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Ecological and Financial Overshoot

“The things they be sayin’,

got you down
The things they be sayin’

got you so down
But lyin’ and delayin’,

ain’t no way to be playin’
When the things they be sayin’

got you down”

 

The global market economy, a tsunami wave we collectively created but cannot seem to control, is now driving humankind beyond the limits of environmental planetary boundaries.

 

In recent years, thousands of scientists from across all but ten countries have been unified in their warnings to humanity.

 

Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, we are facing widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.

 

On a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate: rising CO2 emissions; declining available freshwater; and increasing numbers of ocean dead zones from artificial fertilizer runoff.

 

Concerned scientists fear that time is running out — soon it will be too late to shift course away from an ominous failing trajectory.

 

This global economic juggernaut is driven by the theoretical construct and practice of global finance. Though we are currently in ecological overshoot, we are in even greater financial overshoot.

 

Clearly, a perpetually growing economy will at some point be in conflict with a finite biosphere, and so too will global finance.

 

Free trade coupled with capital mobility has disrupted macroeconomic stability by permitting huge international payment imbalances and financial capital transfers resulting in debts that are not repayable in many cases and excessive in others.

 

Efforts to service these financial debts have led to unsustainable rates of exploitation of exportable resources, government budget deficits, and monetary creation with resulting inflation.

 

Inflation begets currency devaluations, foreign exchange speculation, capital flight, and ultimately disruption of the macroeconomic stability of the debtor nation.

But with a few notable exceptions such as land-rich Russia and Canada, many developed countries are in fact ecological debtors that require the biocapacity of others, either through imports or land leasing.

 

The resulting ecological and financial overshoots are particularly insidious phenomena because of their relatively slow feedback loops.

 

In overshoot, human civilization keeps taking out bigger and bigger overdrafts from our ecological and financial ‘accounts.’ We treat these funds as ‘income’ and celebrate our continuing progress. In the end, of course, the well runs dry and it’s game over.

 

Tragically, the perceived risks in abandoning ‘gray’ and ‘brown’ economic sectors for the promise of more fulfilling jobs in an emerging ‘green’ economy remain untenable for the many workers, because their immediate financial stability is vested in the neoliberal global growth economy.

 

In the current context of high consumer debt, low savings, high cost-of-living, and job insecurity — all the products of late stage capitalism — public enthusiasm for risky systemic change is understandably low.

 

So the material insecurity created by the current neoliberal capitalist system binds people to it.

 

Long-term well-being and biospheric integrity are traded off in myriad daily choices — a tyranny of small, local, immediate decisions — that favor short-term individual satiation, family and household stability, and in more extreme cases, basic survival.

 

