Friday, September 27, 2013

A somewhat short-sighted view on planetary limits that purports to be long-sighted

This is an article by a biologist claiming that the current population of Earth, and the projected peak population that we will attain by mid-century, are not over-taxing the planet's natural carrying capacity.  In the most general sense, I agree that overpopulation is not the only nor even the prime factor destroying our planet (and thus its ability to sustain humans into the foreseeable future).  How we use resources is perhaps the major driver of planetary destruction.  That is to say that a large population where each person doesn't use that many natural resources often treads more lightly than a smaller population where each individual consumes a lot of resources for his or her daily life, so we can't well say that population in itself is the problem.  But in any case, having a lot of people on the planet, and especially when everyone is using more and more resources (think of a person who burns coal for electricity, uses mined minerals in his iPhone, eats meat three times a day, and burns gasoline in his car, as compared to his grandfather who had neither electricity nor iPhones nor car and ate meat a few times a week if at all), tends to tax the natural resource base.

At any rate, his central argument is "Many scientists believe that by transforming the earth’s natural landscapes, we are undermining the very life support systems that sustain us... Yet these claims demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of the ecology of human systems. The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistory, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered 'natural' ecosystems."  This is where I would argue that he is mistaken.  It is in fact the author, Erle Ellis, who doesn't have a sufficiently large scope in his understanding of ecology, either natural or human.  It is true that human-altered systems manage to sustain larger human populations by tilting natural biomass production towards things that we can eat.  But however we modify that biomass production, it is all ultimately dependent on a whole myriad of natural processes, many of which we don't even understand.

This is where his argument becomes short-sighted.  First off, while it is true that many of the details of our modern comforts and sufferings are attributable to the successes and failures of human systems, these human systems are always, without exception, ultimately dependent on natural processes that enable everything else.  The recent fright about massive bee die-off is a case in point.  Yes, modern agriculture is impressive in its ability to escape from some of the conditions that the natural world has imposed on farming for millennia.  Even pollination has become largely human-controlled through the management of beehives.  But we are running into difficult-to-explain and even-more-difficult-to-control problems with our bees, both wild and domesticated, which could threaten the entire basis of fruit orchard production.  By the same token, irrigation has made deserts bloom and saved many Western US farmers from the vagaries of weather.  But as the Ogalalla aquifer, a natural resource underlying much of the country, is overtaxed and drawn down, all the technology in the world will not save those farmers nor the consumers that depend on them.

An extension of this refusal to acknowledge our ultimate reliance on natural resources are Ellis's discussions of ancient human history.  The author refers repeatedly to the gradual intensification of human activity ever since the invention of agriculture, and the subsequent humanization of the natural world, as proof that our current rampant destruction of the natural environment is nothing new and isn't that serious.  His error here is manyfold.  While humans have always modified their environment, this modification was never as total and far-reaching as it is today, and the relicts of natural systems were usually sufficient to maintain certain vital functions on which the human system depended.  Humanity has always externalized some natural consequences of its actions, and concentrated the bounty of larger, wild areas into smaller, humanized environments.  But in the cases where humans did overtax their natural resource base, or were no longer able to externalize their negative consequences, entire civilizations faltered, and many people died as the population had to readjust to a different way of living.  We can see this in many cultures of the Middle East where population crashed after destructive farming practices left barren wastelands where fields had once flourished, or in the Yucatan jungles where the avarice of Maya temple-builders felled entire forests and left the general populace without fertile land and natural ecosystems with which to subsist, and certainly not with which to sustain a gleaming empire.  Even in these cases, the negative human consequences of ecocide and social collapse were mitigated, because there were always other places, other natural systems, to which humans could migrate or otherwise shift their dependence.  Middle Eastern settlement has shifted from place to place as local environmental conditions became unbearable, and the post-prosperity Maya spread out into the forest to live a more primitive life.  But when environmental destruction happens on a large enough scale, there is no other place to run to.  We don't have another forest or plain just beyond this planet that can absorb us when we become refugees of our own folly.

Few development experts have focused on overpopulation as a planetary problem for the past decade or two, because it has become clear that poverty (and its alleviation) do indeed depend mainly on social factors like technology, access to certain rights and resources, and distribution of wealth.  So in that sense I'd say the author of the article that inspired this blog post is arguing something that few are arguing against.  That said, Ellis doesn't merely argue that today's problems (human, environmental, and otherwise) are mainly caused and will likely have to be solved by human solutions.  No, he goes on to repeat that old technophilic trope that our wits will somehow get us out of our current problems, and thus that it is an error to recognize that humans remain ultimately dependent on natural systems.  In this sense, I wonder if he is an honest commentator, or one more scientist hired gun enviro-complacent recruited and hyped by private interests that run contrary to the preservation of the natural environment.  At any rate, here is another bit from him attempting to clarify his arguments (though to me it seems to dilute them and lose any focused central thesis he might have started with).

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