Editor’s note: Articles on GIM typically reflect the assumption that we may be able to avert societal collapse or other catastrophic consequences of our ongoing violation of Earth’s limits. Admittedly, though, that assumption is just a guess and is increasingly strained as nations and the media continue with “business as usual” concerning such issues as population, energy, and economic growth.
In this guest essay, Ken Whitehead starts with a different assumption — that the magnitude of the challenge upon us and the history of our responses to similar challenges makes a collapse of today’s civilization inevitable. His wide-ranging essay focuses, therefore, not only on key elements pushing us today toward the brink, but on actions we might take to ensure some sustainable continuation of human society in a post-collapse future.
Ken is a Ph.D. student at the University of Calgary, currently studying the dynamics of arctic glaciers. He has a background in remote sensing and geography, but in recent years has become increasingly concerned about the societal and ecological factors he discusses below. My thanks to Ken for this thought provoking article. — JF
By Ken Whitehead:
Civilisation as we know it will no longer exist within 30 years. This bleak conclusion is not one I have arrived at lightly. However, wherever I look the evidence suggests that we are heading towards a major ecological breakdown which the majority of us are unlikely to survive. A number of critical environmental problems are coming to a head and the fall out from these will dwarf any attempts we can make to tackle them. If the pitiful attempts that have been made so far to tackle the environmental crisis are any guide, then major ecological breakdown is inevitable within a few years.
Once civilisation starts to unravel, it will happen quickly. Crop yields will fall considerably as the effects of climate change and peak oil really start to bite. It is likely that one of the first casualties will be the current banking and financial system, which is unlikely to be able to withstand the strain. Thus wealth will offer no protection.
Compounding this will be the fact that fossil fuels and other oil-based products will become increasingly hard to obtain, so the transportation infrastructure will grind to halt. From a practical point of view, food will be in very limited supply, no one will be able to pay for it, and there will be no transportation available to deliver it. As the crisis deepens, the electricity supply will be disrupted as will water supplies. Disease will almost certainly thrive in such an environment. Conflict over what limited resources remain will be almost inevitable. In short we will be transported back to the dark ages in a very short space of time and many people, used to living a comfortable western lifestyle, will be unlikely to survive this transition.
Continue reading . . .
Posted in Climate change, Collapse, Ecological collapse, Economic growth, Economics, Ecosystem, Environment, Extinction, Global warming, Overpopulation, Overshoot, Peak oil, Population, Population growth, Sustainability, War
Tagged Ken Whitehead. future society
I’m busy working on a difficult article which I hope to get published somewhere. In the meantime, I’ve come across several intriguing items on the Web, either in researching the article, or just poking around. Take a look:
[UPDATE: Take a look, as well, at this ongoing roundtable discussion of the question of population and climate change. In my view, Fred Meyerson, John Guillebaud, and Martin Desvaux’s comments have so far been on the money. I note that Guillebaud and Desvaux’s response to Betsy Hartmann is quite in line with my own past comments on her work.]
Cool book discovery
A book I’m amazed I hadn’t come upon until a week ago is Jeffrey K. McKee’s Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. Having just received it yesterday, I’ve only scanned it so far. But I learned elsewhere that Mckee, a physical anthropologist at Ohio State University, argues that no matter how much we lower per person consumption levels, we cannot end the current mass extinction crisis without addressing population size and growth. That’s a refreshing change from the usual insistence, “It’s all about (per capita) consumption,” so prevalent today among environmentalists. For some of McKee’s thoughts online, try this pdf.
Food for thought from Anthropik
At the Anthropik Network, rewilding advocate Jason Godesky, whose work you should know, responds to an article in The Economist which tries to debunk the “myth” that early hunter-gatherer cultures were in many ways fairly benign and livable compared to today’s civilization. Not surprisingly, Jason debunks the debunker quite handily.
The heart of rewilding from Urban Scout
Urban Scout gets to the heart of the “rewilding” movement in a video on his blog. Rewilders such as Scout and Godesky have a better handle on our ecological dilemma than just about anyone. Don’t overlook what they’re doing!
Danny Bloom’s bloomin’ polar cities
Danny Bloom, who’s commented here a few times, is trying to get people to think. It seems he’s trying to nudge us to consider how serious climate change just might be by imagining a possible future need for special communities in the polar regions for those who survive global warming. Environmental writer Stephen Leahy reports on Danny and his polar cities idea. In email, Danny told me he’s serious, but on some level is also “kidding, in a kind of guerilla theater public awareness wake-up call kind of way.” His idea is sometimes dubbed “quixotic,” but if it fosters discussion that can only be good.
Posted in Biodiversity, Climate change, Collapse, Ecological collapse, Ecology, Environment, Extinction, Global warming, Overpopulation, Population, Population growth, Rewilding, Sustainability
Tagged Danny Bloom, Jason Godesky, Jeffrey K. McKee, Urban Scout
Editor’s note: Brad Arnold is a global warming and biological weapons internet activist. This essay by Brad captures succinctly the potentially tragic consequences, intended or not, of the Bush administration’s historic determination to maintain a business-as-usual stance rather than endorsing mandatory caps on greenhouse gases.
Let’s hope signs of positive change at the recent climate change conference in Bali prove more than fleeting.
As a side note, it’s worth acknowledging the varying ways we might interpret the Malthus quote in Brad’s essay. (For some perspective, try William Catton’s discussion here, and Gregory Bungo’s observation that in the quote below Malthus was using satire to make a point.) But while some who dismiss the population issue like to use Malthus as a straw man in making their arguments, a careful reading of Brad’s essay demonstrates that no matter your take on Malthus, the importance of population in the global ecological crisis remains.
My thanks to Brad for this incisive piece. — JF
By Brad Arnold:
Populations tend to increase at a geometrical rate, whereas the means of subsistence increases at just an arithmetical rate. Without the checks of disease, famine, and war, human populations will double their size every 25 years. (An idea advanced by Thomas Robert Malthus)
The world’s population reached 1 billion for the first time in 1830. It took 120 years to double to 2 billion, and just 30 years to reach 3 billion. The world’s population is now over 6 billion people.
Our increased means of subsistence is due to technology and a climate favorable for agriculture. Modern medicine, industrialized farming, and use of fossil fuel have reduced disease and famine. Furthermore, we’ve enjoyed an exceptionally mild climate period called the Holocene.
Most of the 80 million extra each year are born in developing countries least able to support the added population. The demographic divide between the rich developed countries and the poor developing countries is reflected in vast disparities of living standards, health, and economic prospects.
Editor’s note: Abdul Basit is an Indian expatriate living in Kuwait. In this essay he calls on the leaders at the Bali climate talks to put aside the tendency to emphasize narrow national interests, to serve instead the greater needs of humanity as we face a climate change crisis which could threaten our very future. In that context, he observes that wars fought over national interests impede our progress in addressing larger environmental issues such as climate change. We must realize we humans share one earth and that “peace is the most important component in the fight against climate change.”
I regret that I was unable to post this piece earlier in the Bali talks, but it’s message must live on long after these talks and into those to come. Many thanks to Abdul for submitting this important essay. — JF
By Abdul Basit:
This is an appeal to world leaders and the scientific community gathered in Bali, Indonesia for the United Nations Climate Change Conference.
While the global community in general and certain scientists in particular are greatly concerned about the consequences of global warming and climate change in relation to the existence of humanity and habitability of earth, a few nations, like the USA, Israel and some other countries are pursuing the war agenda and preparing for a new round of encounters.
As the world nations and the UN are seriously considering new regulations and policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and are preparing comprehensive measures to counter climate change in the UN Climate Change Summit being held in Bali, the world’s sole superpower and its allies are pondering about enforcing new sanctions against Iran and are openly discussing the prospects of World War III.
What we see in the international arena are the two extremes. On the one hand, we see the ever-increasing signs of climate change like floods, hurricanes, forest fires, inundation of coastal areas due to rising sea-levels, melting glaciers, growing poverty due to mounting climate refugees and reduced agricultural output, threat to extinction of species and biodiversity — all of which are proving a serious challenge to existence. On the other hand, as if these problems and crises are not enough, the major discussions in the international forums and among the media are about the methods to counter the threats of Iran from attaining nuclear expertise.
Administrator’s note: Jim Lydecker’s essays have appeared previously on GIM. In this one, which first appeared as a guest commentary in the Napa Valley Register, Jim does an especially good job of tying together succinctly a number of the ecological, economic, and political crises we face. He raises, as well, a troubling question: If our elected leaders are fully aware of the challenges facing us, why are they doing next to nothing to address them?
My thanks to Jim for providing this article! — JF
By Jim Lydecker:
I have written before that America is like the Titanic making her way through an ocean of icebergs. The captain and his staff keep reassuring the passengers everything is OK.
Standing on the deck, we see the bergs getting bigger and closer. Looking up at the captain’s quarterdeck, I wonder if they know what the hell they are doing? Can they be so stupid to not see the impending crises in front of us? Are they focused only on those directly in our path hoping to navigate our way through, fingers crossed?
Or do they know there is no way out and we are doomed?
This allegory is more true than fictional. America faces a convergence of crises of such magnitude that no amount of financial or scientific commitment may be enough to keep them from ending industrial civilization. The future would be less problematic if our leaders had taken on the crises before they became so large and interconnected.
Posted in Climate change, Collapse, Ecology, Economics, Energy, Environment, Global warming, Jim Lydecker, Overpopulation, Peak energy, Peak oil, Population, Population growth, Sustainability, War
Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature a guest essay by Glen Barry. Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark and EcoEarth.info. A conservation biologist and political ecologist, he writes impassioned, thought provoking essays from an uncompromising ecological point of view. They appear regularly on his blog, Earth Meanders, where this one originated.
In this essay, Dr. Barry takes a strong stance against geo-engineered solutions to climate change. This is a contentious topic on which respected scientists and environmentalists hold a wide range of opinions. Glen’s essay prompts us to think hard about fundamental questions such a topic raises, questions concerning the role of humans in the global ecology. My thanks to Glen for making it available. — JF
By Glen Barry:
Is humanity so resistant to change that we will tamper with the biosphere’s workings to construct a “Frankensphere” rather than reducing population, consumption and emissions?
It is being widely suggested that humanity can “geo-engineer” a global solution to climate change; that is, modify the Earth’s biosphere at a planetary scale. Many methods are proposed. Most include either reflecting additional solar radiation away from the Earth, or using the ocean to store more carbon.
Reactionary geo-engineering proposals emerge largely from a sense of desperation as the world fails to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, and an unwillingness to make necessary societal and personal changes in response to deadly climate change. To some the extreme action of taking the Earth’s ecological systems into techno-human hands seems sensible given indications that global heating is proceeding more rapidly than thought, as shown by unexpectedly quick melting of Arctic sea ice.
Risky climate geo-engineering schemes include giant vertical pipes in the ocean to increase ocean circulation and thus marine carbon sequestration, similarly growing vast blooms of ocean plankton by fertilizing with iron, erecting giant mirrors above the earth to reflect the sun’s energy, and dropping sulfur particles from balloons at high altitude to do the same.
Two rogue US companies are moving forward with plans to fertilize the ocean with iron to create plankton blooms to suck heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. They are motivated by profits from the growing carbon credit market, rising public demands for action, and politicians eager to avoid painful reductions in emissions. There is little that can be done to stop them, as no applicable laws or treaties exist. (more…)
Posted in Climate change, Consumption, Ecology, Ecosystem, Environment, Glen Barry, Global warming, Overpopulation, Population, Sustainability
Tagged Climate policy, Geo-engineering, James Lovelock, Technofix
Administrator’s note: It’s increasingly obvious that despite the gravity of the global ecological crisis, few governments are undertaking anything approaching the actions that might prevent catastrophe. In this article, Adam Parsons makes clear the gap between the form and level of economic change needed to address climate change and the reality of the inaction we see today. Yet he sounds a hopeful note in observing the potential for global warming to become the issue which finally prompts a new examination and restructuring of the global, market based economic system.
Adam is the editor of London based Share the World’s Resources (STWR), an NGO campaigning for global economic and social justice based upon the principle of sharing. He can be reached at: editor [at] stwr [dot] net. — JF
By Adam W. Parsons:
As the latest summit to discuss a post-Kyoto treaty continues in New York this week, the single most revealing statement has already been spoken: “We need to climate-proof economic growth”. These few words, told to reporters by the UN’s top climate official, Yvo de Boer, during the recent Vienna round of talks, define the blinded establishment approach to tackling climate change. Only if continued trade liberalisation and corporate profits are kept sacrosanct, remains the assumption, is it possible to consider even a broad agreement on future cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.
With dire weather events and studies being reported on an almost daily basis, fewer sceptics are able to dismiss the reality of dangerous climate change. In the same week as around 1,000 diplomats, scientists, business leaders and environmental activists from 158 countries attended the U.N.’s Vienna Climate Change Talks, a top security think-tank stated that climate change could have global security implications “on a par with nuclear war unless urgent action is taken”, whilst leading scientists warned of a looming “global food crisis” that will require more food to be produced over the next 50 years than has been produced during the past 10,000 years combined.
The rapidity of these dystopian predictions has grown to Faustian proportions; the year 2007 already has the dubious accolade of witnessing the most extreme weather events on record, as characterised by the millions of Africans just hit by some of the worst floods in a generation in which villagers were “wiped off the map”. This summer, the collapse of the Arctic ice cap (losing a third of its ice since measurements began 30 years ago and “stunning” experts) was topped off by the latest UN study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who now believe that the tipping point for widespread catastrophe – involving a two degrees rise in global temperatures – is “very unlikely” to be avoided. (more…)
Posted in Adam Parsons, Climate change, Consumption, Ecological economics, Ecology, Economics, Environment, Global warming, Globalization, Per capita consumption, Sustainability
We spend a lot of time here on topics far from laughable. Time for a brief break from that – at least from the “far from laughable” part. A while back, George Meyer, a writer for The Simpsons TV show, produced the following piece for the BBC’s Green Room. It’s the only article I can remember reading which zeros in accurately on aspects of our global environmental plight and makes me laugh. It also calls for everyone, even crazy Michael Chricton, to become an environmentalist. Enjoy:
Welcoming Homer the tree-hugger
Are you a hypocrite? Because I certainly am.
I’m an animal lover who wears leather shoes; a vegetarian who can’t resist smoked salmon. I badger my friends to see the Al Gore movie, but I also fly on fuel-gulping jets.
Great clouds of hypocrisy swirl around me.
Read the rest …
Administrator’s note: Time for another article from a guest contributor. Jerry West describes himself as “editor/publisher/janitor” for The Record, an independent, progressive newspaper in Gold River, British Columbia. He’s a columnist, as well, for the well known Canadian progressive news site, rabble.ca.
A number of his articles would fit well with the content on GIM. But this one stood out during a week when I’ve been preoccupied with the stubborn tendency of both policy makers and mainstream environmentalists to turn a blind eye to the fundamental drivers of our ecological crisis. It’s a constant problem in coverage of climate change. Well meaning environmental writers, their thinking apparently numbed by the peer pressure of groupthink, tell us we can solve climate change — which they see as an isolated environmental problem — with routine economic tweaks or perhaps a switch to fluorescent bulbs.
Jerry is a writer who sees past that superficiality, and this article, which originally appeared in The Record, is one result. My thanks to Jerry for his permission to post it. – JF
By Jerry West:
The BC government has committed itself to reduce BC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 33 per cent by the year 2020. The questions remain — is it enough, and will they have the fortitude to take the actions necessary and to provide the funds to do it.
In Britain Parliament is considering reducing the UK’s emissions by 50 per cent by the year 2050 and some argue that 80 per cent is a more reasonable figure. One thing is certain, climate change has come front and centre as a political issue, and governments of all stripes are scrambling to find ways to make it look like they are dealing with it. One suspects that “make it look like” is the main purpose for them.
Climate change is an issue for us, but it is only a symptom of a much bigger problem. Humans are stripping the resources of the planet faster than they can be replenished; like aggressive cancer cells we are consuming our host. Since the amount of resources are limited the only cure for this is to consume less of them.
There are two ways to do this: one is individually which means quality of life for most of us in developed countries goes down considerably, and continues to go down as populations increase. Or, we can do it collectively by reducing population to a level that there is more than enough for everybody. (more…)
Posted in Climate change, Consumption, Ecological economics, Ecology, Economic growth, Economics, Energy, Environment, Global warming, Jerry West, Overpopulation, Population, Population growth, Population-environnment, Resource consumption
By John Feeney:
I had the chance last night to see an advance screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film, The 11th Hour, a documentary about our environmental crisis and what we can do about it. I had the good fortune of going with Dave Gardner, founder of Save The Springs, one of the most progressive urban growth control groups in the US. Dave is also a film maker by profession, and is working on his own related documentary, Choking on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity.
Not great, but…
The 11th Hour uses snippets of interviews with a variety of experts to highlight several of the key facets of the ecological decline with which we’re faced. It also provides a vision of an ideal, waste free, renewable energy future, and some consideration of the mindset which got us into this mess.
It’s a good, but not great documentary, in part because it lacks the intellectual honesty to touch more than momentarily on population growth despite the scientific consensus concerning its central role in our ecological plight. This is no surprise; it’s in line with most environmental discussion in today’s media. (more…)
Chris Rapley, head of the British Antarctic Survey and now the new head of Britain’s Science Museum, has lately been one of the leading voices calling for action to halt population growth. He’s raised the issue in discussions of climate change. A quick article in the Guardian has his latest comments. This stands out:
The crucial point is that to achieve this goal [of lowering birthrates to halt population growth sooner than it might otherwise stabilize] you would only have to spend a fraction of the money that will be needed to bring about technological fixes, new nuclear power plants or renewable energy plants. However, everyone has decided, quietly, to ignore the issue.
Rapley is a big enough name that he’s able to get the population issue into the news and has done so repeatedly. I first spotted him calling attention to it in an article on the BBC website in January of ’06. Later, I heard he’d pushed the topic in a talk about climate change. Then came another article a month ago, and now the one above.
I can’t think of another public figure as prominent as Rapley who’s been as persistent of late on the subject of population. He deserves the most positive recognition for that. Hats off to Chris Rapley!
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. (more…)
Posted in Biodiversity, Climate change, Corporatization, Deforestation, Ecological collapse, Ecology, Economic growth, Economics, Ecosystem, Environment, Extinction, Glen Barry, Jeffrey Sachs, Overpopulation, Peak oil, Population, Population growth, William Catton