The pandemic is a big problem. Climate change is an even bigger problem. But the meta-problem is ecological overshoot.
Plagues and heat waves — along with plunging biodiversity; fishery collapses; soil and land degradation; land, water and sea pollution; resource shortages, etc. — are mere symptoms of a much greater planetary malaise. Ecological overshoot means there are way too many people using vastly too much energy and material resources and dumping too much waste.
In more technical terms, humanity’s consumption of even renewable resources and our production of wastes exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere. This is the biophysical definition of “unsustainable,” and a harbinger of pending systems collapse.
Avoiding the collapse of one’s civilization would seem to be job one for political leaders. And yesterday they received yet another “code red” reminder of what is at stake from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet few politicians have even heard of overshoot. Concern about its implications has yet to penetrate economic and developmental policy circles.
It therefore seems fair to ask: What accounts for such political deafness? One obvious earplug is the neoliberal economics dominant in the world today. Its adherents assume that:
- The economy is separate from, and can function independently of, the biophysical “environment.”
- Important relationships between variables change predictably and if they deviate from desirable comfort zones, can be reversed.
- The “factors of production” (finance capital, natural capital, manufactured capital, human capital) are near-perfect substitutes. For example, human ingenuity — technology — can make up for any potentially limiting natural resource.
- Damage to ecosystems or human communities (i.e. intangible factors not reflected in market prices) are mere “externalities,” tolerable if they don’t impede growth.
For anyone working from these assumptions, it is a small step to the conviction that economic growth can continue indefinitely.
But there is a suicidal flaw in this mode of thinking. A model can succeed only to the extent that it faithfully “maps” any aspect of reality it purports to represent. This has been formally stated as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety: The variety (i.e. internal complexity) of a control system must be at least as great as the variety of the system it is supposed to control. A regulatory system has “requisite variety” only if it has a repertoire of adaptive responses at least equivalent to the range of challenges posed by its environment.
The flip side is even more compelling: if the variety or complexity of the environment (ecosphere) exceeds the capacity of the regulatory system, then the environment will dominate and ultimately destroy the system.
If you don’t find this alarming, then you, like our politicians, haven’t been paying attention.
The world’s great economic powers are currently trying to run the world using simple-minded economic models that contain no useful information about the unfathomable complexity and the non-linear and often irreversible behavioural properties of the ecosystems — or even the social systems — with which the economy interacts in the real world. Our management/control system utterly fails the test of requisite variety. It is incompetent to fly the planet.
Let’s take the example of the climate crisis and response to date. The world has blown the opportunity to limit global warming to below 1.5 C and will likely top the IPCC’s dangerous 2.0 C limit before mid-century. Watch for record heat waves, unprecedented wildfires, food shortages, forest dieback. Imagine the geopolitical implications of a billion environmental migrants by 2050. Even more than now, there will be popular unrest, geopolitical strife.
Canada is literally adding fuel to the fire. We are among the world’s highest per capita carbon dioxide emitters and on our current path have no chance of meeting the nation’s modest emissions reduction targets.
Meanwhile Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, blindly asserts that while climate change is our “biggest long-term threat... it is also the biggest economic opportunity” — for material growth, of course.
Should we be surprised that at least one prominent Canadian climate scientist has proclaimed, “We’re screwed, it’s our fault, it’s going to get worse and there is nothing we can do about it.”
The once and future economy
Actually, there is something we could do about it, but the changes necessary go beyond anything any government anywhere has contemplated. What would “getting serious” about the survival of civilization look like? We need a new way of being on Earth in which people can enjoy emotionally satisfying, materially sufficient lives in community without wrecking the planet.
There are many possible options, but one workable form of a new adaptive civilization might be a network of eco-regional communities and economies supporting many fewer people thriving more equitably within the regenerative capacity of local ecosystems. Like all other species, human beings must become contributing members of the ecosystems that support them.
To begin the transition, senior governments should work with local authorities to:
- Formally recognize the end of material growth and the need to reduce the human ecological footprint.
- Acknowledge that while humanity remains in overshoot, sustainable production and consumption means absolutely less production and consumption.
- Understand that our growth economy is utterly dependent on abundant cheap energy, which is coming to an end.
- Admit that modern renewables — wind turbines, solar panels, hydrogen — are not renewable, are themselves dependent on fossil fuels and have virtually no possibility of quantitatively replacing fossil fuels even by 2050, if ever.
- Recognize that equitable sustainability requires an economic levelling; that is, fiscal and other regulatory mechanisms to ensure redistribution of income, wealth and opportunity among and within countries. Greater equality is better for everyone.
- Enact polices that lead, fairly and without coercion, to a smaller global population, such as education, access to birth control and economic independence for women. The challenge is great, given that models show about two billion people could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.
- Implement measures including pollution and resource depletion taxes to internalize costs and move society closer to full social cost pricing. This would blunt current steeply rising levels of consumption in the developed world, the greatest contributor to overshoot.
As noted, this implies a whole new worldview. Capitalism and its handmaiden neoliberal economics elevated growth and efficiency: getting bigger, faster. Instead, the new eco-economy must promote true development and greater social equity: getting better fairly.
Other values essential for long-term economic security, social well-being and ecological stability include a renewed respect for nature, loyalty to place, community cohesion, regional self-reliance and local economic diversity. The cult of cowboy individualism cannot solve what is a collective problem.
Above all, the new economy-nature relationship must be regenerative. Local economies should be embedded in community and this (re)union in turn should become an integrated, mutualistic component of its sustaining ecosystems.
Dubious of the lure of re-localization? There is also a push factor. Globalization and unfettered trade — i.e. dependence on distant ‘elsewheres’ for food and many other resources — will no longer be possible in the emerging energy-constrained world. Abandoning fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change means dramatic cutbacks in the energy available for long-distance transportation.
There is an upside: globalized "free" trade in the past half century greatly accelerated resource over-exploitation, global pollution and population growth — it is a principal driver of the overshoot we are trying to avoid. Adaptive eco-economies must therefore be more self-reliant eco-centric local economies.
Agriculture, forestry and essential light manufacturing — i.e. food processing, textiles, clothing, furniture, tools — will all be re-localized, providing ample meaningful employment. There will be a resurgence of personal skills — “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers” — and pride in workmanship.
As an immediate additional benefit, when citizens become acutely aware of their dependence on local ecosystems they become more actively concerned about the state of those systems.
Still not convinced? Consider that the “ecological footprints” of modern cities — the ecologically productive land and water area required to support contemporary urban lifestyles — are typically several hundred times larger than the cities’ physical or political areas. The products of these distant hinterlands are conveyed to cities by fossil-powered ships, planes and trucks.
In the U.S., for example, more than 80 per cent of towns and cities are provisioned only by trucks; heavy duty diesel-powered Class 8 trucks haul 70 per cent of the nation’s freight. Even if 100 per cent electrification were possible (it’s not), the extreme demands of heavy-duty haulage ensure that all-electric or hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion are not an option.
The inevitable conclusion: In the absence of abundant cheap portable energy, it will not be possible to provision large cities and megacities. Many urban populations will have to be dispersed and redistributed.
Consistent with the re-localization imperative, the following policies/objectives would reconfigure present settlement patterns into more functionally self-contained human econo-ecosystems. National governments should:
- Begin the creation of national subsystems of self-reliant bioregions or eco-regions centred on existing smaller cities with boundaries based on ecologically meaningful land forms and biophysical features, for example, watersheds or heights of land.
- Size each urban-centred eco-region, initially, to contain where possible, a productive ecosystem area or land bank equivalent to its population’s currently globally dispersed supportive hinterland; i.e. internalize their de facto “eco-footprints.” There will be insufficient domestic land or water in many regions, forcing recognition of the need for lower levels of material consumption, more efficient lifestyles and a reduction in population.
- Re-localize government services and decision-making authority. For example, devolving sufficient governance and taxation powers to the new urban bioregions to enable effective management of their internal resources and ecosystems.
- Organize the regional economy and commerce to sustain the population as much as possible on domestic bio-resources, ecosystems and local manufacturing, thus reducing reliance on trade. There will still be some trade, but imports should be restricted to true necessities that cannot be produced locally and exports should be limited to bio-resources in true eco-surplus.
- Facilitate the organization of producer and consumer co-ops — every working person should have a genuine stake in the eco-economy. The ratio of highest paid management to average worker compensation should be no greater than 5:1, the average for Spain’s well-known Mondragon co-operatives. The ratio of CEOs’ to shop-floor workers’ compensation in capitalist society currently is up to hundreds to one.
- Allocate any remaining carbon budget (there may be none) to absolutely essential uses in agriculture and transportation. Invest in truly renewable energy sources: mechanical wind and water power; managed biomass, and in technologies making efficient use of human and animal labour.
- Facilitate breeding programs to supply the draft horses and mules that will be needed to work the land, particularly in agriculture, as fossil-fuelled technologies are phased out.
- Reintegrate animal husbandry and crop agriculture to maximize the potential for nutrient recycling because artificial fertilizers will be in limited supply.
- Redesign urban waste management to convert settlements from resource-depleting throughput systems into self-sustaining circular-flow ecosystems.
- Invest in natural capital restoration; regenerate depleted soils, degraded landscapes, wooded areas and other wildlife habitats to promote biodiversity, enhance regional productivity, increase carbon sink capacity and mitigate climate change.
- Recognize that governance of regional ecosystems and landscapes for the common good will sometimes require stinting customary private property rights. Importantly, citizens who realize that their security depends on maintaining the integrity of local ecosystems have an incentive to support such measures.
As I said, there is plenty that could be done to reinvent civilization for the long term. Admittedly, it would have been advantageous to have begun the process 50 years ago. We have a lot of catching up to do. Until then, the world sleepwalks into catastrophe.