Reading the 1972 Edition of The Limits to Growth

Last month, I read an Ecology 101 textbook (specifically, Ecology: Concepts and Applications by Manual C. Molles Jr., 2nd edition) as part of this “deindustrial reading list”. I don’t know if I will go through with the whole list, but I did read the 1972 edition of The Limits to Growth this week.

The thesis of the book is pretty simple: exponential growth of both human population and industrial output cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. Furthermore, they calculate that, without major social/cultural changes, there will be a major economic and human population crash before 2100.

I had heard about this book a long time ago, and a lot of the ideas in this book have circulated widely. Yet I found this book was full of insights which have not circulated widely.

For example, I knew years ago that this book had a standard run model (a.k.a. “business as usual”) which led to a major human population crash before 2100, and that it various models associated with various policies which delayed the crash yet failed to prevent it, and that it also had a model in which the crash was prevented altogether. I had also read that the standard run “business as usual” model predicted remarkably well what has happened since 1972 (according to this and another source I cannot find right now). I had assumed that, because the standard run model predicted the collapse happening soonest, that it was the most dire scenario.

Now that I have read the book, I have found that the “standard run” scenario is not the the scariest scenario.

Yes, the collapse happens sooner under “standard run” than other scenarios. However, in many of the other scenarios, even though the collapse is delayed by decades, it still happens before 2100, and the longer the collapse is put off, the greater it is. Furthermore, the longer the collapse is put off, the greater the overshoot, and the more it will reduce the carrying capacity of the planet to support human beings (Wikipedia explains what overshoot is). “Standard run” does not result in the lowest final carrying capacity. In that sense, it is not the most frightening scenario.

Now, again, the book says that technology alone cannot solve the problem. Nothing I had heard or read about the book had indicated that it had that insight, but it makes a really good case for that point. The book runs the model in which nonrenewable resources are ‘unlimited’ due to amazing technological advances in resource usage efficiency and recycling. The collapse still happens in the 21st century, due to pollution.

The book admits that pollution is the hardest for them to predict because it is the factor for which they have the least good input. One of the pollutants they looked at was carbon dioxide. Their projections for how concentration of how carbon dioxide would increase in the atmosphere in a ‘business as usual’ scenario turned out to be … not far off.

Think of collapse via nonrenewable resource exhaustion vs. collapse via pollution this way (this is my example, not an example from the book). ‘Peak Oil’ is a shorthand for ‘fossil fuels are nonrenewable, and if we keep using them we will run out of economically viable fossil fuel supplies’. Given that nuclear power is only viable with massive economic subsidies, once fossil fuels run out, we will be left with only renewable power. Given that renewable power is nowhere close to being able to replace fossil fuel power right now, that means a sharp reduction in energy supplies, which could trigger a collapse of industrial civilization. However, if fossil fuels continue to be available indefinitely anyway for whatever reason, and they continue to be used, it keeps on increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which triggers collapse by extreme climate change. Collapse by resource depletion, or collapse by pollution? Even now, some people argue that climate change is what will trigger the collapse of civilization, before economically viable fossil fuels run out, and others say that the depletion of economically viable fossil fuels will happen before the more dire climate change scenarios can happen (climate change is already happening, so it’s too late to talk about stopping it completely).

As far as collapse happening earlier or sooner … imagine that the planet had been endowed with way less in the way of accessible fossil fuel supplies, and that economically viable fossil fuels had been depleted by, say, 1920. It probably would have caused a collapse of industrial civilization back then, and lots of human suffering, but it would have completely prevented climate change by carbon dioxide, and the crash which would have happened in that scenario would have been much less severe than the crash it looks like we are going towards.

Furthermore, the book has a scenario in which technology magically solves the nonrenewable resource problem and the pollution problem … and it just delays the collapse a little, and then it’s collapse by food shortage and global famines. Basically, any scenario they came up with which had a solution which was technology alone ended with a collapse by resource depletion, pollution, or food shortage, before the year 2100.

The models they had which did *not* lead to a population/civilization crash before 2100 included both technological and social change. Specifically, societies find mechanisms – which would have to be social, not technological – to ensure that the birth rate equalled the death rate, and that investment in industrial capital did not exceed depreciation.

Sara, the reading list says that that you should note whether The Limits to Growth makes more or less sense in the light of the ecological concepts you learned from the ecology textbook.

