The overarching story

What is the great story of our time? What is the overarching framework into which our actions fit?

I’m not good with names, but “The End of Expansion” comes to mind.

Since the human race as we know it — homo sapiens sapiens — first came to be in East Africa, we have been expanding.

We have expanded over the planet, into every type of ecology known on earth.

We have increased our numbers, acquiring techniques that allowed us to grow them beyond what the wanderings of hunter-gatherers could sustain. Agriculture, industry, management all allowed for scale to increase, borne up on the backs of ever more concentrated energy sources.

We have increased our reach, with instruments, methods, technologies galore: we are no longer bound by the phenomena we perceive alone, or the scale in which our hands, eyes and ears operate.

We have come, therefore, to believe that this is normal — as indeed it was for tens of thousands of years.

But, to be living in the early days of the third millennium as we are, is to be living in a world where limits are now obvious.

There is no more earth to explore and settle. If there are no people somewhere, it is because there can’t be. Certainly more space could be found: we could build oceanic dwellings, or space stations, or cities on the ice of Antarctica, but we’re unlikely to.

There is no more earth to use to support the numbers we have. To be able to go forward we must live within our means, and that means that the human race cannot use more than the earth can provide. We are using one and a half earths here in 2012: we are eating our capital stock, leaving even less for the years beyond.

Our seven billions — which may well keep rising — are too many already.

That’s “too many for some of the renewable resources”. The non-renewable ones — the ones which form on geologic timeframes and therefore, once used, are gone within our species’ grasp — are running out. It matters not how much there is. What matters is that it’s finite. There’s only so much left.

We take from those at the fastest rate we ever have, of course: that’s what all those numbers, in all those places, means.

In fact, thanks to debt, we’ve taken future years’ supplies and pulled them forward into today’s demand. What we have to show for that is a large pile of debt to be serviced. Capital repayment plus interest payments imply that we must keep growing, even if we stopped our growth of numbers or our growth of standard of living.

Are you beginning to see the story yet? We must figure out how to get off the growth treadmill.

We will have to reinvent our economy, both in its purposes (you can have many ephemera, many transient products, many things that break easily, in a world of growth) and its finances, for a world where growth is not the norm.

We will need to think more carefully about how we use resources: a finite amount (however large) means that we must make decisions about what to use which things for.

We will need to think very carefully about how we live, how we use the landscape, what we do where, and how we do it where we do it, as a result.

That, in turn, will have us renovating, restoring, rebuilding our world, to change what we come to think we need to change.

That is the great story of our time. All our policy decisions, all our entrepreneurial actions, all our social interactions, fit into it, whether we know it or not, want them to or not, care or not.

The only question is: what’s the ending? Does it end well — or badly?

Either way, it is our destiny.


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