A Gathering of Silverbacks: Age of Limits 2014
"Whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual but came in lurches. Resilience is the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving that kind of shock."
The first known use of the Infinite Improbability Drive was initiated by Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian on the starship Heart of Gold. Its major consequence was rescuing Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from open space, at the probability of two to the power of 276,709 to one against. Other events that occurred, including those that occurred at a time of abnormality, include:
- Lots of paper hats and party balloons appeared from a hole in the universe and drifted off in space.
- A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts came from the hole and died from a combination of asphyxiation and surprise.
- 239,000 lightly fried eggs fell out of the hole and onto the famine struck land of Poghril in the Pansel system. This caused the one surviving man of the Poghril tribe to die from cholesterol poisoning some weeks later.
- Arthur and Ford appeared to be at the sea front at South End, and were passed by a man with five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers.
Improbability is something we just have to come to better grips with. When we were young, we learned from those around us, hairless baboons like ourselves who had been here longer, in some cases much longer, that they were once young like us and that now they had grown up and gone on to be something like what we would eventually become. We learned that is how the world works. As we studied history and listened to the tales we were told, we constructed patterns to explain the world in terms of linear progressions. History marches. Spot the trend and follow the chart. Skate to where the puck will be.
Now, arriving at this new century we have to throw out that rule book. We are in the realm of highly improbable events that almost daily transform our world. The world our children and grandchildren will inhabit, and the rules they must learn to live by, or even invent, will be very different than those of our grandparents and their grandparents. For these momentous changes, one needs to seek some kind of guidance, and it can be difficult to find.
Somewhere up a wooded ridgeline following a dirt road in the Appalachians on the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Kentucky border, by a hillside where a strong river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, you’ll find Orren Whiddon building ceremonial circles out of huge monoliths. Orren was raised in a Texas farm family, became a machinist, and now, 57 with a greying beard, has been methodically putting together a small colony of would-be Anthropocene survivors and assembling a village-scale doomstead.
He wears torn bluejeans held by leather suspenders over a striped shirt recently stained with grease and spattered with sawdust from the machine shop where he spends his time on custom work when not roaming the land or sitting at a computer browsing RSS feeds of world news. Half-read books pile up on his desk, amidst stacks of scientific paper reprints, mail and notepads. Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary is a retreat for native and non-native worshipers, a place of sweat lodges and Beltaine fire circles, home to a large annual music festival, and one other event of note — this annual Age of Limits conference.
Of course, most USAnians don’t believe in limits, so this small conference is sparsely attended. The demographic seems to be white middle class, generally 35-60, two-thirds male, half of that bearded. There is a large Midwestern component — to glance around, it could be an Amway seminar.
“There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder," said Ronald Reagan in one State of the Union address. Those assembled here would beg to differ. Orren has put together a roster of speakers — Dennis Meadows, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Gail Tverberg, Mark Cochrane and others — who have been sussing out the challenges of climate change and peak everything and are preparing to field tough questions.
“When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose.” — John Michael Greer
Orren keeps talking about how hard dirt farming is, at the same time being skeptical of permaculture. As we go about preparing our talk we mull this paradox. Our view of the future is similar (and we are speaking personally here) to Professor Guy McPherson’s (a speaker at AoL 2013) — it is too late already for sustainability, whatever that word means — but our passing into the troubled future can be eased, just a bit, by whatever ecological restoration works we can accomplish and the redesign of human ecologies to sustain us within that remnant. We need not choose to live in ecovillages because we have moral responsibilities (Tolstoyan, Gandhian, Sarvodaya or Ananda Marga communities for example), although we do. We don’t choose because we are in the vanguard of a Great Turning, although we may be. We choose because these places, and the companionship they offer, are simply more fun!
This will form the core of our own two-hour talk — ecovillages as part of a shift from a K-type sere to an R-type sere such as John Michael Greer talks about in The Ecotechnic Future. By joining the next stage of succession early — moving from woody stemmed, overconsumptive, rapid growth pioneer species to more resilient, community-based, elegantly efficient, slow production varietals — we have the wind at our stern, the waves at our bow.
In the green room (a.k.a the Loft at Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary), the night before his scheduled talk, a small group of us circled Dennis Meadows, the oldest of our group of silverback gorillas — as Orren is fond of calling us — and inquired about his lifelong apostate experience.
The findings of the famous 1972 study. Limits to Growth, and those that followed* concluded that the world can only sustain a limited human population and that at some point the planet’s ecological limit will be reached and then exceeded. These conclusions — arrived at by collaboration of some of the world’s best scientists — are still unpopular and largely ignored, if not ridiculed.
For anyone unfamiliar with Limits to Growth, let us backtrack and mention the salient points of its history. The story really began with the remarkable insight of Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist who had joined the anti-fascist underground during the World War II and in 1944 had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and almost executed. After the war he accepted a work assignment to South America that developed into a lifetime passion for long-range thinking that he applied to governments and private charities to tackle the problems of development. Peccei urged upon would-be movers and shakers a global perspective, for the long term, with a harder look at the cluster of intertwined problems he called "the problematique." At a meeting at Peccei’s home in April of 1968, the Club of Rome was birthed.
At around the same time, a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), headed by Jay Forrester, began using advancements in computer processing power to model the implications of continued growth on population increase, agriculture production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution. Forrester made an offer to the Club of Rome to adapt his dynamic model, which he called “World-1” to the modeling of global resources and challenges.
At MIT, Forrester placed Meadows in charge of assembling what grew to be more than 60 contributors to the effort, and took two years to produce the first Limits study for the Club and a model called World-3. Immediately economists, scientists and political figures criticized the methodology, the computer, the conclusions and the people behind the project. Even many who agreed that growth could not continue indefinitely argued that a natural end to growth was preferable to intervention, or that, driven by classical economic theory, technology would solve all problems.
The other silverbacks asked: after his work was derided by the chattering media, and then by otherwise serious scientists, economists, politicians and world leaders, how had it affected Meadows? The professor looked down at his chest and gave the question thought for a moment. Then this conversation ensued:
Dennis Meadows: One of the truisms of life is you should play the cards you are dealt, and not wishing you had another deck.
Gail Tverberg: We are not dealing with a closed system. We are getting energy from the sun all the time. Nature abhors a vacuum and nature also abhors energy that has not been dissipated. And one of those things that dissipates energy extremely well is civilization. So its not as though you said it wrong. It is as though you are trying to fight a hurricane.
Meadows: Well, there are some physical phenomena that people understand. Gravity, for instance. People have a visual, intuitive understanding of what happens when you drop something. And if you want to catch it (makes motion of dropping from one hand, catching with the other) what you have to do, and so on. Or, when you are driving a car, you have some sense about momentum. But entropy, which is what you are talking about, is sufficiently abstract that most people do not grasp….
Tverberg: But this is not just closed system entropy. This is a dissipative system. This is dealing with the world as it really is, with the sun coming in and energy going back out again.
Dr. Mark Cochrane: But what you are saying in terms of fossil fuels, what we are expending in terms of energy is only 1/20 of what comes from the sun every day. So we are not dissipating — we are actually accumulating.
John Michael Greer: Well, the reference to dissipative systems, as recently applied to civilizations, I mean, come on. A hurricane is a dissipative system, but it has properties like tending to maintain itself, and behaving according to its own internal dynamics, and there is not much you can do to it to disrupt that process until it runs through to its conclusion. In the same way, if I am understanding you correctly, you say a civilization is like a slow hurricane.
Greer: And once it gets started, it is going to go through a certain swath of destruction until it finally peters out. There has actually been quite a lot of work along the same lines with regard to civilizations. I refer you to the work of Arnold Toynbee. I refer you to the work of Oswald Spengler. They are in fact arguing that civilizations have a predictable life cycle, as a hurricane does.
Meadows: The big point here is that these are issues that are never going to be subject to black and white proof, and which are extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, for many people to understand, never mind incorporate into a new pattern of behavior. So, that’s the world we live in. We have our perceptions, which, it seems to me, are more or less correct. And then comes the question, so what do we do about it?
Greer: I have been arguing since some time in the 1980s that we passed the point where we can make corrections. So, barring neat science fiction ideas and ad hoc arguments, where are we headed?
Meadows: Or to put it more concretely, given that I am giving a speech tomorrow to a group of people that generally share our views, what is some useful information to convey to them? I personally have been looking forward to this opportunity because for the first time, literally the very first time, after 42 years and thousands of speeches, I don’t have to make the case that there are limits and we are past them. This crew accepts that, and they want to know what to do about it.
I think the people who are going to be there tomorrow hear about the future but a principal amount of them are wondering what they should be doing. I think Orren captured it well when he said, I used to be doing this for my grandchildren, and then I started doing it for my children and now I am doing it for the younger members of the population of the farm, but two years from now I may be looking out for myself. That is, as a principal motivation.
This place, or places like it, succeed. They are useful models and also they provide some stability and resilience to the larger system. Nonetheless, the principal motivation is, what should I do with my money?
Greer: I think you will find it is more diverse than that. There are people who are worried — oh my god how am I going to put food on the table? And there are people with a wider range of motivations. There are positions outside save myself and save the world. There are a few people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something. There are lots of things we can do apart from personal survival to mitigate the worst. Rather than sit around and chat away merrily that we will all be dead by 2030 or surely fusion reactors will come along…
Greer: Thorium reactors! Unicorn farts. There is a herd of unicorns galloping here from Alpha Century and we will get though just as soon as we figure out how to extract twinkle dust from their flatulence and that will give us enough to power the solar system. I promise you that is about as rational as thorium reactors.
The next morning, in the large outdoor pavilion at Four Quarters, Meadows perched on a stool and began by reiterating that he was grateful to be singing to the choir, for a change, but not at all sure where it might go. He began with a recollection of an overland trek that he and his wife, Donnella, had made from London to Sri Lanka and back in 1969-1970.
“And I still remember the amazement with which I came to know that at a certain point in the Central Valley in Afghanistan, I was standing on a piece of ground where at least 50 major civilizations had prevailed … had come and said, ‘Okay, this is it, we’re the best, we’re the last, don’t worry about what comes next because this is it,’ and then they all disappeared. That was very interesting to me.”
In 1972, the team of 66 scientists he assembled for the original Limits to Growth study concluded::
- If present policies are sustained, the limits to physical growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years.
- The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
- It is possible to alter these policies and establish a condition of ecological and economic stability.
- The sooner we start working to attain that condition, the greater is our chance of success and the more attractive will be the options available to us.
This is old news. Meadows queried the audience. “What do we do now? Here we are. We see what’s coming. What do we do? How much time do we have? What are the likely outcomes of our actions?”
Meadows asked everyone to put down their pen and paper and cross their arms. “Look down and see which wrist is on top.” He then had them unfold, and repeat the movement.
“How many of you had the same wrist on top both times?” Most.
“Everyone who had your left wrist up both times, raise your hand.”
“Everyone who had your right wrist up both times raise your hand.”
About half and half.
“That’s normal. Crossing your arms is a habit. A habit is a pattern that you adopt subconsciously to free your conscious mind up for more important matters. And when you don’t need to use your two hands for anything, it's a habit to cross your arms to get them out of the way.
“So, cross your arms the other way” (pause while people grope to get it right, laughter).
“Okay, this illustrates three points which I think are also appropriate for this conversation we are going to have about collapse. 1. It is possible to change your behavior. You all managed to do it, by and large. 2. It does, however, take some effort and some thought to change your patterns of behavior. Expect to make mistakes. 3. It doesn’t feel as comfortable at first. A new pattern of behavior, if scrutinized, is stressful at a subliminal level.
“The things we have to do to prepare for what I will loosely term collapse have, I think, those three features. We can do them, but it isn’t going to be easy. And we absolutely should not expect to avoid mistakes. Actually you learn from your mistakes. You don’t learn from your successes.
“We shouldn’t expect that we are going to have a conversation and then everyone is going to simply head off in a new direction. That is not how it works.”
In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.
Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or supervolcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years.
Meadows says that in 1972 we had reached about 85% of Earth’s carrying capacity and today we are about 125%, and every month we delay in getting back within limits erodes Earth’s further ability to tolerate us. “The reason we don’t have a response to climate change,” he said, “is not because we don’t have better models. It’s because people don’t care about climate change.” That may be our epitaph.
In 2012, The Club of Rome released an update taking the famous 1972 study out to 2052. — 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Why 2052? Jorgen Randers, one of the authors, said he wanted to know what the rest of his life would be like. He’d be near 100 then. Now he knows.
- While the process of adapting humanity to the planet's limitations has started, the human response will be too slow.
- The current dominant global economies, particularly the United States, will stagnate. Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten leading emerging economies (referred to as 'BRISE' in the Report) will still progress, slowly, based upon available local resources.
- China will be a (short term) success story, because of its ability to muster coordinated action.
- Despite all efforts to the contrary, there will still be 3 billion global poor in 2052.
- Global population will have peaked at 8 billion a decade earlier, in 2042. The birthrate will be marked by falling fertility in urban areas, the death rate by increasing numbers of those ill from malnutrition and without access to health care. Famines will most affect the poor — those unable to keep up with the price of food.
- Global GDP, while not immediately reversing, will grow much more slowly than expected, because of slower productivity growth in mature economies. The new growth will be a product of population growth and desperate expenditures of labor and treasure to mitigate or adapt to climate shocks.
- Despite never-ending high-level meetings, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to grow and cause a rise in temperature of +2°C by 2052; +2.8°C in 2080, by which point climate change may have become irrevocably self-reinforcing. After that the word “limits” will have outlived its usefulness.
Some speakers who are less familiar with the dynamics of non-linear convecting fluid dynamics pulled out old canards that really should have been retired by now. Gail “the Actuary” Tverberg, whose views are very much in step with many in the peak oil world, said, “It could be caused by solar heating, we don’t know,” (easily debunked by solar observation data) and “there is no way we could find as much carbon to burn as the IPCC has in its scenarios” (the IPCC report runs all its scenarios against an abrupt cessation event and relatively little changes because of the built-in inertia).
Even John Michael Greer trudged out his tired old line about “don’t you remember 30 years ago when everyone was saying we would get another ice age — maybe fast? Show of hands? See! Climate science has no credibility.” Mark Cochrane, Senior Scientist at the Geospacial Sciences Center, thankfully addressed this in his later talk by noting the difference between science-fiction writers and actual climate scientists.Meadow’s talk included a chart showing the catabolic step we might expect of climate change about mid-21st century. He pointed out that whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual, coming in lurches, rather than smooth waves. He gave the example of a reagent being slowly added to a beaker until suddenly, saturation is reached and color or something else abruptly changes. The smooth comfort of the Hubbert bell curve is unlikely when net energy extraction or compounding climate feedbacks are considered.
It is urgent, he said, to increase the resilience of our systems. He went on to define resilience as the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving a shock from some problem.
There are two ways to increase resilience:
- Change the structure of the system
- Define different essential functions
His final slide was a partial list of ways to alter the structure for increased resilience:
- Raise Efficiency — spend smart, not more
- Build Barriers — determine where your vulnerabilities lie and decouple from risks
- Increase Redundancy – hedge your bets as best you can
- Add Buffers — stocks that reduce urgency in times of supply crunches
- Predict Future Shocks — knowing that you can’t predict everything
These steps can be taken at all scales and by investing in both physical and social capital. Had the presentations been in better order, this would have been a nice segue into our own talk, or Dmitry Orlov’s, which were about placing greater value on small communities, and working to build resilience as villagers, not as lone individuals or megacities. We hardly needed to make that point, however. Four Quarters villagers, laboring to supply us with freshly baked breads, gluten-free entrees, home-brewed meads in 6 different flavors and local string music late into the nights made the point for us.
Meadows went to pains to say that the World-3 model made no attempt to predict what would occur once limits were exceeded. “At that point,” he said, “we are into unprecedented things.” Indeed, we are into the realm of non-linear, infinitely variable, coupled systems, which not even the most powerful supercomputers can accurately model. Well, perhaps the Hitchhiker’s Guide, under the heading “Infinite Improbability Drive.”
Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W.W., 1972, Limits to Growth (Washington: Potomac Associates)
Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., and Meadows, D.L., 2004, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green and Earthscan)
Bardi, U., 2011, The Limits to Growth Revisited (London: Springer)
Randers, et. al., 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Club of Rome Report, 2012)
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