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