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is global collapse imminent?
September 4, 2014 4:37 AM   Subscribe

Limits to Growth was right. New research shows we're nearing collapse
Limits to Growth was commissioned by a think tank called the Club of Rome. Researchers working out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including husband-and-wife team Donella and Dennis Meadows, built a computer model to track the world’s economy and environment. Called World3, this computer model was cutting edge.

The task was very ambitious. The team tracked industrialisation, population, food, use of resources, and pollution. They modelled data up to 1970, then developed a range of scenarios out to 2100, depending on whether humanity took serious action on environmental and resource issues. If that didn’t happen, the model predicted “overshoot and collapse” – in the economy, environment and population – before 2070. This was called the “business-as-usual” scenario.

The book’s central point, much criticised since, is that “the earth is finite” and the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods etc would eventually lead to a crash.

So were they right? We decided to check in with those scenarios after 40 years. Dr Graham Turner gathered data from the UN (its department of economic and social affairs, Unesco, the food and agriculture organisation, and the UN statistics yearbook). He also checked in with the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration, the BP statistical review, and elsewhere. That data was plotted alongside the Limits to Growth scenarios.

The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
Graham Turner - Is Global Collapse Imminent? (research paper referenced above; PDF link)

*Smithsonian - Is it Too Late for Sustainable Development?: an interview with Dennis Meadows
*American Scientist - An interview with Lester Brown
*Common Dreams - 'There Will Be No Water' by 2040? Researchers Urge Global Energy Paradigm Shift

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
"The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution's Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a one-day symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972... The symposium was webcast live, and has been archived for later viewing, on this page." (direct link to YouTube playlist)

Jessie Henshaw - Approaching 30 days from the 40th Anniversary
The recent 40th anniversary meeting at the Smithsonian on the publication of "The Limits to Growth" and the clearly most urgent of our many dire environmental dilemmas of our time, with little exception, has gotten almost no attention in the mainstream popular or environmental press. So you’ll have to hear it from a real scientist as to why...

I think the real reason the public is largely ignoring both is that science has not yet really found a good way to make sense of self-managing systems like weather systems and economies. Science is built around identifying how one thing controls another, not on how uncontrolled systems work by themselves, and somewhat lost in discussing the latter.... Economies differ most in inventing new kinds of lasting organization. Inventing new organization lets economies create new kinds of energy sources by way of making formerly useless things highly profitable to use and reproduce. Its natural limits are determined by the earth still, but how it works is self-invented and self-managed once new industries and cultures are invented.

That causes a big problem for science, that makes both the problem and the cause fascinating to study. As how self-managing systems work is internally rather than externally determined, observers have no way to see how they really work, and so appear as enormous holes in our information about how the world works...

What those large gaps in our information about nature do for science is mess up everything. Science is a method of using information to identify reliable patterns. For subjects that science has no information about it makes public discussions wide open to argument speculation. It allows research findings that may be logically valid, but fit popular social values, to be socially rejected. Most scientists are ill-equipped to engage in social argument like that, and find themselves somewhat at sea with the subject itself. What science needs is a way to define questions about uncontrolled systems simple enough to be answered with high confidence. I think not having that yet is why these very serious subjects are not treated seriously.
ThinkProgress - Director of New Documentary GrowthBusters Says “Stop Drinking the Kool-Aid”
*official site of GrowthBusters
*watch the full movie online: GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

John Sharry on Feasta: Hope in the Face of Disaster – Creating a sustainable, viable, future path for civilisation
"Taking a long term view, this paper explores the many crises that civilisation and humanity will face over the coming decades some of which are already starting to have an impact. The paper proposes a central cause to these crises and particularly explores the widespread psychological inertia in the face of these vast problems. Some potential constructive choices that individuals, communities and nations could yet make are outlined."

previously: the end appears to be inevitable - apocalypse soon: has civilization passed the environmental point of no return? - well, that about wraps it up for growth - prophesy of economic collapse 'coming true'
posted by flex (61 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite

 
Err, the three graphs in the main article show that we're doing better than expected:

