Canadian mennonite article series #1: an introduction to limits

Monday, February 1, 2021

Canadian mennonite article series #1: an introduction to limits

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Kenneth Boulding, economist

We live in a finite world, with finite soil, water, and resources. Yet we in North America live in an economic system premised on indefinite growth. A collision between the finite and the indefinite is absolutely inevitable.

The carrying capacity of a system, such as a bowl of yeast or a planet of people, represents the amount of life which the system can support.

A limit is a constraint which, if exceeded, damages the system and reduces its future carrying capacity. Examples of global ecological limits include the amount of carbon-dioxide the atmosphere and oceans can absorb, the rate of water extraction from aquifers, and the intensity with which land is farmed. Exceeding these limits leads to global warming, falling water tables and water shortages, and soil depletion/salination, respectively. Local limits, such as the amount of pollution that can be dumped into a stream, are relatively easy to observe and correct; however global limits are much more difficult to perceive, and even more difficult to address.

The reason why people tend to exceed limits stems from what is known as the tragedy of the commons. Suppose there are ten farmers, each of whom has one cow grazing on the village common pasture. Each farmer thinks: having a second cow would slightly reduce the pasture available to my first cow, but would nearly double my profits. Therefore each farmer acquires a second cow, the pasture is overgrazed, and finally can no longer even support ten cows. The tragedy is that by pursuing their individual interests, the farmers all end up worse off than where they started.

To avoid this tragedy, the common resource must be managed collectively (which smacks of communism/socialism, politically unpopular in the West), or the resource must be given some economic value (such as the current discussion around carbon credits). Where the common is global (such as the atmosphere or the oceans), finding agreement among all countries is very difficult, leading to disagreement and to each country making decisions in its own interests, inevitably leading to the tragedy.

To be sure, questions of limits are not new. Two of the most famous promoters of limits were English economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who predicted that population growth would outstrip increases in the food supply, and the Club of Rome/Limits to Growth series (1970's to present), who studied limits using computer simulations of mathematical models of human population growth, food production, energy, pollution, water, and other resources. These predictions have been mocked and discredited, as food, consumption, and wealth have generally increased in the West for 200 years. As most objections to limits are on the basis of failed predictions, any serious look at limits needs to examine the errors in these past theories, and why things should be different now from the 1820's or 1970's:

  1. By many metrics, the human population now exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet. That is, the planet cannot indefinitely support a human population of 6 to 7 billion or more.

  2. For the past 200 years, since the time of Malthus, total energy use and even energy use per person has grown tremendously, in ways that Malthus could scarcely have imagined. This energy subsidized the tilling, fertilizing, and irrigating that underpinned the Green Revolution which allowed the planet to feed 7 billion people. However, since the 1970's worldwide energy use has failed to keep up with population growth and is likely to decline due to limits on fossil fuels.

Is there, then, a limit to our population and to our use of resources? Does raising such an idea that human growth has limits imply a pessimism or a lack of faith in God to provide? No, to the contrary, I have faith that God loves us and wishes to provide for us.

However I find it a dangerously western-centric view that God has any interest whatsoever in the perpetuation of the overconsumptive Western lifestyle. God does not owe us bumper crops to produce ethanol. A God who loves the whole world cannot possibly wish to provide for an elite lifestyle which systematically impoverishes large swaths of Africa and Asia. A God who loves the whole world cannot possibly wish to provide for behaviour which poisons the soil, water, air, and the rest of creation. A God who loves the whole world wishes to nurture and provide for future children yet unborn, whose futures we are compromising by our levels of consumption now.

This is the first in a series of articles which will explore questions of energy and resource limits, and how these interrelate with questions of faith, wealth, climate, ecology, food production, and conflict. These articles may be challenging or unsettling to read; however, these issues are so important and pressing that I feel it is irresponsible, even immoral, to ignore them. The articles are fundamentally driven by three principles, any one of which should be enough to warrant significant change:

  1. The Precautionary Principle: better to plan for limits and have more than you need, than to ignore the perils and have a nasty surprise.

  2. The Moral Principle: the North American citizen is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a steward to creation. How is God calling us to live?

  3. The Scientific Principle: between limited energy resources, global warming, ecosystem destruction and desertification there is overwhelming scientific evidence that human habits need to change to avoid economic, social, or ecological collapse.

My thinking on these issues grows out of years of study and research as a professor of engineering at the University of Waterloo, and out of my convictions as a Mennonite Christian. These articles are intended to stay connected to Mennonite, Christian, and pacifist contexts, but written from a scientific perspective. These articles are influenced by my preparations for, and feedback at, a number of related Mennonite church events I have lead in the Waterloo, Ontario area: church Sunday schools, film discussions, and an Menonnite Church Eastern Canada (MCEC) workshop on Energy and Conflict.

The purpose of these articles will not be to lecture people on how to change, or what changes to make, but to convince that change is urgently needed. The status quo which we enjoy in Canada is untenable, subsidized by limited fossil fuels and by poverty and ecosystem destruction in others parts of the world. We can make plans to change, or be forced to change; business-as-usual will not last. I wish to encourage discussion and thought. Your ideas and feedback will be most welcome.

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