The pandemic is a big problem. Climate change is an even bigger problem. But the meta-problem is ecological overshoot.
Plagues and heat waves — along with plunging biodiversity, fisheries collapses, soil and land degradation, land water and sea pollution, resource shortages, etc. — are mere symptoms of a much greater planetary malaise. Ecological overshoot means there are way too many people using vastly too much energy and material resources and dumping too much waste.
In more technical terms, humanity’s consumption of even renewable resources and our production of wastes exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities respectively of the ecosphere. This is the biophysical definition of “unsustainable,” and a harbinger of pending systems collapse.
Avoiding the collapse of one’s civilization would seem to be job one for political leaders. And yesterday they received yet another “code red” reminder of what is stake from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Yet few politicians have even heard of overshoot. Concern about its implications has yet to penetrate economic and developmental policy circles.
It therefore seems fair to ask: what accounts for such political deafness? One obvious earplug is the neoliberal economics dominant in the world today. Its adherents assume that:
- The economy is separate from, and can function independently of, the biophysical “environment.”
- Important relationships between variables change predictably and if they deviate from desirable comfort zones, can be reversed.
- The “factors of production” (finance capital, natural capital, manufactured capital, human capital) are near-perfect substitutes. For example, human ingenuity — technology — can make up for any potentially limiting natural resource.
- Damage to ecosystems or human communities (i.e., intangible factors not reflected in market prices) are mere “externalities,” tolerable if they don’t impede growth.
For anyone working from these assumptions, it is a small step to the conviction that economic growth can continue indefinitely.
But there is a suicidal flaw in this mode of thinking. A model can succeed only to the extent that it faithfully “maps” any aspect of reality it purports to represent. This has been formally stated as Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety: The variety (i.e. internal complexity) of a control system must be at least as great as the variety of the system it is supposed to control. A regulatory system has “requisite variety” only if it has a repertoire of adaptive responses at least equivalent to the range of challenges posed by its environment.
The flip side is even more compelling: if the variety or complexity of the environment (ecosphere) exceeds the capacity of the regulatory system, then the environment will dominate and ultimately destroy the system.
If you don’t find this alarming, then you, like our politicians, haven’t been paying attention.
The world’s great economic powers are currently trying to run the world using simple-minded economic models that contain no useful information about the unfathomable complexity and the non-linear and often irreversible behavioural properties of the ecosystems — or even the social systems — with which the economy interacts in the real world. Our management/control system utterly fails the test of requisite variety. It is incompetent to fly the planet.
Let’s take the example of the climate crisis and response to date. The world has blown the opportunity to limit global warming to below 1.5 C and will likely top the IPCC’s dangerous 2.0 C limit before mid-century. Watch for record heat waves, unprecedented wildfires, food shortages, forest dieback. Imagine the geopolitical implications of a billion environmental migrants by 2050. Even more than now, there will be popular unrest, geopolitical strife.
Canada is literally adding fuel to the fire. We are among the world’s highest per capita carbon dioxide emitters and on our current path have no chance of meeting the nation’s modest emissions reduction targets.
Meanwhile Jonathan Wilkinson, federal minister of Environment and Climate Change, blindly asserts that while climate change is our “biggest long-term threat… it is also the biggest economic opportunity” — for material growth, of course.
Should we be surprised that at least one prominent Canadian climate scientist has proclaimed, “We’re screwed, it’s our fault, it’s going to get worse and there is nothing we can do about it.”
The once and future economy
Actually, there is something we could do about it, but the changes necessary go beyond anything any government anywhere has contemplated. What would “getting serious” about the survival of civilization look like? We need a new way of being on Earth in which people can enjoy emotionally satisfying, materially sufficient lives in community without wrecking the planet.
There are many possible options, but one workable form of a new adaptive civilization might be a network of eco-regional communities and economies supporting many fewer people thriving more equitably within the regenerative capacity of local ecosystems. Like all other species, human beings must become contributing members of the ecosystems that support them.
To begin the transition, senior governments should work with local authorities to:
- Formally recognize the end of material growth and the need to reduce the human ecological footprint.
