Limits to Growth? Come On!

This report is written to place emphasis on what scientists have known through the development of computer modeling since 1968, that the future predictions presented already at that time, and the situation of our environment compared to these predictions, are now in wide terms confirmed. It also tries to mention some of the initiatives that have been taken within our own regional communities and how many of these may contribute by reducing the damaging effect on economics and our available resources.

It is a small write-up, attempting to bring attention to the many furious and fast external reports coming at us in more frequency, ringing the alarm bells about upcoming and destabilizing changes to the way we have so far been living our lives.

Our community leaders must now begin to understand that no longer can they delay developing sustainability within our municipality programs that are being planned or undertaken. It is not enough to establish a token position in the municipalities, it is necessary to work intensively on tackling our many environmental challenges. Every community decision taken, must include sustainability aspects and be evaluated as it contributes to the quality of life in our community and the overall impact of improving the global climate. Guiding us from a global point of view has been the work of many individuals and numerous organizations. However, the first earth shattering report on the environment was presented by members of the Club of Rome, first established in 1968.

The Club of Rome (COR) is an organization of individuals who share a common concern for the future of humanity and strive to make a difference. Its members are notable scientists, economists, businessmen and businesswomen, high level civil servants and former heads of state from around the world. Its mission is to promote understanding of the global challenges facing humanity and to propose solutions through scientific analysis, communication and advocacy.

It was the Club of Rome that rocked my world in 1972 when they published the report named “The Limits to Growth”. Many of my personal activities and economic understanding have since grown from reading this book.

In September 2018, while visiting with family in Winterthur, Switzerland, I arranged to meet with staff of the Club of Rome, the office of which is fortuitously located in that city. I wanted to share my experiences and revisit subjects still important to me, as presented long ago in “Limits to Growth”, especially as they now relate to my home in North Dakota.

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome which was formed in Villa Farnesia, Rome, by Aurelio Peccei, David Rockefeller and Alexander King, with Co-Presidents Anders Wijkman and Ernst Ulrich von Weizäcker. The Club of Rome subsequently founded two sibling organizations, the Club of Budapest and the Club of Madrid. The former is focused on social and cultural aspects of their agenda, while the latter concentrates on the political aspects.

For my visit to Winterthur, I thought it appropriate to visit as a representative of our Fargo-based group, Citizens Local Energy Action Network (C.L.E.A.N.) for which I am the Secretary and examine together with them some of the issues we in North Dakota are facing, especially related to the energy sector.  I had naturally arranged for the meeting ahead of time and the one hour with the COR, was spent discussing the CO2 emissions from power generation sources as well as the overall environmental impact of greenhouse gases, and the consequences we are about to collectively experience in greater severity during the coming decades.

When the book “Limits to Growth” was first published in 1972, it sold nearly 12 million copies in various languages, such was the interest in how our future might look like. The Authors, Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, representing a team of 17 researchers, had written the report based on several computer models outlining scenarios that were to predict the critical issues facing humanity. The report, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, was written based on research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It explained the impact of various environmental initiatives that could be applied to secure a sustainable future for humanity. Naturally skeptics and cynics claimed that the book was filled with “the sky is falling” paranoia. They abundantly spread unwarranted stories that the book was filled with objective of genocide and facilitated a new world order organized by the rich. These claims were predominantly from groups and individuals whose world vision was, and still is, limited.  However, time has proven this was not a “Chicken Little” story, but rather a prescient view based on science and analysis.  The opposing groups have been fighting each other on ideological issues for the past 50 years. They are bound to do so with more ferocity in the future, if an environmental enlightenment fails to take hold and we experience a continuous flow of environmental and natural disasters.

One of the scenarios modeled in 1972 was termed the “Standard Run” for the world meaning no significant initiatives were put in place to curb the growing CO2. In retrospect this turned out to closely predict our current situation as illustrated below, showing how five data collection indicators were expected to develop over time.

