Embracing Limits: A Radical and Necessary Approach to the Environmental Crisis
384 pages; $8.99 Kindle; $23.50 paperback.
Earth Animal Trust
P.O. Box 11240
Englewood, CO 80151
Denver vegan advocate Keith Akers, 74, “has been researching environmental issues ever since 1970, when he attended a rally on the first Earth Day,” an online biographical page mentions.
Earning a B.A. in philosophy soon thereafter from Vanderbilt University, Akers turned to computer programming to make a living, but has remained engaged in animal, environmental, and vegan advocacy ever since, along with philosophical thinking.
Akers’ thought-provoking books have included A Vegetarian Sourcebook (1983), The Lost Religion of Jesus: Simple Living & Nonviolence In Early Christianity (2001), and Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church (2013).
Green gurus of a bygone era
Akers’ latest is Embracing Limits: A Radical and Necessary Approach to the Environmental Crisis.
Akers’ views in Embracing Limits, unfortunately remain deeply rooted what was widely believed to be the best ecological thinking of the 1970s, during the emergence of an “environmental movement” in response to the conditions of the mid-to-late 20th century.
The gurus of that time included Population Bomb authors Paul and Anne Ehrlich, entomologist E.O. Wilson, Diet for A Small Planet author Frances Moore Lappe, and several others whom Akers cites and credits for their influence on his thinking.
Omitted from Akers’ mention, however, is the often overlooked British economist Barbara Ward, whose slim 1966 volume Spaceship Earth more-or-less launched the entire genre of books, films, lectures, and sermons pursuing the theme that Akers succinctly summarizes in his opening pages, beginning with a still unproven and rather shaky hypothesis:
“If the economy has expanded beyond sustainable limits, then common sense suggests that we need a smaller economy. We must adopt three simple measures: (1) substantially reduce personal consumption, (2) substantially reduce human population, and (3) drastically reduce or eliminate livestock agriculture.”
Noteworthy is that very few among the disciples and would-be prophets following Ward ever visibly reduced personal consumption for long; refrained from having children, though some did; and actually became vegetarians or vegans. A few did, but most did not.
Also noteworthy is that many of those disciples and would-be prophets, and their legions of followers, to this day fail to recognize the extent to which their thinking was, and remains, shaped by the thinking of much earlier times.
Indeed, among the earliest examples of written culture are admonitions against defiling the Garden of Eden and injunctions to build an ark.
“We’re all going to die!”
A perennial and perpetual theme of prophets and would-be prophets in every culture is that humans must return to older, simpler ways of life, and quit pushing our purported limits, or we are all going to die.
Indeed we are all going to die, sooner or later. Perhaps it is this grim fact of the inevitable end of life, and our own inability to imagine a world going on without us, much different from any world we have known, that keeps the prophets of doom in business, generation after generation, millennia after millennia, even after every specific detail of every specific prophecy is proven wrong: the world does not come to an end from eating an apple.
Known biodiversity is increasing
Many of the foundation premises of Embracing Limits, especially those of E.O. Wilson and the Ehrlichs, are as wrong as the apple hypothesis, if still very widely believed.
“Species are going extinct at a faster rate than at any time since the extinction of the dinosaurs sixty-six million years ago when an asteroid hit Earth,” Akers claims, but this claim is belied by the reality that known biodiversity is exponentially increasing on every continent.
Further, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, approximately a third of known species are increasing, a third are declining, and a third are remaining more or less steady in abundance, exactly as would happen if the fate of all were determined by throwing dice.
Assuming Albert Einstein was right when he remarked that “God does not play dice with the universe,” the available data on species discovery, species loss, and extinction may be presumed to be the normal functioning of evolution.
Biomass of megafauna
“More than 95% of all the land-based megafauna (large animal) biomass of vertebrate species are now humans, their livestock, and their pets. Large wild mammals, including all the elephants, giraffes, zebras, bison, deer, bears, and apes, comprise less than 5%,” Akers recites, as if this fact had the faintest relevance to the overall biological health of the earth.
