Learning from Icarus

Erik Assadourian | January 20, 2015 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Jacob Peter Gowy’s “The Flight of Icarus.”

A reflection on how making society more resilient may be worse than doing nothing at all.

What if Icarus’ father—knowing his son would fly too close to the sun—had made the wings he designed more resilient? What if he had used bone and string and not just wax to bind them? Would this ancient myth have turned out any differently? Probably not. Icarus would have simply flown closer to the sun before the sun destroyed his wings—perhaps igniting them on fire rather than just melting the wax. And so the boy would have fallen even further and have been crushed even more brutally by the onrushing wall of ocean below.

Let’s apply that question to today. What if we make our globalized consumer society more resilient? That is to say, what if—as more people in the sustainability community are advocating—we make our economic and social systems more able to withstand the inevitable shocks that come with an ever larger human population living within a destabilizing Earth system. What if we build future coastal homes on stilts. And invest billions of dollars and massive amounts of natural capital (in the form of cement and embodied fossil fuel energy) in sea walls around cities like New York and New Orleans. And we even genetically modify crops—even livestock—to withstand drought and heat.

What happens then? We fly higher, we grow bigger, and our inevitable crash into the sea is delayed temporarily. But as with Icarus, the crash would be made far worse. These technologies may delay civilizational collapse a few decades. If that’s the difference between 2030 and 2050, that might mean a peak population of 9.4 billion instead of 8.3 billion, a number far harder to sustain—even without the productivity losses that will come with a changing climate. This delay might also translate to an overall temperature increase of 5 or 6 degrees Celsius rather than just 3 or 4 degrees, which could mean the difference between meters and tens of meters of sea level rise and the difference between millennia of misery and just centuries.

Instead, let’s learn the lesson that the myth of Icarus is supposed to teach: avoid hubris. Do not fly too high. Acknowledge limits exist, including the keystone limit that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.

This isn’t an easy lesson—especially for a business community seemingly locked into a growth-dependent system. But it can shape the way the sustainability community discusses and advocates for resilience. No sane person should be advocating for a more resilient growth-centric society. That’s the very worst scenario we can have, because that’ll allow this economic system to disrupt more of Earth’s ecosystem services before its eventual collapse.

Instead the pursuit of resilience should be fully embedded in a degrowth paradigm, ensuring that programs that work to bring us back within Earth’s limits—and minimize catastrophic climatic changes—also help us weather those changes with as little suffering as possible.

So let’s ask the crucial question then: what gets us closer to living within planetary limits while simultaneously making us more resilient?

Some examples: Rebuilding local economies and community food self-sufficiency; finding ways to rapidly accelerate small scale energy production investments (but planning for a far lower electricity usage norm than what we currently use); investments in public infrastructure like bicycle sharing systems; and most importantly cultural changes that denormalize unsustainable forms of consumption: luxury travel, pet ownership, daily portions of meat, sub-arctic levels of cooling in the summer, and so on.

Yes, I recognize this isn’t the technological utopia that futurists promise. There will be no robot slaves to make living easy; no intelligent computer operating systems that simplify our lives and also double as romantic partners for the lonely. Life will be harder—humans will probably labor more, including in simple day to day chores, but hopefully this simplification will prevent dystopic futures portrayed in movies like Soylent Green or Snowpiercer.

Naturally, we’d use some high technologies—appropriately: solar panels on tops of homes for example, but probably not in such densely concentrated arrays that they incinerate birds flying overhead; antibiotics—for life-threatening diseases, but not in ways that make bacteria more resistant (or should I say more “resilient”?); bicycles; zero net energy buildings; composting toilets; wind turbines—perhaps once again for moving water, grinding grain, and sawing wood more than for producing electricity; and the list goes on. But a lot of modern luxuries would be phased out.

The challenge is ensuring that all our efforts to become more resilient make us more sustainable—and vice versa. But even if we fail at that, we should still work to stop any ‘resilience’ projects that serve to extend the reach and robustness of the consumer society. That, at least, may help cushion our eventual fall when we crash into the proverbial sea.

Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? He writes about raising his son to survive the collapse of civilization at Raisinganecowarrior.net. This post was originally published by Reslience.org.

MAHB-UTS Blogs are a joint venture between the University of Technology Sydney and the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/learning-from-icarus/


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  • FreedomDanK

    Bravo to Eric A. ! His saying : ” let’s learn the lesson that the myth of Icarus is supposed to teach: avoid hubris. Do not fly too high. Acknowledge limits exist, including the keystone limit that infinite growth is not possible in a finite system.” It is amazing that what I call ” growth maniacs ” talk about the world obtaining more of the megalopolis cities like Singapore , Calcutta , and others – with NO restrictions on where the supplies for these billions of inhabitants might be coming from !?
    Also, Mike Hanauer is right to call for “Authentic Sustainability” – which means that the PRESENT generation should consume natural resources ONLY to the point that the FUTURE ones enjoy the plentifulness of the Earth’s biosphere, and that the PLANTS and ANIMALS living within it ALSO have a habitation within which they can live !
    Finally, THIS ideal state could exist only if the POPULATION DENSITY does
    not EXCEED the carrying capacity of the habitation , from year to many future years .

  • John Weyland

    yes, limiting growth is very necessary, but that’s just a symptom. the core change to make is to our “authoritarian-punitive” cultures, and that requires that ALL change!

  • MarianMcDuie

    This is timely indeed, well written and honest. The
    general consensus seems to be that technology will come to our rescue, that the
    continued burning of fossil fuels without regard to the global climate consequences
    is somehow acceptable without moving towards a low-carbon global economy and
    that we can ‘adapt’ our cities and infrastructures to ‘protect’ us from the
    worst extremes of climate events. We seem obsessed with romanticizing war
    heroes, their efforts and sacrifices on civilised societies behalf are
    celebrated with no consideration of altering the basic situations and human
    behaviours that led to the global conflict in the first place.

    We need a radical turn about in how we think and act at an individual level, we
    need to demand better governance from our governments, we need to as consumers
    – use our purchasing power and choices to wave red flags at the producers of
    unsustainable products and services.

    If we all make small sacrifices, in many ways, in all aspects of our lives, to
    consume less (or smarter), waste less resources, conserve more natural
    environments and the systems that support the amazing biodiversity that still
    exists, speak out to our governmental representatives that we want and need a
    better answer than they are providing to our questions about the future.

    In the so called ‘developed’ countries/societies (on the whole) people are much
    better ‘equipped’ to make these sacrifices, those who are still living day to
    day and struggling to get access to clean water, sanitation and safety should
    not have to bear the burden of economic inequality and suffer the consequences
    of increased extreme weather events and conditions as a result of increasing
    GHG emissions, particulary CO2 which is largely due to the consumption history
    of the larger ‘developed’ nations of the world.

    How about those who can, do, and those who can’t, ride to safety on the raft of
    courage and conviction that will result from humanity facing up to the reality
    that finite resources are exactly that – finite. Would it not be better
    to deal with the change over from reliance on fossil fuels while we still have
    some left, rather than wait till they are all gone, our planet’s climate has
    become unsuitable for us and the world as we know it only exists in
    history stories.

    Imagine if driver’s of vehicles who rely on the fuel in the tank to run their
    vehicles’ engine and get them from point A to point B, ignored the fuel gauge
    and simply ran the vehicle till it ran out of fuel and then insisted on some
    roadside assistance organisation to come and rescue them and their vehicles?
    Well, does that sound stupid? What are we doing if not that, we are driving our
    vehicle (modern consumer society), powered by fossil fuels along the road to a
    very unpleasant end ignoring the low fuel indicator light and all other warning
    systems, when our vehicle coughs and splutters and eventually comes to a halt
    we will find ourselves in a very inhospitable place, that is if we haven’t
    already driven over the cliff that is rampant global warming/climate change
    brought on by unrelenting burning of fossil fuels.

    There is no magic fuel station going to appear out of nowhere, there is no
    helpful motorist-assist organisation that is coming to rescue us, the future is
    literally in our hands right now. The planet will survive, we know that,
    history has shown that all of the previous advanced civilisations that have
    arisen in the past have all collapsed due to over-population and
    over-consumption of natural resources. Its simple, its
    straightforward, it will not be easy, but then what in life that is really
    worthwhile is ever easy?

  • John Barbuto

    May I offer a different perspective: we will not succeed if we think the problem is outside of ourselves. As a neurologist and addiction specialist I have seen endless people try solve addiction by looking to outside factors; endless people try to solve overeating by looking at some dietary solution; endless people seek to find happiness by finding solace in convenient surroundings. The issue is not outside. It is inside.

    We are the product of many millions of years of focus on zero-sum games: winners and losers. For example, every weekend is populated with sports contests based not on the reverence for excellence but more on the approbation of “the winner”. Or, in other contexts there is approbation for “He who dies with the most toys, wins.” Thus, not surprisingly, our ambient focus is on who wins and who looses – by which we will all loose. Alternatively, in my opinion, the critical opportunity for this point in evolution is a shift in focus away from an atavistic dissection of winners v. losers in small games of acquisition to a much larger focus wherein the adventure of life on this planet is the real agenda.

    We cannot be blamed for inbreeding to a focus on winning. The spear thrower of the primal savanna who succeeded in killing became the vehicle for everyone to eat. Not surprisingly, we did learn to laud great spear throwers (or other accurate projectionists of metaphors for such).

    However, that was then. This is now. If we wish to succeed in this era we come to the critical test of who we are, or are not. Can we now have reverence for those who contribute, those who build, those who discover, those who provide? Or, will we continue to live in yesterday – lauding those who live to acquire, those who count their success by counting the failure of others?

    It is in our genes. The real issue is within us, not outside of us. There are many species on the planet that do not live by our behaviors; yet, they persist and multiply. Zero-sum games are not the only way. The behavioral genes of these other species can point the way. However, only if we are willing to look.

    Time will tell if we will lead life into a new era, or bring denouement to its previous one.
    We have learned to fly high. Now the question is whether we can gain a lofty perspective. It will be a great tragedy if we learn to understand the major forces of the universe and succumb to the force of history.

  • charlesjustice

    I’m amazed at how, time after time, people who understand the dilemma we are in do not understand the importance of ideology, religion, and politics in these future scenarios. Example: WW II. This followed an economic collapse. The imperative here is to prevent a fall into forms of fascism and fundamentalism. Look at the Middle East and Africa, and IS and Boko Harem. These all come from failed states where governments are corrupt and not representative. The trend in increasing economic growth is increasing inequality. In my opinion, the most important things that we can do is to increase the level of representation in all forms of governments from civic to national and to tackle and reverse the trend towards inequality. If we all trust and benefit from all our different levels of government then there is no danger of falling into destructive forms of politics. Increasing inequality is a recipe for revolution and social disorder because it erodes public trust. These should be our priorities.

  • jason brent

    There are only two things every leader of humanity must understand and they are very simple–1) The earth and the resources the earth can provide humanity are finite and, therefore, both economic and population growth will cease–no power on earth or in the heavens can change that fact and 2) Compound growth is the most powerful force in the universe–at 2% annual growth the economy will be over 1,000 times as large as the current economy in about 350 years. Those two facts mean that every economic and moral/ethical concept under which humanity operates today is wrong and must be completely revised. Today all those concepts are based on growth and growth cannot and will not continue. Everything must be revised, changed and modified.

  • Mike Hanauer

    Oh Yes, this is so right on!


    This is much BIGGER than only climate change (or whatever symptom you want to fight today), which is one of many difficult environmental and social problems we now have. I have come to believe that getting to authentic sustainability, as the real environmental issue, is the required overarching goal if we wish to save our planet, our nation, and our communities.

    If we only try to mitigate symptoms like climate change, we still NEVER attain authentic sustainability. That means the oceans still die, the fish are all eaten, the planet’s diversity of life disappears with all its habitat, the traffic, sprawl, heaps of trash, and economic inequality still only get worse, clean water becomes ever scarcer, and we still need franken foods to feed the growing population. In fact, only mitigating carbon emissions may well allow us to further escape sustainability and worsen all the symptoms. Our continuing population and economic growth overwhelms all else, including carbon emissions and our need for energy. I believe we must get to a steady state economy (see CASSE at http://steadystate.org/).

    Our culture of looking to (eternal) growth is the SOURCE of most of our problems, NOT the solution. The USA doubles its GDP every 40 years and doubles its population every 60 years. Growth overwhelms all else we try to do to help the environment and our society.

    You say we don’t have time to act on the overarching issue of growth? We have said that for 50 years, yet always find some other symptom to fight. It is time! Individuals and, especially, organizations must rise to this reality if they value their mission or a quality honest future.

    Consider even the local financial, water and open space challenges in your own community. Without always pressure for more growth, we could concentrate on our quality of life rather than in always somehow accommodating more.

    Population is the great multiplier!