Sustainability is perhaps the most misused and misunderstood word in the human vocabulary. Most people who advocate sustainability have good intentions but no idea what they’re talking about.
Jack Alpert is an exception. He’s spent a lifetime thinking about the human overshoot predicament and what we could and must do for our species to continue with comfortable lives in a technologically advanced civilization.
Today Alpert released a new video that I think is his best work to date.
In summary, we must reduce our population to a level that does not consume energy and other renewable resources faster than nature generates them, and we must recycle 100% of non-renewable resources, and we must not excrete wastes faster than nature can absorb them.
Once a sustainable population of about 50 million people by 2100 is achieved, they can continue to enjoy our current level of technology despite fossil energy being mostly depleted, in a climate still compatible with civilization, provided they constrain their birth rate to equal their death rate from natural causes.
Alpert believes that both the initial population reduction, and the long-term constraint on population growth, can be achieved in a democratic, voluntary, and humane manner, provided we can get a majority of humans to understand that there is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering.
This awareness needs to occur soon because we are very close to triggering a scarcity-conflict death spiral, probably caused by low-cost oil depletion and/or climate change, where scarcity causes war and other antisocial behavior that in turn worsens scarcity, which will kill the majority of humans and will prevent the survivors from rebuilding a technologically advanced civilization, because the non-renewable energy and other natural resources needed to prepare a sustainable civilization will be depleted by the conflict.
Alpert calls this awareness and willingness to act “anticipatory behavior”. It’s anticipatory because it must be learned from understanding and prediction, rather than experience.
Although Alpert does not get into the details here, the method (I think) he proposes for reducing and constraining the population is a law voted for by the majority that creates a system where a sustainable number of birth permits would be calculated each year and distributed by random lottery.
I’ve heard Alpert argue elsewhere that the best method for building political momentum might be to mobilize grandmothers as a single issue voting block since they are motivated to protect their grandchildren and no longer feel biological pressure to breed. There is one historic precedent that provides some cause for optimism. It was a highly motivated block of women voters fed up with alcoholic males that spearheaded the 1919 constitutional prohibition of alcohol in the U.S..
There will of course be many challenges to passing a population reduction law such as:
- Genetic denial of reality behavior which makes it difficult for most to understand what’s going on.
- The biological drive to have children.
- Economic forces pushing for growth to avoid debt defaults and a deflationary collapse.
- Opposing cultural forces like religion.
- Widespread misunderstanding that renewable energy can substitute for the 20 TW of depleting non-renewable fossil energy that 7 billion lives depend on.
- Enforcement of a population reduction law.
But what’s the alternative?
There is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering and the permanent loss of scientific knowledge and technologies that have improved the quality of our lives.
What we’ve achieved as a species is amazing, extremely rare in the universe, and worth fighting to preserve.
There is one and only one good path available: rapid voluntary population reduction.
You can find other work by Jack Alpert that I’ve posted here.
Here’s the new video Alpert released today:
12 thoughts on “By Jack Alpert: On Sustainability (without the bullshit)”
The thing that really gets me is when people tell you they want to live ‘more sustainably’. There are no degrees of sustainability….either you are or you aren’t. You can’t be a ‘little bit’ sustainable or ‘more’ sustainable or any other degree of sustainable.
The best thing I ever saw was a newspaper article in which a couple claimed they had bought a ‘more sustainable’ refrigerator!
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I’ve known Jack for around 15 years. We are friends. Unfortunately the weakness in his proposal is human nature: our behavior is not predominantly rational. There seems to be a small percentage of “mutants” who are exceptions, but they can’t wag the dog. The cultural and biological drivers which impact the behavior of the vast majority make voluntary cessation of breeding as difficult as voluntarily giving up our energy slaves. Too bad, because I largely agree with his perception of human overshoot.
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I disagree. Our behavior is rational in that the only way for progeny to survive in the future is for their parents to exploit energy surpluses in the present. Relinquishing resources today in order to (maybe) survive tomorrow is just not in our genetic cards, nor in the genetic cards of any other species.
The biological program is for 8, 10 billion people or more to keep on procreating, until material circumstances up to and including death cause them to stop doing so. It’s inexorable. Jack does not understand this.
A few but growing number of aware people are choosing to not have children despite what their genes want. Jack is trying to find a way to increase this trend.
There’s also a degree of freedom on the consumption axis. Most people in the developed world consume much more than is required to have a comfortable life and permit their progeny to survive.
If anyone can persuade the Pope (and any other religious authorities who stand in the way of limiting fertility) to advocate population reduction, we may have a chance. However, I was chatting with a middle-aged Catholic woman who was “going on and on” about her work to train people in natural birth control… but then she mentioned that her fourth child was a surprise. “Do as I say, not as I do?” Not necessarily; I think it’s more “you should do this, even though I’ve found it to actually be impossible”. Total cognitive dissonance is not quite the same as hypocrisy.
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David Blume in ‘Alcohol Can Be A Gas’ asserts that Rockefeller had much to do with the success of the temperance movement because he funded it. To get rid of comonplace alcohol (which Henry Ford first used in his IC engine) and create a market for petroleum waste product gasoline (being dumped in the Hudson River for lack of a market).
Interesting. I read Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent a few years ago and remember being inspired because it is the only example in history I can think of that people voted to stop something that the majority enjoyed. Of course the attempt failed and the law was repealed. I don’t remember any involvement of Rockefeller but maybe I forgot.
Very good, will embed the video in my website, thanks!
Luis Gutierrez *Mother Pelican Journal*
Rob Thanks for pushing out. Jack and i were on the phone on Friday discussing how to get his video out to the on line community and i told him how much i admired your writings. I call out our professors of sustainability all the time on their loosely appropriated use of the term. keep pushing! Terry Spahr 610-420-1787
Thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately my audience is tiny and the influential people in the world with large audiences do not understand and/or deny the severity of our overshoot predicament.
Another great interview with Jack Alpert (if you ignore the irritating interviewer).
When it takes 1 barrel of oil to extract 1 barrel of oil leaving no oil for civilization (2100 or sooner) one possible destination is 600 million poor peasants working in the fields to grow enough food to survive and support a few elite leaders and artisans.
Another possible destination is 50 million people enjoying an advanced technology civilization with middle class lifestyles that include healthcare and education using hydroelectric energy with 100% recycling of non-renewable materials.
The first destination is on our current path with unimaginable suffering going from 8 billion to 600 million.
The second destination avoids much of the suffering but requires us to to agree to population reduction policies. Very soon.
Where are the adults?