Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dying to Grow....

What represents the greatest threat to mankind?  Climate Change?  A massive earthquake?  An asteroid from space?  Believe it or not the most likely candidate is this:

This is a graph of exponential growth and it represents one of the most powerful forces on the planet.  If nothing else, remember the shape of it.  Growth is exponential when it grows at a fixed rate.

Let’s say we have $1000 in savings and this amounts grows at 7% each year.  After one year our savings have grown to $1,070 (7% x $1,000 = $70).  In year two we now multiply 7% by $1,070 (7% x $1,070 = $75) and our new total is $1,145.  In year 3 we will multiply 7% by $1,145 and add $80 and our new balance will be $1,225.  Notice that although the rate is fixed the amount we add each year is getting bigger.  Anything that grows at a fixed RATE will follow this pattern.  If the growth rate is relatively small (say 1%) the flat part of the graph on the left will extend over a longer period of time.  But eventually, all exponential functions will make a dramatic turn and skyrocket upwards.  Again this is because with each year the function is adding a larger and larger amount so eventually the amounts added become gargantuan.  In the world of mathematics the function heads toward infinity.  There is no infinity in our world, and that is where the danger comes in.  Let me give you some examples of exponential growth happening right now.

Population Growth

It took humanity millions of years before, finally in 1804, we reached 1 billion people on the planet.  Miiiilllions of years.  We added another 1 billion people in just another 123 years!  We added another billion people in just 33 years.  In a mere 200 years we added 6 billion people to the planet. 

Say hello to the power of exponential growth.

The Great Collision
These graphs are from this book.

Just back away from your computer a few feet and take it all in.  James Gustave Speth refers to this as the Great Collision -- the global economy is crashing against the earth.  We are obliterating the planet's resources and life support systems.

  • Half of the world's tropical and temperate forests are gone.  In the tropics we are losing about an acre a second.
  • Half of all wetlands and third of mangroves are gone
  • 90% of all predator fish have been wiped out
  • Every 20 minutes a new species goes extinct (about 1000 times the normal rate)
  • Water use is skyrocketing.  The water tables in the United States, India and China are dropping rapidly -- these are the three major food producers in the world.
  • We are losing 24 billion tons of top soil each year.
  • Fertilizer use is growing exponentially (much of it runs off into our rivers and streams causing massive destruction)
  • Carbon dioxide concentrations are growing exponentially in the atmosphere driving global warming.
  • The number of cars on the highways is growing dramatically.  China is now adding 14,000 new cars to the road EVERY DAY.
  • In just the United States we used almost 30 billion (with a "B") plastic bottles in one year.  And growing.
Pick just about any material or resource that you can think of and I get you a graph that looks those above.  Pick a toxic waste, chemical or pollutant and I will find a graph that shows how we are dumping exponentially more every day.  Exponential growth is happening all around us.

In 1992 (18 years ago), 1,500 of the world's leading scientists, including a majority of living Nobel Prize winners issued a warning  (the full statement can be found here)
The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth's limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair.

Kenneth Boulding said it best:

Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite planet is either a madman or an economist.

Our economy is based on exponential growth.  Just listen for the word.  Growth.  In the news, in magazines, on TV.  Profits must grow.  Sales must grow.  Gross Domestic Product must grow.  Stock prices must grow.  Everything must grow for our system to function.  We have to sell more.  We have to build more factories to make more stuff for us to buy.  We have to cut down more trees, use more water, mine for more minerals...all on a planet that is not getting any bigger.  You don't need a PhD to see the folly in this.

That is the path we are on.  If we keep living our lives like we did yesterday.  If we do nothing to change this trajectory, the earth will solve the problem for us.

  • Learn about the issues that really impact your life
  • Discuss and share with others
  • Take action
    • Ask you elected leader what they are doing about this.  Demand action. 
    • Buy less.  
    • If you must buy, buy local
    • Work fewer hours.  
    • Drive less.  Not feasible?  Demand public transportation so it is possible.
Watch this GREAT video explaining why exponential growth is so important. (it gets a little geeky at times, but watch till the end, it has some great visuals)

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