Category Archives: Ecological collapse

Sowing the seeds of a future society

Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.

In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.

Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.

Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.

Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
Continue reading . . .

Stuff to read and watch

I’m busy working on a difficult article which I hope to get published somewhere. In the meantime, I’ve come across several intriguing items on the Web, either in researching the article, or just poking around. Take a look:

[UPDATE: Take a look, as well, at this ongoing roundtable discussion of the question of population and climate change. In my view, Fred Meyerson, John Guillebaud, and Martin Desvaux's comments have so far been on the money. I note that Guillebaud and Desvaux's response to Betsy Hartmann is quite in line with my own past comments on her work.]

Cool book discovery

A book I’m amazed I hadn’t come upon until a week ago is Jeffrey K. McKee’s Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. Having just received it yesterday, I’ve only scanned it so far. But I learned elsewhere that Mckee, a physical anthropologist at Ohio State University, argues that no matter how much we lower per person consumption levels, we cannot end the current mass extinction crisis without addressing population size and growth. That’s a refreshing change from the usual insistence, “It’s all about (per capita) consumption,” so prevalent today among environmentalists. For some of McKee’s thoughts online, try this pdf.

Food for thought from Anthropik

At the Anthropik Network, rewilding advocate Jason Godesky, whose work you should know, responds to an article in The Economist which tries to debunk the “myth” that early hunter-gatherer cultures were in many ways fairly benign and livable compared to today’s civilization. Not surprisingly, Jason debunks the debunker quite handily.

The heart of rewilding from Urban Scout

Urban Scout gets to the heart of the “rewilding” movement in a video on his blog. Rewilders such as Scout and Godesky have a better handle on our ecological dilemma than just about anyone. Don’t overlook what they’re doing!

Danny Bloom’s bloomin’ polar cities

Danny Bloom, who’s commented here a few times, is trying to get people to think. It seems he’s trying to nudge us to consider how serious climate change just might be by imagining a possible future need for special communities in the polar regions for those who survive global warming. Environmental writer Stephen Leahy reports on Danny and his polar cities idea. In email, Danny told me he’s serious, but on some level is also “kidding, in a kind of guerilla theater public awareness wake-up call kind of way.” His idea is sometimes dubbed “quixotic,” but if it fosters discussion that can only be good.

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Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…

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Note on peak oil and population

As as follow-up to Jim Lydecker’s essay, My World Without Oil, I wanted to remind readers of an essay by occasional GIM commenter, Paul Chefurka. Titled Peak Oil, Carrying Capacity and Overshoot: Population, the Elephant in the Room, it makes the case that our use of oil dramatically increased the earth’s carrying capacity for humans. Paul argues that therefore, post-peak-oil, we will be in serious overshoot of that carrying capacity: “The decline in oil supply will reduce the planet’s carrying capacity, thus forcing humanity into overshoot with the inevitable consequence of a population decline.”

You may have noticed in Jim’s essay his comment, “But it is not going to be a pretty scene as hydrocarbons are depleted. We are talking social strife, mass migration, starvation, epidemics and worse.” Paul’s essay outlines carefully the population dynamics such a scene could involve. (more…)

Waking up to humanity’s most urgent challenge

One possible future. Another possible future?
The future: determined by ecological awareness or complacency and denial?

By John Feeney:

It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation.William R. Catton, Jr.

I write often about specific topics within the categories, “population growth” and “corporate economic growth” as they link to to environmental degradation. It seems, however, the larger message concerning the broad impacts of these kinds of growth has yet to gain much traction in the media. It’s time, therefore, to consider what’s at stake if we do not address forthrightly the growth of the human population and our unceasing push for corporate economic growth. I hope to make clear that humanity’s most urgent challenge has little to do with the topics currently making headlines. It is, instead, clearly ecological in nature. Of this we need much more awareness if we hope to achieve solutions.

Know this: Population growth and corporate economic growth, in conjunction with excessive and growing per capita consumption rates, are driving ecological deterioration of unprecedented proportions, pushing us ever closer to global ecological collapse. Remember that term. Barring decisive corrective action, you will be hearing more and more about ecological collapse in the coming years.

The most important issues receive little coverage

If you haven’t heard much about it previously, that’s understandable. It hovers in the background of the news, mentioned occasionally, but has so far received little of the attention it warrants. I’ve been critical of environmental writers’ avoidance of the subject of population growth, but it goes further than that. By and large, they seem squeamish about discussing the extent of global environmental decline the possibility of widespread ecological collapse. (more…)

We must lose our arrogance

A familiar poem, nearly 200 years old, may provide the theme for our future if we, as one among millions of species, do not soon let go of our sense of privilege, and grasp what “sustainability” means.


by: Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear –
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

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Overpopulation: partying as the iceberg looms

I’m pleased to feature on GIM a guest article by Jim Lydecker. Jim researches and writes about such issues as peak oil, resource depletion, global warming and population. This article, which originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Napa Valley Register, shows succinctly how our leaders avoid the topic of population growth and spells out the consequences this invites. I think it conveys remarkably well the gravity of the crisis we face. My thanks to Jim for permission to reprint it here.

– JF
By Jim Lydecker:

The iceberg looms America’s a lot like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of danger. Any number of icebergs threaten to do damage and several are large enough to sink us. The captain warns us of the smaller ones, yet assures us our voyage is safe.

Most passengers believe the captain. Others figure there is nothing they can do, so why worry?

Some, however, notice concerned looks on the crew’s faces. Rumors are heard about one berg so big that there is no getting by regardless of the course plotted. It is connected to others making the situation more problematic. We’re on a direct collision course unless the damn thing melts and gets much smaller.

The giant iceberg’s given a name: Overpopulation. Some of the ones connected to it are known as resource depletion, climate change, disease, hunger and economic collapse. With no warning from the captain, the icebergs are closer than ever. The passengers party on.

Like this allegory, politicians and leaders focus our attention on issues easier addressed than those that really matter. Terrorism is an example.

Since 9/11, billions have been invested on what is a relatively small threat. Consider this: 3,000 died in New York on that fateful day in September 2001; 25,000 die every day in the world from contaminated water alone. Each year, 35 million children are mentally impaired by malnourishment. Each year, an area of prime farmland greater than Scotland is lost to erosion and urban sprawl. These are problems connected with overpopulation, problems that will get worse before they, if ever, get better. (more…)

Are environmental writers choosing avoidance over truth?

See no evil

It is indisputable that population size and growth are among the fundamental drivers of today’s ecological crisis. There’s no getting around the math that population size multiplies with per capita consumption to determine total resource consumption. Additional links between our numbers and ecological degradation are impossible to dismiss. Once one accounts for population, consumption rates, and corporate economic growth, one is hard pressed to identify any equally powerful contributors to environmental destruction. [1]

What are environmental writers thinking?

You may wonder, therefore, why the topic of population does not appear in nearly all media coverage of environmental problems. The population topic is, in fact, actively avoided by many environmental writers. The history of how it’s become a taboo subject is worth a few future posts, but Grist staff writer, David Roberts, recently summed up the thinking of some current writers. (more…)

No comfort from the UN

UN buildingIt’s not uncommon on the Web or in the popular press to see authors referring to United Nations population projections in arguing population growth isn’t a problem. Blogger Michael Kruse, writing from a particular Christian perspective, suggests the projections mean we will likely top out at a population which is “hardly a catastrophic number.” Writers such as neo-con, Ben Wattenberg, are similarly dismissive of any population problem and go on to fret over possible population declines in Western countries.

Projections, not predictions

Almost three months ago I posted an essay on the UN’s 2004 report, World Population to 2300 (large pdf). In it, I showed that the UN’s population projections are widely misinterpreted as predictions when in fact they are merely illustrative scenarios. That is one reason we cannot take much comfort in the UN’s projections; they don’t even pretend to be predictions we can count on. (more…)

Admit it Betsy, we agree: part 2

In Part 1 of this essay, I began to examine Betsy Hartmann’s argument that population growth is not a serious problem, and that it distracts us from real problems of women’s rights, racism, and class bias. Assessing her critique of 1994’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, I touched on her arguments concerning poverty and environmental degradation. For neither does she readily accept population growth as playing an important causal role. I acknowledged her valid points, but disagreed with certain assertions, particularly concerning the environmental issue. Now let’s turn to the question of women’s issues and how they relate to population growth.

