Ecology – Pushed to the Limit


The earth is like a living being. It’s forests and oceans are its lungs and it encompasses all living species, including human beings.  

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The Earth is our only home; it is where we ALL live. It’s where all our food, energy and oxygen comes from and where our waste goes to It is not an inert and disconnected entity, but our other half

From 1981 to 2005 the global economy more than doubled, but 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems were either degraded or over-used.

- United Nations Environment Programme October 20081

How long can you hold your breath? We can’t survive for more than a few minutes when deprived of oxygen. But how many of us know that between 50 and 85 percent of our oxygen is produced by photosynthesizing microscopic phytoplankton living in the ocean?

phytoplankton map seawifs project nasa gsfc geoeye inc

Figure 1a: Phytoplankton indicated by green areas (Source: SEAWIFS project / NASA-GSFC Geoeye Inc.)

plankton - smithsonian env research center

Figure 1b: Plankton (source: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

The problem with current economic systems is that we place high value only on those things which we consider rare and devalue that which is abundant and common – and nothing can be more common than the air we breath and the earth we walk upon. Don’t we all take the environment which envelops us all for granted? – the water, air, trees, oceans, plants and animals all around us? Yet, we CANNOT exist for even a few minutes without it. If we don’t take care of our environment, then it cannot take care of us.

Looking down from space, we can see a very thin gaseous layer covering the surface of our planet. This fragile thin layer is what makes life possible on this planet.

atmosphere

Figure 2: The thin layer of the earth’s atmosphere

This vulnerable life-protecting cover is like a single giant organ that covers the entire globe and in the age of the Anthropocene, the activity of 7 billion human beings is of such a scale that it is taking a measurable toll on its life-sustaining qualities.  We have abused it by treating it as a dumping ground rather than as the precious life giving enabler that it is. Each act of living in an unsustainable modern industrial society is a blow which further degrades it. It is as if modern life is programmed to destroy it. Each time we drive a car, fly in a plane or use electricity supplied by a dirty coal plant, we are dumping toxins into it that only serve to decrease its ability to sustain our lives. Modern life is species suicide.

The fact that allows each of us to continue contributing to our own demise is the perception that our share is so insignificant. We constantly choose convenience over the difficult knowledge of what we are doing and abdicate ourselves from any personal responsibility. As this giant organ covers the entire planet, the effects of human activity are distributed and spread out to areas where it has not been felt before.

We are subjecting our atmosphere, our oceans, our biosphere to continual and rapid degradation. Each of these are critical in supporting the well being of the other in a holistic system evolved over billions of years and even minor changes to one subsystem has important ramification to others. We are currently upsetting the balance of all these subsystems.

 Signs of the Anthropocene

We are in the age of the anthropocene, where human activity is transforming the planet on a planetary scale.

The images below show urban sprawl in cities around the world. Click on the image below or click here to go to a CNN interactive of before and after.

Figure 1: Urban sprawl in cities around the planet (Source: CNN)

How are we Doing So Far?…

Planet Earth is expected to shoot past the 400 ppm (parts per million) mark of CO2 in May 2013….on the way towards global catastrophe. Forests

  • We are losing forestland at a rate of 375 km2 each day or 10.4 million km2 each year
  • The world has already lost 80% of its original forests from 14.8 to 8.6 billion acres
  • 1.1 billion acres of tropical forest were cleared in just thirty years, between 1960 and 1990
  • Brazil lost 91.4 million acres of its tropical forest between 1980 and 1990. This is almost the total area of North and South Dakota combined
  • A single square mile is host to 50,000 insect species
  • 170,000 of the world’s 250,000 plant species reside in rain forests
  • At the world’s current rates, 5-10% of tropical forest species will become extinct every decade
  • more here on Forest Loss and agricultural expansion 

Fisheries

  • 75% of all the fish stocks in the world are already either: exploited, over-exploited or recovering. 27% of coral reefs have already been and 70% of Earth’s coral reefs will cease to exist within the next forty years. The world has lost half of its coastal wetlands, including mangrove swamps and salt marshes.
  • In the next 30 years, as many as one-fifth of all species alive today will become extinct. 23% of all mammals and 12% of all birds’ species were considered “threatened” in 2003.

Ecological Footprint

  • The planet’s biological productive capacity (biocapacity) is approximately 1.9 hectares (4.7 acres) per person
  • Globally, we use up to 2.2 hectares per person
  • Thus, we are living beyond the planet’s biocapacity to sustain us by 15%, a deficit of 0.3 hectares (1 acre) per person
  • This deficit is apparent, as natural ecosystems around us fail one by one – forest systems, oceans, fisheries, coral reefs, rivers, soil, water, global warming etc
  • The planet’s biocapacity is dependent on the global population and rate of consumption
  • High consumption depletes the planet’s carrying capacity
  • And estimates indicate that, if global population trends continue, the ecological footprint available to each person would be reduced to 1.5 hectares per person, by 2050
  • If consumption rates as high as the western countries are adopted by the majority of humanity, then we would need 4 to 5 more planets to sustain ourselves
  • The USA has the largest per capita footprint in the world – a footprint of 9.57 hectares
  • If everyone on the planet was to live like the average American, we would need 5 planets to sustain everyone
  • At a footprint of 9.57 hectares per person, our planet’s biocapacity would only be able support about 1.2 billion people – far less than the 6 billion we have on Earth
  • On the other end of the spectrum, if everyone lived like those residing in Bangladesh, where the average footprint is only 0.5 hectares, then the earth could support roughly 22 billion people

In Memory of Slain Environmentalists, Protectors of Mother Earth…

Global Witness released a report in June 19, 2012 entitled  A hidden crisis? Increase in killings as tensions rise over land and forests documenting the 711 deaths of people who spoke up against environmental injustice. These individuals were:

killed in targeted attacks and violent clashes as a result of protests, investigating or taking grievances against mining operations, logging operations, intensive agriculture including ranching, tree plantations, hydropower dams, urban development and poaching. Because information on such killings is fragmented and scarce, the number of deaths is very likely to be higher than we have been able to identify. This report also does not include the hundreds of thousands of victims of intimidation and violence linked to disputes over access to land and forest or killings from land and forest claims associated with oil and gas extraction In memory of the brave souls who have given their lives to protect Mother Earth, defending their human rights or the human rights of others related to the environment, specifically land and forests.

- Global Citizen, June 19, 2012

In memory of…
  
  

Figure 2: Global Deforestation 2012

Agriculture is the biggest contributor to deforestration. For more on the impacts of Agriculture go here

Figure 3: UNEP GEO-5 Global Environmental Outlook Summary for 2012. Click picture or here for the Executive Summary

Figure 4: Safe Planetary Boundaries

Systemic risk in the financial system can be remedied by the taxpayer, but no one will come to the rescue if the environment is destroyed. That it must be destroyed is close to an institutional imperative. Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave is the threat, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t, someone else will. This vicious cycle could well turn out to be lethal. To see how grave the danger is, simply have a look at the new Congress in the US, propelled into power by business funding and propaganda. Almost all are climate deniers. They have already begun to cut funding for measures that might mitigate environmental catastrophe. Worse, some are true believers; for example, the new head of a subcommittee on the environment who explained that global warming cannot be a problem because God promised Noah that there will not be another flood. – Noam Chomsky
The paradigm shift to sustainability will need to be supported by a shift from globalization to re-localization. With the end of the era of cheap supply of fossil fuels, global trade will be scaled back dramatically. Many products will need to be produced and consumed locally. Governments will need to shift their policies so that the majority of trade is local, within the country or with neighouring countries. Exports and Imports will be limited only to critical products. As William McDonough argues, in his Cradle-to-Cradle design methodology, stewardship must be designed into our entire industrial society. After any manufactured item has outlived its life, it must be completely biodegradable or reusuable so there is no negative impact on the environment. His company, MBDC is leading the way by providing a standardized Cradle to Cradle CertifiedCM program, a multi-attribute eco-label that assesses a product’s safety to humans and the environment and design for future life cycles. The program provides guidelines to help businesses implement the Cradle to Cradle framework, which focuses on using safe materials that can be disassembled and recycled as technical nutrients or composted as biological nutrients. Unlike single-attribute eco-labels, MBDC’s certification program takes a comprehensive approach to evaluating the design of a product and the practices employed in manufacturing the product. The materials and manufacturing practices of each product are assessed in five categories: Material Health, Material Reutilization, Renewable Energy Use, Water Stewardship, and Social Responsibility.