We had a wonderful family Thanksgiving yesterday. Delightful food and drink, playing cards, laughing, enjoying each others' company....but the day before yesterday, Ed Chadd sent out this essay by a friend of his who used to live in our small town in the Northwest. Don gave me permission to publish his essay here, since he wants as many people as possible to see what he's written, hoping that some of us may start...or continue...positive changes to save the beautiful places where we live.
|Walking up my street toward the mountains|
THE SKY REALLY IS FALLING: CHICKEN LITTLE WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG
Donovan C. Wilkin, Human Ecologist
My obsession with sustainability dates back to 1969, the
year I started my doctoral dissertation on human carrying capacity. I became aware that there was real danger of
overshooting that capacity and that if we consumed enough of our ecological
capital, we risked a population crash and even possible human extinction. In the meantime, I warned, we could expect a
long, bumpy slide into poverty as resources were used up. Colleagues accused me of sounding like
Since then, our exploding consumption, while causing a
modest (but temporary) reduction in poverty, has been confused with real
prosperity despite global resources having been ravaged and inequality having
ballooned to record heights. I was guilty
of underestimating our greed and overestimating the time we had left. It wasn’t until this last decade that
ecological footprint analysis confirmed we had already overshot Earth’s
carrying capacity back in the early ‘70s.
The overshoot is now in its fifth decade and continues to
gather momentum as the ultimate human ecological disaster: mass extinction, fisheries depletion, aquifer
overpumping, nonrenewable natural resource depletion, soil erosion, glacial
melting, ocean acidification, nuclear waste accumulation, more violent storms,
rising sea levels, skyrocketing food
prices, plummeting energy return on energy invested, growing numbers of
permanently displaced environmental refugees, and growing global financial
instability. Regrettably, 79 million net
new people join the global mayhem each year, yet we don’t seem particularly
concerned about it, assuming, I suppose, it will take care of itself. It will.
No one will want to be around when that happens, though.
I am well aware, after nearly a half century of trying, that
my sense of impending doom is not widely shared. The sun still shines, gas tanks are full of
ethanol, fridges are fully stocked with thousand-mile salads and 3000-mile
bananas, and we are warm and cozy. Few
can even conceive of the possibility of an impending collapse of human
civilization, but there are notable exceptions.
My angst is shared by those who, like myself, have studied critical
resources in detail and have come to similarly dark conclusions about our
future possibilities: James Hansen,
climate; Lester Brown, food production; Craig Dilworth, technology; Chris
Clugston, nonrenewable natural resources; Paul and Anne Ehrlich, population;
Richard Heinberg, fossil fuels; Julian Cribb, agriculture; Paul Farrell, global
capital; and Jared Diamond, eco-social collapse, to name a few. Regrettably, putting lipstick on the pig,
their warnings are too often couched in false hope – or as a friend of mine
calls it - hopium. “We can
avoid the breakdown of human civilization if only we will work together to
(fill in the blank,) if we do it quickly enough.” One or two of them have likened our situation
to being of the same urgency with which we mobilized for World War II. I’m afraid it is at least that compelling and even that may not prove enough.
In a recent analysis of the world’s nonrenewable natural
resources (NNRs), author Chris Clugston found that, as of the economic collapse
of 2008, 63 of our 89 most critical NNRs were globally scarce. In a private conversation, he believed that
2008 was the peak of human material well-being and he expected, after
plateauing for maybe a decade, it would be sharply downhill from there. In 2012, he stated his belief that global
economic/societal collapse was “possible within the next 5 years, probable
within 15, and all but certain within 25.”
The year 2017 struck an ominous note because that was the deadline the
International Energy Agency gave us for substantially reducing carbon emissions
or risking runaway global climate change.
We’ve made virtually no progress since their warning. Quite the contrary. A highly fracked economy (no pun intended)
has more than fully “recovered” from its 2008 meltdown and we’re off to the GDP
races once again, setting new records for energy consumption every year. Though economists rejoice, climate scientists
and ecologists shudder.
The Global Footprint Network has been refining their methods
for several decades now. Their analyses
are solid. When they say we are
consuming 50% more than Earth’s annual ecological restorative capacity, you can
be sure it’s at least that, and such profligacy has to have consequences. Their analysis shows that, since 1970,
Earth’s overall restorative capacity has declined by almost half while the
human population has more than doubled and overall resource consumption has
increased even more. This suggests that,
by 2060, it could all be over – no more reserve bio-capacity left
anywhere. That’s when human death rates must necessarily soar, if they haven’t
Deny-ers insist we’re doing just fine. As technologically gifted as we are and with
God on our side wanting us all to be rich, we will work it out with little
personal discomfort or sacrifice. The
world’s plummeting ecological capacity puts the lie to such Pollyannaish
delusions. By the time reality sets in,
our global ecological accounts will be all but empty and there won’t be
anything left to restore.
The physical impossibility of continuing as we presently are
for more than another few decades seems lost on the vast majority, despite the
clarity and preponderance of all monitored trends now. If only a handful of us and practically no
public officials really believe such a meltdown is coming, what can realistically
be done to prepare for it? Can we avoid
having to reduce our population?
Couldn’t we all just live more sustainably? Fat chance.