1) birth rate is down and population growth is slowing;
2) food per capita is up;
3) resource-light services are becoming a bigger part of the economy over resource-heavy industry;
4) resources are declining less slowly than expected;
5) pollution growth is not as bad as expected.
posted by Thing at 4:46 AM on September 4 [21 favorites]


Also if I'm reading them right the graphs in the Guardian article seem to show that the really significant bit where the predictions suddenly diverge from trend is generally still in the future?
posted by Segundus at 4:51 AM on September 4 [12 favorites]


As that poet / philosopher guy says:
"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,
You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough"
posted by Flood at 4:52 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


This is kind of silly. If I predict that current long term trends will continue until time x when they suddenly reverse, and you check in just before time x and they have indeed continued, that in no way validates my predicted reversal.
posted by neat graffitist at 5:03 AM on September 4 [36 favorites]


I re-read LtG recently and the role of pollution was the factor that really blew things up.

'Pollution growth is not as bad as expected' contains an incorrect criteria of analysis. The original study, for example, focused on DDT as a benchmark pollutant. While DDT has been effectively reduced, its replacement by glyphosate has more complex effects. (Note: not looking for a roundup derail here). Glyphosate is incorporated within the cells, not externally. Our understanding of soil microorganisms and gut bacteria has jumped dramatically in the last decade. Main point being, our understanding of detrimental effects continues to lag a couple of decades behind new product applications.

Entirely outside the usual ppm analyses are the hormonal effects of compounds in the waterways. They have been causing gender effects in fish which affect productivity, and are not removed by most public drinking water purification techniques. Hormonal effects cascade in organisms and may not be apparent for years.

Pollution as greenhouse gases was also not deeply incorporated in the original study. As chunks of ice break off and melt in the ocean, the normal melt associated with surface area changes and the 'cold storage' levels decrease by volumetric measures. These are feedback loops with decreasing returns over time.

Much of the world has gone to a Yellow River strategy, of localizing very high levels of pollution to spare population centers. While London a century and a half ago was choked by carbon soot, the use of electricity allowed the pollution to be generated at a distance, and London is now safer for the residents.

The big picture, then, is that gross levels of pollution are still increasing at something like predicted rates, but have localized and diversified, creating more unknowns and therefore less ability to handle the problem.
posted by dragonsi55 at 5:13 AM on September 4 [16 favorites]


It's called shifting the goalposts. If their criteria are bad then their analysis is bad. Pollution may or may not be getting worse, but it's utterly wrong to suggest that it is in line with what Limits to Growth predicted. You cannot say, "we computer modelled the growth of DDT into the future, and the growth of glyphosate shows our model was right". The fact that the main benchmark for pollution could be so thoroughly replaced suggests that the model was either faulty, irrelevant, or a sign that pollution is not so intractable a problem.
posted by Thing at 5:39 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]




Much of the world has gone to a Yellow River strategy, of localizing very high levels of pollution to spare population centers.

At least much of the industrialized world, yes. China is starting the process but as the endless photos of cities covered in dense smog show, it still has a ways to go.

There was an entire genre of pessimistic and Malthusian predictions in the 1970s (echoed in a set of dystopian/utopian science fiction books), most of which have not been borne out in fact due to policy and technological changes or simply incorrect analyses. The easiest thing to do is always to just draw lines from present trends forward (whether as a prediction or as science fiction) but history shows that it is rare for trend lines of any kind to continue uninterrupted.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:50 AM on September 4




This must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays.
posted by hypersloth at 5:53 AM on September 4 [18 favorites]


This is hilariously bad (not the FPP, which is great, but the Guardian article)

First off, the amazing computer model from the 1970s was a basic system dynamic model. I know some of the people involved in it. It is like a less sophisticated version of what powers SimCity, not some amazing oracle - it modeled some basic nonlinear factors and had them interact. At this point, almost all those assumptions are wrong, so the model is not going to be useful, even when the inputs are accurate. There is no global warming, nor is there high efficiency solar power, in the baseline assumptions, for example.

Second, the model depends on sudden transitions where huge negative effects happen. Those are all in the future, so to show some positive trend lines and the. Expect the second order effects of collapse to still happen in the future is pretty disenguous when you know the underlying model is broken.

