History shows that human society can change if some moral force (civil rights, women’s rights) challenges convention. However, before we can be optimistic about solving the environmental crisis, we must be realistic. Otherwise, our confidence is delusional.
Human analysts struggle to assess our predicament because we live inside the experiment we are attempting to understand. We are the fastest changing variable in the experiment. Sixty-thousand years represents only a blink in the story of life on earth (one-thousandth of one percent), yet those millennia comprise the entire history of humanity from a million wide-eyed hunter-gatherers to six-billion humans clinging to a shrinking resource pool. From inside this surging human wave, particularly from one single lifetime, it is difficult to witness the forces that erode civilization. We must take a step back.
In my high school biology class, we put a dozen fruit flies – male and female – into a jar with a tomato. The flies multiplied day after day. We counted and graphed the population, and the data made an elegant sweeping curve that I recall drawing on a piece of graph paper: twenty, forty, and soon hundreds of fruit flies feeding on the tomato. After a month the jar was full of fruit flies and the tomato was half-eaten away. We went home for the weekend, but when we returned to class, the tomato was gone and all the fruit flies were dead.
This little experiment illustrates exponential growth in nature. There are no cases in which such growth continues forever. None. The global economy cannot double every 20 years forever. The planet cannot support even a one-percent population growth forever.
An important feature of the fruit-fly lesson is that for a month, everything appeared groovy in Tomatoland. The collapse arrived in a relative flash. Are we smarter than the fruit flies? We’re halfway through our tomato, the earth, and the time to wake up to this reality is now. The time to wake up has been “now” for several hundred years, but the head fruit flies keep insisting everything is fine, party on. Can enough people step outside the frenzy of their own craving and consuming long enough to alert the swarm that the tomato is finite?
What Malthus got right
At the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Malthus predicted that exponentially growing human population would eventually overshoot the fixed land base of the earth. “Premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” He cited war, disease, and famine, to which we might now add dead rivers, eroded soil, swelling deserts, global warming, rising sea level, and so forth.
Among twentieth-century industrialists arose the popular notion that Malthus was wrong. He had failed, the theory went, to account for technology’s windfall – cheap fuel, fertilizers, pesticides, genetic engineering, and the so-called “green revolution” – that would allow us to escape nature’s laws.
But technology only helped us eat the tomato more efficiently. In the end, natural law prevails. An exponentially growing population, with exponentially growing demands, cannot sustain itself on a fixed planet.
Disconcerting events shocked world fisheries in the 1970s. For centuries, humans had increased ocean yields with faster boats, bigger nets, and advanced sonar. Then, suddenly, in 1970, ocean production plateaued at about 65 million metric tons (mmt) per year. More technology could not create more fish. The Peruvian anchovy fishery plummeted in the mid-1970s and has never recovered. The North Atlantic cod fishery was devastated and remains so.
Writing about this in 1977, Paul Ehrlich predicted that the fishing industry would “move down the food chain” to harvest deeper, smaller fish and phytoplankton, and might increase annual yields to 100 mmt by 2000. He pointed out, however, that even if this could be achieved there would be less fish per person because of population growth. This is exactly what happened. Fishing technology went deeper, after swarms of ocean biomass, yields reached 100 mmt/year, but fish yields per capita has declined by about eight percent. More fish, yes, but less quality and less per person.
Forget quibbling about peak oil. We are way past peak everything. There is no natural resource available on the planet today that we are going to have more of in the future, except perhaps heat. World oil production has now peaked, and if you add in a “net-energy” factor, it is already in decline. Net petroleum energy per capita peaked three decades ago, in 1979.
There were once eight billion hectares of forest on the earth. There are now 4-billion, and we high-graded the best timber, so on the remaining half of the forestland there is less timber per hectare and a lower quality. Meanwhile, Each year, we lose 20 billion metric tons of topsoil, emit 20 billion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, and create two million hectares of new desert. None of this is remotely sustainable. We’re halfway through the tomato. Tick, tick, tick.
Population and consumption
Annually, human population swells by about 75 million, equal to about 50 cities the size of Amsterdam or Vancouver. Energy, food, water, and infrastructure all lag behind this crush of humanity. Consider water:
About 1.3 billion people – one-fifth of humanity – lack safe drinking water, but each year, this number swells by 150 million people – twice the net population growth. We drain rivers and aquifers while adding thirsty people. This scenario fulfills the 1970s “Limits to Growth” study prediction that declining resources would meet rising population. The result: starvation, drought, deserts, refugees, and resource wars.
Reducing population growth presents a delicate challenge. Governments and even environmental groups often avoid the issue. The presumed freedom to reproduce remains a powerful force, tied to cultural and religious beliefs. Excessive consumption by the rich is indeed a major factor, but pure population growth puts pressure on the planet’s resources. China, India, South America, and the rest of the developing world long for European and American prosperity. Dispossessed fruit flies covet the fortune of the greedy fruit flies, but none of this creates more tomato.
We learned last month that the UN food program, which attempts to feed about 73 million of the world’s 1-billion undernourished people, cannot even do that because of the rise in global food prices. And what is driving up prices? (1) increased oil prices for shipping, (2) desertification and loss of topsoil, and (3) the use of agricultural land to grow corn for ethanol, fuel for the rich “eco-conscious” consumers.
The UN report shows that disproportionate consumption in the rich countries takes food from the mouths of the poor. The earth is finite. Technology cannot change the laws of nature. Humanity must consume less, and we must slow down and reverse population growth.
Another favorite theory of the chirpy industrialists is that “wealth creation” will reduce population and increase incomes. This is a convenient theory because it is partially true, but wealth consolidation is the real goal of these social planers, and population is outpacing economic growth. We add more hungry and thirsty people every year. China’s attempt to create 700 million urban consumers is destroying their environment and the environments of their imperial colonies.
However, there exist two authentic solutions to population growth: (1) improve women’s rights and (2) make contraceptives available. These goals should be top priority for the wealthy nations.
Where is the hope?
Annual global military spending exceeds $1.2 trillion. The United States spends half of this and Europe one-quarter. The big consumers have all the guns. We can see from all of this that global peace, social justice, and ecology remain intimately linked.
The wealthy fruit flies are defending their right to consume most of the tomato, especially now that they have glimpsed the limits of resources. China has now joined Europe and America in the bid to eat the tomato before someone else does so. Are we smarter than the fruit flies?
A friend insists I’m too pessimistic, that I don’t trust human ingenuity to solve our crisis. He confuses realism for pessimism. I don’t think ingenuity is what we lack. What we lack is compassion, common sense, and courage. We will not engineer our way out of this. The necessary change requires a radically new paradigm. We must adopt ecological living and toss out excessive consumption the same way civilization denounced slavery and sexism. We’re attempting to green up our consumption without really changing our habits. This just won’t work. It reminds me of those who proposed laws to improve the living conditions for slaves.
The optimism I possess comes from the knowledge that courageous, compassionate human beings – Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Aung San Suu Kyi – will, in a crisis, stand up for truth and justice. These are the real warriors of humanity, who are not intimidated by the consequences of acting on their conscience. The human courage to face the facts is our hope. Imagine if each one of us took up one critical issue and never rested until it was solved. That is our hope.