Figure 1 The standard run (Business as usual)

As can be seen from the historical chart, the forecasts have now been shown to closely reflect our current state of affairs. This perspective validates over 50 years after they were developed and indicates exhaustion of resources and heavy pollution by about 2025. (Meadows et al. 1972)

Former Senior Environmental Economist at the World Bank Herman Daly has created a new conceptual framework for understanding the implications of these changes.  Daly coined the term “empty world” to mean our earlier view of the human role in relation to the biosphere and its resources, and “full world” to describe the present reality complete with the growth of the human population and the growing financialization that has added little of value.

Many thinkers have been considering global stewardship under the difficulties of a ”full world”, and this became the chief message of the Club of Rome during its early years. It was understood that we humans could not become successful stewards of “Spaceship Earth” with the counterproductive conservative thinking experienced around development ideals, scientific models, and value sets that were formed at the time of an “empty world”. This attitude repeats itself in our current days where some politicians are reminiscing about the “good old days” which cannot come back, no matter how hard we try, in the form we remember them to be.

For people that live in densely populated areas (“full worlds”), environmental pressures are typically greater and easier to sense and believe, compared to areas that are sparsely populated with lots of open spaces (“empty world”) with a continuum of densities and outcomes in between.  This means densely populated cultures naturally respond sooner and stronger than lighter population density areas to the environmental and economic pressures. This is the scenario of the US Midwest. For the clear majority of human history, population density was in the past low throughout the world. The ability to harvest or extract natural resources and harness energy was within the carrying capacity of the biosphere.   Man-made waste was within the capacity of ecosystem sinks to absorb. As human population has grown, and technology has advanced, consumption of resources and production of waste have exceeded sustainable levels and are now threatening to overwhelm ecosystem functions.

Compare densely populated cities like Paris, London, Mexico City New York, LA vs. rural North Dakota with its open spaces and vast horizons. Compared to major urban areas, the environmental pressures here are comparatively weak in the upper Midwest US.

As can be seen from Figure 1, the “Standard Run” or “Business as usual” scenario closely resembles the scenarios as described for the current global outlook. As an example, the Food Per Person curve has been on an increase since the mid-20th Century, due to advancements in new agricultural technologies and processes.  During the same period the industrial output and pollution has increased significantly.

However, the US is somewhat isolated from the rest of the populated world about its opinion of being sustainable. Some of this has to do with the lower population density. On average, many Americans and their policy makers tend not to notice or heed the environmental calls for action to the same extent as in other places on the globe.  In reality, the impacts of pollution and climate change are local and global – they know no boundaries. Our country must therefore consider this in its policies going forward.  Due to lack of understanding on the highest levels of our government, Municipalities and states are taking actions in spite of our current Governments laissez faire attitude to the global problems now arising[1]. Because of this, our country is missing out on a global leadership role and initiatives are instead taken by nations abroad which has been recently demonstrated by reports from the United Nations.

The concepts of defining sustainable limits were clearly captured 1972 in “Limits to Growth”. Subsequent researchers and policy makers have expanded on the concepts in the book to define what is referred to as Planetary Boundaries. The intent was to quantify and define key objectives and quantifications, so that educators can pass on real information, and policy makers can plan and make decisions based on scientific facts and rigorous analysis. A set of nine boundaries[2]have been defined to establish requirements for a “safe operating space for humanity”, a precondition for sustainable development. The framework is based on scientific evidence from human actions since the Industrial Revolution. These nine global boundaries are now defined and should be considered from the position of whether one thinks the world is “empty” or “full”, as follows:

1.   Stratospheric Ozone Depletion

2.   Loss of Bio Diversity

3.   Chemical Pollution and release of novel entities

4.   Climate Change

5.   Ocean Acidification

6.   Land system change

7.   Freshwater Consumption and Global Hydrological Cycle

8.   Nitrogen and Phosphorous Flows to Biosphere and Oceans

9.   Atmospheric Aerosol Loading

Over the past decade you might have heard about these boundaries in one form or another.  Overshooting the boundaries is unfortunately happening increasingly. Our climate change taking place as we speak, as a result of CO2 emissions has been targeted for some drastic Bio Engineered Carbon Sequestration (BECCS) and Carbon Capture Sequestration (CCS) solutions. However, the sheer scale of carrying out such remedial sequestration is breathtaking, for BECCS requiring the planting of crops 2 -3 times the size of India for decade![3]  Overshoots like CO2 are indeed very difficult to deal with.

