Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Danger is Enormous But It's Nothing Compared to the Price of Not Fixing It

Paul and Anne Ehrlich created a real stir when their book "The Population Bomb" was released in 1968, half a century ago. It posited an apocalyptic collapse in human civilization, death by starvation for hundreds of millions of humans, by the end of the '70s.

That didn't happen, of course. We came up with parlour tricks, sleight of hand measures such as the Green Revolution.  We mustered all of our weapons - new technologies, new plants, and all manner of agricultural chemicals: fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides - to create a revolution in industrial intensive agriculture. Suddenly there was food seemingly everywhere. India, for example, was freed from cyclical famines to become a major exporter of agricultural commodities.

People scoffed at The Population Bomb and ridiculed the Ehrlichs with their dystopian vision. The Green Revolution helped spread the idea that mankind was omnipotent, omniscient. We were masters of the universe, always ready to solve every threat.

Only that was a lie, a lethal mixture of hubris plus whistling past the graveyard.

With enough water for irrigation and a generous quantity of agri-chems, even marginal farmland could be made very productive. We measured success by harvests with little regard to what was happening below, beneath the surface.

Beneath the fields of verdant crops two things were underway. One, we were pumping groundwater out of the soil at many times its recharge rate. We were draining our aquifers, water built up over centuries. Two, our agri-chemicals were depleting the soil of humus, the soil carbon necessary for microbial life that, in turn, was the foundation of essential crop yields. We all know that rich, black soil is the most fertile. Well, strip out that black stuff and see what you're left with. In some places it's called desert.

Several years ago I explored global food security by taking a couple of online courses. Some of the assigned readings led me to go a bit further where I began finding studies by prominent agronomists about soil degradation.  Then, in 2014, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report warning that the state of soil degradation had become so severe than mankind had but 60 harvests left.  Pretty dystopian stuff, hard-hitting but very true. Yet the trans-national food industry was locking up the best agricultural land in food insecure Third World countries to ensure they would have fresh strawberries on grocery store shelves year round. Nothing pernicious there, eh?

Food security is in peril and our soaring population growth only compounds the problem. That our species could have grown threefold in just one lifetime is vexing.

Growth, growth, growth. In 1900, average longevity for males was 40-years in the US, 42-years in Canada. Then there's this from the CBC in 2014:

In Canada, average life expectancy for males born in 2012 is 80 and for females 84, the agency said in Thursday's report, World Health Statistics 2014. 
In comparison, males born in Canada in 1990 could expect to live to 74 and females to 81 on average. 
For both sexes in Canada, life expectancy increased on average from 77 in 1990 to 82 in 2012. 
Low-income countries have made the most progress, with an average increase in life expectancy by nine years from 1990 to 2012.

So if one individual used to equal 40 years of consumption and now represents 80 years of consumption, that individual's lifetime ecological footprint has doubled just on lifespan alone.

For the sake of argument, let's say you've got three times as many people, each living twice as long. That's a six-fold net increase in a nation's ecological footprint.

But what about consumption? The best data I've found is British. This is what is being called "the Great Acceleration."

Record keeping in Britain has allowed per capita GDP to be charted from today back to 1270. The results are impressive. Per capita GDP first reached 2,000 pounds (adjusted to 2013 sterling) in 1832. By 1900 the Industrial Revolution had swelled that to 4,800 pounds per capita. The 12,000 pound mark fell in 1970. That doubled again to 24,000 pounds per capita GDP in the year 2000, increasing to 28,000 just before the crash of 2008. To make sense of this, the average Briton's production increased from 4,800 pounds in 1900 to close out that century at 24,000 pounds per capital GDP. In the course of one century, the 20th, that's a five fold increase in per capita GDP. In 1900 the global population stood at 1.6 billion. We closed out that century at just over 6 billion and now stand at 7.5 billion. Taking total per capita GDP in 1900 and total population in 1900 we have now grown humanity's ecological footprint by something in the order of 30 to 40 times (especially when you factor in increased longevity). And we're still trapped in perpetual, exponential growth.
Yet we're still chasing perpetual, exponential growth. That's the dominant focus of our prime minister and his predecessors - constant growth.

We now have this benchmark called "Earth Overshoot Day." It is where the red line, consumption, passes the dotted black line, carrying capacity. It's the day each year on which mankind has consumed a quantity of natural resources equal to the amount the Earth can replenish per year. It marks the date on which mankind has exceeded the Earth's ecological carrying capacity. In 2006, EOD fell on October 9th. In 2017 it had advanced to August 2nd. And yet every year we increase our global population and grow our individual consumption.  And, in the context of the graph above, we're still in a positive consumption mode even though we are entering the degraded carrying capacity curve.

The Guardian's  Damien Carrington interviewed Paul Ehrlich to discuss where mankind has gone since The Population Bomb was published 50 years ago and were we stand today.

The world’s optimum population is less than two billion people – 5.6 billion fewer than on the planet today, he argues, and there is an increasing toxification of the entire planet by synthetic chemicals that may be more dangerous to people and wildlife than climate change.
Ehrlich also says an unprecedented redistribution of wealth is needed to end the over-consumption of resources, but “the rich who now run the global system – that hold the annual ‘world destroyer’ meetings in Davos – are unlikely to let it happen”.

“Population growth, along with over-consumption per capita, is driving civilisation over the edge: billions of people are now hungry or micronutrient malnourished, and climate disruption is killing people.”
Ehrlich has been at Stanford University since 1959 and is also president of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere, which works “to reduce the threat of a shattering collapse of civilisation”.

“It is a near certainty in the next few decades, and the risk is increasing continually as long as perpetual growth of the human enterprise remains the goal of economic and political systems,” he says. “As I’ve said many times, ‘perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell’.”

It is the combination of high population and high consumption by the rich that is destroying the natural world, he says. Research published by Ehrlich and colleagues in 2017 concluded that this is driving a sixth mass extinction of biodiversity, upon which civilisation depends for clean air, water and food.
He estimates an optimum global population size at roughly 1.5 to two billion, “But the longer humanity pursues business as usual, the smaller the sustainable society is likely to prove to be. We’re continuously harvesting the low-hanging fruit, for example by driving fisheries stocks to extinction.”
Ehrlich is also concerned about chemical pollution, which has already reached the most remote corners of the globe. “The evidence we have is that toxics reduce the intelligence of children, and members of the first heavily influenced generation are now adults.” [cf. "Idiocracy," the Tea Party]
The book’s strength, Ehrlich says, is that it was short, direct and basically correct. “Its weaknesses were not enough on overconsumption and equity issues. It needed more on women’s rights, and explicit countering of racism – which I’ve spent much of my career and activism trying to counter. 
“Too many rich people in the world is a major threat to the human future, and cultural and genetic diversity are great human resources.”
The High Priests and disciples of the Church of Perpetual Exponential Growth, including our very own Justin Trudeau, refuse to accept that we live on a very finite and already overburdened Earth.  We're already deeply into Overshoot and yet they want that consumption curve above to keep growing. Thinking like that is usually associated with lunatics, drug addicts and hopeless drunks.


Toby said...

The developed world has really messed up the earth and we really need to take responsibility for that. On the other hand, the undeveloped world jammed up the population and it needs to get its birthrate under control. The fastest way is to fully empower women but that runs afoul of the priests.

Toby said...

Adding to the above, we have to stop saving people my age from their natural death. The record shows that we can extend life considerably but frequently at serious loss of quality of life. Nothing terrifies the elderly more than thoughts of becoming incapacitated. Sure I'd like to live longer but not if it means having my guts removed, being fed through a tube and spending the rest of my days in the vegetable ward at the back of some institution.