Ecological economics for humanity’s plague phase

The human enterprise is in potentially disastrous ‘overshoot’, exploiting the ecosphere beyond ecosystems’ re-generative capacity and filling natural waste sinks to overflowing. Economic behavior that was once ‘rational’ has become maladaptive. This situation is the inevitable outcome of humanity’s natural expansionist tendencies reinforced by ecologically vacuous growth-oriented ‘neoliberal’ economic theory. The world needs a more ecologically-informed economics yet, despite its self-description, contemporary ‘ecological economics’ does not adequately reflect key elements of human evolutionary and behavioral ecology. How should the discipline develop? This paper briefly considers some of the missing pieces that are particularly relevant to humanity’s econo-ecological predicament: competitive displacement of non-human species through habitat and resource appropriation; humans as exemplars of the maximum power principle; the implications of ‘far-from-equilibrium’ thermodynamics; and evidence that H. sapiens is in the plague phase of a global population cycle. I then describe some of motivational and cognitive roots of crisis denial that extend even into the 2015 Paris climate accord. The paper concludes with: a) a list of principles for ecological economics consistent with the analysis and; b) a minimal set of policy actions necessary for the global community to achieve a more equitable steady-state economy and stable population within the biocapacity of nature.

Consistent with this biophysical and social realities of limits to growth we consider the global community should:

• formally acknowledge the absurdity of perpetual material growth and accumulation (the hallmarks of capitalism) on a finite planet;

• accept that rational short-term economic behaviour at the individual or small group level has become maladaptive at the long-term global level;

• ‘choreograph’ an extended eco-economic ‘story’ compatible with the steady-state operating principles of the ecosphere;

• shift the primary emphases of economic planning from quantitative growth and efficiency toward qualitative development and equity;

• begin the public cultural, social and economic discussions and formal planning necessary to reduce fossil energy and material consumption consistent with estimates of overshoot (∼70 %) and IPCC mandated emissions reductions (100 % by 2050);

• develop economically efficient and effective instruments to ration fossil fuels and allocate the remaining global carbon budget to essential uses until adequate green energy supplies are available;

• commit to devising and implementing policies consistent with a ‘one Earth’ civilization where the overall goal is ecologically stable, economically secure, more equitable steady-state society (Daly, 1991) functioning within the biophysical means of nature.

• conceive and implement a global fertility strategy to reduce the human population to the two billion ( ± ) people that might be able to live sustainably on this already much-damaged single planet Earth.

Source based on recommendations of Professor William Rees at