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4 ways to think about the economy

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Big questions: Economics

What actually happens in the economy? And how do our representations of the economy influence the way we try to solve the problems that we have identified? Are there alternatives to this dominant neoliberal paradigm, which isn’t working? These key questions will be answered here.

New Zealanders have just elected a new Government for the next three years, led by the National Party. As Toby Boraman remarked on The Conversation and RNZ, “Labour out, National in – either way, neoliberalism wins again.” The orthodox and dominant economic thinking in New Zealand has for some time been neoliberalism. In 2021, Branko Marcetic wrote an article for the Jacobin entitled, “The New Zealand “Socialists” Who Govern Like Neoliberals” with exactly the same message: New Zealand’s political parties, and the economists that support them, might claim to wear different colours, but underneath they’re exactly the same.

This isn’t the case everywhere in the world, although dominant economic, scientific, and technical thinking is becoming more prevalent in many countries. Markets, competition, free trade, and cut backs vs spending are not the only way to look at the economy. Nor are they the only instruments a government has at its disposal to respond in times of need.

Market exchange
Image: Grab on Unsplash

Liberal economists and financial markets

In 21st century western societies, economists are constantly making predictions and analysing the forces of the market, in order to determine what our lives will be like. You would be justified in thinking that these market forces, in particular the financial markets, are the direct determinants of the wellbeing of our citizens.

This is only partially the case. Whilst financial markets have become some sort of ruling deity for governments and businesses, where every decision is calculated so as to not displease these markets, they are not the only way to look at the relations between people in a society. I’m sure you’ve heard yourself referred to as a consumer, and those companies who make the things you buy as producers. You exchange money and goods with them inside a market, and this forms the basis of the relationships you have, besides those with your family members, as an adult in society. There are, however, other relationships going on, and other exchanges being made, which are also economic in nature, but which are not best carried out in this model of a free market.

New Zealand suffers from a hegemony of orthodox liberal market economists. All Finance Ministers believe almost the same things about the economy: as demonstrated by the two articles linked above. What differs is the extent to which they want to intervene through social subsidies and Government spending (and therefore in taxation, too). Left leaning parties tax to redistribute some of the wealth; right-leaning parties reduce taxes to let the market decide. But, the major players of the economy, the belief in the market, the possibility that the market will make corrections, and GDP as the holy-grail are common amongst all of these economists.

man trading on stock markets
Image: Adam Nowakowski on Unsplash

For many, many years, the Government has talked about poverty, illiteracy, a housing crisis… and none of these issues have been resolved. Looking at the child poverty statistics released by StatsNZ, many of the indicators have barely changed since 2007. This shows the limitations both of the economic instruments being used, and the representation that politicians and economists are using to understand the problem. As we will see, there is more than one way to look at the economy, and the exchange relations that are going on between people each and every day.

The ecological crisis is yet another crisis that will almost certainly bring our current economic system to its knees. Based on our collective ability to act in the face of current problems, which seems very limited, it is rational to be worried that we won’t be able to confront this crisis either. If we’ve been largely unsuccessful at responding to the social crises of the early 21st century, the ones coming up will be even worse, as it becomes harder to produce fruit and vegetables, more and more property is destroyed by climate disasters, and social relations and mental health decline further.

Image: The Daily Blog

The four representations

Gilles Raveaud, in his book Les Disputes des Economistes (the Disputes of Economists, 2013), refers to four main representations of the economy. These are:

  1. The market, for liberal economists
  2. The circuit of money flows, for Keynesian economists
  3. The place of power struggles, for Marxist economists
  4. A part of nature, subject to its limits, for ecological economists.

Each approach points towards a different way of looking at the economy. There are problems with each theory, there are benefits to each theory. But they are just that: theories that attempt to explain the world. The world in which we live constantly changes, so we cannot believe that one model will always be the true representation of reality. Raveaud’s analysis is particularly useful to see the differences between economic theories. The economic representations below synthesise his book.

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Discover the economic representations below.

Liberal Economics

Liberal Economics

For liberal economists, all economic mechanisms such as labour, health, education, and welfare, are viewed as markets. The goal for these liberal economists is to increase competition within these markets, which will drive down prices and increase the quality of the goods and services provided. Government plays a small role, because the markets know how to regulate themselves.

 

Adam Smith, Scottish economist in the 18th century and author of “The Wealth of Nations,” believed that wealth was created through exchange. As individuals, we must sell our labour, in order to be able to buy the things that we need. We do so in a market for labour, just as there are markets for fruit and vegetables, meat, technological devices, and construction services. The market, for Smith, is a place of freedom, creativity, and autonomy for each person, and the market is like the social cement between individuals. Our social agreements are not based on emotions or tribal organisations, but rather on the free exchange of goods, services, and labour.

Sweet potato for sale. Image: Juno Jo on Unsplash

Markets are regulated, according to the liberal economists, by something called the price mechanism. The price of a particular good, for example one kilo of kumara, is determined through negotiations between buyers and sellers. If the price of kumara is set at $1 per kilo, everyone will want to buy some, and the supermarket will sell out by 11am. All the people in the afternoon will not be able to buy kumara. On the other hand, if kumara is $10 per kilo, there will still be some left at the end of the day, because only a few people wanted to buy it at that price. The seller sets the price, and the consumer responds, and in a movement like this, they find the best price where the greatest number of people can buy kumara at the highest price for the seller.

 

Is this price, established through ‘feedback’ between shoppers and the supermarkets, fair? Liberal economists would say yes. If the market determines that the price should be $7 per kilo, some people will miss out. These people are happy, according to liberal economists, because they preferred not to buy kumara – they made the choice not to. Everyone is content, because everyone made the choice of what they would buy, based on how much money they had to spend. But, this price is only fair if all the shoppers are there to negotiate with the kumara growers, which is never the case. Likewise, the shoppers must know about all the other supermarkets selling kumara, too, before making a fair choice. They might be selling it cheaper elsewhere, but we rarely shop around all the stores before deciding what to buy.

 

In good times, this price regulation seems alright: we get lower prices and better quality due to competition; people are all choosing what they want from an open and fair market. However, as we are feeling now with the 2023 cost of living crisis, and have felt for some time, in periods of crisis, people are not happy about the choices they are forced to make. Likewise, good and bad choices become polarised, especially in the case of markets for education and hospitals – some hospitals are labelled ‘good’, and others, ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous.’ In times of crisis, it is impossible to find the ideal point where shoppers and suppliers are happy, at the right price.

Keynesian Economics

Keynesian Economics

John Maynard Keynes realised that in times of crisis, the market could not work by itself to sort things out. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Keynes challenged the viewpoint which said that people selling their labour (workers) and people buying that labour (entrepreneurs) would end up balancing out such that all those people who wanted a job would have one. Instead, unsold goods and unemployed people are not the exception, but the norm of market economics. Left to its own devices, the market will self-destruct. Therefore, we need certain powers of direction for the market, so that it goes in the right direction.

 

Instead of looking at the economy in terms of markets, Keynes thinks it’s better to look at it like a circuit. In this circuit, money flows between people all the time. Money has no value of itself, but because we all believe in its value, money holds importance and meaning. When banks lend people money, despite the fact that they might only have $100 in their vault, they can lend around 10 times that much – $1000 – to someone wanting a loan. At no moment in this transaction is money actually used – the loan involves moving numbers from one ledger (that of the bank), to another (that of the borrower). This system works if there aren’t too many loans, and if not everyone wants their money at the same time.

Circular flow diagram. Image: United States Government on Wikicommons.

Entrepreneurs are rational people for Keynes, and it is their movement of money which constitutes the greatest activity in the economy. When entrepreneurs reduce their prices, they are able to sell more. But in order to keep lowering their prices, they either have to reduce their wages, or their profit margins. This leads to unemployment, and very easily, a negative spiral can start, where prices reduce, wages reduce, unemployment increases, and the market cannot find a solution.

 

Another actor is needed in order to correct this problem, according to Keynes. These actors take the form of institutions: either the government, or the central bank (the Reserve Bank in New Zealand). The central bank can change the interest rate, which will either increase or decrease spending. When money becomes more expensive, people spend less of it, and vice-versa. But, with this option, we can very easily end up with inflation: when the price of everything increases.

 

On the other hand, the Government can also act by spending money in the economy, in the form of construction projects, welfare payments, health and education, subsidies, and more. This money will then flow through the economy, and enable wages to increase again. However, there are leaks to this circuit of money that Keynes has imagined. Companies can choose to save the money they are given by the Government, instead of spending it. Some consumers will spend this money on goods from other countries, so the money leaves the country and is not seen again. This strategy also increases public debt, the amount of money that the Government has borrowed.

 

During the COVID crisis, these two strategies were used by the Government and the Reserve Bank to manipulate the economy, because the market by itself was not able to regulate itself. The Government spent a lot of money during the crisis, giving it mostly to businesses, so they could stay alive despite not trading. But, this spending led to inflation, as all the prices increased. As a result, the Reserve Bank increased the price of money, the interest rate, which meant that it became more expensive to borrow money, and spending will therefore decrease again. This decrease in spending, otherwise called inflationary pressure, is felt most severely by the lower and middle classes of the economy. It becomes noticeably more expensive to just buy basic goods, especially when wages are not increasing.

 

The problem with Keynesian policies is that they increase public debt, and they very often don’t work well unless there is a coordinated approach or strategy at a higher level, because of the leaks in the circuit. What we have seen, however, is that there are power imbalances in the economy which are not able to be addressed by the market, or by Keynesian institutions.

