Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse

Too many people consuming too many resources and deepening inequality a prescription for disaster. Tokyo photo by Marco Verch, Creative Commons licensed.
William E. Rees | | July 18, 2017

(William Rees, the person who co-coined "small footprint," with a good article, but not genious when it comes to understanding capitalism. Yes, too many people consuming too much. But it's much more about the system of capitalism characterized by profit and competiion driven growth structured within class division. Not about limiting population directly, but mass movement towards this concept called socialism. Waiting for all these big thinkers to get the story straight....)

Humans have a virtually unlimited capacity for self-delusion, even when self-preservation is at stake.

The scariest example is the simplistic, growth-oriented, market-based economic thinking that is all but running the world today. Prevailing neoliberal economic models make no useful reference to the dynamics of the ecosystems or social systems with which the economy interacts in the real world.

What truly intelligent species would attempt to fly spaceship Earth, with all its mind-boggling complexity, using the conceptual equivalent of a 1955 Volkswagen Beetle driver’s manual?

Consider economists’ (and therefore society’s) near-universal obsession with continuous economic growth on a finite planet. A recent ringing example is Kaushik Basu’s glowing prediction that “in 50 years, the world economy is likely (though not guaranteed) to be thriving, with global GDP growing by as much as 20 per cent per year, and income and consumption doubling every four years or so.”

Basu is the former chief economist of the World Bank, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor of economics at Cornell University, so he is no flake in the economics department. But this does not prevent a display of alarming ignorance of both the power of exponential growth and the state of the ecosphere. Income and consumption doubling every four years? After just 20 years and five doublings, the economy would be larger by a factor of 32; in 50 years it will have multiplied more than 5000-fold! Basu must inhabit some infinite parallel universe.

In fairness, he does recognize that if the number of cars, airplane journeys and the like double every four years with overall consumption, “we will quickly exceed the planet’s limits.” But here’s the thing — it’s 50 years before Basu’s prediction even takes hold and we’ve already shot past several important planetary boundaries.

Little wonder. Propelled by neoliberal economic thinking and fossil fuels, techno-industrial society consumed more energy and resources during the most recent doubling (the past 35 years or so) than in all previous history. Humanity is now in dangerous ecological overshoot, using even renewable and replenishable resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and filling waste sinks beyond capacity. (Even climate change is a waste management problem — carbon dioxide is the single greatest waste by weight in all industrial economies.)

Meanwhile, wild nature is in desperate retreat. One example: from less than one per cent at the dawn of agriculture, humans and their domestic animals had ballooned to comprise 97 per cent of the total weight of terrestrial mammals by the year 2000. That number is closer to 98.5 per cent today, with wild mammals barely clinging to the margins.

The “competitive displacement” of other species is an inevitable byproduct of continuous growth on a finite planet. The expansion of humans and their artefacts necessarily means the contraction of everything else. (Politicians’ protests notwithstanding, there is a fundamental contradiction between population/economic growth and protecting the “environment.”)

Ignoring overshoot is dangerously stupid — we are financing growth, in part, by irreversibly liquidating natural resources essential to our own long-term survival.