Growth Shock and Our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation and Adaptation, or Harm

Climate change, a topic that once was the purview of scientists and academics, has now become a central issue in today’s political and social discussion. The primary reason for this shift is the emergence of increasingly abnormal, damaging, and severe weather events that have come with greater and greater frequency to plague the world’s cities, states and nations. Tornadoes have devoured entire towns, hurricanes have become more numerous and powerful, freak hybrid superstorms are now a serious risk, 100 year flood events have become commonplace, wildfires are now endemic, causing damage in the billions of dollars annually, and immense country-spanning droughts now range the globe.

A secondary reason for our growing awareness is that it is becoming obvious that the world’s ice sheets are in rapid retreat even as sea levels are on the rise. Nine out of ten glaciers are in decline. The great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland lose hundreds of cubic miles of ice annually. The resultant sea level rise driven by this melt and by thermal expansion of the oceans puts entire cities, states and nations into existential crisis. By the end of this century, practically all of south Florida may be little more than a shrinking archipelago. Some Pacific island nations are planning their inevitable evacuation to places like Australia, New Zealand, or the continents. Almost all coastal cities will be forced to expend significant monies and resources over the next century if they are to have any hope of warding off the rising seas and more powerful storms. An effort that, in the end, may well prove in vain.

It is a slow motion disaster movie script that plays before our eyes now, almost weekly, on the evening news. And there are many, many events that the mainstream media does not cover, likely due to the fact that it has become saturated with stories of this kind.

Growth Shock and Climate Change

Unfortunately this rising climate change emergency is just one aspect of a larger crisis of civilization-wide Growth Shock. Growth Shock is a dangerous condition brought on by a combination of our inexorably expanding global population, our over consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the damage to our environment via carbon pollution that results in climate change. These three forces are all enabled by a great human limiter — Greed — which has been institutionalized in so many of the world’s corporations and is deeply imbedded both explicitly and implicitly in the world’s political systems and ideologies. So to solve climate change, we will also have to do much better at solving the problems of overpopulation, dangerous and violent methods of resource consumption, and the underlying disease of human greed.

To this point it is worth considering a statement from the ground-breaking sustainability work The Limits to Growth:

“If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains. In short, that society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

I have also just completed my own work on the issue entitled Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World which will see electronic publication within the next two weeks.

Here is the cover image, brilliantly rendered by Matthew Friedman, in which the Vitruvian Man (representing the unsustainable and exploitative structures of humankind) seems to have grown too big for his own good and struggles unhappily against the globe’s confines:

Growth Shock Cover Art

The roll-out for this work will proceed over the next two weeks and it will be managed in such a way as to responsibly redistribute proceeds to charitable causes that, in my view, have been most effective in working to reduce the harm caused by Growth Shock and the related climate emergency (more on this later).

In any case, as climate change is one of the four forces enabling Growth Shock, we have come to a time where we are compelled to make choices and act in ways that prevent further harm through mitigation, to attempt to adapt to the growing nightmare that is now upon us, or to make the choice to fail to act and therefore increase the degree and velocity of harm coming down the pipe.


The obvious and worsening climate emergency that we are now just starting to experience has galvanized a growing cadre of grass roots organizations and individuals dedicated to the cause of preventing as much of the coming damage as possible. These advocates of mitigation believe that strong action now has the greatest chance of reducing future harm. And their efforts and advocacy are based in the sciences. With extreme weather and damaging events ramping up at 400 ppm CO2, the situation is bound to be far worse at 450, 550, 700, or the 900 ppm CO2 predicted under business as usual by the end of this century. Mitigation advocates are clear in the understanding that the less CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we emit, the less dangerous the ultimate crisis will become.

