Climate change is not the “core ecological problem” humanity faces, but just a symptom of the even bigger issue of ecosystem overshoot, Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute argues in a recent analysis.
“Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption, and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity,” Heinberg writes. “The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival.”
That means an “endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures” to counter climate change and other symptoms won’t be enough to address the underlying systemic imbalance.
Heinberg contends that climate change has overtaken a more systemic focus on environmental challenges, reflected in the writing and advocacy of the 1970s and the early 80s. “Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted,” he writes.
“It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.”
The broader solution lies in controlling human population numbers, reducing per capita consumption, and stepping away from “industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost,” he writes. And “once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage.”
But “machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path,” he stresses. Those changes will have to come from a “moral awakening” that Heinberg contrasts with the assumptions behind much of today’s climate advocacy.