It’s not often that I root for the anti-hero in a book, but it seems that as I neared the end of Jeremy Lent’s latest book, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning — perhaps the longest book I’ve ever read at roughly 570 pages if you count the index — I found myself desperately wanting humanity to stir from its collective inertia and start making the ethical decisions that will lead to those possible futures, meticulously laid out by Lent, that aren’t a version of hell on earth.
In a stunning and eminently readable sweep of pretty much all of human history, Lent wraps up the book with two chapters in which our economic system — the subject of this four-part series — figures prominently.
Specifically, Lent explores the various reasons why our civilization is hurtling towards this precipice; he describes them as being “multilayered” and says that a “meaningful course correction” will require that each layer be reckoned with.
Lent explains that on the surface there are the “easily identifiable forces propelling humanity on its current course,” you know, the usual suspects, the special interests “that gain financially and politically — at least, in the short term — from continued economic growth and use of fossil fuels.”
But underpinning the special interests are the “structural characteristics of our global system that lock in our current momentum.” He gives some examples of the various forms of “lock-in”: for fossil fuels, the technological lock-in is the network of gas stations for vehicles with conventional engines, and how creating another network for electric vehicles, for instance, is as he describes it, “an uphill battle.”
But this is not nearly as difficult an obstacle as what we face from “financial lock-in” or the financial infrastructure that underlies our fossil-fuel-based economy.
For the world to keep global warming to 2 degrees, the oil companies would have to leave four-fifths of their proven reserves in the ground. But since these companies are valued based on their proven reserves, leaving these reserves in the ground would drastically reduce their market value — a decision that is diametrically opposed to a corporation’s primary objective of maximizing profits.
Then there is “ideological lock-in,” demonstrated by our adherence to gross domestic product (GDP) and the global obsession with economic growth, despite the fact that it’s undermining our life support systems.
And if that isn’t enough, Lent says there is even more underlying all of this: Our worldviews, or what he calls “cognitive frames … that form the basis for our collective behaviour.” Lent says these worldviews are the product of the culture we are raised in and determine how we relate to the world around us. He says that we tend to be unconscious of our worldviews, which isn’t necessarily a problem as long as the worldview is working for us.
But the recent declaration to humanity signed by 11,000 scientists is a pretty clear indication that our worldviews might be in need of a major overhaul.
We are facing a “climate emergency,” say the scientists, and despite this, greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise rapidly, and are linked to the “excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” The solution, they say, is nothing short of an “immense increase of scale in endeavors to conserve our biosphere” to “avoid untold suffering.”
As I read through Nova Scotia’s recently passed legislation aimed at reducing GHG emissions, it didn’t take me long to recognize the hand of those “easily identifiable forces” Lent refers to. In fact, the law is a case in point of how the vested interests have once again managed to undermine any authentic attempt to address a climate emergency or reign in our deranged treatment of the planet.
Better Than Nothing
If one were to compare the Sustainable Development Goals Act — the new law the provincial government recently passed to replace the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act of more than a decade ago — you’d definitely notice that it’s a shadow of its former self.
For one, back in 2007, the Conservative-led government at the time laid out 25 goals — laudable ones — dealing with improving air and water quality, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and encouraging local food production and consumption. 1
By comparison, the new law drawn up by the governing Liberals under Stephen McNeil only addresses GHG emissions, and aims to reduce them by 53% below 2005 levels by 2030 and move the province to net-zero by 2050 by “balancing GHG emissions with greenhouse gas removals and other offsetting measures,” leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
According to critics of the new law — including a full day of speakers who lined up to speak before the Law Amendments Committee — the targets are not ambitious enough given the stakes, and are also potentially far less stringent. That’s because the targets were set in law in the previous legislation and will now be set in regulations, which have yet to be developed.
Gary Burrill, leader of the New Democratic Party, tells me he is concerned that moving the targets from the law into regulations will make the government less accountable. “Regulations can be changed by Cabinet alone, meaning if a target is too difficult or no longer a priority for some reason it could be changed without full debate or explanation in the legislature.”
Despite what Burrill saw as a “weaker way” to set climate goals, he and his party voted in favour of the bill because “the issue of climate change is too important” and the new law at least does set a target for emissions reductions which is “much improved over where we would be without the bill.”
For his part, Premier Stephen McNeil told reporters the targets outlined in the new law are the most aggressive in Canada. But when the bar is that low, it’s not really much of an achievement to surpass it. When it comes to Canada’s carbon record, and our role in the global effort to reduce emissions, more than two decades have been squandered. 2
According to The Climate Change Performance Index, Canada remains among the group of “very-low-performing” countries in terms of per capita emissions, renewable energy, and energy, coming in 54th out of 60 countries, below Kazakhstan and ahead of Australia. The US ranked 59th, just ahead of Saudi Arabia, which came last.
I was curious to find out what an ecological economist would make of the new provincial law so I contacted Martin Sers, a native of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, who is finishing up his PhD at York University under the tutelage of another ecological economist introduced earlier in this series, Peter Victor, who you might describe as somewhat of a guru in the de-growth movement.
Sers tells me that he wasn’t always an economic maverick. He started out his career in conventional economics as part of a small consulting firm in the U.K. but found both the move and the demanding workload stressful. It led him to ask the “obvious” questions: Why do we work so much? and Why does the economy need to constantly grow?
Through a series of events and a brush with what he calls “pure serendipity” — when he came across some past work that his firm had done in ecological economics — he found the answers and the field of work he was looking for.
Though he doesn’t say it explicitly, Sers’ impression of the provincial law is that it enshrines a contradiction: the belief that economic growth and sustainable prosperity are possible simultaneously.
“The reason there is a debate about economic growth and its long-term compatibility with environmental goals is precisely because there is so much evidence that growth for its own sake works against [the environment],” he says.
He also points to the terms “clean growth” and “inclusive growth” both used in the law and says these are “part of an entire laundry list of such words out there today (clean, smart, inclusive, green, etc.) and it often comes across as an exercise in semantics to try and redefine growth to sound positive without necessarily accomplishing anything.”
The law also introduces the notion of a “circular economy,” defined as “an economy in which resources and products are kept in use for as long as possible, with the maximum value being extracted while they are in use and from which, at the end of their service life, other materials and products of value are recovered or regenerated.” It’s an aspiration at best given how much of the province’s extractive economy is currently the opposite of this.
Sers says the concept of extending the life-cycle of materials and recycling them as much as possible at the time of disposal is a “sensible” one but in the context of this law it “requires very careful scrutiny.” He explains that the single most important input to running an economy is energy and according to the laws of thermodynamics it’s something that can’t be recycled or regenerated. He also notes that “recycling on such a scale would be very energy intensive, so there are trade-offs.”
Sers also says the sheer number of different ways we impact the environment — from GHG emissions to biodiversity degradation — means the problem is far larger than just reducing emissions, the only item addressed in the new law.
It is always good to see a government, particularly the government of my home province, taking climate change seriously but I worry that conventional wisdom on growth and its tacit acceptance renders the bill somewhat incoherent… True deep de-carbonization requires a transition of everything from the types of vehicles we use, industrial processes, heating, and agricultural practices. The scale of transformation necessary to achieve net zero may be far greater than is imagined when proposing such targets.
Sers and Victor were co-authors of the 2018 study The Energy Emissions Trap, and Sers tells me that since then he’s been further developing the modelling framework to better address the basic question they initially posed in the study, “What happens when societies attempt to rapidly transition from fossil fuels to renewables while simultaneously constrained by the problem of climate change?”
