The ecological collapse

Image: Pok Rie


There's a big problem ahead and it can't be said that no one saw it coming

Something must be happening. Otherwise, why would scientists keep sending us scary warnings? There has been a steady stream in recent years, including the “World Scientists' Alert on the Climate Emergency” (signed by 15 scientists), the “Scientists' Alert on the society of excess waste“, “Scientists’ warning about an ocean in danger”, “Scientists’ warning about technology”, “Scientists’ warning about the affluent society“, “Climate change and the threat to civilization” and even “The challenges for avoid a macabre future".

Clearly, there is big trouble ahead and it can't be said that no one saw it coming. In fact, an ecological calamity warning that made headlines more than 50 years ago is looking eerily prescient now.

In 1972, a group of scientists at MIT published a book, The limits of growth (The Limits to Growth), based on computer simulations of the evolution of the world economy from 1900 to 2100. He traced trajectories for the vital signs of the Earth and humanity, based on various scenarios. Even a long time ago, these researchers were already looking for political paths that could circumvent the planet's ecological limits and, thus, avoid economic or even civilizational collapse. In all scenarios, however, the simulated future world economies ended up running into limits – resource depletion, pollution, crop failures – that triggered declines in industrial production, food production and population.

In what they called “scenarios”business as usual“, the level of human activity grew for decades, only to peak and eventually plummet toward collapse (even in those that included rapid efficiency improvements). In contrast, when they used a no-growth scenario, the global economy and population declined but did not collapse. Instead, industrial production and food production have stabilized at lower but steady-state levels.

Growth and its limits

Why should we be interested in simulations carried out half a century ago on old, clunky mainframe computers? The answer: because we are now actually realizing what those simulations predicted. The book Limits to growth predicted that, with the “business as usual”, production would grow for five decades before reaching its peak sometime in the latter half of the 2020s (we’re getting there!). Then the decline would set in. And sure enough, we now see scientists from multiple disciplines issuing warnings that we are dangerously close to exactly that tipping point.

This year, a simulation using an updated version of the Limits to growth showed that industrial production has already peaked, while food production may also reach it soon. As the original 1972 text did, this updated analysis predicts distinct declines after the peaks are passed. Here’s what the authors warn: While the correct trajectory of decline remains unpredictable, they are confident that “excessive consumption of resources (…) is depleting reserves to the point where the system is no longer sustainable.”

His final considerations are even more chilling: “We have to admit as a society that, despite 50 years of knowledge about the dynamics of the collapse of our life support systems, we have still not been able to initiate a systematic change that will prevent this collapse. It is becoming increasingly clear that despite technological advances, the change needed to put humanity on a different trajectory will also require a change in belief systems, mindsets and the way we organize our society.”

What is the United States doing today to get out of such a disorderly trajectory and onto a more sustainable path? The answer, unfortunately, is nothing, or rather, it's worse than nothing. On climate, for example, the most important immediate need is to end the burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. However, this is not being considered by Washington policymakers.

In 2023, record oil production was achieved in the USA and record natural gas exports. Even a quarter of a century from now, if we get there, wind and solar energy sources together should only account for about of a third of US electricity generation, with 56% of it still being supplied by gas, coal and nuclear power.

However, it appears that rising electrical demand will further delay the transition away from gas and coal. According to a a recent report by Evan Halper of The Washington Post, electric utilities in Georgia, Kansas, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin and a host of other states are feeling the proverbial heat from the explosion in electricity consumption. Analysts in Georgia, for example, increased their estimate of the generating capacity the state will require 17 years from now by 10 times.

This imbalance between energy demand and supply is by no means unprecedented and the source of the problem is obvious. As successful as American industry has been in developing new energy-generating technologies, it has been even more successful in developing new energy-consuming products. Much of the current increase in demand, for example, may be assigned to companies working on artificial intelligence (AI) and other energy-hungry computing activities. The usual suspects – Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft – have gone on data center building spree, as have many other companies, especially cryptocurrency mining operations.

Northern Virginia is currently home to 300 data centers the size of football pitches, more are on the way, so much so that there is already a shortage of locally generated electricity. To keep these servers running, electric utilities will criss-cross the state with hundreds of miles of new transmission lines connected to four coal power plants in West Virginia and Maryland. There were plans to close these factories. Now, they will be kept operating indefinitely. The result: millions more tons of carbon dioxide, sulfur and nitrous oxides released into the atmosphere annually.

And the energy appetite of the digital world will only grow. The research company SemiAnalysis esteem that if Google deployed generative artificial intelligence in response to every internet search request, it would require half a million advanced data servers consuming 30 billion kilowatt-hours annually – the equivalent of Ireland's national electricity consumption. (For comparison, Google's total electricity consumption is now “just” 18 billion kilowatt-hours).

How are Google and Microsoft planning to address a significant energy crisis of their own making? They certainly won't back down from their plans to provide ever more new services that almost no one asked for (one of which, artificial intelligence, according its own key developers, could even bring about the collapse of civilization before climate change has the chance). Instead, Evan Halper reports, these tech giants are “hoping that energy-intensive industrial operations can ultimately be powered by small, on-site nuclear plants.” To them, everything looks really great!

It's wealth, stupid

The problem is not just with the data servers. During 2021-2022, companies in other industries announced plans to build 155 new factories in the United States, many of them to produce electric vehicles, data processing equipment and other products guaranteed to drain the power grid in the coming years. The broader trend toward “electrification of everything” will keep many more fossil fuel plants running well beyond their expiration dates.

In December 2023, the company GridStrategies reported that planners have nearly doubled their forecast for national grid expansion – likely an underestimate, they noted, given rising demand for electric vehicle charging, fuel production for hydrogen-powered vehicles and the operation of heat pumps and induction cookers in millions of American homes. Meanwhile, increasingly hot summers could trigger a  increase from 30% to 60% in energy use for air conditioning.

In short, this kind of indefinite expansion of the American and global economy into the distant future is doomed to failure – not without first paralyzing our ecological and social systems. In its Global Resources Outlook 2024, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reported that humanity's annual consumption of physical resources has grown more than threefold in the half century since the book Limits to Growth was published.

In fact, resource extraction is increasing faster than the Human Development Index, a standard measure of well-being. In other words, who does excessive extraction and overproduction, by producing impressive wealth, benefit? The human race – that’s for sure – is not benefiting.

UNEP has emphasized that the need to deeply restrict extraction and consumption applies primarily to wealthy nations and wealthy classes across the world. He observed that high-income countries, including the United States, consume six times more material resources per person than low-income countries. The disparity in climate impacts per person is even greater, a tenfold difference between rich and poor.

In other words, rising wealth and climate impact are inextricably linked. The share of recent global growth in gross domestic product captured by the richest 1% of households was almost twice bigger than the share that fell to the other 99%. Readers of this post will not be surprised to learn that the 1% also produced disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, societies with a wide divide between rich and poor have higher rates of homicide, imprisonment, infant mortality, obesity, drug abuse and teenage pregnancy, according to British epidemiology professors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

In a March comment for the magazine Nature, they wrote: “Greater equality will reduce unhealthy and excessive consumption and increase the solidarity and cohesion needed to make societies more adaptive in the face of climate and other emergencies.” Furthermore, his research shows that more egalitarian societies have significantly less severe impacts on nature. The greater the degree of inequality, the worse the performance when it comes to air pollution, waste recycling and carbon emissions.

The message is clear: reducing ecological collapse while improving humanity's quality of life requires suppressing the material extravagance of the world's richest people. In particular, the growing fraction of global billionaires needs to be cut. This would, however, have to be part of a much broader effort to free rich societies from systemic overextraction and overproduction, factors that now appear to be sources of global annihilation.

Phasing out and tapering off

Ancient computer simulations and current realities are, it seems, speaking in unison, warning that civilization itself is in danger of collapse. Growth – whether expressed in more dollars accumulated, more tons of material produced, more carbon burned or more waste emitted – is ending. The only question is: will this happen through a collapse of society or through a reversal of material growth? Now, this reversal could be carried out rationally in such a way as to avoid a descent into a conflict style Mad Max of all against all?

A growing number of advocates of the latter path are working under the banner of “degrowth.” In your book degrowthOf 2018, Giorgos Kallis described it as “a trajectory in which the 'income' (flows of energy, materials and waste) of an economy decreases while well-being, or well-being, improves” in a “non-exploitative and radically egalitarian way ”.

In recent years, the degrowth movement has grown and this has happened very quickly. Previously it was a subject for a handful of mainly European academics; it has now become a broader movement that challenges the injustices of capitalism and “green growth.” It is the subject of hundreds of articles in academic journals, including the new Degrowth Journal, and a stack of books (including the captivating Who's Afraid of Degrowth?). A 2023 survey of 789 climate researchers found that almost three-quarters of them favor degrowth – not growth or even green growth.

In an article in the magazine Nature 2022, eight degrowth scholars listed policies they believe should guide wealthy societies in the future. Among them, the reduction in the production of less necessary materials and energy consumption, the conversion to worker ownership, the reduction of working hours, the improvement and universalization of public services, the redistribution of economic power and the prioritization of movements grassroots social and political issues.

How could these policies become a reality in the United States and around the world? Clearly, the private companies that dominate our economy would never tolerate policies aimed at shrinking material production or their profit margins (nor would the federal government we know today). However, if more enlightened legislators and policymakers took control (as hard as that may be to imagine), they could actually prevent the social and environmental collapses now distinctly underway. The most effective pressure points to do so would, I suspect, be the oil and gas wells and coal mines that now fuel this destruction.

To begin with, as incredible as it may seem in our current world, Washington would have to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and place a national limit on the number of barrels of oil, cubic feet of gas and tons of coal allowed out of the ground and into the economy, with that limit falling quickly year after year. The accumulation of wind, solar and other non-fossil energy would, of course, be unable to keep up with such a rapid suppression of fuel supplies. Thus, the United States would have to follow an energy diet, while the production of unnecessary and wasteful goods and services would have to be rapidly reduced.

And yet the government would need to ensure that the economy continued to meet everyone's most basic needs. This would require a comprehensive industrial policy, increasingly directing energy and material resources towards the production of essential goods and services. Such policies would exclude artificial intelligence, the bitcoin system, and other energy gluttons that exist only to generate wealth for the few, while undermining humanity's prospects for a decent future. Meanwhile, price controls would be necessary to ensure that all families have enough electricity and fuel.

My colleague Larry Edwards and I have argued for years that such a structure, which we call “cut and fit,” is a necessity not for the distant future, but for now. Similar policies for adapting to material resource limitations worked well in World War II-era America.

Unfortunately, we live – to say the least – in a very different political world today. (Just ask one of the 756 billionaires Americans, what do they think of all this!) If there was any chance that a national industrial policy, price controls and rationing could, as in the 1940s, be passed into law, that chance has unfortunately disappeared - at least for the future next.

Fortunately, however, the international situation appears brighter. A growing and vigorous movement is pushing for two initial actions that would be essential to avoiding the worst of climate chaos and social collapse: nationalization and the quick elimination of fossil fuels in the rich world. These could prove to be humanity’s first steps towards degrowth and a truly livable future. But the world would need to act quickly.

I say all this, and I won't apologize, okay? Behold, we have already received advance notice.

*Stan Cox is a biologist and writer. Author, among other books by The Green New Deal and beyond: ending the climate emergency while we still can (C). []

Translation: Eleutério FS Prado.

Originally published on the portal counter punch.

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