As a young boy, my world (1950s) contained 2.3 billion people and today we are nearing 7.7 Billion. In these six decades 5.4 billion new humans have been added alone. Just the sheer growth is breathtaking and would give any statistician cause for alarm. This year alone until the end of this month, we have added close to 63 million new humans on the globe, the vast majority in the poorest regions of the world. But whereas the environmental impact of an individual human in the poorest parts of the world is comparatively less than an individual in the Industrialized world, their sheer numbers make up for it. When Europe was being impacted by excess population growth a few hundred years ago, the overpopulation pressures were relieved through aggressive immigration to North America, South America and Australia. The world was “empty” and we saw endless expansion opportunities living our agrarian traditional life. This pattern inevitable repeats itself today, but this time the pressures come from Africa, the Middle East, and near Asia regions. An increasing number of refugees from these areas of the world where population growth due to natural limitations is unsustainable, are now spilling over into areas of affluency or more ample space. This migration is exacerbated by drought attributed to climate change, which dislocates populations through alarming water shortages.

Compared to the remainder of the industrial world, the US leads a luxurious life style and demonstrates energy-guzzling habits, consuming from ample domestic and especially international resources with limited concerns for environmental impacts and the long term realities of scarcity with finite resources  As an example, the US was in 2010 ranked #2 on the list of worst environmental performers, right after Brazil[4], a ranking that has only changed minimal over the past eight years.

Based on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) [5]) [6]), the United States ranks 27th out of the top 30 industrialized nations.

Figure 2 shows eight countries that produce the most garbage per capita in the world are shown below. Future indicates year 2025.

 

Figure 2: Trash per Capita vs. Nation

As shown in the above chart, the US is shown in the middle of the top OECD countries with worst trash habits, which is one of many factors leading us to score place 27 on the Environmental Performance Index.

A local example of why we are ranked that low is consumer packaging materials. It’s of major concern and a problem facing our mid-western region as well. Have a talk with the landfill departments in Fargo, and Moorhead. They will tell you all about the single stream recycling and sorting initiatives, but also about the sorting problems. China, our traditional export location for recycling trash, recently announced much stricter rules for the quality of recycling materials they now are willing to accept. Much of what we have been attempting to recycle in the past is now being rejected for processing meaning, that the waste is piling up, due to continuously growing waste streams. This now demands the task of improving recycling efforts locally even more than in the past. We normally expect the waste materials to pay for it being recycled in form of a recovery value, but this can no longer happen if you must ship it to far away locations and will therefore result in the cities in our region having to levy additional charges to clean and sort discarded packaging materials.  However, we must be cautious not to export our recyclables to other countries in Africa, many of which are only too willing to sell their environment for dollars.

Regionally, our throwaway habits are by extension having global impact, which is beginning to become a reality in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo as well. Those who deal in recycling would know that plastic bags are especially difficult to manage, and initiatives have been taken in our region to eliminate the use of plastic shopping bags although not yet successfully.

Some local organizations e.g. the members of the F-M Sustainability network have tried and are working on eliminating the single use plastic bags to prevent further environmental damage from just that one single stream.  You should meet up with them on their monthly meeting date. Look for F-M Sustainability Network (F-M Fargo- Moorhead) on Facebook [7].

Clay County in MN has in the latter part of 2017 employed Darla Lewandowski to address the problem of plastic bag pollution and to start an effort of eliminating that particular waste stream.

In our current process we are relying too much on the end users to recycle. The end user is only part of the solution to recycling, and we should target the producers of the packaging materials and demand a better and simpler biodegradable packaging resulting in a significant reduced environmental impact. This can be done through Pigouvian taxes[8] of CO2 that overall doesn’t increase the national tax burden, coupled with the CO2 tax proposal as suggested by Citizens Climate Lobby. You can find them on www.citizensclimate.org

Reviewing the thinking around an “empty” and a “full” world[9], which in a nutshell forms the basis for so much argument, Herman Daly, an ecological economist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland describes the “empty” and “full” world as follows:  ‘Our economic growth has been exponential since World War II, and because of this we now live in a full world, but we still behave as if it were empty, with ample space and resources for the indefinite future. The founding assumptions of neoclassical economics[10], developed in the empty world, no longer hold, as the aggregate burden of the human species is reaching—or, in some cases, exceeding—the limits of nature at the local, regional, and planetary levels. The prevailing obsession with economic growth puts us on the path to ecological collapse, sacrificing the very sustenance of our well-being and survival. To reverse this ominous trajectory, we must transition toward a steady-state economy focused on qualitative development, as opposed to quantitative growth, and the interdependence of the human economy and global ecosphere. Developing policies and institutions for a steady-state economy will require us to revisit the question of the purpose and ends of the economy’.

To that extent we must today view ourselves on this globe as passengers on spaceship earth. No longer is Ronald Reagan’s outlook of the ability to sustain infinite growth an option for us. That is “empty world” thinking. Our spaceship is reaching its full capacity, which demands must be made to change and rearrange the way we understand economic growth and sustainability. The C.L.E.A.N. group her in Fargo works together on these issues.

The atmosphere around us is shared with all living beings, and so are and should the vast natural resources and open artic regions be. Because we dispose of our CO2 emissions at no charge into the atmosphere, everyone is impacted by the radiative forcing[11] due to the greenhouse gases we emit. We have done this for so long, the average temperature in the ocean and on the globe has increased. That comes with consequences. With energies of that scale, it is arrogant to believe we can engineer[12] the atmosphere to reverse the warming without unforeseen negative consequences.

Our globe is 70% covered by water and it’s an immense pot of water to bring to a boil! The fact that the oceans have absorbed so much of this increased heat, as a result of radiative forcing is an immense development and has kept our attention away from the strong negative effects that we are on track to experience. The top 2,300 feet of oceans are now showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969![13]

Data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show that Greenland lost an average of 281 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica during the same time, lost about 119 billion tons per year.[14] The rate of Antarctica ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade The effect of this is felt around the world and will leads us towards a major thaw of the tundra’s in the northern hemisphere, ultimately resulting in runaway emissions of Methane reaching a “so-called tipping point” shortly.  Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas twenty-five times more potent for radiative forcing than CO2. As the methane release happens into the atmosphere, this effect will amplify and create a death spiral for the entire population of the globe, if it isn’t stopped.

We know this outcome from researching the many ice cores that have been drilled in the most undisturbed regions of the Arctic and the Antarctic regions of the globe.  We also know this from our knowledge of medical science that helps us understand a rapid change in the CO2 contents of the atmosphere isn’t something living beings can adapt to as quickly as they are currently taking place now[15].

If we now look at the various solutions available to sequester CO2 emissions from our fossil-based energy production in North Dakota, it becomes clear that nothing short of an almost immediate stop to CO2 emissions must happen globally. Investment in energy production from coal is now a very hazardous undertaking. Investments for coal power plants has dried up, and insurance companies, with an understanding of the energy market and the environment, are unlikely to invest in such hazardous plants.  In spite of these obvious risks, our politicians seem willing to spend your tax dollars for dubious research projects by proposing investment tax credits for carbon sequestration. You need to know that there is no economic or practical methodology available at this time to sequester CO2, even after decades of research on this subject. Some technologies are known but have not been demonstrated as feasible and indications are they never will be. The coal lobbies are however very powerful and research on sequestration gives cover to the fact that coal power is being replaced by smarter and greener alternatives.

