William Rees writes that, as we consume the latest IPCC report on climate change, we need to remember that the biggest problem we face is ecological overshoot:
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.
Few politicians have even heard of overshoot. They are dedicated to the old economic model:
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.
All of these so-called bedrock principles are false. We need a new economy founded on different principles. We must:
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.
Getting the general public to accept these principles is a tall order. If anything, COVID has made abundantly clear how difficult achieving such a new economy will be.