Local Economies, Local Choices

Independence from the Corporate Global Economy
by Ethan Miller
The old story says we have to depend on big corporations. The new story tells us we can earn a livelihood, gain freedom, and build community through cooperation.

Call it “globalization,” or the “free market,” or “capitalism.” Whatever its name, people across the United States and throughout the world are experiencing the devastating effects of an economy that places profit above all else.

None of this, of course, is news. Many of us have come to believe that the crucial economic decisions affecting our lives are made not by us, but by far-away “experts” and mysterious “market forces.” A friend asked me recently, “Since when did the American people decide to send their manufacturing sector south to exploit people in El Salvador or the Dominican Republic?” We didn’t, and nobody ever asked.

But what’s the alternative? We’re taught that there are only two possible economic choices: capitalism-a system in which rich people and corporations have the power, make the decisions, and control our lives; or communism-a system where state bureaucrats have the power, make the decisions, and control our lives. What a choice!

When it comes to real economic alternatives, our imaginations are stuck. Clearly, we need something different, but what would it look like? How do we start to imagine and create other ways of meeting our economic needs?

A Story of Dependency

We can begin by changing the stories we tell about the overwhelming power and inevitability of our economic system. These stories have hidden from us our own power, potential, and value as creative human beings.

The dominant story defines the heroes of our market system as the rational, self-interested firms and individuals who seek to satisfy their endless need for growth and accumulation in a world of scarce resources.

In this story, we the people are just worker-bees and consumers, making and spending money, hoping for the opportunity to accumulate more, and perpetually dependent on the jobs and necessities that the corporate system allocates to the worthy. Citizenship is reduced to the active pursuit of financial wealth. Feeling powerless to make real change, we come to see the economy as like the weather-beyond our control and understood by only the elite “experts.” We hope for sunny days and carry umbrellas.

This story renders all activities other than business transactions invisible-segregated into the sphere of family life, social life, and leisure. A community of active, creative, and skilled people without money or capital (or the desire to have it) is considered unproductive or backward.

This is why many economic developers talk endlessly about “bringing in new businesses” or “attracting investors” to improve the local or regional economy. Real value, for them, comes from the outside, not the inside; from those who invest capital, not those who invest time and hard work; from the power of money to make more of itself, not from the power of life and community to self-organize and to thrive. This dominant story is about how our lives and our communities are never good enough, never complete or worthwhile without the money and jobs of the capitalist market economy.

A Story of Hope

Suppose we try a different story: instead of defining the economy as a market system, let’s define it as the diverse array of activities by which humans generate livelihoods in relation to each other and to the Earth. Extending far beyond the workings of the capitalist market, economic activity includes all of the ways we sustain and support ourselves, our families, and our communities. Peeling away the dominant economic story of competition and accumulation, we see that other economies are alive below the surface, nourishing us like roots. These are not the economies of the stock-brokers and the economists. They are the economies of mutual care and cooperation-community economies, local economies.

Many are familiar to us, though rarely acknowledged. They include:

Household Economies-meeting our needs with our own skills and work: raising children, offering advice or comfort, teaching life skills, cooking, cleaning, building, balancing the checkbook, fixing the car, growing food and medicine, raising animals. Much of this work has been rendered invisible or devalued as “women’s work.”

Gift Economies-built on shared circles of generosity: volunteer fire companies, food banks, giving rides to hitch-hikers, donating to community organizations, sharing food.

Barter Economies-trading services with friends or neighbors, swapping one useful thing for another: returning a favor, exchanging plants or seeds, time-based local currencies.

Gathering Economies-living on the abundance of Earth’s gift economy: hunting, fishing, and foraging. Also re-directing the wastestream-salvaging from demolition sites, gleaning from already-harvested farm fields, dumpster-diving.

Cooperative Economies-based on common ownership and/or control of resources: worker-owned and -run businesses, collective housing, intentional communities, health care cooperatives, community land trusts.

Community Market Economies-networks of exchange built from small businesses and cooperatives that are accountable to their communities through social ties, innovative ownership models, and mutual support. Such economies are not created to make large profits, but to provide healthy, modest livelihoods to their participants, and services to the larger community.

Recognizing these diverse forms of livelihood we can see not only that economic possibilities exist beyond the market and the state, but that these possibilities are viable and powerful. Indeed, the dominant economy would fall apart without such basic forms of cooperation and solidarity. It is not the capitalist market that germinates seeds, calls nourishing water from the sky, or transforms decay into delicious fruit. It is not the capitalist market that nourishes our souls on a daily basis with friendship and love or cares for us when we are too young or too old to care for ourselves. Nor is it this market that keeps us alive in times of crisis when the factories close, when our houses burn down, or when the paycheck is just not enough. It is the economies of community and care-what many activists in Latin America and Europe call the “solidarity economy”-that hold the very fabric of our society together. It is these relationships that make us human and that meet our most basic needs for love, care, and mutual support.

So what’s the alternative to the market system? Its seeds already exist. Though capitalist markets are constantly working to undermine, exploit, and co-opt elements of the solidarity economy, its power and potential as a space of creation and hope persists.

We already inhabit different kinds of economic relationships. We have our own forms of wealth and value that are not defined by money. Economies already exist that place human and ecological relationships at the center, rather than competition and profit-making. We do not need to start from scratch.

When faced with the question of alternatives, then, we can answer not with another Grand Economic Scheme, but with a vision for creative, diverse, and democratic economic organizing. We can build on existing cooperative economic practices, cultivating imagination and possibility.

Linking together emerging alternatives in networks of mutual support and exchange, we can take them to the next level and generate new economic dynamics of solidarity and cooperation on local, regional, and global scales.

A strategy begins to emerge: identify existing alternatives; bring them together to build shared identities and connections; and with new-found collective strength, generate powerful possibilities for social and economic change.

Sounds simple, right? Perhaps, but it is the complex, deliberate, and beautiful work of community organizing that will transform vision into reality.

Efforts to identify spaces of democratic economic possibility are already under way. Groups such as the Seattle Local Economies Mapping Project (www.seattlemap.org) are building inventories of alternative economic initiatives, from cooperatives and local currencies to volunteer fire companies and community food banks. Inspired by what is sometimes called “asset-based community development,” other groups are cataloging forms of wealth left out of the economic equation, such as subsistence skills, traditional arts and crafts, local stories and lore, and natural landscapes. A coalition of organizations in the U.S. and Canada called the Data Commons Project is building a directory of North American cooperative economic projects (see http://dcp.usworker.coop).

New Eyes, New Connections

With local economic inventories in hand, we can begin to generate conversations among solidarity initiatives and institutions. In Brazil, where the solidarity economy movement is well-established, 23 statewide forums, connected by the national Brazilian Solidarity Economy Forum, generate dialog and collaboration among solidarity-based economic projects.

Similar gatherings could be highly effective in North America. The United States Social Forum, to be held in Atlanta, Georgia, in July 2007, offers an exciting opportunity for solidarity economy practitioners and organizers to meet on a large scale.

Such gatherings can link previously isolated efforts, integrating their work into a new and emergent economic web of solidarity. These connections are about more than mutual recognition; they are about building relationships of exchange and support-connecting producers and consumers, marketers and distributors, investors and organizers. In the process, we redefine these roles and institutions.

Connections can also extend to the larger web of organizations and social movements struggling for justice, ecology, and democracy. Campaigns against big-box stores are enhanced by efforts to create community-based economic alternatives. Counter-recruitment work is more effective when youth are involved in cooperative economic projects that offer viable alternatives to the military, and the creation of community land trusts and housing cooperatives strengthens anti-gentrification struggles.

In all of these cases and more, the support is reciprocal: the dreams, aspirations, and energies of grassroots social movements ensure the integrity and health of community-based economic institutions.

The practices of seeing, convening, and connecting all build toward the practice of creation. From imagination and possibility can grow new initiatives, new institutions, new forms of exchange, new economies of solidarity. Together, we can reclaim our homes and communities as spaces of safety, care, healing, and mutal aid.

Seeking economic alternatives? The seeds have been planted. They’re ready for the rain.

Ethan Miller
Ethan Miller (ethanmiller@riseup.net) is a writer, musician, subsistence farmer, and organizer. A member of the GEO Collective (www.geo.coop) and of the musical collective Riotfolk (www.riotfolk.org), he lives and works at JED, a land-based mutual-aid cooperative in Greene, Maine.

Picture Southeast Arizona Full of Small Farms!

What’s So Beautiful About Small
by Peter Rossett

Are small farms as bountiful as they are beautiful? Can they really compete with large farms in the agriculture of the future? The answer is yes on both counts. Here’s why.

. Small farms are far more productive, producing from 200 to 1,000 percent more per acre than large farms. We are often misled by “yield” figures. The highest yield of a single crop might be achieved by planting it alone – in a monoculture. Large farms must plant monocultures because they are easiest to manage with heavy machinery. But monocultures make inefficient use of space. Small farmers often intercrop, using the empty space between rows (which would otherwise produce weeds) to combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure replenishing soil fertility. Instead of “yield,” which refers to one crop, we should include everything the farm produces – crops, livestock, fruit, fish – when we measure their productivity.

. Small farms are more efficient than large farms, say the few studies that have actually compared them. When economists measure a farm’s use of capital, land and labor, they find that large farms are very inefficient.

. Small farms promote regional economic development. In farming communities dominated by large corporate farms, nearby towns die off. Mechanization means fewer local jobs, and absentee ownership means that settled farm families themselves are no longer to be found. In these corporate-farm towns, the income earned in agriculture is drained off into larger cities to support distant enterprises, while in towns surrounded by family farms, the income circulates locally, generating more local businesses, schools, parks, churches, clubs, and newspapers, along with better services, higher employment, and more civic participation.

. Small farmers are better stewards of natural resources. The small farm landscape is typically filled with biodiversity. The wood lot, the orchard, the fish pond, the backyard garden, large and small livestock, and the farm itself with its varied crops allow for the preservation of hundreds if not thousands of wild and cultivated species. The commitment of family members to long-term soil fertility on the family farm is not found on large farms owned by absentee investors. In the US, small farms devote 17 percent of their land to woodlands, compared to only 5 percent on large farms. Small farms maintain nearly twice as much of their land in soil-improving uses, including cover crops and green manures.

– Peter Rossett, Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy

Adapted from “Small is Bountiful,” The Ecologist, December 1999; and from Food First Policy Brief No. 4, “The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations” (www.foodfirst.org/media/press/1999/smfarmsp.html), both by Peter Rosset.

Brad Lancaster and speakers panel: Rainwater harvesting, river restoration

Thursday, February 8, 2007, 7 to 9 p.m., local author Brad Lancaster
and a panel of experienced water and food harvesters and solar energy
users will speak on rainwater harvesting, dryland river restoration,
reducing Tucson’s carbon footprint, and related issues at El Ojito
Springs Center for Creativity, 452 South Stone Avenue. Bioregional
foods, healthy snacks and beverages will be on sale through the El
Ojito snack bar. Live music: from 6 to 7 p.m., folk songs and
chamber music. All evening: Sustainable Tucson tables staffed by
knowledgeable volunteers welcome you to record your opinion on
sustainability issues. Persons of all ages welcome to offer
thoughtful solutions.

This civic event is the first in the Sustainable Tucson local author
series. Second local author event: Tom Greco and panel speak on
sustainable economy, February 22 at El Ojito Springs.

Green businesses interested in relocalization who wish to co-sponsor
these events, please contact Sustainable Tucson, (520) 664-3693.
Musicians interested in playing contact The Music Garden, 325-8752.

Free showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” and panel discussion

Free showing of “An Inconvenient Truth” and panel discussion
Thursday, Feb 1, 2007 12:00 noon
Gallagher Theater, UA Student Union

The Institute for the Study of Planet Earth (ISPE) and the Global
Change PhD Minor GIDP would like to invite you to a free showing of
“An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 award-
winning documentary on global warming. The movie will be shown at
noon on Thursday, February 1, in the Gallagher Theater, and will be
followed by a brief panel discussion with UA water and environment
experts including Tom Meixner, Hydrology and Water Resources, Dave
Breshears, School of Natural Resources, Tim Finan, Bureau of Applied
Research in Anthropology and Melanie Lenart, ISPE.

The Gallagher Theater is located across from the food court in the
lower level of the Student Union Memorial Center on the UA campus.
Limited parking may be available in the Second St. parking garage and
meter parking further east on Second St .

The film will be shown courtesy of Campus Climate Challenge, a
project of more than thirty leading youth organizations throughout
the U.S. and Canada that work to bring clean energy policies to their
campuses and local communities. For more information, visit

The screening is open to the public.

For more information about the screening, please contact Teresa
Woolfenden at ISPE at (520) 622-9062 or teresac@email.arizona.edu.

Hawking warns: We must recognise the catastrophic dangers of climate change

Hawking warns: We must recognise the catastrophic dangers of climate change

By Steve Connor,

Science Editor Published: 18 January 2007


Climate change stands alongside the use of nuclear weapons as one of the greatest threats posed to the future of the world, the Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said.

Professor Hawking said that we stand on the precipice of a second nuclear age and a period of

exceptional climate change, both of which could destroy the planet as we know it.

He was speaking at the Royal Society in London yesterday at a conference organised by the

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which has decided to move the minute hand of its “Doomsday Clock”

forward to five minutes to midnight to reflect the increased dangers faced by the world.

Scientists devised the clock in 1947 as a way of expressing to the public the risk of nuclear

conflagration following the use of the atomic weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at

the end of the Second World War.

“As we stand at the brink of a second nuclear age and a period of unprecedented climate change,

scientists have a special responsibility, once again, to inform the public and to advise leaders

about the perils that humanity faces,” Professor Hawking said. “As scientists, we understand the

dangers of nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, and we are learning how human activities and technologies are affecting climate systems in ways that may forever change life on Earth.

“As citizens of the world, we have a duty to share that knowledge. We have a duty, as well, to

alert the public to the unnecessary risks that we live with every day, and to the perils we foresee

if governments and societies do not take action now to render nuclear weapons obsolete and to prevent further climate change.

“We are here today to outline the results of the Bulletin’s recent deliberations and to warn the

public about the deteriorating state of world and planetary affairs by moving the hand of the clock,” Professor Hawking said.

“Lord Rees of Ludlow, president of the Royal Society, said humankind’s collective impacts on

the biosphere, climate and oceans were unprecedented. These environmentally-driven

threats ­ ‘threats without enemies’ ­ should loom as large in the political perspective as did the

East-West political divide during the Cold War era.

Technology in the 21st century could offer immense opportunities to everyone but it would

also present new threats that were more diverse and more intractable than those posed by nuclear weapons, Lord Rees said.

“To confront these threats successfully ­ and to avoid foreclosing humanity’s long-term potential

­ scientists need to channel their efforts wisely and engage with the political process nationally and internationally.

“We shall need, in all fields of science, individuals with the wisdom and commitment of the

atomic scientists who founded the Bulletin,” he said.

The board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said the threat of nuclear

apocalypse was now almost matched by the environmental threats posed by climate change.

“We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age. Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices,” the board said in a statement issued yesterday.

“North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed US emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.

“As in past deliberations, we have examined other human-made threats to civilisation. We have

concluded the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm.”

Public lecture: Overview of Sonoran Identity/Southwest Regionalism

Monday January 29, 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm

Downtown Main Library (100 N. Stone), lower level meeting room

Overview of Sonoran Identity: What is Southwest Regionalism
(Tucson, Phoenix, Albuquerque) and design influences from other
Ofelia Zepeda, Professor at U of A and Tohono O’odham linguist;
Gary Nabhan, Author, Native seed Search co-founder, and Director of the Center for
Sustainable Environments at NAU
Meeting Supervisors: Dave Burns, Anne Nequette

Open to the public

Relocalization URL list

This list of URLs on relocalization comes from one of Eugene, Oregon’s great activists, Kathy Ging.

Community is the Solution: http://www.communitysolution.org/solution.html

Willits Economic Localization (WELL) 459-1256

Coast Economic Localization (CELL) 463-2921 http://www.coastlocalize.org

Greater Ukiah Localization Project (GULP) http://www.cloudforest.org

Potter Valley Community Planning

Boonville Economic Localization (with local grange)

Laytonville Economic Localization (with local grange)

South Coast Economic Localization (with local grange)

Mendocino Ecologic Learning Center (Willits) http://www.melc.org

Preliminary outline; new editions will contain specific contacts, events and

Several are currently listed at http://www.postcarbon.org (Postcarbon
Institute) And http://www.cloudforest.org 743-1287 where many links are

and http://www.ukiahsmartgrowth.org

Humboldt Economic Localization http://www.humboldtrevolution.org/

and another related link http://www.communitysolution.org/

Community Environmental Economic Development in Arcata http://ceedweb.org/

Collaborated with other organizations Economies (www.livingeconomies.org),

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association (www.biodynamics.com),

Northeast Organic Farming Association (www.nofamass.org),

Orion Society (www.oriononline.org),

Marion Institute (www.marioninstitute.org), Vermont Commons

National Community Land Trust Network (www.communitylots.org)

Community Economics in action (New England)
EF Schumacher Society http://www.smallisbeautiful.org
An introduction to the Green Web and to Left Biocentrism
Campaign for a (Green) Political Ecology: http://eco.gn.apc.org/
Interesting Link to a Green blog http://www.greencommons.org/blog
Berkshire Eagle (www.berkshireeagle.com) Economics for People, Thinking Small

“Climate Solutions” from Co-op America

“Climate Solutions” from Co-op America

With the election of a new Congress come new opportunities to plan a better way forward on the issues we all care about.

That’s why Co-op America is mailing our recent “Climate Solutions” issue of the Co-op America Quarterly to each new and returning member of the 110th Congress. In it, we explore the climate pollution generated by several economic sectors, and propose economic solutions based on the work of Princeton University’s
Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) — a plan designed at the speed and scale necessary to curb the climate crisis.

The CMI scientists propose reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by dividing this huge task into smaller, doable segments – or “wedges” – of equal size. They propose 15 wedges, of which we only need to achieve seven to make a difference to the climate.

Co-op America used our own green filters on the CMI analysis, screening out measures that are too dangerous, costly, and slow (like nuclear power plants and “clean” coal), while beefing up those that are safe and cost-effective (like energy efficiency and renewables).

The resulting plan offers 12 “wedges” (listed below)that each would reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons per year by 2054. What’s more, the plan issafe, clean, cost-effective, doable with today’s technologies, and ambitious enough to meet the climate challenge.

Steps like number 2 (drive less), number 3 (push energy use in buildings to zero), and numbers 5 and 6 (expand wind and solar power), depend on each of us taking action today. (Use the links in this Real Money article to find renewable power in your state, or this article to reduce the energy-use of your appliances.)

Other steps require real action now from our elected officials, car companies, power companies, and other decision-makers to create real change.
If you have a blog or a personal Web site, post Co-op America’s 12 Steps to Curbing Climate Change and help us spread the word. Send a copy of this e-mailto your state, local, and national representatives, and to your friends and family.

Send our complete 12-Steps editorial to your local newspaper for reprinting, or contact us for copies of our “Climate Solutions” Quarterly to share with friends, family, and elected officials.

Here’s to real climate solutions,

Alisa Gravitz
Executive Director
Co-op America

Each of these steps would reduce carbon emissions by at least 1 billion tons per year by 2054. Implementing at least seven of them brings us to the scale necessary to meet the climate challenge, but we have to start now, and move quickly. We have a ten-year window in which we need to be well on the way to achieving these steps.

The good news is that we have the technology and know-how to accomplish all of these steps right now. The best news is that we don’t just save the climate with these steps. They bring us real energy security, more jobs, a cleaner environment, real progress on the war against poverty, and a safer world. Let’s get started today.

1. Increase fuel economy for the world’s 2 billion cars from an average of 30 mpg to 60 mpg. (Current US averages are a woeful 22 mpg.)

2. Cut back on driving. Decrease car travel for 2 billion 30-mpg cars from 10,000 to 5,000 miles per year, through increased use of mass transit, telecommuting, and walking and biking.

3. Increase energy efficiency by one-quarter in existing buildings and appliances. Move to zero-emissions plans for new buildings.

4. Decrease tropical deforestation to zero, and double the rate of new tree plantings.

5. Stop soil erosion. Apply “conservation tillage” techniques to cropland at 10 times the current usage. Encourage local, organic agriculture.

6. Increase wind power. Add 3 million 1-megawatt windmills, 75 times the current capacity.

7. Push hard for solar power. Add 3,000 gigawatt-peak solar photovoltaic units, 1,000 times current capacity.

8. Increase efficiency of coal plants from an average of 32 percent efficiency to 60 percent, and shut down plants that don’t meet the standard. No net new coal plants; for new plants built, an equal number should close.

9. Replace 1,400 gigawatts of coal with natural gas, a four-fold increase in natural gas usage over current levels — a short-term step until zero-emissions renewable technologies can replace natural gas.

10. Sequester carbon dioxide at existing coal plants. Sequestration involves storing carbon dioxide underground, an unproven technology that may, nonetheless, be better than nothing.

11. Develop zero-emissions vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.

12. Develop biomass as a short-term replacement for fossil fuel until better carbon-free technologies are developed — but only biofuels made from waste, and made without displacing farmland and rainforests.

If you have a blog or a personal Web site, post Co-op America’s 12 Steps to Curbing Climate Change and help us spread the word. E- mail us for graphics you can use to link to our site.

Green Drinks

Happy New Year to all fellow Green Drinkers! Tucson Green Drinks was on holiday in December. See you January 31st at 6 pm for Happy Hour and, as always, bring a friend. Introductions and announcements will take place at 7, with a Mexican buffet available afterward. See www.oldtownartisans.com for directions and please enter the Old Town Artisans courtyard from Washington Street.

Every month people who work in the environmental field meet up for a drink at informal sessions around the world known as Green Drinks.

We have a lively mixture of people from NGOs, academia, government and business. Come along and you’ll be made welcome. It’s a great way of catching up with people you know and also for making new contacts. Everyone invites someone else along, so there’s always a different crowd.

These events are very simple and unstructured. Come and visit with people interested in all things green.

Monthly General Meeting

In addition to our weekly and biweekly working groups, Sustainable Tucson gathers once a month for announcements, important presentations, brainstorming sessions, and networking. Our next meeting will be Thursday, February 15, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. at the Ward VI office (Councilwoman Nina Trasoff’s office), 3202 E. First Street (behind the Rumrunner, one block south of Speedway).