To put it into perspective, the same study that produced the 95% estimate, “The biomass distribution on Earth,” by Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo, published by the journal Biological Sciences in 2018, also pointed out that humans and all of our livestock combined amount to barely 1.6% of the total living biomass of the planet.
The biomass of earthworms, mollusks, and even arthropods is vastly greater. Further, the biomass of fungi is greater than the total biomass of all of animalia, and the biomass of bacteria and plants is greater than that of all other life forms combined. See below:
Akers also mentions deforestation as an imminent threat.
“Humans have destroyed about half of all the forest biomass in the world during the past ten thousand years,” Akers argues, but reality is that within his own lifetime forest biomass above the equator has only increased, offsetting losses in Amazonia, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
Shifting patterns of forestation, and of forest loss to wildfire, are problematic, but deforestation anywhere on the scale of the deforestation of the Sahara desert, only partially attributable to human activity, is many millennia behind us.
No easy solutions
“The days of easy solutions are long past,” Akers argues, as if easy solutions to any of the major issues plaguing humanity have ever been self-evident except in hindsight.
“The 1970s featured the first Earth Day celebration; passage of the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act signed by a Republican president; a Democratic president advising us to adjust our thermostats to save energy; a World Vegetarian Congress in Maine; and the popularity of books such as The Environmental Handbook, Diet for a Small Planet, The Population Bomb, and The Limits to Growth,” Akers recites.
“These books, flawed as they may be, have value and were certainly headed in the right direction,” Akers assesses.
Collapse of industrial civilization?
“Perhaps we should have also paid attention to the warning on the back cover of The Environmental Handbook, prepared for the first Earth Day more than fifty years ago: ‘The crisis of the environment cannot wait another decade for answers.’ This sounded apocalyptic, and when succeeding decades produced no obvious apocalypse, we disregarded that advice.
“And here we are. We are staring the collapse of industrial civilization right in the face.”
Except that we are not. Far from collapsing, industrial civilization is stronger than ever.
One might even argue that we have not yet reached the nuclear apocalypse that seemed almost inevitable when Akers and I were both young, each influenced by the first Earth Day, precisely because too many people in too many places now have too much invested in industrial civilization to risk losing it.
Barbarian hordes & rebelling slaves had nothing to lose
This is quite unlike the circumstances preceding the collapse of many previous civilizations, when the gulf between the few haves and the many have nots widened to the point that, for instance, the barbarian hordes and rebelling slaves had nothing to lose by sacking Rome, China, India, or Persia.
“The total mass of all human-manufactured artifacts (including trash, concrete, and everything else) is now greater than the mass of all living things,” Akers frets, as if to nature trash is anything other than resources for other species and concrete is anything other than just another form of composite rock.
Efficient use of resources
The economic argument that Akers pursues throughout most of Embracing Limits presupposes that economic growth can only come about through increasing use of resources, as opposed to more efficient use of resources.
This presupposition may be the gravest error of the entire Spaceship Earth analysis, and of the similar analysis offered in 1973 by Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, by German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher.
It turns out to be dead wrong, as evidenced by the explosion of productivity facilitated by the computer revolution. A computer is a machine which, through the use of a fraction of the energy required to do similar jobs without it, vastly multiplies what any one person can do, whether on an industrial assembly line or in any sort of intellectual activity.
“In the climate movement,” Akers observes, “the political consensus seems to be that we should replace fossil fuels with renewable energy: wind turbines, solar panels, biodiesel, and hydroelectric dams. With renewable energy, the thinking goes, we’ll be able to do all the same things we’re doing now but do all of them sustainably.”
“In theory,” Akers acknowledges later in Embracing Limits, “limiting fossil fuel use doesn’t mean limiting total energy use. We have renewables, hydroelectric power, and nuclear power to fall back on. But in practice, it does mean lower energy supplies. There are no quick, easy, and plentiful substitutes for fossil fuels.
“It’s certainly possible,” Akers admits, “that by 2050 we will all be sipping lemonade underneath solar panels and wondering why we all made such a fuss about the viability of renewable energy early in the twenty-first century.
“Hard path” vs. “soft path” electricity
“But it is more likely,” Akers believes, “that we will still be struggling with serious energy supply problems after accounting for variables like metals and minerals, industrial heat, energy storage, electrification of the economy, and the electric grid (the infrastructure, such as transmission lines, needed to transmit power from its origin to the consumer).”
Unfortunately, Akers makes the mistake of equating centralized “hard path” and decentralized “soft path” renewable energy approaches.
The “Hard path” approach is to generate huge amounts of electricity at a centralized source, such as a hydroelectric dam, nuclear reactor, fossil-fuel-burning plant, or wind farm or solar energy collection site, and then feed it out over a transmission grid to the energy consumers.
The “hard path” approach is obviously necessary to some extent to support heavy industry.
But as of 2021, about 28% of total U.S. energy consumption was used for transporting people and goods, while about 22% was used for home heating, lighting, and powering home tools, toys, communication devices, and appliances.
Beth and I, in the foggy Pacific Northwest, in early 2021 outfitted our 25-year-old manufactured home, the ANIMALS 24-7 headquarters, with rooftop solar panels and a heat pump, at cost comparable to the current average cost of buying a low-end used car.
Those solar panels power not only our home and business, but also our used electric car, which has a charged range of about the same distance that we got per tank of gas in our old car.
Don’t need no stinking nukes
Add a storage battery to relay the electricity generated from our rooftop directly into our household wiring, without having to pass it through the Pacific Sound Energy grid first, and we could disconnect from the grid entirely.
So could at least 20% of all the houses in the United States, including the 14% that are manufactured homes much like ours, if the homeowners chose to add solar panels and a heat pump as part of their next roof and home heating system replacement, jobs that most homeowners need to have done every fifteen to twenty years anyway, and go to using an electric vehicle when their car next needs replacing.
“It will be quite difficult to design electric trucks for long-distance hauling,” Akers contends. “The weight of the batteries is an important obstacle.”
Yet diesel electric locomotives overcame that perceived obstacle to displace steam locomotives when Akers and I were both lads. Even conceding that long-haul freight trucks may remain hybrids, as are diesel electric locomotives, the end of the era of strictly diesel-powered trucking is already in view.
Ubiqutious Tesla superchargers already render obsolete Akers’ contention that “the most rapid battery recharge [for cars] currently takes several hours.”
The Yellow Vests & social justice
“We want to do more than just formulate ‘austerity’ measures,” Akers qualifies. “Austerity in the form of across-the-board cuts in consumption is obviously unfair. For the wealthy, such cutbacks would be just an inconvenience. But for the poor, a proportionally similar cutback would be devastating. The poor and the homeless don’t have anything to cut back on!
“The “yellow vest” protests in France in 2018, initiated in response to fuel tax increases, demonstrated that such measures tend to increase instability. The burden of implementing degrowth must fall on the wealthy, whose outsized consumption is responsible for most of the environmental destruction in the first place.
The “Livestock Bomb”
“This means,” Akers says, “that we need to examine social justice issues and redress economic inequality in tandem with retooling the economy to protect the environment.
“There is something strangely perverse about needing to point out that our poisoning of the atmosphere, our ripping apart of the biosphere that supports photosynthesis, and our driving wild animals to extinction—not to mention the torture and slaughter of billions of domesticated animals—has disadvantages to human beings as well. It’s as if without the consequences for humans, these destructive behaviors would be perfectly acceptable.”
Akers and ANIMALS 24-7 are agreed about that.
“We have heard about the ‘population bomb,’” Akers continues, “but what about the ‘livestock bomb’? We should speak not of the “population problem” but of the “population-livestock problem” because many of the same general resource constraints limit both human population and livestock population.
Cattle vs. human consumption
“Obviously, humans have more impact on the resources needed to supply consumer goods, such as cars, flat-screen TVs, and trips to exotic destinations. But in terms of food resources (land and water), the requirements of humans and livestock are roughly comparable,” Akers calculates.
