Thanks to Tim Murray for this short essay. For more on the work of Chris Clugston, referenced below, see https://www.populationmedia.org/?s=%22Chris+Clugston%22. For more of Tim Murray’s writings, see https://www.populationmedia.org/?s=%22Tim+Murray%22.
REALITY VS. WISHFUL THINKING
When I first encountered Chris Clugston’s work some three years ago, it came as a lightning bolt. His analysis was unassailable. Finally an analytical tool—“Societal Overextension Analysis”—- that measured overshoot in a way that ecological footprint analysis did not, rendering it almost obsolete. Now Chris has fleshed SOA out. He has inventoried 89 metals and minerals that are critical to the operation of any industrial economy, and found that 69 of them are scarce and are getting scarcer. The Green Apostles of False Hope can imagine that substitutes will be found for one or two or even a dozen of them—but not most of them, and any one shortage can bring the industrial edifice down.
Industrialism is unsustainable, whether it is under capitalist or socialist management. If you think the profit motive is the root of all evil, then take a look at the June 1991 edition of National Geographic: “Europe’s Darkest Dawn”. Lest we forget, the socialist command economy turned Eastern Europe into a smoky toxic waste dump. The challenge for Clugston’s critics is tell us how an industrial economy can function without even a handful of the non-renewables he itemized. Are we going to build factories out of straw? And if they do that, then their next task is to demonstrate that ANY civilization is sustainable, given that agriculture itself is unsustainable. But how we will grasp at straws…..
One thing must be understood. We are not anarcho-primitivists. We do not exult or romanticize pre-industrial cultures. Chris is not arguing that we should return to a pre-industrial society. Like me, he rather likes our civilized amenities.” I don’t hate industrialism, and I don’t think that it’s inherently evil or the work of the devil or greedy people—my only rub is that it’s physically impossible going forward.” The point is that what “we” want is irrelevant, because Mother Nature could not care less about our wants or needs. There is never going to be a New England style Town Hall meeting or public referendum on the question of whether our species should transit to a hunter gatherer lifestyle or not. We will never be asked by Mother Nature whether we should vote to dismantle industrial civilization. (If we were, I would certainly vote to keep my jacuzzi and microwave oven.) The fact is, we will not have affordably accessible natural non renewable resources available to enable that preferred lifestyle.
In that context, left-right dichotomies are irrelevant, as are the relatively trivial disputes between Keynesians and the Mises School, hyper-inflationists vs. deflationists, free trade vs. protectionism, and the fight for women’s rights, gay rights, and human rights. This civilization is going down. Deal with it.
The question is not “if” but “when”. At some point, the masses are going to realize that something is terribly wrong. And the search for scapegoats will begin–in fact—it already has. “They” are to blame. Trouble is evening the score with “them” won’t change the reality that we are hooked to a resource utilization mix that can’t indefinitely deliver the goods. Mystics and cargo cults like contemporary environmentalism will promise deliverance by tech fixes, but as Chris points out, you can’t replenish an aquifer by fixing the pump—a more technically efficient extraction process will not offset the growing demand for the non-renewable resource that is in short supply.
Chris’s book needs to be read by everyone in the “sustainability” movement—but it won’t be. I would be surprised if it even found a publisher. Why? Because we are conditioned to demand a happy ending. Even Al Gore needed to tack on a Hollywood ending to his documentary. The belief that “every problem has a solution” is, as he puts it, “part of our cultural DNA”. The American “can do” spirit finds a voice even in people like Paul Ehrlich, who recently told Alex Smith that if America could transform its economy from building cars to building tanks and planes in just four years to win the Second World War, a similar transformation to a sustainable economy should also be possible. The problem is, however—as Chris has observed, that while our “solutions” worked during the epoch of “continuously more and more”, they will fail in the coming epoch of “continually less and less.”
To me, the issue is denial. Let me use a personal example. My brother Al was a robust, clean-living, non-smoker, non-drinker who, out of the blue, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Until that point, he scoffed at “alternative medicine”, New Age philosophy and religion. He had a rigorous scientific world view. A week after his failed operation, which was abandoned after surgeons discovered that the cancer had invaded his vital organs, he met with the oncologist at the hospital. The doctor said, in a very hushed tone, that his situation was hopeless, so hopeless in fact that there were oncologists dying of what he had. I recall him concluding the interview by saying, “You can surf the Internet all you want, and explore every quack cure, but it will not change your circumstance. You have a year and a half to live—- or less.”
Notwithstanding his scientific mentality, Al left the meeting believing that he could beat the disease. He endured a horrible dietary regime and spent $25,000 of my father’s money on naturopathic medicine and a trip to a cutting-edge cancer clinic in Germany of dubious merit. He would not accept the diagnosis—until the last month, when realized that indeed, the game was up. At that point he finally ate what he enjoyed, as much as he could, and died right on schedule.
I think we are much like my brother Al, only most of us have not heard the diagnosis. And those of us who have, still, at some level at least, do not accept it. We are trying to negotiate with death, the death of our civilization. Some of us say “If we live smaller and live simply, we can continue BAU, in fact, we will enjoy more community and more intimacy. We will enjoy happier lives.” Others say, “If we share the wealth, all will be well”. Or “Not to worry, they will find substitutes”. Or “If we can design a new banking system and a steady state economy, we can enjoy a new prosperity”. Or “If we can secure our borders, we can reclaim American jobs for Americans”. But the fact is that whatever we do to reduce, conserve, recycle and share, our current resource utilization behaviour is unsustainable. Ecological Footprint Analysis doesn’t give us a comprehensive measure of overshoot because it fails to make the critical distinction between RNR-based and NNR-based societies as Clugston does. The diminution of affordably accessible NNRs are the limiting factor. Environmentalists habitually accuse their critics of denial, but one might ask what kind of denial is it that raises the alarm bell at climate change but is seemingly oblivious to impending resource scarcities which will surely kill billions by privation and conflict long before rising temperatures and sea levels do their worst?
I think we all develop a vested interest in maintaining our obsolete paradigms—especially if we draw a living from promoting them. We need our beliefs as a psychological prop, and if anyone tries to take them away from us we react like Linus did when someone tried to take away his blanket. Bottom line, we are hardwired to crave unfounded hope and secure beliefs. We are timid, frightened pack animals who need the society of others and the approval of our peers. We are afraid to wing it on our own—and deserting a long-held position is akin to the proverbial male mid-life crisis. Suddenly you are floundering, your compass no longer works and you are looking for familiar landmarks and safe havens to run to. No wonder then, that off-stage, many of the merchants of false hope acknowledge that “We’re done, we’ve bought the farm”, but on stage they are bubbling with optimism and positive alternatives. Over time, many of them become their on-stage character, and come to forget that they are wearing a mask. As Chris has remarked, many of us avoid the crisis by “believing in our own bullshit”.
We have lived a long time, and lived well. The concept that it will come to an end, and a rough one at that—is beyond our understanding because it is beyond our experience. Our slogan is “I intend to live forever, and so far, so good”.
Chris’s book will be received as my brother received his bad news. But he would have been remiss if he hadn’t made an attempt to warn us. Personally, I believe I have a right to know about a terminal illness. It would give me the opportunity to reset my priorities so that most of what needed to be done or said could be done or said in time.
My goal? To promote the least painful transition. Rapid but managed de-growth. A long shot? Yep. But what else should I do, take up golf?
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