Category Archives: Ecosystem

Sowing the seeds of a future society

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
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By Ken Whitehead:Sowing

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 . . .

Wars and climate change: national interests versus global emergency

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

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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.Humanity before politics

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.
Continue Reading…

An economic growth FAQ from the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy

[Update: Since this was posted, the CASSE site, including the FAQ, has been revamped. I encourage you to go there and have a look around!]

Administrator’s note: Though lots of actions play around the edges of helping address our environmental problems, very few get to the heart of the matter. One that does is the promotion of economic policy which rejects the notion of endless economic growth. In that vein, the “steady state economy” is a key alternative model, having grown out of the work of those in the field of ecological economics.

And no one works harder or more effectively to promote the steady state economy than Brian Czech, Ph.D. (and team!) and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE). Trained as a conservation biologist, Brian is today an important contributor to our understanding of ecological economics, which he teaches as a visiting assistant professor at Virginia Tech. He is the author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train.

Here then, is the CASSE FAQ on economic growth. In few words, it says a great deal, touching on key points involved in the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. My thanks to Brian for making it available! Find previous posts on Brian and CASSE here. In a related vein is this recent piece on ecological/steady state economics at Trinifar and this one at The Natural Patriot. — JF
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By Brian Czech:

What is economic growth?

Economic growth is simply an increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. It entails increasing population and/or per capita production and consumption. It is measured or indicated by increasing GDP, or gross domestic product.

Why is economic growth a threat to the environment?

The economy exists within the ecosystem. This fact is overlooked in business and economics textbooks, where the economy is portrayed as a circular flow of money between firms and households:

Economy

The production of goods and services entails the conversion of natural resources, or “natural capital,” into consumer goods and manufactured capital. This explains why there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation (pdf). Furthermore, pollution is an inevitable byproduct of economic production. The degradation of the environment as a result of economic growth occurs in many ways, but in general, economic growth leaves a larger ecological footprint.

Why is economic growth a threat to economic sustainability, national security, and international stability?

To grow, an economy requires more natural capital, including soil, water, minerals, timber, other raw materials and renewable energy sources. When the economy grows too fast or gets too big, this natural capital is depleted, or “liquidated.” To function smoothly, the economy also requires an environment that can absorb and recycle pollutants. When natural capital stocks are depleted, and/or the capacity of the environment to absorb pollutants is exceeded, the economy is forced to shrink. (more…)

Humanity is the greatest challenge

The article quoted and linked to below came out of an idea I submitted to the BBC News’s Green Room. I was lucky enough to contact a wonderfully helpful and supportive editor (Thanks, MK!) and the piece was posted last night. It’s exciting to be able to present the ideas we discuss here and around the Web to the BBC’s worldwide audience! — JF
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The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet’s ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week’s Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we’ve created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

Read the rest…


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Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis

By John Feeney:

[Original version published at The Oil Drum; Revised here for clarity – 11/12/07, 11/17/07, 5/31/08, 8/12/08]

Overshoot

Some of us who examine and discuss environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles which enable one to understand it?

Since some undoubtedly are, and in light of the warnings in the UN’s latest report on the state of the global environment, here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially, so the reader can step logically through a progression which should make clear some of the fundamental elements of the global ecological challenge before us: (more…)

The folly, egoism and dangers of climate geo-engineering

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

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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?

phytoplankton bloomIt 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…)

Brief note: behind the scenes at GIM

Behind the scenesLately, I’ve been busy behind the scenes preparing and submitting articles for publication beyond this site. My reasoning is that while GIM’s readership is growing slowly but steadily, that’s not enough. The issues we discuss here are too urgent to sit patiently, waiting for the site slowly to grow. The aim, therefore, is to reach out not only through GIM, but also other media channels to encourage awareness of the need to confront our overshoot of Earth’s limits.

I’ve had time to work on this in part because of some great guest articles helping to keep GIM rolling. My thanks to Jim Lydecker and Ken Smail for making available their thought provoking work. Another guest essay will appear soon, and I’m waiting on permission from the journal publisher to post another of Ken’s articles. (more…)

Global population reduction: confronting the inevitable

Update (6/22/08): Since posting Ken’s article, I’ve noticed in site stats that it’s been linked to by a couple of people offering it as evidence of some nefarious conspiracy to exterminate much of humanity. With the array of benign, voluntary, humane approaches to lowering fertility rates discussed and promoted on this site and elsewhere, such an assumption is mind boggling. I won’t speculate on what such a fantasy suggests about the psyches of its adherents. But it definitely indicates an incredible unwillingness to do the slightest research into ways of addressing population. Let us hope those readers of this essay who have jumped to such wildly erroneous conclusions are few in number. It would be difficult otherwise to hold out much hope for our species. — JF

Administrator’s note: It’s my pleasure to feature on GIM a guest article from Dr. J. Kenneth Smail, Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, at Kenyon College. Ken Smail’s articles on population have appeared in a variety of professional journals including American Journal of Physical Anthropology; Politics and the Life Sciences; Environment, Development and Sustainability; and World Watch Magazine. This article appeared originally in World Watch Magazine. Many thanks to Ken for his permission to reprint it here.

In introducing the article, it’s worth noting, with permission, a comment from Ken’s cover letter to me:

Let me just mention at the outset that I have recently been giving a lot of thought to the “temporal problem” I elaborate on [in the letter] — at least two or more centuries needed for global population stabilization and subsequent reduction vs. only a few decades remaining for dealing effectively with the troubling issues (or rapidly emerging “truths”) of post-peak oil and global climate change.

