How’s your apocalypse going? Yeah, mine too.
Sending love to everyone right now. The chaos is overwhelming. Even more disturbing, it’s already normal. I write this as my windows are blanketed in smoke from the West Coast fires.
We’re hoping that 2020 is a blip on the radar. But at the same time we’re saying things like “when things go back to normal…” less and less. There’s unmistakable evidence that we may have entered a period of significant decline for the wellbeing of life on Earth. Everything from our health and safety to our food to our freedom of movement to our social cohesiveness to the future prospects of democratic governance and the existence of all other species on this planet are threatened like never before.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these things in one way, and in another finally forced us to confront the problems that we’d gotten used to ignoring. For those who were looking the signs were already there. Things like life expectancy in the US — the wealthiest nation in human history — starting to unexpectedly decline in 2015 for the first time in 100 years.
The decline is no longer something that might happen or could happen. It’s something that’s now happening and will likely keep happening. It’s not happening to some theoretical future person. It’s happening to me. To you. To the people we love. It’s happening to us.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
Limits to Growth
In a famous 1972 book called Limits to Growth, four MIT scientists built a computer model of the world’s population, resources, pollution, and growth rates, and projected how they would play out in the future. The picture their model painted was dire: the end of economic and population growth and likely societal collapse sometime in the 21st century.
The reason is something they called “overshoot.” The natural world imposed a limit to growth that would catch up to us. Because of population and economic growth, we would increasingly use more of the Earth’s resources than it could replenish each year — even factoring in world-changing technological shifts. The authors write:
“The collapse occurs because of nonrenewable resource depletion… As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hospital laboratories, computers, and especially energy for mechanization). For a short time the situation is especially serious because population, with the delays inherent in the age structure and the process of social adjustment, keeps rising. Population finally decreases when the death rate is driven upward by lack of food and health services.”
For the first thirty years after publication, Limits to Growth was widely read and roundly criticized. The group who commissioned it, the Club of Rome, was often mocked for their pessimism in the face of accelerating economic and technological growth. Nobody likes being told that the cops are coming when the party’s still in full swing.
In the last decade the book’s reputation has improved for the worst possible reasons: the predictions made by its models have proven to be largely correct. Extrapolations made in 1972 about population growth, CO2 emissions, changes in food production, and other critical shifts have proven right, as have their problems. (The book’s Wikipedia page offers a good summary.) What they said would happen on humanity’s “standard run” — meaning no real changes to our policies or behaviors — has happened.
Their model projected different possible futures from where they were in 1972 to the year 2100. Here’s a graph of projected human wellbeing:
The line for humanity’s future that plummets? This is what happened when humanity continued the status quo. The projection whose numbers have continued to hold up. The trajectory we’re on right now.
The authors didn’t say exactly when this collapse would happen, but they gave some guidance: “Even in the most pessimistic scenario, the material standard of living keeps increasing all the way to 2015.” (The same year US life expectancy began to decline, btw.)
In 1972, 2015 felt like the distant future.
Now we’re living in it.
The end of resilience
How does civilization unravel? Limits to Growth:
“The world system does not totally run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capability. What it runs out of is the ability to cope… When problems arise exponentially and in multiples, problems that could theoretically be dealt with one by one can overwhelm the ability to cope.”
If you’ve ever been broke, you know exactly what it means to lose the ability to cope. The smallest thing going unexpectedly wrong can make everything go wrong. Your car breaking down can break everything in your life. You’re in a hole the second the car doesn’t start because you can’t pay for the repairs without going to work and you can’t go to work without a car and you can’t fix the car without taking from something else and on and on. For somebody else or for you at a different time this would be a speed bump. But when our resilience is low everything is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s not a single tidal wave that knocks us over. It’s a series of many smaller waves that eventually overwhelm us.
This is what we’re experiencing now. Not just one crisis, but a cascade and now avalanche of them. Confronting a pandemic while fires are raging while trying to address systemic racism and sexism while trying to save our democracy while while while. If we could focus on just one we’d likely find it solvable. But when there are so many we lose our capacity to cope.
A new book called Disunited Nations by Peter Zeihan puts where we are this way:
“We stand at the end of the era that began with the Cold War. It’ll be less like the messiness of the early 2000s or the raw potential of the 1950s, and more a disastrous combination of the battle royales and displacements of the 1870s against the economic backdrop of the 1930s. It. Will. Suck. A mad scramble for the scraps of the era just ending. Compared with the safety and wealth of the past several decades, it may seem like the literal end of the world. But the end of an era isn’t the same as the end of history. Something new is coming. Something that, historically speaking, is far more “normal” than anything the Americans created. Just keep in mind that “normal” is far from synonymous with “comfortable,” much less “favorable.””
