Much of my environmental education goes back to early writers on the topic. Foremost among them is Paul Erlich, author of The Population Bomb. In this seminal book, Erlich made a case for the fact that, with it's exponentially rising numbers, the human population of planet Earth would of necessity run up against the stumbling block of resource limits.
To put it bluntly, he said that when our numbers rise high enough, we will run out of food, fuel and water. When the book was written in 1968, humanity numbered 3.5 billion people. Now, our population is double that at 7 billion. We are there and, yes, we really are running out of food, fuel and water. These trends will accelerate as the results of our running rampant over the environment pile up with increasing speed
In his latest book, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment. Erlich attacks the problem of humanity's effect on the earth's geology itself, and how the feedback loop we are a part of will probably lead to the collapse of civilization due to environmental catastrophe.
Many empires have collapsed before, from the Greeks and Romans to the Spanish and British. All of them collapsed due to resource depletion and the cost of over expansion by military conquest. It is my opinion that the American empire is now in that stage.
The worst part is that we are taking the entire world's civilization down with us. How is this possible? Our dominance over the world's economies began with World War 2. At its end, ours was the only economy in the world that was fully functional.
Not only was it fully functional, it was a powerhouse the likes of which had never before been seen on planet Earth. We went from making hundreds of thousands of autombiles in 1940 to making even larger numbers of tanks, ships and airplanes by 1942. When there was a will to make massive change to our society quickly, we did it. Think of the Manhattan Project. Starting from scratch, we figured out how to make atom bombs and then did it, all within about a three year period.
We are now facing a situation more dire than World War 2. It won't take decades to permanently cripple Earth's climate. It is right now on the tipping point of being a runaway catastrophe. We truly have the ability to destroy the ability to support life on earth as we know it. All we have to do is drive global warming above 2 degrees Celsius. Human dominance over the planet has spawned a series of crises, soaring energy demand, famine and environmental devastation.
To make matters worse, there is a huge reservoir of methane gas frozen in arctic tundra and under the shallow waters of the Arctic Ocean that is now starting to be released. Methane is the same as natural gas and propane. It is also a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2. It is beginning to be released as the arctic warms up and melts. Russian scientists are documenting thousands of methane “chimneys” that are bubbling up off of the coast of Siberia. The same is happening in North American tundra and offshore of Alaska and Canada.
These are not independent crises, and a single response will not serve to cure them. The central theme of The Dominant Animal is stark and profound. It is a tale of how one species, Homo sapiens, (us) has become so powerful and so overbearing that we can truly destroy Earth's ability to support life as we know it. For decades Paul and Anne Erlich have been documenting and warning about humans' effect upon the environment.
Humans must immediately implement a series of radical measures to halt carbon emissions or prepare for the collapse of entire ecosystems and the displacement, suffering and death of hundreds of millions of the globe’s inhabitants, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank. The continued failure to respond aggressively to climate change, the report warns, will mean that the planet will inevitably warm by at least 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, ushering in an apocalypse.
But, don't be deceived into thinking that we have decades in which to act. We don't. Global warming is proceeding much more quickly than it was anticipated just a few years ago. There is a time bomb going off right now without any awareness among our news media. Methane is a gas that is 20 times more powerful than CO2. It is being released in large amounts in the Arctic Ocean and nearby tundra in North America and Russia. This is where the runaway potential comes into play.
It is overwhelmingly important that we quit burning fossil fuels pronto, like YESTERDAY! This is why the extraction of tar sands petroleum must be thwarted. For starters, the Keystone XL pipeline should not be built. The open pit mining of the Alberta tar sands is just foolhardy. The extraction and subsequent burning of the hydrocarbons found there will all by itself seal our environmental fate.
How much carbon do the world’s fossil fuel companies have in their reserves? That number is about 2,800 gigatons of carbon, or about five times the 565 gigatons we can put into the atmosphere and stay below two degrees. For now that coal, oil and gas is still below ground, but economically it’s really above ground. It is on the oil companies' books as assetts. It’s reflected in the share price of Exxon, Shell and the rest. It’s reflected in the budget planning of Nigeria or Kuwait.
The current plan, as announced by the fossil fuel companies and governments of the world, is to drive us way, way, way past the two degree figure. They will do it unless we take drastic measures.
We are capable of changing major elements of our society in a hurry if we have to. From the time the Manhattan Project began until we detonated our first A-bomb was about three years. Similarly, in one year we stopped making cars and re-tooled to make tanks, bombers, and ammunition.
When we found out what CFCs (freon) were doing to the ozone layer, we very quickly found alternatives and switched over to them. Here are things we can do to change the situation:
Get birth rate considerations on the same level as death rate – eradicate prejudice against women; make education and birth control easy for them; provide job opportunities; encoureage sexual expression that is not reproductive.
Pay more attention to conservation than consumption – don't try to solve economic problems by increasing consumption.
Poor people need to be able to vote, so we should do away with things that hinder that, and promote things that make that more likely; i.e. same day voter registration, moving election day to the weekend, and reversing gerrymandering where it occurrs.
Pay attention to what technological things do for us, or don't do for us. If a certain product is very important, like a major medical advance, it can be allowed more downside than something like cosmetics or toys.
Educate people, beginning with little children. Teach them about ecology, socialism, consumption, history, agriculture.
Move away from nation states as a planetary organizing principle.
Recognize the need to have ethical discussions about our behavior.
Human societies can change with incredible speed. And, geologically, things don't always go ponderously. Sometimes, climate can change in short times. To quote Erlich, “It can be a decade or so. Methane release is one of the most dangerous things.”
Basic things we need to know:
Our dominance over the world – (and dependence on agriculture; transport and fossil fuels have huge impacts on food)
Educate leaders in evolution, biology, and climate
Think of the little kids who had nothing to do with this, and the kind of world they will inherit. Will they hate us because we failed to act? How do do we do the work that needs to be done to foster change?
In the long run, Erlich's original premise, which blames the inevitable resource depletion on overpopulation, is still operative. Not only are world population numbers growing rapidly, but so are expectations of higher standards of living. These higher standards inevitably lead to the consumption of more energy and natural resources. Even emigration from poorer countries to richer ones leads to this.
Lastly, I feel that we need to make ignorance of science a thing of the past, especially deliberate ignorance like that of Tea Party Republicans. Any legislator who disavows knowledge of our ongoing environmental crisis should be thrown out of office. It is not a matter of two equally valid sides of a debate. Science does not compromise. Either the earth is flat, or it isn't.
If more of us had listened to Erlich in 1968 we wouldn't be in the mess we are in now. At present, we still have chances to address these issues. These windows of opportunity won't last forever. The petroleum companies cannot be allowed to continue doing business as they are now. They must be nationalized and forced to comply with reality.
We urgently need to instate a crash program that moves us into renewable energy immediately. Funding for our military establishment must be cut to the bone. End wars, bring the troops home, and close bases around the world. Use the money saved to get this job done!
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