In time, large and horrific ecological consequences may come from the aggregate effect of innumerable individual actions reflecting ‘respectability,’ good intentions, and genuine concern for home and family.

~~~

 

At this point in the conversation, I couldn’t resist the temptation to break in with a song I had written a few years back, at a time when the debate over man-made ‘climate change’ — climate destabilization, more accurately — was peaking as a result of our unregulated, free market, ‘no-alternative’ corporate capitalist economic policies.

 

I struck a loud, assertive opening blues chord to interrupt the flow of conversation and then sang out:

 

The things they be sayin’, got you down
The things they be sayin’ got you so down
But lyin’ and delayin’ ain’t no way to be playin’
When the things they be sayin’ got you down

 

You say that you still have so much doubt
Yeah you say that the jury is still out
But no one is buyin’, when for money, you be lyin’
The things they be sayin’ got you down

 

You say that the Sun is to blame
You say the Sun has rigged the game
But Sun’s been a-lazin’, while temp’s been a-raisin’
The things they be saying got you down

 

You say what they sayin’ ain’t so clear
You say what they sayin’ ain’t so near
But ain’t you been out
Seen them floods, storms, and droughts
The things they be sayin’ got you down

 

You say the time is much too late
You say that the burden is much too great
But have you no notion, ‘bout people in motion

The things they be sayin’ got you down

 

The things they be sayin’, got you down
The things they be sayin’ got you so down
But lyin’ and delayin’, ain’t no way to be playin’
When the things they be sayin’ got you down

 

Jack loved the tune,

 

“Right on, Rico.”

 

Clara sneered and responded,

 

“If we are changing the climate through our actions on this planet, then it is simply God’s will. Let it be; He’s in control.”

 

Tucker chimed in mockingly, raising a shaky glass as he said,

 

“I’ll drink to that! All the more reason to party hardy until the End Times. Care to party with me, Clarita?”

 

Clara fired back, clearly annoyed at his cutting sarcasm, but not altogether immune from his raw sex appeal,

 

“There’s a special place for people like you, Tucker.”

 

Julie added,

 

“You know the pope just put out an important church teaching in his recent encyclical about caring for the environment and the poor. He says that our planet is beginning to look more and more like an ‘immense pile of filth.’ Isn’t he telling us that it is our responsibility to care for the environment, Clara?”

 

Paul supported her with,

 

“Yeah, Pope Francis’s words really rocked the boat for many Catholics. He’s saying that we have come to see ourselves as lords and masters of the Earth, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence and callousness we have in our hearts is directly reflected in the sickness of our soils, our water, our air and in all forms of life. I tend to agree with that. We are really pushing limits here.”

 

Clara fired back,

 

“Well, don’t assume this pope is not being manipulated by the devil! Who knows what the real agenda is here — perhaps this very influential pope is in on a grand conspiracy to pave the way for a One-World tyrannical government that will surely take away all our God-given freedoms — and our guns!”

 

Jack could no longer stay silent,

 

“C'mon Clara, there is no devil, only ignorance. Anthropogenic climate change is being ridiculed … and denied … and violently opposed, just like what happened with the theory of gravity, the heliocentric solar system, the theory of relativity, quantum physics, … you name it. Sure enough, soon it will be described as obvious and ‘self-evident.’ We’ve been here many times before. And the longer we keep lyin’ and delayin’ — courtesy of the well-funded ‘disinformation’ campaigns of the real devils in our society — the worse our predicament is going to get. We are becoming ever more ‘productive’ at burning fossil fuels to convert high-value natural resources into low-value waste in manic pursuit of continuous economic growth. We pat ourselves on the back for our cleverness and ingenuity. But we are only moving ever closer, at an accelerating rate, toward a global ecological disaster. It’s collective insanity. This Great Burning has to end.”

 

Tucker couldn’t resist the chance to school the naive treehugger on the realities of the ruthless shark-tank corporate capitalist world he swam in so naturally,

 

“Oh you’re just bitter because you Earth-huggin’ scientists will never get rich from the work you do. Society rewards with great wealth that which it values. Scaring people with disaster scenarios ain’t gonna change that. Fire made us human. Fossil fuels made us modern, wealthy, and powerful. Deal with it, man!”

 

Lua calmly interjected,

 

“Yes, Mister Tucker, but now we need a new ‘fire’ that keeps us — and future generations of all species on this Good Earth — safe, healthy, and secure. ‘Business As Usual’ — continuing to pursue the relentless growth paradigm that has dominated economic policy since the end of World War II, or a slightly more environmentally sensitive version of the model promising ‘green growth’ — will surely take us over an ecological cliff, with the second option only moving us along toward that tragic fate at a more relaxed, feel-good pace. Our management of energy resources has been based too much upon short-term market considerations, excessive discounting of the interests of future generations — a sort of ‘slow violence’, intergenerational theft — and too little sensitivity to either intergenerational equity or intragenerational justice. We must not let appetites for excessive material consumption today blur our sensitivity to the conditions essential for moral and sustainable development. Industrial technology has more than succeeded in addressing the core desires of what are proving to be insatiable human appetites for consumption. This process generates flows of materials and energy far in excess of the capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems to assimilate the outflows sustainably. Brakes are needed. Economic incentives must be applied to limit these flows and keep them at sustainable levels.”

 

Lua cited mounting evidence of the futility and harmfulness of high-consumption lifestyles.

 

For example, there is little correlation between income level and happiness beyond a relatively low income threshold.

 

And increased stress related to work and debt, and diseases related to diet and lifestyle, make consumer culture problematic.

 

Material consumption beyond practical need is effectively a ‘sugar high’ that only satisfies for the moment and ultimately leads to depression. It doesn’t take long for hedonic adaptation and social anxiety to kick in and erase any momentary gains in feelings of happiness, status, brand membership, and success.

 

High income levels also exhibit similar characteristics of diminishing returns on well-being.

 

Recent studies suggest well-being tends to correlate strongly with health, level of education, family time, time in Nature, and engagement in community.

 

Happiness does not increase appreciably with increasing income beyond a fairly low threshold. The added stress of high-income lifestyles erases many gains and even results, in some cases, in dramatically lower levels of overall health and well-being.

 

Lua believed that any new economic system must resurrect ancestral wisdom from the past and blend in the multidisciplinary systems sciences of today in order to provide the next generation with a realistic democratically generated shared vision and plan for a just, desirable, and sustainable future for all.

 

But to envision effectively, it is necessary to accurately identify genuine deep desires, not what we tend to settle for: a fancy car when one really wants self-esteem, drugs when one really wants serenity, medicine when one really wants health, and GDP growth when society really wants sustained well-being.

 

What is particularly important is the clarity of values in the vision and acknowledging the very real biophysical constraints of a limited biosphere.

 

This values-based vision must bridge racial, ethnic, religious, and gender divides; acknowledge social injustices past and present, such as stolen Indigenous lands and stolen African people; and radically re-direct our efforts to begin the long process of healing the planet rather than perpetuating destabilizing wars and obscene outflows of life-choking industrial waste.

 

Any new economic system must offer navigational instruments and policies to achieve a balanced working of the human economy within Earth’s ecological capacities without destroying the global ecosystem — in which we are embedded — and on which we ultimately depend.

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​© 2019 Rich 'Rico' Leon