Technology does not save us
Naturally we hope for technology to provide a cure. The Limits to Growth authors spend considerable time exploring how technology can help us.
In that earlier graph of projected human wellbeing, the lines that don’t immediately plummet represent potential futures where one of humanity’s main hurdles to growth is completely solved by a technological breakthrough. One line represents a future where pollution is erased by technology. Another represents a future where infinite food production is possible, and so on.
Even in these possible futures where the greatest challenges we face are completely and instantly solved by technology, the model finds that civilization would still collapse if the goal continued to be growth.
“The application of technological solutions alone has prolonged the period of population and industrial growth, but it has not removed the ultimate limits to that growth.
“Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem — the problem of growth in a finite system — and prevent us from taking effective action to solve it
“Our intent is certainly not to brand technology as evil or futile or unnecessary. We are technologists ourselves, working in a technological institution. We strongly believe that many of the technological developments mentioned here — recycling, pollution control devices, contraceptives — will be absolutely vital to the future of human society if they are combined with deliberate checks on growth. We would deplore an unreasoned rejection of the benefits of technology as strongly as we argue here against an unreasoned acceptance of them.”
Technology is critical to humanity’s future but it will not save our current trajectory.
The alternative to growth, according to the authors, is the pursuit of equilibrium.
“The sustainable society is one that we believe the world could actually attain, given the knowledge about planetary systems available to us. It has nearly eight billion people, and enough good, consumer products, and services to support every one of them in comfort. It is expending considerable effort and employing continually improving technology to protect land and soils, reduce pollution, and use nonrenewable resources with high efficiency. Because its physical growth slows and eventually stops, and because its technologies work fast enough to bring its ecological footprint down to a sustainable level, it has time, capital, and capacity to save its other problems.”
While this might sound like some kind of dullsville where nothing changes, this couldn’t be further from the truth. This is simply a world with a different concept of growth:
“Population and capital are the only quantities that need be constant in the equilibrium state. Any human activity that does not require a large flow of irreplaceable resources or produce severe environmental degradation might continue to grow indefinitely. In particular, those pursuits that many people would list as the most desirable and satisfying activities of man — education, art, music, religion, basic scientific research, athletics, and social interactions — could flourish.
“All of the activities listed above depend very strongly on two factors. First, they depend upon the availability of some surplus production after the basic human needs of food and shelter have been met. Second, they require leisure time. In any equilibrium state the relative levels of capital and population could be adjusted to assure that human material needs are fulfilled at any desired level. Since the amount of material production would be essentially fixed, every improvement in production methods could result in increased leisure for the population-leisure that could be devoted to any activity that is relatively nonconsuming and nonpolluting, such as those listed above.”
We live in a universe of infinite potential, yet allow financial ROI to define what we think of as growth. As I put it in my book, a world of scarcity can become a world of abundance with a different concept of value. The idea of moving off of economic growth and towards a more holistic notion was unthinkable until very recently. Now it could very well be where things are headed. Kate Raworth’s Donut Economics is one powerful model for post-growth thinking. See my video on What’s After Capitalism or this piece on Post-Capitalism for Realists for others.
For all the trauma and pain it’s causing, COVID might be doing us a favor in the long run. For one thing it’s causing us to become more resilient. In a post on “post-COVID circularity” in his excellent paid newsletter Breaking Smart, Venkatesh Rao writes:
“The term circular economy has been gaining currency in the last few years in conversations about sustainable production and consumption. Unlike terms like sustainable or green, the term points to a specific operating concept rather than a set of abstract values. Thanks to Covid, circular economics is an idea whose time, I think, has finally come…
“Circularism has the refined, differentiated, and tech-positive consumption sensibilities of Consumerism (the capital-C ideology), but with receptivity to high-agency maintenance, repair and reuse behaviors, strong awareness of the waste and recycling streams, and aversion to unnecessary disposability and obsolescence.”
Rao notes that this new circularity is “driven by a refreshingly selfish motive: personal lifestyle resilience.” This would suggest that this change will have more meaning than the empty and even harmful gestures at resilience that we’ve made to date.
