Recent research supports the conclusions of a controversial environmental study released 40 years ago: The world is on track for disaster. So says Australian physicist Graham Turner, who revisited perhaps the most groundbreaking academic work of the 1970s, The Limits to Growth.
…[T]he study used computers to model several possible future scenarios. The business-as-usual scenario estimated that if human beings continued to consume more than nature was capable of providing, global economic collapse and precipitous population decline could occur by 2030.
So far, the 40-year-old estimates for our 100 years to intense global crisis are dead-on. If you know me, you’re not at all surprised that this is the portion of the reading I clung to. Meadows’ argument, after reaffirming my fears that a terrifying, fiery Hell storm is just around the corner, eventually circled back to my passion for sustainable agriculture.
When my heart slowed down, the two readings (both Meadows and the Smithsonian’s update) called to mind the introductory discussions in our sustainable development course, particularly the Malthusian trap*:
…[A]s population growth is ahead of agricultural growth, there must be a stage at which the food supply is inadequate for feeding the population.
But so far, we (the Entire World) have never reached a Malthusian check. So far, global trends have seemed to follow John Stuart Mill‘s idea that with innovation, we can maintain a higher quality of life.
These ideas especially permeate agriculture. Digging into these economic concepts called to mind an article I read in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Dubiously titled “The Triumph of the Family Farm,” I allowed myself to get excited before reading this article. (I’ll give you a hint how this goes: The page after the article featured an advertisement for Shell. A few pages later? Dow Chemical.)
This is innovation to date–a chemical process that largely divorces farmers from the traditional husbandry to the land and, as Wendell Berry would say, forces them into specialist roles–into a system that can’t live without petroleum, genetic modification & chemicals. Food production (largely commodity production) has massively increased in recent years… but are we feeding our future? Imagine yourself in your favorite zombie movie. (Come on, there are loads. Surely you’ve seen one.) There are no tractors. There are no seed companies. Where are we? What’s left?
Meadows & the MIT team construct a grid of time & space addressing human perspectives that paints largely the same picture as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But if Maslow & Meadows are right, we’re not yet at a point where we can think beyond the short-term future. Even in places that are developed and nearer self-actualization–perhaps more in the most developed countries, thus contradicting their charts–the focus is on immediate capital gain rather than a long-term, global approach to resource consumption. So how do we, as a global society, begin pushing for this long-term outlook before it’s too late? How do we divorce ourselves from a dependence on technology?