Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Winning the Great Wager
Alex Steffen, 24 Feb 05

I've been trying to sum up my thoughts on the essential challenges facing humanity: the WorldChanging problem statement, if you will.

Here's a first stab at that summary, an essay titled Winning the Great Wager. I've included it in the extended entry.

I welcome feedback and suggestions!

Winning the Great Wager

"They did not fully understand the technique. In a very short time, they nearly destroyed the planet." - words appearing to William S. Burroughs in a dream.

The world is different in our heads than under our feet. It's hard to reconcile the planet we all think we live on with the planet as it actually is.

I know that to me, the planet still seems almost incomprehensibly vast. I mean, really, I've travelled quite a bit, and it’s a huge world. Imagine trying to walk across one of the continents. It’d take years. Spin a globe and our hometowns – everything we see and do in our daily lives, all our favorite places and everyone we hang out with – are the tiniest of dots whirling by. Flying over the Pacific at hundreds of miles per hour and you still spend hour after hour after hour with nothing below to look at but empty ocean. On a planet this big, how serious can our impact really be?

But things are seldom what they seem. Less than a quarter of the Earth's surface actually sports much in the way of life. The rest – the dark deep ocean, the high mountain peaks, the deserts and ice caps – isn't totally lifeless. Life is tough, after all: weird microbial life thrives in the boiling sulfuric volcanic vents on the ocean floor, and various forms of algae, bacteria and viruses are found everywhere on the planet. But it's hard to make a living in a place where nature's bounty consists of a few bacteria going pokily about their business deep beneath the frozen ice. No, for our purposes, we've got a quarter of a planet.

And there are more and more of us who share it. The global population has mushroomed from two and a half billion to over six billion in just the last 50 years. Numbers like these, abstract and astronomically huge, are difficult to put in perspective, so here's one thing to think about: some believe more people have been born since 1950 than, as Worldwatch puts it, "during the four million years since our ancestors first stood upright." Some demographers think there are now more people alive than have ever lived, that for the first time since we came down out of the trees, the living outnumber the dead.

And more folks keep showing up at the party. Our population is still growing. We live on a planet of teens, pre-teens and children. There are over two billion people under the age of eighteen. Huge strides are being made in slowing population growth: in educating young women, providing them with economic opportunities, and making sure they have access to family-planning techniques – the three things that have been shown to most quickly slow the population explosion. But the odds are good that most of them will want, as we nearly all do, to have families. This means that even in the best case scenarios there will probably be at least eight billion of us forty-five years from now. It could be fourteen billion. But even if all goes well, we'll be welcoming another 2 billion to the global dinner table. This is the equivalent of adding a new city, larger than Seattle, every week, every year, for the next fifty years.

Small planet. Many people.


One way to wrap our brains around the implications of that many people sharing a small planet is to do some math, divide up the usable part of the globe by the number of folks who want to use it. This would give us a sense of what a fair share would be for each of us.

To be really fair, though, we should probably not use up everything right away. Our kids and grandkids may want to eat, drink and breathe, too. So, we should probably only take as much as we can while allowing nature to renew itself.

It's like when people plan for retirement. You save money – build up a investment portfolio, say – and then try to live on the revenue those investments create. In this case, our natural “capital” is a gift we've inherited simply by having the good luck to evolve on such a bountiful planet. And in using that capital, we should leave enough nature undestroyed that future generations can draw upon it as well. We should leave the capital alone and live off the interest.

So, really, we don't have an entire planet to use, if we're being fair about it. We don't even have a quarter of the planet to use. What we have, if we're being fair, is that portion of the planet that we can use without trashing nature so badly that our grandkids are reduced to grubbing for withered tubers in a world of cockroaches and weeds -- divided by the number of people who want to use it.

How much nature is that per person? Well, luckily, some ecogeeks have worked that out for us. They've found a way to measure the impacts of our lives on the planet, what they call our "ecological footprints." In a fair and sustainable world, these ecological footprints would work out -- in Matthis Wackernegel's equations, which really smart people seem to think are pretty accurate, if not perhaps a bit optimistic -- to about 1.9 hectares per person (that's 4.7 acres). In other words, if you divided the usable part of the world up by the number of people who want to use it, we'd each have find a way to meet our needs sustainably from the bounty of a little under 2 hectares.

Unfortunately, we're already using an average 2.3 hectares per person, planetwide. To make matters worse, our sustainable share of the planet is shrinking. Part of this is a natural result of population growth: divide the planet by more people and you get a smaller piece of land.

But the planet is shrinking for another reason: we're using it up. We each get 1.9 hectares, and we're already using 2.3. Where's the extra half a hectare coming from? It's coming from nature's capital. Every year, we cut more forests, graze more cows, drive more miles, dump more trash -- gobble up more stuff, and spit out more waste. And since we're already gobbling and spitting more than the planet can sustainably take, the result is that every year nature has less to offer us. To make matters worse, this spiral seems to be accelerating and the gap between sustainability and reality widening.

Here too, really geeky guys with supercomputers have gone to work, and one thing they've found is pretty shocking: as they'd put it, we're already using between 40 and 50% of the world's "net primary productivity." What that means, for those of us whom math makes sleepy, is that humans are using about half of all the life on earth – that about half of all the plants, insects, microbes and mammals alive on the earth are being sucked into the systems that go to feed our needs. Think of every living thing on the planet as a river. We're diverting half of that river to suit our needs, already.

