A Strategy for Ecological Survival
NOTE: This strategy is currently being superseded based on my recognition that geoengineering will be required to salvage the biosphere.
The ecological crisis is without precedent in human experience. Never before has environmental degradation imperilled the biosphere as a whole. Never before have humankind’s escalating economic activities threatened our very existence. It is therefore imperative that a workable plan of action be developed and implemented as quickly as possible. As noted in my introductory post, this is currently prevented by various forms of political manipulation. The strategy below is my attempt to break this mental stranglehold and to spur other independent thinkers to join me in this critical project.
The first requirement for a rational strategy is to correctly interpret the crisis itself and to understand its economic and political contexts. I therefore begin with these topics. I then proceed to the proposed strategy and end by discussing how this could be implemented. My analysis applies primarily to the rich countries, where transformative change is most urgently required.
A. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
1. The Crisis Itself
In biological terms, humankind is a highly successful species that has followed its natural impulses to increase its numbers, extend its geographic presence, and improve its material conditions. Inevitably, this global expansion collided with the biosphere’s capacity to absorb its environmental impacts. Because we ignored the warning signs associated with this collision, we sent the biosphere into ecological overshoot: the concurrent violation of multiple environmental impact limits. This is the essence of the crisis that now threatens our future.
It is incorrect to characterize the crisis as climate change or global warming, as is typically done today. Climate change is only one result of excessive greenhouse gases (ocean acidification is another), and it ignores the other components of overshoot, including habitat destruction, chemical toxification of the environment, and the widespread dispersal of plastics and other wastes.
The problem with this mischaracterization is not that the severity of crisis is underestimated. Most informed people understand that climate change alone can extinguish complex life on earth. The real problem is that an incorrect framing leads to an incorrect solution. If the crisis is perceived as climate change then a strong tendency exists to see the solution as a transformed energy system. If it is instead perceived as overshoot then the solution is readily identified as a transformed economic system. Only the latter perspective can lead to a realistic plan for a sustainable future.
2. The Economic Context
The expansion that resulted in overshoot occurred while capitalism was the world’s dominant economic system. This was no accident: the system’s historical role is to overcome feudalism’s restricted productive capacity through rapid economic growth. So long as the environment can safely support this growth, the system can satisfy consumption desires and improve human lives. As soon as environmental limits are violated, however, it becomes a threat to both our well-being and the integrity of the biosphere.
It is critical to understand that ecocidal expansion is not due to capitalism as a whole. Money, markets, and business are central components of the system, but these were prominent features of many pre-capitalist economies. The danger lies not in these longstanding institutions, but in the system’s historically unique component – its economic logic. This term refers to the factors that determine the economy’s main outcomes: what and how much is produced, its impacts on nature, and the population level.
Capitalism’s economic logic derives from the market interactions between profit-maximizing firms and manipulated consumers. This logic is highly dynamic and permits rapid growth, but it includes no provision for ending growth once it becomes ecologically dangerous. As well, it lacks a mechanism for ensuring that the economy’s outputs maximize objective well-being. The system’s logic is therefore irrational both quantitatively and qualitatively.
The implication of the above factors is that, although a sustainable economy can selectively retain or modify existing institutions, it must be guided by a new logic that overcomes the fatal shortcoming of the capitalist version.
3. The Political Context
Politics poses by far the greatest challenge to a workable strategy and thus requires the most extensive discussion. The main reason is that, although power is the essence of politics, it is carefully concealed to protect the powerful. As part of this deception, psychological barriers have been erected to prevent the close scrutiny of social dominance, and severe punishments await those who persist in their inquiries. Nevertheless, the road to an effective strategy runs straight through the political realm, so this challenge must be accepted.
