For those who don’t trawl through all the comments; a little personal background. I’ve been fortunate enough to have just finished up a 40 year career in technology and automation, most of it in heavy industry. Looking back it’s been one hell of an adventure, tough at times, but I’ve been one of those lucky people who find their work intrinsically rewarding. While most of my working life was based in NZ, a good 20% or so was in other countries. Some of them reasonably exotic locations.
At the same time, I’ve always maintained an interest in a range of non-mainstream alternative views of the world … the list is long and varied, I’ll spare this forum from listing the peculiar tangents I’ve explored over time. But in a nutshell, I may have earned a living in a deterministic world, but my soul always yearned to have a few non-deterministic mysteries left.
The two world views have not always sat comfortably with me; neither the eco-loon nor the engineer could fully answer the questions I asked of them … where the hell are we going? The engineer informed me of just how our incomprehensibly complex, inter-dependent, industrialised world sustains us all; while the eco-loon declared that same world often destructive in unintended ways, alienating and ultimately perhaps doomed. They both spoke truth, even if their sensibilities and voices conflicted.
The Eco-Modernist movement attempts a reconciliation, and this piece references in particular their manifesto outlining a path forward. Let’s start with what has been achieved in the unique, turbulent and astonishing period we have come through:
Humanity has flourished over the past two centuries. Average life expectancy has increased from 30 to 70 years, resulting in a large and growing population able to live in many different environments. Humanity has made extraordinary progress in reducing the incidence and impacts of infectious diseases, and it has become more resilient to extreme weather and other natural disasters.
Violence in all forms has declined significantly and is probably at the lowest per capita level ever experienced by the human species, the horrors of the 20th century and present-day terrorism notwithstanding. Globally, human beings have moved from autocratic government toward liberal democracy characterized by the rule of law and increased freedom.
Personal, economic, and political liberties have spread worldwide and are today largely accepted as universal values. Modernization liberates women from traditional gender roles, increasing their control of their fertility. Historically large numbers of humans — both in percentage and in absolute terms — are free from insecurity, penury, and servitude.
Moreover our population is going to increase more than ten-fold, from just under 1b in 1800 to probably a bit over 10b in 2100. A world of 10b mouths to feed is fundamentally different to one of 1b; each and every day these people are fed, clothed and largely kept alive by an industrial system of immense complexity, a web of energy, resources, methods and mechanisation spread across the globe. A photosynthesis constrained world (muscle and wood energy only) simply never did this; our so-called ‘carrying capacity’ under those conditions was probably somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0b. Unwind the industrial system and there is little reason to think this is not the population (and similar social conditions) that will eventually prevail; a fast or slow collapse … the outcome would eventually be a reversion to very similar pre-industrial conditions.
Yet without belabouring the obvious, this same industrial system rests heavily on fossil carbon fuels that we know we cannot continue to consume without another equally unhappy outcome; a climate/resource crisis that will destabilise everything. Again slow or fast … the outcome will be the same. And there is no rule that says we might not stumble into both crisis’ at once, an economic/technology collapse and climate change both feeding into each other.
This is a stark outlook. The current industrial path we are on appears to be a literal dead end, yet abandoning it altogether and reverting to the pre-industrial world is equally catastrophic. Neither is an acceptable plan … and for the purposes of the argument being made here, I am firmly setting both aside as essentially strawmen arguments.
This leaves us with two broad options; the most popular is the idea that we might retreat a little, downsize our consumption habits to somewhere around the developed world in the 1950’s. There is merit to this, we’ve been there before and thus we know it can be done. But it comes with at least three problems. One is that selectively unravelling what technology and consumption we want to keep (nice things like birth control, computers, etc) while shutting down the ones we have to let go is a non-trivial problem. Assuming we can maintain the benefits of modernisation, while unwinding much of underlying physical basis of it at the same time is a risky assumption.
More pragmatically, there is no global solidarity for such a program. Neither the developing world would buy into it, quite reasonably they would see it as the rich world denying them the benefits they have briefly enjoyed, or a rogue nation might cheat on the deal and seize a hegemonic dominance. Absent any global means to reliably enforce such a powerdown, indefinitely into the future, it’s an idea set up to fail in my view for these two reasons alone.
But in more seriously a world of maybe 2 -3b humans we can make the numbers around such a managed retreat work. With 10b it’s much less clear that they do. No matter our good intentions here, I do not believe we can “save and efficiency’ our way out of this in the long run. (Note: None of this implies that reducing waste, gross profligacy and moderating our material demands on the world should not be done where possible; it’s just an insufficient action in isolation.)
The takeaway here is a version of the classic ‘Iron Triangle‘, three constraints appear to define our future; one is destabilising environmental cost of continuing with our present industrialised base, the other is the unsupportable cost of abandoning it, and the third being an absolute ethical requirement to ensure a world of 10b people can thrive in both hope and dignity.
Right now we occupy the triangular space between them … and it’s shrinking. To escape we must find a path past one of the boundaries.
PS: During the process of writing this up a new page appeared at OurWorldInData just yesterday. It explores this theme and provides much greater background data and detail.