As a writer focused on the global sustainability crisis, I’m often asked how to deal with the stress of knowing—knowing, that is, that we humans have severely overshot Earth’s long-term carrying capacity, making a collapse of both civilization and Earth’s ecological systems likely; knowing that we are depleting Earth’s resources (including fossil fuels and minerals) and clogging its waste sinks (like the atmosphere’s and oceans’ ability to absorb CO2); knowing that the decades of rapid economic growth that characterized the late 20th and early 21st centuries are ending, and that further massive interventions by central banks and governments can’t do more than buy us a little bit more time of relative stability; knowing that technology (even renewable energy technology) won’t save our fundamentally unsustainable way of life.

In the years I’ve spent investigating these predicaments, I’ve been fortunate to meet experts who have delved deeply into specific issues—the biodiversity crisis, the population crisis, the climate crisis, the resource depletion crisis, the debt crisis, the plastic waste crisis, and on and on. In my admittedly partial judgment, some of the smartest people I’ve met happen also to be among the more pessimistic. (One apparently smart expert I haven’t had opportunity to meet yet is 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman, the subject of this recent article in The Guardian.)

In discussing climate change and all our other eco-social predicaments, how does one distinguish accurate information from statements intended to elicit either false hope or needless capitulation to immediate and utter doom? And, in cases where pessimistic outlooks do seem securely rooted in evidence, how does one psychologically come to terms with the information?

Systems Thinking

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