Growth

Someone on Facebook asked about the implications of the linked article below…..

The end of growth sparks wide discontent

…..”Can you break this article down into a statement that can be understood in laymen’s terms? I read most of it and felt smart even though I’m almost completely lost on its implications ..”

This was my reply (here expanded a bit):

“Growth is a function of energy use. When all you have is the sun’s energy to grow with (via the photosynthesis of green plants), you can only support so many people and produce so many artifacts and much of this will be done with human labour. Fossil fuels made it possible to increase all that by a thousandfold. Now, they’re starting to run out—discovery and production have both peaked. So there will  be a contraction—in the number of people that can be supported and the number of things that can be done and produced. The implications of too many humans to be supported by photosynthetic energy? Wars over declining resources; thousands of deaths; loss of those things that need fossil fuels for their production*; a return to a simpler way of life, eventually with human numbers in balance with their energy supply. It won’t be pretty and we’ll lose a lot of what we now take for granted. And all that while trying to cope with the effects of climate change, which our thoughtless use of fossil fuels has caused.”

*including wind turbines and solar panels—so there goes your hopes that we’ll keep this way of life going on renewables. The only renewable sources of energy for life on earth are green plants.

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6 Responses to “Growth”

  1. Chris Says:

    Good explanation. I can see why someone quizzed you on what it all meant. As I found a few “interpretative” pieces of logic in the article, which are not done deals as far as I’m concerned. Growth, “as we know it” on paper, may have stopped, but growth in general hasn’t.

    Meaning, you can have growth in the domestic realm, which is fantastic for local economies – but it won’t do much to increase the growth of global expansion. You can even have an increase in self-employed entrepreneurs, working out their backyard – trading with others in their community doing the same thing. But it’s not going to reflect in the jobs figures, or GPD.

    I understand the dialogue required to explain how the economic growth model, is no longer working – but on a philosophical level, growth does not halt. It just changes what it grows into, and the addiction to collecting data, will always lag behind that evolution.

    Maybe that’s why no one is talking about the alternative, as the article seems to imply. I think plenty of people are talking alternatives. But they’re not restricting it to “economic growth” as we’ve known it to be. More a boom of re-skilling human labour, design and ingenuity for regional resilience.

    At least that’s what I’m witnessing in my region. There’s a re-emergence of old skills in the public domain, an increase in farmers markets, and talking to people on the ground, they’re happy to “trade” with me. Sometimes money, other times it’s an exchange of resources, knowledge or even your labour. The growth is there. It’s just not in the hands of one economic model, any more.

    While I agree there’s a lot of hype around renewable energies, saving the day (and it should be called-out as hype, as you have done) I wouldn’t completely write off wind. Australian outback farms ran water pumps on windmills, and many still do. Hydro power in regions with large waterfalls, don’t require base load either. Because the falls run 24/7-365. It’s not going to keep global expansion from declining, but there are sustainable options, so long as they’re based on natural elements. They are meant for regional dispersal though, not for long distance transfer.

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    • foodnstuff Says:

      Chris, I’m wondering whether we’re on the same wavelength when using the term ‘growth’. Whatever humans do, if it facilitates the use of more energy than the environment would do naturally, then human numbers will grow. The primary use of that energy will be to access food (which allows more humans to survive); after that any excess energy will allow the production of artifacts like computers and art galleries, etc. It sounds like you’re using the term growth to mean development.

      You can’t have growth in any realm, domestic or otherwise, without an eventual collapse back to carrying capacity, because a growing organism will eventually exceed the carrying capacity of its environment for its species, simply by taking more resources than other species can do. Humans are able to manipulate their environment like no other species can. This is why no other species rarely grows beyond carrying capacity.

      The windmills you mentioned are a perfect example. By having the intelligence and manual dexterity that other species don’t have, humans can make water available to food crops, increase energy intake and hence grow their numbers.

      I feel I’m not making a good fist of explaining where I’m coming from here; If there is one thing I can say, it is that life on earth evolved with all species living ‘in the hands of the gods’ as it were. Any species that has the intelligence and ability to take its life out of the hands of the gods, and into its own hands, will eventually grow its numbers and crash the system. We appear to be that species. Fortunately, for the good of all life, we will eventually eliminate ourselves and the balance will be restored. Unfortunately, in so doing, we will eliminate a huge proportion of other life in the process.

      Humans evolved to live sustainably as hunter-gatherers, just like every other species. No other way is sustainable.

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      • Chris Says:

        This is a very interesting discussion we’re having Bev, because it goes beyond public portrayal of growth (ie: economic models) and delves into personal interpretation. Because those interpretations will have some variances, we can expand the definition further.

        I get your point about growth vs development though. Or to put it another way; population numbers vs sustainable renewal of resources. Population and resources have always fluctuated, whether they are in the hands of the gods, or our own though. Because there are too many variables to control.

        Where we have turned a blind eye, and may be why economists and politicians, aren’t talking alternatives publicly, is because our culture doesn’t have a healthy relationship with death. Whether it’s killing the food we eat, a dying economic model, or simply allowing someone the dignity of death. Society will cry murder, and you’re without moral comprehension, if you wish to make peace with death at the table of life.

        So we’re continually stuck at denial, and allowing the population numbers to grow. Once upon a time, there was a turnover (renewal) of human life, and it was accepted as part of the natural equation. It wasn’t enjoyed, but it was accepted. No moral outrage for allowing someone their time to die.

        Can we do better than hunter-gatherers – that is the question burning in my mind? Can we balance the thread between life and death, while enhancing the natural systems around us, better than we are? I think we have to change our moral compass as a society first. We need to allow some of the natural laws, back into our comprehension. Starting with a healthy respect for death, acceptance and renewal. Rather than treating it like the enemy.

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        • foodnstuff Says:

          I’m still not sure where you’re coming from, Chris. What does denial of death have to do with growth? I agree that death is one of the things that the people of our culture are in denial about (hence the belief in life after death), but growth is simply a function of energy use. A species that is able to capture more energy (as food) will increase its numbers. That is what agriculture has done for humans. Pre-agricultural humans had their numbers controlled by the availability of food as all other species have. When we adopted agriculture, we took our lives out of the hands of the gods and into our own hands. That ensured that human numbers would grow to the point where carring capacity would be exceeded and that’s where we are now. Collapse back to sustainable numbers is an ecological given.

          We can’t ‘do better’ than hunter-gatherers, that is the optimum, evolutionarily-based way of life for humans and all other species. It is how life operates on this planet.

          We don’t need to enhace the natural systems around us…..we just need to leave them alone to operate as evolution has programmed them to operate and we need to live within the laws that govern all life.

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  2. Chris Says:

    I went away to think about, a better description of what I’m trying to convey. A forest, is an example of an organism (like humanity) capable of continually expanding. Trees, once grown, provide immense resources for nature to provide abundance to other species. That’s what we’re capable of duplicating too, and should, since we’re the ones removing forests in the first place.

    So when I ask if we can do better than the hunter-gatherers, I’m suggesting, we can duplicate the forest (or natural patterns) as part of our species survival. Instead of just taking from the system, as hunter-gatherers did – and we presently do, through agriculture. Could we instead, use our numbers advantage, over other species, to increase resource dispersal, back into nature. In a way the natural system, can actually absorb it.

    To use the forest analogy again, to describe denial of death, consider how much space it makes (and resources are freed up) when old trees, fall in the forest. Suddenly, a flurry of new plants emerge, to fill in the gap. If we encouraged the natural progression of old age, is to free up resources (as it was once believed to be – working a lifetime to provide an adequate inheritance for the next generation) a lot more resources would be freed up. Reducing the need to continually expand resources.

    I don’t know if that makes more sense? So long as we focus on putting a return back, as extensively as a forest does, and allow death to rejuvenate the living (by freeing up resources) then expansion is actually desirable to the natural system. Because more resources become available, by increasing the species which disperses them, as part of their existence.

    By failing to disperse natural resources in a productive and responsible manner, we threaten our own species survival. It’s not growth of our species. Any more than a forest is in danger of extinction, by producing more and more trees. If the trees withheld the resource they are capable of dispersing in their lifetimes, however, that would be a different story. 😉

    I’ve enjoyed sharing this discussion with you. I don’t know if I’m right or wrong – I just like to consider, different ways of looking at things.

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    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Chris, sorry I’ve been a while…..coping with 40 deg temps!

      I see where you’re coming from now; the forest is a good analogy. We need to stop destroying forests and allow them to regenerate.

      But the essence of the problem is that all species grow and reproduce to the carrying capacity of their environment for them. Once that is achieved, growth (i.e. an increase in their numbers), stops and a balance is achieved. But it’s a dynamic balance. When a tree falls, as you say, space is freed up for other species to occupy and the balance is restored. When humans took up agriculture, the balance was upset. More food was made available to humans than the environment would do naturally and so our numbers grew. To feed the extra mouths we cleared land to grow more food and the population grew even more. After 10,000 years of that, we are where we are now…totally out of balance with the rest of life on this planet.

      All species take resources from their environment and put back wastes (which are just resources for other species). Much human waste (e.g. plastics) can’t be used by other species. That’s where your second paragraph comes in….we can do better than,or equal to, hunter-gatherers, by ensuring all our wastes are usable by other species. The frustrating thing is that we know this….we just don’t do it. We know how life works on this planet….we know the ecology, but we go against it in every possible way.

      Ultimately, agriculture was/is the problem. No other species had the intelligence, upright habit and manual dexterity to achieve it. And now it is not a problem but a predicament. We have done what we have done and are in ecological overshoot. Collapse and die-off is nature’s solution and it will be part of the future. All we can to is adapt or go extinct.

      Just re-read your second-last paragraph. Yes, good point, there are too many resources tied up in human bodies now. If and when our numbers decrease to sustainable levels, those resources will be back in the ecosystems where they belong. I think this is what you meant by return of resources? I think the current figure is that humans and human activities take up over 40 % of Net Primary Productivity of the planet. NPP is defined as all the energy produced and stored by photosynthesis. Far too much for one species.

      Enjoying the discussion, too. I would like to bring this sort of thing into the blog more, but feel I would lose a lot of readers. Have already had some criticism in the comments box from one reader (only one, so not too much of a problem, but don’t know how many others have moved away. WordPress stats say numbers reading have decreased).

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