It isn’t reasonable to expect the third-world, now experiencing for the
first time the goodies they have watched middle class Americans enjoy for
generations, to voluntarily cut back on their newly acquired tastes for
personal vehicles, computers, cell phones, meat, milk, and eggs. Nor, in truth, are formerly-middle-class
Americans likely to give up too much more than they already have. People don’t commonly volunteer to live in
deeper poverty, no matter how worthy the cause, having once experienced the
benefits of wealth, privilege, and relative immunity from disease, crime, and
violence. Typical half-hearted attempts
at sustainable lifestyles in the western world won’t forestall global economic
collapse anyway and they could even trigger it.
The optimum time for funding alternative energy with a good stiff carbon
tax was about twenty years ago. It’s
very late now.
Despite well-meaning attempts by many of my friends to live
more sustainably, I am convinced the only equitable, humane, and effective way
to pull our fat out of the fire at this late date, if it could be done at all,
would be to immediately and dramatically reduce human fertility worldwide to
half of replacement for the next three to four generations, somewhere between
“one or none” and “one will do, stop at two.”
All other attempts to live more sustainably would be – in fact are being - entirely undone by our huge
and growing numbers. Such restraint
would have to continue until we got our numbers WAY down, certainly below a
billion, and possibly below half a billion depending on how long it took. That level of voluntary reproductive
restraint, I don’t need to tell you, would be unprecedented in human
history. Economic collapse is a far more
probable resolution to our overshoot problem.
Realistically, most of us won’t survive global economic
collapse. The vast majority of us have
neither the skills nor the resources to survive in a purely local economy. Despite the earnest efforts of groups like
Sierra Club and the Transitions network, it is unlikely that anything can now
stop the global economy – and human civilization with it - from collapsing
around our heads sometime in the next two to four decades. Most will apparently blithely continue to
enjoy our final faux prosperity while it lasts.
By the time the meltdown gets their full and undivided attention, it
will be too late. The only question then
will be how many, if any, will survive to start the insanity all over
again? God forbid.
I take little comfort
in being old enough to be cashing in my chips before the most serious stages of
civilization’s decline and collapse.
That doesn’t make it any better for my kids and grandkids. I feel we owe them a realistic assessment of
the predicament we have left them. My
heartfelt warning to them is that children born today are probably being sentenced,
should they survive to adulthood, to living through the darkest period of human
history. The decision to bring a child
into the world today is – or should be – an excruciating one, a choice between
small hope for a survivable future with starkly limited opportunities versus a
far higher probability of a much more debased, dispiriting one.
I personally would choose not to reproduce now even if I
could (my vasectomy has sealed that path.)
If this past century represents the pinnacle of human ability to
sustainably manage and equitably share our global commons, and if, despite our
(apparently benumbed) big brains and digital libraries overflowing with the
accumulated wisdom of all human history, we can aspire to no higher economic
goals than ever-greater material consumption, constant growth, and perpetual
crowding at the expense of all other species on this planet, including other
humans, it might be better if human reproduction were put on the evolutionary
back burner for a very long while. A
radical pruning and lots of time provide the best hope for a post-human “founder”
population sometime in the future with substantially more reverent attitudes
toward Earth and more caring and social responsibility toward one another.
A final point - one can guarantee an argument merely by
suggesting the need to stabilize, let alone reduce, human numbers. After worshiping at the altar of perpetual
growth for 200 years, that’s pure sacrilege.
One can elicit even greater anger by pointing out that what evolutionary
success we have had to this point has been a result of inborn proto-socialist
tendencies in all human beings. We are a
modestly evolved social mammal, and socialist (small “s”) - or mutualistic - or
cooperative – communities have been central to whatever evolutionary success we
have enjoyed as a species. This fact
suggests the best and possibly only way forward from here, at least for an
insightful few. To wit:
If we do manage to pull back from the abyss, or if enough of
us survive the plunge, it will surely be because small groups of us have formed
mutualistic communities for the express purpose of helping one another eke out
a largely local living from a depleted planet Earth. We will be painfully
aware, by then, that a sustainable lifestyle must involve subordinating our
reproductive inclinations to the long-term well-being, not just of our own
community, but of the larger ecological community on which our well-being
depends. We will certainly understand
that a global ecosystem is a sacred trust that demands our respect and, yes,
our reverence. Finally, we will need the
humility to understand that we need a healthy global ecosystem far more than it
needs us, and that we need to invest at least as much of our treasure in
husbanding that priceless natural legacy as in pursuing our own material
Don would appreciate your responses to the following questions.
1. Do you see the possibility of global economic/societal collapse as a real problem?
2. Do you see it as an imminent, urgent problem?
3. Having read this article, do you feel, or are you motivated to do anything differently from before?
4. Do these matters have any implications for local growth policy in your mind?
5. Should the environmental community take a position on these matters and, if so, what would you suggest?
Me again: I usually try to stay fairly neutral here, and not engage in religion or politics, but sometimes we have to stop and just take a look at where things stand, where we stand. I'm not going to change my whole life, but this speaks to changes that I have been making, many people I know have been making. Perhaps, just perhaps, a large quantity of small changes, could buy some time for our grandchildren. Please let Don know what you think. He says he quit a lucrative career in aerospace in 1967 to get a doctorate in ecology...was that the year of the first earth day?
|Ediz Hook, our town beach, one of my favorite places to go|
Since I've stopped my health care career for the third and last time, I look to what I will do next. I believe that I can affect hearts/minds/lives as much with my art/teaching/writing/designing/Legacy work as I could with health care. Finding a way to be of service to Humanity/the Planet that fulfills our own gifts and needs...what a special gift that is!