Saturday, October 07, 2023

The Behavioural Crisis Driving Ecological Overshoot.

I am a co-author on this new "World Scientists' Warning" paper.

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

Ecological Overshoot.

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

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

This topic has been explored more deeply in our recent paper, World Scientists’ Warning: The Behavioural Crisis Driving Ecological Overshoot.”, which concludes that the root cause of overshoot is maladaptive human behaviour, named and framed as “the Human Behavioural Crisis” (HBC). It is furthermore proposed that this may provide a critical point where intervention can be made, in contrast to most current strategies, which are largely physical, resource intensive, slow-moving and focused on addressing the symptoms of ecological overshoot (such as climate change) rather than the root cause (maladaptive behaviours). We conclude that, even in the most optimistic scenarios, symptom-level (“downstream”) interventions are unlikely to avoid catastrophe or achieve more than ephemeral progress. Rather, it is at the precursory “upstream” stage where overshoot might best be intercepted and ameliorated.

Three primary drivers of the behavioural crisis are considered: economic growth; marketing; and pronatalism, which haul the three “levers” of overshoot: consumption, waste and population. These have been activated and perpetuated by the intentional exploitation of previously adaptive human impulses, with advertising as a major factor. We propose an interdisciplinary (“systemic”) emergency response to the behavioural crisis by, inter alia, reconfiguring societal attitudes relating to reproduction, consumption and waste production. Indeed, could those same advertising mechanisms that are driving our current journey to destruction be adapted to begin putting things into reverse, aiming to attain an eco-harmonious state of “one planet living”.

While decarbonisation of the global energy system is often presented as the problem humankind must solve, the installation of sufficient renewables to substitute for the 82% of our primary energy that currently is provided by fossil fuels (to achieve “net zero” by 2050, or even 2030) would require huge quantities both of raw materials and indeed fossil fuels themselves. Even if this could be pulled off, just one (albeit considerable) symptom of ecological overshoot would be addressed, likely worsening others significantly in the process. Since it is humankind's access to cheap, abundant energy that has allowed, even urged, us to exceed or threaten many planetary boundaries, simply substituting one form of energy for another, would not resolve our overall predicament. As the Environmental journalist, Hart Hagan, has observed wryly:

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

Specific behavioural interventions.

Alternatively, by reframing the issue in terms of HBC, we may advance from merely treating symptoms to healing the core cultural malady. If psycho-behavioural change is given precedence over purely physical interventions, many anthropogenic pressures on Earth may be alleviated systemically. Thus, the current 100 billion tonnes per annum of natural resources required to maintain the human enterprise could be substantially reduced, and indeed the massive amounts of “new” materials that would be needed to try and substitute the fossil fuels by renewable energy, if that total energy demand target is brought down.

In an apparent paradox, the marketing, media and entertainment industries, all currently complicit in the creation and exacerbation of the behavioural crisis, may just be our best chance at avoiding ecological catastrophe. The stories we tell shape appetites and norms. Typically, when it comes to addressing maladaptive behaviours in the current paradigm, there appears to be a focus on raising awareness and education, under the arguable assumption that this will lead to the behavioural changes desired. However, while awareness and education certainly have important roles to play in combating ecological overshoot, they are relatively ineffective at driving behavioural change. Can the same behavioural mechanisms that steered and fuelled our immense appetites bring them back within the planetary limits to growth?

Directing and policing widespread behaviour manipulation.

Behavioural manipulation has been intentionally used for nefarious purposes before, and has played a critical role in the creation of the behavioural crisis and consequential ecological overshoot. We are now at a crossroads, with three possible paths ahead:

•We can choose to continue using behavioural manipulation to deepen our dilemma,

•We can choose to ignore it and leave it to chance, or

•We can use an opportunity that almost no other species has had, and consciously steer our collective behaviours to conform to the natural laws that bind all life on Earth.

This raises ethical questions: for example, who should be allowed to wield such power? At present, it is in the hands of anyone with the necessary influence or financial means to exploit it. However, we should not entrust this to any individual human, company, government or industry. Instead, any continued use of widespread behavioural manipulation should be firmly bound by, and anchored within a framework built upon the laws of the natural world, as well as the science on limits to growth.

We urgently call for increased interdisciplinary work to be carried out in directing, understanding and policing widespread behaviour manipulation.


In summary, the evidence indicates that anthropogenic ecological overshoot stems from a crisis of maladaptive human behaviours. While the behaviours generating overshoot were once adaptive for H. sapiens, they have been distorted and extended to the point where they now threaten the fabric of complex life on Earth. Simply, we are trapped in a system built to encourage growth and appetites that will end us.

The current emphasis toward “sustainability” is resource intensive (e.g. the global transition to renewable energy) and single-symptom focused. Indeed, most mainstream attention and investment is directed towards mitigating and adapting to climate change. Even if this narrow intervention is successful, it will not resolve the meta-crisis of ecological overshoot; in fact, given the resource-intensive nature of the technologies involved, it is likely to make matters worse. Psychological interventions are likely to prove far less resource-intensive and more effective than their physical counterparts.

•We call for increased attention on the behavioural crisis as a critical intervention point for addressing overshoot and its myriad symptoms.

•We advocate increased interdisciplinary collaboration between the social and behavioural science theorists and practitioners, as advised by scientists working on limits to growth and planetary boundaries.

•We call for additional research to develop a full understanding of the many dimensions of the behavioural crisis (including the overwhelming influence of power structures) and how we can best address it.

•We call for an emergency, concerted, multidisciplinary effort to target the populations and value levers most likely to produce rapid global adoption of new consumption, reproduction and waste norms congruent with the survival of complex life on Earth.

•We call for increased interdisciplinary work to be carried out in directing, understanding and policing widespread behaviour manipulation.

Time is running out, not only because the health of the natural systems upon which we are utterly dependent is deteriorating, but also because widescale interventions are only possible when a society holds together and is capable of coherent action. Of course, as the effects of overshoot worsen, the likelihood of societal breakdown increases. We still have an opportunity to be proactive and utilise the intact systems we have in place, to deliver a framework for shifting social norms and other necessities for addressing the behavioural crisis.

However, the day may come when the breakdown of society will make intervention impossible, locking the planet into an unguided recovery that may salvage much of “nature” but be inhospitable to human life.

We seek to highlight a critical disconnect that is an ongoing societal gulf in communication between those that know, such as scientists working within limits to growth, and those members of the citizenry, largely influenced by social scientists and industry, that must act in unison.

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

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