Monday, 28 December 2009

The limits to growth.

In recent days,  I have been thinking about environmental issues, limits to growth and how this should influence our politicians and advocates, and I suppose that this has come from considerations abaout the Copenhagen conference, now regularly referred to as "Hopenhagen."
 The fallout from the conference has been mostly predictable, but not all.   The UN has admitted privately that the pledges made by the leaders at the conference would lead to a 3 degree rise in temperature,  rather than the 2 degrees touted at the time.  According to the Stern report,  this means 170 million extra people would face severe coastal flooding,  550 million extra people at risk of hunger and up to 50% of species facing extinction. The failure of the agreement to promise anything at all is bad enough for the poor of the world (those who will be worst effected) but this kind of deception devalues any further agreement that might be negotiated in Mexico next year...  how much should one believe?

I have spent many years participating in political activity, with some successes.   Politics has always been important to the way that I think.  For many years I lived outside my own country, and consequently couldn't vote.   I found that frustrating, and even more so when the lack of participation in the democratic process made political debate difficult also.  I have always listened and learned, howver, and the varying political cultures has taught me quite a bit.
My background in scientific thinking has proven useful also.  In the same way that a background in biochemistry has made food,  nutrition and diet easy to understand,  my understanding of scientific method, physics and its associated logic has enabled me to work my way through much of the data and information that proliferates on the internet and elsewhere.
This doesn't lead to any solutions to the various problems that confront me and everyone else...  it's just that I don't seem to be put off thinking about it all as many seem to be.  I don't know whether that's an advantage or not,  but that's the way it is.

There are significant problems facing the population of the planet.  Some of this was discussed at Copenhagen and while most people were hoping for some positive steps forward,  most people understood before the meetings began that politicians, with their three year view of the future, were not the appropriate people to make policy decisions on how to manage the physical constraints on the population of this planet.

The prosperity that we enjoy (and have enjoyed for all of current and written history) has depended upon exponential growth of production within our societies.  There is a popular comparison of the current US "empire"  with the Roman empire that is used to discuss the possibility of collapse.  More interesting is the fact that the need for ever increasing energy supply was what drove the expansion of both.  In the days of the Romans,  energy could only be obtained from the sun via crops and human and/or animal effort or forests that could be burned.  In order to increase production, it was necessary to take over more and more acres of land,  fields full of crops and terrtories that eventually led all the way to Britain.
The phenomenal increase in production that has led to current prosperity has not depended on slaves and taking over land for production (though that has occurred)  but this has been boosted out of all proportion to normal requirements by the discovery that oil (the product of millions of years of the suns energy)  could be exploited as surely as the grain energy produced by the farmers of Europe to support the lifestyle of the patricians of Rome. Chasing oil across the planet has led to the same unmanageable supply lines that Rome faced, the same waging of wars and the same slave wages for the non-citizens of the dominant culture.

A significant problem is that this has lasted long enough for the current "patrician" population of western countries to have forgotten how one can survive without the benefit of this extra energy source or how to manage without the gadgets and paraphernalia upon which this modern lifestyle depends.  It is as though "we"  have painted ourselves into a corner.

The current situation cannot continue.   The planet is finite.  The resources that we depend on for our lifestyle are finite.  Even without an increase in population, all of these resources are insufficient to sustain such a lifestyle.  This is obvious to all.  It's not "rocket science."

The difference is in the various reactions that people have to this information.

  1. There are those who become depressed and stressed and don't cope well.  Depression is now seen in epidemic proportions.
  2. Some people just throw their hands up, despair and go back to watching whatever is on television, presumably waiting for disaster to hit or someone else to fix it.  
  3. Many people, realising the enormity of the problem seem to think that raising the awareness of the rest of the population will help.  "Surely,  when they realise what is happening, they'll help to do something!"  This leads to marches and demonstrations of people who are more often a part of the "silent majority."
  4. There are those too,  who think that if only the politicians could see what is happening, then they would do something about it. This leads to attention seeking activities and petitions of various sorts.  But politicians are risk-taking short-term thinkers.
  5. There are the risk-takers who think that we can push things a bit further yet, with no immediate consequences.  In fact, this includes a group who are actually benefitting most from the current situation and would just like to gain a little more benefit for themselves... and many politicians come into this group....  politicians are mostly wealthy, benefitting from the profligate lifestyle, and anxious not to be the first to "change course."  The logic of this situation implies that the first to "blink" will be the loser. The ridiculous comments from so many politicians at Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago demonstrate this only too well.
  6. There are a number of people who have been considering an alternative future (alternative to economic and environmental chaos) for many years.   From the "Small is Beautiful" ideas of Schumacher to the discussions of "The Great Turning"  of the Resurgence organisations and the community-based networking of the Transition Town movement and the "Slow Food" and "Fresh and Local"  activists....  there are plenty of people who are looking for an alternative to "business as usual."  

A significant difficulty comes from the fact that history happens slowly.  We are watching the slow decline of this lifestyle, just as the Romans watched theirs decline, Mayans watched agriculture dry up, and Easter Islanders cut down their trees one by one.
It all happens slowly enough that people imagine that someone else will do something one day.
Meanwhile, we are encouraged to spend money and buy more, so evident at the post-Christmas sales that are underway.  There are people who have so much "stuff" that they need to rent space elsewhere to store it, but still they want more.  Landfills (non-existant in the distant past) are filling up.  Advertising encourages further waste of scarce resources, manipulating people into wasteful and useless consumption.Buying less and using less can be a real change in the way of thinking and behaving.

In the long run,  behaviour will change and we will use less and less resources as energy and materials become more scarce and more expensive.
The question is,  do we change behaviour gradually and in a planned and orderly change of priorities...  or do we wait for this to happen to us in a chaotic way.  There is a need for re-learning and re-skilling and a real change in the way that we do things.   There is no use waiting for the politicians or negotiators to decide how this will be done.   Most politicians are benefitting from this profligate use of resources and they don't want to be the first to lose votes, the support of the industries that fund their elections, or reduce consumption.
The community is going to have to lead here if there is to be any chance of success!

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