Not sustainable going forward

I have something important I want, on behalf of Bill McKibbin’s, to ask you to do today: The idea is that for a 24 hour period—starting at 8AM UTC/GMT today, folks around the world create a Twitterstorm by sending thousands upon thousands of tweets all with the same hashtag: #EndFossilFuelSubsidies. But first, to get you in the mood, I hope you will read this: —————– If you ever find yourself in a business meeting playing a game of bull***t bingo, and don’t have the phrase “going forward” on your card, prepare to lose. However, last week, whilst pondering the notion of “sustainable development” (or rather its absence), my attention was caught by someone on TV combining the two into a wonderful sound byte: Apparently, the maintenance of 3 Accident and Emergency hospitals in one County is “not sustainable going forward…” It was then that it hit me! People use this excuse all the time: Whenever, a company wants to make lots of people redundant, end a manufacturing process, close a factory, or liquidate a business… they always cite the fact that any other course of action would be unsustainable. In other words, it would make a loss; it would be uneconomic; because the costs of doing so would be greater than any potential benefit. In short, it would be illogical; it might even be insane! Leaving aside for a moment that companies seem perfectly capable of sustaining massive losses and yet remain in business (it’s called “being too big to fail” and “getting bailed-out by the taxpayer”), it is important to note that cost-benefit analysis is everywhere; we do it all the time; it is part of everyday life. That being the case, why do we not apply it to life itself? A multi-disciplinary team of scientists based at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) have been trying to do just that; and they recently published the findings of their research in the journal Nature. Only an abstract may be viewed online without a subscription (i.e. free of charge). However, thanks to Christine over on, I have been able to read a substantial summary of their work on the UCB website. The opening paragraph reads like this:

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere

The publication of their research findings may well have been deliberately timed to coincide with the G20 and Rio+20 Summits this week; and – if not deliberate – it is very fortuitous. However, one thing it is not is new. This message is at least 200 years old. The Rev Thomas Malthus was the first to point out that, unless food production can keep up with demand, perpetual population growth must ultimately lead to increasing numbers of impoverished and/or starving people. Needless to say, even 200 years ago, this message was not well received by those who had a financial interest in maintaining a happy productive workforce (and saw Malthus as being a dangerous and subversive distraction). Over the last 50 years, numerous scientists (mostly biologists) have published articles, research findings, and books on the subject – including Garrett Hardin, Paul and Anna Ehrlich, William Ophuls – but the most well known is probably the team of researchers based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), originally led by Dennis Meadows, that produced the first Limits to Growth report in 1972. Unfortunately, like everyone that has gone before – and everyone who has come along since then – they were immediately lambasted on the basis that Malthus had been proved wrong; they were accused of ‘crying “wolf”‘; and/or denounced as doomsayers, anti-progress, anti-Western, Communists, even misanthropic. Not only is it important to remember that the moral of the story of the boy who repeatedly raised the alarm is that the wolf eventually turned up (thanks Christine); it is also important to ask yourself why so many people (who are mainly economists not biologists) seek to dismiss this message? The former World Bank economist, Herman E Daly (yes him again), once lamented that: “Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done”; but insisted that “Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.” I am therefore inclined to think that the reason economists attack biologists who insist that limits to growth are a real threat is this: Attack is the best form of defence. However, denying the reality of limits to growth does not mean that they cease to exist. As it says on my About page:

“The driver of an accelerating car about to hit a brick wall might well say ‘so far so good’ – but that does not mean that the wall is not there!” (John Dryzek, 2005)

Denial is not a river in Egypt; it is an ideologically-prejudiced refusal to accept scientific facts that challenge the entire business model of this Carbon Age (which cannot last forever). Like I have said before, the burning of fossil fuels has only become a problem because of the rate at which it is being done. When there were only 1 billion people on Earth chopping down trees and burning them to farm the land and keep warm, anthropogenic CO2 emissions were not a problem; but now that we are digging up fossilised carbon and putting it into the atmosphere 1000 times faster than it can be geologically recycled it is a very big problem indeed. Thus the unnatural climate change we are now causing is a limits to growth phenomenon; and the money that we must now spend to mitigate it and/or adapt (or else be annihilated) is just one of many costs incurred as a result of denying, for the last 40 years, that limits to growth exist. I therefore make no apologies for again referring to The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update (2005), wherein the authors repeated their warning that if we put off dealing with limits to growth we are more likely to come up against several of them simultaneously. With regard to the revised computer modelling undertaken, they observed that in most cases the simulations ran out of the “ability to cope” when too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems; and concluded: “Growth, and especially exponential growth, is so insidious because it shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail.” (Meadows et al 2005: 223). This is exactly the message of the UCB team of researchers. We have reached the point predicted by Meadows et al. Moreover, nowadays it is not just biologists that are admitting that we have reached the point where further delay will not be cost-effective; in fact it could well be deadly. Above all else, we need a level playing field. That is why we must end the subsidies paid to fossil fuel companies that enable them to keep exploring for hydrocarbons that are becoming ever more costly to extract (whatever happened to cost-benefit analysis?). Therefore, I implore you to join the 24-hour Twitterstorm campaign, starting at 0800hrs UTC/GMT today (Monday 18 June 2012). Find out more and sign-up at


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Denial, Economics, Energy Crisis, Environment, Fossil Fuels, Limits to Growth, Politics, Renewable Energy, Scepticism, Sustainable development and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Not sustainable going forward

  1. Well mentioned – referred to it over on LfD and my ‘tweet’ has gone!


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Paul.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Your ‘tweet’ (singular)? …Despite not owning a smartphone, I sent a tweet roughly every 30 minutes for 11 hours yesterday (N.B. My investiture at Buckingham Palace is scheduled for later in the year – all the Birthday Honours people have to be ‘done’ first)… 🙂


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