Monday, July 24, 2017

Do You Think Trump's Mad? Do You Think Trudeau's Sane?

We're just a couple of weeks off from World Overshoot Day, 2017. That will mark the day on which humankind has exhausted an entire year's supply of Earth's natural resources.  Barely more than a decade ago, Overshoot didn't hit until November. Since then our consumption has grown even as our planet's resource reserves have dwindled. Yes, that is a candle burning at both ends.

What the steadily marching arrival of Overshoot tells us is that our leaders' obsession with perpetual, exponential growth is madness. No matter how much you may fawn over him, Trudeau has that addiction and he's got it bad. He's not alone. Every mainstream political party in Canada and, for that matter, most of the developed world and the emerging economic superpowers, shares that same terminal addiction.

I've been writing about Overshoot for years, at least as far back as when it didn't set in until the latter part of October. Maybe this will convince you. An essay from William Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at the University of British Columbia.

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.
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.

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.

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

And things can only get worse. Even at today’s “lacklustre” three-per-cent global growth rate, incomes/consumption would double in just 20 years and produce — in this century — dramatic climate change, widespread extinctions, the collapse of major biophysical systems, global strife and diminished prospects for continued civilized existence.


How might a clear-sighted neutral observer interpret our predicament? First, she or he would point out that on a finite planet already in overshoot, it is not biophysically possible to raise the material standards of the poor to those of the rich sustainably — that is, without destroying the ecosphere, undermining life-support functions and precipitating global societal collapse. In a non-deluded world, governments would no longer see economic growth as the panacea for all that ails them; in particular, they would acknowledge that enough is literally enough and cease promoting growth as the primary solution to both North-South inequity and chronic poverty within nations.

Instead, a rational world would focus on devising institutions and policies for co-operative redistribution — ways to share the benefits of development more equitably. The goal should be to enhance the material well-being of developing countries and the poor and improve life-quality for all while simultaneously reducing both aggregate material consumption and world population.

Ensuring a socially just, economically secure and ecologically stable global environment requires: a) that rich nations consume less to free up the ecological space needed for justifiable consumption increases in poorer countries; and b) that the world implement a universal population management plan designed to reduce the total human population to a level that that can be supported indefinitely at a more-than-satisfactory average material standard. This is what it means to “live sustainably within the means of nature.”

Fortunately, various studies suggest that planned de-growth toward a quasi steady state economy is technically possible, would benefit the poor and could be achieved while improving overall quality of life even in high-income countries.

Failure to implement a global sustainability plan that addresses excess consumption and over-population while ensuring greater social equity may well be fatal to global civilization. Indeed, adherence to any variant of the growth-bound status quo promises a future of uncontrollable climate change, plummeting biodiversity, civil disorder, geopolitical turmoil and resource wars.

In these circumstances, should not elected politicians everywhere have an obligation to explain how their policies reflect the fact of global overshoot?

Denying reality is not a viable option; self-delusion can become all-destroying. If our leaders reject the foregoing framing, they should be required to show how the policies they are pursuing can deliver ecological stability, economic security, social equity and improved population health to future generations. Ordinary citizens should assert their right-to-know as if their lives depend upon it.

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