On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic, the largest ocean liner ever built, struck an iceberg and sank in frigid Atlantic waters, killing 68% of the passengers and crew aboard. The shock of this failure of technology put a lasting pall on an era of untrammeled human industrial growth and development.
Today, we face a similar nick point in human history. This time the ship is the Earth and its inevitable sinking puts the lives of billions of its passengers and crew at risk. Our Earth ship has hit the iceberg of ultimate limits to human growth and consumption of the Earth’s finite resources.
The impact of Homo sapiens on this planet is a function of two main variables, Population growth and consumption of natural resources. Human impact on the Earth is a function of the per capita rate of resource consumption multiplied by the total human population. At present, both numbers are increasing geometrically.
Human population, at this moment, is 7,086,000,000 and increasing at the rate of 78,840,000 per year, slightly more than an average of 1% per year. Some countries have a population growth rate more than twice the global average.
Consumption of Natural Resources
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, human beings devour an estimated 45 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year, an average of 6.5 tons per person per year. Highly industrialized countries such as the United States, Japan and more recently, China, consume resources at up to 40 tons per capita. Increases in consumption also produce rapid increases in pollution in the form of waste products introduced into the biosphere, many of which are new to the evolution of life on this planet.
The rapid increase in human population and consumption results in an expanding rate of natural habitat loss, as more and more habitat is converted to human infrastructure for cities, transportation and agriculture. Modern corporate agriculture results in topsoil loss at the rate of up to forty times faster than topsoil formation. What little soil is left is depauperate of natural soil organisms and minerals necessary for healthy plant growth and for the health of herbivores and their prey species.
As a result of the above, the rate of species extinctions has increased from 100 to 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate. E.O. Wilson estimates that, at present rates, within 100 years as much as half of all species on Earth will have gone extinct.
The combination of habitat loss and species extinction is drastically reducing overall biodiversity on the Earth. In some ecosystems biodiversity is reduced to such an extent as to threaten ecosystem collapse. The complex web of life is much more than the sum of its component species. Disruption of a single species can have cascading affects on all other species.
Whether or not caused by human action, climate variation is natural, real and happening all the time. Human actions introduce new variables into the complex patterns of climate change, adding new feedback systems with both positive and negatives influences. In a world wounded by pollution, habitat loss, species extinctions and biodiversity loss, climate change adds more stresses to already overburdened ecosystems.
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, fossil fuels are finite resources that are rapidly approaching the end of their economic utility in human societies, known as Peak Oil. Reduction in fossil fuel use will ultimately reduce emissions and resource depletion fueled by fossil energy sources. However, human civilization is based on fossil fuel energy sources, which cannot be entirely replaced by renewable energy sources. As Peak Oil becomes more evident, human economic system will be faced with extreme changes in conduct and outcome.
What can be done to “solve” these approaching crises?
There is only one set of actions that can have any meaningful and timely influence on the inevitable collapse posed by the natural challenges outlined above. 1) Significantly reduce human population, and 2) significantly reduce per capita consumption.
It’s a simple zero sum game. The total impact of human growth and development is a function of total human population multiplied by per capita consumption. The only way to reduce that impact to less than what it is today (to compensate for ecosystem effects already in the “pipeline” that will continue after we stop producing them) is to reduce population and consumption to the point where humans consume less resources than are replenished naturally and produce less waste than can be dispersed and recycled naturally.
Reduction of human growth (economic as well as physical) will reduce the driving force creating so much environmental destruction. Reduction in human consumption will relieve the pressure on all aspects of the biosphere, including the human world.
We must come to the realization that the ship of human civilization is sinking and decide the only recourse is to build life rafts and abandon ship. Otherwise more that 68% of the passengers and crew will be lost.
In a following post, I will analyze the ways we profligate humans may go about achieving the goals of decreasing population and consumption… or not.