Sustainable Tucson to Follow Up Dr. Jackie King’s Visit

Co writers: Madeline Kiser and Lindianne Sarno

Sustainable Tucson will be holding a series of meetings is to follow up on Dr. Jackie King’s visit this past summer. City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich is particularly interested in Tucson’s followup to Dr. King’s visit. Below is an excellent article about her visit, which appeared in the Tucson Weekly.

Dr. King and other notable aquatic scientists who are following her footsteps make three main points:

1) Sound science should serve as a base for water laws and policies. It requires that teams of scientists, not just single hydrologists, work together, to study aquatic, economic and social systems, and provide a clear balance sheet to policy makers and water managers for any proposed action that will alter them. For example: building a dam in a certain way, maximizing the production of electricity, might net that energy – but may cause (as in the Mekong River Delta) 60 million people to lose their gardens for four weeks of each year. This cost is then quantified along with others. This science, in addition to requiring that teams of scientists from different fields work together, also holds central that preserving aquatic systems’ unique flow patterns – their individual pulses or signatures – is what matters most. In other words, preserve the river.

2) Articulating for policy makers and the public in a clear, non-polarizing fashion this previously “quiet” or hidden side of the ledger – the total costs of altering aquatic systems as well as benefits from developing them – helps generate political will, in a way that pitting interests against each other simply doesn’t; for example: “water to bring back single rivers (or to save single species)” vs. “water for development.” Some business leaders present at Dr. King’s roundtable asked her if she might return to Tucson – precisely because, instead of talking about bringing rivers back, or saving species, she spoke about the need to clearly measure the total effects of development. This may seem like a small point, but discussing water in this way is helping a growing number of nations avoid divisiveness.

3) Sound science must be supported by sound water laws. South Africa and Australia took the lead almost 15 years ago by declaring that only two entities have a right to water: humans, and the environment (i.e., the river itself). In Costa Rica, which is in the process of rewriting its water laws to embrace these two principles, government agencies and NGOs have traveled region to region to explain to people the importance of these laws, and the science behind them, thereby educating the populace about what, specifically, is at stake in attempting to conserve water, especially in a time of rapid climate change.

The total effect of this strategy is to offer clarity: We save natural capital to save our children’s future (and yes, our sacred natural world). Again, the key is generating necessary political will by ensuring that the public understands clearly what is at stake. As with other issues, with water, we need an “ethical north” in designing our policies. A growing number of countries are following this simple ideal. Why shouldn’t Arizona, as it attempts to become a world leader in conserving water?


The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community
by David Korten

By what name will future generations know our time? Will they speak in anger and frustration of the time of the Great Unraveling, when profligate consumption exceeded Earth’s capacity to sustain and led to an accelerating wave of collapsing environmental systems, violent competition for what remained of the planet’s resources, and a dramatic dieback of the human population? Or will they look back in joyful celebration on the time of the Great Turning, when their forebears embraced the higher-order potential of their human nature, turned crisis into opportunity, and learned to live in creative partnership with one another and Earth?

A defining choice
We face a defining choice between two contrasting models for organizing human affairs. Give them the generic names Empire and Earth Community. Absent an understanding of the history and implications of this choice, we may squander valuable time and resources on efforts to preserve or mend cultures and institutions that cannot be fixed and must be replaced.

Empire organizes by domination at all levels, from relations among nations to relations among family members. Empire brings fortune to the few, condemns the majority to misery and servitude, suppresses the creative potential of all, and appropriates much of the wealth of human societies to maintain the institutions of domination.

Earth Community, by contrast, organizes by partnership, unleashes the human potential for creative co-operation, and shares resources and surpluses for the good of all. Supporting evidence for the possibilities of Earth Community comes from the findings of quantum physics, evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, anthropology, archaeology, and religious mysticism. It was the human way before Empire; we must make a choice to re-learn how to live by its principles.

Developments distinctive to our time are telling us that Empire has reached the limits of the exploitation that people and Earth will sustain. A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life. We have the power to choose, however, whether the consequences play out as a terminal crisis or an epic opportunity. The Great Turning is not a prophecy. It is a possibility.

A turn from life
According to cultural historian Riane Eisler, early humans evolved within a cultural and institutional frame of Earth Community. They organized to meet their needs by cooperating with life rather than by dominating it. Then some 5,000 years ago, beginning in Mesopotamia, our ancestors made a tragic turn from Earth Community to Empire. They turned away from a reverence for the generative power of life-represented by female gods or nature spirits-to a reverence for hierarchy and the power of the sword-represented by distant, usually male, gods. The wisdom of the elder and the priestess gave way to the arbitrary rule of the powerful, often ruthless, king.

Paying the price
The peoples of the dominant human societies lost their sense of attachment to the living earth, and societies became divided between the rulers and the ruled, exploiters and exploited. The brutal competition for power created a relentless play-or-die, rule-or-be-ruled dynamic of violence and oppression and served to elevate the most ruthless to the highest positions of power. Since the fateful turn, the major portion of the resources available to human societies has been diverted from meeting the needs of life to supporting the military forces, prisons, palaces, temples, and patronage for retainers and propagandists on which the system of domination in turn depends. Great civilizations built by ambitious rulers fell to successive waves of corruption and conquest.

The primary institutional form of Empire has morphed from the city-state to the nation-state to the global corporation, but the underlying pattern of domination remains. It is axiomatic: for a few to be on top, many must be on the bottom. The powerful control and institutionalize the processes by which it will be decided who enjoys the privilege and who pays the price, a choice that commonly results in arbitrarily excluding from power whole groups of persons based on race and gender.

Troubling truths
Herein lies a crucial insight. If we look for the source of the social pathologies increasingly evident in our culture, we find they have a common origin in the dominator relations of Empire that have survived largely intact in spite of the democratic reforms of the past two centuries. The sexism, racism, economic injustice, violence, and environmental destruction that have plagued human societies for 5,000 years, and have now brought us to the brink of a potential terminal crisis, all flow from this common source. Freeing ourselves from these pathologies depends on a common solution-replacing the underlying dominator cultures and institutions of Empire with the partnership cultures and institutions of Earth Community. Unfortunately, we cannot look to imperial powerholders to lead the way.

Beyond denial
History shows that as empires crumble the ruling elites become ever more corrupt and ruthless in their drive to secure their own power-a dynamic now playing out in the United States. We Americans base our identity in large measure on the myth that our nation has always embodied the highest principles of democracy, and is devoted to spreading peace and justice to the world.

But there has always been tension between America’s high ideals and its reality as a modern version of Empire. The freedom promised by the Bill of Rights contrasts starkly with the enshrinement of slavery elsewhere in the original articles of the Constitution. The protection of property, an idea central to the American dream, stands in contradiction to the fact that our nation was built on land taken by force from Native Americans. Although we consider the vote to be the hallmark of our democracy, it took nearly 200 years before that right was extended to all citizens.

Americans acculturated to the ideals of America find it difficult to comprehend what our rulers are doing, most of which is at odds with notions of egalitarianism, justice, and democracy. Within the frame of historical reality, it is perfectly clear: they are playing out the endgame of Empire, seeking to consolidate power through increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic policies.

Wise choices necessarily rest on a foundation of truth. The Great Turning depends on awakening to deep truths long denied.

Global awakening

Empire’s true believers maintain that the inherent flaws in our human nature lead to a natural propensity to greed, violence, and lust for power. Social order and material progress depend, therefore, on imposing elite rule and market discipline to channel these dark tendencies to positive ends. Psychologists who study the developmental pathways of the individual consciousness observe a more complex reality. Just as we grow up in our physical capacities and potential given proper physical nourishment and exercise, we also grow up in the capacities and potential of our consciousness, given proper social and emotional nourishment and exercise.

Over a lifetime, those who enjoy the requisite emotional support traverse a pathway from the narcissistic, undifferentiated magical consciousness of the newborn to the fully mature, inclusive, and multidimensional spiritual consciousness of the wise elder. The lower, more narcissistic, orders of consciousness are perfectly normal for young children, but become sociopathic in adults and are easily encouraged and manipulated by advertisers and demagogues. The higher orders of consciousness are a necessary foundation of mature democracy. Perhaps Empire’s greatest tragedy is that its cultures and institutions systematically suppress our progress to the higher orders of consciousness.

Given that Empire has prevailed for 5,000 years, a turn from Empire to Earth Community might seem a hopeless fantasy if not for the evidence from values surveys that a global awakening to the higher levels of human consciousness is already underway. This awakening is driven in part by a communications revolution that defies elite censorship and is breaking down the geographical barriers to intercultural exchange.
The consequences of the awakening are manifest in the civil rights, women’s, environmental, peace, and other social movements. These movements in turn gain energy from the growing leadership of women, communities of color, and indigenous peoples, and from a shift in the demographic balance in favor of older age groups more likely to have achieved the higher-order consciousness of the wise elder.

It is fortuitous that we humans have achieved the means to make a collective choice as a species to free ourselves from Empire’s seemingly inexorable compete-or-die logic at the precise moment we face the imperative to do so. The speed at which institutional and technological advances have created possibilities wholly new to the human experience is stunning.

JUST OVER 60 YEARS AGO, we created the United Nations, which, for all its imperfections, made it possible for the first time for representatives of all the world’s nations and people to meet in a neutral space to resolve differences through dialogue rather than force of arms.

LESS THAN 50 YEARS AGO, our species ventured into space to look back and see ourselves as one people sharing a common destiny on a living space ship.

IN LITTLE MORE THAN 10 YEARS our communications technologies have given us the ability, should we choose to use it, to link every human on the planet into a seamless web of nearly costless communication and cooperation.

Already our new technological capability has made possible the interconnection of the millions of people who are learning to work as a dynamic, self–directing social organism that transcends boundaries of race, class, religion, and nationality and functions as a shared conscience of the species. We call this social or-ganism global civil society. On February 15, 2003, it brought more than 10 million people to the streets of the world’s cities, towns, and villages to call for peace in the face of the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. They accomplished this monumental collective action without a central organization, budget, or charismatic leader through social processes never before possible on such a scale. This was but a foretaste of the possibilities for radically new forms of partnership organization now within our reach.

Break the silence, end the isolation, change the story
We humans live by stories. The key to making a choice for Earth Community is recognizing that the foundation of Empire’s power does not lie in its instruments of physical violence. It lies in Empire’s ability to control the stories by which we define ourselves and our possibilities in order to perpetuate the myths on which the legitimacy of the dominator relations of Empire depend. To change the human future, we must change our defining stories.

Story power
For 5,000 years, the ruling class has cultivated, rewarded, and amplified the voices of those storytellers whose stories affirm the righteousness of Empire and deny the higher-order potentials of our nature that would allow us to live with one another in peace and cooperation. There have always been those among us who sense the possibilities of Earth Community, but their stories have been marginalized or silenced by Empire’s instruments of intimidation. The stories endlessly repeated by the scribes of Empire become the stories most believed. Stories of more hopeful possibilities go unheard or unheeded and those who discern the truth are unable to identify and support one another in the common cause of truth telling. Fortunately, the new communications technologies are breaking this pattern. As truth-tellers reach a wider audience, the myths of Empire become harder to maintain.

The struggle to define the prevailing cultural stories largely defines contemporary cultural politics in the United States. A far-right alliance of elitist corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats has gained control of the political discourse in the United States not by force of their numbers, which are relatively small, but by controlling the stories by which the prevailing culture defines the pathway to prosperity, security, and meaning. In each instance, the far right’s favored versions of these stories affirm the dominator relations of Empire.

THE IMPERIAL PROSPERITY STORY says that an eternally growing economy benefits everyone. To grow the economy, we need wealthy people who can invest in enterprises that create jobs. Thus, we must support the wealthy by cutting their taxes and eliminating regulations that create barriers to accumulating wealth. We must also eliminate welfare programs in order to teach the poor the value of working hard at whatever wages the market offers.

THE IMPERIAL SECURITY STORY tells of a dangerous world, filled with criminals, terrorists, and enemies. The only way to insure our safety is through major expenditures on the military and the police to maintain order by physical force.

THE IMPERIAL MEANING STORY reinforces the other two, featuring a God who rewards righteousness with wealth and power and mandates that they rule over the poor who justly suffer divine punishment for their sins.

These stories all serve to alienate us from the community of life and deny the positive potentials of our nature, while affirming the legitimacy of economic inequality, the use of physical force to maintain imperial order, and the special righteousness of those in power.

It is not enough, as many in the United States are doing, to debate the details of tax and education policies, budgets, war, and trade agreements in search of a positive political agenda. Nor is it enough to craft slogans with broad mass appeal aimed at winning the next election or policy debate. We must infuse the mainstream culture with stories of Earth Community. As the stories of Empire nurture a culture of domination, the stories of Earth Community nurture a culture of partnership. They affirm the positive potentials of our human nature and show that realizing true prosperity, security, and meaning depends on creating vibrant, caring, interlinked communities that support all persons in realizing their full humanity. Sharing the joyful news of our human possibilities through word and action is perhaps the most important aspect of the Great Work of our time.

Changing the prevailing stories in the United States may be easier to accomplish than we might think. The apparent political divisions notwithstanding, U.S. polling data reveal a startling degree of consensus on key issues. Eighty-three percent of Americans believe that as a society the United States is focused on the wrong priorities. Supermajorities want to see greater priority given to children, family, community, and a healthy environment. Americans also want a world that puts people ahead of profits, spiritual values ahead of financial values, and international cooperation ahead of international domination. These Earth Community values are in fact widely shared by both conservatives and liberals.

Our nation is on the wrong course not because Americans have the wrong values. It is on the wrong course because of remnant imperial institutions that give unaccountable power to a small alliance of right-wing extremists who call themselves conservative and claim to support family and community values, but whose preferred economic and social policies constitute a ruthless war against children, families, communities, and the environment.

The distinctive human capacity for reflection and intentional choice carries a corresponding moral responsibility to care for one another and the planet. Indeed, our deepest desire is to live in loving relationships with one another. The hunger for loving families and communities is a powerful, but latent, unifying force and the potential foundation of a winning political coalition dedicated to creating societies that support every person in actualizing his or her highest potential.

In these turbulent and often frightening times, it is important to remind ourselves that we are privileged to live at the most exciting moment in the whole of the human experience. We have the opportunity to turn away from Empire and to embrace Earth Community as a conscious collective choice. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

David Korten is co-founder and board chair of the Positive Futures Network.
This article draws from his newly released book, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. Go to www.yesmagazine.org/greatturning for book
excerpts, related articles, David’s talks, and resources for action.

Energy, Ecology, & Economics – Howard T. Odum – intro Bob Cook

Howard Odum’s following paper, published in 1974, was considered one of the most concise—yet most sweeping—examinations made of the real problems of the world up to that time. His groundbreaking book Environment, Power and Society (John Wiley, 1972) also introduced us to his paradigm-changing energetic analysis of economics and ecology. This paper should be included in any top ten list of classic sustainability articles because he shows us that the transition from growth to low-throughput steady state is observed in the succession of eco-systems. He provides good examples such as the transitions involved in the transformation from grass fields to climax forest. For our own current transition to sustainability, he teaches us that “net energy” is the critical concept for making better decisions.
— Bob Cook

Energy, Ecology, & Economics
by Howard T. Odum
May 1974

The true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what’s left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted.

As long-predicted energy shortages appear, as questions about the interaction of energy and environment are raised in legislatures and parliaments, and as energy-related inflation dominates public concern, many are beginning to see that there is a unity of the single system of energy, ecology, and economics. The world’s leadership, however, is mainly advised by specialists who study only a part of the system at a time.

Instead of a single system’s understanding, we have adversary arguments dangerous to the welfare of nations and the role of man as the earth’s information bearer and programmatic custodian. Many economic models ignore the changing force of energy, regarding effects of energy sources as an external constant; ecoactivists cause governments to waste energy in unnecessary technology; and the false gods of growth and medical ethics make famine, disease, and catalytic collapse more and more likely for much of the world. Some energy specialists consider the environment as an antagonist instead of a major energy ally in supporting the biosphere.

Figure 1

Figure 1 A. Generalized world model of man and nature based on one-shot fossil fuel usages and steady solar work. Pathways are flows of energy from outside source (circle) through interactions (pointed blocks marked ‘X’ to show multiplier action) to final dispersion of dispersed heat. The tank symbol refers to storage. Here world fuel reserve storage helps build a storage of structure of man’s buildings, information, population, and culture.

Figure 2

Figure 1 B. Graphs resulting from simulation of the model in Figure 1 A. Available world fuel reserve was taken as 5 X 1019 kilocalories and energy converted from the solar input and converged into man’s productive system of growth and maintenance was 5 X 1016 kilocalories when structure was 1018 kilocalories. Peak of structural growth was variable over a 50-year period depending on amounts diverted into waste pathways.

Figure 3

Figure 1 C. The steady state observed in some simulations of Figure 1 A was an oscillating one as in the graph shown here.

Instead of the confusion that comes from the western civilization’s characteristic educational approach of isolating variables in tunnel-vision thinking, let us here seek common sense overview which comes from overall energetics. Very simple overall energy diagrams clarify issues quantitatively, indicating what is possible. The diagrams and symbols are explained further in a recent book (see Ref. 1).

For example, Figure 1 shows the basis of production in interaction of fuel reserves, steady energies of solar origin and feedback of work from the system’s structure. Figure 1 is the computer simulation of this model for our existence, showing a steady state after our current growing period. As the fuel tank is drained, we return to a lower solar base of simpler agriculture. Simple macroscopic minimodels based on overview of world energy provides the same kind of trend curves as the detailed models of Forrester and Meadows (see Ref. 2). With major changes confronting us, let us consider here some of the main points that we must comprehend so we may be prepared for the future.

1. The true value of energy to society is the net energy, which is what’s left after the energy costs of getting and concentrating that energy are subtracted.

Many forms of energy are low grade because they have to be concentrated, transported, dug from deep in the earth or pumped from far at sea. Much energy has to be used directly and indirectly to support the machinery, people, supply systems, etc., to deliver the energy. If it takes ten units of energy to bring ten units of energy to the point of use, then there is no net energy. Right now we dig further and further, deeper and deeper, and go for energies that are more and more dilute in the rocks. Sunlight is also a dilute energy that requires work to harness.

We are still expanding our rate of consumption of gross energy, but since we are feeding a higher and higher percentage back into the energy seeking process, we are decreasing our percentage of net energy production. Many of our proposed alternative energy sources take more energy feedback than present processes. Figure 2 shows net energy emerging beyond the work and structural maintenance costs of energy processing.

2. Worldwide inflation is driven in part by the increasing fraction of our fossil fuels that have to be used in getting more fossil and other fuels.

Figure 4

Figure 2. Energy flow diagram illustrating energy laws, and the difference between net and gross energy flows.

If the money circulating is the same or increasing, and if the quality energy reaching society for its general work is less because so much energy has to go immediately into the energy-getting process, then the real work to society per unit money circulated is less. Money buys less real work of other types and thus money is worth less. Because the economy and total energy utilization are still expanding, we are misled to think the total value is expanding and we allow more money to circulate which makes the money-to-work ratio even larger. Figure 3 shows the circulation of money that constitutes the GNP in a counter-current to the energy flow.

3. Many calculations of energy reserves which are supposed to offer years of supply are as gross energy rather than net energy and thus may be of much shorter duration than often stated.

Suppose for every ten units of some quality of oil shale proposed as an energy source there were required nine units of energy to mine, process, concentrate, transport, and meet environmental requirements. Such a reserve would deliver 1/10 as much net energy and last 1/10 as long as was calculated. Leaders should demand of our estimators of energy reserves that they make their energy calculations in units of net energy. The net reserves of fossil fuels are mainly unknown but they are much smaller than the gross reserves which have been the basis of public discussions and decisions that imply that growth can continue.

4. Societies compete for economic survival by Lotka’s principle (see Ref. 3), which says that systems win and dominate that maximize their useful total power from all sources and flexibly distribute this power toward needs affecting survival.

The programs of forests, seas, cities, and-countries survive that maximize their system’s power for useful purposes. The first requirement is that opportunities to gain inflowing power be maximized, and the second requirement is that energy utilization be effective and not wasteful as compared to competitors or alternatives. For further discussion see Lotka (Ref. 3) and Odum (Ref. 1).

5. During times when there are opportunities to expand one’s power inflows, the survival premium by Lotka’s principle is on rapid growth even though there may be waste.

We observe dog-eat-dog growth competition every time a new vegetation colonizes a bare field where the immediate survival premium is first placed on rapid expansion to cover the available energy receiving surfaces. The early growth ecosystems put out weeds of poor structure and quality, which are wasteful in their energy-capturing efficiencies, but effective in getting growth even though the structures are not long lasting. Most recently, modern communities of man have experienced two hundred years of colonizing growth, expanding to new energy sources such as fossil fuels, new agricultural lands, and other special energy sources. Western culture, and more recently, Eastern and Third World cultures, are locked into a mode of belief in growth as necessary to survival. “Grow or perish” is what Lotka’s principle requires, but only during periods when there are energy sources that are not yet tapped. Figure 3 shows the structure that must be built in order to be competitive in processing energy.

Figure 5

Figure 3. Relationships of money cycles to the energy circuit loops.

6. During times when energy flows have been tapped and there are no new sources, Lotka’s principle requires that those systems win that do not attempt fruitless growth but instead use all available energies in long-staying, high-diversity, steady-state works.

Whenever an ecosystem reaches its steady state after periods of succession, the rapid-net-growth specialists are replaced by a new team of higher-diversity, higher-quality, longer-living, better-controlled, and stable components. Collectively, through division of labor and specialization, the climax team gets more energy out of the steady flow of available source energy than those specialized in fast growth could.

Our system of man and nature will soon be shifting from rapid growth as the criterion of economic survival to steady-state non-growth as the criterion of maximizing one’s work for economic survival (Figure 1). The timing depends only on the reality of one or two possibly high-yielding nuclear energy processes (fusion and breeder reactions) which may or may not be very yielding.

Ecologists are familiar with both growth states and steady state, and observe both in natural systems in their work routinely, but economists were all trained in their subject during rapid growth and most don’t even know there is such a thing as steady state. Most economic advisors have never seen a steady state even though most of man’s million year history was close to steady state. Only the last two centuries have seen a burst of temporary growth because of temporary use of special energy supplies that accumulated over long periods of geologic time.

7. High quality of life for humans and equitable economic distribution are more closely approximated in steady-state than in growth periods.

During growth, emphasis is on competition, and large differences in economic and energetic welfare develop; competitive exclusion, instability, poverty, and unequal wealth are characteristic. During steady state, competition is controlled and eliminated, being replaced with regulatory systems, high division and diversity of labor, uniform energy distributions, little change, and growth only for replacement purposes. Love of stable-system quality replaces love of net gain. Religious ethics adopt something closer to that of those primitive peoples that were formerly dominant in zones of the world with cultures based on the steady energy flows from the sun. Socialistic ideals about distribution are more consistent with steady state than growth.

8. The successfully competing economy must use its net output of richer-quality energy flows to subsidize the poorer-quality energy flow so that the total power is maximized.

In ecosystems, diversity of species develop that allow more of the energies to be tapped. Many of the species that are specialists in getting lesser and residual energies receive subsidies from the richer components. For example, the sun leaves on top of trees transport fuels that help the shaded leaves so they can get some additional energy from the last rays of dim light reaching the forest floor. The system that uses its excess energies in getting a little more energy, even from so urces that would not be net yielding alone, develops more total work and more resources for total survival. In similar ways, we now use our rich fossil fuels to keep all kinds of goods and services of our economy cheap so that the marginal kinds of energies may receive the subsidy benefit that makes them yielders, whereas they would not be able to generate much without the subsidy. Figure 4 shows the role of diversity in tapping auxiliary energies and maintaining flexibility to changing sources.

Figure 6

Figure 4. Relationship of general structural maintenance to diversity and secondary energy sources.

9. Energy sources which are now marginal, being supported by hidden subsidies based on fossil fuel, become less economic when the hidden subsidy is removed.

A corollary of the previous principle of using rich energies to subsidize marginal ones is that the marginal energy sources will not be as net yielding later, since there will be no subsidy. This truth is often stated backwards in economists’ concepts because there is inadequate recognition of external changes in energy quality. Often they propose that marginal energy sources will be economic later when the rich sources are gone. An energy source is not a source unless it is contributing yields, and ability of marginal sources to yield goes down as the other sources of subsidy become poorer. Figure 4 shows these relationships.

10. Increasing energy efficiency with new technology is not an energy solution, since most technological innovations are really diversions of cheap energy into hidden subsidies in the form of fancy, energy-expensive structures.

Most of our century of progress with increasing efficiencies of engines has really been spent developing mechanisms to subsidize a process with a second energy source. Many calculations of efficiency omit these energy inputs. We build better engines by putting more energy into the complex factories for manufacturing the equipment. The percentage of energy yield in terms of all the energies incoming may be less, not greater. Making energy net yielding is the only process not amenable to high energy-based technology.

11. Even in urban areas more than half of the useful work on which our society is based comes from the natural flows of sun, wind, waters, waves, etc., that act through the broad areas of seas and landscapes without money payment. An economy, to compete and survive, must maximize its use of these energies, not destroying their enormous free subsidies. The necessity of environmental inputs is often not realized until they are displaced.

When an area first grows, it may add some new energy sources in fuels and electric power, but when it gets to about 50 percent of the area developed it begins to destroy and diminish as much necessary life-support work that was free and unnoticed as it adds. At this point, further growth may produce a poor ability in economic competition because the area now has higher energy drains. For example, areas that grow too dense with urban developments may pave over the areas that formerly accepted and reprocessed waste waters. As a consequence, special tertiary waste treatments become necessary and monetary and energy drains are diverted from useful works to works that were formerly supplied free.

12. Environmental technology which duplicates the work available from the ecological sector is an economic handicap.

As growth of urban areas has become concentrated, much of our energies and research and development work has been going into developing energy-costing technology to protect the environment from wastes, whereas most wastes are themselves rich energy sources for which there are, in most cases, ecosystems capable of using and recycling wastes as a partner of the city without drain on the scarce fossil fuels. Soils take up carbon monoxide, forests absorb nutrients, swamps accept and regulate floodwaters. If growth is so dense that environmental technology is required, then it is too dense to be economically vital for the combined system of man and nature there. The growth needs to be arrested or it will arrest itself with depressed, poorly competing economy of man and of his environs. For example, there is rarely excuse for tertiary treatment because there is no excuse for such dense packing of growth that the natural buffer lands cannot be a good cheap recycling partner. Man as a partner of nature must use nature well and this does not mean crowd it, out and pave it over; nor does it mean developing industries that compete with nature for the waters and wastes that would be an energy contributor to the survival of both.

13. Solar energy is very dilute and the inherent energy cost of concentrating solar energy into form for human use has already been maximized by forests and food-producing plants. Without energy subsidy there is no yield from the sun possible beyond the familiar yields from forestry and agriculture.

Figure 5. Diagrams of three systems of solar energy use.

Figure 7

Figure 5 A. Man a minor part of the complex forest ecosystem.

Figure 8

Figure 5 B. Man a major partner in agricultural system on light alone.

Figure 9

Figure 5 C. Fossil-fuel-subsidized agriculture as a colonial member of a technological society of man with maximum possible solar conversion.

Advocates of major new energies available from the sun don’t understand that the concentrations quality of solar energy is very low, being only 10—16 kilocalories per cubic centimeter. Much of this has to be used up in upgrading to food quality. Plants build tiny microscopic semiconductor photon receptors that are the same in principle as the solar cells advocated at vastly greater expense by some solar advocates. The plants have already maximized use of sunlight, by which they support an ecosystem whose diverse work helps maximize this conversion as shown in Figure 5 A. If man and his work are substituted for much of the ecosystem so that he and his farm animals do the recycling and management, higher yield results as in sacred cow agriculture (Figure 5 B). Higher yields require large fossil fuel subsidies in doing some of the work. For example, making the solar receiving structures (Figure 5 C), whereas the plants and ecosystem make their equipment out of the energy budget they process. Since man has already learned how to subsidize agriculture and forestry with fossil fuels when he has them, solar technology becomes a duplication. The reason major solar technology has not and will not be a major contributor or substitute for fossil fuels is that it will not compete without energy subsidy from the fossil fuel economy. Some energy savings are possible in house heating on a minor scale.

14. Energy is measured by calories, Btu’s, kilowatt hours, and other intraconvertible units, but energy has a scale of quality which is not indicated by these measures. The ability to do work for man depends on the energy quality and quantity, and this is measurable by the amount of energy of a lower-quality grade required to develop the higher grade. The scale of energy goes from dilute sunlight up to plant matter to coal, from coal to oil to electricity and up to the high-quality efforts of computer and human information processing.

15. Nuclear energy is now mainly subsidized with fossil fuels and barely yields net energy.

High costs of mining, processing fuels, developing costly plants, storing wastes, operating complex safety systems, and operating government agencies make present nuclear energy one of the marginal sources which add some energy now, while they are subsidized by a rich economy. A self-contained, isolated nuclear energy does not now exist. Since the present nuclear energy is marginal while it uses the cream of rich fuels accumulated during times of rich fossil fuel excess, and because the present rich reserves of nuclear fuel will last no longer than fossil fuels, there may not be a major long-range effect of present nuclear technology on economic survival. High energy cost of nuclear construction may be a factor accelerating the exhaustion of the richer fuels. Figure 4 illustrates the principle.

Breeder Process: The Breeder Process is now being given its first tests of economic effectiveness and we don’t yet know how net yielding it will be. The present nuclear plants are using up the rich fuels that could support the breeder reactors if these turn out to be net yielders over and beyond the expected high energy costs in safety costs, occasional accidents, reprocessing plants, etc. Should we use the last of our rich fossil fuel wealth for the high research and development costs and high capital investments of processes too late to develop a net yield?

Fusion: The big question is will fusion be a major net yield? The feasibility of pilot plants with the fusion process is unknown. There is no knowledge yet as to the net energy in fusion or the amounts of energy subsidy fusion may require. Because of this uncertainty, we cannot be sure about the otherwise sure-leveling and decline in total energy flows that may soon be the pattern for our world.

16. Substantial energy storages are required for stability of an economy against fluctuations of economies, or of natural causes, and of military threats.

The frantic rush to use the last of the rich oils and gas that are easy to harvest for a little more growth and tourism is not the way to maintain power stability or political and military security for the world community of nations as a whole. World stability requires a de-energizing of capabilities of vast war, and an evenly distributed power base for regular defense establishments, which need to be evenly balanced without great power gradients that encourage change of military boundaries. A two-year storage is required for stability of a component.

17. The total tendency for net favorable balance of payments of a country relative to others depends on the relative net energy of that country including its natural and fuel-based energies minus its wastes and nonproductive energy uses.

Countries with their own rich energies can export goods and services with less requirement for money than those that have to use their money to buy their fuels. Those countries with, inferior energy flows into useful work become subordinate energy dependents to other countries. A country that sells oil but does not use it within its boundaries to develop useful work is equally subordinate since a major flow of necessary high-quality energy in the form of technical goods and services is external in this case. The country with the strongest position is the one with a combination of internal sources of rich energies and internal sources of developed structure and information based on the energy. The relations of energy sources to payment balances are given in Figure 6.

Figure 10

Figure 6 A. Diagram showing how energy sources and energy loss pathways affect the balance of payments and general economic competition position of single country. Better balance results when one’s own energy sources are better, and one’s waste less.

18. During periods of expanding energy availabilities, many kinds of growth-priming activities may favor economic vitality and the economy’s ability to compete.

Many pump-priming properties of fast-growing economies have been naturally selected and remain in procedures of government and culture. Urban concentrations, high use of cars, economic subsidy to growth, oil depletion allowances, subsidies to population growth, advertising, high-rise building, etc., are costly in energy for their operation and maintenance, but favor economic vitality as long as their role as pump primers is successful in increasing the flow of energy over and beyond their special cost. Intensely concentrated densities of power use have been economic in the past because their activities have accelerated the system’s growth during a period when there were new energy sources to encompass.

19. During periods when expansion of energy sources is not possible, then the many high-density and growth-promoting policies and structures become an energy liability because their high energy cost is no longer accelerating energy yield.

The pattern of urban concentration and the policies of economic growth stimulation that were necessary and successful in energy growth competition periods are soon to shift. There will be a premium against the use of pump-priming characteristics since there will be no more unpumped energy to prime. What did work before will no longer work and the opposite becomes the pattern that is economically successful. All this makes sense and is commonplace to those who study various kinds of ecosystems, but the economic advisors will be sorely pressed and lose some confidence until they learn about the steady state and its criteria for economic success. Countries with great, costly investments in concentrated economic activity, excessive transportation customs, and subsidies to industrial expansion will have severe stresses. Even now the countries who have not gone so far in rapid successional growth are setting out to do so at the very time when their former more steady state culture is about to begin to become a more favored economic state comparatively.

20. Systems in nature are known that shift from fast growth to steady state gradually with programmatic substitution, but other instances are known in which, the shift is marked by total crash and destruction of the growth system before the emergence of the succeeding steady-state regime.

Because energies and monies for research, development, and thinking are abundant only during growth and not during energy leveling or decline, there is a great danger that means for developing the steady state will not be ready when they are needed, which may be no more than 5 years away but probably more like 20 years. (If fusion energy is a large net energy yielder, there may be a later growth period when the intensity of human power development begins to affect and reduce the main life support systems of the oceans, atmospheres, and general biosphere.)

The humanitarian customs of the earth’s countries now in regard to medical aid, famine, and epidemic are such that no country is allowed to develop major food and other critical energy shortage because the others rush in their reserves. This practice has insured that no country will starve in a major way until we all starve together when the reserves are no longer there.

Chronic disease was evolved with man as his regulator, being normally as a device for infant mortality and merciful old-age death. It provided, on the average, an impersonal and accurate energy testing of body vitalities, adjusting the survival rate to the energy resources. Even in the modem period of high-energy medical miracles, the energy for total medical care systems is a function of the total country’s energies, and as energies per capita fall again so will the energy for medicine per capita, and the role of disease will again develop its larger ,role in the population regulation system. Chronic disease at its best was and is a very energy-inexpensive regulator.

Epidemic disease is something else. Nature’s systems normally use the principle of diversity to eliminate epidemics. Vice versa, epidemic disease is nature’s device to eliminate monoculture, which may be inherently unstable. Man is presently allowed the special high yields of various monocultures including his own high density population, his paper source in pine trees, and his miracle rice only so long as he has special energies to protect these artificial ways and substitute them for disease which would restore the high diversity system, ultimately the more stable flow of energy.

The terrible possibility that is before us is that there will be the continued insistence on growth with our last energies by the economic advisors that don’t understand, so that there are no reserves with which to make a change, to hold order, and to cushion a period when populations must drop. Disease reduction of man and of his plant production systems could be planetary and sudden if the ratio of population to food and medical systems is pushed to the maximum at a time of falling net energy. At some point the great gaunt towers of nuclear energy installations, oil drilling, and urban cluster will stand empty in the wind for lack of enough fuel technology to keep them running. A new cycle of dinosaurs will have passed its way. Man will survive as he reprograms readily to that which the ecosystem needs of him so long as he does not forget who is serving who. What is done well for the ecosystem is good for man. However, the cultures that say only what is good for man is good for nature may pass and be forgotten like the rest.

There was a famous theory in paleoecology called orthogenesis which suggested that some of the great animals of the past were part of systems that were locked into evolutionary mechanisms by which the larger ones took over from smaller ones. The mechanisms then became so fixed that they carried the size trend beyond the point of survival, whereupon the species went extinct. Perhaps this -is the main question of ecology, economics, and energy. Has the human system frozen its direction into an orthogenetic path toward cultural crash, or is the great creative activity of the current energy-rich world already sensing the need for change? Are alternatives already being tested by our youth so they will be ready for the gradual transition to a fine steady state that carries the best of our recent cultural evolution into new, more miniaturized, more dilute, and more delicate ways of man-nature?

In looking ahead, the United States and some other countries may be lucky to be forced by changing energy availabilities to examine themselves, level their, growth, and change their culture towards the steady state early enough so as to be ready with some tested designs before the world as a whole is forced to this. A most fearful sight is the behavior of Germany and Japan who have little native energies and rush crazily into boom-and-bust economy on temporary and borrowed pipelines and tankers, throwing out what was stable and safe to become rich for a short period; monkey see, monkey do. Consider also Sweden that once before boomed and busted in its age of Baltic Ships while cutting its virgin timber. Later it was completely stable on water power and agriculture, but then after a few years of growth became like the rest, another bunch of engines on another set of oil flows, a culture that may not be long for this world.

What is the general answer? Eject economic expansionism, stop growth, use available energies for cultural conversion to steady state, seek out the condition now that will come anyway, but by our service be our biosphere’s handmaiden anew.

References and Notes

1. H.T. Odum, Environment Power and Society (John Wiley) 336 pp. Institutions, customs, and economic policies aid by accelerating energy consumption in an autocatalytic way.

2. D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, J. Randry and W.W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth (Universe Books, New York, 1972).

3. A.J. Lotka, Contribution to the Energetics of Evolution in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 8, 147—188 (1922).

4. I am grateful for stimulation and collaboration of many in our common effort including especially C. Kylstra, Pong Lem, and our keen graduate student group in the United States, and Jan Zeilon and Bengt-Owe Jansson in Sweden. Simulation work was supported by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission on Contract At-(40-10-4398).

5. Energy systems symbols used for showing mathematical and energetic relationships between the parts of our system of energy, economics and ecology.

All outside energy sources flow in from sources indicated with the circular symbol and these sources deliver causal forcing actions. All storages of energy, structure, money, information, value, etc., are represented by the tank-shaped symbol and these tanks are called state variables. All energies leave systems as dispersed heat that has no more potential for doing useful work. In the diagrams the dispersal of unusable heat energy is called a heat sink.

Figure 11

When two different kinds of flows of energy (or materials, information, or services that carry energy) interact in processes where both are necessary, we draw a work gate symbol. The system has an X if the action of one flow so facilitates the flow of the other and vice versa so that the process is a multiplier action. As in all processes, useful energy that drives the processes emerges as degraded, no longer reusable dispersed energy leaving the earth through the heat sink. (Heat on earth ultimately is reradiated out to space from the top of the atmosphere.)

Self-maintaining entities such as populations, cities, industries, and other organizations that feed energy from storage back into multiplicative pumping actions are shown with the hexagonal symbol. The energy dispersed in maintaining the system, its growth, and its work services is shown passing out the bottom in a heat sink.

Figure 12

When new storages are developed, energy laws require that much of the energy be dispersed into unusable heat in order to make the process of storing go fast enough to be most competitive. The symbol for Potential generating work shows the necessary heat dispersal that is required for any storing Process.

Figure 13

When two energy flows may be substituted for each other, we show their junction as the convergence of lines. This means that the flows add (in contrast to the work gate where other kinds of interactions are the result).

Because money flows as a countercurrent to the flow of energy, goods, and services (the latter two also carrying energy), we represent pathways that involve economic transactions with the diamond shaped symbol and two counter diagrams pathways. The energy cost of doing economic business is shown as the energy lost into the heat sink.

The diagrams may be examined as if they were a series of water tanks and pipes with water flowing between the tanks, being driven by the pressures of the storages or outside pressures and the energy of the water pressure, ultimately leaving the system in the various frictional heat dispersions. The diagrams can thus be visualized to help see the complexity of systems and recognize just from the configurations what kinds of responses might follow proposed manipulations. As further given in Ref. 1 the diagrams are also ways of writing mathematical differential equations for making precise mathematical descriptions of relationships.

Reprinted from the special energy edition of Ambio (No. 6, 1973) with the permission of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden—publishers of Ambio—and Dr. Howard T. Odum. Copyright 1973 by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

The late Howard T. Odum, Ph. D. was Director of the Center for Wetlands and a Graduate Research Professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville; Professor of Ecology at the University of North Carolina; Chief Scientist for the Puerto Rico Nuclear Center; and Director of the Institute of Marine Science of the University of Texas at Port Aransas. Howard’s brother Eugene was a key, influencial American ecologist and author of the primary college text, Fundamentals of Ecology.

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Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse by William Catton

Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse

by William Catton

(Excerpt from Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, 1982)

The Industrial Revolution made us precariously dependent on nature’s dwindling legacy of non-renewable resources, even though we did not at first recognize this fact. Many major events of modern history were unforeseen results of actions taken with inadequate awareness of ecological mechanisms. Peoples and governments never intended some of the outcomes their actions would incur.

To see where we are now headed, when our destiny has departed so radically from our aspirations, we must examine some historic indices that point to the conclusion that even the concept of succession (as explored in previous chapters) understates the ultimate consequences of our own exuberance. We can begin by taking a fresh look at the Great Depression of the 1930s, an episode people saw largely in the shallower terms of economics and politics when they were living through it. [1] From an ecologically informed perspective, what else can we now see in it?

The Great Depression, looked at ecologically, was a preview of the fate toward which mankind has been drawn by the kinds of progress that have depended on consuming exhaustible resources. We need to see why it was not recognized for the preview it was; this will help us to grasp at last the meaning missed earlier.

We did not know we were watching a preview because, when the world economy fell apart in 1929-32, it was not from exhaustion of essential fuels or materials. From the very definition of carrying capacity—the maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load—we can now see that non-renewable resources provide no real carrying capacity; they provide only phantom carrying capacity. If coming to depend on phantom carrying capacity is a Faustian bargain that mortgages the future of Homo colossus as the price of an exuberant present, that mortgage was not yet being foreclosed in the Great Depression. Even so, much of the suffering that befell so much of mankind in the 1930s does need to be seen as the result of a carrying capacity deficit. The fact that the deficit did not stem from resource exhaustion in that instance makes it no less indicative of the kinds of grief entailed by resource depletion. Accordingly, we need to understand what did bring on a carrying capacity deficit in the 1930s.

Carrying Capacity and Liebig’s Law

To attain such an understanding we need to step outside the usual economic or political frames of thought, go back two-thirds of a century before the 1929 crash, and reexamine for its profound human relevance a principle of agricultural chemistry formulated in 1863 by a German scientist, Justus von Liebig. [2] That principle set forth with great clarity the concept of the “limiting factor” briefly mentioned in Chapter 8. Carrying capacity is, as we saw there, limited not just by food supply, but potentially by any substance or circumstance that is indispensable but inadequate. The fundamental principle is this: whatever necessity is least abundantly available (relative to per capita requirements) sets an environment’s carrying capacity.

While there is no way to repeal this principle, which is known as “the law of the minimum,” or Liebig’s law, there is a way to make its application less restrictive. People living in an environment where carrying capacity is limited by a shortage of one essential resource can develop exchange relationships with residents of another area that happens to be blessed with a surplus of that resource but happens to lack some other resource that is plentiful where the first one was scarce.

Trade does not repeal Liebig’s law. Only by knowing Liebig’s law, however, can we see clearly what trade does do, in ecological terms. Trade enlarges the scope of application of the law of the minimum. The composite carrying capacity of two or more areas with different resource configurations can be greater than the sum of their separate carrying capacities. Call this the principle of scope enlargement; it can be expressed in mathematical notation as follows:

CC (A + B) > CCA + CCB

The combined environment (A + B) still has finite carrying capacity, and that carrying capacity is still set by the necessary resource available in least (composite) abundance. But if the two environments are truly joined, by trade, then scarcities that are local to A or B no longer have to be limiting.

A good many of the events of human history need to be seen as efforts to implement the principle of scope enlargement. Most such events came about as results of decisions and activities by men who never heard of Liebig or his law of the minimum. Now, however, knowing the law, and understanding also the scope-enlargement principle, we can see important processes of history in a new light. Progress in transport technology, together with advancements in the organization of commerce, often achieved only after conquest or political consolidation, have had the effect of enlarging the world’s human carrying capacity by enabling more and more local populations (or their lifestyles) to be limited not by local scarcity, but by abundance at a distance.
Vulnerability to Scope Reduction

As human numbers (and appetites) grew in response to this exchange-based enlargement of composite carrying capacity, continued access to non-local resources became increasingly vital to human well-being and survival. As the ecological load increased beyond what could have been supported by the sum of the separate carrying capacities of the formerly insulated local environments, mankind’s vulnerability to any disruption of trade became more and more critical. The aftermath of the crash of 1929 demonstrated that vulnerability.