This is a pretty clear numerical description of the essential problem, because while we're busy sucking up all that "net primary productivity," there are a whole mess of other critters -- from salmon to tigers to little bacteria and beatles we're never heard of because they remain undiscovered by science -- that can't get what they need. Clearcuts; overgrazed grasslands; eroding farmlands; fishing boats strip-mining the sea; huge toxic plumes in the air and water, radiating out from our cities: our current over-use of nature is driving species extinct all around us.

If things go on like this, as many as half the species on Earth will be gone forever by 2050. Biologists call this the Sixth Extinction, a die-off much like the last days of the dinosaurs, except spreading much more quickly. That's one way to describe when we are, the epoch we call home: it's no Golden Age or Renaissance, not even a Paris in the 20s, really, but at least it's catchy. It'd make a good name for a retro-soul punk band: the Six Extinctions.

So, anyways, we're already living off savings here. But wait, things get worse. Some resources – like the solar energy beaming toward us from the sun – are renewable (that is, they don't run out when we use them right), while others – like oil – are not. Unfortunately, our society depends on non-renewable resources. This is not going to continue for two reasons.

The first is that most of these resources have increasingly severe environmental costs – simply getting them or using them leaves us with less natural capital. Burning oil is changing our climate. Mining metals leaves more and more ecological scars on the landscape (a harrowing sight everyone on the planet should see at least once, if only in a photo, is the formerly lush and beautiful pacific island nation of Nauru, which has been stripmined of the phosphates in its soil, leaving it a flat, featureless, nearly-dead rock).

The second reason is that we're running out. We have probably already passed the peak of global oil production. Oil company experts debate whether we will effectively run out of oil in 20 years or 50, but the essential point remains: if you're under 50, you can probably expect to live to see the day when affordable oil is gone.

In the meantime, our ability to burn oil, to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers, to brew chemical pesticides and cheap plastics and alloys, all mask the limited nature of the renewable natural resources at our disposal. They allow us to live a lifestyle that is both more luxurious and more destructive than we could possibly afford to live with our current technologies if we were reliant on renewable resources alone.

Again, our retirement analogy might come in handy. If you're living on interest, you're fine. But what if your bills are higher than the checks your interest pays out? What happens if, to cover those bills, you spend not only your interest but some of your capital? Well, next year, since there's less capital, you'll earn less interest. If your bills next year are higher still, and you have to dip even further into your capital, you're going to have even less interest the next year, and so on. Pretty soon, you're locked in a vicious spiral and headed towards bankruptcy. That's a pretty fair description of what's happening to our ecological capital, except for the bankruptcy at the end of the spiral doesn't end in a state-run old-people's home, it ends in a world of deserts, hunger and freaky weather.

How long before we're locked into that spiral and off to the ecological poor-house? No one knows for sure, but the scientific consensus seems to be converging on a figure somewhere around 25 years: if we haven't stopped hemorrhaging natural capital by 2030, we may not have enough left to choose a different path. Everyone studying the issue seems to agree that if we haven't made deep and profound changes to our impact on the planet by 2050, we're almost certainly screwed. As Dana Meadows said, in an era where we seem to be running hard up against the limits of so many natural systems, the ultimate limit turns out to be time.

Planet's shrinking, clock's ticking: what to do?

There are four usual answers.

I'm ashamed to say, some people still think the first and worst is an option, that we ought to "let nature take care of the problem." There are, unfortunately, still people out there who think those of us in the wealthy part of the world ought to hunker down, arm ourselves and let everyone else die off.

The die-off plan isn't discussed much in liberal polite company. That it's ever discussed at all -- at the tail end of a century that saw the Nazis, the killing fields of Cambodia and ethnic genocides from Armenia to Rwanda to Bosnia -- is disgusting. It rings like jackboots on cobblestones to imply that a large number of one's fellow beings shouldn't be here, or may not be able to survive.

The idea of drastic forced reductions in population is horrible. People are rightly appalled to hear about forced sterilizations, or the abuses of China's one-child policy. But the idea of die-off, of reducing the world's population through the simple expedient of letting millions and millions of people starve and murder each other when we might have saved them: that's both idiotic and evil.

It's idiotic because dying and desperate people are no respecters of nature, the future or their legacies – they're desperate, and they will use any and all resources and tools at their disposal to survive. Alan AtKisson points out, "A world full of desperate and impoverished people is a world emptied of swordfish, rainforests and panda bears." It is also a world full of people who will burn every last lump of coal, spray every last ounce of chemicals, and use every weapon at their disposal. The global environment, from which we cannot disentangle ourselves, will not outlast a massive human catastrophe. On the level of pure self-interest, then, this callow disregard for the fate of our fellows is utterly stupid.

And it's evil, simply and totally wrong, to do next to nothing to avoid the death, destruction and pain already unfolding around us in magnitudes that dwarf the Holocaust. To not do what we can to avoid that fate makes us all accomplices to what may become the greatest crime in human history.

No, we need to table all talk of die-off, altogether, forever. In fact, as Bruce Sterling says, we ought to be compiling dossiers on those advocating inaction for use in later trials for crimes against humanity. But that's a whole other question. Right now we're thinking about what might be done to avoid the arriving catastrophe.

The second usual answer is to "go back." Some say that the answer to our looming problems can be found in a return to traditional ways of life. They believe that since modern, industrialized society is clearly unsustainable, the obvious answer is to go back to the way we lived before the steam engine and the coal pit had even been imagined.

