Not Cleared for Takeoff

The investigation of ecological concepts that have occupied the last cycle of posts ended with a look at the critics of the ecological crises, those who in one way or another deny that humanity will encounter limits to its growth. The ecologists are actually making a much stronger claim; that before this century is out earth will have reached tipping points that will have major effects on the fate of our species. In order to evaluate these claims it is necessary to add data to the theories we have just reviewed. Data plus theory equals evidence.

There is a general sense in our cultural exchanges that reasonable people can hold a dissensus about what the ecological evidence means for people alive today. I believe that this is complete hogwash. I believe that among people of goodwill an examination of the evidence of necessity leads to a strong degree of confidence for the claim that we face a crisis situation.

These might seem like outrageously naive or perhaps bold claims in a time of post-modernism’s relativity of truth. Or perhaps insisting that reality really is one way and not another strikes the ears of the modern American as dogmatic? I hope to share why it is nothing of the kind but to do so will take us on a journey through what it is we do when we reason. Western Enlightenment values fuel the scientific quest. Science has honed the skills of objectivity to a fine edge, some would say to a fault. I recommend Eastern contemplative practice and the study of its wisdom but not as a substitute to our own cultural inheritance. The approach that fully engages the western practitioner takes all the most sophisticated science and philosophy of our own development onto the path.

The next cycle of posts will be about this reasoning we do, in particular the so-called problem of inference. Before starting those however, the next few entries will touch upon a few subjects I feel are timely and useful from the other side of this blog, mindfulness.

Out of respect for our teacher through these lasts posts I would like Dr. Catton to have the last word. This prefaces his book Bottleneck, Humanity’s Impending Impasse and serves as a fitting summary of what we have learned about ourselves from the ecological point of view. Like a koan it is worthy of contemplation. It cracks open the heart:

From 1776,
when the Newcommon steam engine
had been upgraded by James Watt,
its use lead to escalating reliance
on fossil energy,
temporarily giving
increasing fractions
of the world’s human population
gigantic powers.
With subsequent technological developments
Homo Colossus acquired through
the next nine generations
the delusion of limitlessness.

Now this
from the “Controller” in the tower:


Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians

“We must learn to live within carrying capacity without trying to enlarge it. We must rely on renewable resources consumed no faster than at sustained yield rates. The last best hope for mankind is ecological modesty.”
Overshoot, William Catton, italics in original

We are coming to the end of our travels with Mr. Catton through the fundamental ecological concepts people need to be familiar with to understand the true forces shaping the events of the 21st century. We examined succession and carrying capacity, what it means when a population is in overshoot and the die-off that occurs when a carrying capacity deficit develops. The journey with Homo Colossus started by looking at how technology had provided a means of increasing the planet’s human carrying capacity, mostly through increasingly efficient means of taking over natural environments for human use. We touched on how the use of fossil fuels enabled the giantism of our prosthetic tools to birth Homo Colossus. We then looked into how science has discovered the limits to growth that will bring about the termination of the Age of Exuberance in which the giant lived. Its phantom acreage could not survive because it relied on drawdown; a critical dependency on a non-renewable resource. Today we are looking at two more of Dr. Catton’s concepts, colorful labels for how people can react to these circumstances that only make the sufferings involved increase: Cargo Cults and Cornucopians.

These are difficult subjects. Those who insist on this ecological analysis can be seen as curmudgeons or inspired by no more than a misanthropy seeking revenge against a world that failed them in some way. The conceptual tools of Cargo Cult and Cornucopian thinking are meant to provide easy to remember and apply generalizations to aid the ecologically educated see through specious arguments. They are useful tools when we are confronted on every side by a pre-ecological understanding of life on earth and human societies. They are not meant to inflate our own self-importance by denigrating ignorant outsiders from within a cult of our own. The spirit that inspires these subjects is not one of sour grapes but a cold, honest assessment of where mankind is in relationship with the rest of the planetary biosphere. By understanding that we could be facing a die-off we are more likely to act in ways that avoid it. No one knows just where the line between a sustainable carrying capacity and a carrying capacity deficit can be drawn. By assuming the worse we are best prepared to avoid doing those tempting but ultimately futile things that will just make our circumstances worse. The scientific evidence points towards a return to the human scale over the next decades and centuries but in a habitat with a greatly diminished carrying capacity. Mindful of ecology we can be inoculated against the coming Caesars promising it can be morning in America again and all the other short-sighted solutions sure to be marketed to the public as the limits to growth continue to bite.

The ecological view that has been sketched out in the last few posts provides a unique critique of society. It is not able to endorse “they’ll think of something” or “there’s plenty of coal” or “it’s different this time” or “we can transition to renewables” or any of the other thought stoppers bandied about in the media echo chamber. The why is simple; ecology insists no sustainability is possible if drawdown and its phantom acreage are part of the system; even takeover has its limits now that the human race has grown so large and prosthetically powerful.

