Possibilities & Probabilities

SUBHEAD: Nature could have the last word in setting things “right". Image above: Detail of painting by Jim Warren titled "Don't Mess With Mother Nature". From (http://www.jimwarren.com/site/index.php?option=com_gallery2&Itemid=57&g2_itemId=85) By Andy Clarke on 25 August 2009 in Andy's Column - (http://www.cacor.ca/Andy%27s-col-2.html) In our last column (June 1-30, 2009) we stated that what is required for the achievement of a sustainable society is the replacement of the present exponential growth system with an economic and political order based upon both ecological imperatives and the requirements for intergenerational well being. In short, and as stated by Aurelio Peccei and the Executive of the Club of Rome in 1972 (1), we are compelled to seek a “state of equilibrium” with Nature on our planet. This goal will require nothing less than the construction of an entirely new paradigm, effectively a steady state economic and political system, for the continuance of the human enterprise. Before we can begin to explore the essential elements involved in replacing exponential growth with a steady state economic and political system, we must first gain an understanding of why the existing growth system has been dominant since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, soon followed by the first civilizations, about 10,000 years ago. Not unlike all other species that have evolved on planet Earth, the human species is driven first and foremost by its several “wants”, with particular reference to food, protection from the elements, security from predators, and growth in population. It is only through success in achieving these “wants” that our species survived and eventually achieved its present level of dominance over all other advanced life forms. But now that humans have achieved a position without equal on planet Earth, the human growth drive now threatens the extinction on a massive scale of not only other biological life but perhaps humans themselves. The question above all questions is: Have humans acquired, at this critical moment in their journey, the maturity and intelligence to replace exponential growth with a new political, economic and cultural global society based upon, and consistent with, ecological imperatives? Or, in the words of a recent study (2), does humanity now possess the wisdom to “move from its often selfish, self-centered adolescence to a more globally responsible adulthood?” If we answer the above questions in the affirmative, almost certainly the only response that can lead to a civilized future for humanity, it is also important that we gain an adequate understanding of the magnitude of the challenges that must be overcome in the transition from the present nation-state growth paradigm to a new state of equilibrium with Nature. Probably the greatest challenge we face is that our present global civilization is now consuming resources at a rate that is over 30% above what is sustainable. While economic conditions vary greatly throughout the world, our level of global overshoot continues to increase, both because of continuing growth in the developed world of approximately one billion people (OECD countries), and the strenuous efforts in most of the developing world, particularly China and India, to achieve developed world economic conditions. Should the above percentage of overshoot of sustainability continue to increase, degradation of the Earth’s present level of carrying capacity must also be expected to increase. In other words, if the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet was about 3 billion living at first world economic standards in 1980, before overshoot began, today it may be only 2 billion and decreasing (3). While the above trend in a reduction in the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet is troubling enough, a more detailed examination of the components of overshoot, population growth and consumption trends, provides still greater concern. The global population is now about 6.8 billion and increasing about 70 million annually, or about 1 billion every 15 years. The United Nations mid projection for 2050 is 9 billion. But even should the world’s population level off at about 9 billion 40 years from now, it would appear that we will have exceeded the above 2 billion carrying capacity more than fourfold. This depressing projection also does not allow for the resources required to improve the living standards of developing nations (includes some 2 billion now existing on $2.00 a day or less). There is now no escaping the conclusion that our unfolding destiny is now on a trajectory leading to collapse of today’s global civilization. The opportunity for necessary corrective action passed us by about three decades ago. The evidence is becoming overwhelming that the forces of Nature will soon substantially reduce world population, and lessen the ecological destruction that humanity is now inflicting on the planet, by a sustainable level. Even after making a significant allowance for uncertainties and projection errors, it is no longer possible to avoid the conclusion that the transfer of world society to a steady state of economic and ecological equilibrium will not occur before humanity first experiences a period of major regression. The unavoidable truth is that humankind must either abide by Earth’s limits or Nature will have the last word in setting things “right.” There can be no doubt that many persons will reject the above frightful conclusion that a substantial die-off of humanity will occur before a viable rearrangement of the economic, political and social affairs of humanity becomes a practical possibility. Many persons, including many of the well informed, will instinctively dismiss the above analysis because in their view it is unacceptable, and therefore there must be a less painful solution. Others may reject the above conclusion because it amounts to a counsel for despair. And still others will dismiss die-off because it borders on the unbelievable and beyond what can be imagined, or is contrary to their religious beliefs. Persons who may be tempted to reject the above analysis would do well to reflect on the words contained in two important and authoritative research studies, the first published 37 years ago, and the second 5 years ago: “Only real comprehension of the human condition at this turning point in history can provide sufficient motivation for people to accept the individual sacrifices and the changes in political and economic power structures to reach an equilibrium state.” -- The Executive Commentary in Limits to Growth, 1972 “In 1972 it seemed that humanity’s population and economy were still comfortably below the planet’s carrying capacity. We thought there was still room to grow safely while examining longer term options. That may have been true in 1972; by 1992 it was no longer true.” -- Limits to Growth, The 30-Year Update, 2004 While there can be little doubt that we must first pass through E. O. Wilson’s bottleneck (4) before more favorable opportunities for a steady state society in equilibrium with Nature come into view, there is today a vitally important survival mission for the more adventuresome among us. If we assume that positive climate change feed back loops will not lead to a planet unsuitable for humans, it is possible that the first steps toward sustainable communities may begin to take root before the end of this century. Preparations begun today, leading to resilient and self sufficient local communities, will help lead the way toward the rebirth of human civilization. While a measure of faith is certainly required, now is the time to invest in, and prepare the way for, post bottleneck future generations. Notes: (1) Refer “The Limits to Growth”, page 195. (2) Refer “The planet’s future: Climate change will cause civilization to collapse”, The Independent, July 12, 2009. (3) Numerous writers have indicated that a sustainable world population living at first world standards numbers in the 1 to 2 billion range. (4) E. O. Wilson, one of the greatest contemporary biologists, refers to “the bottleneck” as a crisis beyond all earlier experience. see also: Ea O Ka Aina: Apocalypse Now! 6/7/09 Ea O Ka Aina: Malthus and Vice 4/10/09 Island Breath: Sustainability - A vision for Kauai 1/4/04

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