I’m reading a very interesting book by William Catton called Overshoot. Amazingly this was first published in 1980, yet describes where our world is today, how we arrived at the current mess and what we need to do to extricate ourselves.
Catton’s primary thinking is that since the start of the Industrial Revolution we have lived in a world without limits. Our behaviour can only be described as “limitless”. Essentially we have used fossil fuels to create amazing technologies and power huge endeavours that would have been completely impossible without them. But we overlooked that fossil fuels have been millions of years in the making, are irreplaceable in their current form any time soon, and are causing an existential problem for the ecosystem that we are utterly reliant upon. Catton calls this “the Age of Exuberance”, in which growth is central to everything we do.
We can observe this limitless behavior in so many ways. Think of the airline industry that has grown in double digits every year since the second world war. Ryanair, formed in 1984 and has since led the transformation of air travel to the a modern equivalent of a bus service. And in the process facilitated an extraordinary level of intra-European travel capitalising on EU free movement as well as cheap holidays. Just this one example poses some huge questions – should we be aiming to simply replicate what we do today with a more ecologically sustainable technology, or should we be reinventing the way we live and work? Establishing limits on growth to ensure sustainability of our entire ecosystem?
Catton provides various models for understanding what’s happening. His Ecological Understanding Model categorizes people in terms of their opinions and understanding of the ecosystem impacts of our actions as follows:
|People that insist the assumption of limitlessness was and still is valid.||Ostrich|
|People that don’t believe the science.||Cynic|
|People that believe the way the world works today is just fine with minor adjustments.||Fantasist|
|People that insist that technological progress, regardless of whether it is yet invented, will stave off major change.||Cargo Cultist|
|People who recognize that today’s behavours are deeply harmful and that major change must happen urgently.||Realist|
This limitless behaviour can be observed in all areas of our activity. Irish farmers have a home market of some €6bn but an export market of over €13Bn, exporting to over 160 countries worldwide. In yesterday or today’s world this is heralded as an amazing success. But in tomorrow’s world it’s a major problem because the Irish agriculture industry produces over 35% of Irelands green-house gas emissions, with a dangerously high level of methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser and manure management. I listened to the chairperson of the IFA on the radio yesterday morning. His interview followed directly on from a piece covering the newly published climate budgets, which were not sympathetic to the agri-sector. His comment was that Irish farmers will not be reducing their herd size any time soon. The primary argument is that the agriculture industry is producing high quality food for the world because other countries cannot produce such high quality! Which is in fact a joke, because Irish farming is widely acknowledged as not living up to the “green” image of the Irish tourist industry. The bottom line is that the farmers will not accept significant cuts in their emissions. Which basically means all the other sectors have to massively over achieve in order to ensure Ireland as a whole meets its climate commitments. This is an exceptional example of Ostrich behaviour.
Now I have many farming friends. Sadly they have been seduced into over producing in order to enable largescale agriculture processing and marketing industries. Actually the farmers themselves have not done so well from the current economic model.
Many of us will have seen reports from Australia that the prime minister Scott Morrison announced that he will not be changing the emissions targets set in 2015, but he will commit to achieving net zero by 2050. But he refuses to release the modelling underpinning the 2050 plan, and is keeping secret the details of the plan agreed with his coalition partners who are keeping him in government. This is clearly Ostrich behavior with a strong overlay of Fantasist thinking.
Closer to home the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is as usual bombastically optimistic about the UK’s climate performance. To make the case, Mr. Johnson points to how Britain has decarbonized more than any other developed country, 1.8 times the average among European Union nations, and was the first major economy to enshrine in law a net-zero target for carbon emissions. Yet Britain is far from a climate hero. The country is committed to fossil fuels and private corporations, opposed to stringent regulation and unwilling to recognize its historical responsibility to the Global South. Even the lauded net zero by 2050 target relies on unreliable carbon offsets and unproven carbon sequestering technology. Mr. Johnson may claim the country leads the world on climate action, but we shouldn’t fall for the trick. (NY Times). In practice, the UK is pursuing policies that violate every single goal. In the recent trade agreement with Australia the UK dropped reference to any emissions and temperature goals. His government is prevaricating over a new, Australian backed coal mine in West Cumbria. More recently a large contingent of his Tory party MPs voted down an amendment to the environment bill that would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers. It seems that Mr Johnson plays fast and loose with climate change matters that merely reinforce his reputation as a Fantasist.
In fairness we see similar positions in most of the large countries. Note that the G20 represent two thirds of the world population, and 80% of global economic output. Collectively these countries emit 75% of global annual greenhouse gases. We know that China is without question adopting the Ostrich position. They managed to persuade the 2015 COP meeting that they are still a developing country and have a right to continue massive growth rates based primarily on coal power. No sense of limits there! We can have much more sympathy with India. In fairness the average person in India emits just 2.5 tonnes of CO2 compared to the G20 average of 7.5 tonnes. And we should also mention the Canadian average per person of 18.9 tonnes!
We can expect that the COP26 conference will eventually produce some form of agreement. It seems highly likely that in the likely absence of China and Russia, that there will be no clear breakthrough that will avoid the worst case. But some compromise will probably be cobbled together by this collection of Ostriches, Cynics, Fantasists and Cargo Cultists. We must remember that few countries have met their commitments made in Paris in 2015. In the chart below, of the 36 countries assessed, and the EU, only one nation was given an overall climate rating compatible with stabilizing global warming around 1.5 °C as per the Paris Agreement.
And of course we can expect the arch fantasist Boris Johnson to claim that he has saved the planet. But we should remember that this is the very same Prime Minister that signed an International (Brexit) agreement in January 2020 and then proceeded to deny the deal before the year was out. I still believe we should be following the ideas articulated by Kim Stanley Robinson in The Ministry of the Future. In my humble opinion, we cannot rely on politicians who are inherently short-term focused, subject to lobbying and incapable and unqualified to take on this huge responsibility. I am still believe we should be following the ideas articulated by Kim Stanley Robinson in The Ministry of the Future  by establishing a powerful UN based body to guide policy together with a new monetary system not based on gold but on the carbon coin.
 Overshoot, The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, William R. Catton Jnr.
University of Illinois Press, 1980 ISBN 0-252-0018 18-9