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Illth

“Anyone who believes exponential growth

can go on forever in a finite world is

either a madman or an economist.”

Today, we face a set of complex, interconnected crises that threaten the sustainability of our increasingly brittle global social-ecological system, such as climate destabilization and rapid loss of biodiversity. In the blink of an eye — in geologic time scales — the explosive growth of our species has begun to severely crowd out other species and fundamentally altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. By doing so, we have dramatically reduced the resilience of our global ecosystem and its ability to provide for human needs beyond the next few decades.

 

Physics professor Albert Bartlett, who passionately regarded human overpopulation as a monumental challenge facing humanity, warned that the greatest shortcoming of the human race was its inability to understand the exponential function, where modest growth mutates into runaway growth over time. Graphs of exponential growth trends take on a hockey-stick shape and shoot sharply upwards as they progress to the right. That increasingly steep incline in a trend — any trend — is usually a sign of trouble ahead — whether in natural ecosystems or in man-made social or technological systems.

 

Exponential growth in a finite environment simply cannot be sustained. More specifically: a positive exponential growth rate (no matter how limited) of any organisms (like human beings) in a closed, bounded system (like Earth) will eventually overpower the system (like cancer). Natural growth in the populations of organisms develops a characteristic momentum where, put simply, more produces more.

 

We are in a race between educating ourselves about how the Earth’s biophysical systems work and interact — with a large and relentlessly growing human population now at its center favoring an overly burdensome, land-intensive ‘western diet’ — and destroying the planet outright through mindless acts of fear, greed, ignorance, and hubris.

 

Competition for dominance in our taut, hyper-competitive global marketplace continues to thwart efforts to replace economic growth and efficiency with ethical and sustainable development. Barriers to acceptance of sustainable development include well-entrenched and rabid consumer materialism in developed societies and the understandable aspirations of developing countries for Western levels of material affluence.

 

Today's rich nations got that way from the easy availability and exploitation of energy-dense fossil fuels, a one-time bonfire of natural resources commandeered from sparsely populated and 'lesser developed' regions, and, in many cases, shameful slave labor.

The conventional grow-or-collapse economics model of those last two centuries was fashioned during a singular time when the world was relatively empty of humans, abundant in natural resources, and when growth and development held infinite possibilities. This economic model, conceived during a humanity-lite period, could be thought of as empty-world 'ego-nomics’ — because it was heavily influenced by personal, regional, and national self-interest (ego) and by fierce — and very often bloody and cruel — competition for economic resources and regional dominance. But this rapacious ego-nomic growth has of late brought about a rapid decline in the richness of life processes — laying waste to the Earth and digesting the biosphere at an ever more frantic pace.

 

‘Progress’ today means increasingly competitive and manic consumption — driven by voracious 'egos' at the individual, state, and national levels and risky techno-optimism — that is rapidly devouring its own long-term viability. And economies that are relentlessly growing in throughput are getting bigger at an accelerating rate, exceeding limits, and damaging the self-repairing capacity of the planet resulting in clearly undesirable un-economic growth — or ‘illth,’ the opposite of wealth.

 

As economist and interdisciplinary philosopher Kenneth Boulding wryly noted, ‘Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.’

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​© 2020 Rich 'Rico' Leon