How is it that the allegedly most intelligent and self-aware species on Earth is systematically destroying its own habitat, the only human-habitable planet in our solar system and the only planet most humans will ever know?
Several of the most important causal mechanism have come together to produce a global economic system whose conceptual framing, operating assumptions and de facto practices are pathologically incompatible with the very ecosystems that sustain it. In the circumstances, eco-destruction is inevitable.
REALITY as SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS?
Foundational cultural narratives and social norms may masquerade as reality but they are nevertheless products of the human mind, massaged or polished by social discourse and elevated to the status of received wisdom by custom or formal agreement. All cultural narratives, worldviews, religious doctrines, political ideologies, and academic paradigms are actually social constructs.
No matter how well- or ill-founded, entrenched social constructs are perceptual filters through which people interpret new data and information; and, because our constructs constitute perceived reality, they determine how we act out in the real world.
Let’s acknowledge that all economic theories/paradigms are elaborate conjectures and that none can contain more than a partial representation of biophysical, or even social, reality. If this is an important general limitation, we should be particularly concerned about today’s dominant neoliberal economic paradigm (the economics of capitalism). Neo-liberal models incorporate a stinted caricature of human behavior, virtually ignore socio-cultural dynamics and make no significant reference to the biophysical systems with which the economy interacts. While natural scientists experiment and subsequently adapt their models better to represent reality, economists, particularly those enamoured with the idea of a self-regulating (free) market, would have the real economy adapt to fit their models.
Ecology might be defined as the scientific study of the cooperative and competitive relationships that have evolved among organisms in ecosystems and how these relationships serve to allocate energy and material resources among constituent species. Similarly, economics might be defined as the study of economic behaviour and the efficient allocation of scarce resources among competing users in human society. The parallels are obvious; moreover, since humans are of the ecosphere, and the economy extracts resources (energy and materials) from the ecosphere, economics should arguably be a branch of human ecology. Regrettably, the conceptual foundations of the two disciplines have diverged since their beginnings.
Descartes’s mechanistic vision, including deterministic predictability, promised humans the ability to manipulate nature indefinitely toward their own ends. This scientific materialism provided the technical foundation of industrial society and helped entrench a new myth of human dominance over the natural world.
It also supplied a conceptual framing for modern economics. Contemporary neoclassical / neoliberal economics – which has enjoyed a remarkably uncritical sweep through the modern world over the past half century – finds its deepest roots in the concepts and methods of Newtonian analytic mechanics.
From a human ecological perspective, it ignores extraction/ (over)harvesting, various material transformations, and the eventual discharge of the entire material flow back into the ecosphere as degraded waste (pollution). More generally, neoliberal theory lacks any realistic representation of the energy and resource constraints, functional dynamics, social relationships, interspecies dependencies and time-dependent processes at the heart of ecosystems thinking.
A related equally problematic construct is neoliberal confidence that resources are more products of human ingenuity than they are of nature.
Neither is pollution a serious problem in the neoliberal paradigm. Economists define pollution damage costs not reflected in market prices as externalities – market imperfections – that society can internalize if it chooses to get the prices right, through investment in improved technology, better regulation or pollution charges (e.g., carbon taxes). This assumes – wholly unrealistically – that we can assign an accurate dollar value to ecological degradation.
In general, society accepts ecosystems degradation as a necessary trade-off against economic growth. We pollute in exchange for jobs or income and see the point at which to stop largely as a matter of negotiated public choice, i.e., there are no unanticipated tipping-points-of-no-return or other serious risks. Significantly, any social construct that conceives of the economy as a self-sustaining system and rationalizes pollution neatly frees the human enterprise for perpetual growth.
From the ecological perspective, human-induced global change is unambiguous evidence that our prevailing growth-based cultural narrative is seriously flawed. If we wish to re-construct the economy for sustainability our models must include a realistic representation of human behavioral ecology.
PRODUCT OF EVOLUTION
H. sapiens is a product of evolution and shares various adaptive genetic traits with other species. Species populations will expand exponentially, spread over the entire habitat, deplete their new resource base and finally collapse. H. sapiens is little different. Indeed, unless or until constrained by negative feedback (e.g., disease, starvation, self-pollution), human populations, like those of all other species, will expand into any accessible habitat and use all available resources – even at the risk of collapse (though in the case of humans collapse may be delayed since available is determined by the state of technology).
Evolutionary point: Individuals that employ strategies to secure the most suitable habitat and acquire the most essential resources, on average, survive longer and leave more viable offspring. Natural selection also generally favors individuals who are most adept at satisfying short-term selfish needs whether by strictly competitive or in-group cooperative means.
