New Paper on the Worsening Human Predicament

Brown, James H.,  Joseph R. Burger, William R. Burnside, Michael Chang, Ana D. Davidson, Trevor S. Fristoe, Marcus J. Hamilton, Sean T. Hammond, Astrid Kodric-Brown, Norman Mercado-Silva, Jeffrey C. Nekola, Jordan G. Okie. 2014.
‘Macroecology meets macroeconomics: Resource scarcity and global Sustainability.’  Ecological Engineering 65 (2014) 24–32

The current economic paradigm, which is based on increasing human population, economic development, and standard of living, is no longer compatible with the biophysical limits of the finite Earth. Failure to recover from the economic crash of 2008 is not due just to inadequate fiscal and monetary policies. The continuing global crisis is also due to scarcity of critical resources. Our macroecological studies highlight the role in the economy of energy and natural resources: oil, gas, water, arable land, metals, rare earths, fertilizers, fisheries, and wood. As the modern industrial-technological-informational economy expanded in recent decades, it grew by consuming the Earth’s natural resources at unsustainable rates.

Correlations between per capita GDP and per capita consumption of energy and other resources across nations and over time demonstrate how economic growth and development depend on “nature’s capital”. Decades-long trends of decreasing per capita consumption of multiple important commodities indicate that overexploitation has created an unsustainable bubble of population and economy.
© 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Comment by William Rees
This is a good summary paper drawing together previous analyses and new data on humanity’s determined march to the brink of the abyss. That said, there is little new in the document in terms of trends, interpretation or prognosis.  Indeed, the basic story has been retold many times in the past several decades each time with the same effect on subsequent societal directions or prospects for global civilization—namely, none of any consequence.

All of which leads me to ponder just how ludicrously incompetent we seem to be as a species when it comes to functioning at a global scale. The same attributes that served H. sapiens so well as tribal, pre-agricultural peoples have become wildly maladaptive at the global level (I refer to such things as short-term thinking [which has been formalized as ‘discounting’ in economics];  the tendency to consume all available resources [formalized as the ‘maximum power principal’ in ecology], status seeking and the formation of rigid social hierarchies; allegiance to socially constructed myths despite contrary evidence [e.g., the myths of endless progress and perpetual growth];  and many more.)

Not only do these behavioural attributes fail utterly on an increasingly resource poor, overpopulated, finite planet but we have created global economic , social  and governance systems of such rich complexity that we cannot wrap our minds around them let alone control them.  In the circumstances, such unique human attributes as high intelligence (e.g., ability to reason from the evidence, the ability to plan ahead, moral consciousness) seem quaintly futile, rather like useless extra appendages.

Bottom line?  If there were a cosmic history, H. sapiens might be written up as a failed species that nevertheless managed to record in exquisite detail, over several decades, the biophysical and social trends that heralded its own demise, while a majority of those in a position to do so did nothing to turn things around.  If the laws of physics and biology hold true across the universe, perhaps this is the real universal story.

for one possible antidote and an assessment of whether it will be taken.