Monday, May 06, 2019

Well, We've Kicked Earth to the Curb, What Now? Should We Finish Her Off?

The only surprise is that this should come as a surprise - to anyone.

Humankind has so overgrown this planet, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth so grievously that we've brought the place to the very edge of mass extinction. We're close enough that you don't have much chance of outrunning this one.  That's right, you. You and maybe your folks, definitely your kids and your grandkids without any doubt.

But, but, but, what about climate change? Oh sure, that's still around and it's still a looming threat to the survival of all life on this planet. Think of it as just another layer of peril and a pretty impressive one at that. And, like all of these existential threats, climate change and our oversized species are directly linked.

You see, here's the thing.  Just like every other species of life, we depend on our planet for our survival. That's why there's so much life here, too much in fact, and so many other planets are just barren rocks. We've got that, what should we call it, I know, we've got that "Earth Advantage."

Our mommies taught us that there can be too much of a good thing, another bit of sage advice gone unheeded.

When I was born the global population of our species set a record of 2.5 billion. In just one lifetime, my own, our numbers have swelled, first doubling and then tripling. Some predict we might grow to 10 billion, possibly even 12 before this century is out. Good luck with that.

We've done so well at doing well that we've easily stretched out the average lifetime by more than 10 years.  When I arrived men, Canadian men, could expect to live to 65 to 67 years. Today that's over 80. That means each of us will consume an additional 10 to 15 years of resources before we're done. Hint: those resources have to come from somewhere.

So there's about three times as many of us, each of us living 10 to 15 years longer, and, to top it all, we're becoming really voracious little consumers of the finite resources on our finite planet, Spaceship Earth.

Here's per capita GDP in Britain going back to 1270.

As you'll see, something happened over the last century. Something very big. It's now being called the "Great Acceleration." If you go to that link you'll find oodles of graphs that focus on growth in all its permutations since 1950. When I posted that, this was my closing paragraph:
One of the most elusive statistics to hunt down is per capita GDP growth. It is a measure of output but it also reflects energy and resources consumed, production of goods, services and waste. 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. And we're still trapped in perpetual, exponential growth. It's still going on. We can't stop it. We won't stop it. No, it will stop us.
There's a new report from the United Nations that seems to have stirred our newsrooms out of their standard environmental lethargy. Apparently it has something to do with a million species on the verge of extinction. Who knew? Well just about anyone who wanted to know, anybody who bothered to read.
The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.
Maybe a bit of music would help this go down. Springsteen's "Born to Run" or CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" or Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." Can't use Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" because, honestly, we really did.

The UN report singles out our addiction to perpetual exponential growth as the key driver of biodiversity collapse. "In the past 50 years, the human population has doubled, the global economy has grown nearly 4-fold and global trade has grown 10-fold, together driving up the demands for energy and materials." This is the nightmarish result of neoliberalism. It is growth on the scale of a malignancy. We need to treat this relentless growth paradigm, what has become the orthodoxy of modern governments including our own, as a disease, a very dangerous disease.
The knock-on impacts on humankind, including freshwater shortages and climate instability, are already “ominous” and will worsen without drastic remedial action, the authors said. 
“The health of the ecosystems on which we and other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said Robert Watson, the chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Ibpes). “We have lost time. We must act now.”
Oh, damn, they used the "E" word. No, not the environment, not the ecology, not the ecosystem. The "economy." There's a word our leaders like. The economy, they love it. They worship it. They quest for perpetual exponential growth, the very thing that is poised to wipe us out.
David Obura, one of the main authors on the report and a global authority on corals, said: “We tried to document how far in trouble we are to focus people’s minds, but also to say it is not too late if we put a huge amount into transformational behavioural change. This is fundamental to humanity. We are not just talking about nice species out there; this is our life-support system.”

The report paints a picture of a planet in which the human footprint is so large it leaves little space for anything else. Three-quarters of all land has been turned into farm fields, covered by concrete, swallowed up by dam reservoirs or otherwise significantly altered. Two-thirds of the marine environment has also been changed by fish farms, shipping routes, subsea mines and other projects. Three-quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation. As a result, more than 500,000 species have insufficient habitats for long-term survival. Many are on course to disappear within decades.
Here are highlights from the UN report:
Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. 
On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. 
More than a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources are now devoted to crop or livestock production. 
The value of agricultural crop production has increased by about 300% since 1970, raw timber harvest has risen by 45% and approximately 60 billion tons of renewable and nonrenewable resources are now extracted globally every year – having nearly doubled since 1980. 
Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface, up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection. 
In 2015, 33% of marine fish stocks were being harvested at unsustainable levels; 60% were maximally sustainably fished, with just 7% harvested at levels lower than what can be sustainably fished.
Urban areas have more than doubled since 1992. 
Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totalling more than 245,000 km2 (591-595) - a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom. 
Negative trends in nature will continue to 2050 and beyond in all of the policy scenarios explored in the Report, except those that include transformative change – due to the projected impacts of increasing land-use change, exploitation of organisms and climate change, although with significant differences between regions.
So now just decarbonizing our world isn't enough. We have to slash greenhouse gas emissions drastically in next to no time. 50 per cent by 2030, the remainder by 2050. We've still got to do that. Only we've also got to clear a lot of breathing room for the other 999,999 imminently endangered species without which we'll make it an even 1,000,000 lost species.

The whole metrics of our domestic and civilizational progress have to change - sharply and quickly. We have nature by the throat in a death grip and now we realize it will be the death of us if we don't back off.

How do we back off? We change our ways, there's no other option. We ramp down our economies. No more perpetual exponential growth. That's suicide. That road only leads to our extinction.

The point is made in the following report from Deutsche Welle beginning at the 4:00 mark.

It's going to feel like we're sacrificing for something other than ourselves. That's simply wrong, dangerously wrong. We need to sacrifice for our species and all the other species that prop up our own. They go down, we go down. Damn but this is getting repetitive.

We can't get through winter without feeding the livestock. We can't get through summer without sowing enough seed corn.

There's another alternative, one that many of us will prefer. We ignore all this. We've had dire warnings before and we forget about them within a matter of days. Straight down the Memory Hole. Don't want to hear that stuff.

What's it going to be? Do you want to live or are you okay with dying? The choice is really that simple.

Bear in mind anthropologist Jared Diamond's warning. Societies invariably collapse at their peak, their zenith, and, when collapse occurs, it isn't a gradual process but comes on abruptly.

Sorry for this moment of levity but I've been barking up this tree so long it just seems fitting.


Danneau said...

A king felt his fool had overstepped and condemned him to death, but, in light of a decade's loyal service, allowed him to chose the manner of his passing. The fool quipped: "I choose to die of old age!"

I'm almost there, anyway, but have really pulled in my consumption horns and worked, in almost utter futility, to pass the message on, including forwarding and sharing multiple posts from this blog, along with other articles, mostly focused on solutions.

It's the sheer stupidity of the whole exercise than smacks my gob the hardest.

The Mound of Sound said...

I've been flogging this beast since I began this blog over 12 years ago. Over that time I have come to worry that we have become so accustomed to living so far beyond the carrying capacity of this Earth that we might not be willing to change even if our own lives were in peril. At some point we'll be howling for change or unleashing bitter recriminations. Oh dear.

Anonymous said...

Guess who is going to pay for the Awww...but we are all good for it right?

The Mound of Sound said...

Alberta has hundreds of billions of dollars of unfunded environmental remediation costs, Anon. Athabasca alone is nearing $260 billion and there's no funds to cover it.

Anonymous said...

Please sign this pledge and share it whenever possible:

Anonymous said...

We will pay for it...that is who! Anyong