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Only Less Will Do

March 13, 2015


When I’m not writing books or essays on environmental issues, or sleeping or eating, you’re likely to find me playing the violin. This has been an obsessive activity for me since I was a boy, and seems to deliver ever more satisfaction as time passes. Making and operating the little wooden box that is a violin is essentially a pre-industrial activity: nearly all its parts are from renewable sources (wood, horsetail, sheepgut), and playing it requires no electricity or gasoline. Violin playing therefore constitutes an ecologically benign hobby, right?

It probably was, a couple of centuries ago; now, not so much. You see, most violin bows are made from pernambuco, a Brazilian hardwood that’s endangered because too many bows have already been made from it. Ebony, too, is over-harvested; it’s used for making fingerboards, tuning pegs, and bow parts. Some fancy older violin bows are even decorated with tortoiseshell, ivory, and whalebone. And while maple and spruce (the main woods from which violins are constructed) are not endangered, whole forests are being cut in China to meet the burgeoning global demand for student instruments. Modern strings (most of which are made using petroleum derivatives) are often wound with nonrenewable silver or aluminum, and almost nobody tries to recycle them.

You see, the real problem with violins is one of scale. If there were only a few thousand violinists in the world, making and playing fiddles would have negligible environmental impact. But multiply these activities by tens of millions and the results are deforestation and species extinctions.

Yes, efforts are being made to make violin playing more sustainable. Brazil is protecting its remaining pernambuco forests, and many bow makers seek out “sustainably harvested” wood. Bow makers are also replacing elephant ivory with steer bone or synthetic materials, and the shafts of many bows are now made from carbon fiber. Tortoiseshell and whalebone are off limits for new bows, and synthetic replacements for these materials are available. One company offers to recycle the silver in old violin strings. All of this helps. But if the number of violinists continues to increase, these gains will sooner or later be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the demand for everything from glue to rosin.

Violin playing is a fairly specialized, unusual activity. But the basic problem I’ve outlined is endemic to just about every human pursuit, from eating breakfast in the morning to watching television before bedtime. In the quest to make human society sustainable, the problem of scale crops up absolutely everywhere. We can make a particular activity more energy-efficient and benign (for example, we can increase the fuel economy of our cars), but the improvement tends to be overwhelmed by changes in scale (economic expansion and population growth lead to an increase in the number of cars on the road, and to the size of the average vehicle, and hence to higher total fuel consumption).

Almost nobody likes to hear about the role of scale in our global environmental crisis. That’s because if growth is our problem, then the only real solution is to shrink the economy and reduce population. Back in the 1970s, many environmentalists recommended exactly that remedy, but then came the Reagan backlash—a political juggernaut promising endless economic expansion if only we allowed markets to work freely. Many environmentalists recalibrated their message, and the “bright green” movement was born, claiming that efficiency improvements would enable humans to eat their cake (grow the economy) and have it too (protect the planet for the sake of future generations).

Yet here we are, decades after the eclipse of old-style, conservation-centered environmentalism, and despite all sorts of recycling programs, environmental regulations, and energy efficiency improvements, the global ecosystem is approaching collapse at ever-greater speed.


Population has grown from 4.4 billion in 1980 to 7.1 billion in 2013. Per capita consumption of energy has grown from less than 70 gigajoules to nearly 80 GJ per year. Total energy use has expanded from 300 exajoules to 550 EJ annually. We’ve used all that energy to extract raw materials (timber, fish, minerals), to expand food production (converting forests to farmland or rangeland, using immense amounts of freshwater for irrigation, applying fertilizers and pesticides). And we see the results: the world’s oceans are dying; species are going extinct at a thousand times the natural rate; and the global climate is careening toward chaos as multiple self-reinforcing feedback processes (including polar melting and methane release) kick into gear.

The environmental movement has responded to that last development by adopting a laser-like focus on reducing carbon emissions. Which is certainly understandable, since global warming constitutes the most pervasive and potentially deadly ecological threat in all of human history. But the proponents of “green growth,” who tend to dominate environmental discussions (sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly), tell us the solution is simply to switch energy sources and trade carbon credits; if we do those simple and easy things, we can continue to expand population and per-capita consumption with no worries.

