Stairway to Heaven

August 19, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

In Nine to Five Jane Fonda’s character, Judy Bernly, is the office newbie.  In a scene evoking Lucille Ball on the assembly line, she pushes too many buttons on an enormous Xerox machine and fills the floor with blizzard drifts of copy paper.

Image RemovedTechnocornucopians see the world of the future as a great 3D printer with an unlimited supply reservoir. Push a few buttons and we can fulfill everyone’s wildest dreams. What need have we for terror or strife? Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research for Singularity University says:
The next decade will be the most innovative decade in human history: technologies are advancing so rapidly, entire industries will be wiped out and new ones created out of nowhere. … We don’t think about man-machine convergence or all this sci-fi stuff. We talk about practical implementation of today’s technologies — harnessing advancing technologies to do good for mankind.
Think of each piece of paper flying out of Judy Bernly’s grasp as just another great solution searching for a problem. Go ahead Judy, push that button again. The machine will know what to do.
It’s not true that we can’t solve big problems through technology. We can, we must, but these four elements must all be present: Political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem; institutions must support its solution; It must really be a technological problem; and we must understand it. The Apollo mission, which has become a kind of metaphor for technology’s capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria. But it is an irreproducible model for the future. It is not 1961. There is no galvanizing contest like the Cold War, no politician like John Kennedy who can heroize the difficult and the dangerous, and no popular science fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system. Most of all, going to the moon turned out to be easy. It was just three days away. And arguably it wasn’t even solving much of a problem.
– Jason Pontin, Can technology solve our big problems? (TED talk, Oct 2013)
Technology might even come up with a 3D printable stairway to heaven but that capability should not be confused with the availability of the natural resources required to fuel it or the machinations of humans allowed to control it.


Marc Andreeson, who developed the first internet browser and today runs one of the largest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley was interviewed by The New Yorker  earlier this year:

“Even if we could do perfect analysis, we just can’t know the future,” he said. “What if Google Ventures had access to all Google searches—could you predict hit products? Or perfect access to all of people’s conversations or purchases? You still wouldn’t know what’s going to happen. How is psychohistory going?” he went on, referring to Isaac Asimov’s invention, in his “Foundation” novels, of a statistical field that could predict the behavior of civilizations. “Not very fucking good at all! Which, by the way, is part of what makes this job really fun. It’s a people business. If we could revise the industry completely, we’d just dump all the business plans and focus on people—the twenty-three-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.” He acknowledged, though, that his optimism dims once human beings—with their illogic, hidden agendas, and sheer bugginess—enter the equation. “We’re imperfect people pursuing perfect ideas, and there’s tremendous frustration in the gap,” he said. “Writing code, one or two people, that’s the Platonic ideal. But when you want to impact the world you need one hundred people, then one thousand, then ten thousand—and people have all these people issues.” He examined the problem in silence. “A world of just computers wouldn’t work,” he concluded wistfully. “But a world of just people could certainly be improved.”

Over the last couple of months Samuel Alexander has published two collections of essays, the first called Prosperous Descent: Crisis as Opportunity in an Age of Limits; the second Sufficiency Economy: Enough, for Everyone, Forever. Perhaps one of the better features of Alexander’s writing, which tends toward tedious restatement of the obvious, is when he summarizes. Here, for instance, are 12 guiding precepts:
  1. Pursuing limitless growth on a finite planet is a recipe for ecological and humanitarian catastrophe.
  2. ‘Green growth’ is a dangerous myth that entrenches the status quo.
  3. ‘Degrowth’ (i.e., planned contraction of resource and energy demands) is necessary in the developed nations in order to move toward a just and sustainable economy that operates within the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.
  4. Addressing poverty within a degrowth framework implies a redistribution of wealth and power on a much more egalitarian basis.
  5. Degrowth implies radically reduced energy and resource requirements compared to overdeveloped nations.
  6. It is not enough merely to live more simply within existing structures and systems.
  7. At some point, when the social movement becomes powerful enough, there will need to be some democratic social planning of the economy to ensure that the necessary degrowth transition does not collapse the economy.
  8. Degrowth is thus incompatible with capitalism.
  9. A swift transition to renewable energy is necessary to respond to climate change and peak oil.
  10. Climate change and peak oil are not the fundamental problems. Rather, they are the symptoms of the cultures and systems of consumer capitalism.
  11. Material sufficiency in a free society provides the conditions for an infinite variety of meaningful, happy, and fulfilling lives.
  12. Chances of success do not look good.
It is not enough to know what is wrong. You also have to be able to know how to fix it. Over several millennia keen observers have committed forests of paper to describing the wrong turn being taken by their respective cultures. Relatively few were able to forge a popular will towards making course corrections, and most of those changes were eventually canceled out by the law of unintended consequences. 

