Jack Santa Barbara asks what we need to do differently to seriously engage with our overshoot problem and prevent our own collapse 

Researchers have documented the existential threats humanity faces as a result of ecological overshoot – too many people consuming too much of what nature provides. The level of this destruction presents a significant threat to human wellbeing and social stability, as well as the survival of many species we rely on to survive.

Becoming aware of this situation can be pretty depressing at first. But accepting it as a reality is an important step to taking action. If something upsets us or makes us fearful, that is a signal we should pay attention to it. Pain has a purpose; it tells us to do something different.

What would we need to do differently to seriously engage with the overshoot issue and provide some genuine hope for the future?

We are the only species aware of the overshoot phenomenon, capable of understanding it, and potentially able to take action to prevent our own collapse.

All other species can only expand to the point where resources or pollution impose biophysical limits on their continued expansion. They expand until they decline, quickly or slowly.

We have the capacity to learn from the science and anticipate this happening and take corrective action. But will we?  What would we need to do?

Since our challenge is unique, we need to accept some humility about how to proceed. No species has ever voluntarily transitioned from a high-tech global mode of expansion (we call it civilisation) to a simpler one to adjust its carrying capacity. It won’t be a simple or easy task, and we might only partially succeed.


Some scientist colleagues have described the task as similar to transforming an airborne 747 jet airliner into a flock of geese without losing speed or altitude.

What follows is not so much a plan as some ideas to stimulate discussion and fumble forward.

Fortunately, a lot of well-informed scholars from a variety of disciplines have given the matter considerable thought and we can draw from them to get us going.

Three categories of levers to adjust our total consumption and impact on nature have been identified: per capita consumption, population, and the technologies we use.

Consumption, population and technology adjustments

What would seem an obvious step is to stop doing what is causing the problem – our per capita consumption. We don’t seem to like this approach because we enjoy the benefits overshoot provides in the short term. 

We prefer technical solutions that solve problems cheaply without giving up anything. For example, our reliance on renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. But this would mean a further expansion of ecological overshoot and make things worse.

The more direct approach would be to ration fossil fuels and decrease their availability over a few years. This would result in not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions with some certainty, but would also slow down the continued expansion of our collective consumption. 

Some scientist colleagues have described the task as similar to transforming an airborne 747 jet airliner into a flock of geese without losing speed or altitude.

A program is already available for doing this in a way that ensures fairness for all and prevents the wealthy from hoarding that most valuable of resources – energy.

Less energy means we would produce and consume less. The relationship between the two is very clear and direct.

This would require a lot more thought to what the best use of energy would be in our lives, ensuring whatever energy we used made a real contribution to human wellbeing. 

We would also have to think of wellbeing in terms of meeting basic human needs – not just material needs, but the critical non-material ones as well.

We would have to more clearly distinguish between real needs and mere wishes.

Since we waste an enormous amount of energy, especially in richer countries like New Zealand, this would not create undue hardship if sufficient energy availability was ensured for everyone.

Research on human happiness and wellbeing clearly shows that we do not need a lot of money, energy, or material goods, beyond a certain level, for a satisfying life. But in the wealthier nations we consume much more than we really need.

We could likely live well with the existing hydro and geothermal energy we currently produce in this country. The problem isn’t the energy available for us, but what we choose to do with it.

Building out an ever larger renewable energy system as the Government and electricity corporations currently propose would only contribute to more overshoot. It’s the wrong technical solution driven by profit motives and convenience expectations rather than concern for our ecological footprint.

Transition Engineering and the low-tech movement provide us with realistic means of satisfying our needs with technologies that don’t wreck the planet.

We have to get used to the idea that more economic growth means more ecological overshoot. The idea of decoupling economic growth from harm to the environment is a myth we need to dispel.

Absolute decoupling, which is the only type that counts from an overshoot perspective, is a biophysical impossibility. 

Dealing with overshoot would mean change and change is always stressful. So we shouldn’t expect this process to be easy. Keep in mind we are dealing with an existential threat to our own wellbeing and that of all future generations. 

Some stress and inconvenience is inevitable and the more we can accept this, and plan to minimise the difficulties, the easier it will be. Pulling together for a common goal in such circumstances can give meaning to our lives and we could feel the thrill of overcoming those aspects of our culture that are destroying us.

If we slow down the human enterprise, the economy will change shape as well as size. That will be inevitable, and it would be terrible to not anticipate and plan for consequent job losses.

Contrary to mainstream economic doctrine, there are a variety of policy initiatives that can protect employment, reduce inequality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and even government debt, with a slowing economy.

Sweden has for decades had a state-run job replacement program that provides generous supports for not only retraining but also relocation. 

While many non-essential jobs will disappear, new ones will emerge.

Policies that support Universal Basic Services could ensure that essential human needs are met. This would create jobs in health care, education and social services, as well as projects to restore nature to heal the harm we have done.

Another useful policy is Reduced Work Time. If unessential jobs are abandoned, then the remaining essential work can be shared by more people working less.

This would provide people with more leisure time to pursue hobbies and recreation. This would allow us to actually enjoy life more than the current hustle to get ahead – a compulsion for consumption that makes overshoot worse.

Some of this leisure time could be used to provide some of the goods and services we now purchase. Learning to be prosumers can not only reduce our living expenses, but also provide the satisfaction of taking more direct control of caring for ourselves and our families. 

If you have the means, then growing food is a good example of this. Doing it with neighbours can be a simple way to both improve your skills, socialise and provide mutual support.

So how do we pay for all these public services and resources? The government actually has the authority to provide the needed funds without causing inflation. Since economic activity needs to slow down, inflation is not a risk. 

Policies that progressively tax profits and wealth would help this approach. There would be little need to accumulate financial wealth because spending it would only impose yet more burden on the ecosystems we so desperately need to restore.

This is yet another of the many paradoxes our current system has created. We strive for financial wealth, but the more we have the more ecological destruction we inevitably do. 

Policies that adopted an approach know as Modern Monetary Theory have been advocated by economists to accomplish much of what is described above. 

Yes, even economists have recognised the need to slow the economy down and have developed ways of doing it safely. They may not be mainstream economists – yet, but with some public pressure they could be.


Using simpler technologies and reducing our per capita consumption are only two of the levers we have to work with.  The third lever is population. A variety of voluntary population reduction policies are available to bring our population down to a sustainable level – likely one to two billion at most. A global voluntary one-child policy would go a long way to reducing population over just a few decades. Remember, the lower the population, the more per capita consumption at a sustainable level is possible. Getting the balance right should be a major policy discussion for every nation on the planet, reflecting that nation’s unique biophysical realities and culture.

Genes and Values

Changing our consumption patterns will require an adjustment of our values.

Some have argued that greed and competition are built into the human gene and that our current system reflects those realities. Others argue that while aggression and greed are part of the human genome, so is cooperation and even altruism. There is evidence for both sets of characteristics. What differentiates humans from most other species is that we also have cultures driven by values. Values are socially determined; they are not biological imperatives. We can choose what values we want to shape our culture and lives. 

Our current culture is shaped by material consumption, personal gain and competition. A culture compatible with ecological limits is more likely with values of frugality, cooperation and focusing on the common good. All public policy initiatives would benefit from such assessments. A better world is possible. But we have to make choices and work for them.

There are many obstacles to implementing the changes suggested above: we (wrongly) assume economic growth and technical development are the way to solve our current existential threats; we don’t fully grasp just what ecological overshoot implies in terms of humanity’s future; many of our institutions are predicated on continuous economic growth; there are powerful vested interests who will not easily relinquish their power to allow a genuinely sustainable and just society.

But the stakes are much too high to allow the status quo to continue, difficult as it may be to change. We may not know all the ways to reduce overshoot and manage the consequences of such dramatic changes to our current system.

But try we must. And a good place to start is with energy use. Let’s demand something like a Tradable Energy Quota system as a fair and effective way of approaching our overshoot dilemma. 

Reduction in energy demand will trickle down to all areas of the economy, stimulating changes that can reduce overshoot and provide us with a challenging but hopeful future.

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