Why is the political process so slow to respond to our ecological crisis?

September 24, 2021

Preface.  Rex Weyler is one of the co-founders of Greenpeace in Canada, a brilliant ecologist and journalist, and more. His blog is here.


Rex Weyler. September 2021. Ecological crisis: Might as well speak the truth

Why is the political process — worldwide — so slow in responding appropriately to our ecological crisis?

We may point out that most political processes are hobbled by corruption, self-interest, and bureaucratic incompetence. However, there may be a deeper reason, connected to how the status quo protects itself, not just against foreign aggressors, but against dissident ideas that threaten its accepted narrative.

Regarding our ecological problems, the popular narrative of most societies and governments today is that we have a “climate problem,” which can be solved with “renewable technologies” such as windmills, carbon capture, and efficient batteries.

However, global heating is a symptom of a much larger, more fundamental ecological crisis articulated by William Rees, the Limits to Growth study, the Post-Carbon Institute  and other ecologically aware observers. Humanity’s urgent and primary challenge is what ecologists call “overshoot,” the predicament of any species that grows beyond the capacity of its environment. Wolves overshoot the prey in their watershed, algae overshoot the nutrient capacity of a lake, and humanity has overshot the entire capacity of Earth. Global heating, the biodiversity crisis, depleted soils, and disappearing forests are all symptoms of ecological overshoot.

All paths out of overshoot (genuine solutions) involve a contraction of the species and a decline of material/energy throughput. There are no exceptions.

Furthermore, the contraction of humanity is inevitable, so all genuine options exist within this framework, whether we respond appropriately or not. And finally, every day that we ignore this reality, the deeper humanity falls into the overshoot rut, the faster the feedbacks take over (forest fires, methane from melting permafrost), and the less chance we have of mitigation.

In several cases, scientists and other colleagues who have attempted to introduce these facts in political settings have told me: “It is a non-starter. They don’t want to hear it.” Okay. That reveals a deeper problem: political inertia and the paradigm trap.

If mentioning the real problem to any given group that wants to help is a “non-starter,” I cannot imagine how that group is ever going to be effective.

In my experience, this is how the status quo maintains itself: Not necessarily with conspiracy or evil plotting (although those phenomena exist), but rather with social gravity, pulling every alternative idea or narrative toward itself, until the alternative idea is safely inside the event horizon and there is no escape. The capitalist/growth status quo black hole has virtually gobbled up the entire environmental movement, and the civil rights movements, this way.

Politicians reach out to scientists for an articulation of our problems, but typically reject the warnings from scientists if those warnings violate the accepted paradigm. The message from serious ecological science suggests that a clear understanding of overshoot is absolutely essential for anyone or any group hoping to understand the problem. Non-starter or not, I suggest it would help anyone attempting to influence governments to have a one-pager on “Overshoot” available for everyone, to distribute it relentlessly, and to articulate it at every opportunity. Don’t wait until it is acceptable.

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Paul Ehrlich bravely and brilliantly warned humanity of the population crisis in the 1960s, and tried to get the topic on the UN agenda in Stockholm in 1972, and almost succeeded, but was sabotaged by people (including Barry Commoner) who claimed the subject, though correct, was a “non-starter.” So here we are, fifty years down the road, having wasted half a century on pretending, with the population having doubled, and material throughput quadrupled. Meanwhile, we’ve wasted 42 years of climate meetings, allowing political appointees to avoid the real dilemma, while pretending that carbon-capture and mechanical efficiencies would solve the erroneously-described problem.

A leading environmental leader once told me that, although true, she could get “no traction” with the overshoot warning or with population issues. I sympathize, but my response was, and still is: What good is traction if you’re going down the wrong road?

Sometimes the “traction” is to help with fundraising, but I don’t believe that funding is the solution. As often as not, funding is the problem, because the funding represents a huge packet of energy, resources, and person-power, so if the funding is creating traction down the wrong road — tech fixes, better lives for 9, 10, 12 billion people, a marginally more benign American or European empire — it is part of the problem.

So the articulation of the problem includes this: We don’t have another half-century to quibble.

Governments claim to care about risk mitigation, but ignoring the real dilemma is the biggest risk of all. It’s like turning on the air conditioner when the house is on fire.

I believe most of the solutions that will matter will be local: Learn to grow food, grow food, learn about energy, reduce energy throughput, build up local and regional energy sources, protect local ecosystems, build community cohesion, establish systems to create soil, enrich the soil, recycle everything locally, reduce material throughput, set local limits on growth.

Virtually none of this can be achieved globally, but there still exists useful global efforts — including efforts to inform governments of the genuine challenges. I would engage in any global effort that is realistic about the problems we face.

In that case, what are the global priorities: My list starts with universal women’s rights, available contraception, a global promotion campaign for small families, to address unrestrained population growth; a vast reduction of militarism and weapons manufacturing; reduce psychopathic behaviour in governments and institutions; limit corporate power in government and in ecological regulation; reduce/eliminate frivolous consumption, and so forth.

I suggest that to be effective, all this has to be done within the biophysically, ecologically correct context: Humanity is in a state of overshoot, getting worse daily, and all paths out, all genuine solutions, include a large-scale contraction of human enterprise.

So, when you lobby your government for action, don’t equivocate. If your government ignores you because you insist on bringing up these issues, it is better to find out now, rather than in another decade or half century.


Teaser photo credit: Algal blooms. By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon – NASA Earth Observatory, Public Domain,

Rex Weyler

Rex Weyler was a director of the original Greenpeace Foundation, the editor of the organisation's first newsletter, and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1979.

Tags: ecological overshoot, powering down