Consider Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, exposing corruption in the meat packing industry. Meat-packing unionized, the FDA was created, and today you will find it difficult to purchase non-GMO, grass-fed, ranch-slaughtered cattle and poultry, or raw milk. What about Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, the anti-slavery tome by Harriet Beecher Stowe? When introduced to Ms. Stowe, Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." From that book we get blackface minstrelsy and stereotypes of dark-skinned mammys and faithful-to-their-oppressor Uncle Toms.

Can we be more thoughtful about culture repair than we have been in the past? Alexander says:
First, we must adequately understand the nature and extent of the overlapping crises that confront us today. Secondly, we must envision the alternative world, or matrix of alternative worlds, that would adequately dissolve the current crises and provide the foundations for a flourishing human civilisation into the deep future. And thirdly, having provided an accurate critique and having envisioned an appropriate and effective alternative, we must meditate deeply on the question of strategy – the question of how best to direct our energies and resources if we are to maximise our chances of building the new world we have imagined. Then, and only then, are we in a position to ask ourselves the ultimate question: what is to be done? If that question is asked prematurely, or if it is asked having answered any one of the preliminary questions inadequately, then there is a great risk that one’s action, motivated by the best of intentions, is directed in ways that fail to effectively produce any positive effect and, indeed, may even be counter-productive to the cause.
Alexander follows in the footsteps, as he acknowledges, of the seminal work of Eugene and Mary Odum and in particular, their 2000 paper, A Prosperous Way Down.   Of the impending energy collapse, the Odums wrote:
We recognize four main stages of the pulsing cycle: (1) growth on abundant available resources, with sharp increases in a system’s population, structure, and assets, based on low-efficiency and high-competition (capitalism and monopolistic overgrowth); (2) climax and transition, when the system reaches the maximum size allowed by the available resources, increases efficiency, develops collaborative competition patterns, and prepares for descent by storing information; (3) descent, with adaptations to less resources available, a decrease in population and assets, an increase in recycling patterns, and a transmission of information in a way that minimizes losses; (4) low-energy restoration, with no-growth, consumption smaller than accumulation, and storage of resources for a new cycle ahead. The pulsing paradigm has always been in front of our eyes. Forest ecosystems never did anything different, with short pulsing cycles that we were able to see and understand. 
It was the Odums’ hope that decisive changes in attitudes and practices can divert a destructive collapse, leading instead to conservation of resources and renewal. That is in large part why they took up teaching — as a way to influence future trendmakers. The "how" in Alexander’s four step sequence was, for the Odums, to be found in changing the attitudes of the next generation.
Frankly, we find Alexander’s kneeling curtsies to the slower students in mainstream culture less than endearing. Here, for example, is Alexander wringing his hands about capitalism:

Admittedly, this is a realisation that I resisted for some time, hoping that the social, economic, and environmental crises that human beings face would not require such terrifyingly fundamental change. Couldn’t we just reform capitalism? Eventually, however, I realised that there was no honour in deceiving myself and potentially others just because the challenge of replacing capitalism seemed, and still seems, like an impossible pipe dream. The first question to grapple with is whether capitalism needs to be replaced, not whether we will ever succeed in doing so, and the nature of capitalism is such that it is unable to deal with the crises we face. 

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Capitalism has a ‘grow or die’ imperative built into its very structure. At every turn participants in the market economy are more or less compelled to pursue profit or else risk being destroyed by competitors running them out of business. The technologies and products that are developed under capitalism are the one’s [SIC] that promise the best return, not the one’s [SIC] that are most needed. Similarly, the distribution of resources is determined by who has the most money, not who needs the resources the most. The structures and incentives of capitalism also create constant pressure for individuals and businesses to externalise environmental and social costs, making it impossible to price commodities in a way that ensures ‘optimal’ consumption and production. The consequence is that the justifications of capitalism based on wealth-maximisation and efficiency are rarely if ever reflected in reality. Furthermore, the vast amounts of private and public debt that have been taken on in recent decades depend on continued growth for those debts to be repaid. For all these reasons, the idea of reforming capitalism in a way that deals with the crises of civilisation entails irresolvable contractions. Perhaps the most compelling reason for why capitalism cannot produce a just and sustainable world, however, is because capitalist economies would collapse if existing structures tried to deal with the necessary degrowth of resource and energy consumption. This is especially so in a globalised economy where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one capitalist economy to defy the neoliberal world order. Localisation and contraction of national economies in such a context will require democratic planning of the economy.

In our 2006 book, we put it more simply:
What do we do when we can no longer grow the economy because we can no longer consume oil and gas at a 2 percent annual increase, but instead are having to cope with a 2 percent (or more) annual decrease in supply? How can capitalism function in a negative-growth scenario? What happens when there is little possibility of profit, interest, and net earnings to be reinvested?
Oil geologist M. King Hubbert told a government committee in 1974 that:
[M]oney, being a system of accounting, is, in effect, paper and so is not constrained by the laws within which material and energy systems must operate. [But in] fact money grows exponentially by the rule of compound interest …. [T]he maintenance of a constant price level in a non-growing industrial system implies either an interest rate of zero or continuous inflation.
Hubbert provided this advice to the Congressional Committee:
Since the tenets of our exponential-growth culture (such as a non-zero interest rate) are incompatible with a state of non-growth, it is understandable that extraordinary efforts will be made to avoid a cessation of growth. Inexorably, however, physical and biological constraints must eventually prevail and appropriate cultural adjustments will have to be made.
Alexander doesn’t really offer anything new in this regard. Indeed, as near as we can tell he does not offer anything not previously covered in our own two descent-oriented cookbooks, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide (2006) and The Financial Collapse Survival Guide (2d Ed., 2014) or in the work for the past 20 years of permaculture, the Global Ecovillage Network and Transition Network.
What we have been urging here for all that time is a strategy of viral meme creation of the type discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference(2000).
Let us stop talking about collapse, peak oil, and global weirding and begin a conversation about what is cool and what is uncool.
Miami condos that sell for $4 million today but likely will be underwater by mid-century are uncool. Hive villages designed to assemble light and mood to engender living and breathing spaces in service of humankind and the planet are cool.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump mouthing words about redressing income inequality while growing their own private wealth are uncool. Bernie Sanders running for president as a socialist is cool.
Once-through consumables that generate more waste and disease than product and enjoyment are uncool. Biological systems that sequester carbon while making food, fuel, energy, and clean water are cool.
Conspiracy theories are uncool. Conspiring theorists are cool. That is why we welcome Alexander to the party. Just watch out for the green button on the Xerox machine.
Image Removed3D printer image via shutterstock. Reproduced at with permission.

Albert Bates

Albert Bates was a civil sector representative at the Copenhagen climate conference, trying to point the world back towards a stable atmosphere using soils and trees.  His book BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth has just been released and his book Plastics: From Pollution to Evolution is due out in April 2019. Past books include Climate in Crisis and The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. Working with the Global Ecovillage Network he has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than 60 nations. A former environmental rights lawyer, paramedic, brick mason, flour miller, and horse trainer, Albert Bates received the Right Livelihood Award in 1980 as part of the steering committee of Plenty, working to preserve the cultures of indigenous peoples, and board of directors of The Farm, a pioneering intentional community in Tennessee for the past 40 years. He has taught appropriate technology, natural building and permaculture to students from more than sixty nations. A co-founder and past president of the Global Ecovillage Network, he is presently GEN’s representative to the UN climate talks. When not tinkering with fuel wringers for algae, hemp cheeses, or pyrolizing cookstoves, he teaches permaculture, ecovillage design and natural building and is a frequent guest on the ETC Podcast.

Tags: limits to growth, Simplicity, techno-optimists