Economic Collapse and Global Ecology


Given widespread failure to pursue policies sufficient to reverse deterioration of the biosphere and avoid ecological collapse, the best we can hope for may be that the growth- based economic system crashes sooner rather than later

Earth Meanders by Dr. Glen Barry

January 12, 2008

Humanity and the Earth are faced with an enormous conundrum -- sufficient climate policies enjoy political support only in times of rapid economic growth. Yet this growth is the primary factor driving greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental ills. The growth machine has pushed the planet well beyond its ecological carrying capacity, and unless constrained, can only lead to human extinction and an end to complex life.

With every economic downturn, like the one now looming in the United States, it becomes more difficult and less likely that policy sufficient to ensure global ecological sustainability will be embraced. This essay explores the possibility that from a biocentric viewpoint of needs for long-term global ecological, economic and social sustainability; it would be better for the economic collapse to come now rather than later.

Economic growth is a deadly disease upon the Earth, with capitalism as its most virulent strain. Throw-away consumption and explosive population growth are made possible by using up fossil fuels and destroying ecosystems. Holiday shopping numbers are covered by media in the same breath as Arctic ice melt, ignoring their deep connection. Exponential economic growth destroys ecosystems and pushes the biosphere closer to failure.

Humanity has proven itself unwilling and unable to address climate change and other environmental threats with necessary haste and ambition. Action on coal, forests, population, renewable energy and emission reductions could be taken now at net benefit to the economy. Yet, the losers -- primarily fossil fuel industries and their bought oligarchy -- successfully resist futures not dependent upon their deadly products.

Perpetual economic growth, and necessary climate and other ecological policies, are fundamentally incompatible. Global ecological sustainability depends critically upon establishing a steady state economy, whereby production is right-sized to not diminish natural capital. Whole industries like coal and natural forest logging will be eliminated even as new opportunities emerge in solar energy and environmental restoration.

This critical transition to both economic and ecological sustainability is simply not happening on any scale. The challenge is how to carry out necessary environmental policies even as economic growth ends and consumption plunges. The natural response is going to be liquidation of even more life- giving ecosystems, and jettisoning of climate policies, to vainly try to maintain high growth and personal consumption.

We know that humanity must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% over coming decades. How will this and other necessary climate mitigation strategies be maintained during years of economic downturns, resource wars, reasonable demands for equitable consumption, and frankly, the weather being more pleasant in some places? If efforts to reduce emissions and move to a steady state economy fail; the collapse of ecological, economic and social systems is assured.

Bright greens take the continued existence of a habitable Earth with viable, sustainable populations of all species including humans as the ultimate truth and the meaning of life. Whether this is possible in a time of economic collapse is crucially dependent upon whether enough ecosystems and resources remain post collapse to allow humanity to recover and reconstitute sustainable, relocalized societies.

It may be better for the Earth and humanity's future that economic collapse comes sooner rather than later, while more ecosystems and opportunities to return to nature's fold exist. Economic collapse will be deeply wrenching -- part Great Depression, part African famine. There will be starvation and civil strife, and a long period of suffering and turmoil.

Many will be killed as balance returns to the Earth. Most people have forgotten how to grow food and that their identity is more than what they own. Yet there is some justice, in that those who have lived most lightly upon the land will have an easier time of it, even as those super-consumers living in massive cities finally learn where their food comes from and that ecology is the meaning of life. Economic collapse now means humanity and the Earth ultimately survive to prosper again.

Human suffering -- already the norm for many, but hitting the currently materially affluent -- is inevitable given the degree to which the planet's carrying capacity has been exceeded. We are a couple decades at most away from societal strife of a much greater magnitude as the Earth's biosphere fails. Humanity can take the bitter medicine now, and recover while emerging better for it; or our total collapse can be a final, fatal death swoon.

A successful revolutionary response to imminent global ecosystem collapse would focus upon bringing down the Earth's industrial economy now. As society continues to fail miserably to implement necessary changes to allow creation to continue, maybe the best strategy to achieve global ecological sustainability is economic sabotage to hasten the day. It is more fragile than it looks.

Humanity is a marvelous creation. Yet her current dilemma is unprecedented. It is not yet known whether she is able to adapt, at some expense to her comfort and short-term well- being, to ensure survival. If she can, all futures of economic, social and ecological collapse can be avoided. If not it is better from a long-term biocentric viewpoint that the economic growth machine collapse now, bringing forth the necessary change, and offering hope for a planetary and human revival.

I wish no harm to anyone, and want desperately to avoid these prophesies foretold by ecological science. I speak for the Earth, for despite being the giver of life, her natural voice remains largely unheard over the tumult of the end of being.

Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark at and http://www.EcoEarth.Info/ . Earth Meanders is a series of ecological essays that are written entirely in his personal capacity. This essay may be reprinted granted it is properly credited to Dr. Barry and with a link to Earth Meanders. Emailed responses are public record and will be posted on the web site unless otherwise requested.


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