Well, I don’t have much to say. Yes, the ecology textbook went over population growth of individual species, that population growth tends to be exponential until it reaches the carrying capacity of the environment, and then the population tends to stabilize. The ecology textbook I read does not, however, describe overshoot. The ecology textbook goes into great detail about interactions between different organisms and the environment, which I suppose helped me make a little more sense of the emphasis in The Limits to Growth to studying complex interactions between different factors. However, The Limits to Growth explains its concepts so well that I doubt that reading the ecology textbook did much to influence how I made sense of it.

Is there anything else you want to say about The Limits to Growth?

The book also has some very interesting psychological insights. For example, it points out that so many people insist that technology can solve these problems because, for the past few hundred years, technology has solved problems, which is what has allowed the human population to grow as much as it had. This has established a culture which expects technology to solve society-wide problems. However, it can only do so *before* the hard limits of this planet have been reached. It has some insights into why it is so difficult to get humans to respond to problems such as pollution (there is a great car driving metaphor in the book).

There are also a few bits in the book which, in my opinion, are simply bullshit. But they are in the details, not in the general ideas. I’m not going to discard the value of this book just because they got some minor stuff wrong.

I highly recommend reading this book. Though I have not read the 1992 or 2004 updates, I recommend the 1972 version over those two for these reasons:

1) The 1972 version is the shortest.
2) The 1972 version was the bestseller which sold millions of copies, so it is the best for tracing the origins of various ideas.
3) Seeing what they actually said in 1972 and compare it today.

Sara, this book seems like it’s a real downer! I don’t want to read it!

If you don’t want to read it, then you don’t have to read it. But this is what I have to say about this book being a ‘bummer’.

First, it does not predict the extinction of human beings, even after the collapse. Since a lot of people do predict the near-future extinction of human beings, I consider this book to be more optimistic than those predictions. Also, as I already explained, current data indicates that we are not going into the scariest scenario described in the book.

Second, I don’t know about your life expectancy, but my current life expectancy, according to charts and whatnots, says that I am most likely to die in the early 2070s. I may, of course, live into the 2080s, and I may die a heck of a lot sooner than 2070 as well. That means that, if the Limits to Growth projections continue to predict the future as accurately as they have so far, there is a very high chance I will live long enough to witness the collapse. And if they are right about the death rate sharply rising in the middle of the 21st century, that may very well cut off my life and cause me to die in the 2050s rather than the 2070s. I cannot prevent the crisis, but if I am going to live long enough to get into the thick of it, I would rather have a better understanding of why such awful things are happening than a worse understanding of why such awful things are happening.

I looked up Donella Meadows, the lead writer of the The Limits to Growth. She was not much older than I am now when she did the studies which are the basis of The Limits to Growth. She died in 2001, at the age of 59 years old. That was significantly younger than her projected life expectancy in the early 1970s. It just goes to show that, even in good times, some people still get their lives cut short. On the flipside, even during times of general crisis, some people get really lucky and live long and satisfying lives anyway.

Soon, I plan to read the next book on that reading list, Overshoot. Based on what I know about it, it seems like it will be more of a downer than The Limits to Growth. I’ll see how I will react to that one.

The Turning Point of Growing Older

I am not sure when I passed this point, but now I am sure I have passed the point where my body has attained its peak vigor, and that the future will only bring bodily decline. I still pass as very young – some people still think I’m a teenager when they first see me – but my body does not feel as young as it used to. My body today certainly does not feel like my teenage body, even if some people think I look like a teenager on the outside.

I still feel very youthful in my body – much more youthful than I will feel in the future, I am sure – but I am also aware of accumulated wear and tear in a way I was not before, and instead of feeling ‘eh, it will probably go away’ I feel ‘oh well, it will probably just get worse’. I suppose there are lifestyle factors which, if changed, could make me feel more vigorous, but that’s the thing – if all else stays constant, my body is now in (currently slow) decline.

It is like when my father says that he is ‘old’. He’s passed the point where he can convince himself that he is middle-aged – he identifies as old now. He’s still in good health – in fact, it’s probably partially thanks to his genes that I still look so young (my father has also looked far younger than his chronological age for most of his life).

It’s a reminder that life is short, and that I better do important things now, while I am still alive.

DIY Death, or Living (Dying) Off the Escalator

Just a couple days after reading “Asexuality and the Relationship Escalator”, which brought to my consciousness once again the relationship escalator, I saw the documentary A Will for the Woods. For those who do not know, the ‘relationship escalator’ refers to the series of ‘steps’ which ‘serious (sexual/romantic) relationships’ are expected to automatically progress, and A Will for the Woods is the story of a man, Clark Wang, who literally planned his own funeral.

One issue which gets brought up in broader discussions about the relationship escalator is that … it’s not just about relationships. For example, in much of United States society, there are also expectations about completely college, moving out of one’s family’s home, getting certain types of jobs, and so forth, which often tie to the relationship escalator.

