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Nature’s Breaking Point

Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann | CC BY 2.0

Ever wonder how the classical philosophers/economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo would view today’s credo of infinite economic growth, forever more, above and beyond yesteryear. Well, in a word, they would be horrified. Ricardo, similar to the father of capitalism Adam Smith, believed in the concept of a “stationary state” when the land gets fully exploited and material progress comes to an end.

These classical economists did not advocate limitless growth, which today is how neoliberal advocates see their destiny. In fact, Ricardo added the “law of diminishing returns” to Smith’s original thesis, which included bold mention of the “stationary state.”

Well, surprise, surprise, or maybe no surprise! Today, Adam Smith and Ricardo would be labeled heretics as capitalism has morphed into a universal conviction that humankind is destined for enrichment via unparalleled unlimited economic growth. As such, GDP is revered; it’s maddeningly godly, a quarter-by-quarterly séance whilst prostrate on hands and knees in solemn prayer for profits, and more profits, and even more after that!

But, are there limits, and if so, what if limits are exceeded?

Then, what happens?

As a matter of fact, the limits have been exceeded, by a country mile. That fact is beautifully expounded in graphic detail in Donald Worster’s Shrinking The Earth, subtitle: The Rise & Decline of Natural Abundance (Oxford University Press, 2018).

“Always, humans run up against nature’s limits.” (Worster, pg. 49) It happened at Nantucket Island. The island literally dried up in 1864 when the last lone whaler came back nearly empty-handed. Over the preceding decades, the whalers, like wild bloodthirsty hounds chasing game, exceeded nature’s breaking point. At its peak the whaling fleet numbered 700 vessels, massacring whales and returning home filled to the brim with whale oil bounty, the massive carcasses left to scavengers.

Today’s infinite growth mindtrip, seemingly “on electric Kool-Aid,” originated with the discovery of fossil fuels, a transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial revolution powered by carbon-rich remains of ancient plants. Coal created a new world order of economic endeavours, supplying 25% of all fuel energies by the 1870s. The success and growth of the emerging Industrial Revolution depended upon it.

Still, the greatest philosopher/economist of the English language of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, one of the last of the great classical economists, similar to Smith and Ricardo, advocating trade liberalization and competitive markets, still harbored many doubts, e.g., whether endless growth was good for the human spirit.

According to the celebrated economist, reaching an end to growth might lead to a more enlightened happiness and satisfaction, freeing people from “extravagant dreams of material plenty and encourage them to seek other forms of fulfillment… In contrast, the ideology of progress, with its intense drive for wealth, was leading toward a new kind of deprivation. Increasingly, it was depriving men and women of any moral or spiritual purpose, leaving them trapped in a culture of excessive materialism.” (pgs. 53-54) Subsequently, Mill’s statement has been proven downright prophetic!

Worster takes the reader along fascinating pathways of Americana, e.g., the start of the modern conservation movement by George Perkins Marsh’s landmark book Man and Nature (1864), “man must learn to live with limits of nature,” an early trumpet of doom that represented the intellectual transition from the “age of plenty” to an “age of limits.”

Marsh argued that ancient Mediterranean civilizations collapsed due to environmental degradation, and of course, they did, as they are faster than ever today! He saw early telltale signs of identical trends in the United States, as early as mid 19th century, over 150 years ago. Marsh’s Man and Nature next to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century.

It was over 100 years later when the public at large was roundly exposed to limits to America’s celebrated infinite growth dogma with publication of Dennis and Donella Meadows’ punch-to-the-gut treatise The Limits to Growth (1972), the best selling (over 12 million copies in initial years) and most controversial environmental book post WWII. “It was the book that cried wolf. The wolf was the planet’s environmental decline, and the wolf was real.” (pg. 157)

That wolf, circa 1970s, emphasized natural resource depletion more so than ecological destruction. However, ever since, scientists have increased knowledge of the earth exponentially, thereby demonstrating limits on several levels, terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric. “To ignore those limits, they warn, would be to put at risk the planet and human life.” (pg. 189)

Thus, scientists have discovered the limits posed by the planet’s natural systems and capacity to sustain life. Nowadays, those limits stick out like a reddened throbbing thumb, chemically debased ecosystems and crazed/loopy hydrological cycles and dangerous atmospheric concentrations of GHGs heating up the planet, threatening all life like never before throughout human history.

Meanwhile, nature’s breaking point is already nearly at hand in the Western United States from where the majority of America’s food-growing capacity feeds the country. Of course nobody rings a bell to announce the official start of “the breaking point,” but Worster is quick to point out a troubling stranglehold developing throughout this key breadbasket region. Climate change, too much human-generated CO2 warming the planet, is altering hydrological cycles, especially in the Western U.S., to such an extent that California, the most bounteous state in the union, could experience a drop of 70% to 80% in its current water supply, assuming climate change, as it is now progressing, continues, thus prompting the million-dollar question: What’ll stop it?

Alas, also at the breaking point, across the acidic-infested, CO2 laced, heated up Atlantic Ocean and thru the Mediterranean Sea to its eastern and southern landmasses, the world’s biggest drying-out of land and aquifers is fast approaching crisis levels, accompanied by more and more frequent dust storms which scientists believe may turn into the equivalence of America’s infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as the incredible historical flourish of the Tigris/Euphrates Fertile Crescent dries out at record rates. (Source: NASA, Earth Data, 2016)

Alternatively, technology is the catchword and modus for continual drumbeat favoring the infinite growth credo, unrelenting GDP growth for eons. But forlornly, as expressed by Worster: “Technology does not open up immense, profitable frontiers of natural resources, untapped oceans filled with fish… or atmosphere rich in oxygen.” (Pg. 222)

All of those precious resources were opened up anew to humankind with the advent of Christopher Columbus’s famous, or maybe infamous, voyage in 1492, which opened up, in Worster’s words, a “Second Earth,” the Americas to “First Earth” descendants.

The Second Earth, a vivid bounteous land of riches is now part and parcel of today’s vast unrelenting Shrinking The Earth complex. Too much of it is now gone, or totally debased, with nowhere to turn for another great discovery, no more Christopher Columbus trips. There is no Third Earth.

Worster ends his book with a chapter entitled Field Trip: Athabasca River, which perfectly encapsulates the theme, Shrinking The Earth: “Scientists discovered that oil sands lay under nearly a tenth of Alberta’s territory, including the Athabasca area…The uncomfortable truth is that reclamation probably cannot succeed within any single lifetime, or perhaps for centuries… The companies, led by Syncrude, cannot wait that long and retain public confidence, so they have devised a strategy that is still in the early stages of experimentation. Near an old mine site close to the river stands a model of man-made, accelerated reclamation, a ‘park’ named Gateway Hill that Syncrude offers as proof of its commitment and determination to ‘return the land back to nature’… Gateway Hill boasts a hiking trail winding through a thriving set of aspens, the early succession trees of the boreal forest. It looks over a smoothly contoured artificial lake, a large hay meadow with mowing machines, and a small fenced compound where six bison are kept for viewing. This carefully nurtured mosaic has returned the earth from sterility to a practical, recreational, and suburban tidiness….” The End.

Postscript: “Our option is to choose our own limits, or let nature chose them for us.” Donella Meadows, American author – The Limits to Growth (1972)

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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