The Interactive Ecological Predicament

It is clear that we (as in humanity, other species and the planet itself) face a potpourri of problems. Most of the ecological issues in the world twine together with human activities like a mating ball of snakes.  This note discusses a set of ecological and human problems, and tries to put them into perspective against each other.
At the very top of my list of problems, always, is carbon dioxide which I consider the main villain of the play. CO2, which is produced mainly by burning fossil fuels, contributes heavily to climate change and ocean acidification. The warming aspect of climate change contributes to water shortages and biodiversity loss, while the climatic variability it introduces contributes to food shortages. Ocean acidification also contributes to more biodiversity loss and food shortages.
Energy shortages are likely to contribute to a number of ecological problems, as we’ve already seen with the growth of coal generation around the world. Another risk that will crop up in many places as oil and gas supplies begin to decline is the increasing use of local biomass as fuel. That means burning trees, which leads to deforestation with the loss of carbon sinks (more global warming), loss of habitats (more biodiversity loss) and ground water. Energy shortages will also lead to more development of resources like tar sands and shale gas, resulting in more damage to water supplies and species habitats.
Non-energy resource shortages result in more intensive exploitation of ever more fragile and remote areas of the planet, increasing the pressure on other species.
Pollution of all kinds leads to biodiversity loss in addition to the toxicity risks it poses to humans.
Food shortages have their own ecological impact as people turn to local, non-traditional food sources (aka “eating the songbirds out of the trees”). This increases the pressure on biodiversity due to direct decimation of target species and the disruption of local ecological balances.
How much of this is due to human overpopulation, and how much of it is due to human overactivity? It’s tempting to say that it’s because there are just too damn many of us, but I think that’s a bit too simplistic.
The one set of effects that is unarguably the result of human numbers includes anything to do with eating. Each of us needs the same minimum number of calories per day to survive, and every human mouth that’s added to the planet brings with it a 2500 calorie a day appetite. The spiraling race between population and food supplies increases the pressure on water supplies and biodiversity, as well as contributing to river, ocean and ground water pollution.
Other effects that may appear to be the result of overpopulation – such as resource shortages, energy shortages and industrial pollution – are largely the result of human activity. In fact, the majority of the damage we are doing to the planet is the result of our activity and not our numbers. I say this for a number of reasons:
1. Human population growth is no longer exponential, it's linear. We are adding a constant 80 million people to the planet every year, but this growth is constant, not exponential. Population growth has been approximately constant ever since we left the sheltering umbrella of the Green Revolution in 1980. This simple fact lends great credence to Russ Hopfenberg's theory that food causes people.
2. Humanity is in ecological overshoot already. Our consumption of global biosystem resources is up to 50% greater than the natural workld can support, if WWF and the Global Footprint Network are to be believed. If our population magically stopped growing tonight, if we could cut our growth by 80 million people a year right now, we would still be in overshoot. We are simply consuming too much for the planet's safety.
3. The half of the world's births that occur in nations with the highest ecological footprints consume three times as much of the world's resources as the half that occurs in the nations with the lowest ecological footprints.
4. If the Ecological Footprint is a good measure of sustainability (and I think it is) the world could comfortably support its current population in perpetuity at the living standard of Vietnam. If we each had the same ecological footprint as the average Indian the earth could sustainably support over twice as many people as it does today.
5. The problem is that we don't have the ecological footprint of India. The world average is more on a par with Costa Rica or Turkey, with industrialized nations consuming 5 to 10 times the sustainable biocapacity. The 2 billion people that lead unsustainable lives in developed nations consume as much of the planet's biocapacity as the 5 billion who lead sustainable lives in countries where the average ecological footprint is below a sustainable 1.8 global hectares.
So while our population numbers are definitely a problem, our consumption represents a much bigger one. Yes, there are probably too many people, but it’s our consumption, not our numbers, that is wrecking the planet.
While I recognize that others are of a very different opinion, nuclear issues - whether they are proliferation, waste storage, radiation releases or even outright warfare - seem almost insignificant to me. The ecological threats I talked about above are global in scope, are happening as we speak and are accelerating in severity with every passing year. The significance of localized issues like nuclear waste storage, or the risks posed by proliferation seems almost picayune in comparison.
But this is just my take on it. As I’ve said before, we need to have everyone who is moved by the predicament working on whatever issues are most important to them, in whatever way they feel is appropriate. We never know what the pivotal problem may turn out to be, or where an essential answer might be found.
Rather than moaning with despair as the ship goes down though, why not choose to dance?  Who knows what might happen if enough of us made that choice?

Paul Chefurka

January 10, 2010

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