Also, the trends are better than expected. Ignoring that but still predicting the nonlinear collapse is also shady.

In short, we may all die, but it won't be as seen 50 years ago by a computer less impressive than your iPhone. Instead this is the standard Malthusian argument that we constantly see and which has constantly failed to predict our immediate demise, just made fancy by reference to old prophesy.
posted by blahblahblah at 6:16 AM on September 4 [17 favorites]


The timing of this post is making my anxiety way worse, as I keep accidentally reading literary novels that turn into post-apocalyptic stories, mainly due to the factors listed here (loss of resources, problems w/ the power grid, etc). I really feel like these are realistic things that could happen, even if the math isn't quite right or whatever you all are saying. Anyway, I just discovered solar chargers exist, so at least I can read my Kindle as the world collapses.
posted by leesh at 6:25 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Guardian: 'LIMITS TO GROWTH' PREDICTED GROWTH, LIMITS TO FOLLOW.

I can't decide who's more guilty here - the guy producing lazy research like that or the Guardian's lazy editors going for the simpliest angle.
posted by desultory_banyan at 6:31 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


Yup, we're always doomed unless we solve the problems in front of us. The human condition consists of continually staving off the apocalypse. No one knows how successful we will be, but there's no shortage of people who think they do.

Sometimes it makes even less sense than usual: take the common dreams water article. We're to believe that India will face a choice between dying of thirst in the millions by 2030 or investing in (say) desalination, and that they'll choose death. I doubt anyone truly thinks that, but in the absence of evidence that the Indians are suicidally stupid, the predictions don't really seem sensible.

Also, as pointed out by others, the Guardian post is confirmation bias gone wild, equivalent to claiming that the moon will orbit as usual until next Thursday, when it will veer off to Jupiter, and then claiming on *Wednesday* that the evidence so far supports your theory. This is why you are not supposed to go looking for confirming evidence in science.
posted by pixelrevolt at 6:34 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Oh man, the doomsday preppers are going to love this.

Another in a long line of Malthusians, peak oilers (part 1 in the 70s, part 2 in recent years), peak foodies, peak population, peak....whatever.

I'm not saying that there is zero merit to this article, but I'm pretty confident that we will muddle our way through and find a way through the weeds.
posted by tgrundke at 6:43 AM on September 4


I am sure there are limits, but I am reminded that 2043 is the year that we all turn into Elvis. Will that affect the predictions?
posted by fings at 6:47 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


Well, if 2070 is the predicted timing of the beginning of the collapse, that seems a bit late if anything. But the steepness of the decline on those graphs is implausible. Technology will continue to improve and be more widely deployed for some time after the peak of global civilizational greatness, and people will become all the more willing to exploit everything beyond what might previously have been thought its limits. We're already at the point where all the land that used to be marginally too poor is starting to get fertilized and farmed. The tar sands and other such resources will keep the peak of oil production from being symmetrical, since they're difficult to extract quickly. Mining projects are out there extracting things from ores that would have been considered hopelessly uneconomic just a couple of decades ago. There are all kinds of consumer goods and services that we could probably learn to live without, when resources get too scarce to provide for their production.

Food production will reach a peak, but I don't see why it should decline so precipitously as Limits to Growth would apparently have it. They have everything collapsing in just a few decades. Even with a few major wars and diseases, I think it will be more like a few centuries of slow grinding decline. You know, sort of like Ancient Rome.
posted by sfenders at 6:48 AM on September 4


and as I fell past the 20th floor, I said "so far, so good!"
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:49 AM on September 4 [20 favorites]


But we're already beating the model. The lines look like good fits because they extend back and forward over for 200 years and so scale down differences. But looking at just the last 40 years the divergence is clear. On their common scale food production per capita was .45 in 1972, and they predicted it to be roughly .5 today--a rise of .05. But it's almost .55, a rise of .1. We've grown food production by double what they predicted. It's not just that the looming cliff they predicted looks ridiculous based on our current rate, but that they didn't even predict our current rate all that well.
posted by Thing at 7:03 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


I am sure there are limits, but I am reminded that 2043 is the year that we all turn into Elvis.
Michael J. Fox won't.
posted by Flunkie at 7:15 AM on September 4 [8 favorites]


Given global wealth consolidation by a sociopathic elite and the tendency for populations to radicalize in the face of mass resource scarcity I think "a few centuries" for a massive decline is outrageously optimistic.
posted by grumpybear69 at 7:21 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


I can't help but think how, "everything's gone great so far" was also the mantra of financiers in 2007.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:35 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


The thermodynamic argument for limits to growth is impeccable. What it doesn't try to do, though, and this is where the Limits to Growth authors were too ambitious, is predict
  • when growth will end and
  • whether there'll be a collapse or, instead, a new highly productive steady state.
The outcome of the Agricultural Revolution suggests that a bumpy version of a new higher steady state is at least possible; regional collapses, yes, but within the context of higher worldwide average production. If there were no alternatives to fossil fuels, we would indeed be looking at a collapse scenario, but there are alternatives and they're getting more productive all the time.

If you really want an apocalypse, nuclear Armageddon is still a more plausible route to long-term, worldwide collapse of economy and society.
posted by clawsoon at 7:48 AM on September 4 [6 favorites]


I can't help but think how, "everything's gone great so far" was also the mantra of financiers in 2007.


See here's the rub with forecasting. People don't really understand that true Black Swans are only predictable in hindsight. No model has all the explanatory variables that it needs.

(Though your example isn't great. Plenty of people looked at fundamentals leading up to that period and knew the housing market was fubar.)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:50 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


The fact that the main benchmark for pollution could be so thoroughly replaced suggests that the model was either faulty, irrelevant, or a sign that pollution is not so intractable a problem.

Fracking is polluting our drinking water, our oceans are becoming full of tiny bits of plastic that animals think is food, our water supply is becoming full of even tinier bits of plastic that even tinier animals think is food, estrogen-like compounds in the water has already been mentioned in this comment thread, global warming is causing the tree line to climb up mountains which will result in less water being available for human use (due to less snowpack and more evaporation before it hits rivers / reservoirs), our basically non-renewable aquifers are being sucked dry due to drought conditions, entire metropolitan areas are having their water supply rendered unusable or untrustworthy due to careless industrial practices....

It was probably silly for them to use DDT as a benchmark as its use has declined steadily since basically the date of this book's publication, but pollution, specifically of our water (which yes, I know, DDT was not a water pollutant), continues in new and even more inventive forms today. And without water, life on this particular planet, where all the life springs from water, is tentative.
posted by hippybear at 7:55 AM on September 4 [9 favorites]


Slate Star Codex does a quick and somewhat snarky takedown of the "look, these graphs look similar" approach taken by the article. Not that this disproves Limits to Growth, it just shows that the Guardian doesn't actually present meaningful evidence in favour.
posted by Zarkonnen at 8:08 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


If there were no alternatives to fossil fuels, we would indeed be looking at a collapse scenario, but there are alternatives and they're getting more productive all the time.

Current agricultural practices might not be theoretically limited by fossil fuels; you could imagine transporting everything by nuclear-electric trains or something, and making inorganic fertilizers from carbon and hydrogen extracted from air and water, powered by whatever fantastic new source of energy you can dream of. Besides, there's plenty of coal for a while. But it's still far from sustainable in terms of water, soil, and climate change.
posted by sfenders at 8:08 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Slate Star Codex does a quick and somewhat snarky takedown of the "look, these graphs look similar" approach taken by the article. Not that this disproves Limits to Growth, it just shows that the Guardian doesn't actually present meaningful evidence in favour.
So were they right? We decided to check in with those scenarios after 40 years. Dr Graham Turner gathered data from the UN (its department of economic and social affairs, Unesco, the food and agriculture organisation, and the UN statistics yearbook). He also checked in with the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration, the BP statistical review, and elsewhere. That data was plotted alongside the Limits to Growth scenarios.

