The world is headed for swiftly headed towards catastrophic ecological disaster. The reason and cause is termed “overshoot”, which will be accurately defined here.
There are many symptoms and signs of ecological disaster now happening around the world. I’ve long focused on global climate change, the dangerous heating of the Earth’s surface and the resulting effects that threaten the future survival of mankind.
Global climate change (global warming) is the result of ecological overshoot by one species. Climate change is only one of the Earth systems now imperiled by ecological overshoot. There are many other parallel systems of ecological overshoot, including deforestation, ocean acidification, pollution and desertification, each by themselves representing a dire threat to Earth’s habitability. Collectively, these failing systems present an enormous set of problems for humankind’s future survival and the survival of all other species of life on the planet.
All of these parallel systems of ecological overshoot have experienced excessive destruction, pollution and consumption by a single species grossly exceeding the natural carrying capacity of the planet – humans.
Humans have greatly exceeded the bio-generative and ecological capacity of the biosphere making future habitability of the Earth in serious if not severe doubt.
Various attempts to solve this existential crisis have been proposed and tried. At the present time, renewable energy technologies are being trumpeted as the solution and salvation for humankind. This won’t work and is seriously misguided at its core, failing to present itself for what it really is. Renewable energy cannot replace the energy requirements of our current lifestyles. Intermittent power generation via renewable energy technologies does not replace the demand for fossil fuels.
Renewable energy requires fossil fuels to come into existence. Every single aspect of these technologies, whether wind, hydro, solar or geothermal are completely subsidized by fossil fuels. They are all reliant upon vastly depleted fossil fuels and have produce huge amounts of toxic byproducts, requiring irreplaceable increasingly hard-to-find non-renewable rare earth metals. Renewable energy technologies are “expenditures” of fossil fuels in a different form.
Neither fossil fuels or renewable energy are sustainable technologies despite what you may have heard. Renewable energy is not a sustainable or “fossil fuel free” technology and never will be. It’s not carbon free, zero carbon or net-zero, and never will be. This means that renewable energy is not “green” energy and cannot solve the climate crises. If fossil fuels ceased to exist through consumption or any other means, renewable energy would also cease to exist.
We already know the monumental drawbacks to fossil fuels, which are not sustainable, as easy-to-find and develop energy supplies have all been quickly consumed, triggering global climate change (global warming) at an unprecedented scale in
human Earth’s history. The root cause of this is excessive energy demands by too many of our own species using highly pollutive technologies. We cannot replace this energy demand with another expenditure of fossil fuel in different forms and expect different results then what we have already seen.
Both fossil fuels and renewable energy have significant drawbacks and problems. Pollution of the air, water and soil globally is largely invisible but already at extremely significant levels on a global level. The collective and fatal problems with renewable energy include their requirement for rare earth metals and their methods of extraction and production. The notion that our species can incessantly increase energy consumption and demand without increasingly destroying the biosphere is simply false.
200 years ago at the beginning of the Industrial Age, the global population of homo sapiens was eight times smaller. At present, population is increasing twenty times faster. Over one-half of the entire land surface of the Earth has been substantially modified and converted (terraformed) for human kind, particularly for agriculture and the production of food, the core reason for “civilization” (food production). Agriculture is one of the most ecologically damaging technologies ever invented, displacing non-human species throughout the Earth.
Prior to the invention of agriculture, humans accounted for less then 1% of the mammal biomass on Earth, and wild mammals accounted for 99%. Today, humans constitute 36%, domestic livestock another 60%, with only 4% now left for all wild species. The population of non-human vertebrate species has declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. Freshwater, marine, and terrestrial vertebrate populations declined by 81%, 36%, and 38%, respectively, and invertebrate populations fell by about 50%.
Over 50% of all fossil fuels were consumed in just the past 30 years and as much as 90% since in the early 1940’s as super-exponential growth took hold of the global economy. Carbon dioxide emissions exploded, vastly exceeding photosynthetic uptake by Earth’s flora. Since 1997, just 24 years ago, fossil fuel consumption has jumped 40%, producing a corresponding jump in greenhouse gasses, vastly exceeding carbon fixation by photosynthesis. At present, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased 48%.
These data show that plunging biodiversity and climate change, along with air/land/ocean pollution, deforestation, desertification, incipient resources scarcity, etc., are the inevitable consequences—indeed, parallel symptoms—of the same root phenomenon: the spectacular and continuing growth of the human enterprise on a finite planet. Homo sapiens is in overshoot, exploiting ecosystems beyond their regenerative and assimilative capacities.
