by John Robinson
There are fashions in the world of politics. Issues come and go, gathering limelight for a while and then disappearing. This has been the fate of global warming for the past 30 years; for, a while a tremendously important topic for brief spells, it has for the most part been either forgotten or hidden behind empty rhetoric, with inadequate fiddling at the edges by the tut-tut brigade, who fail to recognise the magnitude of the problem, the size of the changes needed to make a real impact, or the many other even greater challenges that are building towards a complete storm of interacting crises. For this is only one of many existential, global problems coming towards a crunch point, a tipping point.
One such, by far the most important, is the overarching question of the fate of human civilisation as it mushrooms out to overfill a finite planet, bypassing sensible limits to growth. Any one person who has realised the major importance of that challenge, and threat, and who has had the temerity, stupidity and naivety to stick to the message will find himself alone, washed up on a lonely shore, ignored as a relic from the past. The wave of realisation and concern (that blossomed and tied in the 1970s) has come and gone. Yet the question does not go away. We are on a global ship heading ever closer to the rocks. There is expertise at all levels, but no captain or navigator. Human society has all the sense of an ignorant, oblivious spreading plague.
Here I revisit the debate of the 1970s and repeat the conclusions of many studies and projects of that decade, to point out that the problem remains, and has extended, and to once again talk of this issue, the ‘global problematique’ in the words of the Club of Rome (once an outspoken and forceful organisation). This I do by telling of the free availability of my key texts, Excess Capital and Plague of People.
Back in 1972 a series of books and articles had told how mankind was messing dangerously with the earth and its ecosystems. The two big questions were:
Were these warnings realistic?
If, so, when would be the crunch time?
This was serious. As a scientist, I worked full-time on this overarching, holistic, interdisciplinary question, joining in several international projects. By 1980 I had found the answer to those questions, from many sources. The warnings were deadly serious. The global crisis was highly likely. And the crunch time for the ‘total storm’ would be around 2030, and over the decades following.
Much of the professional work had been to develop sets of scenarios, alternative pictures of the coming decades, based on differing assumptions of human behaviour and global resources. The resulting massive reports were useless – decisionmakers were faced with a picture of multiple possibilities, which provided no clear guidance. I returned to science and considered all the various information to develop one forecast of the probable future, with predictions that could be tested.
The one key feature for making the choice to bring multiple scenarios into one forecast was continuation: there would be no significant change in collective behaviour and in the control of global institutions by the dominant Western forces of big business, the developing and strengthening ‘military, industrial complex’, the international oligarchy. That has proved accurate, with the increased power of transnational corporations, with ‘self-reliance’ replaced by globalisation, and the forcing of a ‘free market’ for big capital. Continuation also followed the growth of new centres, towards a multipolar world, as has been shown by the emergence of China as a global power.
Continuation also meant that all nations, and all religions, would refuse to recognise the overpopulation of a finite globe, the millennia-long destruction of other species and the natural environment, together with the need to consider limits to the growth of human colonisation. Calls for growth, as if there were no limits, would continue.
Then came global warming and climate change (which had not been recognised back then). Understanding of process and consequences has increased (including the physics of the melting of great ice sheets that threaten enormous sea level rise) but, despite periodic talk fests and hand-wringing, there has been no real action – just continuation of business as usual with a desire for ‘growth’, which can be easily relabelled as ‘green growth’.
The forecast suggested a series of ‘foreshocks’ leading up to the eventual long crisis. These features, which have provided tests of the forecast included further economic crises and the spread of disease, pandemic and plague across an increasing connected world – all my writings have pointed to the clear warning by Barbara Tuchman of “A distant mirror” provided by the 14th century plague, which followed economic growth and the opening of trade routes.
With Margaret Thatcher (UK), Ronald Reagan (USA) and various offshoots like Roger Douglas (NZ), the wealthy had a series of victories in the never-ending class war. The continuation of domination by the military-industrial-congressional-media-financial elite has become ever more forceful. They tell us that there is an end to class war in order to keep us quiet, so that most people are unaware of the defeat of working people in the current stage of that very present class warfare.
My career in futures research was effectively over by 1984; that capture meant that the brief period of concern and questioning was brought to an end – henceforth ‘the market’ would solve all problems; thinking ahead and planning (by any but the thinktanks of the powerful) were dismissed.
