Over the past fifty years or so, a group of ultra-rich libertarians has been winning its ‘war of ideas’ to convince us that, as human beings, we are basically free and independent individuals whose happiness consists in satisfying our desires for material and mental comforts. This ideology mutually reinforces the capitalist obsession with economic growth (as measured by GDP)—unfortunately, because their interaction is leading to climate breakdown and the destruction of the Earth.
We know this risky global situation thanks to the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, elaborated by a group of the world’s top climate and Earth System scientists. For nine of Earth’s subsystems they’ve identified a range of thresholds beyond which human pressure could trigger abrupt change in the whole system that would make the Earth far less habitable. While all nine systems interact, two of them—climate change and biosphere integrity—are ‘core systems’ that could on their own, if sufficiently stressed, tip the Earth System into a distinctly inhospitable state.
The capitalist imperative of constant growth exerts increasing pressure on these systems, through widespread pollution, deforestation, overfishing, soil depletion, species and biodiversity destruction. And when these conditions for our existence fail, it means the end of human civilisation as we know it. So, even if by some miraculous change of collective behaviour we manage to stave off the climate crisis by a rapid switch to clean and renewable energy sources, we’ll continue to render the planet uninhabitable unless we also put an end to economic growth, which will ravage the natural world to near death.
The way out requires a shift to a ‘steady-state’ and ‘circular’ economy, while tackling the problem at its roots: replacing the individualist view of self and world with a relational understanding of our existing in interaction with many kinds of ‘other’. Indigenous philosophies from numerous cultures have the right ideas about this, but for pragmatic reasons we do well to draw from the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition to heal our capitalist-caused derangement. And while revising our self-understanding to a saner mode, we can be making the requisite changes in our social, political, and economic institutions. Either that, or we let the madness run its course—and engulf us.