Berlin, 2018-05-10

How Even Common People can be Fooled by Unsustainable Growth

In the 30 year update to the simulations of "The Limits To Growth", they came to the conclusion that only in models where a solid redistribution of wealth was considered, humanity reached a condition of sustainability. Remember, those are the folks that got it right back in 1972.

A partially NASA-funded 2014 study from Maryland University, using the cross-disciplinary 'Human And Nature DYnamical' (HANDY) model (backup copy) developed by Safa Motesharrei and colleagues seems to confirm the findings of the 'Club of Rome'.

The mathematical model simulates various societal approaches to the overuse of natural resources and practice of societal inequality, concluding that the collapse of civilizations such as Maya, Gupta, Han, Mauryan, Mesopotamian and Ancient Rome were likely when either of these conditions were met — and almost guaranteed — when both are given. Each of these empires suddenly collapsed for historically unclear reasons, resulting in subsequent centuries of poverty and regression. This research provides for possible explanations as they conclude that the stretching of natural resources beyond the ecological carrying capacity combined with unequal social stratification have played "a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse," in all cases over "the last five thousand years."

I find this graph one of the most impressive takeaways. It's from the simulation that to me looks like the most likely we are living in. It shows not only the elites but even the commoners having a high perception of wealth even when natural resources and physical solid wealth have already plummeted. The researchers explain their results as follows:

In scenario 5.3.2, with a larger depletion rate, the decline of the Commoners occurs faster, while the Elites are still thriving, but eventually the Commoners collapse completely, followed by the Elites. It is important to note that in both of these scenarios, the Elites —due to their wealth— do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe. It is likely that this is an important mechanism that would help explain how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory “so far” in support of doing nothing.

I bumped into one such prominent promoter of business as usual. This TED talk from Mr Matt Ridley explains with excellent precision how business as usual has created the wealth we are enjoying today, but he dares to step beyond his competences when he deduces how we are all better off in this amazing world of capitalism even in the face of inequality and resource depletion. He ridicules all the things students were afraid of in the 70's, as if they are less dramatic just because they are taking more than just 40 years to fully show their implications:

History teaches us nothing, humanity keeps repeating the same mistakes over and over. Also, trade and growth aren't new inventions - it's what humanity has always been doing since it learned to cook food and grow brains. So if we want to make anything different from the past thousands of years of our existence, we need to transcend our tendency to keep doing things the same way as before. You may want to think that technology makes everything different this time around, but actually that's not the case:

Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.

This sheds a sinister light on where our current global civilization is heading to, given that we practice both a most savage overuse of planetary resources while at the same time entertaining the most extreme condition of inequality in the history of mankind.

The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.

Dear plutocrats, you probably will not experience the collapse of your living standards in your lifespan, but your children or grandchildren might. Supporting the reduction of inequality and the sustainability of our existence on the planet is what you need to look into, if you want to remain on top of things. Not focus on your investment portfolio all the time.

Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

HANDY is not the only research coming to such conclusions. Nafeez Ahmed's article in the Guardian adds that "a number of other more empirically-focused studies — by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance — have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a 'perfect storm' within about fifteen years." Also Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century is essentially saying the same things.

What we need is functional global policy-making. Put your lobbying powers to good use, dear plutocrats! Your patient subjects will endure you being the richest folks on Earth also in future — but if you gamble for maximum injustice, you will not only stir up the rebellion — you will lose everything for yourself and your prole.

While you are there, please also ensure that we do something to improve democracy and in this way work against the natural tendency of humanity towards corruption. But technology has undermined the foundations of democracy, so we need to replace the broken internet with one that actually works. Sounds like a plan ?


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