There are two core realities. The first is that all complex societies are dominated by a ruling class due to the imperatives of centralized leadership and collective organization. The second is that power in a capitalist society is held by the capitalist class. This group seized control from the feudal landowners several hundred years ago and has never relinquished it. Once its power was fully consolidated it granted the people electoral rights, allowing them to express their interests and concerns through government. This representation is valuable, but it is not power – that is, it cannot determine a society’s defining features and historical direction. Because sustainability entails major changes on both fronts, an effective strategy must be centered on society’s actual leaders – the members of its ruling class.
This is an important conclusion because it means that the required changes cannot be driven by modifications to the populace’s worldview, the activities of popular movements, or the pressures exerted on governments. Movements that rely on these bottom-up approaches, such as progressivism and environmentalism, are thus disqualified from strategic leadership.
To return to my theme, the primary responsibility of any ruling class is to provide rational social guidance – that is, social leadership that is conducive to human well-being. At any point in history, the group that is best qualified for this task should logically rule society. When conditions change and this suitability wanes, another group should take over, either through revolution or a gradual political shift.
Starting in the 16th century in Europe, this fitness for social rule passed from the feudal landowners to the capitalist manufacturers. The reason was noted above: capitalism was more productive than feudalism, so the new system was better able to satisfy economic needs and wants. This specific capacity, in conjunction with the general ruling-class responsibility for human betterment, defines the capitalist class’s historical mandate: to spur economic growth so long as this enhances well-being. The inescapable corollary is that, when growth ceases to have this effect, the mandate has expired and capitalist rule must end.
Humankind’s well-being depends on many factors, but the environment is foundational to all of them, and its destruction is fatal. Ecological overshoot is thus sufficient to mark the expiration date of capitalist rule. The leading edge of overshoot likely occurred in the 1950’s, when the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration first exceeded its long-term maximum. This means that the replacement of capitalism and its ruling class is long overdue. The environmental crisis is the result of this excessive time lag in historical response.
The reason for this continuing delay is that the efficacy of capitalist social control was skyrocketing just as its fitness for social rule was plummeting. The class carefully absorbed the political lessons derived from 20th-century revolutions, and it eagerly applied technological advances to its surveillance techniques and mass manipulations. As a result of this and other factors, the revolutionary option for fundamental change has been definitively foreclosed. To compound the problem, a gradual systemic shift is impossible due to the dizzying speed of ecological decline. Capitalism took centuries to supplant feudalism, but this languid pace is now an unaffordable luxury.
The conclusion is that the two established methods of social progress are currently unavailable. If humankind is to escape a gruesome ecological fate it will have to swiftly employ a new mode of historical change.
Humankind’s expanding economic activities drove the biosphere into ecological overshoot more than half a century ago. This disaster is rooted in capitalism’s economic logic, which generates growth without considering environmental limits or objective well-being. The system and its ruling class are thus overdue for historical replacement, but this is prevented by effective social control and tight time constraints. The unprecedented crisis thus requires an unprecedented solution.
B. THE STRATEGY
1. The Ecological Solution
Overshoot has already caused massive damage to the natural world, so the word “solution” has a restricted meaning in the present context. Here it refers to the reversal of ecological overshoot – that is, the return to sustainable levels of environmental impact. The word does not refer to the repair of either existing damage or any damage done during overshoot reversal itself. The biosphere’s full restoration will depend largely on long-term, natural processes that are beyond human control.
With this definition in mind, the ecological solution is in principle straightforward: remove the cause of the crisis by reducing environmental impact as swiftly as humanly possible. Impact is determined by per-capita consumption, population, and efficiencies. The solution is therefore to decrease consumption and population as quickly as socially feasible, and to increase efficiencies as quickly as technically feasible. I refer to this combination as rapid impact reduction.
It should be noted that, even if the crisis is mischaracterized as climate change, rapid impact reduction is still the correct solution. Greenhouse gas emissions are tied to all three of the above factors, so a swift decline in emissions demands that all three be rapidly reduced. Misrepresenting the crisis as climate change is dangerous because it facilitates the incorrect conclusion that energy measures suffice for climate stability.
2. The Economic Solution
Conceptually, the economic solution is uncomplicated as well. The problem is an economic logic that was once beneficial but is now ruinous. It must therefore be replaced. The implication is that standard economics, which faithfully reflects this logic, can no longer be permitted to guide the economy – a new theory is required for this purpose. As indicated above, markets and other capitalist institutions are not necessarily to blame, so these can be retained, modified, or abolished as required.
Unfortunately, no such theory has ever been developed. Ecological economics is not a candidate because it has embraced the standard concepts of value and cost. Because these are based on the strength of subjective desires, they are wellsprings of economic expansion. Due in part to this theoretical blunder, the field’s adherents now stand virtually alone among critical thinkers in repudiating capitalism’s growth dependence.
Given the failure of ecological economics, I have produced a rudimentary replacement theory called the Economics of Needs and Limits, or ENL. This conceptual framework is based on an ethical principle, defines value and cost objectively, and offers analytical tools for sustainable economic guidance. ENL is intellectually immature, but it could be a useful starting point for further development.
A clarification is necessary about economic growth. Capitalism’s logic has become ecologically dangerous not because it invariably generates growth, but because it irrevocably prevents rapid impact reduction. The system clearly has a powerful compulsion to expand, but under unfavorable conditions the result could be slow growth, no growth, or even modest contraction. It really doesn’t matter. The ecological crisis will continue to intensify until the global economy undergoes truly dramatic contraction. This fact has apparently escaped those who argue that GDP growth does not necessarily imply material growth. They’re right, but the difference is slight and the practical significance is negligible.
3. The Political Solution
In seeking a political solution we must recall that all complex societies are dominated by a ruling class. The transition to a sustainable society thus entails either a new ruling class or modified behavior by the existing rulers. It does not imply the negation of ruling-class dominance itself.
As noted above, the current ruling class cannot be replaced, either by revolution or slow transition. It thus appears that only one possibility remains: to transform the current ruling class into one that takes decisive action to resolve the ecological crisis.
Is this transformation possible? Given how little is known externally about any such class, it is conceivable that all capitalists are unshakably committed to economic expansion. If this is true, I see no hope for our species or the biosphere. Collapse would be inevitable, with chaos, barbarism, and possibly extinction to follow. I am therefore compelled to make an assumption: that this group includes a critical mass of members who have the potential for responsible action.
Based on this assumption, I divide the capitalist class into two categories: contractionists and expansionists. Contractionists are those with the stated potential; they can thus be persuaded to initiate rapid impact reduction. Expansionists are those who lack this potential; they will therefore remain on the growth path. For the transformation to occur, the contractionists must become acutely aware of both themselves and the expansionists. They must then seek political unity and find effective ways to sideline or otherwise neutralize their ecocidal counterparts.
Why would contractionists undertake this daunting project? There are three compelling reasons. First, ecological collapse will cause immense social chaos that will inevitably result in the loss of political power. Neutralizing the expansionists is thus a matter of ruling-class survival. Second, contractionists will reap greater material rewards from a long-lived sustainable economy than a short-lived expanding economy. Asserting control is thus rational for contractionists on the basis of enlightened self-interest. And third, contractionists likely have a moral compass and thus feel revulsion at the escalating damage to humankind and nature. They could eloquently express this revulsion through decisive political action.
To summarize my strategic proposal:
Reverse ecological overshoot through rapid impact reduction. To achieve this, replace capitalism’s expansionary logic by developing a new theory for economic guidance. To make the economic transition politically feasible, identify the contractionists within the capitalist class and induce them to sideline the expansionists. This can be done by pointing to the inevitable loss of political power, the long-term material superiority of a sustainable economy, and the ethical obscenity of continued expansion.
A strategy is a plan of action, but a plan is futile unless it is successfully executed. The last question to be considered is therefore the strategy’s implementation. This has three major requirements: the change agents themselves, instigators to spur these agents into action, and intellectuals to provide theoretical support.
The potential change agents are the contractionists identified above. It seems clear, however, that these enlightened capitalists will not act of their own accord. Although the environment has been visibly degrading for some time, they have taken no meaningful steps to organize themselves or to impose their views on the class as a whole. It thus appears that a strong external stimulus is required to spur them into action.
As noted above, progressivism and environmentalism cannot play this role. These movements deserve high praise for resisting capitalism’s abuses, but they are tightly bound to the prevailing order and are thus incapable of instigating fundamental change. After scanning the social landscape for alternatives I have concluded that only the young can currently serve this function. They have the most to lose from ecological decline and therefore have the greatest incentive to exert the necessary pressure.
This train of thought has led me to propose the youth ecological revolt. This assumes that the young can transcend the limitations of existing movements, sublimate their anger at being ecologically abandoned, and become an effective social force. Given the brutal demographics of the ecological crisis – the old will soon die but the young will long suffer – the division between the age groups must be fully exploited for contractionary ends.
Intellectuals will be indispensable to the strategy’s implementation, but they are severely hindered by today’s academic environment. Freedom of thought within universities has over the last few decades been drastically curtailed. Selective hiring, carefully regulated advancement, a stifling technical fixation, and pervasive corporate involvement have combined to virtually eliminate radical social theorizing. Given these conditions, concerned academics will have to fight tenaciously to expand their intellectual liberties.
I have one suggestion that might ease this burden. Although intellectuals should understand political power in order to grasp the context for their contributions, they do not necessarily have to address this topic. Avoiding power in open forums should minimize the attacks that are frequently unleashed on those who breach the boundaries of permissible thought.
With this approach in mind, intellectuals should give high priority to the development of a new theory for economic guidance. This is indispensable for progress and has no immediate political ramifications. In addition they could provide rigorous support for the ecological and economic positions that underlie the above strategy, and they could do the initial spadework for the legal and institutional frameworks of a sustainable society.
Above I said that the ecological crisis will require a new mode of historical change. Before concluding this strategic overview, let me elaborate on this important statement.
A ruling class is typically resilient, and will modify its social guidance and control methods in accordance with changing circumstances. However, this resilience has always been aimed at the preservation of an existing historical mandate. To the best of my knowledge, no ruling class has ever been called on to renounce its current mandate, adopt a radically different one, modify its worldview accordingly, and then lead society in a new direction.
This uniqueness has two important implications. First, any strategy that responds accurately to the crisis will seem strikingly unfamiliar. An honest evaluation will therefore require thinkers to ignore their discomfort and to objectively examine the strategy’s reasoning. The reverse is also true: any strategy that looks comfortably familiar is almost certainly misguided. A good example is the current focus on transformed energy systems. Because this sounds entirely reasonable it should be suspected, a priori, of being disastrously wrong.
The second implication is that the capitalist class is historically lost. Its core members undoubtedly understand that the growth path leads to ecological perdition, but they have no precedent and no theory to light their way to a new path. This underscores the critical role of intellectual support, but it also means that, in addition to our justified anger at the economy’s calamitous trajectory, we should feel compassion for a group that must rapidly overcome history’s most formidable challenge.
The environment is rapidly degrading and could soon reach calamitous tipping points. A rational plan of action is urgently required to minimize future damage, thereby maximizing humankind’s chances to survive and rebuild.
In this document I outlined my strategic proposal. I made three core claims: the crisis is ecological overshoot, the solution is rapid impact reduction, and a new economic theory is required to guide the shift from growth-dependent capitalism to a sustainable economy.
I also stated that this shift entails decisive action at the ruling-class level. Specifically, the contractionists must oust the expansionists and assume social control. Further, a strong external stimulus such as the youth ecological revolt is needed to spur the contractionists into undertaking this difficult task.
Let me emphasize that a rational strategy cannot be developed without defying the thought police – that is, the pervasive, politically-motivated pressure to remain within the boundaries of conventional thought. This defiance calls for highly independent minds and exceptional courage. Humankind can only hope that such minds will respond energetically and that their courage will be generously displayed.