There is a presumption that we all share. Somehow, “business as usual” should be maintained — or, if it’s been shaken, be resumed.
The reality that that actually expresses is that “there be no change”.
Yet change does want to happen anyway. It bubbles up in various places, demanding attention — and the more we try to slam a lid on it, the more it shakes and destroys when it finally blows the lid off.
I don’t believe in change for the sake of change. I’m not a progressive type, constantly out trying to “improve” society.
But I do believe that institutions of all types divert from their purposes. This hypocrisy is engrained. That is why institutions of all types need reform, constantly.
I also believe in simple arithmetic. 2+2=4, as they say, whether I care to acknowledge it or not.
So if I observe that our planet is necessarily finite (it is what it is) then there is only so much of anything to go around.
Salt water? We only have so much. Fresh water? Same story. Sunlight? Even that’s got a limit. Total land? Pretty much a given.
To that way of thinking, all resources are limited. Growth ad infinitum — always growing — is therefore something impossible. There are limits.
Yes, we can shift some of those limits. We can desalinate salt water (we have much more of that) and create fresh water. But it comes at a cost of other resources.
So whether you believe in technology’s endless march, or creativity and invention’s endless yearning, or whatever, even these require trade-offs be made amongst the limits that exist. We can shift some bounds, but we can’t create something out of nothing.
We are limited, in the end, by the laws of mathematics, of physics, of chemistry, of biology, and many more besides.
For a long time, we weren’t close to hitting the limits. Now we are: almost all useful land is being used. There are seven billion of us to put somewhere, and occupy somehow.
We’ve also made use of a fair bit of bounty along the way. Ore deposits — you pick the commodity, it’s true as a general statement — that even two generations ago would have been sniffed at as unworthy of expending one red cent or one hour’s work to develop now get mined intensively. The easy, cheap, abundant deposits have already been mined, and their outputs converted into things (some portion of which now resides in our dumps and oceans).
Energy sources show the same track, of declining quality and more difficult acquisition locations. Coal is not coal: the hot-burning, concentrated anthracite that powered steam locomotives and engines has been replaced by the bituminous coals that don’t burn as well, emit more waste and are less concentrated and are now being replaced by lignites that work even less well. It’s not tonnes, and estimated tonnes of reserves that matter: quality does, too. The same with oil, from light sweet crudes that emerged under their own pressure, to heavier oils, to oils with more water content, to oil-like substances such as bitumens from sands, kerogens from shales and the like.
We’ve built a world that needs ever more of the good stuff — whatever the “stuff” involved is — to grow. It, in turn, grows because populations grow, and because expectations for living rise. It’s been built on ever more expensive, ever less quality sources.
That’s change that’s already happening — and pretending it’s not is slamming the greatest lid the human race has seen down on the biggest explosion to come.
For almost forty years now we’ve been holding that lid on. It shows up as “no real improvement in the standard of living” — yes, the truly impoverished are rising up to be poor middle-class (even weak reeds can do that), but the wealthy societies can’t be lifted by weak sources, which is why they haven’t risen, why their jobs go offshore, why they decline to meet the risers.
Entropy works in human affairs just as much as in physics — and for the same reasons.
We’ve hidden this, by piling on debt. Today the world’s debts have far outraced the world: if one final “fire sale” of the entire planet and everything in it could be held, we wouldn’t have half the wealth required to pay off the debts that exist. Every year we fall further behind.
That was our lid. When it blows, it will blow the institutions of our society apart.
The so-called “1%” will not be able to hide in tall towers and gated communities. Their corporations will fail as the globalization they depend on ends abruptly. Their governments will be broken, unable to offer them any “help”. Their own personal wealth, held in financial institutions, will be plundered and ultimately made worthless.
Those who call for transition to a world we can live in — one that honours limits — are the ones who would prefer an orderly descent rather than a disorderly explosive collapse.
That transition thinking also attends to the climatic changes already showing themselves (and easily projected), or attends to the preservation of ecosystems as ecosystems, or attends to the creation of places and communities that aren’t just cogs in a vast global machine, is a happy co-incidence.
What all of these are is the rejection of business as usual.
It’s something we should all reject, before the lid blows off and forces us to.