Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Limits to Growth, Part 1

In my last post I talked about the events leading up to the publishing of the book, "The Limits to Growth". In this post (and the next few following it) I'll take a look at the contents of the book. For lack of a better way of organizing this I'll just go through the headings in the table of contents and consider the sections one at a time. The cover of my 39 year old copy of the book is shown to the right.

Foreword

This was written by William Watts, President of the publisher, Potomac Associates. It covers much of the territory I did in my last post, introducing the Club of Rome and their "Project on the Predicament of Mankind".

To sum it up brief, the term "problematique" is used to sum up "the complex problems troubling men of all nations: poverty in the midst of plenty; degradation of the environment; loss of faith in institutions; uncontrolled urban spread; insecurity of employment; alienation of youth; rejection of traditional values; and inflation and other monetary and economic disruptions." All of these problems share three characteristics: they occur in some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic and political elements; and, most important, they interact. Our predicament is that we can perceive the problematique, but are unable to understand the origins and significance of its many components and thus are unable to respond effectively. And this is largely because we tend to look at one problem at a time, rather than viewing the system as a whole.

The study reported on in this book considers five factors that determine growth on this planet: population, agricultural production, natural resources and industrial production and pollution.

Figures

Just a list of the figures in the book.

Tables

Just a list of the tables in the book.

Introduction

One of the most significant things in the Introduction is Figure 1, the Human Perspectives graph, which I have included here. The two dimensions of the graph represent time (horizontal) and space (vertical). Each of the dots on the graph is a human concern and its position represents how far out in the future and how far away socially that concern leads us to look. The vast majority of people make decisions with consideration only to the next day or week and their own immediate family's welfare. All their resources are devoted to meeting the short term needs of themselves and their family. This may lead to making decisions that are less than ideal in the long run. Businesses and governments need to look farther into the future and be concerned with neighbourhoods, cities, nations and the world as a whole. The authors state that their concerns in this book are in the upper right corner of the graph, taking the whole world in account and looking as far as the end of the next century (2100).

I can't help pointing out that as we move away from the lower left corner of the graph it takes more and more effort to get accurate information on which to base our decisions--there is a trade off between distance and accuracy. Most of us simply don't have the resources to concentrate on the upper right corner of the graph, even if we are interested in looking that far ahead and outward.

Businesses tend not to think much beyond the next quarter and the immediate part of society they deal with. Governments seem to be little concerned with anything beyond the next election and their own borders. That sort of thinking clearly has less than ideal results. What, then, do I think of an extremely ambitious effort like the study reported on in The Limits to Growth?

A lot of resources went into the study and the authors are at considerable pains throughout the book to make us aware of its limitations. I think its critics are much too eager to dismiss what the study has achieved, primarily because its results are not what they wanted to hear.

When any of us considers a problem we do it with the aid of a model of the world around us. Such models are inevitably simplification of the infinite details in the world, and as such, they are to some extent inaccurate. But even the informal mental models that most of us work with enable us to make moderately good decisions, at least some of the time.

As the authors tell us, the model used in this book was formal and written, and while it was imperfect, oversimplified and unfinished, it had some advantages over typical mental models. Every assumption is written down so it is open to inspection and criticism by all. And after the assumptions were scrutinized, discussed and revised to agree with the best current knowledge, their implications for the future behaviour of the world could be traced without error by computer, no matter how complicated.

At the time of publication the model was still preliminary, but even the implications of its result that were important enough that they could be withheld no longer.

They reached these conclusions:

1) If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.

2) It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.

3) if the world's people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.

On the whole I agree with these conclusions and in the following chapters we'll see how they were reached. But before we go on with that, I'd like state a few important reservations. Forty four years have passed since this book was published and some observations can be made based on what happened during those years.

In 1972 we were using about 85% of this planet's carrying capacity, so it wasn't too great a leap to conclude that, if growth could be brought to a halt, a sustainable situation could be achieved.

Since then we have used up a good deal of the reserves of non-renewable resources and over-exploited many renewable resources damaging them in the process. All this has enabled us to grow to the point where we are at 120% of carrying capacity. The task that faces us is not just stopping growth, but a good bit of "degrowth" and a lot of work to restore the damage we've done to the planet.

Of course, even "bringing growth to a halt" is a pretty big if. Here in the developed world we show no sign of willingness to give up a level of consumption that is obviously well beyond our real needs. And those in the developing world are certainly eager to continue developing and gain some measure of the comforts and convenience that we enjoy. One can hardly blame them, even though this is leading us directly toward the sort of collapse envisaged in conclusion 1.

I--The Nature of Exponential Growth

All five of the basic elements in the study reported in The Limits to Growth (population, food production, industrialization, pollution and consumption of non-renewable resources) were and still are increasing and following a pattern known as exponential growth. The book goes to some length to explain how this works and how difficult it is to model interconnected processes that are growing exponentially.

Most of us have a mental model of how the world works that doesn't include exponential growth or the feedback loops that cause it. Crudely put, the shape of the exponential curve is such that it putters along in an almost straight line, increasing only very slowly for a long time. Then it starts to increase more rapidly and pretty soon goes right through the roof. In the real world, processes following this pattern of growth encounter limits beyond which they cannot be sustained, and either level off or collapse.

It is convenient to talk about the rate of exponential growth in terms of its doubling rate, as when you are earning 10% compound interest on a bank account and it doubles in seven years. For those who find mathematical explanations essential impenetrable, here are links to some stories that illustrate exponential growth quite well:

Chessboard and rice, Lily pond, Salary Options
Football stadium

Over the previous thirty years (1940-1970) the discipline of System Dynamics had been developed at MIT. System Dynamics recognizes that the structure of any system--the many circular, interlocking, sometimes time delayed relationships among its components--is often just as important in determining its behaviour as the individual components themselves. The world model discussed in this book is a System Dynamics model and takes those relationships into account.

The chapter concludes by posing the question whether the current (1970) levels of growth of population and capital can be sustained in the world? And for how long...

II--The Limits to Exponential Growth

The answer to the question at the end of Chapter I would be determined by a list of necessary ingredients that can be divided into two main categories.

1) Physical necessities which support physiological and industrial activity: food, raw materials, fossil and nuclear fuels and the ecological systems of the planet which absorb wastes and recycle basic chemical substances. These are tangible, countable items which include arable land, fresh water, metals, forests and the oceans.

2) Social necessities such as peace and social stability, education and employment and steady technological progress.

The rest of the chapter is spent evaluating the stocks of the items in category 1. Category 2 is dispensed with immediately, since these factors are more difficult to assess and cannot be dealt with explicitly at the current stage in the world model's development. The authors assumed that the best possible social conditions would prevail.

No doubt this is a realistic approach as far as the capabilities of systems analysis at the time was concerned, but it seems rather optimistic to me in that many potential social problems are simply disregarded, especially in the light of what we have seen happen since.

Originally I thought this chapter could be glazed over quickly, but on second thought, I would say it is the heart of the book, where we first looking seriously at limits. Several of the physical necessities for growth are considered in detail.

Food

Arable land and fresh water are among the primary necessities for growing food, and notable because there is a pretty clear limit to the available amounts of each, which at some point will limit the growth of human population.

Arable land is considered in detail. Through most of our history there has been far more arable land than we could use. Even in 1970 only 1.5 billion hectares out of a total of 3 billion were in use. The remaining arable land was of poorer quality than that which had been already developed, but even assuming that twice as much food could be grown by using all of that land, our population was (and still is) growing exponentially--doubling in around 30 years--so in 30 years we would need all the production from all the potentially arable land. Technology can certainly improve yields (and did so in the years following 1970), but again, doubling the food supply would only gains us another 30 years. And quadrupling it would gain us just another 30. Each doubling becomes more difficult until eventually we are hard up against real limits.

Improved technology also calls for increased capital investment and (as we can see 40 plus years later) has thus far been largely based on using non-renewable resources to increase agricultural yield. My thought is that the likely result of doing everything we can to increase the food supply is that when we finally hit the limit of food production, we'll be doing it with a lot more people to feed and significantly depleted resources left to solve the problem.

