I picture our civilization as a bus going through the night. We are proud of the machine we have built and enjoy riding it – it is more convenient than walking. Everyone, perhaps except for a few primitive tribes deep…
Our civilization is built on growth. We want to grow our bank account, grow our influence, grow our family, we judge the economy based on GDP growth. The struggle for growth is very natural – if you give any organism good conditions, it will grow in size individually and grow in population collectively. The conditions have been good for us humans so we have grown exponentially in the past centuries.
Unfortunately, because of physical limitations of our world, no growth is sustainable and especially not exponential growth 1. The problem that many people don’t realize is that any constant growth rate compounds into exponential growth, not linear growth 2. Economists often project 3% as sustainable growth rate (e.g. of real GDP). But even that means 4.4x times increase in 50 years, 19 times increase in 100 years and 369 times increase in 200 years. Since the nearest planet (if any) that could have Earth-like conditions for life is many light-years away, we probably have to rely on Earth to support this growth. How much more human growth do you think our planet can handle?
Some people suggest we should constrain our growth. But since the only sustainable growth is no growth, it is not realistic. It would go against the nature of life and against the principles our society is built on. Can you imagine world-wide birth control program under democratic governments? Would you vote for a politician who will freeze your real salary at current levels or for a politician who promises more growth and prosperity? Can you imagine CEOs presenting to excited investors their 0% growth goals? We can slow down our growth a little bit via regulations3, but thinking that we can stop it is unrealistic.
Because no growth can be sustained, everything in nature goes in cycles of growth and decline. An individual is born and grows, peaks and then declines by aging and dies. Spring growth alternates with autumn decline. Populations of frogs raise and fall as populations of insect fall and rise4.
Civilization raise and fall. In the history of mankind, when civilizations gained the highest power, they usually started to decay. Let it be ancient Chinese dynasties, The Romans or Aztecs – these once mighty civilizations eventually degraded and were overtaken by an uspoilt one. Thanks to globalization, mankind now merges into a single large civilization that has been growing and is guaranteed to decline. Our modern global civilization is decaying – we are starting to rot from the inside. People who would have perished in the past can now survive and reproduce thanks to the powerful technology and medicine. As a result, the overall genome of the population is worsening. Just look at the increase of obesity, allergies and defects just within a couple of generations. The most developed individuals and cultures often have very fewer children, whereas the less sophisticated people reproduce at much faster rates. We have reversed the natural selection that made us as complex and powerful as we are now. What if history repeats itself and our civilization is about to be replaced by something more primitive, more pure, currently dormant?
Decline is guaranteed to follow after every growth, but growth is not guaranteed to follow after every decline. Dinosaurs grew and then declined completely. We can’t avoid the decline of our civilization that is inevitably coming. We can, however, influence how steep and deep it will be and whether it will be terminal like for dinosaurs or if we can bounce back to another phase of growth.
- A popular example of humans underestimating exponential growth is the story of Indian king losing a bet for rice on a chessboard – 1 grain on first square, 2 on second one, 4 on third one etc – singularitysymposium.com/exponential-growth ↩
- If you grow 10% per year, first year you will grow 1.1x. Second year you will grow 1.1×1.1=1.21 times. Third year 1.1^3=1.33times. In 10 years, it will grow 1.1^10=2.6 times. In 20 years 6.7 times, and in 40 years 45 times in 60 years 304 times and in 80 years 2048 times. Just within one lifetime, an innocent 10% annual growth results in 2 thousand times increase. In 200 years it would be 190,000,000 times. ↩
- In fact many current environmental protection regulations do just that ↩
- The population will grow faster in a year when there is plenty of insect to eat. Lots of frogs eat lots of insects and the population of insect decreases. But then there are too many frogs and not enough food so the population of frogs decreases. That provides a chance for insects to multiply again ↩
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
It is very clear that our lives and survival depend on the environment. At minimum, we need air to breathe, clean water to drink and food to eat. Because these resources exist on Earth in relatively large quantities it is not natural for us to think that there is only limited amount of each. These resources naturally renew so we can live sustainably as long as the rate of our consumption is not faster than the rate of their renewal. The equation is simple and we can influence all of its parts.
Average consumption per capita × Population ≤ Resource renewal rate
Opinions vary on whether we have already breached the balance, but the trend is clear: we are heavily increasing the left consumption side of the equation and reducing the renewal rate on the right side and thus disturbing the natural equilibrium. Our population is undeniably increasing, but also the average consumption per capita keeps growing. New technologies can help people in developed countries slightly reduce the consumption, but that will be offset by the increase of consumption in the much larger developing world. People in these countries generally feel it is only fair for them to reach the same standard of living (and therefore levels of consumption) that people have in the countries like USA before they start cutting on consumption. You can imagine how the consumption will grow when all Chinese and Indian install air-conditioning and buy a car every five years.
On the other side of the equation we are reducing the renewal rate. For example the more trees we cut in the Amazon, the slower renewal rate of clean air. The renewal rate of fossil fuels is extremely slow and negligible compared to their consumption so we will probably run out of them in several decades.
We don’t know how far exactly we can go, but the scariest part is that we are in a one-way street – many of the changes we inflict on Earth are essentially irreversible, so we can’t simply turn back when we realize that we went too far. It is alarming to see for example the dangerous reductions of biodiversity.
Nobody can predict what effects our behavior will have on the interconnected and fragile ecosystem that we are all dependent on. Nature had been able to adapt to changing conditions by the means of evolution, but the changes human inflicts on Earth are much faster than evolution can keep up with.
It seems inevitable that one way or another a huge reduction of population needs to take place and it is not going to be pleasant.
Firstly, the environment is being damaged at unsustainable rate.
- Humans are overpopulated, acting like a cancer for the planet.
- Short-term incentives of governance lead to unsustainable environmental damage.
- Earth won’t have the resources to support all of us in the future.
Secondly, the probability of an unprecedented global catastrophe keeps growing
We are not prepared for a global disaster. We might only have a short notice1 so preparing when we the threat is imminent will be too late.
- For example, a war can start any time – Pearl Harbor was also not announced. Terrorists can strike anytime – we were not expecting 9/11 either. Global crisis can come as abruptly and unexpectedly as the one in 2008. A deadly meteor can appear with only two weeks notice – even with current technology we can’t monitor all space objects large like the one that eliminated dinosaurs until they come relatively close to Earth. Virus can mutate and start spreading as abruptly as SARS or swine flu did. ↩