Mother Nature Doesn’t Do ‘Net Zero’

One rainy November day 20 or so years ago, the lovely Catherine and I were hopelessly lost in the streets and lanes of Glasgow, Scotland while searching for an art museum. By the time we finally conceded defeat and hailed a taxi to take us there, we were soaked, shivering, and couldn’t have cared less about art.

That memory comes to mind as leaders of “more than 120 countries” meander around often-wet Glasgow for COP26, the United Nations’ latest climate summit, which, tellingly, had been delayed a year because of another curveball from Mother Nature, a global pandemic. 

So far, though, no leader there has gotten close to where these talks must go: a decisive international plan to stop “killing ourselves with carbon,” as requested by Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s secretary-general in the conference’s opening speech.

Instead, most have done the bare minimum of light lifting; they’ve signed promises to “curb” methane emissions, end deforestation, and spend billions “to help developing countries adapt to climate change.”

Therein lies the problem with “climate change” conferences. Earnest talk almost always relies on an economic analysis of today’s “ecological overshoot,” says William Rees, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and the originator of the popular “carbon footprint” calculus.

(An earlier paper on climate change by Rees was highlighted in an August Farm and Food File. That column is posted at

The real problem, Rees recently explained in the online journal real-world economics review, is physics–the laws of thermodynamics–not economics and the laws of supply and demand.

“The human enterprise is in a precarious state of ‘ecological overshoot’ propelled by excessive economic activity and growing populations,” Rees writes. As such, this “is not a technical problem amenable to technological fixes but rather a meta-problem with deep roots in both biology and culture.”

In short, any fix at this late date can’t involve economic carrots–like tax credits, government subsidies or, say, farmer/corporate partnerships in carbon sequestration–because climate change isn’t an economic problem fixable through tax code tinkering or cottony corporate subsidies. 

Indeed, it’s how we got here in less than 200 years. We created a “dominant socio-economic system” that, at its core, is economically extractive, not nature regenerative. That makes us unexceptional; most animals, in fact, do the same.

Moreover, Mother Nature knows we are no different and, like “other species… (we are) subject to the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, the most important of which are the first and second laws of thermodynamics and the law of conservation of mass.”

They are “laws,” Rees explains, because everything in nature–including us–is a “self-producing dissipative structure” and the “more important flows in the economy… are not… circular flows of abstract money value but… irreversible one-way flows of energy and matter.”

And those one-way flows have been headed south for decades with us as the drivers.

Equally important is that no amount of net-this or net-that has a snowball’s chance in our ever-hotter world of ever working. Real change is net reversal everything, not net zero anything, and will require dramatic change.

How dramatic? Upside-down dramatic, suggests Rees, who lists nine specific ideas like “Create national sub-systems of self-reliant bioregions… centered on existing smaller cities” and “Reintegrate animal husbandry with food-cropping in keeping with sound soils management…”

All are “180 degrees from the capital intensive, growth-oriented ‘solutions’ supported by governments, corporations, and international organizations” now in Glasgow that are “narrowly focused on climate change, a solitary symptom of economic overshoot” that “emerges from an economic vision… devoid of bio-physical insight.”

There is room for hope, though. The “tide may be turning. Increasing number of thoughtful citizens… recognize that the most effective stimulus for rapid social progress has always been popular resistance…”

In short, we need to stop waiting for political leaders to solve this problem; they’ve had more than 40 years and are still walking in circles in the Glasgow rain.

© 2021 ag comm

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