Humanity is living on the edge of ecological devastation. We confront many serious problems, especially the overuse of resources. As @SteveGenco identified in a story on Medium, you can see a short list of the resource challenges (the sources listed are his):
- Fossil fuels and minerals (source)
- Fish and seafood (source)
- Forest products (source)
- Land for livestock and food production (source)
- Biodiversity more generally (source, source, source)
- Fresh water (source)
- Food and grains (source, source, source)
- Building materials: (source, source)
We could add soil depletion, habitat destruction, acidification, and more. One can be forgiven if it gets a bit depressing.
The overwhelming nature of this list of problems leads many people to argue that the only way to solve our challenges is a total remake of the economic, social, and political systems on earth. They see these challenges as evidence of the truth of the theory of the limits to growth — the idea that humanity can “overshoot” the use of resources, and therefore the only solution is to overturn the system that requires ongoing growth to thrive — i.e., capitalism. Although I have no argument with the fact that there are enormous stresses in the ecology of the world, in this essay I want to debunk the idea that the only way forward is the overturning of capitalism. I especially want to debunk the notion that degrowth is viable in any meaningful or acceptable way.
Let’s begin by acknowledging depletion in the biosphere. For many decades, ecologists have known about depleting fisheries, the devastating impact of industrial forestry practices, eroding farm soils, potential species extinctions, and more. Management programs have been instituted with varying levels of success, as well as some total failures. The challenges are real and ongoing. In large part, the challenges have been traced to industrial-scale human activities that work with or exploit these resources. That scale has gotten bigger and bigger as populations have grown, hence increasing the pressure on the carrying capacity of an increasing number of places — indeed, of the entire globe.
Until recently, virtually all of this depletion was the result of overuse, over-exploitation, or as some advocates say, human overshoot. The fisheries, the forests, the agricultural land, and the water each had the capability of reproducing itself at a certain level. Earth had natural cycles of water, air movement, seasonal variations, and other systems that scientists came to understand and describe. Forests could regrow at a predictable rate. Fisheries could regenerate a certain amount of fish. This enables us to manage the harvest from such resources when we paid attention to managing them. When we didn’t, natural populations often collapsed because industrial harvesters took all they could get, which often outstripped that capacity to regrow. Harvest levels could be managed, but productivity was relatively stable and predictable.
Now, all that has changed. Why?
The answer is simple: climate change. Climate change has upended the equations we use to manage resources by affecting the one constant in the equation — ecological system productivity. Droughts are reducing the amount of water a river provides — like the Colorado River, the Po River, and the Yangtze River, for example. Unseasonable weather is allowing predators on trees, thereby changing the entire face of forests — like those in Minnesota where the black spruce has been decimated and millions of trees now stand dead and ready to burn, deep in the Superior National Forest. In Alaska, the snow crab population collapsed by 87.5% in three years making no level of harvest sustainable — all because the water temperature increased by two degrees. Salmon populations are decreasing for similar reasons, and the list goes on and on.
Modern industrial society had a chance at managing resources so long as the productivity of those resources varied within a relatively narrow band. Managers could predict supply, determine an amount to harvest that would enable regeneration, and harvests could be limited and sustained where good practices were used. But we are no longer in such a world. We can’t harvest any black spruce in northern Minnesota because they are all dead! We can’t harvest snow crabs in Alaska because there are hardly any left. Drought around the world is affecting the productivity of agriculture and the Great Barrier Reef is in a death spiral.
We need to look at these problems and understand that they are emergencies of the first order. They are indicators that far from the theory of the limits to growth, we are in a far worse situation — the carrying capacity of the earth is shrinking. Before the effects of climate change started, we were already stretching the earth’s capacity. With climate change, it is far, far worse. Climate change is shrinking that reproductive capacity. Supply is getting smaller, demand is getting higher, and when the earth’s supply shrinks beyond what humans need, we face catastrophe. Catastrophes will occur around the world in various places from time to time, and they are already happening. It is only going to get worse as climate change further shrinks the capacity of resources to regenerate and supply.
As mentioned previously, many people believe that degrowth and the overthrow of capitalism are the answers to both climate change and biosphere depletion. The argument goes that we simply need to use far less than we do today and get our use of earth’s resources to a level that is lower than its ability to regenerate. But as I have been outlining, there is a logical problem — the level of regeneration is continuing to fall. And it is falling because of climate change.
This is why climate change is the pre-eminent challenge of our time — way more than the associated resource depletion challenges. If you have a steady level of ecological productivity, you could theoretically shrink your way to stasis — that point where what humans take matches the sustainable reproductive capacity of the earth. It is a balance or steady state. But if that capacity continues to fall, as it is with unmitigated climate change, we could never shrink usage far enough to reach the balance point — except, perhaps, by way of an enormous shrinkage in the population of the earth, which is to say, mass death.
None of the challenges of biosphere resource depletion can be solved without fixing climate change. We need to stop emitting carbon and figure out how to get it out of the atmosphere. That means finding a way for the eight billion people on earth to heat, cool, cook, manufacture, move from place to place, and compute without burning stuff to do it. That is a technological problem, and the development of technology does not require the overthrow of capitalism. Failure to develop that technology and deploy it to stop climate change will make all depletion problems worse and will add to the misery and suffering of billions of people. If we stop climate change, we can work on the other things. If we do not stop climate change, we are participants in the destruction of humanity, and the other things will not matter.
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