Non-renewables

Clearly, there is a fixed amount of these materials as well, but what the amount might be is far from obvious. Geologists talk in terms of resources and reserves. Resources being the amount of a mineral believed to exist, reserves being the amount that has actually been discovered and can be accessed economically with current technology.

It is commonplace to divide the proven reserves of a resource by the current rate of use and proclaim the result as "the number of year of supply left before we run out". The authors refer to this as the "static index". They provide a large chart of the minerals used in industry and three different columns for the numbers of years of supply left. The first is the static index, the second is the exponential index, which takes into account exponential growth of the rate at which we use these materials and the third is another exponential index with the reserves multiplied by 5. The last is based on a future with the possibility of further exploration and improved technology for using lower grade ores.

There are also 3 columns listing low, high and average estimates for the rates at which use of these minerals is growing. An old "Peak Oil" guy like myself can't help noticing that coal, natural gas and oil are on the chart and what exponential growth does to the years of supply left.

But the authors chose chromium as an example because it has one of the largest static indexes of any of the minerals in the chart--400 years. Taking exponential growth of use into account, that gives an exponential index to only 95 years. If there were 5 times as much chromium as the 1970 reserves, that would be 154 years, and if we could somehow recycle all the chromium we use, that would only stretch it out to 235 year before we run out. All these estimates are still static in the sense that they don't take the dynamics of supply and demand into account, so the authors created a detailed model that takes into account the many interrelationships among grades of ore, production costs, new mining technology, the elasticity of consumer demand and substitution of other resources. From this model comes Figures 12 and 13.

Figure 12 is a computer plot indicating the future availability of a resource with a 400-year static reserve index in the year 1970, such as chromium. The horizontal axis is time in years; the vertical axis indicates several quantities, including the amount of reserves remaining (labeled RESERVEs), the amount used each year (usage rate), the extraction cost per unit of resource (actual cost), the advance of mining and processing technology (indicated by a T), and the fraction of original use of the resource that has been shifted to a substitute resource (F).

At first the annual consumption of chromium grows exponentially, and the stock of the resource is rapidly depleted. The price of chromium remains low and constant because new developments in mining technology allow efficient use of lower and lower grades of ore. As demand continues to increase, however, the advance of technology is not fast enough to counteract the rising costs of discovery, extraction, processing, and distribution. Price begins to rise, slowly at first and then very rapidly. The higher price causes consumers to use chromium more efficiently and to substitute other metals for chromium whenever possible. After 125 years, the remaining chromium, about 5 percent of the original supply, is available only at prohibitively high cost, and mining of new supplies has fallen essentially to zero.

This more realistic dynamic assumption about the future use of chromium yields a probable lifetime of 125 years, which is considerably shorter than the lifetime calculated from the static assumption (400 years), but longer than the lifetime calculated from the assumption of constant exponential growth (95 years). The usage rate in the dynamic model is neither constant nor continuously increasing, but bell-shaped, with a growth phase and a phase of decline.

Figure 13 uses the same model, but starts out with chromium reserves twice as large. This changes the period during which the use of the resource is economically feasible from 125 to 145 year. In other words, double the original reserve only increases the period of use by 20 years.

We can take all this as another story about how exponential growth works and how it can sneak up on us. The authors make this comment: "Given present resources consumption rates and their projected increase in these rates, the great majority of non-renewable resources will be extremely costly 100 years from now." And they go on to explain that optimistic assumptions about undiscovered reserves, technological advances, substitutions or recycling make very little difference as long as the demand for resources continues to grow exponentially, driven by as they are by exponentially increasing population and industrial capacity.

Pollution

At the start of this section, the authors make 4 observations:

1. The few kinds of pollution that actually have been measured over time seem to be increasing exponentially.
2. We have almost no knowledge about where the upper limits to these pollution growth curves might be.
3. The presence of natural delays in ecological processes increases the probability of underestimating the control measures necessary, and therefore of inadvertently reaching those upper limits.
4. Many pollutants are globally distributed; their harmful effects appear long distances from their points of generation.

They go on to discuss several specific pollutants in detail. Among them are CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and waste heat--the most basic by product of all processes that use energy. Both of these were growing exponentially. The authors include a chart that illustrates the very close correlation between energy use and gross national product, what is now known as the "coupling" of growth and energy use. In other words, if we are to have economic growth, we can't escape the resource depletion and pollution that comes with it.

Nowadays "decoupling" is a favourite goal of the "business as usual" folks. This is the idea that through advanced technology we can continue economic growth without using more resources or creating more pollution. But there is no more indication that this is possible today any more than it was in 1970.

The authors' conclusion is that while we do not yet know exactly what the earth's capacity to absorb pollutants might be, we know that there is an upper limit and regardless of what it is, we are approaching it exponentially.

A Finite World

The authors conclude this chapter with the following:

We have mentioned many difficult trade-offs in this chapter in the production of food, in the consumption of resources, and in the generation and clean-up of pollution. By now it should be clear that all of these trade-offs arise from one simple fact--the earth is finite. The closer any human activity comes to the limit of the earth's ability to support that activity, the more apparent and unresolvable the trade-offs become. When there is plenty of unused arable land, there can be more people and also more food per person. When all the land is already used, the trade-off between more people or more food per person becomes a choice between absolutes.

In general, modern society has not learned to recognize and deal with these trade-offs. The apparent goal of the present world system is to produce more people with more (food, material goods, clean air and water) for each person. In this chapter we have noted that if society continues to strive for that goal, it will eventually reach one of many earthly limitations. As we shall see in the next chapter, it is not possible to foretell exactly which limitation will occur first or what the consequences will be, because there are many conceivable, unpredictable human responses to such a situation. It is possible, however, to investigate what conditions and what changes in the world system might lead society to collision with or accommodation to the limits to growth in a finite world.

For me, this nicely sums up the message of the whole book. I'm not going to stop here though. In my next post I'll continue on with the actual world model for which the book is famous, and the results it produced. In the meantime, consider this: the problem might not be lack of resources or space, but that as long as we pursue growth, no amount of resources will solve our problems.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Club of Rome and a System Dynamics Model of the World

This is the first in a series of what amount to book reviews, where I'll be looking at books that have played an important role in shaping my thinking.

Late in the summer of 1977, on the way home from our honeymoon, my wife and I stopped at the Coles bookstore in Barrie, Ontario and I picked up a copy of the Limits to Growth. Remember, this was before the internet and before even big box bookstores like Chapters were a common thing, certainly in rural Ontario where I lived. A stop at a bookstore was an opportunity not to be missed, even if it wasn't very romantic conclusion to one's honeymoon.

The advent of the internet, which became available in the mid 90s around here, was a great thing for me. Now when I develop a sudden interest in a topic, I can read up on it within minutes. It used to be much harder and more expensive to find information on anything.

At any rate, The limits to Growth had been out for about 5 years at that time and I had heard about it somewhere, possible on TV or in a magazine. So when I saw a copy, I grabbed it.

I read the book, and my margin notes from back then sound like a progress worshipper trying to hold onto some hope.

I was (and still am) an avid reader of science fiction. The writers I was following took The Limits as a personal affront, and set about showing where it was wrong. They claimed that technology would save the day, especially space technology like solar power satellites and asteroid mining. This reassured me and I got on with the business of earning a living and raising a family

Sometime around the turn of the century I stumbled upon a Peak Oil website(The Oldavai Theory) and had my first encounter with that concept. I found it rather horrific and had trouble accepting the idea. But work as a supervisor at the provincial electrical utility (Ontario Hydro) and at home in my printing and graphics business kept me too busy to worry much. There was always the reassuring thought that surely technology will save us.

Multiple reorganizations and downsizings at what eventually became known at "Hydro One" made me even more cynical than I already was and sent me looking for more information about Peak Oil and Collapse. I'll cover some of the books I read in future posts, but at any rate, I was soon convinced.

