The limits to growth
Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface, a plant is growing. Its leaves suffocate all life below. The plant has already been there for 1,000 days, and it doubles in size every day. So, here is a question. If the lake is already covered half by the plant, how many days are left to save the lake? The correct answer is one day. Behold the power of exponential growth.
In one day, the size of the plant doubles, so the lake will be fully covered the next day. It does not matter how long the plant has been there already. Exponential growth stops once there is no more room for expansion. As soon as the lake is fully covered, life in the lake ends. And if the plant depends on that life, it will die too.
The lake represents the Earth, the plant represents humanity, and the leaves are people like you and me. No more room for growth means that mass starvation is not far away. As of 1971, humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently, we use two times as much. By 2050, humanity will need three Earths. Make no mistake. We live on the proverbial last day.
The end may come suddenly. Most people do not see it coming, while others believe it is unavoidable. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972, a group of scientists in the Club of Rome predicted the end of civilisation when natural resources would run out shortly after the year 2000.1 Their predictions did not come true because new technologies allowed us to extract more raw materials from the planet.
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend
– The Doors, The End
End time prophets have been consistently wrong so far. That does not mean that the day of reckoning is not at hand. The laws of nature usually are not kind to those who ignore them. The measures currently entertained likely are vastly insufficient. Technological innovation alone could fail to solve the issues we face. And so, a lifestyle change, most notably for rich people, seems imperative. Possible solutions are politically incorrect, so liberal democracy may not deliver them. The reasons could be:
- We are inclined to value the present more than the future. What will happen later on does not affect us now. That may be why voluntary pension schemes often fail.
- It is a collective action problem. It is pointless to restrain yourself when others do not. For instance, if I stop using my car but others do not, it will have no effect.
- The future is uncertain. Predictions often do not come true, and most disasters we prepare for never materialise, so people hope rather than act.
We do not like to hear about inconvenient truths. Our way of living is unsustainable. Climate change gets a lot of attention, but we hear less about cutting down forests to produce biofuels. And completely switching to renewables may be so costly that reducing energy consumption will be cheaper. That is hard to sell to the public as it may entail a decline in the standard of living for many people. That standard of living probably is still better than most people had for most of history. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed.
What does it mean to live sustainably? A ‘worst-case’ scenario might be living like the Amish. How bad is that? Amish are free to leave their community. Most of them decide to stay. It appears that their living standard is not a burden to them. Adapting likely is the most painful part. Once you become accustomed to a new way of living, it becomes normal for you, and you will probably be as happy or as miserable as you were before.
The exponential growth of human activities may soon hit the limits of this planet. Waiting for more evidence to arrive does not seem a good idea. You have conclusive proof when it happens. But that is too late. And so, our lives may depend on taking appropriate action now. The limits of the planet do not care about you or your feelings. You will have to cope with them. Societal collapses often coincided with die-offs in which up to 90% of the people perished. The measures we can take affect the following areas:
- food and water
- pollution and destruction of ecosystems
Food and water
The impact of climate change on future harvests is unknown. Climate change may cause harvest failures and famine. Crops could fail in unison so the global food supply may become unstable. Currently, stored food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner. It seems wise to heed the advice Joseph once gave the Pharaoh, which is storing food to cope with poor harvests.
The need to increase food supplies in the face of diminishing harvests may require a critical look at our diets. The food for animals we eat takes arable land that could feed humans. It often takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. Meat production causes animal suffering and destroys ecosystems. And meat production is a source of greenhouse gases.
Nearly one billion people lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes. Every year 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, dirty water and poor sanitation are often to blame. By 2025, half the world’s population could live in areas with water shortages. Causes are irrigation for agriculture, climate change, and water-intensive production processes like producing clothes.2
There are two diverging predictions regarding the future of renewable energy. The first scenario is that renewable energy will become cheaper than fossil fuels and replace them.3 The second scenario is that this will not happen because solar and wind cannot provide a stable energy source. Our civilisation depends on a constant and reliable supply of energy. Hence, backup power from other energy sources must remain available.4 Renewable energy may become cheap, but stabilising delivery may be prohibitively expensive. And so, the most challenging part is not getting to 50% renewables but 100%. Perhaps it is possible but that is not certain.
Denmark is successfully switching to renewable energy, most notably wind. Denmark’s government is committed to renewable energy. And the Danes are willing to pay up for electricity. Electricity in Denmark costs twice as much as in France. In 2020, 32% of Denmark’s energy consumption came from renewable sources. Denmark’s ambition is to get to 100% by 2050. That points at the central issues: there must be political will to make it happen, but there may be limits to what is possible. If electricity becomes ten times as expensive, lifestyles will have to change.
Renewable energy sources will not meet the projected global energy consumption in the coming decades. They may cover the rise in demand, but not more than that. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates a near 50% increase in world energy use by 2050.5 The EIA further predicts that the use of fossil fuels will not go down. That may necessitate additional measures like:
• curbing non-essential energy consumption;
• using nuclear power (the projected damage caused by climate change dramatically exceeds that of nuclear accidents and waste);
• using natural gas and compensating for the carbon emissions.
Many people feel entitled to their lifestyles, so curbing non-essential energy consumption is a politically incorrect idea. It may be needed. High energy prices affect poor people the most. Ending non-essential energy consumption means that the rich make the greatest sacrifice by saving fuel for essential purposes so that energy prices may not rise as much. It may also affect many middle-class people, for instance, when air travel stops or car use becomes restricted.
Nuclear power can provide a reliable source of energy. There is a lot of emotion surrounding this energy source. Nuclear accidents were rare and did not kill many people, but many think nuclear power is evil, perhaps because radiation is invisible and has a long-term irreversible impact. In the Netherlands, national route 666 leads to Borssele. It is the location of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. I once came on this route after leaving a village named Kwadendamme (translation: Evildam). The second power plant in Dodewaard (translation: Death Holm) has been closed. The former municipality of Dodewaard had been 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be noteworthy. Nuclear power may be a ‘deal with the devil’ that we wish to avoid, but burning fossil fuels most likely is far more problematic.
Nuclear reactors may become safer and cheaper to operate, but the problem of nuclear waste remains. This waste will remain dangerous for over 10,000 years. Nuclear fusion can be safer than fission, the type of energy currently used. If something goes wrong, the process dies out. The nuclear waste from fusion is more manageable and will probably be safe to handle after a few hundred years. Energy from nuclear fusion may be available within a few decades, but that is far from certain. During wars, armies may bomb power plants, so nuclear power can never be safe without lasting world peace.
Pollution and destruction of ecosystems
Several environmental disasters are happening at the same time. Many species of plants and animals have become extinct or are on the brink of extinction because humans destroy their habitat. On average, there has been a 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.6 There is hardly any wildlife left.
To put it further into perspective, the seven billion humans on this planet together weigh 300 million tonnes. All the domesticated animals, such as pigs, cows, horses and sheep, together weigh 700 million tonnes. By comparison, all the remaining large wildlife on planet Earth, such as lions, elephants, whales, crocodiles and penguins, together weigh less than 100 million tonnes.7
Economists argue that economic growth is the way to a cleaner environment. Wealthy people usually are willing to pay more for a clean environment. It can be true as long as the benefits of economic growth exceed the cost of cleaning up. Only, costs tend to escalate once you become more ambitious. Joseph Tainter claims that removing all organic waste from a sugar processing plant costs 100 times more than removing 30%.8 Many pollution-related issues are of a similar nature. In such cases, doing less damage is cheaper than repairing it. And so, the way to a cleaner environment could be producing less.
A mother in waiting once asked the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing harms the environment more than having a child. ‘Cutting down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest is not nearly as bad,’ he added. Limiting the number of children people get, for instance, to one child per couple, can be a good idea. Population control becomes even more urgent when humans live indefinitely.
Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek economic security. Their retirement plan is to have children who can care for them when they are old. Even though they do not use a lot of resources, poor people often have many children. If their standard of living rises, that will place an even greater burden on the planet. The limits of our planet make population control imperative. In the long term, it will have the greatest impact.
The nature of collapse
The breakdown of societies and civilisations is a poorly investigated domain considering the likelihood and implications of such an event. Most people think that life after the collapse is a war of all against all where only the strong survive. There is a breakdown of authority and central control, law and order disappear, local self-sufficiency replaces trade and specialisation, and populations decline. No longer can people rely on defence, maintenance of public works, or delivery of goods.
In his book The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter investigates some known cases from the past and available hypotheses about the causes. He then tries to come up with a general theory of societal collapse. Tainter defines collapse as a rapid loss of social and political complexity.8 It affects both the public and the private sphere. Existing explanations mention external causes like resource depletion, (environmental) catastrophes, changing circumstances, or internal causes like conflict and mismanagement.
Human societies are problem-solving organisations. Societies become more complex when they add institutions to address new problems as they emerge. Institutions have benefits, most notably just after their introduction, but they can outlive their usefulness and become a liability. Each additional institution comes at a price for the population. According to Tainter, the law of diminishing marginal returns applies to investments in societal complexity. At some point, the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. Hence, a reduction in complexity can be a boon to the population at large.8
Maintaining complexity requires surpluses. In agrarian societies, most people were subsistence farmers. Their produce was scarcely enough to feed themselves and their families. Few surpluses were traded in markets or appropriated by governments. Since the Industrial Revolution, surpluses rose dramatically, and societies became more complex than ever before. In modern societies, only a few per cent of the population are farmers. Most people nowadays work in the service sector and do not produce things. An abundant supply of energy provided by fossil fuels made it possible.
When societies experience a stress surge, for instance, resource depletion, a catastrophe, or mismanagement, then the available surpluses drop, and the cost of maintaining complexity can become prohibitive. The current world economy needs growth or continuously increasing surpluses. When energy and resource supplies do not enlarge, surpluses do not increment, and stress may emerge. Products may become unavailable, and public services may halt. People may see their prospects dim and grow angry.
Competing societies cannot collapse voluntarily as a competitor could take over. In the past, competing polities continued to invest in their militaries, regardless of the cost to their populations. Societies do not have to break down under those conditions. Europe has seen centuries of intense military competition and warfare without polities collapsing. If competing states did break down, they usually did so in unison when their dwindling populations were exhausted and starving.8
A recurring pattern is a frantic increase in coping activities on the eve of a breakdown. These activities can be public display to legitimise the leadership, for instance, building monuments, adding hierarchical levels to manage dwindling resources, building a military to raid neighbours, and cultivating barren lands to scrape out a bit of additional agricultural output. Cleaning up the environment after polluting it may also fall into this category. During collapses, leaders appear inept, even when they make the best out of the circumstances.
Aborting the exponential growth of our economic activities and scaling them down to a sustainable level could be in the best interest of humanity. It might entail a reduction in complexity, in other words, simpler lifestyles for many people. A managed complexity reduction could be better than a collapse, as collapse can come with famines and resource wars. Nevertheless, that could still cause emotional stress and dislocations in the economy. You only have to think of what abandoning air travel will do for the freedom of movement and jobs in airline-related industries.
Tainter sees collapse as a consequence of diminishing marginal returns on investments.8 If additional investments yield nothing, there appears to be no point in making them. Negative interest rates can mitigate the breakdown and help to turn it into a more graceful contraction. For instance, a holding fee on currency could make the financial system robust and capable of withstanding a financial shock resulting from an economic decline caused by halting non-essential activities.
Few people are willing to give up their lifestyles. Countries do not stop competing and will not end economic growth out of their own. If we do not alter our course ourselves, then the limits of this planet may do it for us, resulting in unprecedented suffering, wars, and starvation. Voluntary change requires an authority all people in the world accept. Only a possible owner of this universe has this kind of authority. If the end of times ever comes, it may be now. We can only imagine how life in Paradise is going to be.
Here we stand
Like an Adam and an Eve
The Garden of Eden
Two fools in love
So beautiful and strong
The birds in the trees
Are smiling upon them
From the age of the dinosaurs
Cars have run on gasoline
Where, where have they gone?
And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention
You got it, you got it
I dream of cherry pies,
Candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
You got it, you got it
We used to microwave
Now we just eat nuts and berries
You got it, you got it
This was a discount store,
Now it’s turned into a cornfield
You’ve got it, you’ve got it
Don’t leave me stranded here
I can’t get used to this lifestyle
– Talking Heads, Nothing But Flowers
Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Other images: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.
1. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
2. Are we running out of water? Fiona Harvey (2018). The Guardian. [link]
3. The Sky’s the Limit: Solar and wind energy potential is 100 times as much as global energy demand. Carbon Tracker Initiative (2021). [link]
4. The “New Energy Economy”: An Exercise in Magical Thinking. Mark P. Mills (2019). Manhattan Institute. [link]
5. EIA projects a nearly 50% increase in world energy use by 2050, led by growth in renewables. US Energy Information Administration (2021). [link]
6. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
7. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
8. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter (1988), Cambridge University Press.