Citizen Action Monitor

If humanity’s critical planetary overshoot is not corrected deliberately, nature will impose a chaotic implosion

If we wish civilization to continue, human beings must learn to live more equitably, well within the means of nature” – William Rees. —

No 2709 Posted by fw, February 14, 2021 —

“So, if I can just summarize and put the choice before us –.

1/ Climate change is indeed a serious problem. We must deal with it.

2/ But it’s a mere symptom of a much greater disease, which is the generalized overshoot of the human population above and beyond the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We cannot solve any of these problems in isolation, and doing so would be futile because the others would take us down. They are a collective issue under the umbrella of overshoot.

3/ Well, we are in that critical overshoot, and the present trajectory resembles a plague phase of a one-off population cycle. And if it is not corrected deliberately, it will crash.

4/ We may or may not already be on some critical tipping point, not only in climate but in other ways as well.

5/ In my view, in coming years, there’s no question that the human enterprise will contract.

6/ But, as an intelligent, planning-capable, moral species, we can theoretically make a choice between —

6(a) Insistence on “business as usual”, which risks, in my view, a chaotic implosion imposed by nature, followed by geopolitical turmoil and resource wars;

6(b) Or we can come together as a society, realize the flaws in our currently globally-shared constructed vision of reality, accept what our science is telling us, and, in that context, cooperate internationally toward a well-planned orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially just sustainability for all.

7/ So, human beings must learn — if we wish civilization to continue – to live much more equitably, well within the biophysical carrying capacity, well within the means of nature.” —William Rees

William Rees, is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at UBC. He taught at UBC1969 until his retirement in 2011-12, but has since continued his writing and research. His primary interest is in public policy and planning relating to global environmental trends and the ecological conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development.

With the above summary, Professor Rees concluded his keynote address, via ZOOM, to students and faculty at a changing climate conference from Tel Aviv University, Israel.

Below is my repost of Rees’ lecture, including, at the bottom of this post, an embedded 74-minute video of the event, my slightly edited but full transcript — with time markers — of Rees’ 41-minute talk, along with copies of his 36 slides, added text highlighting of key points, and a few added hyperlinks. The event begins with a short welcome and introduction of Rees by host Rami Kaplan, followed by Rees’ lecture, ending with a Q&A session.

For ten years, I have been closely following and blogging about humanity’s existential crises, focusing primarily on climate change. And William Rees’ keynote address is far and away the best work I have come across in terms of its information-rich breadth, depth and clarity. In a word, it is “brilliant”. Watch the video. Read my transcript. Study them. Return to them. Share them. Above all, use his research findings, his truths, his wisdom to challenge the frequently incomplete, misinformed and misleading words and reports from neoliberal politicians, corporate-controlled media, bankers, business elites, and misguided environmentalists. Their “economic growth” mantra will doom us.

Sadly, as Rees points out, citing the 19th century work by Gustave le Bon, “The masses have never thirsted after truth.” “We are,” adds Rees, “knee-deep in climate change denial.” And as Nate Hagens reminds us, “We care more about the present than we care about the future.” So, once this pandemic is conquered, let’s quickly return to “normal”, entertain ourselves to death now and let the future take care of itself.

SEE RELATED —  Despite repeated warnings by climatologists, we continue to risk catastrophe for billionsCanadian scientist William Rees explains why we have repeatedly failed to achieve sustainability. — No 2708 Posted by fw, February 09, 202.

To watch the You Tube video of Rees’ Israel lecture, absent transcript, click on the following linked title.


Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is? ZOOM lecture by William Rees, You Tube, January 28, 2021 (74-minutes)

TRANSCRIPT (Watch video at bottom of this post)

0:00 – 6:04 – Host Rami Kaplan’s introduction of Rees and the theme of his keynote address.

Environmental reform is, without compare, the most enormous challenge ever faced by humanity. More recent trust in Rees’ work has been to reflect on the gap between the projected apocalyptic implications of the crisis and humanity’s failure, so far, not only to address the challenge, but even to be sincere about what is implied and involved in addressing it.

Here, in combining the best of ecological economic analysis with sociological, psychological and philosophical insights about the condition of our species, and particularly humanity’s apparently amazing ability to blind itself to the problem, Rees builds very long bridges between the natural, social, and human sciences. And the result is often no less than mind-blowing. This is indeed perfect for this conference, which seeks to encourage cross-disciplinary research and discussion of the crisis, and to help raise public and decision-makers’ awareness and action to confront this defining challenge of our time.

