Modern society is ecologically dysfunctional: When cultural norms are radically anomalous, ‘normal’ is pathology and its solutions merely reproduce the problem.
As I watch the CoViD-19 saga unfold, I have to keep reminding myself that humans are short-sighted by nature. We are mostly concerned about whatever affects us right here and right now. (Economists say we ‘discount’ both future possibilities and distant events.) Moreover, as social animals, we ‘socially construct’ what we take to be real. Our cultural norms and narratives, religious doctrines, political ideologies, scientific paradigms, economic theories, etc., however deeply entrenched by social convention, are all essentially ‘made up’. Regrettably, many complex constructs do not faithfully represent important dimensions of the biophysical world.
If you think this is just academic babble, think again: the sobering fact is that humans necessarily live more out of their social constructs than they do from objective reality.
This, too, is fundamental human nature. Maturing individuals cannot help but acquire the foundational values, beliefs and narratives fashioned by the culture in which they grow up. Indeed, it is generally advantageous to do so – shared cultural norms contribute to a sense of belonging and thus to both group cohesion and individual identity.
So far so good, but in these turbulent times, it is worth reminding ourselves that that the pre-formed constructs – the cultural lenses – through which we perceive the world determine what kind of world we perceive.
Consider, then, that for the past half-century we inhabitants of techno-industrial society have been deliberately socially-engineered to be self-interested accumulators beholden to markets and fine-tuned to corporate economic goals. This ensures that we perceive efficiency as the ultimate value, perpetual growth (facilitated by advancing technology) as the primary objective, and GDP as the dominant measure of national well-being. In this framing, most people, led by government officials and policy wonks, perceive the CoViD-19 pandemic solely in terms of human health and its impact the national economy. Consistent with the prevailing vision, mainstream media call almost exclusively on physicians and epidemiologists, financiers and economists to assess the public health outcomes and economic consequences, respectively, of the viral outbreak.
Fair enough – rampant disease and looming recession are genuine immediate concerns; society has to cope with them.
That said, our narrow perceptual lens – further fogged by short-term panic – has blinded us to a more important reality: however horrific the CoViD-19 pandemic may seem, it is merely one symptom of gross human ecological dysfunction; the prospect of economic implosion is a secondary consequence. The overarching reality is that the human enterprise is in a state of overshoot; we are using nature’s goods and life-support services faster than ecosystems can regenerate. There are simply too many people consuming too much stuff. Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards. Gaian theory tells us that life continuously creates the conditions necessary for life; humanity has gone rogue, rapidly destroying those conditions.
When will the media call on systems ecologists to explain what’s really going on?
If they did, we might learn that the current pandemic is an inevitable consequence of human populations everywhere expanding into the habitats of other species with which we have had little previous contact (H. sapiens is the most invasive of ‘invasive species’); that it results from sometimes desperately impoverished people eating ‘bushmeat’, the flesh of wild species carrying potentially dangerous pathogens; that contagious disease is readily propagated because of densification and urbanization – think Wuhan or New York – but particularly (as we may soon see) because of the severe overcrowding of vulnerable people in the burgeoning slums and barrios of the developing world; that it thrives because three billion people still lack basic hand-washing facilities and more than four billion lack adequate sanitation services.
A population ecologist might even dare explain that, even when it comes to human numbers, whatever goes up must come down.
None of this is visible through our neoliberal economic lens. Prevailing myth notwithstanding, nothing in nature can grow forever. When, under especially favourable conditions any species’ population balloons, it is always deflated by one or several forms of negative feedback – disease, inadequate habitat, self-pollution, food shortages, resource scarcity, conflict over what’s left (war), etc., – i.e., various countervailing forces that are triggered by excess population itself.
True, in simple ecosystems certain consumer species may exhibit regular cycles of uncontrolled expansion. We sometimes refer to these outbreaks as ‘plagues’—think swarms of locusts or rodents. However, the plague phase of the cycle invariably ends in collapse as negative feedback once again gains the upper hand.
Bottom line? There are no exceptions to the 1st law of plague dynamics: the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse.
Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just two hundred years, (less than 1/1000th as much time) we blossomed to over seven billion at the beginning of this century. This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.)
The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, a human Petri dish on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in gross world product (consumption), is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence. Over-harvesting is depleting non-renewable resources; land degradation, pollution, and global warming are destroying entire ecosystems; biophysical life support functions are beginning to fail. With increasing real scarcity, growing extraction costs, and burgeoning human demand, the prices for non-renewable metal and mineral resources have been rising for 20 years (from historic lows at the turn of the century).  Meanwhile, petroleum, that most vital of depletable industrial resources, may have peaked in 2018 signalling the pending implosion of the oil industry (ironically abetted by falling demand and prices resulting from the CoViD-19 recession).
These are all signs of resurgent negative feedback. The explosion of human population and consumption is beginning to resemble the plague phase of what may turn out to be a one-off human population cycle. If we don’t manage a controlled contraction, chaotic collapse is inevitable.
Which brings us back to society’s restricted focus on CoViD-19 and the economy.
Listen to the news, to elected politicians, to economic and political pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wild-fires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, human expansion into wild-lands, etc., etc., and there is no hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic. Discussion in the mainstream focusses doggedly on defeating CoViD-19, facilitating recovery, restoring growth and otherwise getting back to normal. After all, “That is the paradigm: Treat the symptom to make the world safe for the pathology.”
Let that sink in: ‘Normal’ is the pathology.
The reason is simple. Humanity’s recent 200-year growth spurt – the period we take to be the norm – is arguably the most abnormal period in human history. The ecosphere is reeling from the human onslaught. There is no reasonable possibility of supporting even today’s 7.8 billion people indefinitely on the productivity of the only planet we have; current average levels of consumption are excessive, yet half the human family are still impoverished and three quarters of a billion live in extreme poverty (<$US 1.90/day). The socially-constructed notion that we can sustainably accommodate two or three billion more while maintaining ecosphere integrity is mass delusion.