Regarding sequestration approaches, some common approaches include:

Oxy-Fuel combustion, where the oxygen is concentrated, and less CO2 is generated per unit of energy produced

Chemical capture in by dissolving CO2 into limestone of a chemical solution

Capture in Olivine (magnesium iron silicate, common on beaches), which has some affinity for capturing CO2

Storing the CO2 gases underground or elsewhere.

Oxy-Fuel combustion doesn’t work economically, because it takes significant energy to make pure oxygen and you therefore still produce the same amount of CO2 as a by-product.

Capturing in limestone requires the CO2 to be suspended in a solution. The US burns 728 million tons of coal yearly producing 5924 tons of CO2 which requires 2760 million cubic yards of lime to capture the CO2.  For this we would need to create limestone caves 200 times larger than the largest cave on earth, every year! But the CO2 is captured only for a short period and limestone just isn’t that soluble in water. Eventually the CO2 will end up in the atmosphere after all.

Capture of CO2 in Olivine (Magnesium Iron Silicate which forms 60% to70% of the earth’s mantle).  This approach requires the Olivine to be heated to 185°C and then pump the CO2 into the media.  This approach is financially unfeasible at todays estimated costs of $0.23 to $0.33 per kwh of energy produced in 2025. This compares to non-sequestered lignite coal cost of $0.04/kWh.

The final solution offered, is to store the CO2 underground, but this would require us to every year build underground caves 100,000 times larger than the largest cave known to man (Miao Room, China).  Also, how do we know none of the gas will leak out later? Pushing CO2 into exhausted oil and gas wells is also not a secure method of removing CO2 from our atmosphere.

The North Dakota coal and lignite burning industry in its strategic wisdom, has decided to pass out money to our national and local politicians, motivating them to request tax payers to pay for the cleanup of the industry’s problems through the issuance of Tax Credits. Some of our local universities are even going along by suggesting that they can somehow develop timely solutions through research that will sequester the CO2 in a practical and financially feasible way. When the universities are playing to this tune, it is nothing short of just following the dollars dangling in front of their noses. Research dollars will keep their departments going, but it comes at a serious cost to society that they either don’t see or knowingly ignore the negative consequences of.  The truth is already on the table; there are no feasible technologies today of the scale needed, and we are running out of time.

Our Universities and their management are not thoughtless but have decided that money speaks louder than common sense as long as it keeps their departments going. That is irresponsible but is why you have recently read in The Forum about flurries of activity around university presidents[16], visiting the western regions of our state trying to appease the oil, gas and coal stake holders and naturally also the legislators in Bismarck who allocate dollars for their continued funding. It’s a game of staying relevant to the moneyed interest, even though they very well know the futility of how current methodology of sequestering of CO2 really is! Don’t let the research proposal put you to sleep.  We need action now, not in 10 or 15 years.

Whether you lean Republican or Democrat it is important that you take into consideration that no study talks are going to take away the urgency of stopping the CO2 outputs we are experiencing now as a result of our willful act of ignoring the changes CO2 does to the atmosphere. This brings me to the upcoming November election.

The future political candidates you need to vote for in the November, for this and future elections are those who understand that science is the best way to separate facts from fiction, in contrast to political expedience. That seems to be hard enough, but just have a look at our affection for fictitious conspiracy theories and fake news, built on nothing but wishful thinking and manipulation.

Clearly, the reluctance by our elected leaders to acknowledge the problems are probably based on ignorance (I’ll give them that credit), but it is an ignorance they and the people who elected them cannot afford. It’s not an excuse.

Fossil fuels are clearly not the solutions for spaceship earth, but renewable energies are. Smart utilities are changing their generation sources to renewables – just look at Xcel Energy and their growing generation portfolio of renewable and non-CO2 emitting power generation. Ignoring the obvious for the sake of satisfying a failing economic outlook in the “full” world will cause our children, our grandchildren and future generations to be hurt by our stubborn ignorance and arrogance.

