Editor’s Note: The following piece is an argument for deep green environmentalism and attempts to answer the questions: What is deep green environmentalism? How have other forms of environmentalism (particularly bright green and technological) failed to save nature? Why do we need deep green environmentalism?
We Are Deep Green Environmentalists
By Elisabeth Robson/Medium
In recent years the media has noticed that the incessant calls of “climate emergency” followed by no action that is making any material difference to the climate change crisis has lead to people feeling depressed about the future. Of course, being the media, they report on this as if it’s a simple story of a world split into three categories of people: climate activists, climate deniers, and climate doomers. But this is too simple a story, as we will see.
This essay was prompted by a March 24, 2023 Washington Post article about “climate doomers”. The article describes these doomers as a group of people who “believe that the climate problem cannot, or will not, be solved in time to prevent all-out societal collapse.”
This article comes shortly after the IPCC’s AR6 Synthesis report Summary for Policymakers was published mid-March. The report states that global warming has reached 1.1C above the 1850–1900 baseline, that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase despite thirty-plus years of warnings about climate change and global conferences to address the issue, and that global warming has contributed to “widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people.” It goes on to say that despite these thirty years of meetings and reports and hand-wringing, it is “likely that warming will exceed 1.5C” and that “every increment of global warming will intensify multiple and concurrent hazards.”
Is it any wonder that many reading this report and the news stories about it might believe climate change will not be solved? We can see with our own eyes that at 1.1C warming, already extreme weather events linked to climate change are connected with conflict, food and water shortages, natural disasters, and even war. Is it any wonder that we might think “likely” warming of 1.5C — 2.0C might cause societal collapse? Especially when one looks at the graph of primary energy consumption, which shows a relentless upward climb of the world’s consumption of coal, oil, and gas (with recent minor dips correlating only with the massive recession in 2008 and with a global shutdown for Covid in 2020).
It is obvious to anyone who has eyes that energy use increases with economic growth. It is obvious to anyone who understands the rudimentary basics of how the global economy works that the only time energy use dips is when recession or pandemics hit and cause a whole lot of economic pain for people without sustained government bailouts. While the energy share of so-called renewables increases in minuscule amounts each year, its share is tiny in comparison to that of fossil fuels, and with the timelines outlined in recent IPCC reports, it’s obvious to most observers that, even if renewables worked as promised, there is no way fossil fuels will be replaced anytime soon. Thus, the conclusion that “the climate problem cannot, or will not, be solved in time to prevent all-out societal collapse” starts to look a bit like a realistic outlook. Do these realists deserve to be called “doomers”?
The Washington Post article goes on to talk about the worry that “doom” can cause paralysis, and admonishes us that we must maintain hope if we are to be effective climate change activists. The main protagonist of the story is a young activist worried about human extinction. The story ends on a hopeful note with the same young activist focused instead on engaging in his community by “showing there is support for the solutions.” Unfortunately, the article doesn’t discuss what those solutions are.
The world the mainstream media seems to see when it’s reporting on climate change is one focused almost entirely on carbon: burning too much of it, the people who deny that burning it is bad, the people who are trying to get the world to burn less of it, and the people who are categorized as doomers because they realistically assess the situation and begin to lose hope.
However, this perspective is missing the bigger picture. Occasionally, the media will report on other crises — the pollution crisis (plastic pollution is popular in the media, and “forever chemicals” have recently made the news a few times) and the biodiversity crisis (although the UN meetings about biodiversity bring far fewer participants, and far less press coverage) have made the mainstream news a few times in the past year.
How often do you hear about “ecological overshoot” in the mainstream media? If you say “never” then you’d be right. How often do you see any mainstream media articles about a serious plan for reducing human consumption, for changing the global economic system, or (shudder) addressing overpopulation? If you think that any journalist attempting to write about these topics might be fired, I’d agree.
Most people have never heard of “The Great Acceleration” or the “Planetary Boundaries Project” outside certain activist circles. These projects aim to show how human impact is increasing exponentially across many domains, and that the planet has thresholds beyond which the Earth systems that support us begin to fail.
