Right whales, wrong time. Human activities are leading to the demise of these majestic beings. Only 356 individual Northern Right Whales are thought to remain. Global warming (which affects their food supply and reproduction rates), ship strikes, and entanglements in fishing gear are the primary culprits. Every choice we make, every single day has impacts and implications that range far beyond what is immediately evident.
The only viable form of mitigation to “climate change” at this point, is adaptation and resiliency. And a good place to begin is through cooperation and collaboration. The alternatives, competition and violence –the normal “go to” human response– are disastrous for everyone.
Another manifestation of mitigation, would be to reduce the human population. It would make all of the challenges we face today, and will face in the future, more manageable.
Humanity’s grip on the planet eases… In The Guardian Article “‘It’s positively alpine!’: Disbelief in big cities as air pollution falls’, a series of then and now pictures are presented, contrasting major urban areas before and during the COVID-19 driven lockdowns. I think the article’s title sums it nicely. The only question is, why would we want to go back to the “before?” If humanity is as clever as claims to be, we will find a way to embrace the new and sustain ourselves.
Image: New Delihi’s India Gate war memorial on 17 October 2019 and on 8 April 2020. Photograph: Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi/Reuters
I was doodling one day recently, and came up with this image. I can usually feel the pressure of humanity, sense it’s painful impact on the planet. In these days of “Stay at Home” orders, a forced pause in our normal frenetic routines, there is just a little less pressure on the planet. And it is nice. It reveals itself on the trails, which are full of people experiencing nature and health, parents are out in their yards playing with their children, there is less noise, less pollution, less traffic. It is more pleasant. If only we could institutionalize this and return to a new normal; albeit one without runs on toilet paper and libraries and coffee shops open for business.
The story describes how the once thriving fisheries on Japan’s beautiful Lake Shinji, began to decline about a decade ago. New research suggests that runoff of the neonicotinoid pesticides (the same ones implicated in the decline of pollinators such as bees), which are used on nearby rice paddies, may be responsible for declining fish populations. The research suggests that the pesticides are killing off the food sources at the bottom of the food chain, such as insects and crustaceans, and the fish that prey on them are starving.
Startling on Two Levels
This is startling to me on at least two levels. The first is that humans keep making the same mistakes over and over (see: Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom), and we cannot claim ignorance. I recall being taught in elementary school (a very long time ago) about food chains and food webs. That we have not learned anything in the intervening decades is stupefying and troubling. It is of course self evident that pesticides applied on farmland will find their way through the landscape, through runoff and other processes, and affect other ecosystems adversely.
Secondly, it seems to me that more and more environmental reporting is find its way onto food programs (like The Salt). This is heartening because there is such a strong link between what we grow, how we produce it, and the health of the planet (to say nothing of human health). There is an old, outdated and non-politically correct statement ‘that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ Perhaps our stomachs are a good way to our to our heads as well.
Flashback to Provocations #14
In Provocations # 14 – Managing Ourselves, I wrote: “What we need to manage is ourselves. We should manage humans and work with Nature.” But I just stumbled across this, much more eloquent statement from Rachel Carson, who put it this way in her June 1962 commencement address at Scripps College in California:
Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
Recently I was at a scientific conference about observing the oceans. My colleagues, learned and well intentioned all, kept talking about sustainability and development and the need to manage nature in one way or another. “We must manage the oceans for…”, insert your favorite noun here; fisheries, marine debris, commerce, etc. Immediately this did not sit well with me and as the conference progressed I became more and more convinced that this was simply wrong.
It soon came to me during one talk about how a fisheries recovered when policies were implemented in order to give the ecosystem a break — a chance to recover (it was a regional example in Europe). That’s the key. Nature does not need to be managed. She has managed quite well on her own for billions of years without human intervention. [I must interject that the word, “billions”, leaves me feeling suddenly nostalgic for Carl Sagan.] In fact when humans try to intervene to improve nature, the result is often the opposite.
What we need to manage is ourselves. We should manage humans and work with Nature.
It is that simple. One might argue that this is semantics. But language matters. If we view Nature as a resource to be exploited, then that is what we will do and eventually it is game over; the planet is finite. If we recognize Nature as having inherent value and rights, and begin to manage ourselves –our population, our consumption, our pollution, how we treat one another and the planet– well, therein lies our hope. Nature is resilient. Give her a chance and she will recover and thrive and support us. If we do not, then she will die and so will we.
A less than abstract lesson from Frankenfood: why humanity is screwed. Rather than recognizing that we’re screwing up the planet, we’d rather invent a fake food to pretend that we’re not. This point is made abundantly clear in this excerpt from a recent news story about engineered coffee:
“As we got deeper into the process, we learned more about the threats to the coffee world as a whole — threats to the environment from deforestation, global warming and [a devastating fungus called] rust, and we were even more committed to making a consistently great coffee that was also better for the environment,” Stopforth says.
The future of coffee is uncertain. The amount of land suitable for growing coffee is expected to shrink by an estimated 50% by 2050, according to a report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
There is no such thing as sustainable growth. The two words should never be used in the same sentence, ever.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English,Third Edition, sustainable (adjective) means to be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” (and equally appropriate here it also means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”). Whereas in this context, growth (noun) means “the process of increasing in size” and “the process of increasing in amount, value, or importance” and “increase in economic activity or value.”
By definition, indefinite growth cannot be sustainable. Yet growth is presumptive in modern economic theory, and is viewed as both necessary and good in virtually all current social and political thinking.
Image above: Estimates and projections of population change for different continents between 1950 and 2050 according to the United Nations. Note that the vertical axis is millions of people and the scale is logarithmic (in a sense, compressed).
Why is growth not sustainable? Growth is governed by the logistics equation. But a parable might explain this best. This story about the invention of the game of chess, seems to appear in different tellings from different cultures in Asia, but they are all the same in their general arc: A ruler is so impressed with the new game that he wants to reward the inventor. The inventor replies that she’d like one grain of rice on the first square, two grains of rice on the second square, doubling the number of grains on each square until the 64th and final square is reached. The emperor laughs at this paltry request, until he realizes his kingdom has been bankrupted. Versions of this story vary in minor details (rice vs. wheat for example) and as to whether the inventor was executed or appointed to a high-ranking position in court.
This is a clever and amusing tale to be sure, but the lesson here is about geometric progressions; also known as exponential growth. Which is precisely what is happening with human population growth as well as consumption and waste. I touched on this theme in Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale.
Resource or Garden of Eden?
Our love affair with consumption and waste belies a resource view of the Earth.
Meaning that the Earth is simply a resource to be consumed, and has no other inherent value. It means exploitation: all taking and no giving back. It means leaving nothing for the future. It means leaving nothing for other living beings; for nature, upon which we rely for our very survival. I hope it is self evident to all why this is wrong on every level. Without fail this leads down a path of ever more desperate and extreme measures, and quite possibly of collapse. This is not sustainable. This is the growth mindset.
Two quick examples of what this looks like: Because the amount of arable land is finite, as population grows we compelled to employ ever more intensive farming measures, applying more and more on toxic chemicals (as argued by technocrats and massive agribusiness companies), and abandoning husbandry practices, which promote and protect the vital and living top soil. And another, as the planet warms due to human activity we turn more and more to burning fossil fuels to cool our buildings and homes, emitting more greenhouse gasses. It is a positive feedback process with negative consequences. These are examples of compounding problems (Provocations #5).
Humans came to live in and share the Garden of Eden, and ended up creating ‘Resources-R-Us.’
Green Growth – Not!
Maybe the greatest misnomer of all is “green growth” (for all intents and purposes a synonym with sustainable growth). This is a dangerous notion because it suggest that we can continue to grow – ‘hey it’s green so no cute little fur balls were harmed in the making of this economy.’ Green growth, while better is still consumptive, it is still growth, ergo it is not sustainable.
Green “sustainable” humans still takes up an inordinate amount of space. A growing population requires growing energy production: even 100% green energy will require vast quantities of space, and water, and additional energy to extract minerals produce and transport turbines, solar panels, etc. — it cascades! And at a minimum, we must consume food and water. Even good farming practices consumes space, converts forests to tillage, consumes energy, and so on. And of course what we eat, comes out as human waste which must be processed. And anything else we consume, even if green (packaging etc), compostable, reusable, recyclable, demands water and energy to produce, transport, and reprocess and/or dispose of (which requires more space for landfills). More cascading, with gross implications.
On a personal level, I am a pretty conscientious greenie. I live in a modest home (by middle class American standards), I drive a modest vehicle, I ride the bus many days each week, I recycle, I consciously reduce consumption and waste. And yet, when I estimate my global footprint (e.g. https://www.footprintnetwork.org), I still require 6.9 Earths to sustain me. Even if this estimate is way off (say 50% too high), I am still having a far greater impact on Earth than she can sustain.
The logical extension of a world view based on growth, green or not, is that humans are the only thing that matters; not even necessarily future humans.
Society Becomes Tenuous
If we continue with this growth mindset, it is hard to come to any other conclusion that Society as we know it becomes tenuous. Like the Emperor of old with his rice and chessboard, our growth will bankrupt the kingdom and societal collapse becomes a very real prospect. And as long as there is growth (population and/or ‘standard of living’) – THERE IS NO HOPE FOR NATURE, nor any reason to have faith that there should be. I feel that the jury is out regarding the future and fate of humankind. Because as clever as we are, we still ultimately and fundamentally rely on nature. We are one and the same – nature and humans. And the crimes we commit against nature, are ultimately self-inflicted wounds.
Perhaps in our anthropocentrism, people don’t really care? It would seem that as long as humanity goes on, that is all that matters. This (humanity goes on at the expense of nature) is the most optimistic outcome of the so-called sustainable growth mindset, and even then our future is in question. Irony abounds: the notion of green or sustainable growth inevitably leads to a world that I, and most ironically others, do not want.
Joni Mitchell can have the last word: “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”