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Our second greatest shortcoming

The late Albert Bartlett, a professor in nuclear physics at the University of Colorado, famously explained that:

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

What Bartlett was referring to was the way in which most people misunderstand growth – whether of an economy, a population or, indeed, a pandemic virus.  When an economist, a politician or a journalist talks about the desirability of a GDP growth of, say, 2.8 percent; they usually imagine that this involves only a small growth in economic activity over and above today’s level.  In fact, if we grew the economy at just 2.8 percent, it would mean that the size of the economy would be double what it is today in 2045.  That means double the consumption of energy – 85 percent of which come from fossil fuels – minerals, chemicals and natural resources; and, of course, double the pollution and devastation at the end of the process.  The impossibility of this is obvious enough when we consider that China already consumes half of the world’s coal – and China claims to be growing at six percent; meaning that China will be burning all of the world’s coal by 2032.

There is an old story about a king who offers a reward to a merchant in exchange for his services.  Being a modest man, the merchant declines offers of gold, silver and jewels.  Instead, he asks only that the king place one grain of rice on a chess board and then double up on every subsequent square.  The king – not understanding the exponential function – believes this will be a simple request to fulfil, and so orders rice to be brought from the granary.  To begin with, the request appears reasonable.  Along the first row of the chess board the increase is manageable: 1; 2; 4; 8; 16; 32; 64; 128.  But then things begin to get out of hand:

  • Row two: 256; 512;  1,024;  2,048;  4,096;  8,192;  16,384;  32,768
  • Row three: 65,536; 131,072;  262,144;  524,288;  1,048,576;  2,097,152;  4,194,304;  8,388,608
  • By the end of row four, this grows to 2,147,483,648.
  • By the end of row five: 549,755,813,888. 
  • By the end of row six: 140,737,488,355,328. 
  • By the end row seven: 36,028,797,018,964,000.
  • By the end of row eight: 9,223,372,036,854,780,000 – more grains of rice than existed on Earth!

The total number of grains of rice on the chess board is double the amount on the final square – 18,446,744,073,709,600,000!  Numbers this big are often difficult to understand.  It helps to plot them out on a chart:

The initial amount of rice is too small to see on the left hand side of the chart.  About two-thirds of the way in, we begin to notice the growth.  But look at what happens toward the end – we get this “hockey stick” upward curve as growth overwhelms the supply of rice.  And we find this shape all over the place in the real world too.  Here’s the example that Albert Bartlett used to use:

And a close-up:

Here’s something almost as deadly:

The same shape can be found for currency growth in all of the western economies; and here’s one of the consequences:

The three are inter-related.  In order to grow the population from 1 billion in 1800 to more than 7.5bn in 2020, we had to burn the copious volumes of fossil fuels required by the industrialised agriculture to feed us.  Facilitating this required central and private banks to spirit additional paper (and electronic) currency into existence at a rate that approximated to the rate at which our consumption grew.  The negative consequence – beyond the periodic need, as happened after 1929 and 2008, to realign the funny money that has been printed with the real state of our finite world – is that the amount of pollution we have dumped into the biosphere has also grown exponentially.

Anyone who talks about growth of any kind at this stage is effectively calling for mass slaughter on a scale not seen since that asteroid took out the dinosaurs.  Indeed, even remaining where we are may no longer be possible because our accessible supplies of fossil fuels and a host of mineral resources are now so depleted that we have to use more and more energy and resources every year just to obtain them.  This is the “net energy cliff” in which the non-energy sectors of the economy have to shrink in order to maintain the output of the energy sector:

Notice that this has an inverse hockey stick shape.  The impact, though, is the same.  We carry on with business as usual until we reach a tipping point beyond which it is all over very rapidly.  At 50:1 (one unit of energy-in produces 50 units of energy-out) we can build a hi-tech global industrial civilisation.  Even at 25:1 we can continue to grow at least some of the regions within that economy.  Get to 20:1 and we begin to experience disruption as some of the things – like travelling to the moon, commercial supersonic flight and automated car washes – are no longer viable.  Beyond 15:1 and many of the things we currently take for granted (in the west) like mass communications, modern healthcare and old age pensions are no longer viable.

Where are we now?  Estimates vary.  But without fossil fuel support, even the best non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies are below 20:1; fracking is at best 5:1 and tar sands just 2.5:1 – biofuels and hydrogen are energy-negative.  It is far from clear what kind of population and civilisation we can support on those kinds of energy returns; but it is going to be smaller, far less material and far more low-tech than the current one.

So much for our greatest shortcoming, what is the second greatest?  In a sense, the second greatest shortcoming is related to the first – it is our inability to process time.  As I wrote in The Consciousness of Sheep:

“Even when we fully understand that our actions will harm us in the future the more primitive areas of our brains will easily overrule us if the promise of immediate reward is strong enough… 

“Half of the people who smoke tobacco die from a smoking-related disease, despite most having tried to give up at some time or another.  Those who get the quick heart attack are probably the lucky ones insofar as their suffering is of short duration.  But most face a lingering end from diseases like emphysema, which slowly stop the lungs from obtaining the oxygen required to maintain life.  Anyone who has ever experienced the sensation of breathlessness can get a glimpse of the suffering involved in such a prolonged death. 

“The growing obesity crisis is another example of our inability to resist immediate gratification.  Our rational mind-brain understands that over-consuming fatty and (especially) sugary food dramatically increases our chance of developing metabolic syndrome diseases in future.  Nevertheless, for millions of people worldwide, the temptation of another cheeseburger, chocolate bar, tub of ice cream or glass of soda proves too great to resist…

“Again, we all ‘understand’ this at a cognitive level.  For example, we know that someone who is in a poorly paid and/or stressful job would be better off taking up a night school or distance learning course than, say, going to the pub in an attempt to unwind.  Nevertheless, adult education is struggling to recruit students while pubs are full of people complaining about their jobs!… To most of us, our future selves are complete strangers.  Indeed, we are often more caring about our present friends and relatives than we are about our future selves.  And if our future selves are strangers, is it any surprise that we offer them no greater support than we would to a stranger today?… An adult will not educate themselves so that a stranger can get a better job.  A drunk will not turn down a drink so that a stranger will be spared a hangover.   A smoker will not turn down a cigarette so that someone else does not get cancer.  And none of us will leave our cars at home or turn down holidays abroad so that strangers do not have to cope with economic collapse and climate change.”

The current unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic allows us to understand the problem in a more condensed timescale than is usually the case.  Have look at this chart from the latest World Health Organisation Covid-19 situation report:


Although the total number of confirmed cases worldwide – 85,403 – is tiny, it is the rate of growth which makes it alarming.  The doubling time appears to be somewhere between 3 and 5 days.  The same pattern also seems to occur in individual countries.  To begin with, just one or two case are confirmed; and these are all people who have recently returned from a known affected area.  Initially, the disease control agencies seem to have the condition under control.  But a few new cases – also people that have returned from affected regions – continue to pop up.  And then the condition spreads to people who have not travelled themselves, but have had contact with someone who has.  A tipping point is reached when the first case is confirmed of a person who has neither travelled nor been in contact with anyone who has travelled.  This occurred here in the UK on the weekend.  If the UK follows the pattern seen in Italy and across Asia, we can expect the numbers to grow rapidly from this point (as I am writing, the BBC is reporting a further 12 confirmed cases).

The big problem with Covid-19, which makes it unlike anything we have seen before, is its long incubation period – anything from 7 to 24 days – during which you can be infectious despite not realising that you have the virus.  This happened in eight of the earliest cases in the UK – all had been infected on a skiing holiday shared with someone who had previously travelled in China, but had no symptoms.  An additional problem is that the Covid-19 virus appears to be relatively harmless to most people, producing symptoms – fever, head and muscle aches and a cough – no more severe than the common cold.  What this means is that the number of confirmed cases – largely based on testing which is limited to people traveling from known hotspots – is just the tip of a much bigger iceberg, with most carriers not even realising they are infected and – at least until now – unlikely to self-report unless symptoms take a turn for the worse.  Less obviously, it means that the numbers we are currently dealing with relate to the state of affairs as they existed sometime last week.

The problem – given our inability to process time – is that the actions we need to take to mitigate today’s situation had to be taken at least a week ago if they were going to have an effect.  That is, if the aim was to prevent the virus from spreading we needed to go into the kind of lockdown that Italy and China have imposed at the same time those lockdowns began.  Since we failed to do that – for example, placing no travel/quarantine restrictions on people travelling from the affected regions of China prior to the Chinese government banning travel after 23 January – we need to respond today to the large rise in cases that we can expect to see in about a week’s time.

To be clear here, if your government is telling you that they are trying to “contain” the virus, they are – whether knowingly or unthinkingly – lying.  There is simply no way that the authorities can prevent the spread of the virus at this point; the best they – and we – can do is to try to slow its spread long enough to develop a treatment or a vaccine.  This is why the public is being urged to wash hands and to cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Nor is the spread of the disease the government’s only concern.  As Chris Martensen points out, the state is engaged in a delicate balancing act between slowing the spread of the virus; limiting the damage to the economy; and preventing state agencies and services being overwhelmed by either.  We witnessed just some of the potential economic problems last week when stock markets experienced their biggest fall since 2011.  However, these are mere pin pricks compared to the hammer blow that is coming when supply chains out of China start to fail.  These will be compounded if we are forced to lock down regions of the UK in an attempt both to slow the spread of the virus and to stop essential services from being overwhelmed.

One obvious point of weakness is the lack of capacity in the National Health Service, which was already under pressure as a result of the run of the mill winter illnesses.  Worse still, as Rowena Mason at the Guardian reported last week:

“England only has 15 available beds for adults to treat the most severe respiratory failure and will struggle to cope if there are more than 28 patients who need them if the number of coronavirus cases rises, according to the government and NHS documents…

“The government said this could be increased in an emergency… But an NHS England document prepared in November 2017 reveals the system will struggle to cope if more than 28 patients need the treatment, describing that situation as black/critical.  It suggests that if no beds are available ‘within the designated and surge capacity’ in the UK, they might have to be sourced from other countries, for example, from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.”

That’s great, but in a pandemic against which there is no herd immunity, it is pie in the sky to imagine that there will be spare capacity in anyone else’s country once UK capacity has been overwhelmed.  Some 5 percent of the confirmed cases of Covid-19 require critical care; which suggests that just 560 confirmed cases could use up our existing capacity.  And just for information, as of yesterday Sweden had 12 confirmed cases of its own; including five reported on Friday.

An extreme lockdown of the kind seen in China and Italy is probably the only way of slowing the spread at this point.  But the impact on the (real) economy of doing so would be dramatic; we are talking about every non-essential (and probably some essential ones too) service having to shut down for several weeks.  That means surviving on whatever food and materials you already have in your cupboards.  And things will get a lot tougher if utility supplies are disrupted because key workers get sick.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because exactly the same balancing act has been going on since the 1970s when governments were warned about the environmental and resource depletion crises that we would face in the 2020s.  From Californian droughts to Australian bushfires and British floods, Mother Nature’s revenge is increasingly obvious to anyone who is paying attention.  Perhaps less obviously given the volumes of funny money ploughed into fracking and tar sands, the oil industry has been running into serious problems locating viable replacement fields for the ones we have depleted.  Various energy-expensive “enhanced oil recovery” techniques – such as pumping carbon dioxide and detergents into depleted wells in order to free up the last dregs, or, indeed, hydraulically fracturing the source rock – have kept production up, but only at the cost of future bankruptcy when the debt repayments fall due; and less obviously by diverting increasing energy away from the non-energy economy.

Unfortunately, the immediate allure of the “greed is good” materialism offered by the economists and politicians in the 1980s and 1990s proved, like a cigarette to a smoker or a whisky to an alcoholic, too difficult to resist.  And now the bees are dying, the ocean food chains are collapsing and the weather channel looks more like one long disaster movie.

To solve the multiple crises we face today we have to act in the 1970s.  That is, barring the invention of a time machine (which is only a little less likely than sustained nuclear fusion or commercially viable carbon capture and storage) we are long past the point when we could have even contained the crises.  We understood “cognitively” that our chosen lifestyles were going to hurt us in the end.  But we could never truly experience the fact that it was the same “us” who wanted the material trappings of a hi-tech, globalised industrial civilisation as the “us” today who are going to have to live with – and very likely die from – its fallout.  Meanwhile, the politicians are doing what they have always done – desperately trying to avoid an economic collapse which would kill most of us anyway, while slowing the rate of crisis in the desperate hope that clever people somewhere else will come up with a solution.

In the meantime – and appropriate for both Covid-19 and the collapse of civilisation – make sure you’ve got a good supply of toilet roll; you’re going to need it!

As you made it to the end…

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