13 January 2021   3 comments

Researchers from a aide variety of institutions have published an especially grim report on the state of the world’s environment entitled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future“. The opening paragraph of the report reads as follows:

“We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action. Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends. The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.”

The significance of this report is that it makes the important connection between economic growth and the destruction of the environment. The connection deserves closer attention since many who believe that protecting the environment is an intolerable economic burden, identifying the loss of jobs that would accompany dramatic changes in economic activity. These people tend to be climate change deniers.

The report, however, identifies this perspective as one of the main reasons humanity is facing such a serious crisis. The truth is that the focus on economic growth is precisely the reason why the crisis has become so acute:

“Simultaneous with population growth, humanity’s consumption as a fraction of Earth’s regenerative capacity has grown from ~ 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2016 (Lin et al., 2018), with substantially greater per-person consumption in countries with highest income. With COVID-19, this overshoot dropped to 56% above Earth’s regenerative capacity, which means that between January and August 2020, humanity consumed as much as Earth can renew in the entire year (overshootday.org).”

The lesson seems to be clear: humanity needs to define the “good life” in terms that are more consistent with the carrying capacity of the planet. Instead of trying to preserve a standard of living that is clearly unsustainable, we need to define a standard of living as “good” that is more consistent with what the earth can provide without exhausting its resources.

Posted January 13, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 responses to “13 January 2021

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  1. I am unnerved by the prophetic gravity of this post. Its importance outweighs the harrowing political drama being enacted here Washington, DC, and is another example, several orders of magnitude larger, of the tragic consequences of the current cultural values of American society. Is redefining a “good life” such that it consistent with the carrying capacity of the planet beyond the capacity of our current leadership? Jonah emerged from the belly of a whale to warn Nineveh, and miraculously Nineveh listened and reformed. What person, power or principality possesses the popularity, prestige, and moral authority to influence the attitudes of millions and millions of people quickly enough to avert cataclysm? Political parties? Pop culture? Social Media? the Pope? Help me out here, Vinnie. What do we do?

    PS, Your final paragraph connects what you called your biggest concern (inequity) and mine (the climate). Looks like they grow from the same root..

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    • I wish I could provide an adequate answer to your question. Right now it seems as if effective action on climate change is unlikely to occur, but that is because the countries that contribute the most to the problem are unwilling to make the political choices necessary for change. But that is because the decision-makers believe that their power rests on the status quo. We are now experiencing climate change, but it is hard for citizens to appreciate how systemic the problems are and how they are inter-related. But as power begins to shift away from its hydrocarbon basis (fuels, automobiles, plastics) to more sustainable and renewable practices, decision-makers can be forced to change their perspective. Unfortunately the most intense period of that struggle comes at the point where the old system collapses. My hope is that we can make the changes before that point of crisis.

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  2. My hope is that Washington will see its way clear to some greening of domestic policy. Seems unlikely that a carbon tax is in the works, but it sure would be a step in the direction of accountability for our actions. Despite my aversion to the recent events in the capital, I believe non-violent protest and/or civil disobedience is called for, but I don’t see a clear path, or strategy on the part of the climate activists. I shudder at your statement that the decision-makers believe their power rests on the status-quo.

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