The great question of our time is to know where is the limit of Human development
Let's take the metaphor of the car. At the beginning of the industrial era, it appears. Only a few countries got into it, started it up, and then were joined by others throughout the century. The set of countries that got on board, which we will call the industrial civilization, took a very particular trajectory [...]. After a slow and gradual start, the car picked up speed at the end of the Second World War, and began a breathtaking ascent called "the great acceleration. Today, after some signs of overheating and engine sputtering, the speedometer needle begins to waver. Will it continue to climb? Will it stabilize? Will it come down?
We may have seen it in school, but we are not used to seeing exponential growth. Of course, we see an upward curve, a growth. But what growth! While the human mind easily imagines arithmetic growth, for example a hair that grows one centimeter per month, it has difficulty imagining exponential growth.
If you fold a large piece of cloth in half, after four folds its thickness will be about 1 cm. If you could fold it in half another 29 times, the thickness would reach 5,400 km, the distance from Paris to Dubai! A few more folds would be enough to exceed the distance Earth-Moon. A GDP (for example that of China) that grows by 7% per year, represents an economic activity that doubles every 10 years, thus quadrupling in 20 years. After 50 years, we are dealing with a volume of 32 Chinese economies, or, at current values, the equivalent of almost four additional world economies! Do you really believe that this is possible in the current state of our planet?
There is no shortage of examples to describe the incredible behavior of the exponential curve, from the water lily equation dear to Albert Jacquard, to the chessboard where each square is filled with a number of grains of rice multiplied by two, all of which show that this dynamic is very surprising, even counter-intuitive: when the effects of this growth become visible, it is often too late. In mathematics, an exponential function goes up to the sky. In the real world, on Earth, there is a ceiling much earlier. In ecology, this ceiling is called the carrying capacity of an ecosystem (noted K). There are generally three ways for a system to respond to an exponential. Take the classic example of a rabbit population growing on a meadow. Either the population stabilizes gently before the ceiling (i.e. it no longer grows, but finds an equilibrium with the environment), or the population exceeds the maximum threshold that the meadow can support and then stabilizes in an oscillation that slightly degrades the meadow, or it breaks through the ceiling and continues to accelerate (overshooting), which leads to a collapse of the meadow, followed by the rabbit population.
These three theoretical patterns can be used to illustrate three eras. Indeed, the first schema typically corresponds to the political ecology of the 1970s: there was still time and opportunity to follow a trajectory of "sustainable development" (what the English-speaking world calls a "steady-state economy"). The second is the ecology of the 1990s, when, thanks to the concept of the ecological footprint, we realized that the Earth's global carrying capacity was exceeded. Since then, every year, humanity as a whole "consumes more than a planet" and ecosystems are degrading. [...]For the last 20 years, we have continued to accelerate knowingly, destroying at an even faster rate the Earth-system, the one that hosts and supports us. Whatever the optimists may say, the times we live in are clearly marked by the spectre of collapse.
We must now realize that many parameters of our societies and our impact on the planet are showing an exponential pace: population, GDP, water and energy consumption, use of fertilizers, production of engines or telephones, tourism, atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, number of floods, damage to ecosystems, destruction of forests, rate of extinction of species, etc. The list is endless. The list is endless. This "dashboard," widely known among scientists, has almost become the logo of the new geological epoch called the Anthropocene, an era in which humans have become a force that is disrupting the major biogeochemical cycles of the Earth system.
What has happened? Why the hype? Some scholars of the Anthropocene date the beginning of this epoch to the mid-19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, when the use of coal and the steam engine became widespread, leading to the railroad boom of the 1840s, and was followed by the discovery of the first oil deposits. [...]