Fewer still have engaged with the idea of “ecological overshoot”, a concept familiar to ecologists studying species, but not so to the general public. One of my favorite resources for understanding ecological overshoot is a 1977 video of Donnella Meadows explaining overshoot and collapse at Dartmouth College. Meadows is one of the authors of the 1972 report Limits to Growth, which used a computer simulation to illustrate the consequences of unchecked human growth (population, consumption, pollution) on the ecosystems that support us, and the loss of carrying capacity that overshoot creates. Another excellent resource about ecological overshoot is William Catton’s 1980 book, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Needless to say, if the world had more seriously contemplated the concept of ecological overshoot back when Meadow’s Limits to Growth and Catton’s Overshoot were published, we might not be in the predicament we find ourselves in today.
The 80’s almost entirely erased whatever concern these books might have created. The decade of “greed is good” accelerated economic growth around the world, and cemented society’s trajectory of hyper consumption and its attendant destruction of the natural world.
Just because most people ignored ecological overshoot doesn’t mean it went away; in fact the overshoot worsened considerably and exponentially in the subsequent decades, and continues to do so today. Indeed, due to 3% average growth (as measured by GWP, gross world product), we’ve burned half of all the fossil fuels ever burned by humans and used as many extracted materials in the past 35 years as we did in the prior 10,000 years. This is the power of exponential growth. Along with exponential growth and destruction comes accelerating loss of carrying capacity, as outlined by Limits to Growth in 1972.
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” — Albert Bartlett.
Ecological overshoot of the carrying capacity of one’s environment can have many causes. In her 1977 video, Donnella Meadows describes how removing the predators of a deer population causes a huge spike in deer numbers, which causes the larger numbers of deer to eat all the food available to them, which creates a loss of carrying capacity as the ecosystem is over-grazed and degraded, which then causes a collapse in the deer population below its original level. This is standard behavior for a species in ecological overshoot.
We humans are a species in ecological overshoot. That means we are currently consuming more than the ecosystems we rely on for life can support, and polluting our environment with more waste and toxics than it can absorb. Why hasn’t human population collapsed yet? Because we are still on the upside of the spike.
This spike can’t last for long; as with all species in overshoot, our population will collapse too. Just as the deer ate too much food and lowered the carrying capacity of their environment, we are consuming too much and polluting too much, and as a result we too are lowering the carrying capacity of our environment — which in our case, is most of the planet.
The big picture that mainstream media, like the Washington Post, is missing is that climate change is just one of many symptoms of our species in ecological overshoot. When you step back and look at the big picture, what you see is this:
As a species, we rely on flourishing ecosystems all over the globe to support us and provide the basics for human life on planet Earth: food, water, shelter, and community.
If the ice melts in the Arctic, that affects weather systems the world over. If the Amazon rainforest is cut down, that, too, affects weather systems the world over. More extreme weather impacts our ability to grow food; it causes floods in some areas and droughts in others, affects the availability of clean water, and damages ecosystems.
If we degrade the soil with industrial agriculture, we cause top soil loss, which means we can grow less food, and we have to use a lot more fertilizer (which is made from fossil fuels and causes pollution) to get the same food output.
If we pollute the land with toxic chemicals, we pollute our own food, either directly by polluting crops, or by polluting the animals we eat for food.
If we pollute the fresh water, we reduce the availability of water to drink and contaminate and harm the other species we depend on for life. If we pollute the oceans, we contaminate and harm marine life, contaminate and harm ourselves when eat marine animals, and degrade the carrying capacity of the oceans.
Like the deer in Donnella Meadows’ lecture, our numbers have grown too large; we are consuming too much of everything in our ecosystems (food, trees, soil, wildlife, metals, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.) and degrading the carrying capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems to support us. Our population will crash, and badly. Whatever number of humans was sustainable before the invention of agriculture, before the industrial revolution — before we began degrading topsoils, before we began using fossil fuels to exponentially speed up extraction from and destruction of the natural world — that number will no longer be possible because the carrying capacity of the Earth will be much lower.
This is true not just for humans. Our species’ loss of carrying capacity affects other species too. There are the many species we are driving extinct (at 1000 times the natural extinction rate). We have caused almost total pollution and degradation of natural habitats, meaning far fewer and less healthy and diverse flora and fauna can live in what’s left of these habitats. We are destroying the carrying capacity of the planet for everyone, not just ourselves.
The relentless focus on climate change in the past few years — by governments, by the media, and now by corporations that take advantage of our climate concerns to sell us a whole new assortment of products — has blinded many of us to the bigger picture of ecological overshoot.
