False Promises

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Arthur Conan Doyle


Take a mind. Send it hour after hour of highly charged emotional content all the while making irrational claims like, “Subaru is love.” Take that exact same medium that delivers this cognitive quicksand and use it to also communicate the most important news of our time. Result? People can be forgiven for being a little bit confused about what is real and important these days and what is not.

I don’t think we can make any headway towards clear thinking without recognizing the cognitive dissonance and confusion that has been deliberately sewn inside our minds. The manipulation manifests in a number of ways, not the least of which is the general atmosphere it fosters in which anything goes: every side of every argument is given equal weight – regardless of the evidence.

Lots of people talk about the rosy high-tech future business as usual will deliver; politicians work with the corporate elite and their bankers to assure that the opinion pieces, TV and radio are full of the same monotone rhetoric. The only group who consistently refuses to join the optimist crowd, who insist on making dire predictions, are the scientists and engineers; those whom we expect to continue delivering the consumer cornucopia we have come to feel we deserve. Those who crunch the numbers and make the most careful models are of one accord – very, very worried. This should, in turn, worry us.

As a nation we sure do like our stories. Hollywood movies regularly attract masses of people as titles regularly achieve blockbuster status. Even blockbusters are not enough to satisfy our need and longing to tell one another stories. We rely on TV and radio to broadcast thousands of stories a day, non-stop. So enamored are we with the stories we tell, that as a society we lavish our highest awards of money and fame on the actors and musicians who master these arts of theatrical pretending.

So when events are cast into the context of a story that conforms well to our highly trained expectations, we are extremely susceptible to bypassing critical thought because the explanation just ‘feels right’.

For example, when an economist tells us the developing world is adopting car based lifestyles at an accelerating rate, we tend to pull out our comfortable story – progress through industrial technology – and file away the claim as further evidence that supports one of our society’s core narratives. Business news being what it is, this datum about accelerated adoption of cars was probably presented as a sign of great progress because the poor of the world are finally catching on to how to become just like us. It’s possible, though considerably less likely, that the factoid was presented in the voice of a concerned environmentalist instead. In that case we will likely interpret it as a story of progressive problem solving through grand engineering achievements, which again allows us to file away the claim as further evidence supporting one of our society’s core narratives. That pretty much covers the spectrum of acceptable mainstream interpretations of facts related to growth and overshoot.

As times become more brutal these core narratives show their dark side. This ‘progress’, as we are learning, must be pursued at all costs. We see this in the Paris Accords which are looking all the world to be lots of bark but very little bite. It offers plenty of photo ops but not much in the way of actually diminishing fossil fuel use, at least not in rates at all proportionate to the problem. Take a look (pdf) at the recently published analytic overview of the difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees, the two temperature targets mentioned in the accords. It is a good example of the type of evidence based reasoning typical of the ecological science warnings that were mentioned last week. (The paper uses a number of data graphics and uses them well but notice how they lack the iconic power of the LtG image to communicate a clear summary of the ecological message.)

To be fair to all the people involved with the Paris Accords, we should be grateful their tireless work has managed to bring the conversation this far. That John Kerry’s granddaughter made an appearance at the UN signing was also very encouraging; we need reminders of what all these abstractions are really about. Still, to avoid being tragically disappointed, we should recognize that the need to conform to these core progress narratives acts as a constraint on what we can realistically expect from such efforts.

LtG is its own narrative, one not in harmony with the narrative of material progress through economic growth. Because of this it is not, today, a core narrative within our society’s business or religious communities. None the less, this fringe interpretation of events grows more useful as the evidence of a very real Eco-crisis continues to pour in. In my mind the LtG narrative is the most viable alternative to the up and coming blame game coming out of the progress narrative.

We are already seeing the beginning of that dangerous shift in the mainstream narrative about a bright shiny future. It is being replaced by its shadow: someone stole that bright shiny future from us, the one that was rightfully ours, and the one we deserve. That scapegoating keeps the sanctity of the core narrative inviolate. That is the utility of the story of evil villains among us. What other cause could there be for all our troubles, if the ideal of progress is going to be retained?

The only alternative we have for blaming someone else would seem to be blaming ourselves. We have already mentioned the strange religious inversion of our times. At some level western religious traditions have been co-opted by the powers that be. These religions have traditions of standing up against injustice and I believe they will play an increasingly important role in the coming century but today when David is confronted by Homo Colossus, or as we say the ‘gas and oil giants,’ their quivers are all but empty. Their assigned role seems to be an elaborate excuse mechanism, a theology of the ‘devil made me do it’ variety. You know the routine: humans are selfish, greedy and filled with uncontrollable lust, a pile of excrement lightly covered in snow (to use an image from the Lutheran tradition) so don’t blame me for doing everything I had to in getting to the top. What do you expect from our pitiful, fallen nature? Of course the world can only end in the ultimate violence of Armageddon and it is a lack of faith to work for any other outcome. Where the God of love who created the earth out of love and “saw that it was good” is in all that it is hard to say.

Let’s return to our example. I have mentioned before a projection I once came across that the number of cars on the road worldwide is expected to double by 2030. Just imagine that really happening; you think traffic is bad now. . . That is in about fifteen years, the slightest click of history’s clock. Indisputably transportation is one of the largest causes of the complex system of interactions we call climate change, yet business as usual is unable to envision the world of 2030 as anything other than one in which there are more cars and more highways.

Those who see no problem with the projections because these will all be self-driving electric vehicles from Google are simply ignorant of a number of facts, not the least of which is that the adoption period for new transportation technology is on the order of 20 years. Many people do not have an intuitive understanding or factual exposure to sociological and technological lag times working against us this way, but it is hardly worth arguing the point. What we want to ask such people is how do they see the world of 2050? Another doubling again of cars, highways, parking spaces, gas stations, fuel supplies, refineries and delivery infrastructures? Just how far down this road from our time into bizzaro-land, as it is revealed by exponential growth, do we need to go before we turn around and notice something quite fundamental is amiss?

This is what numeric facts can do; quickly winnow the astronomically improbable futures from the set of those most probable.

The number of cars is an example of how clearly the evidence speaks of a necessary discontinuity arriving among the many features of existing arrangements that are wholly dependent on exponential economic and material growth. The institutions and infrastructures we have built to take advantage of oil in the age of exuberance are now frozen cages, no longer serving our current needs well. They are frozen because they are stuck in narratives that do not work. Much of this precious inheritance might eventually serve a more localized lifestyle but that would mean they have become animated by a different set of values.

Last week’s post mentioned the need for meta-model analysis in which the value of multiple models is weighed against one another. As benefits a world in which it is turtles all the way down, there is a model for this too. Though the model is mathematical, what it captures is a process we immediately understand: as evidence accumulates some of our ideas about what is really going on fail, become less useful or are restrained to restricted domains, while other ideas are strengthened with an increasing explanatory power. Newtonian mechanics in an Einstein universe is the classic case of restriction, Ptolemy’s astronomy a well known case of a set of ideas that fared less well.

We like to tell stories. If this analysis is valid, the story of progress which has guided western civilization for centuries no longer offers a functionally useful interpretation of events. It can only point the finger of blame as the long descent throws sand in the gears.

LtG offers an alternative model of why what is happening is happening and, importantly, it entails an alternate conception of our role as human beings in our relationship with all that is not human. It seems such a tiny thing compared to the grand narratives of progress. It is a tiny thing if we ask ourselves how much real influence the LtG model has had in shaping our affairs. Still, the battle of models is early yet. Who knows, an epidemic outbreak of sanity just might be heading our way. Sure it will likely be after some seriously brutal missteps but in every individual mind the evidence accumulates, drop by drop. Though the stories never cease, they do change.

Show Me the Evidence

“This scenario portrays a ‘nonrenewable resource crisis.’ It is not a prediction. It is not meant to forecast precise values of any of the model variables, nor the exact timing of events. We do believe it represents the most likely ‘real world’ outcome. We will show another possibility in a moment… The strongest statement we can make about scenario 1 is that it portrays the likely general behavior mode of the system, if the policies that influence economic growth and population growth in the future are similar to those that dominated the last part of the twentieth century, if technologies and values continue to evolve in a manner representative of that era, and if the uncertain numbers in the model are roughly correct.”
Meadows and Randers, Limits to Growth, The 30-Year Update, italics in the original


Last week we defined our time, the Age of Limits, as the 50 year window or so in which the curves of the limits to growth (LtG) model run through their inflection points. To put it in Richard Heinberg’s memorable phrase, it is the age of Peak Everything. The graphic reproduced in that post was first widely disseminated among the reading public when it was published by the National Geographic magazine. It remains iconic in my mind, a laser focused representation of the ecological critique of industrial civilization.

