Sunday, November 23, 2014

Unsustainable growth

Edward Abbey an American author and essayist noted for his advocacy of environmental issues is quoted as saying that "growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

Economists operating within the paradigm of capitalist societies insist that the only viable way forward is continuing growth in all sectors.  Apparently these people believe that we have infinite resources to abuse.  The reality is that we are fast approaching the limits of the resources we can continue to extract from planet Earth.  Humanity has already significantly modified more than 50% of the available land mass with the associated destruction of ecologies.   Most of this so-called growth has occurred within the last 150 years which is a staggering "achievement".  Urban sprawl is displacing animals, forests, and wetlands  causing massive die offs of flora and fauna and this simply cannot continue.  While the population of the United States is stabilizing, this is not true for the rest of the world, and unfortunately developing countries all want to emulate American middle-class lifestyles.  The idea that everyone on the planet deserves to live in a 3000 ft.² home stocked with appliances and personal vehicles is utterly ludicrous.

Here is one definition of 'Per Capita GDP':
A measure of the total output of a country that takes the gross domestic product (GDP) and divides it by the number of people in the country. The per capita GDP is especially useful when comparing one country to another because it shows the relative performance of the countries. A rise in per capita GDP signals growth in the economy and tends to translate as an increase in productivity.

The underlying assumption here is that growth in the economy is a good thing because more stuff is being made.  But the resources from which the stuff is being made are finite.  Consider for instance that most plastics are derived from oil, and that many argue that we have passed "peak oil" and are now beginning to tap dwindling resources.  The law of supply and demand will drive the price of oil up to the point that the concept of "cheap plastic" will become ludicrous as will gasoline.  Oil and its derived products will be so absurdly expensive that it will affect every aspect of our society.   Oil is of course only one resource that is being abused in an unsustainable manner one can pick and choose any other resource on the planet from rare-earth metals to trees.   There have been numerous movies informing us about the failings of big agriculture for example.

Underlying all of this is the elephant in the room issue of overpopulation.   It seems clear to me that humanity is due for a die back.  As Elizabeth Kolbert Wrote in her excellent book "The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History", there have been numerous extinctions before and it seems inevitable that humanity could go extinct in the foreseeable future.

In a sense we have a perfect storm of consumerism, overpopulation, and climate change that is certain to fundamentally change how humanity inhabits this planet.  I worked on the visual effects team for the movie "Star Trek, the Motion Picture" in 1979.  There is a memorable line in which the V'ger artifact as represented by the bald female character Ilea in which she refers to the "humans infesting Enterprise".  From the perspective of a cybernetic entity humans were perceived as an infestation rather than the builders of their spaceship.  In a sense humanity is an infestation on the planet Earth that broadly resembles a cancer with our uncontrolled growth and rapacious abuse of finite resources.  I honestly cannot see a viable solution that can prevent the inevitable catastrophe and die back of humanity.

This does not prevent me from choosing to use technology to live as sustainably as I can through the use of renewable energy and energy conservation measures.  However I feel like I am swimming alongside the Titanic trying to push it away from the iceberg.  There are so few of us who are awake and aware of this impending disaster.  I truly hope that the tide will turn within my remaining lifetime and that humanity will wake up to the predicament that we are in an transition to a sustainable mode with a declining population.