Overshoot and our options for a livable future

Humankind is facing peak everything[1]; this dilemma is the manifestation of exceeding the ecological/planetary boundaries of the planet. We have hit the ‘Limits to Growth’ we were warned about in the 1970s[2]. Crucially, and often ignored, climate change is just one symptom of a wider ecological overshoot which includes biodiversity loss, collapse in ecosystems, soil depletion, fished out oceans, pandemics (like Coronavirus) and much more. To put this exceedance into numbers our current ecological footprint exceeds our global bio-capacity by more than 73%[3].

Here in New Zealand we are not immune to these threats. The human population reached levels of consumption that exceed the ability of the planet to sustain it long-term by using fossil fuels and fossil fuel derived synthetic nitrogen. When we started this, we stopped living in the present and began living off the past.

This massive change purported to be a ‘green revolution’ – a product of human ingenuity, was simply a massive increase in fossil energy to artificially increase food production. Notwithstanding the fact that it allowed planetary overshoot, this one-off subsidy from the past (fossil fuel) is close to its end as the ‘easy energy pickings’ rapidly diminish[4].

In New Zealand this ‘green revolution’ has been evidenced most starkly in the South Island in the last 30 years of extreme landuse change from low intensity farming to highly intensive fossil fuel and water dependent dairy farming. The changes were dependent on appropriating water from rivers and aquifers and adding nitrogen fertilser and resulted in a raft of cultural, ecological, and human health impacts.

This is New Zealand’s version of the global problem of the industrial production of reactive nitrogen said by the European Science Foundation to “represent perhaps the greatest single experiment in global geo-engineering that humans have ever made”[5].

There is now general acceptance that humankind must stop emitting carbon and thus stop using fossil fuels in the next few decades to have any hope to maintain the life-supporting-capacity of the planet. To be able to feed the burgeoning global population without fossil fuels and to stop emitting methane will require a drastic reduction in livestock (particularly ruminants) from human food and massive reductions in transporting and processing food. While this essential change will have many human and ecological health benefits it puts New Zealand in an extremely challenging position.

The future:

Logically and empirically it is impossible for perpetual economic and population growth to occur on a finite planet[6]. Thus, sustainable economic growth (an oxymoron) is not possible and empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions reveal the impossibility of “green growth”[7].

We have two options for the future: a planned, orderly contraction (de-growth) of our economy or we will have (and this has already begun) a far more disruptive contraction forced upon us by nature.

To have any hope of a future for mankind we must[8]:

  • Acknowledge that the economy is not separate from and is dependent on the biophysical environment.
  • Acknowledge the end of material growth and the need to drastically reduce the human ecological footprint.
  • Acknowledge that so long as we remain in overshoot, sustainable production/consumption means less production/consumption.
  • Admit that modern “renewable” energy options like wind turbines and solar panels are themselves dependent on fossil fuels and have no possibility of scaling up to replace current levels of fossil fuel powered lifestyles.
  • Recognise that equitable sustainability requires an economic levelling. There must be a redistribution of income, wealth, and opportunity. Greater equality is better for everyone.
  • Implement measures including pollution and resource depletion taxes to internalise costs and move society closer to full social cost pricing.

[1] https://richardheinberg.com/bookshelf/peak-everything

[2] https://advisory.kpmg.us/articles/2021/limits-to-growth.html

[3] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00708-4#Abs1

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3154242/

[5] the European Science Foundation Mark A. Sutton and Hans Van Grinsven, “European Nitrogen Assessment: Summary for Policy Makers,” 2011, http://www.nine-esf.org/files/ena_doc/ENA_pdfs/ENA_policy summary.pdf   

[6] https://escholarship.org/uc/energy_ambitions

[7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13563467.2019.1598964

[8] Adapted from https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508

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