In reality, entirely switching our energy sources will not be easy, as I have explained in a lengthy recent essay. And while climate change is the mega-crisis of our time, carbon is not our only nemesis. If global warming threatens to undermine civilization, so do topsoil, freshwater, and mineral depletion. These may just take a little longer.

The math of compound growth leads to absurdities (one human for every square meter of land surface by the year 2750 at our current rate of population increase) and to tragedy. If confronted by this simple math, bright greens will say, “Well yes, ultimately there are limits to population and consumption growth. But we just have to grow some more now, in order to deal with the problem of economic inequality and to make sure we don’t trample on people’s reproductive rights; later, once everyone in the world has enough, we’ll talk about leveling off. For now, substitution and efficiency will take care of all our environmental problems.”

Maybe the bright greens (or should I say, pseudo-greens?) are right in saying that “less” is a message that just doesn’t sell. But offering comforting non-solutions to our collective predicament accomplishes nothing. Maybe the de-growth prescription is destined to fail at altering civilization’s overall trajectory and it is too late to avoid a serious collision with natural limits. Why, then, continue talking about those limits and advocating human self-restraint? I can think of two good reasons. The first is, limits are real. When we decline to talk about what is real simply because it’s uncomfortable to do so, we seal our own fate. I, for one, refuse to drink that particular batch of Kool-Aid. The second and more important reason: If we can’t entirely avoid the collision, let us at least learn from it—and let’s do so as quickly as possible.

All traditional indigenous human societies eventually learned self-restraint, if they stayed in one place long enough. They discovered through trial and error that exceeding their land’s carrying capacity resulted in dire consequences. That’s why traditional peoples appear to us moderns as intuitive ecologists: having been hammered repeatedly by resource depletion, habitat destruction, overpopulation, and resulting famines, they eventually realized that the only way to avoid getting hammered yet again was to respect nature’s limits by restraining reproduction and protecting other forms of life. We’ve forgotten that lesson, because our civilization was built by people who successfully conquered, colonized, then moved elsewhere to do the same thing yet again; and because we are enjoying a one-time gift of fossil fuels that empower us to do things no previous society ever dreamed of. We’ve come to believe in our own omnipotence, exceptionalism, and invincibility. But we’ve now run out of new places to conquer, and the best of the fossil fuels are used up.

As we collide with Earth’s limits, many people’s first reflex response will be to try to find someone to blame. The result could be wars and witch-hunts. But social and international conflict will only deepen our misery. One thing that could help would be the widely disseminated knowledge that our predicament is mostly the result of increasing human numbers and increasing appetites confronting disappearing resources, and that only cooperative self-limitation will avert a fight to the bitter end. We can learn; history shows that. But in this instance we need to learn fast.

So I keep plugging away with the same old message in as many different ways as I can, updating it as events unfold. And I play my violin—with a carbon fiber bow.

Image: Shutterstock

  • sbean

    Richard, I’m surprised at your reference to population growth until 2750. Projections for the approximate year of peak global human population have been receding (or is it advancing?) from 2100 and beyond to 2070 and now 2050. I think there are reasons to believe that it will come even sooner–closer to 2035 than to 2050–largely due to a resumption of deflation and economic depression across most countries.

    I’d like to offer an alternative view on what our predicament is a result of. Those “increasing appetites” are largely a function of the inherent incentives of money use, which in turn is based on the (nearly?) global cultural belief in the concept of exchange. We can change our belief, our culture, and our consumption in one fell swoop by ending the use of money by mass choice on a date certain after sufficient time to consider, discuss, and prepare. If you ponder it objectively I think you’ll see the many problems that would be resolved to great extent (if not completely). If enough people can think–not change their lives, just think–about it clearly, then a critical mass can make it happen. The first step is to make people aware that it’s a choice, one that we already make unconsciously every day.

  • Sergio Ivan Solorzano

    Good question peak population, maybe sooner than we all think.

  • mickstep

    Richard, can we put the phrase “drink the koolaid” to rest.

    The “People’s Temple” movement was an early response to the same problems we face today, a group of mostly black Californians who headed out to Guyana to build an agrarian community.

    There movement wasn’t very well liked by the US government and their Guyanan allies, and like so many left wing agrarian movements in Latin America faced violent destruction by death squads. Aware of this they decided to kill themselves in an act of protest they naively thought would be understood and not propagandised by the US with the phrase “drink the koolaid”.

    Needless to say if Jonestown had suffered the fate of a GDF death squad massacre their existence would have been barely reported on by the US press and Jonestown would have long since disappeared down the memory hole.

  • Greg

    Excellent article, Richard! Now onto the implementation. Guerrilla marketing 101 would suggest going after a small section of the ‘market’ with the message.

    Perhaps those who best understand it and whose (alleged) interests are already in alignment….how about the pseudo-environmental groups??

    If we can’t get them on board, what chance to we have with the general populace?

    Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Nature Conservancy…..sit and watch the population trajectories and the decay of earth’s natural systems and give little or no mention to THE issue of our time.

  • GS

    Jim Jones was a nutso cult-leader who led his people into harm’s way, period.

  • mickstep

    My point is the similarity in what Jim Jones tried to set up, and the solutions many reading this kind of article are remarkably similar, and the hostility to their ideas of building an agrarian society of conventional thinking, growth orientated minds is likely also similar.

    Look at the similarity, Jim Jones was an American proposing antithetical ideas, Jim Jones was received favourably by Pravda, Richard appears on RT.

    From an establishment perspective they are not too dissimilar to provoke the same kind of response.

    If you read about People’s Temple nothing strikes me as believing in any sort of fantastical afterlife, and if you listen to the death tape all I hear is a bunch of people who built something and fear their and its violent destruction.

    Jim Jones may have been a megalomaniac or all sorts of things, I’m more interested in the aims of his group, which appear to me to be to create an agrarian eco village, an idea which is similar to the idea of transition towns.

  • WWallace Mud

    The message of wanting and consuming less may not sell, but it doesn’t really have too. In reality we’re already seeing how the limits to growth are creating deflation and slow degrowth caused by both debt and wealth inequality. What the economists call a drop in discretionary spending is to me a drop in spending on needless crap. That drop is now curtailing the demand for all types of commodities including fossil fuels by the manufacturers and shipping industries without consumers having to buy into the concept of choosing less consciously.

    Slow degrowth is inevitable in a deflationary world. Avoiding the alternative – a massive environmental collapse – can happen through “cooperative self-limitation” but it can also happen through the choices of bread over oreos, needs over wants, by even the most addicted consumers in a slowly degrowing world caused by a modest 2%-3% defationary economic scenerio like we’re seeing right now in many ‘developed’ economies.

  • Tim

    Is the carbon fiber realy better for the environment?

  • EVHappy

    Clap, clap! Yes! It is so good to read an article by Richard that talks so seriously about the problem of overpopulation. Until humans learn how to control their population levels on a global scale, most of us will continue to live in pain and suffering.

    I like the discussion about the native tribes that have learned, through trial and error, that only controlling their population levels works towards their comfortable sustainability. This is the key to everything.

    I hope Richard’s next book is specifically about controlling our population numbers as well as the management of our resources to keep in balance with nature. When any of Earth’s critical renewable resources is in depletion, humans should immediately ring the alarm bells and figure out what went wrong and correct it with the dramatic effort it deserves.

    Sadly, human culture and religion are totally against population control in just about any form (there is power in numbers – the more you have over your competition, the more likely you will survive a war or power struggle over resources).

    It looks like humans are going to have to go through countless generations, pushing their resources into deep overshoot, collapsing, finding bottom and then starting over, probably not learning from their previous failures. It is possible that the human species is incapable of such a global scale management task, much like asking chimpanzees to design and build skyscrapers.

    I think the greatest gift a person from this generation can give to the world is a manual on how to implement humane policies for population control and resource management after or during periods of civilization collapse. People need such a manual to turn to when there will be so many voices calling for yet another resource war.

    Imagine if the required reading and study of every human born on Earth is a detailed manual, written by some genius, that lays down step by step instructions for societies to follow, while providing the basic understanding for why it must be done and why it must be taken so seriously. What greater gift could their be?

  • EVHappy

    The population level will be determined by the resources available and the amount of net energy needed to extract those resources.

    For example, if the flow of oil in the world suddenly dropped by 75%, what do you think would be the result? I can tell you what would happen to a very good degree – the population of humans on Earth would drop by approximately the same amount, regardless of what fancy monetary policies or financial trickery the leadership comes up with.

    Of course, the numbers cannot be know for sure because there can be a billion more people living like Bangladeshis, or far less if the standards of living are like the Average American.

    The cost of extracting our fossil fuel energy continues to go up as we humans are forced to go to ever less desirable energy resources, like tar sands and oil shale. These extra costs weigh on the global economy and the net amount of affordable energy, available for economic activity, continues to decline.

    One thing is for certain, the population level for humans living in comfortable balance with what Earth is capable of producing is far lower than the 7.1 billion people we have today. If we look at what that population level was, on average, before the fossil fuel era, a good estimate would around the 1 billion mark or less. This is a tremendous reduction that is very difficult to mentally accept.

  • Agata

    Thank you for the article. I think it’s important to stress that if somebody should limit their desires, it’s first of all population of most developed countries, with the United States at the first place, European and other OECD countries at the second. Instead of telling people in Asia that “they can’t live as we do”, let’s start to live as we think they should. Is it realistic? Not very likely, for sure. But better than arrogant cry that “you cannot live as we do”. You haven’t write it, but I believe that it’s what people often think when it comes to discussion about consumption / population growth. BTW, USA have higher birth rate than many developing countries.

  • Robban

    Very good comparison about violins and their material needs, Richard, and its implications for the whole world (are we really tens of millions? Wow). The hard facts about our impact on nature can be seen in the amount of our fossil fuel consumption, in our population numbers, in water consumption etc. all of which shows that we are not masters of the situation by a long shot. And of course, as you say, “the only real solution is to shrink the economy and reduce population”. And, by ourselves, that´s just impossible, of course. We know it but refuse to believe it, what else should we believe? That we are mere animals without the ability to freely choose our way? After all, we did work – unintendedly, of course – the opposite direction for ten thousand years, you know.

    I think a clue to our dilemma can be seen if we look at the other animals on this planet. Why haven’t they gone through such a devastating increase in numbers? And how could nature have existed for billions of years without it being overwhelmed by too many animals/species? Could the answer be that they just could not go beyond their genetic traits and do things on their own? And isn’t the reason they couldn’t do this that they are not conscious beings and without tools (e.g. dexterous hands) to do other things than follow their genetic traits?

    We are the only animal with an ability to accomplish what wev’e done in nature. Doesn’t this say enough about us: That we had the ability to diverge from our genetically given way of living plus that we could not resist to do so.

    The first half of it depended on our extraordinary dexterity and the second half on our curiosity, both of which are genetically given. So then our journey through nature is just natural, that is it could not have happened another way. We are mere animals!

    But this doesn’t mean that this way will fit into the scheme of nature because it can’t function this way with one species consuming half of nature’s resources. We are killing nature – unintendedly of course – but nature can’t know this and can only react on physical facts. And in order to survive itself, nature can’t give priority to any species, not even Homo Sapiens (it doesn’t know our name or can be impressed by it).
    (But I agree with you on the violin: it makes sence playing it. I just wish I had started earlier).

    And then we have the second part of the human dilemma, which Richard already has mentioned in his article: the problem of scale. And this is about our natural lack of understanding thermodynamics.
    No animal knows of thermodynamics, because they couldn’t. Homo Sapiens lived for millions of years without the concept of “world” and he couldn’t believe that the space/area around him was somehow limited, because he never saw any limits, there was always something else beyond. So “limitless” was the normal for Homo Sapiens.

    With this idea of “reality” unshaken, we then went on creating an ever expanding world but without understanding that we approached real, physical limits. Not until a few hundred years ago, when we began trying to get power out of heat – the steam engine – we were forced by necessity to ponder about “the physical reality” and then discovered laws, which govern nature and foremost the laws of thermodynamics.

    But we still haven’t fully understood them, because we go on like we always have as if the world was limitless, but we are very keen in inventing laws of our own, which better suits our needs (=allowing us to go on like before). Believing that there is “clean” energy to save us from environmental damage is one of them, because it gives us the false and very dangerous idea that we can go on like before without damaging nature.
    We just don’t understand that energy use – exergy consumption from nature, greater than its capacity to transmit exergy from the sun – is what will impoverish it. This is not difficult to understand at all, but such insights will also reveal the hoax of civilization in its entirety and that is just too much for us to know.
    Better then to just play the violin and enjoy its wonderful sound. But we couldn’t know this beforehand, of course.