The age of the thermal machine and the technosciences has replaced the age of agrarian and artisanal societies. The appearance of fast and cheap transport has opened up trade routes and erased distances. In the industrialized world, the infernal pace of the automation of production lines has become widespread and, progressively, the levels of material comfort have increased globally. Decisive advances in public hygiene, nutrition and medicine increased life expectancy and dramatically reduced mortality rates. The world's population, which doubled approximately every 1,000 years for the last eight millennia, has doubled in just one century! From 1 billion people in 1830, we went to 2 billion in 1930. Then it accelerated: it took only 40 years for the population to double once again. Four billion in 1970. Seven billion today. In the space of one lifetime, a person born in the 1930s has seen the population grow from 2 billion to 7 billion! In the course of the 20th century, energy consumption has increased tenfold, the extraction of industrial minerals by 27 times and the extraction of building materials by 34 times. The scale and speed of the changes we are causing are unprecedented in history. This great acceleration can also be seen at the social level. The German philosopher and sociologist Hartmut Rosa describes three dimensions of this social acceleration. The first is technical acceleration: "the increase in the speed of travel and communication is also at the origin of the experience of the 'shrinking of space' that is so characteristic of modern times: spatial distances seem to be getting shorter as their crossing becomes faster and easier. The second is the acceleration of social change, i.e. our habits, our relational patterns are transforming more and more rapidly. For example, "the fact that our neighbors are moving in and out more frequently, that our life partners and jobs have shorter and shorter 'half-lives', and that clothing fashions, car models, and music styles are changing at an increasing rate. We are witnessing a real "shrinking of the present". The third acceleration is the acceleration of the pace of our lives, because in response to technical and social acceleration, we try to live faster. We fill our time more efficiently, avoid "wasting" this precious time, and strangely enough, everything we need (and want) to do seems to increase indefinitely. "The acute 'lack of time' has become a permanent condition of modern societies . " Result? Flight from happiness, burnout and depression en masse. And to top it all off, this social acceleration that we relentlessly manufacture/submit does not even have the ambition to improve our standard of living anymore, it just serves to maintain the status quo.
Where are the limits?
So the big question of our time is where the limit is. Do we have the capacity to keep accelerating? Is there a limit (or several) to our exponential growth? And if so, how much time do we have before a collapse? Simple, even simplistic, the car metaphor has the merit of clearly distinguishing the different "problems" (let's call them "crises") we face. It suggests that there are two kinds of limits, or more precisely, that there are limits and boundaries. The first are impassable because they run up against the laws of thermodynamics: this is the problem of the gas tank. The second ones can be crossed, but they are no less insidious, because they are invisible, and we don't realize that we have crossed them until it is too late. This is the problem of the speed and the road holding of the vehicle.
The limits of our civilization are imposed by the quantities of so-called "stock" resources, which are by definition non-renewable (fossil fuels and minerals), and "flow" resources (water, wood, food, etc.) which are renewable but which we are using up at a rate far too fast for them to have time to regenerate. Even though the engine is always more efficient, there comes a time when it can no longer function because of a lack of fuel.
The borders of our civilization represent thresholds that must not be crossed or else the systems that keep our civilization alive will be destabilized and destroyed: the climate, the great cycles of the Earth system, the ecosystems - which include all non-human living beings -, etc. If the speed of the vehicle is too high, it is no longer possible to perceive the details of the road and the risk of an accident increases. We will try to see what happens when, without warning, the car leaves the marked out track and enters an uncertain and perilous world.
These crises are of profoundly different natures, but they all have one common denominator: the acceleration of the car. Moreover, each of the limits and boundaries is capable of seriously destabilizing civilization. The problem, in our case, is that we are simultaneously running up against several limits and that we have already crossed several borders!
As for the car itself, it has of course been perfected over the decades. It has become much more spacious, modern and comfortable, but at what price! Not only is it impossible to slow down or turn - the accelerator pedal is fixed to the floor and the steering has jammed - but, more embarrassingly, the interior has become extremely fragile.
The car is our society, our thermo-industrial civilization. We are in it, GPS programmed on a sunny destination. No break is planned. Sitting comfortably in the car, we forget the speed, we ignore the living beings crushed in the process, the enormous energy that is spent and the quantity of exhaust fumes that we leave behind us. As you know, once on the highway, only the time of arrival, the temperature of the air conditioning and the quality of the radio broadcast count...
The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.
Sustainable growth, a phrase beloved by politicians, is an oxymoron. In a world of finite size, with limited resources, sustained growth of any material thing, such as a population or an economy, is not possible. Physical objects or processes cannot grow forever in a finite world. Understanding this simple fact is central to any understanding of sustainability.
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