The human future, inevitably, will be smaller—fewer people, consuming less, in less complex societies. Most people are nervous about how such a dramatic transformation will come about, for good reason.
Moving from eight billion people living in large political units dependent on dense energy, to a sustainable human population living with less in smaller social organizations is a difficult task, unlikely to be achieved by planning in the existing political and economic systems in the time available. There are myriad ways that human-built infrastructure and social systems can—and likely will—fray, falter, fail, and fall apart before we humans can figure out how to manage that task.
The unraveling of large systems in the past has generally resulted in social dislocation and intensified conflict, along with lower levels of available material resources and considerable deprivation. There’s no reason to assume contemporary societies are immune to similar outcomes as our systems unravel. Anyone from the United States who is reading this has lived through a period of extraordinary material abundance (though not equally or equitably distributed) and social stability (at the macro level, not necessarily in each person’s life or community), which can lead to the assumption that what has been will continue to be. That is not guaranteed, and is increasingly less likely, even in the short term.
That’s not a pleasant future to ponder and prepare for, so it’s not surprising that many people, especially those in societies whose affluence is based on dense energy and advanced technology, clamor for solutions that claim to be able to keep the energy flowing and the technology advancing. This widespread “technological fundamentalism”—common among both secular and religious people—asserts that modern societies can solve their most pressing problems with high energy and high technology, including the problems created by past use of that energy and technology. No consideration of limits, human or ecospheric, is necessary.
Here's an example. In the 1980s, the chloroflorocarbons (CFCs) commonly used in refrigerants and air-conditioning were linked to the growing ozone hole. CFCs were thought to be miracle chemicals when introduced in the 1930s: nontoxic, nonflammable, and nonreactive with other chemical compounds. But while stable in the troposphere, they move to the stratosphere and are broken down by strong ultraviolet light, releasing chlorine atoms that deplete the ozone layer. So international regulations were imposed. CFCs were replaced by the “safer” hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), until their contribution to global warming was understood, prompting a move to hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), which are touted as having zero ozone depletion potential (ODP) and low global warming potential (GWP).
Miracle Chemical #1 is introduced but later found to cause problems and banned, replaced by Miracle Chemical #2, which is later found to cause problems and banned, replaced by Miracle Chemical #3 . . . Lather, rinse, repeat.
Such hubris flows from an unwarranted confidence in the ability of humans to understand complex questions definitively. Because humans in the past century have been able to transcend temporarily the biophysical limits of the ecosphere, this faith in technology allows people to avoid a simple reality: endless growth on a finite planet—whether in capitalist or socialist economies—ends badly. Because the obsession with growth defines virtually all economies on the planet, the bad ending will not be contained to specific societies but will be global. The response of the technological fundamentalists is simple: we need not curb our aggregate consumption as a species because we will invent whatever we need in a “green-energy cornucopia,” which some cornucopians argue should include nuclear power.
The irrationality of this temporary evasion of the biophysical limits of the planet is captured in an old joke. A man (given the patriarchal foundation of unsustainable systems, the sex-specific “man” is appropriate here) jumps off a hundred-story building and, as he passes each floor, says to himself, “So far, so good.” The experience of falling can be exhilarating, but at some point, the man will hit the pavement. Technological fundamentalists seem to believe that we can remain in free-fall forever through innovation. And if human societies were to ever get close to the pavement, then innovation will provide a giant net to catch us. These faith-based beliefs require us to assume not only that new inventions will solve our not yet solved problems, but that we can continue to manage the technology we have already created without catastrophe.
Those betting on technology to forestall the consequences of biophysical limits believe that humans are competent to manage not only our current interventions into the larger living world but also the more dramatic interventions that likely will be necessary in the future as old technologies fail to meet their promise.
The ultimate example of this runaway hubris is geoengineering, the manipulation on a global scale of ecological processes to counteract the effects of global warming and respond to other ecological crises. Rather than accept limits and reduce energy consumption, technological fundamentalists propose schemes such as releasing sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight back to space. If that sounds crazy, maybe it is. But lots of not-crazy people are willing to double down on even more extensive human manipulation of the ecosphere.
We are convinced that’s the wrong approach. The evidence suggests that humans are far less competent than the dominant culture assumes, cannot successfully manage the current infrastructure of the industrial world much longer, and will not have any greater success managing the imagined technologies of the future.
An important illustration of this is the transformation of agriculture in the post-World War II era, which is seen by many as a great triumph. The dominant culture’s story of goes something like this: in the face of worldwide hunger and the threat of social destabilization, agronomic research created new and improved versions of staple crops, farming methods, and technologies that saved a billion people from starvation. The leading researcher in this area—Norman Borlaug, often called “the father of the Green Revolution”—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for providing “bread for a hungry world.” This application of human ingenuity dramatically increased yields through hybridized seeds, increased irrigation, modern farm management, and synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. What more could we ask for?
A more complete assessment would include the negative ecological and social consequences of this high-energy/high-technology approach to agriculture. Chemical contamination of soil and water increased. Soil erosion continued. Use of fossil fuels increased, as did the environmental degradation from extraction of that energy and climate change when it was burned. One-size-fits-all agronomic approaches that worked when implemented with petrochemical inputs and cheap energy (cheap, that is, if costs are calculated only in the short term) replaced locally adapted methods that typically used much less fossil energy and fewer or no chemicals. Peasant farmers were persuaded, or forced, to adopt these new “scientific” methods, which undermined their independence and resilience. And without a commitment to economic justice, more food on the market didn’t always feed hungry people who had little money. First-World dominance was strengthened at the cost of greater Third-World dependency. Third-World agriculture moved toward being as brittle as first world farming.
Agribusiness executives and policy makers rarely talk about just how insecure agricultural production has become, how dependent humanity is on a brittle system. Consider this: the increase in the human population from two billion in 1927 to nearly eight billion today was made possible by yield increases that are primarily the result of the industrial production of anhydrous ammonia as a source of nitrogen fertilizer for modern agriculture.
The Haber-Bosch process, invented in the early twentieth century, typically uses natural gas as the feedstock to turn tight-bonded atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. This industrial process “solved” the problem of soil nitrogen fertility and declining supplies of natural fertilizers such as guano. Scholars estimate that this industrial process supports nearly half the world’s population. A disruption in the supply of energy needed for this industrial process would mean a worldwide famine of unprecedented proportions. Meanwhile, the widespread use of these fertilizers means that after being spread over millions of acres of grain-producing fields, the surplus industrial nitrogen finds its way into waterways until it meets the ocean waters, where it creates huge dead zones. On the way downriver, cities spend millions of dollars to remove it from drinking water, in some places failing so dramatically that people have to drink bottled water.
The technocrats and politicians who gave us the Green Revolution believed that managing this industrial style of agriculture within an increasingly globalized economic system was within the scope of their competence. The experience of the past seventy-five years suggests just the opposite. We do not doubt those people’s intellectual abilities. For purposes of this discussion, we accept their stated goal of wanting to feed hungry people, though some of those politicians also were worried about the kinds of radical revolutions that hungry people would support. Yields increased, but the health of ecosystems and the resilience of local economies declined. The agricultural experts who gave us the Green Revolution could not successfully manage the complex systems they created, yet many of those same experts continue to press forward with more high-energy “solutions” to the problem of feeding an expanding population on rapidly degrading soils.
The Green Revolution is one of many examples of the inability of human intelligence to predict all the consequences of technologies and policies. But technological fundamentalists never stop believing that the use of high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing. Nor do they seem to doubt that the continued use of ever more sophisticated high-energy advanced technology can solve our problems, including the problems caused by the unintended consequences of earlier technologies. These fundamentalists act as if human knowledge is adequate to run the world. But to claim such abilities, we have to assume we can identify all the patterns in nature and learn to control all aspects of nature. That we so clearly cannot do those things does not disturb technological fundamentalists’ faith.
Back to the joke about the hundred-story building. It would have been wiser never to have jumped off the building, better never to have rushed headlong into an uncritical expansion of the human population through an embrace of dense energy and the industrial worldview. But once we jumped, we have no choice but to continue to use our knowledge to try to create a soft landing. But that suggests—and this stretches the metaphor—that on the way down we should not add more technology unless it will contribute directly to making a soft landing as soft as possible. We are not arguing against research and development of renewable energy, for example. We are arguing that such energy should be understood as necessary to help us power down, not prop up existing levels of consumption.
But to increase our chance of success in this use of knowledge, we need humility. We need to reject a knowledge-based worldview in favor of an ignorance-based worldview, which is not a call to being stupid but instead a reminder that the limits of human knowledge should curb our hubris. Human knowledge has expanded dramatically since the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, especially during the high-energy industrial era. Not all of that knowledge has been destructive, and much of it has enriched our lives. But what we don’t know still far outstrips what we do know, and always will.
We might want to keep that in mind as we go forward producing new knowledge. Human capabilities should always be deployed with an eye on human fallibility. We need to use technology judiciously, in a way that allows us to adjust to our inevitable mistakes rather than magnify the consequences of those mistakes.
We need to be better students of the exits so that when things go wrong, as they always do and always will, we can find our way out.
This essay is adapted from An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity.