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.