I retired in 2005 and started looking much deeper. Improbable as it had once seemed, The Limits to Growth was right after all,

A few weeks ago I dug out my copy of The Limits to Growth and read it again, for the first time in nearly forty years. This lead me to do some further research in order to figure out how this book got written, in a world where growth was seen as an economic necessity.

As often happens, I found so much material that one post has turned into two (maybe more). This first one will cover the background and the second will consider the content of "The Limits to Growth".

My research lead me to two men: Aurelio Peccei, co-founder of The Club of Rome, and Jay Forrester, father of the science of system dynamics.

(Much of what follows is taken pretty much directly from Wikipedia, interspersed with my comments on its significance.)

Peccei was born in Turin, Italy in 1908, making him about a year older than my father. He became an economist and worked for Fiat. He was under suspicion as an anti-fascist in the 1930s and was involved with the resistance during WWII. In 1944, when he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, came within an ace of execution and escaped to lie in hiding until the liberation.

After the war, Peccei was engaged in the rebuilding of Fiat. Furthermore, he was engaged in various private and public efforts then underway to rebuild Italy, including the founding of Alitalia.

In 1949, he accepted to go to Latin America for Fiat, to restart their operations, as Fiat operations in Latin America had been halted during the war. He settled in Argentina, where he lived for nearly a decade with his family. He quickly realised that it would make sense to start manufacturing locally and set up the Argentine subsidiary, Fiat-Concord, which built cars and tractors. Fiat-Concord rapidly became one of the most successful automotive firms in Latin America.

In 1958, with the backing of Fiat, Peccei founded Italconsult (a para-public joint consultancy venture involving major Italian firms such as Fiat, Innocenti, Montecatini), and became its Chairman, a position he held until the 1970s, when he became Honorary President. Italconsult was an engineering and economic consulting group for developing countries. It operated under Peccei’s leadership, on the whole, more as a non-profit consortium. Italconsult was regarded by Peccei as a way of helping tackle the problems of the Third World, which he had come to know first-hand in Latin America.

In 1964, Peccei was asked to become President of Olivetti. Olivetti was facing significant difficulties at that time due to the profound changes occurring in the office machine sector. Peccei, with his foresight and his entrepreneurial vision, was able to turn the situation at Olivetti around.

But Peccei was not content merely with the substantial achievements of Italconsult, or his responsibilities as President of Olivetti, and threw his energies into other organisations as well, including ADELA, an international consortium of bankers aimed at supporting industrialisation in Latin America. He was asked to give the keynote speech in Spanish at the group's first meeting in 1965, which is where the series of coincidences leading to the creation of the Club of Rome began.

It took me a bit of searching to find Peccei's ADELA paper on line, but I finally did. It is titled "The Challenge for the 1970s for the World of Today" and calls for an effort to spread prosperity to a wider area of the world, an effort to be lead by Europe, due to its "central" position in the world, but with a large role for the USA as well. What Peccei was talking about was what we would today call "development" and he advised that effort should focus first on the Soviet bloc and Latin America. It is probably worth reading this speech for the perspective it gives on the state of the world in 1965. It is clear that though Peccei was an economist and a business man, he was also very much an idealist with the best interests of his fellow man at heart.

Peccei's speech caught the attention of Dean Rusk, then American Secretary of State, who had it translated into English and distributed at various meetings in Washington. A Soviet representative at the annual meeting of the United Nations Advisory Committee on Science and Technology (ACAST), Jermen Gvishiani, Alexei Kosygin's son-in-law and vice-chairman of the State Committee on Science and Technology of the Soviet Union, read the speech and was so taken by it that he decided he should invite the author to come for private discussions, outside Moscow. Gvishiani therefore asked an American colleague on ACAST, Carroll Wilson, about Peccei. Wilson did not know Peccei, but he and Gvishiani both knew Alexander King, by then Director General for Scientific Affairs for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, so Wilson appealed to him for information.

As it happened, King did not know Peccei, but he was equally impressed by the ADELA paper and tracked down its author via the Italian Embassy in Paris. King wrote to Peccei, passing on Gvishiani's address and wish to invite him to the Soviet Union, but also congratulating him on his paper and suggesting that they might meet some time as they obviously shared similar concerns. Peccei telephoned King and they arranged to have lunch.

The two men got on extremely well from the very outset. They met several times in the latter part of 1967 and early 1968, and then decided that they had to do something constructive to encourage longer-range thinking among Western European governments.

Peccei accordingly persuaded the Agnelli Foundation to fund a two-day brainstorming meeting on 7–8 April 1968 of around 30 European economists and scientists at the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. The goal of the meeting was to discuss the ideas of Peccei and King of the globality of problems facing mankind and of the necessity of acting at the global level. The meeting at the Accademia dei Lincei was not a success, partly due to the difficulty of the participants to focus on a distant future.

After the meeting there was an informal gathering of a few people in Peccei’s home, which included Erich Jantsch (one of the great methodologists of planning studies), Alexander King, Hugo Thiemann, Lauro Gomes-Filho, Jean Saint-Geours and Max Kohnstamm. According to King, within an hour they had decided to call themselves the Club of Rome and had defined the three major concepts that have formed the Club's thinking ever since: a global perspective, the long term, and the cluster of intertwined problems they called "the problematique". Although the Rome meeting had been convened with just Western Europe in mind, the group realised that they were dealing with problems of much larger scale and complexity: in short, "the predicament of mankind". The notion of problematique excited some because it seemed applicable at a universal level, but worried others, who felt that the approach was valid only for smaller entities such as a city or community. Saint-Geours and Kohnstamm therefore soon dropped out, leaving the others to pursue their informal programme of learning and debate.

Thus started what Peccei called "the adventure of the spirit". He was fond of stating that, “If the Club of Rome has any merit, it is that of having been the first to rebel against the suicidal ignorance of the human condition.” Peccei felt "It is not impossible to foster a human revolution capable of changing our present course."

I think it is fairly amazing, from my perspective well into the 21st century, that a group such as this would even admit there was such a thing as a "problematique", a "predicament of mankind". Much less make addressing it their main goal. The "business as usual" part of society today resolutely refuses to consider that there is anything fundamentally wrong. But those were different times.

At any rate, a series of early meetings of the Club of Rome culminated in the decision to initiate a remarkably ambitious undertaking&emdash;the Project on the Predicament of Mankind. This was embodied in a document, "The Predicament of Mankind, a Quest for Structured Responses to Growing World-Wide Complexities and Uncertainties, A Proposal.". This is the heart of the proposal:

With reference to the project under consideration, the major objectives of the Club of Rome are:

1)To examine, as systematically as possible, the nature and configuration of the profound imbalances that define today's problematique throughout the world, and to attempt to determine the dynamics of the interactions which seemingly exacerbate the situation as a whole.

2)To develop an initial, coarse-grain, "model" or models of this dynamic situation in the expectation that such models will reveal both those systemic components that are most critical and those interactions that are most generally dangerous for the future.

3)To construct a "normative" overview from the foregoing models and to clarify the action implications &emdash;i.e., the political, social, economic, technological, institutional, etc., consequences &emdash;that such an overview might entail and substantiate.

4)To bring everything that has been learnt as a result of this initial effort, to the attention of those in political authority, in the hope that such findings might stimulate the conception of new lines of policy that would be effective in coping with our situation's overall dynamics and its world-wide dimensions.

5)To persuade governments to convene a World Forum,* with whose consent, support, and encouragement an intensive dialogue concerning the findings of the project would be initiated to the end that a much larger and deeper effort could be undertaken. Such an effort would aim at developing the needed operational "macro-models" conducive to endeavors at integrated policy-planning and to the development of new institutions within whose frame of competence such work could be carried out.

This proposal is a fairly tall order, even the first two items basically call for building a model of the world's systems and how they interact. Fortunately, someone was already at work on that job.

