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“…but real limits not seen are not limits repealed.”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.

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.

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: