Nature’s Capital

A few nights ago I was at a bar with a friend, and over the course of the conversation I was able to explain something that was, until then, not completely coherent in my head. It must be the alcohol that suddenly made it clear.

In any case, I want to share it here as well. What I want to talk about is the concept of a progress trap, and how it relates to my decision to stop eating meat.

This concept is introduced by Ronald Wright in his great book “A Short History of Progress” and the Massey Lectures that followed it. The idea is simple: progress is made in small steps, each of which seems to be positive, but the overall effect becomes, at a certain point, negative.

A classical example of the progress trap is the development of weapons. From the rock and club we progressed to the knife, arrow and bow, then to guns, rifles, continued to machine guns, artillery, then to tanks, air-born missiles, bombs and eventually … the atomic bomb. Each step, when viewed in a narrow context, seems to be positive. It increases efficiency in some form – perhaps in the magnitude of killing, or the magnitude of the impact (e.g., the psychological effect of using, or threatening to use, the weapon), or it minimizes the risk to the user of the weapon.

However, with a rifle we can’t destroy humanity. With an atomic bomb, we can. A bigger out-of-the-box view of the progress that led to the creation of the atomic bomb shows a gloomy view of how we can (and perhaps we are) destroying ourselves. When exactly did the progress become “bad” instead of “good”? It is hard to tell, but that is the nature of a progress trap.

Another topic, more relevant to our discussion, is the nature of hunting. At first, the prehistoric man (I think the book refers to the neanderthal man, but I don’t remember for sure) wasn’t much of a hunter. Perhaps he used rocks, clubs, and even his bare hands, but that didn’t get him much. He was partly a gatherer, and partly a hunter. Then the bow and arrows were invented, and man was able to hunt bigger animals. More meat means easier, more relaxed lifestyle, meaning more children. More children means more mouths to feed, thus more hunting, but it also means more hunters. This leads to a period of expansion until man overgrows his environment (i.e. he hunts too many animals), thus starting a period of decline – those periods could last tens of thousands of years.

A major breakthrough in hunting occurred when man discovered that he can induce complete herds into a panic-stricken stampede and push them over a cliff. A pure form of easy, piece-of-cake mass killing that feeds the entire tribe for the whole season (perhaps for many seasons, I am not sure how they could preserve the meat).

Enter the progress trap. Archaeologists now know for certain that some periods of decline in the dominance of the neanderthal man precisely followed the period in which he was most prosperous – namely the periods in which he was the most efficient hunter. The push-over-cliff hunting method is highly efficient, but it does not scale, meaning that it is not sustainable in the long run. Scalability is the key here. Man exhausted the resources from nature too fast, and induced upon himself a period of decline. A similar pattern can be seen in the evolution of agriculture.

This is, as far as I understand it, the main theme of the progress trap when it is discussed in the context of our evolution: we improve in the way that we manage and consume resources, until the point that we consume too much, and more importantly, too fast.

Nature has a way to renew itself. Trees regrow, forests expand, animal procreate. However, the process takes time. Why did sheep herders, a thousand years ago, have to be nomads? Why didn’t they stay put at one place? Because their herds graze the land, and they run out of grass and other vegetation. So they move elsewhere, but their movement is cyclical – they can come back to the same place after a few years because the grass regrows. Today it is not that simple – in most places on earth we have a problem of overgrazing (for more info, read Tragedy of the commons, or just google it).

This is a prime example of Ronald’s point that we used to live off nature’s interest. As long as nature can renew itself faster than our rate of consumption, then we are living off its interest. As soon are we are consuming resources faster than nature can create them, then we are living off nature’s capital.

Virtually all of the meat that we consume today is not hunted – it is domesticated. We eat mostly farm raised livestock. Since the last century, we have made tremendous progress in the way we raise, butcher, handle, ship and consume meat (perhaps even a few centuries. I am not sure about the time frame here). Every element, and every aspect, along the production line, from the farms at one end, to your local grocery store at the other end, has been improved. The meat that you eat is better refrigerated today than it was a 100 years ago. The health, or lack there of, of the animals is better controlled.
(This is related to the major technological advancements in our society in general; it is not just about food)

Enter the progress trap, again. Ecological markers show that until the 60s we were consuming up to, or less than, a 100% of nature’s interest. In the 80s we were already consuming more than a 100% of nature’s interest – we were already chewing of nature’s capital. In the year 2000, our consumption rate was around 125% of nature’s interest. These numbers are of course an estimate, but they show a clear trend.

As time goes by, there are more people on the planet. The prediction for year 2050 is that there will be more than 8 billion people on the planet, and that we’ll consume approximately 150% of nature’s interest. Meat will be more expensive, and there will be less of it for everybody.

I believe that our current way of growing meat is not sustainable (by “ours” I basically mean society at large). We are facing a progress trap, and we already know it. The environmental impact of growing livestock is much greater than that of growing vegetables. Pound-for-pound, vegetables require less land and less water (I can’t find the reference for this. When I do, I’ll post it). Thus, I made a personal choice to not eat meat, in part because I don’t feel comfortable with the destructive effect associated with it.

This is a pretty gloomy situation. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t claim to have a solution, and I don’t know of any other way that our lives can be. I am not preaching to anyone else to become a vegetarian. I just want to use this platform to raise awareness to the issue, and at the same time to sort my thoughts on the subject.

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13 Responses to Nature’s Capital

  1. Jorge says:

    Great post Yoni, thanks! It reminded me of this test: in which you can find out your ‘ecological footprint’ –to relate it to your concepts, the larger your footprint, the more you’re living off Nature’s capital.

  2. Ze'ev says:

    Hi Yoni,
    I don’t agree with everything you say (wouldn’t less comsumption of mean which is, after all, quite easily renewable a source, lead to more consumption of other resources, thus putting additional pressure on one aspect of a system which should not be over-stressed on any one link? — some mixed metaphors here for sure ;-). At any rate, for skeptical readers who doubt the ‘herd being made to jump a cliff story’, check this out: :

  3. Ze'ev says:

    I meant 1. meat and 2. (don`t want to over-advertise; it`s bad for business ;-)

  4. Jorge says:

    Consumption of resources at the end of the food chain is less energy-efficient than consumption of resources at the beginning of it, since end-of-chain beings spend a good deal of energy just staying alive.

    End-of-chain food is also more polluted than beginning-of-chain food, as an animal picks up pollutants from its own food. Therefore, for example, big fishes have more mercury, and are less energy-efficient as a food resource, than small fishes.

  5. Ze'ev says:

    No doubt, Jorge. Yet it seems to me that the energy gathered from consuming more complex resources is also more enriching, providing us with a longer consumption-free period. I’m not sure about the second point either: if cows are polluted by pesticide sprayd on their food, etc., wouldn’t the pollution become rather more diluted, less concentrated than at the source?
    I should probably mention that I’m a vegetarian (ok, piscatorian).

  6. Yoni says:

    I can personally attest to the issue with Mercury, since about a year ago I discovered that I have too much mercury in my blood and had to cut down on fish consumption. So following that event I read some information about it, and its true that big fish are more harmful. I don’t know if that principle (end-of-chain food is more polluted) applies everywhere. In fact, I expect it not to apply uniformly.

    There is no doubt that we are exerting too much pressure on the planet’s resources in general. However, this problem is inherent in the fact that there are too many of us, which I don’t have the means to solve. I can only choose which resources I want to impact more than others.

    Regarding your second comment, Ze’ez, I don’t think that anyone doubt the ‘herd being made to jump a cliff story’. We have all seen it happening in “The Lion King” :)

  7. Jorge says:

    You’re right Ze’ev –other than the effect of pollution in fish, I don’t have data to back up the claim that it’s a general principle, and it might well not be. Pollution in beef is more likely to come from hormones and antibiotics than from being at (almost!) the end of the chain.

  8. Ze'ev says:

    I’ve had short stints on organic farms producing both vegetables and fruit and others which produced organic beef and chicken (free run). There is nothing that tasted better than organic food. It makes you realize that what we chew on on a daily basis is simply plastic. It’s funny, the resources of the planet are being deploited at an alarming pace, yet I’ve just read the other day that there are more obese people than malnurished ones (no doubt because many in the latter category have died). It’s also said that we have the technology to feed everyone on the planet. Another scary example is the scale on which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few on particular continents.
    When it comes to plantery dangers, however, I imagine that pollution affecting our respiratory and productive systems is the worst kind. This is found in our food as well, but garbage is garbage is garbage, whether it comes in your apple or in your steak. I don’t think the problem is overpopulation, but rather poor distribution of resources and an overemphasis of unsustainable growth. There is enough to go around, it’s just not going around; I believe it’s as simple as that. Of course there are other problems too: wars, cars, oppression, subjugation of women, anger, and so on. But one challenge at a time…

  9. Yoni says:

    Hey Ze’ev, you raise a lot of issues, most of which I agree with, but I didn’t mention them in my post, fearing that it won’t be focused enough. I agree with everything you said, except this: I think that overpopulation and improper distribution are both real problems. It’s not just that stuff is not moving around, it’s also that at a global scale, there is (or will be soon) less for everyone.

  10. avital says:

    Yoni, if i remember correctly, you have stopped eating meat long before reading about progress traps.

  11. Yoni says:

    Avital, you are absolutely right about that. That’s why I was cautious not to write that this is THE reason for me being vegetarian, it’s just A reason.

    There’s another thing to be said about that. If I’d read “A Short History of Progress” 5 years ago, I don’t think it would have converted me to vegetarianism. It’s not a coincidence that I read this book now. I was attracted to reading it because I perceived, even before reading it, that it conveys ideas that would appeal to me. It’s like reading “no logo” after you are already sensitive to issues related to consumerism.
    (basically, it’s like reading Ha’aretz when you are already left-wing :) leshachnea et ha’meshuchnaim)

    I am not saying we always read books that we are preconditioned to like. I am just saying that this is the case with me, at least for the last year or so.

  12. Ze'ev says:

    I gave the same line, more or less, in a recent argument (civilized debate that got a little bit heated) we had at work, classic right-vs.-left (you can guess on which side I was on). In any event, I wasn`t quite sure I believed. I tend to read intelligent commentary, whether it`s on the left or right. I do believe that certain angles lend themselves to more cogent and forceful argumentation, simply because, as they say ‘the left has the disadvantage of being wrong.’ I was quite pleased to discover the *Clairmont Review of Books*, the intelligent right-wing response to the *New York Review of Books*. It’s much better written and a lot of more interesting. By it seems I’m disproving my point. Well, after a long flight from Edmonton yesterday, I relaxed with a magazine that my partner, who holds views on the other side of the spectrum, got as a gift (where I received the National Review and Foreign Affairs magazine). It’s called ‘Briarpatch,’ a small time leftie publication from Saskatchewan full of union ads. It’s very well written, however, and I enjoyed it a lot.

  13. Pingback: ScriboErgoSum » Blog Archive » Nature’s Capital II - The Moo Factor

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