Oil powers the modern world. Make no mistake about it. There is no single substance on the planet nearly as critical to our lives in the industrial world as oil. It moves our transportation, creates our plastics, feeds our pharmaceutical industries and holds together the global economy in countless ways. The stated goal in the industrialized world is to accelerate the rate at which we drawdown the remaining reserves of this critical, non-renewable substance. Our stated goal is to increase production. To increase production, we say in a clear sign of muddle headed thinking since acquiring oil is extraction, not production. It is stealing from the future, from that inevitable day when our children will be out of luck if they need a substantial volume of oil for anything.

Industrialized agriculture feeds the modern world. It too is dependent on oil but also on takeover. The expanding ecological footprint of our expanding population is taking over land and sea that was once home to a wide diversity of plants and animals. Our takeover strategy for expanding the earth’s human carrying capacity is causing the sixth great extinction. This is nothing more than stealing from life itself. We best be careful; real life is a complex web of interdependencies and we could saw off the evolutionary branch on which we are sitting, as it were.

An ecologist will tell you these are both seriously risky behavior:

Drawdown: An inherently temporary expedient that temporarily increases the life opportunities for a species by extracting from the environment a resource faster than it is being replaced.

Takeover: Increasing the life opportunities for one species by reducing life opportunities for other species.

Both of these methods for enlarging carrying capacity are eventually fatally flawed. That they are flawed is vehemently denied by camps of very vocal opponents whom Dr. Catton labeled the Cargo Cultists and Cornucopians. The Cultists deny drawdown is a problem and the Cornucopians see no problem in a strategy of endless takeover. In the table below, reproduced from Overshoot, the Cornucopians are further refined into Ostrichism and Cynicism. Most of what passes for green in politics and corporations within business as usual is provocatively labeled Cosmeticism.

OvershootTable2Those who insist that there is no real problem for the industrial world in the future due to our unprecedented use of, and singular dependency on, fossil fuel energy are like the Cargo Cults of the Melanesia islands. They know their cargos come from this special process, geographic exploration in this case, and they are sure that if we just keep repeating this special process the goodies will keep coming. The inhabitants of the Melanesia Islands did not know the actual source of the westerner’s goods in the larger world of supporting industries, so they could not understand just how ridiculous their efforts really were. In the same way today’s cultists who do not know the actual geological characteristics of petroleum reserves are incapable of seeing just how ridiculous their efforts really are. The position that our technology will necessarily always save us is unjustifiable by rational analysis, it is an article of blind faith.

Those who insist that there is plenty of everything needed for mankind to continue consuming and growing more numerous as it has the last few hundred years for at least a few hundred years more are well described as Cornucopians. They see the larder of nature as made for man, man is to have dominion and any suggestions to the contrary are just lies made up to deceive the faithful. While there is a religious element in Cornucopian thought, not all Cornucopians are religious. When a pundit is assuring us that if the supply of one non-renewable resource (oil) ever does run out we will simply find a substitute, they are really just stating their belief that takeover can continue without end. Another act of blind faith.

The hardest part about this wrenching societal transformation that promises to move civilization beyond its one time Homo Colossus phase is psychological; what it is doing to our beliefs and through those to our very sense of identity and purpose. Being semi-consciously aware that we are strangling life on the earth is making us mean.  More and more we elbow one another out of the way to assure our own place at the diminishing feeding trough. This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the increasingly common failure of Homo Colossus’ giant tools and toys doesn’t promise a more enlightened mode of being human. In fact with our hubris-lead, overdeveloped sense of privilege the loss of these giant yet familiar systems is likely to just make us meaner still. Insecurity brings fear and as fear spreads to more and more people expect the most probable outcome to be a return of barbarisms.

What is threatened is our belief in progress and the liberalism we thought we could afford during the Age of Exuberance. This is a threat to our very identity as members of a society organized along the lines of democracy and constitutional government. Not long ago scholars were seriously entertaining the idea that perhaps we had reached the end of history, so sure we were that our generation represented some ultimate culmination of the forms of human organization. Such exaggerated puffery affords us a glimpse into the darker fears of a society. Our fear is that life without modern conveniences might not be worth living. What we fear is not real. Human life before neoliberalism’s “free market” was not the nasty, brutish and short tragedy we seem to think it was. The generations that lived before consumerism were not aware that they were inconceivably impoverished because they lacked cell phones, to be a bit flippant. Quite the contrary actually; embracing an ecological modesty that strives to cooperate with the non-human environment instead of dominating it seems to provide a type of dignity and purpose that is all but lost in our society of alienation and anomie. Sadly, such thinking goes against the grain of everything we have been taught to value in our time of non-stop bread and circuses. This is a subject we will be returning to down the road since it gets to the very heart of how individuals and families can be happy and compassionate human beings in spite of the tenor of the times.