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Does a focus on population work against women’s rights?

Those who study population know there is a negative correlation between fertility rates and the provision of educational, work, and other opportunities for girls and women. (more…)

The specter of mass extinction

One of our companions, for now

If current trends continue, one half of all species of life on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. — E.O. Wilson

What will people do?
After the garden is gone.
— Neil Young

Something terrible is happening. Does anyone notice? A few do. In developed countries, only the more observant see it. From time to time, though, we hear about it in the media. We’re destroying the global ecosystem, our life support system.

Too easy to deny

So what? We don’t have to listen to that. Nothing’s happening here. Sure, there’s not as much open land, we hear about companies cutting down something called “old growth forests,” some animals have disappeared. Big deal, our lives go on about the same. (more…)

Economists can’t take (quite) all the blame

Suzuki In the previous article here, I reiterated a fundamental problem with mainstream economics. It fails to recognize that all economic activity is a part of, and as dependent on the ecosystem as any other aspect of human activity or the activities of other species. I urged mainstream economists not to let debates about the details of theory distract them from shifting their view to one in which the economy is viewed in its true relationship with nature. If they can do that, they can truly help to save the world by rethinking our approach to economic growth which, as it stands, is degrading the ecosystem and pushing us toward environmental collapse.

It’s not all the fault of the economists :)

But it’s not just mainstream economics which has lost sight of it’s connectedness to the ecosystem. The problem with economics is, in part, likely a reflection of a broader societal phenomenon. Recently, I came across a couple of David Suzuki articles which highlight the seriousness of the problem. (more…)

Can ecological economists save us from the mainstreamers?

Killing the earthMainstream economists are trying to kill us. They don’t think of it that way, but they should. The standard policies promoting endless economic growth of the conventional sort are destroying the ecosystem. And ecocide, should we follow through with it sufficiently, could easily mean the loss of many millions of human lives. When those economists promoting and shaping policy continue to push ecocidal policies when they could instead play a central role in protecting the ecosystem, how is that not homicide? [1] (more…)

Did someone say, “steady state economy”?

EcoEconTo some extent, I’d like the early posts here to be sequential in laying out a case for the site’s basic arguments. But timely items from around the Web and elsewhere are part of the plan as well. With that in mind, I bumped into a piece on Alternet by Stephan Harding. It’s about the idea of implementing “Tradable Energy Quotas” (TEQs) as a way of promoting a “steady state economy.”

Previously, I’ve mentioned the importance of the idea of the steady state economy. Any thoughtful examination of the current pervasive growth imperative, leads to the conclusion that endless economic growth — with its growth in physical throughput — is unsustainable. Our ecosytem has limits. And such growth is leading quickly to its collapse. A move to a steady state economy would be a key step toward putting on the brakes and taking the ecosystem fully into account in our economic policies. (more…)

Welcome to Growth is Madness!

Our finite Earth from space.Our earth is in trouble. And that means we’re in trouble. It’s no exaggeration today to say we face a looming global ecological collapse. Scientists have warned us of this for more than a decade. The warnings, from individual experts, and organizations grow more urgent.

Yet, most people’s attention is on other news. There is little awareness of the gravity of the environmental problem we face and the likely consequences if it is not vigorously addressed.

There is even less awareness of the root causes of our environmental plight. This is not too surprising as their role in creating the problems we face has been suppressed by those with vested interests in shielding us from the truth.

Simple truth

Let’s start with some truth right now. The root causes of the ecological collapse of which scientists are warning are:

  1. Global population growth to levels beyond the earth’s carrying capacity for humans.
  2. Excessive and growing per capita resource consumption rates.
  3. Economic growth (the product of #1 and #2), as defined by Herman Daly, in the form of increased physical throughput, from the extraction of raw materials, through their manufacture into commodities, to their output as wastes.
  4. Our reliance on nonrenewable resources such as fossil energy.

Those four elements are of course closely linked, with one affecting another. It takes only simple thought experiments to recognize their impacts. Imagine, for instance, that there were only one quarter as many human beings on earth as there are today (about equal to the global population of 1900!). Clearly, there would be be far less environmental degradation. We could quibble over whether or not it would be exactly one quarter the current amount. (We might speculate that the variables listed should interact differently at different levels.) But the basic idea is clear. Think similarly about the other factors, and their importance comes to light.

Room for hope!

But before you close this site in dismay at what, up to here, seems a profoundly pessimistic message, I’ll point out there is room for much hope! Experts who study the global ecological problem are clear in their assessments (pdf) that there are effective actions we can take to avert disaster or, at the least, to soften the landing. It will take serious commitments from many nations, intergovernmental cooperation, corporate and individual efforts. Part of those efforts needs to be the spreading of accurate information to inspire others to help, whether they encourage their elected representatives to take action, or they take action themselves.

Enter GIM

Thus, I launch Growth is Madness! (GIM) to help fill a void I can hardly believe exists. Relative to other issues in the news, there is a terrible dearth of information, readily available to the public, on the nature and causes of the most important problem of our time, the global environmental crisis. As far as I know, this is the only weblog currently devoted expressly to addressing the fundamental causes of this crisis. [1] In this unique role, GIM will provide key information, investigating and elaborating on the ideas mentioned above, examining counterarguments, and more.

Because they are especially ignored by the mainstream press, the population and economic growth will figure prominently here. We will, however, touch as well on other relevant topics including peak oil, per capita consumption, the political and social factors driving the areas of growth in question, various ecological topics, and actions which might ameliorate the problem. We need much more awareness, after all, of the ecological “big picture.”

In a way, I wish someone else were doing this. Though trained as a social scientist in the “scientist-practitioner” model, my academic background is in psychology. Here, I’m forced to grapple with topics from the natural sciences, economics, sociology, and anthropology among other disciplines. Others would have immediately at hand more technical knowledge. But they’re not doing this.

Starting, then, with the information I’ve gathered, I’ll continue to research as I go. And I invite you to join me, to participate in the discussion under every entry. I’m more than willing, as well, to post guest articles relevant to the site.

Finally, to anyone reading GIM, I make this pledge: I’ll always make the effort to seek the truth, to back my arguments with sound logic, and to source my information well. In addition, I want readers to feel comfortable commenting here, to know I’ll reply civilly. On the other hand, I hope the title of this weblog makes clear that I won’t mince words when it comes to stating the truth as I see it about the topics I discuss. Growth really is madness.

Welcome to GIM!
[1] Update: Greater familiarity with the available resources requires me now to qualify that statement. As a class, the sites which come closest to sharing the themes here are those focused on peak oil. While they specialize in oil depletion, often touching on related ecological issues such as population, GIM specializes in those other ecological issues, increasingly touching on peak oil.

Since writing this post, a small number of other blogs sharing GIM’s concerns have come online. Some appear in the blogroll here.

Also overlapping somewhat with GIM’s themes are a few sites which promote a return to primitivism. These folks, as well as some of those studying oil depletion, have concluded that, owing to the interactions of issues such as population overshoot and peak oil, society is headed for collapse and it’s too late to stop it. If current trends continue, I agree collapse is inevitable. I part with these analysts only in that I believe it’s premature to conclude there is no possibility we can change course soon enough and substantially enough to avert complete collapse. I would concede, though, there may be less time remaining to do so than most of us would like to believe.

Even if my assessment is too optimistic, it’s worth noting that even those convinced of the inevitability of collapse would agree there are a number of positive actions we can take now to soften the landing. Much of the content of GIM is consistent with that thought. We need to increase awareness to avert collapse, or at least to soften the landing.


Updated: 8/24/07, 10/9/07

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