Jay Forrester was born on a farm near Anselmo, Nebraska, where "his early interest in electricity was spurred, perhaps, by the fact that the ranch had none. While in high school, he built a wind-driven, 12-volt electrical system using old car parts — it gave the ranch its first electric power."[3]

Forrester received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering in 1939 from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Inducted into Eta Kappa Nu (HKN) the Electrical & Computer Engineering Honor Society in 1949, and went on to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he would spend his entire career. During the 1940s and early 50s, he did research in electrical and computer engineering, heading the Whirlwind project and developing the "Multi-coordinate digital information storage device (coincident-current system), the forerunner of today's RAM. He is believed to have created the first animation in the history of computer graphics, a "jumping ball" on an oscilloscope.

In 1956, Forrester moved to the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is currently (2016) Germeshausen Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer. In 1961, he wrote about the expanding effects down the supply chains due to fluctuations in demand, thenceforth known as the "Forrester effect" or Bull whip effect.

Forrester is the founder of system dynamics, which deals with the simulation of interactions between objects in dynamic systems. Industrial Dynamics was the first book Forrester wrote using system dynamics to analyze industrial business cycles. Several years later, interactions with former Boston Mayor John F. Collins led Forrester to write Urban Dynamics, which sparked an ongoing debate on the feasibility of modeling broader social problems.

At around the same time as the Club of Rome was releasing its "Proposal", Forrester headed a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on the implications of continued growth on population increase, agriculture production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.

At the Club of Rome's first annual meeting in Bern in 1970, Forrester made an offer to adapt his dynamic model to handle global issues. A fortnight later, a group of Club members visited Forrester at MIT and were convinced that the model could be made to work for the kind of global problems which interested the Club.

The results of the study were published in the 1972 book "The Limits to Growth". Funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and commissioned by the Club of Rome, it was first presented at the St. Gallen Symposium. Its authors were Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. The book used the World3 model to simulate the consequence of interactions between the Earth's and human systems.

Dennis Meadows was the project Director for the study, heading a team of 16, including the other three authors of the book. In her "Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System", Dana (Donella) Meadows tells us that

the systems community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have absorbed one of his favorite stories. "People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I've done an analysis of a company, and I've figured out a leverage point. Then I've gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the wrong direction!"

The classic example of that backward intuition was Forrester's first world model. Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population and economic growth. Growth has costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! The world's leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they're pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.

Even in 1972, the idea that growth might not be a good thing was sacrilege and The Limits to Growth met with a great deal of criticism. Much of this was from people that, judging from the comments they made, had not even bothered to read the book, but instead chose to attack a "straw man" version of the idea that there might be limits to growth.

In my next post I'll summarize the contents of the book and let you know what I think of it.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 5: Life in the Age of Scarcity

This is a direct continuation of my last post, and if you haven't read that post yet, now would be a good time, especially if you want to make much sense of this one. In that post I was talking about "a reality based approach to life in that age of scarcity", which is the tagline for this blog. I talked about the end of that tagline, "the Age of Scarcity" and how it seems inevitable that if BAU continues on "as usual", it will lead to a collapse. Then I talked about the start of it, "a reality based approach". People, both BAU and Crunchy, buy into a lot of woo to support their ideologies. I'd like them to give up on that, accept reality and start talking steps to prepare for it.

If we do nothing, we may be "lucky" enough to survive and find ourselves coping with the devastating effects of randomly eliminating half or more of the population. That's certainly where BAU is heading and I would like to avoid having to picking up the pieces as part of the shell shocked remainder still alive after collapse is well under way.

To Life

And that leads us to the "to life" part of my tagline. As I've just said, I think the human race is about to fall on hard times. But unlike some, I don't think that mankind is about to be completely wiped out. Those of us who pull through will do so because we've found a way to adapt "to life in the age of scarcity" and keep going under very different conditions from what we are now accustomed to. We'll have to learn to be satisfied with "just enough" instead of always wanting more, and we'll have to get much better at working together in groups for mutual support instead of separately as lone individuals or nuclear families. And the sooner we start making these changes in our lives, the better off we'll be.

I find myself especially drawn to "working together in groups for mutual support". This idea has immense potential to insulate the members of such groups from the chaos in the world around them and to meet their human needs in ways that BAU does not do well even now and will do less so as time passes. Indeed I would say that the formation and operation of such groups is at the heart of the response we need to make to the collapse of BAU.

I think many different variations on this theme need to be tried in order to see what works and what doesn't. And even when it has become clear what doesn't work, there will still be many more or less right ways of doing it. I am a big fan of "dissensus", which is the opposite of consensus, and consists of agreeing to disagree and wishing the other guy well while he does so. In the coming decades, as energy become less available and the economy contracts and can no longer support the current level of centralization and complexity, we will be forced to decentralize, relocalize and simplify our society. Under these conditions, dissensus will become somewhat easier—we simply won't have the wherewithal to force our ideas on other groups, nor they on us.

Having said that, it is important within your own particular group to have a clear idea of what you are trying to do. As an example, here's a rough outline of what I'd like to try.

  • The group should be small. Less than Dunbar's number , which is basically the largest number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships, between 100 and 250. I would aim for the lower end of that range at most.
  • It should not be too small, since it needs to have people who are competent in the necessary skills to maintain a certain level of technology. More than a dozen, one would certainly think. What that "certain level" of technology will be is determined by the resources and skills available and what the people involved are willing to sacrifice to hang on to some particular technologies. Realizing that in the circumstances we will find ourselves, progress can be the enemy of prosperity.
  • A larger group also has more purchasing power than a nuclear family, which can be useful when times are tough. They should plan on taking advantage of this.
  • It's members should be people of like mind, roughly speaking. It would be best if they already know each other and know the community where they are setting up.
  • They should be living in fairly close physical proximity. An internet group made up of widely dispersed people isn't going to work for this, although it might useful in getting things started.
  • If not actually rural, the group needs ownership or at least access to some nearby acreage, with farmland, woodlot, water and things like clay, sand, gravel and stone. People who already own homes in a small town could form such a group and involve a nearby farmer. This would keep the capital required to get started down to a minimum. No doubt there are many other possible approaches, as dictated by your circumstances and preferences.
  • I don't think large cities are sustainable in the long run, especially when energy intensive transportation is no longer available, so the group should not be in or near such a place. What's large? That's a judgment call and depends on geographic and social circumstances of the individual city. Obviously a city surrounded by farmland, with good water supply and good water transportation connections is more viable than one in the middle of a desert. And a city where the social fabric has already largely broken down should be avoided. The "zombie hoards" that survivalists talk about are not a realistic scenario, but big cities are still death traps.
  • It should be in an area likely not to suffer too badly from climate change. Not near sea level, or expected to suffer too badly from drought or flooding.
  • The group should be organized on a basis of small scale "socialism/communism", where the group supports its members, and the members support the group. It would provide meaningful work for people with a wide range of capabilities and cradle to grave security for people with a wide range of needs. It would not necessarily provide a very high standard of living (just enough), but the standard would be the same for everyone. One does what one can to help others and expect they will do the same for you, without any need for money or formal score keeping. Because this is a small group, everyone knows who is contributing and who is slacking off.
  • The group needs to set up some sort of business to provide income. For a while yet it will still be necessary to interface with BAU and money is needed to do so.
  • It should provide preparedness for and protection from disasters, especially infrastructure failure, economic recessions and social unrest. And, eventually, an alternative to BAU for when it ceases to function and can no longer provide us with the necessities of life.
  • This group needs to do crunchy things but without the woo. Things that actually work and don't waste our efforts on solving fake problems.
  • I would hope the group would be strong enough to welcome friends and family who are displaced from BAU, to adopt orphan children and take in homeless people and refugees.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, one can study up on intentional communities, eco-villages or as they are known among the "collapse aware"—lifeboats. If you do this, you'll see that there are some serious challenges involved.

There are, of course, the practical difficulties of finding a place, a business to start and capital to get this all going. This will be especially hard in a contracting economy, and if you insist on doing it to BAU standards, setting up an eco-village or lifeboat community can cost millions of dollars—the sky is the limit. But if you are willing to work to a "just enough" standard, it will be much more do-able.

I think the more serious challenges will be on the people side of things, though. Fortunately, as BAU gets to be less and less a hospitable place to live, we'll have more incentive to solve these problems. Currently only a few are interested, but that will change.