He goes on:
“Of the many behaviors that Covid has catalyzed, several are salient to circularization of the economy and resilience of lifestyles:
1. Improvisation to meet needs (cloth masks)
2. Repair and refurbishing of goods due to stock-outs and supply delays
3. Creative local substitution patterns (restaurants as grocery suppliers)
4. Home fabrication (3d printing of face shields)
5. Localized sharing within trusted networks
“On the production end, this implies design for durability, maintainability, and repairability over design for obsolescence. It means lower consumer tolerance for goods that are hard to repair and maintain. It means design for communal sharing over individual use.”
These are all undoubtedly positive changes. They’re also evidence of a bigger evolution in values and how we see our self-interest. Our need for immediate personal safety is higher than ever, but our awareness of each other and our future selves is, too. Our choices and views of the future are changing. We’re starting to calculate future forced austerity into our decisions for the first time in generations. We’re broadening our Us. We’re acclimating to a new world.
Where we are reminds of Pascal’s Wager in a strange way. Pascal’s Wager is the famous 2x2 graph that shows it’s more rational to believe in God than not. The upsides and downsides are clear, so you might as well just believe.
We have almost a reverse situation. All the outcomes appear to be damnation of one kind or another, and happiness seems like it’s moved off the board altogether. We feel helpless.
But if we look at the situation using our own 2x2 (the Bento) we see that we’re not helpless. There’s just a lot of work to do.
There’s Now work to stop the worst outcomes and make a better world. There’s Future work to prepare ourselves and our communities in case we fall short.
According to the authors of Limits to Growth, we should start by “visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning, and loving.” Imagining a better future, connecting with others about it, being honest about where we are, and creating support and strength between one another. This is what builds our capacity to cope.
This is one of the lessons of the most prescient book about this moment — Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In her post-climate change apocalypse, the world has broken down into tiny fiefdoms, neighborhoods are surrounded by walls and are burned and looted if they aren’t, and resources are scarce. This becomes known as the “Pox,” short for Apocalypse, a period of societal breakdown lasting from 2015 (that year again) to 2030.
“Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmilitary defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself.”
It lost its capacity to cope.
Even as society lost its capacity to cope, some people persevered. How? By having purpose. By having a vision of the future worth working for. By having an Us to lean on. This isn’t just the case in science-fiction. This is the case in real life too.
I’ve been reading an excellent book by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard called Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice about Black Americans using cooperatives to create resilience and collective power in the face of centuries of racism. The larger systems actively worked against Black Americans so they created their own systems instead. When things are hard people pull together. More co-ops were created during the Great Depression than any other time.
These smaller communities tend to be provoked by extraordinary challenges. They create spaces that feel extraordinary in return. Consider this anecdote from Collective Courage about Sojourner Truth, a former slave who became an important voice of leadership, joining an intentional community called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in the 1840s.
“Sojourner Truth joined the NAEI in 1843 and lived there for about two years. It was there that she met William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Wendell Phillips, and afterward became an abolitionist and women’s rights activist and speaker. The commune elected Truth head of laundry, where she supervised White members of the collective, an unheard-of arrangement at the time (Collaborative for Educational Services 2009b). Truth recalled that the NAEI, more than anywhere else she had ever lived, provided “equality of feeling,” “liberty of thought and speech,” and “largeness of soul” (Historic Northampton n.d.), in spite of difficult living conditions. Truth described her first thoughts about the NAEI: She did not fall in love at first sight with the Northampton Association, for she arrived there at a time when appearances did not correspond with the ideas of associationists, as they had been spread out in their writings; for their phalanx was a factory, and they were wanting in means to carry out their ideas of beauty and elegance, as they would have done in different circumstances. But she thought she would make an effort to tarry with them one night, though that seemed to her no desirable affair. But as soon as she saw that accomplished, literary and refined persons were living in that plain and simple manner, and submitting to the labors and privations incident to such an infant institution, she said, “Well, if these can live here, I can.” Afterwards, she gradually became pleased with, and attached to, the place and the people, as well she might; for it must have been no small thing to have found a home in a “Community composed of some of the choicest spirits of the age,” where all was characterised by an equality of feeling, a liberty of thought and speech, and a largeness of soul, she could not have before met with, to the same extent, in any of her wanderings.”
Even during slavery and the pre-Civil War period, people intentionally created and lived in a future world. They created strength and light during a time of darkness.
What can we do?
Limits to Growth concludes that growth can’t save humanity and technology can’t either. But our own values and mindset can.
