A Catalyst to help save the Ecosphere

A catalyst is something which facilitates a process which would otherwise not happen.

The warnings that humans were over-exploiting the Ecosphere, the only place life is known to exist were issued loud and clear in the 1972 report Limits to Growth. So why did something not at least start happening in 1973?

Despite much talk and many unkept promises the latest (2021) reports of the IPCC continue to show rising CO2 levels, continuing biodiversity loss, and no remission of extreme weather events or wildfires.

Why has action to prevent this getting worse not yet happened? The answers which are belatedly emerging, but even now not regarded a urgent, were available in 1972

They were not applied then because there was no evidence. The danger was theoretical, and the measures necessary would not be popular to voters in democratic elections. The only ones who took Limits seriously were the oil companies, who stood to lose mega-millions in the short term. They discredited it as others had successfully discredited smoking.

The problem is no longer theoretical, but I do not intend to rehearse the mounting evidence.

[pic of the German flood damage ?]

As long ago as 1973 I proposed something which I thought might help to solve the problem revealed by Limits: An unconditional basic income (UBI). The idea has gained considerable traction since then, but nothing to do with my efforts. In fact I am horrified. The UBI is proposed as a way of ensuring that the benefits of automation are shared by everyone.

That is indeed a necessary objective, but if not firmly tied to the ecological objective – limiting economic activity to what the Ecosphere can cope with – it will lead to a continuation of exponential growth –which we should have brought to a halt long before 1972.

Limits to Growth is an example of the Tragedy of the Commons. It is due to exponential growth  –  the sudden end of  what has gone on for ages due to resources no longer being available. This happens surprisingly suddenly.

[graph here showing why doubling has a sudden impact]

For me a telling example of exponential growth is Jane Goodall’s shock on returning recently to the Gombe Chimpanzee Reserve, the first time she had done so by air.  When she first started her work with Chimpanzees in 1960, there was dense rainforest from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. But by now the Gombe Reserve is a tiny island of tree cover, surrounded by farmland.

The cause is exponential growth in population. This was slight – imperceptible from year to year, so slight as to be barely noticeable even over a lifetime. until just before the end.

The exponential principle is also demonstrated by a bottle of milk going sour. It seems to happen quite quickly, but the increase in lactobacillus starts as soon as the milk is exposed to the atmosphere, several days earlier. In Africa, the human population had been expanding exponentially for many millennia, but the limits to growth only became apparent and unavoidable during the last 40 or so years.

Is Capitalism to blame? Yes, but it will adapt. Growth is assumed to be continuous – and permanent. Any halt in growth is seen as a recession, where expected wealth which was relied on does not materialise.

Capitalism was not responsible for the behaviour of the African tribes surrounding the Gombe chimpanzee reserve. which had not changed for millennia, It did not occur to them that there was a limit, and that that limit would be reached within a lifetime.

It is exactly the same with economic growth globally. Ever since humans evolved less than 200,000 years ago, not only have they expanded everywhere except to Antarctica, they have been introducing technological innovations. Why should this not go on indefinitely?

Conventional wisdom still depends on technological innovation. This may well continue, but from now on it must take account of the effect on the Ecosphere, the only place life is known to exist,

The Earthshot Project, launched recently by Prince William offers money for suitable innovations. I approve of the purpose, but  why not in 1973, and why are the proposals in competition? If the situation is dire enough to need large sums of money, humanity needs all the help it can get. It should have been done by governments, private firms being taxed for this purpose.

So where would my proposal, an unconditional basic income fit? It doesn’t. It doesn’t fit any of the Earthshot categories, because they all assume practical innovations. My guess as to why the UBI has still escaped attention is because the kind of minds which have driven human advances until now focus on practical consequences.

But the UBI has another ability: the potential to allow individuals, millions of individuals world- wide, to change their mind set from more innovations as the only possible answer, to a recognition that innovations must be in the context of a quasi-Buddhist philosophy.

As I said at the beginning, the Basic income on its own will doom us, because it will lead to ever more physical demands on resources. But in tandem with Eco-footprint taxes relating to the damage done by their extraction and use, a UBI might (not will) allow a mind set which can defeat he Tragedy of the Commons. It should at least be a part of the narrative.

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