Image for The Final Acceleration – Just Waiting for the Great Disruption?

The world seems dominated by two loud and bizarrely inconsistent narratives.

One narrative constantly assures us that things have never been so good as they are now, and are just getting better all the time. Computers and communication technologies have never been so powerful. A vast amount of information is at our fingertips via the World Wide web. Air travel to any corner of the planet is easy and quick. Tools, appliances and technologies that expand our reach and capacities are more accessible and of higher quality than they have ever been before. At least in first world countries, plentiful high quality food, much of it sourced from around the world and flown fresh to anywhere within days, allows us to enjoy any food we like, regardless of the local season. It seems as if the great acceleration of technological innovations and industrial and agricultural outputs that emerged from the reconstruction of western civilisation following the disaster of the Second World War has achieved an unstoppable momentum.

As a result of all these advances, many believe we are at the brink of an unprecedented golden age of abundance. Professor of Demography Peter McDonald was recently quoted (in ‘The Sunday Tasmanian’ newspaper, 2nd June 2013, p. 5) as saying the next “Alpha” generation (those born since 2010) will have the most “lavish” lifestyles and the best standards of living ever.  In a similar vein, ‘The Economist’’ magazine (1st June 2013, p. 23-26) noted that economic growth over the last 20 years has halved the number of people living in poverty (albeit mainly in China), and optimistically asserted that a continuation of this trend could – for the first time in history - virtually eradicate poverty world-wide by 2030. Apparently this will happen through an acceleration of economic growth which will permit increased consumption by ever-increasing numbers of people.

This cornucopian narrative is largely driven by simplistically extrapolating past trends into the future.  However there is another narrative, and this one is driven by a large body of science which is telling us that the future is not going to be a simple continuation of past trends.I get a surreal sense of cognitive dissonance when I compare the two. Science is clearly and loudly telling us that the driver of these cornucopian trends – exponentially increasing consumption of natural resources – cannot conceivably continue unchanged without feedback consequences that will undermine the capacity of these trends to continue. We are producing this abundance of goods and services by using up the Earth’s capital – its non-renewable resources - at an ever-accelerating rate.  The finite resources we are depleting in this way are not merely the Earth’s raw resources such as oil, coal, water and arable land, but also – and of much more immediate concern - the Earth’s capacity to safely absorb the waste products and pollution that we are generating in the accelerating production of goods and services.

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Figure 1: A comparison of the ‘business as usual’ (‘standard run’) projections of the 1972 Limits to Growth study with actual data for the subsequent 30 years from 1970 to 2000.  Actual trends in key global indicators have closely followed the trends that were projected in 1972 by the’ Limits to Growth’ study if humanity makes no concerted effort to change our consumption pattern.  Thus the projections of a crash if we continue to follow a pathway of accelerating consumption remain as likely as ever. The ‘Limits to Growth’ study also modelled different development pathways in which stabilisation of consumption after 1972 resulted in a stabilised system developing with relatively little social disruption (inset graph), however no projections from our current state can any longer produce this outcome.  We have ignored the message of the ‘Limits to Growth’ study for too long for this to now be a possibility, and are facing a great disruption as a result.  Reproduced from ‘New Scientist’ magazine (7th January 2012), based on Turner (2008).

Our trends of rapidly increasing resource consumption and accelerating production of waste products such as CO2 are running disturbingly close to the trajectory that was foreseen in 1972 by the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” study 1, which used a system dynamics computer model developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to simulate the consequences of increasing consumption at a first order (global) scale.  That study was subsequently widely asserted to have been ‘disproven’, however most such criticisms were evidently made by critics who had never actually read the report, since they inaccurately claimed that it predicted exhaustion of certain resources before 2000, even though it actually made no such predictions at all (I have recently re-read the study to make sure).  In fact, the report projected a continuing acceleration of growth in consumption of all resources, and consequent growth in food production, industrial output and services until sometime around 2020, after which it projected a deep crash as the consequences of over-consumption – particularly the effects of pollution – begin to overwhelm the capacity of consumption growth to continue.  Far from these projections having been ‘disproven’, a recent comparison by CSIRO worker Graham Turner of actual global trends since 1970 with the ‘Limits to Growth’ study 1972 projections has demonstrated that global trends in food and industrial output, population increase and pollution (especially greenhouse gas emissions) have indeed continued along pathways disturbingly close to those projected in 1972 (Turner 2008 2; see Figure 1). 