Overshoot is possible only because of: (a) the short-term availability of prodigious stocks of both renewable (fish, forest, soil, etc.) and non-renewable (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.) forms of so-called “natural capital”; and (b) the enormous, but finite, natural waste assimilation and recycling processes of the ecosphere. However, a reckoning is at hand. In just a few decades of geometric population and economic growth, humans have exploited (often to collapse) natural capital stocks that took millennia to accumulate and have impeded natural life-support processes through excessive, often toxic, waste discharges. The human enterprise now uses the bio-productive and assimilative capacities of 1.75 Earth equivalents . In simple terms, the industrial world’s ecological predicament is the result of too many people consuming too much and over-polluting the ecosphere.
Clearly, the climate crisis cannot be solved in isolation from the macro-problem of overshoot—certainly not by using technologies that are reliant on the same FFs and ecologically destructive processes that created the problem in the first place.
Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition
The link above reveals the extent of the problem, while offering a modicum of hope for a possible solution including a “Big Picture Sanity Check” that reveals the severe problems in trying to overhaul the United States grid system. The reality is the numbers are unachievable – too expensive, too little time, and even if it could be done, it would have to be repeated every 15 years.
You should read it, because we cannot do it. It will not work. It is destined to fail. All the hype and propaganda about renewable energy technologies is grossly misrepresenting the reality of why this will not work. We can perform this on a far smaller scale for far fewer people then claimed – and nothing more. Biosmass, hydrogen, geothermal, nuclear, concentrated solar power (CSP), solar PV, and wind turbines, are all derivatives of fossil fuels, which means the problems we have long associated with fossil fuel consumption and availability will still exist.
This would be a good place to interject “I told you so, repeatedly” right here on this blog. Renewable technologies will not solve our energy problems or climate change or anything else. They will in fact only help make things worse then they already are. By embracing these technologies they will ensure we consume virtually all the fossil fuels and rare earth materials on the entire planet, and that cannot be allowed to happen if we hope to save the biosphere for habitability (human survival).
But the real problem is ecological overshoot by our own species. So far, little has been said about this primary issue and even less proposed. I have, many times, with this simple saying – What the world needs, what humans need is less of everything. Endless growth and expansion on a finite planet running out of resources is suicide. Expecting technology to somehow save us from excessive greed and consumption utterly fails to address the root cause. We need to engineer a completely different civilization and way of life. In these and many other ways, I have for years extolled the basic idea that we need less (and can do with less) and we won’t solve anything unless we do.
That’s going to have to start with us – humans. Too many humans making too many demands. Too many humans not giving a damn about how much destruction and waste they are causing. Too many humans embracing truly stupid ideologies and engaging in entire lifetimes of pointless pursuits. The present global population of humans now only exists because of excess production. This allowed our species to explode across the Earth with little thought to the consequences of this growth. But now we know, if we could find it within ourselves to admit to the terrible truth, we are the problem. We’ve always been the problem.
We’re going to have to control ourselves and limit our greed, our consumption and our growth if we ever hope to have a chance at a sustainable future. As it is, we have none of these things now. This is the conversation that the world doesn’t really want to have, and that’s why you rarely hear anything at all about it. This contradicts the basic economic model our entire civilization is built upon, overshoot. Humankind has vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet, leaving an enormous waste stream of dangerous pollutants in the air, water and soil throughout the entire Earth.
Only a suicidal species would do this – or one with the technological prowess to ignore it for as long as possible.
It’s late and I’m really busy these days, so I’ll stop here, but I’ve more thoughts to say on this topic. Arnold Toynbee did too and I want to share them with you as soon as I can because he’s right and very well informed – we are in serious trouble. All of us, nobody is going to escape this. I’ll put up a Part II to this article next.
7 thoughts on “Overshoot Defined”
Spot on, as usual.
Of course William Catton raised this issue [of overshoot] decades ago, and was ignored.
Our species wasn’t causing too much damage when there were only 7 million of us; just the extinction of a few species in the constant quest for food.
70 million were starting become a ‘problem’ around 20,000 years ago, and the shift to settled agriculture solved the food security problem to some extent, and in doing so fostered further population overshoot.
Once we got to 700 million things began to go seriously wrong: localised droughts and desert formation; conversion of forests into semi-arid deserts.
7,000 million just accelerates the collapse of pretty much everything that humans depend on for long-term survival.
This was all known decades ago. But the banks and corporations DEMANDED that sane policies not be implemented at a time when it may have been possible to reduce the level of suffering by limiting population growth and limiting the use of fossil fuels.
20 years ago we knew the ‘projections for world population to exceed 10 billion were completely absurd. But no one too any notice.
I guess they are starting to take notice now that things are in meltdown.
But that increasing levels of pollution, the declining resource base and the serious disease and management problems associated with severe overshoot don’t stop idiots in central government and local government promoting suicidal policies that make everything worse faster.
As I said to the CEO of my local council just a couple of days ago: “You are so stupid you promote policies that reduce your own life-expectancy.”
The only ‘cure’ for stupidity appears to be death.
It’s really scary now because in a conversation with one of the idiots at the local council, a council officer told me that the Scripps Institute carbon dioxide record and ice core analysis was “just an opinion”
I told her that she should not even have a job in government if her opinion was that scientific data gathered over many decades was ‘just an opinion”.
So bizarre is the world we live in that the opinions of council officers become ‘facts’ whilst facts are relegated to ‘opinions’.
The rude wakening is now only months away, I believe.
That’s why I am primarily focused on my own preparations, whilst at the same time devoting some of my time to raking the stinking mess that is local government.
Excellent points. Most politicians should not be in office, being grossly unqualified and uneducated on what really matters. Their massive incompetence and gross indifference is really starting to show now. It’s as if they all swallowed stupid pills, or drank the Trump Koolaid.
Here in the wanna-be fascist States of Amerika, the politicians have lost their fucking minds. It’s a total shitshow of gross incompetence, political backbiting and infighting, devouring their own. The mega-nationals and corporations have got their hooks dug in deep, preventing any sensible policies and actions from coming to pass. These traitors have sold their souls to the monied interests and categorically refuse to do what is necessary, profits come first.
Notice that there is NO action on root causes being address, discussed or considered. Therefore, nothing will EVER get ‘better’ or be rectified or corrected. We are going to plunge headlong down the same suicidal path as before, comforted by endless lies of “renewable energy” and “zero carbon” and “electric vehicles” while the real world continually worsens and society remains TOTALLY unprepared for the unfolding reality.
It’s utter madness.
New Zealand is a fascist dictatorship.
We had a really nasty bastard, Rob Muldoon, in charge in the late-70s to early 80s, and his authoritarianism led to the production of a popular film depicting an authoritarian fascist in charge.
it was under Muldoon that ‘Think Big’ was promoted, whereby international corporations were giving free rein to construct pretty much anything they liked at the taxpayers expense. Thus, the reasonably abundant natural gas that could be extracted was converted to liquid fuel via one of the most energy-inefficient processes possible.
By the same token, aluminium refiners and smelters were given huge subsidies to squander energy and to pollute the environment.
NZ became a guinea pig for dysfunctional economics in the late 1980s, whereby all state assets were sold off dirt cheap to the mates of the orchestrators of the looting. The results for the general populace were disastrous. But the looters and polluters got rich by taking what they could and investing nothing.
When the privatised companies went down the drain, the NZ taxpayer was required to bail out the businesses via further subsidies or the state bought them back in a run down condition and poured more public money into them to keep them running
The current so-called leader, Jacinda Adern, is a total fake, and is yet another in a long succession of saboteurs. And a fascist, of course, putting the interests of banks and corporations ahead of the interests of the people.
It will be really interesting because the energy needed to keep the system running does not exist, and collapse is inevitable.
How horrible! I didn’t know things were this bad there. From the outside looking in (and at a long distance), NZ always sounded like it was better then the US. But I haven’t seriously looked at NZ for a number of years.
What you described is what happened here. Under Trump and pretty much every President, the attack on the environment just got worse and worse. Same thing is happening in Canada, I follow the Narwhale every day, their having all kinds of problems with logging, mining and coal extraction. They’ve even restarted another damned oil pipeline project.
Smelters are horrible – THAT was a fight we had here (right here, this town) because of the cheap power (hydro), so I looked into this extensively. I’ve got a pretty good idea what harm they do now.
All these so-called ‘assets’ needed to be left stranded (undeveloped and left in place where they will do no harm to anything or anybody).
Now that it is no longer profitable to refine and smelt aluminium in NZ the corporation has decided to pull out….leaving hundreds of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste stored in warehouses and just lying around.
The only good thing we can say is that most of the piles of pollutants are near the southern tip of the South Island.
Of course nothing will be done to clean up the mess because it cost money and energy to do so, and ‘nobody’ has any money….other than the sociopaths who run the globalised system. And most of them seem to live in the US, UK or Europe. That said, many have bolt holes in the less polluted regions of NZ.
This is very common. Mining companies have left toxic wastes and ruined environments behind them all over the planet. It’s pretty much what they all do as far as I can tell. Doesn’t matter either what they’re mining, they poison everything. They have the gall to complain about operating costs but run away when the cleanup is supposed to happen (or file bankruptcy, form a new company and start over). It’s a revolving door of rampant greed and the stupidity of government that keeps letting this happen.