The Club of Rome 1972 Report, the Current View of the ‘Anthropocene’, and The Great Debate About Civilization’s Future -- Forty Years On --
On December 20, 2015, Mark Ruffalo, of the Guardian news organization, said of COP21
... the Paris deal is the mother of all market signals. ... The agreement signals that the age of fossil fuels is coming to a close, and the age of renewable energy is dawning… Let’s not miss the writing on the wall: fossil fuels are a losing bet, while renewables offer economic opportunity.
At the same time COP21 was in process, the Big History Institute, located at the Macquarie University in Australia, was hosting an extraordinary international conference on the ‘Anthropocene’ -- depicting the human reshaping of the ecosystem as a new era in the history of life on Earth.
In 1972, over forty years earlier, the Club of Rome issued a report entitled ‘The Limits of Growth’ which challenged the industrial era’s apparently boundless optimism and implicit assumptions concerning perpetual and uninhibited growth of the human civilization. This crystallized a continuing debate between those rightly and deeply concerned about the integrity of the lifesystem on Earth and those impatient with presumed constraints and confident of the transformational capacities of modern industrial organization.
The Anthropocene Conference examined these issues. In its presentations and its audience/participants were representatives of both camps. The historic attempt to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reorient human energy supply systems to renewables is now put side by side with one of the clearly defined realizations in the Conference -- the fossil fuel era created the ‘anthropocene’. The energy supplies which follow the curtailing or depletion of fossil fuels will define whether humanity sustains its present trajectory, reorganizing megafaunal earth-life, or diminishes to earlier-era scale and complexity. Such a descent would not be easy, in a world of nine billion people, most of whom believe they can and should have better rather than worse lives. The reasons should be apparent upon brief reflection.
Thus, we are faced with a Great Energy Transition. As Vaclav Smil has persistently pointed out, successful management of such a transition would take decades, if not over a century. The fates of generations of our progeny are at issue. What futures do we imagine to be possible, and desirable?
Must, or should, we economize on energy consumption, reduce our footprint on our Mother Earth, and learn to live simpler lives, perhaps in much reduced numbers, consistent with a restoration of scope for earth-life other than our human variety? Or can and should we, positioned by the fossil fuel bonanza, embark on a second great photosynthetic revolution, this one human mediated, which enlarges the energy budget of life on earth, and allows and consciously arranges a combination of biological and artifactual energy flows in an enlarged and richer ecosphere?
At this point in this narrative, the reader probably has inferred, possibly from the framing of the preceding paragraph, that this writer prefers the latter choice. He is confident that a large portion of the billions of humans now on this planet would make a similar choice, if they thought it attainable. And he has no doubt that humanity’s ‘animal spirits’, will impel us to pursue energy gaining possibilities to the maximum extent we find feasible.
After all, entraining energy into ordered systems, and then reproducing those systems, is the fundamental mechanism of the life phenomenon. In the prospect ahead, we need not fear a lack of animal spirits. What is at stake is sufficient governance of them to be successful in the earth-life endeavor.
Let us briefly recapitulate why enlarging the human, and earthlife, energy budget would appear to be technically possible. As an international IPCC study , a seminal Sandia study and other materials have documented, solar energy impinging on the surface of the earth per year (@5.5x1024 Joules) dwarf the biological photosynthetic energy intake (@3x1021 joules per year entrained in biomass). While solar energy is diffuse, artifactual solar systems currently extract @5-10 times more of the light energy striking them than do biological systems. The costs of artifactual solar energy, dropping for decades, have begun to approach fossil fuel electricity generation costs, and currently seems to be decreasing about 20%with each doubling of installed capacity. While solar energy return on energy investment ratios are subject to some uncertainty, there seems reason to think they may currently exceed the 10/1 ratio. This is not as good as were early fossil fuel ratios, but with wise management and slow growth in populations may be sufficient for high energy, high complexity civilization.
Complementary technologies are needed. Wind and nuclear energy technologies are available. Research on ‘storage’ systems of various sorts proceeds apace. If and as solar electricity generation costs approach 1-2 cents per kilowatt hour (perhaps about 4-6 capacity doublings out), chemical fuels may become producible in large quantities, at costs that would compete with current fuel technologies. Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University has projected possibilities of leaning on complex artifactual storage systems to a minimal extent, within decades.
Let us assume for the moment that combinations of energy sources and energy management technologies could be brought into alignment over this 21st century sufficient to support an energy budget for human civilization equivalent to or greater than the current global energy throughput in human civilization today, and sufficient, were other conditions permitting, to increase global per capita energy use by some factor -- let us say 25% to 50%.
What would be required to allow this to happen?
To approach this question, let us proceed from the point of view that the visible universe has over time evolved combinatorially ordered systems, in stepwise, conditional probability realizations. That is, given a set of conditions, with some degree of order, or predictability, what are the probabilities that further potentials for ordered states (given that we humans have some preferences, let us specify states of interest to us) will obtain, in a, necessarily, combinatorial fashion?
For a famous, to us, example, given conditions on the third planet from our Sun, as distinguished, say, from the first planet from the Sun, what were the probabilities, looking forward from formation, that the intricate, dynamic, combinatorial chemical processes from which we call life would arise. (On a more general basis, ‘Drake’s equation’ sets out tiered cascades of probabilities, over billions of suns and planetary systems, in an organized fashion.) Now, given that life did evolve here, and we are at a ‘what next’ stage, how do we participate in staging that next stage?
Thinking in this fashion, we can view ordering processes alternatively between past and future perspectives. For example, given a state extant, what were the conditions precedent necessary for that state -- e.g., life as we know it -- to come into being. Or, looking ahead, what will be the conditions necessary to allow any given state, let us for the moment say a desired state, to come into being?
From this flows naturally, to an entity with internal ordering capabilities, the question what can be done to enhance the probabilities of any identified envisaged state -- and thus any necessary precursor states -- occurring.
We have had a tendency to think in technological terms -- what energy production and utilization systems can humans devise?
But in the Anthropocene conference discussions, Klaus Bosselmann, Director of the New Zealand Centre for Environmental Law, contributed, among other things, a pithy phrase for necessary framing of forward-looking actions -- “Ecological Integrity”.
The logic seems impeccable. The ecosystem created and sustains humans. If our global ecology is significantly impaired in its fundamentals and the totality of its functioning, we would seem unlikely to be able to obtain all the ‘resources’ which would be required for our hypothetical high energy, high complexity future. Indeed, I have argued in other venues, the totality of the ecosystem, as a whole, including its artifactual components, would probably have to be proportionally greater in scope, mass and throughput than it now is, to allow this brighter-for-humans future to exist and persist.
However, this does not, I submit, mean that we can or should attempt to freeze frame our ecosystem in its current configuration. As Lenton and Watson have well summarized, the evolution of life on earth arguably has had some prolonged periods of general configuration stability, but it has also had periodic revolutions in life technology that altered those configurations. Organic photosynthesis is a prime example. Others include complex multicellular life systems, life colonization of the continents, flowering plants, insect societies, mammalian ascendency, etc. We humans appear at the moment potentially to be another such revolution, and a principal instrument would appear to be artifactual photosynthesis.
The ‘ecological integrity’ framework does imply, for example, that the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere not so prejudice plant productivity, or decrease land availability, or reduce oxygen levels, or decrease human organizational activity, or disrupt lifeweb relationships, as to reduce the biological capacity of Earth’s oceans and lands. Herein lies the wisdom of current climate control efforts, including the processes set in motion by COP21.
And, as I briefly suggest above, this precondition to successful continuance of high energy human civilization probably -- I argue necessarily -- entails funneling energy which humans entrain into the global ecosystem into arrangements which protect the essentials of, and enhance the scope of, our legacy ecosystem. For convenient examples, let us again refer to the possibility of increasing freshwater availability on landmasses, and increasing, rather than decreasing, Earth’s biomass.
If we make ecological integrity a starting point for our engineering and economic calculations of what we can and should do by means of human organization, we may need to review some of the assumptions of some of current economic theory. For example, to consider that ‘nature’ exists only to provide ‘services’ to humankind, and these ‘services’ are to valued basically in terms of human monetary exchange systems, seems bizarrely homocentric, and to entail substantial conceptual gymnastics.
Secondly, as indicated above, we need continually to assess and develop the technical and economic possibilities of energy flows into and through the human system, and its underlying ecological base. In such reviews we will need continually to be assessing the health of the underlying ecological base.
Thirdly, we will need to determine the conditions, or characteristics, of human organization which need to be created and maintained -- the organizational preconditions -- to realize the continuation of the anthropocene. In a prior post for this forum, I attempted a canvas. The candidate conditions include continued materials, investment, and trade flows among polities, preferably world wide, sufficient skill and institutional knowledge to mediate and resolve conflicts short of widely destructive wars, international coordinating bodies such as but not limited to the United Nations, the maintenance of reliable knowledge systems not subject to political manipulation to allow a clear view of where we stand and what we are doing on critical matters (read free university systems and free press, or commentary, systems), controls on parasitism by local, regional, and international elites, a clear understanding that lasting social and economic arrangements must reward the contracting and participating bodies (win-win arrangements, throughout), and sufficient stability and continuity over many decades to plan, commit, and be rewarded for social and monetary investment, as we work our way through a challenging transition in the energy basics of our social and economic systems.
We will probably need to improve our capacities for dealing with local or regional breakdowns of social and governance systems. See Syria.
In their remarkable book ‘Revolutions that Made the Earth’ Lenton and Watson suggest that humankind will have to become highly adept at conserving and recycling the elements and combinations of elements which are appear to be essential in ‘industrial’ civilization, including, of course, among many other things, phosphorous, which is essential to biological function.
And of course, as we consider the ecological load which humans impose on the ecosystem, there is evidence that more efficient use of energy could make our collective load lighter, at least in some venues. Data exist which suggest that high levels of human development, as we currently conceive them, do not necessarily require as much energy as the most ‘developed’ economies currently use (p.334). A walk through a ‘Whole Foods’ mart in the United States, currently, and a bit of reflection on how much resource is spent on our ‘western’ mass entertainments lend prima facie anecdotal support to such a suggestion.
I would emphasize, in this list of requirements, a suggestion that the citizenries of ‘developed’ nations, and perhaps some of the less developed, will need to exercise patience as the world attempts to manage the transition between the historically high energy returns on energy invested, in the fossil fuel era, to more modest, though positive, levels of sustainable technologies. We may face slower growth rates and some energy saving accommodations to which ‘the airplane people’ are unaccustomed, and those closer to the ground find unexpected and frustrating.
Large geopolitical assemblages, such as the United States, Europe, Russia, and even India and China, may come under stress, and have to cope with fending off politically opportunistic leadership candidates who have little grasp of, and little care for, the practical long term needs and limits of the transitions required -- without, in the process, ensconcing complacent and unresponsive intellectual and political elites who also fail to measure up to those needs and limits.
For global citizens to be able to have such patience, they will need to have well founded, accurate understandings of the energy transitions humanity will need to navigate, and sufficient adroitness to blend with that patience two other requirements. One is vigilance concerning the performance or lack thereof of the local, regional and global elites who undertake to lead them. The other is that the vigilance be accompanied by effective accountability systems, to avoid exploitation and top-down stagnation that would serve the incumbent comfort of the leaders rather than the long-term welfare of the led.
Humility in leadership, accompanied by accurate and clear accountability, as well as vision, vigilance and practicality on the part of those led, will be at a premium.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of a section of the United States Justice Department Antitrust Division responsible for liaison with other Executive Branch agencies, regulatory bodies, and Congressional bodies as to actions which would impact upon competition in the US economy, Assistant General Counsel to the US Agency for International Development, and Deputy General Counsel at a White House Office of Consumer Affairs. He has conducted an antitrust oriented legal practice in Washington DC, and also served on the Boards of Directors of business and civic organizations located in the Washington area.
 This formulation is stated as if the active agent involved were to have complete knowledge of all extant and prospective conditions thought to be involved in the relationships in this Universe which it attempts to address. An individual agent can, by means of communications with others, expand its scope of mapping the universe, and thus construct what it may believe to be representative depictions of extant and future states, within a given frame of reference. Sometimes this can be done with precision. But often such collective depictions are highly incomplete. The less the information available to given actor or set of actors, the less complete the mapping will be. Also, any given actor or set of actors has limited computation capacities. A strategy for dealing with this is continuously scanning features, or observables, approximating, and updating its view of the situations it attempts to address. All this is done in situations which combine degrees of order and degrees of randomness Thus at least some of the often observed difficulties with making accurate predictions in complex and dynamic situations.
 As a matter of strict logic, one can admit of the possibility that a ‘cyborg’ life system of larger scope and variety than the legacy life system might have more artifactual scope and less biological scope. So perhaps this bolstering of the legacy system is a personal, looking forward, preference before we have a great deal of experience in ecosystem enhancement. But the possibility of inadvertent but actual ‘crowding out’ essential biological structural supports of any future ecosystem would seem to counsel that we project forward protection and enhancement for the basics of the legacy system.
 This writer, as an attorney, by good fortune functioning as a part of an alliance of academic and industrial actors, guided by current microeconomic and industrial organization theory as propounded by leading economists, used such theory significantly to improve the efficiency of national and global transportation systems. In doing so he witnessed the constructive power of the economics discipline, and ‘capitalistic’ organization, including the productive use of markets. We all know that economic calculations are deeply imbedded in local, national and economic issues of many sorts. But in his opinion the concepts of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, network theories, and other aspects of the hierarchical organization of social groups provide bases for reexamination of the premises and conceptual structures of classical and neoclassical economics.