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Academic Paper, Led By A Kiwi Conservationist, Reveals Behavioural Crisis Driving Anthropogenic Ecological Overshoot

A ground-breaking peer-reviewed paper has been published today by a collection of well-known scientists, academics and behavioural science practitioners led by New Zealand-based conservationist, Joseph Merz, of the Merz Institute.

The paper, published by Sage on 20 September 2023, details how our modern human behaviour is causing us to consume our natural resources at rates faster than they can be replenished, while also creating waste in excess of what the Earth can assimilate. The authors name and frame this existential threat the ‘Human Behavioural Crisis’ and propose that the crisis, which stems from maladaptive human behaviours, be recognised globally as a critical intervention point for tackling ecological overshoot (and its symptoms like climate change).

The authors, led by Merz, demonstrate that our previously adaptive human impulses have been exploited for-profit to the point that the resultant behaviours have become extremely maladaptive, threatening complex life on Earth.

“In this paper, we use the term ‘behavioural crisis’ specifically to mean the consequences of the innate suite of human behaviours that were once adaptive in early hominid evolution, but have now been exploited to serve the global industrial economy.”

“This exploitation has accumulated financial capital – sometimes to absurd levels – for investors and shareholders, and generated manufactured capital (‘human-made mass’) that now exceeds the biomass of all living things on Earth. Significantly manipulated by the marketing industry, which several of us represent, these behaviours have now brought humanity to the point where their sheer scale – through our numbers, appetites and technologies – is driving ecological overshoot and threatening the fabric of complex life on Earth” (Merz, et al., 2023).

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This “human behavioural crisis” highlights the need not to address just the symptoms of ecological overshoot like climate change, but the drivers and enablers of the behaviours that are causing it.

Co-author, Mike Joy (Victoria University; Merz Institute) says, “As an ecologist trying to understand the ecocidal tendencies of humankind, I have become ever more aware of the crucial importance of understanding the drivers of human behaviour”.

The paper came about after Merz noticed that there was very little research or literature explicitly focused on behaviour regarding our current ecological predicament. He and his colleagues believe that looking at this issue through a behavioural lens more easily exposes the root causes of our outlandish appetites.

“The current emphasis for overshoot intervention is resource intensive (e.g. the global transition to renewable energy) and single-symptom focused. Indeed, most mainstream attention and investment is directed towards mitigating and adapting to climate change. Even if this narrow intervention is successful, it will not resolve the meta-crisis of ecological overshoot, in fact, with many of the current resource-intensive interventions, it is likely to make matters worse. Psychological interventions are likely to prove far less resource-intensive and more effective than physical ones.” (Merz, et al., 2023).

Merz explains, “We can choose where we intervene with threats like overshoot and climate change. Do we intervene downstream at a symptom level by still enabling our ever-increasing and often absurd appetites, or do we address the drivers of those appetites - the ultimate drivers of the behavioural crisis?”

“We must work to create new social norms that bring our appetites and behaviours back within planetary boundaries. The best thing is, for many of us it doesn’t have to hurt. Many people living in affluent countries exist so far beyond sufficiency it’s possible to maintain good living standards on a fraction of their current energy use.”

Merz suggests that the findings in the paper are vital in that they highlight a critical intervention point and thus have the potential to increase the likelihood of humanity successfully addressing the issue of overshoot (and its symptoms like climate change).

Co-author Mat Maroni puts forward, “This paper is a call to action. It is a new way to frame an issue that deserves a better conversation. To address anthropogenic ecological overshoot (and with it, climate change), we can start by reframing the collective social norms that drive it. Good things will happen when we find new ways to connect scientists and storytellers”.

The clock is ticking not only because the health of the natural systems upon which we are utterly dependent is deteriorating but also because broad scale interventions are only possible when a society holds together and is capable of coherent action. As the effects of overshoot worsen, the likelihood of societal breakdown increases.

Given this urgency, the paper concludes with a call for:

  • Increased attention on the behavioural crisis as a critical intervention point for addressing overshoot and its myriad symptoms.
  • Increased interdisciplinary collaboration between the social and behavioural science theorists and practitioners, advised by scientists working on limits to growth and planetary boundaries.
  • Additional research to develop a full understanding of the many dimensions of the behavioural crisis (including the overwhelming influence of power structures) and how it can best be addressed.
  • An emergency, concerted, multidisciplinary effort to target the populations and value levers most likely to produce rapid global adoption of new consumption, reproduction and waste norms congruent with the survival of complex life on earth.
  • Increased interdisciplinary work to be carried out in directing, understanding and policing widespread behaviour manipulation.

“In summary, the evidence indicates that anthropogenic ecological overshoot stems from a crisis of maladaptive human behaviours which have been distorted and extended to the point where they now threaten the fabric of complex life on earth. Simply, we are trapped in a system built to encourage growth and appetites that will end us.” 

Amongst Merz’ co-authors are renowned ecological economist and Co-Founder of the ecological footprint, Professor Bill Rees; Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of global advertising giant, Ogilvy; and renowned New Zealand-based freshwater ecologist, Dr Mike Joy. 

The Merz Institute is currently working to address the behavioural crisis through their Overshoot Behaviour Lab.

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