Nafeez Ahmed has published a two-part article at Motherboard entitled “The End of Endless Growth” (see part 1 and part 2). Commentary there is, as usual, pretty nasty, so I only skimmed and won’t discuss it. Ahmed’s first part says that things are coming to their useful ends after an already extended period of decline, but the second argues instead that we’re already in the midst of a phase shift as (nothing less than) civilization transforms itself, presumably into something better. Ahmed can apparently already see the end of the end (at the start of a new year, natch). In part 1, he highlights primarily the work of one economist, Mauro Bonaiuti of the University of Turin (Italy), despite Bonaiuti standing on the shoulders of numerous scientists far better equipped to read the tea leaves, diagnose, and prognosticate. Ahmed (via Bonaiuti) acknowledges that crisis is upon us:

It’s the New Year, and the global economic crisis is still going strong. But while pundits cross words over whether 2015 holds greater likelihood of a recovery or a renewed recession, new research suggests they all may be missing the bigger picture: that the economic crisis is symptomatic of a deeper crisis of industrial civilization’s relationship with nature.

“Civilization’s relationship with nature” is precisely what Ahmed misunderstands throughout the two articles. His discussion of declining EROEI and exponential increases in population, resource extraction and consumption, energy use and CO2 emissions, and species extinction are good starting points, but he connects the wrong dots. He cites Bonauiti’s conclusion that “endless growth on a finite planet is simply biophysically impossible, literally a violation of one of the most elementary laws of physics: conservation of energy, and, relatedly, entropy.” Yet he fails to understand what that means beyond the forced opportunity to reset, adapt, and reorganize according to different social models.

At no point does Ahmed mention the rather obvious scenario where many billions of people die from lack of clean water, food, and shelter when industrial civilization grinds to a halt — all this before we have time to complete our phase shift. At no point does Ahmed mention the likelihood of widespread violence sparked by desperate populations facing immediate survival pressure. At no point does Ahmed mention the even worse likelihood of multiple nuclear disasters (hundreds!) when infrastructure fails and nuclear plants start popping like firecrackers.

What does Ahmed focus on instead? He promises “cheap, distributed clean energy” (going back up the EROEI slope) and a transition away from industrial agriculture toward relocalization and agroecology. However, these are means of extending population, consumption, and despoliation further into overshoot, not plans for sustainability at a far lower population. Even more worrisome, Ahmed also cites ongoing shifts in information, finance, and ethics, all of which are sociological constructs that have been reified in the modern world. These shifts are strikingly “same, only different” except perhaps the ethics revolution. Ahmed says we’re already witnessing a new ethics arising: “a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is … supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity.” I just don’t see it yet. Rather, I see continued accumulation of power and wealth among oligarchs and plutocrats, partly through the use of institutionalized force (looking increasingly like mercenaries and henchmen).

Also missing from Ahmed’s salve for our worries is discussion of ecological collapse in the form of climate change and its host of associated causes and effects. At a fundamental level, the biophysical conditions for life on earth are changing from the relative steady state of the last 200,000 years or so that humans have existed, or more broadly, the 65 million years since the last major extinction event. The current rate of change is far too rapid for evolution and culture to adapt. New ways of managing information, economics, and human social structures simply cannot keep up.

All that said, well, sure, let’s get going and do what can be done. I just don’t want to pretend that we’re anywhere close to a new dawn.

  1. Thanks for this post. We, too, fail to see the “new dawn” Ahmed and a few others are talking about. For example, right now the citizens of Japan are electively curbing their fertility rates – the single most useful action a people could be taking at this juncture in human history in the face unsustainable overpopulation. They should be lauded as an example. Sadly, the reaction to Japan’s population decline – from Most of the world’s citizens and virtually all politicians, corporations and news media members both domestic and foreign – is negative as they predict doom for a citizenry that is opting out of the unsustainable pyramid scam of continued growth.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I can’t judge whether Ahmed is misled or is misleading. Either way, it’s kinda sad to see an obviously intelligent person who fails to grasp things properly. The distortions that permit such nonsense aren’t tragic like what we’ve done to the world, but I still cringe for him.

      • leavergirl says:

        Does he actually say that civ will grind to a sudden halt? No “long descent” in his view?

      • Brutus says:

        He acknowledges the possibility, but he’s clearly aiming for transformation following the long (energetic) descent already underway since midcentury. I recognize that as a possibilist, you’re also in that camp. This is sort of like the debate between evolution and punctuated equilibrium, where the two options aren’t mutually exclusive but simultaneous. IMO, transformation requires stability and continuity that are no longer possible and not really present in our sped-up historical trajectory of the last 200 years. Rather, punctuations are ongoing and conditions are ripe for another one.

      • leavergirl says:

        I am guessing when you speak about punctuations you mean like “phase shift” that complexity theory speaks about?

      • Brutus says:

        Actually, I was thinking of the alternative to gradualism as described by Steven Jay Gould:

        I’m not familiar enough with complexity theory to offer an opinion, but every time I see it mentioned in print, I have a knee-jerk response that I’m being told not to bother my pretty little head about it because, ya know, it’s too complicated for mere mortals. That’s probably just my own projection, though.

      • Clem says:

        Here’s a short TED talk about complexity theory using a couple animal systems. It does have a hopeful message about resilience in animal behavior, so be forewarned.

      • leavergirl says:

        Well, phase shifts are pretty simple. Things are going on, la la la, more of the same, and then suddenly, they change to something completely different because of shifting conditions that are generally pretty imperceptible. Like water turning to ice. Would a tribesman in the jungle ever foretell that the water in the creek he has seen all his life could turn hard so you could walk on it?

        I have to think about how it relates to punctuated equilibrium. But maybe it does.

  2. Robert Callaghan says:

    When you make your living writing fairy tales, you never start with “The End”, instead (if you want to keep your job) you write, “and they lived happily ever after.”

    I’ve been waiting for a revolution since 1917.

    The first link explains mass extinction vs. green energy.

    The second link explains how fucking evil we can be.

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