Marxist Economics

Marxist Economics

When the buyers and sellers have decided on a price for kumara, some people will miss out because the price is too high. Liberal economists justify this, saying that these people, on low incomes, are happy with not having any kumara, because they decided not to buy any. Karl Marx, a major thinker in 19th century political economy, and analyst of capitalism, argued that liberal economists are just justifying the impoverishment of low-income earners. Marx was a key thinker in the development of socialism, and what we know today as worker’s parties such as the Labour Party.

 

According the Marx, the economy is the place where power struggles play out. In the capitalist economy, a limited number of people own the means of production, which are the factories, office blocks, machines, agricultural land, etc. The rest of the population are workers who are forced to sell their labour to these few, in order to live their lives. Because there are always unemployed people on the labour market, wages very often do not increase: if a worker wants to be paid more, the company can fire them, and instead hire another person who is willing to be paid less. Wages are therefore fixed by the market, and not in terms of the value produced by a particular employee in their work.

Union protester
Image: Manny Becerra on Unsplash

The capitalist, the one who owns the means of production, buys the right to use the labour of a worker for a whole day, by paying them a wage. This work therefore belongs to the capitalist, and not to the person who did the work. For example, someone working as a data analyst does not own any of the data analysis that they do. This person spends their entire day producing things that will not belong to them. In this way, workers are exploited, because they are not able to obtain the value created by the work that they do. Instead, the company sells the data analysis and pockets the profits, for example.

 

Marx disagrees with Adam Smith, who we read about before. Smith believed that wealth was created through exchange, but Marx believed that it is violence that creates wealth. The domination of one person or resource by another is what leads to this person becoming rich. For example, it was through stealing land, slavery, and the expropriation of villagers that the British Empire was able to amass power and wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

The global economy is, according to this analysis, not to everyone’s advantage. What ends up happening is that some people control a lot of the machines, land and buildings necessary to produce goods and services, and these people are concentrated in wealthy countries like the United States. Multi-national companies like Apple, Toyota, Nestle, etc. capture most of the value added, and the workers, often in Asia, of these companies, see almost nothing of what the company rakes in when they sell their goods. The market is, for Marx, hierarchical and a place of domination, and not a place of freedom and expression as Smith believed.

 

For liberal economists, freedom is about being able to possess, to exchange, and to sell things. Democracy is therefore about being free to do these things in the market, without much intervention by a government or external actor. However, in a capitalist regime motivated by profits, socialists argue that there will be too many cars, robots, televisions and soft drinks, and not enough social housing, schools and hospitals. These public goods, such as health and education, need to be provided by the Government, so that all citizens are assured a quality education and healthcare regime, no matter their position or actions within the market.

 

In the early 21st century, many previously state-owned services were sold off to private buyers, with the idea that increased competition would improve the quality of services provided. However, this was often to the detriment to the employees of these companies, as well as services often being cut, reduced, or unreliable, such as what happened with the rail network in the United Kingdom. Sometimes, the private market suppliers collude – they make an agreement to keep prices high – and this is in their interests, rather than in the interests of the people consuming the service. This has been shown to be the case with electricity markets in Europe, with petrol markets, and more.

 

Today however, the market for goods and services is not the largest or most dominant economic market. That would be the financial market. In the 1970’s, the financial markets were opened, and currency exchanges were no longer made at fixed rates. Buying, selling, and lending on the financial markets increased dramatically. Whereas previously, paying people a salary meant that you were guaranteeing that they could buy your goods, now, this is no longer the case. Wages are a cost, rather than a guarantee of consumption, and therefore, they must be reduced as much as possible. The money that is used to buy things and to invest, in large part comes from these financial markets, and not from the sale of goods and services.

 

In the end, according to Marx, the exploitation of workers is what will cause the demise of capitalism. This is because the only way to make profits is through taking the added value of the work that employees perform. Value is created through labour, and exploiting this labour for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. At a certain point, however, these workers can no longer buy the goods and services that they are busy producing, because they no longer have enough money for them: most of it is concentrated at the top. Capitalists can do nothing about this: they are forced, by competition, to keep making a profit, by reducing the prices and selling more, or by reducing the costs of production (the price of labour, the wages). This leads to overproduction, and so food and other goods are wasted and destroyed because they are not sold. People go hungry and starve, yet companies are overproducing the things they need to survive.

 

This situation, to Marx, is completely absurd. He believed, therefore, that capitalism is a very inefficient economic system, and should be replaced by something else, or strongly domesticated. If Smith believed in no intervention in the economy, and Keynes believed in some intervention, Marx believed in a lot of intervention, or just removing the whole system. Smith’s economy based on free association between people is criticised by Marx, instead believing that the economy is based on relationships of domination between people. Both economists believed that economic growth is a good thing, however.

Environmental Economics

Environmental Economics

However, as industrial economies began to produce more and more waste, and it became evident that human beings were having a strongly negative impact on their environment, the dogma of economic growth began to be brought into question. Karl Polyani was an environmental economist, and author of “The Great Transformation.” He saw the economy as a system of work embedded within nature and our environment. Polyani was against the idea that the economy should be organised or thought of in terms of markets and exchange relations. The idea that a market could regulate itself, and that prices would be established fairly by the market, was ludicrous.

 

The result of this market thinking is that all spheres of human life have been absorbed by market economics, replacing relationships of care and solidarity by the exchange of money for services offered. The exchange relation is the most risky and unstable, according to Polyani, because there is no underlying principle guiding behaviour. Each person is therefore pushed to fight for their own self, and becomes egotistical and self-interested.

Image: Shane Rounce on Unsplash

For Polyani, labour, land, and money are not goods that can be commodified and bought and sold in a market. Labour is just the work of human beings, land is that upon which human societies exist, and money is a creation of the central bank. None of these things were created to be sold in a market: they are the very fabric of the economy itself. Whereas Marx believed that the power struggle between the capitalists and the workers was the source of the problem and its solution, Polyani believes that it will be the recognition of the needs of the society and its relationships that will bring an end to the domination by exchange relations.

 

Exchange relations are not the only way of organising a society, according to Polyani. We also have relations based on reciprocity, and on redistribution. Reciprocity considers the other as equal to oneself, and therefore seeks to give in equal terms for what is taken. Redistribution requires a central authority which will take the resources from some people, and give them to others, so that each person is considered equal. Market-based relations treat human beings as instruments, as a means to obtain what one wants, rather than having a value in themselves. The solution, therefore, is to restrict or reduce the exchange relations that we have in our lives.

 

The dogma of economic growth is another aspect of economic thinking which Polyani strongly criticises. Whilst strong economic growth led to huge gains in the standard of living for many Western countries, this growth also created major social and environmental problems. These include pollution, reduction in working conditions, people becoming more individualised and an increase in violence, the production of useless and quickly obsolete goods, advertising everywhere, without limits, and more. Economic growth is measured in terms of the increase in GDP, the gross domestic product, which is the sum of the value of all the goods and services produced in a country within a certain time period. However, this measure doesn’t take into account the social and volunteer work that produces value, nor does it account for the environmental impacts of economic activity. GDP also isn’t able to measure inequalities in a society, yet takes into account ‘bad’ activities – GDP increases when more people are buying paracetamol, whether they really need this or not. It is therefore severely limited in what it can measure. Using a very limited measure of value as the single most important determinant of the ‘health’ of the economy, is, therefore, quite restrictive.

 

Despite this, most economists today, liberal economists, are searching for continuous economic growth, believing that this will lead to better lives for all people. In fact, GDP increases produce greater satisfaction up to a point, at which happiness no longer increases in the same way, despite increasing GDP. The United Nation’s World Happiness Report demonstrates this. You can read more about how happiness is challenging GDP as a measure of health in this article on The Conversation.

 

Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, a 20th century economist and mathematician, believed that economic value was not created through markets or exchange, or even through labour, but through the natural resources which are taken and transformed. The current economic system takes natural resources with value, and spits out waste, with no value. Using the laws of thermodynamics, Georgescu-Rogen explains how humanity, and the economy as the transformation of natural resources, cannot continue to grow infinitely. Endless economic growth is not possible, with the materials and resources we have on earth. He points out that it is as if human beings decided to have a brief but exciting existence on planet Earth: each car we produce means fewer human lives will be possible in the future.

 

There is another type of economy which environmental economists propose. One part of this involves ‘de-growth,’ which is the idea that we must shrink the economic action occurring in the economy, or at least, no longer care about the idea of growth. Tim Jackson is a British economist who promotes this idea. Another pillar is a kind of “Green New Deal” which proposes government investment in renovating and insulating housing, converting fossil fuel electricity to renewables, developing public transport, sustainable agriculture, and more.

 

Finally, growing the social economy, or social enterprise, is another part of the solutions these economists propose. This means more people will have jobs that are meaningful, in which the value that they produce goes directly to people who need it, and each person in the value creation chain is valued equally. This social economy is not founded on the principle of competition, rather it is based on cooperation between self-organised individuals.

Explaining crisis

To review these theories, let’s think briefly about what they say about how crises come about.

According to liberal economists, intervention in the market is what causes problems. This is what ACT and National have been telling us for some time: the Government itself is the problem, it’s intervening where it should not which is causing problems.

The Keynesians and Marxists would say that this is not the case. In fact, the market economy is essentially unstable. Marxists want to control, regulate, or abolish financial markets, to solve these problems. Keynesians point towards making investments in the society to correct this instability.  

The environmental economists point to the instability and unsustainability of the current model of extraction and economic growth. It is this that causes crises: increases in the price of necessities such as petrol, food and housing make it more difficult for people to live. These increases are written into the code of the current economic order, and are therefore inevitable. Like the Marxists, we must change our economic system if we are to solve the problem.

Image: Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

To conclude...

Environmental economics is a field of study which is not widely accepted yet. Concepts like degrowth and a Green New Deal are not mainstream ideas, but remain with a few thinkers and economists, mostly in Europe and the United States.

New Zealand economists consist almost entirely of liberal economists, who believe that markets can and should run themselves. Neoliberal thinking is that which accepts some role of the state in providing certain services, and in arranging conditions of competition such that the market can operate. With this lack of economic diversity, it is easy to fall into the trap of these economists, and believe that the only solutions are the ones that they propose. Economics is not a science, but the use of human-generated representations in order to explain economic activity in societies.

As we have seen, there are other alternatives. There is also an enormous possibility to develop an environmental economics which rests upon principles from Tikanga Māori. The so-called “Māori economy” currently refers to economic activity carried out by Māori organisations, but if more Māori decided to become economists, and to develop their own representation of the flow of money and resources in the country, they could very easily develop their own economic theory.

Economic perspectives overview

 

Liberal Economics

Keynesian Economics

Marxist Economics

Environmental Economics

Main theorist

Adam Smith

John Maynard Keynes

Karl Marx

Karl Polyani, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen

What is the economy?

The markets for goods and services

A circuit where money flows

The place of power struggles

Human activity embedded in nature

What produces value?

Exchanges of goods and services in the market

The flow of money through the circuit

Violence – domination/ exploitation of workers

Natural resources – land, plants, animals

Key problem to solve

Interventions which stop the market from self-regulating

The flows of money are not well distributed

Workers are dominated by capitalists and do not earn the value they produce

Market relations have commodified everything, and infinite growth is not possible

Solution

Make sure markets function by increasing competition and removing barriers

Intervene in the market with economic instruments – interest rate and govt spending

Abolish capitalism and allow workers to own means of production and receive value of their work

Develop the social economy, reinstate redistributive and reciprocal relations, degrowth, fix environmental problems and waste

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Geo-engineering

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to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

IN-DEPTH SPECIAL

Shooting chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, and adding them to clouds to make them brighter, are no longer part of our science-fiction imaginary. Geo-engineering, in its many forms, is gaining ground as a necessary and inevitable way to protect the earth and its inhabitants from the worst effects of climate change.

Geo-engineering is, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “A broad set of methods and technologies that aim to deliberately alter the climate system in order to alleviate the impacts of climate change..” Therefore, all the studies and research into ways that we can change the climate ourselves, to be protected from climate change, are projects of geo-engineering. This ranges from adding chemicals into clouds above the ocean to save the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, adding silver iodide into clouds on the Tibetan plain by the Chinese Government to modify rainfall patterns, carbon capture and storage systems in Iceland, and those researched in the UK and US (among many other countries), and at its most basic level, New Zealand’s planting of monoculture forests to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

cartoon people planning construction
Image: Vectorjuice on Freepik

Two forms of geo-engineering

There are two main ways of going about modifying the climate. Let’s call them the pump, and the thermostat.

water pump
Image: pch.vector on Freepik

The pump

The pump method refers to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in various ways. We try to pump the emissions that we have already created back into the ground, to store them there instead. This could be through ‘natural’ means like planting trees, or through technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). We do this to reduce the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which is one of the leading causes of climate change and the wider ecological crisis.

dial icon

The thermostat

The thermostat method tries to control the average temperature of the biosphere. Human activity is causing increasing temperatures in the atmosphere, which world governments have pledged to keep below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to reduce those temperatures, we can either make the earth’s surface shinier, so that the sun’s rays are reflected back into space, and are not absorbed by the ground here, or we can modify the atmosphere itself, so that it lets through less light from the sun, and therefore less heat energy.

The pros

There are many reasons why we might consider geo-engineering methods. If the world cannot reduce its carbon emissions before the worst effects are felt, which seems to be the case, it will need to find ways to protect life from the effects of these emissions. Geo-engineering is one way to buy us time to decarbonise, and achieve the net-zero targets that have been set. Another reason is that it is relatively cheap and easy to deploy some of these solutions, which, according to certain sectors in the economy, would be easier than decarbonising their industries. Geo-engineering also has support from a moral or ethical standpoint, with some people claiming we must do everything we can to stop the disastrous consequences of climate change. Major proponents of geo-engineering include Mark Zuckerberg (Meta), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter). Almost all researchers and funders of geo-engineering in the United States are white, middle-aged, and male.

The cons

Those who disagree with geo-engineering projects currently seem to outnumber those who are in favour of it, however there does appear to be some silent support among scientific, technical and economic communities. Arguments against geo-engineering point first and foremost to the risks involved in these projects. The ‘thermostat’ methods of geo-engineering could disrupt rainfall, including the Indian monsoon season, putting the lives of billions of people at risk. Furthermore, once you start injecting clouds or modifying the atmosphere, you cannot stop. Some models predict up to 800 years of continuous climate intervention to avoid a termination shock where world temperatures increase by around 4 degrees in 10 years, rather than 100 years. These projects require enormous amounts of energy, water, and in some cases mineral resources to run, which would have to be sustained through government changes, war, pandemic, and more. There is also no current way to regulate or govern the countries (and wealthy private individuals) who may start geo-engineering projects: anyone can, at present, add sulphur to the atmosphere, and this decision will impact not just one country, but the whole planet. Likewise, once one country begins, we may enter a war of the sky, where countries vie to control the modification of the atmosphere. Geo-engineering is also another reason for climate delay and inaction, allowing us to continue to emit and pollute. Solar geo-engineering would turn the sky white, having potential impacts on mental health worldwide. Finally, we don’t actually know what effect geo-engineering will have on a large scale: all we have are experiments and models. The side effects of any project, including carbon storage, could be much, much worse. Major detractors of geo-engineering include Andreas Malm (The Future is the Termination Shock), Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything), and Elizabeth Kolbert (Under a White Sky).

Image: Plurality.eco translation from Socialter Special Issue on Geoengineering, Iss. 56, Feb-March 23

Who is geo-engineering?

Mark Zuckerberg supports a company attempting to genetically modify plants, such as rice, corn and wheat, so that they absorb more carbon dioxide (The Innovative Genomics Institute in San Francisco). Bill Gates supports the start-up Carbon Engineering, aiming to increase the amount of petrol extracted from wells through carbon capture and storage technology. Elon Musk’s foundation, XPrize, has allocated $100 million USD to the development of carbon capture technologies. The United States government in 2021 allocated $3.5 billion USD to create four hubs for carbon capture and storage. The Chinese government is involved in a project called the Celestial River, aiming to artificially increase the rainfall over the Tibetan plain. Governments in Australia, the UK, Thailand, France, India, United Arab Emirates, and Germany are also involved in geo-engineering projects and/or research at some level.

And New Zealand...

New Zealand is not currently involved in any technical geo-engineering projects, however natural geo-engineering is very much part of the country’s strategy. Using seaweed to sequester carbon is being researched and carried out. Likewise, planting trees (unfortunately usually monoculture forests) is a key part of the Government’s zero-carbon strategy for 2050, with the One Billion Trees Programme. The debate on geo-engineering in New Zealand seems to be almost dead, with the Government associating any mention of the word with conspiracy theory and false suggestions that storms such as Cyclone Gabrielle were man-made.

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That's just the overview. Click on the topics below to learn more about geo-engineering.

Solar Radiation and Protection

Solar Radiation and Protection

Sweden’s Space Agency, along with backers and technicians from Harvard University in the United States, were preparing to launch the pilot project SCoPEx in the summer of 2021. This project would be one of the first experimental trials of solar radiation geo-engineering in the world. Until this point, researchers had only been able to use computer models to predict what might happen, and to design potential balloons to disperse aerosols into the stratosphere.

But, after protests from indigenous groups and climate activists, Sweden’s Space Agency called off the test, citing concerns over safety, and potential risks and hazards for the Earth’s atmosphere. Blocking the sun to fight climate change would have to remain a project within the computer models for some time to come.

SCoPEx project balloon
Image: https://www.keutschgroup.com/scopex/

How does it work?

Solar radiation geo-engineering aims to inject aerosols into the upper part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the stratosphere, in order to block sunlight from reaching the Earth. Normally, a small amount of these compounds are found in the atmosphere, such as ozone, which protects the Earth’s inhabitants from excessive sunlight. By increasing the amount of these gases such as sulphur in the atmosphere, engineers hope to be able to stop the Earth from warming. This is because the radiation from the sun will be reflected back into space by the aerosols that we inject. The process is like a human-engineered, continuous volcanic eruption: when volcanoes erupt, they spew out large quantities of sulphur gases into the atmosphere. In 1991, Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, and 20 million tons of sulphur reduced global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius for one year.

This is necessary because of the largely unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol, in which 147 parties, (governments), pledged to decrease emissions by individually agreed targets. We are already at 1.2 degrees of warming, and the Earth is projected to reach 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050, if not before.

The arguments

In 2006, Paul Crutzen, a scientist in Germany and the United States, published an article on stratospheric injections which broke the taboo on the topic amongst researchers. He argued that we needed to develop this technology, because it is a hugely effective way of reducing global temperatures almost immediately at relatively little cost. We needed solar radiation geo-engineering in our back pockets, if things go disastrously wrong, or if we are unable to decarbonise our economies in time. Geo-engineering is therefore the deus ex machina waiting in the wings, ready to save the planet when the time is right. It buys us time to decarbonise, and reinforces the fact that human beings are still the masters of their own destiny: innovation and technology will be able to save the day.

This position follows a technical and engineering logic: we have the technology available, we have the means, and it doesn’t cost too much, so why not develop it? Proponents believe that all technological means to fight climate change are good, if they are rationally used and controlled by world governments. Taking out 1-2% of sunlight would be enough to undo 2 centuries of fossil fuel combustion. The whole problem of climate change could go away, if we are able to design and operate this technical solution in a rational manner. And, according to David Keith in 2000, this whole process would be cheaper than climate mitigation and the reduction of emissions. $30 million USD would compensate one years’ global emissions. Proponents of solar geo-engineering now say that both emissions reductions and geo-engineering are necessary.

Andreas Malm, a Swedish researcher in climate and ecological politics, and a climate activist, wrote an article series in 2022 decrying the risks of solar radiation geo-engineering. The biggest risk with solar geo-engineering is what he terms “termination shock.” Once anyone in society – a business, a government, a wealthy private individual – starts putting aerosols into the atmosphere with the aim of reducing solar radiation on earth, the process must be continued or, theoretically, scaled down very slowly, otherwise the Earth’s temperatures will rebound incredibly quickly. To illustrate this, think about what happens when you try to fix a leak in a pipe under your kitchen sink. To stop water from going down into the pipe, you put the plug into the sink. Water builds up in the sink, but doesn’t flow down into the pipe, so you can fix it. It looks like there’s no leak any more, because you have stopped the flow of water. But, if for whatever reason, the plug is removed, dislodged, or faulty, lots of water will flow out into the pipes, making the leak worse. The same thing happens with the aerosols in the atmosphere. We can pretend that there is no longer any global warming, all the while increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When we stop injecting aerosols, all of a sudden, the sun’s radiation would heat up the Earth by about 4 degrees in 10 years, rather than 100 years.

What reasons might cause us to stop or pause solar geo-engineering, once it was started? Another pandemic like COVID-19 might be cause to force people to stay home for months, meaning the operators and engineers of this technology couldn’t go to work, fix problems, and operate the planes or balloons that inject the aerosols. The workers could go on strike over low pay and high-risk conditions, or they could object to the risks or potential damage their job was doing to the world. China and the United States could begin a war to control the skies, each wishing to be the one determining how much of the aerosols were pumped out, and therefore how many tonnes of CO2 they could continue to emit. A rogue state could decide they wanted more, and start their own programme, meaning that the official programme of geo-engineering would need to immediately be scaled back, otherwise we could completely block out all sun light, and all living beings would die. There are numerous possible scenarios which would mean that this geo-engineering project would stop, and the effects of the termination shock would make themselves felt.

As a result of the termination shock, Malm says it would be like opening the door to a furnace on Earth. No species would be able to adapt itself to radical temperature increases in such as short space of time. Smith compares solar geo-engineering to morphine – it’s incredibly addictive, and once begun, it’s hard to stop.

Further, the modelling shows that solar geo-engineering would disrupt current climate systems, meaning the possible end to the Indian monsoon season, affecting the possibility of life for more than 2 billion people. The Earth’s overall climate would become more even – the tropics would overcool, and the poles would over-heat, according to the models. Some researchers, such as Holly Jean Buck, argue that this is a tool for equality and peace – if we all have the same climate conditions, how can we complain? I’m not entirely sure we would find anyone in the tropics who thought that their inequality with the West could be fixed by making the weather patterns of their region more like the United States and Europe…

Those who argue for solar geo-engineering make a big assumption, which Malm points out. They assume that the technology will be rolled out and managed in a rational, controlled, and pre-determined manner, and that it will remain this way for the up to 800 years of solar radiation blocking necessary to cool the Earth. But, if the world was rationally run, we would not need geo-engineering in the first place. The threats of global ecosystem collapse from the 1970’s would have been heeded, our economies decarbonised, and crisis avoided, well before getting to the point of needed to engineer the climate. Someone, somewhere, must steer the planet from harm just at the right time, with the right amount of action.

Would the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) be able to do that? Or perhaps the United Nations? Or the United States Government? Let’s ask another question: do states currently listen to and follow the directives of the IPCC? No, because again, if they did, emissions would be radically declining and we would not have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries. We cannot expect such things to happen if we start geo-engineering, either.

Other risks include the fact that the sky will turn a milky-white colour, for the duration of the programme; disrupted climate systems across the globe; potential crop losses as a result of reduced sunlight for plants to grow; collapse of the rain systems across the globe; solar power plants producing less electricity; ozone depletion; air pollution and therefore human health consequences; more acid rain; the coagulation of sulphates in the atmosphere, and more. What’s more, climbing temperatures is one of the major reasons currently to decarbonise, and by masking this problem, we could lull ourselves into thinking that further carbon emissions are acceptable.

These effects sound just as bad, if not worse, than the effects of the climate change and global warming that solar radiation geoengineering is attempting to solve. It would seem the only rational question is, “why not just reduce our emissions?” It is a safe and effective way of responding to climate change. If done well, it will reduce inequalities, improve mental health, reduce waste, reduce habitat and species loss, and more.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

The United Kingdom company Drax is promising to be part of a sustainable energy revolution in the UK. Instead of burning coal, Drax has reconverted its factories to burn biomass instead. Biomass is a fancy word for wood chips. Through a legal loophole, by burning wood instead of coal the company avoids its emissions being counted as part of the national emissions total. The UK, through Drax’s power, can reduce its emissions without actually reducing them.

Drax claims that their wood chips are sustainably sourced from offcuts and sawdust in wood factories. This, however, as the New York Times has investigated, is not the case. Drax cuts down forests in the United States and Canada, some of which are primary growth forests (those that have never before been cut down for human use), and ships the trees to the United Kingdom to be burned at their plants. Drax are also researching Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), so that the carbon dioxide released from burning the wood chips is captured and stored in the earth, rather than released into the atmosphere. They hope to build two power stations by 2030, each capable of removing 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s equal to 1.6% of the UK’s national yearly emissions. As yet, however, despite calling their enterprise sustainable, they continue to cut down trees and burn them, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This is just one example of how carbon capture and storage is being used in conjunction with other supposedly sustainable methods of energy generation to “reduce” carbon emissions in the world’s largest economies. The largest project of carbon storage is the Orca factory in Iceland, run by the Swiss company Climeworks. The factory currently occupies 1,700m2 of land, filled with fans to capture the carbon dioxide in the air. The gas is liquefied then stored one kilometre underground in basalt rock. The cost of this project sits at $15 million USD, and the factory currently sucks out 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That’s equivalent to three seconds of global emissions. Climeworks want to capture 1% of world emissions by 2025. Based on current progress, the dreams of millions of tonnes of CO2 being sequestered every year seem very, very far off.

Carbon turbines plant
Image: carbonengineering.com

How does it work?

There are two main methods of removing carbon: collecting carbon dioxide directly from chimneys (Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS), or sucking the gas out of the air (Direct Air Capture, DAC).

Capturing carbon directly from chimneys involves attaching a capturing device to the infrastructure already present, such as the wood burning factories of Drax in the UK. Then, the carbon dioxide is compressed, and needs to be stored somewhere deep in the earth where it is not going to be released.

Capturing carbon from the air involved hundreds of huge turbines, sucking in air and capturing the carbon dioxide as the air passes through. These turbines are constructed in an industrial cooling tower, which pumps water around to stop them from overheating. The carbon dioxide in the air is converted into potassium carbonate, through a reaction with potassium hydroxide sitting on thin plastic sheets within the turbines. These pellets of chemical salt undergo further chemical reactions to produce pure carbon dioxide.

Carbon Capture Plant diagram

Today, this technology is primarily used by petroleum companies. They extract carbon dioxide from the air, in order to pump it back into the oil wells and force the oil to the surface. They use the emissions of burning fossil fuels in order to extract more fossil fuels…

In a trial in Iceland with the first carbon being injected into the ground, the researchers on the CarbFix project realised that micro-organisms in the rocks were feeding on the carbon dioxide being injected, meaning that injection possibilities were considerably reduced. Now, instead of injecting the CO2 at 100 degrees Celsius, it’s injected at 250 degrees Celsius, killing off all microbes, and potential microorganisms in the rocks. It’s estimated that 60% of species living 1km into the earth’s surface are still unknown to humans, but this has not been factored into the plans or risks involved, as noted by those who are using the technology.

Another, more ‘natural’ method of carbon sequestration, is through using trees and other plants. New Zealand, like some other countries, has committed to planting 1 billion trees by 2028. When plants grow, they use the carbon dioxide in the air to make the organic molecules they need. These molecules of glucose are stored in the plant. The water that the plant absorbs is also taken up and converted into oxygen, which the plant releases. This process is called photosynthesis, which is part of the Earth’s carbon cycle. Therefore, trees such as the radiata pine tree are often used to capture and store carbon, because they require carbon dioxide to grow, therefore taking it out of the atmosphere. Often, the trees planted are not native trees to the area, and are planted with the idea that they will be cut down eventually. This means that we are not creating biodiverse native forests with habitats for other species; rather, we are engineering a human ‘forest’ for the sole purpose of sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

All other plants do this too – corn, wheat, and soy for example. Mark Zuckerberg supports research by the Innovative Genomics Institute, exploring how to genetically modify these crops, so that they absorb more carbon dioxide from the air: they want to make the process of photosynthesis go faster, and occur in greater quantities in the same plant. This gene-editing technology is called CRISPR, developed by Nobel prize winner Jennifer Doudna.

Using trees to suck up carbon

Image: United States Department of Agriculture

Using seaweed and the ocean

Kelp carbon cycle
Image: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/how-kelp-naturally-combats-global-climate-change/

The ocean is another large storehouse of carbon on the planet. So much so that the IPCC has written a paper in their 6th cycle of reporting on Ocean Carbon Storage. According to them, over the past 200 years the oceans have taken up 500Gt of CO2, whilst humanity has emitted 1,300Gt of emissions in the same period. Not all carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, therefore: quite a large proportion of it ends up in the ocean. Carbon dioxide can be injected into the ocean, or we can use plants such as kelp (seaweed) to the same effect. New Zealand firm Blue Carbon is researching this method, and hopes to more effective at sequestering carbon than its land-based alternative. A trial in South Korea showed that for one hectare of algae, 10 tonnes of CO2 were captured, per year. That’s an almost insignificant amount, less than the average emissions of one New Zealander in a year.