You might recall from Part 2 in this series, the “energy emissions trap” refers to the dilemma that results when a rapid shift to renewables — involving the manufacturing of renewable energy infrastructure as well as the resulting spiral of further activity in other sectors — may cause a “transitory spike” in economic growth and GHG emissions, the very thing we desperately need to reduce quickly.
Sers says the champions of “green growth” argue that growth can occur while we simultaneously reduce our impact on the natural world, but he’s very skeptical: “To me, the notion that we can continuously become more efficient at this magnitude forever is pretty dubious from a physical science standpoint.” He says “green growth is a comforting and politically easy narrative that lets us imagine we can largely continue going as is as long as we have the right technological fix… [but] is unlikely in my mind to be in the long run compatible with any sensible strategy to get us out of this mess.”
Mired in a collective inertia
John Gowdy is professor emeritus in economics at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and the author of the forthcoming book Agriculture, Climate Change and Civilization: The Rise and Fall of Human Ultrasociality.
In 2014 Gowdy penned an insightful chapter in the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute’s flagship report State of the World: Governing for Sustainability, that caught my attention, and appeared to address something that has been troubling me for quite some time: We can see the wreck ahead but can’t seem to steer away from it.
In the report Gowdy argued that we need to tackle the current impasse from an evolutionary perspective and try to understand the “driving forces behind human and economic expansion.” Otherwise, he says, policies to achieve those solutions will continue to fail.
To help illustrate this point, Gowdy posed this simple thought experiment to Worldwatch readers:
[S]uppose the human population could miraculously and painlessly be reduced to a few hundred million, and Earth’s forest and ocean ecosystems restored. If we kept the current dominant socioeconomic system of growth, accumulation, and expansion, within a few decades we would be right back where we are now: more than 7 billion people and many of Earth’s life-support systems teetering on collapse.
I wanted to know what makes this trajectory so predictable, and how can we change course?
In an interview, Gowdy tells me that “we got locked into a system of exploitation of nature and people when we adopted agriculture,” he says, and with agriculture came surplus food, which in turn triggered population growth, which required further expansion. It’s this expansion, the result of a surplus-producing economic system, that has dramatically changed the human impact on the natural world.
Once agriculture got going roughly 10,000 years ago, because of the uniquely stable and warm climate of the Holocene, “those cultures that could most effectively produce food surpluses outcompeted others [and] the groups that won out were those that captured the drivers of economic growth.” Gowdy explains that these drivers essentially began with the surplus and storage of food — which agriculture was able to produce — economies of larger size and scale, and a complex division of labor. 3
It’s the drivers of economic growth that make the trajectory predictable, he says, “the imperative of accumulation and surplus production,” and if we don’t address these we can’t begin to meaningfully change the system.
Gowdy looks at economics through the lens of evolutionary biology — a sub-field of biology that looks at the processes that drive the diversity of life on earth. He says that although his collaboration with evolutionary biologists is recent he has long been a student of the field, growing up in Arkansas Ozarks of the American south with a mother who was a fundamentalist Christian and a father who was an atheist. He says in the 1950s and 1960s evolution was “at the center of the conflict between religion and science,” but under the “subtle influence” of his father he “read whatever he could get his hands on about biology and evolution” and “sided with science over religious fundamentalism.”
Gowdy — much like the other thinkers and economists introduced in this series — recognizes that our economic system is embedded in the biosphere and says that we have to abandon the growth model in order to deal with climate change. But he argues that the reason it’s extremely difficult to do that is because the goal of economic growth is reinforced by layers of human institutions.
Gowdy points me to a recent issue of Nature which lays out the dire future ahead but concludes, “Human ingenuity is up to the challenge — but only if societies, industries and governments resolve to act, and act now.”
But the ability to act quickly and adapt rapidly to change, especially to new climatic conditions, is something Gowdy says we lost after we “stumbled upon” agriculture. “During the time that humans evolved (between 2.6 million years ago until the Holocene, which began about 12,000 years ago) there was rapid and unpredictable climate change,” he explains, “20 periods of glaciation, interspersed with warm periods like today.” He says humans evolved technologies, belief systems, and institutions to deal effectively with these relatively rapid changes, for example, the design of stone projectile points, which was adapted to hunting specific animals, could change as the game hunted changed. “We were hunter-gatherers for more than 300,000 years and this is when we evolved the characteristics that make us human — cooperating with unrelated others, altruistic behavior, egalitarianism, and ‘social intelligence.’”
Gowdy says he’s not very optimistic: “Complex societies” such as ours, “are susceptible to overshoot and collapse [and] as the current response to climate change shows, there is little to no evidence that we can fundamentally change the system we are embedded within the time to avoid catastrophic consequences.” He says disengaging from the system may be impossible without major social upheaval.
But he holds out some hope: “maybe if we can create a more humane capitalism, evolutionary forces will be set in motion so that a transition to a non-growing economy will be possible.”
“If we give people more security” through initiatives that would decrease income inequality such as a guaranteed income and a maximum income, a limit to inherited wealth, and provide universal access to health care and education, then “people would be more willing to support measures that would move us toward a more non-extractive economy,” like a rapid reduction in GHG emissions and the expansion of protected natural areas.
Gowdy also believes that collective, rather than individual, action is required. When I ask him what he means by collective action he says “I really mean political action. Getting control of the government and bringing back union power, boycotts, strikes.” He says that “tweaking the market” with a carbon tax is “woefully inadequate.”
Foundational to Jeremy Lent’s book is that humans have a “patterning instinct,” and that hard-wired into us is the drive to make sense of the world, the instinct to find patterns. He explores — from early hunter-gatherer societies to the present — how a culture’s worldview drives the path it takes.
I hinted at this earlier, but near the end of the book Lent lays out what he sees as the possible trajectories of the human race, and they range from a collapse of civilization to what he calls a “Techo Split,” to a scenario in which humanity remains “resilient.”
If you’re anything like me and already prone to catastrophic thinking, the grisly details of a worst-case-scenario collapse on a global scale naturally inhabits my imagination and can sometimes keep me awake at night. But seeing it articulated in print by Lent and supported by 10 years of rigorous interdisciplinary research has taken it from the realm of irrational worry to an actual plausible outcome. He lays out the collapse in brief, but in no uncertain terms:
After decades of the worst holocaust in human history, filled with unimaginable suffering, the survivors would be looking to a future in which humanity would never again be able to rise above the values and norms of agrarian society, with humans and animals forever exploited as the primary energy source for an elite minority.
In the Techno Split scenario — one that Lent concedes would be a fundamental betrayal of current human values — an affluent minority would continue to advance, while the vast majority of the world’s population would live in squalor. Benefiting from continued technological progress, enjoying their “neurally interconnected, genetically enhanced lives,” the affluent would be “increasingly segregated from the billions of others suffering the effects of climate change and resource depletion. Eventually, they would become — effectively, if not literally — two separate species. One species, genetically and technologically enhanced, exploring entirely new ways of being human; the other species, genetically akin to us, barely surviving within its collapsed infrastructure.”
Ok, let’s not go there.
What would the future look like if we shed our delusional economic model and thinking but kept our humanity?
According to Lent — and this is a gross oversimplification — that future is “up for grabs.” When previously held beliefs and structures of meaning begin to unravel, new patterns of meaning arise, he says, and it’s difficult to predict the outcome. But he says it’s a transition we will all participate in “through the choices we make.”
Rules for reigning in
If there’s one perspective that all the economists and thinkers I’ve interviewed in this series seem to share, it’s the view that in order for humanity to extricate itself from the current crises, there needs to be much more than a price on carbon and a shift to renewables; there needs to be a fundamental shift in our economic system, and in our thinking.