Unfortunately, modern transport systems, and some aspects of modern organization, are based very heavily upon exhaustible resource exploitation. Insofar as this is true, they must eventually founder upon the rocks of resource exhaustion. But even before they might succumb to such physical disaster, the trade arrangements upon which the earth’s extended carrying capacity for Homo colossus has come to depend can be torn apart by social catastrophe. [3] It is important to recognize at last that that is what happened in 1929-32. In fact, some of it began happening during, or as a repercussion of the Great War of 1914-18.

World War I disrupted relationships between the various peoples of Europe and between Europe, the New World, and the Orient. It also resulted in reallocation of the still colonial parts of the world among the various imperial powers seeking to exploit them as ghost acreage. Not all aspects of these changes wrought by the war would have reduced the scope of application of Liebig’s law, but some certainly did, for some peoples, to some extent.

In the case of defeated Germany, access to resources from outside German territory was cut off. At the same time, the staggering requirement of reparations payments to the victorious Allies aggravated the load to be borne by Germany’s limited indigenous carrying capacity. Even internally, Germany suffered as inflation shattered the vital exchange relations between its diverse localities and between the occupational categories (quasi-species) into which its culturally advanced population had become differentiated. [4] Destruction of the value of currency meant destruction of the medium of mutualism; as inter-occupational symbiosis crumbled, hardship was rampant.

The astronomical German inflation was thus no mere fluke of history. Rather, it was a preview of the larger preview to come, when other forms of financial disruption would rend the fabric of trade throughout the world. By thus compelling a reduction of the scope of application of Liebig’s law back down to local resource bases, such trade dislocation would convert existing loads of human resource-consumers, previously supportable by composite carrying capacity, into overloads no longer fully supportable by fragmented carrying capacities.

In America in the 1920s, after a brief post-war depression, a period of neo-exuberance set in, leading in the later years of the decade to such an expectation of perpetual progress and prosperity that some people found they could prosper from the expectation itself. “Speculation” in the stock market became the expected way to get rich. [5] Inhibitions against speculation were relaxed; people supposed the American prototype democracy, having enabled the Allies finally to triumph over Kaiser Germany, had made the world safe for getting rich and had established the right of everyone to try to do so.

The essential contrast between speculation and genuine investment is this: speculators buy stock not for the purpose of acquiring claims on future dividends from the business in which they acquire shares, but for the purpose of profiting from the expected escalation in their stock’s resale value. When nearly all buyers are speculators, then virtually the only value of their shares is the resale value. Stock prices continue to escalate under such circumstances only as long as virtually everyone expects resale values to continue rising, and are thus willing to buy. The fact that prices may already grossly exaggerate a stock’s intrinsic (dividend-paying) worth simply ceases to concern the speculator during the time when price escalation is confidently expected to continue. Breakdown of that faith, however, turns the process around. Anticipation of inexorable enrichment gives way to fear of ruin as self-induced price escalation turns into self-induced price decline. Panic, in the stock market sense, means the competitive drive to sell before falling prices fall farther—which drives prices down.

What connected the 1929 Wall Street crash to Liebig’s law was the fact that so much speculative buying had been done with borrowed money. Collapse in the “value” of stocks thus led to an epidemic of bank failures, because the banks were unable to retrieve the funds they had lent to the speculators. Stock certificates taken in by the banks as security from borrowers were worth much less money after the crash than the number of dollars borrowed on them before the crash. When banks failed, depositors with accounts in those banks suddenly found themselves shorn of the purchasing power formerly signified by their bankbook entries. As depositors went broke, they ceased being able to buy goods or hire employees. Sellers of whatever they would have bought, or workers they would have employed, were therefore also suddenly bereft of revenue sources. In a society with elaborate division of labor and a money economy, a “revenue source” is the magic key that provides access to carrying capacity. Collapse of fiscal webs thus confronted millions of people with loss of access to carrying capacity, as truly as if purchasable resources had actually ceased to exist. Nations whose citizens had increasingly become masters of one trade apiece and jacks of few others found themselves suddenly unable to rely on composite carrying capacity drawn from a nonlocal environment. What I have called the “medium of mutualism” was no longer functioning, so the scope of application of Liebig’s law of the minimum was being constricted once again to local (or personal) resources.

There was not in those days any Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to back up the solvency of an individual bank when it suffered a “run” by its depositors. The failure of bank after bank in a time when banks had no institutionalized way of pooling their assets for mutual protection can thus be seen as a fiscal instance of the hazards of scope reduction. Had bankers understood that an ecological principle formulated by an agricultural chemist could apply to the world of finance, perhaps something like the FDIC would have been invented sooner.

The fiscal collapse had an even more important implication than this for our ecological understanding of the human predicament. That implication appears in the generalized Depression that followed. Consider the farm population in America. Like almost everyone else, farm families were compelled, by the repercussions of bank failures and the ramifications of general panic, to cut their consumer expenditures. Farmers also often had to allow their land, their buildings, and their equipment to deteriorate for lack of money to pay for maintenance and repairs. Many farms were encumbered by mortgages—mortgages which were foreclosed by banks that now desperately needed the payments farmers could not afford to make. (Bank failures were even more common in rural regions than in major cities.) In spite of all these difficulties, however, the farm population in America ceased declining (as it had been doing) and increased between 1929 and 1933 by more than a million. The long-term trend of movement out of farm niches and into urban niches was reversed during the Great Depression. [6]

Niches everywhere were being constricted by the Depression. However, the urbanizing trend that had been occurring as a result of industrial growth in the cities and from elimination of farm niches by mechanization of agriculture was disrupted by this economic breakdown. At the heart of the reversal was a simple fact: the nature of’ farming in the 1930s was still such that, whatever else they had to give up, there was still truth in the cliche that “the farm family can always eat.” Other (non-flood-producing) occupational groups that now had to fall back (like the farmers) on carrying capacities of reduced scope could find themselves in much more dire straits.

If we read it rightly, then, we can see the differential impact of the Depression upon farm versus non-farm populations as a cogent indicator of the dependence of the total population on previously achieved enlargements of the scope of application of’ Liebig’s law With breakdown of the mechanisms of exchange, various segments of a modern nation had to revert as best they could to living on carrying capacities again limited by locally least abundant resources, rather than extended by access to less scarce resources from elsewhere. Although scope reduction hurt everyone, rural folk had local resources to fall back upon; urban people, in contrast, had so detached themselves as to have almost ceased to recognize the indispensability of those resources. For reasons we shall examine in a moment, economic hard times hit the farms sooner than they hit the cities, but in the final scope-reducing crunch the farmers turned out to have an advantage sufficient to interrupt a clear trend of urbanization.
No Fairy Godmother

The Depression also interrupted the advance of industrialization and its attendant occupational diversification of the population. With hindsight, that interruption becomes an opportunity to bring the previous diversification into ecological focus.

An ecological perspective enables us to see pressure toward niche diversification as the natural result of the overfilling of existing niches. Among non-human organisms, this pressure leads eventually to the emergence of new species. Among humans it leads through sociocultural processes to the emergence of new occupations (quasispecies), which, as we noted in Chapter 6, had been made clear by Emile Durkheim as long ago as 1893. To bring Durkheim’s analysis and the ecological perspective to bear upon the Great Depression, however, we must take into account the fact that nature is no Fairy Godmother and provides no guarantee that new niches will automatically be already available at the right time and in the right quantity to absorb immediately the surplus population from overfilled previous niches. Nor does nature guarantee pre-adaptation of the surplus individuals to whatever new niches do become available.

In nature, overfilling of old niches can result in massive death. Many organisms fall by the wayside in the march of speciation. Among human organisms the principles hold, but the process is moderated because humans are occupationally differentiated by social processes rather than by biological processes. Ostensibly, when old niches become obsolete, we can retrain ourselves for new roles. So, for Homo sapiens, overpopulation and death are avoidable results of niche saturation. The avoidance is not easy, however, and retraining for new niches can be traumatic.

An ecological perspective thus heightens the significance of a classic sociological study that clearly showed how unlikely it is, even among members of the relatively flexible and plastic human species, that re-adaptation to new niches (as old ones close up) will occur easily or automatically. Between 1908 and 1918, W. I. Thomas at the University of Chicago analyzed mountains of documentary data on the experience of Polish immigrants in America. [7] The people he studied had come to the New World after absorbing the folkways of their native Poland. In America they were faced with the necessity of adapting to unfamiliar circumstances. Thomas found that old ways of behaving and thinking were not easily abandoned or changed. New ways were learned only with difficulty when they contradicted the migrants’ old-country upbringing. Thomas generalized from the immigrants’ situation to say something about social change in broader contexts. He concluded that an accustomed way of behaving tends to persist as long as circumstances allow. When circumstances change, making familiar and comfortable ways unworkable (or unacceptable), a degree of crisis is inevitable. Re-adaptation hurts. It is resisted. [8]

We know now that the change that makes re-adaptation necessary need not be relocation. Any event that makes old ways unworkable and new ways mandatory can provoke the trauma of reorientation. Conflict and tension are natural accompaniments of change; they tend to continue until some new modus vivendi is worked out. The new form of adaptation will typically combine some elements of the old with some features imposed by the changed circumstances.

“Culture shock” became a familiar term for denoting the enervating disorientation and bewilderment associated with movement into unfamiliar societal contexts. Even a casual tourist can feel it when he travels abroad. Half a century after the phenomenon was studied by W. I. Thomas among Polish peasants resettled in America, Alvin Toffler coined and popularized another phrase that extended the concept. “Future shock” was his apt new term; forced adjustment to new ways can be as traumatic as forced adjustment to foreign ways. [9]

People in a post-exuberant world found themselves surrounded by alien conditions. They underwent a great deal of future shock, years before they got that name for it. By mechanization of agriculture in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Western world greatly reduced the number of farm workers needed to provide sustenance for themselves and for urban dwellers. Displaced from agricultural occupations, ax-farmers naturally migrated into cities in search of alternative employment, employment for which their farming experience or upbringing had not prepared them. Industrial expansion connected with World War I took up the slack temporarily, making employable on an emergency basis many persons who would otherwise have been passed over as unprepared for a given job. The war also helped hasten the mechanization of agriculture that was creating the displaced farm-worker surplus. After the war, urbanization and the proliferation of industrial occupations could not altogether keep pace with the continuing displacement of workers from the farming sector. There continued to be more farmers than were needed, so the agricultural portion of the economy was beset with “overproduction.” This depressed farm prices—several years before the Wall Street crash provided the impetus that depressed prices for everyone. The resulting loss of purchasing power by the farming population helped depress, in turn, the urban-industrial sectors of the world’s economy.

Ecological difficulties were aggravated, of course, by human errors—the glibly confident indulgence in speculation in 1928 being one example. But the causal importance of some human errors was easily overestimated. Amid the economic and political events of 1929-32 it was plausible for Americans, unaware of the ecological basis for what was happening, to see all the difficulties of that difficult time as products merely of the failures of the Hoover administration. This attractive oversimplification neglected one fact that should have been obvious: many other nations, over which Mr. Hoover did not preside, were undergoing the same calamity.

For those of radical inclination, it seemed plausible (in the absence of an ecological paradigm) to attribute the dire situation to a failure of “the capitalist system.” But socialists believed as ardently as capitalists in the myth of limitlessness. In spite of socialists’ commitment to production for use rather than for profit, they were not then (and have not been since) any more cautious than capitalists about adopting the drawdown method. They assumed that socialist-sponsored versions of drawdown could somehow eliminate such “capitalist contradictions” as simultaneous overproduction and abject poverty. They remained just as unconcerned as the capitalists about overshoot. [10]

Conservatives, on the other hand, who were not necessarily misanthropes, found it plausible to whistle in the dark, insisting that prosperity would automatically return if we just waited for the system to adjust itself. They were the Ostriches of their time, holders of the Type V attitude (delineated in Chapter 4). They believed nothing essential had changed from the Age of Exuberance.

Roosevelt was elected to replace Hoover, new approaches were put rapidly into practice, and a discouraged nation took heart. But full economic recovery continued to elude even the New Deal until preparation for World War II began to spur massive industrial activity—with even more than the usual disregard for long-range drawdown costs.

Economic recovery under the New Deal was not unique. Nazi Germany also overcame its depression, reducing unemployment in the first four years under Hitler from six million to one million. (People outside Germany did not automatically interpret this achievement as validation of Nazi tactics.) Under the Nazi method, millions of the unemployed could be employed as soldiers, and millions more could be compulsorily retrained and given niches as producers of military hardware. The war economy nurtured demand for consumer goods for the soldiers and for these re-employed makers of military materiel; furthermore, it provided “the correct psychological atmosphere,” enabling the civilian sector to accept painful re-adaptation.

War psychology overcame natural human resistance to departure from custom. [11] The war also used elaborate technology and drew down the world’s stocks of natural resources.

In the United States, wartime economic recovery supposedly proved that New Deal “pump priming” by fiscal deficits had been the right kind of response to a stagnant economy, except that it could not be done in adequate volume until the need to re-arm rapidly for all-out war made truly massive red-ink budgets politically acceptable. But American recovery from the depression of the 1930s did not unambiguously validate the Keynesian economic theory implicit in Roosevelt’s approach.

In either the German or the American portion of the Great Depression, an economic interpretation (by minds unaccustomed to an ecological perspective) enabled us to miss the point. Very simply, the ecological paradigm enables these events to be read as follows: Expansion of the military establishment, at the cost of additional resource drawdown, suddenly provided new niches (in industry and in the armed forces) capable of absorbing the overflow from the whole array of saturated civilian occupations. And the wartime social climate provided the patriotic push that made the trauma of re-adaptation to new occupational roles endurable. The new or enlarged military-industrial niches had been previously either non-existent or under serious stigma. What was important, ecologically speaking, was the fact that previously existent and acceptable niches had been saturated; there were people to spare—in America because of technological progress and population growth; in Germany because of the debacle of World War I and its aftermath, which left the German economy, occupational structure, and national morale in a shambles. Moreover, human redundancy throughout much of the world had become manifest when, in various ways and in various places, the medium of mutualism came apart, leaving everyone to cope with carrying capacity limits set by local minimums.

In the American case, the fiscal deficits run up during World War II were merely the ledger-book picture of the change that eased the problem, not the cause of that change. Red ink didn’t re-employ the unemployed. The growing national debt (expressed in money) was a fiction of accountancy, a fiction that enabled Americans to believe that wartime drawdown of the once-New World’s resource reservoir only constituted “borrowing from ourselves,” rather than stealing from the future. The reality of diachronic competition remained unacknowledged. Nevertheless, resources used up in World War II were made unavailable for use by posterity.
Circular versus Linear Ecosystems

Whatever the origins of human redundancy, and whatever the sequel to it, we needed to see (but were not seeing) that what had happened to us between the wars, and especially what happened to us since World War II, had not resulted merely from politics or economics in the conventional sense. The events of this period had simply accelerated a fate that began to overtake us centuries ago. The population explosion after 1945 and the explosive increase of technology during and after the war were only the most recent means of that acceleration.

Human communities once relied almost entirely on organic sources of energy—plant fuels and animal musclepower—supplemented very modestly by the equally renewable energy of moving air and flowing water. All of these energy sources were derived from ongoing solar income. As long as man’s activities were based on them, this was, as church men said, “world without end.” That phrase should never have been construed to mean “world without limit,” for supplies can be perpetual without being infinite.

Locally, green pastures might become overgrazed, and still waters might be overused. Local environmental changes through the centuries might compel human communities to migrate. As long as resources available somewhere were sufficient to sustain the human population then in existence, the implication of Liebig’s law was that carrying capacity (globally) had not yet been overshot. If man was then living within the earth’s current income, it was not from wisdom, but from ignorance of the buried treasure yet to be discovered.

Then the earth’s savings, and new ways to use them, began to be discovered. Mankind became committed to the fatal error of supposing that life could thenceforth be lived on a scale and at a pace commensurate with the rate at which treasure was discovered and unearthed. Drawing down stocks of exhaustible resources would not have seemed significantly different from drawing upon carrying capacity imports, at a time when nobody yet knew Liebig’s law, or the principle of scope enlargement, or the distinction between real and phantom carrying capacity, or the various categories of ghost acreage.

Homo sapiens mistook the rate of withdrawal of savings deposits for a rise in income. No regard for the total size of the legacy, or for the rate at which nature might still be storing carbon away, seemed necessary. Homo sapiens set about becoming Homo colossus without wondering if the transformation would have to be quite temporary. (Later, our pre-ecological misunderstanding of what was being done to our future was epitomized by that venerable loophole in the corporate tax laws of the United States, the oil depletion allowance. This measure permitted oil “producers” to offset their taxable revenues by a generous percentage, on the pretext that their earnings reflected depletion of “their” crude oil reserves. Even though nature, not the oil companies, had put the oil into the earth, this tax write-off was rationalized as an incentive to “production.” Since “production” really meant extraction, this was like running a bank with rules that called for paying interest on each withdrawal of savings, rather than on the principal left in the bank. It was, in short, a government subsidy for stealing from the future.)

The essence of the drawdown method is this: man began to spend nature’s legacy as if it were income. Temporarily this made possible a dramatic increase in the quantity of energy per capita per year by which Homo colossus could do the things he wanted to do. This increase led, among other things, to reduced manpower requirements in agriculture. It also led to the development of many new occupational niches for increasingly diversified human beings. (Expansion of niches in Germany, America, and elsewhere from 1933 to 1945 was, it now appears, just a brief episode in this long-run development.) Because the new niches depended on spending the withdrawn savings, they were niches in what amounted to a “detritus ecosystem.” Detritus, or an accumulation of dead organic matter, is nature’s own version of ghost acreage. [12]

Detritus ecosystems are not uncommon. When nutrients from decaying autumn leaves on land are carried by runoff from melting snows into a pond, their consumption by algae in the pond may be checked until springtime by the low winter temperatures that keep the algae from growing. When warm weather arrives, the inflow of nutrients may already be largely complete for the year. The algal population, unable to plan ahead, explodes in the halcyon days of spring in an irruption or bloom that soon exhausts the finite legacy of sustenance materials. This algal Age of Exuberance lasts only a few weeks. Long before the seasonal cycle can bring in more detritus, there is a massive die-off of these innocently incautious and exuberant organisms. Their “age of overpopulation” is very brief, and its sequel is swift and inescapable.

When the fossil fuel legacy upon which Homo colossus was going to thrive for a time became seriously depleted, the human niches based on burning that legacy would collapse, just as detritovore niches collapse when the detritus is exhausted. For humans, the social ramifications of that collapse were unpleasant to contemplate. The Great Depression was, as we have seen, a mild preview. Detritus ecosystems flourish and collapse because they lack the life-sustaining biogeochemical circularity of other kinds of ecosystems. They are nature’s own version of communities that prosper briefly by the drawdown method.

The phrase “detritus ecosystem” was, of course, not widely familiar. The fact that “bloom” and “crash” cycles were common among organisms that depend on exhaustible accumulations of dead organic matter for their sustenance was not widely known. It is therefore understandable that people welcomed ways of becoming colossal, not recognizing as a kind of detritus the transformed organic remains called “fossil fuels,” and not noticing that Homo colossus was in fact a detritovore, subject to the risk of crashing as a consequence of blooming.

Bloom and crash constitute a special kind of sere; certain kinds of populations in certain kinds of circumstances typically experience these two seral stages—irruption followed by die-off. Crash can be thought of as an abrupt instance of “succession with no apparent successor.” As in ordinary succession, the biotic community has changed its habitat by using it, and has become (much) less viable in the changed environment. If, after the crash, the environment can recover from the resource depletion inflicted by an irrupting species, then a new increase of numbers may occur and make that species “its own successor.” Hence there are cycles of irruption and die-off (among species as different as rodents, insects, algae). Our own species’ uniqueness cannot be counted upon as protection. Moreover, some of the resources we use cannot recover. [13]

When yeast cells are introduced into a wine vat, as noted in Chapter 6, they find their “New World” (the moist, sugar-laden fruit mash) abundantly endowed with the resources they need for exuberant growth. But as their population responds explosively to this magnificent circumstance, the accumulation of their own fermentation products makes life increasingly difficult—and, if we indulge in a little anthropomorphic thinking about their plight, miserable. Eventually, the microscopic inhabitants of this artificially prepared detritus ecosystem all die. To be anthropomorphic again, the coroner’s reports would have to say that they died of self-inflicted pollution: the fermentation products.

Nature treated human beings as winemakers treat the yeast cells, by endowing our world (especially Europe’s New World) with abundant but exhaustible resources. People promptly responded to this circumstance as the yeast cells respond to the conditions they find when put into the wine vat.

When the earth’s deposits of fossil fuels and mineral resources were being laid down, Homo sapiens had not yet been prepared by evolution to take advantage of them. As soon as technology made it possible for mankind to do so, people eagerly (and without foreseeing the ultimate consequences) shifted to a high-energy way of life. Man became, in effect, a detritovore, Homo colossus. Our species bloomed, and now we must expect crash (of some sort) as the natural sequel. What form our crash may take remains to be considered in the concluding section.

One thing that kept us from seeing all this, and enabled us to rush exuberantly into niches that had to be temporary, was our ability to give ideological legitimation to occupations that made no sense ecologically. When General Eisenhower, as retiring president, warned the American people to beware of unwarranted influence wielded by the military-industrial complex, [14] it was presumably political and economic influence that he had in mind. But the military-industrial complex was a vast conglomeration of occupational niches. As such, it wielded an altogether different (and even more insidious) kind of influence. The military-industrial complex helped perpetuate the illusion that we still had a carrying capacity surplus; it made it profitable for the living generation to extract and use up natural resources that might otherwise have been left for posterity. It absorbed for a while most of the excess labor force displaced by technological progress from older occupational niches that had been less dependent on drawing down reservoirs of exhaustible resources. It thus helped us believe that the Age of Exuberance could go on.

Nor was General Eisenhower alone in missing the ecological significance and over-emphasizing the political elements in the trends of’ his time. His young, articulate, and sophisticated Bostonian successor launched a new administration with an inaugural address whose inspirational quality lay partly in its eloquent resolution of American ambivalence. If we wanted to maintain full employment, we dreaded achieving it by means of an arms race. Subtly, and with the gloss of’ high idealism, John F. Kennedy reassured the nationwide television audience on that crisp, brilliant January day in 1961 that the temporary occupational niches of the military-industrial complex could be long-lasting and could be made more honorable than horrible. There was to be a “new Alliance for Progress,” and we were to hope for emancipation from the “uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of’ mankind’s final war.” But the conflict-bred niches would last, for “the trumpet summons us again . . . to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out . . . against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.” [15] Under both parties, the military-industrial complex enabled us to be preoccupied with matters that helped us ignore resource limits. It helped thereby to obscure the fact that population was expanding to fill niches that could not be permanent because they were founded upon drawing down prehistoric savings, exhaustible fossil energy stocks.

