Steps To “Getting”
The Global Ecological Crisis
By John Feeney
02 November, 2007
Some of us who examine and discuss
environmental matters are constantly puzzled and frustrated by the seeming
inability of elected officials, environmental organizations, and environmental
and political writers to “get” the nature of our ecological
plight. Could it be they’re simply unaware of the ecological principles
which enable one to understand it?
Since some undoubtedly are,
here is a brief list of axioms and observations from population ecology
with which everyone should be familiar. Most are taught in introductory
level ecology and environmental science classes. They appear sequentially,
so the reader can step logically through a progression which should
make clear the nub of the global ecological challenge before us:
1. A finite earth can support
only a limited number of humans. There is therefore a global “carrying
capacity” for humans. A basic
definition of carrying capacity is “The maximum number
of people, or individuals of a particular species, that a given part
of the environment can maintain indefinitely.”
2. It is an axiom of ecological
science that a population which has grown larger than the carrying capacity
of its environment (e.g., the global ecosystem) degrades its environment.
It uses resources faster than they are regenerated by that environment,
and produces waste faster than the environment can absorb it without
being degraded. Some definitions of carrying capacity include
this element of environmental degradation. Such a population is said
to be in “overshoot.”
3. Al Bartlett sometimes
writes, “A SELF-EVIDENT TRUTH: If any fraction of
the observed global warming can be attributed to the activities of humans,
then this constitutes positive proof that the human population, living
as we do, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth.” The
same can be said of much of the rest of the extensive and growing human-caused
ecological degradation we see today, including the breakdown of the
web of life indicated by the ongoing Sixth
Extinction. It is symptomatic
of having exceeded the earth’s capacity to sustain
our current numbers for the long term. It is, in fact, proof that under
current conditions we have done so.  
4. It’s axiomatic,
as well, that a population can only
temporarily overshoot carrying capacity. It will subsequently
decline in number, to return to a level at or below carrying capacity.
That is, though a population may grow in size until it is too large
for existing resources to sustain it, it must subsequently decline.
5. Because it degrades it’s
environment, a population in overshoot erodes existing carrying capacity
so that fewer members of that species will be supported by that habitat
in the future.
6. Our extraction of nonrenewable resources such as oil and coal has
allowed us temporarily to exceed the earth’s carrying capacity
for our species. As these supplies are drawn down, our numbers continue
to increase, and ecological degradation progresses, the number of humans
will, of necessity, come down. Whether we have a hand in voluntarily
and humanely bringing them down, or simply let nature manage the whole
thing for us, is up to us.
It seems unlikely anyone could fully comprehend the six steps above,
and still deny we face a grave, worldwide ecological crisis. But for
some, self gain or political ideology tied closely to self-image might
be enough to fuel such denial. For others, I hope this little essay
For a superb, in-depth analysis
of the same and related issues try William Catton’s Overshoot.
 Obviously, not all environmental degradation is proof of overshoot.
An individual example of ecological damage may have nothing to do with
a species having exceeded carrying capacity. Those examples, however,
which reflect our society-wide ways of living, such as CO2 emissions,
overfishing, and habitat destruction, do offer such proof.
 For humans, carrying
capacity varies somewhat as a function of how we live. Yet no matter
how we live, we cannot eliminate carrying capacity constraints. It seems
for instance, that even a hypothetical complete switch to renewable
energy, as essential as it ultimately is, would, in itself, drop humanity
back to within the limits of carrying capacity. In a time when groundwater
depletion, habitat destruction, and the depletion of other non-energy
resources constitute a large portion of our ecological challenge, we
would likely remain in overshoot due to our sheer numbers.
John Feeney, Ph.D. is an
environmental writer and activist in Boulder,Colorado. Reach him through
his website at http://growthmadness.org/
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