouse production) can cropland productivity be made to exceed the natural potential of the same land, and only for short sprints. (DeFries 2002). The amount of photosynthetic productivity, hence food that can be grown, on large-scale cropland is consistently less than is produced by the natural vegetation it replaced, independent of landcover type or region (Haberl 2007). The difference, of course, is that the former requires the scaffolding of banks, price controls, taxpayer subsidies, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy equipment and all the international trade that goes into it, and liquid (fossil) fuels and lubricants. The latter requires land and the labor to hunt and gather, although much less labor than the former.
There is a science fiction meme we often read in books or see in films — a distant world designed to take food production away from nature and place it into climate-controlled laboratories so as to remove the guesswork. Think AeroFarms, Soylent Green, or Aismov’s ecumenopolis of Trantor. Trantor is a fictional headquarters planet of the Galactic Empire:
Its surface of 194,000,000 km2 (75,000,000 sq mi, approx. 40% of Earth’s surface area), implying a radius of around 4000 km (somewhere in between the Earth and Mars), was, with the exception of the Imperial Palace, entirely enclosed in artificial domes. It consisted of an enormous metropolis (an ecumenopolis) that stretched deep underground, and was home to a population of 45,000,000,000 (45 billion) human inhabitants at its height (although Second Foundation mentions a figure ten times that of administrators alone), a population density of 232 per square kilometer (600 per square mile, similar to the current population density of Germany or Connecticut). Its population was devoted almost entirely to either administration of the Empire or to maintenance of the planet itself, including energy provided by “heatsinks” (geothermal core taps) and production of food via underground farming and yeasts, as described in Prelude to Foundation.
In non-fictitious science, the potential for increasing productivity beyond that provided by natural vegetation has always been short-term and energy-intensive. Moreover, mechanized production quickly upsets balances of atmospheric nitrogen, freshwater and marine algae, and nutrient cycling. It disrupts the structure and natural succession of the biotic community, mutualism and resistance to parasites and invaders, and the resilience of a farm system confronted by weather weirding and wildfire catastrophe. (Odum, 1985)
Take away abundant cheap energy from non-renewable sources and the ability to maintain an ecological house of cards disintegrates. Switching to renewables to power farm machinery doesn’t change this.
It is useless to waste time and money designing or building genetically modified monoculture tree plantations to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Growing mixed age, mixed species, climate adaptive polycultures with natural rates of regeneration is the best way to optimize drawdown over the long term. Designing and testing ways for humans to inhabit such systems in reciprocal, regenerative, socially viable ways will be the delightful opportunity of the 21st century.
Which brings us back to the arguments made by opponents in the early days of organic farming pioneers Albert Howard, Eve Balfour and J.R.Rodale, or by the same sort of arguments evoked to rail against solar power — “ these woo-woo newcomers can’t possibly match the production output that a modern industrial society requires. How will they feed (or supply energy to) 8 billion people?”
The opponents were probably right, at least in one sense, but the neglected externalities in their short-term computations undermine their argument. Externalized were the negative effects of addiction to growth (to return interest on capital); social degradation, toxic pollution, plummeting biodiversity, soil loss, and climate chaos.
Mother Nature knows best.
So how do we maintain or further the science and technology gains we have made since we emerged from our caves when the ice melted? Can a global population of 8 to 10 billion people be fed, sheltered, kept healthy, and still have iPhones?
I think there is a scenario where that could work. Stephen Gaskin used to call it “technicolor Amish.” But we need some more context.
My first encounter with this subject came from the campus lectures of Dr. Barry Commoner circa 1968–70. Commoner claimed that the culprit for the growing environmental crisis was neither population growth nor rising affluence. His 1971 bestseller, The Closing Circle, claimed that 95 percent of the blame lay in “faulty” technology, ie: bad design. He laid out this formula:
pollution = (population) x (production/capita) x (pollution/production)
Commoner thought, as many of us did in the 1970s, that 100% renewable energy via wind and solar would fix the problem. A rebuttal of that thesis by John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich, “Impact of Population Growth” was published in Science in March, 1971. Stanford professors Holdren and Ehrlich took the position that population, affluence, technology, and socio-economic variables interact and that neglect of any of them, or of their interactions, is dangerous. In an article for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1972, they modified Commoner’s formula to IPAT:
I (impact) = P (population) x A (affluence) x T (technology)
I + delta I = (P + delta P) x (A + delta A) x (T + delta T)
which accounted for evolving trends seen in the variables. Delta values would include, for instance, politico-socio-technological vectors such as viral affluenza, Ponzinomics, peak everything, and addiction to growth.
To get back into sync with the planet’s boundaries, IPAT must have at least one component that has a minus sign. A and T could conceivably continue to rise if P were far enough to minus. A and T could also rise if their environmental costs declined to minus. Regeneration, where it can still be found, is a reverse (positive) impact. If A or T were to go minus that would likely compel P downward. Minus T does not imply minus A, nor does minus A imply minus T or P but those are all possible outcomes. What is important to remember is that it is always a zero sum game because we live on a finite planet.
In 1971, Holdren and Ehrlich gutted Commoner’s idea that technology was all that mattered:
“In fixing the blame for environmental deterioration on faulty technology alone, Commoner’s position is uncomplicated, socially comfortable and, hence, seductive. But there is little point in deluding the public on these matters; the truth is that we must grapple simultaneously with overpopulation, excessive affluence, and faulty technology.”
Responding to a recent research note by Holdren, who went on to become President Obama’s Science Advisor, Rainforest Alliance founder Randy Hayes offered this set of 2020 imperatives:
- Degrow the Economy 6%/year: Begin the public cultural, social, and economic discussions and formal planning necessary to reduce fossil energy and material consumption (economic throughput) by up to about 70 percent globally (80 in higher-income and 50 in lower-income countries respectively) [Rees 2019]. This is consistent with achieving the IPCC (2018) goal of almost 50 percent fewer carbon emissions by 2030 and requires 6 percent per year reductions beginning immediately. [My own estimate is 11% per year from 2020–2030.]
- Overconsumption Reduction: A one-Earth lifestyle for today’s population requires that humans (living like contemporary North America) learn to thrive with about 80% less strain on the biological capacity of productive land [von Weizsäcker 2009]. Steady state, circular economies with low-impact lifestyles can be and need to be achieved. [The Global Ecovillage Network has demonstrated the Hayes idea is not only feasible but a more enjoyable lifestyle. Tens of thousands of working examples in every possible social demographic now prove the point with real-world experience.]
- Numbers Reduction: Recognize that Earth is over-populated even at 2020 average material consumption. Implement a global fertility strategy to humanistically reduce the population to the 2–3 billion people that might be able to live in material comfort on this already much-damaged planet. [This third recommendation has been tried more or less successfully by several countries but has become a political football. Many regard the very idea of limiting family size as oppressive.]
I am struck by how human intransigence when given these realities and offered the peaceful transition path of decroissance (de-growth) bears similarities to the general response to the Covid pandemic, especially in Western countries such as the USA, UK, and Spain. Many prefer economic normalcy over life itself. We would rather die, or inflict death upon others, than simplify our lives and take the medicine, or wear masks.
Shortsighted civilization design has given us profound creature comforts —even the lowest status citizen can aspire to greater affluence and leisure than the kings and pharaohs of ancient times. Many view that as a natural endowment. Or, perhaps because our species is superior to all others. Or, perhaps because its superiority means it can break the rules. But perhaps our good fortune is because we have never truly faced consequences of the kind now accruing, and ignored.
A safe pathway out of this still remains open for a time. We just have to recover the original instructions.
Ehrlich, Paul R. and John P. Holdren. 26 March 1971. “Impact of population growth”, Science, vol. 171, pp 1212–1217.
Ehrlich, Paul R. and John P. Holdren. May 1972. “One-dimensional ecology”, Bull. Atomic Scientists, pp 16,18–27.
DeFries R. 2002. Past and future sensitivity of primary production to human modification of the landscape. Geophysical Research Letters 29. doi:10.1029/2001GL013620.
Haberl H, Erb K-H, Krausmann F, Gaube V, Bondeau A, Plutzar C, Gingrich S, Lucht W, Fisher-Kowalski M. 2007. Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 12942–12947.
McPherson, Guy R. The Means by Which COVID-19 Could Cause Extinction of All Life on Earth. Environ Anal Eco Stud. 7(2). DOI: 10.31031/EAES.2020.07.0
Odum, E.P., 1985. Trends expected in stressed ecosystems. Bioscience, 35(7), pp.419–422.
Rees, William E. March 2019. “End Game: The economy as eco-catastrophe and what needs to change” Real-World Economics Review.
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