As circumstances change, continuing to do the same things we have been doing starts leading to different results. This is noticeable in numerous arenas today. Business as usual increasingly fails to deliver the goods; in fact, it begins to make things worse. When these things happen the natural human tendency is not to step back and reanalyze why they might be delivering diminishing returns but to double down, to pour even more effort into the operations that in the past provided the payoffs we seek. Like the Cargo Cults, our current debates about fracking, Keystone pipelines and all the rest are the trappings of a ritualistic confusion. We don’t notice they are hollow, no more effective at delivering the goods than those coconut runways and grass hut control towers in Melanesia. Our cultural witch doctors are running around assuring everyone that proper execution of the societal rituals, from Wall Street to the White House, will bring the times of plenty and prosperity back. From an ecological analysis they are mixed up about what time it is, like poor Linus who so wanted it to be Christmas he disappointedly waited for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. The sense of waiting for deliverance in the West is so pervasive it is palatable. It is why many who are familiar with the ways of history expect to see a new Caesar walk onto the public stage before too long.

Of course the cheerleaders of the Cargo Cults have a whole phalanx of flacks to call on to give their witch doctoring a sense of respectability. Enter the Cornucopians. These are the think tanks and research arms of governments and businesses who assure us that there are plenty of non-renewable resources remaining for the species to carry on producing, polluting and propagating for many centuries to come. Their optimistic message reverberates particularly well in the can-do culture of the United States. The Cornucopians’ cataracts project blind spots uncannily well fitted to justify a lifestyle of consumerism. On the fringes of respectable scholarship a few Cultists express concern that the engineering challenge of converting to a new fuel source might be extremely difficult but gratefully, with a wink to the Cornucopians, they insist we have plenty of time to work on it. Certainly there is no need to have people seriously alter the way they are living right now, this year.

The ecologists show up somewhere in the public conversation growing ever more alarmed though they are barely heard above the din. With one voice they are warning us all that it is later than we think.

The End of Homo Colossus

“…but real limits not seen are not limits repealed.”
Overshoot, William Catton

Homo Colossus is not long for this earth. With an appetite not even 10 earths could satisfy, soon this beast will starve to death. It will not be pretty, like a junkie cut off from their supply. We are talking here about the hard reality of ecological limits: consumption reduces the remaining stock of non-renewable resources. This is only common sense. The consequence is that there are limits to the number of non-renewable resources mankind will be capable of accessing as time proceeds.

Few subjects have suffered obfuscation by spin doctors more than the idea that there are limits to growth. The idea is so threatening to economics with its debt based fiat money that loud and pervasive voices work overtime to assure investors worldwide that there is really nothing amiss in the pursuit of unending growth on a finite planet. Our subject today is the role that limitations play in ecological science but due to the confusion deliberately propagated around it, the first task is to take some garbage out to the compost heap.

An argument could be made that modern science was born and continues to be a powerful means of inquiry through a proper appreciation of limits. The calculus provides the mathematical tools for many of the most fundamental theories across a wide swath of the sciences from physics to evolution, biology to ecology. With the mathematical tools of the calculus we are able to capture the rates at which things change. In a universe in which all things are constantly changing the value of such a tool is obvious. In the calculus the mind numbing subject of infinity is tamed. At the core of the calculus is the concept of, you guessed it, the limit. My favorite illustration of this limit concept is as an answer to Zeno’s paradox. In a race between a tortoise and a hare where the tortoise is given a head start, the paradox runs, the hare can never reach the finish line. Why? Because before the hare can reach the line he must go half way, but then he must go half way through the remaining distance again. And half way through that remaining distance, ad infinitum. This is a logical conundrum, a time bomb hiding in our maths. With the calculus we are able to prove the hare can indeed cross the finish line, to the great relief of racing fans everywhere, by saying the hare approaches the finish line in the limit.

The maths we all learned started with arithmetic where sets of static things provide most of the mental models needed for its comprehension. The operations of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication are often modeled with a set of colored blocks in classrooms around the world. Who doesn’t recall that proverbial set of apples our teachers went on and on about as we visualized giving and receiving some from our friends or slicing them into fractions? Most young students understand apple word problems fairly well. It is with the introduction of algebra that the first wave of math phobia strikes. Sure sometimes we want oranges instead of apples, but why call it X?

For many young people, who cannot help but notice that most of the really important issues of their lives concern ever changing qualities, the picture of relationships among static quantities algebra provides seems alien, of no consequence. I imagine the perennial complaint, ‘but how will I ever use any of this in my real life?’, was probably first spoken somewhere in ancient Persia right about the time algebra was invented. In my experience it is a shame really that so few make it across the algebra bridge into the calculus since it is in the calculus that all those fiddly and seemingly arbitrary rules found in maths begin to all fit together. It is also when one of the most important intellectual streams of our cultural inheritance is transmitted to an individual: our sciences.

Throughout our experience things are seen to be on trajectories that are inevitably thwarted. Enumerating a few examples reads like a who’s who of scientific discovery. Evolution – an animal species multiplies but it does not fill the whole earth with its offspring, something limits its reproduction potential. Dynamics – a body in straight line motion tends to stay in motion but on earth friction always slows it and other forces divert it from its path. Cosmology – there is an absolute speed limit in the universe, the speed of light as per the theory of relativity. Geology – there is a limit to the pressure that can build up between continental plates until earthquakes occur, there is a limit to the force the crust of the earth can suppress before a volcano erupts. I could go on but the point has been made; scientific knowledge is very often carved out of our ignorance by the recognition of the factors that limit processes. Each of these examples and many more are embodied in theories that have mathematical models at their heart, models built using the calculus.