First, finding the people. I say this from the viewpoint of a fellow who is a Crunchy himself. I find myself looking among Crunchies for like minded people, because the BAU folks will just laugh at you if you bring up anything but their party line. And of course, I am looking for people who indulge in as little woo as possible. They can be hard to find. Unfortunately, it is easy to make this harder than it needs to be. If you want to get picky enough with your definition of "like minded", you can find a reason to exclude the whole rest of the human race. This cannot be our aim.

"As little woo as possible" is the key here. Aiming for no woo at all would guarantee failure—even the most rational among us has a few irrational beliefs. At this point let me say that just because I have a considered opinion on most everything, I don't think that I know everything for certain. I'm only human and while I've put quite a lot of effort into figuring out what's what, I have to admit that I may have made some errors. Keeping this in mind is, I think, a good start.

In many cases disagreement on a theoretical level is irrelevant to what you are trying to accomplish. People don't have to think exactly like you, as long as you can work together and share a common goal. People are not all of one piece and can be absolute fools about embracing woo in one area while being completely practical, reality based and highly skilled in another area. The woo may be aggravating, but the skills a person brings to the table can make it worth overlooking a certain amount of woo. If everyone in the group is thinking like this, regardless of what else they may believe, they can work together surprisingly well.

There are a number of Crunchy people who I do consider to be friends. They don't completely buy into my strictly materialist, science based approach, but neither do they completely reject it. We are willing to rub along and can actually work together.

There are also Crunchies I can't abide: alternative medicine practitioners who make a living pushing woo and activists who want to waste my time supporting bogus causes, for example.

Though I don't believe in good and evil in any absolute sense, I have learned the hard way that there is a small minority of people who are best avoided—call them "evil" if you will. The trick is to learn to recognize these folks before getting too involved with them. One has to attain a balance in this, aiming neither to be too exclusive or too inclusive.

Having found some people who want to set up a group for mutual support we will be faced with the task of getting along with them. Or perhaps having waited too long, we'll find ourselves thrown together in a disaster more or less by chance with people who need mutual support.

In emergencies and disasters, this is known to happen and it can work amazingly well. I would recommend reading Rebecca Solnit's book, A Paradise Built in Hell—The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, which examines how people behave in disasters and how different that is from what most of us expect.

As Solnit says, "In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing or major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human beings in times of disaster has little truth to it."

After reading Solnit's book I was skeptical—it just seemed too idealistic. So I did some studying and found it to be solidly supported by researchers in the field of disaster response. Unfortunately, the "disaster mythology" is a widely accepted and enthusiastically spread by the media. It would have us believe some very negative things about how people act in disasters, but they are simply not true. With the one except that when there is a disaster in an area where the basic fabric of society has already broken down, then things just get worse.

When working together in groups what you really need is a clear, common, immediate and practical goal and people who can do things to achieve that goal. It seems to me that this is why the victims of disasters have such success at working together to deal with their immediate problems. What they believe in is largely irrelevant, so long as they don't make a big deal about it, especially when it doesn't bear immediately on solving the problem at hand.

But there is reasonable doubt that this sort of "getting along" can work on a long term basis. When the disaster is over, things go back to normal. Within BAU, normal means that such relationships are monetized and you don't have to actually get along with these people at all, just pay them for what they do for you or accept their payment for what you do for them.

Throughout most of this blog I've been talking about resource depletion, climate change and economic disruption as the main challenges we face. But in another sense, our main challenge lies in the fact that growing up immersed in BAU we have not learned how to live together in communities and reach the sort of working agreement needed to keep a community functioning. The emphasis is always on individuality, being "right", being in control and getting what you are entitled to.

In BAU, about the closest you'll come to the kind of "getting along" that I'm talking about is in the kind of job where you work in a crew and actual teamwork is required. This can be a great situation and can give you a taste of "getting along". But often not so much. Someone is clearly in charge of such a team, appointed from above with the support of the organization behind him, and paid extra to do the job. And even though there are penalties for not playing along, there are lots of people who would rather make work miserable for their fellows (and themselves) rather than co-operate with the boss and their co-workers. In BAU, so much prestige is associated with leadership and individualism is so strongly encouraged that this is almost inevitable.

Even when people do share an ideology and a methodology that works (like the scientific method) there will still be communication problems, differences of opinion and personality issues that make it hard to work together. Or it may come down to each of us thinking that he should be the one running things. These sorts of things can be overcome with training and counseling, but only if the individuals involved want to overcome their differences.

I think it is important to see leadership as a burden rather than an honour. When you have someone who knows what he is doing in a certain area, let him lead when you're working in that area, and step back when it is done. General direction needs to come from the community as a whole, whether it is determined by formal consensus or by leaders who have worked out what the group's consensus is before taking the group in that direction. Consensus is foreign to most of us and as such we are not very good at, but it is a skill that can be learned.

For the first two or three million years of our existence as something more or less human, we did live in small groups and got along in exactly the fashion I am talking about. Indeed it seems likely that our ability to live successful in such groups evolved in parallel with the social structure of those groups.

Then about ten thousand years ago people at a number of locations around the world invented agriculture and not too long after that, re-organized themselves into states with a ruling class to run things, a working class to do the work and something more or less like money to mediate their relationships. Bluntly put, work to get money to pay for food—or starve. Or in the case of slaves, work or be beaten and starve—it simplifies things by eliminating the money.

This idea of "civilization" is great if you are one of the privileged few who are running things. Not so great if you are one of the rank and file workers or, worse yet, a slave. And indeed there is a long history of people leaving civilization when it got too oppressive. Sometimes this amounted to a collapse, with the civilization disappearing while the remnants live on in small groups with greatly simplified organization.

At other times, people left the state controlled area in smaller groups and headed for "the hills", areas too rugged for the state's enforcers to successfully track them down and march them back. Read James C. Scott's book The Art of Not Being Governed for detailed information on this. It turns out that a great many peoples who western science had originally thought were "primitives" who had occupied their area before civilization arose, are actually people who chose to escape the local civilization when it became too oppressive.

There may be something to be learned from these folks by those of us who are thinking about escaping BAU. There is also something to be learned by the few remaining hunter gatherers who are just now being "civilized" as they encounter BAU culture for the first time.

Of course, within BAU a great deal of effort is expended to distract people from looking at these examples of alternative ways of living and to make those ways of life appear inferior to BAU. I am sure that the mouth pieces of BAU will say that I am romanticizing primitive societies. But I am not suggesting that we go "back", but rather in a different direction altogether, beyond civilization rather than away from it. We may indeed find ourselves moving a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. But this does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

And, beyond all that, I would say that they are romanticizing BAU, which is doing a poor job of caring for most of its members, and a good job of convincing them that there are no better alternatives.

Which brings us back to the alternative I was discussing above: living in groups providing each other mutual support in a way that BAU cannot do. And back to the major challenge of learning to live together in such groups, which life in BAU has left us woefully unprepared for. But, having evolved in such groups, we do have the innate ability to overcome this challenge. We need to throw off the bad habits we got from growing up in BAU, and learn some better and more human habits. For guidance, we can look to the few remaining people living in small groups outside of BAU. We can also look to the people who are living in intentional communities within BAU, and learn from both their successes and failures.

There is lots of literature on this. From my own bookshelf I can recommend:

In closing, I should just say that if I had thought of the phrase "Crunchy Without the Woo" four years ago when I started this blog, I would likely have used it as the title, instead of "The Easiest Person to Fool". I think it ties in better with the tag line "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity" which, as I've been saying here, is really the heart of the matter. Oh well, that's water under the bridge. And also a wrap for this series of posts on BAU, Crunchiness and Woo.

The books I've read during my life have done a great deal to shape my thinking. In my next few posts I'll be sharing some of those books with you. If my elementary school self had heard that I am volunteering to write book reports, he would have shaken his head in amazement. I guess we all change with time.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 4: A Reality Based Approach

In this series of posts about BAU (Business as Usual), Crunchiness (those who oppose BAU) and Woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking) I've been promising that I am going somewhere with all this and that I would finally get there. Well, here we are.

