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Monday, July 26, 2021

Anthropocene limits to growth, an update

 Interesting new paper.
In the 1972 bestseller Limits to Growth (LtG), the authors concluded that, if global society kept pursuing economic growth, it would experience a decline in food production, industrial output, and ultimately population, within this century. The LtG authors used a system dynamics model to study interactions between global variables, varying model assumptions to generate different scenarios. Previous empirical data comparisons since then by Turner showed closest alignment with a scenario that ended in collapse. This research constitutes a data update to LtG, by examining to what extent empirical data aligned with four LtG scenarios spanning a range of technological, resource, and societal assumptions. The research benefited from improved data availability since the previous updates and included a scenario and two variables that had not been part of previous comparisons. The two scenarios aligning most closely with observed data indicate a halt in welfare, food, and industrial production over the next decade or so, which puts into question the suitability of continuous economic growth as humanity’s goal in the twenty-first century. Both scenarios also indicate subsequent declines in these variables, but only one—where declines are caused by pollution—depicts a collapse. The scenario that aligned most closely in earlier comparisons was not amongst the two closest aligning scenarios in this research. The scenario with the smallest declines aligned least with empirical data; however, absolute differences were often not yet large. The four scenarios diverge significantly more after 2020, suggesting that the window to align with this last scenario is closing. 
Full paper here (pdf). Well worth your time. In 1972 I was 26, and I was dimly aware of the original study—notably that it was controversial. New, more comprehensive data tend to support the unhappy findings.
BAU = "Business as Usual." Unsustainable. Few, if any, will survive the upshot. Anthropocene adversities are picking up steam.
Useful to recall some thoughts offered by Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith (Jan 2, 2020)
Maybe it’s a function of who I follow on Twitter, but I didn’t see much in the way of “ring in the new year” chipperness. Seeing Australia go up in flames might have something to do with that, but even those who seemed awfully domestically focused also seemed subdued. I also noticed comparatively few “Year in review” or “Best of 2019/the past ten years” but that could just as well be due to the gutting of news rooms. Nevertheless, I thought I might be so bold as to offer a theory.

It’s not hard to see plenty of reasons why all save a select few (which includes the deluded and End of Days fans) have reason to be downbeat. Climate change. Mass species dieoff. Poisoning of the planet, particularly with plastics (that overlaps with dieoff but also creates day to day health and diet worries). Student debt. Short job tenures combined with mainly McJobs on offer. Often unaffordable and crapified health care. Having kids who ought to be able to go to college but need to be talked out of it since the debt load would be punitive. Fear over one’s likely inability to retire with the real risk of not being able to work. And that’s before getting to personal tragedies, like suffering a foreclosure or bankruptcy, or death, disability or drug addiction in the family. Shocks like that are even harder to take when so many things seem precarious.

To add to that long list, there’s more anxiety. Bizarrely fearful parenting even though the overwhelming majority of kids are safer than their free-range parents were at a similar age….and the riskiest thing kids do today on a regular basis is ride in a car. Anger and frustration over seemingly more and more Kafka-eque bureaucracies wreaking havoc. Surprisingly widespread diet fesithism. Anger about Trump. I’m sure readers could add to these lists.

None of these are news, but what seems to deepen the general gloom is a lack of confidence that anything will get better, a sense both of sorely limited personal power and lack of trust in those nominally in charge to do the right thing. And that is mademore intense by concerns about pending collapse. When the very richest people in the world are acting like preppers, there’s reason to be worried.

I am personally upset at being part of the problem. I now live in a freestanding house, which means energy inefficient. I use a car to get about. Public transportation here is pretty much non-existent, and please don’t advise walking or biking. Both are physically impossible.

I also despair at my inability to do anything other than take pathetically trivial steps to reduce how much plastic I wind up using. Even with being a Yankee and using things until they are about to or do fall apart, I do wind up buying some things. Even socks are in plastic! And forget about buying food in the US. Eggs? Yogurt? Berries? You’d be surprised at how few egg vendors use cardboard cartons. It’s even gotten hard to to buy loose lettuce down here (although oddly loose kale is a different story). Admittedly not everything is this way….but way too much is.

So why are we so stuck on a bad trajectory? Simple explanations are always simplistic, but I hazard that humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility, and the tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex…

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