This is the larger background required to honestly asses the role of limits in ecology. By no means do I believe everyone must understand the calculus to benefit from a mindful practice centered around ecology but it is important to recognize the role that mathematical models play in science generally so that when examining the theories and evidence in ecology sufficient understanding is brought to bear. At the risk of oversimplifying it could be said that when the sciences fit equations to data they have a small family of curves they can draw on to do the work. I tend to berate Descartes for his mind-body dualism so I would like to take this opportunity to thank him as well for the wonderful analytic geometry that opened up the vision of equations as curves.

Here for example is a graph of the mathematical model for the interaction of predator and prey as expressed in ecology’s famous, if simplified, Lotka – Volterra model. Consider a world consisting of rabbits and wolves. The rabbits multiply exuberantly while there are few wolves around but as the rabbit population increases the number of wolves that can survive on them also increases. More wolves, fewer rabbits, fewer rabbits, fewer wolves cycling back around to more rabbits, more wolves and so on:

Volterra_lotka_dynamics In ecological field work researchers try to identify the differences that make a difference. The subject of limits is central to the ecological sciences for this is often how the environment induces its selection pressure. The ‘operationally significant’ factors that control the abundance and dispersion of a community stand out from the buzzing jungle of details where it is difficult to tell if one thing is more important than another or not. To get a handle on the survival characteristics of the species and environment interaction we ask what limits its growth? For a field of corn it could be the availability of phosphorous, for a Petri dish of yeast the nutrient sugars could be the limiting factor. Of all the many, many elements a biological community needs to survive and reproduce there are typically one or two that are in short supply. The limiting element acts as a brake on the growth potential of the biological community.

In 1840 Justus Liebig expounded this principal that the availability of a limiting resource controls an environment’s carrying capacity. It is known as Liebig’s law of the minimum. Fertilizer is our solution to this limit problem in our crop growing efforts. Fertilizer is designed to provide just those elements that are in short supply so the harvest can produce its maximum yield.

In addition to the limit brought by the minimum critical factor ecology recognizes a second family of limitations. This “law” of the limits of tolerance was included in the work of V.E. Shelford in 1913. This is the set of limits around what living things and their environments find tolerable. Not only too little can be a limiting factor but also too much. Life is very sensitive to numerous boundaries which it cannot violate and remain viable. Temperature, salinity, and toxicity are a few of the better known. Mammals, an example particularly relevant to ourselves, exist within a narrow band of temperatures, maintain internal PH levels and must consistently remove waste products running the gamut from dead cells to fecal matter.

There are a few details worth pointing out. Organisms might have a wide range of tolerance for some factors but very narrow for others; I can drink a wide range of water volumes in a day and survive but can’t eat too many strychnine cookies. When conditions are not optimal in one factor the limits of tolerance in other factors may become reduced; a meadow low in nitrogen needs more water to fend off drought. The period of reproduction is generally the most sensitive to limits; the seeds, eggs, embryos, and larvae cannot withstand the more extreme conditions an adult of the species could. Each of these details is worth some contemplation to tease out how they play out in both natural and human history as well as how they might contribute to the overall shape of the future.

No one knows when the limit to the giantism of Homo Colossus is going to be found. Will it be next year, five years from now, fifty, one hundred? No one knows which crucial element will not meet its supply without a viable substitute or which might move the habitat beyond our limits of tolerance. The way to investigate the issue, as we learned looking at the calculus, is to examine the rates at which resources are being used, pollutions are being produced and populations are growing. An uncomfortably large family of candidates confronts the researcher. Most of my readers will already be familiar with many of them and sites like Desdemona Despair gather news about them daily. Still, just to assure we are on the same page here; it is estimated the U.S. loss of topsoil is 10 times faster than it can be replaced, global arable land loss is 30 to 35 times the historical rate, species loss is estimated at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, ocean acidifcation is increasing at the fastest rate in 300 million years, etc. Note that some of these are minimum limits (lack of required topsoil) and others deal with tolerances (how much pollution can the oceans take).

It was in the late 1960s that a team at MIT decided to use these tools to examine the overall shape of the future of industrial civilization. They dissected Homo Colossus. They created a model of the modern, industrial world that would be simple enough to be tractable yet complete enough to have some chance at capturing the essential factors of the real world outside the laboratory doors. For this model they chose the following to be the central families of variables: agricultural output, industrial production, human population, pollution and resource depletion.

In October of 1972 the reading public was introduced to the results of a computer simulation created by this crack team of computer scientists at MIT. Opening the cover of Limits to Growth, the 207 page mass market paperback, the publisher’s blurb rang a historic wake-up call worth quoting in full:

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has shrunk to zero. Where population has suffered catastrophic decline. Where air, sea, and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts. What is even more alarming, the collapse will not come gradually, but with awesome suddenness, with no way of stopping it.”