The continuing acceleration of consumption and output is what lulls those economists with little grasp of natural science into assuming that because things have never seemed better than they are now, it somehow follows that these trends will magically continue onwards indefinitely into the future.  However unlimited growth is the philosophy of cancer. The original 1972 Limits to Growth study predicted the global economy would still be growing at an accelerating rate today (2013), even as it heads towards the inevitable crash that the same systems model predicted must result from continuing accelerated growth.  The real consequences of over-consumption which must lead to its inevitable end are already starkly obvious to the scientific community, most obviously in the form of climate change.  Through the increase in pollution - most particularly greenhouse gases - the effects of our great acceleration of industrial and agricultural production include steadily rising global average temperatures and sea-levels due to the rising thermal content of the atmosphere and ocean. Most ominously the consequent magnification of the Earth’s hydrological cycle is already causing a rapidly increasing frequency and/or magnitude of extreme weather events, including droughts, floods, cyclones, storm surges and bushfires.  In effect, more frequent and intense extreme weather events is the natural feedback process by which over-consumption of natural resources is leading to its own end.

As increasingly intense and frequent droughts and flooding – especially in Asia and Africa - cause increasingly frequent crop failures, famines and starvation, deaths will increasingly affect not just millions, but billions of people world-wide, with inevitable social disruption and chaos leading to wars.  As roads, towns and other infrastructure take repeated beatings from extreme weather events, it will become economically impossible to just keep rebuilding them all; vulnerable infrastructure and settlements will begin to be abandoned and remaining infrastructure will need to be rebuilt to new standards suited to a new climate.  The easy air travel of today will become an increasingly rare privilege, even as the number of safe destinations to travel to shrinks.

It will not be the next “Generation Alpha” that will have the most lavish lifestyles in history. It is us – those of us born since World War II – that will be seen to have had the most lavish lifestyles ever; and the tragedy is that as a direct result, we have cheated Generation Alpha of their chance for equally good lifestyles.

Because our planetary civilisation has for forty years refused to heed the warnings of the Club of Rome during the 1970s – and widely continues to deny the existence of a problem even today – it is inevitable that the fool’s paradise of blithe over-consumption that we have been enjoying since World War II will end, and not in the distant future, but in the next few decades.  The warnings are obvious in the global climatic system, and an increasingly concerned scientific community is struggling to understand why so few in politics or the public want to take the warnings seriously.

The most bizarre aspect of it all is that, just as we are reaching the Limits to Growth that were foreseen in 1972, so too is the denial of the very existence of those limits reaching an ever more shrill crescendo.  Just as the evidence that there really are limits to growth has become strikingly plain, so too has the global obsession with increased resource consumption reached its highest levels and greatest acceleration in human history. We are bombarded with messages that growth is good and must continue. Just when the urgent necessity of stabilising our consumption of resources at a sustainable and steady level has never been clearer, we are accelerating that consumption to unprecedented levels and rates of increase.

We are setting ourselves up for a perfect crash. 

Since Rachel Carson identified the problem in 1962 3 and even more so since the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study was published, a growing environment movement has been warning that unlimited industrial, agricultural and population growth without limits is impossible and unsustainable on a finite planet.  Ever since then, right wing ideologues (and they have been mostly right wing) have denied this obvious fact, and have asserted that un-ending growth is not only possible and desirable, but even necessary.  At the risk of sounding smug, the plain fact is that the reality of accelerating climate change is the evidence that environmentalists have been right about the self-limiting nature of growth all along, and the right wing ideologues resoundingly wrong.  As a direct result, the right wing is in increasingly shrill denial and continues to urge ever accelerating rates of consumption, almost as if to thereby prove environmentalism wrong.  The only possible outcome of this will be a far greater and more devastating crash than might have occurred, and one which could have been avoided entirely were it not for the denial.

So we have a society in a state of cognitive dissonance, caught between an economic narrative that says that growth has bought us so many good things that we simply must push on with more growth, and a scientific narrative which is telling us that this is simply impossible because we are already pushing up against the limits to growth. The big question is, how will this dissonance resolve itself?