By adding fertilisers such as iron and nitrates into the ocean, we can encourage seaweed to grow faster, taking up more carbon dioxide. There are, once again, several risks with this method, including the destruction of all marine life through the de-oxygenation of areas of the ocean. Ocean acidification, warmer oceans, and disrupted current flows are also possible consequences. It is, however, possible for this process to occur somewhat naturally – that would involve returning sea life to pre-industrial levels (sustainable fisheries, elimination of ocean pollution, reduction of ocean acidification, and more).

The arguments

The arguments for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Direct Air Capture (DAC), and carbon sequestration through land or sea are very similar to the arguments in the case of solar radiation. We need more time to be able to decarbonise our economies; we have the technology available, so we should pour money into researching ways to make it commercially viable; and the fact that we should be fighting climate change “by any means necessary.” Geo-engineering projects allow Western societies to keep the status-quo lifestyle intact, and not make major changes to their dominant way of life and values. By allowing us to overshoot the target of 1.5 degrees, it permits emissions to continue for longer than they would otherwise be able. This current generation in power will not have to deal with the reality of climate change.

Capturing carbon from the air and from chimneys is seen as a much less risky way of geo-engineering than solar radiation and protection. It doesn’t involve disturbing ecosystems and climate patterns in quite the same way as injecting aerosols into the stratosphere. There is no risk of termination shock – any and all carbon captured and stored is a net benefit to the planet and humanity, and any that remains will be the cause of global warming – which we are currently facing. No added consequences will be felt.

The problem with all these technologies is that they require large amounts of energy, materials such as rare earth metals, and water, to be able to run. Each CCS plant requires around 6km2 of land space, and 30km of air-sucking machinery. To remove 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 (we have emitted 1.3 trillion tonnes since industrial times) would require land twice the size of India, or the whole of the land mass of Australia. That means large amounts of land would need to be reconverted to carbon capture plants, throughout the world. Land that could be reforested, used for farming, or housing, would have large turbines installed to capture and collect the carbon. In terms of water use, to capture and store just the yearly emissions of the United States, 130 billion tonnes of water would be necessary, each year. Estimates for the costs of such endeavours could be up to $570 trillion USD this century.

The technology for carbon capture and storage is currently being used in large part by oil companies to increase the yields of their oil wells, by injecting carbon dioxide that they have captured from the air. CCS is a way to increase profitability from oil deposits where the oil is difficult to extract. It’s hard to see carbon capture and storage as something other than a profit-seeking initiative by the companies who engage in it. As will be discussed in more detail in the Carbon Markets section, the first company who can capture and store 1 tonne of carbon dioxide for less money than the price of one tonne of carbon on the carbon market, has themselves a way of making immense profits. Perhaps that is why it is often not governments investing in this technology, but private individuals such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

In the case of biofuels, and Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), growing large plantations of monoculture forests requires a very large amount of land. Were this to be taken up large-scale, land would be required both for agriculture and food, and energy. A fire, storm or flood that wipes out food crops and monoculture biomass forests would deprive a community of both electricity and food. Plants and animals that previously lived in areas devoted to monoculture forests would lose their habitat, and would be threatened with extinction. Even “marginal land” is not completely devoid of life. Further, if biofuel becomes more profitable to grow than food, there is nothing to protect people from farmers who convert their agricultural farms into forests to earn more, resulting in potential food shortages.

For the methods that use living organisms to sequester carbon, such as radiata pine trees on land and kelp in the oceans, these methods are not without their risks. All trees require time to sequester carbon from the air into the soil: this is not a process that happens immediately. Further, native biodiverse long-growth forests are much better in the long run at sequestering carbon than monoculture pine forests. They also support other living beings in diverse ecosystems, in a permanent way. If the land where these trees are grown is subsequently tilled or ploughed, much of the sequestered carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. The other oceanic option, growing kelp, risks massive de-oxygenation of areas of the sea, where it becomes impossible for any other marine life to live.

Money, Carbon Markets, and Investors

Money, Carbon Markets, and Investors

Why are world governments not funding geo-engineering projects at the same scale as private wealthy individuals? Who are the proponents of geo-engineering, and why are they advocating for it? Where is the money flowing, and who stands to benefit from geo-engineering projects? An important part of ecological analysis is to consider flows of capital, both material capital and money. Let’s dig into these questions.

More power, more money

Bill Gates has put $8 million USD into solar radiation management and direct carbon capture technologies. Elon Musk has allocated $100 million USD to carbon capture technologies. The Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation has given $11 million USD to genetically modify plants to increase their photosynthesis capabilities. Meanwhile, the United States Government in 2019 authorised only $4 million to be spent in geo-engineering research. In 2021, a 300-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the United States, “Reflecting Sunlight,” for the first time recommended a coordinated national research programme to explore geo-engineering possibilities. Governments and think tanks around the world seem to be showing little interest in geo-engineering. New Zealand’s Government seems scared of the very use of the word, associating anyone who talks about it with conspiracy theory. A look through the Official Information Act requests demonstrates this.

To think that people such as Gates and Musk are simply benevolent and compassionate human beings looking after the welfare of the rest of the planet would be quite naïve. Surely they cannot have realised the colossal destructive impact that their empires have had on this planet, and are now repenting by paying us back with the invention of technologies to save the world. If they really did recognise the threat, they certainly would not be taking private jets around the planet, and would probably have wound up their businesses with interests in fossil fuels (most of them).

More likely, therefore, is that they are proposing geo-engineering because it is a way for them to keep the capital – in the form of wealth and power – that they have accumulated through a capitalist economic structure. They have a direct interest in keeping this fossil-fuel dominated way of life alive: it brings them more money and means they are powerful people.

These elites will retain their power because geo-engineering enables them to mask the true effects of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Without solar radiation reflecting light back, world temperatures will increase by more than 1.5 degrees in at most 20 years. With it, however, world temperatures can be kept at an acceptable level. “Climate change” can be averted, never mind the other consequences. Their dream of a techno-rational empire, where science and technology are able to solve all of the problems of humanity, is one step closer to proving itself as the only way forward. Such an empire, of course, will not be controlled by world governments or organisations, like the United Nations; rather, it will be owned and run by private enterprise: the enterprises of Musk and Gates.

Image: Financial Times UK

How will these wealthy individuals make money through geo-engineering the planet? The answer lies in the global carbon markets. In New Zealand, we have set up an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which puts a price on each tonne of carbon emitted. Companies can purchase the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere, and land owners or carbon extraction companies can sell credits to these companies, because they are storing carbon in the ground.

The first company or person who can store carbon for less money than it costs to emit one tonne of carbon enters into a very beneficial position: they can make others pay, through the carbon market, for them to store carbon in the ground, and make a profit.

For example, if it costs a company $100 to store 1 tonne of carbon in the ground, and the price of carbon on the carbon market is $200, for every tonne of carbon they store using their technology, they make 100%, or $100. A company with one plant that stores 8 million tonnes a year would, in this model, make $800 million a year.

The whole idea behind the carbon market is that the price of carbon will increase, so that net emissions will decrease. There is no future projection, in the long run, in which the price of carbon decreases, because that would mean more carbon emitted into the atmosphere, which is what the scheme is trying to regulate. It’s like investing in something with guaranteed returns.

Example: Make Sunsets

Make Sunsets, a start-up in the United States, is selling “cooling credits” at $17 USD each. These aren’t just for companies, but also individuals who want to invest in geo-engineering. Apparently, one cooling credit equals 1 gram of sulphur dioxide released, which will offset the warming effect of 1 ton of carbon dioxide for one year. This incredibly easy maths seems too easy to be true, and may in fact just be clever marketing more than accurate science. What’s more, individuals like you and me could offset our 15 tonne-per-year average emissions by paying $255 a year. Set and forget, monthly subscriptions are possible: the site looks just like any other online site where you could buy a coffee machine or a pair of shoes. We could just pay the money and wash all our sins away, and forget about any responsibility we have towards ecological destruction.

Their website’s FAQ has the following question: “I would like you to stop doing this.”

Their (quite arrogant) response is: “And we would like an equitable future with breathable air and no wet bulb events for generations to come. Convince us there’s a more feasible way to buy us the time to get there and we’ll stop. We’ll happily debate anyone on this, just confirm an audience of at least 200 people and we’ll find the time to try and convince you. 😉” As of May 2023, they have completed 20 flights for 96 customers. If they had $50 billion USD a year, they could offset the effects of all man-made emissions. They want more time for other people to do the work of decarbonisation, and because their actions are not regulated, they can deploy sulphur into the air, and make money from doing so. When the cooling credits were launched, they were $10 each in 2022. As time goes on, their cooling credits increase in price (now at $17), whilst the cost for deployment decreases as more people buy credits. Costs decrease, price increases, and the company makes a lot of money.

What they do not do, however, is take any responsibility for the consequences of their projects. They do not plan to donate any money to people affected by the deployment of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Such a thing is too hard to prove, and no research could be conducted (and likely wouldn’t be financed in the first place): was it global warming’s fault or Make Sunset’s fault? All responsibility lies outside the company, and externalities are recognised but financially and legally ignored.

Make Sunsets is just one part of a host of companies and individuals financing carbon removal and solar radiation projects. A similar bet is being placed by Drax in the UK: burning wood chips is carbon neutral. If they can store the carbon actually released from burning the chips, then they have a net carbon-negative business. As well as selling energy, they make money through selling carbon offsets on the carbon market. The more trees they burn, the more they can sell on the carbon market.

Make Sunsets logo
Make Sunsets website screen capture
Image: Make Sunsets website

The perpetrators of the problem are the ones that stand to benefit the most from geo-engineering projects. These companies are using investment money and promising returns on investment just like any other investment in Apple or Microsoft or SpaceX. The global carbon capture and storage market could reach $4 trillion USD by 2050, according to estimations by Exxon Mobil, a petroleum company.

In the end, investing in carbon capture technology is an investment in one’s own wealth, not in the future of the planet. Such an beneficial outcome for the planet is not even guaranteed, and comes with incredible risks: none of which will be paid for or recognised by the investors, who will have made their financial returns, and moved on to financing space villages, after destroying the climate system on planet Earth.

Further Reading
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. (2022) Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Crown Publishing.
    Kolbert looks at the ways that human civilisation manages the environment, and the future of this management through geo-engineering.
  • Morton, Oliver. (2017) The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Princeton University Press.
    An account of the reasons for geoengineering to take place, and the necessity to continue researching this. The book explores the history, politics, and science of geoengineering.
  • Malm, Andreas. (2022) The Future Is the Termination Shock: On the Antinomies and Psychopathologies of Geoengineering. Part One and Part Two. In Historical Materialism 30.4, 3–53.
    Malm discusses the rational-optimist viewpoint towards the world in this article series. He strongly criticises geoengineering movements from all sides.
  • Science for the People. (2018). Summer Special Issue: Geoengineering.
    https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/geoengineering-special-issue/
    Science for the People break down all the viewpoints on geo-engineering in the United States context, with a variety of articles by different contributors on the topic.
  • New Zealand Productivity Commission. (2018) Low Emissions Economy.
    The Productivity Commission discuss the ways in which New Zealand can transition to a low emissions economy. Discussed here are natural means of geo-engineering, namely, reforestation and carbon capture through tree planting and carbon credits (ETS).
  • Official Information Act requests on geoengineering in New Zealand, on FYI.org (here, question by Chris McCashin), shows the extent to which the Government deny any knowledge of or involvement with geoengineering. Also, in the comments on this page, you can see how a reasonable request is taken up by those supporting conspiracy and misinformation, who demand the Government be held to account for inaccurate responses.  

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A history of ecology

orange lake through the grey ground

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

author
Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Ecology is a relatively new science, and an extremely complex one to pin down. It’s also stuck between competing world views which mean that sometimes ecological information can be used to justify something when in fact it can only support an argument, rather than justify it. Knowing the history of ecology means that we can better understand the role it plays in our societies and the considerations of our future planet. 

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Ecology is the discipline which studies phenomena such as climate change, the extinction of species, global temperature increases, sea level rises, and more. Some 200 years ago, ecology wasn’t really a thing, and even biology only really began to be developed as a separate science in the 19th century. The origins of exploring the relationship between humans and nature using the scientific method are much more recent than we might think. However, the discovery of climate change and the potentials for increased carbon dioxide to warm the atmosphere are not as recent as we often make out. In fact, in as early as 1863, British physician Joseph Tyndall suggested that carbon dioxide and water could potentially provoke a change in climatic conditions, based on his studies of the absorption of light by gases.

There are some challenges to writing a history of ecology, not least the fact that each country, culture, religion, and people have a different relationship to or with nature. This means that their ‘ecology’ or ‘economy of nature’ will be different. What we commonly call ecology in the English-speaking world has largely been influenced by North American research and priorities, mostly in military and security. Other countries, such as Russia, have contributed much to ecological science historically, however the Soviet Union regimes have meant that this did not continue. Māori have their own relationships to nature, and each iwi or tribe will relate to their environment in a different way. Is the study of this ecology? Or is this something else? In this article on the history of ecology, we’ll stick to understanding ecology in a scientific and mostly western sense, drawing on the history of the study of natural relationships from a scientific perspective. This does not mean that other, indigenous cultures do not have an ecology, or that their ecologies are not important. Rather, we should understand their relationships to nature using their language and in their context.

What is ecology?

Ecology, broadly speaking, is the study of living beings and the relationships between them, between these beings and their environment, and of the biological factors of the environment. Ecology studies things like ecosystems, which are specific containers of life on earth which work according to certain patterns and tendencies. Ecology also studies the biosphere, or the whole area in which living beings exist on the planet. In more recent times, ecology has been more focused on the relationship between humans and nature, than other relationships. This is because of the discovery that human beings are destroying the continued viability of life on earth through their production and consumption activity. This destruction has manifested in climate change, the acidification of oceans, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the loss of animal and plant species, and much more.

There is a problem in defining what the boundaries of ecology are, however. Think about how we use the word ‘ecosystem’ or ‘climate’ to talk about start-ups or just groups or communities of things. These are terms which are proper to ecology, and not to other disciplines or areas of life. But if ecology is the study of ecosystems, then we must say which type of ecosystem we are studying: probably not the start-up ecosystem, that’s for sure! There are also an increasing number of small disciplines appearing, which branch off from ecology, such as the ecology of gender, ecology of words, ecology of music, and much more. These are more difficult to place, because ecology does look at the relationships between living beings, therefore, between human beings, too.  

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A quick overview of the stages in ecology’s history

Yannick Mahrane writes that there are three main stages in the development of ecology (in “Ecology: Know and Govern Nature” (French)). Each stage relies on a different metaphor or way of seeing nature, which influences the nature of the science that is being performed. Other writers will discuss the development of ecology in terms of paradigms, or main assumptions that theorists make. Yet more will talk about ecology in terms of the debate between holistic theories, which view the earth or living beings as a united system, and reductionist theories, which look at the parts of these systems separately.

According to Mahrane, the first stage of ecology was from the word’s coining by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, until the end of the Second World War in 1945. This period was characterised by the study of plants, which developed in order to control territories, regulate and improve agricultural production, and learn about how plants functioned through institutions such as Botanic Gardens. These scientists had an organicist ontology, meaning they viewed the world as a unified whole, and organisms within this system are constantly changing and evolving.

The second stage of ecological development is from 1945 until the middle of the 1970’s. This stage is characterised by a formal, mathematical ecology, which functioned on a culture of engineering and geo-engineering. This is when we saw the large attempts to build domes and controlled environments by people such as Buckminster Fuller, which ultimately failed. These ecologists thought in mechanistic and cybernetic terms, meaning that they viewed the world as composed of mechanical parts which all needed to be understood in order to understand the whole. This viewpoint is also called reductionist.

The final stage in ecological development is from the late 1970’s until today. Here, ecology becomes influenced by neoliberal politics. We begin to view ecosystems as providing us with services, which need to be accounted for and managed. Managerial ecology views nature as something to be directed, and human beings are the designated managers of this nature, performing a very similar role to managers in companies. Economic rationality, in terms of resources, production, consumption, and more, are key to the viewpoint that this kind of ecology takes.

The beginnings of ecology

We could think that ecology first began as a systematic study of nature with Aristotle’s natural science, in Ancient Greece. This was not called ecology at the time, but Aristotle made detailed observations of many animal and plant species, noting their qualities and relationships, and drawing differences between the varieties and species that he found. Theophrastus, around the same time as Aristotle, also commented on the relationships between living beings.

The second possible beginning of ecology is with Carl von Linné’s economy of nature, entitled Systema Naturae, spanning 3 volumes and 2,300 pages. His method was to identify, name and describe as many different species as he could find, and determine the hierarchy or relationship between these different beings.

Biology as a science began to appear in the 19th century, and people such as revolutionary biologist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin began positing their hypotheses concerning the natural world, and how this natural world had developed. At the same time, Ernst Haeckel in Germany begins referring to something he calls oekologie (ecology) – the economy of nature, which he defines as the study of the relations between organisms:

“By ecology, we mean the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the “conditions of existence.” These are partly organic, partly inorganic in nature; both, as we have shown, are of the greatest significance for the form of organisms, for they force them to become adapted.” E. Haeckel, 1866 Generelle Morphologie der Organismen.

This definition of ecology will be expanded upon, throughout the rest of the history of ecology, because ecology does not only study living beings, but also the environment, the ocean, the soils, and more. It also is concerned with other types of living and non-living things, not only that which we would normally call ‘organisms.’

Image: Aristotle's De Anima. Aristotle was one of the first biologists and zoologists in the Western tradition.

The invention of some key concepts in ecology

In the late 19th century, there were some central developments that helped ecology to become a domain in its own right. These were the invention of the concept of the biosphere, and the creation of ecology’s research method, the quadrant.

In 1875, Austrian geologist Edward Suess invented the term biosphere. He did this in the context of a changing Europe: no longer was Europe composed of feudal communities; rather the industrial development and the creation of nation states was beginning to change the way people lived, and saw the world. This increase in industrial action and production meant that people began studying the impact and the relationship between humans and nature. They could see that something was happening, and that landscapes were changing, so scientists began investigating this.

It would only be in 1926 that the idea of the biosphere could really take hold, as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian philosopher and ecologist, Vladimir Vernadsky. In his book, The Biosphere, he posits that life is the geological force that shapes the earth, and that terrestrial life can be considered as a totality – in a global sense.  Instead of thinking about small localised ecological events, there is a linking and intimate relationship between all life on earth. This concept of the biosphere is one view in the holistic perspective in ecology.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, Frederick Clements developed the concept of the quadrant: a square, usually 5 metres wide and 5 metres across, in which all life forms would be studied to build a picture of a particular area. Clements wrote a how-to guide for ecology, measuring out quadrats, counting species, and measuring conditions. It was later that more statistical and sophisticated measurements were added to these methods, to reach the forms that we have today.