How far back, and under what circumstances, is a matter of some debate in these circles. At the most extreme end, you have advocates of the "neo-primitive" chanting "back to the Pleistocene!" and fondly dreaming of a day when we hunt deer underneath the abandoned freeway overpasses. At the other end, you have those who argue that if we merely went back to a life more like that of pre-industrial farming villages we'd have a much better chance.

There are two giant problems with these ideas. The first is that there's no evidence that any human society on the planet anywhere has ever been truly sustainable. Our earliest ancestors, striding out of Africa with nothing but stone tools and fire seemed to have wreaked all manner of havoc on the planet, helping drive the mammoth, the giant sloth, the wooly rhino and all sorts of big flightless birds off the cliff into extinction. Our families were causing ecological crises before they even figured out that you could grow seeds planted in the ground.

And after that it's never gotten much better. The planet is scattered with the ruins of farming civilizations which overshot their local ecological niche and collapsed. From the Maya to the Tocharians, from the Fertile Cradle to the Yangtze River, ancient peoples eroded out their farmlands and crashed.

Of course, sustainability is in practice a relative term. We've managed to royally screw things up in a little over a hundred years. Can we really pass judgment on a culture which managed to make it for millennia before burning out?

Well, if our goal is saving our skins today, yes. For there's another reason why going back is not an option: people. Traditional cultures were almost uniformly, by today's standards, places with some elbow room. You could take the entire population of the Maya world at its height, drop it in California, and you'd hardly notice (other than, one presumes, the resultant hand-waving by Right-wing politicians that all these glyphs, pyramids and quetzal feathers were undermining traditional American values).

Industrialism, specifically industrial colonialism, changed all that. When Europeans spread out and conquered the world over the last few centuries, they brought with them a number of what must appear to traditionalist eyes to be mixed blessings. Some of those include modern medicine, increased crop yields, and sewers. The result, in any case, was this: nearly everywhere in the world, more people have survived than would have in a traditional society, and those people have had kids, and those kids have survived and had kids, and so on, until the world is, by traditional standards, pretty darn crowded.

In such a world, a traditional life means starvation, epidemic and war. Farms plowed with oxen can't feed eight billion people. Forests cut for firewood can't cook their food. Traditional medicine can't keep crowded, poor people from the ravages of epidemics. Even if we were to accept the idea that life was better back in ancient Sumer or medieval France, there are simply too many of us to live that way today.

Which is, it must be said, not to disparage the value of traditional cultures. We ought to be doing everything we can to hold on to the art, the songs, the language and medicine, the woodcraft and place-based ecological knowledge that local communities have perfected over the centuries. These achievements are, seen in the proper light, part of our human heritage. But the ways of life that gave birth to them are changing, and the past is no haven for humanity.

The third usual answer is that we ought to be going without. To be more fair, some say that in order to live more sustainably, we simply must consume less. We need to choose a path of voluntary simplicity. The root of all our ills is that we're using too much in our effort to live more prosperously. Therefore, we need to scale back a bit, give up some prosperity, if we want to have a chance at reaching some sort of equilibrium with nature. Looking at our dilemma, it's the pretty clear and simple answer.

Unfortunately, as HL Mencken said, for every complex problem, there's an answer that clear, simple and wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me. We might as well do those things we can to reduce our impact. They do help. They also teach us some really important lessons about the connections between our lives and the natural world. We should recycle, reduce, reuse, compost and conserve, garden and walk.

But we ought not to kid ourselves that these are enough, or even likely to make a profound difference. For one thing, consumption reduction as a strategy hasn't yet worked anywhere. Even in those green and liberal cities where recycling is a religion, like Seattle, the amount of solid waste the average person generates each year is still going up. Even in bicycling Meccas like the San Francisco Bay Area, the average person still drives farther each year. Even with 30 years of being chided to turn off the lights when you leave a room, total power usage is still climbing everywhere in the industrialized world.

And are we really willing to cut back enough to live lives that are truly sustainable? I certainly don't see any evidence that we are. I grew up on communes, I’ve worked most of my life around and with environmentalists and I consider myself a pretty eco-conscious person, and I’ve met only a handful of Americans who live truly sustainably, using less than their fair 1.9 hectares. The rest of us drive cars, eat imported foods, travel internationally and generally go around mucking up the planet worse and worse while trying to do a little better. And if we aren’t willing to live within those limits, why do we think everyone else will be?

Neither is it as simple as saying the developed world’s full of the glutinous guilty and the developing world’s full of simplicity saints, for as Manuel Castells reminds us, "Every 'First World' city has in it a 'Third World' city of infant mortality, malnutrition, unemployment, communicable diseases and homelessness. Similarly, every 'Third World' city has in it a 'First World' city with high finance, fashion, and technology…” Or, as another report [Jo’berg] puts it, “The conventional distinctions between North and South are misleading diplomatic artifacts. Instead, the global divide runs through each society – between the globalized rich and the localized poor.”

This is a story without clear good guys and bad guys. The First and Third worlds now live around the corner from each other, mutually dependent everywhere.

Yet this close indwelling of the two worlds, of the global rich and the global poor, makes scaling back our consumption to achieve sustainability an even more remote possibility. Everywhere in the world, the poor see how the rich live, if not out their window, then on TV. People who live in shanties can compare the material quality of their own lives to those of people who fly over them jets.

It’s very difficult to know that someone out there has a car, and a computer, a comfortable office and a beach house and not, on some level, want those things too, or some version of them which maps to your desires. One can find people who willingly and happily choose poverty when they know that others live easily and prosperously. But one can also find people who swallow swords, have perfect pitch or can run a hundred meter dash in less than ten seconds – just not very many of them. Most of us, nearly all of us, won’t choose poverty.

That’s the real problem with the strategy of voluntary simplicity: it depends on the entire planet, or at least nearly the entire planet, agreeing spontaneously to all forgo the myriad pleasures and enticements of modern wealth and live in a simpler, perhaps truer way. This is what I think of as the Mythological Universal Conversion Event. Needless to say, the Mythological Universal Conversion Event hasn’t yet arrived. If you still believe it’s coming, that’s fine: I don’t.

In fact, all the evidence suggests that quite the opposite is happening. That what I think of as the Baywatch Effect has already taken hold (though it might more realistically be called the Bollywood Effect these days).

See, while it's true that the average ecological footprint is 2.3 hectares per person (when it should be 1.9) some of us have bigger feet than others. Those resources aren't used equally: the average American uses nearly 10 hectares, the average Chinese uses only about one and a half, while the average Pakistani has only about 6/10 of a hectare.

And there aren't a lot of teenagers around the world clamoring to live like Pakistanis. No, what the kids want, from Novosibirsk to Capetown and everywhere in between, is to live like Americans, or at least Italians. They want stereos. They want refrigerators. They want cars. They want computers. They want better lives.

All the global consumer surveys of which I know bear this out. One of the dominant realities of our species is that a good chunk of us right now are kids, and those kids have all seen Baywatch (at least metaphorically) -- they know how the richest among us live, and they want, if not that, something at least a lot better than what they've got.

When I was in Rio for the 1992 Earth Summit, a local priest brought a group of street kids to one of the cocktail parties thrown for visiting dignitaries. If memory serves, they sang a song and he gave a pitch for contributions, and all the diplomats and journalists applauded and went back to schmoozing and sucking down martinis. A conversation I had with one of these kids, though, stuck with me: I'd snuck into the hallway to put the finishing touches on an interview I'd conducted that morning, and a little girl who, the translator told me, had lived on her own on the street since she could remember, asked me about clunky laptop I was working on. Then she showed me her proudest possession: the notebook in which she was learning to write. And on the cover of that notebook was pasted a photo neatly cut from a magazine: a model of indeterminate race, in a wind-blown white linen dress, standing on the balcony of a large villa, looking out over an azure sea. I'm sure it was some sort of ad. I asked the girl about it through the translator. She smiled shyly, and replied "It is my dream."

You can be sure that every one of the billions of kids now growing up has their own dreams.

It is worse than wrong to think that we're going to talk them out of pursuing their dreams. It's of course wrong to think that we should – that we in America (the land where the pursuit of happiness is written into our founding documents) should say to the two-thirds of the world that lives in what we would call dire poverty that, sorry, some white guys, mostly dead now, set up a system which means that we get PDAs and day spas, but y'all should be happy with a goat and a half-dry well. Where's the fairness in that?

But it's stupid to think that they'd listen. They want better lives. They want prosperity. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they want to be Americans. Mostly, Korean, Brazilian, Algerian and Albanian kids want to be Korean, Brazilian, Algerian and Albanian… with cars, computers, cool clothes and nice homes. In short, a huge chunk of our fellow human beings are young, and ambitious for better lives, and they're going to try to get them, no matter what we do.

Moreover, just as a fair and sustainable footprint is a receding goal (shrinking as we use up more and more nature), so too is idea of prosperity. The nature of wealth is changing, and most of the planet is watching it change live on TV. Where thirty years ago, having a new set of clothes, a reasonably sturdy cottage, a good garden and some livestock would have been seen by many as real wealth, many people who live that way today see themselves as poor. How will they feel when they hear that advanced medical techniques available only to the wealthy can offer another ten, twenty, even fifty more years of vigorous life (something most medical futurists think is right around the corner), or that millions of Americans eat diets composed largely of meat (something already true), or that you can take your vacation in orbit around the Earth (as at least one person has already done)? Prosperity is a set of moving targets, framed inevitably by the bull's eye farthest away from you.

There's no closing the gate behind us. We need to expect that most of the planet will want to live lives closer to ours – with our lifestyles that currently take ten hectares apiece – than the Pakistanis'.

How do we get that prosperity without trashing the planet? Well, the fourth usual answer to our predicament is to barrel ahead and grow our way out of trouble.

To this way of thinking -- unfortunately still the default response to ecological problems among most of the world's bankers, politicians and journalists -- green follows gold. That is, the way to achieve sustainability is to first grow rich. Growing rich gives you the money to invest in more efficient and less environmentally damaging technologies, which in turn gives you a cleaner environment. There's even a technical description of this process, known as the environmental Kuznets curve.

This argument does have some apparent validity. Put simply, we in the developed world got rich essentially by digging and pumping fossils out of the ground and burning them. The Industrial Age was an age of smokestacks and steam engines, and our headstart over the rest of world essentially comes down to the fact that we got the engines first and used them to make the rest of world do what we wanted. Along the way, we decided that all that smog and soot and poisonous slurry was cramping our style and passed laws banning them (or at least driving them offshore). So now we are comparatively green, very wealthy, and extremely powerful.

Not surprisingly, most of the rest of the world doesn't like this arrangement, and has been trying their best to build their own steam engines and smokestacks ever since. Those who believe in the theory that green follows gold have been heartily cheering them on.

Unfortunately, the model we used to get rich is no longer replicable. For everyone on Earth to follow the Western model of development, we'd need somewhere between five and ten additional planets'-worth of resources and waste sinks, which is somewhere between five and ten more than we've got. As 2002 Jo'berg Memo puts it, "[T]here is no escape from the conclusion that the world's growing population cannot attain a Western standard of living by following conventional paths to development. The resources required are too vast, too expensive, and too damaging to local and global ecosystems."

Those who believe in growth-as-a-panacea argue that this idea – that the model used to make the North rich is irreplicable – is just a way of pulling the ladder up behind us. What they conveniently leave out of their arguments is history.

Though we don't think about it very much, the wealth of the Americas is a major reason why Europeans came to dominate the world. The conquest, colonization and settlement of North America offered what some environmental historians have termed a vast "ghost acreage." Europeans who had already cut their best trees, trapped out their fur-bearing animals, mined most of their precious metals, and worked many of their soils to exhaustion suddenly found themselves in the 1600's possessed of all these resources in an abundance beyond their wildest imaginings. They didn't hesitate. They took everything they could lay their hands on, and there was a lot to grab.

Before Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, it's been estimated, there were somewhere between 18 and 40 million native people living in North America, a great majority of whom died of introduced diseases in the century or two after the Spanish started their conquest. When the 16th Century Spanish nobleman Alvaz Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked on the Florida coast and made his way by raft and foot to Mexico, he slept most nights in native villages, and was rarely off a traveled path. America, as some historians have said, was not so much a virgin land as a widowed one.

The natural world Cabeza de Vaca moved through was no less full. North America was home to 10,000 grizzly bear; 40 million white-tailed deer; hundreds of salmon runs, some teaming with millions of fish; three billion passenger pigeons; five billion prairie dogs (the near-eradication of whom changed America's scrublands forever – without those billions of little paws churning the dirt, the surface hardened, the water wicked away in flash floods and desertification set in). Even as late as 1830, 40 million bison roamed the plains. It's said the ancient deciduous forests of the East were so thick a squirrel could run from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. [numbers from the Wealth of Nature]. The list could go on and on.

And that's only what we know we've lost. There are whole swathes of the country for which we have only a handful of sketches and journal entries to hint to us what peoples and ecologies lived there before we brushed them aside. When I think of the scale of that exploitation, I tend go a little numb. As Wendell Berry wrote "The thought of what once was here and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence."

That natural wealth, that one-time gift of a whole New World's bounty, was the fuel that built the great European empires that followed. The world speaks English and French and Spanish precisely because America had so many beaver pelts, ancient trees and gold mines. And there isn’t another New World of raw materials out there waiting to be found.

The closest we have is a kind of second ghost acreage: oil. Each gallon of gas we burn is a one time gift that took acres of plants being squeezed under enormous pressure for thousands of years to create. Everytime we drive to the store, we’re burning ancient ferns to get there. Of course, this ghost acreage will not last either, nor will the prosperity based on it. Even if we didn't care at all about the environment, there aren't enough liquid fossils left for the rest of the world to follow in our footsteps. There's not even enough for us to keep living this way. The “Western model of development” is a one-off.

What we need, then, is a new model. We need a new model which allows unprecedented prosperity on a sustainable basis. We need a new model which will let everyone on the planet get rich and stay rich, while healing the planet's ecosystems. We need to create what some Brits call "one-planet livelihoods" which are so prosperous, so dynamic, so enticing that the alternative of chasing the old model of green follows gold seems simply moronic.

Designing a system which would lead to that kind of sustainable prosperity would already present an epic challenge. But we're not done yet. For that system also needs to work in the real world. It must be rugged and shock-proof.

Because the world's a rough place these days. Two and a half billion people have no access to electricity. About the same number have no safe means of disposing of their sewage. Over one billion drink fetid water. Over 1.2 billion don't always have enough to eat, and at least 840 million are suffering from chronic hunger and are only one bad harvest away from mass-starvation. Hungry people don't have the energy to work as hard -- economists estimate that $64 -128 billion are lost annually from developing world economies because of malnutrition. Hungry people are sick people (and sick people in turn slide farther into poverty). Common, preventable diseases, like childhood diarrhea, kill scores of millions each year, and other diseases are growing epidemic in a world where hundreds of millions have no medical care at all: AIDS alone is expected to kill 68 million people by the year 2020, while leaving 20 million children orphaned. Some countries, like Botswana and Zimbabwe, will have lost half their adult population by the end of the decade. Amidst these sorts of societal holocausts, all other services, especially education, decline, and uneducated people (875 million people are illiterate, 60% of them women) are in turn less likely to understand good hygiene, to be able to master new farming techniques or to participate in democracy in any meaningful way (where it exists at all). For the poorest billion people, life has become a series of vicious spirals and inescapable traps. And for two billion of their neighbors, who are doing slightly better, this poverty creates instability and a nasty back draft, making it harder to make any progress at all. This is part of the context in which the environment is unravelling.

And with increasing regularity, ecological instability flares into outright chaos. James Gasana, who was Rwanda's Minister of Agriculture and Environment in the early 1990s, told a less-known side of that country's tragic past in an article in Worldwatch magazine. We tell ourselves that Rwanda's genocide, in which at least 800,000 people were murdered, was the fruit of ancient and unanswerable ethnic hatreds. But the reality is that those hatreds were fanned into flame by a sharp wind: hunger. With a mostly mountainous terrain, and a population that had grown from 1.9 million to nearly 8 million in just four decades, the tiny country simply couldn't feed itself. The genocide may have been driven by hatred, but it was set into motion by hunger, and the killing was worst in communities with the least to eat. Similar dynamics can be seen in Sudan, where decades of drought has exacerbated long-standing tribal and religious conflicts in regions like Darfur.

