"It's only after you lose everything that you're free to do anything." - Tyler Durden, Fight Club
I suppose this post will irritate some people. I didn't actually sit down at my laptop, just now, and think "I should write a post that will irritate the small group of readers who actually visit here."
But the truth is, I've come to believe, after waffling back and forth for a long time, that Earth's biosphere is totally finished. And I don't think this really is that novel of a thought. The truth is, our environment was probably inescapably doomed many years ago, when homo sapiens discovered that combustion of carbon could be converted into mechanical work. At that point, the peculiarly balanced biosphere of carbon dioxide fixing via photosynthesis and carbon dioxide respiration via metabolism suddenly was thrown in a decidedly one-directional explosion of black smog. Prior to that day, the worst a city of humans could do was burn a little wood in their stoves for warmth. Upon the advent of the boiler, we got this. And this. And eventually, this.
In any case, upon the discovery that mechanical work could be derived from the combustion of carbon, the world was forever doomed. I say doomed because no real significant progress is being made to slow the imbalance of carbon dioxide on this planet. I say doomed because carbon dioxide isn't even the worst thing our species is doing, and most of the other things get significantly less media exposure.
The way I see it, there are three main reasons why the current biosphere of this planet is inexorably moving towards finity.
1. Industrialized countries, especially the United States, are host to a peculiar version of humans that deny our species is capable of destroying the biosphere. They seem to argue that Earth is some pseudo-magical super-organism, and that the planet itself can correct any imbalance..."right the ship" if you will. Of course, these people are the ones that listened to Phil Cooney, as he doctored White House memos. They listen to Rush Limbaugh, who argued that Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger should be hospitalized for mental instability due to their professed concerns over the climate. These people were the first in line when any sort of environmental legislation comes about, ready to make fun of environmentalists like Al Gore, ready to suggest that because some data was fudged, it all must be, ready to pay lobbyists to convince Congresspeople that pro-climate legislation will almost certainly cost the United States at least one job. And one job is one too many to lose!
And these people are winning. They are the loudest, their audience is the vote-iest, and their numbers are growing. More Americans today acknowledge skepticism that global warming exists...at all.
A skeptic might tell me that America isn't the only Industrialized Nation out there, and that Europeans have been doing a much better job of cleaning their air...but thanks to the incredibly-well-publicized Climategate, people all across the globe are hopping on the bandwagon of the "Climate Change Doubtful."
As the biosphere accelerates away from stability, humans actually seem less likely to try to fix it, not more.
2. We're already totally destroying the air and developing nations are not even close to their potential yet. Let's compare per capita incomes of a few nations, their per person annual CO2 emissions, and their population.
What is really remarkable here isn't how high the U.S. CO2 output is, but rather how low everyone else is. Quick math would show that despite lower per capita CO2, China has a higher total CO2 output than the US, due to its much higher population. And there's the worry.
But what I want readers to note is that pre-industrial countries, i.e. India, Indonesia, Brazil, and nearly a hundred others, all have inconsequential CO2 output...for now. But as industrialization spreads, as it is into China in the last two decades, you can see how CO2 output starts to ramp up. If the Chinese were producing CO2 like their American cousins...you think we'd notice?
So the problem becomes not one of "what can we do?" but "who will be doing it?" because developing nations really don't have the capability to worry about CO2 emissions. Industrialization is an inherently dirty process; history seems to suggest that only at the top of the pile can you stop and dust your pants off. So it is one thing to suggest that Americans (and Europeans) clean up their act, but it is another to try to suggest that the entire human race do the same.
What I am getting at is this: while many humans on this planet might believe we can cut CO2 emissions and even save the biosphere...about 9 out of 10 humans currently alive are in no place to worry about it. But 10 out of 10 humans produce CO2.
3. While I write about CO2 emissions, another 1,000 acres of ocean becomes a lifeless, airless cesspool. Like I've written before...so many times...poisoning the air with CO2 isn't really a problem (little human food comes from the air) as is the poisoning of the seas. Humans, especially those in many parts of the developing world, rely on a diet containing fish.
I almost don't want to talk about the declining populations of fish in our oceans...or the difficulty in regulating fisheries due to the complexities of international waters. I don't feel like suggesting that in the last 10 years, a growing Western taste for sushi has been catastrophic to many species of fish from many different ecosystems. I almost can't describe how even as ocean species obviously dwindle towards extinction...our species just pretends to be doing "research" to continue extracting them from the ocean at an alarming rate.
No, what I want to point out is the accelerating spread of "ocean dead zones," which are basically huge swaths of normally fish-friendly tropical ocean that have become barren, lifeless wastes due to the algae sucking all the oxygen out of the water. "But algae night-time cellular respiration is a naturally-occurring phenomenon," some wikipedia-armed skeptic argues.
While algae are in fact real creatures, what isn't a naturally occurring phenomena is the dumping of thousands of tons of nitrogen-rich, fertilizer laden freshwater out into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Is it any coincidence that the place on Earth that has the most ocean dead zones is the exact location where all the silty runoff (from government subsidized farmers trying to produce "sustainable" biodiesel from corn) ends up? And if you look at this map and follow my logic from section two, the industrialized nations are the ones with lovely, growing dead zones. As India and China continue to develop (and other smaller nations as well) will ocean dead zones continue to spread...uh, duh.
So we've got this scenario, coming, and by scenario I mean "the way it IS going to be" where almost all the life in the oceans is concentrated in the regions where all the dead zones are going to occur. Oh, and try to tell a starving fisherman that he can't fish anymore, the ocean needs a century to recover. But then again, if he doesn't stop fishing now, he'll have to stop later...when his catch disappears into history.
The idea that the globe can support around 9.5 billion humans sustainably is a laugh. "All you have to do is give world leaders more engineers on their staffs," engineers claim. Somehow, they think that 9.5 billion people can be fed if we "solve world hunger politics and eliminate food waste." As in, they take "eat your veggies, kids in Africa are starving" literally. The way I see it, Earth can sustain as many people as our civilization can sustain prior to the Industrial Revolution. So maybe 1-1.5 billion. Of course, part of the reason the Industrial Revolution happened was that so many people in urbanized areas had a really unhealthy lifestyle, and the innovations of the time allowed them to achieve a healthier living which countered the unhealthy urban location/work they inhabited. Really, Earth cannot sustain urbanized humans at all, so perhaps a human population of around 500 million, scattered in small villages in temperate and coastal zones.
But I'd be kidding myself if I even tried to pretend like a human population reduction of 93% in the next century was plausible, or even desirable.
"So what is to be done?" Optimists who have written off my three points as "fixable" or "hyperbole" probably have a few ideas, like "increasing the efficiency of buildings will reduce carbon consumption for heating and cooling" and "solar panels" and "increased use of mass transit." More radical (yet equally futile) ideas like "nuclear fusion" and "humanity switching completely to a vegan diet" would certainly make a dent. But like I said before...try getting a starving fisherman to stop fishing...and to switch to tofu. Other people might argue with me that "gradual change" will save the day. Unfortunately for them, the current gradual change is a gradual decline in the number of animal species on Earth, a gradual decline in the quality of air on Earth, a gradual decline in the amount of available freshwater, a gradual decline in habitable zones, a gradual incline in the global average temperature, a gradual incline in the number of humans living in urban areas, a gradual incline in the amount of fertilizer and pesticide being used, a gradual incline in the number of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a gradual increase in the cases of plague and other "urban" diseases, a gradual incline in the size of deserts, a gradual decline in the size of aquifers, a gradual decrease in the quality of wild animal herds, and of course...a gradual increase in human population.
Others might argue that it is a moral imperative that developed nations enact sustainable living practices. To which I say "I dare you to send a bill to Congress proposing that."
No, friends, I just don't think we can fix it. I just don't think that by the time my daughter is old enough to write her own blog posts, that the world will even be headed in the right direction. Too much has to change, too soon.
Rather, I think we need to start coming to grips with the idea that the biosphere of our grandparents will simply not be the biosphere of our grandchildren. Our grandchildren will not get to eat fresh Pacific salmon. They will not have raw oysters on the half shell. Or at least not for a realistic price. They will probably consider water a much more serious utility to pay for than electricity. They will consider filet-o-fish, not filet mignon, an exquisite meaty delicacy. Our grandchildren will certainly pay a lot more for food.
Smart people in our grandchildren's generation will have invested in arable land, or in mountainous land that sees a lot of snowmelt. Lobbyists will increasingly work for corporate farmers, to secure water rights for irrigation. As the temperature continues to rise, and weather subsequently continues to become more extreme, food crops that can withstand higher temperature ranges will become more common. More sensitive crops, like fruit, will become less feasible to grow in many areas, and so will become very expensive. As more countries urbanize and develop, this will further push demand for fruits and vegetables up. I imagine my grandchildren will get most of their vitamins and minerals from multi-vitamins and supplements...if not from genetically-modified grain crops that produce additional nutrients artificially.
Pork (the de facto third option meat) will rise in popularity, both because it can be produced with less resources than beef, and also because GMO pork that produces Omega 3 fatty acids is already a reality.
National and State Parks will be increasingly crowded; as arid nation-states continue to develop, parks could very easily become the target of terrorists wanting to tarnish the Western Image, rather than cities.
Anyway, if you remember the quote at the top of this post, here's my point: we need to start accepting the idea that we screwed up the Earth beyond fixing. We need to start understanding that those who will deny change occurred at all are a significant enough force that those who want to prevent further change will be exhaustively defeated. We need to stop brainstorming solutions to the "sustainability problem" and start brainstorming solutions to the unsustainable reality. Can we really, especially in the divisive political climate found in every nation on Earth, expect the human race to radically change? No. But the Earth cannot tolerate gradual change. So we must instead do what humans do best: adapt. Accept the reality of Earth as a biosphere in transition to a new biosphere, and work hard to protect ourselves as the change occurs. Almost certainly, Earth in a thousand years will be significantly less habitable for most species than it is now. But that does not mean humans cannot continue to thrive.
Perhaps that is the deeper point I am driving towards here. I have given up hope that Earth, as we know it now or knew it a hundred years ago, can be recovered. But I still cling to the hope that our brilliant, adaptable species can survive the change. I'm sure it is going to be messy. I'm sure it won't to be fair. But I really believe, deep down, that humans possess the ability and the innate instinct to survive almost anything. Even themselves.