The ecosystem

The idea of the ecosystem is another key concept in ecology that has only grown in popularity since its coining in 1935. It was not, however, until the 1950s that ecosystems became a central notion for ecologists worldwide.

Between the World Wars, most ecological thinking was dominated by Clements’ theories, which considered ecological communities as organisms and associations, buoyed by his methodology of the quadrant. British ecologist Arthur Tansley developed the idea of an ecosystem in his work “The use and abuse of vegetational terms and concepts” to once again shift the paradigm in ecology. His interest in ecology, as for most ecologists, was due to a larger scale industrial revolution, and an increasing globalisation, which were beginning to reveal negative flow-on effects on the environment, and on our ability to produce food for larger populations.

Tansley considers ecological communities as totalities, and not separate species with no relations between them. This again is a holistic perspective. The ecosystem is a way of referring to these ecological communities of related plants and species in a particular place. However, Tansley is very keen to point out that the ecosystem is not a given concept in nature: we cannot see ‘ecosystems’ nor can we find them somewhere. Rather, ecosystems are mental abstractions, ways of seeing communities of living beings, such that we can better study and understand the relationships between living beings in a particular area. We should not forget that ecology produces models of the world, and all models are wrong – they are simplistic representations of what reality is actually like, but we use them because they help us to understand what the world is like.

Linked to the idea of the ecosystem is the particular relation within this system between living beings, called the niche. Charles Elton, the pioneer of animal ecology, used this term to describe the place occupied by a particular being in relation to other beings. The niche is “the position of the animal in its environment and its relations to its food and to its enemies.” (Animal Ecology, p. 63-64).

Another paradigm shift, this time with energy

As industrial societies began to electrify large parts of the home and office, energy transformation and electricity transfer became important topics in the minds of many scientists. This change did not escape ecology, with Howard Odum, a North American ecologist, positing that energy is a universal perspective through which we can see the world, particularly in the way that human beings use nature. Photosynthesis – the way that plants capture energy from the sun – is one such way of considering energy transfers, and opens up a realm of considerations regarding the efficiency with which plants convert energy into mass or food that we can eat.

Along with Odum, Raymond Lindeman believed that ecosystems were actually thermodynamic systems, which exchanged energy with their environments. An ecosystem could be seen and determined through analysing energy transfers. Take a corn field, for example. The corn plants take up nutrients and water from the soil, and sunlight from the sun, which they convert into energy in order to grow the plants. Other organisms in the corn field, like the worms in the soil, the bugs on the plants, etc. all take energy from their surroundings, and convert it into energy that they can use to sustain their life. Human beings do the same thing – we eat food and drink water, which we extract molecules of glucose from, in order to have the energy to perform.

corn field
Corn field

The third paradigm shift: mathematical ecology

Between the two World Wars – the late 1910’s and the late 1940’s – ecology was in its golden age, as Jean-Paul Delèage put it.

The first attempts at mathematical ecology were with Thomas Malthus’ writings on human population. In 1798, he published “An Essay on the Principle of the Human Population” where he compares human population growth to resource availability on Earth. He notes that human populations double: they follow the pattern, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32… Resources, and our subsistence, however, grows following an incremental increase: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Eventually you will have a population of 256, but resources will have only grown to 9 – therefore showing that at a certain point there are limits to population growth, because of a lack of resources available for these populations.

Along with this conclusion, resources were becoming scarce and ecological problems were beginning to emerge in the growth of food and the availability of wood for fuel. Mathematical and statistical formulations became a key way of understanding, and therefore predicting, what would happen in certain ecosystems that were crucial to human survival.

Alfred Lotka (in 1925) and Vito Volterra (in 1926) produced ecological models for competition and predation in nature. They wanted to find out how certain animals became the prey of other animals, and what this did to their populations, depending upon the population of the predator. Central to their ideas was the observation that animals in nature seemed to compete for resources and space, and the availability of these things determined the relative success of their populations.

The introduction of past events into these models by these two researchers meant that the models became more complex. It also gave a sense of history to the things that were happening in nature: what happens now depended upon what happened in the past, and we began to be able to make mathematical connections between past and present, and therefore understand what might happen in the future.

Edward Wilson then built upon these ideas, which were for him too simplistic, to develop the idea of dynamic equilibrium. These mathematical models were reductionist – they wanted to understand species, and could not include in their models all the conditions that affected the populations of a specific species – climate, food, predators, other species, catastrophes, viruses, bacteria, and more.

The idea of an equilibrium is similar to that which we find in economics, and Yannick Mahrane suggests that there is a link between the era in which the idea of market equilibrium took hold in Western societies, and when it became an ecological concept, too. Wilson’s idea is that species in a particular ecosystem will reach a stable point of equilibrium, where certain populations are able to be maintained according to the resources. When something in the ecosystem is disturbed, these relative populations will change – the point of equilibrium will move and re-establish itself at different levels to before.

The theory of Gaia

Building upon this idea of equilibrium and changing points of stability, British scientists James Lovelock and Lyn Margulis developed the hypothesis of Gaia, which unified the concepts of biosphere and equilibrium in the science of ecology.

The Gaia hypothesis sees the earth as a living being itself, which is capable of self-regulation and self-organisation of the climatic conditions and the life forms that exist on the planet. This system, called Gaia, is much larger and more inclusive than the biosphere; it includes places where there is no life as well, such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the rocks.

The key part of the Gaia hypothesis is that the living beings on the planet participate themselves in the regulation of temperatures and the composition of the surface of the planet. By breathing in and out, we take out oxygen, and release carbon dioxide. Trees take up that carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. The earth is no longer just something that is there, created in a certain way; rather it is the product of the life forms that have inhabited it. The proof for this hypothesis is the fact that many millions of years ago, when life first formed, there was no oxygen on the planet. Through the activity of bacteria, however, oxygen was released into the atmosphere, and then reached a stable level of around 21% of the atmosphere, which was the most ideal composition for the regeneration of forests, the growth of other species, etc. This world, therefore, is the best possible world for those species that are living on it, because they have participated in creating the conditions that now exist to support life.

This theory is termed a hypothesis because it is still hotly debated. The main reason for this is that the theory posits a certain teleological finality to the planet: there is a goal to the evolution of life on earth. It is not just random happenings that occur in certain ways that just so happened to create life and sustain life. This goes against much of the fundamentals of the sciences. Furthermore, the theory is supported by certain life forms above ground, but in the oceans, marine life seems to be much more determined by nutrient availability than temperature or composition.

We can, as Stephen Schneider suggests, take a key conclusion from this theory as truth: that organisms interact and co-determine their destiny. What this destiny may be is not defined, nor is it possible to know, but what we can know is that different forms of life are interrelated and are involved in determining the success of other forms of life on Earth.

Cover of Gaia by James Lovelock

The human being in ecology

As we became more aware of the fact that human beings are affecting the composition of the atmosphere, the quality of the soils, and the viability of other life forms on the planet, the object that ecology studied began to change. Instead of looking at ecosystems, ecologists began to study the biosphere – the totality of life on earth – in more detail.

Looking through the history of human civilisations, we can see a very strong correlation between the climatic conditions at a particular period in time, and the economic success of these civilisations. Although the ancient civilisation of the Maya in South America did not decline solely because of ecological reasons, the destruction of forests and the disruption of the water cycle contributed to the collapse of this civilisation. The cultivation of corn was the main factor in this disruption, and as they tried to grow more corn, they disturbed larger parts of the ecosystem upon which they were reliant.

Pierre Gourou, a French geographer, noted that “there is no crisis in the usage of nature that is not also a crisis in the way of life of mankind.” Our relationships with nature became more and more important as objects of study and analysis, to find out how we were changing the ecosystems in which we lived, and the biosphere as a whole. In the United States, and other countries, large areas of land have been rendered unusable and infertile because of the industrial agricultural methods that were, and to some extent still are, used to grow food for both humans and cattle that we eventually eat.

Ecologists, and political or literary ecologists, began to think about where this problem might have come from. Why and how did we get into this mess? These more theoretical and philosophical forms of ecology began to flourish around the 1970’s, and are perhaps still in their main growth phase today. Lynn White in her 1967 essay, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” traces back the origins of this relationship to nature to the Bible: we were told that God had given us the Earth to have dominion over, and to fill this Earth with our own kind. Francis Bacon, an English philosopher and statesman in the 16th century, made clear that human beings were the centre of the universe, and had absolute authority over all things on Earth.

The 21st century ecologist is therefore confronted with the question of the place of the human being in the biosphere. What role do they have? What impact do they have? And how can they live with, or without, nature? These questions are just as much scientific as they are philosophical, which is why ecology is now a discipline at the crossroads between multiple different areas of study and research.

Ecology is also still very much in a phase determined by neoliberal economic theory, whereby accounting for and quantifying resources and outputs is crucial to the work of many ecologists. Carbon accounting is but one example of this kind of ecology, whereby we attempt to figure out the carbon emissions of each resource and good on the market, and each process or action undertaken in society, so that we can develop an overview of the carbon emitted per year, per country. Once we can measure and know about it, then we can solve it: so would say the technologically-minded politician or leader.

Ecology has many challenges in the 21st century, not least the need to research the ongoing impact of human beings on the planetary systems and climate conditions. The challenges that ecology faces are only increasing, however, with the rise of a distrust in international organisations such as the IPBES and the IPCC, both tasked with reporting on the human impact on nature, as well as climate-skepticism, climate reassurism (those who say we don’t need to worry about climate change), and scientism (those who believe that science will solve all the problems). Disseminating and communicating the research and results of ecology, as well as the nuances about the predictions made and methodologies used in ecology, is another incredibly difficult task.

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What is the Ecological Crisis?

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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Climate change, global warming, sustainability, environmental management… What is all this really about? And why should we be worried?

image

At this point, in early 2023, I think it’s safe to say that everyone in Western liberal democracies like New Zealand has heard of climate change and global warming. They might deny it, or think it’s not important, but we all know that there is a theory out there which says that the climate is changing.

Quite a few people will have also heard of environmental protection. Perhaps people who work in business-related contexts will have heard of environmental and social governance (ESG) which has become a buzz word in these circles. Sustainability is also something we read about everywhere, and a lot of the things we buy have labels or packaging which make reference to sustainability.

Why are sustainability and environmental protection important? What is actually going on? Climate change is referred to as a bad thing, and the environment must need some kind of help or management if we have a Ministry for the Environment, but what is the problem exactly?

As we’ll see, the problem is more complicated than just different weather patterns and hotter summers. It also extends much further than the icebergs in Antarctica.

The Meadows Report and the Great Acceleration

In 1972, a report was published by Club of Rome researchers Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William Behrens III. This report, called The Limits to Growth, set off alarm bells in many organisations and governments throughout the world. For the first time, we had evidence that a serious crisis was, and would continue to be affecting not just human beings, but the whole planet. Despite the fact that we had known about the effects of industrial farming, capitalist production, and other human activities on local environments since at least the 18th century, this report was one of the first high profile papers to state, very dramatically, the potential future of the whole planet.

This report analysed global trends in many things, and saw that in nearly every category, growth was no longer linear, but instead was exponential. Today we might have three, and tomorrow nine, and in seven days’ time 2,187. Exponential growth means the rate at which this growth occurs is always increasing.

These trends are now known as ‘The Great Acceleration’. The image below represents this, and shows the increases in measures including the number of McDonald’s restaurants, as well as the average temperature of the Northern Hemisphere.

Image: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/275775177167542214/

The report had three main conclusions. These conclusions would influence Margaret Thatcher’s energy policy in the United Kingdom, and act as a motivator for Al Gore’s political ambitions in the United States. Here are the conclusions, straight from the report:

  1. If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  2. It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future. The state of global equilibrium could be designed so that the basic material needs of each person on earth are satisfied and each person has an equal opportunity to realize his individual human potential.
  3. If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success. [Meadows et. al, 1972 p. 23-24]

There are, therefore, two possibilities: human beings will be in trouble, their populations will decline, and their capacities to meet their basic needs will become less and less sure. Or, human beings will begin to change things, and have a greater chance of not being in this situation.

When Emmanuel Macron said in January 2023 to the French people, “who could have predicted the climate crisis?”, he must have been quite misinformed. Or perhaps he thought that people were sufficiently uninformed about climate change to be able to fool them with his words. In fact, world leaders have known about the real and disastrous possible outcomes of humanity’s impact on the environment for the past 50 years.

Global Warming and Climate Change

One thing that was measured in this report was the average temperatures at various locations around the world. Records in different countries began at different times, but we can use other measurement tools to determine what temperatures would have been like.

World temperature increases
Stats NZ https://www.stats.govt.nz/indicators/temperature

In New Zealand, temperatures have, on average, been increasing since the middle of the 20th century. Now, almost all regions in New Zealand are experiencing increased temperatures, and meteorologists (weather experts) have declared that there is a warming trend in these regions, meaning temperatures are likely to keep increasing.

New Zealand temperature increases 1972-2019
Annual average daily temperature trends. Image: Stats NZ

The increase in temperature is what we call global warming: the earth is getting, on average, hotter.

Why do small temperature changes matter? NASA explain that “A one-degree global change is significant because it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all of the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land masses by that much. In the past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part of North America under a towering mass of ice 20,000 years ago.”

We can even make estimates about the global temperatures as far back as 20,000 years ago – the last time Earth was in the Ice Age. One of the characteristics of the current period in the Earth’s history is the relatively stable temperatures and climatic conditions. Remember that Earth hasn’t always had a stable amount of oxygen in the air, and it hasn’t always had the temperatures that we now experience.

Annual global average temperatures. Image: RealClimate.org

Can you see how dramatic the increase in global temperature has been, since around 1950, compared with all other temperature increases in the past 20,000 years? The red line is a prediction of what will happen if we do not act to stop global warming, up until 2100. An increase as steep as the one we are seeing now has never been experienced before on planet Earth.

Another measure was the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that was in the air. The increases in these gases in the atmosphere is what is causing the increases in temperature. The increase in these gases, as the Meadows report demonstrates, and many scientists have shown in the past 50 years, is caused by human industrial activity on the planet.

Climate change, therefore, is the term that we use to refer to the effects of this temperature increase. When temperatures get warmer, icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic begin to melt, which causes sea levels to rise. The rate of extreme weather events increases. Rain stops falling in some locations, including central United States. Some parts of the world will become unliveable, as is already becoming the case in parts of India and the Middle East, where temperatures in summer are consistently above 50 degrees Celsius.

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The wider ecological problem

Climate change and global warming are not the only things to be affected by human industrial activity. This activity is also damaging many other parts of the Earth’s systems, which is proving to have disastrous effects.

In 2009, Johan Rockström at the Stockholm Resilience Centre brought together a team of 28 international scientists to discuss how we could measure the different changes in the environment. Climate and temperature were only one piece of the puzzle.

Their solution was to develop a series of nine planetary boundaries. These boundaries represent the nine different factors which contribute to the flourishing of life – human, animal and plant life – on the planet. These are the most important ingredients, if you will, for life to continue the way it has done for thousands of years.

 Just like in a baking recipe, if you add too much of something, the cake is ruined. The same goes for the nine planetary boundaries – once we have too much pollution in our air, our oceans become too acidic, or our water supplies damaged, then the possibilities for life to flourish become greatly reduced.

 At the end of 2021, humanity had crossed the boundaries of four of the nine different categories. In January 2022, humanity passed the fifth of nine, which was the amount of chemical pollution in our biological systems. In May 2022, we passed the sixth of nine planetary boundaries: that of the fresh water cycle, and in particular for green water. This refers to the humidity of the soil, and the flow of water through the soil systems. When the earth is too dry, and water stops flowing, it is as if the blood flow of a human being has slowed or stopped: life becomes unsupportable.

In the image below, the green area is the area within which life can be properly sustained. This is called the ‘safe zone’. Beyond this, the risks of collapse increase, as does the viability of life on Earth.

Image showing the planetary boundaries
The nine planetary boundaries. Orange indicates how far past the boundary we are. Image: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015.

The idea of planetary boundaries is not without critique, however (Biermann and Kim, 2020). In actual fact, there is no determinable ‘boundary’ which can be measured and set. According to researchers at the National Centre for Research in France (CNRS), we generally can only figure out the point at which this boundary lies after the whole system has been disrupted, at which point we have the information to see where the tipping point was (Callioce, 2020). We use these ideas and representations as metaphors and images, to help us understand what is going on in the environment, rather than hard and fast truths about the way the Earth works.

The other problem is that these boundaries are interrelated. Changing the status of one of them can lead to large changes in other areas of the Earth’s systems. One simple example is the fact that more acidic oceans lead to decreases in biodiversity, as fewer species are able to survive in more acidic environments. We see this in the bleaching and dying out of coral reefs across the planet.

The ecological crisis

Now that we have been through the various aspects of the ecological problem, let’s tie it all together. What is the ecological problem?

We know the following things:

  1. The relationship between the activities of human beings and the Earth’s biological systems is evident, and well-demonstrated. Currently, this relationship weighs heavily on these systems, disrupting, destroying, and even eradicating them.
  2. The causes of this disruption are varied, but most certainly human. These include the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, the development of non-degradable materials such as plastics which stay in the system for thousands of years, the increases in industrial agriculture which has destroyed soil and water systems, producing other greenhouse gases, and more.
  3. The biological systems that we are disturbing are the very same systems that support life on this planet. It is because of these systems, and the stable conditions that they have created, that life has been able to flourish on Earth.
  4. The conclusion that ecologists have reached is that this disruption and destruction of the Earth is unsustainable, because Earth’s resources are limited, and its systems are fragile. We are putting the very possibility of life in danger, because these systems are changing in ways that are hostile to life as we know it.

We can see that this understanding of the ecological problem is much, much larger than politicians, companies, and many ecologists would have us believe.

Much of the current debate is centred around the question of emissions. Whilst this is important, the ecological problem is not simply a question of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and consequently too great a carbon footprint for each person in most Western countries. The problems are more varied and complex than this one indicator which has become popularised to the point that it has become vulgar, symbolic of a larger problem but taken, by those who do not know better, to be the only problem.

This is evident in the commitments that countries have made in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in each country. This approach ignores the larger conclusions which ecologists have clearly drawn: it is not just the fact that we extract fossil fuels and burn them that is the problem; it is our very relationship with nature itself, it is our way of life which the planet cannot support.

 

To conclude

The ecological crisis is that the Earth’s systems are being destroyed in ways that will make Earth a more hostile place for almost all forms of life. The conditions that supported the flourishing of life, and of human beings, are no longer present on Earth. This has happened because of the industrial actions of human beings.

Here on the Plurality site, we use the term ‘ecological crisis’ instead of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘environmental problem’ to refer to what’s going on. The problem is much bigger than just the fact that the climate is changing. In fact, this could be the biggest crisis humanity has ever had to face.

When you’re talking about the environment with your friends and family next, try to discuss the ecological crisis with them. Drawing people’s attention to the fact that climate change is just one part of the crisis is important, so that we are able to see just what we are up against when it comes to policy and lifestyle changes.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.

Why plurality.eco?

Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

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We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © Plurality.eco 2023