Feedback Loops and Unsustainable Systems

Mountains as seen from Tennessee Welcome Center

I have brought up feedback loops (both positive and negative) many times in this space. I've also brought up unsustainable systems in one way or another in practically every article, since they are endemic in human society and at the root of every predicament. It would be very simple for me to tell you that if we just eliminated every unsustainable system and replaced them with sustainable ones that most all our troubles would be resolved. Aaahhh, if only it were that simple. While there is much truth to that statement, the physical realities of replacing these systems would be a massive transformation that is prevented by the Limits to Growth - not enough energy and resources to accomplish the job due to self-reinforcing positive feedback loops which would only add fuel to the fire of the existing ecological overshoot that we are already in. 

Understanding how we got to this point is key in comprehending why options on dealing with overshoot are so limited. Several different ideas revolve around the same concept of creating a "new civilization" that humans could embark on to reduce overshoot and live happily ever after. I've pointed out one concept known as The Venus Project which is really nothing more than pure hopium. I've spent the last several articles detailing the Degrowth Movement and why degrowth in and of itself isn't enough to actually accomplish much, mainly due to a lack of acceptance from corporations and governments, which would suffer greatly as a result. Of course, we're all going to suffer from the implications of overshoot anyway, which makes that fact more or less irrelevant in the first place. I've pointed out why the MEER concept is unrealistic and more fantasy than reality. I've discussed the Transition Town Movement (and the 15-minute cities concept which somewhat mirrors the TT movement). I've discussed geoengineering in its many different facets and why none of the ideas there make sense because they all utilize technology to undo the predicaments technology use has created to begin with. There are hundreds if not thousands of different ideas and/or plans on how to deal with different symptom predicaments of overshoot which all fail because they don't reduce overshoot which is precisely what is causing those symptoms. One of the primary concepts in the Paris Agreement is to reduce emissions, but emissions are caused by overshoot which must be reduced first if emissions are to be reduced.

So, how DID we get here? Going back in history to our evolution as a species and looking into our roots as hunter/gatherers, we see how we began using technology as a way to help us in everyday activities. At first, this technology was very basic and almost completely sustainable due to the materials used in making said technologies and because human energy was used to make them. Until we began using large-scale fossil hydrocarbon energy in the 1700s, many of our technologies only destroyed and/or polluted small, local, or regional areas. The development of agriculture around 8,000 - 10,000 years BCE was the first large-scale use of technology and fostered in all further developments of technology, including the development of civilization. This was the beginning of unsustainable development which led to further poor choices on down the road, leading to ecological overshoot.

The biggest factor to understand with regard to all of this is how technology use leads to population growth. Technology reduces and/or eliminates negative feedback, which once used to keep the number of our species in check and in balance with the rest of nature. So, by providing a continuous source of food through agriculture, humans had the ability to finally settle down in permanent locations. This required the building of homes to protect against the elements, and small settlements where many people gathered together began forming towns. Towns led to larger settlements - cities. This required more infrastructure to supply safe water for everyone and a way to get rid of wastes produced. Storage facilities were needed to safely store the grains and other food. One development led to another and another and another. Larger and larger infrastructural platforms were required and the services once provided by shepherd's dogs as sentinels against marauding animals and/or people looking to steal crops or stock turned into police, deputies, and standing armies to provide security. Tax agents and other parts of governments and bureaucrats (I've called them bean counters before because this was their original purpose - to keep track of the crops and who produced what) soon formed to provide regulation to the towns, cities, states, and eventually, nations. Despite the fact that these systems were already unsustainable and kept collapsing routinely throughout the centuries, these systems continued to scale up into larger and larger sizes until countries were the size of today's countries. Due to the reduction and/or elimination of negative feedbacks through the use of more and more technology, population growth fed by the technology of agriculture made the existing unsustainability of agriculture and civilization and technology use worse while all three of these features of society continued to grow, making the system more and more unsustainable. 

The constant growth of these features of society required the constant growth of the infrastructural systems supporting all three, peppered with the occasional collapse of local or regional civilizations due to overshoot where the carrying capacity of a settlement exceeded the capacity of the landbase surrounding it to provide habitat. The collapses were caused by a wide variety of different initial failures, but all of them resulted from overshoot caused by technology use. The end result almost every time was loss of habitat, causing the scattering of people to find new habitat. Now that our system of civilization encompasses the entire globe, where will humans scatter to?

Once our species had mastered through technology use the reduction or removal of a sufficient number of negative feedbacks keeping our numbers steady, we began to experience population growth. This population growth required more energy from food to feed everyone, so agricultural fields were scaled up and agricultural tools were improved. These decisions led to further decisions all based upon conditions set forth by the initial decisions and all subsequent decisions, making it impossible to reverse the process without causing a collapse or simplification of the built systems along the way. Even though this process of collapse was inevitable anyway due to the systems being unsustainable, it was unheard of to destroy the systems before they imploded. Anything and everything to keep the system humming along is tried first, kicking the can of predicaments down the road and making the system more complex and even more prone to collapse. Until we became so large of an enterprise, individual civilizations were able to collapse, the members of those societies could scatter to new pristine environments or environments where habitat still existed and start the process over. This is essentially the cycle of life. But now that we are a global society, and no area is still pristine, there is not really anywhere not subject to the new realities of overshoot and its symptom predicaments. 

So, even though technology use does have its purposes and positive aspects, we also must realize how continuing to use it today with 8 billion of us on this planet is entirely and utterly unsustainable. While it may be possible to actually continue using technology if there were far fewer of us here (with perhaps a population of 100 million people?), there is no way to ethically reduce our numbers to that level in a meaningful timeframe to avoid upcoming tipping points (see paragraph 8 in the linked article for four separate links). Once again, even if these conditions DID exist, we must remember that the negative feedbacks which technology use reduces or eliminates allows for population growth to begin all over again, causing the conditions of overshoot to emerge all over again at some point in the future. This is more or less the point of this article about the energy trap

I've focused on different aspects of technology for quite some time; especially the less well-known negative ones. Did you know that constant use of technology can cause negative cognitive decline in mental abilities to function without certain technologies? Here is one study focusing on the use of GPS. Here is an article explaining compartmentalization and defense mechanisms revolving around technology use. Here is an article which points out how technology use reduces our attention span and ability to focus. Another article points out how technology often allows us to develop false beliefs about our abilities to accomplish certain feats. It just goes to show that the old maxim, "Use it or lose it!" is actually more true than most people give it credit for.

The conclusion is that as long as we continue utilizing technology use and other unsustainable systems (civilization) supported by said technology use (these are our behaviors), overshoot conditions will continue, along with all its symptom predicaments. The ONLY way around that is to discontinue use of these unsustainable systems. Anything less than doing so is nothing more than bargaining. Keep in mind that even if we DID discontinue these unsustainable systems (which in today's conditions is impossible without rapid and sudden mass die-offs), the sudden loss of the Aerosol Masking Effect (aka global dimming) caused by such a transition would promulgate a sudden increase of warming of around 1C. While this increase would be difficult to adapt to, it wouldn't cause the sudden loss of life that the discontinuation of today's unsustainable systems would; so we can expect BAU (Business As Usual) with the economic contraction caused by energy and resource decline to continue in order to kick the can down the road a little while longer as there really is no alternative to a better scenario. This is why the best response is to Live Now!


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