Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ecology of Growth

We are imperiled by at least one faulty belief: that it is possible to grow indefinitely in consumption and power, particularly at exponential rates. Long-term survival is at odds with this notion, as biology has proven over billions of years, and mathematics can easily demonstrate. Civilization has translated this belief into an imperative, and developed social and technological tools to spread its adoption and enable the ultimate realization of its inevitable consequences. As a population gets close to its resource constraints, by consumption and degradation, growth becomes increasingly difficult, and what ecologists call “intraspecies competition” results in a diminishing fraction of the population attempting to continue that growth at the expense of everyone else. When the remaining resources become too scarce, those who cannot successfully compete for them start dying off. This is the situation we find ourselves in today, where a small group of competitors are (consciously or mindlessly) wielding the tools of growth as weapons of mass destruction.

Institutions such as governments and corporations are among our most powerful social tools. These tools evolved when humanity arguably functioned as an ecological metapopulation – a group of interacting populations that could help each other keep from totally crashing, or at least ensure that some survived. Our growth ethos has led to globalization, which enables our species to function as a single population, and our tools are adapting to this new reality by achieving worldwide reach in their intended effects and their unintended effects. This would make our entire species more vulnerable even if we weren't dedicated to exponential growth. As a result, we have had large-scale environmental disasters, food poisoning, disease outbreaks (and potential ones due to lack of profitability in the development of new medicines), an economic meltdown triggered by trade of debts as commodities, and death, destruction, and extinction of species caused by our unwillingness to limit atmospheric pollution.

Given these insights, the way to avoid future catastrophe is simple, if extremely difficult. We must once again become a metapopulation, diversify the resources we depend on (relying mostly, if not totally, on those that are renewable and reusable), and cease our pursuit of unrestricted power and consumption. On a fundamental, personal level, this might be translated into two operating rules: Respect diversity, and don't create anything that can't be used by someone or something else.

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