(post updated Sept. 5 at the request of several readers, to move the chart down to later in the post, delete the third abandoned-city photo, and add a more engaging image at the beginning of the post; in light of the title of the post this new image is perhaps ironic, but I think it works ~~ Dave)
image of the Vancouver skyline, taken last month by the author
There is an old story about the invention of the chessboard, in which the inventor as his reward asks for one grain of wheat on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and doubling until all 64 squares are full. The seemingly modest request adds up to many times more than all the wheat the world has ever produced. The purpose of the story is to teach about our inability to grasp the impact and unsustainability of accelerating increases in anything, particularly in the final stages. Even when more than half of the squares have been filled the inventor’s request still seems manageable. It is only when it is too late that its impossibility is realized.
I’ve had many people tell me this story doesn’t apply to our current population, production, consumption and pollution curves because they’re not doubling every day, or anything close to it. They miss the point. Our current production and consumption of resources is growing at an annual rate of about 2% — indeed, our globalized economy depends utterly on continued growth, to fund the interest on the staggering debt that enables this growth. Without it, our economy would — will — collapse. Even the liberal media trumpet the necessity and desirability of continued (or resumption of) endless growth (though they’d like its benefits a little more equitably distributed, please).
A bit of mathematics will show that continued growth at a mere 2% per year will result in a doubling of production and consumption every 35 years. For simplicity’s sake lets call that a “generation” (people are living longer and having children later than they used to). So let’s retell the story a slightly different way.
Imagine that each generation a spokesperson is selected by the human race to meet with Mother Nature and announce what the species needs for the next generation. For the first million years or so of human life on Earth this is a pleasant affair, since the demands in the first 30,000 meetings do not increase at all. Then, about 300 generations ago, the demands begin to increase by about 40% each generation (as human population increases by 1%/year). Mother Nature is not pleased, arguing that humans are taking more than their share, but she allows it to continue, even though it brings about the start of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, and decimates the larger mammals that were essential players in many of the planet’s ecosystems.
Then, about 11 generations ago, the demands begin to increase by 100% each generation (as new industrial technologies enables human production and consumption to grow by 2% per year). As this industrial era begins, human population is growing by 3% per year, so even with production growing at 2% per year, this ushers in a period of unprecedented poverty and suffering. Even when population slows in the most recent generation to just 1% per year, there are already billions of struggling people demanding that production growth increase by more than population, so they can escape from poverty.
Mother Nature is exasperated. Because most humans now live in cities, disconnected from the natural world, they cannot appreciate why it is unreasonable for their species to consume the resources needed for other creatures and future generations. She shows the human representatives the folly of growth, using the chessboard story and the history of previous civilizations that tried to grow beyond their means, but generation after generation our representatives don’t believe these lessons apply to such an ingenious species as modern humans. As the industrial age advances, humans increasingly fight bloody and Earth-poisoning wars over resources, since the clumsy distribution systems humans have created fail to use these resources effectively or distribute them equitably.
Still, for 11 more generations, each human generation’s representative demands twice as much as the one before. Finally, Mother Nature has had enough. In 2012 she sits the representative down and confesses that there simply aren’t enough resources left to meet the demands for another human generation. In the generation just past, she says, humans have consumed a fourth of all the resources of the planet. Only half of the planet’s resources now remain, and the human representative is essentially asking for all of it. Even if I could give you that, she says, it would leave nothing for other creatures, and nothing for future generations.
The human is unconvinced. Looking around, there are lots of forests to be seen, lots of food growing, still plenty of fresh water in many places. The weather is usually pretty good and stable — no incontrovertible evidence of climate change. Human ingenuity is at work inventing new forms of renewable energy and food, and finding ways to extract energy that had been thought inaccessible. Human population is stabilizing, and within another generation it might even level off. What is the problem?
Mother Nature reminds the representative of the chessboard lesson. Humans propose to use twice as much in the coming generation as in the last. That’s more than all the resources that have been consumed by humans in the million years since they appeared on the planet. She shows the cost of the last generation’s 2% annual growth, and asks the representative to imagine twice this cost over the next generation:
She points to the oceans, once so teeming with life that wild creatures, including humans, needed only to wade into the stream and they could easily catch enough food for a month. Eighty percent of the life in the oceans is gone, and what remains is suffering in the sewage of human wastes. Acidification, and pollution including a sea of discarded plastic large enough to be visible from space, has desolated the oceans. Imagine that twice over a generation from now, she says.
She points to the grasslands, the former home of thousands of now-extinct species. They have been replaced entirely with monoculture farmland, and since the soil is not meant to handle such crops it has been exhausted, blown away, and now must be replaced with massive amounts of fertilizers made from oil, ploughed with machines that run on oil, soaked with pesticides that poison everything, and seeded with GMO crops whose ‘patented’ seeds are sterile and which are infesting what remains of diverse cropland and exposing crops to the same massive monoculture risks that produced the horrific famines of the past. Look at the pictures of dust-bowl farms in 1933, she says, and see what these once-astonishing grasslands will look like in another generation, when there is no cheap oil to spread over the millions of square miles where grain grows today. And in both your farmland and cities today your unquenchable thirst for water, combined with the shrinking of your mountain glaciers, is causing groundwater levels to drop as much as 8 feet per year, so in another generation your wells and reservoirs may all be dry. Imagine that, she says.