But you don't have to have dramatic ecological instability to have insane orgies of violence. The last decade has shown us that even in countries where things seem to be going reasonably well, chaos can spread quickly when pushed by power-mad men. Sarajevo was one of the most enlightened, multiethnic cities in the world... and a few years later it lay in ruins, under siege, surrounded by a land of mass-graves and rape camps. Liberia was Africa's great success story... and a few years later an army of drugged teenagers with automatic weapons were wandering the streets of its capital in wedding dresses and fright-wigs, shooting anything that moved.

In fact, much of the world is run by thugs, dictators, gangsters and tribal warlords, often at substantial profit. As Bruce Sterling writes,

"Outside (and sometimes within) the prosperous bounds of the New World Order is a large and miserable New World Disorder. It includes not only the smoking ground of the Balkans, but the Caucasus, South Central Asia, and vast, astonishing swaths of Africa. ... For the typical New World Disorder soldier, ethnicity and religion are not something you die for - they are stalking horses; useful pretexts for breaking down states and subverting police and governments. The resulting chaos can be structured, made to pay. Revolutionary idealists sometimes begin this process, but once the disorder fully flowers, their doctrines just get in the way. They will generally be rubbed out by greedier, more practical subordinates."

A far larger chunk of the world is more peaceful, but still rotting with corruption. The debt that chokes many developing countries is largely a legacy of that corruption, willingly abetted by First World banks: academics studying development believe that one in every three dollars made in development loans from 1970 - 1990 ended up in secret private bank accounts in places Switzerland or the Caymans -- some argue that the figure is much higher, that when you count in kickbacks to bankers, sweetheart deals with multinational corporations, and a long train of local officials and businessmen siphoning off their cuts, it is likely that only one dollar in four was actually used to build anything (and what was built was often shoddy and disastrously inappropriate). The problem seems to be worse now. Global anti-corruption groups, like Transparency International, have documented an alarming trend over the last decade: while some countries emerged from the Cold War into democracy and transparency, in a far larger number of countries, a facade of democracy masks a level of corruption and influence-peddling that approaches open kleptocracy.

Both chaos and corruption make our work more difficult: so much so that any new model of sustainable prosperity needs not only to take them into account, but actually work to mitigate them. If the answer to our ecological crisis does not also lead to greater security for all, and help spread democracy and open government and business practices, it is in fact no answer at all.

So there we are. We need, in the next twenty-five years or so, to do something never before done. We need to consciously redesign the entire material basis of our civilization. The model we replace it with must be dramatically more ecologically sustainable, offer large increases in prosperity for everyone on the planet, and not only work in areas of chaos and corruption, but help transform them.

That alone is a task of heroic magnitude, but there's an additional complication: we only get one shot.

Change takes time, and time is what we don't have. And there's a lag between choice and adoption. In practice, the inertia of what exists is massive: the retooling period, even when things are changing quickly, is significant, in many cases decades. Even if we were, universally, as a species, to decide today to completely change our ways, we'd still have to rely on current technologies and practices while setting up the new system. If we all agreed to live more simply, embrace our best current technologies and share fairly and sustainably the planet’s resources -- to aim for the 1.9 hectares per person -- by the time we all got there, we’d still be in overshoot, because in those intervening decades, we’d have destroyed another huge chunk of the planet’s natural systems, and might at that point have only, say, 1.5 hectares per person. So in fact, we’d have to then aim even to live with even less impact, which is not only even more difficult to get people to accept, but takes even longer to achieve, and by the time we get there, our available natural capital will be even more depleted, and we’ll have to live even more humbly, and on and on until we reach stability at a point where the planet is deeply torn up and we’re all living on the edge of poverty.

All of this means we have to come up with an answer which takes as a given not the natural capital we currently have, but the smaller pool of natural capital we'll likely have when any proposed change actually happens. What's more, any transition will require us to continue doing things as we are for a certain period of time, while we retool and redesign, and then spend a great deal of resources actually rebuilding. As we are already in ecological deficit spending, and that deficit is getting bigger, there is absolutely no reason to believe that we can try one thing for a couple decades, and then, if that doesn't work, try something else. The living fabric of the planet, once converted to our uses, will never come back, at least not for millennia. There are no do-overs on a finite planet.

We don't say it in public, but we've placed a giant wager here on the future of the human race. The terms of the bet are this: we can move to a new model, a model based on a standard of sustainability higher even than that which we'd need today to fit within our 1.9 hectares per person, but which provides prosperity to billions more, a prosperity equal to or greater than what today costs 10 hectares per person. And we need to do it in 25 years. And we need to get it right the first time. And the cost of failure is the planet.

I don't like that wager. I don't think it was a smart one to make. I don't think it was necessary for us to find ourselves in this position: in fact, I think the leaders who brought us to this juncture are guilt of "Crimes committed in the name of the future against the future," as Robert Towne puts it. Sometimes I mourn the world we might already have made, if we'd turned a different way while there was still time, and I get angry thinking about all we've already lost, or committed ourselves to losing.

