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Sustainable Planetary Management


{Nature_and_Environment.58.20}: Jay Hoffman {resist} Wed, 08 Apr 2020 20:13:10 CDT (229 lines)

The Earth Is Telling Us We Must Rethink Our Growth Society
Why COVID-19 previews a larger crash. What we must do to save
by William E. Rees - professor emeritus of human ecology and
ecological economics at the University of British Columbia

As the pandemic builds, most people, led by government officials and
policy wonks, perceive the threat solely in terms of human health and
its impact on the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing
vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and
epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the consequences
of the viral outbreak.

Fair enough — rampant disease and looming recession are genuine
immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.

That said, we must see and respond to the more important reality.

However horrific the COVID-19 pandemic may seem, it is merely one
symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction. The prospect of
economic implosion is directly connected. The overarching reality is
that the human enterprise is in a state of overshoot.

We are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than
ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming
too much stuff. Even at current global average levels of consumption
(about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far
exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We’d need almost
five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population
indefinitely at Canadian average material standards. Gaian theory
tells us that life continuously creates the conditions necessary for
life. Yet humanity has gone rogue, rapidly destroying those

When will the media call on systems ecologists to explain what’s
really going on? If they did, we might learn the following:

That the current pandemic is an inevitable consequence of human
populations everywhere expanding into the habitats of other species
with which we have had little previous contact (Homo sapiens is the
most invasive of “invasive species.”)

That the pandemic results from sometimes desperately impoverished
people eating bushmeat, the flesh of wild species carrying potentially
dangerous pathogens.

That contagious disease is readily propagated because of densification
and urbanization — think Wuhan or New York — but particularly (as we
may soon see) because of the severe overcrowding of vulnerable people
in the burgeoning slums and barrios of the developing world.

That the coronavirus thrives because three billion people still lack
basic hand-washing facilities and more than four billion lack adequate
sanitation services.

A population ecologist might even dare explain that, even when it
comes to human numbers, whatever goes up must come down.

None of this is visible through our current economic lens that assumes
a perpetually growing, globalized market economy.

Prevailing myth notwithstanding, nothing in nature can grow forever.

When, under especially favorable conditions any species’ population
balloons, it is always deflated by one or several forms of negative
feedback — disease, inadequate habitat, self-pollution, food
shortages, resource scarcity, conflict over what’s left (war), etc.
All of these various countervailing forces are triggered by excess
population itself.

True, in simple ecosystems certain consuming species may exhibit
regular cycles of uncontrolled expansion. We sometimes refer to these
outbreaks as “plagues” — think swarms of locusts or rodents.

However, the plague phase of the cycle invariably ends in collapse as
negative feedback once again gains the upper hand.

Bottom line? There are no exceptions to the first law of plague
dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population
invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus
triggering collapse.

Now here’s the thing. Homo sapiens has recently experienced a genuine
population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at
least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion
early in the 19th century. Then, in just 200 years, (less than one
thousandth as much time) we blossomed to more than seven billion at
the beginning of this century.

This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to Homo sapiens’
technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use
of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food
production and provided access to all the other resources needed to
expand the human enterprise.)

The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, on which the seven-fold
increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in
consumption, is systematically destroying prospects for continued
civilized existence. Over-harvesting is depleting non-renewable
resources; land degradation, pollution and global warming are
destroying entire ecosystems; biophysical life support functions are
beginning to fail.

With increasing real scarcity, growing extraction costs and burgeoning
human demand, the prices for non-renewable metal and mineral resources
have been rising for 20 years (from historic lows at the turn of the
century). Meanwhile, petroleum may have peaked in 2018 signalling the
pending implosion of the oil industry (abetted by falling demand and
prices resulting from the COVID-19 recession).

These are all signs of resurgent negative feedback. The explosion of
human consumption is beginning to resemble the plague phase of what
may turn out to be a one-off human population cycle. If we don’t
manage a controlled contraction, chaotic collapse is inevitable.

Which brings us back to society’s restricted focus on COVID-19 and the

Listen to the news, to politicians and pundits in this time of crisis.
You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember
climate change?), wildfires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea
level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, or human
expansion into wildlands.

Nor is there a hint of understanding that these trends are connected
to each other and to the pandemic.

Discussion in the mainstream focuses doggedly on defeating COVID-19,
facilitating recovery, restoring growth and otherwise getting back to
normal. After all, as Gregory Bateson has written, “That is the
paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology.”

Let that sink in: “Normal” is the pathology.

But returning to “normal” guarantees a repeat performance. There will
be other pandemics, potentially worse than COVID-19. (Unless, of
course, some other form of negative feedback gets to us first — as
noted, there is no shortage of potential candidates.)

Consider the present pandemic as yellow flagging for what nature may
yet have in store. Earth will have its revenge. Unless, to avoid full-
on negative feedback, we stand back and re-focus. This means
consciously overriding humans’ natural myopia, thinking generations
ahead and abandoning our perpetual growth narrative.

Surely the time has come to reconsider what seems to have become a
“self-terminating experiment with industrialism.”

To save itself, society must adopt an eco-centric lens. This would
enable us to see the human enterprise as a fully dependent subsystem
of the ecosphere. We need to script a new cultural narrative
consistent with this vision. We must reduce the human ecological
footprint to eliminate overshoot.

Our cultural reset cannot end there. As medical supplies and equipment
run out and supply chains stretch or break, people everywhere are
becoming conscious of hazards associated with today’s increasingly
unsustainable entanglement of nations.

We will have much to celebrate if community self-reliance, resilience
and stability are once again valued more than interdependence,
efficiency and growth. Specialization, globalization and just-in-time
trade in vital commodities have gone too far. COVID-19 has shown that
future security may well reside more in local economic diversity. For
one thing, countries under stress may begin hoarding vital commodities
for domestic use. (As if on cue, on April 3, Donald Trump, president
of Canada’s biggest trading partner, requested 3M to suspend exports
of badly-needed respirator face masks to Canada and Latin America.)
Surely we need permanent policies for the re-localization of vital
economic activities through a strategic approach to import

We might also build on the better side of human nature as ironically
invigorated by our collective war on COVID-19. In many places,
society’s fear of disease has been leavened by a revived sense of
community, solidarity, compassion and mutual aid. Recognition that
disease strikes the impoverished hardest and that the pandemic
threatens to widen the income gap has renewed calls for a return to
more progressive taxation and implementation of a national minimum

The emergency also draws attention to the importance of the informal
care economy — child rearing and elder care are often voluntary and
historically subsidize our paid economy. And what about renewed public
investment worldwide in girls’ education, women’s health and family
planning? Certainly individual actions are not enough. We are in a
collective crisis that demands collective solutions.

To those still committed to the pre-COVID-19 perpetual-growth-through-
technology paradigm, economic contraction equates to unmitigated
catastrophe. We can give them no hope but to accept a new reality.

Like it or not, we are at the end of growth. The pandemic will
certainly induce a recession and possibly a global depression, likely
reducing gross world product by a quarter.

There are good reasons to think that there can be no “recovery” to
pre-COVID “normal” even if we were foolish enough to try. Ours has
been a debt-leveraged economy. Thousands of marginal firms will be
bankrupted; some will be bought up by others with deeper pockets
(further concentrating wealth) but most will disappear; millions of
people will be left unemployed, possibly impoverished without ongoing
public support.

This heralds a future crisis: GWP and energy consumption have
historically increased in lock-step; industrial economies depend
utterly on abundant cheap energy. After the current short-term demand-
drop surplus dries up, it will be years (if ever) before there is
adequate new supply to replicate pre-pandemic levels of global
economic activity — and there are no adequate “green” substitutes.
Much of the economy will have to be rebuilt to size in ways that
reflect this emergent reality.

And herein lies the great opportunity to salvage global civilization.

Clearing skies and cleaner waters should inspire hopeful ingenuity.
Indeed, if we wish to thrive on a finite planet, we have little choice
but to see the COVID-19 pandemic as preview and our response as dress
rehearsal for the bigger play. Again, the challenge is to engineer a
safe, smooth, controlled contraction of the human enterprise. Surely
it is within our collective imagination to socially construct a system
of globally networked but self-reliant national economies that better
serve the needs of a smaller human family.

The ultimate goal of economic planning everywhere must now turn to
ensuring that humanity can thrive indefinitely and more equitably
within the biophysical means of nature.


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