Today’s post is by regular contributor, Richard Jurin who, before his retirement, led the Environmental Studies programme at the University of Northern Colorado, where he launched a degree in Sustainability Studies.  His academic interests are environmental worldviews and understanding barriers to sustainability. As ever, with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily shared by NAEE.

The US is about 5% of the global population but consumes about 20% of the world’s resources.  Add to that all the ‘More Developed Countries (MDCs)’ and you get 15% of the world’s population using 85% of the world’s resources (Numbers are approximate for emphasis before anyone takes me to task).  Today the rest of the world’s Less Developed Countries (LDCs) population (85%) want their time to feed at the trough of consumerism.  And therein amounts to what Mark Twain called the ‘Lie of Silent Assertion’ – the people that control our economic and business systems refuse to truly talk about the Elephant(s) in the room – resource and natural capital (ecosystem services) limitations within the existing materialistic consumer worldview.

We educate about ecological problems and their causes, and talk about radical conservation and new technologies to ease the problems.  Yet, our economic and business models maintain their exponential growth with the consumer mindset unabated on the assumption that more of everything, or a new something, will be available as we need it.  Human technological ingenuity is impressive, but we still have this tendency to think linearly instead of recognizing exponential realities are at play.      

Why is the exponential function important?  Because humans tend to think linearly where things change slowly, but exponentially small numbers become big changes quite surprisingly.  This is known as the power of doubling.  It can be applied to everything that grows or diminishes.  A very simplified formula that can be applied to use it is 70/Growth Rate (GR) = Doubling Time (DT).  The number 70 is simply a round-up of the exponential doubling function 100ln2 (69.3).  Very simply, if something is growing exponentially then for a set growth rate, the amount used will double in a specific amount of time.  For instance, at the start of growth, a 10% GR will take 7 years to double.  When starting, 1 doubles to 2, to 4 then 8, etc., which is relatively minimal, and which feels more linear.   But at the steep end of the curve, 1 million doubles to 2 million then 4 million, etc.  What is surprising for most people is that it takes a long while to get to 25% (a quarter of resource used, hence complacency occurs), but strikingly, only two more doublings to get to 100%.  As an example, if oil is really at peak (50% usage) in 2023 with 3.5% GR, then DT is 20 years.  Without any change in GR, all known oil will be finished by 2043.  Even if we could find as much new oil as ever existed before, then it would only last another 20 years – what are the odds that there is that much oil still waiting to be extracted?  This is true for all mineral and natural resources.               

Global population is growing exponentially (even at what seems like a minute GR (<1%), and global resource is still growing as more people in the LDCs aspire to a consumer lifestyle.  We are reaching limits – doomsayers since the 1960s have told us this.  But in the 1960s, the exponential curve was still at the middle part of the usage/depletion curve and improved technology has helped immensely.   Yet, while world leaders and corporate heads mutter about these limits at their endless economic summits, their goal is still aimed at keeping the global economy growing.  

It’s not about going to some mythical past of simple living.  Technology has been primary in our western standard of living but we need to discerning about what technologies help humanity and life, and which technologies are inappropriate for a heathy planet.  We cannot base everything merely on economic benefit, we have to consider that other elephant in the room – our materialistic consumer worldview that allows this notion of endless growth to continue.  Half of the worlds world’s human population live in extreme poverty, which is predicated on their not having enough food and ‘consumer products’ to thrive, while a smaller number consume and waste excessively  Do hunter gatherer societies living outside our modern systems live in poverty?    

Is there a model system we can explore that can show us how a Steady State System works successfully over short and long periods of time?  Yes, and it is called the Natural world.  The currency of this system is energy and it can show us a lot about how economies ought to work.  Nature is a self-sustaining, adaptable, resilience building system. Regulatory feedback systems are built-in.  The idea of exponential growth becomes self-limiting.  Yet, humanity persists in trying to prove this wrong.  Most people might understand the exponential function when it comes to their financial investments, but seem oblivious when it comes to exponential resource use and depletion, and doing so in a finite environment.          


Richard can be contacted at:  

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