It was in the 1970s that there was the first general recognition that the resource limits of a finite planet will not sustain modern, petroleum based, industrialized civilization. The standard run simulation in Limits to Growth had the crunch time coming about forty years into the future, just about now. At the time it was published other news worthy events were seen as confirming how serious our plight was. In that decade there would be reports of collapsed fisheries, an oil embargo that produced gas lines and choked the economies of the overdeveloped world even while population pressures brought ghettos and slums of the inner city to the boiling point. Things have not improved since then; on the contrary and we have come a long way since the 70s. Homo Colossus stalks the very boundaries of peaking resources everywhere; fresh water, lithium, uranium, copper, platinum, grain harvest, oil, phosphorus…

Australian physicist Graham Turner working for the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute performed an updated comparison of the Limits to Growth study with historical data in ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?‘ National Geographic in April of 2012 published an update to the Limits to Growth graphic based on Dr. Turner’s work thereby sharing it with the world at large. Take a look. The first graphic is from the paper, the second National Geographic.

090414_limits_to_growthNG-limits-graph “…the myth of limitlessness had at last become obsolete.”
Overshoot, William Catton

This is most unwelcome news. Next week we will take a look at the plethora of cargo cults and cornucopianisms it has created.

Life Under Homo Colossus

“Man has been too arrogant in exaggerating the difference between himself and other creatures, between humanity and natural history.”
Overshoot, William Catton

Under the reign of Homo Colossus there is a tendency to obscure key ecological relationships and their results. In an Orwellian fashion we refer to the extraction of non-renewable resources such as coal and oil as ‘production.’ Countries like the U.K. claim to be meeting carbon reduction targets when in fact all that they have done is move the polluting manufacturing industries on which they still rely to third world locations. Pundits rail against the raw population numbers in underdeveloped countries while ignoring the role of affluence and consumption patterns when discussing humanity’s ecological footprint.

Living in the time of giantism in technology, transportation, communication, information, and resource throughput is living under the reign of Homo Colossus. Homo Colossus consists of numerous complex networks. When they are all working well together they deliver bread to the store shelves and the trains run on time. When the slightest hiccup disrupts one of the networks, that oscillation can be multiplied until larger, seemingly unrelated networks also fail. We see this in a traffic jam started by a few distracted drivers gawking at a fender bender on the side of the highway. Before the waveform has completed its travels through that city’s membranes there could be a five mile backup on the highway, a five percent increase in traffic accidents, and an extra hundred pounds of carbon monoxide added to the atmosphere than there would have been during this morning commute had there not been a fender bender. This is a silly example but when the complex network of systems a city relies on for survival breaks down people die. Modernity is poised on the edge of the complexity knife with giant systems everywhere becoming more brittle and prone to disruption as the pressures of population and scarcity grow with each passing year.

The entropy attack on the American infrastructure is there for anyone to see who travels through the back roads of this country. The derelict factories, farms, abandoned suburbs and small towns are everywhere and when the traveler turns towards the mega city population centers, and if they stray into the inner city underbelly, there are all the signs of third world poverty and neglect. The systems that keep the food on the grocery store shelves, the potable water in the tap, the gasoline coming out of the pump and the rest of the essentials we all too easily take for granted are each baroque tapestries of interdependencies. Keeping the lights on involves a whole slew of engineering design, procedures, maintenance, oversight and cooperation all coordinated to a very high degree. These giant systems seem to be invulnerable until a hurricane Katrina comes slamming into them or the earth shakes and for weeks these critical systems suffer disruption. Individuals and families not blindsided by this country’s happy talk might want to minimize their dependency on these systems.

The Age of Exuberance brought high hopes that are now being dashed. If disappointment tests the mettle of a man, as a society the overdeveloped world is finding out just what it is really made of. Life in the time of human overshoot is characterized by particular social stresses. There is an increased competition for a slice of the pie as the population of the middle class shrinks and stalemate becomes more common in democracies as nations can no longer afford to pursue competing political goals. Along with the competition comes antagonisms and along with overcrowding comes a fear of being redundant. All these sociological forces have their roots in ecological changes. Understanding this promotes a compassionate response and inoculates against catching the fevers of the demagogues.

Lacking ecological insight it is all too easy to blame a sinister cabal, the one percent, a hostile government, incompetent bureaucracy or corrupt politicians for our troubles. As the coming century brings a population correction to the human race it will be all too easy to fall prey to the rhetoric of a Caesar selling us a story we want to hear; the American dream was stolen by evil forces, the promise of the enlightenment’s improvement of the human being was perverted by scheming cabals in corporate boardrooms, the nations are again soaking in blood because of greedy warmongers… So what are the key ecological insights by which we might retain some sanity through these troubled times?

First and foremost ecology teaches that everything is interrelated, that there is a universal interdependence among all that lives. We share the same chemical basis, the same DNA information replication mechanisms and many of the same biophysiological pathways that many of our most primitive ancestors used. Mankind can look to the causes and conditions of other life forms for lessons, recognizing there have been numerous precedents of biological communities undergoing succession, exuberance, overshoot and collapse. It is not that we are reaping the rewards of a fatal character flaw but are simply coming to the natural end of a natural process.

