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The Chronicle – March 2013

The Chronicle (March 31, 2013)

Our readers are invited to present their own reports of what they are paying attention to in the transition from economic-industrial ecological-cultural societies.


Herman Greene – Are We Entering a Period of Uncontrolled Decline?

Thomas Berry would often speak from the template of where are we, how did we get here, where are we going? These questions were not his invention, but I find them, as he did, to be extremely useful.

The order is important. One’s view of the future is shaped, even largely determined by, one’s assessment of where we are and how we got here. This is the reason why, in rhetoric, before a speaker states what is needed, he or she will begin with the present as a condition or problem and then give a history before stating what needs to be done.

It all starts with one’s understanding of where we are. In the talk by Dennis Meadows referenced in Mike Bell’s article in this issue, Meadows states that in 1972, when Limits to Growth was first published, four of 12 scenarios they modeled showed that things could be brought to a suitable equilibrium before humanity breached sustainable limits. Now he says it is too late.

He validates this by a graph from the Global Footprint network. It shows that in 1972, the ecological footprint of humanity was 85% of global carrying capacity, whereas now it is 150% of carrying capacity. So if humans collectively are living at an unsustainable rate of consumption, then it cannot be sustained, much less continue to grow (though some short-term growth is still possible, just as it is possible continually to increase catches of fish in an area right up to the time when fish stocks collapse). He believes we are entering a time of uncontrollable decline. We have lived in a bubble economy, he says, and he compares this uncontrollable decline to what happens in a stock market when a bubble bursts: A fall begins that cannot be stopped in the short run and where it will end no one knows. It ends when a new, lower equilibrium state is reached.

What needs to be done during the fall is not all that different from what should have been done to avoid the fall, but it is more difficult. This is especially true regarding environmental concerns, because society has tended primarily to allocate resources to sustainable solutions as add-ons from excess earnings during periods of high growth. Allocating such resources in decline will both be more difficult and more important. In such a situation, following Meadows’ teaching, we now need to find our justification in “resilience,” rather than in “development.”

In his talk, Meadows reflects on why the warning of Limits to Growth, and others like it, including the climate warnings, have not been heeded. He has found that “public discourse has difficulty with subtle, conditional messages.” (The book had 12 scenarios and many conditions.) And further he has found that people tend not to shift paradigms, but rather find new justifications for their existing paradigms. He offered this quote from The Folly of Fools; The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers, as explanatory of why this is so:

At every single stage – from its biased arrival to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others, the mind continually acts to distort information flow in favor of the usual good goal of appearing better than one really is. (P. 139)

Another key learning for him is that “we act as if technological change can substitute for social change.”

That we are already in a period of uncontrolled decline is a new notion. The idea generally held, even by environmentalists, is that there is still time to avoid this condition.

I am reading another book that reflect Meadows’ view, Richard Heinberg’s The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (2011). And I am reading two other books on the future: Al Gore’s, The Future: Six Drivers of Change (2013), and Jorgen Randers’ (one of the co-authors of Limits to Growth), 2052: A Global Forecast of the Next Forty Years (2012). I am also reading a book on how we got here: Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies (2012). More on each later.

I return again and again to this list of areas where transformational leadership is needed that I found in David Orr’s Down to the Wire and D. Paul Schafer’s Revolution or Renaissance:

(i)     creating a new theoretical, practical, historical and philosophical framework for the world of the future (with an emphasis on the cultural dimension of life);

(ii)    dealing with the intimate relationship between people and the natural environment,

(iii)     providing uncommon clarity about our best economic and energy options,

(iv)     helping people understand and face what will be increasingly difficult circumstances, and

(v)       fostering a vision of a humane and decent future.