The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: “Limits to Growth”

Declining Birth Rates Are Good & Bad

So, there’s constant talk about the problem of declining birth rates and how much of a problem they are. There’s some truth to this, but a lot of it is based on the argument that more people lead to growing economies and that argument is terrible. The part that is reasonable is the rising increase in infertility, including plummeting sperm counts. That’s not bad because it leads to less children, precisely, it’s because it indicates how badly we’ve poisoned ourselves.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the world is well past its carrying capacity for the type of society we have. The Club of Rome predictions from 1968 have almost all tracked the real world, and we’re just past the hump: we’re into decline, but barely.

Notice that population decline happens about 30 years after the peak of food, industrial and services per capita. That’s bad and it’s part of what is going to make this so ugly. Check out the food per capita line for some real ugliness, though there’s going to be a lot less fat people.

Note that carrying capacity is not purely about population. Different global societies have different carrying capacities per capita. If we had not gone with planned obsolescence (there was a fight over near the end of the 19th century, managers vs. engineers and the engineers lost); if we did not have suburbs and exurbs but only urban, rural and wilderness; and if we had seriously started our transition from fossil fuels in the 80s instead of electing Thatcher and Reagan, our carrying cost would be much less and the world could support a much higher population. But under current circumstances, the world maximum population is probably about two billion, and once climate change runs amok it will be less.

So our population is going to reduce. It’s not “we have to reduce our population” it is “we are animals who exceeded the carrying capacity of our environment and our population IS going to drop, whether we like it or not.” That’s going to suck.

There was a window to avoid this. It is a result of our own decisions: to go with planned obsolescence, to have suburbs and massive numbers of cars, to pollute like maniacs, to destroy the forests and the swamps and the jungles, to not transition away from fossil fuels and dozens of decisions based on greed and “I won’t be here when it gets bad, so who cares?”

As for economies, high dependency rations (fewer working age people supporting people who can’t work) will be a drag. But because we have legitimately already overshot carrying capacity and because of resource and sink constraints (sinks is where we put our pollution, like CO2 and methane) reduced overall population is going to be more good than bad.

How much population will be lost is, in some sense, up to us. We left doing all the right things too late to avoid this, but the faster we transition to societies built around not exceeding planetary limits and working with and for the environment, the less people will die.

But even in a very optimistic scenario I have trouble seeing our population not winding up down two to three billion.

It is what we, as a species, chose through our decisions. That doesn’t mean you or I chose, we mostly didn’t, but at the species level, our decisions lead here.

It is what it is, and it will be what it will be.

The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

One Chart To Predict The Future of Civilization Collapse

I first read Limits To Growth sometime around 1982. Limits used computer models to predict possible futures of resource use, pollution and population over-shoot.

At the time I thought it was right, and everything since then has come in about as it said.

I found this chart from it, with a couple of added date lines in an excellent post on the retrospective book “Limits and Beyond.”

The chart’s a couple years off, but notice that we’re hitting the food per capita just a few years after it expected. You can say “this is because of the Ukraine war” but we were at the stretching point, which is why one war (and a bunch of stupid sanctions) were able to do this.

Note that services and industrial output are expected to peak around the same time. Population starts dropping in about 20 years and the death rate goes vertical about the same time.

Notice how extreme the declines and rises are once they get going. This should be familiar to people from the Covid pandemic, but these trends will last for decades; indeed for generations.

I’m not sure I entirely buy the population model. It’s based on the fact that poor people have more kids, with some delay, but I think the one things the Club of Rome didn’t entirely take into account is how bad climate change and ecological collapse will be.

The point, now, is that we’re about at the peak or slightly past it. The collapse has started. Covid and Ukraine pushed us into it, but it was going to happen anyway, and there’s always an inciting event. What has changed is that there was no slack in the system (and no competence, with the single major exception of China) to deal with it.

The second point is, again, how sharp these declines become, often almost immediately after they start.

Food isn’t going to get cheaper almost anywhere for a while. Then what will happen is that multiple countries which have surpluses will disconnect from the world supply network so they can feed their own people. This won’t be done for humanitarian reasons at home, our elites don’t have such feelings, it will be done because food shortages are the fastest route to revolution, and that includes food shortages caused by too high inflation. If the food’s out there any can’t afford it, it amounts to it not being out there.

This chart doesn’t break out water specifically, but in a lot of places water is going to be in serious shortage. We’re going to lose a lot of river flow and a lot of rivers and lakes outright, because they are fed by glaciers and snow pack which are already in precipitous decline. In some cases there will be an increase before the decrease: floods and so on caused by more water flow as glaciers melt faster, but then there will be almost none.

In many regions there’ll be more rain and there’ll be more rain overall, but it’s not going to make up for the lost river flow and lakes, or for the aquifers we have drained or poisoned.

This is the map, it may be off in a few places, but it’s going to be essentially correct. It didn’t have to be, the book was published as a warning so we could change our ways, but we didn’t and so it’s turned from possible prediction into prophecy.

Come back to this chart over and over again as you think about and plan for the future, but remember that it is a global chart: local areas will have different profiles and charts especially as we de-globalize, and in response to this collapse we are going to de-globalize with a vengeance.

There are certain places you just don’t want to be, which will get hit earlier and harder. In the US, much of the Southwest and south (Texas, for example.) In Asia: Bangladesh in the first wave, then India soon thereafter. I don’t know Africa well enough, but the same regional effects will occur there.

On the human scale there will be mass migrations, refugee waves of tens to hundreds of millions and war over water and arable land. Multiple societies will collapse into warlordism.

This is the future.

Our future.


How The Metaphysics Of Capitalism Destroyed The World

Back in 1968 the book “Limits to Growth” stormed the world. Computer models predicted that humans would run out of almost every resource, overshoot carying capacity, then crash.

It was well known and widely discussed and combined with the oil crashes, made the 70s a ferment of practical and theoretical work on alternative energy, different ways of farming and so on.

Almost all of that came to an end in the 80s, with Reagan. Carter had put solar panels on the White House, Reagan had them torn down. A decision was made to crush wages and thus the oil consumption of ordinary people, while bringing new sources online as fast as possible. Obama, with fracking, made the same decision, by the way, but even more successfully, turning the US back into a HUGE producer of oil.

But what’s important today isn’t all of that, which I’ve discussed at tedious length in the past.

Instead I want to discuss the basic argument against the “Limits To Growth”.

“We will substitute away.”

In other words, alternate energy will step up and we’ll move away from oil and coil. We’ll find substitutes for steel and nickel and rare earths and anything else in short supply.

BUT what matters is the metaphysics of the argument. When the people making this argument said it would happen, they assumed “the market” would do it.

Which, it sort of has, but too late. Much too late.

There was a strong assumption that prices were information which stored in them all known information about the past and the future, and that therefore prices would drive self-interested people to make the necessary substitutions or find new sources.

To market disciples, the market’s “free hand” was like God, all-knowing and all-powerful and weirdly benevolent. All we had to do was let the market run and it would solve all our problems.

So why didn’t that happen?

Well, to start, the market doesn’t price the future well at all. Never has, and never will. People making decisions in 1970 will mostly be dead before all this stuff matters, and the same is true of people making decisions in the 2010s. Even if they aren’t dead, is there anything in human history which makes us believe humans are good at making very long term plans, over decades to generations?

Why would you believe the market would do it based on a discipline which suggests humans are rational and know what is good for them and act rationally to get what is good for them? (If you believe all of that, you are more of a fantasist than some fanatic whipping himself while screaming for God to save him.)

Now I’m not concerned here with the hypocrites: the people who knew this was all bunk but expected to get rich off it (they were, in a real sense, very rational. A bad future they don’t see or don’t care about, “I get 50 good years and die rich when the bad times come, whatever” isn’t a reason not be rich now, if you don’t care about future people.)

But many many people really believed this bunk and the issue is that by believing that the “market” and “price signals” and *vague hand waving* would solve the problem: by saying “we have a system that solves these problems automatically by giving correct feedback” they made it impossible to solve to the extent that they were believed. (And remember, huge amounts of money were run on the markets for decades based on these ideas. People believed and put their cash on the line.)

In fact, of course, we could have taken the warning of “Limits To Growth”, “Peak Oil” and “Global Warming” and used them to make changes.

Ironically a lot of those changes would be exactly what the disciples of hand-wavy “market” crap suggested would happen automatically.

Use markets and public policy: massively subsidize alternative energy and research so that where we are with solar today is where we would have been in the 90s. Massively research alternatives to bottleneck resources. Stop over-fishing, by force if necessary. And, of course, put sharp limits on “planned obsolence” backed with death sentences for executives.

If you’d rather get more resources or if you want more than one strategy, massively fund space exploration with an eye to mining rather than defund NASA in waves (Obama, classically, did the worst cuts to NASA ever so that private industry/billionaires could make money, but NASA funding should have been increased in the 70s.)

Warnings only serve those who heed them and when you believe in metaphysical entities which don’t have the attributes they think they do (God, Markets), then you don’t act to save yourself. Markets were never, by themselves, going to miraculously do what needed being done in time. Oh sure, price feedback has eventually gotten us some decent solar, and so on, but decades later than we needed it.

Markets are human creations, like God, and to work correctly they have to be tuned for the problem at hand or, even (heresy) one has to consider that there are things that Markets or Gods can’t do, or are bad at, and find other solutions.

So here we are, and markets have not made everything good and the world’s forests are burning and we’re about to have another oil boom, as best I can tell.

Like God, mis-using markets or assigning them powers they don’t have, leads to terrible consequences, so get ready for the invisible hand to slap us silly.

(My writing helps pay my rent and buys me food. So please consider subscribing or donating if you like my writing.)

Why Progress Always Required Space Travel

When  I was a teenager I read The Club of Rome’s “Limits To Growth.” The Club ran consumption, pollution and population numbers thru some simple models to see what would happen. The model misses climate change, so we’re worse off than they expect (much worse off) and some other factors, but the stuff it models has been coming in approximately as expected.

The standard model of progress, often assailed by thinkers like John Michael Greer, assumes that there aren’t significant limits to growth that we can’t substitute out of. Run out of oil? Switch to solar? Run out lithium, figure out another way to make batteries? Run out of water, mass-desalinization? Run out of soil, make soil or grow plankton in water. Run out of fish? Fish farms.


But the people who created the model, who championed it, aren’t as optimistic and stupid as their opponents often indicate: the standard future model of people who believe in progress requires space exploitation precisely because we can’t assume we can always find a substitute on Earth for what we lack.

If you want, in other words, to keep GROWTH you must exploit space. Send out the space miners! Harvest solar above the atmosphere. Explore, exploit, grow!

You don’t necessarily have to colonize space in any meaningful way to do this, though the earlier imagineers thought we would: this can be done by robots and telepresence mostly, with a very few actual humans in space.

Note that this side-cuts most of the standard complaints about space colonization: other planets nearby all suck, and are worse for life than Earth (even shitty places on Earth like Antarctica) and space itself is full of deadly radiation and other problems we don’t know  how to fully mitigate.

Doesn’t matter if you’re just sending out robots to get stuff (lithium, say) and bring it back.

BUT none of this matters in a larger sense because the real problem isn’t running out of lithium or copper or helium or any other simple substance like that.

It’s destroying the biosphere, climate and ecosphere

Earth’s true wealth is an intricate web of life, from creatures simpler than bacteria all the way up to blue whales, including plants and fungi and insects and a wild variety of creatures we don’t understand or haven’t even discovered.

That, along with Earth’s climate, is what you can only get on Earth, at least within the solar system. That’s what we’re destroying.

So… space exploitation? Why not. It may help deal with some bottlenecks. But it still won’t let us continue GROWTH and the standard progress model, because the real limit to growth is simply that if we go past the Earth’s carrying capacity — which I will say, despite some disagreeing with me — we unequivocally have, we then start destroying that carrying capacity and all the things we must have that only Earth supplies.

Earth is the Jewel, the most important place in the universe for humans, right now. We cannot do without it and what is important about it is not copper or lithium, it is precisely climate and LIFE (ecosystems). Our destruction of those two things is what makes the standard model of progress impossible.

We’ve got a limited resource, created by processes of evolution which take millions of years to work. We are so ignorant we cannot even create a self-sustaining biosphere; we cannot fix what we are breaking.

Anyone and any system destroying the Earth’s climate and ecosphere is thus, then, doing the greatest wrong possible for the future of humanity, and of much life on Earth. Our mass genocide of other species is a slow form of strangling ourselves.

Space can help, but it won’t get us around the real issues. Only true respect for the genuine non-renewable resources we MUST have and which exist only on Earth can create a positive future for humanity and for all the species we have held hostage and not yet murdered, who are unfortunate enough to be trapped on Earth with us.

(Writers need dental care, so subscriptions and donations help.)

We Know What Our Problems Are and We Do Nothing or Make Them Worse

Vasnetov's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Vasnetov’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

I’m cranky today. A friend asked me about California’s water problems, and I said: “We’ve known for years, and we’ve done essentially nothing.” The problem in California is agriculture. Every Californian could stop drinking and watering their lawns tomorrow, and California still wouldn’t have enough water. California is draining its aquifers, and wells are going dry. Water which took  millions of years to accumulate is being drained in years.

Much of California is a desert, and yet we insist on growing food there with water we don’t have. The Colorado river is drained to a trickle feeding California. It’s not that California couldn’t grow food, but much of the food it grows (almonds, for example) requires huge amounts of water.

So this is a problem about which we have known for decades, in one sense; I first read the of California’s drought vulnerability as a child, in a book published in the 1950s. In another sense, it’s come quickly, due to climate change, another problem we’ve known about for decades and done nothing of any significance to stop. In fact, we have accelerated climate change with our policies—neo-liberalism was about shipping production from areas that produced less carbon (advanced industrial nations) to areas that would produce the same goods with more carbon. (Production in China is more carbon intensive than the same production was in the US.)

Everywhere I look, I see problems we know exist which we refuse to fix. Our actual actions often make them worse.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year.  If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

In the field of foreign affairs, Western actions since the 1950s, things like overthrowing democratically elected governments, favoring autocracies, funding nasty people like the Taliban, hostility to Nasser, and on and on, reaped the expected result: Democracy, westernization, and modernization has failed in most of the Middle East, and they’ve turned to far nastier ways of running their societies.

In economics, the failures of neo-liberalism were predicted at the time the policies were put into place. I remember the Reagan-Thatcher years, and if you think anyone with sense didn’t know they were about wealth transfers to the rich you are entirely wrong. I read my first “Oh shit, inequality is going to reach Gilded Era levels!” book in 1986. It took longer than the early predictions thought, but it has ground, inevitably, on.

As for resource stagnation, the “Limits To Growth” book was published in 1972. Its baseline exhaustion of limited resources scenario is essentially on track, its larger point that a limited world can’t treat resources as unlimited is also true. Substitution only goes so far. There are two obvious solutions to that problem:

  • Planned use of resources, with intense recycling and heavy dependence on management of renewable resources, or;
  • Getting into space in a big way to expand the resource pool and put off much of the problem for centuries (at which point, hopefully, we figure out a better solution, or go to the stars).

Ideally you’d go with a combination of these two, but we haven’t pursued either one vigorously. Neo-Luddites on the left constantly sneer at any serious idea of exploiting space while “I’ve got mine, there is no future” douchebags on the right oppose both space exploration and sensible stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

This isn’t a “green” issue, this is a common sense, “we have limited resources” issue. The idea that substitutions can be found for anything is merest faith, an example of the fact that ideologies are far more powerful than mere “reality.” (Until they aren’t, a point usually proved through body counts in the millions, and soon in the billions.)

These are just a few of the “big” items. One could probably list a hundred with ease, starting with the warming and acidification of the oceans, the collapse of ocean stocks, and the great-die-off.

The complete inability of our society to deal with obvious consequences of our actions is what has doomed it. This society will not survive. The questions are only “How many people will it kill going down?” and “What will the next society look like in the ashes of the world left to us by this one?”

Whatever it looks like, it will be very different. I have some thoughts along those lines, which I’ll get to in other articles, but the new society won’t be about the immediate capitalistic gratification of needs that don’t actually exist. If it turns back into that, eventually, I doubt oxygen-based life on Earth will survive, and humanity will only survive if it develops self-sustaining colonies not on Earth.

Little of what is going to happen over the next hundred years will be anything humanity has not done to itself. Our fate was, and still is, in our own hands, and we will reap as we have sowed.


Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén