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4. What's wrong today

A thumbnail sketch - Paper 4

The following discussion on ecologically and humanly unsatisfactory features of our society today makes use of the ‘Transition framework’ described in Section 7 and depicted in Figure 2. [1]

First, it is clear that human activities are seriously interfering with the Health needs of ecosystems (Box 8).

Currently the most critical sign of this insensitive over-exploitation of the Earth’s resources is global climate change resulting mainly from deforestation and the use of fossil fuels. Immediate and radical action worldwide is imperative if catastrophe is to be avoided.

However, climate change is just one symptom of the massive onslaught on the biosphere by an exploding human population.

There is also a need for big improvements in the area of Human health needs (Box 7). The present cultural system allows gross disparities in the conditions of life and the wellbeing of different human groups both within and between nations.

At the level of Biophysical options (Boxes 3-6) the bio-insensitive and ecologically unsustainable characteristics of our society can be summarised as follows:

Human population (Box 3)
  • The number of humans on the planet greatly in excess of the optimum - even the maximum - ecologically sustainable level (now approaching 7000 million and still increasing by well over one million a week). [2]
Human activities - Collective (Box 4)
  • The massive use of fossil fuels as a source of extrasomatic energy - a major factor contributing to the increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consequently to global climate change
  • Widespread deforestation resulting in massive and accelerating loss of biodiversity on land and contributing to the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
  • The release into the environment of CFCs and certain other chemical compounds which cause destruction of the ozone layer in the stratosphere, leading to an increase in damaging ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface
  • Farming practices which destroy the biological integrity of the soil and lead to other forms of land degradation (loss of organic matter, soil salinisation, soil erosion)
  • Failure to return nutrients to the soil in farmland, resulting in disruption of natural nutrient cycles – to some extent alleviated in the medium term by the use, at considerable environmental cost, of artificial fertilisers
  • Widespread chemical pollution of the natural environment, including the release into the environment of vast quantities of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that are having toxic effects on many animal species, including humans, across the globe
  • Widespread over-fishing leading to vast reductions in the numbers of many species of fish and the likely extinction of some species
  • The manufacture, active deployment and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction
  • The ongoing conflicts across the globe involving bloodshed and resulting in immeasurable human distress and wanton environmental damage


Human activities – individuals (Lifestyles) (Box 5)

Factors adversely affecting health and quality of life

  • Much preventable ill health associated with bio-insensitive behaviours (e.g. tobacco smoking, consumption of unhealthy foods, lack of physical exercise)
  • Overconsumption of food calories and too little physical exercise for a significant proportion of the population in affluent countries
  • A significant proportion of the population deprived psychosocially, lacking effective social support networks or not experiencing conviviality, personal creative activity, a sense of purpose or a sense of belonging

Factors adversely affecting the health of ecosystems

  • Excessive and ever-increasing consumption of manufactured goods
  • Widespread personal use of polluting energy sources at home and for travelling
Artefacts (Box 6)
  • Few buildings designed to minimise energy use and to make maximal use of clean energy sources
  • Much urban planning disregards ecological imperatives


At the level of Cultural options (Boxes 1-2) – the bio-insensitive and ecologically unsustainable characteristics of our society can be summarised as follows:

Societal arrangements (Box 2)
  • The economic system: An ecologically insane economic system that leads to an ever-increasing consumption of materials and energy and discharge of technological wastes (technometabolism). In the long term this can only result in collapse of the ecosystems which support the human population.
  • Government policies: Governmental policies in affluent countries aimed at forever increasing the material standard of living for all the population.
    Governments attempt to reduce unemployment by creating new jobs without regard to their ecological impact and increasing productivity, so increasing the intensity of resource and energy use and pollution levels. No consideration given to shortening working hours and so sharing the work load more evenly.
  • The workforce: The work of a significant proportion of the population actively contributes to climate change and other ecologically unsustainable changes in the environment.
  • Jobs: Politicians tell us that what matters most is ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’. Are the ecologically destructive jobs of a section of the population really more important than the health of life-support systems that underpin our very existence?
  • Education: Educational programs not resulting in widespread understanding across the community of biological and ecological realities and the human place in nature.
Culture (Box 1)

The dominant culture of our society today incorporates some powerful assumptions that are completely incompatible with the achievement of biosensitivity and therefore the survival of civilisation. Especially important is the ideology of ever-moreism – the scientifically absurd notion that human wellbeing necessarily requires continual economic growth involving ever-increasing consumption of material resources and energy.

Linked with ever-moreism is the implicit faith in the free market as the appropriate determinant of resource and energy use in our society.

These cultural delusions, combined with the population explosion, are leading to human activities of a kind and on a scale that now threaten the integrity of the living systems on which we depend.
Perhaps one day people will look back on ever-moreism as having been as wrong as we now view slavery and military imperialism, which were widely accepted as normal and entirely appropriate only a few generations ago.

Framework 10 03 23


1. For a more detailed description of the framework, go to paper 7 in this series. Back to text

2. The actual number of humans that the biosphere can support in the long term will depend on their patterns of resource and energy use. Many ecologists consider that the planet could support around 1000 million people indefinitely if their technologies were biosensitive (e.g. using clean, non-polluting sources of energy and protecting biodiversity and the biological integrity of soils) Back to text