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On Environmentalism – Premise 1: Climate change isn’t the only problem

March 8, 2009
20090126-power-shift-09

Power Shift 2009 recently drew 12,000 people to urge the government to take action against climate change

I try to keep up with environmental issues. When I watch and read the news I look out for stories about pollution, energy, health issues, and so on. It should come as no surprise, then, that global warming comes up in the media I browse quite often—in my opinion too often. Amidst all of this media there are two quite distinct groups: there are those who agree with the theory of human-influenced climate change, who actively seek solutions for preventing, reversing, slowing, or stopping it; and there are those who disagree with the theory completely. The first group is relatively homogeneous in its support and suggestions, but the second group is more varied.

For both, however, global warming/climate change seems to be the biggest issue—for some even the only issue. Of course it is not; there are a great number of environmental issues that can affect us all, so these issues deserve examination and must be addressed. Somehow global warming receives all attention. Waste disposal gets attention when something goes wrong, but things would never go wrong if the waste was disposed of in a more responsible manner in the first place (and if there wasn’t so much of it). Air pollution also gets attention, but thanks to cleaner technology and also because of the increased attention on greenhouse gas emissions, rarely is anything but carbon dioxide addressed. Water pollution needs more attention. We hear about it on the news when something is wrong with people’s drinking water, but the dead-zones in the oceans and the collapse of fisheries world-wide are still relatively unknown. Landfills are a problem, but also something we seem to take for granted (many people in the “Third World” aren’t so lucky); nobody seems to think about them until plans are made to build one next door. The massive loss of species occurring right now at a rate faster than the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs is unknown to the vast majority. Because of this, biodiversity, a necessity to life as a concept and not as individual biological units, is being lessened every day. Across the world, from the boreal forests in North America to the Amazon in South, in Africa, in Russia, in northern Europe, the forests are being cut down. Most of these trees will produce paper, most of that which will be used briefly and then be thrown away (not recycled), and much of this logging is illegal.

We believe that true ecological sustainability may require a rethinking of our values as a society. Present assumptions about economics, development, and the place of human beings in the natural order must be reevaluated. If we are to achieve ecological sustainability, Nature can no longer be viewed only as a commodity; it must be seen as a partner and model in all human enterprise.1

linfen

What a beautiful place!

All of those issues, and more, are things people can and should talk about, but most don’t. It’s hard to identify exactly why they aren’t publicized better, but it doesn’t seem to me that any of them are things people have moral reasons for avoiding. The same cannot be said for all issues. It’s a lot harder to talk about how our way of life affects what goes on in the world. Our current president and our last president both said that the American people will not apologize for their way of life. Others throughout history have said similar things, even though the American way of life has a larger impact on the planet’s ecosystems than any other lifestyle. Harder to talk about yet: how increasing the standard of living—spreading our way of life—around the world will impact everything. Worst of all is talking about how many people are on the planet. This is a topic of great importance, but the discussion on population is filled with much fear and uncertainty. People cling to their morals and plug their ears. Oddly enough each step into taboo brings us closer to the heart of the issue. It’s a catch-22: nobody wants to talk about it, but without talking about the core of all ecological problems they can never be fixed.

Climate change due to human action has been explained more times than I would care to estimate and in much more depth than I’m capable of explaining it, but I’ll summarize:

When people go on, just living their lives, they constantly emit “greenhouse gases,” among them gases like nitrous oxide, methane, carbon monoxide, and the big one—by far the most abundant, though not the most damaging: carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere with almost everything we do: it comes from the smokestacks of industry, the tailpipes of every motorist’s car, and even our lungs. These greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere, and much like in a greenhouse—hence the name—energy from the sun is let in, but the heat cannot escape. The planet, therefore, warms, and we have global warming. Warming, however, is not all there is to it. Climate change is the most accurate phrase to describe what’s going on because the initial warming will trigger different weather events and patterns, possibly even plunging some areas of the world into a deep freeze.

