Why things will likely get worse: a systems perspective


  • William Rees University of British Columbia


obsolete brain; evolution; reductionist; simplistic; neoliberal economics; overshoot; negative feedback; contraction;


The human brain is obsolete. Early modern H. sapiens emerged in simpler times when neither the social nor biophysical environments sufficiently challenged the evolving central nervous system to cope with real complexity. Most people therefore naturally think in linear-reductionist modes and in terms of simple cause-effect relationships. Consider society’s fixation on one-crucial-issue-at-a–time—e.g., climate change, the pandemic or perhaps biodiversity loss, then back to climate change—seemingly unaware that all such problems are mere symptoms of the real existential threat, ecological overshoot. Overshoot means that humans are using bio-resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and producing wastes in excess of nature’s assimilative capacities. We are literally consuming and polluting the biophysical basis of our own existence. This is, in turn, partially the product of a simplistic socio-cultural paradigm—growth-addicted neoliberal economics—whose models contain no useful information about the temporal and spatial dynamics of the ecosystems or even social systems with which the economy interacts in the real world. Clearly, such ‘normal’ human cognitive modes and resultant management models are inadequate to cope with 21st Century realities—modern techno-industrial (MTI) society is maladapted to the world humans themselves have created.  That world is one of multiple, overlapping, social and biophysical sub-systems (e.g., the internet, global economy, military-industrial complex, competing governing systems, transportation networks, climate system, ecosystems, etc.) any one of which defies full comprehension; the behavior of the compound system is characterized by mind-boggling complexity (e.g., unpredictable lags, thresholds, discontinuities, multiple potentially hostile equilibria, etc.) beyond the grasp of the best human minds. It doesn’t help that human decision-making operates partially beneath consciousness. Emotion often trumps reason in times of crisis. In the circumstances, there is diminishing probability that humans can exert effective control over how the future unfolds. Without a dramatic change of course, including a shift to systems-based eco-consciousness and a planned economic contraction, MTI culture is likely to be ‘selected out’ by systemic negative feedback in coming decades.