Why the focus on climate change, out of all the possible symptoms of ecological overshoot? Because corporations could see how to monetize climate change, and they’ve done so, quite effectively. Of the many symptoms of ecological overshoot, climate change is the only one that can be solved (or so we are told) by new technologies. “Innovations” as corporate PR firms, the World Economic Forum, and government policy makers like to call them. Technologies that will generate “carbon free” electricity (if you ignore all the fossil fuels used to mine the materials to make these technologies, and manufacture the components, and the carbon released from the ground when it’s destroyed to install these technologies); technologies that provide the illusion we can keep living like we’re living, with electric cars, hydrogen fueled planes, and plastic made with carbon from plants instead of carbon from fossil fuels (never mind the thousands of toxic chemicals required to mix with the carbon to actually make the plastic).
For fifty years, corporations have been perfecting their public relations and greenwashing savvy. They’ve stolen from us an environmental movement that cared about life on planet Earth, and replaced it with an environmental movement that cares only about carbon and technology. Young people marching for “climate justice” demand solar panels and wind turbines; calls to protect the rainforest are nowhere to be heard these days.
Mainstream media and certain climate scientists refer to those of us who prefer to see the whole picture of ecological overshoot as “doomers” too. They lump us in with those concerned about climate change who really have given up hope, whether by realistic assessment of the situation we’re in or because they get sucked in by charismatic people who peddle conspiracy theories, as the Washington Post article describes.
Why do we get lumped in with the “climate doomers”? Because we don’t believe that so-called renewable technologies are a solution to climate change, and because we don’t agree with the now-mainstream view that continued extraction of non-renewable materials to keep this hyper consuming, hyper polluting way of life going is a good idea.
If the media was willing to delve deeper, and understand the bigger picture, they might see the climate-centric view of the world is too simplistic a view. There are many of us out here who do not fall into the “climate doomer” category, despite our push back on the relentless drive for renewables in the media. There are many of us out here who are concerned with the health and flourishing of Earth’s ecosystems, who are desperately concerned with all the symptoms of ecological overshoot, who see more extraction in the name of “technology” as worsening the situation, not improving it, and most importantly, who are working hard to protect the natural world.
We are the deep green environmentalists — the ones who understand that the natural world is primary, for without it, human animals will not have food, water, shelter, and community. We are the ones who don’t want to live in a world paved over with concrete and poisoned with chemicals and with no old growth forests left and no tall grass prairies left, with no Northern Right whales in the oceans, and no sage-grouse booming in the sagebrush steppe.
We see climate change as just one of many problems we face, and see solutions in understanding that we are human animals, rather than in more technology. We see ourselves not at the top of some imagined hierarchy but as part of a web of life; not as separate from or more important than the connected natural communities of the world, but completely dependent on these communities and their flourishing.
Remember the title of William Catton’s book? Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. “Revolutionary” means “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change.” We deep greens are the ones who are fighting for revolutionary change. We are fighting to save the planet — really save it, not just pretend we can save it with technology to reduce carbon. Does that sound “doomer” to you? Granted there are some who likely have given up, and I included a circle for them too — the “deep green doomers”. But I’ve never met one. Never. Every deep green environmentalist I know is an activist working for revolutionary change. Every single one.
The mainstream media never talks about us deep green environmentalists. With corporate masters to serve, thousands of young people marching in the streets demanding solar panels and wind turbines is what writes the headlines. Extremes sell, so reporting on “climate doomers” grabs the eyeballs.
What doesn’t work is reporting on the slow, painstaking work of saving a species of tiny frog from a geothermal development, or the tedious late nights it takes to file lawsuits to protect sage-grouse habitat and organize people to prevent timber sales or stand in front of bulldozers. But this is what it takes to actually save the planet. Not greenwash it, not replace overconsumption of one non-renewable material extracted from the Earth with overconsumption of another in a desperate attempt to keep this way of life going when it’s obvious to anyone who is paying attention that’s impossible.
What really doesn’t work is suggesting, even the tiniest little bit, that the dominant paradigm of infinite economic growth on a finite planet is a recipe for failure, as illustrated in the graph of ecological overshoot. The editors at mainstream media outlets in the pockets of corporate masters and government policy makers would never let an article like that get published, would they?