We can harness the power of the sun in a thermal-nuclear bomb but many still believe we cannot possibly be effecting the climate of the earth.2

Many people agree with the theory, environmentalists perhaps most importantly. Others deny it, some because they don’t think the theory explains everything, and they take a completely scientific approach. Unfortunately people of this type seem to be the minority; the rest of the side (those who reject the theory) is made up, overwhelmingly, of experts in inflammatory rhetoric and going “Nuh uh!” and who, much of the time, hope to refute environmentalism as a whole by showing that this specific theory is bunk. Of course they can’t do this because climate change isn’t the only environmental issue, as I’ve already pointed out, and, as I’ll get to later on, it isn’t even the biggest. When a (most times) conservative politico, journalist, or even blogger speaks poorly of environmentalism and environmentalists, he/she needs to have something to say other than “Global warming is a scam.” To effectively disprove environmentalism one would need to demonstrate that each and every other environmental issue is of no consequence. This is a tall order, one I don’t think most would take on.

I’ve said that climate change receives too much because I feel it does. The reason climate change receives so much attention, I believe, is because a great number of people feel it to be “the greatest threat mankind has ever had to face.” I disagree with this sentiment completely. That does not mean that I disagree with the theory of anthropogenic climate change, and it does not mean that I’m going to try to invalidate it here. Al Bartlett, emeritus professor of physics and someone I would consider an expert to the mathematics of sustainability, often points out that “[i]f 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.” And there we have it. I assert that the number one ecological issue faced by life on Earth is carrying capacity overshoot.

We should stop adding massive pollution to the environment not because we know what it does but because we don’t know what it does.3

The effects of climate change are largely unknown; we can make educated guesses—even very educated guesses—but they are still guesses. It’s said that the ice caps will melt and that sea levels will rise. From what I can gather this is mostly an economic fear: coastal cities, many of which are economic centers, will suddenly be underwater. People will need to relocate, but this shouldn’t be a problem, since people are highly mobile and adaptable. But what’s the problem with the land you will be relocating to? It’s already claimed and occupied. This is a carrying capacity issue. It’s said that a huge number of species will be eradicated due to abrupt changes to their habitats; they won’t have time to adapt before their supplies of food, water, and shelter are changed forever. But what about the 200 species a day that are going extinct already, not from the effects of climate change, but from human activity? This, too, is a carrying capacity issue. Will erratic weather wipe us out? I doubt it. It might reduce our numbers, but it probably won’t take all of us. Why only some? Hm… carrying capacity maybe?

The real issue is carrying capacity overshoot, and virtually all environmental problems can be traced back to it. As opposed to the effects of climate change, the effects of overshoot are known, not just guessed at, and have been observed throughout history. The topic is well documented, particularly for non-human animals. Since humans have an ego problem and forget that they, too, are subject to the laws that govern all life, they find it easy to just assume that their own overshoot will not affect them in any negative way. Of course they are wrong, and have been wrong many times in the past: the Maya people and the people of Easter Island grew until they died; the people of Mesopotamia exhausted their land base, leaving the “Fertile Crescent” a desert; Europeans colonized America because Europe was, they thought, too densely populated—and America today is denser than Europe was when explorers first departed. There are a number of other examples from basically every corner of the world.

Increases in food production have long given us the illusion of an increase in carrying capacity; however, we’re beginning to see how wrong that assumption was. Like any other species, we gobbled up our food surpluses and our population grew. We found more and more inventive ways of increasing food surpluses, and with each increase was another increase in population. Food production across the globe is now beginning to decrease and people are beginning to ask, once again, How are we going to feed all of these people? The ugly truth of the matter is, we can’t—or at least we can’t forever. The number of people will eventually reduce dramatically. For the sake of all life on the planet—not just me, not just you—I hope we can transition to a sustainable lifestyle that is not in overshoot smoothly, without a sudden, cataclysmic collapse. I don’t want to have to wait for the pollution to get so bad that we can’t drink or breathe, or for the food supply to crash suddenly, but until carrying capacity overshoot is placed at the top of the list, where it belongs, the polluted future of scarcity is what very well may lie ahead.

Notes and Links

  1. Foundation For Deep Ecology at deepecology.org
  2. Mass (Media) Ignorance at quantumbuddha.wordpress.com
  3. Human Stupidity at benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 10, 2009 9:32 am

    Great article- truly ! I’m excited to see more lengthy articles on ecological economics and the systems that we take for granted.

  2. March 10, 2009 9:36 am

    Sorry for the typo in the previous comment.

    Redefining Progress created a Genuine Progress Indicator to compare with GDP if you’re interested http://www.rprogress.org/sustainability_indicators/genuine_progress_indicator.htm

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