There is one view which quite reasonably suggests that the power of denial is so great that there is little point trying to fight it directly; we will eventually adapt to the fact there are limits to growth, but only when the implacable physical reality of those limits finally forces us to do so 4. In effect, the real society-wide structural changes that are needed to decarbonise our technology and turn away from the unsustainable path of accelerating resource consumption will only happen when the disruption to our lives that is caused by the impacts of unmitigated climate change begins to exceed the degree of deliberate change, effort and consequent disruption to everyday life that is actually needed to turn things around (see Figure 2). It seems quite reasonable to believe that nothing less than intolerable disruption to everyday life will be what is needed to shake society out of its complacency, set aside denial, and begin to act with a sense of real urgency. How else can one interpret opinion polls which say that – even amongst Australians who accept climate change is real – many are unwilling to accept even modest extra costs to do so? ( 5 )

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Figure 2: Is this the best humanity can do?  Real action to genuinely mitigate climate change begins only when the degree of (involuntary) disruption to everyday life caused by the impacts of climate change becomes equal to or greater than the degree of (voluntary) disruption to everyday life that is needed to really mitigate climate change.  By which time a significant degree of climate change is ‘locked in’ and many dire consequences can no longer be avoided.

Considering both the clear scientific evidence that our growth trajectory is unsustainable, and the equally clear evidence that society is in deep denial about this, it seems eminently sensible to assume that a great disruption of the sort described above is what it will take to resolve the cognitive dissonance between these two narratives.  But is this really going to be good enough?

The great danger is that if we wait until the inconvenience of climate change outweighs the inconvenience of really doing something genuine about it, we may have waited too long.  We don’t really know how much climate change it will take for affluent and thus relatively resilient societies like Australia to finally agree that enough is enough. However we do know that the longer we delay decisive actions such as radically decarbonising our technologies and industries, the more change will be irrevocably locked into the global climate system.  Already we are committed to a future of rising seas with increasing bushfire, flood and drought hazards for the next century or more. The predictable climatic range of the Twentieth Century which our cities, infrastructure and agriculture were designed for is already a thing of the past, although many have yet to realise this. Maybe we can cope with the changes to date, but the longer we wait the more disruptive will be the further changes that will become inevitable. If we wait too long we may be faced with a brave new world so far removed from the comfortable one we grew up in that it will be nearly unrecognisable.  Is it really sensible or reasonable to take this risk and just wait for so much inevitable disruption to occur?

Of course the alternative to simply waiting for the impacts of climate change to become intolerable is much harder. The alternative involves acting in the light of reason and forethought; it requires actively confronting denial; actively facing down the dinosaurs of the fossil fuel industry and forcing them to leave coal and oil in the ground; actively confronting our politicians and governments until they really begin to legislate to effectively and rapidly decarbonise our economy no matter how politically or economically uncomfortable that may be – for us as well as them.

Given the power of denial and complacency, and the desire for continuing acceleration of consumption that lies behind it, is it even possible for humanity to act decisively to genuinely mitigate climate change on the basis of nothing more than mere facts and forethought?  Whether we act decisively out of knowledge, reason and forethought, or wait until we have no choices left and our hands are finally forced, will define the quality of humanity at the point of the greatest crisis in our history.  It will define whether we are really – as we so fondly imagine – the one species that has evolved the capacity to act rationally on the basis of knowledge and forethought; or whether we are really just like all the rest, a greedy, short-sighted and rather imperfect bunch who maybe can respond effectively in the short term when challenges actually impact on us, but are still too constrained by the baggage of our evolutionary traits as to react early enough to avert a planetary-scale crisis in time to avoid its worst impacts.

Refs

1 Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J. & Behrens, W.W.III, 1972: ‘The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind’ Pan Books, 205pp.

2 Turner, G., 2008: ’A Comparison of the Limits to Growth with Thirty Years of Reality’; CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Canberra, 49pp.

3 Rachel Carson 1962: “Silent Spring” The Riverside Press, Cambridge, 368 pp.

4 Paul Gilding has argued that humanity will in the end respond decisively to climate change with real mitigation actions, but only when the impact of climate change on our civilisation finally becomes so immediate and pervasive that denial becomes irrelevant (Paul Gilding 2011: “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World” Bloomsbury Press, 292pp.). Similarly David Bowman argues that there is little point in trying to “win” the climate debate with deniers; it is the inevitable need to adapt to the impacts of climate change that requires our immediate attention and which will in the end shift the debate in the direction of real action (David Bowman: “Winning the Climate Debate by Adapting” http://theconversation.com/winning-the-climate-debate-by-adapting-12409).

