Where are we going? How fast do we need to get there?
I remember in the 1950's a sense of destiny for mankind. We were on a journey of development. Rocketry was big. Promises of a future when mankind would conquer space. Nuclear energy would be so cheap we wouldn't need to meter electric utilization. The future was fantastic and bright. Many GIs from WWII had used their GI-Bill monies to go to college. IBM and other companies were putting electronic brains into commerce. TV was a smashing hit and gave us endless entertainment. These were just tastes of the future.
We couldn't wait to get to the future. So much cool stuff was going to be ours just for imagining it possible.
There were dark clouds as the 50's gave way to the 60's and then the 70's. Rachel Carson wrote an "interesting" book. The Soviets developed the atom bomb. They were first to put a satellite in orbit. Viet Nam soured some of us on the notion of US hegemony. And later, Watergate soured us on politics and government. But economics and technology - those were still on a high.
We had learned a lot of neat tricks for turning natural assets into human assets, including many more humans. And the rate of progress was accelerating. Furthermore, except for that pesky idea Rachel Carson had introduced, there were no limits to be seen. Or were there?
Carson wasn't the only person to ask pesky questions about the cost of progress. The Club of Rome commissioned a study leading to the publication of The Limits to Growth by Dennis and Donella Meadows. Using computer-based dynamic systems modeling methods introduced by Dennis' mentor Jay Forrester at MIT, they demonstrated the effects of exponential growth on world dynamics. Under every scenario involving the "Buisness as usual" strategies the world population crashed after reaching a peak. They varied all kinds of assumptions regarding things like resource abundance, etc. But all models produced the same basic result give or take a few decades.
Nor were the Meadows the first to talk about limits of growth. In 1956 M. King Hubbert revealed a theory on the rate of oil production (extraction and shipment) that showed it peaking when roughly half of the oil had been pumped out of the ground. His prediction, called peak oil for the USA production was that it would peak sometime in the early 70's. Subsequently he was proven right. Others have gone on to estimate the same phenomenon on a world-wide basis and most estimates peg it between 2005 and 2020 — a relatively narrow window considering the course of human events.
Today we have a constant barrage of news of one limit or another approaching. Fisheries are depleted. Potable water is running short. Even human-effort at growing grains appears to be falling short. Limits are now something that are increasingly realized. And it is funny that just a few short decades ago we thought there was no limit. Soon, we thought, we'd be mining ores on asteroids. Now we realize we can't afford the fuel bill to get anywhere near an asteroid with a manned crew.
We were hurrying to get to the future and ignoring the warning signs that such a rush might get us somewhere we really don't want to go. We were in a rush. Why?
The commercial model of doing some work, adding some value, and making a profit on sales did a lot to get us ramped up and churning out products and services. The profit motive is a strong force and seems, at least on the face of it, to stimulate creativity and innovation. After all, we now have all manner of toys and gadgets to entertain us. Of course we also have computers, like the one I'm writing this on right now, and medicines, and MRI machines, and lots of things that truly make life more comfortable and safer. So there are good things.
My question is, if we weren't in such a hurry to make a buck and rush to the next new thing, would we have had time to consider the consequences of what we were doing? Would we have done things any differently?
Here is a function that shows up frequently in nature — the logistic function. The curve depicted in the link shows an early exponential-like growth. It accelerates at first but eventually comes to decelerate. It levels off at some maximum and remains at that level (not shown). The logistic function can be seen in processes in which later negative feedback grows to counter earlier positive feedback mechanisms. This is a picture of balance.
The exponential function results when negative feedback mechanisms do not exist and the process explodes.
Which curve represents the human condition in reality? Economists have tended to believe the later (fewer do today!) but we are a part of nature and in nature negative effects of growth always build up to impose the former curve. The problem is that it is possible to temporarily overcome the negatives so that our growth curve looks like the exponential until a tipping point is reached. So unlike the smooth logistic curve where we get to the top and stay there, the over-extended exponential period of growth leads to overshoot and when the tipping point comes, there is a crash. This was exactly the message in the Limits to Growth report.
But we were in a hurry to reach some glorious state. Now we realize (too late?) that whatever we thought that state might be, what we have achieved is unsustainable. We overshot.
Had we not been in such a hurry, would we have been smart enough to avoid this?