The tagline for this blog is, "A reality based approach to life in the age of scarcity." And that is where I've been headed. There's a lot more meat in that one phrase than you might think. I'll break it into three parts and explain what I mean by each, starting with the tail, then the head and finally (in my next post) the middle, which is really the heart of the thing.

"In The Age of Scarcity"

So first, "the age of scarcity", a term that I am borrowing from John Michael Greer. It refers to where we now find ourselves, trying to sustain a growth economy as the resources it relies on become ever more depleted. Thus the term scarcity. The mouthpieces of BAU would object to this, claiming that things are now better than they ever have been and that technology can bail us out of any problems we may run into. I find that amusing--BAU caused the situation that it refuses to acknowledge and continues to make it worse.

I talked about this in the second and third posts in this series, but I'll recap briefly.

Progress is a religion for BAU, its raison d'etre. It defines progress as increasing material prosperity, physical comfort and convenience for an ever growing human population. The economies within BAU are set up to work well only when growing. Even with the improved efficiency provided by technology, ever increasing amounts of natural resources are being consumed, to the point where the resources that are left are of lower quantity and less concentrated, making whatever is made from them more costly. At the same time, more and more pollution is being created.

All this results in situations like Peak Oil, Climate change and Economic Contraction, of which I've spoken at some length. Since I started writing here four years ago, it has become clear that a shortage of fresh water (Peak water?)should be added to the list. And in an effort to keep business profitable under these conditions, people are being replaced with technological wherever possible, resulting in growing "technological" unemployment. To top it off, the relentless growth of our human population makes all these things worse.

I am convinced that if BAU continues "as usual", over the next few decades we will see a gradual and bumpy collapse of BAU's ability to provide us with the necessities of life. Modern agriculture and industry are unsustainable, and environmental degradation (including climate change, but not limited to it) will place both under ever worsening stress. We can expect a significant reduction in their outputs, leading to a reduction in human population.

In addition to happening unevenly over time, this collapse will be varied in how it is felt across the world's regions, with the result that migrations of refugees will become the defining events of this century. The collapse will also be felt differently across the strata of society. It has already arrived today for those who are homeless and begging for food, with no reasonable hope for improvement in their lot. At the same time the upper crust are enjoying the fruits of progress and living better than they ever have before. Not only can we expect this gap to widen, but the numbers of the unemployed and homeless will grow while that upper crust gets thinner.

As I pointed out in my "Political Fantasy" series of posts, there is much that could be done to fix things within BAU and in the process change BAU into something less destructive. This might have worked 40, 30, perhaps even 20 years ago. But today? It seems unlikely and gets more so as time passes.

When I vote in elections (mainly to preserve my complaining rights) I try to support whichever party looks to be the most aware of this situation and likely to do something about it. But I don't for a moment believe that much will actually be done to change BAU or fix any of the problems it is causing. I prefer to spend the majority of my time and energy getting ready for the more likely (though less pleasant) future.

We're stuck in the age of scarcity and we must learn to adapt. In my case this falls within the realm of crunchiness, not survivalism. And, while you may not like the term "crunchiness", it is the one I have chosen to use here to describe those who would withdraw their support from BAU and try to build something different and better. In fact, of course, people are all mixtures of crunchy and BAU attitudes, and act differently in different circumstances.

A Reality Based Approach

That brings us to "a reality based approach". Which is simply accepting things as they actually are and acting accordingly. The alternative being denial and believing in whatever sort of "woo" it takes to support your favourite ideological position. This applies to both BAU and Crunchiness.

BAU style woo allows people to believe in progress and growth continuing forever on a finite planet. And it convinces them that there is no acceptable alternative.

Crunchy style of woo provides a simplistic route to rejecting BAU for those who are convinced by much of BAU's propaganda, even though they don't like the direction it is taking us. Just reject anything that comes from big business or government, even if it is clearly supported by science. And uncritically accept anything that seems to oppose BAU.

In my last post I talked about the pseudoscience and magical thinking (woo) that is in vogue among Crunchies. I included a bunch of links that where intended to show that in their rejection of science, Crunchies persist in believing things that science has already proven wrong, and refuse to believe in much of what science has proven right. Not stuff that is out at the frontiers of science where there might be some wiggle room, but stuff about which there is a solid scientific consensus, which will no doubt be refined as time passes, but is unlikely to undergo major change.

Crunchies tend to reject the positive achievements of BAU along with its downsides, throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. I would say the biggest challenge facing the Crunchy movement is to succeed in rejecting the woo which is the essence of BAU without rejecting the scientific method and the valid scientific consensus that has come out of BAU. This is tricky since much of the woo in BAU is part of our common culture and it is difficult to question or even recognize for what it is.

In their rejection of BAU and their intention to turn away from it and do less harm to the planet and their fellow man, Crunchies are definitely on the right track. There is no need to glom onto a bunch of woo in order to differentiate themselves from BAU.

Back in the first post of this series, I spoke briefly about the pitfalls of binary thinking and how much of the woo that both BAU and Crunchy people subscribe to exists to maintain their separate positions and convince themselves that the other side is wrong. I'd like to see both of those positions abandoned and a reality based approach adopted by everyone involved. Of course I know that there is little hope of changing minds that are firmly made up, but I hope there are a few minds out there that aren't made up--or at least not too firmly. I've engaged in enough social media link wars to know that there's no winning them--everything seems black and white to both sides, and they both have lots of so called "evidence" to support their positions. But in reality, away from the keyboard and screen, things are not so--there are many shades of gray, and alternatives that neither side is willing to consider.

To take a more balanced and nuanced approach is challenging, but well worth the effort. First, look at the current scientific consensus and use that information to evaluate the position in which we find ourselves. And then look at what we can realistically do about it, since we are constrained not just by what is scientifically possible but also by the practicalities of the actual situation.

If we do nothing, we may be "lucky" enough to survive and find ourselves coping with the devastating effects of randomly eliminating half or more of the population. That's certainly where BAU is heading and I would like to avoid having to picking up the pieces as part of the shell shocked remainder still alive after collapse is well under way.

In my next post, I'll tackle the third part of my tagline, "to life" and talk about how we might approach the challenge of actually living in the age of scarcity.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 3: Focusing on the Woo in Crunchiness

In my last post I talked about what's wrong with BAU (Business as Usual—the "culture of maximum harm") and how Crunchies are those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet.

I chose to use the terms "Crunchy," "Crunchies" and "Crunchiness" in this series of posts to reflect the degree of derision heaped by BAU culture upon those who are looking for solutions outside that culture. I know full well that many people who are seeking alternatives to BAU will be offended by the term "Crunchy", but I would urge them to wear the term proudly, to make it clear that they are withdrawing their support from BAU. That withdrawal is a very important step to take.

In any case, such people should take heart, because I am about to be pretty hard on the standard sort of flakey Crunchy, pointing out that there is a whole lot of woo bound up with their position, too.

BAU's "religion of progress" teaches that cultural change for our species takes place along a single path, from the "caves to the stars", so to speak. The intended direction is "forward" and anyone who questions this is accused of wanting to go "backwards". This is nonsense, of course, since cultural change can in fact take place along many dimensions, the great majority of which we have not yet explored. Indeed finding a different path is what much of Crunchiness is about.

Of course, another large chunk of Crunchiness is a reaction to what BAU is doing wrong. This is totally appropriate, but it's also a source of the major weaknesses in Crunchiness. Crunchies largely reject the scientific method, I think mainly because of the great degree to which it seems to have been co-opted by BAU. When they don't rejected it, they use it the way a drunk uses a lamppost—for support, rather than illumination.

The trouble with this, of course, is that when you reject or misuse the scientific method you have no reliable way of checking to see if your ideas are correct. Ideas which are not correct then get adopted and propagated with great enthusiasm, just because they seems to support the ideology. If you really want to succeed at saving/changing the world, it would be a good idea to make sure your methods actually work.

