Saturday, June 30, 2012


Climate Change or Overshoot: Which Emphasis?

Last week the Supreme Court upheld the authority of the EPA to regulate CO2 as a greenhouse gas, specifically citing it's key contribution to climate change in their ruling. Since the EPA is the only tool we have at the national level to slow climate change in a democracy badly broken by partisan division and weakened by the robust voices of anti-science, this is good news. However, it is neither a law nor a treaty, and its usefulness is limited by the degree to which the executive branch chooses to implement it. George Bush chose to ignore several EPA guidelines, and the EPA under Obama is hampered by the political climate. Under yet another Republican president who has repositioned himself against geophysical facts, this victory could prove hollow.

For over six years this blog has been dedicated to responding to the moral problems of global ecocrisis. I must confess that most of my posts have been focused on climate change, which has seemed to many environmentalists to be the key problem. Yet we have run up against the wall of resistance I discussed at length in my last post. Perhaps it is time to frame the ecocrisis differently.

Indeed, until the last few years, the crisis has been caused almost entirely by the repercussions of our species' overshoot, appropriating more than our share of the earth's bounty. The warnings began in 1972 with Limits to Growth, reinforced in 1982 with William R Catton's Overshoot, in which he lays out the looming problem with the deadly accuracy of an ace gunslinger. There are too many of us, taking too much from the earth for the bisophere to maintain itself. The predictions for BAU (Business as Usual) in Limits to Growth were remarkably accurate for research done on computers that were still the size of freight containers. In some cases, though, they were too benign. For instance, levels of aquatic life are now at only 25% of what they were in 1960, rather then the 40% that Limits researchers predicted.

The policy community's ghastly neologism for our colonization of the earth's biota is HANPP: human appropriation of net primary productivity. The key date, perhaps the most unappreciated in history, is 1985. In that year, HANPP was 100%. We have been using up the earth's biotic principal ever since, marked annually by announcing the day when we hit that number. This year, it's coming up fast: early September. Yes, we are now using 150% of the earths' annual productivity, and the richest one billion, which includes the “99%” in the US, appropriate 100%. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, activists and bankers alike.
But let's face it, we are all enmeshed in this overshoot scenario, and many, like the purveyors of fossil fuels, feel that their well-being depends on staying the course. It is the job of policy wonks and academics to look at the big picture, and even they have a difficult time with this, except in hindsight. Despite the tremendous opposition, both through disinformation and innuendo, from climate deniers, the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens is probably better fought over climate change, which is more recognizable than overshoot, though each of them looks different depending on your angle of reflection. And the solution for both is essentially the same: reduce, re-use, recycle. We need a rapid global convergence in which we rapidly reduce population growth and support sustainable economic development for the third world while stopping hyper-growth in the first world. A cardinal means for guiding this redirection of wealth and resources would be a global carbon tax. Read on for more...

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