- Acknowledge that while humanity remains in overshoot, sustainable production and consumption means absolutely less production and consumption.
- Understand that our growth economy is utterly dependent on abundant cheap energy, which is coming to an end.
- Admit that modern renewables — wind turbines, solar panels, hydrogen — are not renewable, are themselves dependent on fossil fuels and have virtually no possibility of quantitatively replacing fossil fuels even by 2050, if ever.
- Recognize that equitable sustainability requires an economic levelling; that is, fiscal and other regulatory mechanisms to ensure redistribution of income, wealth and opportunity among and within countries. Greater equality is better for everyone.
- Enact polices that lead, fairly and without coercion, to a smaller global population, such as education, access to birth control, and economic independence for women. The challenge is great, given that models show about two billion people could live comfortably indefinitely within the biophysical means of nature.
- Implement measures including pollution and resource depletion taxes to internalize costs and move society closer to full social cost pricing. This would blunt current steeply rising levels of consumption in the developed world, the greatest contributor to overshoot.
As noted, this implies a whole new worldview. Capitalism and its handmaiden neoliberal economics elevated growth and efficiency: getting bigger, faster. Instead, the new eco-economy must promote true development and greater social equity: getting better fairly.
Other values essential for long-term economic security, social well-being and ecological stability include a renewed respect for nature, loyalty to place, community cohesion, regional self-reliance and local economic diversity. The cult of cowboy individualism cannot solve what is a collective problem.
Above all, the new economy-nature relationship must be regenerative. Local economies should be embedded in community and this (re)union in turn should become an integrated, mutualistic component of its sustaining ecosystems.
Dubious of the lure of re-localization? There is also a push factor. Globalization and unfettered trade — i.e., dependence on distant ‘elsewheres’ for food and many other resources — will no longer be possible in the emerging energy-constrained world. Abandoning fossil fuels to avoid catastrophic climate change means dramatic cutbacks in the energy available for long-distance transportation.
There is an upside: globalized ‘free’ trade in the past half century greatly accelerated resource over-exploitation, global pollution and population growth — it is a principal driver of the overshoot we are trying to avoid. Adaptive eco-economies must therefore be more self-reliant eco-centric local economies.
Agriculture, forestry and essential light manufacturing — e.g., food processing, textiles, clothing, furniture, tools — will all be re-localized, providing ample meaningful employment. There will be a resurgence of personal skills — “butchers, bakers, and candle-stick makers” — and pride in workmanship.
As an immediate additional benefit, when citizens become acutely aware of their dependence on local ecosystems they become more actively concerned about the state of those systems.
Still not convinced? Consider that the “ecological footprints” of modern cities — the ecologically productive land and water area required to support contemporary urban lifestyles — are typically several hundred times larger than the cities’ physical or political areas. The products of these distant hinterlands are conveyed to cities by fossil-powered ships, planes and trucks.
In the U.S., for example, more than 80 per cent of towns and cities are provisioned only by trucks; heavy duty diesel-powered Class 8 trucks haul 70 per cent of the nation’s freight. Even if 100 per cent electrification were possible (it’s not), the extreme demands of heavy-duty haulage ensure that all-electric or hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion is not an option.
The inevitable conclusion: In the absence of abundant cheap portable energy, it will not be possible to provision large cities and megacities. Many urban populations will have to be dispersed and redistributed.
Consistent with the re-localization imperative, the following policies/objectives would reconfigure present settlement patterns into more functionally self-contained human econo-ecosystems. National governments should:
- Begin the creation of national subsystems of self-reliant bioregions or eco-regions centred on existing smaller cities with boundaries based on ecologically meaningful land forms and biophysical features, for example, watersheds or heights of land.
- Size each urban-centred eco-region, initially, to contain where possible, a productive ecosystem area or land bank equivalent to its population’s currently globally dispersed supportive hinterland; i.e., internalize their de facto “eco-footprints.” There will be insufficient domestic land or water in many regions, forcing recognition of the need for lower levels of material consumption, more efficient lifestyles and a reduction in population.
- Re-localize government services and decision-making authority. For example, devolving sufficient governance and taxation powers to the new urban bioregions to enable effective management of their internal resources and ecosystems.
