My obsession with sustainability dates back to 1969, the year I started my doctoral dissertation on human carrying capacity. I became aware that there was real danger of overshooting that capacity and that if we consumed enough of our ecological capital, we risked a population crash and even possible human extinction. In the meantime, I warned, we could expect a long, bumpy slide into poverty as resources were used up. Colleagues accused me of sounding like Chicken Little.
Since then, our exploding consumption, while causing a modest (but temporary) reduction in poverty, has been confused with real prosperity despite global resources having been ravaged and inequality having ballooned to record heights. I was guilty of underestimating our greed and overestimating the time we had left. It wasn’t until this last decade that ecological footprint analysis confirmed we had already overshot Earth’s carrying capacity back in the early ‘70s.
The overshoot is now in its fifth decade and continues to gather momentum as the ultimate human ecological disaster: mass extinction, fisheries depletion, aquifer overpumping, nonrenewable natural resource depletion, soil erosion, glacial melting, ocean acidification, nuclear waste accumulation, more violent storms, rising sea levels, skyrocketing food prices, plummeting energy return on energy invested, growing numbers of permanently displaced environmental refugees, and growing global financial instability. Regrettably, 79 million net new people join the global mayhem each year, yet we don’t seem particularly concerned about it, assuming, I suppose, it will take care of itself. It will. No one will want to be around when that happens, though.
I am well aware, after nearly a half century of trying, that my sense of impending doom is not widely shared. The sun still shines, gas tanks are full of ethanol, fridges are fully stocked with thousand-mile salads and 3000-mile bananas, and we are warm and cozy. Few can even conceive of the possibility of an impending collapse of human civilization, but there are notable exceptions. My angst is shared by those who, like myself, have studied critical resources in detail and have come to similarly dark conclusions about our future possibilities: James Hansen, climate; Lester Brown, food production; Craig Dilworth, technology; Chris Clugston, nonrenewable natural resources; Paul Ehrlich, population; Richard Heinberg, fossil fuels; Julian Cribb, agriculture; Paul Farrell, global capital; and Jared Diamond, eco-social collapse, to name a few. Regrettably, putting lipstick on the pig, their warnings are too often couched in false hope – or as a friend of mine calls it – hopium. “We can avoid the breakdown of human civilization if only we will work together to (fill in the blank,) if we do it quickly enough.” One or two of them have likened our situation to being of the same urgency with which we mobilized for World War II. I’m afraid it is at least that compelling and even that may not prove enough.
In a recent analysis of the world’s nonrenewable natural resources (NNRs), author Chris Clugston found that, as of the economic collapse of 2008, 63 of our 89 most critical NNRs were globally scarce. In a private conversation, he believed that 2008 was the peak of human material well-being and he expected, after plateauing for maybe a decade, it would be sharply downhill from there. In 2012, he stated his belief that global economic/societal collapse was “possible within the next 5 years, probable within 15, and all but certain within 25.” The year 2017 struck an ominous note because that was the deadline the International Energy Agency gave us for substantially reducing carbon emissions or risking runaway global climate change. We’ve made virtually no progress since their warning. Quite the contrary. A highly fracked economy (no pun intended) has more than fully “recovered” from its 2008 meltdown and we’re off to the GDP races once again, setting new records for energy consumption every year. Though economists rejoice, climate scientists and ecologists shudder.
The Global Footprint Network has been refining their methods for several decades now. Their analyses are solid. When they say we are consuming 50% more than Earth’s annual ecological restorative capacity, you can be sure it’s at least that, and such profligacy has to have consequences. Their analysis shows that, since 1970, Earth’s overall restorative capacity has declined by almost half while the human population has more than doubled and overall resource consumption has increased even more. This suggests that, by 2060, it could all be over – no more reserve bio-capacity left anywhere. That’s when human death rates must necessarily skyrocket, if they haven’t already.
Deny-ers insist we’re doing just fine. As technologically gifted as we are and with God on our side wanting us all to be rich, we will work it out with little personal discomfort or sacrifice. The world’s plummeting ecological capacity puts the lie to such Pollyannish delusions. By the time reality sets in, our global ecological accounts will be all but empty and there won’t be anything left to restore.
The physical impossibility of continuing as we presently are for more than another few decades seems lost on the vast majority, despite the clarity and preponderance of all monitored trends now. If only a handful of us and practically no public officials really believe such a meltdown is coming, what can realistically be done to prepare for it? Can we avoid having to reduce our population? Couldn’t we all just live more sustainably? Fat chance. It isn’t reasonable to expect the third-world, now experiencing for the first time the goodies they have watched middle class Americans enjoy for generations, to voluntarily cut back on their newly acquired tastes for personal vehicles, computers, cell phones, meat, milk, and eggs. Nor, in truth, are formerly-middle-class Americans likely to give up too much more than they already have. People don’t commonly volunteer to live in deeper poverty, no matter how worthy the cause, having once experienced the benefits of wealth, privilege, and relative immunity from disease, crime, and violence. Typical half-hearted attempts at sustainable lifestyles in the western world won’t forestall global economic collapse anyway and they could even trigger it. The optimum time for funding alternative energy with a good stiff carbon tax was about twenty years ago.
Despite well-meaning attempts by many of my friends to live more sustainably, I am convinced the only equitable, humane, and effective way to pull our fat out of the fire at this late date, if it could be done at all, would be to immediately and dramatically reduce human fertility worldwide to half of replacement for the next three to four generations, somewhere between “one or none” and “one will do, stop at two.” All other attempts to live more sustainably would be – in fact are being – entirely undone by our huge and growing numbers. Such restraint would have to continue until we got our numbers WAY down, certainly below a billion, and possibly below half a billion depending on how long it took. That level of voluntary reproductive restraint, I don’t need to tell you, would be unprecedented in human history. Economic collapse is a far more probable resolution to our overshoot problem.
Realistically, most of us won’t survive global economic collapse. The vast majority of us have neither the skills nor the resources to survive in a purely local economy. Despite the earnest efforts of groups like Sierra Club and the Transitions network, it is unlikely that anything can now stop the global economy – and human civilization with it – from collapsing around our heads sometime in the next two to four decades. Most will apparently blithely continue to enjoy our final faux prosperity while it lasts. By the time the meltdown gets their full and undivided attention, it will be too late. The only question then will be how many, if any, will survive to start the insanity all over again? God forbid.
I take little comfort in being old enough to be cashing in my chips before the most serious stages of civilization’s decline and collapse. That doesn’t make it any better for my kids and grandkids. I feel we owe them a realistic assessment of the predicament we have left them. My heartfelt warning to them is that children born today are probably being sentenced, should they survive to adulthood, to living through the darkest period of human history. The decision to bring a child into the world today is – or should be – an excruciating one, a choice between small hope for a survivable future with starkly limited opportunities versus a far higher probability of a much more debased, dispiriting one.
I personally would choose not to reproduce now even if I could (my vasectomy has sealed that path.) If this past century represents the pinnacle of human ability to sustainably manage and equitably share our global commons, and if, despite our (apparently benumbed) big brains and digital libraries overflowing with the accumulated wisdom of all human history, we can aspire to no higher economic goals than ever-greater material consumption, constant growth, and perpetual crowding at the expense of all other species on this planet, including other humans, it might be better if human reproduction were put on the evolutionary back burner for a very long while. Only a radical pruning provides any hope for a post-human “founder” population sometime in the future with substantially more reverent attitudes toward Earth and more caring and social responsibility toward one another.
A final point – one can guarantee an argument merely by suggesting the need to stabilize, let alone reduce, human numbers. After worshiping at the altar of perpetual growth for 200 years, that’s pure sacrilege. One can elicit even greater anger by pointing out that what evolutionary success we have had to this point has been a result of inborn proto-socialist tendencies in all human beings. We are a modestly evolved social mammal, and socialist (small “s”) – or mutualistic – or cooperative – communities have been central to whatever evolutionary success we have enjoyed as a species. This fact suggests the best and possibly only way forward from here, at least for an insightful few. To wit:
If we do manage to pull back from the abyss, or if enough of us survive the plunge, it will surely be because small groups of us have formed mutualistic communities for the express purpose of helping one another eke out a largely local living from a depleted planet Earth. We will be painfully aware, by then, that a sustainable lifestyle must involve subordinating our reproductive inclinations to the long-term well-being, not just of our own community, but of the larger ecological community on which our well-being depends. We will certainly understand that a global ecosystem is a sacred trust that demands our respect and, yes, our reverence. Finally, we will need the humility to understand that we need a healthy global ecosystem far more than it needs us, and that we need to invest at least as much of our treasure in husbanding that priceless natural legacy as in pursuing our own material well-being.
Don Wilkin is a Human Ecologist and may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org