6:05 – William Rees, on full-screen, with short opening remarks.

6:47 – Switch to screen-sharing. Rees appears in a small, picture-in-picture frame, in the upper-right corner of the screen. His slides will appear in the larger, remaining part of the screen.

Slide 1

6:53 – Climate change is a huge problem. But it is not the problem confronting the human species. If climate change isn’t the problem, what exactly is?

Slide 2

7:40 – Climate change is real. It’s happening. [Slide 2] lists some of the indicators from this most recent year, that tells us the nature of this problem. It’s important to understand that all of these things together represent individual “symptoms” of a symptom. Climate change is happening. There are many symptoms such as those listed.

The question we have to confront in the next few years – perhaps the next decade – is whether we have passed or are approaching an irreversible tipping point towards “Hot House Earth”.

8:15The main problem is not that of climate change. It’s the thing that we have investigated most thoroughly using our ecological footprint tool. I’m going to argue that climate change is simply one symptom of many of a phenomenon called “ecological overshoot.” Overshoot exists when the human enterprise is conserving more of the goods and services of natural systems than those systems can regenerate.

We’re also exceeding the assimilative capacity of the ecosphere. If you take that last point, for example, climate change becomes a waste management problem, because anthropogenic climate change caused by human activity is driven by carbon dioxide emissions. and carbon dioxide is the single largest waste product of industrial processes in all of the industrial countries on Earth.

So climate change is symptomatic of overshootIn this case, overshooting the capacity of the ecosphere to assimilate the excess carbon being produced by the industrial activities of humankind.

But, in addition, we see the oceans acidifying, fresh water toxifying, eroding soils and so on and so on.

And it’s not just a biophysical problem, because accompanying all these major biophysical changes is a widening economic crisis on the planet. Income gaps are widening. The poor are getting poorer in many countries, including even rich ones such as the United States. Even as global wealth increase at two or three percent per year.

Slide 3

9:57 – If we look at this strictly is terms of ecological footprint analysis, we can show that on the planet Earth today there are only about 12 billion hectares of adequately productive ecosystems to sustain any kind of human activity. That’s 12 billion hectares divided among a population of over 7.8 billion people now. So it comes down to about 1.6 global average hectares per capita. That’s all that’s really available, and what we could use on a sustainable basis.

But with current growth and current overpopulation, the human ecological footprint is approaching 20.9 billion hectares or 2.8 giga-hectares or average hectares per capita.

So we’re in a situation of being 73 percent in overshoot. In other words, we are acting as if the planet were 73% larger than it actually is.

When I talk even to school children, the obvious question is “Well, how can we be using more planet than we’ve got?” And I have to remind us that when we talk about overshoot, it’s recognition that each year the planet is capable of producing a certain quantity of material, and assimilating a certain quantity of waste.

If we use all of that, then we’re fine. But if we start using more than that then we are drawing down the natural capital.

So overshoot implies overfishing, soils erosion, destruction of tropical forests, the depletion of biomass and so on and so forth. So we are actually depleting the very planet upon which we are utterly dependent for our goods and services from nature. We’re consuming, dissipating, and displacing other species from their niches. And one of the most important elements of this – and I think it’s showing up now in our growing income gap – that on a shrinking planet with a growing population, we’re entering a situation where everyone is competing more intensely with everyone else for the shrinking biocapacity of the Earth.

Slide 4

12:02How did a so-called intelligent species wind up on this situation? I would argue there are two factors here – generally speaking, humans only think of one at a time. We’ve got two major factors.

[Factor] One is our base human nature. Human beings are genetically predisposed, like all other species, to expand to fill all accessible habitats, and to use up all resources to which we have access. And in the case of humans, the availability of resources is constantly being redefined by technology. So we have this illusion that because of technological progress we’re constantly increasing the carrying capacity of Earth.

Slide 5

So these are completely natural characteristics with enormous survival value. And we share them with all other species. This is a very interesting story of many – [for example] of monkeys that have learned to use tools to open clams, and they’re in their own habitat driving local shellfish to extinction. People and other animals will use all the resources to which they have access. And in the case of even tool-wielding monkeys, having technology increases the capacity to access vital resources.

Slide 6

13:20The second causal factor is nurture. So we have human nature and creative nurture – the social learning, the cultural basis also propelling us down this destructive path. The problem here is – and many people aren’t even consciously aware of this – is that human beings socially construct their realities. And by that I mean that we construct conceptual lenses – think of political ideologies, religious doctrines, even scientific theories – through which we perceive nature.

