Wanted: two miracles

The cover of William Catton’s 1980 book, Overshoot, includes the following definitions:

carrying capacity: maximum permanently supportable load.
cornucopian myth: euphoric belief in limitless resources.
drawdown: stealing resources from the future.
cargoism: delusion that technology will always save us from
overshoot: growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, leading to
crash: die-off.

Most people to whom I speak do not believe these definitions apply to us. Our species, they say, is way too clever to cause a crash in our own population.

As if the temporary access to inexpensive fossil fuels does not constitute the basis for human overshoot. As if we’re not already there, suspended like Wile E. Coyote. As if we’re not stealing resources from the future and, in the case of industrialized nations, from every other culture on Earth. As if we are not destroying, degrading, and desecrating the living planet that supports us all.

Look around. We are surrounded by cornucopians, and we’re drowning in cargoism. Delusion? Yeah, we’ve got that.

Ignore the delusions for a short time, and you’ll see we’re headed for a correction. At this late juncture in the industrial game, hoping for anything else requires a massive dose of wishful thinking.

Even a correction seems unlikely, unless by “correction” you mean “crash.”

Yet the overwhelming majority of people with whom I speak cannot wrap their minds around correction, let alone crash. Many of these folks are university faculty members. They’re supposed to be intelligent, although I’ve concluded that the average academic has below-average intellect. Many of them are ecologists, too, who have been learning about — and in many cases allegedly teaching about — limits to growth. We’ve known about limits to growth since at least 1798. Yet we’ve acted as if those limits do not apply to us. Indeed, we’ve acted as if a miracle would will save us.

Well, two miracles. First, we need a miraculous comprehensive substitute for crude oil. Then we need a miraculous removal of carbon from the atmosphere. We need the first miracle right now. We need the second within a generation.

In the two million years of the human experience on planet Earth, we haven’t had a single miracle. Now we need two.


This entry is permalinked at Energy Bulletin, Counter Currents, Island Breath, and Speaking Truth to Power.

Comments 20

  • We have reached the outside limit in every aspect of human existence.So called growth and progress have gone to insensate extremes.The VEG(vanity,envy,and greed)which is the engine of the capitalist system has
    become so egregiously excessive that I wonder how human society can possibly continue.This craziness is evident everywhere.

    The nuttiness on Wall Street that almost destroyed the world financial
    system in 2008 is but one example.People turn themselves into monstrous
    androids(an android is an artificial human that has been surgically altered to resemble a human) to keep their youthful apperance.Or they mutilate their bodies with tatoos and piercings.

    Most TV advertising is about achieving bodily functions,such as an erection for fornication,defecation,urination or menstration.Most TV shows are so decadent and depraved that they are revolting.

    I could go on and on–but you get the picture.Everything in every way seems out of control or insane.

    When will the Stop Sign appear.

    Frank Mezek

  • I agree about the academics.

    Many of us know better, but have not communicated any of this to our students. For many of us, “It’s outside my (narrow) discipline that I devoted so many years of my life to and it’s not my responsibility.”

    Maybe the game can continue as long as I need it to?

    Right now, here in central NY, we are going to great lengths to extract “shale gas” that is not going to go anywhere and that our children might want (desperately need?), but there is little thought to leaving it for them. If we “frack” to get it and the “secret recipe” fluid wrecks water wells, too bad.

    “Drill here, drill now – the future be damned. I need (?) a new snowmobile/4-wheeler.”

    I just want to cry.

    Tonight I will go to class and present Chris Martenson’s “The Crash Course” series to graduate education students. Will it make any difference?


  • Each of us measures oneself and others by one’s own yardstick. Transcension of those parameters passes without being cognized. But when a quandary from which the only hope of extrication lies in such transcension by a substantial number of our fellows, we will only too readily make that attribution, something we would not concede under other circumstances.

    And even if on an individual basis each of us is smarter than the average bear / bacterium, in our collective behaviour that may not be the case. And the consequences (for others) of our overshoot are substantially worse than that of a bacterial colony in a mud puddle.

    But miracles do occur. Nassem Nicholas Taleb has described them as “Black Swans”, a term that has caught on with others. The Black Swans can be good or bad; and also they are Black Swans only to those who do not anticipate them. So to a goodly number of our fellows, miracles – a Black Swan or two – may be in the offing.

  • Well, ‘miracles’ suggests supernatural agentry, and I won’t go there.
    However, I do make words up.

    I read once (and agreed with, then and now) the theory that a nuclear ‘accident’ or limited strike on, say, Paris, might be enough of a Black Swan to start the build-down of nuclear armament.
    Perhaps the same might happen for Climate Change…a calf glacier the size of Argentina, splashing…a long drought in multiple continents…entire forests dying in places people can see them…a plague of malaria in England…I dunno.
    No one seems to remember what things were like when they were children. If no one grows up where they can be a part of the natural world, see the succession of things born, living, dying, understands deeply enough to notice differences, changes, then we can’t expect much from The People. Everyone needs to feed their kids.

    Given the population sink we approach, it’s likely self-correcting anyway.
    Why worry?