Perhaps the second critical insight ecology teaches is that everything is always changing. It always pays to ask ‘and then what?’ Biological communities change through the process of succession. As the population expands the community alters the very environment in which it evolved and paves the way for the next biological communities to succeed. Seeking to maximize GDP as our social goal we accelerate the process of succession whereby we undermine our own habitats capacity to support our species, or more accurately, Homo Colossus.

In my short list of key ecological concepts the third would be that ecosystems are open systems. All living things sustain themselves far from thermodynamic equilibrium by taking some substances from the environment and sending other substance back into it. These exchanges in turn influence other organisms, the outputs becoming inputs in a multitude of recyclings. If the chemical byproducts of one organism are toxic to another their relationship is antagonistic. Smog is antagonistic to trees. Note that ecological antagonism is impersonal; the drivers of the cars creating the smog do not hate the trees. Perhaps this is easier to see in a case where human concerns are not involved. Penicillin is antagonistic to a variety of disease causing bacteria; it is a ‘pollutant’ for the bacteria. Basically anytime the output of a life process seeking its sustenance becomes toxic to another life process the relationship is antagonistic. With this definition in mind it is not difficult to see how it applies to human situations. Animosity arises from interference of populations with one another, even when unintended. There can be valid reasons for antagonistic relationships between human groups without the need for villainy or human perversity. By not recognizing this, overcrowding can become cause for war. The frictions are exacerbated by not recognizing the actual causes and conditions.

As competition increases within an ecosystem there is a tendency towards what is called niche diversification; a sharper differentiation between communities occurs in how they use their habitats. When applying ecological principals to human society it helps to see the wide diversification of human endeavors as if it had created a set of sub-species. The jet setting one-percenter uses our planet very differently than an organic farmer. The butcher, baker and candle stick maker all have unique interactions with their respective habitats. Our modern societies host the result of centuries of social diversification that was built up during the Age of Exuberance. When there was plenty of cheap energy to go around the competition between Wall Street and Main Street remained friendly, the competition between the working class and the needy was colored by charitable ideals, and the competition between generations was a source of good natured pleading and prodding. Remove the abundance of cheap energy to sustain all these relationships and the competition grows more fierce. The ecological antagonism promotes the emotional antagonism.

In addition to increased competition, in Overshoot William Catton speculates that overcrowding also exacerbates a tendency to defend ourselves or our tribe from the fear of being redundant. Most lives in the overdeveloped world are dedicated to the purely anthropomorphic goal of maximizing money and protecting one’s own. There is a gnawing suspicion that one’s life is not contributing to any healthy trends nor is it made meaningful by being dedicated to working for what is greater than oneself or one’s family. As the sense of overcrowding spreads it dawns on each of us that any of us can be replaced by one of our competitors. He writes, italics added, we are “in danger of being considered superfluous … the plight of the unwanted child became potentially everyone’s plight.” In reaction we raise our voices in an anxious attempt to assure ourselves that redundancy applies only to other people. Much radical social activism is implicitly saying ‘it is you, not us, that is superfluous!’ with each group adding their favorite vindictive snarl words; “… You white racists… Black bastards… Fascists pigs…”

The holocaust could prove to be an ominous prelude to what happens when one group declares another to be superfluous, redundant.

Catton’s mention of the unwanted child is darkly prophetic. What do the tragic shootings in schools all across America indicate about the social health of the country? There was another one this week and it has been on my mind. Multiple causes are no doubt in play and any generalization is bound to be a simplification that cannot apply in every case but these caveats should not make us afraid to draw some conclusions. Why would children feel the need to eliminate one another? Might they sense that the future bearing down on them is one of fewer resources where increased crowding and competition shape their destiny? Murder is one way to assert that you are the one life can do without, not me. In a culture willing to burden future generations with unpayable levels of debt, depleted natural resources, and polluted water, air and land is it any surprise that the normal adolescent pain of rejection turns at times into the full tragedy of a violent outburst?

Life under Homo Colossus has perverted society, reshaping it all out of proportion to the human scale. The gigantism of our globalization assures its influence is felt planet wide. On a planet that is not growing larger increasing our numbers is bound to increase the level of antagonism, completion and conflict, all of which will be exacerbated by the desire of the overdeveloped to hang on to what they have and the underdeveloped to achieve full industrialization. A paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with the dismal news that, as the BBC headline had it, ‘Population controls will not solve environmental issues.’ A team of researchers investigated numerous fertility restriction scenarios to examine what impact they would have on total global population. This is an important question because if you understand the ecological forces in play, curbing fertility rates is the most humane way of bringing our societies back to some form of sustainability. What they found is sobering. The UN released population projections in July of this year based on data up to 2012 and a Bayesian analysis. It found there is an 80% probability that world population will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100. This new research found that restricting fertility is not sufficient to change these population projections substantially. Specifically if the whole world adopted China’s one child policy in 2100 the total would still be between five and ten billion. If there were a global catastrophe mid-century, a war or pandemic that killed two billion people, it would barely make a dent in the trajectory over the next 100 years. We could still expect eight and half billion by 2100.

The take away from this research is very, very pertinent to the message of this blog. While reducing population is the only long term relief from the pressure Homo Colossus is putting on the planet, there is such a large demographic momentum built up that nothing is likely to change the course of the next century.  Curbing our numbers will not help us deal with the environmental problems we are confronting in the short term. Most of the mainstream ecological pundits recommend a rapid transition to lower fertility rates as the best way of dealing with the increased impact of our rising affluence and consumption. This is said to be the way towards sustainability. It is a welcome solution in which the consumer paradise can continue, the economics of continual growth do not need to be fundamentally reworked and green corporations pursuing business as usual in the free markets are said to be sufficient for dealing with the ecological crises. This new research puts these dated ideas out to pasture. The only lever that remains for actually lessening the human impact on the environment on a timeline that will make a difference is to cut back on our consumption. This is not an easy sell since for most people a diminishing affluence brings with it a diminished sense of identity as well.

Twelve billion humans by 2100. Really? Ask yourself if you think this is the most probable outcome for the next few generations or does your gut tell you it is highly unlikely, that something will intervene between now and then? This would be an example of an ecological limit, a complex reaction from the living world that acts as a negative feedback on human population. Next week we will look at this, our next major ecological concept, limits to growth. They spell the end of Homo Colossus.

Homo Colossus

“Man does not live by detritus alone.”
Overshoot, William Catton

One of the unique capabilities that set Homo Sapiens apart from all the rest of the animal kingdom is our mastery of tools. As a species we are able to expand the carrying capacity of our environments through the use of technology. This has been going on for a very long time. The chart below, reproduced from Catton’s Overshoot, provides a fascinating glimpse into the major milestones of mankind’s technological developments and how those have had a direct effect on our population numbers. The chart starts at the dawn of pre-history and registers the first population increase 35,000 years ago when the same inheritable characteristics we recognize as human today was established. The first major technological breakthrough after that period is the dawn of agriculture where the cultivation of plants allowed the population to increase close to 1,000% in a mere 160 generations, counting each generation as 25 years. The next 160 generations saw the development of metallurgy and the plow, increasing human numbers another 250%. The chart ends in 1975 with a total world population of four billion human beings recording a 200% increase in population numbers over only four and half generations. Though the chart ends there from the perspective of when this is being written in 2014 we could add one more line; 1.6 generations later the total human population is over 7.2 billion, almost double what it was in 1975.

This is just one more indication that business as usual will not be continuing much longer. How many more doublings of the total population are even conceivable?

TechAndPopulationThe important take away from this analysis for our purposes is how historically technology performed the role of increasing the carrying capacity of our environments. The total carrying capacity could have been said to be the product of resources times technology. Too much of a good thing, victims of our success, today we find that the technology we are using is actually shrinking our carrying capacity. Today the relationship seems to be one of division so that total carrying capacity is equal to resources divided by technology. This is worth a moment of careful contemplation. Malthus was concerned with the problem of expanding human population butting its head against fixed limits but in the real world we are discovering the expanding human population is butting its head against shrinking limits.

Among those who think about the ecological crises it can be heard that there was roughly one billion humans on earth before the industrial revolution began and so we can expect there to again be one billion when the depletion of fossil fuel runs its course. While this is a horrifying picture if the die-off does not unfold gradually, it is scientifically wildly optimistic because it fails to take into account the damage done to the natural environments by the population blooming in our Age of Exuberance. The most probable total population some centuries hence just might be considerably smaller than one billion. Just how much smaller is a point of contention which need not concern us here. Even if it is three or four times as many, the point remains: a population bottleneck is a frighteningly real possibility.

Population combined with our technology has grown so large it is as if a whole new species has evolved, one which is very much capable of altering the biosphere as a whole. This new species was christened Homo Colossus by William Catton, capturing the essence of the challenge our ecological analysis of modern industrial civilization presents. To understand the powerful metaphor requires that we learn to look at man’s tool use from another perspective. Normally when we think of our use of tools we consider them as means of adapting the environment to our human needs; we plant a farm of crops to feed ourselves, we warm our houses to fend off the cold. It is equally valid to propose that human tool use adapts humans to diverse environments. Our tools are somewhat like prosthetic devices we add to our bodies; we don a coat and now survive in environments that were formally too cold, we strap on a plow and fertilizer spreaders and find we can grow crops where previously the soil was too poor.

Our tools act as prosthetic devices; the cup of a mining scoop acts as an extended hand. At some point these prosthetics crossed the line into gigantism where sheer size began affecting whole ecosystems – a mountain removed here, a river diverted there. Not many people appreciate the scale at which human aspirations are unfolding all across the earth, all day, every day. That mining scoop just mentioned is capable of lifting 325 tons of “overburden” with every bite it takes into the earth looking for coal. This is not just a multiplication of men with shovels but a qualitatively different event altogether. Consider a giant dump truck used in mining operations capable of hauling 380 tons of earth in a single load. They weigh 1,375,000 lbs. rolling on tires that are roughly 13 feet tall and the tires alone cost $50,000 to $60,000 each – everything about these modern machines is giant.