Mitigation and preventing future harm, therefore, must rely on a combination of efforts. Rapidly increasing renewable energy development will be needed to replace a large enough portion of fossil fuel use to sustain life support systems for the planet’s 7 billion human beings. This will involve a politically difficult replacement of fossil energy sources with clean sources like wind and solar as well as the regulation and eventual elimination of carbon emissions altogether. A more efficient use of space and, over all, more efficient life styles will also do much to prevent damage through both reducing energy and materials consumption. Such a transition will be difficult under current economies that are designed to endlessly increase the consumption of materials, labor, and resources all while funneling wealth to the top of social systems. These social and economic structures dangerously enhance the level of damage we cause and so must be challenged and called into question if we are to make much head-way.

To this point, a large shift away from the massive agribusiness of meat farming may well be needed. Today, more than 65 billion livestock are estimated to be held in states of captivity far more brutal and intolerable than even the worst-treated of human criminals. The lifespans of most of these creatures is doomed to a tortuously short 1-4 years and the unspeakable suffering many experience during their times as livestock animals is a black scar of atrocity born by our race.

An estimated 40% of the world’s grain crop goes to supporting this terrible and inhumane manifestation of food industry. Further, the lion’s share of the 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions attributed to human agriculture is based in the meat industry. As such, our industry enhanced dependence on harming animals for food and materials is likely to have to be greatly abated as part of a comprehensive climate change mitigation action. In any case, the amoral practices required by industry to produce such high volumes of meat render it ethically as well as physically unsustainable.

A true comprehensive mitigation will also have to redefine current paradigms of growth and wealth generation. Economic systems will have to become less focused on short term gains and concentrating wealth at the top and more focused on long-term prosperity and survivability through a more equal sharing of and access to more limited resources. The exploitative paradigm of pure capitalism has failed and failed again. This is largely due to the fact that pure capitalism tends to demand all responsibility be placed on the less fortunate and successful masses as the more fortunate are enabled to behave as little more than privileged anarchists. To mitigate the social shocks that are inevitable during a climate crisis and to reign in the massive, excessive and abusive over-use of resources by the wealthy, more responsibility must be demanded from the most privileged members of societies. Wealth compression, therefore, is an effective tool in reducing the harm caused by an over-consumption of resources at the upper rungs of civilization where some members consume more than 100,000 times the resources of a subsistence farmer and about 3,000 times the resources of a person living in today’s middle class.

Since the levels of exploitation and consumption that have enabled climate change to run rampant are encouraged and required by today’s neo-liberal and globalized brand of capitalism, this manifestation of capitalism must be reigned in, caged and defanged if we are to have much hope of mitigating the larger crisis of climate change.


Since we missed our chance to mitigate much of the damage from climate change by about 30 years (we’d have been much better off if we began rapid CO2 reductions, sustainability and wealth compression efforts in the 70s and 80s), a massive effort to adapt to the changes now set in motion will probably be necessary. It is likely that we’ve already locked in many decades of increasingly severe weather, and, likely, centuries of rising seas. Ultimate sea level rise based on the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere will probably terminate at between 15 and 75 feet higher than the current day (rising at between 5 and 15 feet per century). These changes are probably locked in now even if we halt all CO2 emissions today. But, more likely, our best realistic hope is probably to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at around 450 parts per million, which would result in higher-end damages being locked in for centuries.

As a result, if we are to continue to have powerful, resilient civilizations at the global and continental levels, then we must do serious work to make those civilizations more resilient. Entire cities may have to be moved or surrounded by increasingly tall flood barriers. New port systems will have to be devised to cope with changing sea levels. Architects and engineers will have to alter building and structure design to deal with more vicious storms and weather conditions. Farming will have to become more adaptive. The world’s agricultural systems will have to do more with less. Most likely, humans will have to rely more on grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts (which are more efficient ways to transfer energy and nutrients to the human body) and far less on meat (also a mitigation as described above). We may need to expend resources to ensure that our fellow living creatures, which provide essential life support services, do not become extinct. In short, what damage we cannot prevent via mitigation, we will have to learn to adapt to. As such, human civilization will probably need to take more responsibility in both defending itself and the natural world from the harm that is now coming.