We do indeed face a serious dilemma. I’m glad there are a few thinkers, like Ken Smail, who are willing to grapple openly with it. — JF

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By J. Kenneth Smail (2004):
Numbers and consumption

Looking past the near-term concerns that have plagued population policy at the political level, it is increasingly apparent that the long-term sustainability of civilization will require not just a leveling-off of human numbers as projected over the coming half-century, but a colossal reduction in both population and consumption.

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It has become increasingly apparent over the past half-century that there is a growing tension between two seemingly irreconcilable trends. On one hand, moderate to conservative demographic projections indicate that global human numbers will almost certainly reach 9 billion, perhaps more, by mid-21st century. On the other, prudent and increasingly reliable scientific estimates suggest that the Earth’s long-term sustainable human carrying capacity, at what might be defined as an “adequate” to “moderately comfortable” developed-world standard of living, may not be much greater than 2 to 3 billion. It may be considerably less, particularly if the normative lifestyle (level of consumption) aspired to is anywhere close to that of the United States.

As a consequence of this modern-day “Malthusian dilemma,” it is past time to think boldly about the midrange future and to consider alternatives that go beyond merely slowing or stopping the growth of global population. The human species must develop and quickly implement a well-conceived, clearly articulated, flexible, equitable, and internationally coordinated program focused on bringing about a very significant reduction in human numbers over the next two or more centuries. This effort will likely require a global population shrinkage of at least two-thirds to threefourths, from a probable mid-to-late 21st century peak in the 9 to 10 billion range to a future (23rd century and beyond) “population optimum” of not more than 2 to 3 billion. (more…)

The steady state revolution

Brian Czech

A few weeks ago I reported on conservation and other groups adopting official positions on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. I mentioned that Brian Czech and the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy have been instrumental in helping to bring about this awareness and activism.

As an update, on June 9th, at their annual meeting, the American Society of Mammalogists adopted a similar resolution. From the press release:

The ASM described a “fundamental conflict between economic growth and the conservation of ecosystems” based upon scientifically established principles. The ASM noted that an economy has an “optimal size” and that growth beyond the optimum reduces human welfare in addition to threatening other species…. (more…)

After a “lost decade,” experts call for renewed focus on population growth

Womens Health Clinic - East AfricaBy John Feeney:

To many, it’s obvious population growth is a key factor, arguably the key factor, in environmental degradation and resource depletion, contributing heavily as well to poverty and human conflict. Unfortunately, some environmental groups and writers, and some fighting for social justice, deny or consciously avoid the obvious. Often they realize population growth is a fundamental driver of ecological and social problems, but choose deliberately to avoid the topic. Their reasons vary, but fit generally under the heading, “politics.”

There are, for instance, women’s groups with whose concerns I sympathize, but which have decided the population issue distracts from their work promoting the rights of women. There are environmental writers who carefully skirt the topic of population growth in the belief that the notion of “population control” has become associated with totalitarian or eugenic measures, making any environmentalist who utters the word “population” vulnerable to easy criticism.

In both instances, activists or writers have opted to play politics rather than speaking the truth. (more…)

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. (more…)

We must lose our arrogance

A familiar poem, nearly 200 years old, may provide the theme for our future if we, as one among millions of species, do not soon let go of our sense of privilege, and grasp what “sustainability” means.

Ozymandias

by: Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”


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Powerful population links

powerful links

If this site is to be of some help in the world, it will be by providing information, through essays and discussion, of which others make productive use. With that in mind, at one time or another you’ll be in a position to try to convince someone of the urgent need for action on the environmental crisis we face. One of the most contentious issues, of course, is population. In working on the “All Links” page I mention in the sidebar (It really is coming!), it occurred to me I should share right now a few population links you might find particularly useful in making the case for addressing population growth.

Their value is in their clout. They are all statements or more extensive resources on population from important scientific organizations or, in one case, from world leaders. If you’re talking with someone who denies the importance of population toss a couple of these references their way. (more…)

Just when you thought the cornucopians had all gone away, Redditors channel the spirit of Julian Simon

Recently I submitted a link to an article on Trinifar to Reddit, one of the most active in a category loosely known as “social bookmarking” sites. These are sites where you can share with others links to websites or articles of interest. On Reddit, submissions are voted up or down. If one gets enough up-votes it moves to their front page and can send a lot of traffic to the site. [1] That happened with this one, driving a barrage of visits to Trinifar’s post. That was good as the article had a message concerning population and limits to growth which needs to be seen by as many people as possible.Reddit

But that’s not the end of it. On Reddit, users also comment on the links submitted. This one triggered a large and divided discussion on the question of limits to growth. Among the comments were some I found thoughtful and incisive. But there was also a range of arguments representing the “cornucopian” view popularized by the late economist Julian Simon. (Note: the Wikipedia entry is written, in large part, by devotees of Simon.) (more…)

Brian Czech and the logic of the steady state economy

Steady state Our physical growth will have to stop. It’s unsustainable. The earth is finite after all. That’s indisputable, isn’t it? Listen to Brian Czech talk about it in this radio interview. (You’ll need either to download it as an mp3, or to listen to it as a RealAudio file. For the latter, if you don’t have the RealOne player, just download Media Player Classic which is less problematic anyway and plays the same files.) Czech is the president of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy and author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train. He has established himself as an important figure in ecological economics, taking on the neoclassical economic model and macroeconomic theorists and their propaganda advocating limitless economic growth. (more…)