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.