The pandemic is a big problem. Climate change is an even bigger problem. But the meta-problem is ecological overshoot.
Plagues and heat waves — along with plunging biodiversity; fishery collapses; soil and land degradation; land, water and sea pollution; resource shortages, etc. — are mere symptoms of a much greater planetary malaise. Ecological overshoot means there are way too many people using vastly too much energy and material resources and dumping too much waste.
In more technical terms, humanity’s consumption of even renewable resources and our production of wastes exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere. This is the biophysical definition of “unsustainable,” and a harbinger of pending systems collapse.
Avoiding the collapse of one’s civilization would seem to be job one for political leaders. And yesterday they received yet another “code red” reminder of what is at stake from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet few politicians have even heard of overshoot. Concern about its implications has yet to penetrate economic and developmental policy circles.
It therefore seems fair to ask: What accounts for such political deafness? One obvious earplug is the neoliberal economics dominant in the world today. Its adherents assume that:
- The economy is separate from, and can function independently of, the biophysical “environment.”
- Important relationships between variables change predictably and if they deviate from desirable comfort zones, can be reversed.
- The “factors of production” (finance capital, natural capital, manufactured capital, human capital) are near-perfect substitutes. For example, human ingenuity — technology — can make up for any potentially limiting natural resource.
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