The value system of neoliberalism, which has since become entrenched in global mainstream discourse, holds that humans are individualistic, selfish, calculating materialists, and because of this, unrestrained free-market capitalism provides the best framework for every kind of human endeavor. Through their control of government, finance, business, and media, neoliberal adherents have succeeded in transforming the world into a globalized market-based system, loosening regulatory controls, weakening social safety nets, reducing taxes, and virtually demolishing the power of organized labor.
The triumph of neoliberalism has led to the greatest inequality in history, where (based on the most recent statistics) the world’s twenty-six richest people own as much wealth as half the entire world’s population. It has allowed the largest transnational corporations to establish a stranglehold over other forms of organization, with the result that, of the world’s hundred largest economies, sixty-nine are corporations. The relentless pursuit of profit and economic growth above all else has propelled human civilization onto a terrifying trajectory. The uncontrolled climate crisis is the most obvious danger: The world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization.
But even if the climate crisis were somehow brought under control, a continuation of untrammeled economic growth in future decades will bring us face-to-face with a slew of further existential threats. Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forests, animals, insects, fish, freshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences.
In 2017 over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They are echoed by the government-approved declaration of the UN-sponsored IPCC, that we need “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid disaster.Can you read that and not get a faint whiff of serfdom? That's what neoliberalism has wrought and a lot of it has been engineered by well intentioned people, including our current prime minister. Justin Trudeau is a champion of perpetual exponential growth through free trade neoliberalism. Does it really matter if he's well intentioned or malevolent? A bit maybe but not much. No matter how well intentioned, neoliberalism offers no future for humanity.
You might have heard that documentary film maker and social activist, Michael Moore, has caused an uproar in environmentalist ranks with his new film, "Planet of the humans." You can watch it free on YouTube at that link. Moore thinks his argument is urgent enough that his documentary should be given away.
Moore has been widely criticized for undermining the campaign against fossil fuels and the drive to transition to alternative, clean energy. Critics say he's using discredited arguments hatched by the fossil fuel industry to attack guys like Bill McKibbon, Al Gore, even Michael Mann. My sense of Moore's attack is that he sees the fight against climate breakdown as a distraction that keeps us from seeing the truly dire threats - overpopulation and rapacious, excess consumption. But, at the end of the day, this has become a circular firing squad.
Those who have followed this blog these past fourteen years probably know my position - they're both right. Climate breakdown, overpopulation and the exhaustion of the biosphere through over-consumption are all existential threats. When you face existential threats you must resolve all of them or you will solve none of them. And, yes, humanity is now confronted with multiple, existential threats.
One of my favourite climate scientists is Colombian-born, Canadian and American-educated, Camilo Mora who heads a climate research lab at the University of Hawaii.
I was delighted when, in July, 2014, in an interview with YaleEnvironment360, Mora broke the taboo against venturing outside the bounds of climate science.
I grew up in a country where there has been a long history of violence. We have been in war for 50 years, and one thing people don’t realize is what it means to be in a place where anyone can get shot at any moment, where people are starved to death, where there is not enough food to feed people. In the first world, people don’t know how rich they are, and they don’t realize what is happening in the rest of the world. And for me that’s a driving force. It’s scary to think about climate change because when we start damaging physical systems and the carrying capacity of physical systems to produce food, people will react to this in a terrible way. I’m telling you, I have seen it in my own country. It’s very negative the way in which people react to hunger. And that’s one of the things that’s most frightening to me with this large-scale analysis — the fact that I know we’re on our way to some very disturbing scenarios if we go down this pathway of damaging physical systems in the ways that we are today.On speaking out about overpopulation.
Well, it’s paramount because people need food. And the planet is limited in the amount of resources that it can produce. We already have calculated that the planet has on the order of 11 billion hectares that can be harvested in a sustainable manner. Of course we can increase the number by increasing technology, but that’s been happening for the last three decades. The worldwide population is 7 billion people, and we know that to sustain a human being you need on the order of two hectares per person. That means that the world human population every year consumes on the order of 14 billion hectares. The planet only has eleven to give to us. Every year, we consume in excess of three billion hectares. What I’m suggesting is to inform people about the environmental and social costs of having a child.
e360: In a paper in Ecology and Society, you were quite critical of the conservation biology community and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for not talking about the issue of overpopulation. Why, in your estimation, don’t they talk about this issue? What is holding them back?
Mora: It’s pure fear. It seems amazing, but friends of mine recommended to me not to publish that paper. They said, “This paper is going to be damaging to you. You don’t get it. You don’t need it.” What is remarkable, though, is that after the paper got published, I had multiple people calling me to endorse it.
e360: Did they endorse it publicly?
Mora: No, just to me. This is really the problem. But why we don’t take it on? I have no clue. Because the data are very clear. I guess the problem is that it can backfire. We have seen, historically, situations in which a scientist has taken on an issue and there are people who have been fired, or attacked by interest groups. So I guess the problem is fear of retaliation.In his own way, Michael Moore seems to attack the climate science/advocacy types for taking all the oxygen out of the room, ignoring overpopulation and over-consumption/perpetual growth. That's a fair complaint. However, trading elbows isn't a solution.
Whether it's overpopulation, exponential growth or climate breakdown, there's only one question, only one answer. Is humanity willing to live within the finite limits of our environment, our one and only biosphere, Planet Earth? If it's not 'yes,' then our answer is 'no.' If we are willing to live within the limits of our biosphere we are willing to survive. If we're not, we've chosen something else. If the answer is "yes" then we can figure out with great precision and certainty the limits within which we must live. Once we know those limits it's a matter of who gets what and who gives up how much. The debate after that is about fairness and equality. Maybe we can do the right thing. Maybe it's not already too late.