You are here

Questions That Continue To Bedevil Me

Imagine trying to drive your car from Alice Springs to Melbourne or from Vancouver to Winnipeg on one tank of gas. One passenger, the environmentalist, suggests that by driving at moderate speed, the car will run for more miles per gallon. Another passenger, the techno-optimist, believes that if the car has a tune-up, it will go farther on that tank of gas than if it didn't. The socialist passenger, meanwhile, believes that conflict in the car between the two privileged people in the front and the 5 people jammed in the back could cause you to drive off the road. Guess what. They are all right---the car would probably go further if you followed their advice. One problem. The difference would be marginal. The car would still fall well short of its destination. Living 'smaller', increasing technological efficiency and achieving equality would make but a trivial and short-lived impact on overshoot. To suggest otherwise reflects a serious lack of perspective and scale.

Source of red devil figure was

That is our predicament. We won't make it with 7 billion people, and the preoccupation with green living, technological efficiencies and wealth redistribution will not make a dent on overshoot. The focus then, must be on rapid population decline. The fight for sustainability cannot be a war fought on all fronts, but a single-minded determination to remove the first stumbling block to solving all other problems.

What is to be done? What should be done? What can be done?

Who are we and why do we write? And for whom? Should we be addressing environmentalists, or a broader readership that is not captive of their myths? If so, how can we reach them?

Hope Sells

A friend of mine, "Barry", is a Jehovah's Witness. He is a sincere and decent man with the best of motives and intentions, filling his day with small acts of kindness and good works. But like me, his motivations and efforts are most probably for naught. We obviously share a burden. The burden of being Cassandras who have a vision of doom that few wish to embrace. Yet despite his tribulations, he and his brethen seem to be attracting more support than I am. Upon further discussion, he confided that he and his fellow missionaries get an overwhelmingly hostile reception---- yet his denomination is the fastest growing sect of any religion. Why? "Because after we tell people that this system of things will soon end, we tell them that there is hope for them and the people they love." That is the clincher. People don't want to be sentenced to a diet of bad news. Even those who take it in look for escape hatches. They grasp at straws. The Sierra Club and other religious organizations thrive only because they fire with both barrels of the shotgun. One convinces people that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, while the other offers them false solutions. It is a proven combination. "This is going to kill you, but this can save you". The Green Merchants of False Hope tell us that we have a terminal illness but that their elixir of green living, land-use planning and tech fixes are a miracle cure. It is a message that reaps donations and membership dues, and encourages New Society Publishers to publish a bushel of their books. Hope sells.


Bottom line: People want religion. They want comfort food, not the castor oil of unvarnished truth. So the question is, how much of a liar are you willing to become to gain a hearing? You have already swallowed your own lie---that is the first step to becoming a successful salesman. If the audience doesn't believe that you believe in your product, they will not buy your vacuum cleaner. So you have convinced yourself that you have a solution, and that it will eventually be adopted and implemented.

Now you must put on a happy face, and win over a literary agent with your charm. You buy him or her dinner, ask them about their kids and their hobbies and then present your message of doom wrapped up with Disney ending. Something Chris Clugston, in his book, "Scarcity", didn't do and refuses to do. Any more than a lab technician would doctor the results of my blood test to buoy my spirits and allow me to forget about my mortality. Some people have integrity, while the rest of us make compromises. We do that either because we are delusional or egotistical. We think meaningful change is possible and that we have a significant role to play in it.

Are We Truth-Tellers Or Salesman, Objective Analysts or Motivators For Change?

The question to consider is, why would we want to write a book? Do we want to effect change or do we want to want to tell the truth? Are we politicians or objective analysts? If we find that there are no practical solutions that have a reasonable expectation of success, do we want to broadcast that conclusion? Is there any point in writing an autopsy report on our civilization? Do we write so that we can eventually say "I told you so"? Is writing about the coming collapse just a release, an outlet for frustration? If we write to motivate change that would mitigate or prevent the catastrophe even though we believe the probability of change to be remote, does that not make us merely spin-doctors and propagandists? Are we comfortable with that?

What Do Our Half-Solutions Accomplish?