With carbon pollution already reaching dangerous and excessive levels, any choices that do not mitigate (prevent) or help adapt to future climate change result in an increasing degree and velocity of harm. These choices include climate change denial — which not only insanely disputes the basic physical science behind the effect of greenhouse gasses on Earth’s climate but also ignorantly attributes current increasingly severe weather, temperature and sea level rise to a scientific ‘natural variability’ that denial proponents, purposefully or through blatant stupidity, misrepresent and misunderstand. This is not to confuse those who are understandably scared by the force that is climate change and have succumbed to the natural, though in this case irrational, human response to withdraw from and avoid danger. Political climate change denial seeks to exploit this natural human response for short term political and economic gain and, as such, must be viewed as anathema. Human denial and avoidance of harm, however, is a basic instinct-driven response that must be rationally addressed. In the case of harm caused by climate change, the only rational way to avoid it is through mitigation and adaptation. Denial of the physical forces of the universe unleashed by human over-consumption and institutionalized greed, on the other hand, is little more than a withdrawal into the realm of wishful thinking. Denial, in both cases, causes inaction and paralysis, enables the continuation of business as usual, and, therefore, increases harm.

To this point, any efforts to slow down or reduce mitigation efforts also increases the velocity and force of the harm now rushing toward us. Pressures to slowly mitigate and gradually adapt may seem rational at first, but result in a less tenable future long term. Responses need to be measured, organized and swift — like the emergency procession to lifeboats aboard a sinking ship. Irrationally clinging to damaging systems for as long as possible amounts to playing fiddle on the deck as the critical time to find a place aboard a lifeboat trickles away.

Depression is another natural human response to challenges that far exceed the scope of an individual to overcome. In this case, social depression over climate change has manifest in a form of doomerism that clings to the notion that any action in the face of a growing crisis is futile. To the doomers, I would like to say this:

If there is even a small chance that mitigation and adaptation will bring us through the crisis, then shouldn’t we pursue all efforts and make that likelihood as great as possible? What if the British and the French had simply given up in the face of what, to them, must have seemed an invincible German military juggernaut during the early days of World War II (in fact, their early denial that a problem existed at all set up the conditions for this terrible war in the first place)? To the doomers I would say that the more we fail to respond, the worse the crisis becomes. And a crisis always seems most insurmountable at its start and just before creative response is initiated. Though it is true that many civilizations have failed in the past when confronted with problems that are similar to ours and that climate change, especially, tends to crush civilizations by creating problems that are outside of its ability to evolve and adapt, failure to respond almost always ensures collapse. We may argue now that response is too little too late, but we really won’t know unless we’ve expended all efforts. And so all efforts are, therefore, entirely moral and appropriate.

Lastly, a number of entrenched special interests are heavily invested in harm. These include the world’s fossil fuel companies, the industrial meat industries, a number of investment banking firms that support and profit from such activities via financing, and a large supply chain of industries that produce products based on these activities. Since the resources and profits of these industries are, in part, shared with broader society via the stock market and through the production of cheap, easy to access, goods and services, many states, cities and individuals are also, wittingly or unwittingly invested in harm. As such, a turning away from harm will require conscious choices on the part of individuals, cities, states and industries to not only divest in stock portfolios that profit from harm but also to actively change behavior, methods of consumption and materials use. As we begin this process, entrenched industries and individuals that profit from harmful and exploitative activities are likely to dig in and fight every step of the way. They will attempt to deny us product choices via legislation and market dominance even as they attempt to pretend that harm coming from their practices is both natural and inevitable (directly or indirectly enhancing denialism and doomerism). This institutionalized, irrational and entrenched manifestation of human greed represents the center of gravity of harm coming from human systems and, if we can address it, it is likely that both denial and doomerism will fade.

Considering Moral Responses

In the end, any action that delays or prevents a swift, encompassing, and organized response to climate change increases the level of harm that we are in for. Such a choice, whether conscious or not, is essentially amoral in that it reduces civilization’s chance to survive an emerging existential crisis. A choice that eventually results in an escalating level of damage and loss of lives and livelihoods.