In the United States, we like to pretend that sex is a taboo, edgy, or forbidden topic. To some degree, it is in certain contexts, but a topic which people go to further lengths to avoid is death, particularly discussing death in any degree of detail. There is, in alternative culture, a backlash against this – for example, the “Death Positive” Movement. However, for the most part, death is not discussed, and when death does happen, most people in the United States are either filled with embalming fluid and buried in a cement vault, or they are cremated.

Clark Wang, the man featured in the documentary, did not decide how and when he was going to die, but once he had fair warning of both the cause (lymphoma) and timing (2011) of his death, he put serious thought into what would happen to his body in death – both in terms of environmental impact and the impact it was going to have on the people in his lives – and he figured out that he did not like any of the ‘conventional’ options. He persuaded a cemetery manager to create a different kind of cemetery just so he could have the kind of burial he wanted. This included preserving a patch of forest which had previously been destined for clear-cutting.

Through the documentary, I could not help but think that the way he stepped outside of the normal ‘track’ which United States society sets of for the dying and dead, thought about what he really wanted and what was best for his people, the environment, and himself, and then made it happen … is not unlike the people who get off the relationship escalator, think about what they really want and need, and build relationships around that rather than just ride the escalator.

As it so happens, I have not thought too much about my own funeral, or any wishes I may have related to that. Even though I’m still ‘young’, it may be something I should do … after all, one of my high school classmates, who I remember as being a lively and assertive person, died when she was just twenty years old. It’s also a conversation I should have with my parents, but knowing my mother – who will probably die first – it will not be an easy conversation to have, if we can have it at all.

The Fake Ruin, the Real Ruin, and the Ruin in Waiting

"Palace of Fine Arts SF CA" by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) - originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Palace of Fine Arts SF CA” by Kevin Cole (en:User:Kevinlcole) – originally posted to Flickr as Palace of Fine Arts. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Recently, I have visited three places in San Francisco which are geographically close to each other, and together, make a statement about the temporary nature of everything people build, and how deal with it.

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Marin County

The first one I visited (recently) was the Golden Gate Bridge, shortly after reading Golden Gate: The Life and Times of America’s Greatest Bridge. As the title implies, the writer is a big fan of the Golden Gate Bridge, and goes on at length about how awesome the bridge is. However, he is also a historian, and he knows that all great monuments are destined to become ruins. The Golden Gate Bridge narrowly avoided destruction a couple times already, is in a major earthquake zone, and requires high levels of uninterrupted maintenance to remain structurally sound. The writer of the book admits that the Golden Gate Bridge will last at most a few centuries. In other words, the Golden Gate Bridge is mortal. The writer finds this romantic – he imagines how future generations may marvel at the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering how the bridge was during its era of glory.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Sutro Baths in 1894.

Meanwhile, that future can already be found at Sutro Baths, which is near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the world, and for over seventy years it was the largest glass structure in San Francisco, as well as one of the city’s icons. However, over the decades it fell into decline, starting with financial problems, which led to the building being neglected, then abandoned, and in the 1960s, destroyed.

Sutro Baths, as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, as I saw in in January 2016

Today, Sutro Baths is San Francisco’s greatest ruin, and is popular with sightseers. As a child, I believed it was the ruins of an ancient Roman bathhouse (I did not understand at the time that the Roman empire had been on an entirely different continent). During my recent visit, some children passed by and one said that it was a ruin of the Aztec empire. The ruins deteriorate every year, and as time goes by, the remains of the baths will erode and become unrecognizable.

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

Sutro Baths, also as I saw it in January 2016

The Golden Gate Bridge is almost as old as Sutro Baths was when the building was destroyed, but I expect it will have many more decades of service. However, some day, one way or another, the Golden Gate will meet the same fate as Sutro Baths, and be a even more spectacular ruin until the forces of wipe the traces of its existence off the face of the earth.

"Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon" by Edwin Deakin

“Palace of Fine Arts and the Lagoon” by Edwin Deakin

Within walking distance of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Palace of Fine Arts. As a young child, I was convinced that the palace was an ancient Greek ruin, just as I had once believed that Sutro Baths were the ruins of ancient Roman baths. When my parents told me that it was not, that the Palace of Fine Arts had been built in 1915, I did not believe them. It looked just like the pictures from books about ancient Greece and Rome! Of course, it was no accident that it looked like a Classical Greco-Roman building. It was built as part of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE), and is the one building from that world’s fair which still stands today in its original location.