“Some animals can digest foods that humans can’t, such as cows eating grass,” Akers allows, though many of the grass species that cows eat are also processed into grains for human consumption: oats, wheat, barley, rye, corn, sorghum, et al.
“So cows don’t necessarily compete for human sources of food,” Akers concedes, a concession that ANIMALS 24-7 does not make. “But the cattle industry is extremely destructive of other resources, such as forest land and wilderness area. From the point of view of the biosphere, cows who ‘need’ a forest converted to pastureland aren’t much different from humans who need to convert a forest to cropland.”
Limits on biomass?
“Technology can help here; we can develop more efficient irrigation systems, create new more productive plant varieties, and breed animals to gain weight rapidly (cruel, but efficient). But there are certain minimal allocations in terms of soil and water that we can’t get around.
“What we really face,” Akers believes, “are not limits on human population, but limits on biomass in our ecological niche. Our ecological niche is that of a large animal—one of the ‘megafauna,’ typically defined as those animals who (as adults) weigh at least one hundred pounds.
“The real question is not how many people the earth can support, but how much megafauna biomass the earth can support,” Akers argues, asserting that “There are more total megafauna on the planet than there have been for at least 100,000 years.”
But is this really a problem at all, or just a return to normalcy, considering that dinosaurs, fish the size of whales, and for a time insects as big as people were the dominant species on earth for hundreds of millions of years before humans or any mammalian megafauna evolved?
ANIMALS 24-7 agrees that the natural environment and human diet and health would all be much better served by a global turn away from meat consumption and livestock husbandry.
Yet much of Akers’ case, as in his discussion of renewable energy, is predicated on outdated or simply incorrect input data.
The sixth chapter of Embracing Limits, for instance, grossly underestimates evolutionary adaptation to fill vacated or simply vacant habitat niches, and ignores the reality that each new species moving into a habitat creates many more niches, especially at the microbial level.
(E.O. Wilson missed this too, by apparently not keeping up with the scientific literature in his own original field, entomology.)
Soil erosion & groundwater loss
Akers is rightly concerned about soil erosion, a worldwide issue worsened by global warming. Yet Akers’ extensive discussion of how slowly new topsoil is created by nature overlooks that the science of manufacturing topsoil for agricultural use is now thousands of years old and reasonably well-understood by every farmer who spreads manure on a field.
Akers also addresses groundwater depletion, a much graver concern, especially for India, “where fully 60% of all grain production depends on groundwater,” he reports.
“India is the most groundwater-dependent country in the world,” Akers explains, “withdrawing almost twice as much as the United States. The price tag of India’s intensive groundwater development, though, is declining water tables and saltwater intrusion into aquifers and soils. Sooner or later, as groundwater supplies dwindle, it would seem that India will have to import many of its crops as well as deal with unemployed farmers: more than half the population is employed by farming.”
Monsoons to the rescue?
India does need to worry about this, especially since global warming is also melting away the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus and Ganges river systems.
What the net effect of global warming will be, however, already appears to include much more severe monsoon drenchings than the historical norm.
Monsoons are the product of desalinized oceanic evaporation falling back to earth as rain after blowing over dry land, hitting the Himalayas, and cooling off upon rising into the upper atmosphere.
Monsoon flooding is at once severely destructive and potentially the salvation of Indian agriculture, especially coupled with water-efficient slow-drip irrigation, already practiced by some of the most successful Indian agricultural entrepreneurs in desertified Rajasthan state.
“Exporting destructive lifestyle”
Back in the U.S., Akers observes, “We now have so much agricultural output that most Americans are eating meat like medieval kings and queens. Eventually, driven by such things as soil erosion, land will become a problem again, but not just yet. In the meantime, we’re now busily exporting our destructive lifestyle to China, India, and Japan.”
This overlooks two points.
First, meat consumption per capita per U.S. age group has already been declining for several generations, having peaked with the World War II generation and we Baby Boomers, and as a plant-based diet becomes both ever more fashionable and accessible, is declining with increasing rapidity. U.S. meat production has increased not because of increased domestic consumption, but because of steeply increased meat exports.
Second, China, India, and Japan, each with large and growing animal and environmental advocacy movements, are all among the global leaders in improved efficiency of resource use.
Shrinking economy is not inevitable & not even likely––unless there is nuclear war
Akers, like Barbara Ward, E.F. Schumacher, and many others both before and after their time, believes that “The shrinking of our economy is inevitable. It will get smaller.”
But except in times of exceptionally destructive warfare, that has never actually happened, and short of nuclear war, is unlikely to happen soon, if ever during the lifespan of any human, parrot, shark, bowhead whale, or turtle alive today.
Perhaps the weakest part of Embracing Limits is the concluding section, in which Akers suggests that, “The two goals of protecting the environment and reducing social inequality are not that far apart if we think in terms of stopping the wealthy’s overconsumption rather than ‘raising’ the poor to the same destructive standard of living.”
Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, among others, already pushed that prescription, to catastrophic effect for nature and animals, as well as for humanity.
Info on “need to know” basis?
Akers also argues that “There are numerous ways we could substantially shrink the ecological footprint of information technology,” disregarding that the transition from publishing on the printed page to publishing mostly in cyberspace has already reduced forest consumption for producing newsprint to a fraction of what it was less than 20 years ago, while permitting vastly more voices to contribute to public, political, scientific, and literary discourse.
Akers’ notion that “we should prioritize information technology as much as possible on a ‘need to know’ basis” is simply a prescription for censorship.
“Simple living isn’t an utterly foreign cultural concept”
Akers notes that, “People have embraced ‘simple living,’ the voluntary reduction of consumption, for thousands of years. In different forms it has been incorporated into all the world’s major religions as well as the philosophies of numerous secular figures.
“Simple living isn’t an utterly foreign cultural concept for Americans or for the modern world,” Akers continues. “Some early Americans, such as the Quakers and Puritans, deliberately embraced simplicity as part of their spiritual practice. Religious communal movements such as the Shakers, Hutterites, and Amana colonies all embraced simplicity, as did nineteenth-century naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden.”
But a deeper look at this same history shows that Thoreau, a pencil maker, arguably contributed as much to society as an industrialist who furthered public education as he did as a philosopher and naturalist. The most influential Quaker of them all manufactured oatmeal.
The cereal manufacturers C.W. Post and the brothers Kellogg came out of the same cultural and religious milieu.
Channeling E.F. Schumacher
Some of Akers’ last words are almost straight out of Small Is Beautiful.
“We could,” Aker suggests, “through appropriate legislation and economic policy, facilitate the repair of common goods rather than just sending them to the landfill. Such services are rare these days, because it is typically less expensive to trash your old equipment and buy a new replacement than to repair old equipment—even though the repair option would usually conserve resources.”
But the repair option usually would not actually conserve resources at all. Compare the energy efficiency rating of any new household appliance to the one it replaces.
“Today,” Akers adds, “we have a proliferation of daycare centers to take care of children whose parents need to work. In earlier times, this was considered ‘women’s work’ that mothers would provide for ‘free,’ so childcare only rarely entered the economic system at all.
“This isn’t to say,” Akers continues, “that women must be stuck with this assignment; either parent (or grandparents, uncles, or other relatives) could also take care of children while Mom is elsewhere.”
Apart from the reality that grandparents, uncles, and other relatives are also working, and/or living elsewhere, with their own lives to lead, Akers seems stunningly unaware that “childcare” as little as a century ago, and still to this day in the developing world, consisted largely of grim, dangerous, dirty, and often downright abusive use of child labor.
Putting more children to work as early as possible in factories and fields is no prescription for environmental enlightenment. Certainly it would be ideal if more mothers (or fathers) who want to look after their own children were economically able to do so, but more efficient use of resources, including time spent at labor, is our most likely path to the more affluent society in which that goal is accessible.
More efficient use of resources includes collectively, voluntarily, transitioning toward a plant-based diet. This is already happening, most rapidly in the best-educated, most technologically advanced parts of the world, and will happen faster as improved education, in particular, spreads to the rest of the world.