Collapse you say? Part 4: growth, overshoot and dieoff

Nature's Ice Sculptures Along Lake Huron

Nature's Ice Sculptures Along Lake Huron

On the rare occasions when the subject of collapse comes up in polite conversation, a kollapsnik like me is liable to get responses like: "Collapse you say? Surely not!" Thus the title of this series of posts. But I've found that responding with "Surely yes!" isn't very effective (as well as sounding rather childish). The pandemic this year (2020) has got some people thinking a bit more, but most still expect things to get back to normal any day now.

So in this series of posts I've been talking about what collapse is and why I think the our civilization has been slowly collapsing for several decades and will continue doing so. This in the hope of laying out the facts clearly enough that just about anyone should be able to recognize the seriousness of the situation.

In the last two posts(Part 2, Part 3), I looked at problems with the inputs to and outputs from our civilization, and pointed out a number of issues, any one of which alone should be cause for great concern. And taken together, well….

Now I think it is time to have a look inside the box labeled "Industrial Civilization". When you look around you from within this civilization, you are confronted with a complex and confusing sight, of which I don't have any sort of complete understanding. But there are some aspects which bear more directly on collapse than others, and I'll have quite a bit to say about them in the next few posts.

The problems we've looked at so far—resource depletion, declining surplus energy, climate change, overshoot and decreasing carrying capacity—all seem to be a result of the ongoing growth of our civilization, both population growth and growth in affluence. So you would think we'd be making a serious effort to get growth under control, maybe even initiate "degrowth", in order to cope with these problems. And yet, over the last few decades economic growth has come to be seen as a necessity. If you paid attention to election speeches, you'd conclude that the most pressing problem we face is maintaining and further stimulating such growth, not preventing it. It seems to me that this obsession with growth is a built in feature (dare we say a fault) of our civilization.

To more clearly understand our impact on the planet—our footprint—we need to review the subjects I touched on at the end of my last post: eco-system services, carrying capacity, and overshoot. Eco-system services are things like breathable air, potable water, a reliable climate and moderate weather, arable soil, grasslands, forests and the animals living on/in them, waters and the fisheries they provide, and so on. And also important, though I neglected to mention it in my last post, is the ability of the eco-system to (within limits) absorb and process our waste products. All these things are available to us free of charge and we simply could not do without them.

It is reasonable to call the rate at which the eco-system can supply those services to us its "carrying capacity". The portion of those services that the human race uses can be called our "footprint"—the impact we have as we walk upon this planet.

According to the Wikipedia article on carrying capacity, credible estimates of carrying capacity range from 4 to 16 billion humans, with a median around 10 billion. The literature I've read on carrying capacity and dieoff typically talks about us currently being at around 165% of the planet's carrying capacity. If such estimates were made when our population was around 7 billion, then the carrying capacity was a little over 4 billion. That's at the low end of the range of estimates, which seems prudent. Using the high or even median estimates would lead us to do nothing in the belief that everything is OK and may well continue to be OK. Instead, we should be setting ourselves up to run well below carrying capacity, allowing us to live on this planet without damaging it and with a comfortable margin to allow for unforeseen circumstances.

Being over carrying capacity is called being in overshoot, and it leads to collapse. Some of the extra over 100% comes from consuming non-renewable resources, and some of it comes from using renewable resources at greater than their replacement rate, so that they too are irreversibly consumed. This means that we are actually reducing the carrying capacity of the planet and digging ourselves into an ever deeper hole. Certainly judging from the resource depletion and pollution (mainly climate change) problems we're currently experiencing, it seems that we are indeed in overshoot, and the condition of the ecosphere is definitely worsening.

If we are to solve the problems caused by our overshoot we need not just to reduce our impact below the current carrying capacity of the planet, but rather to go below the smaller carrying capacity that will be left by the time we get to where we are aiming. Further, since it is a big planet with different conditions in different places, we can't just look at global averages, but must consider impact versus carrying capacity on a region by region basis. This to avoid being fooled if we are lucky enough to live in an area that is not as yet hard hit. In much of Europe and North America, it seems we are currently being fooled.

Our footprint (impact) is expressed in the following equation: I=PAT.

"I" stands for impact, or footprint, which is the product of three factors:

"P", which stands for population.
"A", which stands for affluence, or consumption of resources.
"T", which stands for technology, and is included in the hope that improving technology can reduce our impact
We seem determined to do whatever it takes to increase "I", no matter how negative the results. Is this because of something inherent about human beings, or the way we organize ourselves, or the circumstances we find ourselves in? Or perhaps all three combined together?

In the rest of this post and the following one we'll look at this from the viewpoint of our growing population. In future posts we'll look at the role affluence and technology play in our problems.

But first I think we need to understand something about the mathematics of growth. In cases where the rate of growth is related to the size of what's growing, growth is "exponential". If you chart such growth on a graph, it looks something like this:

Figure 1, The Exponential Function

Figure 1, The Exponential Function

This is the kind of growth you get with a compound interest savings account, where even if the interest rate stays the same, the balance in the account increases dramatically over time. It is convenient to look at exponent growth in terms of the doubling rate, the amount of time it takes for that bank account to double. A rule of thumb is to divide 70 by the percent growth rate per year, and that gives you the approximate doubling period in years. If you are lucky enough to get 10% interest, your savings will double in 7 years. At 5% interest it takes 14 years to double and at 1% interest, it takes 70 years to double.

What may not be clear from Figure 1 is the degree to which the curve takes off as it moves to the right. Growth is very slow at first until we reach the "knee" of the curve, then it goes right through the roof, so to speak. A great deal has been said about how exponential growth is counter-intuitive for most people. Here is a short (not quite two minutes) YouTube video about the subject. If you have a little more time (11 minutes), this video goes deeper into it.

But in the physical world, growth consumes resources, which are only available at a certain maximum rate and can a only support so large a population. At some point the rate of growth starts to decrease and the curve levels off rather than continuing upwards. So the exponential curve doesn't really give us a very good picture of how growth actually works. For that we need to look at the logistic function.

Figure 2, The Logistic Function

Figure 2, The Logistic Function

Of course the logistic function assumes a constant supply of whatever it takes to support a population, so that the right side of the curve levels off and stays flat. Again, the real world doesn't exactly work like that. In the real world it is possible to go into overshoot, and over consume resources so that the rate at which the system can supply them is reduced. This results in something like the curve shown below.

Figure 3, Overshoot and Dieoff

Figure 3, Overshoot and Dieoff

The population in this case is of some sort of simple organism with a more or less fixed consumption rate per individual, and a growth rate determined by the availability of food. I have chosen to show the worst case scenario where the population we are considering declines to zero because of decreased carrying capacity and the rest of the ecosystem is so badly damaged by the overshoot that it dies out as well.

Fortunately, this is not necessarily the case—as the population goes into dieoff it eventually goes below even the reduced the carrying capacity of the environment and quits damaging the environment. The environment, if the damage is small enough, may be able to recover, even if the species that was in overshoot doesn't. If it recovers enough before the population under consideration goes extinct, that population may be able to recover as well, something like this:

Figure 4, Overshoot, Dieoff and Recovery

Figure 4, Overshoot, Dieoff and Recovery

What happens as time progresses off the right end of the graph varies. The population may go into overshoot again, then die off and recover, and this may be repeat on an ongoing basis. Or, at any point along the way, a dieoff could lead to extinction. In any case the idea that there is a "balance of nature" that would cause the population to level out just below the carrying capacity is largely bogus. Things are always changing and don't stay balanced forever, or even for very long.

So now that we've looked at growth in general, we need to look in detail at the growth of the human population of this planet. Because human populations can change their growth rates, their levels of consumption and even the carrying capacity of their environment, this is complex, and I'm going to devote the whole of my next post to the subject. In short, though, based on the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and our capacity for growth, I am not in the least dissuaded from my predictions of collapse,"dieoff" in the language we've been using in this post.

This has turned out to be quite a short post, mainly because I have split it in two and saved the slightly longer second half for next time. So, there is room here for a couple of graphics about carrying capacity and ecological footprint.

  Figure 5, Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint

Figure 5, Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint

This an interesting and possibly misleading graph, which compares the carrying capacity (biocapacity) of various countries with their consumption, on a per capita basis. The units on the vertical axis are "global hectares per capita, Gha".The Wikipedia article on GHA is a short and informative read. Here is one central paragraph:

"Global hectares per person" refers to the amount of production and waste assimilation per person on the planet. In 2012 there were approximately 12.2 billion global hectares of production and waste assimilation, averaging 1.7 global hectares per person. Consumption totaled 20.1 billion global hectares or 2.8 global hectares per person, meaning about 65% more was consumed than produced. This is possible because there are natural reserves all around the globe that function as backup food, material and energy supplies, although only for a relatively short period of time. Due to rapid population growth, these reserves are being depleted at an ever increasing tempo. See Earth Overshoot Day


To understand what I mean by misleading, take a look at Canada, the country where I live. The graph might make it seem that we are doing fine, since we have a large biocapacity compared to our population. but our per capita consumption (ecological footprint) at 7 Gha is among the highest in the world.

Figure 6, Footprint in terms of "Planets"

Figure 6, Footprint in terms of "Planets"

Another way of looking at footprint is to calculate how many planets like Earth it would take if everyone on Earth today lived like they do in a certain country. As is so often the case, Canada is left out of Figure 6, but a little calculation using the numbers in Figure 5, leads me to believe that if everyone lived like we do in Canada, we'd need around 4.4Earths. I find that quite a sobering idea.

Links to the rest of this series of posts, Collapse, you say?
Collapse You Say, Part 1, Introduction, Tuesday, 30 June 2020
Collapse, you say? Part 2: Inputs and Outputs, Wednesday, 30 September 2020
Collapse, you say? Part 3: Inputs and Outputs continued, October 7, 2020
Collapse, you say? Part 4: growth, overshoot and dieoff, January 2, 2021

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