In these circumstances, ending the current pandemic and returning to the economic ‘normal’, guarantees a repeat performance – there will be other pandemics, potentially worse than CoViD-19. (Unless, of course, some other form of negative feedback gets to us first – as noted, there is no shortage of potential candidates.)
Surely the time has come to reconsider what seems to have become a “self-terminating experiment with industrialism”. To avoid full-on negative feedback, we must stand back and re-focus. This means consciously overriding humans’ natural myopia, thinking generations ahead and abandoning our perpetual growth narrative. To thrive on planet Earth, society must acknowledge limits to human technological wizardry, accept biophysical constraints on material growth, and recognize that Earth is over-populated.
This last point stands out. The ‘population issue’ has long been taboo, but if we do not soon control our numbers there is little hope of a smooth transition to post-plague one-planet living.
To save itself, society must adopt an eco-centric lens. This would enable us to see the human enterprise as a fully dependent subsystem of the ecosphere. We need to script a new cultural narrative consistent with this vision, a grand strategy for a controlled contraction of the human population and global economy. We must reduce the human ecological footprint to eliminate overshoot – this is a curve that really needs flattening (See figure below.)
Our cultural re-set cannot end there. As medical supplies/equipment run out and supply chains stretch or break, people everywhere are becoming conscious of hazards associated with today’s increasingly unsustainable entanglement of nations. We will have much to celebrate if community self-reliance, resilience and stability are once again valued at least as much as interdependence, efficiency and growth. Specialization, globalization and just-in-time trade in vital commodities have gone too far; CoViD-19 has shown that future security may well reside more in local economic diversity. In times of crisis, nations will hoard vital commodities. (Right on cue on 3 April, one Donald Trump, president of Canada’s largest trading partner, began pressuring 3M to suspend exports of essential medical respirator masks to Canada and Latin America.) We need permanent policies for the re-localization of vital economic activities through a strategic approach to import displacement.
We might also build on the better side of human nature as ironically invigorated by our collective war on CoViD-19. In many places, society’s fear of disease has been leavened by a revived sense of community, solidarity, compassion, and mutual aid. Recognition that disease strikes the impoverished hardest and that the pandemic threatens to widen the income gap has renewed calls for a return to more progressive taxation and implementation of a national minimum wage. It also draws attention to the importance of the informal care economy – child rearing and elder care are often voluntary and historically subsidize our paid economy. And what about renewed public investment world wide in girls’ education, women’s health and family planning? Certainly individual actions are not enough. We are in a collective crisis that demands collective solutions.
To those still committed to the pre-CoViD-19 perpetual-growth-through-technology paradigm, economic contraction equates to unmitigated catastrophe. We can give them no hope but to accept a new reality.
Like it or not, we are at the end of growth – the pandemic will certainly induce a recession and possibly a global depression including a +/- 25% reduction in GWP. And there are good reasons to think that there can be no ‘recovery’ to pre-CoViD ‘normal’ even if we were foolish enough to try. Ours is/was a debt-leveraged economy. Thousands of marginal firms will be bankrupted; some will be bought up by others with deeper pockets (further concentrating wealth) but most will disappear; millions of people will be left unemployed, possibly impoverished without ongoing public support.
If it weren’t for fossil fuels’ complicity in climate change, the carnage in the oil patch would be particularly alarming. Energy prices have plunged, bankruptcies are surging, and investment in exploration and development has dried up. The US fracking industry is in bankruptcy shambles. Canada’s tar sands producers who need $US 25-$US 40/barrel to survive are being offered < $US 4.00/barrel, less than the price of a mug of beer. Meanwhile, oil production may have peaked and older fields upon which the world still depends are declining at 6%/yr.
And this heralds a future crisis: GWP and energy consumption have historically increased in lock-step; industrial economies depend utterly on abundant cheap energy. After the current short-term demand-drop surplus dries up, it will be years (if ever) before there is adequate new supply to replicate pre-pandemic levels of global economic activity—and there are no adequate ‘green’ substitutes. Much of the economy will have to be rebuilt-to-size in ways that reflect this emergent reality.
And this is a good thing. Herein lies the great opportunity to salvage global civilization. Clearing skies and cleaner waters should inspire hopeful ingenuity. Indeed, if we wish to thrive on a finite planet, we have little choice but to see the CoViD-19 pandemic as preview and our response as dress rehearsal for the bigger play. Again, the challenge is to engineer a safe, smooth, controlled contraction of the human enterprise. Surely it is within our collective imagination to socially construct a system of globally networked but self-reliant national economies that better serve the needs of a smaller human family.
- For starters see: https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/powellmemo/; https://billmoyers.com/content/the-powell-memo-a-call-to-arms-for-corporations/
- Estimated from data compiled by Global Footprint Network at https://data.footprintnetwork.org/?_ga=2.245797059.617818760.1585183023-1508465399.1522539523#/
- https://e360.yale.edu/features/quammen_the_next_pandemic_will_come_from_wildlife; https://www.bbc.com/news/health-51237225
- See for example: https://www.csiro.au/en/Research/Farming-food/Invasive-pests/Mouse-Census
- Gregory Bateson (1991) A Sacred Unity, p.296.
- https://srsroccoreport.com/chronology-of-collapse-global-oil-demand-plummets-threat-to-storage-capacity/; https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Goldman-The-Oil-Industry-Will-Never-Be-The-Same-After-Coronavirus.html
- https://economics21.org/inconvenient-realities-new-energy-economy; https://www.manhattan-institute.org/green-energy-revolution-near-impossible