Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLI

The following ‘contemplation’ was prompted by an article that was shared to a Facebook group I am a member of regarding ‘Doughnut Economics’ and its possible role in addressing our ecological overshoot.

While I have not read extensively the argument/theory regarding ‘Doughnut Economics’[1] it seems to me, on initial perception, to be another in a growing line of rationalisations that attempt to support and extend the resource-intensive processes that provide for our complex societies. While it incorporates a lot of the concepts around ideas of sustainability and ecological overshoot, it bases most of its argument around the redefinition of ‘progress’ or ‘sustainable development’ in a way that makes it appear less environmentally-/ecologically-destructive (not too dissimilar to the ‘net zero’ narrative that ‘shifts’ numbers around to look compelling). When one scratches at the surface of the proposal, however, it looks just as resource dependent — especially with respect to energy — as our status quo system; it simply redistributes/redirects those resources in an attempt to bring all of humanity up to a ‘preferred’, and supposedly ‘sustainable’, level.

It’s almost as if the theory employs the fallacy of the straw man by initially establishing that the current economic system employed by humanity is the sole/primary cause of our existential crises because of its propensity to chase the infinite growth chalice. It then highlights the inequitable nature of ‘capitalism’. Having set up this straw man, it concludes by arguing we can continue to ‘grow’ if we just dismantle this problematic economic system and employ a different one that defines ‘growth’ in a way that allows us to keep our cake and eat it too[2]. This is all established, however, while ignoring the pre/historical examples of complex societies failing/collapsing as a result of overexploiting their natural environment despite having very different economic systems.

There is a compelling argument to be made that every experiment in complex societies to date has failed eventually because of the diminishing returns they encountered as they expanded and eventually ran out of places to extract resources from to support their growth and increasing complexities[3]. Technology at the time simply didn’t allow societies to control ever-larger areas of land and shuffle resources back to their sociopolitical centre for more than a few centuries, at best (a couple of exceptions dragged on longer but they too eventually succumbed to overextension and diminishing returns). And when the benefits of being part of the society fell below the costs, members opted out and ‘collapse’ ensued. Every time.

The takeover method of expanding one’s environmental reach from which to draw resources and support growth shifted eventually to the drawdown method of resource extraction. This occurred at a time most/all niches were occupied and expansion into unexploited regions became ever more problematic. The energy provided by a one-time cache of ancient fossil energy has allowed the human experiment to grow to unprecedented levels, well beyond the ‘natural’ capacity of the planet to sustain us[4].

The evidence is becoming clearer that we are encountering significant issues not necessarily because of the economic system we are currently employing but because the fundamental resource we have grown extremely dependent upon (fossil fuels) has encountered very problematic diminishing returns — to say little about the negative consequences of this use on our planet’s environment/ecological systems. We are now stumbling around attempting to ‘solve’ a predicament without ‘solutions’, pointing our fingers at all sorts of ‘culprits’, and many gravitate towards the clear disparity between our elite ruling class who seem to be doing just fine, thank you, and everyone else because of a ‘natural’ tendency to seek a ‘fair and just’ world (see the non-human primate studies on justice and fairness).

So, if we were to redefine ‘progress’ and ‘sustainable development’ in a way that doesn’t impinge upon our environment, as Doughnut Economics seems to aim to do, we could continue to ‘grow’. This thinking, however, appears to ignore all the resource inputs that go into virtually everything we do, regardless of how one defines it. So-called ‘service’ industries, for example, still require significant resources (especially energy) to be sustained[5]. How does one extract these resources from the environment without requiring significant resources in the first place? Especially when all the easy-to-retrieve and cheap-to-extract resources have already been used up, and remaining ones require ever-more energy/resource inputs to access and recover what’s left. Even recycling of products, as beneficial as that process is, demands significant resource inputs[6].

Perhaps the problem is not primarily the economic system employed (although that could exacerbate certain negative aspects) but, as Erik Michaels argues at Problems, Predicaments, and Technology[7], our complex societies themselves with their resource demands. And this is especially true as we approach eight billion resource-dependent humans at a time of significant diminishing returns on all the resources we have come to rely upon for our existence. Sure, we could curtail the overconsumption of ‘advanced’ economies and direct the associated resources into more ‘equitable’ avenues, but the pressure on resources and the environment remain when we are looking at billions of humans.

If we are not discussing a purposeful and likely significant contraction of our current experiment (and this is especially true for so-called advanced economies that are responsible for the lion’s share of resource demands and their negative impacts), then I fear we are simply attempting to rationalise a continuation of it to avoid the chaos of the unmitigated collapse that always accompanies a species that has overshot its environment’s natural carrying capacity.

The fundamental flaw I see in Doughnut Economics is that it proposes a ‘solution’ that is entirely the opposite of what we need to be doing. We need to be contracting our complexities and the resource-demands they place upon our planet. We can’t be seeking to bring the vast majority of ‘un/under-developed’ humans up to ‘advanced’ economy standards. We need to be lowering significantly the standards and size of the advanced economies that are very much responsible for much of our plight — perhaps even disbanding large, complex societies completely (and how many of us would survive that given the loss of skills/knowledge to be self-sufficient?). And could this even be done in an ‘equitable’ manner? I have my doubts.

Will such a radical shift even happen? Unlikely, for as writer Robert Heinlein observed we are rationalising creatures, not rational ones. And we employ all sorts of magical thinking to make sense of our ‘world’ and ensure its continuation. As long as we have ‘magic’ (i.e., complex technologies) at our disposal to kick-the-can-down-the-road, we will continue to employ it; we are after all genetically predisposed to avoid pain and seek out pleasure; and collapse, even on our own terms, will be quite ‘painful’.

As I implied in my last ‘contemplation’, we have to be on the lookout for taking the wrong path as we attempt to address our existential predicament of ecological overshoot because it will simply expedite our overshoot and bring about the collapse that always accompanies such a trajectory more quickly and ensure there is little we can do about how it unfolds[8]. A circular economy that extracts resources and recycles them at a pace that doesn’t break through planetary limits might have been tenable a couple of centuries (millennia?) ago, but not in today’s world where we seem to be already sliding down the Seneca Cliff of energy availability for an ever-larger population.

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