- Organize the regional economy and commerce to sustain the population as much as possible on domestic bio-resources, ecosystems and local manufacturing, thus reducing reliance on trade. There will still be some trade, but imports should be restricted to true necessities that cannot be produced locally and exports should be limited to bio-resources in true eco-surplus.
- Facilitate the organization of producer and consumer co-ops — every working person should have a genuine stake in the eco-economy. The ratio of highest paid management to average worker compensation should be no greater than 5:1, the average for Spain’s well-known Mondragon co-operatives. The ratio of CEOs’ to shop-floor workers’ compensation in capitalist society currently is up to hundreds to one.
- Allocate any remaining carbon budget (there may be none) to absolutely essential uses in agriculture and transportation. Invest in truly renewable energy sources: mechanical wind and water power; managed biomass, and in technologies making efficient use of human and animal labour.
- Facilitate breeding programs to supply the draft horses and mules that will be needed to work the land, particularly in agriculture, as fossil-fuelled technologies are phased out.
- Reintegrate animal husbandry and crop agriculture to maximize the potential for nutrient recycling because artificial fertilizers will be in limited supply.
- Re-design urban waste management to convert settlements from resource-depleting throughput systems into self-sustaining circular-flow ecosystems.
- Invest in natural capital restoration; regenerate depleted soils, degraded landscapes, wooded areas and other wildlife habitats to promote biodiversity, enhance regional productivity, increase carbon sink capacity and mitigate climate change.
- Recognize that governance of regional ecosystems and landscapes for the common good will sometimes require stinting customary private property rights. Importantly, citizens who realize that their security depends on maintaining the integrity of local ecosystems have an incentive to support such measures.
As I said, there is plenty that could be done to reinvent civilization for the long term. Admittedly, it would have been advantageous to have begun the process 50 years ago. We have a lot of catching up to do. Until then, the world sleepwalks into catastrophe.
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Powell meets a changed economy: Fewer workers, higher prices – 95.7 News
WASHINGTON (AP) — Restaurant and hotel owners struggling to fill jobs. Supply-chain delays forcing up prices for small businesses. Unemployed Americans unable to find work even with job openings at a record high.
Those and other disruptions to the U.S. economy — consequences of the viral pandemic that erupted 18 months ago — appear likely to endure, a group of business owners and nonprofit executives told Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell on Friday.
The business challenges, described during a “Fed Listens” virtual roundtable, underscore the ways that the COVID-19 outbreak and its delta variant are continuing to transform the U.S. economy. Some participants in the event said their business plans were still evolving. Others complained of sluggish sales and fluctuating fortunes after the pandemic eased this summer and then intensified in the past two months.
“We are really living in unique times,” Powell said at the end of the discussion. “I’ve never seen these kinds of supply-chain issues, never seen an economy that combines drastic labor shortages with lots of unemployed people. … So, it’s a very fast changing economy. It’s going to be quite different from the one (before).”
The Fed chair asked Cheetie Kumar, a restaurant owner in Raleigh, North Carolina, why she has had such trouble finding workers. Powell’s question goes to the heart of the Fed’s mandate of maximizing employment, because many people who were working before the pandemic lost jobs and are no longer looking for one. When — or whether — these people resume their job hunts will help determine when the Fed can conclude that the economy has achieved maximum employment.
Kumar told Powell that many of her former employees have decided to permanently leave the restaurant industry.
“I think a lot of people wanted to make life changes, and we lost a lot of people to different industries,” she said. “I think half of our folks decided to go back to school.”
Kumar said her restaurant now pays a minimum of $18 an hour, and she added that higher wages are likely a long-term change for the restaurant industry.
“We cannot get by and pay people $13 an hour and expect them to stay with us for years and years,” Kumar said. “It’s just not going to happen.”
Loren Nalewanski, a vice president at Marriott Select Brands, said his company is losing housekeepers to other jobs that have recently raised pay. Even the recent cutoff of a $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement, he said, hasn’t led to an increase in job applicants.