These conceptual lenses, once they’re developed, determine the kind of reality that we perceive. So that people from very different cultural backgrounds perceive the real world in a very different way. And the problem is precisely that – that people live out of the constructed realities, the socially agreed nature of realities as if this was the real thing.

So, again, to reiterate, we have a human nature that predisposes us to expand and to use up all available resources. And we create a “sense of reality” through our social dialogue. And it’s from that sense of reality that we live.

Slide 7

14:40 – Now, at present, we have a global social construct called “neoliberal economics”. It’s the economic basis for virtually all techno-industrial societies. Even some of the communist nations are moving in this direction. Neoliberal economics champions a “perfect market” where the marketplace becomes the arbiter of social value. But most importantly, neoliberal economics has as its underpinning that economic growth – material economic growth – is unlimited and it is propelled by boundless technological progress. Under this assumption, human ingenuity, the inventiveness of the human mind, is really our most important resource.

Professor Julian Simon, the late professor Julian Simon of Maryland State University was one of the most vocal proponents of this. Here’s a typical quote from his work:

We have in our hands now the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.”

Anybody who understands anything about exponential growth realizes that this is an incredibly naïve, intellectually-challenged statement. But it’s the kind of thing people like to hear, because if you believe profoundly in that particular social construct then there’s clearly no problem. We can feed, clothe and supply energy for a period almost as twice as long as the planet had been here.

When you combine these two things – our predisposition genetically and imposed, and with enormous survival value to expand – if we combine that with a modernist social construct such as neoliberal economics, the result is a mind-blowing rate of geometric growth of the human enterprise.

Slide 8

16:36 – Put it this way: It took human beings somewhere between 250 and 350 thousand years to reach our present form. And for all of that period of time, population hardly grew at all. It took all of that time to reach one billion people in the early part of the 19th century. But in just the last 200 years – 1/1700th as much time – we expanded from one billion to 7.8 billion in 2020. That’s an astonishing reality.

Meanwhile, gross world product – the output of the economy in real terms – increased by 100 fold. Per capita incomes on average increased by a factor of 13, and that goes up to 25 or 30 in rich countries. So our consumption has increased vastly faster than our population which has obviously increased fast enough.

But Earth didn’t get any larger.

Slide 9

So if we look at it this way we get some idea of how remarkable this situation really is. The x-axis could be extended virtually indefinitely to the left [to] 350 thousand years. The x-axis [in this graph] is only 10,000 years of history. And you can see it’s just the last 200 years that stand out as remarkable.

The idea here is that only ten generations of people out of the thousands of generations of humans that have lived on this planet have experienced sufficient growth to notice it in their lifetime. We take this to be the norm because you and I and our parents and our grandparents experienced it. So why wouldn’t we think of it to be normal.

But in fact, this period of 200 years of growth is the single most abnormal or anomalous period in human history.

So that’s the first thing to take from Slide 9.

The second is recognition that it was made entirely possible by fossil fuels.

Certainly modern medicine increased longevity and reduced mortality. But in the absence of fossil fuel it couldn’t have happened, because fossil fuel is the means by which we produce all our food and the other resources needed to create the infrastructure for human society.

So we have then two things from this very simple graphic – An extraordinary expansion of the human enterprise in just 200 years, driven a single resource, the fossil fuel.

Lots of other things are in play, obviously. But those are key points to take from this particular graphic.

Slide 10

19:16 – And just to underscore the importance of fossil fuel, here’s a series of graphs put together by a colleague of mine. He shows population growth, per capita consumption of various forms of fuel, and then thee total consumption. And of course the graphs are virtually the same except that energy consumption has actually increased even faster than has population growth.

Slide 11

Here’s a graphic that many people just find mind-boggling. But it’s typical of what we learn from exponential growth. This is the increase in just fossil fuel use in the past couple of hundred years, a little less than that. But the bottom line is that 90% of all the fossil fuels ever consumed by human beings have been consumed since my lifetime since 1943. One half of all the fossil fuels ever consumed on Earth have been consumed in just the past 30 years.

So one shouldn’t wonder any longer since all of these fossil fuels are emitting carbon dioxide, why we’re seeing such an accelerated pace of climate change. But again, the important thing to keep in mind here is that with exponential growth we have a constant doubling time. The amount of resources consumed in any doubling time is equivalent to greater than the sum of all the resources consumed in all previous doubling periods.

