A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What We Must Do

The world’s events and processes, and their details, are compelling. It is detail that drives emotion, and emotion that drives our action: reason and logic can sometimes, hopefully, guide, but cannot sustain action. We need to know about events and to understand them; we need to act in response to them. This seems completely obvious. But, how are we to know? On what basis do we act? It is time to tell people what must be done – how life will be lived in one of our very likely futures.

There is a large and well informed collection of people who have concluded from the evidence gathered by biologists, chemists, earth scientists, atmospheric physicists and others that the biosphere of the earth is being changed in substantive ways, and very rapidly, by human action. Studies of population dynamics in species other than humans point to human population growth as an unprecedented aberration; adding to the mix that per capita consumption has increased by orders of magnitude, the total growth impact of humans is many millions of times more than the impact of pre-technology man. Combining these two lines of thinking, it is at the very least reasonable to consider the clear possibility that humans are, as ecologists and climate scientists have been saying for the past 50 years, blindly reducing biodiversity and rapidly changing both the energy balance and composition of land, air and ocean.

The major arguments against taking corrective measures to these universally recognized changes boil-down to, “We would have to live differently and we like it the way it is; thank you very much!” And, “The changes we would have to make are just too difficult.” The arguments denying the forces and processes of environmental impact are now made only by the poorly informed, fanatics and a few principled scientists who are still clinging to the few theoretical constructions that have not yet been disproved by unambiguous data (this last is as it should be) [1].

If the main body of scientists, philosophers, aware economists and politicians and the educated public are, in general, correct that human impact is changing the biosphere in ways detrimental to the earth’s present ecosystems and that as these changes impact the balance of stabilizing physical cycles and living things, so will humans be impacted by the loss of environmental free services. Economists are aware that very small changes in the amounts of energy and materials can have dramatic effects on confidence and expectation, that the consequent changes in availability and costs can collapse economies. There is a very good chance that the earth’s people, with the rest of the biosphere along for the ride, are heading toward a synergy of dramatic ecological and economic perturbation.

This is a possibility that we must not ignore. At the least we must, individually and collectively, consider what might be done to slow, stop and reverse the greatest damaging impacts that our species is fomenting. As a part of this consideration we, individually, should give thought to the likelihood that human beings, collectively, will not respond in even a palliative way, but will certainly respond in all the ways that history teaches us: with collective aid, empathy and compassion, all stirred together with hording, fear, xenophobia and war.

First a list of what would have to be done to really stop the damaging impacts. It makes sense to begin here; as when a person is sick or injured we look to see what help is needed rather than looking to our tool kit first to see what we might be most prepared to help with.

1) Lowered amounts of greenhouse gasses to levels that can be absorbed into the “planetary metabolism.”

2) Removal of emissions and other pollutants that cannot be “metabolized” in biophysical cycles.

3) Drastic reductions in release of sequestered heavy metals and naturally occurring system poisoning compounds by mining and other surface disturbing activities. This reduction would have to be to almost background rates.

4) Removal of most chemical species that are either foreign to, bio-mimics of or otherwise active on biological systems. This would include almost all pesticides, herbicides as well as many other common chemical compounds used as drugs, catalysts in plastic manufacture and others.

5) Stop the “industrial” changing of ecosystems with forest cutting, river damming and channeling, mountain top removal, many types and locations of roads. Add to the list various building, paving, waste sequestering, farming and other changes of established, adapted ecosystem uses of land and water spaces.

6) Reduce human per capita energy consumption to not much more than basic caloric intake from food.

7) Reduce human waste/pollution production to not much more than biological waste produced.

8) Reduce the total human ecological footprint to a level requiring no more than half an earth per year leaving fully half of the earth’s productivity for the other 10 to 100 million species that collectively create the stability of the biological part of the biosphere.

Before going into the extended consequences of some of these diagnosed requirements for the biosphere and constituent ecosystems to return to health, it needs to be clear: unless we do these things there is a very real chance that the biosphere with have a serious convulsive reaction from being so strongly put upon by damaging influences. If our conclusion is that we can’t or won’t correct them either in sufficient amounts or at all, then we will be saying that the price of our surviving and allowing the survival of the extant species and ecosystems is just too high. Now just how insane is that?

This a very challenging list. And it is no wonder that humans don’t want to admit its reality. But evidence is piling up at an exponential rate that these are the changes that confront us, assuming that we wish the earth, in something resembling its present assemblage, to sustain. Other questions have to be asked (and answered) before continuing: How much equity in hardship is expected or possible? Is allowing or manufacturing a great die-off of humans an option? Should humanity be attempting to maintain the largest possible population with low per capita consumption or a small controlled population with somewhat higher per capita consumption?

I am going to assume for this argument that there is humanity in humans; that reductions in consumption will be shared with some, though not perfect, equity; that population reduction will be accomplished more with education than with barbarity; that human adaptability and capacity will allow many, if not most, to make necessary changes once the way is demonstrated by a vanguard of people practiced in how to live successfully in the new conditions defined by the requirements for maintaining a healthy biosphere [2].

Begin with number 8. The only way for humanity to have an ecological footprint requiring ½ an earth’s productivity per year is for there to be quite a bit less than ½ of the present world population. Right now human beings alone are using about 1 ½ earth’s productivity per year and leaving nothing ‘on the books’ for the rest of life [3]. The evolution of ecosystems functions to make total life use one earth exactly. If humans use half an earth, then that should leave room for the rest of life to adjust and still supply adequate free services for a sustaining biosphere. The first step is to put the possibility and then the necessity in our heads to ponder.

There are a number of sources that discuss the difficulties of deciding the two primary variables determinative of population numbers: amount of per capita consumption (misleadingly called ‘life style’) and the percentage of total productivity that should be devoted to the human species. Depending on these and other variables, sustainable world population numbers have been suggested from .5 billion to 40 billion. I would select a sustainable population of about 1 billion living with an average per capita consumption rate of about 4 to 5 hectares productive capacity per year as a goal [4], but this a quite minor consideration for my purpose in this essay since we are presently a world of 6.8 billion with the richest millions of us using 20 to 100s, even 1000s. of hectares of capacity per capita while the poorest billions of us are using about 1 hectare of capacity per capita. It is a reasonable assumption that a human should have a minimum of about 2 hectares of productive capacity per year for health, safety and the possibility of fulfillment of basic human potential. The point is that over the next few decades many more people would have to die than are born. It is this fact and how it is accomplished that would dominate our experience.

The speed with which we must reduce population will be decided by how we treat the several other requirements for returning the biosphere to health. If the social expectation became the consumption associated with a 5 hectare ecological footprint and social sanctions were applied to those attempting to consume much over that amount and if real efforts were made toward the other 7 items above, it should be possible to reduce population without drastic measures. This would require the expectation of equity in consumption. Every other species of life on the earth functions on near equity of consumption; the consumption difference between the most successful and least successful living member of a species is seldom more than a few percentage points and almost never more than twice the average life sustaining amounts. This is a model we need to explore. (This essay will continue soon with part 2.)


[1] I include in ‘fanatics’ the corporate/business and the political deniers who in their short-sighted greed for money and power ignore the evidence and champion the present patterns of consumption and growth.

[2] Other assumptions are just as reasonable, perhaps more so, but if we assume that humans will turn on each other without stint when the going gets tough, the aftermath of 7 to 9 billion slugging it out with everything from stones to atomic weapons would be the extinction event that our best efforts would be aimed to avoid. But such a conclusion to our evolution and adaptations is not certain.

[3] Of course, the rest of life is using the earth’s productivity for their own sustaining. Many organisms are reducing their already modest ecological footprint due to habitat loss and thousands are going extinct. This means that the total use of the earth’s productivity by all organisms is greater than 1 ½ earths by the amount being used by all non-human organisms combined. The difficulty in determining this amount is that all other organisms other than humans are in an integrated relationship with their ecosystems in which they compensate their every taking of productivity services in ways that support overall productivity. If this were not so, life would have long ago disappeared from the earth.

[4] In a classic irony we are reducing the earth’s productive capacity every day that we don’t actively begin to compensate for what we take from and the changes we make in the biospheric space. It may be that .5 billion or less will be the sustainable number by the time we act.


Anonymous said...

Reduce the population you say... How would you accomplish this... Mass sterilization or simple withdrawing access to health care and let disease and accidents take their course.

James Keye said...

Consumption has to be reduced soon for a variety of reasons. Population reduction is the only reasonable way to reduce consumption since we are using the earth's resources at a rate higher than recover already.

I would hope that population reduction could be done proactively with education, especially the education of women. This would require a global commitment of effort and wealth that seems very unlikely. Failure of responsible methods insures the draconian ones.