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Climate Change and Earth Overshoot: Is there a better “Green New Deal?”



Is there an even better Green New Deal?

By William Reese and Megan Seibert

Long-standing calls from ecologists and informed environmentalists for society to adopt a systems perspective and employ a multi-disciplinary approach to anthropogenic climate change have largely fallen on deaf ears. Most people have succumbed to the mechanistic–reductionist paradigm that has dominated Cartesian science, as is evident by the isolation of climate from its broader ecological context and its treatment as a discrete, independent variable. The reality is that climate change is only one symptom of systems destabilization as the human enterprise has come to overwhelm the ecosphere.       How can we recalibrate our focal lens and really  enable an even better outcome?


Please note: The entire white Paper follows this introduction:

We add to the emerging body of literature highlighting cracks in the foundation of the mainstream energy transition narrative. We offer a tripartite analysis that re-characterizes the climate crisis within its broader context of ecological overshoot, highlights numerous collectively fatal problems with so-called renewable energy technologies, and suggests alternative solutions that entail a contraction of the human enterprise. This analysis makes clear that the pat notion of “affordable clean energy” views the world through a narrow keyhole that is blind to innumerable economic, ecological, and social costs. These undesirable “externalities” can no longer be ignored.

To achieve sustainability and salvage civilization, society must embark on a planned, cooperative descent from an extreme state of overshoot in just a decade or two. While it might be easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for global society to succeed in this endeavor, history is replete with stellar achievements that have arisen only from a dogged pursuit of the seemingly impossible.

We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives—even scientific theories—are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.

The Green New Deal (GND) is the dominant aspirational pathway in the mainstream narrative for achieving socially just ecological sustainability. Its central message is that a smooth transition away from climate-hostile fossil fuels is a relatively simple technological matter. Not only do proponents claim that electrification of all energy consumption by means of high-tech wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels is technically possible, but that such a vast and unprecedented replacement of society’s entrenched energy foundation is both financially feasible and carries the added benefit of creating  thousands of “green” jobs [1–7]. The only missing ingredient, we are told, is political will. Energy transition plans produced by numerous academic institutions and researchers around the world support or conform obediently to the GND paradigm, and politicians everywhere have taken up the GND banner as the core of their environmental pledges.

We argue that while the GND narrative is highly seductive, it is little more than adisastrous shared illusion. Not only is the GND technically flawed, but it fails to recognize human ecological dysfunction as the overall driver of incipient global systemic collapse.

By viewing climate change, rather than ecological overshoot—of which climate change is merely a symptom—as the central problem, the GND and its variants grasp in vain for techno-industrial solutions to problems caused by techno-industrial society. Such a self-referencing pursuit is doomed to fail. As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need an entirely new narrative for a successful energy transition. Only by abandoning the flawed paradigmatic source of our ecological dilemma can we formulate realistic pathways for averting social–ecological collapse.

Dr William Rees    

Dr. Rees is a human ecologist, ecological economist, and Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning in Vancouver, Canada, where his research and teaching focused on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability in an era of accelerating ecological change. He has a special interest in ecologically relevant metrics of sustainability and their interpretation in terms of complexity theory and behavioral ecology.

Dr. Rees is perhaps best known as the originator and co-developer of the ecological footprint analysis. Widely adopted for sustainability assessments by governments, NGOs, and academics, the human eco-footprint has arguably become world’s best-known sustainability indicator.

He has authored or co-authored more than 150 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. He has also authored numerous popular articles on humanity’s unsustainability conundrum, focusing on cognitive and cultural barriers to sustainability, including human’s well-developed capacity for self-delusion.

Dr. Rees is a long-term member of the Global Ecological Integrity Group, a Fellow at Post Carbon Institute, a founding member and past President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, and a founding Director of the OneEarth Initiative. He has lectured by invitation throughout North America and 25 other countries around the world. In 2006, he was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious Trudeau Foundation Fellowship. He is the recipient of the 2012 Boulding Prize in Ecological Economics and a 2012 Blue Planet Prize (jointly with Dr. Wackernagel).

Megan Seibert, Executive Director, Real GND

Megan is a systems thinker who started REALgnd in response to the overwhelmingly short-sighted rhetoric about energy and sustainability, filling a need for sober analysis and bold truth-telling.

Raised in Michigan and now residing in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Megan’s gypsy life has been defined by the transformative tension of opposites. She was raised in a conservative military family yet was deeply influenced by her environmentally oriented relatives and scholarly German heritage.

Her eclectic professional path includes horse packing in the wildernesses of Montana and Wyoming, running a small business, and working in the environmental and defense sectors. She has an M.S. in Systems Science / Environmental Management from Portland State University and an international studies and engineering B.S. from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Megan is a bridger of opposites, holding together the rational and intuitive, analytical and creative, and the likelihood of a dark future with the faith that it need not be so if only we commit ourselves. After 15 years of yoga practice and studying Eastern philosophies in graduate school, she began exploring shamanism, animism, astrology, and teacher plants.

These diverse experiences and sensibilities have led quite naturally to REALgnd. As a Myers-Briggs INFJ, she is deeply fulfilled by being involved in this meaningful work.

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