Thoughts on "Overshoot and Collapse"

In this article I wish to explain the background for the music I have written, titled  "Overshoot and Collapse". Like many of us, I am constantly trying to make sense of the world around us in these times of destabilization and uncertainty. In search for answers, I spent many hours reading and listening to “system thinkers”, such as Ronald Wright on "progress traps”, Joseph Tainter on the collapse of complex civilizations, Chris Martenson’s “Crash Course” on the three E’s (Economy, Energy and the Environment), Dennis Meadows on the limits to human growth, and Gail Tverberg on energy and resources depletion in a finite world. But probably inspiring of all was reading WIlliam Catton’s 1980 book “Overshoot”, or at first, listening to it on an 11-hour podcast, recorded by eco-theologian Michael Dowd. This information led me to the following realizations: 

1. Economic growth depletes resources by overconsumption and pollution. By the Low-Hanging Fruit principle, previous generations consume the more easily attainable resources first, leaving later generation with more difficult and expensive resources to extract. They also have to spend more resources on pollution problems. This makes economic growth more costly over time. In a state of population overshoot, a diminishing resource base cannot keep up with demand of the growing population. What Joseph Tainter shows is that civilizations rarely degrow to become more sustainable. Instead, they tend to reach their peak and then quite suddenly collapse. Civilization collapse is followed by a dramatic decline in population size and standard of living, simplification of social structures and loss of knowledge and expertise ("dark ages"). Catton shows that this "bloom and crash" or overshoot and collapse pattern is a natural phenomenon in the evolution of ecosystems, and is not unique to human civilizations. ​This is the same process that turns a pond to a meadow, and then a meadow to a forest ("Overshoot", p. 96). Catton shows that from an ecological point of view, what humanity is doing is to make its environment more suitable for its successors. From a historical point view, this looks to us like progress. 

2. According to standard calculations, modern civilization has overshot Earth's natural resources around the early 1970's. Since then, nature's regenerative processes no longer keep up with the rate of our consumption. Supply of both renewable resources (clean water, fertile soil, forests) and non-renewable resources (fossil fuels, rare minerals) is now rapidly diminishing, while demand keeps growing. Fossil fuels are becoming very difficult and expensive to extract. All parts of the economy are depended on the profitability fossil fuel extraction. Building infrastructure for alternative energy sources requires a lot of fossil fuels. According to Gail Tverberg, humanity seems to be hitting the limits to how much it can grow right about now. Under these conditions, the most probable scenario is a near-term collapse of global economy, marking the end of the fossil fuel era and a transition to a post-industrial society. No one can tell exactly when this collapse will begin and how long it will take. Our denial mechanisms may prevent us from seeing that such a collapse is already underway. 

3. The 1972 “Limits to Growth” study predicted that if resource consumption trends at that time continued (and we know they did) limits to humanity’s growth on Earth will be reached within 100 years (i.e. by 2070), most probably in the form of “a sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial output” (p. 23). The authors note that “whatever fraction of the human population remained at the end of the process would have very little left with which to build a new society in any form we can now envision” (p. 170). Gail Tverberg's calculations, based on more recent data, predict that by 2050 energy consumption per capita will drop roughly to 1900 levels. Tverberg estimates that as a result, by 2050 (!) world population will drop to 2.8 billion people (compared to 2 billion in 1900). Clearly these are only predictions, but anything remotely similar to this is still very alarming.

4. Techno-optimistic predictions for a global switch to a clean and renewable economy cannot be ruled out, but are highly unlikely. Such predictions tend to: a. underestimate the desperate dependency of modern civilization on fossil fuels, not only as an energy source but also as raw material for agricultural fertilizers and plastic products, which are now essential to many parts of the economy, b. overestimate the carrying capacity of renewable resources (how many lives on earth can be supported by renewable resources of any form, and in what standard of living), c. attribute human progress to technological innovation, rather to an increasing ecological debt, or in other words assume that human progress is unbounded by material limits. Historically, technological innovation has been a catalyst of growth, leading to more resource depletion and more pollution. Using the same method and expecting different results does not seem logical.  

 
5. New stuff increases carbon emissions. People like new stuff. Being poor reduces carbon emissions. People don't like being poor. Politicians get elected by telling the public what they like. Newspapers get money by advertising new stuff. It is difficult to get elected and sell newspapers by telling people that our economy is about to fall apart and everyone is going to become poorer, so we can't afford any more new stuff, but this could slow down global warming for the benefit of future generations. A more attractive story is that we are now fighting climate change by making a lot of new non-polluting, renewable stuff (in reality more new stuff). Overemphasis on climate change diverts public attention from an imminent economic collapse.  

6. COVID-19 is a resource crisis. To keep the economy growing against a depleting resource base, many systems have been pushed to the edge, including health, education, welfare, transportation and global supply chains. Investment in infrastructure has been neglected for "putting out fires" and short term profits. There are currently not enough resources to fight a global pandemic and keep the entire economy running. To prevent overload on health systems, other parts of the economy were shut down and supported by unprecedented amounts of money printing. This, in turn, caused major disruptions in global supply chains and rising inflation which may act as self-enforcing feedback loops dragging the entire economy down. Overloading health systems in order to keep business as usual could have had similar effects. Our current economic condition should be understood as a predicament rather than a set of complex, but solvable problems. It is a situation that we have to learn to live with, with no simple way out.  

7. By definition, a structure collapses after reaching its peak. When civilizations reach their peak, it is almost impossible for their members to imagine that this peak also marks their imminent collapse. Our denial mechanisms are so deeply-rooted that they will shield us from recognizing our collapse as it happens. Paradoxically, the closer we get to societal collapse, the more effort we will make to deny it. We know that declining civilizations exhibit various phenomena of crisis cults which deny reality by some form of magical thinking. In our civilization this could manifest itself in: a. traditional religions, reverting to more extreme fundamentalism, b. contemporary “techno-optimistic” religions (or in Catton’s terms cargoism), believing in human immortality and radical technologies that will redeem us, c. all kinds of conspiracy theory movements. These trends seem to be increasing over the last few decades. 

 

8. Human societies are organized by narratives, beliefs and rituals. This includes modern civilization, which is organized around a belief in limitless progress and by rituals of obsessive material consumption. Perhaps what we need now is not more technology, but a new set of narratives, beliefs and rituals that will help us accept reality and find meaning within our limits. Music, art and storytelling are cultural means for pursuing this goal.

 

Accepting that our civilization may be facing its downfall can lead to a feeling of deep despair, or doom. When hope for a better, brighter future is lost, life can easily seem meaningless. As Paul Chefurka warns in “Climbing the Ladder of Awareness”, this is a dangerous state to remain in for too long. Michael Dowd proposes that acceptance is only a midpoint on a spiritual search for meaning, which transcends denial and doom to what he calls “Post-Doom”. Dowd defines post-doom as: 

“1. What opens up when we remember who we are, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is pro-future and soul-nourishing.

2.  A fierce and fearless reverence for life and relative equanimity even in the midst of abrupt climate change, a global pandemic, and collapse of both the health of the biosphere and business as usual.

3.  Living meaningfully,  compassionately, and courageously no matter what.”

 

This was the inspiration for the fourth and final part of my composition, titled “Acceptance (Post-Doom Song)”. After a long time in which I saw no purpose in writing my own music, I realized that music can become a way for me to process our overshoot and collapse story and share new stories for changing times. I thank those of you who read so far and hope you will find meaning in this music. More details on the specific parts of the composition can be found on their video description in YouTube. And if you wish to discuss your ideas on these issues, please be in touch. I would be very glad to turn this monologue into a dialogue.