So, fifty percent of all the fossil fuels ever consumed since the beginning of time have been consumed in just the past thirty years – in the lifetimes of most of us which is absolutely an astonishing recognition once it sinks in.

Slide 12

20:55 – But it’s not the only thing. Every other thing that humans are associated with in terms of consumption have escalated pretty much along the same lines, even faster than population growth, because again fossil fuel makes possible the development of new technologies, new mining techniques, new ways of accessing resources, new products, new techniques for building, and so on and so forth. And hence we see a continuous parade of exponential growth in just about everything.

Now, another really important point to take in to account here is that we keep being told be technological optimists that improvements in the efficiency of resource use will result in reduced impact. That’s clearly not the case. All of this enormous growth that we’re seeing here has taken place during a period of unprecedented increases in technological and economic efficiency. And the real impact of technology and economic efficiency gain is to lower prices, increase salaries and wages so that there’s more money chasing cheaper goods and services, so consumption explodes. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing here.

Slide 13

22:05 – The problem is, of course, that the neoliberal economic paradigm, as a social construct, a product of mind, contains no useful information at all about the ecological system and the social systems within which the economy is embedded. In fact, neoliberal economics starts with the assumption that the economic system is separate from and independent of the ecosphere. And that’s an absurd situation because the whole of the human enterprise is clearly a contained and wholly dependent subsystem of the ecosphere.

So we’re operating from an economic system that has no fundamental overlap with the systems that it is now largely in control of. I’ve said that it’s rather like trying to guide the planet using a 1955 Volkswagen Beetle driver’s manual – clearly an inadequate set of instructions.

Slide 14

23:04 – So this is one of the major symptoms of this complete disconnect between our economic paradigm and the ecosphere is the increasing symptoms of overshoot. And the best known one is the tough subject of your conference – climate change.

What we see here [Slide 14] is the continuous uptick in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. It’s a sawtooth pattern because the instrumentation is so infinitely accurate that it can detect the seasonal cycle in the northern hemisphere. These data are from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, the uptick is the period of winter during which North American vegetation is largely dormant, and hence it’s not assimilating carbon dioxide. So carbon dioxide rises rapidly in the atmosphere. The downtick occurs in the North American summers when vegetation is active in assimilating carbon dioxide.

But each year, the uptick is slightly longer than the downtick, and so the general direction of the curve is upward, and you can sew it’s rising at an accelerating rate – an exponential rate – and we’re already 45% above the pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

We’re literally changing the chemistry of the entire global system.

Slide 15

24:28 – Global surface temperatures clearly reflect this as well. And we were talking earlier about the increase of 1.7 degrees in mean average temperature in Israel. That’s a little higher than the world average, but this is the trend over that period of time that we were looking at. And you can see that it’s a fairly steady upward trend – 2020, the year just completed is now tied with 2016 as the warmest year in the instrumental record, in the past seven years, of the seven warmest years in the instrumental record.

So there seems to be very little dispute anymore about the trends that we’re beginning to experience.

Slide 16

25:07 – Again, my emphasis is on the other non-climate symptoms of the same problem of overshoot. And I think this is a particularly important one that we have generally tended to ignore.

If we go back ten thousand years to the dawn of agriculture – the beginning of the Neolithic age – human beings constituted, by our best estimates, far less than one percent of the total biomass of vertebrates on the planet. Of all vertebrate animals, human constituted one percent. Wild animals constituted 99%. Ten thousand years later, ten thousand years of increasing productivity – most of which I have to say has happened in the last 200 years – we’ve seen an enormous increase in the total biomass – the weight – of vertebrates on the planet – perhaps by as much as seven fold. But of that seven fold, humans now constitute 32% — the weight of human beings is 32% of the total weight of biomass of vertebrate animals on the planet. Wild animals have been reduced to somewhere between five and one percent, because the other 67% is our livestock.

Think about that. Human beings plus our livestock now constitute somewhere between 95 and 99% of the biomass of vertebrate animal life on the planet. That’s an amazing change, particularly in the last 200 years.

Slide 17

26:43 — But it’s not just mammals. Wild bird populations are tumbling. Domestic poultry are now 70% of the world’s bird biomass. Populations of all the monitored species that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or the World Wildlife Fund monitor are down by about 68 to 70% in just 50 years or so.