The results show that the world is tracking pretty closely to the Limits to Growth “business-as-usual” scenario. The data doesn’t match up with other scenarios.
I do agree, one major weakness of the Guardian article is that it doesn't show graphs from the other scenarios and plot their data against those, so there is no real basis for comparison.
posted by hippybear at 8:12 AM on September 4


I am reminded that 2043 is the year that we all turn into Elvis. Will that affect the predictions?

In that case shortages of peanuts, bananas, and pigs will be our downfall.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:39 AM on September 4


I made the FPP about Turner in November 2008. Linked in Previously. November 2008 was a perfect time for that post, the depths of the collapse. Maybe not so popular in this roaring bull market. All things in good time, it will come around again. BTW great post, just wondering about some of the comments.
posted by stbalbach at 8:53 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


global collapse. because peak oil. probably too late to do anything about it.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 8:54 AM on September 4




In short, we may all die, but it won't be as seen 50 years ago by a computer less impressive than your iPhone.

Far less impressive than even a dumb phone. About the level of a simple digital alarm clock.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:12 AM on September 4


If you really want an apocalypse, nuclear Armageddon is still a more plausible route to long-term, worldwide collapse of economy and society.

Yeah, if I was underwriting the Earth, I'd be like "Have you noticed that you've come close to wiping out life on the planet, I don't know -- a dozen or so times in the last five decades? Any plans to address that? Yes, I see you have very good predictions for future CO2 concentrations, but you really have to work on this other thing."
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:03 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


If a global collapse is imminent, whoever's in charge now has every incentive in the world to cover it up until things get so bad they're likely to escape any personal blame in the ensuing chaos. And who really could blame them? They didn't personally cause this mess we're in either, though they may have played along same as everyone before them. This is why having a functioning concept of collective responsibility and not letting that concept be eroded by sociopaths who don't believe in society and the public interest and/or public wealth is so important. If we don't take collective responsibility for the things that can't possibly be any one person's responsibility, then we're effectively just leaving the future to chance. Who is "we"? Every miserable human being on this planet, whether they like themselves enough to admit they're human or not.
posted by saulgoodman at 10:14 AM on September 4 [6 favorites]


No, that can't possibly be right. Because I don't want it to be. Also, anyone who suggests there should be any less of something I want is a self-hating luddite environmental extremist.
posted by Zed at 10:16 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


Or maybe the world has been in imminent danger of ending since the beginning of recorded history, and everyone who is aware of that is a bit jaded at this point.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:18 AM on September 4


I've never seen a civilization collapse, and I've been here since Jimmy Carter was President.

Plus, I've read history, and some other people some other time said things were about to end and they were wrong. So there.
posted by General Tonic at 10:22 AM on September 4 [4 favorites]


I've been observing civilization's slow collapse since Nixon was president.

global collapse. because peak oil. probably too late to do anything about it.

Agreed. As Noam Chomsky put it, "Eyes wide open, driving right towards the abyss."

And who really could blame them? They didn't personally cause this mess we're in either

The raindrop never feels any responsibility for the flood.
posted by Rash at 10:41 AM on September 4 [3 favorites]


(Though your example isn't great. Plenty of people looked at fundamentals leading up to that period and knew the housing market was fubar.)

Plenty of people are looking at fundamentals now and thinking "outlook not so good," too.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:43 AM on September 4 [1 favorite]


MeFi loves its predictions of doom, and it is more than fine to have the usual* debates over how the world will end, since these are all real crises. I am less convinced that civilization is doomed, but to each their own.

At the same time, the actual articles in the FPP are not particularly convincing, and, worse, they don't actually help direct us towards real crises, instead just promoting general anxiety.

It might be worth understanding more about the Limits to Growth model being discussed. What Limits to Growth does that is very good is that it shows how simple underlying systems can lead to rapid system collapse. In the 1970s, this was revelatory.

What is less good is that LTG uses a really simple model that is not, in itself, a good predictor of when and if such a collapse will take place. System dynamic models are very unstable and sensitive (See the Beer Game) and forty-year-old models are worse, not better, than ones today. That is why, as I, and others, have mentioned, the research behind lead article is pretty terrible, since it uses an old model that is clearly not right and claims it is.

Further, it is bad and not just because it is bad social science and modelling. It is also bad because it specifies generic doom - peak oil? water? Roundup usage? Who knows? The point is, apparently, that we are doooomed. That is neither helpful, nor necessarily true.

In any case, I am not going to change any minds about whether we are doomed or not, but I would caution you not to read too much into this particular prediction.

*Post in 2004 where world ends 5-10 years
posted by blahblahblah at 11:16 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


I don't necessarily think this particular article does much good beyond preaching to the choir, myself. But my point is, don't kid yourselves: If there is going to be a collapse, it will appear to happen suddenly and unexpectedly even though any number of individuals will be in a position to see it coming, and it will turn out that many factors critics previously anticipated and sounded the alarm about were legitimately among the causes of the collapse, but the consensus will still be that no one could have seen it coming.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:43 AM on September 4 [5 favorites]


Will a collapse be sudden and new?

This chart says the world can support 20 billion at Mexico-level affluence. So as population increases we will see decreasing affluence. There's a lot of (right-wing) stuff on the "Mexicanization of America" but that may be the crash happening. Seems reasonable to presume increased violence, corruption, wealth disparity etc.. are how it plays out. The same old problems.
posted by stbalbach at 11:45 AM on September 4


*Post in 2004 where world ends 5-10 years

I was looking forward to reading such a thing, but instead I found an NYT link where Daniel Yergin reassured Americans, who were a bit freaked out over the high price of gasoline which had risen sharply to $1.76 per gallon, that everything would soon go back to normal.
posted by sfenders at 11:51 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


This chart says the world can support 20 billion at Mexico-level affluence. So as population increases we will see decreasing affluence.
The average Mexican is, according to per capita GDP purchasing power parity, more, not less, affluent than the average human.
posted by Flunkie at 12:16 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


sfenders:
"and making inorganic fertilizers from carbon and hydrogen extracted from air and water"
That won't do any good unless we can also find a way to extract phosphorus from air and water.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:21 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


The thing about the system as a whole is that your first-reached bottleneck is the one to begin causing problems. It sounds like a bit of a tautology until you realize that it's rather difficult to enumerate each and every resource on which civilization is dependent. Land space isn't really an issue, but arable land comes first. Of course, it's not terribly arable if you don't have fresh water. Then this summer in California comes to mind ...

Here's something I like to dust off, a chart from years ago showing how long (as an estimate, of course) we have for various base metals as a function of our current consumption. Silver, zinc, and antimony seem to be the metals soonest depleted. Maybe we can find a way around shortage of hafnium and indium by some clever substitution, but that will most likely involve consuming even more of another already scarce metal.

But wait, that's not all! Globalization and the relentless advertisement of the glorious American lifestyle produces an awful lot of people who want to live like Americans, too. Consumption increases yet again.
posted by adipocere at 1:14 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


It is also bad because it specifies generic doom - peak oil? water? Roundup usage? Who knows? The point is, apparently, that we are doooomed.

There are indeed a confluence of things while the cheap energy that allowed us to build and maintain our cilivilisation, in fact enabled us to get into the predicaments we are in now, is becoming more expensive to mine, process and transport to where we need it. Over time we will have more and more trouble maintaining the infrastructure we have, let alone increase it or change it to meet our new, energy-scarce future.

It's all interlocking but you can just take any one thing, say topsoil, and see how it interacts with other issues. "Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years" (WWF) and you start to build a picture of how much more difficult it is on the other side of the energy cliff because we have lost so much that we had when our population was much smaller.

John Michael Greer describes the limits of growth in "The Long Descent" (2008)

"What the Limits to Growth team found was that, in simplest terms, unlimited growth on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster. As population increases and economic growth unfolds, the world has to provide ever greater supplies of food, water, energy, and raw materials for industry. The Earth, though, only has so much oil, so much coal, so much topsoil, and so on through the sprawling list of resources used by industrial society, and it can only absorb so much pollution before the natural systems that support the global economy begin to break down. Since these systems include the weather patterns, water and nutrient cycles, and ecological interactions that produce food for people to eat, wood and other raw materials for them to use, and even the oxygen they breathe, this is not a small matter."

On the interplay between oil and climate change Gail Tverberg wrote a very interesting article recently; Oil Limits and Climate Change – How They Fit Together "The likely effect of oil limits–one way or the other–is to bring down the economy, and because of this bring an end to pretty much all carbon emissions (not just oil) very quickly."
posted by lucien at 1:24 PM on September 4 [6 favorites]


This chart says the world can support 20 billion at Mexico-level affluence. So as population increases we will see decreasing affluence.
The average Mexican is, according to per capita GDP purchasing power parity, more, not less, affluent than the average human.


The "we" there was "citizens of rich, industrialized nations," I think, which the average human most definitely is not.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:01 PM on September 4


I think it's a problem with how we teach history. Everyone reads about all these wars and declines and etc. and they don't realize that the vast majority of humans who ever existed lived in truly boring circumstances. Historically it's very rare to have been around when something historical was happening.

But no one wants to hear that. They want to know they personally will be involved in an event that will ring down the generations. Maybe it's the closest they'll come to immortality or something.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:41 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


Fascinating post. Thanks, flex.
posted by homunculus at 3:35 PM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Sorry to repost this, but it will go nicely with the Gail Tverberg article: Arithmetic, Population and Energy - a talk by Al Bartlett (transcript)

I mean, I thought I knew this stuff better because we took it in school, but he's very effective at packaging it up in a way that makes you wonder why we've ever listened to politicians and economists.

[Economist Julian] Simon has written that we will never run out of copper because “copper can be made from other metals."
posted by sneebler at 4:26 PM on September 4 [1 favorite]


the world can support 20 billion at Mexico-level affluence

That's fantastic news if true. Arriving at Mexico-level affluence sounds like a disaster for a relatively small number of people, globally speaking. I live in a country with Mexico-level affluence, and it is pretty decent! Let's Save the Planet with Mandatory Mexico-level Affluence for All! Americans start first please.
posted by BinGregory at 8:44 PM on September 4 [3 favorites]


This chart says the world can support 20 billion at Mexico-level affluence. So as population increases we will see decreasing affluence.
The average Mexican is, according to per capita GDP purchasing power parity, more, not less, affluent than the average human.
The "we" there was "citizens of rich, industrialized nations," I think, which the average human most definitely is not.
I'm aware that the original commenter was displaying bias towards a small subset of humanity; in fact that's part of what I was pointing out. But even if they really explicitly meant "we" as "that small subset" rather than just letting the bias slip out without consciously thinking about it, the claim still doesn't follow:

(1) If the average human will (as claimed) be at Mexico-level affluence, this does not imply that the average human from what are currently "rich, industrialized nations" will be at Mexico-level affluence.

(2) If the average human's affluence will (as claimed without realizing it's being claimed) increase, this does not imply that the affluence of the average human from what are currently "rich, industrialized nations" will decrease.
posted by Flunkie at 6:06 AM on September 5


But no one wants to hear that. They want to know they personally will be involved in an event that will ring down the generations. Maybe it's the closest they'll come to immortality or something.

Nonsense. Most people live through major historical events unconsciously, preoccupied with mundane problems of life and basic survival. Go back and read a lot of firsthand accounts of people who lived through major historical developments. They almost never seem to realize the gravity of the events they're living through except in hindsight. And in reality, we are all living through major history right now--just like every other population in history. We are history as it's being made, why should anyone feel the need to pretend that's true when it actually is?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:32 AM on September 5 [1 favorite]


I am wary of a collapse story. I think it has validity only if people lose agency. As mentioned up thread, sure, limits suggest India will thirst if it does nothing - so surely we can expect them to do things to avoid or ameliorate thirst?
But being skeptical of a die-off, mad-max future doesn't preclude a scenario which is still a lot worse than just a few years ago.
Poverty, hard work, limited access to luxuries that were once common all seems a predictable outcome as resource and especially energy constraints bite.
If meat becomes much more expensive, gasoline no longer affordable for anything but essential transport, public services are cut due to an eroding tax base, many new graduates find themselves unable to find work, medical costs increase, there is an uptick in violence. These things are absolutely not a collapse, but real indications of resource constraints leading to decreases in quality of life.
We can do some things to counter this by being smart, and I absolutely agree internets and smartphones are great technological items of progress.
But in my lifetime I have seen the impacts of growing populations and resource constraints, and the outcome of human ingenuity, and while the ingenuity provides desirable substitutes for resources in decline, we are still poorer in ways for their loss.
Resource constraints mean the cost of fuel is higher, likely permanently, the ability to access some unspoilt nature is harder (or even getting a bit of space at the beach!), the degradation of farm land has increased and a range of other things are less readily available.
I get that an iphone in my pocket is a great trade for the ability to take a sunday afternoon drive without concern over gas prices, but it isn't a complete substitute, and we are losing some of the things we used to have ready access to.
So far, for most westerners it has been about inconvenience and higher prices for discretionary spending, but when these constraints begin to effect essentials - 'I need to sell my fringe suburban house because the cost of fuel for my commute is killing me" or "I can't afford to run the heater as much this winter" things will be a bit more tense, and not so easily dismissed.
posted by bystander at 6:36 AM on September 5 [3 favorites]


Oh, and I do love my iphone and macbook - I apparently have dollars for apple products because they are so much relatively cheaper these days, while lots of simple pleasures and necessities have become prohibitively expensive. It seems so clearly about energy constraints (america is the new saudi arabia - um, why is oil still $100 a barrel?)
posted by bystander at 6:40 AM on September 5


collapse = Mad Max? Seriously? We've got plenty of real world examples in history if you want to know. It will be different in each country/region and it won't be uniform in time or severity. It's already under way in some places, fitfully like some great beast rearing behind the thin curtain of stability.
posted by stbalbach at 10:35 AM on September 6


We are history as it's being made, why should anyone feel the need to pretend that's true when it actually is?

We are history, but only rarely are we the history that appears in the history books. The Australian aborigines really weren't involved with the Mongol Invasions. The Nepalese have no stories about Waterloo. The Inca didn't participate in the rise of the Ming Dynasty.

And even just counting the events called out in traditional Western history texts, hundreds of years passed between events we bother to remember today, and the distances involved made things happening at one end of the map often irrelevant at the other.

So once again, being personally involved in an event that will ring down through the generations is fairly rare. A few million people here, a few million there, but nothing compared to the total number of people who have walked the Earth.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:25 AM on September 6


And even just counting the events called out in traditional Western history texts, hundreds of years passed between events we bother to remember today

The historical record may be a bit sparse in parts of the vast stretch of time between the first invention of writing stuff down, and the time it became common to actually do so all around the world. How many events of great historical significance would you say happened in the latest 400 years or so, the part we have relatively good records of? More than one or two, I would think.

Beyond that though, the beginning of the end of this rapid growth phase of humanity seems fairly important. It's notable, whether or not it involves some kind of immediate horrendous Gail Tverberg insta-doom cataclysm. Which it very likely does not in at least the small foreseeable part of the future; which part is I think, despite what others may forecast, large enough to include next year. Anyway, I'm sometimes tempted to wonder whether the timing of this is related to the fact we're just a few centuries after the people who migrated east from wherever humans started out met up with the people who went west, and had a big fight for the first time. It's the first global civilization in history, big enough to cover the whole planet, and that's never happened before. The Inca didn't care much about the Ming Dynasty, but these days one plane crash and the entire world is instantly obsessed with it. The events and ways of living that led to this appeared very quickly, very recently, and are still evolving at tremendous speed. Seems like interesting times to me.
posted by sfenders at 9:45 PM on September 6 [2 favorites]


is global collapse imminent?


Yes



"There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)"
http://ourfiniteworld.com/2011/02/21/there-is-no-steady-state-economy-except-at-a-very-basic-level/

Limits to Growth–At our doorstep, but not recognized
http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-02-12/limits-to-growth-at-our-doorstep-but-not-recognized


Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseparable
http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2012/01/wealth-and-energy-consumption-are-inseparable.html

Galactic-Scale Energy
http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/
posted by yoyo_nyc at 7:15 AM on September 9 [2 favorites]


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