Converging Ecological Crises: Are We Up To The Challenges?
There is a very substantial volume of highly credible writing, for anyone that wants to see it, that warns us that humankind has only a few decades left in which to ‘get it right’. We face demographic challenges and global ecological disruptions on scales like nothing that people have seen before. This is no longer news; the information is out there. In spite of this, most people in North America are still ‘sleepwalking’ into the future.
Part of the quandary we face is that the more complex and long range the issues are, the less suited our political system is to meet them, and the less inclined people are to think about them. For the politician, discussion of mega-environmental issues and the politics involved does not attract votes for the next election. Indeed, thinking beyond the next election does not fit the agenda in our power-obsessed political system. For much of the public, discussion of impending crises is apt to lead only to dismissal – ‘doomsday talk; now lets see who is winning the hockey game’. It is a societal failure that, at a time when we need political people to share responsibility as we face rough seas ahead, there is neither leadership nor vision. There is no one at the wheel.
I urge that readers do not escape by ‘turning me off’. Our children and grandchildren will not be able to ‘turn off’ the massive impacts of the changes that are converging around us now. The denial of today, is the parent of the disaster and discomfort of tomorrow.
If there was such a thing as a report card on humanity, at the beginning of the 21st century, the failing grades would outnumber the passes and pluses. Ecological and demographic dangers are not offset by the positive and encouraging things that are occurring. Not only that, when we do look at issues, the examinations are too often only skin-deep. If and when media coverage is given to large-scale environmental crises, the coverage is on a single problem basis. In addition, mass media coverage is, far too often, absorbed with the symptoms of problems rather than base causes. Blood and tears sell, penetrating analysis does not.
What is crucial to understand and face up to, is the fact that we are not confronted by a single issue such as climate change, depletion of oil, or loss of fish resources, serious as each of these may be. We are, in reality, confronted by an inter-connected complex of environmental and resource loss and/or breakdown challenges that will shape the societies of the future. The elements within the list of challenges are formidable:
- We add about 70 million people per year to an already overloaded planet. Writers who hold the darkest vision suggest that after reaching 8 or 9 billion people on earth, environmental collapse will drive human numbers back by two thirds. Like almost everywhere else, we are ‘in the game’ in B.C. Here, we add about 50 thousand per year to our own province with its southern portions already people-stressed.
- We are at, or past, ‘peak oil’. The major reserves have been located and we are now using them up. There are no comparable and flexible substitutes for this energy bonanza, laid down over millions of years but consumed in only one or two centuries. The sub-urban sprawl of North America, the long-range transport of food, the operation of our great sky-scrapers, and life built around the automobile are all in peril. Read J.H. Kunstler’s “The Long Emergency”. The influence of declining oil supplies will affect nations, worldwide. In Canada, declining supplies and increasing costs of oil and gas will be critical to people living in colder regions, wherever these may be as climate warms up.
- Climate is changing with a powerful array of potential impacts on water availability, forests, fishes, infrastructure, health conditions, and livability of many regions without cheap energy. See Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, or read the book. Although the impacts of climate change are many, the people of central B.C. are living with one of major importance to their livelihood. The eruption of Mountain Pine Beetle from Clinton to Fort Nelson is, in large measure, due to changing winter climate conditions.
- In association with increased CO2, ocean pH is decreasing, i.e., acidity is increasing. The effects of such change on corals reefs, and production and composition of marine plankton, are not known. Prof. D. Pauly, Head of the Fisheries Centre at UBC, in a recent interview on CBC radio, regarded ocean pH change as enormously significant and risky.
- Freshwater resources of the world, and of many parts of B.C., are dangerously over-taxed with use, or are being degraded. It is projected that by 2025, between 2.4 and 3.4 billion people will live in conditions of water scarcity or stress. Considering local examples, here in the lower mainland of ‘Supernatural British Columbia’, groundwater is being heavily charged with nitrate from chicken farms. Nitrate is well above the level of 10mg/L, the acceptable standard for drinking water. Worldwide, about 460 million people depend, almost entirely, on groundwater reserves that are being used faster than replenishment. Such use includes that of the 450,000 km2 Ogallala Aquifer underlying eight U.S. states. When that aquifer is depleted, American water users will come to Canada for water. If such required water is deemed to be of “national security” to the USA, you decide how much, and how effectively we will be able to “negotiate”.
- Major fisheries of the world are under assault. According to a study in the scientific journal “Nature” (2003), industrial fleets have fished out about 90% of all large ocean predator fish – tuna, marlin, swordfish, sharks, cod, halibut, skates, and flounders. This done in the last 50 years. Midwater fish species, that were at one time considered unusable, are now being fished down as well. Pacific salmon are in decline from central B.C. southward through the US Pacific Northwest. Freshwater fish over much of the world are put in jeopardy by forestry activities. Much of this is covered in a book by T.G. Northcote and G.F. Hartman, “Fishes and Forestry: Worldwide Watershed Interactions and Management”.
- Since the dawn of agriculture we have lost about half of the earth’s natural forest. The annual, worldwide, loss of natural forest is currently about 120,000 km2 per year. Tropical forests are under assault from both the forestry and agriculture sectors. Boreal forests across the world are at risk of loss due to climate warming.
- Our perennial demand for economic growth, which invariably results in conversion of ecosystems to human use, reduces biodiversity which ultimately affects the stability of these systems (See http://www.countercurrents.org/cc-dawe030406.htm)
- Functional ecosystems of the earth provide us with vital services such as water treatment and detoxification, waste assimilation, regulation of air quality, control of erosion, regulation of local climate, spiritual fulfillment, and many other things. These services, valued at near 33 trillion dollars per year, have been put at risk by our collective activities. The “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Synthesis Report” (2005) states that 60%, 15 out of 24, ecosystem services evaluated are being degraded or used unsustainably.
On the ‘plus side’, there are important positive elements:
- Awareness of our plight is increasing, and hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups are actively involved in dealing with environmental issues.
- Means and scale of communication have increased. Television and the internet, if used responsibly, have wonderful potential to inform and connect people. The David Suzuki shows have increased awareness among tens of thousands of viewers.
- The powerful documentary movie and the book, “An Inconvenient Truth” by Vice- President Al Gore has reached million of North Americans.
The list of demographic, environmental, and resource challenges indicates the powerful but unbalanced array of processes occurring on our planet. One way or another, some or all of these will affect people everywhere. Many of these dangerous and disturbing processes are interconnected, and the interconnections lead back to the reality that excessive numbers of people and their consumptive demands are overstressing the planet. As it stands, and as we behave now, increasing crowding and “shortages” will exacerbate the ongoing lawlessness and civil strife on earth.
I believe that the next few decades will make it even more clear to us that we can not sustain the kind of social and economic systems that have prevailed over North America. Environmental and resource changes will force us into a very different relationship with the earth. It will be one that involves less consumption, less waste, and less travel. Life may, indeed, be less comfortable. Our legacy may be that future generations look back at us with dismay and resentment.
If we go back to biological principles, every animal species on earth lives in some state of balance with other species and the physical environment. Whether it is an experimental population of meal worms in a jar of cereal, a population of snowshoe hares in the Arctic, or salmon in the Fraser River system, the numbers go up and down, but they don’t rise indefinitely. We too, are bound by this ecological reality. Compounding technology, as we have too often used it, has served only to increase, our numbers, our developmental pressures on the environment, and ultimately, the distance we may fall when the system collapses.
The convergence of ecological crises demands that we go further than trying to deal singly with climate change, or depletion of oil, or some other issue. It demands that we move to ‘steady state’ economies and populations, not those growing like mad. It demands, also, human behavior in which we are part of the system, not an increasingly dominant element within it. Politically and socio-economically, we will have to make a quantum shift. The challenge of doing so, and having a vision-driven role on the earth, beyond growth and profit, may be one of the most difficult that we have faced, or will have to face, as a species.
The political systems of today seems to be quite unsuited for dealing with the massive and complex ecological and social challenges that are either here or on the horizon. These challenges eclipse most of the issues that currently occupy our politicians.
I believe that we should seek some type of forum, however chosen, whose role it is to understand ‘macro-issues’, and to inform and encourage elected people to get them to deal with challenges that may not be popular in the short term. I do not know exactly what the structure of such a forum might be, but we need a ‘long-term brain’ for government. As part of the foundation for this, we need awareness.
This critical foundation requires that we recognize and begin to understand the full nature of our situation. The extent to which we can do this, and have some influence on our own future rather than having nature make the decisions for us, may tell us just how much we deserve the “sapiens” in Homo sapiens, the Latin species name we have given ourselves. We had better be “sapient” (wise) because ‘nature bats last’.