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“I object to the question on which this volume focuses.”

Summary:
From Richard Norgaard and RWER issue 106 I object to the question on which this volume focuses. It assumes that biophysical limits are real and knowable rather than a human construct associated with a particular understanding of how natural systems might behave. Limits have been an extremely useful construct for critiquing the even simpler construct that assumes science and technology can provide unlimited economic growth. Nature, however, has zillions of limits that are crossed all of the time, and not only by people (Giorgos Kallis 2019). Nature is continually changing and reconstructing itself in response to zillions of events. The idea that people can affect nature and have it resiliently return to an historic equilibrium unless we affect it too much is a myth. Yes, nature

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from Richard Norgaard and RWER issue 106

I object to the question on which this volume focuses. It assumes that biophysical limits are real and knowable rather than a human construct associated with a particular understanding of how natural systems might behave. Limits have been an extremely useful construct for critiquing the even simpler construct that assumes science and technology can provide unlimited economic growth. Nature, however, has zillions of limits that are crossed all of the time, and not only by people (Giorgos Kallis 2019). Nature is continually changing and reconstructing itself in response to zillions of events. The idea that people can affect nature and have it resiliently return to an historic equilibrium unless we affect it too much is a myth. Yes, nature reconstructs, but never completely, always moving to a new state with every provocation, whether by a weather event, bacterial evolution that resets the balance of larger species, or numerous other changes including those initiated by people. And the idea of limits makes little sense for stock resources which come in ever lower qualities, i.e., ever more tightly bound in the complex natural order.

The idea of limits assumes nature, or discrete components of nature, operate in an equilibrium state to which it returns after being perturbed. If the perturbation is too great, however, pushing the system beyond its limit, well, all hell breaks loose, we really cannot say. In this constructed framing, illustrated by a ball rolling about in a bowl, people obviously need to avoid perturbing nature too much, i.e., pushing the ball out of the bowl. To some extent, we seem to observe such phenomena in ecosystems. We may think of nature as being in equilibrium, or in a disturbed state from which it will recover, or having been pushed beyond recovery, but that is because of how we think, perhaps because of something ingrained in our consciousness. The ball is rolling out of the bowl all of the time, changes occur, but all hell does not break loose.

Ecosystems too are a human construct that has nearly defined the discipline of ecology. Yet the boundaries of any ecosystem being implied by one ecologist overlap with or fit within the ecosystems of other ecologists. How the multiply conceived ecosystems work together across scales and through time is not well addressed by the discipline. Yes, there are clear examples of people overfishing and destroying a fishery, but many changes occurred in the process that would have prevented their return to their previous state. And the state of the fishery would have changed over time regardless of human intervention.

I came to this heretical position as a friend of Herman Daly. In the 1970s, I asked him at what level should an economy be when in a steady state. He replied that this would be determined by scientists who understood the limits of the natural system. I was studying the economics of agricultural pest management, chemical and biological, at the time. I was rapidly learning evolutionary ecology, a perspective on an always changing world. I was becoming aware that of the many ways that biologists think, only a few include a ball rolling around in a bowl. But the problem runs deeper. Most scientists over the past century worked with smaller and smaller fragments of reality. The few scientists who have strived for a more systemic view are still rapidly learning. Our understanding of the climate system is an existential example. With the tremendous increase in our understanding of the climate system over the past half century, climate scientists were still surprised by how much heat the oceans were absorbing. They were further surprised by how ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams responded and unleashed whiplash weather around the globe. These climate system surprises meant the efforts of economists to determine optimal mitigation and adaptation pathways were mere sophistry (Norgaard forthcoming).

Again, with respect to the climate crisis at hand, note that 1.5C is a goal, we know the consequences will be worse at 2C, and extremely difficult at 4C. But there is no limit at which all hell breaks loose. The consequences just get exponentially worse, we think. In the most systemic area of human understanding of the world in which we live, there are a zillion limits we have been crossing and can continue to cross. Just as surely if greenhouse gas emissions are not mitigated, the heat will eventually kill all people and most other species too.

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