William Rees: Culture and behavior: The human nature of unsustainability

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William Rees.  Sep 1, 2011. The Unsustainability Conundrum. Post Carbon Institute

In 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued the following gloomy assessment of the prospects for civilization: We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead:

A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.

Thirteen years of continuing eco-degradation later, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the most comprehensive assessment of the state of the ecosphere ever undertaken, was moved to echo the UCS sentiments:

At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.

Just what is going on here? The world’s top physicists, ecologists, and climatologists have warned the world repeatedly that current development strategies are undermining global life-support systems, that we have “overshot” long-term global carrying capacity, and that human-induced impacts on global systems threaten catastrophe for billions of people. Yet still the dismal data accumulate with the accelerating loss of ecosystem integrity around the world. Despite decades of rising rhetoric on the risks of global change, no national government, the United Nations, or any other official international organization has seriously begun to contemplate—let alone articulate publicly—the revolutionary policy responses evoked by the scientific evidence.

Humans may pride themselves as being the best evidence for intelligent life on Earth, but an alien observer would record that the (un)sustainability conundrum has the global community floundering in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial.

Indeed, our alien friend might go so far as to ask why our reasonably intelligent species seems unable to recognize the crisis for what it is and respond accordingly.

To begin answering this question, we need to look beyond conventional explanations—scientific uncertainty, societal inertia, lack of political will, resistance by vested interests, and so on—to what may well be the root cause of the conundrum: human nature itself.

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