Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Do We Live in Denial?

When was the last time you heard a world leader so much as acknowledge that, as a species, man is consuming renewable resources 50% faster than Earth can replenish them?   Renewables, you know - clean water, clean air, biomass (including all the stuff on your dinner plate, all of it).   Collectively, everyone from Americans to Somalians, we're now dipping into our planet's reserves, eating our seed corn, to get through four months of consumption annually.

How can that be possible?   It's easy.   We turn to on our planet's basic stocks.   We fell our forests.  We collapse our fisheries.   We drain our aquifers.   We exhaust our farmland, transforming it into sterile desert.  We've put the Earth store into a giant "going out of business" sale.   You know it's true.  It's visible to the naked eye from space.   And, as stocks of so many things run low, we respond with new technologies and systems to make our depredations even more efficient, ever more rapacious.

World Wildlife Fund International, Global Footprint Network and the Zoological Society of London have released a report, "The Living Planet Report", that's especially tough on people like Canadians, the heavy-hitters of resource consumption.   The report notes that, for all the people of the world to live at Canadian standards, would require 3.5-planet Earth's worth of resources.

"Clearly, the current system of human development, based on increased consumption and a reliance on fossil fuels, combined with a growing human population and poor overall management and governance of natural resources, is unsustainable," said the report, now in its ninth edition.

"Many countries and populations already face a number of risks from biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services and climate change."

The Global Footprint Network has for several years tracked "overshoot", a term that means consumption of resources at rates greater than Earth's replenishment rate.  In 2011, they pegged "Earth Overshoot Day" at 27 September.   That's when, had we been limited to the resources actually renewed annually, we would have been out of stuff.   And each passing year sees Overshoot Day arrive earlier.   The rate at which we're consuming our seed corn is accelerating.

"Swelling population, mass migration to cities, increasing energy use and soaring carbon dioxide emissions mean humanity is putting a greater squeeze on the planet's resources then ever before. Particularly hard hit is the diversity of animals and plants, upon which many natural resources such as clean water are based.

"The latest Living Planet report, published on Tuesday, estimates that global demand for natural resources has doubled since 1996 and that it now takes 1.5 years to regenerate the renewable resources used in one year by humans. By 2030, the report predicts it will take the equivalent of two planets to meet the current demand for resources.

"Most alarming, says the report, is that many of these changes have accelerated in the past decade, despite the plethora of international conventions signed since the initial Rio Summit in 1992. Climate-warming carbon emissions have increased 40% in the past 20 years, but two-thirds of that rise occurred in the past decade."

Unfortunately we are all firmly tied to a growth-driven civilization.   It's as though we figure the answer to emphysema is to smoke an extra 20 a day.   Sort of like the "Cancer cures cigarette smoking" line.

And there's a compelling reason our leaders won't reject our growth-driven civilization.   That motivation is fear of what would follow in its wake.   Without adherence to the growth-model, pretty much everything goes out the window.   All our economic, social and even political models become obsolete, more or less irrelevant.   That's what happens when everybody's bottom has to find a place at the table.   You squeeze in.   Those who found a spacious spot at the outset now have to settle for the cramped conditions everyone else has to live with.    Dinner for six really can be transformed into dinner for twelve only nobody will be leaving the table bloated.

Somewhere, I'm convinced, lies the moment of change - the conditions or instrument of enlightenment necessary for change of the magnitude necessary.   Unfortunately, on the timeline of change, intervening and decidedly unenlightened events may happen first.  Two possibilities are environmental collapse on a regional, continental or almost hemispheric scale and, the second, war on a currently unforeseeable scale.   And it is along those paths, collapse and war, that today's political leadership is taking us.   Individually and collectively, they're just not up to challenges of this magnitude.


sunsin said...

The result of us using four times (say) the resources as can be indefinitely sustained is easy to predict. We'll end up using our resources four times as efficiently.

Some people seem to have forgotten that matter is indestructible. We do not use up our material resources; we make them harder to access by turning them into waste. That is all we do; that is all we can EVER do.

Given sufficient energy, any resource shortage problem is manageable. Here's the crunch in the present situation: our ways of producing energy depend largely on non-renewable resources, some of which create their own problems (global climate change). However, as the environmental movement has often pointed out, there is enough energy potential in the sun, the wind, and the earth's core to swamp us in renewable non-polluting energy forever.

Our crisis situation consists of one thing and one thing only: the transition from a carbon-based to a non carbon-based energy sector before the burden of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere becomes too difficult to handle. That is, quite literally, our ONLY problem. If that can be solved, all else follows.

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, when the first steamships crossed the Atlantic, it was widely said that they would never replace the sailing ship. Why? They had to carry so much coal that there was not much room for useful cargo. However, the steamship did not go extinct: it became more efficient. That's the way of the world, and I'm surprised you never noticed it. We are now dealing with the fact that the efficiency of coal burning was purchased at a price few realized at the time, the need to go to true renewables for our energy. But once we are there, the simple fact that matter cannot be destroyed, and the equally basic observation that our use of materials becomes steadily more efficient over time, will take care of the rest.

Will the whole world one day have a "Western" standard of living? If we make the transition away from carbon-burning energy sources, it will. Nothing more certain can be envisaged. You'd best focus your angst on the one true problem that we do have, and stop whining about the human love for bling. It isn't going away.

Linda said...

WHY DO WE LIVE IN DENIAL? Conditioning. Steve=resistance.

Boris said...

Sunsin, the transition to renewables means a social, political, and cultural transition. The technological capacity is there, but to fully untilise it we need to completely reinvent our mode of living. We cannot sustain ourselves on an economic and cultural model built on accumulating more and bigger widgets. Governments, corporations, and ignorant people will use and support the state's monopoly on force to defend the status quo. When non-renewables run out, they will retreat into tribal identities and support genocide and war to take the remaining resources from others. Somehow this is easier for them than collaborating and sharing.

Linda said...

Sunsin, truthful.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sunsin, a shift to renewable, alternate clean energy can effect a great deal of good but abundant energy is far from a complete solution to our challenges. The existing, carbon-based energy regime has been more than adequate to power our devastating elimination of much of the world's fisheries. Energy cannot restore those populations. Likewise energy cannot overcome our highly unhealthy dependence on pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and groundwater that drive the Green Revolution. These are just two examples and there are others. I'm surprised you didn't think of them. You would find it helpful to take a broader perspective of these challenges and allow that to invite less simplistic, more comprehensive solutions. A good place to begin would be for you to digest Jared Diamond's "Collapse."

kootcoot said...

Sunsin is correct in a limited way, since indeed we cannot destroy matter. What Sunsin seems to neglect to acknowledge is that there is no reason any of that matter has to be configured as humans. If we don't change our ways and soon, and much of it does have to be a rearrangement of our priorities and learning that bling is really of little true value.

The world, the planet and the universe will go on, but our reign as top dog here, or even existing at all is as secure as the future of dinosaurs was millions of years ago. I kinda figure insects will get the next shot at dominance, but probably won't be around long enough to see.