  • Robin Datta, black swans are not miracles. Black swans are highly improbable, but still possible events. Miracles are precluded by, for example, the laws of thermodynamics.

  • “First, we need a miraculous comprehensive substitute for crude oil. Then we need a miraculous removal of carbon from the atmosphere. We need the first miracle right now. We need the second within a generation.”

    You may have that backwards. If the artic icecap is gone in the summertime by mid-decade, say around 2014 or 2015, sufficient crop failure may easily follow within a season or two. The world has roughly 60 days worth of cereal grains in the pantry – and it’ll all disappear at the hands of hoarders as soon as there is a significant enough drop in crop productions, say on the order of 20-40%.

    “As if the temporary access to inexpensive fossil fuels does not constitute the basis for human overshoot.”

    I’d argue it’s the temporary access to virtually unlimited fixed nitrogen since the Haber-Bosch process was commercialized in the first quarter of the last century that constitutes the basis for human overshoot.

  • Thanks for the comment, Aaron. Do you know how utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels the Haber-Bosch process is? Also, we passed the world oil peak, so the days of cheap energy are behind us. I strongly suspect fossil fuels will limit food production before climate does. But I’m an optimist.

  • Guy,

    David Hume is a tough read.

    Michael Irving

  • I say we just have a flat carbon tax rather than “picking winners.” Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in the senate in 1994 as VP to make corn ethanol our primary energy direction. Since ethanol has a negative energy return, and exporting less food to the hungry leads to rain forest destruction, Mr. Gore may be more responsible for global warming than any other single individual. In fact, deforestation causes more climate change than all the vehicles in the world. Also in 1994, we became a majority oil importer for the first time, and lifted the 55-highway rule. And, in 1994, Clinton decided to terminate the largest energy research project in the history of the world, the Integral Fast Reactor: an inherently safe nuclear reactor unlimited by fuel supplies that can power the world for millennia using existing nuclear waste, and mixes materials in such a way that they are dangerous to handle and not suitable for bomb production. It cost the taxpayers more to terminate the project than it would have to finish it. When the die-off begins, thank the Clintons.

  • “————-we’re all doomed,doomed”,Marc Faber interview on CNBC,1-22-10.

    Frank Mezek

  • Guy,
    I would like to throw something out as food for thought. It’s just a question.

    Much of the thread of your comments have to do with the need for fundamental changes if we are to make it through the coming bottleneck and retain some semblance of civilization.

    In your current post you pointed out the need for two miracles. Then you assured us that would not happen and point us to Hume who says (and I’m taking liberties here) miracles are outside the laws that govern nature and any past purported miracle is usually just a story made up to explain something by barbaric people and then used and amplified by people who stand to gain from it (read religious elders). Okay, there are no miracles, never have been, never will be.

    In your previous post concerning a 10-Step Plan you talked about working toward the 15% solution, i.e. in the 60s 15% of the population of the US came to believe that the war in Viet Nam was wrong and exerted enough pressure on the government to cause a change in direction. That same 15% was responsible for the big social and environmental changes that occurred during that period also. Because you pointed to the importance of the 15% level as a tipping point to creating change and then returned to it as one of our 10 steps I’m guessing it’s important.

    So here’s an observation and my question. I heard on the news yesterday that “Avatar,” the movie, became the #1 all time moneymaking movie. I observe that the story line (spoiler alert) is strongly anti-corporation, anti-military, anti-environmental destruction, and anti-technological superiority. And here’s the question. If more people than ever before are going to the movie theater to see a movie where the good guys are the tree huggers is there any chance of that carrying over and some of those folks becoming the core 15% needed to force changes in the US world view? That would be kind of miraculous.

    Michael Irving

  • Michael Irving, thanks for your thoughtful question. I haven’t seen Avatar, but I’ll comment regardless. First of all, I really like the review here. And, perhaps paradoxically, I also like the first response to the review: “File this under ‘opiate for the masses.'”

    Some days I’m very idealistic. My optimism has me believing we can convince the 15% in time to save the living planet, and therefore ourselves. But then I think about what drives people, from an evolutionary perspective, and I’m back at cynicism again.

    Can we bring down the industrial economy in time to save our species, and so many others? Almost certainly. That’s what gives me hope, and allows me to keep spreading the good news about economic collapse (from my pulpit in the Church of Economic Apocalyptarians, Recycled).

    Will we? I can hardly bear to think about the alternative. So, head in the sand, I won’t.

  • To follow the Avatar thread, Micheal and Guy; the human/oids had lost the battle. It was only when the planet itself entered the fray that things turned, and the good Guys won.
    Which speaks to the Black Swan being something like a virus or supervolcano or meteorite, providing The Correction.

  • How about doing a post of what the world would look like if people did heed the call, did get it, and decided to alter their lives accordingly, pronto? I have been reading all the doomertainers for a while, and nobody has yet spelled it out… if you’ve seen it, please link.

    There is plenty of exhortation, and some people doing this and that… but what would it *really* take? Lifestyles of the 18th century? Of 5 k ago? Folks are unreceptive and scared because they have no idea what it all means in practice, maybe.