Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Then, Now, and Yet to Come

The invaluable Brad DeLong and the invaluable George Monbiot today present us with bookend essays that define our essential -- our existential -- crisis.

DeLong tells the story of humanity. The human population was probably about 4 million in 10,000 BC, at the dawn of civilization; 170 million in Year 1, the crest of the Roman Empire; and 720 million in 1750. Then, boom goes the dynamite. 1.8 billion in 1900, and more than 6 billion today, just 100 years later. Wait, there's more: until 1750, nearly everyone lived at a bare level of subsistence, their growth stunted by chronic malnutrition. Based on plausible assumptions and definitions, GDP per capita remained unchanged from 100,000 BC to about 1500 AD at about $400-500, then increased very slowly to a little over $1,000 in 1900, then once again, Kaboom! to more than $6,000 today.

Monbiot explains:

Economic growth is an artefact of the use of fossil fuels. Before large amounts of coal were extracted, every upswing in industrial production would be met with a downswing in agricultural production, as the charcoal or horse power required by industry reduced the land available for growing food. Every prior industrial revolution collapsed, as growth could not be sustained. But coal broke this cycle and enabled – for a few hundred years – the phenomenon we now call sustained growth.

It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and the pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, as the most accessible reserves have been exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.
But, this cannot continue. As Monbiot also points out, with a growth rate of 4.5% per year, one cubic meter of fixed capital would grow to the volume of 2.5 billion billion solar systems in 3,000 years. We don't have to wait that long, however, to hit the absolute limit of economic growth. Maybe we have 50 years. As Monbiot concludes, "The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st Century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours."

Well, we need to break the taboo. Loudly. Now.


robin andrea said...

The taboo will not be broken. I swear I hear Nero fiddling all the time now.

roger said...

here's a guy trying to break that taboo. one more voice in the wilderness.

Anonymous said...

We are creating the parable of the prodigal species.
Only there doesn't seem to be anyone to play the role of the Father to accept us back when we repent our wicked ways.

Bill Prange

d said...

Great blog post. We need to increase geometrically the voices in the wilderness.