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The human behavioural crisis: A critical intervention point for ecological overshoot

Our numbers, our appetites, and our mindsets of human supremacy, entitlement, dominance, status, procrastination and complacency - these combine to create a vicious perfect storm.


This essay in Sage Perspectives by Prof Chris Rhodes, Stable Planet Alliance co-founder Prof Phoebe Barnard and Alliance advisor Joseph Merz was originally published 14 Dec 2023 as a summary of our recent academic paper in Sage's journal Science Progress, coauthored with other Stable Planet Alliance team members Bill Rees, Julia Dederer and Nandita Bajaj, as well as three other global marketing creative strategists disaffected by their industry's own role in the problem of overshoot.



“If psycho-behavioural change is given precedence over purely physical interventions, many anthropogenic pressures on Earth may be alleviated systemically.”


ECOLOGICAL OVERSHOOT


In a year beset by record high air and ocean temperatures, wildfires and floods, and manifest across the globe, the reality of climate change is undeniable. However, dangerous climate change is but one of many interconnected symptoms of human ecological overshoot, along with relentless degradation of the natural environment, loss of biodiversity, and a host of social, economic and political trends.


Defining overshoot as, “the human consumption of natural resources at rates faster than they can be replenished, and entropic waste production in excess of the Earth's assimilative and processing capacity”, begs the question of what is it that drives humans to act in such a blatantly calamitous way?


This topic is explored more deeply in our recent paper, “World Scientists’ Warning: The Behavioural Crisis Driving Ecological Overshoot, which concludes that the root cause of overshoot is maladaptive human behaviour, framed as “the Human Behavioural Crisis” (HBC). We argue that this may provide a critical intervention point for change, in contrast to most current strategies, which are largely resource intensive, slow-moving and focused on addressing the symptoms of ecological overshoot (such as climate change) rather than the root causes (maladaptive behaviours, including those that lead to excessive consumption and an eight-billion human population). 


We conclude that, even in the most optimistic scenarios, symptom-level (“downstream”) interventions are unlikely to avoid catastrophe or achieve more than ephemeral progress. Rather, interventions are needed at the precursory “upstream” stage to ameliorate and reverse overshoot.


Together with our colleagues, we consider how the behavioural crisis plays out through mindsets which, at least in the western world, drive our excessive human numbers and appetites.  The global economy, enabled by clever marketing and pronatalist narratives, manipulates previously adaptive behaviours which are now, collectively, bringing humanity and millions of other species to the brink of an abyss. 



We propose a systemic interdisciplinary emergency response to this crisis of human greed, acquisition of resources, wastefulness and an exploitative economy by, inter alia, reconfiguring societal attitudes relating to consumption, reproduction and waste production. 


Indeed, could those same behavioural science mechanisms that drive our current journey to destruction be adapted to begin putting things into reverse, aiming to attain a more eco-harmonious state of “one planet living”?


Decarbonisation of the global energy system is often presented as the problem humankind must solve. But the installation of sufficient renewables to substitute for the 82% of our primary energy currently provided by fossil fuels (to achieve “net zero” by 2050 or even 2030) would require huge quantities of both raw materials and fossil fuels. Even if this could be pulled off, it would improve just one symptom of ecological overshoot, climate change, likely worsening others significantly in the process.


Since it is humankind's access to cheap, abundant energy that has enabled us to exceed or threaten many planetary boundaries, simply substituting one form of energy for another without addressing our consumption and waste of it doesn’t solve our overall predicament. As environmental journalist Hart Hagan observes wryly:


“A species causing the extinction of 150 species per day doesn’t need more energy to do more of what it does.” 


SPECIFIC BEHAVIOURAL INTERVENTIONS


By reframing our multiple existential crises, we may advance from merely treating symptoms to healing the core cultural malady. If behavioural change is prioritised over purely physical interventions, many anthropogenic pressures on Earth may be alleviated systemically and simultaneously. Thus, the current 100 billion tonnes per annum of natural resources required to maintain ‘the human enterprise’ could be substantially reduced.  And a focus on lighter lifestyles in the Global North, especially, would reduce our demand for massive amounts of “new” materials needed to try and substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy.


