The Limits to Compassion

For hardcore greenies, one of the most well known books in one edition or another is Limits to Growth. This is the endlessly discussed, debated, and, if you’re of the denier persuasion, reviled, book first published in 1972 that used computer modeling to sound the alarm about sustainability. While I have always considered it a must read for anyone serious about sustainability or, more specifically, climate change, I typically recommend it with the sotto voce caveat that it’s an academic, some would say dry, read. For all the horrific implications of its contents, it’s not exactly Jurassic Indiana Jones and Empire of the Feedback Loops of Doom Strike Back.

But there’s one passage in this book that has always stood out for me because it’s a bright ray of humanity in the middle of a stoic, gray book, albeit one with well deserved landmark status. The text in question is on page 281 of the most recent edition, published in 2004, subtitled The 30-Year Update:


One is not allowed in the industrial culture to speak about love, except in the most romantic and trivial sense of the word. Anyone who calls upon the capacity of people to practice brotherly and sisterly love, love of humanity as a whole, love of nature and of our nurturing planet, is more likely to be ridiculed than to be taken seriously. The deepest difference between optimists and pessimists is their position in the debate about whether human beings are able to operate collectively from a basis of love. In a society that systematically develops individualism, competitiveness, and short-term focus, the pessimists are in the vast majority.

Individualism and shortsightedness are the greatest problems of the current social system, we think, and the deepest cause of unsustainability. Love and compassion institutionalized in collective solutions is the better alternative. A culture that does not believe in, discuss, and develop these better human qualities suffers from a tragic limitation in its options. “How good a society does human nature permit?” asked psychologist Abraham Maslow. “How good a human nature does society permit?”

The sustainability revolution will have to be, above all, a collective transformation that permits the best of human nature, rather than the worst, to be expressed and nurtured. Many people have recognized that necessity and that opportunity. For example, John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1932:

The problem of want and poverty and the economic struggle between classes and nations is nothing but a frightful muddle, a transitory and unnecessary muddle. For the Western World already has the resource and the technique, if we could create the organization to use them, capable of reducing the Economic Problem, which now absorbs our moral and material energy, to a position of secondary importance….

Thus the … day is not far off when the Economic Problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and … the arena of the heart and head will be occupied … by our real problems-the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behaviour and religion.?

Aurelio Peccei, the great industrial leader who wrote constantly about problems of growth and limits, economics and environment, resources and governance, never failed to conclude that the answers to the world’s problems begin with a “new humanism.” In 1981 he expressed this view:

The humanism consonant with our epoch must replace and reverse principles and norms that we have heretofore regarded as untouchable, but that have become inapplicable, or discordant with our purpose; it must encourage the rise of new value systems to redress our inner balance, and of new spiritual, ethical, philosophical, social, political, aesthetic, and artistic motivations to fill the emptiness of our life; it must be capable of restoring within us … love, friendship, understanding, solidarity, a spirit of sacrifice, conviviality; and it must make us understand that the more closely these qualities link us to other forms of life and to our brothers and sisters everywhere in the world, the more we shall gain.

It is not easy to practice love, friendship, generosity, understanding, or solidarity within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared for lesser human qualities. But we try, and we urge you to try. Be patient with yourself and others as you and they confront the difficulty of a changing world. Understand and empathize with inevitable resistance; there is resistance, some clinging to the ways of unsustainability, within each of us. Seek out and trust in the best human instincts in yourself and in everyone. Listen to the cynicism around you and have compassion for those who believe in it, but don’t believe it yourself.

Humanity cannot triumph in the adventure of reducing the human footprint to a sustainable level if that adventure is not undertaken in a spirit of global partnership. Collapse cannot be avoided if people do not learn to view themselves and others as part of one integrated global society. Both will require compassion, not only with the here and now, but with the distant and future as well. Humanity must learn to love the idea of leaving future generations a living planet.

Is anything we have advocated in this book, from more resource efficiency to more compassion, really possible? Can the world actually ease down below the limits and avoid collapse? Can the human footprint be reduced in time? Is there enough vision, technology, freedom, community, responsibility, foresight, money, discipline, and love, on a global scale?

Of all the hypothetical questions we have posed in this book, these are the most unanswerable, though many people will pretend to answer them. Even we-your authors-differ among ourselves when tallying the odds for and against. The ritual cheerfulness of many uninformed people, especially world leaders, would say the questions are not even relevant; there are no meaningful limits. Many of the informed are infected with the deep cynicism that lies just under the ritual public cheerfulness. They would say that there are severe problems already, with worse ones ahead, and that there’s not a chance of solving them.

Both of those answers are based, of course, on mental models. The truth of the matter is that no one knows.

We have said many times in this book that the world faces not a preordained future, but a choice. The choice is between different mental models, which lead logically to different scenarios. One mental model says that this world for all practical purposes has no limits. Choosing that mental model will encourage extractive business as usual and take the human economy even farther beyond the limits. The result will be collapse.

Another mental model says that the limits are real and close, and that there is not enough time, and that people cannot be moderate or responsible or compassionate. At least not in time. That model is self-fulfilling. If the world’s people choose to believe it, they will be proven right. The result will be collapse.

A third mental model says that the limits are real and close and in some cases below our current levels of throughput. But there is just enough time, with no time to waste. There is just enough energy, enough material, enough money, enough environmental resilience, and enough human virtue to bring about a planned reduction in the ecological footprint of humankind: a sustainability revolution to a much better world for the vast majority.

That third scenario might very well be wrong. But the evidence we have seen, from world data to global computer models, suggests that it could conceivably be made right. There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to try it.

One could write at length, possibly book length, about the topics and material touched on in this sliver of Limits to Growth; I would not be surprised to find out that several people have written such books. So I won’t attempt to say anything profound or extensive about the book or what I’ve quoted above, except to offer a few brief thoughts that I hope will prod you, Dear Reader, to ponder it and your place in our situation a bit more.

  • I’m always struck by both the depth and perhaps naivete of Abraham Maslow’s question, “How good a human nature does society permit?” I find the interaction between the psychology of the individual and the emergent properties of society endlessly fascinating, but primarily in terms of the causality arrow pointing in the other direction: How good a society does human nature permit? In particular, how much does our genetic baggage, as explored via the field of evolutionary psychology, create or limit our potential as societies and even as a civilization? I am not optimistic on this point; our tendency to revert to our default settings of tribalism, greed, and myopia — programming that allowed us to survive our “nasty, brutish, and short” lives as hunters and gatherers — echoes throughout our endeavors and presents serious hurdles we must negotiate before we can effectively deal with climate change.
  • I think the three mental models the authors describe, which I mentally abbreviate as “nothing to worry about”, “we’re doomed”, and “the situation is urgent but not hopeless” likely cover virtually every person at every level of engagement with sustainability or climate change. I fall into the last group, although I can’t make a serious case for being there and not in the “we’re doomed” group based on anything but a psychological defense mechanism. If you try very hard to approach climate change like a scientist — something I’ve always advocated — most notably to go exactly where the evidence leads you and nowhere else, then you quickly wind up in a decidedly grim place. Just the well understood lock-in effects (the long lifetime of our global energy infrastructure that produces far too much CO2; the very long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere; the slow environmental response to increased atmospheric CO2) guarantee that we’ve already consigned future generations to dealing with a nightmarish scenario in which sea level rise turns many millions, possibly billions, of people into permanent climate refugees. Unless, of course, we can develop and deploy a geoengineering solution, such as sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and permanently storing it away from the atmosphere, or blocking enough sunlight to reduce warming (which would still leave us to deal with “climate change’s evil twin”, ocean acidification and the resulting impacts on ocean fish we depend on for food). It’s deus ex machina time, on a global scale and under extreme time pressure, with almost unimaginably bad consequences if we fail.
  • Climate change is often called the ultimate example of a “super wicked problem”, and if you’re not familiar with that terminology I urge you to follow that link and at least skim the Wikipedia article. I certainly agree with that classification, and it points out just how difficult a challenge we’ve created for ourselves. But beyond that grim epiphany, I think each of us has to wrestle with the fundamental question of: What am I to do about this? How can I make a meaningful contribution, as measured in real world improvements and not feel-good self-assessments that “I did more than my neighbors, so I’ve done my part”, which would be yet another reversion to our default mindset as dictated by our evolutionary heritage?
  • It is my inability to answer that question — “What can I do about this?” — that led to depression and my decision to narrow my focus to electric vehicles. I have no delusion that electrifying transportation and cleaning up our electricity supply will be enough to “fix” the climate change mess we’ve spent the last 250 years creating; we’re far too deep in this particular hole for any single solution to do that. But it is clear to me that it’s a positive, necessary step and something that we can do now, from our individual purchasing decisions to voting for EV-friendly politicians.

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