Monotheistic religious teachings tell us that God created the earth as a perfect garden for humanity to prosper within. If then we, as its custodians, must take on the responsibility given by applying Creation Care[17] in our daily lives, not some time in the future, but right now. A good starting point for the readers would be to read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ [18], on the care for our common home.

Finally, The Club of Rome, the organization that started a serious look into the pollution of our earth, this month from October 17-18, 2018 celebrates its 50th anniversary in Rome. Its purpose and message is as current now as it has been since its beginning.

The Club’s current stance is available in a new report by the members Anders Wijkman and Ernst von Weizäcker, titled in book form “Come On! – Capitalism, Short-termism, Population, and Destruction of the Planet” [19] is the follow up to the 1972 book “Limits to Growth”.  The authors discuss how a ‘prosperous future for all’ requires that economic well-being largely decouples from the destruction of natural resources, especially in agriculture, and the pollution of the atmosphere’.

They argue this can only be achieved with a ‘New Enlightenment’ where a balance exists between humans and nature, between short-term and long-term considerations and between public and private interests. This enlightenment is what we are seeking from our elected leaders in our communities and throughout the world, and much more so from leaders in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. We the Citizens call on them to embrace this enlightenment. Don’t tell us we cannot afford it; can we afford not to cut our emissions and other waste without having to experience catastrophic consequences?

The local Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo group C.L.E.A.N. has since 2016 been working on inspiring our community leaders to adapt more elements of a sustainability for the cities and their environmental footprint.

We have watched with great admiration how the initiative of the 2017 eFargo program[20] initiated by then City Commissioner Mike Williams, City Planner Dan Mahli, and successfully executed through the efforts of Prof. Malini Srivatsa and her students at NDSU with support from Xcel Energy and Cass County Electric Cooperative, resulting in the City of Fargo winning a $5 million grant from Georgetown University.  Especially the efforts made by our younger students around the city but specifically Fargo’s Roosevelt Elementary school the students of which reduced its energy consumption by 29%, was a major push for Fargo to win the prize.

Our young generations know how important it is to reduce the CO2 footprint of our activities and you should too.

Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Club of Rome and become a member of C.L.E.A.N. You can find us on Facebook:

Finally, make sure that you vote and select leaders who understand our environmental situation and are willing to work on new economic principles in our society.

P. Jensen

Secretary

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/climate/ipcc-climate-report-2040.html

[2] Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009[1] and Steffen et al. 2015.[2] The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may or may not have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.

[3] Kevin Anderson, 2015, The Hidden Agenda: how veiled techno-utopias shore up the Paris agreement. http://kevinanderson.info/blog/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Paris-Summary-2015.pdf

[4] https://www.livescience.com/8204-brazil-ranked-worst-environmental-impact.html

[5] https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/the-impact-of-migration-on-water-scarcity-in-central-asia/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Environmental_Performance_Index

[7] https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=f-m%20sustainability%20network

[8] A way of correcting for negative externalities, or consequences for society, arising from the actions of a company or industry sector, by levying additional taxes on that company or sector. An example would be higher taxes on tobacco products, or taxes put in place for polluting power companies.
Read more: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/Pigovian-tax.html

[9] https://greattransition.org/publication/economics-for-a-full-world

[10] Neoclassical economics is an approach to economics focusing on the determination of goods, outputs, and income distributions in markets through supply and demand.

[11] http://news.mit.edu/2010/explained-radforce-0309

[12] Climate engineering offers the hope of temporarily reversing some aspects of global warming and allowing the natural climate to be substantially preserved whilst greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control and removed from the atmosphere by natural or artificial processes.

[13] https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

[14] https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/ice-sheets/

[15] https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-human-health_.html

[16] http://www.inforum.com/news/education/4508350-ndsu-und-presidents-pitch-proposal-more-research-dollars-western-north

[17] https://www.creationcare.org/

[18] You can download it for free from here:  https://laudatosi.com/watch

[19] https://www.amazon.com/Come-Capitalism-Short-termism-Population-Destruction/dp/1493974181

[20] http://www.efargo.org/

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