I am thinking out loud here because these are the recurring questions that have bedevilled me with increasing frequency for the past two years. I am apparently not content just to be a spectator to an unfolding disaster---I want to do "something". But isn't that part of the problem-- that too many sincere people---environmentalists----in an attempt to do "something" by pushing half-solutions, are actually making the problem worse? What did Norman Borlaug actually accomplish---other than allowing our species to add another 2 or 3 billion to its numbers? Was that not his fear? What does 'smaller' living by the rich accomplish? What does smart growth accomplish? What does the introduction of more efficient technologies accomplish? What would population stabilization accomplish? What would egalitarian redistribution of wealth accomplish if there are not enough non-renewable resources to sustain all the passengers on our overloaded global lifeboat for the whole voyage? What would absolutely air-tight borders and gated communities accomplish? What would a steady-state industrial economy accomplish? What would a one-child-per-family regime in only one or ten countries accomplish? Is slowing growth enough? Will Mother Nature grant us a reprieve or a consolation prize for simply not growing any more?

Rick Belfour bowed out of an Internet debate provoked by Dirk Becker with the lament that it was demoralizing to witness such rancour among people who essentially are on the same side--or words to that effect. The point is, however, we are not on the same side. The prescriptions that environmentalists offer are, in truth, growth-enablers. They promote growth by making more room for it. Their message is, "Move over and squeeze tighter to make room for more and more incoming people, either from the maternity ward or the airport (it makes no difference)." That is what land use planning, frugal living, and technology improvements do. They create space for continuing growth. It is not coincidental that the title of the book that formed the plot for Charlton Heston's movie, "Solyent Green", was "Make Room! Make Room!" That would be an apt slogan for the environmental movement. Their goal is to essentially manage the environment to accommodate population growth. Mine is the reverse. To shrink the population to accommodate the environment. Yet they have assumed the mantle of "environmentalists". A more appropriate description would be "growth-managers".

The source of our difference is a matter of speculation, but I have a hypothesis. Their worldview---and mine---has been typically fashioned by different educational experiences and the biases inherent in each discipline. And we continue to live in different silos. I did not take a course in biology, yet somehow I ran the gauntlet of a liberal arts education with a conceptual grasp of "limits" still intact---- but that was in an era when universities were an oasis of intellectual tolerance. Statistically, I should be parroting the same line as the "environmental justice" movement, as if nature cared about human notions of justice. But here's the point:

The Fight For Sustainability Is A Golf Game, Not A Juggling Act

Environmentalists and Malthusians are at ideological loggerheads. Ours is not a sectarian division, but a fundamentally unbridgeable chasm. There can be no alliance between us. There can be no fellowship between lightness with darkness. Or in less Biblical terms, between clarity and confusion. If that sounds arrogant and presumptuous, let me add that confusion is not a character flaw. It is just a point on the learning curve---- and hopefully we are all on a learning curve with an ambition to learn more. I was once confused--- and I am still confused--- but much less so than I was, I believe. My curve was not a continuum. I had that famous "paradigm-shift", and it was a "quantum leap", not an incremental progression. I leapt from one decompression chamber to another one, closer to the surface. Rather abruptly, I came to the realization that saving the environment was not a juggling act between causes and factors that demand equal attention, but more like a golf game. In golf, you don't begin by trying to figure out how best to sink the ball in 18 holes, by dispersing your attention to all of them simultaneously. You focus on the first hole. Without sinking the ball in the first hole, all other holes are irrelevant. In terms of environmental degradation, achieving a sustainable population level is that first hole. It is a pre-requisite of ultimate success, not a variable that must be balanced off with other variables. Thinking about the rest of them is a counter-productive distraction. Without rapid population decline, all other good destinations --- human rights, lasting peace and equity, sensible planning and durable zoning limits, or gains from technological improvements---are unreachable. The problem must be treated as one of priority and sequence, not balance.