But my grief and anger don't matter a whit. We're committed, whether you or I like it or not. We've already put all our chips on the table. We've bet the planet. And the cards are dealt. We've got to play our hand as best we can. We need, immediately and without reservation, to become the smartest, best and boldest gamblers in human history.

If we win that wager, we win everything: a future of endless potential and a planet worth living on. If we win that wager, there is reason to believe that H.G. Wells was right and that "All of the past is but the beginning of a beginning, all that the human mind has accomplished is but the dream before the awakening."

Bookmark and Share


Hi Alex, thanks so much for your thoughts and effort. First of all, Cuba comes to mind as an example of somewhere which is coming to grips with rapidly reduced energy inputs, not least by city farming. Secondly, I seem to remember from reading Natural Capital that forests grow about 2% a year - how could we limit ourselves to living off the 2% without clear-cutting the capital? Some sort of resource depletion protocol? Anyway, your essay is a call to action rather than despair. Thank you.

-- John

Posted by: John Norris on 24 Feb 05

Mr. Steffen identifies a large part of what's wrong with how humans have been living, but his discussion about solutions leaves a lot to be desired.

First and foremost, human overpopulation is the biggest problem on the planet, and China's one-child policy is an excellent solution that all countries, including the U.S. and western Europe, should be following. While the best and most desirable way to lower human population is to empower and educate women, the vast majority of whom do not want to bear more than one or two children, our dire situation also calls for negative incentives such as one-child policies.

Second, Mr. Steffen offers nothing but a delusional fantasy solution of everyone becoming rich (without even lowering human population) and yet consuming far less. The fact is that one cannot have his or her cake and eat it, too.

Unless Mr. Steffen has some way of reordering the laws of the universe, the only way to live sustainably is to consume less and lower our population. Anything else, including hoping for magical solutions like the one offered by Mr. Steffen will not reduce or eliminate the destruction humans are wreaking upon the Earth.

A much better solution is to educate people to realize that 1) happiness comes from within and is not achieved by acquiring material wealth, beyond that which one needs to survive comfortably, and 2)we ("we" meaning the entire planet and in fact the entire universe) are all part of the same thing, regardless of whether it's called god, universal consciousness, or whatever, so that what one does to, say, a tree, one does to oneself. Without this belief, which is held by virtually all traditional indigenous people, no other solution can be successful in the long term.

Posted by: Jeff Hoffman on 24 Feb 05

Jeff, I think you'll find that western europe's birth rates are actually about the same as China's. Although One Child Family was the goal, in reality my understanding is that they averaged around replacement. In fact, were it not for immigration, most of the developed world would be shrinking.

If planetary survival requires great transformations in human consciousness, I'm a pessimist in terms of our odds of long term survival. Although I've certainly done my shift on that front (I've been meditating since I was 15, and I'm in my 30s now) I think it is clear that super-clean, super-efficient ways of producing stuff are a lot easier to engineer than global changes in awareness. Even Gandhi could only make it work while he was alive.

Posted by: Vinay on 24 Feb 05

Alex - great article... this blog continues to be a great resource. I am much more optimistic, if we can solve the energy/CO2 problem we will easily win your wager.

Jeff and Vinay,
A couple of comments on population. I think many demographers would say that the "population problem" has been solved. The population on this planet will peak sometime in the next 50-60 years and then begin to decline. By 2100 the population will be back down near today's total.

Fertility rates in ALL developed countries are now below replacement level. China's current fertility rate is 1.70. There are many countries with much lower rates, including Japan at 1.33, Italy at 1.28 and South Korea at 1.23.

A number of countries (Russia, Bulgaria and others) are already losing population every year and more countries including Japan and Germany will begin to lose population shortly. Without migration, the whole of Europe would currently be losing population.

For further information see the UNs latest report -

Posted by: Joe Deely on 24 Feb 05


Actually, the efficiency with which we use resources and energy is so low -- Amory Lovins estimates that most materials flows are about 5% efficient (meaning 95% is wasted) -- that we could quite conceivably have much more stuff and use many fewer resources. Create cradle-to-cradle indutrial systems and that becomes even more true. That's not delusion, that's just good design.

So, in other words, I think you're totally wrong ;)

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 25 Feb 05

Saying things are 5% efficient is being far too generous, Alex. The transportation/access system is a prime example of this.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 25 Feb 05

"No, we need to table all talk of die-off, altogether, forever. In fact, as Bruce Sterling says, we ought to be compiling dossiers on those advocating inaction for use in later trials for crimes against humanity. But that's a whole other question. Right now we're thinking about what might be done to avoid the arriving catastrophe."

Do you have a reference for this? Really sounds like something Bruce might have said re oil ceo's and climate change, not human population.

If the standard for genocide is inaction we should have tried half of germany for crimes against humanity.

Talk of anything - die off or climate change or whatever - will table itself when the problem is solved. That doesn't really describe our present situation. Optimism is fine, but let's do some math too.

Posted by: monkeygrinder on 25 Feb 05

I think a key part of winning the great wager is moving from the oil age (and gas and coal) to a post-carbon age which uses only clean renewable energy.

A major problem is the "not in my term" mentality of politicians. This means they constant promise of never ending propsperity & growth and business as usual. They do not want to confront us with the reality of our situation that there is a high probability that cheap oil will run out in our lifetimes and that this will have very serious consequences for our lifestyles (at the very least in the first world). I agree that people want to live better lives. However with a better understanding of our real situation I think we can accept not having a ten bedroom mansion and matching gas guzzling hummers (which is an image of "success" frequently presented on MTV which I would argue has a more pervasive influence on global culture than "Baywatch" ever did).

