A Time When There Was Still Time

I recently spent a little time in a university library, perusing the collection. As always I lingered the most in the sections on environment and ecology and related sections on ecological economics and sustainability. There I encountered, as usual, shelf after shelf of sincerely reasoned, passionately argued works—thousands of books in total—describing in every detail the broken relationship humans have had with the planet, especially in the industrial age. Book after book also described ways out of this mess.

I also noticed that the books tended to come from two time periods: the 1970s and the last two decades. While there was some work from the 1980s and early 1990s, there was relatively little. The Google Books ngram viewer backs this up:

(I recall reading that at the end of the 1970s there was a poll taken that found that Americans were by and large conflicted about energy and sustainability issues, but by the 1980s that ambivalence had evaporated and energy and sustainability concerns vanished.)

The more I’ve read works from the 1970s, and the more I’ve read about that time, the more I’ve concluded that those of us who didn’t experience these things first-hand need to understand what went right and what went wrong. Why didn’t a great transition to sustainability happen? What forces shaped that time? Is now different? In some sense it might be, in that the 1970s might have been a warning, a time when there was still time. Now the same awareness comes with some measure of doubt as to whether major problems can be avoided or even tempered.

Recently I read Eleanor Agnew’s Back From The Land, a look at how and why people went back to the land in the 1970s but eventually returned to the societies and communities they left after years or sometimes decades of independent living. (Short review: the book was interesting and worth borrowing from a library; the author shares many anecdotes from a range of back-to-the-landers and covers all sorts of challenges they faced. However, the author’s personal negative experiences seem to color the tale quite a bit.) More than anything, I was reminded of how many of the same sentiments that drove people back to the land four decades ago have made a resurgence in the last few years, though I think there was a bit more counter-cultural excitement (and dare I say naiveté) in those movements than today.

While there’s now a lot of interest in self-sufficiency, growing food, sustainability, and anti-consumerism, I get the sense that there are real differences. At a basic level, it seems that many who opt for self-sufficiency now are doing it out of frugality as much as anything, and without any grand vision of how this cultural movement might upturn the current unsustainable order.  Agnew frequently mentions how shocked she and her fellow homesteaders were that society didn’t fall apart during the few short years in which they expected it to crumble, leading to a glorious ecologically-minded social revolution. (Often it seems people have wrongly extrapolated from this and now claim we don’t have challenges because the problems that were discussed in the 1970s didn’t arrive when some overzealous prognosticators claimed they would.)  Many of the former homesteaders she spoke with returned to mainstream society out of necessity after the strain of living independently did in their relationships and put them in financial straits they couldn’t resolve.

I’m sure readers who were participants in those movements no doubt know better what went on and what was learned, and I’d be interested in hearing about that. What seems clear is that awareness was present, and even for a time the political will, and yet society’s course was unaltered and even those who tried to buck the trend gave up in the end.  Thus there is something to be said for the exasperation I have felt (and I think broadly our generation feels) when I learn of opportunity after opportunity that existed but was not seized upon to take appropriate action when it might have had a greater impact, leaving us to deal with the predicament of the limits to growth with few if any effective options at our disposal.

As anyone who has read Limits to Growth knows, most of the considered scenarios reach limits and end in decline or collapse across a broad array of metrics, including industrial output, food production, and population. If it’s not one constraint that gets us, another does. (I briefly discussed this here—in the standard run, Scenario 1, resource limits are the proximate cause of decline, whereas in Scenario 2, with a greater resource base, it’s pollution broadly construed that does us in.) What was striking to me as I recently took a look at all three editions—the first from 1972, the second (Beyond The Limits) from 1992, and the 30-year Update from 2004—was the similarities. Each reflected the best data and best understanding of the world’s dynamics of its time and yet each showed essentially the same results: a standard run that reaches maximum industrial output and food production somewhere around 2015-2020. It seems that some things are different now from 1972—we’re very near the limits if we’re following the standard run—despite the fact that some people misunderstood the findings and thought that the 1970s was that time.

Despite the differences between the 1970s and now, there are a few worrying ways in which things are still the same:

  • The scope of the predicaments of ecological overshoot and limits to growth are recognized by a small set of people, but remain unresolved as they continue to worsen.
  • Nations continually make policy choices that exacerbate the situation and smart policy tends to only be temporary. (Perhaps a manifestation of the Energy Trap.)
  • Some of those who are concerned about sustainability and overshoot make aggressive predictions or misinterpreted comments, which are then used by deniers to discredit the fundamental scientific ideas themselves in the eyes of the public.
  • Economic growth is the universally agreed upon objective for all economies.

One person who’s been at the forefront of not only understanding the predicament we’re in but also in developing effective responses is Herman Daly. Several months ago I went over some of his excellent work on Steady-State Economics, which challenges that last point: the idea that growth is required for a modern society to function. I had intended to follow up on that post, but felt I needed to stew on it a bit more. The outcome was a slightly different tack.1

Finally, I have to entertain the possibility that not only some of the circumstances, but some of the mistakes made in the 1970s are repeating themselves.  For example: self-sufficiency is hard.  Agnew commented on how much easier homesteaders like her thought growing all of one’s own food would be.  Similarly, I’ve read several blogs of amateur permaculturists who have moved to Portland in recent years and have tried to live off of the food grown in their backyard.  These modern experiments went no better than those of four decades prior.  (As Sharon Astyk noted, it’s hard to grow much of your own calories in a garden without growing a lot of root crops. And soil restoration was something that definitely seemed to be missing from the 1970s recollections I found; at least now with the suffusion of organic gardening ideas there’s more awareness of the need for living soil.)  Related to the inability to achieve food self-sufficiency was and still is today a sometimes myopic view of the aspects of one’s life in which self-sufficiency is important (for example, let’s not get into how Agnew and others chose extremely rural homesteads that caused them to regularly drive long distances to get to the nearest town) and the level of austerity one should achieve. (See Adam’s excellent posts [one, two, and three] on this topic.)

Overall, I’ve concluded that while the sentiments of the 1970s were by and large similar, the circumstances are most certainly different. We are now in a time when there isn’t still time.

1. Herman Daly has graciously agreed to chat with us on steady-state economics and related topics.  We’ll be sharing that in the near future.

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Responses to “A Time When There Was Still Time”

  1. Hi, Barath. This is a really thoughtful piece, thanks. On the shift, my sense is that with the inauguration of Reagan, and the declaration of a “new dawn in America,” we were given permission to allow the worst of our own bad behaviors from our leaders. Those behaviors were mirrored by expansion of corporate power. Everyone gave everyone else permission to shuck any moral values for cooperative behavior and living within limits, in favor of me first.

    The ’70s movement didn’t recognize the importance of maximum power, IMO. If you take yourself out of society, and deny yourself the power to maximize your own individual contributions to society and the contributions of the larger society, then you sideline yourself. That is why the changes that we make now in our own individual lives must work within the system, at least to the extent that we Maximize Power. Survivalism, living off the grid in a grass hut isolated from community is not the answer. Ideally we need to stay one step ahead of the larger system in adapting to more efficient ways and reducing power? We need to begin reducing power in all aspects of our lives, but those reductions need to contribute maximally to the mission of promoting change, since, as you say, there isn’t much time.

  2. Mary -

    Do you think it might have been that the 1970s were an anomaly in the consumerist trends that began after World War II? I wonder if the 1980s felt to most people as just a return to “normality”. (Unfortunately that normality was a very abnormal social arrangement when seen from the perspective of almost any other time period in human history…)

    Regarding engaging in society rather than dropping out of it, I agree completely. Despite the brokenness of our political institutions, I still remain politically active. And I hope to become more active in local politics as well. (Adam had the great suggestion that each of us should run for local office—city council, mayor, local city committees, etc.)

  3. I think the ’70s were quite the shock for Americans–their first oil shock. At the same time, the global emergy per capita and the per capital oil production began to wane. America began its international expansion through predatory capitalism, linked below. Our political leaders, instead of leveraging down to match the energy cues from the system, leveraged up by stealing everyone else’s game pieces.

    The Maximum Power principle (MPP, 4th law) says that “you can’t play for long unless you steal your opponent’s gamepieces.” And after the 1970s, and due to the US’s powerful momentum, oil prosperity, and military might, Americans did just that. Through the IMF, World Bank, and other organizations, the U.S. achieved petrodollar status and expanded the control of their monetary system through expansive international loans. In other words, the system self-organized into a design where the US, already in power, designed new feedback loops to bring in even more power. The MPP basically says that in a situation with surplus energy, those that have typically get more, through competitive exclusion. This principle is illustrated in the brief 2 minute video on predatory capitalism (at the link below). The principle was also described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. We were very successful at competitive exclusion and maximum power, to the extent that we are now in a real fix, having leveraged ourselves into an infrastructure that demands 1/4 of the world’s waning oil production. The fifth law of hierarchy says that “You shorten the cumulative length of the game the more you steal.”

    Game over man.


  4. Barath,
    Thanks for doing the exploration on the 70s situation and seeing it in the light of current predicament, good effort. It seems with limits to growth project, Paul Ehrlich and others, there was a ray of hope during that time but the opportunities were clearly squandered by the deal with Saudis to supply oil and the interruption in the party ended and it intensified for another 40 years. In the meantime, America sold the myth of endless growth based on non-renewable resources to the rest of the world by way of hyper marketing and control through world-bank etc and developed countries and charities gave to developing countries vaccines without accompanying them with birth control and women’s education that has caused a significant population overshoot. These stupidies will come in full visibility as primary energy source (oil) declines. What remains to be seen is if the world will truly wake up and move in an enlightened direction or if it will find excuses and finger pointing and go into conflict for the remaining resources, perhaps in the name of religion [mankind has not been able to acknowledge that its intelligence in the absence of wisdom can lead to disastrous consequences so has always found a way to rationalize the irrational when the truth becomes very inconvenient to accept].

  5. Mary – I’m curious about something that I suppose is a bit theoretical. Is it possible to quantify (say using standard economic metrics) the point at which a nation taking the resources from others will reach a point of diminishing (or even negative) returns for it?

  6. Piyush – I wonder if we’ll find that we won’t see wholesale shifts that are either in the wrong direction (oil wars, etc.) or the right direction (energy conservation, etc.) but some sort of conflicted combination of the two. I could completely imagine a president proposing an energy efficiency program, which is of course a sort of forced austerity, only to have the next president win on a platform of scapegoating and oil wars. Once those turn out badly, the pendulum swings back. I suppose this would be the same as it ever was…

  7. Barath, great question, and thanks for letting me explain. Every time I get to explain some of these principles in plain English, it allows me to decant the lingo.

    In contrast to emergy-based valuations, market valuations using standard economic metrics or currencies makes significant errors in at least two places; first the measure does not include the contributions of earth energies and natural resources built hierarchically over time. Thus the value of natural resources in particular, timber, or shrimp, or gold, or oil is measured by demand based subjective measures of willingness to pay with market valuation, rather than the real contribution from Nature based on the amount of time and solar energy it took to make the resources.

    Secondly, money “swims upstream” so, as Gary Snyder says below, so it seeks to own the source, yet it never makes it completely to the source, as it stops short of the circulating with Nature, so money is always working to catch up. And third, if the money is debt driven, it is borrowing from the future, assuming a future that not only grows but will have more resources (stocks) to draw from in order to meet that growth. That ensures that any money metric will overshoot–we will be in a situation of negative returns for our international trade long before the money system recognizes it.

    from Money Goes Upstream (Gary Snyder)
    . . . I can smell the grass, feel the stones with bare feet
    though I sit here shod and clothed
    with all the people. That’s my power.
    And some odd force is in the world
    Not a power
    That seeks to own the source.
    It dazzles and it slips us by,
    It swims upstream.


    In contrast, emergy synthesis evaluates net balance of international trade quite well, for those same reasons above. The measurement is based on solar units rather than money, and since it is supply driven, based on the “Supply of Nature”, it is independent of demand driven vagaries that occur in markets. See examples at the link below for several good articles and a link to the Emergy database.


  8. Barath,
    Yes the reality is unlikely to be the binary I mentioned. But it is more likely that we will see significant non-linearities even as the curve of total oil seems to decline smoothly, basically disruptions happening in ways that we may not be able to imagine. These will be due to the non-linearities in human nature and in the fragility of the global supply chains that we have created that are optimized for efficiency rather than resilience. It is going to be really tough to create resilient systems overnight and with climate change pounding on these systems with diminishing energy to cope with this [too little buffers to overcome variability]. We cannot survive in the numbers and in the places we presently are without the global supply chain at least in meeting the food essentials, we have significantly enhanced the local carrying capacities due to globalization based on non-renewables. The key challenge is going to be the basics – food and water [I am assuming air will not be as big a problem]. If these are mostly well handled by people and governments working together [people doing as much localization as possible and governments managing as much minimal global supply chains as needed for essentials], then there will be a better chance for a peaceful and enlightened direction. I see lot of localization movements but many places we cannot meet the food needs from local carrying capacities at all, the landbase is too little for the number of people or too degraded and many tools etc used for agriculture require industrial supply chain. Whether this people + government action will happen remains to be seen. Predicting the future is a difficult business.

  9. Mary – Interesting. So if I understand that correctly, determining the point of diminishing returns for a nation capturing others’ resources is in theory as easy as calculating the emergy due to, for example, resource wars, versus the emergy of the desired energy source?

  10. Piyush – That definitely sounds plausible. Regarding predictions, one thing I’ve tried to do in general is to rely upon things that have a more clear basis, such as oil production. (It seems that there exist reasonable predictions for global oil production; I’ve gleaned that we’re looking at an all-liquids peak by 2015 followed by a decline rate that in the best case is annually about 1% for all-liquids, 2% for oil, and 4% for available net exports of oil.) From there it’s possible to extrapolate (say by using Hirsch’s estimate of a 1-to-1 correspondence of oil production decline and GDP), though at best it’d be educated guessing.

  11. Citation: Brown, M.T. 2003. Resource Imperialism: Emergy perspectives on sustainability, balancing the welfare of nations and international trade. In: “Advances in Energy Studies. Reconsidering the Importance of Energy”, S. Ulgiati, M.T. Brown, M. Giampietro, R.A. Herendeen, and K. Mayumi, Editors. SGE Publisher Padova, Italy, 2003, pp. 399-410. ISBN 88-86281-81-1.

    Emergy Accounting, was used to explore perspectives on sustainability of the economies of forty-one countries. The total emergy use and emergy from renewable and non-renewable sources in ca. 1997 were evaluated and compared, The analysis showed significant asymmetry, identifying three types of economies: (1) Sustaining Economies: those relying mostly on renewable resource flows; (2) Transforming Economies: countries with increasing participation of nonrenewable resource use; and (3) Consuming Economies: countries that rely almost entirely on non-renewable resource use.
    Indices of sustainability were evaluated and compared between countries. The USA and western European countries have high short run sustainability due primarily to their competitive trade advantage but are obviously vulnerable to changes in fossil fuel availability as the percent of their total resource base is 10% or less. Countries with the highest renewable resource base (Bolivia and Afghanistan) are so poorly developed that they cannot provide sufficiently for their populations, so while they are more sustainable in the long run, their short run sustainability is questionable. Other indices suggest that countries with intermediate levels of non-renewable use compared to renewable flows (Canada and Australia) may be more sustainable.
    An emergy to money ratio (EMR) was calculated for each country based on the ratio of total emergy use to GDP (in US dollars) and suggested as a measure of the buying power of an economy when compared to other economies. Emergy balance of payments resulting from international trade was also evaluated. Trade between all 41 countries was evaluated using an emergy measure of buying power of currencies and an Emergy Exchange Ratio. Sustaining Economies, when trading globally, are at a disadvantage, exporting more value per dollar than they import. Transforming economies have moderate trade disadvantages with consuming economies, but benefit from trade with Sustaining Economies. Consuming Economies benefit most from trade with other countries enjoying trade advantages of as much as 80 to one when trading with Sustaining Economies
    The relative buying power of national currencies (or Emergy Exchange Ratio) was used as the basis for suggesting sustainable trade policies that balance imports and exports between nations. It is suggested that balanced trade is achieved when emergy of imports and exports of trading partners are equal, not when monetary flows are equal.

    I’ll send you the PDF.

  12. Mary: the Brown paper sounds very interesting; I too would like to see the PDF. One reason is a question that the abstract seems to raise:

    In the description of Sustaining Economies is the statement “… while they are more sustainable in the long run, their short run sustainability is questionable.” In what follows, I don’t see any further mention of the short run/long run distinction. In this model, how would the comparative advantage of the transforming/consuming economies change as the limits of non-renewable resources come into play? What would the dynamics be like as their availability peaks and goes into decline?

  13. Don, thanks for your interest. Since I’m just the interpreter, I sent your question to Dr. Brown, but he’s a busy guy, so he may not respond.

    From the paper, “Should fossil fuels decrease in availability, economies with larger portions of their emergy budgets supported by renewable sources are less likely to exhibit serious dislocations of populations. Table 1 gives renewable percent for the countries. On average, Global percent renewable empower (emergy per time) was about 33% in 1995, in contrast to the USA and countries of Western Europe, which have less than 10% of their resource base from renewable sources. In the short run, competitive advantage is won by economies with low percent renewable resource base and so economic sustainability in the short run is highest for those economies with high nonrenewable use. Long run sustainability (assuming declines in fossil fuel availability) would seem to belong to those economies that had the largest percent renewable basis, yet these countries lack enough resources to maintain viable economies at the present time and therefore are not competitive in the short run.”

    My interpretation is that the “sustaining economies” operating from mostly renewables are more vulnerable in the short term as they have been during the past 30 years, due to trade imbalances and population overshoot, as mentioned above. In transition, as fossil fuels begin to wane, there is the added impact of war, famine, plague, and other impacts of overshoot. This last bit is my interpretation, not Brown’s opinion.