The neo-cornucopians, live from planet Deepwater Horizon

On the heels of the 40th anniversary of Limits to Growth, the Breakthrough crowd is still pushing a technical miracle, just around the corner. Their latest editorial paints sustainability advocates as the bad guys:

Stop and think for a moment about the basic elements of the planetary boundaries hypothesis: apocalyptic fears of the future, a professed desire to return to an earlier state of nature, hypocrisy about wealth, appeals to higher authorities. These are the qualities of our worst religions, not our best scientific theories.

Who are these straw dog greenies, getting rich and ruling the world? Anyway, I thought the planetary boundaries were about biogeophysical systems, appealing to “higher authority” in that the laws of physics apply to civilizations too. Ted Nordhaus doesn’t believe it though:

To be sure, there are tipping points in nature, including in the climate system, but there is no way for scientists to identify fixed boundaries beyond which point human civilization becomes unsustainable for the simple reason that there are no fixed boundaries.

The Breakthrough prescription for the ills of growth is more growth:

This will require getting comfortable with humankind’s role as high-tech stewards of a rapidly-changing planet, and a new global ethic. …

Faced with serious ecological challenges, “saving the world” can no longer mean protecting it as it once was but rather constantly re-creating it through the intelligent application of our technologies. For civilization to thrive in the Anthropocene, we must make the most of them.

The evidence for the feasibility of this idea is trend extrapolation:

Human populations have been sustained far beyond their ‘natural limits’ for millennia, not by benevolent nature, but by increasingly engineered environments and increasing use of energy

We have been engineering ecosystems since before we were Homo sapiens, and will continue to do so long into the future.

Unless technology is a religion, the burden of proof lies with Breakthrough to establish that a global techno-fix will really work. The fundamental argument of Limits was that rapid exponential growth in a system with delays and tipping points leads to overshoot and collapse. I’m still waiting for evidence that those are not the attributes of the global system, or that all of nonlinear dynamics is wrong.

The only way out of overshoot, without material equilibrium, is eternal technical growth. But historic technical improvement hasn’t lowered material throughput in the earth system, because it hasn’t kept up with growth. So, for technology to keep working, you must either believe in a trend break – a radical shift in the rate of technical progress, from slower than growth, to much faster, or believe in geoengineering that renders physical limits irrelevant.

A trend break is a nice idea, but more a matter of aspirations than evidence. And geoengineering is actively contradicted by long experience with human systems. Show me a large-scale engineered system, physical or social, that hasn’t had a catastrophe, and I’ll show you a large-scale engineered system that just hasn’t had its catastrophe yet. Do you really want to live on a planet that’s run like the housing market, or the space shuttle, or an offshore drilling platform, or the Roman Empire, or … ?

The thing that puzzles me is, what is Breakthrough fighting? Any fan of massive technology investment ought to be enthusiastic about emissions pricing and other market-oriented sustainability measures. So, neo-Malthusians and cornucopians ought to agree on some first steps. Yet Breakthrough seems more concerned with putting down the very idea of limits and promoting “don’t worry, be happy” R&D solutions that don’t require anyone to do anything for another few decades than with really tackling hard problems.

4 thoughts on “The neo-cornucopians, live from planet Deepwater Horizon”

  1. Hey Tom,

    I don’t know if Breakthrough has a concerted agenda. At least with the Breakthrough Journal it seems like they are mostly looking to stir the pot. Not sure on the timing, but this could be part of the pretty interesting exchange in the Planet of No Return debate (

    I think there are points to consider from both sides. On one hand, given the status quo of consumption based growth, there are indeed fundamental physical limits that are increasingly harder to overcome. On the other hand technology has a way of changing fundamental physical limits in ways that just as hard to predict as the impact of humanity running head-on into those limits.

    I agree that overshoot is a very likely outcome given our track record, but I also see incredible potential in the next few decades. I think Ted and others at Breakthrough are perhaps a bit deluded by this, seeing it as inevitable instead of just one possibility, but I think Limits to Growth folks need to avoid the same kind of trap.

    Personally I have to agree with them that we are well beyond returning to a more simple “pastoral” time without having a collapse. The debate then is how we go about transforming society quickly enough to reach physical sustainability while maintaining technological and intellectual growth.

    As you put it, “A trend break is a nice idea, but more a matter of aspirations than evidence.” I’m not so sure that there is no evidence of a trend break, though. While Breakthrough relies too heavily on history (while ignoring the collapse of societies), if you look at the technology change in the last century I’d say a trend break is more than a nice idea, it’s part of the solution.

    I have some modified world models somewhere that toyed with the how something like a trend break might play out. If you’re interested, I’ll see if I can dig them up.

    1. I’m fairly sure that Breakthrough doesn’t have a concerted agenda in the sense that some of the phony think tanks funded by industry do have an agenda on climate. I think they’re true believers in what they say, and often thoughtful and thought-provoking.

      I too would agree that we’re beyond a return to a pastoral time, but I think the authors of Limits would also agree with that. There are certainly some advocates of such a thing, but it’s a fairly marginal view and therefore a straw dog argument when Breakthrough brings it to the fore as if it represents mainstream environmental or sustainability goals.

      I would agree that there’s evidence of a trend breaks. One was the industrial revolution, which brought about big increases in welfare. The “technology” involved was broad, including social innovations like contracts and banking as well as physics and chemistry. But since then, per capita growth of the richest nations has been nearly constant, and material throughput in the economy has grown alongside it, because material efficiency improvement has been slower than growth. None of the latter-day trend breaks, like the service economy or the internet, has done much to change the pattern of increasing material throughput that’s prevailed since the industrial revolution, especially when you look at something as fundamental as carbon.

      So, to think that technology will solve the problem without any change in preferences or behavior, you have to postulate a trend break among trend breaks that lowers material throughput without a welfare penalty or rebound effect, or successful geoengineering on a limitless scale. That is what I think is evidence-free magical thinking.

      I’d be interested to see your models.

  2. I agree that there can be real damage with folk at Breakthrough promoting a “straw dog” argument as the mainstream sustainability goals. It’s unfortunate we spend so much time operating at the extremes when we try and prove points, but it seems to be a social behavior that’s hard to shake even among professionals.

    I’ll look for the models, dust them off and either post or send them along.

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