In 1950, very early in my life, the world human population was a little over 2.5 billion. That was about five years after the end of a major global human slaughter known as WWII. Before the slaughter it was around 2.3 billion. About a hundred fifty years before that, 1800, the global population was somewhere around 800 million to 1.1 billion. By 1990 we were at around 5.2 billion, and now we're over 7.4 billion. (sources: Population Estimates, World Population Clock)

I want to talk a little bit about the concept of sustainability. Just a little, there's way too much to say to try to cover it all.

I remember reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1963 while our family farm was on its last legs, driven into bankruptcy by the high production methods of the Green Revolution that we also call industrial farming.

The Green Revolution refers to a set of research and development of technology transfer initiatives occurring between the 1930s and the late 1960s (with prequels in the work of the agrarian geneticist Nazareno Strampelli in the 1920s and 1930s), that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s.[1] The initiatives resulted in the adoption of new technologies...

Green Revolution definition:

noun: green revolution

  1. a large increase in crop production in developing countries achieved by the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and high-yield crop varieties.

In 1963 we were doggedly practicing what my father honored as the Rodale methods of agriculture. We were not competing well with the high production of those rapidly spreading industrial methods, nor were we receiving the government subsidies that helped those who were farming industrially to get their corporate farms up and running.

J. I. Rodale, who founded Rodale Inc, first published Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. With that magazine, he attempted to share his methods for growing better food without using chemicals to enhance production, which would, meanwhile, destroy the natural fertility of the soil. Some might see Rodale as a Luddite response to a technology that would dramatically change the entire culture of family farming in the world. My father and his family, who'd survived the Great Depression on a 20 acre farm on the outskirts of Detroit, were among its foundational readers and eventual practitioners. Rodale was the inspiration for what later became the rise of organic farming, and what would become a recognized branding as part of the industrial conception for distributing food and gaining public trust, and thus a market, in some lines of food as the public itself responded to the Rachel Carson wake up call, and helped invoke the creation of the EPA, and participated in the rise of an environmental movement in the late sixties and early seventies. But that came nearly a decade after we went bankrupt trying to compete with industrial agriculture methods, a bit too late for us to save our farm by actually having a methods for our type of food products. Nevertheless, that aside, I trace my own personal history as an environmentalist to that reading in 1963.

All that is simply a prelude to where things have gone for me since then, to where I see things have come to now for humans, and especially where they may be going for humans in the so-called “developed” sectors of the world, like the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, and increasingly other rapidly industrializing sectors like China. I watched an environmental movement grow and spread as an idea and (very importantly) as a public attitude during the 1970s. Then I watched while corporations took back “their” country (as prescribed by the now famous Powell Memo), and, as part of the process, used their corporate-owned media and thus a propaganda system for Manufacturing Consent, to make a joke of environmentalists like me, of the Carter Presidency that began with a promise and ended with a wimper. I watched as the rise of corporate power through the eighties brought our now inverted totalitarian corporatocracy, under the banner of Reaganism, into fruition with an eventual corporate coup d'etat -- as the Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul pithily identified it in his 1992 tome Voltaire's Bastards.

What I consider myself doing now is what I've been calling on a web site I recently created: Watching Apocalypse. Pretty much everything I'm seeing was understood to be coming about when I was studying anthropology and ecology at Michigan State University, which, ironically is also one of the primary ag-education institutions to develop, with the help of government and corporate funding, the methods of the Green Revolution. I still recall one of the well know food scientists from that institution, Georg Borgström, walking into one of my ecology classes as a guest lecturer, slamming down his latest book on the desk, which got our attention, then announcing loudly in his Swedish accent, “The Green Revolution is dead!” Georg was, by then, rapidly becoming the world's conscience on the division between the rich and the poor, and the ruthless exploitation of nature with the forthcoming risks to both the environment and the eventual capacity of the modern way of life to support a rapidly growing population.

Recently I was reminded of a book I read back in 1980, just before Reagan was elected. Here's the title: Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change by William R. Catton. The revolution with a hope for that revolutionary change he speaks of was what had taken place in the attitudes that brought about the environmental movement in the 70s. He was writing on the cusp of that brief revolution, and another revolving of the 10,000 year cycling of civilization had already begun, bringing us back to a human-centering process once again. I remember it being called the Reagan revolution. Catton's work is now considered by many in the field to be a classic. I think it pretty well sumarizes everything I was aware of at that time, plus presciently says what we are watching emerge now. Thus what was said then is completely relevant now, if not more so. It's one of those books I loaned out and never got back, so I picked up another one, plus a Kindle edition.

I mention it because on occasion I've tried to explain the idea of sustainability to various people. Usually without much success. I realize as I try that it takes a great deal of ecological context to get to the idea itself. Ecological thinking is not widely taught in our system of education because it is founded on the principles of systems thinking, which, because they are so intertwined and thus complex, do not tweet very well, nor sound bite well on the evening news. The first two paragraphs in his first chapter, Our Need for a New Perspective, however, summarizes the attitude of sustainability, even if a complete context is not so easily brought to light when trying to discuss it:

Quote William R. Catton:

On the banks of the Volga in 1921 a refugee community was visited by an American newspaper correspondent who had come to write about the Russian famine. 1 Almost half the people in this community were already dead of starvation. The death rate was rising. Those still surviving had no real prospect of prolonged longevity. In an adjacent field, a lone soldier was guarding a huge mound of sacks full of grain. The American newsman asked the white-bearded leader of the community why his people did not overpower this one guard, take over the grain, and relieve their hunger. The dignified old Russian explained that the sacks contained seed to be planted for the next growing season. “We do not steal from the future,” he said.

Today mankind is locked into stealing ravenously from the future. That is what this book is about. It is not just a book about famine or hunger. Famine in the modern world must be read as one of several symptoms reflecting a deeper malady in the human condition— namely, diachronic competition, a relationship whereby contemporary well-being is achieved at the expense of our descendants. By our sheer numbers, by the state of our technological development, and by being oblivious to differences between a method that achieved lasting increments of human carrying capacity and one that achieves only temporary supplements, we have made satisfaction of today's human aspirations dependent upon massive deprivation for posterity.

Catton, William R. (2015-04-10). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Kindle Locations 228-238). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition.

Every day I get writings in my email from various science-oriented publications about the evolving state of our world.

Here's a recent one, published yesterday: The Oceans Can’t Protect Us Anymore—Here’s Why

These topics recur as if someone's supposed to do something about an issue if only it becomes public knowledge. I introduced a similar discussion about the oceans in this thread back in December of 2013, Ocean Apocalypse. An evening talk by Jeremy Jackson presented at the U.S. Naval War College was the OP subject matter of that thread. My teacher from the ecology program at Michigan State back in the 70s had already, then, written about what we, the human species, were doing to the oceans in a series of books about Fish as Food in the sixties, which included a detailed examination of the Japanese efforts to feed themselves off the Ocean commons, in an increasingly eco-destructive way: Japan's World Success in Fishing (1964).

There are so many of these topics that I see scattered here and there. They are introduced usually in disconnected pieces, often mixed in with all sorts of other news, and then, just as often, lost in the shuffle. Only someone with an ecological consciousness and an ongoing narrative of their own is likely to notice and make sense of them. And then what? On goes the human world pretty much as it's been going. We are expecting that somehow about 10 billion of us will be inhabiting this planet before the end of this century. That's if all continues to go as expected, of course. Collapse is seldom considered a reality from within the thinking processes of any given complex society.

A second work, published in 1988 tells the other part of the story that goes with Overshoot. I consider it and Overshoot all anyone needs to read to get acquainted with our current predicament. Title: The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter.

Here's a pretty clear youtube presentation by Tainter that describes the theory he presents in that work: Collapse of Complex Societies by Dr. Joseph Tainter

Once you understand that theory, which is kind of a detailed aspect of the whole idea of overshoot, you can begin to create your own narrative about what's going on. You can even begin to do your own private viewing of apocalypse unfolding.





zapdam.'s picture
zapdam. 3 years 19 weeks ago

very soon to be 8 billion people add another billion every few years as the multiplier effect continues to kick in. The wealthy countries ,mostly white have a shrinking population growth, while underdeveloped countries ,especially Asia are exploding . But having said all that the ills that today plague our planet aren't really connected to this huge underdeveloped third world population explosion. GMO's the contamination of our food supply is a western invention, along with fracking that is poisoning our water supply, add radiation still leaking into the Pacific ocean from Fukushima. Then of course there's planet warming caused by the use of fossil fuels and animal farming ,both of which are the result of overconsumption by wealthy western ,mostly white countries.

.ren's picture
.ren 3 years 19 weeks ago

That's a dense paragraph to unpack, zapdam. I think in a general sense I agree. In case anyone wants some sources for the population figures, here's another recent article that appeared in my inbox a few days ago:

Soaring population raises climate concerns

LONDON, 2 September, 2016 – Human numbers are predicted to grow by 33% in the next 33 years – and that is worrying news for a world already struggling to deal with the impacts of climate change.

By 2050, there could be 9.9 billion people alive on the planet, and the global total is expected to hit 10 bn by 2053, according to the latest calculations by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a private not-for-profit organisation based in the US.

By 2050, the population of Africa will reach 2.5 billion, which was roughly the population of the entire globe at the close of the Second World War in 1945.

The number of people on the two American continents will rise by just 233 million to 1.2bn, and Asia will gain 900 million to reach 5.3bn, but Europe’s population will fall from 740 million to 728 million.

I think, though, that the brunt of your paragraph is aimed at the crux of the problem identified in Overshoot. We of industrialized societies have been living for around two hundred years with the accumulated solar energy of millions of years that we've been extracting from the earth. That breaks down to saying we of the developed nations have been living for a number of years on a phantom capacity that Catton calculated to be the equivalent of ten earths. All the developed nations are living off what he calls "ghost acreage."

Quote William R. Catton:

Living on Ten Earths

A good estimate of the rate at which nature might be replacing the energy deposits man was withdrawing could have been easily calculated. One merely needed to know (1) the total weight of the earth's atmosphere, (2) the fraction of it that was oxygen, (3) how long it had taken for that much oxygen to be released from carbon dioxide (in which it had formerly been bound), and (4) the comparative weight of the one atom of carbon to the two atoms of oxygen in each former molecule of atmospheric C02. None of this information was secret or undiscovered; it wasn't even very obscure. Sea-level atmospheric pressure was commonly known, as was the approximate diameter (from which could be calculated the surface area) of the earth. So the weight of all the air on earth could be calculated to a reasonable approximation with ordinary high school mathematics. Roughly one-fifth of the air was now oxygen, and 99 percent of that free oxygen had been released, it has been estimated, in the last 600 million years. 26 The atomic weights of carbon and oxygen were readily available, and their ratio was simple to calculate. So it turned out that about 625,000 tons of carbon per year had been the average amount buried in deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, and other less combustible substances since the photosynthetic process began releasing into the atmosphere a net total of one million billion tons of oxygen. Much of that extraction of carbon from the atmosphere had occurred in the Carboniferous period, between 215 and 300 million years ago, so the present average annual addition to the world's fossil fuel deposits could scarcely be as much as half the long-term average.

By the 1970s, however, the world's human population, with all its technology, was burning these substances at a rate that re-oxidized and returned to the air more than four billion tons of carbon each year. In short, the rate of “harvesting” from this ghost acreage (4 × 109 tons per year) was more than 10,000 times what the rate of replacement might now be (½ × 6.25 × 105 tons per year). Conservative as the estimate of a 10,000 to 1 ratio might be, it was not calculated in time to deter deep commitment of human societies to such overuse.

Even more simply, it would have been possible (had it not been for the pre-ecological paradigm) to see how much the output of agriculture and forestry and fishing would have had to increase if Homo sapiens were to try to derive more of his current energy expenditures from current energy income. Man was withdrawing annually from savings about ten times as much energy as he was obtaining from current income (from organic sources); therefore, to reduce his dependence on fossil acreage by only one-tenth, man would have to double his use of contemporary photosynthesis. That would obviously entail improvements falling somewhere in the almost surely unattainable range, between another doubling of yield per acre and another doubling of tilled acreage at existing yields.

To become completely free from dependence on prehistoric energy (without reducing population or per capita energy consumption), modern man would require an increase in contemporary carrying capacity equivalent to ten earths— each of whose surfaces was forested, tilled, fished, and harvested to the current extent of our planet. Without ten new earths, it followed that man's exuberant way of life would be cut back drastically sometime in the future, or else that there would someday be many fewer people. Neither alternative, and none of the reasons for them, were contemplated by those who glibly sought “energy independence.”

Catton, William R. (2015-04-10). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Kindle Locations 1127-1154). University of Illinois Press. Kindle Edition.

The underdeveloped nations are part of that ghost acreage that the developed nations have grown used to, for it was from them that most of the needed energy and resources were plundered as those same resources were depleted within by the epically consumerist life styles of the industrialized societies. This includes the extremely resource rich North American continent that made it possible for the U.S. to be the current reigning global empire. The trade off for the underdeveloped sectors has been a loss of their cultures, which means ways of life, displacement, war, looming famines, rising disease rates, as we imported industrial technologies like those of our own, infamous Green Revolution.

The idea that we can keep going with what we are doing -- and meanwhile bring 10 bn people into these ways of living -- by replacing millions of years of stored solar energy with renewables is another of our cargoistic cult beliefs yet to come crashing against reality.

citizen1956's picture
citizen1956 3 years 19 weeks ago

The future of the next generation has been so severely compromised by the selfishness of our generation,we would justly be found libel in a court of law.

I agree with .ren, we did have a window of opportunity after the oil embargo of 1973.The Carter Administration came in with a aggressive energy conservation program, promoting energy efficiency,renewable energy, and conservation.It promoted the development of more efficient autos,home appliances,home heating and cooling units and home construction.We are still reaping benefits from those improvements today.

Unfortunately, it did not last.The Alaskan Pipeline was completed in 1977 and oil was flowing from the Prudhoe Bay Reserves and the "crisis" was over.In 1980 Reagan was elected, the EPA was decommissioned and the era of McMansions and SUV's began.Consumerism reigned supreme and has not looked back.

Even as a High School student, I remember, enviromental issues were covered and discussed.There was solid science warning us of Global Warming and Overpopulation back then.

We could reduce our fossil-fuel emissions by 50% with just conservation,if as a nation if we had the political will.

Yet here we are in 2016 the warmest year on record,but where is the political leadership,where is the national discourse and where is the urgency.Nowhere to be found.It's business as usual.Maybe we just find a good seat and watch the Apocalypse unfold.

Consumerism meets the Apocalypse...

Legend 3 years 19 weeks ago

I have said for ages that the single largest contributor to climate change is over population. Now we have 7.6 billion burning carbon. If we had half that we would have half the carbon use and half of the food consumed. China and India combined are 10x the population of the USA.

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