So we’ve come to a tough pass and these, whether we realize it or not, are our choices:

1. To prevent and mitigate harm.

2. To do our best to adapt to the harm that is coming.

3. Or to increase the degree and velocity of harm by failing to act.

My best hopes are for your courage to make the just choices for the sake of you, your family, and for all of us. This is our responsibility to ourselves and each other. And the time to act is now, now, NOW.

Leave a comment


  1. coyoteyogi

     /  July 10, 2013

    Thanks Robert.
    I’m not sure your using the French and English responses to the German war machine was a good one. The French caved in 3 months with over half the country simply handed over without a shot. The only reason the English survived is because they live on an island. Hitler’s generals couldn’t get there and air power is limited.
    That said yes to living a conscious life_ planting trees, limiting the use of resources, gardening, eating locally and little or no meat. Check. check. check. The issue becomes one of positive feedback relationships within the biosphere. There are multiple feedbacks that have been initiated. You know them well.

    I don’t see any movement away from the “American Way of LIfe”. I see people who are changing habits because of the slow collapse which has taken away their jobs and savings, But I don’t see real political power that can effectively make the kinds of drastic and severe changes necessary. I don’t see any willingness to sacrifice today’s comforts for tomorrow’s children. Small little blips here and there.
    I attended a rally against Monsanto because I think the turning of DNA into property is criminal. I think the gene splicing of different species to form various forms of franken-food is suicidal. Suicidal to the ecosystem e.g. honey bees, suicidal to the local economies of small scale solutions and suicidal to our own genetic inheritance. So yes, resistance is necessary. It just seems that Monsanto is winning. They buy the politicians in sufficient numbers that meaningful national policy is impossible.
    I enjoy your essays and have only recently found your blog.
    Phil the farmer


    • Probably true. Though the French still resisted long after conquest and the British fought on like dogs even though the fight, at the time, seemed hopeless.

      Monsanto is yet one more example of what I would call a Godzilla Zombie corporation. Your fight against it is certainly worthwhile and you’re right to point out that corporate ownership of DNA opens up massive avenues for harm and abuse. I know it seems hopeless at this point. But fighting is more than worthwhile. I wish you the best and will hope for your ultimate win in these most critical of matters.

      Warmest regards and thanks for the kind comment.


  2. Robert,

    Your description of the struggle between global sustainability and regional economic models based on continuous growth could not possibly be better illustrated than by this article today:

    I read your piece early this morning, and haven’t been thinking about much else since. There are a few details I’d like to discuss with you, but the overall arch of the piece is well-aligned with my own thoughts on the subject: modern economic systems must be discarded. It’s really that simple.

    The issue that I’ll be researching over the next few days is this: have humans ever had economic systems that weren’t based on growth? You may know the answer already. I don’t.

    Once again, thanks for an excellent piece.


    • Growth appears to be written into life itself. Life grows, expands, tests limits, exceeds limits, fails to maintain expanding access to resources, damages the resource base, then collapses or (in the extreme) goes extinct. When life succeeds, it is most often through a number of mutually beneficial cooperative partnerships with other life, which adds resiliency when the inevitable shocks arrive.

      Human systems can follow this pattern as well.

      In answer to your question, some civilizations, when confronted with an impenetrable or nearly impenetrable set of boundary limits to growth, have managed through various innovations, cooperative structures, leveling of population expansion, and reductions in the decadence (and resulting resource damage) of the leader class, and enhanced access to renewable resources, to achieve a sustained, prosperous, and arguably benevolent homeostasis.

      You may want to consult the works of Jared Diamond in this regard. Collapse is an excellent popular book on the subject. In particular, the island culture of Tikopia provided some astounding innovations when confronted with impenetrable boundary limits and what I am calling ‘Growth Shock.’

      What is particularly dangerous in our current situation is that we have hitched our growth primarily to a set of limited resources — fossil fuels — that both damage the Earth’s life support capacity and, in the end, deplete to the point that they will crush economies in the final rush to extract them. This is a very vicious boundary limit in that access to the depleting fuel source effectively shrinks the wealth and prosperity of the human world through climate change even as the resource pool, itself, shrinks. Growth Shock, in this case, is particularly deadly and dangerous.

