The limits to growth
Imagine there is a lake in a distant forest. On the surface of the lake a plant is growing. It suffocates all life below. The plant has already been there for a 1,000 days and it grows at a rate of 100% each day. If the lake is already covered half by the plant then how many days are left to save the remaining life in the lake? The correct answer is one day.
The plant doubles in size in one day. As the lake is already half covered, it will be fully covered the next day. It doesn’t matter that the plant was there already for 1,000 days. This is the power of exponential growth. And it ends suddenly. As soon as the lake is fully covered, the plant has no more room for growth. For every leaf the plant adds, another has to die.
The lake represents Earth. The plant represents humanity. The leafs are people like you and me. No more room for growth may mean that for every child that is born, someone else has to die. It is estimated that as of 1971 humans use more of the Earth’s resources than nature can replenish. Currently we use one-and-a-half times as much as nature can replace. By 2050 three Earths may be needed to sustain humanity.1 Make no mistake, this is the ‘last day’.
The end may come suddenly. Most people don’t see it coming. Others believe that it can’t be avoided. They are preparing for the worst. In 1972 a group of scientists called the Club Of Rome predicted ‘the end’ when natural resources would run out. They claimed it would happen shortly after the year 2000.2 It didn’t happen until now, but that doesn’t mean that the current path of humanity can continue for much longer.
This is the end
This is the end
My only friend
– The Doors, The End
The depletion of natural resources and the degradation of our planet are amongst the most serious challenges humanity is facing. If these challenges are not addressed, billions of people may die of hunger, pollution, resource wars and ecological disasters. Poverty may spread because of the depletion of natural resources.
Perhaps new technologies will become available in the future that can deal with these issues but we don’t know whether that will happen and when. Even if these new technologies become available, we may need to bridge a gap in time and adapt our lifestyles until then.
The average temperature on Earth is expected to rise by three degrees Celsius by the year 2100. It has already risen by one degree Celsius since the year 1900. Such a rise in temperature may alter the weather globally and cause massive harvests fails. Polar ice may melt so that the sea level will rise and low-lying territory where more than 500 million people currently live, may be lost. The main cause of the temperature rise is our use of fossil fuels. There is little doubt about that.
There is however a lot of uncertainty about the accuracy of the estimates regarding the consequences of climate change as was the case with the predictions made by the Club Of Rome. The exact impact of rising carbon dioxide levels on the weather is hard to predict. The estimates of the climate scientists are the best we currently have as were the estimates made by the Club Of Rome in 1972. Probably they are right but not accurate.
Ignoring climate change is like playing Russian roulette with the future of humanity without knowing exactly how many bullets are in the revolver, but sensing that it is two to five out of six. Taking action may result in wasting an unprecedented amount of effort and resources on combating climate change if these predictions are wrong, but you need to pull the trigger to know that.
It is hard to imagine how bad it will get and it is even harder to imagine that it may be happening soon. Drastic actions like ending frivolous uses of fossil fuels and investing massively in clean sources of energy appear necessary. Several scientists believe that nuclear energy is an alternative. There may be accidents and dangerous waste, but they believe that nuclear energy will cause fewer deaths than fossil fuels.
In 1994 I met my wife Ingrid. In 1995 we spent our first holidays together in the Dutch province of Zeeland. During one of our trips we came across a village named Kwadendamme. The English translation of this name is Evildam. Ingrid was driving. Suddenly she hit the brakes. “Antiques,” she cried. By the side of the road was a small shabby shed with a sign ‘King’s Antiques’. Inside were piles of stuff. An elderly couple entered the shed via a back door. They may have been in their seventies or eighties. And perhaps they were the only antiques in the shop.
Ingrid was browsing the shelves and soon she found a doll. 185 guilders (85 euros) was the price tag. Ingrid kept on staring in bewilderment. “This doll isn’t very old but the price reflects that,” the old lady said. Later Ingrid told me that she had seen this doll in a store chain a few years earlier. Back then the price was 9 guilders (4 euros). We were about to leave. Then the old man said: “Don’t go yet, there’s another hall.” He pointed at the back door. Behind the shed was a small place and another shed. It may have been a henhouse previously. I could hardly stand upright in there. It was filled with more stuff.
Just after we left Kwadendamme we found ourselves on route N666 (National Route 666) to Borssele. Back then I already found this to be a bit peculiar, not only because of the route N666 passing Kwadendamme (Evildam), but even more so because it was the route to Borssele, which is the site of the only remaining Dutch nuclear power plant. The N666 ends near Borssele next to a village named ‘s Heerenhoek, which can be translated into The Lord’s Corner. With the benefit of hindsight, this probably isn’t a coincidence.
The only other Dutch nuclear power plant was located in Dodewaard. It had been closed in 1997. Dodewaard can be translated into Death Holm, which is a bit spooky considering that Route 666 leads to Borssele. The Dodewaard area is 66.5 square kilometres, close enough to 66.6 to be a bit eerie. Nuclear energy appears to be ‘a deal with the devil’. If we use it, accidents will happen and people will get killed. Only, the number of people killed when using fossil fuels is likely to be far greater, so we may not be able to do without nuclear energy as long as better alternatives remain absent.
Nuclear fusion can be a lot safer than nuclear fission, which is the type of nuclear energy that is currently available. If something goes wrong with nuclear fusion, the process dies out. It can’t go out of control like nuclear fission. The nuclear waste from fusion would be more manageable. Nuclear waste from fission could be dangerous for thousands of years, while nuclear waste from fusion is safe after one hundred years.