2015 was the 100 year anniversary of the PPIE, and I attended one of the events celebrating the anniversary – specifically, a lecture about the closing of the fair. Even while the fair was open, a movement arose to preserve the Palace of Fine Arts, and it is thanks to those ordinary people that the Palace of Fine Arts has been preserved until the present day. There were people who wanted then entire fair, not just the Palace of Fine Arts, to be preserved, but it was impractical. The PPIE was built with the intention of being temporary, and it had been built accordingly.

Many people came to the closing of the PPIE, and there was much sadness as a source of much pride and joy in San Francisco came to the end. However, as the lecturer pointed out, the end of the PPIE was a planned end. The people of San Francisco had a chance to say good-bye, and it was dismantled in an organized fashion, not in the midst of a traumatic crisis. 1915 was less than ten years after the 1906 earthquake and fire which had destroyed much of San Francisco, and the lecturer claimed that taking down the PPIE on their terms and not the terms of a disaster helped the people of San Francisco heal a bit more from the trauma of 1906.

And a hundred years later, the Palace of Fine Arts still stands, having outlasted Sutro Baths and lasting long enough to co-exist with the Golden Gate Bridge. Heck, it is also a physical mark that, over a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, bits of ancient Greek and Roman culture continue to be part of the lives of the living, and is a promising sign that bits of our own civilization may continue to be with the living long after our own fall.

The Golden Gate Bridge is illuminated with the glow of the sunset

The Golden Gate Bridge, as seen from Land’s End (San Francisco)

Life is fleeting, and everything humans build is also fleeting. It is better to accept that, as the people accepted the mortal nature of the PPIE while they held onto the Palace of Fine Arts and celebrated the hundred-year anniversary in 2015. People also accept the fall of Sutro Baths, for most visitors would rather leave the ruins as they are rather than try to reconstruct the baths. In the present state of Sutro Baths I see the future of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet planning for the inevitable decline and fall can greatly reduce the pain. And maybe the best of what our present civilization has to offer can be preserved far beyond its probable lifetime, just as the Palace of Fine Arts outlasted the PPIE by a hundred years and counting.

“There is less of us than there was before” – My Mother and Mortality

One of the very first things my mother said to me after I returned to the United States was ‘There is less of us than there was before’.

She was mainly referring to body weight (i.e. we all weighed less than we did before), but I think her words had a deeper meaning than that. She is closer to death than she was before.

My mother went through a health crisis in late 2013. She’s still recovering, though she experiences a lot less fatigue, and almost all of her pain is gone. However, some of the damage to her body is permanent. She will never again have the same level of physical ability as she did when I left for Taiwan.

Now, my mother’s diet consists almost exclusively of fruits, vegetables, whole wheat pasta, and nutritional supplements. She does not eat any kind of animal product, legumes, non-whole grains, or nuts. That’s because one of her conditions cannot be medicated by drugs alone, but can be controlled by these dietary restrictions (her blood tests results improved significantly after she started this diet).

Before all of this happened, I somehow had the idea in my head that the first person to have a health crisis would be my father, not my mother. I think it’s partially because my mother tends to constantly critique my father’s life habits, saying that this thing he’s doing is ‘unhealthy’, and that thing he’s doing is ‘unhealthy’, and she points out how she’s more careful than my father, which is mostly true. I think it also might have been because he’s male – women generally live longer than men, right?

However, one thing my father is diligent about is exercise – much more so than my mother. And though my mother still claims that the food he eats is not as healthy as her food 1) he generally ate less food than my mother and 2) he paid some attention to Vitamin D. Years ago, my father and I occasionally wondered how my mother was getting enough vitamin D, since she hardly ever went out in the sun, wasn’t eating any vitamin-D rich foods, and wasn’t taking supplements. The answer was, she was NOT getting Vitamin D, and severe vitamin D deficiency was a key factor in her health crisis.

Now, the difference between my father and my mother’s physical conditions is such that some strangers who see my parents together assume that they are mother and son – even though she is younger than him.

My mother might live another 20 or more years – and as long as she is enjoying life, I hope she does. However, it is also possible that she will not. I don’t just mean that in a ‘she could get hit by a truck’ kind of way, I mean in a ‘accumulated health issues shut down her body’ kind of way. At the very least, her permanent loss of physical ability is an ever-present reminder of her mortality.

And her mortality also reminds me of my mortality.


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Departenze

Moving from the United States to Taiwan was a big shift.

Then there are a zillion practical considerations, like making sure you visa is okay, trying to make last-minute changes to your flight, and so forth.