Paradoxically, the marketing, media and entertainment industries, all complicit in exacerbating the behavioural crisis, may just be our best chance at avoiding ecological catastrophe.


The stories we tell shape appetites and norms. Typically, when we try to address maladaptive behaviours, we usually focus on raising awareness and education, under the arguable assumption that this leads to the desired behaviours. But while awareness and education certainly have important roles to play in combating ecological overshoot, they are relatively ineffective at driving behavioural change. Can the same mechanisms that fuelled our immense consumption bring it back within planetary limits?


DIRECTING AND POLICING WIDESPREAD BEHAVIOUR MANIPULATION


Like the manipulation of human impulses to buy more and more goods that we don’t need, behaviour has been intentionally manipulated for other nefarious purposes. Eco-centric behaviour is at the heart of any sustainable future humanity might wish to achieve. We are now at a crossroads, with three possible paths ahead:


  • We can continue letting private corporations, nations and others manipulate our behaviours for either financial or political profit,

  • We can ignore the problem and leave our future and planet to chance, or

  • We can use the opportunity to consciously steer our collective behaviours to conform to the natural ecological laws that bind all life on Earth. This is, in the case of human fertility, already happening in most countries.

This raises deep ethical questions: for example, who should wield such power to reverse the exploitation of human impulse for private profit or political gain? At present, the mechanisms for behaviour change are in the hands of anyone with the necessary influence or financial means to exploit them. However, large-scale social change should happen organically, and messaging to reverse the damage of the past century should be firmly bound by, and anchored within a framework built upon the Earth’s natural planetary boundaries, the science of limits to growth, and a social and/or spiritual need to reconnect to Nature as a life-support system, rather than an arena for commodification, exploitation, competition and dominance.


We urgently call for increased interdisciplinary work to be carried out in directing, understanding and tracking widespread behaviour manipulation. A practical start on this is being made at the Merz Institute and its Overshoot Behaviour Lab.









Academic paper details

Joseph J Merz, Phoebe Barnard, William E Rees, Dane Smith, Mat Maroni, Christopher J Rhodes, Julia H Dederer, Nandita Bajaj, Michael K Joy, Thomas Wiedmann, Rory Sutherland. 2023. World scientists’ warning: The behavioural crisis driving ecological overshoot. Review article first published in Science Progress September 20, 2023.

DOI: 10.1177/00368504231201372.


About the Authors


Christopher J Rhodes (DPhil, DSc) became a full professor in physical chemistry in his early 30s, and has published over 250 peer reviewed academic papers and an extensive online collection of essays and journalism. He is currently Director of the consultancy, Fresh-lands Environmental Actions, and a Board member of Scientists Warning Europe. He has advised on low-carbon energy for the European Commission. Chris holds Fellowships of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Linnean Society of London, and the Royal Society of Arts. He is Chair of Transition Town Reading (U.K.). He has also published a novel, a collection of poetry and a series of children's picture books.

Phoebe Barnard (PhD) is professor of environmental and societal futures and global change science at University of Washington, climate vulnerability research associate at University of Cape Town, founding CEO of the global Stable Planet Alliance, and cofounder of the Global Restoration Collaborative, a young process to drive and reframe our economy and civilization to regenerative alternatives. Working for decades in post-independence Africa at countries’ transition to democratic rule, she brings the “What is, to what if?” frames that they considered at their historical crossroads to the challenges now faced by humanity as a whole. She is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Joseph J Merz is the Co-founder of a number of organisations. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Merz Institute - a research institute largely focused on addressing ecological overshoot at a behavioural level. Joseph serves on the Executive Committee of the Stable Planet Alliance, and is also a Senior Fellow of the Global Evergreening Alliance.


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