“People have left the industry and unfortunately they’re finding other things to do,” Nalewanski said. “Other industries that didn’t pay as much perhaps … are (now) paying a lot more.”
Christopher Rugaber, The Associated Press
Dialogue NB Seeks To Rebuild An Inclusive Economy Through Conversation – Huddle – Huddle Today
MONCTON – Dialogue NB CEO Nadine Duguay-Lemay says the business community has an integral place in a conversation about building a more equal and just New Brunswick.
That very conversation will take place on September 27 in Moncton with Dialogue Day 2021.
“When we talk about anti-racism, notions of equality, diversity, acceptance and inclusion and all those notions we celebrate, it’s not something we can do on our own,” said Duguay-Lemay.
“The business community actively needs to participate, if anything, because those topics concern them. That’s why you see so many business support the event.”
The volunteer-led non-profit organization plans to host an inclusive conversation on Monday at Moncton’s Crowne Plaza and virtually, online.
Dedicated to building social cohesion in New Brunswick, the sold-out event will feature discussions about racial justice in the workplace, rethinking the economy as it recovers from the pandemic and how to be a better ally to Indigenous people.
The event, which has sold out of in-person seats, will feature Jeremy Dutcher, a Wolastoq singer, songwriter, composer, musicologist and activist from Tobique First Nation, as its keynote speaker.
The mandate of the discussions is to ensure everyone feels heard, valued and that they belong, making diversity an asset – something Duguay-Lemay considers imperative to a functional economy.
“What I’ve found is that people don’t like to go into uncomfortable discussions. Some people want to embrace social cohesion but don’t know where to start, or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. This is our expertise – we’re good at the art of dialogue and multiple viewpoints at one table,” she said.
“We need a lot of different voices and perspectives at the table to rethink the system for the wellbeing of all. These discussions shouldn’t be happening in isolation.”
Duguay-Lemay said New Brunswick faces many economic challenges, noting a diverse workforce will help recover from those challenges.
She stressed that the business community needs to work toward a goal of truth and reconciliation, and in a call with Huddle, rebutted the metaphor of everyone being on the same boat during the pandemic.
“I’d argue we’re all facing the same storm, but not in the same boat. Some people are in yachts and some are in little boats about to capsize,” she said.
Other voices are emerging – female and Indigenous, for example – looking to address poverty and wage inequality and unfairness, employment access, systemic racism and environmental degradation, noted Duguay-Lemay, adding that the province’s 4,418 non-profits need more recognition as an economic partner.
“Inclusion is embedded in our DNA as Canadians. We’re already a country and province that abides by those laws, so it’s important to look at inclusion,” she said.
The conversations will also focus on racial justice in the workplace, how the pandemic hurt Indigenous and black Canadian employment, versus non-minorities, access to employment – and the social barriers that exist for racialized workers.
“I invite all organizations, employers, public and non-profits to look at their practices in place and ask if they walk the talk for truth and reconciliation. We’re all treaty people – how do we uphold this?” said Duguay-Lemay.
“We want to at least demonstrate to Indigenous people in New Brunswick that we hear their plight and are serious about truth and reconciliation.”
Greater social cohesion is the best step forward, Duguay-Lemay noted, adding that real dialogue can build an economy that works for everyone.
She said matters of racial justice in the workplace – and specific matters, such as owners objecting to the declaration of September 30 as a statutory holiday, contending that they can’t afford it – will be among the economic issues for which solutions will be sought.
The conversation will also focus on how the province’s recovery from the pandemic has exposed inequalities in the economy.
Duguay-Lemay stressed the need to learn from the way the pandemic exposed inequalities, and rethink a system that works for everyone.
“We need to think differently and it really shouldn’t be based on the interests of the privileged,” said Duguay-Lemay.
“As employers are looking to attract and retain talent, we hear about skill shortages all the time. This becomes a matter of attracting talent, whether from newcomers or tapping into Indigenous communities, how can we make our workplaces more equitable and inclusive?
The event will feature an “eclectic” round table of specialists, artists, activists and experts from numerous sectors, and identities in New Brunswick, with opportunities for networking, inspiration for change with concrete examples and skills to help become a social leader.
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