There may be energy from nuclear fusion within a few decades, but that’s still far from certain. It is extremely challenging to generate energy from nuclear fusion as it requires working with temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius. Scientists have been working on nuclear fusion since the 1950s. They now estimate that this type of energy may be available by 2050, but only if the technical issues are solved.
Nuclear fusion could bring us unlimited energy at virtually no cost. In that case it would be possible to recycle much more than we currently do as the value of the recycled materials is now often lower than the cost of the energy needed to reclaim them. Even though developments in the field of nuclear fusion seem promising, it will take time and it is still far from certain that it will become available. And as long as it isn’t available, living within the limits of our planet may require considerable sacrifices.
Climate change gets a lot of attention but there are several other environmental disasters 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 was 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in the last 40 years.1 There is hardly any wildlife left.
To put it into perspective, one can compare the total weight of all humans and their domesticated animals with the remaining wildlife, which are all the wild animals except insects and microbes. 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.3
And then there is pollution. The list with problems caused by the exponential growth of human activities is long. This is perhaps not a complete list:
– depletion of natural resources, especially fossil fuels;
– shortage of drinking water;
– air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination and noise;
– deforestation and loss of ecosystems that sustain global atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide balance;
– loss of arable land and a growth of deserts;
– increased chance of new epidemics;
– low life expectancy in countries with fastest growing populations;
– unhygienic living conditions for many because of water resource depletion and discharge of raw sewage and waste disposal;
– more crime rate as people revert to stealing in order to survive;
– conflict over scarce resources leading to wars;
– fewer personal freedoms and more restrictive laws.
Why produce garbage if it is thrown away?
Wealthy countries are throw-away societies. There is an excessive use of disposable items. Why should we recycle garbage when we can use more durable goods? Why are there so many packaging materials? For instance, liquids be transported in tanks and consumers could fill up their bottles at the supermarket. Why isn’t anybody dong this? It might be because marketeers believe that the packaging and not the content is what makes a product unique. The amount of packaging can be reduced significantly.
There may be no other option than to curb polluting activities, the consumption of raw materials and carbon emissions. Frivolous consumption may need to be banned if it uses too many scarce resources. Harmful activities that are difficult to end may need to be taxed and the proceeds of these taxes may be used to reduce taxes on labour, so that labour can replace energy and materials consumption where possible. These changes can make it more attractive to recycle and to make products longer lasting. Tariffs may need to be put on products from countries that do not comply to these standards.
A mother in waiting once asked the biologist Midas Dekkers what she could do to raise her child as environmentally friendly as possible. Dekkers then said that nothing affects the environment more badly than having a child. For the environment it is better to cut down one hundred hectares of tropical rainforest than to have a child, he added. It may be a good idea to limit the number of children, for instance to one child per couple.
Apart from people wanting to have children, poor people seek security. They worry about making ends meet. The depletion of natural resources is probably not on their mind. The only long-term plan of many poor people is having children who can care for them when they are old. Even though poor people do not use a lot of resources, they often have many children, and if we like them to prosper, that could be a problem.
If the rights of a couple to have a child can be sold, wealthy people may bid up the price of these rights, and poor people can have a pension out of selling them. There are some ethical issues with such a measure as it may result in poor people having fewer children and people from specific ethnicities opting for this more often than others. The limits of our planet are such a serious issue that these consequences may need to be accepted. And on the bright side, fewer children may be raised in poverty.
The food situation
In the face of the unpredictable climate and the possibility of massive harvest failures it is wise to look at the food situation. Currently, the available food stocks can feed humanity for a few months. Famine is just around the corner for billions of people. It therefore seems wise to heed the advice Joseph gave to the Pharaoh, which is to store massive amounts of food for bad times. Perhaps a Natural Money currency backed by stored food can be issued to pay for the food storage.
The food situation requires another look at meat consumption. Animals used for consumption eat food humans could eat. It takes three to seven kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat. There are other disadvantages to meat. Eating meat causes animal suffering as many of these animals live in factory farms. It will be hard to change human diets unless good substitutes for meat become available, but reducing meat consumption may be feasible in the short term.
Nothing but flowers
The challenge is so huge that it seems impossible. It can only succeed when we believe that we can make it happen and that we are going do all we can to make it happen. In the past no appropriate action has been taken, so extremely drastic measures may be inevitable. It probably will not be easy to make you accept the proposed measures. They may require a sacrifice you never imagined you would make. The economy may become like a wartime economy where every scrap is saved for victory.
The measures can have undesirable side-effects. For instance, China had a one-child-policy for decades. Many parents preferred a son so baby girls were often killed. Nowadays many men in China can’t find a wife. Another example is tropical rainforests making room for palm oil plantations that produce ‘renewable energy’. We need to deal with undesirable side-effects as soon as they emerge.
Even when everything ends well, you may not be satisfied with the outcome. The Garden Of Eden was a Paradise for Eve and Adam, but it may not be great for most of us. We will probably adapt over time. If you have trouble adapting, you can think of the children of the future. They won’t remember this era from personal experience. They may be happy.
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
What the distant future may look like is anyone’s guess. If we live inside a simulation created by an advanced civilisation then humans have overcome the limitations we currently face. Humans may live indefinitely, may have unlimited energy, and may not rely on agriculture to feed themselves. They may have personal virtual realities like this universe for their personal entertainment. That may happen to us too, but perhaps not because of memory and processing constraints.
Featured image: Judgement Day. Royal Museum Of Fine Arts of Belgium. Rama (2008). Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Other image: Why produce garbage when it is thrown away all the same. Loesje. Loesje.org.
1. Living Planet Report. World Wildlife Fund (2018). [link]
2. The Limits to Growth. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III (1972). Potomac Associates – Universe Books.
3. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.