5 See for example “Rudd cools on emissions plan” The Mercury newspaper 28th April 2010, describing how – against a background of widespread public unwillingness to accept even modest extra expenses under an emissions trading scheme - Kevin Rudd backed away from tackling “the great moral and economic challenge of our time” because it was all starting to look a bit difficult and a bit politically unpalatable.

*Chris Sharples is an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Tasmania where he dabbles in geomorphology and the effects of sea-level rise on coasts.  He is also interested in trying to spot elephants in rooms, and state the bleeding obvious about them.

Main Image:  Course of Emprie: Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36

CHRIS SHARPLES ON TASMANIAN TIMES:

The Order of the Universe – its Source and Implications ...

Climate Change Alarmism as a Moral Responsibility

Tasmania, Tourism and the Elephant in the Room

• Via David Obendorf: Ancient forest giants – a lesson in a climate changing world

February 2009 saw two of the tallest trees on the Planet killed by wild fire.  The Eucalyptus regnans [Mountain Ash] died in the intensive Black Saturday bushfires that swept across Victoria on a day of ‘catastrophic’ weather conditions.

In the Wallaby Creek catchment in Kinglake NP a usually protected wet forest over 300 year old trees was all but wiped out.

Big Ash 1 [height 94.4 metres] andAmabalis [height 91 metres] died on that day along with tens of thousands of their kind.

They were standing tall when the First Fleet arrived in 1788. They have lived through the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s, the federation of Australia in 1901, two world wars and economic depressions, but one day brought catastrophe to this fire-insensitive Mountain Ash forest. 

Only few dozen mature Mountain Ash in this 3000 ha forest on the Hume Plateau survived Black Saturday 2009.

Before Black Saturday this forest was considered one of the best old growth Mountain Ash forest in mainland Australia. Four years later it seems that about 50 or so of the trees have survived, in a number of separate clusters.

The few surviving tree remain in a sea of fire-killed Mountain Ash of similar height by some fluke of fire intensity; maybe as subtle as just a shift in the wind or some random movement of intense heat spared these survivors.

There has been prolific regrowth from seed but another wildfire in the next 10 to 30 years before all this regeneration has a chance to flower and set seed will see the Mountain Ash become an endangered tree species, a victim of increased fire frequency and climate change.

The giant Mountain Ash in the Styx valley in Tasmania could suffer a similar fate.

Read more:
http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/fluke-of-fire-behaviour-spares-kings-of-the-forest-20130203-2dsmv.html

London Evening Standard:  UK always ‘a few days away’ from serious food shortages, warn MPs

04 June 2013

Businesses should be penalised for wasting food and consumers should buy meat only as an occasional treat to protect future food supplies and keep prices down, a committee of MPs has recommended.

The International Development Committee warned that the UK is “never more than a few days away” from a significant food shortage and called on ministers to act to improve food security.

MPs urged the Government to redouble its efforts to cut the huge amount of discarded produce - estimated to be around 30% globally.

In its Global Food Security report, the committee also called on the UK to investigate whether nations should use domestic stockpiles of food to protect themselves from price spikes in the future.

Although the practice is costly, the increasing volatility of food prices means “there may be a case for judicious use of stocks to relieve the tightness of markets”, it said.

Sir Malcolm Bruce, chairman of the International Development Committee, said: “There is no room for complacency about food security over the coming decades if UK consumers are to enjoy stable supplies and reasonable food prices.

“We have seen two notable ‘shocks’ or ‘spikes’ in global food prices over recent years, with price peaks in June 2008 and February 2011. These crises - driven by rising demand for food and by the impact of biofuels produced through agriculture - hurt many parts of the UK food industry and strongly undermined the global fight against hunger.”

He called for ministers to set producers and retailers targets for food waste reduction, with sanctions imposed if they are not met.

He said the Government should also push ahead with previous proposals to persuade households to cut the amount they throw out and promote schemes that redistribute unwanted food.

Increases in global meat consumption are unsustainable and, longer term, the focus should be on pasture-fed, rather than on grain-fed, livestock with meat promoted as a occasional product rather than an everyday staple, the committee said.

etc….

Fairfax: The health of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef has been downgraded to “poor” as the government quietly pushed some of the pollution targets that were supposed to be achieved this year back five years ...

The Independent: Water shortages for farmers ‘will make Britain dependent on imported crops’