She points to the forests, reduced to half their former extent and now threatened by unregulated clear-cutting and large-scale burning, and in temperate zones by insects and viruses moving in from tropical zones thanks to global warming. At current, accelerating rates of depletion, she says, they will all be gone in a generation. Gone! Imagine a world in 2050 where the only trees are those maintained in parks and gardens and tree ‘reserves’, surrounded, thanks to your inability to grow crops without cheap oil, by weeds, brush and desert stretching on for a thousand miles. Can you imagine living in a world without forests, she asks?
She points to the seacoasts, where most humans live and where soil was once richest. Talk to your scientists about sea-level rise, and what will happen in the next generation, she says. What just last year they thought would not happen for two centuries they are now saying could happen in a generation. And every week they get a new surprise — they are learning that while climates may stay unchanged for a millennium, they can change suddenly and dramatically in a decade, and there is no way of predicting the consequences. Imagine a billion people underwater, along with half the world’s infrastructure, in a generation. Imagine cities that once housed millions of people just abandoned, she says; Why couldn’t you learn the lesson of Katrina?
As for your cities, she says, do you have any idea how much of the resources you are asking for go to keeping your cities standing? By themselves, without the import of food and water and oil (and concrete and steel and manufactured goods, most of them made of or with oil), your cities would quickly crumble. Don’t believe me? Look at the pictures (below) of modern, abandoned cities; they are the pictures of your unsustainable cities a generation from now. What will it take for you to understand that your civilization is built on the availability of cheap energy, and there is no more cheap energy. This generation alone will use up a billion years’ accumulated reserves of stored energy, leaving nothing for the generations to follow — except abandoned, unliveable cities, monstrous decaying relics amidst a desolated planet.
Image of abandoned Siberian city.
Image of abandoned Japanese city. Images from Dark Roasted Blend.
So I cannot give you what you ask, Mother Nature concludes. It is not that I won’t — I cannot, just as the man who promised the chess inventor his grain cannot. I am sure you will try to take it anyway, and that makes me very sad. You are going to learn a hard lesson, one that will probably take several generations to play out. After that, your demands of me will probably be small, and there will once again be time for regeneration, for other forms of life to recover from your excessive demands, for balance, for peace, and I hope, for your species to reconnect with the Earth, so that you need no longer ask me for what I cannot offer.
John Gray, in his book Straw Dogs, concludes that the only way our civilization can continue is by desolating the Earth, at an accelerating rate, until it is exhausted, and that this is precisely what we will do. Although I grieve for what we have done to our planet, and the destruction and suffering we cause and condone every day, I grieve much more for what we will do in the coming generation, in the desperate folly to try to keep it going just a little longer. There will be more destruction, more suffering, more misery, more desolation in the generation to come, I fear, than in all the generations past combined. The worst atrocities always occur when things are most desperate and hopeless.
History and literature are replete with examples and stories that show us that this is our nature. We cannot and will not change until we must, and we won’t realize we must until it is too late to prevent our civilization’s madness from taking its most ghastly, almost unimaginable toll. We will stay in denial until we cannot, believing that somehow we can innovate out our way out of the impossible predicament we have created for ourselves. And distracting ourselves in the meantime — pondering for example the choice between ‘leaders’ who advocate ecocidal publicly-regulated growth and those who advocate ecocidal unregulated, privatized growth — the Tweedledums and Tweedledees of planetary desolation.
I’ve tried to depict this desolated future in Mother Nature’s words, rather than in pictures, because the pictures are too much for me to bear. I could show images of clear-cuts, of massive factory farms, of befouled water and dying fish and birds, of dust-bowls where farms once thrived, of child labour and slave labour, of sandstorms blowing through China’s industrialized, drought-stricken cities, of dry wells and dry cracked earth and lifeless crops, of prison and refugee camps filled with despair, of slums of mind-numbing, impossible poverty. What would that achieve, except perhaps to get you angry or upset, for no useful purpose?
I have come to a ghastly realization about what we have done, and what we are doing, and what lies ahead, and why. I understand that no one is or has been in control of this, and that no one conspired or wanted this to happen, and thus no one is to blame, no one is responsible. And I appreciate that thanks to the complexity of everything, we cannot prevent or even significantly mitigate the dreadful future we are so hopefully embarked upon. I live with this terrible knowledge, and occasionally share it on these pages, and often wonder why I do.
I guess it’s because I can’t just stay silent, can’t just pretend everything is going to be all right. And because sometimes it helps just to know there are others out there who understand, when so many either do not, or do not want to.