Being susceptible to woo also leaves you open to predators who will use your credulity to take advantage of you and make a profit in the process. Indeed there is a great deal of supposed crunchiness that is really just greenwashing by unscrupulous businesses who are clearly part of BAU.

Related to the rejection of science is the personification of nature, including the Gaia hypothesis and the default, but erroneous, assumption common among Crunchies that whatever is natural must be good. And along with this goes technophobia—fear of the many new things created by modern man.

And, ironically, Crunchies often seem to accept BAU's "single path" woo and try to move backwards in order to avoid the consequences of moving forward along that path. Unfortunately there is just as much in BAU's past that we should avoid as there is in its present and future. It may prove beneficial or even necessary to move to a level of energy consumption similar to what was common decades or even hundreds of years ago. This does not mean that we have to adopt a similar level of social justice or scientific/medical/nutritional ignorance. We have learned a lot since then that can be successfully applied to a society that uses much less energy and gets by with much less stuff. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Rejecting science and what's good in the modern world leads to problems in several areas and I think it would be useful to look at a few specific examples. I've included links to further details about many of the areas I mention below. If you are a "flakey crunchy", but your mind is even a little bit open, they are worth following. Maybe not the very best that is available on the internet, but good.

One of the best examples is alternative "medicine" which, sadly, is quite popular with Crunchy folks. When an alternative medical technique is proven to work, it becomes part of conventional medicine and is no longer alternative. What's left behind is all the techniques that don't work. But because conventional medicine is very much a part of BAU and because alternative medical practitioners don't really get the scientific method, they keep pushing techniques that are no better than placebos. Naturopathic medicine, homeopathy, herbal medicine, reflexology, reiki, acupuncture, chiropractic. and the anti-vaccination movement are all examples , but this is by no means an exhaustive list.

One of the wrong-headed ideas common in alternative"medicine" is that the human body is a perfect creation—that its default, normal state would be complete health. In fact, we are a chance product of evolution, the least worst of all the competing alternatives—just barely good enough to do the job, and with all kinds of built in problems.

There is a lot of money to be made by practitioners of alternative medicine, so it seems very likely that at least some of the people involved are well aware what they are doing, but don't care one bit.

A related area is that of food, nutrition and farming.

There is so much controversy these days about nutrition that it is difficult to sort out, even if you try hard to go with the science. If you don't, then you are open to a great deal of nonsense. All sorts people are making a living promoting fad diets, telling us what we should and shouldn't eat, with little or no science backing it up. Many Crunchies seem to lap this stuff up. The current concerns about gluten and high fructose corn syrup are good examples of this.

Part of the problem is being too eager to accept any single scientific finding that seems to support what you already believe, instead of looking at the overall consensus in the field. Trouble is, there doesn't seem to be a very strong scientific consensus in this area and what consensus there is, is changing rapidly. Best to wait and see, rather than committing to ideologically based nonsense.

Crunchies tend to reject modern industrial farming and the food it produces because it's "not natural". I've spoken at length elsewhere on this blog about what's wrong with modern farming—mainly that it isn't sustainable.


But there has been nothing natural about agriculture since it was invented 10,000 or so years ago. Agriculture is a human creation which isolates us from natural sources of food. Traditional farming techniques are no more natural than modern agriculture.

Organic agriculture started out with a set of techniques to promote healthy soil, which is surely a good thing. But to do agriculture on a commercial scale and produce uniform, blemish the free fruits and vegetables that today's consumer expects, you have to use pesticides. Conventional agriculture chooses its pesticides to maximize effectiveness and minimize harm. But in order to be a certified organic farm, you have to use naturally sourced chemicals rather than synthetic ones. This is based on the fallacious idea that natural is automatically better. With apologies to friends who are practicing what they call organic agriculture (but I would call sustainable agriculture) today's "organic agriculture" is a marketing technique more than anything else, aimed at getting higher prices from people who have been fooled into thinking that "organic " is more natural and produces food that is safer and more nutritious. I am referring, of course, to the large scale industrial organic type of farming, which is no more sustainable than conventional farming and uses "chemicals" with similar abandon, even if they are "naturally" sourced.

Then there is the "bee thing"—the persistent myth that honeybees are about to be wiped out, their decline often being attributed to synthetic pesticides.

Crunchies also seem to fall pretty uniformly on the "anti" side of the genetic engineering controversy. This is a great pity, because it completely ignores the scientific consensus and rejects a technology that has great promise for enabling a more sustainable agriculture.

A good example of the sort of flakiness I am talking about here can be found in "permaculture", a branch of organic agriculture that aims to make agriculture permanent (thus the name)—that is, sustainable on an ongoing basis. This is certainly a laudable goal and one that I would really like to be able to support. Unfortunately I have some serious reservations, because "permies don't do numbers". That is, the promising techniques these folks are so enthusiastic about never get tried out in the sort of way that could determine whether they work or not. This sort of testing involves actually measuring and quantifying results, and would allow the techniques that don't work to be identified and discarded and even more important, allow the ones that do work to be refined and improved upon. Interestingly there is quite a bit of disagreement on this subject even in Crunchy "organic" circles, so it's possible that the "permies" may someday get their act together. One can hope.

When it comes to potential harm from toxic substances, Crunchies' lack of a scientific approach and discomfort with numbers leave them prey to a great deal of fear mongering. The party line seems to be that if something is toxic, then it is toxic even in the tiniest concentrations. The word "chemical" is used to mean something entirely different from its dictionary definition, something like "scary sounding synthetic compound". Of course, all matter is make up of chemicals—many of them, even synthetic ones, are quite beneficial and, in any case, the basic foundation of toxicology is that dose determines toxicity. That is, in sufficiently small doses a chemical may be harmless or even beneficial, while in sufficiently large doses the same chemical may be deadly.

The Crunchy attitude toward radiation is similar to their approach to toxic substances, and is driven by fear and ignorance. Again, understanding that dosage is what determines the harm is critical to understanding what sort of a threat radiation really is. We are all exposed to a background level of radiation and have evolved to cope with this level of radiation rather well.

The long term effects of radiation on the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are a good example of how the same numbers can be used to support widely different conclusions. Anti-nuclear people will tell you that there was a measurable increase in the incidence of cancer in those survivors, and that sounds like a confirmation of our worst fears about radiation exposure. Pro-nuclear people will tell you that this measurable increase amounted to a little more than 1%. Considering that this was exposure to a nuclear weapon going off and there have been over 70 years for cancers to show up, this sounds amazingly minor to me.

Whenever you get a case of ideology trumping scientific fact, you find some people making a living writing books, giving speeches and essentially being cheerleaders for the ideology. There is also a tendency to toward telling outright lies to support the ideology. Crunchiness is no exception. A couple of names that spring to mind are Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson. There is much that both these ladies have (or had, in Carsons's case) to say that I agree with, but in their efforts to support their ideologies, they have both played fast and loose with the facts, which detracts considerably from their credibility. One can see how this sort of thinking develops from "it would be great for our cause if that was true", to "it must be true because it would be great", to "of course it's true". This is a shame in so many ways.

Why would Vandana Shiva lie about her educational credentials or about farmer suicides in India? Why does she spout nonsense about Monsanto subverting the whole scientific establishments concensus on the safety of GMOs. Especially when the oil companies, who are larger and more powerful, have had no luck doing this when it comes to climate change. Clearly because in the short term it advances her cause. In the long term, though, she will surely be seen as a fraud.

For details, check out these links:

Note that the argument in favour of DDT use against disease carrying mosquitoes is weak since mosquitoes soon evolve resistance to DDT if it is used regularly. DDT has been used in many areas and then abandoned when it become ineffective. My concern is that Carson's pseudoscientific approach detracts from the credibility of the environmental movement. Why not stick with the facts and present a case that is iron clad, instead of a superficially stronger case built on a flawed foundation?

I could go on for quite a while yet with examples of the woo that is embraced by many Crunchies, but I'll stop here, having covered the sort of things I have most often encountered. You might say, "Well no one is getting hurt, so what's the problem if a few people have confused ideas about how the world works."

But if you look carefully at the examples I have chosen, you'll see that in each case, there is harm being done, sometimes to the folks involved, sometime to those around them and, if nothing else, resources, effort and time are being applied to solve false problems while real, serious problems are being ignored.

Here are some links to a few good sources that will help you sort out science from flakery and woo:

I imagine there are some people ready to fill the comments section with counter arguments proving that their favourite bit of pseudoscience is really legit. Save your breath (or wear and tear on your keyboard)—I'm not here to change the mind of anyone who is already convinced, or to have my own mind changed by anything short of solid scientific evidence. And by the way, when there is one study out of 100 that supports your position, this does not mean your position is proven—in fact just the opposite. I regularly see the purveyors of woo quoting the one outliner study that supports their position, as if that makes everything OK, even though there are many, many other studies which stand against their position, effective disproving it.

There is also a strategy common among Crunchies to discredit science based on where it was done. Scientific results that come from government or corporation labs are viewed as being suspect, if not outright biased. But if they are peer reviewed as part of the publication process, and can be reproduced by other labs, such results are not invalid. They should probably be reviewed with extra care as there is likely more conflict of interest involved than there would be in an academic setting. But the scientific method gives us a way to eliminate that sort of bias. Scientific fact is scientific fact, regardless of the source.

Back at the start of this series of posts, I promised that I was really going somewhere with all this. In my next post, I'll make good on that promise and bring the series to a finish.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Business as Usual, Crunchiness and Woo, Part 2b: More on what's wrong with Business as Usual

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with Business as Usual (BAU), particularly that it is based on the Religion of Progress, which is nothing but woo (pseudoscience and magical thinking). That post was getting close to long enough and I still had quite a bit more to say about what's wrong with BAU, so here we are.

Pseudoscience in BAU

For some people the ongoing economic growth aspect of BAU has been a real bonanza. They tend to be the people in power and they aren't about to admit that anything is wrong or there is any need for change that would jeopardize their position. Much of the woo common to BAU is directly linked to the position in which these people find themselves.

They feel a huge incentive to maintain the status quo, to stay in their privileged positions. It's only natural these people want to deny things that would threaten their profits or require them to abandon the profit motive. They believe (and would have us believe) that there is no way to back down gracefully from a growth economy, and that the inevitable results of trying to do so would be disaster. This is pure woo, and it leads to some strange thinking and strange behaviour.

One example of this is the tobacco industry's response when the news about tobacco's health effects came out in the mid-twentieth century. They could have faced up to reality, reinvented their business in a less harmful form and been ahead of the game. Instead, they denied the findings of medical science, spent a lot of money to promote pseudoscience about tobacco's health effects and did everything they could to keep as many people addicted to tobacco for as long as possible.

Another example is the fossil fuel industries' response to the news about climate change, which they became aware of in the 1970s. They could have become leaders in a switchover to low carbon energy sources. Of course, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. The kind of changes that I am always advocating, actually. Instead they spent a lot of money to spread pseudoscience denying anthropogenic climate change and keep the demand for fossil fuels growing for as long as possible.

There are many other examples of BAU denying inconvenient facts so they can continue to make a profit in the short term.

Because many businesses are set up so that what really matters is the next quarterly report, they have a great deal of trouble taking a long range outlook on things. Probably the best example of this is the depletion of fossil fuels. Depending on how you interpret the resource and reserve numbers, we won't be running short of oil, for instance, for several decades yet. Of course, it may well end up being sooner and in the meantime what oil is left is more expensive, often disastrously so. The solution would have been to lead the switchover to renewable energy sources. As already mentioned, this would have led to some pretty fundamental changes to BAU. Seeking to avoid such changes the BAU response is that there is really nothing to worry about, by the time we get there, we'll have found a solution for that problem. And then they go on "as usual", not even starting to look for a solution. "We've got enough trouble making growth targets for this year, the next generation can worry about what is basically their problem anyway."

Continued economic and population growth means conversion of ever more of nature to human uses. BAU sees nature as something outside the economy, as source of material resources and a sink for pollution and wastes. Because BAU sees itself as separate from nature, what happens to nature has no consequences for BAU. Again , this is woo—the economy is in fact a subsystem of the natural environment, and relies heavily on "biosphere services"—thing like air, water, soil, forests, fisheries and so forth—without which it would be much more expensive to operate a business.

Neo-liberalism, the only remaining political party

Neo-liberal politics and the economics that goes with it is an organized effort to deny the problems with BAU and to continue on "as usual" for as long as possible, regardless of the consequences. This sort of politics has become the default for most developed nations and the ideal that developing nations are expected to strive for. According to this ideology the value of a thing is determined by its price in monetary terms and things which do not have such a price have no worth—if it doesn’t have a price tag on it, it’s not worth anything. More and more, even personal relationships are "monetized" and reduced to individuals paying other individuals for services.

That it would be "bad for business" is reason enough to avoid any change, no matter how vital, regardless of the damage to people and the environment.

Rich people are seen as superior to poor people, and poverty is seen as a moral failing. Financial success is everything. No unprofitable enterprise is worth pursuing, even if it provides great benefits that don't show up on the profit and loss statement. And all profitable enterprises are worth pursuing, even if they cause great harm to society and/or the environment. Economies must grow no matter what the cost.

The strategy of "externalization of costs" is used to reduce the expenses a business is held responsible for, and thus improve its profitability. Typical externalized costs are the effects a business' operation has on the environment or on the community it operates in. Usually those costs are transferred to the public (via government and taxation) or to future generations.

The free market is held to have essentially magical powers to regulate the economy, when in fact it is mainly valued as an excuse to free businesses from cumbersome regulations (so they can be competitive) while at the same time they strive to control the market as much as possible to protect themselves from competition.

One of the consequences of all this is ever greater economic inequality. Despite its faith in human progress, BAU has relegated most people to the role of consumers/workers. We are encouraged to concentrate on our own individual success and gratification, rather than our relationships with other people. Our primary motivations end up being fear, greed and selfishness. This is not really what people need from the society they are living in. Still, this was "fine" (in some strained sense of that word) as long as growth continued and we consumers could rely on improved working conditions, better wages and better toys to spend our earnings on.

But as depleted fossil fuel resources began to supply less surplus energy, business had to turn to automation and globalization to stay profitable, leaving fewer and worse jobs for most people. Without work (and money) it is hard to fulfill one's role as a consumer. We are left wondering how long the leaders of BAU think this can go on. Clearly they have bought into the woo that it can continue forever.

The load we are putting on the environment, our reliance on the "biosphere services" it provides, has continued to increase while at the same time we are destroying more and more of the biosphere that provides those services. The result is that we are in an overshoot situation, using more than the planet can supply in any sustainable way. With our population continuing to grow, there will inevitably come a point where what's left of the environment won't support us and the human population will begin to collapse. BAU is blind to this, striving ever harder to use up more resources to support a growing population with increasing prosperity, regardless of where this may lead.

As we wait for this unpalatable future to play out, it becomes less and less comfortable for ordinary human being to live as part of BAU. We spent the last few million year evolving to live in small groups in which people mutually supported each other, providing for their material and psychological (spiritual, if you insist) needs throughout their lifetimes. We are ill suited to live in BAU where the needs of business must always come first and those of people second at best. It's hard on our sanity and it brings out the worst in us.

What's worse, it seems very likely that this is not at all necessary—people's needs can come first if we simply decide that is the way we want to live and apply our resources to that instead of generating ever increasing economic growth. But we are paralyzed by BAU woo that says we are already on the right path, the only path.

Author Daniel Quinn refers to what I've been calling "BAU" as "the culture of maximum harm". That would make Crunchies those who want to do less harm, to their fellow men and to the planet. This definition leaves room for a pretty wide range of opinions within this movement, and I think that is a very good thing.

In my next post I'll talk about some of the problems with Crunchiness and the challenges this leads to for those of us who would like to take a reality based approach to doing less harm.

Once again, thanks to my son Dan Mills for his help in writing this.