The human family, even if it were soon to stop growing, had committed itself to living beyond its means. Homo sapiens, as we saw in Chapter 9, was capable of transforming himself into new “quasi-species.” By the Industrial Revolution humans had turned themselves into “detritovores,” dependent on ravenous consumption of long-since accumulated organic remains, especially petroleum.

If we were to understand what was now happening to us and to our world, we had to learn to see recent history as a crescendo of human prodigality. When American birth rates declined as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, this did not mean we were escaping the predicament of the algae any more than the ringing words of President Kennedy’s inaugural address had really meant that we could eat our cake and still have it. Rather, something had happened that was fundamental, and that could not be undone by brilliant rhetoric: there had been a marked acceleration in our previously begun shift from a self-perpetuating way of life that relied on the circularity of natural biogeochemical processes, to a way of life that was ultimately self-terminating because it relied on linear chemical transformations. They were linear (and one way) because man was using (with the aid of his prosthetic equipment) so many non-crop substances. Man was no longer engaged in a balanced system of symbiotic relations with other species. When man degraded the habitat, it tended to stay degraded; it was not being rehabilitated by other organisms with different biochemical needs.
Perils of Prodigality: The Coming Crash

Man does not live on detritus alone. Misled by our prodigal expenditures of savings, we allowed the human family to multiply so much that by the 1970s mankind had taken over for human use about one eighth of the annual total net production of organic matter by contemporary photosynthesis in all the vegetation on all the earth’s land. That much was being used by man and his domestic animals. [16] It would require taking over more than the other seven-eighths to provide from organic sources the vast quantities of energy we were deriving from fossil fuels to run our mechanized civilization, even if economic growth and human increase were halted by the year 2000. Thus, as we began to see in Chapter 3, we were already well beyond the size that would permit us to re-adapt (without severe depopulation) to a sustained yield way of life when our access to savings gave out. On the other hand, just three more doublings of population (scarcely more than Britain had already experienced in the short time since Malthus) would mean that all the net photosynthetic production on all the continents and all the islands on earth would have to be used for supporting the human community. Then our descendants would be condemned to living at an abjectly “underdeveloped” level, if no fossil acreage remained available to sustain modern industry.

Such total exploitation of an ecosystem by one dominant species has seldom happened, except among species which bloom and crash. Detritovores provide clear examples, but there are others, and we shall take a close look at some of them in the final chapter. For Homo sapiens, it was unlikely that we could even divert much more than the already unprecedented fraction of the total photosynthesis to our uses.

It was thus becoming apparent that nature must, in the not far distant future, institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh, just as nature had done many times to other detritus-consuming species following their exuberant expansion in response to the savings deposits their ecosystems had accumulated before they got the opportunity to begin the drawdown.

It was not widely recognized, of course, but the imminence of that kind of culmination really was why the United Nations had to convene its 1972 Conference on the Human Environment. The conference in Stockholm was meant to begin the process of preventing our only earth from being rendered less and less usable by humans. In short, its purpose was to arrest global succession. Persons who had struggled valiantly to bring about this conference had been engaged (in an important sense) in a global counterpart of the efforts of Dr. Goodwin in Williamsburg. But whereas he sought to undo succession in order to preserve history, they sought to preserve a world ecosystem in which Homo sapiens might remain the dominant species—and might remain human.

Until the extent of the transformation of Homo sapiens into Homo colossus was seen and the full ecological ramifications of that transformation were more nearly understood, however, it would hardly be recognized that the kind of world ecosystem the United Nations was seeking to perpetuate was already being superseded—by an ecosystem that, by its very nature, compelled the dominant species to go on sawing off the limb on which it was sitting. Having become a species of superdetritovores, mankind was destined not merely for succession, but for crash.

Unfortunately but inevitably, the Stockholm deliberations were confused by the fact that the luckier nations which happened to achieve industrial prodigality before the earth’s savings became depleted had already infected the other nations with an insatiable desire to emulate that prodigality. The infection preceded recognition of the depletion. The result of this sad historical sequence was the pathetic quarrel over whether the luxury we cannot afford is economic growth or environmental preservation. Neither was a luxury; worse, neither was possible on a global scale.

Excess numbers and ravenous technology had already brought Homo colossus to an ecological impasse. The laudable ability of delegations from 114 diverse nations to hammer out compromise resolutions favoring both environmental protection and economic development for all nations did not extricate us from our predicament. Deft avoidance of political deadlock once again preserved the illusion that cake could be both eaten and saved. But illusion preserved was still illusion.

Man needed to realize how commonly populations of other species have undergone the experience of resource bankruptcy. But we humans have been experiencing a double irruption, confronting us with an intensified version of the plight of such species. As a biological type, Homo sapiens has been irrupting for 10,000 years, and especially the last 400. In addition, our detritus-consuming tools have been irrupting for the last 200 years. It is conceivable that the inevitable die-off necessitated by overshoot could apply more to Homo colossus than to Homo sapiens. That is, resource demand might be brought back within the limits of permanent carrying capacity by shrinking ourselves to less colossal stature—by giving up a lot of our prosthetic apparatus and the high style of living it has made possible. This might seem, in principle, an alternative to the more literal form of die-off, an abrupt increase in human mortality. In practice, it runs afoul of several implications of W. I. Thomas’s finding about resistance to change. Accustomed ways of behaving and thinking tend to persist; this is probably as true of the detritovorous habits of Homo colossus as it was true of earlier human folkways. Outbreaks of violence among American motorists waiting in long queues to buy gasoline, sputtering in stubborn non-recognition of the onset of the twilight of the petroleum era, suggest that the people of industrial societies who have learned to live in colossal fashion will not easily relinquish their seven-league boots, their heated homes, and their habit of living high on the food chain. As we said, re-adaptation hurts. It will be resisted.

Moreover, habits of thought persist. As we shall see in Chapter 11, people continue to advocate further technological breakthroughs as the supposedly sure cure for carrying capacity deficits. The very idea that technology caused overshoot, and that it made us too colossal to endure, remains alien to too many minds for”de-colossalization” to be a really feasible alternative to literal die-off. There is a persistent drive to apply remedies that aggravate the problem.

If any substantial fraction of the more colossal segments of humanity did conscientiously give up part of their resource-devouring extensions out of humane concern for their less colossal brethren, there is no guarantee that this would avert die-off. It might only postpone it, permitting human numbers to continue increasing a bit longer, or less colossal peoples to become a bit more colossal, before we crash all the more resoundingly.

All this tends to be disregarded by advocates of a “return to the simple life” as a gentle way out of the human predicament. Blessed are the less prosthetic, for they shall inherit the ravaged earth. Probably so, in the long run. But some view the dark cloud of fuel depletion and purport to see a silver lining already: individuals forced to abandon much of their modern technology will then get by on smaller per capita shares of the phantom carrying capacity upon which prosthetic man has become so dependent. However, insofar as the high agricultural yields upon which our irrupted population’s life depends can be attained only by means of energy subsidies—by lavish application of synthetic fertilizers, and by large-scale use of petroleum-powered machinery—the dwindling fossil acreage will probably lower the output of visible acreage. As we asked before, what happens when it becomes necessary again to pull the plow with a team of horses instead of a tractor, and a substantial fraction of the crop acreage that now feeds humans has to be allocated again to growing feed for draft animals (or biomass to produce tractor fuel when the Carboniferous legacy is no longer cheaply available)? So much for that silver lining.

It will spare us no grief to deny that Homo sapiens has been irrupting. It will in no way ease the impact to deny that crash must follow. We must seek our rays of hope in another way altogether (as we shall do in Chapter 15).
Not Cleared for Takeoff

The “developed” nations have been widely regarded as previews of the future condition of the “underdeveloped” countries. It would have been more accurate to reverse the picture, as perhaps the Stockholm Conference began to do for its most perceptive participants and observers.

It was one thing to be an underdeveloped nation in the eighteenth century, when the world had no highly developed nations. It is quite another thing today. When today’s developed nations were not yet industrialized and were just approaching their takeoff point, the World had only recently entered an exuberant phase which made takeoff possible. European technology was just starting to harness (for a few brilliant centuries) the energy stored in the earth during the past several hundred million years, and the sparsely populated New World had only recently become available for exuberant settlement and exploitation. These conditions of exuberance no longer prevail. The underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the twentieth century cannot realistically expect to follow in the footsteps of the undeveloped nations of eighteenth-century Europe. Most of today’s underdeveloped nations are destined never to become developed. Egalitarian traditions will be forced to adjust to permanent inequality.

Hard as it might be for the people and leaders of underdeveloped countries to face the fact, they are not alone in finding it repugnant. The people and leaders of the affluent societies have also resisted seeing it. Recognition that most of the world’s poor would necessarily stay poor would destroy the comforting conviction of the world’s privileged that their good fortune ought to inspire the world’s poor to emulate them, not resent them.

Nature’s limiting factors would not clear most underdeveloped countries for takeoff. But now that people are so numerous, it would be even worse if many did somehow take off. Most men of good will have been unable so far to accept this implication of the ecological facts. Some will no doubt righteously denounce this book for analyzing the situation in this unpalatable way, as if no fact could hurt us if we refused to acknowledge its truth. But not only are there not enough of the substances a developed human community must take from its environment in the process of living to permit a world of four billion people to be all developed; the capacity of the world’s oceans, continents, and atmosphere to absorb the substances Homo colossus must put somewhere in the process of living is limited. Even as a waste disposal site, the world is finite.

Right into the 1970s we were misled by so bland a word as “pollution” for this part of our predicament. We were already suffering the plight of the yeast cells in the wine vat. Accumulation of the noxious and toxic extrametabolites of high-energy industrial civilization had become a world problem, but no government could admit that it would turn into a world disaster if the benefits of modern technology were bestowed as abundantly upon everyone in the underdeveloped countries as they already had been upon the average inhabitant of the overdeveloped ones. Leaders everywhere had to pretend full development of the whole world was their ultimate aim and was still on the agenda. By such pretensions mankind remained locked into stealing from the future.
Learning to Read the News

Viewing contemporary events from a pre-ecological paradigm, we missed their significance. From an ecological paradigm we can see that fewer members of the species Homo colossus than of the species Homo sapiens can be supported by a finite world. The more colossal we become, the greater the difference. What we called “pollution,” and regarded at first as either a mere nuisance or an indication of the insensitivity of industrial people to esthetic values, can now be recognized as a signal from the ecosystem. If we had learned to call it “habitat damage,” we might have read it as a sign of the danger inherent in becoming colossal. Even if the world were not already overloaded by four billion members of the species Homo sapiens, it does not have room for that many consumers of resources and exuders of extrametabolites on the scale of modern Homo colossus. In short, on a planet no larger than ours, four billion human beings simply cannot all turn into prosthetic giants.

As we move deeper into the post-exuberant age, one of the keen insights of a passionately concerned and unusually popular sociologist, C. Wright Mills, will become increasingly important to us all. It was an insight by which he tried to help his contemporaries read the news of their times perceptively. We will need to be at least as perceptive to avoid misconstruing events that will happen in the years to come.

Although the paradigm from which Mills wrote was pre-ecological, in one of his most earnest books he transcended archaic thoughtways enough to note that only sometimes and in some places do men make history; in other times and places, the minutiae of everyday life can add up to mere “fate.” Mills gave us an unusually clear definition of this important word. Infinitesimal actions, if they are numerous and cumulative, can become enormously consequential. Fate, he explained, is shaping history when what happens to us was intended by no one and was the summary outcome of innumerable small decisions about other matters by innumerable people. [17]

In a world that will not accommodate four billion of us if we all become colossal, it is both futile and dangerous to indulge in resentment, as we shall be sorely tempted to do, blaming some person or group whom we suppose must have intended whatever is happening to happen. If we find ourselves beset with circumstances we wish were vastly different, we need to keep in mind that to a very large extent they have come about because of things that were hopefully and innocently done in the past by almost everyone in general, and not just by anyone in particular. If we single out supposed perpetrators of our predicament, resort to anger, and attempt to retaliate, the unforeseen outcomes of our indignant acts will compound fate.

In precisely Mills’s sense, the conversion of a marvelous carrying capacity surplus into a competition-aggravating and crash-inflicting deficit was a matter of fate. No compact group of leaders ever decided knowingly to take incautious advantage of enlargment of the scope of applicability of Liebig’s law, or subsequently to reduce that scope and leave a swollen load inadequately supported. No one decided deliberately to terminate the Age of Exuberance. No group of leaders conspired knowingly to turn us into detritovores. Using the ecological paradigm to think about human history, we can see instead that the end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.


1. See the explanations offered by various analysts cited in Patterson 1965, pp. 227-245.

2. For the original formulation of this principle, see Liebig 1863, p.207. Also see the sharpened statement of it on p. 5 in the “Editor’s Preface” to that volume. For indications that Liebig had the principle in mind even before he grasped its generality and fundamental significance, see his earlier work, Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (London: Taylor & Walton, 1842), pp. 41, 43, 85, 127, 129, 130, 132, 139, 141-142, 159, 178. On the development of Liebig’s thinking about this and other ecological principles, see Justus von Liebig, “An Autobiographical Sketch,” trans. J. Campbell Brown Chemical News 63 (June 5 and 12, 1891): 265-267, 276-278; W. A. Shenstone, Justus von Liebig: His Life and Work (New York: Macmillan, 1895); and Forest Ray Moulton, ea., Liebig and After Liebig: A Century of Progress in Agricultural Chemistry (Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1942).

3. Cf. Fred Hirsch, Social Limits to Growth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976). Too often social limits are unwisely cited as if to afford some basis for disregarding environmental finiteness; social limits actually make finiteness all the more salient. They do not make carrying capacity less relevant to human affairs. The cliche which asserts “There are no real shortages, only maldistribution” inverts the significance of social limits. In comparison with biogeochemical limits, social limits to growth include all the ways in which human societies are prone to fall short of developing and maintaining the optimum organization that would allow Liebig’s law to apply only on a thoroughly global scale, with carrying capacity thus never limited by local shortages. Social limits, in other words, tend to aggravate, not alleviate, the problems posed by biogcochemical limits.

4. See William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 61-62 In thinking about the human implications of the law of the minimum and the social impediments to implementing the principle of scope enlargement, it is well to remember that, when the collapse occurred in Germany, one ramification was the opportunity it afforded for rise of the Nazi dictatorship, with grave consequences for many other nations.

5. See Galbraith 1955, especially the first five chapters.

6. See Ch. 4, “Farmers in the Depression,” in Chandler 1970.

7. See Thomas and Znaniecki 1918-1920 passim.

8. Cf. Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 282-284.

9. Toffler 1970, pp. 4-5.

10. Cf. Ehrenfeld 1978 (listed among references for Ch. 1), pp. 249-254. For recent examples of socialist persistence in the myth of limitlessness, see Stanley Aronowitz, Food, Shelter and the American Dream (New York: Seabury Press, 1974); Hugh Stretton, Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976). Also see Irving Louis Horowitz, Three Worlds of Development: The Theory and Practice of International Stratification, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. xvi, where “overdevelopment” is defined without any ecological reference as “an excess ratio of industrial capacity to social utility,” i.e., to the ability of people with existing organization, skill levels, etc., to benefit from industrial output. In contrast, overdevelopment signifies to ecologists—e.g., Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1972 (listed among references for Ch. 12), pp. 418-420—a level of technological development that disregards physical and biological limitations and requires “far too large a slice of the world’s resources to maintain our way of life.”

11. Michael Tanzer, The Sick Society (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971).

12. See, for example, Odum and de la Cruz 1963; Darnell 1967.

13. This makes it unwise to have defined these substances as “resources.”

14. For an interesting discussion of the political significance of Eisenhower’s warning, see Fred Cook, The Warfare State (New York: Macmillan, 1962).

15. Quoted and discussed in Morison 1965 (listed among references for Ch. 5),p. 1110.

16. Odum 1971 (listed among references for Ch. 6), p. 55.

17. Mills 1958, pp. 10-14.

Selected References

Chandler, Lester V. 1970. America’s Greatest Depression 1929-1941.New York: Harper & Row.

Commoner, Barry 1971. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Darnell, Rezneat M. 1967. “The Organic Detritus Problem.” Pp. 374-375 in George H. Lauff, ed., Estuaries. Washington: American Association for the Advancement of Science, Publication no. 83.

Galbraith, John Kenneth 1955. The Great Crash 1929. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hubbert, M. King 1969. “Energy Resources.” Ch. 8 in Committee on Resources and Man, Re

sources and Man. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.

Jensen, W. G. 1970. Energy and the Economy of. Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: G. T. Foulis.

Liebig, Justus 1863. The Natural Laws of Husbandry. New York: D. Appleton.

Mills, C. Wright 1958. The Causes of World War Three. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Odum, Eugene P., and Armando A. de la Cruz 1963. “Detritus as a Major Component of Ecosystems.” American Institute of Biological Sciences Bulletin 13 (June): 39-40.

Odum, Howard T. 1971. Environment, Power, and Society. New York: John Wilev & Sons.

Patterson, Robert T. 1965. The Great Boom and Panic 1921-1929. Chicago: Henry Regnery

Thomas, William Isaac, and Florian Znaniecki 1918-1920. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. 5 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Boston: Richard Badger.

Toffler, Alvin 1970. Future Shock. New York: Random House.

Watson, Adam, ed. 1970. Animal Populations in Relation to Their Food Resources. Oxford: BlackwelL

from William Catton; Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. 1982 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
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Interpreting the Precautionary Principle

Interpreting the Precautionary Principle

Edited by Tim O’Riordan and James Cameron

Definitions of the precautionary principle

As Sonja Boehmer Christiansen points out in the chapter that follows, the precautionary principle evolved out of the German socio-legal tradition, created in the heyday of democratic socialism in the late 1920’s to early 1930s, centering on the concept of good household management. This was regarded as a constructive partnership between the individual, the economy and the state to manage change so as to improve the lot of both society and the natural world upon which it depended for survival. This invested the precautionary principle with a managerial or programmable quality, a purposeful role in guiding future political and regulatory action.

As Boehmer Christiansen argues, the German concept of Vorsorgeprinzip means much more than the rough English translation of foresight planning. It absorbs notions of risk prevention, cost effectiveness but in a looser economic framework, ethical responsibilities towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems, and the fallibility of human understanding. The right of nature means, in part, giving it room to accommodate to human interference, so precaution presumes that mistakes can be made. For the Germans, therefore, precaution is an interventionist measure, a justification of state involvement in the day to day lives of its lander and its citizenry in the name of good government. Social planning in the economy, in technology, in morality and in social initiatives all can be justified by a loose and open ended interpretation of precaution. As we shall see, it is precisely the unravellability that makes precaution both feared and welcomed.

Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s these notions of care and wise practice have been extended to six basic concepts now enshrined in the precautionary principle.
Preventative anticipation: a willingness to take action in advance of scientific proof of evidence of the need for the proposed action on the grounds that further delay will prove ultimately most costly to society and nature, and, in the longer term, selfish and unfair to future generations.
Safeguarding of ecological space or environmental room for manoeuvre as a recognition that margins of tolerance should not even be approached, let alone breached. This is sometimes known as widening the assimilative capacity of natural systems by deliberately holding back from possible but undesirable resource use.
Proportionality of response or cost-effectiveness of margins of error to show that the selected degree of restraint is not unduly costly. This introduces a bias to conventional cost benefit analysis to include a weighting function of ignorance, and for the likely greater dangers for future generations if life support capacities are undermined when such risks could consciously be avoided.
Duty of care, or onus of proof on those who propose change: this raises profound questions over the degree of freedom to take calculated risks, thereby to innovate, and to compensate for possible losses by building in ameliorative measures. Formal duties of environmental care, coupled to an extension of strict liability for any damage, no matter how unanticipated, could throttle invention, imagination and growth. Alternatively, when creatively deployed such strictures could encourage imagination and creativity in technology, economic valuation, technological advance and unusual forms of ameliorative compensation. Hence the concept of proportionality can be regarded either as a deadweight or a touchstone for the visionary.
Promoting the cause of intrinsic natural rights: the legal notion of ecological harm is being widened to include the need to allow natural processes to function in such a manner as to maintain the essential support for all life on earth. The application of ecological buffers in future management gives a practical emphasis to the thorny ethical concept of intrinsic natural rights.
Paying for past ecological debt: precaution is essentially forward looking but there are those who recognize that in the application of care, burden sharing, ecologically buffered cost effectiveness and shifting the burden of proof, there ought to be a penalty for not being cautious or caring in the past. This suggests that those who have created a large ecological burden already should be more “precautious” than those whose ecological footprints have to date been lighter. In a sense this is precaution put into reverse: compensating for past errors of judgment based on ignorance or an unwillingness to shoulder an unclearly stated sense of responsibility for the future. This element of the principle is still embryonic in law and practice, but the notion of “common but differentiated responsibility” enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the concept of conducting precaution “according to capabilities” as laid down in principle 15 of the Rio Declaration reflect to some extent these ideas.

By no means all of these interpretations are formally approved in international law and common practice. At present the line is to act prudently when there is sufficient scientific evidence and where action can be justified on reasonable judgments of cost effectiveness and where inaction could lead to potential irreversibility or demonstrate harm to the defenders and future generations. In substance, the application is usually derived for chemicals whose effects are potentially toxic, persistent or bioaccumulative (i.e. concentrating in the food chain from one predator to another), or where certain combinations or concentrations of chemicals could alter the physical and chemical state of soil or water. In this sense the notion in international affairs is mostly one of prevention, and justification of some action rather than to claim scientific uncertainty as a reason for delay.

Let us put precaution into both the sustainability perspective and that of proportionality, or economic-societal justification of possible adverse costs in favour of taking care. On the sustainability front, economists like to speak of weak and strong sustainability as a major distinction, with very weak and very strong variants on either side. The most accessible reference is Turner (1993). Very weak sustainability is based on the presumption that losses of environmental resources (natural capital) can be made up by innovation, ingenuity, imagination and adaptation. In Figure 1.1 rising damage costs spurs an interest in damage avoiding market prices, regulatory behavior and technological substitution. Precaution has a place, mostly as a spur to innovation and managerial adaptation. So the line of precautionary action lies towards the upper left of the diagram, namely where the threat of irreversible damage is palpable, and the benefits of intervention are clear.

Weak sustainability places more emphasis on extended cost benefit analysis, that is in introducing firmer measures of the value of safeguarding ecological and biogeochemical processes that are irrecoverable if lost. These processes and their associated species mix are referred to as critical natural capital. The distinction between weak and strong sustainability lies in the degree to which the precautionary principle and its economic interpretation is applied to ensuring the protection of critical natural capital, including the creation of new critical capital by deliberate management. Note here that the curve of safeguard tends move towards the right, i.e. to ensure that plenty of life support systems remain intact. Both models of sustainability take a more sanguine view of inbuilt resilience of natural systems.

Very strong sustainability favours a more fundamentalist mode of ecological solidarity with the earth. Here the line is to adapt to the frames set by natural systems, and to build precaution into an approach to living that is altogether more in empathy with the natural world. The amount of “ecological footprint” becomes progressively lighter, and the precautionary line drops to the lower right hand zone of the diagram, being triggered at the point of relatively little damage. Here, the bias of “proporationally” favours early action in the face of pessimism over the ability of the earth to cope with human intervention for the survival of the human species. [p.p. 16 20]

Earthscan Publications Ltd, 1994. ISBN 1-85383-200-6 Available from Island Press, Phone: 800-828-1302 or 707-983-6432; FAX: 707-983-6164

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Laws, Hypotheses, Observations and Predictions Relating To Sustainability

Dr. Albert Bartlett, a physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has worked many decades to educate people about the dynamics and consequences of exponential growth. In 2005, he was honored by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas—USA (ASPO-USA) with the annual M. King Hubbert Award.

Laws, Hypotheses, Observations and Predictions Relating To Sustainability
by Albert Bartlett

The laws, hypotheses, observations, and predictions that follow are offered in order to define the term “sustainability,” which must be understood to mean, “for many millennia.” In some cases these statements are accompanied by corollaries that are identified by capital letters. They all apply for populations and rates of consumption of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world in 1994, and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in primitive tribal situations.

These laws are believed to hold rigorously.

The hypotheses are less rigorous than the laws. There may be exceptions to some, and some may be proven to be wrong. Experience may show that some of the hypotheses should be elevated to the status of laws.

The observations may shed light on the problems and on mechanisms for finding solutions to the problems.

The predictions are those of a retired nuclear physicist who has been watching these problems for several decades.

The lists are but a single compilation, and hence may be incomplete. Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard to items that should or should not be in these lists.

In many cases, these laws and statements have been recognized, set forth, and elaborated on by others.
Garrett Hardin’s Three Laws of Human Ecology

We start by repeating three laws of human ecology that are given by Garrett Hardin (Hardin, 1993). These are fundamental, and need to be known and recognized by all who would speak of sustainability.
First Law

“We can never do merely one thing.” This is a profound and eloquent observation of the interconnectedness of nature.
Second Law

“There’s no away to throw to.” This is a compact statement of one of the major problems of the “effluent society.”
Third Law

The impact (I) of any group or nation on the environment is represented qualitatively by the relation I = PAT where P is the size of the population, A is the per capita affluence, measured by per capita rate of consumption, and T is a measure of the damage done by the technologies that are used in supplying the consumption. Hardin attributes this law to Ehrlich and Holdren (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971).

The suggestion may be made that the Third Law is too conservative. The Third Law suggests that I varies as pn where n = 1. There are situations where the impact of humans increases more rapidly than linearly with the size of the population P so that n > 1.
Boulding’s Three Theorems

These theorems are from the work of the eminent economist Kenneth Boulding (Boulding, 1971).
First Theorem: “The Dismal Theorem”

“If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.”
Second Theorem: “The Utterly Dismal Theorem”

This theorem “states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.”
Third Theorem: “The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem” : .

“Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in’ a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other then misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.”

Boulding continues, “Until we know more, the Cheerful Theorem remains a question mark. Misery we know will do the trick. This is the only surefire automatic method of bringing population to an equilibrium’. Other things may do it.”
Abernethy’s Axiom

Motivation, rather than differential access to modern contraception, is the primary determinant of fertility. Individuals respond to scarcity by having fewer children, and to perceived opportunity by having more children. Contrary to the demographic transition model, economic development does not cause family size to shrink; rather, at every point where serious economic opportunity beckons, family size preferences expand (Abernethy, 1993b).
Foreign aid conveys to the recipients the perception of improving economic wellbeing, which causes an increase in the fertility of the recipients of the aid.
Migrations from regions of low economic opportunity to places of higher economic opportunity result in an increase in the fertility of the migrants that persists for a generation or two.
First Law

Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are necessary conditions for a sustainable society.

B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of “development,” whether or not it is said to be “sustainable,” that ignores the problem of population growth and that does not plan the achievement of zero or a period of negative growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources.

C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting “sustainability” are, in the long run, irrelevant unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the determination of optimal population sizes that can be carried indefinitely arid unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.

D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.

E) Persons who advocate population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.

F) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability. (Advertising your city or state as an ideal site in which to locate new factories indicates a desire to increase the population of your city or state.)

G) The term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron.
Second Law

The larger the population of a society, and/or the larger its rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law

The response time of populations to changes in the tote! fertility rate is the length of time people live, or approximately fifty to seventy years. (The consequence of this is called “population momentum.”)

A) If we want the population sizes to be reduced or at least stabilized by the midtwentyfirst century, we must make the necessary changes in the total fertility rates before the end of the twentieth century.

B) We live in a time of short time horizons.

C) It will be difficult to convince people to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not be apparent in those people’s lifetimes.
Fourth Law

The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another.

A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to reduce population size.

B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law

Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and stable ecosystems.

B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and/or the sustainable standard of living.

C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.

D) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment.
Sixth Law: (The lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Hardin, 1968):

The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few individuals; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are also good for society. This is the Charles Wilson argument: If it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States* (Yates, 1983).
Seventh Law

Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a nonrenewable resource “at present rates of consumption,” i.e., with no growth.

B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of a nonrenewable resource while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resource will last “at present rates of consumption.”
Eighth Law

The time of expiration of nonrenewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by (i) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used; (ii) using the resources in accord with a program of “sustained availability” (Bartlett, 1986); (iii) recycling; (iv) the use of substitute resources.
Ninth Law

When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resource needs that arise as a consequence of modest increases in population.

A) When resources are used more efficiently, the consequence often is that the “saved” resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.

B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.
Tenth Law

The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.
Eleventh Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics)

When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the ecosystems, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.
Twelfth Law: (Eric Sevareid’s Law)

The chief cause of problems is solutions (Sevareid, 1970).

A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.
Thirteenth Law

Humans will always be dependent on agriculture.

A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.

B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as (i) erosion; (ii) urbanization and development; (iii) poisoning by chemicals; (iv) salinization; and (v) waterlogging.
Fourteenth Law

If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, nature will stop these growths.

A) Nature’s method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.

B) Glimpses of nature’s method of dealing with population that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.
Fifteenth Law

Starving people do not care about sustainability. If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.
Sixteenth Law

The addition of the word “sustainable” to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, and to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Seventeenth Law: Extinction is forever.

This is from Albert Bartlett, Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Box 390, Boulder, CO 80309-0390

Towards A New Economics: Questioning Growth by Herman E. Daly

Herman E. Daly is sometimes called the father of the ecological economics movement. In 1973 he edited an essential book, Economics, Ecology, Ethics: Essays Toward a Steady-State Economy published by W.H. Freeman and Co. Since then, he has authored many other important books including Steady–State Economics, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, The Local Politics of Global Sustainability (co-author) and Ecological Economics (with Joshua Farley). The following is an excerpt from a 1971 article titled. “Toward a Stationary-State Economy.”

Towards A New Economics:
Questioning Growth

by Herman E. Daly

Any discussion of the relative merits of a stationary, no-growth economy, and its opposite, the economy in which wealth and population are growing, must recognize some important quantitative and qualitative differences between rich and poor countries and social classes. Consider the familiar ratio of gross national product (GNP) to total population (P). This ratio per capita annual product (GNP/P), is the measure usually employed to distinguish rich from poor countries. In spite of its many shortcomings, it does have the virtue of reflecting in one ratio the two fundamental life processes of production and reproduction. Two questions must be asked of both numerator and denominator for both rich and poor nations: namely, what is the quantitative rate of growth, and qualitatively, exactly what is it that is growing?

The rate of growth in the denominator P is much higher in poor countries. While mortality is tending to equality at low levels throughout the world, fertility in poor nation is roughly twice that of rich nations. No other social or economic index divides the world so clearly and consistently into “developed” and “undeveloped” as does fertility.

Qualitatively, the incremental population in poor countries consists largely of hungry illiterates, while in rich countries it consists largely of well-fed members of the middle class. The incremental person in poor countries contributes negligibly to production, but makes few demands on world resources. The incremental person in a rich country adds to his country’s GNP, but his high standard of living contributes greatly to depletion of the world’s resources and pollution of its spaces.

The numerator, GNP, is growing at roughly the same rate in rich and poor countries—around 4 or 5 percent annually, with the poor countries probably growing slightly faster. Nevertheless, because of their more rapid population growth, the per capita income of poor countries is growing more slowly than that of rich countries. Consequently the gap between rich and poor widens over time.

Incremental GNP in rich and poor nations has very different qualitative significance. At some point, probably already passed in the United States, an extra unit of GNP costs more than it is worth. Extra GNP in a poor country, assuming it does not go mainly to the richest class of that country, represents satisfaction of relatively basic wants (food, clothing, shelter, basic education, etc,) while extra GNP in a rich county, assuming it does not go mainly to the poorest class, represents satisfaction of relatively trivial wants (more electric toothbrushes, yet another brand of cigarettes, more force-feeding through advertising, etc.).

The upshot of these differences is that for the poor, growth in GNP is probably still a good thing, while for the rich it is probably a bad thing. Growth in population, however, is a bad thing for both; for the rich because it makes growth in GNP less avoidable, and for the poor because it makes growth in GNP, and especially per capita GNP, more difficult. The following discussion is concerned exclusively with a rich, affluent-effluent economy such as that of the United States, and will seek to define more clearly the concept of a stationary-state economy, see why it is necessary, consider its economic and social implications, and finally, comment on an emerging political economy of finite wants and non-growth.


Over a century ago John Stuart Mill, the great synthesizer of classical economics, spoke of the stationary state in words that could hardly be more pertinent today: It must always have been seen, more or less distinctly, by political economists, that the increase in wealth is not boundless; that at the end of what they term the progressive state lies the stationary state, that all progress in wealth is but a postponement of this, and that each step in advance is an approach to it.

I cannot…regard the stationary state of capital and wealth with the unaffected aversion so generally manifested towards it by political economist of the old school. I am inclined to believe that it would be, on the whole, a very considerable improvement on our present condition. I confess I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels which forms the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human kind.

….The northern and middle states of America are a specimen of this stage of civilization in very favorable circumstances…and all that these advantages seem to have yet done for them…is that the life of the whole of one sex is devoted to dollar-hunting, and the other to breeding dollars-hunters…

I know not why it should be a matter of congratulations that persons who are already richer than anyone needs to be, should have doubled their means of consuming things which give little or no pleasure except as representative of wealth…It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object; in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution, of which one indispensable means is a stricter restraint on population…the density of population necessary to enable mankind to obtain, in the greatest degree, all the advantages both of cooperation and of social intercourse, has in all the most populous countries, been attained…It is not good for a man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species…Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature…If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a happier or better population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before a necessity compels therm to it.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much and much more likelihood of it being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on. Even the industrial arts might be as earnestly and as successfully cultivated, with this sole difference, that instead of serving no purpose but the increase of wealth, industrial improvements would produce their legitimate effect, that of abridging labor.

The direction in which political economy has evolved in the last hundred years is not along the path suggested in the quotation. In fact, most economists are hostile to the notion of stationary state and dismiss Mill’s discussion as “strongly colored by his ‘social views “‘(as if the neo-classical theories were not so colored! ); “nothing so much as a prolegomenon to Galbraith’s Affluent Society”; or “hopelessly dated.” The truth of the matter, however, is that Mill is even more relevant today than in his own time.


Stationary state signifies a constant stock of physical wealth (capital), and a constant stock of people (population). Naturally these stocks do not remain constant by themselves. People die and wealth is physically consumed (worn out, depreciated). Therefore the stocks must be maintained by a rate of inflow (birth, production) equal to the rate of outflow (death, consumption). But this equality may obtain, and stocks remain constant, with high rate of throughput (inflow equal to outflow) or with a low rate.

This definition of stationary state is not complete until the rates of throughput by which the constant stocks are maintained are specified. For a number of reasons the rate of throughput should be as low as possible. For an equilibrium stock the average age at “death” of its members is the reciprocal of the throughput. The faster the water flows through the tank, the less time an average drop spends in the tank. For the population, a low rate of throughput (low birth and death rates) means a high life expectancy and is desirable for that reason alone—at least within limits. For the stock of wealth, a low rate of throughput (low production and low consumption) means greater life expectancy or durability of goods and less time sacrificed to production. This means more “leisure” or non job time to be divided into consumption time, personal and household maintenance time, culture time, and idleness. This too seems socially desirable.

But to these reasons for the desirability of a low rate of maintenance throughput, must be added some reasons for the impracticability of high rate. Since matter and energy cannot be created, production inputs must be taken from the environment, leading to depletion. Since matter and energy cannot be destroyed, an equal amount of matter and energy in the form of waste must be returned to environment, leading to pollution. Hence lower rates of throughput lead to less depletion and pollution, higher rates to more. The limits regarding what rates of depletion and pollution are tolerable must be supplied by ecology. A definite limit to the size of maintenance flows of specific materials is set by ecological thresholds that, if exceeded, cause system breaks. To keep flows below these limits we can operate on two variables; the size of the stocks and the durability of the stocks. As long as we are well below these thresholds, economic cost-benefit calculations regarding depletion and pollution can be relied upon as a guide. But as these thresholds are approached, “marginal cost” and “marginal benefits” become meaningless, and Alfred Marshall’s motto, “nature does not make jumps,” and most of neoclassical marginalist economics becomes inapplicable. The “marginal” cost of one more step may be to fall into the precipice.

Of the two variables, size of stocks and durability of stocks, only the second requires further clarification. Durability here means more than just how long a commodity lasts. It also includes the number of times that the waste output can be reused as input in the production of something else. Nature has furnished the ideal model of a closed-loop system of material cycles powered by the sun. To the extent that our technology can imitate nature’s solar-powered closed-loop, then our stock of wealth will tend to become as durable as our water, soil, and air which are the real sources of wealth since it is only through their agency that plants are able to capture vital solar energy. The ideal is that all physical outputs should be usable either as inputs in some other man-made process, or as non-disruptive inputs into natural material cycles.

The stationary state of wealth and population is maintained by an inflow of low entropy matter energy and outflow of an equal quantity of high entropy matter-energy. (Low entropy matter-energy is highly structured, organized matter and easily usable free energy. High entropy matter-energy is randomized, useless bits of matter, and latent, unusable energy.) Stocks of wealth and people feed on low entropy. Low entropy inputs are received from the environment in exchange for high entropy outputs to the environment. In this overall sense there can be no closed loop or recycling of both matter and energy because of the second law of thermodynamics. However, within the overall system there can be subsystems of individual processes arranged so that their material input-output links form a closed loop. Conceivably all processes in the stationary state could be arranged to form a material closed loop. But the recycling of matter through this closed-loop “world engine” requires energy, part of which becomes irrevocably useless as it is dissipated into heat. Actually, industrial material cycles cannot be 100 per cent closed as this would require an uneconomical, if not impossible expenditure of energy. Thus some of the high entropy output takes the form of randomized bits of matter, and some takes the form of heat.

The limit to using energy to reduce material pollution is the resulting localized thermal pollution, not the very long run, universal thermodynamic heat death. Thus it is important to bear in mind that the expenditure of energy needed for recycling necessarily pollutes.

The mere expenditure of energy is not sufficient to close the material cycle, since energy must work through the agency of material implements. To recycle aluminum beer cans requires more trucks to collect the cans as well as more energy to run the trucks. More trucks require more steel, glass, etc., which require more iron ore and coal, which require still more trucks. This is the familiar web of inter-industry interdependence reflected in an input-output table.

All of these extra intermediate activities required to recycle beer cans involve some inevitable pollution as well. If we think of each industry as adding recycling to its production process, then this will generate a whole chain of direct and indirect demands on matter and energy resources that must be taken away from final demand uses and devoted to the intermediate activity of recycling. It will take more intermediate products and activities to support the same level of final output. The advantage of recycling is that it allows nations to choose the least harmful combination of material and thermal pollution.

The classical economists thought that the stationary state would be made necessary by limits on the depletion side, but the main limits now seem to be in fact occurring on the pollution side. In effect, pollution provides another foundation for the economic law of increasing costs, but has received little attention in this regard since pollution costs are social while depletion costs are usually private. On the input side the environment is partitioned into spheres of private ownership. Depletion of the environment coincides, to some degree, with depletion of the owner’s wealth, and inspires at least a minimum of stewardship. On the output side, however, the waste absorption capacity of the environment is not subject to partitioning and private ownership. Air and water are used freely by all and result is a competitive, profligate exploitation—what biologist Garrett Hardin calls the “commons effect,” what welfare economists call “external diseconomies,” and what I like to call the “invisible foot.”

Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” leads private self-interest unwittingly to serve the common good. The “invisible foot” leads private self-interest to kick the common good to pieces. Private ownership and private use under a competitive market give rise to the invisible hand. Public ownership with public restraint on use gives rise to the invisible hand (and foot) of the planner. Depletion has been partially restrained by the invisible foot. It is therefore not surprising to find limits occurring mainly on the pollution side.


The economic and social implications of the stationary state are enormous and revolutionary. The physical flows of production and consumption must be minimized, not maximized, subject to some agreed upon minimum standard of living and population size. The central concept must be the stock of wealth, not as presently, the flow of income and consumption. (Kenneth Boulding has been making this point since 1949, but with no effect on his fellow economists.) Furthermore, the stock must not grow. The important issue of the stationary state will be distribution, not production. The argument that everyone should be happy as long as his absolute share of the wealth increase, regardless of his relative share, will no longer be available. The arguments justifying inequality in wealth as necessary for saving, investment, and growth will lose their force. With income flows kept low, the focus will be on the distribution of income. Marginal productivity theories and “justifications” pertain only to flows and therefore are not available to explain or justify the distribution of stock ownership.

It so hard to see how ethical appeals to equal shares can be countered. Also, even though physical stocks remain constant, increased income in the form of leisure will result from continued technological improvements. How will it be distributed if not according to some ethical norm of equality? The stationary state would make fewer demands on our environmental resources, but much greater demands on our moral resources. In the past a good case could be made that leaning too heavily on scarce moral resources, rather than relying on abundant self-interest, was the road to serfdom. But in an age of rockets, hydrogen bombs, cybernetics, and genetic control, there is simply no substitute for moral resources and no alternative to relying on them, whether they prove sufficient or not.

With constant physical stocks, economic growth must be in non-physical goods, particularly leisure. Taking the benefits of technological progress in the form of increased leisure is a reversal of the historical practice of taking the benefits mainly in the form of goods and has extensive social implications. In the past, economic development has increased the physical output of a day’s work while the number of hours in a day has, of course remained constant, with the result that the opportunity cost of a unit of time in terms of goods has risen. Time is worth more goods, and a good is worth less time. As time becomes more expensive in terms of goods, fewer activities are “worth the time.” We become goods-rich and timepoor. Consequently we crowd more activities and more consumption into the same period of time in order to raise the return of non-work time, thereby maximizing the total time. This gives rise to what Staffan Linder has called the “harried leisure class.”

Not only do we use work time more efficiently, but also personal consumption time, and we even try to be efficient in our sleep by attempting subconscious learning. Time-intensive activities (friendships, care of the aged and children, meditation and reflection) are sacrificed in favor of commodity-intensive activities (consumption). At some point people will feel rich enough to afford more time-intensive activities even at the higher price. But advertising, by constantly extolling the value of commodities, postpones this point.

From an ecological view, of course, this is exactly the reverse of what is called for. What is needed is a low relative price of time in terms of commodities. Then time-intensive activities will be substituted for material-intensive activities. To become less materialistic in our habits, we must raise the relative price of matter. Keeping physical stocks constant and using technology to increase leisure time will do just that. Thus a policy of non-material growth or leisure-only growth, in addition to being necessary for keeping physical stocks constant, has the further beneficial effect of encouraging a more generous expenditure of time and a more careful use of physical goods. A higher relative price of material intensive goods may, at first glance, be thought to encourage their production. But material goods require material inputs, so costs as well as revenues would increase, eliminating profit incentives to expand.

In the 1930’s the late Bertrand Russell proposed a policy of leisure growth rather than commodity growth and viewed the unemployment question in terms of the distribution of leisure. The following words are from his essay, “In Praise of Idleness:”

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins. Pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is in the end just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined.

In addition to this strategy of leisure-only growth, we can internalize some pollution costs by charging effluent taxes. Economic efficiency requires only that a price be placed on environmental amenities, it does not tell us who should pay the price. The producer may claim that the use of the environment to absorb waste products is a right that all organisms and firms must of necessity enjoy, and whoever wants air and water to be cleaner than it is at any given time should pay for it. Consumers may argue that whoever makes the environment dirtier than it otherwise would be should be the one to pay. Again the issue becomes basically one of distribution—not what the price should be, but who should pay it. The fact that the price takes the form of a tax automatically decides who should receive the price—the government. But this raises more distribution issues, and the solutions to these problems are ethical, not technical.

Another possibility of non-material growth is to redistribute wealth from the low marginal utility uses of the rich to the high marginal uses of the poor, thereby increasing total social utility. Joan Robinson has noted that this egalitarian implication of the law of diminishing marginal utility was “sterilized mainly by slipping from utility to physical output as the object to be maximized.” As we move back from physical output to non-physical utility, the egalitarian implications become unsterilized.

Traditional Keynesian full employment policies will no longer be available to palliate the distribution question since they require growth. By allowing full employment, growth permits the old principles of distribution (income-through jobs) to continue in effect. But with no growth in physical stocks and policy of using technological progress to increase leisure, full employment is no longer a workable principle of distribution. Furthermore, we add a new dimension to the distribution problem—how to distribute leisure.

A stationary population, with low birth and death rates, would imply a greater percentage of old people than in the present growing population, although hardly a geriatric society as some youth worshippers claim. Since old people do not work, the distribution problem is further accentuated. However, the percentage of children will diminish, so in effect there will be mainly a change in direction of transfer payments. More of the earnings of working adults will be transferred to the old and less to children.

What institutions will provide the control necessary to keep the stocks of wealth and people constant, with the minimum sacrifice of individual freedom? It would be far too simpleminded to blurt out “socialism” as the answer, since socialist states are as badly afflicted with growth mania as capitalist states. The Marxist eschatology of the classless society is based on the premise of complete abundance; consequently economic growth is exceedingly important in socialist theory and practice. And population growth, for the orthodox Marxist, cannot present problems under socialist institutions. This latter tenet has weakened a bit in recent years, but the first continues in full force. However, it is equally simpleminded to believe that our present big capital, big labor, big government, big military type of private profit capitalism is capable of the required foresight and restraint, and that the addition of a few effluent and severance taxes here and there will solve the problem. The issues are much deeper and inevitably impinge in the distribution of income and wealth.

Why do people produce junk and cajole other people into buying it? Not out of any innate love for junk or hatred of the environment, but simply in order to earn an income. If—with the prevailing distribution of wealth, income, and power-production governed by the profit motive results in the output of great amounts of noxious junk, then something is wrong with the distribution of wealth and power, the profit motive, or both. We need some principle of income distribution independent of and supplementary to their income-through jobs link. A start in this direction was made by Oskar Lange, who attempted to combine some socialist principles of distribution with the allocative efficiency advantages of the market system. However, at least as much remains to be done here as remains to be done in designing institutions for stabilizing population. But before progress can be made on their issues we must recognize their necessity and blow the whistle on growth mania.

STUNTING growth mania

Although the ideas expressed by Mill have been totally dominated by growth mania, there are an increasing number of economists who have frankly expressed their disenchantment with the growth ideology. Arguments stressing ecological limits to wealth and population have been made by Kenneth Boulding and Joseph Spengler, both past presidents of the American Economic Association. Recently E.J. Mishan, Tibor Scitovsky, and Staffan Linder have made penetrating antigrowth arguments. There is also much in Galbraith that is anti-growth—at least against growth of commodities whose desirability must be manufactured along with the product.

In spite of these beginnings, most economists are still governed by the assumption of infinite wants, or the postulate of non satiety as the mathematical economists call it. Any single want can be satisfied, but all wants in the aggregate cannot be. Wants are infinite in number if not in intensity, and the satisfaction of some wants stimulates others. If wants are infinite, growth is always justified—or so it would seem.

Even while accepting the above hypothesis, one could still object to growth mania on the grounds that given the completely inadequate definition of GNP, “growth” simply means the satisfaction of ever more trivial wants, while simultaneously creating even more powerful externalities that destroy ever more basic environmental amenities. To defend ourselves against these externalities, we produce even more, and instead of subtracting the purely defensive expenditures, we add them. For example, the medical bills paid for treatment of cigarette-induced cancer and pollution-induced emphysema are added to GNP, when in a welfare sense they clearly should be subtracted. This should be labeled swelling, not growth. The satisfaction of wants crated by brainwashing and “hog washing” the public over the mass media also represents mostly swelling.

A policy of maximizing GNP is practically equivalent to a policy of maximizing depletion and pollution. This results from the fact that GNP measures the flow of a physical aggregate. Since matter and energy cannot be created, production is simply the transformation of raw material inputs extracted from the environment; consequently, maximizing the physical flow of production implies maximizing depletion. Since matter and energy cannot be destroyed, consumption is merely the transformation into waste of GNP, resulting in environmental pollution. One may hesitate to say “maximal” pollution on the grounds that the production inflow into the stock can be greater than the consumption outflow as long as the stock increases as it does in a growing economy.

To the extent that wealth becomes more durable, the production of waste can be kept low by expanding the stock. But is this in fact what happens? If one wants to maximize production, one must have a market. Increasing the durability of goods reduces the replacement demand. The faster things wear out, the greater can be the flow of production, one must have a market. Increasing the durability of goods reduces the replacement demand. The faster things wear out, the greater can be the flow of production. To the extent that consumer reaction and weakening competition permit, there is every incentive to minimize durability. Planned obsolescence, programmed self-destruction, and other waste making practices so well discussed by Vance Packard are the logical result of maximizing a marketed physical flow. If we must maximize something it should be the stock of wealth, not the ecological limits that constrain this maximization.

But why this perverse emphasis on flows, this flow fetishism of standard economic theory? Again the underlying issue is distribution. There is no theoretical explanation, much less justification, for the distribution of the stock of wealth. It is a historical datum. But the distribution of the flow of income is at least partly explained by marginal productivity theory, which at times is even misinterpreted as a justification. Everyone gets a part of the flow—call it wages, interest, rent or profit—and it all looks rather fair. But not everyone owns a piece of the stock, and that does not seem quite so fair. Looking only at their flow helps to avoid disturbing thoughts.

But even if wants were infinite, and even if we redefine GNP to eliminate swelling, infinite wants cannot be satisfied by maximizing physical production. As people grow richer they will want more leisure. Physical growth cannot produce leisure. As physical productivity increases, leisure can be produced by working fewer hours to produce the same physical output. Even the common-sense argument for infinite wants—that the rich seem to enjoy their high consumption—cannot be generalized without committing the fallacy of composition. If all earned the same high income, a consumption limit occurs sooner than if only a minority had high incomes. The reason is that a large part of the consumption by plutocrats is consumption of personal and maintenance services rendered by the poor, which would not be available if everyone were rich. By hiring the poor to maintain and even purchase commodities for them, the rich devote their limited consumption time only to the most pleasurable aspects of consumption. The rich only ride their horses—they do not clean, comb, saddle, and feed them, nor do they clean the stables. If all did their own maintenance work, consumption would perforce be less. Time sets a limit.

The big difficulty with the infinite wants assumption, however, is pointed out by Keynes, who in spite of the use made of his theories in support of growth, was certainly no advocate of unlimited growth, as seen in the following quotation:

Now it is true that the needs of human beings seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes—those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human begins may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still they are. But this is not so true of the absolute needs—a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when those needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.

Lumping these two categories together and speaking of infinite wants in general can only muddy the waters. The same distinction is implicit in Mill, who spoke despairingly of “consuming things which give little or no pleasure except as representative of wealth…”

The source of growth lies in the use made of surplus, the controllers of surplus may be a priesthood that controls physical idols made from the surplus and used to extract more surplus in the form of offerings and tribute. Or there may be feudal lords, who through the power given by possession of the land extract a surplus in the form of rent and the corvee. Or they may be capitalists (state or private) who use the surplus in the form of capital to gain more surplus in the form of interest and quasi-rents.

If growth must cease, the surplus becomes less important and so do those who control it. If the surplus is not to lead to growth, then it must be consumed, and ethical demands for equal surplus could not be countered by productivity arguments for inequality as necessary for accumulation. The surplus would eventually enter into the customary standard of living and cease to be recognized as a surplus. Accumulation in excess of depreciation, and the privileges attached thereto, would not exist.

We no longer speak of worshipping idols. Instead of idols we have an abomination called GNP, large parts of which, however, bear such revealing names as Apollo, Poseidon, and Zeus. Instead of worshipping the idol, we maximize it. The idol has become rather less concrete and material, while the mode of adoration has become technical rather than personal. But fundamentally, idolatry remains idolatry.

This article was excerpted from an article entitled “Toward a Stationary-State Economy,” in Patient Earth, edited by John Harte and Robert Socolow. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1971. Carrying Capacity Network 2000 P Street, N.W., Suite 240 Washington, D.C. 20036 (202) 296-4548

Places to Intervene in a System – Donella (Dana) H. Meadows

Dana Meadows was one of four post graduate students in Jay Forrester’s Systems Dynamics Program at MIT in the early 1970s who researched and wrote the widely read, paradigm shifting study sponsored by the Club of Rome titled, The Limits to Growth. The following essay is a helpful guide in how to plan for and effect change in systems. Dana develops a hierarchy of leverage points to show different types and degrees of change.

Places to Intervene in a System

By Donella (Dana) H. Meadows
First published in Whole Earth Winter 1997

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

The systems community has a lot of lore about leverage points. Those of us who were trained by the great Jay Forrester at MIT have absorbed one of his favorite stories. “People know intuitively where leverage points are. Time after time I’ve done an analysis of a company, and I’ve figured out a leverage point. Then I’ve gone to the company and discovered that everyone is pushing it in the wrong direction !”

The classic example of that backward intuition was Forrester’s first world model. Asked by the Club of Rome to show how major global problems—poverty and hunger, environmental destruction, resource depletion, urban deterioration, unemployment—are related and how they might be solved, Forrester came out with a clear leverage point: Growth. Both population and economic growth. Growth has costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth!

The world’s leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to virtually all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction.

Counterintuitive. That’s Forrester’s word to describe complex systems. The systems analysts I know have come up with no quick or easy formulas for finding leverage points. Our counterintuitions aren’t that well developed. Give us a few months or years and we’ll model the system and figure it out. We know from bitter experience that when we do discover the system’s leverage points, hardly anybody will believe us.

Very frustrating. So one day I was sitting in a meeting about the new global trade regime, NAFTA and GATT and the World Trade Organization. The more I listened, the more I began to simmer inside. “This is a HUGE NEW SYSTEM people are inventing!” I said to myself. “They haven’t the slightest idea how it will behave,” myself said back to me. “It’s cranking the system in the wrong direction—growth, growth at any price!! And the control measures these nice folks are talking about—small parameter adjustments, weak negative feedback loops—are PUNY!”

Suddenly, without quite knowing what was happening, I got up, marched to the flip chart, tossed over a clean page, and wrote: ” Places to Intervene in a System ,” followed by nine items:

9. Numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards).

8. Material stocks and flows.

7. Regulating negative feedback loops.

6. Driving positive feedback loops.

5. Information flows.

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishment, constraints).

3. The power of self-organization.

2. The goals of the system.

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the goals, rules, feedback structure arise.

Everyone in the meeting blinked in surprise, including me. “That’s brilliant!” someone breathed. “Huh?” said someone else.

I realized that I had a lot of explaining to do.

In a minute I’ll go through the list, translate the jargon, give examples and exceptions. First I want to place the list in a context of humility. What bubbled up in me that day was distilled from decades of rigorous analysis of many different kinds of systems done by many smart people. But complex systems are, well, complex. It’s dangerous to generalize about them. What you are about to read is not a recipe for finding leverage points. Rather it’s an invitation to think more broadly about system change.

That’s why leverage points are not intuitive.

9. Numbers.

Numbers (“parameters” in systems jargon) determine how much of a discrepancy turns which faucet how fast. Maybe the faucet turns hard, so it takes a while to get the water flowing. Maybe the drain is blocked and can allow only a small flow, no matter how open it is. Maybe the faucet can deliver with the force of a fire hose. These considerations are a matter of numbers, some of which are physically locked in, but most of which are popular intervention points.

Consider the national debt. It’s a negative bathtub, a money hole. The rate at which it sinks is the annual deficit. Tax income makes it rise, government expenditures make it fall. Congress and the president argue endlessly about the many parameters that open and close tax faucets and spending drains. Since those faucets and drains are connected to the voters, these are politically charged parameters. But, despite all the fireworks, and no matter which party is in charge, the money hole goes on sinking, just at different rates.

The amount of land we set aside for conservation. The minimum wage. How much we spend on AIDS research or Stealth bombers. The service charge the bank extracts from your account. All these are numbers, adjustments to faucets. So, by the way, is firing people and getting new ones. Putting different hands on the faucets may change the rate at which they turn, but if they’re the same old faucets, plumbed into the same system, turned according to the same information and rules and goals, the system isn’t going to change much. Bill Clinton is different from George Bush, but not all that different.

Numbers are last on my list of leverage points. Diddling with details, arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Probably ninety-five percent of our attention goes to numbers, but there’s not a lot of power in them.

Not that parameters aren’t important—they can be, especially in the short term and to the individual who’s standing directly in the flow. But they RARELY CHANGE BEHAVIOR. If the system is chronically stagnant, parameter changes rarely kick-start it. If it’s wildly variable, they don’t usually stabilize it. If it’s growing out of control, they don’t brake it.

Whatever cap we put on campaign contributions, it doesn’t clean up politics. The Feds fiddling with the interest rate haven’t made business cycles go away. (We always forget that during upturns, and are shocked, shocked by the downturns.) Spending more on police doesn’t make crime go away.

However, there are critical exceptions. Numbers become leverage points when they go into ranges that kick off one of the items higher on this list. Interest rates or birth rates control the gains around positive feedback loops. System goals are parameters that can make big differences. Sometimes a system gets onto a chaotic edge, where the tiniest change in a number can drive it from order to what appears to be wild disorder.

Probably the most common kind of critical number is the length of delay in a feedback loop. Remember that bathtub on the fourth floor I mentioned, with the water heater in the basement? I actually experienced one of those once, in an old hotel in London. It wasn’t even a bathtub with buffering capacity; it was a shower. The water temperature took at least a minute to respond to my faucet twists. Guess what my shower was like. Right, oscillations from hot to cold and back to hot, punctuated with expletives. Delays in negative feedback loops cause oscillations. If you’re trying to adjust a system state to your goal, but you only receive delayed information about what the system state is, you will overshoot and undershoot.

Same if your information is timely, but your response isn’t. For example, it takes several years to build an electric power plant, and then that plant lasts, say, thirty years. Those delays make it impossible to build exactly the right number of plants to supply a rapidly changing demand. Even with immense effort at forecasting, almost every electricity industry in the world experiences long oscillations between overcapacity and undercapacity. A system just can’t respond to short-term changes when it has long-term delays. That’s why a massive central-planning system, such as the Soviet Union or General Motors, necessarily functions poorly.

A delay in a feedback process is critical RELATIVE TO RATES OF CHANGE (growth, fluctuation, decay) IN THE SYSTEM STATE THAT THE FEEDBACK LOOP IS TRYING TO CONTROL. Delays that are too short cause overreaction, oscillations amplified by the jumpiness of the response. Delays that are too long cause damped, sustained, or exploding oscillations, depending on how much too long. At the extreme they cause chaos. Delays in a system with a threshold, a danger point, a range past which irreversible damage can occur, cause overshoot and collapse.

Delay length would be a high leverage point, except for the fact that delays are not often easily changeable. Things take as long as they take. You can’t do a lot about the construction time of a major piece of capital, or the maturation time of a child, or the growth rate of a forest. It’s usually easier to slow down the change rate (positive feedback loops, higher on this list), so feedback delays won’t cause so much trouble. Critical numbers are not nearly as common as people seem to think they are. Most systems have evolved or are designed to stay out of sensitive parameter ranges. Mostly, the numbers are not worth the sweat put into them.

8. Material stocks and flows.

The plumbing structure, the stocks and flows and their physical arrangement, can have an enormous effect on how a system operates.

When the Hungarian road system was laid out so all traffic from one side of the nation to the other had to pass through central Budapest, that determined a lot about air pollution and commuting delays that are not easily fixed by pollution control devices, traffic lights, or speed limits. The only way to fix a system that is laid out wrong is to rebuild it, if you can.

Often you can’t, because physical building is a slow and expensive kind of change. Some stock-and-flow structures are just plain unchangeable.

The baby-boom swell in the US population first caused pressure on the elementary school system, then high schools and colleges, then jobs and housing, and now we’re looking forward to supporting its retirement. Not much to do about it, because five-year-olds become six-year-olds, and sixty-four-year-olds become sixty-five-year-olds predictably and unstoppably. The same can be said for the lifetime of destructive CFC molecules in the ozone layer, for the rate at which contaminants get washed out of aquifers, for the fact that an inefficient car fleet takes ten to twenty years to turn over.

The possible exceptional leverage point here is in the size of stocks, or buffers. Consider a huge bathtub with slow in and outflows. Now think about a small one with fast flows. That’s the difference between a lake and a river. You hear about catastrophic river floods much more often than catastrophic lake floods, because stocks that are big, relative to their flows, are more stable than small ones. A big, stabilizing stock is a buffer.

The stabilizing power of buffers is why you keep money in the bank rather than living from the flow of change through your pocket. It’s why stores hold inventory instead of calling for new stock just as customers carry the old stock out the door. It’s why we need to maintain more than the minimum breeding population of an endangered species. Soils in the eastern US are more sensitive to acid rain than soils in the west, because they haven’t got big buffers of calcium to neutralize acid. You can often stabilize a system by increasing the capacity of a buffer. But if a buffer is too big, the system gets inflexible. It reacts too slowly. Businesses invented just-in-time inventories, because occasional vulnerability to fluctuations or screw-ups is cheaper than certain, constant inventory costs—and because small-to-vanishing inventories allow more flexible response to shifting demand.

There’s leverage, sometimes magical, in changing the size of buffers. But buffers are usually physical entities, not easy to change.

The acid absorption capacity of eastern soils is not a leverage point for alleviating acid rain damage. The storage capacity of a dam is literally cast in concrete. Physical structure is crucial in a system, but the leverage point is in proper design in the first place. After the structure is built, the leverage is in understanding its limitations and bottlenecks and refraining from fluctutions or expansions that strain its capacity.

7. Regulating negative feedback loops.

Now we’re beginning to move from the physical part of the system to the information and control parts, where more leverage can be found. Nature evolves negative feedback loops and humans invent them to keep system states within safe bounds.

A thermostat loop is the classic example. Its purpose is to keep the system state called “room temperature” fairly constant at a desired level. Any negative feedback loop needs a goal (the thermostat setting), a monitoring and signaling device to detect excursions from the goal (the thermostat), and a response mechanism (the furnace and/or air conditioner, fans, heat pipes, fuel, etc.).

A complex system usually has numerous negative feedback loops it can bring into play, so it can self-correct under different conditions and impacts. Some of those loops may be inactive much of the time—like the emergency cooling system in a nuclear power plant, or your ability to sweat or shiver to maintain your body temperature. One of the big mistakes we make is to strip away these emergency response mechanisms because they aren’t often used and they appear to be costly. In the short term we see no effect from doing this. In the long term, we narrow the range of conditions over which the system can survive.

One of the most heartbreaking ways we do this is in encroaching on the habitats of endangered species. Another is in encroaching on our own time for rest, recreation, socialization, and meditation.

The “strength” of a negative loop—its ability to keep its appointed stock at or near its goal—depends on the combination of all its parameters and links—the accuracy and rapidity of monitoring, the quickness and power of response, the directness and size of corrective flows.

There can be leverage points here. Take markets, for example, the negative feedback systems that are all but worshiped by economists—and they can indeed be marvels of self-correction, as prices vary to keep supply and demand in balance. The more the price—the central signal to both producers and consumers—is kept clear, unambiguous, timely, and truthful, the more smoothly markets will operate. Prices that reflect full costs will tell consumers how much they can actually afford and will reward efficient producers. Companies and governments are fatally attracted to the price leverage point, of course, all of them pushing in the wrong direction with subsidies, fixes, externalities, taxes, and other forms of confusion. The REAL leverage here is to keep them from doing it. Hence anti-trust laws, truth-in-advertising laws, attempts to internalize costs (such as pollution taxes), the removal of perverse subsidies, and other ways of leveling market playing fields.

The strength of a negative feedback loop is important RELATIVE TO THE IMPACT IT IS DESIGNED TO CORRECT. If the impact increases in strength, the feedbacks have to be strengthened too.

A thermostat system may work fine on a cold winter day—but open all the windows and its corrective power will fail. Democracy worked better before the advent of the brainwashing power of centralized mass communications. Traditional controls on fishing were sufficient until radar spotting and drift nets and other technologies made it possible for a few actors to wipe out the fish. The power of big industry calls for the power of big government to hold it in check; a global economy makes necessary a global government.

Here are some other examples of strengthening negative feedback controls to improve a system’s self-correcting abilities: preventive medicine, exercise, and good nutrition to bolster the body’s ability to fight disease, integrated pest management to encourage natural predators of crop pests, the Freedom of Information Act to reduce government secrecy, protection for whistle blowers, impact fees, pollution taxes, and performance bonds to recapture the externalized public costs of private benefits.

6. Driving positive feedback loops.

A positive feedback loop is self-reinforcing. The more it works, the more it gains power to work some more.

The more people catch the flu, the more they infect other people. The more babies are born, the more people grow up to have babies. The more money you have in the bank, the more interest you earn, the more money you have in the bank. The more the soil erodes, the less vegetation it can support, the fewer roots and leaves to soften rain and runoff, the more soil erodes. The more high-energy neutrons in the critical mass, the more they knock into nuclei and generate more.

Positive feedback loops drive growth, explosion, erosion, and collapse in systems. A system with an unchecked positive loop ultimately will destroy itself. That’s why there are so few of them.

Usually a negative loop kicks in sooner or later. The epidemic runs out of infectable people—or people take increasingly strong steps to avoid being infected. The death rate rises to equal the birth rate—or people see the consequences of unchecked population growth and have fewer babies. The soil erodes away to bedrock, and after a million years the bedrock crumbles into new soil—or people put up check dams and plant trees.

In those examples, the first outcome is what happens if the positive loop runs its course, the second is what happens if there’s an intervention to reduce its power.

Reducing the gain around a positive loop—slowing the growth—is usually a more powerful leverage point in systems than strengthening negative loops, and much preferable to letting the positive loop run.

Population and economic growth rates in the world model are leverage points, because slowing them gives the many negative loops, through technology and markets and other forms of adaptation, time to function. It’s the same as slowing the car when you’re driving too fast, rather than calling for more responsive brakes or technical advances in steering.

The most interesting behavior that rapidly turning positive loops can trigger is chaos. This wild, unpredictable, unreplicable, and yet bounded behavior happens when a system starts changing much, much faster than its negative loops can react to it.

For example, if you keep raising the capital growth rate in the world model, eventually you get to a point where one tiny increase more will shift the economy from exponential growth to oscillation. Another nudge upward gives the oscillation a double beat. And just the tiniest further nudge sends it into chaos.

I don’t expect the world economy to turn chaotic any time soon (not for that reason, anyway). That behavior occurs only in unrealistic parameter ranges, equivalent to doubling the size of the economy within a year. Real-world systems do turn chaotic, however, if something in them can grow or decline very fast. Fast-replicating bacteria or insect populations, very infectious epidemics, wild speculative bubbles in money systems, neutron fluxes in the guts of nuclear power plants. These systems are hard to control, and control must involve slowing down the positive feedbacks.

In more ordinary systems, look for leverage points around birth rates, interest rates, erosion rates, “success to the successful” loops, any place where the more you have of something, the more you have the possibility of having more.

5. Information flows.

There was this subdivision of identical houses, the story goes, except that the electric meter in some of the houses was installed in the basement and in others it was installed in the front hall, where the residents could see it constantly, going round faster or slower as they used more or less electricity. Electricity consumption was 30 percent lower in the houses where the meter was in the front hall.

Systems-heads love that story because it’s an example of a high leverage point in the information structure of the system. It’s not a parameter adjustment, not a strengthening or weakening of an existing loop. It’s a NEW LOOP, delivering feedback to a place where it wasn’t going before.

In 1986 the US government required that every factory releasing hazardous air pollutants report those emissions publicly. Suddenly everyone could find out precisely what was coming out of the smokestacks in town. There was no law against those emissions, no fines, no determination of “safe” levels, just information. But by 1990 emissions dropped 40 percent. One chemical company that found itself on the Top Ten Polluters list reduced its emissions by 90 percent, just to “get off that list.”

Missing feedback is a common cause of system malfunction. Adding or rerouting information can be a powerful intervention, usually easier and cheaper than rebuilding physical structure.

The tragedy of the commons that is exhausting the world’s commercial fisheries occurs because there is no feedback from the state of the fish population to the decision to invest in fishing vessels. (Contrary to economic opinion, the price of fish doesn’t provide that feedback. As the fish get more scarce and hence more expensive, it becomes all the more profitable to go out and catch them. That’s a perverse feedback, a positive loop that leads to collapse.)

It’s important that the missing feedback be restored to the right place and in compelling form. It’s not enough to inform all the users of an aquifer that the groundwater level is dropping. That could trigger a race to the bottom. It would be more effective to set a water price that rises steeply as the pumping rate exceeds the recharge rate.

Suppose taxpayers got to specify on their return forms what government services their tax payments must be spent on. (Radical democracy!) Suppose any town or company that puts a water intake pipe in a river had to put it immediately DOWNSTREAM from its own outflow pipe. Suppose any public or private official who made the decision to invest in a nuclear power plant got the waste from that plant stored on his/her lawn.

There is a systematic tendency on the part of human beings to avoid accountability for their own decisions. That’s why there are so many missing feedback loops—and why this kind of leverage point is so often popular with the masses, unpopular with the powers that be, and effective, if you can get the powers that be to permit it to happen or go around them and make it happen anyway.

4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints).

The rules of the system define its scope, boundaries, degrees of freedom. Thou shalt not kill. Everyone has the right of free speech. Contracts are to be honored. The president serves four-year terms and cannot serve more than two of them. Nine people on a team, you have to touch every base, three strikes and you’re out. If you get caught robbing a bank, you go to jail.

Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR and opened information flows (glasnost) and changed the economic rules (perestroika), and look what happened.

Constitutions are strong social rules. Physical laws such as the second law of thermodynamics are absolute rules, if we understand them correctly. Laws, punishments, incentives, and informal social agreements are progressively weaker rules.

To demonstrate the power of rules, I ask my students to imagine different ones for a college. Suppose the students graded the teachers. Suppose you come to college when you want to learn something, and you leave when you’ve learned it. Suppose professors were hired according to their ability to solve real-world problems, rather than to publish academic papers. Suppose a class got graded as a group, instead of as individuals.

Rules change behavior. Power over rules is real power.

That’s why lobbyists congregate when Congress writes laws, and why the Supreme Court, which interprets and delineates the Constitution—the rules for writing the rules—has even more power than Congress.

If you want to understand the deepest malfunctions of systems, pay attention to the rules, and to who has power over them.

That’s why my systems intuition was sending off alarm bells as the new world trade system was explained to me. It is a system with rules designed by corporations, run by corporations, for the benefit of corporations. Its rules exclude almost any feedback from other sectors of society. Most of its meetings are closed to the press (no information, no feedback). It forces nations into positive loops, competing with each other to weaken environmental and social safeguards in order to attract corporate investment. It’s a recipe for unleashing “success to the succesful” loops.

3. The power of self-organization.

The most stunning thing living systems can do is to change themselves utterly by creating whole new structures and behaviors. In biological systems that power is called evolution. In human economies it’s called technical advance or social revolution. In systems lingo it’s called self-organization.

Self-organization means changing any aspect of a system lower on this list—adding or deleting new physical structure, adding or deleting negative or positive loops or information flows or rules. The ability to self-organize is the strongest form of system resilience, the ability to survive change by changing.

The human immune system can develop responses to (some kinds of) insults it has never before encountered. The human brain can take in new information and pop out completely new thoughts.

Self-organization seems so wondrous that we tend to regard it as mysterious, miraculous. Economists often model technology as literal manna from heaven—coming from nowhere, costing nothing, increasing the productivity of an economy by some steady percent each year. For centuries people have regarded the spectacular variety of nature with the same awe. Only a divine creator could bring forth such a creation.

In fact the divine creator does not have to produce miracles. He, she, or it just has to write clever RULES FOR SELF-ORGANIZATION. These rules govern how, where, and what the system can add onto or subtract from itself under what conditions.

Self-organizing computer models demonstrate that delightful, mind-boggling patterns can evolve from simple evolutionary algorithms. (That need not mean that real-world algorithms are simple, only that they can be.) The genetic code that is the basis of all biological evolution contains just four letters, combined into words of three letters each. That code, and the rules for replicating and rearranging it, has spewed out an unimaginable variety of creatures.

Self-organization is basically a matter of evolutionary raw material—a stock of information from which to select possible patterns—and a means for testing them. For biological evolution the raw material is DNA, one source of variety is spontaneous mutation, and the testing mechanism is something like punctuated Darwinian selection. For technology the raw material is the body of understanding science has accumulated. The source of variety is human creativity (whatever THAT is) and the selection mechanism is whatever the market will reward or whatever governments and foundations will fund or whatever tickles the fancy of crazy inventors.

When you understand the power of self-organization, you begin to understand why biologists worship biodiversity even more than economists worship technology. The wildly varied stock of DNA, evolved and accumulated over billions of years, is the source of evolutionary potential, just as science libraries and labs and scientists are the source of technological potential. Allowing species to go extinct is a systems crime, just as randomly eliminating all copies of particular science journals, or particular kinds of scientists, would be.

The same could be said of human cultures, which are the store of behavioral repertoires accumulated over not billions, but hundreds of thousands of years. They are a stock out of which social evolution can arise. Unfortunately, people appreciate the evolutionary potential of cultures even less than they understand the potential of every genetic variation in ground squirrels. I guess that’s because one aspect of almost every culture is a belief in the utter superiority of that culture.

Any system, biological, economic, or social, that scorns experimentation and wipes out the raw material of innovation is doomed over the long term on this highly variable planet.

The intervention point here is obvious but unpopular. Encouraging diversity means losing control. Let a thousand flowers bloom and ANYTHING could happen!

Who wants that?

2. The goals of the system.

Right there, the push for control, is an example of why the goal of a system is even more of a leverage point than the self-organizing ability of a system.

If the goal is to bring more and more of the world under the control of one central planning system (the empire of Genghis Khan, the world of Islam, the People’s Republic of China, Wal-Mart, Disney), then everything further down the list, even self-organizing behavior, will be pressured or weakened to conform to that goal.

That’s why I can’t get into arguments about whether genetic engineering is a good or a bad thing. Like all technologies, it depends upon who is wielding it, with what goal. The only thing one can say is that if corporations wield it for the purpose of generating marketable products, that is a very different goal, a different direction for evolution than anything the planet has seen so far.

There is a hierarchy of goals in systems. Most negative feedback loops have their own goals—to keep the bath water at the right level, to keep the room temperature comfortable, to keep inventories stocked at sufficient levels. They are small leverage points. The big leverage points are the goals of entire systems.

People within systems don’t often recognize what whole-system goal they are serving. To make profits, most corporations would say, but that’s just a rule, a necessary condition to stay in the game. What is the point of the game? To grow, to increase market share, to bring the world (customers, suppliers, regulators) more under the control of the corporation, so that its operations become ever more shielded from uncertainty. That’s the goal of a cancer cell too and of every living population. It’s only a bad one when it isn’t countered by higher-level negative feedback loops with goals of keeping the system in balance. The goal of keeping the market competitive has to trump the goal of each corporation to eliminate its competitors. The goal of keeping populations in balance and evolving has to trump the goal of each population to commandeer all resources into its own metabolism.

I said a while back that changing the players in a system is a low-level intervention, as long as the players fit into the same old system. The exception to that rule is at the top, if a single player can change the system’s goal.

I have watched in wonder as—only very occasionally—a new leader in an organization, from Dartmouth College to Nazi Germany, comes in, enunciates a new goal, and single-handedly changes the behavior of hundreds or thousands or millions of perfectly rational people.

That’s what Ronald Reagan did. Not long before he came to office, a president could say, “Ask not what government can do for you, ask what you can do for the government,” and no one even laughed. Reagan said the goal is not to get the people to help the government and not to get government to help the people, but to get the government off our backs. One can argue, and I would, that larger system changes let him get away with that. But the thoroughness with which behavior in the US and even the world has been changed since Reagan is testimony to the high leverage of articulating, repeating, standing for, insisting upon new system goals.

1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises.

Another of Jay Forrester’s systems sayings goes: It doesn’t matter how the tax law of a country is written. There is a shared idea in the minds of the society about what a “fair” distribution of the tax load is. Whatever the rules say, by fair means or foul, by complications, cheating, exemptions or deductions, by constant sniping at the rules, the actual distribution of taxes will push right up against the accepted idea of “fairness.”

The shared idea in the minds of society, the great unstated assumptions—unstated because unnecessary to state; everyone knows them—constitute that society’s deepest set of beliefs about how the world works. There is a difference between nouns and verbs. People who are paid less are worth less. Growth is good. Nature is a stock of resources to be converted to human purposes. Evolution stopped with the emergence of Homo sapiens . One can “own” land. Those are just a few of the paradigmatic assumptions of our culture, all of which utterly dumbfound people of other cultures.

Paradigms are the sources of systems. From them come goals, information flows, feedbacks, stocks, flows.

The ancient Egyptians built pyramids because they believed in an afterlife. We build skyscrapers, because we believe that space in downtown cities is enormously valuable. (Except for blighted spaces, often near the skyscrapers, which we believe are worthless.) Whether it was Copernicus and Kepler showing that the earth is not the center of the universe, or Einstein hypothesizing that matter and energy are interchangeable, or Adam Smith postulating that the selfish actions of individual players in markets wonderfully accumulate to the common good.

People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.

You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.

So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

Systems folks would say one way to change a paradigm is to model a system, which takes you outside the system and forces you to see it whole. We say that because our own paradigms have been changed that way.

0. The power to transcend paradigms.

Sorry, but to be truthful and complete, I have to add this kicker.

The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that NO paradigm is “true,” that even the one that sweetly shapes one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe.

It is to “get” at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing.

People who cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it a basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one that will help achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better informed than your will.

It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Back from the sublime to the ridiculous, from enlightenment to caveats. There is so much that has to be said to qualify this list. It is tentative and its order is slithery. There are exceptions to every item on it. Having the list percolating in my subconscious for years has not transformed me into a Superwoman. I seem to spend my time running up and down the list, trying out leverage points wherever I can find them. The higher the leverage point, the more the system resists changing it-that’s why societies rub out truly enlightened beings.

I don’t think there are cheap tickets to system change. You have to work at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off paradigms. In the end, it seems that leverage has less to do with pushing levers than it does with disciplined thinking combined with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.

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The Tragedy of the Commons By Garrett Hardin

This is one of the key early essays of the environmental and sustainability movement written in 1968. Author Dr. Garrett Hardin illuminates the necessity of a new ethics to sustain the vast domain of what we all share – “the Commons”

The Tragedy of the Commons

By Garrett Hardin
Published in Science 13 December 1968:
Vol. 162. no. 3859, pp. 1243 – 1248

The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.

At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and York (1) concluded that: “Both sides in the arms race are … confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.”

I would like to focus your attention not on the subject of the article (national security in a nuclear world) but on the kind of conclusion they reached, namely that there is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy, it takes courage to assert that a desired technical solution is not possible. Wiesner and York exhibited this courage; publishing in a science journal, they insisted that the solution to the problem was not to be found in the natural sciences. They cautiously qualified their statement with the phrase, “It is our considered professional judgment… .” Whether they were right or not is not the concern of the present article. Rather, the concern here is with the important concept of a class of human problems which can be called “no technical solution problems,” and, more specifically, with the identification and discussion of one of these.

It is easy to show that the class is not a null class. Recall the game of tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, “How can I win the game of tick-tack-toe?” It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put another way, there is no “technical solution” to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word “win.” I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify the records. Every way in which I “win” involves, in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course, openly abandon the game–refuse to play it. This is what most adults do.)

The class of “No technical solution problems” has members. My thesis is that the “population problem,” as conventionally conceived, is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem–technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any more than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-toe.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations. We should also join with Kingsley Davis (15) in attempting to get Planned Parenthood-World Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.
What Shall We Maximize?
Population, as Malthus said, naturally tends to grow “geometrically,” or, as we would now say, exponentially. In a finite world this means that the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease. Is ours a finite world?

A fair defense can be put forward for the view that the world is infinite; or that we do not know that it is not. But, in terms of the practical problems that we must face in the next few generations with the foreseeable technology, it is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite. “Space” is no escape (2).

A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations above and below zero is a trivial variant that need not be discussed.) When this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham’s goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” be realized?

No–for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern (3), but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D’Alembert (1717-1783).

The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man, maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day (“maintenance calories”). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as work, and is supported by “work calories” which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art. … I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham’s goal is impossible.

In reaching this conclusion I have made the usual assumption that it is the acquisition of energy that is the problem. The appearance of atomic energy has led some to question this assumption. However, given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation, as J. H. Fremlin has so wittily shown (4). The arithmetic signs in the analysis are, as it were, reversed; but Bentham’s goal is still unobtainable.

The optimum population is, then, less than the maximum. The difficulty of defining the optimum is enormous; so far as I know, no one has seriously tackled this problem. Reaching an acceptable and stable solution will surely require more than one generation of hard analytical work–and much persuasion.

We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.

Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment and a system of weighting are needed. In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the values of the variables.

Man must imitate this process. There is no doubt that in fact he already does, but unconsciously. It is when the hidden decisions are made explicit that the arguments begin. The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighting. Synergistic effects, nonlinear variation, and difficulties in discounting the future make the intellectual problem difficult, but not (in principle) insoluble.

Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time, even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves that none has: there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of zero. Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes and remains zero.

Of course, a positive growth rate might be taken as evidence that a population is below its optimum. However, by any reasonable standards, the most rapidly growing populations on earth today are (in general) the most miserable. This association (which need not be invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that the positive growth rate of a population is evidence that it has yet to reach its optimum.

We can make little progress in working toward optimum population size until we explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography. In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized the “invisible hand,” the idea that an individual who “intends only his own gain,” is, as it were, “led by an invisible hand to promote . . . the public interest” (5). Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers. But he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez-faire in reproduction. If it is correct we can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce the optimum population. If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.
Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons
The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known pamphlet (6) in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852). We may well call it “the tragedy of the commons,” using the word “tragedy” as the philosopher Whitehead used it (7): “The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He then goes on to say, “This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.”

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.

2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a fraction of 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another. . . . But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.

Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

A simple incident that occurred a few years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts, shows how perishable the knowledge is. During the Christmas shopping season the parking meters downtown were covered with plastic bags that bore tags reading: “Do not open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the mayor and city council.” In other words, facing the prospect of an increased demand for already scarce space. the city fathers reinstituted the system of the commons. (Cynically, we suspect that they gained more votes than they lost by this retrogressive act.)

In an approximate way, the logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of private property in real estate. But it is understood mostly only in special cases which are not sufficiently generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen leasing national land on the western ranges demonstrate no more than an ambivalent understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the “freedom of the seas.” Professing to believe in the “inexhaustible resources of the oceans,” they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction (9).

The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent–there is only one Yosemite Valley–whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.

What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might be on the basis of merit, as defined by some agreed-upon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all the reasonable possibilities. They are all objectionable. But we must choose–or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.
In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in–sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air, and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of “fouling our own nest,” so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprisers.

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream–whose property extends to the middle of the stream, often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door. The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.

The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. “Flowing water purifies itself every 10 miles,” my grandfather used to say, and the myth was near enough to the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.
How To Legislate Temperance?
Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density uncovers a not generally recognized principle of morality, namely: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed (10). Using the commons as a cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because there is no public, the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred and fifty years ago a plainsman could kill an American bison, cut out only the tongue for his dinner, and discard the rest of the animal. He was not in any important sense being wasteful. Today, with only a few thousand bison left, we would be appalled at such behavior.

In passing, it is worth noting that the morality of an act cannot be determined from a photograph. One does not know whether a man killing an elephant or setting fire to the grassland is harming others until one knows the total system in which his act appears. “One picture is worth a thousand words,” said an ancient Chinese; but it may take 10,000 words to validate it. It is as tempting to ecologists as it is to reformers in general to try to persuade others by way of the photographic shortcut. But the essense of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally–in words.

That morality is system-sensitive escaped the attention of most codifiers of ethics in the past. “Thou shalt not . . .” is the form of traditional ethical directives which make no allowance for particular circumstances. The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world. Our epicyclic solution is to augment statutory law with administrative law. Since it is practically impossible to spell out all the conditions under which it is safe to burn trash in the back yard or to run an automobile without smog-control, by law we delegate the details to bureaus. The result is administrative law, which is rightly feared for an ancient reason–Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?–“Who shall watch the watchers themselves?” John Adams said that we must have “a government of laws and not men.” Bureau administrators, trying to evaluate the morality of acts in the total system, are singularly liable to corruption, producing a government by men, not laws.

Prohibition is easy to legislate (though not necessarily to enforce); but how do we legislate temperance? Experience indicates that it can be accomplished best through the mediation of administrative law. We limit possibilities unnecessarily if we suppose that the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies us the use of administrative law. We should rather retain the phrase as a perpetual reminder of fearful dangers we cannot avoid. The great challenge facing us now is to invent the corrective feedbacks that are needed to keep custodians honest. We must find ways to legitimate the needed authority of both the custodians and the corrective feedbacks.
Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable
The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds (11). But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state (12), and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement (13)? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations agreed to the following (14):
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else.

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarter, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United States. There is a feeling that the United States is “our last and best hope,” that we shouldn’t find fault with it; we shouldn’t play into the hands of archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: “The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy.” If we love the truth, we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations. We should also join with Kingsley Davis (15) in attempting to get Planned Parenthood-World Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.
Conscience Is Self-Eliminating
It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather’s great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin’s words: “It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus” (16).

The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no matter which) is hereditary–but hereditary only in the most general formal sense. The result will be the same whether the attitude is transmitted through germ cells, or exosomatically, to use A. J. Lotka’s term. (If one denies the latter possibility as well as the former, then what’s the point of education?) The argument has here been stated in the context of the population problem, but it applies equally well to any instance in which society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good–by means of his conscience. To make such an appeal is to set up a selective system that works toward the elimination of conscience from the race.
Pathogenic Effects of Conscience
The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to condemn it; but has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of conscience,” what are we saying to him? What does he hear? –not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but also the nonverbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: (i) (intended communication) “If you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen”; (ii) (the unintended communication) “If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”

Everyman then is caught in what Bateson has called a “double bind.” Bateson and his co-workers have made a plausible case for viewing the double bind as an important causative factor in the genesis of schizophrenia (17). The double bind may not always be so damaging, but it always endangers the mental health of anyone to whom it is applied. “A bad conscience,” said Nietzsche, “is a kind of illness.”

To conjure up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to extend his control beyond the legal limits. Leaders at the highest level succumb to this temptation. Has any President during the past generation failed to call on labor unions to moderate voluntarily their demands for higher wages, or to steel companies to honor voluntary guidelines on prices? I can recall none. The rhetoric used on such occasions is designed to produce feelings of guilt in noncooperators.

For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable, perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the civilized life. Now, in this post-Freudian world, we doubt it.

Paul Goodman speaks from the modern point of view when he says: “No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties” (18).

One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist to see the consequences of anxiety. We in the Western world are just emerging from a dreadful two-centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more effectively by the anxiety-generating mechanism of education. Alex Comfort has told the story well in The Anxiety Makers (19); it is not a pretty one.

Since proof is difficult, we may even concede that the results of anxiety may sometimes, from certain points of view, be desirable. The larger question we should ask is whether, as a matter of policy, we should ever encourage the use of a technique the tendency (if not the intention) of which is psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk these days of responsible parenthood; the coupled words are incorporated into the titles of some organizations devoted to birth control. Some people have proposed massive propaganda campaigns to instill responsibility into the nation’s (or the world’s) breeders. But what is the meaning of the word responsibility in this context? Is it not merely a synonym for the word conscience? When we use the word responsibility in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own interest? Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get something for nothing.

If the word responsibility is to be used at all, I suggest that it be in the sense Charles Frankel uses it (20). “Responsibility,” says this philosopher, “is the product of definite social arrangements.” Notice that Frankel calls for social arrangements–not propaganda.
Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed upon
The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank-robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel’s lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank-robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say “Thou shalt not rob banks,” without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.

To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance–that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of “like father, like son” implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out (21), worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience. On the basis of such a comparison, we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable.
Recognition of Necessity
Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man’s population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are still not complete throughout the world.

Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.

In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000 people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of pleasure. Is this because our Puritan inheritance makes us view pleasure as something of a sin, and pain (that is, the pollution of advertising) as the sign of virtue?

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of “rights” and “freedom” fill the air. But what does “freedom” mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.”

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

Garrett Hardin is professor of biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. This article is based on a presidential address presented before the meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at Utah State University, Logan, 25 June 1968.

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