I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that's not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It's the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.
Here's the short version:
[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
And here it is in its context:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published "The Limits to Growth" together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?
Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
I don't really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he's talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it's a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.
And then we come out on the other side, or we don't, but it's not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.
This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.
Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:
The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.
Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.
That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.
First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I'm talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).
In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it's dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.
And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they're not.
It's quite simple, isn't it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).
And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn't survive if we had to do without them.
Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn't a problem to start with.
Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows' quote applies "specifically" to a "specific" kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.
We can't reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn't feel stupid if we can't (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it's a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.
However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can't solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That's what that quote is about for me, and that's what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.
In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.
Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don't acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don't avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we're lucky, come out at the other end.
Point in case: we're not solving any of our current problems, and what's more: as societies, we're not even seriously trying, we're merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.
Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it's hard for us to realize that many things don't scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn't scale up well.
Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it's something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.
Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:
You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don't have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.
Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There's no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.
So how do we deal with problems that are global? It's deceptively simple: We don't.
All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.
There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.
Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:
Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.
The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that's less polluting.
So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That's perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.
The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.
We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don't do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.
Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It's not that we're running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won't someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.
The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.
Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can't 'cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we're lucky (though that's a point of contention) we'll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we're done.
Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our "leaders" do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We've created a zombie and all we're trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it's still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.
We're like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver's seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.
Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they've been at any point in human history, and all we've done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we're scared stiff and we think we're too stupid to know what's going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn't seem to register.
We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We're not just bad at it, we can't do it at all. We're incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.
We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there's nothing we can do about it. If we don't manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.
As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can't fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.