In deference to political correctness and the sensibilities of corporate donors, the environmental movement took the "P" (population) out of the foundational formula, the "IPAT" equation, making nonsense of their project. Initially, I took the conventional view that the P must be re-inserted to restore the IPAT filter. But that reflected another kind of misunderstanding. "A" (per capita consumption) and "T" (technology) are not equal partners with "P" because a shrinking human population is a pre-condition for meaningful improvements elsewhere. Now I am putting it back in and putting the "A" and the "T" on the shelf, at the back of the queue for future consideration---where they belong. Let's focus on the first hole.

No Longer An Environmentalist

I was once an environmentalist who attacked symptoms, rather than address root problems, and for all my zeal, I did not make a difference,----unless, in my own small way, it was to make our problems marginally worse. Now I am an ex-environmentalist, still struggling to forgive those who have not followed my path, too often forgetting that I was once on theirs. If I know what they do not know, it is still a small fraction of the whole truth---which is unknowable. In the end, we may all prove to be inconsequential. In fact, that is a certainty. One day the human experiment will end---like that of every other species. But it would be nice if it didn't happen so soon.

Tim Murray
March 14, 2011

Image icon bedevilment.jpg4.23 KB
Image icon bedevilment-med.jpg19.05 KB


Tim wrote:

Living 'smaller', increasing technological efficiency and achieving equality would make but a trivial and short-lived impact on overshoot. To suggest otherwise reflects a serious lack of perspective and scale.

Tim, none of the measures I proposed to eliminate much of the waste by humankind need rocket science to implement (and few of the others, which I have yet to mention, do). Most of them could be brought into effect by simple changes of law that most would understand and support in any democratic society. I fail to see how the impact of reducing so much waste imposed upon humankind by the "free market" system could be 'trivial'.

The fact remains that the world is supporting 7 billion humans now and, short of there being a global war, which would be unlikely not to involve the use nuclear weapons (from which we can thank JFK amongst others for having saved us in the past) or new genocidal dictators in the mould of Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot rising to power, the world can and must support 7 billion people or not much less than that number for at least a few decades to come. Now surely, Tim, you don't wan't to see global human population reduced by those means? Of course it would be faster than more natural means, but, I think the cost that would be borne by our global life support system would be less if human's population reduction were achieved naturally, even if not quite as quickly.

Obviously our global life support system can't support anywhere near 7 billion people in the long term, but until numbers are reduced to truly sustainable numbers, we have to find ways to reduce the harmful impact of all those people by as much as we possibly can.

Also, by showing up how the same selfish elites, who are now trying to increase our global popuation, also favour such scandalous waste in so many areas of human activity, we stand a far greater chance of removing, through political action, the harmful control they now exert over our destinies.

This will be made more likely when we show ordinary people how, in order to increase their own bottom lines, they willingly decrease, by an amount vastly greater than what they, themselves, gain, the bottom line in natural capital of this and future generations of humankind.

If we choose to fight for sustainability only on the front of population size, then it seems to me that our chances of winning the fight, even on that front alone, are not increased, but, in fact, reduced.

The car on the long journey carrying back and front seat passengers and the golf game are both great analogies!

With regard to the need for hope in facing our situation, when I realised the connection of population growth to the use of fossil fuels, I felt enormous relief and hope that there would be an end to run away human population growth and of ultimately salvaging some of Earth's environment post peak human population- that it would mitigate the end result of run away population growth. Others may find dwindling fossil fuel frightening and confronting. What for me was information that brought hope, for others is a disaster in the wings. Of course it is both and the reality of our future of shortages now heralded from time to time with minor interruptions to the world as we know it such as the global financial crisis, water restrictions, expensive bananas or petrol, is just a foretaste.

The notion of population growth which seems to be popularly absorbed "Classic Demographic Transition Theory" is that human populations move in a "demographic transition" from lives "nasty, brutish and short" with high birth and death rates, through a drop in death rates and huge overpopulation, to the final stage where birth rates decline and settle into a pattern of low birth and death rates balancing one another in a stable pattern. This notion is actually quite pessimistic as, if true it would doom all populations to misery and overpopulation before reaching a post industrial modern state. Less well known models, actual theories of human population are much more hopeful and make more sense. For example the "Comprehensive Demographic Transition Theory",( see Global Population Speak Out website), Virginia Abernethy's "Fertility Opportunity Theory", and the multi-disciplinary work of Sheila Newman, population sociologist on land use planning and incest avoidance, are in fact much more hopeful, make sense and are compatible with one another .They are thoughtful, observable scientifically based. Why are they not widely known? Why do most people seem to understand human population growth in terms of the dismal theory that is not true? We need to throw some light on this subject, to help people regain control. Real knowledge far from causing people to shrink from it in this case would be hopeful and (forgive the term) empowering. (Sheila Newman recently published "The Urge to disperse" ideas from which were first presented at a meeting of Sustainable Population Australia in Victoria last year and this week detailed in a lecture to 3rd year environmental economics students at R.M.I.T. University, Melbourne)

I agree with Tim nearly all the way, but I have to say that while the logic of reducing P is correct, it is politically too difficult as well. Even authoritarian China, who is further down this road than any other country, hasn't also eased up on A and T, so they cannot be said to recognise I=PAT either.

When I read "Limits to Growth" back in 1971, I naively thought it would have a big impact - it didn't, apart from being denigrated by the Growth Lobby.

When I read "Abandon Affluence" by Ted Trainer in 1985, it changed my life and my lifestyle, and I hoped that my example would be infectious, but I still cannot see anyone else adopting my relatively simple lifestyle. And, of course, the brutal truth is my lifestyle is only possible while it is embedded within a rich, hi-tech society.

I was part of the formation of the Australian Greens in 1989, and worked hard to get these political ideas into the mainstream. But eventually I ran into a brick wall with Senator Christine Milne, who is committed to selling a positive future to the voters, and refuses to recognise that the energy needed for the rebuilding our entire electricity generating infrastructure, transport and metal-smelting industries is not going to be available when Peak Oil and Peak Coal start to bite. So after 19 years of effort, I had to resign from the Greens.

(I would have had to resign anyway after I saw Bob Brown throwing his support behind the Libyan no-fly zone the other day. WTF !)

I was part of Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population in the 90s and learned the hard way how that is like beating your head against a brick wall. Non-interference with family size is even written into the International Declaration of Human Rights, so I cannot see any progress being made in the short time we have left before Peak Oil drives the inevitable decline of industrial society.

The future is not going to be pretty. There is no Plan B. I comfort myself with the thought that the forests and the wildlife will heave a big sigh of relief when the bulldozers and the chainsaws fall silent. Some societies in out of the way places may not even notice this collapse, as they don't use petrol, and have never even made a telephone call, let alone had a broadband internet connection.

The collapse, when it happens, will come very quickly for all the reasons laid out in Tainter's "Collapse of Complex Societies". Most likely a shortage of petrol and diesel will prevent adequate maintenance and repair of the electricity infrastructure, which will lead to the collapse of the telephone, internet, water and sewerage services. Banks will close due to lack of electrical security systems and EFTPOS, and cash will disappear into cash registers leaving people with nothing to spend in the shops, which will be mostly empty anyway due to the lack of diesel for transport.
I have witnessed this happen on a small scale twice since moving to Mission Beach. The recovery was only possible due to an extraordinary effort from outside. What will happen when there is no 'outside' to help us?

There will be protests in the streets - "More food ! Cheaper fuel ! More jobs !", they will cry. No doubt there will be leaders who will claim that they can provide what is demanded, but it is impossible. We have massively overshot Sustainability, and now we have to meet the grisly consequences.

Tony Boys's picture


Yes, I agree, the future is not going to be pretty and there is no plan B.

What you say about fuel shortages and lack of goods in supermarkets is very similar to what we have been experiencing here in Japan in since the March 11 earthquake, and on top of that we're sitting in the middle of a nuclear disaster. The *present* isn't very pretty. The crash is happening now.

I have put up an article today. Japan Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster

I mention this article of tim's here and invite everyone to take the first step towards the society of the future by saying 'no to nuclear power'. (Since Australia mines uranium you are not off the hook.) To see my rationale, kindly read the article. If you have a comment or a word of support, I hope you will leave a comment/message. Thanks!