A fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada is an honour that is not bestowed lightly, so readers can assume that Dr. William Rees, a 79 year-old retired professor from the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning has credibility. Age, experience and scholarship have given authority to his opinions. So his peer-reviewed publication in the August 2023 edition of the academic journal, MDPI, deserves attention.
The Human Ecology of Overshoot: Why a Major Population Correction Is Inevitable is a sobering analysis of the trajectory of human civilization as it continues to expand, as more and more people consume increasing amounts of the world’s finite resources, and as the resulting waste overwhelms the disposal capabilities of the ecosphere.
As Professor Rees reminds us, in the last two centuries our human population has increased from one to eight billion, and gross world product (GWP) has increased more than a hundred-fold. This system, he writes, “can grow and maintain itself only by consuming and dissipating available energy and resources extracted from its host, the ecosphere, and discharging waste back into its host. …We are consuming and polluting the biophysical basis of our own existence. Climate change is the best-known symptom of overshoot, but mainstream ‘solutions’ will actually accelerate climate disruption and worsen overshoot. Humanity is exhibiting the characteristic dynamics of a one-off population boom–bust cycle. The global economy will inevitably contract and humanity will suffer a major population ‘correction’ in this century.”
No one, of course, wants to consider this possibility, but the global reach of our information systems invite us to think expansively. We can’t consider dinosaurs, our paleolithic ancestors, and the exploration of our solar system without also considering who we are as a species, what are we collectively doing, and what are the ultimate consequences of this kind of human activity. Professor Rees is reflecting us in the mirror of reality, and posing the kind of questions that we are reluctant to ask.
He begins with three major premises. First, that our “Modern techno-industrial (MTI) society is in a state of advanced ecological overshoot.” In brief, it is consuming renewable resources faster than they can be replenished, it is accumulating waste more rapidly than the ecosphere can dispose of them, and it is rapidly consuming resources that are not renewable. Second, the combustion of fossil fuels constitutes “the most globally-significant ecological phenomena in 250,000 years of human evolutionary history, with major implications for life on Earth.” And third, “Homo sapiens is an evolving species, a product of natural selection, and [is] still subject to the same natural laws and forces affecting the evolution of all living organisms.”
The mystique of mythologies, religions and the recent successes of our modern techno-industrial society have conspired to give the impression that we are an exception to these “natural laws and forces”. But this confidence is being challenged by problems that don’t seem to have viable solutions. “The prospect of societal collapse,” writes Professor Rees, “however horrific it sounds to MTI ears, is perfectly consistent with history and the systems dynamics characterizing the rise and fall of previous human civilizations. In particular, many MTI nations are exhibiting the diminishing returns and socio-political pathologies—egregious and increasing inequality, government and institutional incompetence and corruption, currency debasement, popular loss of confidence in the state, increasing civil unrest, etc.—of an overly complex society on the verge of collapse.” These nations are also exhibiting “the potentially avoidable symptoms [of] ecological destruction, climate change, breakdown of trade and international relationships” because of our “inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing circumstances.” Given the information and the looming consequences, these are societies “apparently choosing to fail.”
These characteristics, Professor Rees suggests, are perfectly compatible with the historical rise and fall of past civilizations, and with the repetitive pattern of all living systems generally: initiation and exploitation, maturation and conservation, rigidification and collapse. They also fit the predictions of the 1972 Club of Rome/MIT study, Limits to Growth (LTG), “which showed that, on a business-as-usual track, global society would face collapse by mid-21st century.”
This assessment of overshoot has been rejected by economists who, according to Professor Rees, “grossly underestimate the damage from climate change” because of “concepts and models [that] are divorced from biophysical reality. However, subsequent studies show that the real world is behaving with disturbing fidelity to LTG modelling, particularly the two (of four) scenarios that indicate a halt in growth over the next decade or so, followed by subsequent declines and collapse.”
People without the expertise, experience and scholarship of Professor Rees can’t articulate the details and references that he supplies. But a collective mood of sobriety and concern is beginning to permeate societies everywhere. This angst expresses itself in populism, political polarities, mass migrations, amorphous suspicion, irrational skepticism and various forms of extremism. The optimism that should be provided by our amazing technological accomplishments is tinged with a collective uncertainty.
Is it possible that we subconsciously agree with the dire warnings of overshoot, that we have a sense of foreboding which we can’t clearly articulate, but can only express in a general uncertainty and cynicism. If this is the case, then our wisest strategy would be to confront reality directly, and do our best to avoid the worst.
Ray Grigg for Sierra Quadra
Top image credit: William Rees,Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning – Photo courtesy UBC