Rather than let GM promote SUVs in China we need to force the media and politicians to discuss the real choices facing humanity.

Alternative Energy Blog

Posted by: Alternative Energy Blog on 26 Feb 05

Very thorough discussion of the various challenges, Alex. You also did a good job of explaining four of the typical responses to the challenges:

1) let her go and let God sort them out
2) horse and buggies/return to the caves
3) voluntary simplicity (and you touched upon involuntary simplicity, aka being poor)
4) grow out of it aka wealth solves all problems

Though you did miss the "deny there is a problem" response and all its variants, as well as the "universal enlightenment/education" response covered by Jeff. There's also the meta-response of "global government/heavy regulation" which pops up all the time, as well as the "Rapture solution" which also manifests as fantasies of aliens coming to save our planet etc.

We also shouldn't forget the "Earth is not our home" outlook, which is a variant of the "Rapture solution" - it doesn't necessarily deny there's a problem, it just doesn't care because it's "egotistical" to covet life on Earth.

Then of course there's the simple sadists who want to see it all go to hell just for the pleasure of it.

The only other one that comes to mind at this point is the "Eeyore solution", meaning putting one's tail in the river to "save" someone in it, long after they've passed. This is a solution which is part delusion and mostly ego, concerned mostly with appearing to help without expending much effort to do anything meaningful. I'll let other people detail examples of this, because there's plenty of them.

So, I think it's good to lay those things out and acknowledge them.

Viscerally, I am at a point in my life where I simply can't sit down and go through a laundry list of the ills of the world - past, present, and future - without feeling extraordinarily depsondent and helpless. On that point, I think you're overdoing it -- there's plenty of that sort of thing out there.

It's intellectually satisfying to feel you've covered all the bases and angles, but as a reader, you can't go through something like that and not walk away feeling beyond bad.

You also tread into dangerous territory by putting time frames onto things and also putting things in a live-or-die context.

With respect to the former, you know well how naysayers use the example of "global cooling" predictions from the 70s and all the "oil is running out in X years" predictions to delegitimize all sorts of rational discussion on the subjects of climate change and resource depletion. It's not like we're doing some closed experiment that we can repeat with different conditions. In fact, positive responses (like the delinking of increased energy use from economic growth that Amory Lovins predicted and helped influence) can actually undermine predictions, which then engenders the "you all were chicken littles" response and things start getting worse again.

Relatedly, the "live or die" mentality probably paralyzes most people, followed by people who say "screw it - let's live for today". In my experience, very few people are motivated by the darkest possibilities to respond positively and courageously.

So I guess my main response is that I think it's a wonderful statement from the perspective of personal intellectual satisfaction, but I question whether it's a good or bad thing in terms of its role in framing the discussion and action of "world changing".

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 26 Feb 05

Alex, thanks for this provocative and truly important essay. I am inclined to lean toward your option #3. A couple of thoughts:

1) I was very lucky to participate as an election observer in the first democratic election in South Afrida in 1994. I often think about the fact that the apartheid government actually voluntarily gave up power. Human beings may indeed have a pretty acute instinctive sense of when the game is up and drastic change is needed. As those of us in the west see weird changes in weather, encounter hybrid vehicles on the streets, we might be more inclined than ever to change our ways.

2) I am not sure that everybody in the "developing" world aspires to an American style lifestyle. Having traveled through parts of India, I see many young people who are very happy to follow Indian ways and traditions. There are those who love their cell phones and their MTV. But, a lot of their use or consumption of these western things has been adapted to fit within an Indian context. In fact, I got the feeling that some Indians looked down upon the West, given that India is such an ancient culture and the West may be seen as relatively much more immature.

Just some thoughts. All the very best and thanks again!

Posted by: Arjun Singh on 27 Feb 05

Alex, this is a great essay, and I delayed a few days reading it in full because I wanted to spend some time on it - but something breaks down toward the end. One that struck me was:

"And there isn’t another New World of raw materials out there waiting to be found."

In fact, there are 100's of thousands of "new worlds of raw materials" in our solar system (the asteroids etc.) and far more in the wider universe. There are "new worlds of raw materials" on the sea floor of the Earth that we have barely explored; ocean surfaces could greatly expand the "number of hectares" per person available, if we knew how to use them.

We don't use these things now, just as native North Americans didn't know how to make use of the trees, minerals etc. in the "ghost acreage" that were there long before Europeans arrived - it's a matter of technology - but the resources are still there.

There is enormous potential in solar power. There is enormous potential in space resources. There are enormous economic barriers to both making a practical difference - but the barriers are economic, not physical, or barriers of principle. That's a huge difference, and could make the difference for the world.

In other words, we do get one more chance. And maybe we're starting to make the right choices to make a difference in time.

One thing I find encouraging is Rep. Lynn Woolsey's "Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Act of 2005", just introduced in the House - H.R. 737. It builds in major funding increases for photovoltaics research, with the goal of cost-effectiveness: $3,000 per kilowatt by January 1, 2007, and $1,500 per kilowatt by January 1, 2010. It supports aggressive goals in transportation, lighting, and housing energy improvements. And it pushes a goal of 20% non-hydro renewable energy (not just electric) by 2020. That's the kind of scale and attack on the problem we need.

Not that it has much chance of becoming law for the next few years.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 27 Feb 05



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg