Waking up to humanity’s most urgent challenge

One possible future. Another possible future?
The future: determined by ecological awareness or complacency and denial?

By John Feeney:

It is essential to see the profound peril in continued flagrant misperception of the very nature of the human situation.William R. Catton, Jr.

I write often about specific topics within the categories, “population growth” and “corporate economic growth” as they link to to environmental degradation. It seems, however, the larger message concerning the broad impacts of these kinds of growth has yet to gain much traction in the media. It’s time, therefore, to consider what’s at stake if we do not address forthrightly the growth of the human population and our unceasing push for corporate economic growth. I hope to make clear that humanity’s most urgent challenge has little to do with the topics currently making headlines. It is, instead, clearly ecological in nature. Of this we need much more awareness if we hope to achieve solutions.

Know this: Population growth and corporate economic growth, in conjunction with excessive and growing per capita consumption rates, are driving ecological deterioration of unprecedented proportions, pushing us ever closer to global ecological collapse. Remember that term. Barring decisive corrective action, you will be hearing more and more about ecological collapse in the coming years.

The most important issues receive little coverage

If you haven’t heard much about it previously, that’s understandable. It hovers in the background of the news, mentioned occasionally, but has so far received little of the attention it warrants. I’ve been critical of environmental writers’ avoidance of the subject of population growth, but it goes further than that. By and large, they seem squeamish about discussing the extent of global environmental decline the possibility of widespread ecological collapse.

We do hear about climate change, but only rarely about how it fits into the larger picture of ecological degradation. Global warming is just one aspect — albeit an important one — of human impact on the ecosystem. It goes almost without saying that if we’ve influenced climate we’ve also influenced other systems of the biosphere. As conservation biologist and political ecologist Glen Barry puts it, “Global heating could stop being a major issue tomorrow (it will not) and there are at least half a dozen ongoing ecological catastrophes that could still destroy the Earth and civilization such as it is.”

A laundry list of profound environmental problems

We have, in fact, done a great deal of damage to the earth. From the collapse of fisheries to desertification in Europe, Africa, the US, and other regions, to alarming rates of deforestation, the global spread of chemical toxins throughout the environment, and the widespread death of coral reefs, to name only a few problems, a long list of interrelated declines is evidence that the depth and reach of our impact has been severe. Multiplying the potential for impact on human life is our continuing depletion of finite resources such as oil and ground water.

Some aspects of environmental degradation are so far mostly local or regional phenomena. Others, such as climate change, are global. But the more damage we do, the more we approach a global scope of environmental decline. If we continue with business as usual for even a few more decades, then, as the scientists behind the WWF’s 2006 Living Planet Report put it, “At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological assets and large-scale ecosystem collapse become increasingly likely.” To quote Glen Barry again, “As we move from local, to regional and continental scaled ecosystem collapse, we are just one step from global ecological collapse and the end of being as we know it.”

The implications of ecological collapse

As Barry indicates, ecological collapse is no modest problem. Humans are one of millions of interconnected species in what scientists call the “web of life.” The web of life supports all life. Every species depends on others for its well-being, its survival. As ecological degradation occurs, it damages the web of life, endangering and eliminating species. Indeed, it is today causing what scientists are calling a “mass extinction event,” the sixth such extinction event and the the heaviest loss of species since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Species are disappearing at a rate 100 to 1,000 times the normal background rate. Experts say unless we take swift corrective action, we may lose 50% of all species on the planet by the end of this century.

As one species, as dependent on the web of live as any other, do we humans think we are exempted from the risk of extinction as a result of the loss of ecosystem services? Short of our own extinction, there is concern about a potential loss of human life surpassing anything seen in human history, and a world bordering on the sterile, devoid of much of the richness of life we now enjoy. Dave Foreman has warned (PDF) of such a “nightmare world of deafening silence where no bird sings.”

Previously on GIM I posted an essay about mass extinction. It features an excellent video on the subject from the Species Alliance, which includes comments from Richard Leakey and Paul Ehrlich, among others. Watching it provides a sense of the seriousness of the problem.