Gowdy argues that our bumping up against several planetary boundaries is not the inevitable result of human nature, but is rooted in other forces, such as culture and our economic system. He also says the drivers of economic and human expansion can be addressed if we “reign in the excesses of exploitation,” and immediately “override the global market juggernaut by stopping Co2 emissions as quickly as possible and protect what’s left of the natural world by stopping the market-driven exploitation of nature.”
Anders Hayden explores the idea of sufficiency, and how we have to move away from a system that is premised on economic growth, to one of “sufficiency,” where we ask the question, how much is enough? Reigning in our demands is a crucial, and often overlooked, piece of this puzzle.
Similarly, Peter Victor argues that we have the capacity to regulate our behaviour in ways so that we don’t “destroy the home in which we live.” He notes that building institutions that regulate behaviour is something we already do all the time, with the courts, for instance. He points to similar mechanisms employed by Indigenous people: “Their civilizations couldn’t have lasted as long as they have if they hadn’t had a worldview and religious beliefs that in some ways regulated their behaviour so their conditions for survival were met.”
“Our problem is we have a set of beliefs geared to growth which are out of sync with our understanding that we have to limit our activities.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and Anishinabekwe scientist and author of the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowleldge, and the Teachings of Plants. She writes that Indigenous cultures had rules governing what they took from the living world, different rules for different cultures and specific ecosystems, but rules nonetheless. There were fundamental principles of restraint that helped rein in the tendency to consume.
We need principles like these now more than ever, because there appears to be no other way around it, and the alternative, quite frankly, is unthinkable. Kimmerer writes:
In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us. When we forget, the dances will be for mourning. For the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers and the memory of snow.
Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist. She lives in Nova Scotia.
- While the current government says “most of the goals” set in the previous law have been achieved, the most recent annual progress report tells a different story. Of the 25 goals, the report claims that 13 have been “achieved” and work is still “ongoing” on the remaining 12. However, among the achievements is one that might surprise you. One of the goals in the previous law was the “sustainable management of natural resources” and the latest progress report actually states “the province adopts a natural resource strategy by 2010… and implements the strategy accordingly.” Really? That strategy — the result of many months of broad public consultation — was adopted, but was never implemented. Instead, the Liberal government abandoned the strategy and has instead employed a number of stall tactics: it commissioned new reports — the Lahey Report — and initiated more rounds of consultation — this time with selected “stakeholders”— “turning protesters into pets,” and eating up what little time is left as crown forests continue to be clearcut with accelerated gusto while forest-dependent species at risk are pushed perilously closer to the brink. The previous law also included a number of other goals towards cleaner energy, air and water quality improvements, and local food production and consumption, which have not yet been met, and are nowhere to be found in the new law. ↩
- In 2011 Canada, under Stephen Harper, withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first climate treaty and only one to have legally binding emission reduction targets, because Canada hadn’t even come close to meeting its emissions targets. Instead of reducing emissions by 6% by 2012 compared to 1990 levels our emissions had ballooned by 28%, largely a result of growth in the energy sector. Withdrawing from the treaty saved Canada $14 billion in penalties. The next climate treaty, the Copenhagen Accord, had non-binding targets for 2020, and Canada’s pledge — to cut emissions by 17% over 2005 levels — was one of the lowest pledges of any of the leading nations. Then in 2016 Canada signed onto the Paris Agreement with its voluntary non-binding targets and no mandatory requirements except to monitor regularly and report every five years. According to the Climate Action Tracker, Canada’s emissions are projected to still be above 1990 levels beyond 2030, which is “far from its Paris Agreement target and nowhere near a 1.5 degree C-compatible pathway.” ↩
- Gowdy writes — quoting from Donald Campbell, one of the pioneers of the study of human social evolution — when human society adopted agriculture it “switched from producing for livelihood to producing for surplus,” and along with this came a transition to “ultrasociality,” which is characterized by a “full-time division of labour, specialists that do not aid in food production, sharing of information, collective defence, and complex city-states.” ↩