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Buckminster Fuller once said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Nowhere is the sentiment more applicable than in our fight to combat the potentially existential threat of climate change and environmental degradation now facing the human species.
To put the problem simply, the main reason we’re failing on climate change is that most of what we’re doing is fighting the existing reality and not building the new model we need to make the existing model obsolete.
The overwhelming slew of environmental problems we face, including carbon accumulation, ozone depletion, mass extinction, soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, water pollution, and others, are merely negative side effects of the global spread of industrialization.
The problem is that global industrialization also continues to be very beneficial for humanity—at least until its ecological bill comes due. It’s brought untold numbers of people out of the mass poverty that characterized the pre-modern human condition and has made their daily lives happier, healthier, wealthier, and easier due to the widespread application of industrial technologies.
Civilizational transformation needed
Unfortunately, too much of the popular response to climate change and environmental degradation has been characterized by trying to contain or limit the negative side effects of global industrialization through lifestyle changes. This is a natural response. We as humans are more apt to respond to immediate and visible problems than to grasp the deeper forces less noticeably at play. But this approach has led to mixed and temporary successes and will never fully solve our climate dilemma.
We’ll never prevent catastrophic climate change if we keep trimming at the branches of global industrialization with personal action rather than cutting it off at the roots through civilizational transformation. To cut those roots we need to eliminate the fundamental conflict between improving the human condition in the short run and severely damaging humanity’s prospects in the long run. That requires us to transform global civilization in a way that balances the competing needs of economic development, distributional equity, and ecological viability.
So how do we go about doing this?
In short, the environmental impact of our species on the finite global ecosystem is a function of the total human population, the per capita level of economic consumption, technology, and political institutions.
The total human population is growing and likely to continue to for the foreseeable future and economic output must continue to grow if we hope to maintain and improve the living standards of this expanding human population.
That leaves a combination of changes in technology and political institutions as the only viable options to rapidly reverse human impact on the global ecosystem back to sustainable levels.
The technologies we need are either in development, ready to be applied, or being applied. The critical stumbling block has been in our global political institutions.
We, therefore, need to demand deep institutional reform from policymakers if we’re to solve this problem. The only way forward is to build a political and public policy that incentivizes the necessary rapid shift to green technologies that will transform global civilization. Ultimately, reversing the human-driven impacts on our global ecosystem while improving the living standards of the world’s rising population is the only way to make the existing model obsolete, and it won’t be achieved through individual lifestyle changes alone.