As if mass extinction weren’t bad enough

The picture would be simpler if the problem of ecological collapse began and ended with species loss. Unfortunately as mentioned above, there are myriad interconnected problems. One tends to compound another. One of the most obvious in its projected impact on human welfare is the depletion of finite resources. Oil is a major example. We appear to be at or near the global peak of oil production, with a decline down the right side of the curve expected. Oil’s depletion is predicted by those who study it to exert a profound influence on human life during much of this century.

Ground water, though not nonrenewable in the same way oil is, nevertheless renews itself at only a fraction of the rate at which we use it. Aquifer depletion in the US, India, and China is a serious problem with the potential to disrupt food production in the coming decades. Such resource depletion may not fit squarely under the heading “ecological collapse,” but it adds to and compounds for us the impacts of phenomena which do.

Worst of all, perhaps, one is struck by the convergence of all these issues in time. In the absence of committed corrective action, experts expect problems resulting from peak oil, aquifer depletion, and the depletion of other resources to reach a crisis point within no more than a few decades. Some effects are already palpable. The kicker is that the same can be said of broad scale ecological collapse. And any one of these issues has the potential to trigger global societal disruption. We live today at a turning point in human history.

What we need to do

From species extinction, to resource depletion, to all the problems they trigger and others less often mentioned (e.g., the aesthetic and spiritual losses incurred in the destruction of nature), we have been eroding the natural life support system on which we and millions of other species depend. Halting and, one hopes, reversing this trend will require a major increase in awareness and decisive action on the international level. We need a pervasive shift in how we see our role on the planet. As Pulitzer Prize winning author, biologist, and naturalist E.O. Wilson puts it, “[T]he technical problems are sufficiently formidable to require a redirection of much of science and technology, and the ethical issues are so basic as to force a reconsideration of our self-image as a species.” Glen Barry is right when he says, “[S]aving the Earth and achieving global ecological sustainability will require development of bold policy decisions and their difficult implementation; rather than half-measures that nibble around the edges but do not get at the root of the Earth’s disease.”

Central to that will be a rethinking of economic growth. “[O]ur current levels of economic activity,” points out Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, “are technically unsustainable, but now multiply that by four or five or six. The stresses on every vital ecosystem will lead within decades to collapse of critical functions.”

Just as crucial is the need to end population growth as soon as possible. We have, as Wilson puts it, entered “a bottleneck unique in history.” Our challenge is to pass through it in such a way that we do as little additional damage as possible, achieving sustainability along the way. Says Wilson, “That can be achieved, according to expert consensus, only by halting population growth (and it’s already slowing) and devising a wiser use of resources than has been accomplished to date.”

Let us not be duped by our politicians into believing the conflicts and issues they manufacture to pad the profits of their corporate supporters are the ones deserving the most attention. Time is short and, looking beyond their charades, it should be obvious the problems outlined above, not the topics we read about in the daily headlines, are the central challenge we face in this century.
Additional recommended sources:

Julia Whitty has an excellent article on species extinction, available online in Mother Jones.

For a clever animated video about our impact on the web of life go here: Video

For more on peak oil try the links in the sidebar. You can find quick primers here and here.
Image sources:

fahed_awan, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license

brndnprkns, posted on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license

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27 responses to “Waking up to humanity’s most urgent challenge

  1. John, we’re thinking about similar things at similar times. See http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/06/where-are-our-policies-leading-us.html for a link to an article by François Cellier .

  2. Each human culture presents its many members with knowledge of reality and with longstanding, adamantly held perceptions that are illusory. For example, unverified cultural transmissions can give rise to widely shared distortions of the world whenever mistaken impressions are consensually validated as if they represent what is real.

    In these instances, humans ubiquitously emit culturally biased and scientifically unsupported communications that confuse human reasoning and often promote a certain cortical conceitedness that is not useful in acquiring an understanding of the practical requirements of reality.

    Over long time periods, poor thinking , biases and preternatural ideas are passed down from generation to generation, with an unintended result. Distorted perceptions of reality are widely shared among people, thereby confounding the efforts of humanity to share an adequate awareness of what is real.

    When good science emerges, it is bound to be initially disturbing because the new science usually challenges well-established but unrealistic ideas about what it means to be human; about the “placement” of the human species within the natural order of living things; and and the practical requirements of biophysical reality. New scientific facts of this particular kind are uniformly difficult for people to see because unexpected data expose hubris to view by the human species.

    Since humans are shaped early and pervasively by a superabundance of culturally derived transmissions in our perception of reality, it becomes a distinct evolutionary challenge for human beings to see the world as it is and to gain knowledge of the human species as one of many miraculous creatures to inhabit so wondrous a planetary home as Earth.

    When a scientist-practitioner of psychology such as myself thinks a patient is suffering from mental illness, that determination is an evidence-based clinical judgment. However, cultural standards of normalcy are not as carefully and rigorously developed as are clinical judgments, but instead are more casually agreed upon and promulgated as social norms and conventions that include scientifically validated perceptions of reality as well as misperceptions of what is real.

    Because some distorted impressions of the world are nevertheless valued beliefs of those who share them, these misperceptions are readily passed from member to member within a culture, among both peers and the generations. AS IF THEY WERE REAL.

    Deeply disturbed mental patients distort reality so drastically that their incorrect impressions of reality do not become established by being readily passed along among many people. By contrast, “normal” people in instrumentalities of governance, social organizations and cultures appear not to misperceive reality so sharply, yet distortions of what aggregations of normal people perceive do remain.

    A term of art in psychology is useful here: folie a deux. The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms like folie a deux-million for a government agency or political party, folie a deux-cent-million for a social order or folie a deux-billion for a culture. These terms refer to misperceived aspects of reality commonly shared and held-fast by many people of a government, a society or a culture.

    At least one way to define the highest standard of normalcy for people in these aggregates is in terms of being able to adequately distinguish what is illusory from what is in scientific fact real.

  3. John,

    I’ve also been thinking about some of these things. It is intersting to observe that we were already grossly disturbing ecosystems BEFORE significant climate change occurred. Its just that it is the biggest threat. But as you’ve pointed out there are a myriad of others.

    In Australia, our treasurer last year asked Australians to “have one for Mum, one for Dad and one for the country!”. It seems his request has been answered as Australia’s population growth has just picked up speed again, reaching levels not seen for a very long time. Kind of like hitting the accelerator just before you strike the brick wall.

  4. Steve,

    I love your analysis from a psychology point of view. Intersting to think about group psychology and delusions.

  5. Bill,

    That’s a a very good article by Cellier. I would especially recommend to anyone the section immediately after the last graphic, and the last section of the article. I really like his ideas for avoiding collapse (he’s using the term “collapse” as a synonym for a massive die-off of the human population), and hope he’s more pessimistic than necessary about the chance they’ll be implemented.

  6. Steve,
    I quite agree that our culture has spread and passed down some distorted perceptions to the degree that they’re simply accepted as “reality.” And those who profit from such distortions are all too happy to continue promoting them. Urban growth has developers and politicians who make up its “growth machines,” with propagandistic slogans like, “A town has to grow or die.” On another level are those who promote population and conventional corporate economic growth as though to do otherwise would
    be insane. And the media go along with it as if it’s simply a given.

    The task, I suppose, is to get as many people as possible to think twice about those things.

  7. Verdurous,

    Yeah, there are so many aspects of ecological decline. I think everyone has some inkling that there are some problems, but it wasn’t until I started looking into these things seriously a few years ago that I had any sense of the extent of it. Now it’s hard for me to tell what the general perception is, but it seems most are still not too aware of what’s happening.

    And all these factors are so interconnected. Climate change increases extinctions, as does deforestation which itself increases climate change, etc., etc….

    From everything I hear, Australia needs some real turnover in government, just as the US does. I notice Glen Barry uses Australia’s drought as one of his examples of very serious effects of climate change. Yet Howard seems to do little more than Bush.

  8. How are we to see that the “grow or die” mentality is taking humankind down a primrose path to massive species extinction?

    When will we hear from the global thinkers and appointed experts in science with a capacity for clear vision, coherence of mind and intellectual honesty among us who understand the words of Ozymandias are also able to communicate the best available scientific evidence concerning the predicament posed to humanity by itself?

    Where are the world leaders who are capable of exhibiting the vision, courage and political will to remake the world?

  9. John, perhaps http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/06/why-are-we-headed-there.html contains a few hints as to the answer to your “why” question.

  10. Steve,

    I’d like to know as when where the leaders, both in politics and science, will step forward on this. Politicians may be able to plead ignorance, but not the scientists.

    One thing I see is prominent scientists who are doing at least some limited work related to these issues, but who carry on only in the obscure pages of professional journals unread by anyone but themselves and their immediate colleagues, or in professional meetings attended by the same crowd. They seem to do very little to draw public attention to it.

    I would think they could look at the approach taken by climate scientists and start going more public. Also, a well known scientist could easily set up a blog and, owing to name recognition, instantly draw large numbers of readers. But none in areas such as population or species extinction seem to be doing so. For instance, here’s Trinifar’s rundown of the bios of the bloggers at ScienceBlogs.com:


    I did some searches there


    and found some hits for the phrase “population growth,” but only about 2 posts of substance on the topic. I found no hits at all for any of the phrases “ecological collapse,” “ecosytem collapse,” or “environmental collapse.” I found a couple for phrases like “ecological crisis,” but only with reference to specific events. I did get some hits for “mass extinction,” but most were references to previous mass extinctions. Those mentioning the current one were passing references.

    Seems to me there’s something amiss.

  11. Bill, yeah, Nate Hagens’s article on discounting the future is pretty good. I was tipped off to it previously in comments here by Paul Chefurka . I agree with Hagens that we need to integrate the sciences to deal with this. What we face ecologically involves several different branches of science, and a coordinated effort to assess and publicize is in order.

    Previously, Magne Karlsen found this link:


    It looks like the proposal became this article in Science:


    It would be an important step, but I don’t know where it went from there.

  12. Too much unreal happy talk and melodious “chin music” regarding endless global economic growth at the G-8 Summit by our leaders, the modern day heirs of Ozymandias, king of kings….. woefully inadequate action on global warming, environmental pollution, biodiversity loss, natural resources dissipation, Earth’s degradation….. a colossal wreck in the offing. The stage is being set for the greatest calamity in human history. What a tragedy!

  13. Global carbon levels spiraling

    May 22, 2007
    By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

    Warnings about global warming may not be dire enough, according to a climate study that describes a runaway-train acceleration of industrial carbon dioxide emissions.

    Fueled by rapid growth in coal-reliant China, rates of carbon dioxide emission from industrial sources increased from 2000 to 2004 “at a rate that is over three times the rate during the 1990s,” says a report released by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Carbon dioxide, released when coal, oil and natural gas burn, is a major “greenhouse gas,” so named because it absorbs the sun’s heat in the atmosphere.

    “We have had rapid economic growth worldwide powered on traditional carbon-emitting sources,” says study author Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s branch in Stanford, Calif.

    The study compared Energy Department carbon dioxide emissions numbers with economic growth figures from the International Monetary Fund and United Nations. The figures show that “carbon intensity,” roughly the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to produce something in an economy, dropped worldwide after 1980. It shot up after 2000 in high-growth China and stalled elsewhere.

    “The report is saying that if you wonder what side of global warming’s effects — droughts, warming and others — we are going to get, a little or a lot, we are going to get a lot,” says Angela Anderson of the Washington, D.C.-based National Environmental Trust.

    In February, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted a 7.2-degree rise in surface temperatures by 2100 if the world pursues growth reliant on fossil fuels, producing more severe droughts, floods and heat waves.

    The study’s real-world carbon dioxide emissions rate exceeds the panel’s assumptions.
    Carbon dioxide is responsible for about half of the 1-degree increase in average surface temperatures attributable to human activities in the past century, the climate change panel says.

    Countries are using more energy, and “no region is decarbonising its energy supply,” the study says.

    “This should serve as a notice to the global community that renewed and stronger efforts are necessary in this political, economic and scientific milieu,” says Robert Andres of the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center at Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory, who was not part of the study.

    The results show that the world is burning more coal than ever. “Coal is abundant and cheap but much dirtier than other fossil fuels,” Field says.

  14. To some degree, I sense the discussion about these topics as verbal tennis. One side lobs something that they consider a telling point, and then the other side lobs something back they consider a telling point. That doesn’t often work in business, and I don’t suspect it often works in environmental issues, either. Over time things do seem to change, and that may lead some of us to think that persistence is the key.

    I wonder if it’s something different, though. I’ve posted one message in that vein at http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/06/theres-another-problem-too.html; I’d welcome comments either here or there.

    What I think it involves is the realization that communication is a two-party (at least) activity. To communicate with those who disagree, I have to engage them as people somehow and listen to them. That can be scary, for I might have to forget, for a minute, all my positions in order to listen to theirs, and I might not have others along who think as I do to support me if I get tongue-tied. It makes each of us individually quite vulnerable. Yet I think it’s key for making progress.

    Put another way, I think my posting points to another challenge that may be as important as the one you raise, John — the challenge of how we work or interact with people with whom we disagree. I have a friend who reminds me of that whenever it sounds as if I may have forgotten.

    What do you think?

  15. I’ve done that before. Here’s the real link: http://facilitatedsystems.com/weblog/2007/06/theres-another-problem-too.html; . On some blogs, you have to leave a space at the end of URLs, and I sometimes forget which blogs require that.

  16. Bill,

    Your point is valid. Definitely. As a psychologist, I was taught the importance of empathy. Only with “empathic listening” will a client in therapy, or anyone really, feel truly heard. I think that’s close to what you’re saying, no? (I do hope I’m hearing you here! 😕 ) So yeah, I’d say we have to be willing to listen and demonstrate that we really hear and understand what the other person is saying. We can then go on, I suppose, to present our view.

    I’m certainly guilty of not following that path at all times. But it’s something I should really keep in mind. I sometimes enter into dialogue — often more in the form of debate — on some of these issues elsewhere on the Web. It’s all too easy to react with the aim of “winning” the debate as swiftly as possible, when a more empathic approach would likely reap greater rewards.

    On a somewhat related point, the latest issue of Science has a piece saying basically, “Scientists are recognizing that climate change may be even worse than the latest IPCC reports. But how do we communicate that without sounding like alarmists?” With the proviso that I haven’t read the article yet, my answer, put briefly, would be, “Just tell the truth; it’s never ‘alarmist’.”

    Anyway, yeah, how we communicate has as huge impact. And for me there is often a conflict between the wish to hit hard in an uncompromising way and the recognition that a somewhat more tactful approach might get better results.

  17. Magne Karlsen

    The Norwegian philosopher and novelist Jostein Gaarder participated in a climate change debate yesterday. He said: “It’s sad but true: people tend to receive environmental questions with contempt!” He also said that oil wealth is “CO2 profits.” And all the politicians in the panel received these messages with silence. Utter silence.

    It’s intreresting how philosophers, free-thinkers and writers are being received. – Like idiots. Like fools. Like useless demagogues.

  18. Hi Magne,

    Glad to hear from you. You have been missed.

    You mention “how philosophers, free-thinkers and writers are being received.” Yes, of course, I agree.

    But what is most astounding and almost unthinkable to me is that I have come to believe the SCIENTISTS need to be added to the list you have put forward.

    The politicians are holding fast to the contrived logic of endlessly expanding global productivity and super-sizing big business conglomerations. These bought-and-paid-for leaders strike the pose of elective mutism when presented with evidence from good science regarding well-established biophysical limits of the relatively small, finite planet we inhabit.



  19. Dear Friends,

    If our children are going to have a good enough future rather than one that is ‘mortgaged’, then the “movers and shakers” in my not-so-great generation of elders are going to have to do better than we are doing. Woefully inadequate are our responses to the well-established practical requirements of biophysical reality.

    Global challenges to humanity with inconceivably pernicious ramifications for the future of life as we know it on Earth are visible on the far horizon. Please, economic powerbrokers and political leaders, help the children understand how behaviors such as elective mutism, willful blindness and hysterical deafness , are supposed to be helpful in acknowledging, accepting and addressing the problems before humankind in the offing.

    Many of you, who have so ardently sought and obtained the responsibilities for leadership of the world we inhabit, appear to be in direlection of your duties to serve the people you represent. Please tell us. What are you really thinking? saying? and doing? when you are not posing?

    Mostly the tortured sounds of silence are to be found in the vacant expressions of our most willing, ready and able leaders, both inside and outside science.

    As ever,


  20. Magne Karlsen

    Well, it’s good news anyway, methinks. 😀 – At least “they” do allow a so-called “environment demagogue” like Jostein Gaarder to participate in a televised climate change debate. No more than a few months ago, none of the things he was saying about the state of things could have been said on television.

  21. At least “they” do allow a so-called “environment demagogue” like Jostein Gaarder to participate in a televised climate change debate.

    Very good point. The politicians’ response was exactly what we’d expect, almost a caricature even. But if it’s a new development that comments of someone like Gaarder are being aired, that’s a huge step.

  22. Pingback: Oekologie # 6 at Greg Laden

  23. From: Live Earth [mailto:community@liveearth.org]
    Sent: Monday, July 09, 2007 4:06 AM
    To: Steven Earl SALMONY
    Subject: Live Earth: Grow the Movement for a Climate in Crisis

    Live Earth: The Movement for a Climate in Crisis Thank you so much for being part of Live Earth. Millions of people attended the concerts and the 10,000+ “Friends of Live Earth” events and house parties in 195 countries. Millions of people watched or heard the event online, on TV, or on the radio. Millions pledged to change their own actions and hold our leadership accountable.

    You’re part of an incredible worldwide movement – the moment when the world came together to demand solutions to the climate crisis. You can help us spread the word – please forward this email to five of your friends and ask them to sign onto the Live Earth Pledge at: http://www.liveearthpledge.org

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    Look for a special message later this week from Vice President Gore – and thanks again for helping to make Live Earth a historic event.

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  24. When HCE, you and I protect God’s sustainable Creation the way MOTU and David Rockefeller protect the rampant globalization of the patently unsustainable human economy, then the world will change.

    When ordinary people choose to save the world as we know it by deploying the kind of intensity and energy the elites employ now to endlessly accumulate wealth for the purpose of keeping a stranglehold on political power, accumulating possessions and conspicuously consuming, then the world will change.

  25. In some sense, human prejudice (and human greed) appear to have robbed good science of its intrinsic value to the human community. It also seems that the masters of the universe, the ones who are organizing and recklessly expanding economic globalization, have subrogated and twisted good science by engendering artificial political controversy where there would otherwise be none. This is at least one source of the disputed disinformation, the contrived misrepresentations of science, that are spread widely by politicians, mass media, public information agencies, policy research institutes, stakeholder foundations and associations, and think tanks, and underwritten by wealthy benefactors from the world of big business.

    Perhaps the time is coming when more scientists will ignore the many enticements of the modern robber barons, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and their minions in the mass media. Could it be that now is the time for many scientists to break their silence and, instead, to carefully report of good science regarding the human species and certain of its potentially unsustainable global activities overspreading the surface of the Earth in these early years of Century XXI?

    As a way of beginning, if good science makes clear that the economic engine driving unbridled globalization of big business activities threatens the integrity of Earth’s body and its ecosystems, and if good scientific evidence determines that the global economy cannot exist without an adequately functioning, living Earth, then we could consider what reasonable and sensible changes can be made to the seemingly endless growth process of the manmade economy, the leviathan-like structure, that looks like it could soon become a patently unsustainable human enterprise, a potentially “colossal wreckage” the likes of which only Ozymandias has seen, on the relatively small, finite, noticeably frangible creation of God the size of Earth.