Is The Greatest Challenge
By John Feeney
07 November, 2007
We humans face two problems of
desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The
second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.
Despite increasing climate
change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the
full scope and severity of the global dilemma we've created. Many fear
sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence
We've outgrown the planet
and need radical action to avert unspeakable consequences. This - by
a huge margin - has become humanity's greatest challenge.
If we've altered the climate,
it should come as no surprise that we have damaged other natural systems.
From deforestation to collapsing fisheries, desertification, the global
spread of chemical toxins, ocean dead zones, and the death of coral
reefs, an array of interrelated declines is evidence of the breadth
of our impact.
Add the depletion of finite
resources such as oil and ground-water, and the whole of the challenge
upon us emerges.
Barring decisive action,
we are marching, heads down, toward global ecological collapse.
Web of life
We're dismantling the web
of life, the support system upon which all species depend. We could
have very well entered the "sixth mass extinction"; the fifth
having wiped out the dinosaurs.
Though we like to imagine we are different from other species, we humans
are not exempt from the threats posed by ecological degradation.
Analysts worry, for example,
about the future of food production. Climate change-induced drought
and the depletion of oil and aquifers - resources on which farming and
food distribution depend - could trigger famine on an unprecedented
Billions could die. At the
very least, we risk our children inheriting a bleak world, empty of
the richness of life we take for granted.
Alarmist? Yes, but realistically
The most worrisome aspect
of this ecological decline is the convergence in time of so many serious
problems. Issues such as oil and aquifer depletion and climate change
are set to reach crisis points within decades.
Biodiversity loss is equally
problematic. As a result of their ecological interdependence, the extinction
of species can trigger cascade effects whereby impacts suddenly and
unpredictably spread. We're out of our league, influencing systems we
Any of these problems could
disrupt society. The possibility of them occurring together is enough
to worry even the most optimistic among rational observers.
Some credible analyses conclude
we've postponed action too long to avoid massive upheaval and the best
we can do now is to soften the blow. Others hold out hope of averting
catastrophe, though not without tough times ahead.
One thing is certain: continued
inaction or half-hearted efforts will be of no help - we're at a turning
point in human history.
Though few seem willing to
confront the facts, it's no secret how we got here. We simply went too
far. The growth which once measured our species' success inevitably
Unceasing economic growth,
increasing per capita resource consumption, and global population growth
have teamed with our reliance on finite reserves of fossil energy to
exceed the Earth's absorptive and regenerative capacities.
Getting a grip
We are now in "overshoot";
our numbers and levels of consumption having exceeded the Earth's capacity
to sustain us for the long-term.
And as we remain in overshoot,
we further erode the Earth's ability to support us.
Inevitably, our numbers will
come down, whether voluntarily or through such natural means as famine
So what can get us out of
this mess? First comes awareness. Those in a position to inform must
shed fears of alarmism and embrace the truth.
More specifically, we need
ecological awareness. For instance, we must "get" that we
are just one among millions of interdependent species.
It's imperative we reduce
personal resource consumption. The relocalisation movement promoted
by those studying oil depletion is a powerful strategy in that regard.
We need a complete transition
to clean, renewable energy. It can't happen overnight, but reliance
on non-renewable energy is, by definition, unsustainable.
But there is a caveat: abundant
clean energy alone will not end our problems. There remains population
growth which increases consumption of resources other than energy.
We have to rethink the corporate
economic growth imperative. On a finite planet, the physical component
of economic growth cannot continue forever.
In fact, it has gone too
far already. As a promising alternative, the field of ecological economics
offers the "steady state economy".
We must end world population
growth, then reduce population size. That means lowering population
numbers in industrialised as well as developing nations.
Scientists point to the population-environment
link. But today's environmentalists avoid the subject more than any
other ecological truth. Their motives range from the political to a
misunderstanding of the issue.
Neither justifies hiding
the truth because total resource use is the product of population size
and per capita consumption. We have no chance of solving our environmental
predicament without reducing both factors in the equation.
Fortunately, expert consensus
tells us we can address population humanely by solving the social problems
that fuel it.
Implementing these actions
will require us all to become activists, insisting our leaders base
decisions not on corporate interests but on the health of the biosphere.
Let's make the effort for
today's and tomorrow's children.
John Feeney PhD is an environmental writer and activist
in Boulder, Colorado, US. His online project is growthmadness.org
Share Your Insights
it! And spread the word!
Here is a unique chance to help this article to be read by thousands
of people more. You just Digg it, and it will appear in the home page
of Digg.com and thousands more will read it. Digg is nothing but an
vote, the article with most votes will go to the top of the page. So,
as you read just give a digg and help thousands more to read this article.