Isn't it Time to Cry "Uncle"? If Not Now, Then When?

 

I don't believe there's a snowball's chance in hell of something of this enormity happening any time soon. That doesn't mean it shouldn't.

Covid-19 has brought us face first into a brick wall and we're on course to visit that wall over and over again. Some of these encounters are already happening and go unnoticed. Some may eclipse the coronavirus pandemic in lives and treasure lost.

The brick wall represents the finite limits of nature, the biosphere that supports all life on the planet, Spaceship Earth. Covid-19 demonstrates that, when you go beyond those finite limits, bad things are bound to happen.

Covid 19 is a public health emergency. Just one of several that we are creating in our role as Masters of the Universe. Here's another looming emergency - food insecurity, i.e. famine, caused by the degradation of our stocks of farmland through excessively intensive farming, heavy applications of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and excessive exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. We are stripping essential carbon out of the soil in a process called "desertification."

Then there's climate change, a cornucopia of existential emergencies that, while varying by region, will trigger impacts that will spread everywhere. Then there's the collapse of biodiversity, mass extinction... I could go on and on and on.

The thing with existential emergencies is that you either resolve all of them or you'll fail on all of them. You might be fighting a kitchen fire but what does that matter if the rest of the house is consumed by the flames.

But, really, how bad is it? For us, as I like to call us 'the latitudinally advantaged,' it's not too bad at all. We can still get to the grocery store. The shelves are well stocked. We can afford to get what we need to comfortably stave off hunger. For close to three out of four human beings, however, that's not the case. 

A study just published in the journal, Nature Sustainability, is an eye-opener. The authors, scientists and researchers from the Global Footprint Network, reveal that 72 per cent of us live in countries that have both biological resource deficits and lower than average incomes.

As humanity’s demand on natural resources is increasingly exceeding Earth’s biological rate of regeneration, environmental deterioration such as greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere, ocean acidification and groundwater depletion is accelerating. ...We analysed the unequal exposure of national economies to biocapacity constraints. We found that a growing number of people live in countries with both biocapacity deficits and below-average income. Low income thwarts these economies’ ability to compete for needed resources on the global market. By 2017, 72% of humanity lived in such countries. This trend not only erodes their possibilities for maintaining progress but also eliminates their chances for eradicating poverty, a situation we call an ‘ecological poverty trap’.

In other words the great majority of humanity are already living in a state of precarity and are continuing to fall behind.

A fundamental ecological concept posits that net primary productivity of ecosystems is the basis of all life.  ...Not only people, but all life, depend on a material metabolism. To secure their metabolism, people compete with other living things for the biological productivity of ecosystems. The metabolism encompasses basic life-support functions, including food, clean water, waste absorption and shelter. While this has always been the case, the Anthropocene epoch has marked a new era characterized by Homo sapiens’ global dominance. Within this new context, conservative estimates indicate that in 2020, the demand of biological resources of all people combined exceeded the amount Earth’s ecosystems produce by at least 56%.

Circling the Drain.

Overuse is by definition a time-limited condition—it cannot go on forever3,5,6,7. Thus, global ecological overshoot erodes biological resource sustainability and, therefore, security. Paradoxically, because of accumulated resource stocks, it has still been possible for humanity, even during the past decades of global ecological overshoot, to continuously increase total demand8,9. Increased overshoot has accelerated the depletion of the biosphere’s ecological assets, resulting in increased biodiversity loss10,11,12, climate change13, forest destruction14 and freshwater scarcity15. Delayed impact and weak feedback amplify future resource security challenges by further depleting natural capital.

There may not be a precise answer for how long overuse can persist as time constants for each biological asset vary. For example, a forest that matured over 50 years, whose trees are harvested at the rate of 2% per year, would be left with no mature tree within 25 years. Groundwater and freshwater lakes can be radically diminished within decades, as has happened in many places, from Lake Chad to Lake Aral, the Ogallala Aquifer and the California Central Valley. Overfishing has led to fisheries collapse16, and carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion have contributed to an accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

We don't know precisely how far we are from the edge. We do know that it's near and that we're heading straight for it.

Despite all this, despite knowing that most human beings are living in perilous circumstances, our governments remain wedded to perpetual, exponential growth. We refuse to recognize that there's not enough to go around, that satisfying our constantly increasing wants means the bulk of humanity must make do with less.

This has to stop and it will, whether we do it on our terms or on nature's. 

Note: This is one of those essays that was already largely written when I learned of a new study that had been just released that sort of, but not quite, dovetailed with the subject of the item.


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