By Tim Watkins: Climbing Everest in High Heels (aka “It’s the overshoot, stupid”)

It's the economy, stupid

Tim Watkins today published a superb essay on our overshoot predicament. It’s enough to temporarily restore one’s faith in humanity to find someone who thinks and writes as clearly as Watkins.

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.


The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.


This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.


The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.


Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.

6 thoughts on “By Tim Watkins: Climbing Everest in High Heels (aka “It’s the overshoot, stupid”)”

  1. Rob, Please share with Tim. I just received a similar piece also written today. See:
    View at

    Both pieces omit the primary driver of the predicament: the doubling of our numbers since the first oil crisis of 1974. Monbiot and others like Bill Rees ( a colleague for 2 decades) have given up the PC nonsense of avoiding the P in I=PAT. It is absurd to ignore it as nature will put us back into balance…the hard way. Hierarchy won’t disappear. And the sheeple believing in a deity(80+%) are unlikely to face this reality unless it is hammered home by their leaders. In other words, it is highly unlikely.


  2. Jack Alpert —-

    Rob when you find an expert that sees twice as much of reality than the norm, it may be twice as easy to see that normal behavior is not working. However, the twice as big view, still being absent some important aspects of reality often suggests alternative behavior that while having good intent does not produce better results than the normal behavior resulting from the normal view.

    It may be the case with the 16 good chores outlined above. They do not reflect that almost everyone living this century on the present course without some technological miracle, will die of starvation and conflict. The survivors if any will live at subsistence in a very depleted world. It is not the intent of the 16 chores, it is the result.

    There are some chores that may greatly reduce the injury and possibly save today’s art and science for those still alive in the 22nd century and even reshape the resulting civilization to be sustainable, But they derive from the actual resources earth will be able to provide each year remaining in this century and going forward.

    Those resources appear, by some projections, to decrease by 1-5% per year. It might be clear, to the mathematically inclined, that the consumption of people still remaining each year must decrease by that rate.

    So the missing chores ( goals) of your list of 16 might include
    — 1) how to reduce total consumption to match the amount delivered with the least number being injured by starvation and conflict, and the least damage to the environment.
    ——— (my plan to do this is contained in
    ————-Unwinding the Human Predicament
    (this site is down 12/12/2018 but should be up shortly.)

    —2) the social contract expanded to reflect
    ——–a) redefinition of ownership
    ——–b) attach energy delivery to monetary units
    ——–c) limit hierarchy
    ——–d) civil control the number of total annual births
    ——–e) Civil control of human use of the globes assets
    More explanation in Part 4 of unwinding… post


    1. Hi Jack, thanks for stopping by. I agree that your plan offers the highest probability of retaining an advanced civilization with the least amount of suffering. It also requires the majority of people in every country of the world to vote for a law that bans reproduction unless they receive a randomly allocated birth permit.

      My plan does address population reduction as a top priority (2), and a managed reduction of key resource consumption (5), but lacks some other important policies that you address like property ownership, hierarchy, currency design, and relocating the few reproducing people to regions with abundant hydro electricity.

      I prefer your plan as it reflects years of careful thought however my simpler 16 points could be implemented by a single country, without global agreement, and it would reduce future suffering in that country (provided neighbors do not pillage it), although would not preserve a high technology civilization as your plan does.

      Unfortunately, my plan has almost no chance of being implemented, and yours has less. 😦


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