To date, we have failed in this mission. The standard run has only accelerated.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that we’re actively preparing ourselves and trying to do something about it like never before. One example is the Bento Society.
The Bento Society is a collective project with a thirty-year mission: to redefine what the world sees as valuable and in our self-interest. We try to balance our individual needs and our collective interdependencies. We try to see the future impact of our now actions. The same challenge Limits to Growth lays out is the same problem we come together to confront. We’re still beginners in this. So was everyone once.
Here’s Parable of the Sower again:
“Did you ever read about bubonic plague in medieval Europe?” I asked. She nodded. She reads a lot the way I do, reads all kinds of things. “A lot of the continent was depopulated,” she said. “Some survivors thought the world was coming to an end.” “Yes, but once they realized it wasn’t, they also realized there was a lot of vacant land available for the taking, and if they had a trade, they realized they could demand better pay for their work. A lot of things changed for the survivors.” “What’s your point?” “The changes.” I thought for a moment. “They were slow changes compared to anything that might happen here, but it took a plague to make some of the people realize that things could change.” “So?” “Things are changing now, too. Our adults haven’t been wiped out by a plague so they’re still anchored in the past, waiting for the good old days to come back. But things have changed a lot, and they’ll change more. Things are always changing. This is just one of the big jumps instead of the little step-by-step changes that are easier to take.”
Nobody feels good about the future. Nobody feels confident about what will happen next. Nobody actually knows what will happen. But it’s possible, with the right mindset and people around us, to look into the darkness, see it honestly for what it is, and not feel afraid. It’s possible to feel filled with purpose and energy instead.
It starts with getting off the couch. It starts with stopping the binge watching. It starts with engaging our minds, our families, and our friends in honest conversations about where we are and how we need to prepare. Not falling into a funk. Not panicking. Stepping into this moment the way our children are counting on us to. Not alone because we have each other.
In a recent Bento Society meeting people were asked to name three things they could do for Now and three things they could do to prepare for the Future based on our situation. It was a difficult conversation. But in the end we found much to work towards and much in common. This long list of things to do, and the group of like-minded souls who created it together, are among the many possibilities in front of us.
Use the Bento lens as a way to see my responsibilities in terms of now and the future
Participate in the political process
Care for the people in my life and getting to them in a place of strength and resilience
Embrace intentionally downwardly mobile living
Base my self-esteem on values like togetherness
Use the Bento to see my actions in terms of now and the future
Look for new ways and work with tech movements
Empower others to change from inside out
Keep learning, be courageous, set an example
Align with a community of doers and decision makers
Build on a foundation of peace for influential communities
Understand food systems and remodel the world with a holistic model
empower next gen. entrepreneurs
invest more into family
increase P2P and local support
micro funding for next gen. entrepreneurs
Facilitate conversations that help people reframe kindness as an actionable, choice-protocol
Introduce circular economy into business school curricula and projects
organize groups to accomplish needed tasks in community and share skills/resources (could also fall into Now!)
Raise morally responsible kids
Contribute to organizations that embrace the light
Community building and fellowship
Seems to be a lot of ways to spread hate…find more creative and effective ways to spread love, and helping those in need
Learning tools that may assist in the above.
Futurecasting workshops with friends
Creating time and space for myself to heal, reflect and plan… and most importantly just ‘be’.
Take time to learn and read
Create containers and new systems to thrive
Nudge policy that makes decisions like the Native chieftain
Home-school my kids…
Eco friendliness — food/life style
health — emotional and physical
community on a mission
build community thru education and mentorship
self reliance and self sustainability
Action at different scales:
National/large groups Create national networks or large groups to navigate challenges (public policy/achieving critical human rights principals), mobilizing large groups towards collective change. e.g. National Youth Coalition led by Justice!
Community/Groups: Thought expansion exercises with family and friends “if no-one had to work what would you do with your time?
Individual: Investing in ourselves — studying/building expertise, or taking care of our own needs and taking the time to reflect — remembering that we are human beings and not human doings.
The same group that made this list comes together each Sunday at 12pm EST on Zoom to share perspectives, ideas, and connect with one another. To join us, click here.
Mentioned in this post
- The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows (original edition free PDF download and thirtieth anniversary edition)
- Disunited States: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World by Peter Zeihan
- Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
- Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard
- Donut Economics by Kate Raworth
- This Could Be Our Future by Yancey Strickler
- The Bento Society