I have used the examples of mining operations in illustrating the gigantism of Homo Colossus deliberately. To feed their enormous appetites has required that we dig deep into finite stocks of minerals, extracting and using up resources that might otherwise have been left for prosperity. Of all the occult substances found deep in the nether regions of the earth none can hold a candle to the devil’s blood, oil. Here, in decaying carbon material, Homo Colossus found its preferred food. Ecologically we can classify it as a detritus ecosystem for these are the ecosystems that feed on decaying carbon materials. These are the ecosystems that feed off dead biomass, breaking down the complex arrangements of molecules and releasing their elements back into the cycles of material flow. These are also the ecosystems that are prone to the population overshoot and collapse we looked at last week.

It is time to take a step back and ask ourselves, what does all this mean? This blog is not a substitute for a university ecology class; this is an exploration of mindful ecology. What do these ecological concepts mean for a compassionate, caring individual, our families and our societies?

I think most people fundamentally want to know they are doing good by the world. They want what is best for their children and loved ones. A consensus has been built up that business as usual was leading all of us to a good place. Progress was hard work but the sacrifices were worth it; from the second job to help the first child of this family get through college, to cutting down old growth forest to build a new settlement. The difficult unequal social arrangements of the modern world have been easily accepted largely because the promise was implied that if we could just lift the standard of living for the rich high enough, the process would inevitably improve lives for the poorest of peoples as well. The justification for consumerism as culture is that only through development can the desperate suffering of the third world be improved. If they keep working at it, the almost unspoken justification for our consumer lifestyles runs,  they will someday be just like us.

In practice the third world is strapped with debt to first world banks for expensive first world infrastructure projects built by first world companies. Since the poorer country is able to borrow only so much, the rich governments of the world “give” them aid dollars with the stipulation that they can only be spent on “infrastructure improvement” projects. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins gives a small peak into what is going on. This is how the wealth pump of empire works, pumping wealth from the peripheries into the imperial core. The companies and banks of the overdeveloped world profit but the question remains, did the recipient country benefit as well? There is no simple answer. In some cases the graft runs rampant and the whole adventure is one of abuses to land, animals and people. In other cases things are properly constructed but because the rest of the supporting infrastructure is missing the benefits are much less than what had been promised. In other cases real benefit is given, improving the daily lives of the poor by creating hospitals, education, sanitation, and widespread literacy.

In Western culture with its roots in ideals of Christian charity, consumerism acted as the outer form of something more important; it funded the cornucopia of technological progress. There has been every reason to believe in this secular god, progress. The so-called Green Revolution did manage to feed many additional billions of people since it began a few decades ago. We set foot on the moon, scanned the brain, and shared it all with TV, radio, computers, the internet – it is all very real and impressive. We are grateful and expect it will continue. Ecology states unequivocally, ‘No, this pattern of consumption will not continue.’ It would take multiple earths to bring the underdeveloped world to the state of industrialization found in the overdeveloped world. The implied promise behind the whole consumer shtick is shown to be bust, an impossibility on a planet of seven billion people. Holding out hope that it will happen someday is now nothing more than cold cruelty.

There is a meaningfully sustainable degree of technology that we can all hope future generations may find. Today what we see are the deprivations of those suffering from not having enough infrastructure and technology to lead decent human lives at one end and those suffering total domination by the machine at the other. There must be a middle way of using appropriate technology sized to a human scale if our wisdom can find it, a way to avoid the extremes of underdevelopment and overdevelopment.

Looking around us today, this is not the future we ordered when we began this industrialized consumerism; collapsed fisheries and dead zones haunt our oceans, the land is scarred with cesspools of heavy metals and hot nuclear wastes, even the very air we breathe has become toxic to the stability of climate, all the while causing the sixth mass extinction; ghoulishly wiping out an estimated 200 species every day.

Looking around today many good people are questioning the formerly unquestioned foundation on which this whole thing depends: that human progress is technological progress. This vision was sold to us by those who profit from our entrapment. I drive a car, I contribute to global warming. I buy food from a chain grocery store, I contribute to topsoil loss. On and on it goes right through the litany of horrors that is a typical day in the overdeveloped world when seen through the eyes of critical ecological analysis.

What happens to a culture that loses its most fundamental belief? When the justification for the blood, sweat and tears of generations no longer works? I certainly do not know. We are seeing the process play out all around us. I do know that psychologically seeing through the norms of the overdeveloped world’s culture can be a most unpleasant waking up. To retain strength and to honor that which is decent in human beings is the challenge. It is important to distinguish between the bitterness needed for dismantling Homo Colossus from any dispersion we might be tempted to cast on Homo Sapiens. Given the chance I am pretty sure the mosquitoes and the lions, the elephants and the blue-footed booby would have used the energy bonanza in a way not all that different than we did. Perhaps, as the Native Americans teach, we are among the youngest of our animal brothers and sisters: still intoxicated with the enthusiasms of youth and with plenty left to learn.