Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Posts Tagged ‘Sir David Attenborough

Domestic abuse on a planetary scale

with 14 comments

The UK Home Office is currently running a hard hitting campaign to highlight the common truth that both victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse cannot recognise (or admit) the nature of their situation.  The campaign is entitled, ‘If you could see yourself would you see abuse?’  Here is an example:

Is this where humanity is at today?  Are we in denial about what we have done – and are doing – to the planet?  I think many of us are.  Therefore:
– On Monday, I re-published an article written by the Executive Director of CIWEM, Nick Reeves, highlighting the modern delusion that perpetual growth can be sustainable.
– On Wednesday, I published a summary of a conversation with a technological optimist who seems to want to insist that human ingenuity means that resources are effectively infinite.
– Today, I want to bring things full-circle to consider the ultimate problem, the numbers of human beings on the planet.

How Many People Can Live On Planet Earth?
This was the title of a BBC Horizon programme first broadcast just over a year ago, narrated by Sir David Attenborough.  If you have never seen it – and even if you have – it is well worth watching.  However, at nearly an hour long, many may not watch it, so I will summarise it below.

In his own lifetime, octogenarian, Sir David has witnessed the human population of the planet triple.  It is now seven times what it was before the Industrial Revolution; and the UN predict that, unless ecological limits intervene to prevent it, there could be anything between 9 and 15 billion by the end of this Century.  A great deal depends on the education and emancipation of women:  Given the health and freedom to choose, well-educated women choose not to have big families.  Therefore, authoritarian government policies including enforced sterilisation and fines for having more than one child are not required.

However, all that is required to ensure that there will be over 9 billion humans by 2050 is for all the teenagers alive today to survive to be grandparents.  This is the problem; and the programme examines three reasons why it is a problem, namely: Water, Food, and Energy.

This is what the mismanagement of water resources looks like

Water
The programme points out that there is no more water on the Earth today than there was 4600 million years ago:  Most of it is salty and will kill you if you drink it; and most of the 1% that is fresh water is locked-up in glaciers and ice caps.  Already, today, 1 billion people do not have access to clean water.  Is it really sensible to suggest that water scarcity is not going to be a problem in the future when it is already one now?

Food
Growing food needs lots of water; a very significant proportion of available freshwater is already used for agriculture.  In the last 50 years land-locked surface water drainage systems like those that feed the Aral Sea (in the former USSR) and Lake Chad (in Africa) have been so over-exploited for agricultural purposes that, today, both bodies of water have almost disappeared (i.e. they are about 10% of their former size).

The mechanisation of farming and the widespread use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers (derived from hydrocarbons and phosphate) enabled massive increases in agricultural productivity and efficiency.  In the last half century alone, such technology has resulted in a fivefold increase in crop yields.  Surely, it is delusional to think this can continue indefinitely?  To borrow a phrase from the sphere of stock market traders, “past performance does not guarantee future returns on your investment”.  Talking of investment, many governments (like China) are already buying up land in other countries to feed their own people:  This has already produced the insane situation in which countries like Ethiopia (that cannot feed their own people) are being used by foreign governments to grow food that is then exported to be consumed by others.  Where is the justice in that?

Energy
More humans will use more energy and, unless each one of us starts using much less of it, there will soon not be enough to go around.  This is already a genuine concern to many governments around the World (although many do not admit it publicly).

Here in the UK, we face record high energy prices and increasing energy insecurity as a result of the failure of successive governments to plan ahead; and encourage as many people as possible to become energy-independent (by generating their own electricity from renewable sources).  Had they done this, we would not now need to consider implementing massive new power distribution networks that will disfigure our countryside far more than do any number of windfarms.   Therefore, with the possible exception of the long term implications of an ageing population, the failure to facilitate the decentralisation and decarbonisation of our power generation systems is probably the greatest political failure in modern Britain.

On a global scale, therefore, it is little wonder that Clive Hamilton has described the anthropogenic climate disruption that we now see unfolding around us as “a failure of modern politics”.

Conclusions
Towards the end of the programme, Sir David Attenborough cites the work of Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia.  It is Rees that first came up with the concept of ecological carrying capacity.  Attenborough summarises Rees’ work by saying that the Earth might be able to support 15 billion people if everyone was living like people in many poor countries today but only 1.5 billion if everyone was living like people do in the USA.  There are many who think even this is insanely optimistic:  This is because the greater the amount by which we humans exceed the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity, the greater the amount by which that capacity is ultimately reduced.  That being the case, the fact that the Earth supported 1 billion humans for tens of thousands of years prior to the Industrial Revolution may well now be irrelevant. http://www.greatchange.org/ophuls,ecological_scarcity.html

So, then, is it about time that we humans admitted that we have been guilty of domestic abuse on a planetary scale?  I for one think that it is.

Does that make me anti-human, anti-progress, anti-Western, or anti-Capitalist?  No, it does not:  As I said on Wednesday, it just makes me an environmental realist.  It just makes me someone who recognises that, unless we stop abusing our environment, we will eventually make life impossible for many millions if not billions of our fellow humans; and consign a significant proportion of all known life-forms to the pages of our natural history textbooks.  As one of my regular readers, Pendantry, would undoubtedly point out, I think we really are living in The Age of Stupid.

End ecocide in Europe (and the World)

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I am not sure what good it will do unless the whole World decides to stop self-harming as well but…

Image credit : End Ecocide in Europe

If you live in the EU please sign-up here to help stop ecocide in Europe (thanks Pendantry).

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One way to stop Ecocide in Europe would be to stop Hydraulic Fracturing from going ahead in your neighbourhood.  The best way to do this would be to form or join a local protest group:  See the Frack-Off website for details.

As a hydrogeologist who has spent many years working on Landfill sites, I am well acquainted with methane; and how it is better to burn it than to let it escape into the atmosphere.  Therefore, even if you discount all the immediate environmental hazards associated with fracking, you should be very concerned about the uncontrolled releases of methane that will occur if fracking becomes common practice.  As per my recent blog post, Stephen Leahy explains why here.

Meanwhile, on the subject of those immediate environmental risks, here is the inside story from someone who was, until comparatively recently, directly involved; environmental scientist Jessica Ernst (thanks Christine).

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Ultimately, of course, ecocide will only be avoided if we stop doing the things that are causing it.  And the main thing we are doing that is causing it – is growing in numbers in the absence of predators; consuming exponentially-increasing amounts of food and water; and producing exponentially-increasing amounts of waste.  This is no idle piece of misanthropic rhetoric – it is a cold hard fact.

Louise Gray published a short article on the Telegraph website yesterday, in which she cites Sir David Attenborough as having described humans as a plague on the Earth that need to be controlled by limiting population growth.  This has attracted an  an awful lot of attention and comment; most of it negative; and some of it very unpleasant.  What I find most astonishing is the inability of so many admittedly-self-selected people to appreciate the difference between ideology and science.   Furthermore, despite little evidence of scientific training in many of their comments, they seem content to accuse Attenborough of being a bad scientist; a bad person; and of peddling bad ideology.  All this reality inversion prompted this comment from me:

Absolutely stupendous amounts of Dunning-Kruger Effect in evidence here:  Despite the fact that only 49% of the population can be better-than-average at doing anything — and a far smaller percentage are likely to know what they are talking about in this instance — the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas is clearly the intellectual fortress to which the ideologically-prejudiced retreat when confronted with the scientific realities of Nature.

A few hours earlier I had found it necessary to respond to a particularly stupid assertion (that every human could be given 1000 square feet and there would still be room for plenty more) by saying this:

You need to look up the terms “ecological carrying capacity” and “overpopulation” in a reputable scientific dictionary.  The latter is dependent on the former – which is specific to local conditions – so even one person per square mile makes a desert overpopulated.

If you think that a seven-fold increase in the human population since the Industrial Revolution is not a problem – especially as we are running out of the “cheap” energy that facilitated it – you are picking a fight with basic biological science: Populations of any species are limited by food supply and by predation.  Humans have no predators but, having ignored (or disputed) the warnings for decades, we are now beginning to see people fighting over access to clean water and food; or at very least complaining about the price of life’s essentials – hence the Arab Spring.

The writing is very much on the wall.  We ignore it (or dispute the fact that it is there) at our peril.

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