Humanity’s well-known tendency to favor the here-and-now (i.e., to discount future benefits and costs) has almost certainly evolved through natural selection (and is one ecologically-significant behavioral trait that has been incorporated into economic methods and models such as cost-benefit analysis).
Competition is clearly a major evolutionary driver. While not evident to modern urban-dwellers, humans compete, not only with other people, but also with other species for food and habitat. And we usually win – high intelligence and technology have ensured that H. sapiens’ capacity for habitat and resource domination vastly outstrip those of all other species. Our species has the greatest geographic range of any ecologically comparable organisms – we have occupied all suitable, and sometimes even hostile, habitats; in terms of energy use, biomass consumption, and various other ecologically significant indicators, human demands on their ecosystems dwarf those of competing species by ten to a hundredfold.
All species need energy to function and reproduce but most animals are restricted to the chemical energy they ingest in their food – endosomatic (within body) energy. Humans have an evolutionary leg up in their near-unique capacity to employ exosomatic (outside the body) energy to do additional work from harvesting food to engineering the international space station. Thus, the technological history of H. sapiens is crudely marked by increasing exosomatic energy use per capita. During the 20th Century H. sapiens’ maximum power success made our species not only the dominant ecological entity but also the major geological force changing the earth.
The global degradation accompanying this great acceleration underscores why the ecologically relevant flows through the economy are not economist’s circular money flows but rather the unidirectional transformations of energy and matter. These transformations are governed not by static mechanics but rather by thermodynamics, in particular the second law of thermodynamics (the entropy law). In simplest terms: every spontaneous change in an isolated system (one that cannot exchange energy or matter with its environment ) increases the entropy (randomness or disorder) of the system; more generally, every material transformation irreversibly degrades useable (high-grade) energy/matter to a more disordered, less available, entropic state.
The second law regulates all energy and material transformations in all subsystems of the ecosphere, including the human economy. This means that an expanding economic process is ultimately self-destructive: it feeds on useful energy/matter first produced by nature and returns it to the ecosphere as useless waste. A should-be-obvious corollary of second law is that all economic production is mostly consumption. Because of second law inefficiencies, the bulk of the energy/matter that enters the production process is emitted almost immediately as (often toxic) land air or water pollution; only a small fraction is embodied in marketable goods and services (and even this eventually joins the waste stream). Again, without reference to this one-way entropic throughput, it is virtually impossible to relate the economy to the environment, yet the concept is virtually absent from economics today.
Consistent with the second law, an isolated system becomes increasingly randomized and disordered with each successive internal transformation: energy dissipates, concentrations disperse and gradients disappear. Eventually, the system reaches at least local thermodynamic equilibrium, a state of maximum entropy in which nothing further can happen.
Real-world systems are evidently not sliding toward equilibrium. Living organisms and other complex systems self-organize in ways that resist the inexorable drag of the second law; they maintain themselves in high-functioning, low entropy, far-from-equilibrium states because they are open systems able to exchange energy/matter with their environments . Consider the ecosphere, a self-organizing, highly-ordered, multi-layered system of mind-boggling structural complexity represented by millions of distinct species, differentiated matter, and accumulated biomass. Over geological time, its biodiversity, systemic intricacy, and energy/material flows have been increasing – i.e., the ecosphere has been moving ever further from equilibrium. This may well be the measure of life. ‘Distance from equilibrium becomes an essential parameter in describing nature, much like temperature [is] in [standard] equilibrium thermodynamics’.
But there is a wrinkle. Systems biologists recognize that living systems exist in overlapping nested hierarchies in which each component system is contained by the next level up and itself comprises a chain of linked sub-systems at lower levels. Each sub-system in the hierarchy grows, develops and maintains itself by extracting usable energy and material (negentropy) from its environment, i.e., its host system one level up. It processes this energy/matter internally to produce and maintain its own structure/function and exports the resultant degraded energy and material wastes (entropy) back into its host. In short, living organisms maintain their local level of organization as far-from-equilibrium-systems at the expense of increasing global entropy, particularly the entropy of their immediate host system. All such self–organizing systems are called dissipative structures because they self-produce and thrive by continuously extracting, degrading and dissipating available energy/matter.
Modern interpretations of the Second Law powerfully inform thinking about sustainability. Both the economy and the ecosphere are self-organizing far-from-equilibrium dissipative structures – but with an important difference. Green plants (the producer components of the ecosphere) self-produce using photosynthesis to feed on an extra-planetary source of high-grade energy, the sun. They use this energy to reassemble carbon dioxide, water, a few mineral nutrients into energy-rich plant biomass upon which most other life depends. Photosynthesis is thus the thermodynamic engine of life, the most important productive process on Earth and the ultimate source of all bio-resources used by terrestrial and marine life, including the human economy. The animal (macro-consumers) and bacterial/fungal (micro-consumer / decomposer) components of ecosystems self-produce by feeding on plant biomass or on each other. Intra-systems negative feedbacks – e.g., predator-prey relationships, disease, temporary scarcities – keep populations of both producer and consumer organisms in check, so the whole system functions in a dynamic far-from-equilibrium steady-state . Significantly, after bacterial decomposition of dead organic matter, the material elements of life – oxygen, carbon, hydrogen and trace nutrients – recycle completely, perpetuating the system, while degraded energy dissipates off the planet. In short, the ecosphere, an extraordinary assembly of self-perpetuating local order, exists at the expense of increased entropy elsewhere in the universe.
By contrast, the human enterprise (human metabolism plus industrial metabolism) functions as a rogue super-consumer. As a fully-contained, growing, sub-system of the non-growing ecosphere, industrial society self-produces by over-exploiting that same ecosphere, super-charged by fossil fuels and a maximum power imperative. Moreover, technology has – at least temporarily – eliminated negative feedback, so growth of the human sub-system is unconstrained. Global society thus elevates itself to a highly-ordered, intricately-structured far-from-equilibrium non-steady state by consuming energy/matter extracted from its supportive ecosystems at an ever-increasing pace, and dissipating a growing torrent of entropic waste energy/matter back into the ecosphere. Much of the waste stream is non-recyclable previously unknown synthetics, often toxic or otherwise hostile to life. In short, the admittedly spectacular local order represented by the human enterprise is purchased at the expense of the entropic disordering of the ecosphere. Consider a final relevant aspect of complex systems dynamics. Both theoretical and empirical studies reinforce the idea that the interaction of the simple laws of physics, chemistry and biology can produce extraordinarily complex systems behaviour. Indeed, complexity theory projects a view of nature that, while basically deterministic, is relentlessly non-linear and full of surprises.
Dynamical systems such as the climate and ecosystems are governed by strict rules such that the state of the system at any point in time unambiguously determines the future state of the system. Theoretically, then, if we know the rules and the precise state of a system right now, we should be able to predict what it will look like at any point in the future. In a model system, this simply requires performing an iterative sequence of calculations; the outcome of each iteration determines the subsequent state (which is the starting point for the subsequent iteration).
In modeling many real-world phenomena, however, analysts find that the state of the model after just a few iterations bears no evident relationship to its corresponding external reality. The interplay of even strictly deterministic laws generates patterns of behaviour that are inherently unpredictable even with near-perfect knowledge of the initial state of the system. Complex systems dynamics ensures that the smallest of measurement errors (or seemingly negligible differences in starting conditions) feed back and are amplified with each iteration. This means that eventually any inaccuracy will confound the model – the tiniest, unavoidable, measurement error can render even a perfect construct useless in predicting real-world systems behavior much in advance.
The general problem is called sensitive dependence on initial conditions and the behaviour it produces in both models and real systems – even simple ones – is called chaos. With vastly increased computing power, analysts have shown that chaos is everywhere. It is just as common as the nice simple behavior so valued by traditional [simple mechanical] physics. Chaos explains why even the best computer models cannot predict the weather next week with complete confidence.
A second related relevant phenomenon is the unexpected, dramatic (i.e., catastrophic) change that can occur in previously stable systems under stress. Key variables of complex systems, including ecosystems, may range considerably within broad domains or basins of stability (e.g., the mean surface temperature on Earth has varied within a few degrees of 15 degrees Celsius for tens of millions of years). Within these domains, a variable will normally tend to converge toward a centre of gravity called an attractor. Initially modellers conceived of attractors as predictable single equilibria (point attractors) or as repeating cycles (periodic attractors). A chaotic systems variable, however, may trace a complex pattern of individually unpredictable paths that collectively define a strange attractor as internal feedback continually changes the system’s internal dynamics. A chaotic system will nevertheless retain its overall structure and behaviour as long as key variables remain under the influence of their customary attractors.
And therein lies a potential problem. Although not evident from any previous history, dynamical systems may be characterized by several attractors separated by unstable ridges or bifurcation points. Catastrophe occurs when a key systems variable, driven by some persistent pressure, is displaced far from its usual attractor. If the variable reaches a bifurcation or tipping-point (the top of a ridge), it may be captured by an adjacent attractor (valley) instead of returning to its familiar domain. There will be large discontinuous breaks in the system’s behaviour; its characteristics and quality change dramatically.
Such catastrophic collapse may result from incrementally small changes in key variables. As pressure builds, a final marginal change in temperature, pressure, population, or (?), may flip the whole system into a new stable domain, a different attractor. Most significantly, the new domain may be hostile to human interests and there is no guarantee that the system will ever return to its former state.
As the dominant force in global ecological change, humans may well be driving key biophysical variables toward unknown strange attractors.
Our dominant econo-cultural narrative of perpetual growth and ever-progressing technology sees the natural environment as little more than a static aesthetic backdrop to human affairs. It relies on analytic models based on reductionist assumptions about resources, people, firms, and technology that bear little relationship to their counterparts in the real world; in effect, society views the economy as a separate system functioning independently of the ecosphere.
This is simplistic, unreformed, compartmentalised thinking stuck on mechanical market levers and technology to solve, by example, the climate problem and maintain the growth-based status quo.
An ecological framing raises important questions that would not occur to growth-bound economy: What is the probability that the ecosphere can withstand another doubling of human energy/material demand as is expected before mid-century? Can we devise new social constructs that override rather than reinforce peoples’ innate expansionist tendencies and selfish myopia? What might be done globally to avoid resultant tipping points and systemic collapse?
Recognize that the era of material growth will soon end either through systems implosion or a planned descent. The world community should:
- Acknowledge that collapse is a finite possibility and the usual outcome for societies whose leaders ignore evidential warning signs or are too corrupt or incompetent to act accordingly;
- Admit the theoretical simplicity and conceptual flaws in neoliberal market economics and capitalist expansionism;
- Embrace the need to socially construct a new foundation for economics that is consistent with bio-physical reality, beginning with today’s emergent ecological economics;
- Recognize that humans are bio-ecological beings, the most ecologically significant entity in all Earth’s ecosystems and subject to ecological and biophysical principles;
- Acknowledge that economic behaviour and processes qualify economics as a branch of human ecology;
- Accept that the human enterprise is a fully-contained dependent sub-system of the non-growing ecosphere;
- Abandon relatively mechanical, linear, single equilibrium models for more dynamic, non-linear multiple equilibrium constructs of the integrated human eco-economic system;
- Forge economic theory that is consistent with the physical, chemical, and bio-ecological concepts governing both economic and ecological material transformations in the ecosphere;
- Accept the limitations of technology – in general, natural capital and manufactured capital are complements, not substitutes; some forms of natural capital are essential and non-substitutable;
- Accept that there are biophysical limits to growth that may not be evident and whose location (tipping points) may be shifting with changes in both natural conditions and exploitation rates;
- Acknowledge that no economy that grows or even maintains itself by depleting essential capital is sustainable;
- Shift the primary emphases of economic planning from quantitative growth and efficiency (getting bigger) toward qualitative development and equity (getting better).
- Acknowledge that the vast majority of humans will never leave this planet and that species survival depends on maintaining the functional integrity of the ecosphere.
- Key controlling variables must remain within the historic basins of attraction [stability domains] that enabled human evolution and the emergence of civilized existence;
- Understand that (un)sustainability is a collective problem requiring collective solutions and an unprecedented level of international cooperation, sacrifice and sharing;
- Commit to devising and implementing policies consistent with a one Earth civilization;
- Establish as overall goal an ecologically stable, economically secure steady-state society whose citizens live more or less equitably within the biophysical means of nature.
- Accept that today’s gross and growing income/wealth inequality is a major barrier to sustainability and that one-Earth living requires mechanisms for fair redistribution;
- Recognize that a one-earth life-style for 7.3 billion people -and growing- requires that humans learn to thrive on the biocapacity of the Earth -supported by technology-;
- Begin the public cultural, social and economic discussions and formal planning necessary to reduce fossil energy and material consumption (economic throughput) immediately.
It is time for the world to admit that continued adherence to prevailing socially-constructed illusions risks fatal catastrophe. Untransformed, our present system will crash. Effective planetary stewardship must be achieved quickly, as the momentum of the Anthropocene threatens to tip the complex Earth System out of the cyclic glacial-interglacial pattern during which Homo sapiens has evolved and developed.
There is certainly no easy solution to humanity’s econo-ecological predicament and without an agreed emergency plan for cooperative action there may be no solution at all.