The form the presentation takes is as iconic as the message itself for characterizing our time. Such a mathematical graphic weave numerous strands from the western history of ideas together seamlessly. I am quite sure most Nat Geo readers were able to immediately interpret those curves to understand their message, yet doing so represents a wide array of skills and assumptions unique to the modern mind. The algebraic curve as an expression of a mathematical function comes from Descartes in the 1600s but the idea that we can rationally ask about the future and expect it to unfold in a wholly natural way from the causes and conditions of the past and present is much older. Lucretius is our standard bearer in the western tradition here. The curves were generated using the calculus invented by Newton and Leibniz also in the 1600s but the use it is put to by the MIT team to interpolate trends and sketch out future conditions is only meaningful in the context of statistics and probability as they have been understood since the 1950s or so. These three; the calculus, statistics and probability, are the heavy lifters for most all the mathematical sciences which have so transformed our modern world.

The LtG graphic is iconic also in the sense of a stand-in, a symbol for something else. The actual World3-03 model which embodied the MIT team’s theoretical constructs is not in itself the only model or data set being considered when concerns about collapse are being aired. We will return to this point. That said, for the curious one presentation of the World3-03 model design can be found here and for the curious and computer savvy the full Vensim model can be found here.

What you see is a system science design which captures flows from sources towards sinks at various rates. The spaghetti looking aspect are the interactions between the various systems, the feedback loops that create the overall non-linear behavior the model exhibits. By changing the numeric value of the parameters we ask how the model will perform under different sets of assumptions. The rates and values set according to historic precedent creates the business as usual scenario, what is called scenario 1 in the quote above.

In the books Limits to Growth and Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Update a number of other scenarios are explored which ask questions such as what happens if there is twice the amount of resources available than initially assumed, or what happens if dramatic policy changes are put in place. In general such alternate LtG scenarios adjust the timelines, and the initial drivers sometimes fluctuate between a source crisis (not enough) and a sink crisis (too much) but nothing avoids a collapse once society is in a state of overshoot. This is the “general behavior mode” of the model. I encourage my readers who have not read the source material in these two books to do so. The careful consideration of objections and alternatives conveys the system science reasoning very well. It is not enough to dismiss the critique with hand waving.

Still, by itself the LtG study stands as a single piece of evidence. The question whether or not our existing civilization is sustainable over the next generation or two is the most important question the human species faces. Every person alive today not isolated from world affairs cannot help but wondering about the same question at some level or another. Everyone wonders where this Juggernaut is heading. The 30-Year Update put World3’s core question this way: “How may the expanding global population and material economy interact with and adapt to the earth’s limited carrying capacity over the coming decades?” Such an important question deserves as much careful thinking as we can give it. That requires us to gather more evidence.

Did you catch the important caveat in the quote that started this post? It’s been 12 years since the 30-Year Update was published and looking back it seems clear that neither the “policies” nor the “technologies and values” dominating our societies changed much from those which shaped the “last part of the twentieth century.” That is two of the three ifs mentioned. The final if, on the other hand, remains as relevant as ever; namely, are the numbers used in the model to represent aggregates and facts for which we have little data and are highly uncertain roughly correct?

This is the voice of science. It remains open to new information and correction. Science speaks in P-values, confidence intervals and error ranges when using mathematical data analysis.

The fate of humankind and the ecosphere is sufficiently fundamental that we should be willing to set aside whatever might interfere with clearly and correctly integrating and discussing the evidence. Impassioned political speeches and psychologically manipulative marketing techniques have no proper place in this discussion.

We are not trying to score points, as if this were nothing more than a clash of ideas taken up by a debating team. Our children’s lives hang in the balance. The emotionally manipulative and deliberately disingenuous is, frankly, pathetic and unacceptable and will not be considered any further. This is an adult conversation and they are not invited to a place at the table. Which leaves the seriously concerned to wrestle with the evidence.

The useful engagement with something like the LtG model is using it to sharpen our thinking about the real world. System science models have places of leverage, places where a small force applied can have results far out of proportion to its magnitude; much like the current from a 1.5 volt battery can control the electronic governor of a large industrial manufacturing process. Finding where in the system such points of leverage exist and experimenting with them when they lead to more positive outcomes or protecting them and monitoring them as critical trigger points when they threaten negative outcomes is one way of taking the evidence seriously.

Another is to examine an item such as topsoil loss and work to lower its rate by building up productive soil. The model gives some parameters around what might and might not actually be helpful.

Of course the LtG is only one model on the table. The climate change ecologists are running supercomputers day in and day out. The IPCC models are also on the table, right next to biodiversity graphs, ocean toxicity and all the rest. Those people seated around this table are engaged in a multi-model comparison, a meta-model study. Each model comes with its own uncertainties and the combination of models can potentially introduce more. In fact the greatest uncertainties typically cluster around questions about how one weakened system might react to another system which is slowly failing which itself depends on a system in crisis. All too often that is the state of the real world in all its complexity.

In the heads of every participant another model of sorts is guiding each of them to whatever beliefs they hold about what is really and truly going on. It is the nature of the mind to experience some things as more likely to be real and true than other things. The only question becomes how our convictions were arrived at, whether or not they remain open to new information, and what role reasoning about evidence has played in their formation.

“I recognize a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities. I confess to an over-powering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake — whether the environment and laws which affect me are external and permanent, or the transitory products of my own brain.”
H.P. Lovecraft, letter to Maurice W. Moe, dated May 15, 1918

Lovecraft touches on something very profound here. Plenty to chew on from a contemplative point of view but the surface meaning is important to everyone waking up in the Age of Limits. It is interesting to ask ourselves within our contemplation just how willing we really are to sit at this table.

A Time for Inflection

“Bruce Shisheesh, the chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation community, said 11 people attempted to take their own lives on Saturday, prompting him to declare a state of emergency.”
Canadian Attawapiskat First Nation suicide emergency, BBC News


Towards the top of the world there were 11 suicide attempts in a single day. Though the causes and conditions will vary with each individual, the signal remains; a signal of meaninglessness. When youth are involved, as in this case, it speaks loud and clear: ‘there is no future for us.’ Such a stark message is hard to hear in its simplicity. It is our loving nature that seeks to nurture our children and inspires us to work hard creating environments conductive to their thriving. The young suicide has failed to find any space for themselves in the future in which they can imagine a life less filled with pain and suffering than the one they know right now.

A compassionate response wants to know what it is that makes them suffer so? We send mental health professionals and counselors but what if what ails them is structural, traditional institutional social arrangements that no longer serve the needs of the present? If that is the case all the talk in the world isn’t going to help much. I will venture to bet they don’t want a handout, hot-air, or heroin. I bet what these young people want is to not be faceless, to have a chance to do something meaningful about all the things going to hell today. Hang in there. We hear you. We need you. You just might look back on your long life amazed; the youth of today just might have front row seats for the greatest show on earth. Regardless, for those who care about the earth there is a lot of work to do.

When a monk emmolates themselves to help free Tibet they are hoping other people in their compassion will feel the depth of pain that must have been in their hearts to cause them to sacrifice what is valuable above all else, a precious human life. The Karmapa has recognized as much when he asked for such events to cease because people are not responding compassionately. The suicides and murder-suicides we have been looking at in these posts lack the clarity of purpose these monastics bring to bear but shouldn’t we still try to feel the flesh they lay on the line?

Indigenous people the world over have been warning us that without respecting the natural environment no good future can come our way. This remnant of non-consumer culture up north, not far from the Arctic where climate change rages, reaches out to us with a cry from broken hearts. We should listen.

Do our current arrangements serve the needs of the present or have we gone off course? Is business as usual adaptive or maladaptive for our time?

NG-limits-graphOver the next 15 to 20 years the world’s most infamous computer model is going to have its final day in court. In the early 1970s when the Limits to Growth (LtG) model was first published it predicted that if society proceeded with business as usual it would lead to a collapse of modern industrialized civilization sometime around the middle of the twenty-first century. Immediately on its publication a cart load of economists cast aspersions on the Models of Doom and before long it was time to make America Great Again under Ronald Reagan’s long presidency, and we never looked back.

That mid twenty-first century point no longer looks quite as far down the road as it once did and there is that troubling Australian research that has shown more up-to-date data is still conforming to the predicted trends. Take a look at the graphic where the additional data has been added and you will see it is a very close fit but so what? So far each data set simply enforces the rather obvious fact that everything wonderful about our globalized industrial civilization is still growing. Industrial output per capita, services per capita and food per capita have all accompanied a steady increase in human population since 1970. Pollution has increased and the stock of non-renewable resources has decreased, which to be sure are troubling but, well climate change and oscillating oil prices are not considered by most people to be the first rumblings of a much larger set of crisis yet to come.

Now look again at that graphic. Locate the position mid-way between the year 2000 and the arrow indicating 2030 when population decline had been predicted. That mid-point would be just about now, 2015 or so. Here’s the point, the thing we need to get very clear about: between 2015 and 2030 just about all those growth trends we just enumerated turn down, they reach inflection points.

The question is not does the evidence continue to follow their historical trajectories, the question is will the trends turn as predicted by the model. That is the test. That is when the rubber hits the road. And that, dear reader is what most of us alive today are going to find out. In the battle of incompatible worldviews between the economists and the ecologists only one picture about the future can be right. Time, as we say, will tell. This is specifically Our Time – the Age of Inflections, the Age of Limits.