      This is one reason why I have been so adamant about a transition away from fossil fuels — it buys us more time and gives us more room to maneuver. But there are other aspects of industrial civilization that may need to be jettisoned (industrial meat as indicated above). And a restraint and then slow decline of human population will probably also be needed long-term.

      It is possible that we may still achieve prosperity growth. But to do so we will have to overcome some very, very difficult boundary limits. As such, it is likely that economies should be geared more toward homeostasis, elevating the poor enough not to suffer and to live happy lives, and demanding more from the most fortunate. Such a homeostasis would stabilize societies by reducing unrest and would also likely enable time to access more cooperative human capital, and aim it at the challenge of a number of very strict boundary limits.

      One is the nearly impenetrable boundary limit of space. Until we rationally overcome that beast, we had better do all we can to maximize the health of life-systems on Earth, not wreck them. Arguably, creating a more benevolent and intertwined with life human system would be one more able to transfer life to harsher worlds and artificial worlds of our own design. In conquest, we are ruining our most powerful partner — the life systems of Earth itself. But through cooperation with these systems we gain strength and, best of all, longevity.

      In confronting Growth Shock, the kind way is the best way, in my view. It reduces conflict among human beings, results in resources being expended to address problems and not in fighting and competition, and results in partnerships between the human system and the Earth system that are expansive and mutually beneficial.

      We should think in these ways if we are to work to address new economies going forward. The old growth paradigm of pure wealth concentration, maximization of short term profits, and rapid exploitation is a paradigm, now, that leads to rapid collapse. And we would do best to start dismantling those underlying structures as soon as possible. At the same time the structures that will work best for us now, maximize the long term, compress wealth rather than concentrate it, and form partnerships rather than exploitative relationships. Such structures will be more resilient to periods of slow, zero, or negative growth (in the old paradigm). In instances where growth does occur, it is more gradual and the benefits are spread more broadly leading to more resilient systems.

      I know this is all broad-brush. But it gives a basic gist.


      • phil

         /  July 12, 2013

        Hi Robert. Your comments are a ray of sunshine in a somewhat dark world. I admire your dedication.
        I’m compelled to comment on the meat/ vego issue. I have lots of respect for those who encourage vegetarianism on ethical and gw grounds but I feel like the wrong message is being pushed.
        I started raising pigs 2 years ago precisely as a solution to the global challenges we face. Having spent my life in gardens, horticulture, revegetation and been a vegetarian, it was an odd thing to do.
        You mention a future where we rely more on grains, yet you’re aware of the on going march of desertification. Annuals and grains requiring regular moisture throughout their short lives will be increasingly prone to crop failure. I’m currently ironing out the blips in a system were pigs live luxuriously in amongst there perennial food plants. Its easier here in Queensland Australia than some places, but cattle and other grazers eat perennial pastures where agriculture wouldn’t survive. Stock can fast track fertility and soil carbon. My pigs fast track forest. Their main food is starches that are worth nothing in the market (until the next corn and soy crop fail)
        Animals also act as a valuable ‘bank’ of food in difficult seasons (apologies to my beautiful pigs for being so crass).
        Responsible and concious and respectful meat eating has been a part of sustainable societies before. It is part of a solution today.
        The message should be about local processing and facilitating smaller farms and searching out and supporting local farmers, instead of factory (you call them industrial ) ‘food’ producers.
        Wow.. That’s my rant for the next month..
        Wish you well
        (also) Phil the (pig) farmer


        • Cheers Phil and thanks so much for the involved reply.

          I wholeheartedly support localized farming of the kind you endorse. Though I am a vegan, and believe that it is the most efficient use of resources, my focus is on industrial/factory meat farming — which has been so wasteful, harmful, and which includes an unsustainable population of 65 billion (or more) livestock animals.

          There is a huge amount of ongoing damage stacked up into that industry and it is likely that it will have to be jettisoned if we are to meet climate targets. It is also likely that overall, meat consumption will need to fall (back to the impossibility of sustaining 65 billion livestock animals) and that we will need to rely more on the more efficient (by a factor of 50) non meat foods.

