The Meta Crisis – The Human Predicament through the eyes of two experts

If you’d like to develop a broader perspective on the predicament humanity finds itself in, the two papers below are required reading.

The Human Ecology of Overshoot: Why a Major ‘Population Correction’ Is Inevitable, William E. Rees

Metacrisis: Getting Honest About the Human Predicament June 23, 2024, Art Berman

Further to the issues William Rees and Art Berman lay out, the gross distortions that our economic measures create must also be recognized as one of the greatest obstacles we must overcome. The commercial economic numbers we use and focus on for policy development are highly incomplete and often chosen because of the advantage they afford powerful groups. These numbers are not the counterpart to the comprehensive and proven suite of financial statements and tools businesses have developed over centuries. Money metrics are disconnected from the well-being of people, the stress the environment is under and the workings of the real economy.

In short, our social policy decision making is based on flawed, narrow commercial market based, often counterproductive and corrupted metrics.

Below are two very brief synopses of the biophysical issues humanity faces. Please go to their respective links for the full articles.

First is geologist and energy expert Art Berman’s: Metacrisis: Getting Honest About the Human Predicament

“The world is in metacrisis. That means that many crises are occurring simultaneously and affecting one another.

This calls for rethinking the nature of problem-solving. Root causes should be identified rather than merely treating their symptoms. Traditionally, problems have been tackled in isolation. That approach has led to the metacrisis, an ensemble of life-or-death situations that overlap and influence each other.

Figure 1 illustrates the overwhelming complexity of the world’s metacrisis. It is a web of systemic, interconnected, compounding processes.

Figure 1. The Metacrisis is a web of complex, systemic, interconnected, compounding processes. Source: Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

We want solutions but do we understand the problems we are trying to solve?

Attention must be placed first on the whole, not on the parts. That includes the natural world. Climate change activism is a prime example of focusing on parts rather than the whole.

Figure 2 shows an activist fixated on carbon emissions, which is just one aspect of climate change. Climate change is only a part of the larger environmental and ecological crisis.

Figure 2. Climate change is a narrow view that looks only at one part of the whole. Source: Jan Konietzko @FUTUREEARTH & Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.

World population was 2.5 billion when I was born in 1950. It has more than tripled in my lifetime to more than 8 billion in 2023. Total energy consumption has increased more than 60-fold in that same period. Half of all historical oil consumption has been since 2000.

Growth is the problem. Carbon emissions are a consequence of the growth in energy consumption that has enabled the growth in human population and economic activity.

Populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish have declined by an average of 69% since 1970.

Higher energy costs have raised operational expenses for industries worldwide, affecting everything from manufacturing to transportation. This has contributed to increased costs for goods and services.

A period of relative oil scarcity is underway, and is likely to get progressively more acute in coming decades unless the global economy weakens substantially affecting demand.

Unless the future is somehow completely different from the past and present, the only solution to climate change and overshooting our planetary boundaries is a radical reduction in energy consumption.

Our focus must first be on the whole, not just the fragments. This means acknowledging the natural world as the foundation of our resources and prosperity. Focusing solely on carbon emissions misses the broader context—energy, the economy, society, and human behavior.

We need a holistic approach, one that moves fluidly from the whole to the parts and back again. Otherwise, we’re simply shifting problems around, likely making everything worse in the process.”

Bill Rees, originator and co-developer (with his graduate students) of ecological footprint analysis, lays out the issues in his latest overview of the human predicament:

The Human Ecology of Overshoot: Why a Major ‘Population Correction’ Is Inevitable.

“Modern techno-industrial (MTI) society is in a state of advanced ecological overshoot meaning that the human population is consuming even replenishable and self-producing resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and is producing waste in excess of the ecosphere’s assimilative capacity. In short, humanity has already exceeded the long-term human carrying capacity of the earth.

The sheer number of humans and scale of economic activity are under-mining the functional integrity of the ecosphere and compromising essential life-support functions. Unaddressed, these trends may well precipitate both global economic contraction and a significant human population ‘correction’ later in this century.

Humanity is depleting the seas and forests, has otherwise diminished wild nature, has destroyed a third of Earth’s arable soil and landscapes, has mined out the richest deposits of many mineral and metal ores and, in just a couple of centuries, has run through the high-quality half of the massive stocks of fossil energy that took tens of millions of years to accumulate.

There is no significant patch of human-habitable landscape on Earth that we have not long since claimed as our own. Meanwhile, various entrepreneurs and humanist dreamers would have us colonize the Moon or Mars, not only for their resource potential, but to insure against the extinction of H. sapiens should Earthly life-support systems fail under the weight of human demands.

One might expect that an intelligent social species would devise cultural overrides to rein in potentially dangerous expansionist tendencies on a finite planet.

Exceptionalists posit that human ingenuity can overcome resource scarcities; that we are not otherwise bound by the laws and limits of nature. Neoliberal economics—which currently underpins global ‘development’—implicitly assumes that the economy and the ‘environment’ are separate systems.

The evidence is compelling that human exceptionalism is a deeply-flawed construct—a grand cultural illusion—that has led MTI societies into a potentially fatal ecological trap.

From a fraction of 1% 10,000 years ago, humanity now constitutes 32%, and our domestic livestock another 64%, of the planet’s much expanded mammalian biomass; all wild species combined account for only 4%.

The growth of the human enterprise (population and economy) on a finite planet is the greatest factor contributing to plunging biodiversity, Reduced human populations almost everywhere are necessary to preserve remaining patches of non-human life on Earth.

Of course, biodiversity loss is only one major symptom of overshoot. Overshoot is a meta-problem, the cause of climate change (including desertification, faltering ocean circulation, etc.), land/soil degradation, tropical deforestation, ocean acidification, fisheries collapses, sinking water tables, incipient food shortages, plastic and other chemical contamination of food chains, falling sperm counts, increasing cancer rates, pandemics, the pollution of everything, etc.

Why Is Nobody Listening?

In light of the cascading hard evidence, it seems fair to ask why the mainstream media do not report on, and most ordinary people have never heard of, overshoot.

Perhaps the most obvious example is the global fixation on climate change as the existential threat facing civilization. The media may be temporarily side-tracked by the recent pandemic, regional famines, the growing refugee crisis, or the Russo−Ukraine war, but the focus is still on one isolated issue at a time. Rarely do the media, even serious analysts, and certainly not most politicians, connect the dots to see these issues as springing from a common root in overshoot.

In the simplest terms, overshoot results from too many people consuming and polluting too much. The immediate physical cause is excess economic throughput (i.e., resource consumption and waste production), but throughput is itself driven by both rising incomes and population growth.

Until recently, the population question was out of bounds even in academia, largely on religious/cultural/humanist grounds or often spurious charges that analysts were implicitly racist. As the ballooning costs of extreme weather, biodiversity loss, land/soil degradation, wildfires, regional famines, energy shortages, pollution, etc., affect more and more people, the obvious benefits of smaller human numbers are finally dissolving the population taboo.

Every concerned citizen should understand the basics of human population dynamics. These dynamics were the basis for Malthus’ concern, that population growth potential would always outstrip food supply.

In just 200 years (1/1250th the time it took to reach the first billion), the human population ballooned to seven billion by 2011 and reached eight billion only 11 years later, in November 2022.

(our vain glorious attitudes have to change)

“…we use 30 percent of all the energy, in the United States. That isn’t bad; that is good. That means that we are the richest, strongest people in the world and that we have the highest standard of living in the world. That is why we need so much energy, and may it always be that way”
(US President Richard Nixon, November 1973)

Renewable green energy clearly has a long way to go—in some years, additions to renewable capacity do not even keep up with the growth in total demand for energy.

The most encouraging sign of awakening to this contradiction is that an international planned ‘degrowth’ movement is gathering momentum, particularly in Europe.

Societal collapse is a complex controversial subject. Those who doubt that collapse is a real possibility should remember that many regional human societies have imploded in the past and that MTI societies are now so tightly entangled that the next contraction may well be global.

In a rational world, the international community would act cooperatively and decisively in response to evidence of overshoot and organize to eliminate its corrosive impacts.

Some environmentalists urge rapid disinvestment from, and the abandonment of, coal, oil, and natural gas. Rapid FF (fossil fuel) cutbacks would result in economic chaos—reduced goods production, massive unemployment, broken supply chains, failing GDP, declining personal incomes, over-whelmed social services, etc. Food production would plummet.

Meanwhile, seduced by the promise of cheap, 100% renewable energy, the world has also bought into a new mythic construct, the so-called renewable energy transition under such banners as the ‘Green New Deal’, the ‘circular economy’, and the oxymoronic concept of ‘green growth’.

Even 2 ◦C warming may well trigger irreversible runaway “hothouse Earth” conditions, ending prospects for global civilization. Local ecosystems and possibly the ecosphere as a whole are similarly prone to abrupt, unpredictable irreversible changes that are potentially hostile to human (and other) life, if pushed beyond unknown tipping points.

The prospect of societal collapse, however horrific it sounds to MTI ears, is perfectly consistent with history and the systems dynamics characterizing the rise and fall of previous human civilizations. One is forced to wonder why modern H. sapiens stubbornly fail to apply lessons from well-studied historic collapses to develop the foresight and the policy actions needed to head off the next.

“Without a biosphere in good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know. The economists will tell you we can decouple growth from material consumption, but that is total nonsense . . . If you don’t manage decline, then you succumb to it and you are gone”
(Vaclav Smil)

In the best of all possible worlds, the whole transition might actually be managed in ways that prevent unnecessary suffering of millions (billions?) of people, but this is not happening—and cannot happen—in a world blind to its own predicament.

Please distribute these two papers to people who are interested and to those who need to be interested.

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