Check out ecologist Bill Rees in conversation with Nate Hagens over at Hagens’ podcast The Great Simplification. Rees, who taught for 30 years at the University of British Columbia, is one of the finest minds in North America envisioning what true sustainability for industrial civilization will look like in the long run.  He is best known for his work in ecological economics, which views the economy as embedded in biophysical processes and not comprehensible outside the limitations dictated by those processes. (This is radically distinct from standard or “neoclassical” economics.) 

As I note in my piece on the delusions of a green expansionist economy, Rees takes a skeptical view of the idea that we can continue business-as-usual growth of populations and GDP and somehow call it “green” with renewable energy subsidizing the growth.  He considers industrial Homo sapiens to be trapped in an evolutionarily-determined inability to comprehend what’s really going on in the species’ relationship with Earth – meaning we are too stupid by nature to figure a way out of the dynamic nonlinear feedback loops driving the world problematique.

Here’s a snippet of the transcript of Rees talking with Hagens about the failure to understand Earth system complexity and the need to reiterate overshoot as the broad issue facing the human race: 

I believe that human beings and our cognitive capacities have become obsolete in the world in which we live. So if you think about the evolution of humans, we grew up in relatively simple circumstances. We were in small groups living in home ranges that weren’t all that extensive. We lived and died within a few dozens of kilometers of each other. So there was no real, I suppose, pressure on the human mind to think beyond simple cause-effect relationships. Bottom line is this, that the human brain, our cognitive capacities tend to be limited in most people to rather simplistic reductionist perspectives on reality. And if you think about that, climate change is a perfect illustration because there are hundreds of things happening, but we fixate on climate change.

The focus gets shifted a little bit when something like a pandemic comes along. But then, it’s all about the pandemic we forget about climate change. Then there’s the war in Ukraine, and we talk about that for a while, and now we’re back to climate change. And nobody bothers to connect all of those dots because human beings are not inherently intrinsically capable of thinking systemically. When’s the last time you had a dinner conversation about lags and thresholds and chaotic behavior and collapse syndrome, which is called catastrophe and systems theory and so on? It just doesn’t happen. Okay, so climate change is our fixation because there are obvious symptoms that many people can relate to, but it’s only one. We could spend the whole day talking about plunging biodiversity, ocean acidification, soil and land erosion, on and on and on. Every single so-called environmental problem is a symptom of the same issue, which is overshoot. Overshoot is the fundamental issue, and the fundamental issue is the cause of all of these other problems.

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