A forecast of the global future builds on an understanding of many interacting trends, with information from many sources, many disciplines. In the 1970s and 1980s, I had found that much of the needed information was available – but a theory of long-term economic was lacking. I had attended several meetings in Paris on long waves in economic systems, and I formulated the theoretical base for such a comprehensive theory.
So, in my enforced retirement I was free to set down the macroeconomic picture. In 1989 I wrote and published Excess capital: How the fruits of human progress are destroying modern society and the environment.
I have continued to be troubled by the lack of interest in the global situation, while the world drifts ever more closely towards the disastrous 2030 point of overshoot and collapse (economically, socially, environmentally). Particularly after the start of the new millennium, the world has followed the disastrous continuation path.
Also, now in retirement and away from the complexities of any particular project, I could more readily look across the total picture, no longer caught up in details and unable to see the woods for the trees. The focus of my thoughts moved more widely than the extensive research on the many facets of recent decades towards the full story of the evolution of human life. It is so clear then how this one species has expanded across the globe, destroying other species and changing whole environments until, as a plague, we have come to threaten our own survival. So, in 2013, I wrote A Plague of People: how a suicidal culture of growth is destroying modern society and the environment, which was published as a free smashwords eBook and in hard copy by Tross Publishing.
Now, in 2021, mainstream economists recognise that there is plentiful capital available, and advise governments to set aside fiscal conservatism and borrow at the current low interest rates. That harks back to the concept of ‘excess capital’. Yet there is still no understanding of long-term trends. The unheard message of Excess Capital is more needed than ever.
Meanwhile the human population continues to expand. Once, back in the 1970s, I saw with horror that the number of people could multiply by three times just in my lifetime, pushing inexorably on the limits of a finite planet. Now that I am 80, I find that the great human plague has multiplied even more – from 2.3 billion in 1940 to 7.8 billion today, almost 3.4 times. And the question of population is nowhere on any list of national or global priorities.
Many of us live in despair at the idiocy and futility of it all. But we each do our little. I have now put Excess Capital online as a Smashwords eBook, and will try to tell people to have a look at the two readily available books, as well as the many other valuable books.
Excess Capital can be downloaded at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1070042. I myself prefer the PDF copy. You can also get it with a Google search for ‘Smashwords Excess capital John Robinson’.
A Plague of People can be downloaded at http://smashwords.com/b/290485. I myself prefer the PDF copy. You can also get it with a Google search for ‘Smashwords Plague of people John Robinson’.
I have a few copies of both books. These can be provided ($25 for Excess Capital, $40 for A Plague of People, both postage free in New Zealand); my contact for orders and any correspondence: email@example.com
As an introduction, here are the preambles of the two books.
From Excess Capital.
Progress could provide a secure and happy life for everybody. Many futures thinkers of the more optimistic 1970s described a leisure society, which had become possible by using the amazing capabilities of modern communications systems to control and expand the use of the scientific discoveries of the industrial revolution. All our physical wants can be satisfied, and the world no longer faces the need to rebuild after the mass destruction of some global conflict. But while a secure and happy life for everybody is theoretically possible, the society of the 1980s had become more unequal and existing social structures were being pulled apart. There was high unemployment rather than reduced working hours and great leisure for all. Why should this be so?
This description of 1989 holds true 30 years later, in 2021.
This book describes how the demands of the profit motive push towards ever higher levels of work activity. The current emphasis on economic growth fails to consider the value of human existence and refuses to countenance any claim for a quality of life which would enjoy the fruits of human success. Instead, Third World peoples have been pressured to borrow the excess moneys of the rich, and have been caught in a poverty trap, now paying more in interest charges than they receive in aid. Highly sophisticated communications systems are used in developed countries to persuade people to consume more and more. Social services, which were once thought to be best provided outside the marketplace, are being privatised for the generation of profit, and environmental destruction continues apace. Economies are not being allowed to settle into stable and sustainable patterns.
This book is based on a wealth of information culled from many sources; the knowledge is there, if only people can break free from the straightjacket of the current conventional wisdom. Only then might society escape from the dystopia which is forecast by futures researcher John Robinson.
From A Plague of People:
The world is full, of too many people. The new situation calls for a change of behaviour. But, instead, there is denial. This is the story of warnings ignored and chances missed as peoples have continued the culture of growth in a mad rush to destruction.
It is now forty years since The Limits to Growth amplified and informed growing concerns over the damage caused by increasing human activities, and provided an estimate of the date when a collapse might occur. That crisis was, then, around sixty years in the future. The world has continued to follow the forecast trends, and that potential crisis is now only twenty years away. Indeed, many recent events foreshadow aspects of the coming storm.
It is also forty years since I shifted my career path from applied mathematics to interdisciplinary futures research. The direction of my subsequent work has been guided by the topic, and I have followed the path among many disciplines while building a comprehension of the many interactions, always seeking – and finding – the overarching themes that made sense of it all.
For the most part information and understanding has been readily available from many scholars and institutions; otherwise, I tackled issues myself and, again leaning heavily on the work of others, filled in a number of gaps. Interdisciplinary work such as this is different from the more common reductionist approach with its focus on highly specialised expertise. It involves the collection and integration of a wide range of information, and often the necessity to apply scientific criteria and judge between competing experts. It is risky, moving outside the comfort zone of a well-trodden specialisation.
This has been a most rewarding experience, providing considerable personal satisfaction as I have found it possible to come to grips with the major trends and forces of our era, as well as to build a unified forecast of expectations that is proving remarkably robust. For the first ten years of my new career the global focus proved a successful career move, as during the 1970s there was considerable activity researching the global scene. After that, and for the remaining thirty years to today, I have experienced career failure. That scientific enterprise was crushed.
One personal experience has been to become an outsider, the other, when groups of friends and relatives talk of their travels and their activities and work as part of the current society. It would be rude in polite society to oppose their shared god of growth and to argue that their whole way of life is destroying the planet and ruining the future of our children. Just a few comments can suffice and old friends drift away.
Such an experience is a major part of the story of this past forty years, of a collective behaviour that has formed the world of 2013 and has determined what will happen in the following two decades towards the crisis years. In the early days of futures research there was much talk of paradigm shift, as differing scenarios were constructed, based on different behaviour patterns. It seemed that it would be possible to face the challenge and find a way out. The various alternatives have since dropped by the wayside, as paths not taken. There has been no paradigm shift and the world has relentlessly followed the continuation pathway of growth. Once it was possible to raise questions and to suggest radical change to the direction of societies, in order to avoid the worst of the crunch as the limits to human expansion on a finite planet earth are overtaken. The denial that has dominated since the early 1980s, and the continuing insistence on growth, has defined a path that has instead served to deepen the problem and increase both the probability of collapse and the extent of the consequences.
I have recently written of what happened in New Zealand when two cultures came together. This was a remarkable happening. Stone Age, tribal Maori were faced with a completely new world with the sudden appearance from across the ocean of Europeans, whose civilisation had evolved extensively within Eurasia in the three millennia since Polynesians had lost all contact with the Asian mainland. This was an enormous culture shock, which required considerable change and adaptation. One major consequence was the extension of intertribal war in which some one-third of Maori perished. Faced with that destruction, a number of Maori chiefs came to recognise the need for a fundamental change in their way of life, organisation and governance and called on the British for help.
We too, the total humanity now colonising the whole globe as a collective entity, have come to a crunch point that demands an enormous culture change; that is what a paradigm shift means, it is revolutionary. For many thousands of years peoples have spread across the world. There have been many regional catastrophes, each affecting just one part of humanity, but always there have been new lands to conquer, to settle anew or to take from others. That process is now complete. The world is full and our species has reached its farthest limits. The spirit of expansion and growth is no longer appropriate. It is time to adapt to the successful colonisation of an entire planet, to grow up and to move from adolescence to maturity. The damage of the voracious and powerful species into which we have been born is extensive; the further impact and the consequences will be even greater, of a magnitude that is hard to come to grips with – indeed, most people faced with the information turn away and move to denial. This remarkable and defining feature of modern civilisation remains unrecognised.
This is then the story of wasted years, a wasted lifetime, and a missed opportunity. It tells of the failure of a civilisation and of a science that could have provided so much. There is no possibility that the natural world can survive, no possibility that all people can be provided with a high, ‘developed’ material standard of living. This global civilisation is not sustainable; the aim should now be to plan for survival in lifeboat national communities.
There is however no general appreciation of that situation, and no possibility of such an ‘all-hands-at-the-pump’ effort to prepare for the worst. Action will come only after the earthquake has hit, when so many will be suffering and dying, with struggles for the remaining resources led by authoritarian governments. Denial has destroyed an opportunity to act in advance. And denial will not prevent the cataclysm.
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”