The paper was published in 2009, and those who have not ignored it since, have ridiculed it. (Sort of like Darwin’s theories, or plate tectonics, or Hubbert’s view of peaking oil.) Odd, because in a way it confirmed the fervent hope of millions that technology, which has sickened the world with its pollution — never forget, please, that climate change is a pollution problem — would restore our health with a magic pill we could take, and wake up to find the problem gone. The paper, by Tim Garrett of the University of Utah, applied the laws of physics to the cumulative behavior of human civilization, and thus discovered the magic pill. Unfortunately, it was cyanide.
But let’s focus on the good news. Garrett found that we can absolutely, completely, avoid the catastrophic warming of the planet already under way, and stabilize the economies of the world. But there is only one path to success: a total crash of the industrial economy.
Okay, to be honest, he did mention one other possible way we could maintain business as usual while mitigating climate effects; all we would have to do is bring on line one new, large nuclear power plant every day for the foreseeable future.
Garret’s methods were controversial because he treated the whole of civilization as if it were a single organism, somewhat like a child, whose capability for doing work (economic output) is in direct proportion to the amount of food consumed (i.e. energy inputs). The problem is that the child is growing, and thus requires ever increasing inputs, and although he delivers steadily increasing economic output, the side effects of the manufacture of his inputs is making him sick.
Solution: kill the kid.
Hey, it’s a metaphor, okay? And not a very good one, much as I admire Garret’s courage. If the world economy were like a child, it would not grow forever, it would grow for a few years and then mature and then age. The only thing in nature that grows without limit is cancer.
But if we are going to cling to the cancerous notions that money is the final arbiter of worth, and that growth is the only sign of health, then we are at some point going to hit a wall. And that, as Tim Garrett deserves credit for pointing out, solves the problem.
All the other highways to heaven have toll booths that require you, before entering, to renounce profit, embrace privation and place the public good above your own. And this has to be a collective decision, made by governments, because so far there’s only about half a dozen people who have made it. So why does Garrett bet instead on our blowing ourselves up? Because, he says “ it’s not clear that policy decisions have the capacity to change the future course of civilization.”