If the economists are correct this will not happen. Engineering ingenuity will find substitutions for depleted resources and geo-engineering solutions for our pollution problems. We just need to stay the course and grow our economies faster.

If these ecologists are correct over the next fifteen years or so we will pass through the most fundamental changes imaginable as the centuries long productive growth in food, goods and services comes to an end.

Ours is the population that finds itself in the cross-hairs of what ecologists have been warning the world about for nigh on fifty years now. The shifts being proposed are seismic; as pervasive and powerful as any that turned the wheels of history in the past. Isis gunning for the apocalypse and Trump gunning for Caesar’s job are just kicking the wheel along.

In our hubris it is hard for us to fully comprehend that the outcome of the contest between the neo-liberal economists and the ecologists will not be determined by anything we humans do at this point. The model in question includes social inertia and its concomitant time lags. This is one of the major reasons why the trend curves take the shape they do. What that means for us, the people alive today after half a century of pursuing the business as usual scenario, is that the outcome, whatever it turns out to be, is already baked in at this point.

We were once in a world mostly empty of humanity, full of unexplored frontiers and unclaimed bounties of nature’s abundance. This is no longer the case. Now there is no productive place on earth not already being exploited and the frontiers have disappeared under the feet of our relentless expansion. To understand the world we find ourselves in it is vital to comprehend this. The ethic of growth and expansion must give way to an ethic of well being found by living well within our means. There is not enough fertile farm land, unpolluted fresh water and climate stabilized atmosphere remaining to serve our ever expanding numbers, let alone the exponential curves of economic growth. Our books, theater and politics; our religions, sciences and educational traditions; our languages, migratory patterns and the food we eat – nothing will remain unaffected as we march towards whatever the peak of human population proves to be. Does that help you sense, at least to some degree, just how pervasive the forces of change we are talking about really are?

It is easy to get caught up in the personal ramifications of those curves. It is certainly understandable as our lives depend quite directly on the food, goods and services our society offers. We should take what practical lessons we can from all this and learn to adapt. Once we have our house in order, however, I suggest we turn our attention to that population curve and shift our concern away from our individual well being to the state of our species facing an evolutionary phenomenon. The curve in the LtG model tracking population turns down. Human biomass, the model predicts, is soon to reach its maximum and then begin an inexorable descent to some lower plateau. Just where that might be on a world of ecosystems suffering damage from our consumer excesses no one knows.

Today ecologists warn us that if we continue with business as usual by 2100 the likely global temperature will have risen by six degrees or more; tragically redrawing coastlines, disrupting food harvests and driving the mass migration of plants and animals all taking place against a backdrop of unprecedented mass extinction. Of course this week we really are too busy to be bothered by all that. We find ourselves here, in the business as usual scenario of the LtG model facing the Age of Inflections because we were too busy last week, and the week before too. I’d ask you to think about this over the next decade or two as things unfold. If we harvest bitter fruits, as I believe we most probably will, consider the degree of commitment to changing your own lifestyle you might be willing to make in light of these further predictions from our ecologists.

Fifty years ago ecologists warned that if we did not learn to harmonize our production and waste with the carrying capacity of the earth we would face a day of reckoning. Now that that day of reckoning is upon us, it might behoove us to listen to what ecologists are warning about for the next fifty years or so. Their picture of the year 2100 is heartbreakingly bleak. I know we are all really busy this week but…


alex-grey-gaia“Mother of Aeneas and his race, delight of men and gods, life-giving Venus, it is your doing that under the wheeling constellations of the sky all nature teems with life, both the sea that buoys up our ships and the earth that yields our food. Through you all living creatures are conceived and come forth to look upon the sunlight. Before you the winds flee, and at your coming the clouds forsake the sky. For you the inventive earth flings up sweet flowers. For you the ocean levels laugh, the sky is calmed and glows with diffused radiance. When first the day puts on the aspects of spring, when in all its force the fertilizing breath of Zephyr is unleashed, then, great goddess, the birds of the air give the first intimation of your entry; for yours is the power that has pierced them to the heart. Next the wild beasts and farm animals alike run wild, frisk through the lush pastures and swim the swift-flowing streams. Spellbound by your charm, they follow your lead with fierce desire. So throughout the seas and uplands, rushing torrents, verdurous meadows and the leafy shelter of the birds, into the breasts of one and all you instill alluring love, so that with passionate longing they reproduce their several breeds.”

Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe