Environmental Risk—Squaring the Globe

By Mike Koetting         July 30, 2017 

Today’s post is on the environment, the middle of my trinity of critical issues—inequality, the environment, and the meaning of work.  This is the first of two on this topic.


My thoughts about the environment are not to convince you that environmental degradation poses a serious threat to humanity.  It assumes you believe that.  If you don’t, you might as well stop reading here.

What I do want to convince you is:

  • Current policy is exponentially more foolish than you already believe
  • This interacts with issues around inequality in a bunch of messy ways

Today’s post concentrates on the first one.  I’ll address the second in the next post.

Limits to Growth

I am by no means an expert on environmental issues.  My understanding is pretty basic, but, perversely, that may be why it’s worth sharing.  Most of us aren’t experts.

My basic thinking on environmental issues was shaped by the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth.  It made a big splash at the time.  Then, in keeping with humanity’s general approach to bad news, it was subsequently ignored.  The book was based on a large number of simulations of population growth and the resulting impact on the planet.  Forty some years later, the issue is not so much whether the simulations were accurate—best I can understand, some were, some not so much, but on balance not too shabby.  What I really took away was their foundational point:  the seriousness of environmental risks stems from the fact that so many of the individual threats are growing exponentially.

Most of us understand exponential growth…1, 2, 4, 16, 64 and so forth.  And we understand that can lead to a lot of growth very quickly.  But I think most people have a bit of trouble translating that abstract understanding into a practical understanding.  When you’re dealing with exponential trends, the big numbers come on you so quickly you have limited to time to react.  Objects are much closer than they appear.  And they are picking up speed.

By definition, if something is growing at an exponential rate, the growth curve is not at all linear.  Rather, it keeps getting steeper and steeper.  If it is happening within the context some of some fixed boundary–say, for instance, the earth’s carrying capacity–the approach to that limit seems very gradual until….BOOM!  The limit is reached.  The example in Limits to Growth was that if consumption of something was doubling every day and would exhaust supply on the thirtieth day, on the twenty-six day, only 6% of the supply was being used.  So folks are thinking, 6%, that’s not as bad as the experts said.  The problem is, by the 26th day, you’ve already used up 84% of the time available.  Maybe it’s still not too late to reverse course, but at that point it’s sure as hell urgent.  Particularly since many of the responses will have inherent lag times before they can impact the planet.  For instance, even with a draconian reduction of CO2, it will take years for the atmosphere to reduce to the new level.

Consider the path of world population and carbon emissions.

World Population, 10,000BC to 2000AD

World Population
 Source:  US Census Department

Global Carbon Emissions, Per Capita (1751-2013)

CO2 Per Capita

Source: US Dept of Energy, cited on Desdemona Despair Blog

I don’t know anything about the specifics. Scientists can, should, and do argue about the exact impacts, the trades-offs, the ameliorations, and all the rest.  But these are exponential curves.  I don’t see any way of getting away from the idea that we are conducting the greatest experiment in the history of humanity to determine just how far we can go before the whole thing goes belly up.  That we are way up these curves is incontrovertible.  Scientists differ on how much time is left, but there is strong consensus it is running out.  Quickly.

Responding to the Reality

There are four general attitudes one can have to the above graphs:

  • So what? What’s the future done for me?
  • No need to worry, the earth’s resources are infinite.
  • Well, maybe it’s a concern but something will work out because it always has.
  • We can probably work out something but we sure as hell better get on it.

Response number one is what it is.  Would appear to be the Trumpican position.  Response number two essentially asks us to believe that, unlike any other known system in the universe, there is no amount of damage that will fundamentally damage the earth’s mechanisms.  Science has no arguments for miracles.

Response number three is, in some ways, plausible.  Previous threats of world cataclysms have turned out to be wrong, there are a number of initiatives underway that are showing promise, and the science does in fact have a number of uncertainties in it.  The question is how much of the future of humanity are we willing to bet on the luck of the past.  Seems to me it’s a fool’s bet.  Yes, we get to forego the economic and, probably more important to the policy makers, the political pain of adjusting to the idea of limits.  But If we bet wrong, there is no telling exactly how bad—or how soon—the consequences will be.  But the scientific community generally argues it will be bad and we are getting to a critical point.

There is a variant to response number three—it’s a problem but the market will take care of it and government will only screw it up.  Of course market corrections will be an important part of whatever emerges.  But the imagination curdles at the kind of distributional impacts that will happen unless government referees.  Markets only assume supply will meet demand at some price point.  But for millions of people, the price point is fixed.  It wouldn’t take a particularly large increase in the price of water to price millions out of the market.

While the consequences of being too optimistic are potentially catastrophic, the consequences from being wrong that it’s an “all-hands-on-deck” problem are likely to be minimally damaging to everyone except the politicians who have to make the decisions and the capitalists who wind up with the outsized share of profits.  Don’t get me wrong.  There will be real impacts along the entire economic spectrum; there is no solution with the current or immediate future technology without less overall consumption.  And there will be people whose livelihoods get really wacked, as has happened to coal miners.  But the job loss for environmental reasons is trivial in comparison with other dynamics.  It has been turned into a whipping boy by the right because those regulations cut profits.  Who really believes the Koch Brothers care so much about the number of workers as opposed to the amount of profit those workers can generate?  Moreover, the impact of what actual job loss has taken place is magnified by the successful efforts of the right to make sure that new jobs are not union jobs.  So while there are real issues, the substantive measures to derive equitable solutions are well within our imagination.  Whether the political measures can be imagined is another matter.  Republicans have gained hugely from making environmental issues a bogeyman.

In short, even if you don’t believe the evidence for environmental disaster is absolutely ironclad, there is no denying the warning signs and there is ironclad proof that we are amping up the risks at a more than linear rate.  Given the consequences of being wrong, it is simply foolish to not look at every single policy decision through the lens of minimizing the environmental impacts.  And then use our political imagination to minimize the social and economic impacts of reducing environmental risk.  The alternative seems to be to drag our societal feet because we won’t take the political pain unless there is absolute certainty that disaster is immediately imminent.  By then, it may well be too late.

As my five-year grandson would say, “What the…??”  And he should, because he’s the one with the biggest stake here.


Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Environmental Risk—Squaring the Globe”

  1. The current sixth extinction is happening instantaneously in geologic time, but too slow for us to notice.
    — Elizabeth Kolbert in “The Sixth Extinction”


  2. In addition to teaching us about the paths of exponential growth, Forrester, Meadows, and others also taught us about how systems have feedbacks and dynamics. This is part of the story line for why the original Limits work was not on target in its forecasts. Despite that history, we clearly need to have the logic of exponential growth (and dynamics) at front of mind in the current environmental discussion. You have given us an excellent menu of the choices before us, as well the differences in costs and risks if we do respond or do not respond. The one caveat I might put on this analysis is the question of whether a major shift to a renewable fuels economy would cost as much, or create as much economic pain as the conventional wisdom suggests. Already, the job growth from the renewable economy (as well as the investments in these industries by China and other countries), suggests that we may be overstating the downside costs of rapid structural changes in energy sources and environmental impact. Of course, rapid change would require rapid public policy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: