What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Why isn’t knowledge of ecological overreach commonplace?

Someone has asked me to clarify my list of problems facing humanity: global warming, peak oil and ‘peak soil’ (shorthand for humanity’s ecological demands on the planet). They state that they have heard about the first two problems, but not of the global scale of the third. Why isn’t this common knowledge, they ask?

Well firstly it’s easy to see why global warming is such an easily characterised problem, once the initial prediction of the greenhouse effect of CO2 and other gases in the atmosphere was made all that was required to confirm it operating were reliable measures of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and reliable datasets of global temperature. Once these were achieved by the mid 1990s then the rest follows. It is only the wilfully blind who will not acknowledge this.

With peak oil the waters are more muddied: with fossil fuels it has always been a matter of observation that oil is less common than coal, and it has always been acknowledged that oil was likely to run out sometime in the C21. What has obscured knowledge of when peak oil will occur is the behaviour of oil-producing countries and oil companies. Both of these are reluctant to reveal details of how much oil remains. If they maintain a vagueness about the extent of remaining oil reserves they can postpone the transition to a post-carbon energy world long enough to reap huge profits from the very expensive final barrels of oil that are pumped.

What I have described are two problems which are very simple in essence, in the first case it is whether CO2 and other greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere and whether the global temperature is rising (yes and yes). In the second case it is projections of future oil reserves, which should in theory be easy tot make, but which are obscured for political and economic reasons.

In the case of measuring humanity’s ecological demands on the planet, or ecological footprint analysis, however, what is in question are multiple pieces of information. In order to conduct such an investigation the researcher has to look at all of human activity and try to estimate the various ecological impacts of each activity, a huge task. And in practice many pieces of information are missing, or are covered up by governments, companies and individuals trying to look good.

Traditionally of course, researchers would have looked at one particular activity in one particular place, say agriculture of a certain kind in one country, and assessed its ecological impact. In assessing this they would be assuming that humanity’s demands globally are not excessive, and if they find that a particular activity does place excessive ecological demands on the environment, they would assume that other support systems make up for this, or that this activity can be modified to make its impacts more modest. They would not assume the immodesty of all activities taken together; until a few years ago there would have been no sense in trying for a national or global assessment because the assumption was that the total of human activities was reasonable (and laudable) and the planet infinitely bounteous.

A good example of the mental compartmentalisation of issues such as this is the way that many people think of nature conservation as an added extra that we can pay for once we have attained a certain amount of economic growth. I have already criticised this notion in a previous blog.

A similar idea is the way that nature conservation is seen as consisting of isolated problems, usually affecting iconic species like the Giant Panda. Once this is seen as a problem then money is raised, reserves are created and the Giant Panda is ‘saved’—whether or not the Giant Panda survives long-term is, of course, not guaranteed, but a short-term solution ignoring the context for the Panda’s decline has been enacted, and this is enough. Similarly in the 1980s ‘the Whales’ were ‘saved’ by the ban on whaling. And since this ban was enacted the populations of some endangered whales have recovered to a certain extent. However the fact that the whales are ‘saved’ has now entered popular thought, so that the ongoing decline in ocean productivity from the effects of over-fishing and global warming, which will probably causes most species of cetaceans to go extinct this century, is ignored.

Now that global ecological footprint analyses have been carried out, however, we know the total of human activity in fact exceeds the ecological capacity of the planet. The WWF’s Living Planet Report, which I have been referring to throughout these blogs, estimates that we are using 150% of global biological capacity. The WWF is quite a conservative organisation and it is unlikely they would carry a report that vastly overestimated the ecological footprint of human activity (and this ball-park figure has been confirmed by other global analyses). Even if their researchers’ estimates are out by a long way, we are still over the threshold of sustainability; indeed even if the true figure was something like humans using 80-90% of the Earth’s resources then this would still not be good news, because we need to have an ecological buffer to protect ourselves from future stochastic events. Just as I suggested that a sustainable human population for the planet would not be the 2.3 billion that would use 100% of the Earth’s capacity living in first world conditions, but perhaps 1 billion living at that level, then I would suggest we need to be using no more than 50% of global biological capacity to make long-term human survival more likely.

The final reason that type of analysis isn’t more widely known is that it is too difficult to accept the consequences. The main solution I can think of to the news that we acting as we are is that we need urgently to lower our global population and return to a global society of smaller number of people living less unsustainably. However I suspect that most people would not easily be persuaded of this. I also think that if corporate interest (under the guise of popular resistance) can so successfully obfuscate the issue of anthropogenic global warming, which rests on a very simple observational ground, then I think that they would find it easy to take issue with ecological footprint analysis, which rests on a multiplicity of evidence (although the actual concept is just as intuitive as that for global warming).

Next week: Why the argument that we should simply get as rich as we can and to hell with the consequences is flawed.

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