          As an example, if all the US grain, vegetable, and other non-meat crops were directly applied to market, the US could triple or more the number of people its agricultural production feeds. So substantially reducing or eliminating factory meat farms and transferring the resources to non-meat agriculture, which represent a lion’s share of US meat production, would result in substantial gains for US and world food security.

          With the US and world facing combined shocks from water shortages, climate change, and loss of arable land, such a transition is likely to be both needed and moral.


  3. Trucker Mark

     /  February 17, 2014

    Given the record pace of growth of world CO2 emissions as illustrated on the Arctic News recently, the chance of avoiding a rise to 500 ppm is virtually nil, as even if global society were to cut man-made GHG emissions by 90% by 2030, by 2060 our planet will be looking at a CO2 level of between 550 ppm and 600 ppm. This year (2013) CO2 grew by 2.95 ppm, while at the current rate of growth in CO2 emissions, an annual rise of 7 ppm is quite possible within 15-20 years.

    If this prediction from Sam Carana occurs by 2030 we are looking at an average planetary temperature rise of 4-5 degrees Celsius and double that in the Arctic, which will cause the runaway greenhouse event predicted on Arctic News earlier last fall.

    Here are a couple different dire warnings of human-induced climate disaster that are only two months old.

    It looks like mitigation and adaptation are strategies that might have had a chance some time back, as a rise of 8-9 degrees Celsius in the Arctic by 2060 will mean the rapid end of 95-99% of human life on Earth today, with the only long-term survivability below-ground or off-planet.

    This chart and its caption from Sam Carana speak volumes:

    [quote] “A polynomial trendline already points at global temperature anomalies of 5°C by 2060. Even worse, a polynomial trend for the Arctic shows temperature anomalies of 4°C by 2020, 7°C by 2030 and 11°C by 2040, threatening to cause major feedbacks to kick in, including albedo changes and methane releases that will trigger runaway global warming that looks set to eventually catch up with accelerated warming in the Arctic and result in global temperature anomalies of 20°C+ by 2050”. [end quote]

    Even if Carana and his associates at Arctic News are only half-correct, a global average temperature rise of just 10 degrees Celsius is still fatal to 95% of humanity if not more, with about the only survivability being in near-perpetual shadow near large deep inland fresh water lakes with sufficient rainfall to recharge supply.


    • Mitigation and adaptation are the only viable course of action currently. The fact that their success may be in doubt doesn’t diminish urgency. In short, we won’t really know until we try.

      These bits posted over at Arctic News are worst case. And though I believe the worst case is possible and certainly the most lethal scenario, it is not the most likely.

      It is worth noting that the primary push from this blog is for geo-engineering ‘solutions’ that have very questionable outcomes.

      A rational approach to climate change would first involve very rapid mitigation. If that failed, then other measures probably would have to be attempted. But without mitigation there is no hope at all for a livable climate. And that’s the point that’s buried here.


    • As an example, one geo-engineering scheme involves the generation of clouds by ocean spray ships to increase Arctic Albedo (which has fallen by about 4% since 1979). This particular method would involve fleets of ships spraying ocean water to generate white clouds.

      Unfortunately, there is no evidence that clouds would help protect the sea ice. For one, atmospheric water vapor is a powerful heat trapping agent. For another, the effects of cloud albedo in helping preserve Arctic ice is questionable.

      Consider this recent research:

      “Previous models of Arctic albedo have suggested the reflectiveness of white cloud cover could potentially mitigate a portion of albedo loss due to melting ice; but these new observations show that cloud cover has had a negligible effect on overall Arctic reflectivity, the team says.”


  4. typo, robert… (for it is the truth of our age… ) you, or help, has typed (for it is the truth or our age). Hope that helps. I think it was in the area of your book that was a ‘confession’…


  1. Radio Ecoshock Interview: Record Floods, ENSO, Methane Release, and Slope Collapse | robertscribbler

Leave a Reply

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

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: