Editorial Note: The two excerpts below are from Peter Kalmus’ new book, Being the Change, published by New Society. You can find out more about the book and pre-order it here.
This book explores a lot of territory. It discusses climate science, climate policy, and aquifer depletion — as well as mythology, meditation, and beekeeping. These and other topics herein have been written about in greater detail elsewhere. There are entire volumes devoted to backyard chickens. So why mention them here, in a book with “climate” in its title?
The answer has to do with the nature of our predicament: global warming touches every aspect of our lives. It connects gardening to population growth, bicycling to flying in a plane. Most of all, global warming challenges us to rethink humanity’s place in the web of life on this beautiful planet — to reimagine what it means to be human. Global warming is, perhaps first and foremost, a failure of humanity’s collective imagination. As such it doesn’t fit neatly inside any single box or discipline. How, then, can we respond as individuals? In searching for answers, I’ve read books about science, policy, practical action, and spirituality. But none spoke to my being as a whole. And they tended to be too polite, too careful, too narrow; they didn’t ask enough of me. Their suggestions were not on a scale commensurate with the scale of the predicament. And far too many were joyless.
As I learned more about climate change, my need to do something intensified. The path was far from clear, but I did my best, gradually and systematically changing my daily life. My response draws on science, practical action, and spiritual examination, and these threads interweave on every level. You hold the unique result in your hands: a book written from the perspective of a meditating climate scientist who has nearly eliminated his own greenhouse gas emissions — and who discovered this to be surprisingly satisfying, empowering, and relevant to collective change. In place of burning fossil fuels, humanity can become smarter, more creative, kinder.
Since beginning down this path, I’ve covered a lot of ground. I’ve changed many things about my life and had a lot of fun. At the same time, I’ve come face-to- face with the seriousness of our predicament. To continue business as usual is to tacitly place a blind-faith bet on the emergence of some techno-fix; this amounts to magical thinking. And global warming is happening with a rapidity that leaves me speechless. The longer we take to change direction, the more suffering we’ll experience and the longer this suffering will last. And for what? A consumerist lifestyle that doesn’t even make us happy. We must do everything we can to change direction. And a big part of this is imagining, living, and telling the stories of what comes next.
In addressing something so all-encompassing, you’ll ultimately need to forge your own response. My hope is that this book will support and inspire you as you do so.
Chapter 5: Growth Always Ends – Excerpt
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. — Albert Allen Bartlett
Sooner or later, anything that physically grows must stop. This is true of plants, animals, and colonies of bacteria. It’s equally true of civilizations. And if the rate of growth is exponential, the end can come with surprising rapidity.
In this chapter, we’ll discuss how we misperceive exponential growth, and how human growth is finally bumping up against the hard physical limits of our biosphere. One way or another, and sooner or later, these limits will drive a radical transformation of human civilization.
Many people assume that the human population can grow exponentially forever because we’ll soon populate planets orbiting other stars, or that our economy can grow exponentially forever by decoupling from physical resources. Not only are these techno-dreams unrealistic, they’re dangerous distractions. Instead, I hold a different dream: living well on Earth without growth.
Every day, something growing linearly adds a fixed amount, but something growing exponentially multiplies by a fixed amount. I’ve noticed that my brain extrapolates growth by assuming trends will follow a straight line over time. For most processes this is a good short-term approximation. But if this is true of most human brains, and I think it is, it explains why exponential growth takes us by surprise: it sneaks up on us by seeming linear at first. Then it explodes.
Here’s a story illustrating this explosiveness. Ernst Stavro Blofeld has handcuffed James Bond to a seat in the top row in the Rungrado May Day Stadium in North Korea, the largest stadium in the world. Blofeld informs Mr. Bond that workers from SPECTRE have waterproofed the stadium and have placed a machine on the center of the field, far below, that releases one drop of water after the first minute, two drops after the second minute, four drops after the third minute, and continues doubling the number of drops each minute. He then says, “Goodbye, Mr. Bond,” and leaves. Bond has discerned the make and model of his handcuffs from the sound they’d made when closed; from his extensive practice he knows it will take him exactly 52 minutes to escape. Bond feels confident as he works. After all, he can’t see any water on the field, and it’s just a few drops each minute. This is too easy, he thinks. Blofeld has finally lost it. After 25 minutes, Bond can barely make out a glimmer far down on the field that might or might not be a puddle. Bond thinks nothing of it and concentrates on the task at hand. When he looks up again 19 minutes later, however, he’s shocked to see that the field is covered by water to a depth of 14 meters, and the surface is rising visibly. Bond barely has time to take his final preparatory breaths for extended immersion, because two minutes later he’s under water.
This story is an allegory for global warming or any one of a number of interconnected exponential processes to be explored in this chapter. Human greenhouse gas emissions (mainly CO2) and atmospheric CO2 concentration are both growing exponentially at a rate of 2.2% per year (see Chapter 3). Something growing at a continuous rate of R percent per year doubles every 69 ∕ R years. At 2.2% annual growth the cumulative amount of greenhouse gases we’ve dumped into the atmosphere is doubling every 30 years. Before James Watt patented his steam engine in 1781, the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration was 280 ppm. The Earth’s climate was stable and amenable for human civilization. By 2014, the CO2 concentration had risen to 400 ppm. This increase implies that if we continue business as usual, 30 years after 2014 the human contribution of 120 ppm will have doubled, taking us up to 520 ppm in 2044. If we exceed emissions growth of 2.2% per year, we will of course reach this doubling a little sooner; if we ramp down from 2.2% per year it will take longer.
Table 5.1 shows CO2 concentrations at 2.2% annual growth. Notice how slowly the growth starts: it takes five doublings just to get above a 10% increase. Most humans weren’t concerned by this early growth, myself included. In the year 2000, with my linear brain attending to other matters (making money and finding a mate), I tacitly assumed that humanity had 100 years or so to do something about global warming. I wasn’t alarmed, and neither were any of my friends or colleagues.
But as you can see, the early 21st century marks a sea change in growth, with the relentless power of doubling causing human CO2 emissions to suddenly dominate the biosphere’s stable, preindustrial 280 ppm. Today, we’re poised on the brink of explosiveness. This is one reason I’m certain that global fossil-fueled industrial civilization will soon end, one way or another.