However, all of this was made easier by the fact that I had just graduated from college. My college life was already nicely wrapped up, and I didn’t have a job.

Yet even during the interval of time between college graduation and departure, I had built up my own new rhythm of life – volunteering at the Fringe festival, gardening, retro-gaming, going on City Walks – and that rhythm had to be broken.

2011 was the year I settled into Taiwan, establishing my new habits of living. 2012 was my most stable year in Taiwan – and it’s not a coincidence that this blog started that year. This year, 2013, has been less stable, yet some of the shake-up has been very good.

Next month, I’m going to leave Taiwan.

I had been thinking about leaving ever since last December, but last week I decided that I was finally going to do it.

I do not know if this is a repeat of the process I went through when I moved from the USA to Taiwan, or whether everything is going into reverse and the life I set up here is being unravelled. It’s probably just a matter of perspective.

I am surprised at how little this has been affecting me emotionally. It was actually my emotional self-check which partially persuaded me to leave. I realized what is keeping me in Taiwan is not so much attachment … as inertia.

Of course, I knew that the life I’ve had in Taiwan was not going to be forever. Even if I stay in Taiwan, the life I have will change anyway … and life itself is not permanent. Now, rather than holding on, it’s time for me to let go and move forward.

I do not know what will happen to this blog in the upcoming months. I will try to keep up the weekly posts. Maybe it will be easy. Maybe it won’t be. Maybe I won’t keep up.


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Scattered Thoughts on 7Seeds and Basara

This is for Movable Manga Feast: Yumi Tamura

***

I’m way behind on my 7Seeds reading! This is in spite of the fact that it’s being published in a language I can read (繁體中文) at a price of less than 4 USD per volume. How did this happen!

Well, I guess I’m saving the volumes up for a sweet, sweet 7Seeds marathon. Yeah, that’s the plan…

What’s more, I don’t have any of my 7Seeds volumes on hand … so all of this is based on my memory, and might not be completely accurate.

***

Yumi Tamura recycles the same character designs over and over again, so much that when I’m think about 7Seeds characters, I sometimes refer to their ‘Basara’ name instead of their ‘7Seeds’ name. For example, I sometimes call Hana in 7Seeds ‘Sarasa’.

Of course, Hana and Sarasa don’t just look alike, they practically have the same personality. You could say that Sarasa is the reincarnation of Hana (though Basara is older than 7Seeds, technically the events of Basara happen after 7Seeds, so Sarasa would be Hana re-incarnated, not the other way around).

Then there is Shuri/Arashi.

Arashi (7Seeds) and Shuri (Basara) also look identical. They also happen to be Hana/Sarasa’s boyfriend. Therefore, at first, I also mistook them for being the same character.

But Arashi and Shuri’s personalities are totally different.

Arashi is kind, gentle, listens to others, is willing to support the underdog, and has no ambition. Shuri is selfish, arrogant, proud, and wants to take over Japan.

Arashi has little emotional fortitude, so when he faces a difficult situation, he just wants to give up. Shuri is, psychologically, much tougher.

Of course, it’s not just the character designs which are recycled. It’s also the plot.

Both stories are set in post-apocalyptic Japan.

Both stories feature a death race, though the death race is much more prominent in 7Seeds.

There are some changes. For example, whereas Shuri is the prince/king in Basara, Hana is the ‘princess’ of Japan in 7Seeds (if you know the stories of 7Seeds, you can figure out what I mean by that).

Both stories feature an isolated underground community.

The examples go on and on.

This is why I prefer to think of Yumi Tamura’s long-form manga (Basara, 7Seeds, Tomoe ga yuku!) as being variations upon each other rather than being separate works. There are just so many parallels and connections between them.

***

I think the most important issue facing humanity today is the coming ecological transformation. It might be climate change, if it’s not climate change, it might be ocean acidification, and if it’s not ocean acidification, it might be peak oil, and if it’s not peak oil, it might be the slew of various chemicals we are spreading everywhere. The era of industrialization is unsustainable, and anything which is unsustainable will not be sustained.

How humanity will deal with this is a very important question.

While I think the specific scenario presented in 7Seeds is unlikely, I don’t think that matters. It explores the question of how humanity will cope with a sudden end to the ‘modern’ world. The central conflict of the story is whether or not the human race will go extinct which is a really dramatic conflict. I know many people who think the ending of 7Seeds will be human extinction. Strangely, I actually think the human race will pull through in 7Seeds, but as I said above, I haven’t read the most recent volumes.

I really don’t know if the human race will pull through the upcoming ecological transformation.

Anyhow, props to Yumi Tamura for exploring the most important issue of our time.

***


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