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William Rees

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William E. Rees

Mainstream governments and international organizations assume that advances in wind and solar energy will enable a smooth transition to a mainly urban future and zero-carbon economy in coming decades – urbanization will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s cities and we can readily meet the estimated 50–98 per cent increase in global demand for food. But, what if this scenario is fatally flawed? Cities and mega-cities rely utterly on fossil fuels to supply themselves in a world that must ‘decarbonize’ by mid-century. Continued use of fossil fuels exposes mega-cities to potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, including food shortages. On the other hand, excess investment in current ‘green’ energy technologies could result in energy and food shortages, shrinking economies, and so on. In short, megacities in this century confront a destabilizing combination of climate change, deteriorating energy supplies, and stalling economies. These circumstances could reverse both urbanization and global population growth by the mid- to late century.

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William E. Rees

Humanity is in dangerous ecological ‘overshoot’ – resource consumption and waste production exceed the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere and threaten global civilization. This predicament seems inexplicable. Homo sapiens has several intellectual and behavioural attributes that should enable us to resolve the crisis. The more remarkable then, that the problem is mostly attributable to the world’s most-advanced best-educated countries and that the international community has been unable to act decisively in its own long-term best interests. Why are humans so seemingly myopic? What blinds decision-makers to biophysical reality so that they deny the world’s best science? Most explanations invoke some combination of economic, political, and sociocultural factors. By contrast, this chapter makes the case that society’s eco-dysfunction springs from the deepest roots of innate human nature and neuro-cognition. To begin, humanity’s once adaptive expansionist tendencies become highly destructive when reinforced by modern technology and growth-based cultural norms. However, even our most subjectively logical approach to this problem may be trumped by instinct and emotion. Humans experience life in conscious self-awareness and thus assume we are the intelligent masters of our will, but many neuroscientists assert that conscious motivation and control is illusion. Peoples’ conscious thoughts are pre-shaped by unconscious background causes over which we have little control; even where we locate ourselves along the liberal-to-conservative spectrum of political belief may be the result of subtle differences in neuro-anatomy; deeply embedded beliefs/ideologies/narratives acquire specific synaptic circuits in the brain which may become virtually impervious to new knowledge; politicians are in the sway of powerful elites and their own partially subconscious need to retain the trappings of power. The net effect is that decision-makers do not necessarily act rationally, at least as defined by the broader public interest. Society’s collective ‘executive functions’ often seem paralyzed and blind to our best environmental science. If the world community is to save itself, it must first explicitly acknowledge the contribution of both innate behavioral propensities and maladaptive narratives to our predicament and devise ways to confront them directly. Sustainability requires that we override our innate expansionist tendencies. Society must script a new cultural narrative that places cooperation and community above competition and individualism, equity and development above efficiency and growth. The good news is evidence that the human brain is remarkably plastic, able to ‘rewire’ itself even after physical or emotional trauma. If we can muster the necessary self-awareness, political will and resources, it is theoretically possible to inscribe new social norms on even the more resistant (that is, ideologically afflicted) of psyches. Of course, not all problems are solvable. History suggests that, like other complex systems, human societies may be fated to cycle repeatedly through predictable phases – from optimistic pioneering, through growth and complexification, to inflexible, top-heavy rigidity and ultimate collapse. The real question, then, is whether contemporary society can break from this dismal cycle and thus give our species the opportunity to climb yet another rung on the human evolutionary ladder.