Again, an amazing rate of what I call “competitive displacement”. I must emphasize that humans are just like other animals, just like other species. We share the same ecological productivity with all of these other species, but we’re better at it. We’re better at appropriating the products of nature than are other species because of our use of technology, of fossil fuel.

And for that reason, we are competitively displacing other organisms from the ecosystems which we share with them. Even invertebrates, the insects are in decline – including essential pollinators – butterflies, beetles and bumble bees are all down be about 50%.

Slide 18

27:46 – Now, it’s very, very important for us to recognize, first of all, as I’ve emphasized, that we don’t as a species experience reality directly. We filter it through our social constructs. The problem is these social constructs don’t necessarily map – they don’t necessarily overlap with the reality they purport to represent. So, we have a terribly dangerous situation right here in which we have politicians around the world – including Israel, by the way – who are under the illusion that there’s no conflict between the growth of the human enterprise and the protection and conservation of the environment.

My own Prime Minister [Trudeau] is repeatedly saying that we can move forward with our oil ad gas development, our mining, because we can do this safely and cleanly. And again, there’s no conflict between the growth of the Canadian economy and conservation of the environment.

This is utter and absolute nonsense. The continuous growth of te human enterprise on a finite planet, where we are sharing with all other species, the products and goods of nature necessarily means the displacement of non-human species.

So what this means is that every major leap forward in the scale, the scope of the human enterprise – the accumulation of capital – means a diminution of the rest of nature. Modern humans are systematically destroying the biophysical basis of their own existence.

Slide 19

29:25 – Now, how does the mainstream respond to that? One of the problems with the socially-constructed reality is that it becomes a self-referencing system. “Self-reference” simply means that it comes back to itself in order to solve problems that it creates. So that if we look at modern technology and modern ideology, over the past 50 years we’ve seen a shift away from the obvious approach to population problem, which is to begin to implement some form of population planning – that’s what we talked about in the 1960s and ‘70s – it has now become the least researched approach to controlling human numbers. Instead, current literature shows us – and this is a quote: “We find a strong and increasing focus on feeding the world through increasing food production via technology.

So, forget about population. No problem. We can use technology to feed the planet. Okay.

Agriculture is the single most damaging technology ever developed by human beings, particularly fossil fuel agriculture. We haven’t got time to get into that, but it’s a clearly demonstrable assertion.

Slide 20

30:35 – The other example is that in order to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. And the way, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] shows that we need to reduce our emissions to carbon dioxide by 50% by 2030, and we need to have complete decarbonization by 2050. But the politically acceptable solutions include only those capital-intensive investments such as wind turbines, solar power, and so on, that will maintain the existing growth-based economic order.

So, the idea, again is to use technology to displace fossil fuel with an energetically equivalent energy base to maintain the growth technology. So that there’s no serious consideration in mainstream circles. How many governments talk about conservation, demand-reduction, lifestyle changes, more equitable distribution? They’re simply not on the table.

There’s a very good colleague of mine, Clive Spash, has recently written: Disaster policy is being designed to serve the capitalist growth-based economy.”

So the latter appears to be the solution and not the cause of the problem.

So this is a direct result of that self-reference. Technology caused the problem. So how do we solve it? More technology. Let’s pile more of the same on, and not discuss any of the things that might actually solve the problem.

Slide 21

32:07 – Let’s take a look at that again. It’s like a stone skipping over the surface of a pond, just looking at little insights. Here’s another insight. We have an orientation in the planet toward continuous growth. The human economy is tightly associated with increases in energy growth. So, as the economy grows, so does the total requirements for energy. In the most recent year for which we have data, 2018 an 19, the increase in primary energy consumption was 7.67 exajoules. That’s a small increase; it’s been much faster than that in recent years of only 1.3%.

The increase in non-hydro renewable – the wind and solar and so on – was massive. It went up by 12%. But because it’s starting from such a small base, the increase in absolute terms is only 3.15 exajoules, which is less than one-half of the increase in global energy demand.

And if we look at electricity, where most of the progress is being made in renewable energy, the total increase was 352 terawatt hours, which is only 1.3% of world electricity demand – a low figure for that year. But the increase in electricity generation by non-hydro renewables was only 337 terawatt hours.

So what we see is every year that the growth in demand exceeds the increments provided by the growing implementation of renewables. And as long as growth exceeds the rate at which we can replace them with renewables, we can’t get ahead.

The bottom line is that we’re still 84% dependent on fossil fuels. This at a time when we’re supposed to be decoupling the economy from fossil fuels – which by the way is an impossible exercise.

Slide 22

34:09 – So it looks like this. We are willing to go to any extent to save the economy at the expense of the environment.

I think editorial cartoonists say it all about the nature of our current mindset. We’ve socially constructed a situation in which the economy is everything, the ecosphere is nothing.

Slide 23

34:37 – As matters stand – and here I become a biologist again – if you look at the recent expansion of the human enterprise, it resembles to me, more than anything else – and I don’t think anyone else has really picked up on this — the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.

Slide 24

34:56 – This is a diagram from a standard text in “Biology—Life on Earth”. It describes what happens when a species comes into a new environment where there are plentiful resources and not much negative feedback holding it down, those conditions favour growth, there’s an exponential “boom” in the population, but that results very quickly — not very quickly necessarily – inevitably in a “bust phase” because nutrients are depleted, or pollution becomes extreme and the population crashes.

So keep in mind that humans are just on this uptick, and we’re somewhere near the top now. But the question is, are we going to bust like this and crash?

Slide 25

35:37 – All sorts of other species do [experience a boom and bust]. This is a classic study of what happens when reindeer were introduced to two islands off the coast of Alaska, the Pribilof Islands. In between the wars we see an enormous increase in these populations, explosive exponential growth. By the way, the curve for the Saint Paul’s Island population is identical to that of human population growth in the last couple of hundred years. As soon as the lichens, upon which the reindeer feed, were depleted, the populations crashed. A smaller island with less resources – same result on a different time frame.

Slide 26

36:18 – So we have a situation in which the human population explosion resembles exactly what happens when other species in their plague phase in nature expand beyond the capacity of their ecosystems to sustain them, a collapse is inevitable.

So we don’t necessarily have to follow that route. Although we are similar to other species, we should be able to avoid uncontrolled collapse and instead engineer a controlled contraction, so to speak, because we have high intelligencethe capacity for logical analysis; the ability to reason from the evidence.

And look at all the evidence we’ve seen just in this short presentation. We have an absolutely unique ability to plan ahead. No other species is capable of assessing the current situation, looking at the data, and deciding how the future should unfold.

We also should be able to exercise moral judgment and empathy and compassion for other people and other species. So putting these uniquely human qualities together we should be able to solve this problem.

Slide 27

37:30 – But, it turns out that humans, although we have these capacities, they don’t much interfere with the way we govern our affairs. And we’ve known this for a very long time, You can download a book called The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind by Gustave le Bon from the 19th century. And here’s just one of many pithy quotes from it –

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce[s] them. Whoever can supply then with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”

Barbara Tuchman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian wrote a wonderful book called The March of Folly in 1984 in which she claims –

Wooden-headedness plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.”

I direct you to the former Trump government in the United States as an exemplar of precisely that situation.

Slide 28

39:00 – And here’s how it plays out. This again is the uptick in the global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. We’ve shown here all of the major agreements to control this phenomenon that have taken place. In addition, I’ve put in The Limits to Growth – the amazing volume published back in 1972 that predict exactly the situation we’re headed to.

The scientists warning to humanity from 1992 that said this is a completely unsustainable track.

But the point is that this consistent destruction of the environment over 50 years, has seen 34 climate conferences, half a dozen major international agreements, and various scientific warnings, but they’ve had np effect whatsoever. They don’t produce a dimple on this curve of rising carbon dioxide levels.

Slide 29

39:49 – The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, received a great deal of press but was quickly suppressed particularly be economists who said “Don’t believe that. The economy is self-fixing. Using market forces, human ingenuity will solve all our problems. There are no limits.

Well, it turns out we’ve seen three separate studies that plot the actual world according to real data since the publication of Limits to Growth. And the real world is actually tracking the standard run. So to the extent that the real world of the purple lines [in Slide 29] – the green lines are the standard run of the growth model. And you can see that real world is a pretty good replica so far of what happened in Limits to Growth. If that continues, we’ll be confronting major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50  years.

Slide 30

40:47 – Now we actually have an explanatory cognitive mechanism. It turns out – and keep in mind the social construction of reality – during the individual development, the development of each of us within a particular context – repeated exposure to sensory experiences that cultural norms literally help shape the synaptic circuits of our brain so that we think of habitual thought patterns. That’s where they come from.

And once these synaptic circuits are in place – a particular way of thinking that you’ve learned over a 20 or 30 year period – people subsequently seek out compatible experience, we seek out compatible people to speak to and communicate with.

And when faced with information that does not agree with our pre-formed internal structures — the structures in our brains put there by our social constructs – we tend to deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information. And if you want to catch up on the recent thinking in this, just look for Bruce Wexler’s little book, Brain and Culture.

Slide 31

41:51 – Here’s a very simple little cartoon, one that puts it more simply. A wonderful encapsulation of Wexler’s thesis: The problem with your reasoned solutions is that they don’t fit my preconceived notions of the problem. So here we have a typical politician responding to the science and it’s just not going to work.

Slide 32

Things are actually worse than that. Because in the last 50 years or so – since the rise of neoliberal economic thinking among other things – we, in effect, as a society have been socially engineered. There’s been a purposeful re-definition of the dialogue around economics and development – in other words, a purposeful construction of a social construct that ignores reality.

Politics is increasingly influenced by neoliberal ideology. And in some countries, including the United States, religious fundamentalism, we see we’re knee-deep in climate change denial, anti-intellectualism and other forms of what I call “magical thinking.”

It’s so bad that in 2016 the Oxford dictionaries, which always picks a word of the year, in 2016 it was “post-truth”.

We’re in a post-truth era. Post truth is defined as “Anything relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than are appeals to emotion and personal belief.

So humans are not rational. We respond more to that which we love, that which we like, that to which we are emotionally connected. And that which we believe — We believe something in the face of the evidence to the contrary.

Slide 33

43:43 – So this has become, in many respects, a new age of “unreason”, of science denial and magical thinking. I call this “The Endarkenment.”

Slide 34

So here’s the big thing we refuse to acknowledge – “That to act consistently with our best science may well require a planned economic and population contraction.”

The question is – “Can humanity learn to live more equitably within the means of nature before we are forced to do so by nature itself?

Slide 35

This is the curve that needs flattening. During the pandemic, we hear over and over again the need to flatten the curve. The curve they’re referring to is the massive growth in the cases of COVID-19 that’s occurring in many parts of the world.

Well, think of human beings as being just like COVID-19 – That’s a viral species capable of geometric or exponential growth. So are human beings. This [Slide 35] is the exponential growth curve. We’re in a state of overshoot. We have exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the planet.

One result of that is that we’re consuming the biophysical basis of our own existence. And that means there’s less opportunity for the future. The carrying capacity of Earth is in steady decline – as the fish stocks, the soils are depleted, and so on as the oceans and the atmosphere are polluted.

What we need to do is bend that curve along the green line so that we learn to live well within the carrying capacity of the planet, and not risk the enormous loss of carrying capacity, which would result in a far smaller human population in the future.

So, this [bending the curve] would extend the potential lifetime of civilization. If we allow this [overshoot] to continue there will be a violent crash and it won’t be pleasant for anyone.

Slide 36

45:44 – So, if I can just summarize and put the choice before us —

1/ Climate change is indeed a serious problem. We must deal with it.

2/ But it’s a mere symptom of a much greater disease, which is the generalized overshoot of the human population above and beyond the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We cannot solve any of these problems in isolation, and doing so would be futile because the others would take us down. They are a collective issue under the umbrella of overshoot.

3/ Well, we are in that critical overshoot, and the present trajectory resembles a plague phase of a one-off population cycle. And if it is not corrected deliberately, it will crash.

4/ We may or may not already be on some critical tipping point, not only in climate but in other ways as well.

5/ In my view, in coming years, there’s no question that the human enterprise will contract.

6/ But, as an intelligent, planning-capable, moral species, we can theoretically make a choice between —

6(a) Insistence on “business as usual”, which risks, in my view, a chaotic implosion imposed by nature, followed by geopolitical turmoil and resource wars;

6(b) Or we can come together as a society, realize the flaws in our currently globally-shared constructed vision of reality, accept what our science is telling us, and, in that context, cooperate internationally toward a well-planned orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially just sustainability for all.

7/ So, human beings must learn — if we wish civilization to continue – [we must learn] to live much more equitably, well within the biophysical carrying capacity, well within the means of nature.

Thank you very much.

47:46 end of William Rees’ Keynote Address



FAIR USE NOTICE – For details click here

NOTE: Any ads appearing on Citizen Action Monitor are put here without my knowledge, approval, or endorsement, and I receive no payment for them.

%d bloggers like this: