It's Not Just Climate Change
by Glen Barry
Earth Meanders, 4/7/07
It's not just climate change that is killing the earth and your children's future
Climate change is the collapse of the global atmospheric system's processes and patterns and represents a massive environmental challenge to maintaining a habitable Earth. Yet climate is but one of several planetary scale ecological crises that threaten existence and are occurring now concurrently.
While climate change is so omnipresent that it interacts with and exacerbates virtually every other environmental crisis, it remains but one symptom of a much more malignant systematic breakdown in the global ecological system. Global heating could stop being a major issue tomorrow (it will not) and there are at least half a dozen ongoing ecological catastrophes that could still destroy the Earth and civilization such as it is.
It is critical in a post-natural ecological world that these global crises are understood to be connected and addressed holistically if there is to be even a sliver of hope of a human future. Threats to global security and sustainability now are primarily a result of failing ecosystems caused by ill-advised human procreation and development endeavors at the expense of natural ecosystems.
This essay will briefly review the other deadly ecological crises stalking the human race, identifying their stand alone potential to wreak havoc, along with their ability to in conjunction with climate change bring the whole biosphere and human and other complex life toppling down. Consider this a primer to non-climate related ecological threats to global security and sustainability.
Climate change is of course the 800 pound gorilla in the room, causing so many problems and exacerbating or somehow interacting with nearly all others. The atmosphere is in shambles after a few centuries of European inspired treatment as a waste dump. Humans and their gaseous wastes have dramatically changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the way it functions.
The incessant scientific warnings of climate change caused extinctions, floods and droughts, rising seas, climate refugees, etc.; if anything, is a major understatement of the potential for grave negative global change if we do not decarbonize the economy including pursuing renewable energy with vigor, dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions ASAP, and embrace energy conservation and efficiency as signs of great virtue.
Global heating and all the attendant changes in ocean currents, atmospheric circulation and temperature and precipitation patterns may well kill us off by itself. But sadly, climate change is not the only or perhaps even the major global ecological issue threatening global ecological sustainability, sustainable development, equity, justice and international security.
Again, we could end carbon emissions tomorrow and the Earth is still on a trajectory to ecologically overshoot its carrying capacity. The social movement to save the Earth and seek to enter an era of global ecological sustainability is a multi-front battle with overwhelmingly poor odds and terrifying consequences for failure. We will live with the Earth or die.
Where to start? How to characterize the disintegration of the Earth organism? How to capture the full range of emotional, scientific and ecological ways of knowing the end of being? How can a mere list of planetary system breakdowns capture the horror of mass starvation, death by dehydration, parents watching their children raped and taken into slavery as social order disintegrates along with the trees, air and water? It cannot.
Yet if there is to be any ecological hope, we must try to build upon the growing awareness of global warming, making it clear that there is a systematic failure of the global ecosystem occurring. The Meaning of Life is survival of our and other species, and we are failing in numerous regards.
The world faces a water crisis that while made worse by warming is the result of centuries of aquatic resource misuse. There are already one billion people without access to clean water, 3,000 children die a day from bad water and the whole crisis could be mostly fixed for $20 billion. Water scarcity shows all indications of being the world's first ecologically induced mass murderer, yet most have little inkling of how dear water is.
Surface waters have been treated as waste dumps as long as humans have settled. The state of the world's lakes and rivers is dismal, with biodiversity in such systems decimated, and humans clinging to the banks of water bodies that they continue to shit and pollute into. Diminishing wetlands and depletion of aquifers which they help replenish mean that in essence we are mining our fossil water supplies.
Toxics of every sort pervade freshwater. Climate change has meant cycles of flooding booms and drought busts in terms of water supply are more common. People have built in and developed regions they never should have given their arid nature. There is simply not enough water in the right places to meet all its present uses including agriculture while ensuring all humanity access to water as a basic human right. Much suffering and death lies ahead unless water conservation takes center stage.
Huge areas of the Earth's arable land have been converted from forests and other natural ecosystems to farms, industry and human settlements. Over 80% of the world's ancient forests have been lost and the rest are going now; at tremendous expense to the Earth's biodiversity patterns and terrestrial biogeochemical processes. Humanity uses the majority of the photosynthetic potential reaching the Earth. Terrestrial ecosystems which interact with the atmosphere, water and oceans have been so fragmented that the flows of energy and nutrients they facilitate are virtually gone.
Everywhere you look there are indications of sick land. Soils are eroding to such an extent that lack of fertile soil may in itself topple nations. Bee populations are dying with potentially huge implications for pollination. Amphibians are similarly slipping away, perhaps the frog in the coal mine. Toxics are bio-accumulating in virtually all organisms, with unknown impacts individually much less synergistically. Biodiversity is being lost before we even knew it existed, what its characteristics were, and its place in broader functioning of the Earth System.
There are simply more humans occupying the global land base by several times than it can carry. Farmland continues to deteriorate, while genetically altered materials threaten what natural ecosystems remain with genetic pollution and superweeds. Much despoiled land full of weedy invasive species will be hard pressed to regain productivity much less an abundance of complex interacting species any time soon. Desertification represents the extreme last step in the death of formerly productive terrestrial ecosystems.
Some two decades ago as I was in the Peace Corps in Papua New Guinea, a friend with much greater ocean experience than I, the land-locked mid-westerner, assured me that the oceans were so vast, and its life so bounteous and resilient that it could never be much reduced. Just as with the vast American forests, oceans which could never be depleted are now becoming so.
Two-thirds of fish stocks in the world's high seas are overfished, problematic for the vast numbers of humanity that depend upon wild caught fish as their primary source of protein. Bottom trawling fishers mine the ocean floor, scraping away marine habitats with the fish. Tremendous amounts of unintended fish species are caught and thrown away as by-catch. Climate change has changed the chemistry of the world's oceans, making it acidic; as well as changing ocean currents which spread heat around the globe.
The world's oceans are in their last death spasm and will soon become largely lifeless. It is occurring across all trophic levels. Populations of plankton and phytoplankton, the basis of oceanic food webs, are crashing. Top predators such as sharks are so persecuted that entire marine food webs are unraveling. Huge regions of formerly bounteous marine habitats fall victim to coral bleaching and are becoming toxic dead zones.
Security and Sustainability in a Post-Natural Ecological World
As an undergrad studying International Affairs/Political Science in the mid-1980s, we spent endless hours examining the Soviet and Cold War threats to "Global Security" (which mostly meant democratic capitalist's interests). I would imagine much is the same today with global terror. It was not that other threats were not acknowledged or imagined, but the focus was NOT generally a concern that environmental issues could threaten global or regional security - much less the sustainability and existence of the Earth and humanity.
Today global ecological collapse is THE threat to global security and sustainability. Humanity is poised upon the precipice of its and creation's demise, even though climate change and the whole raft of other inevitable negative results of too many people consuming too much while destroying too many ecosystems has not yet begun to reach their full potential for cataclysmic mayhem.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to remedial policy is how frighteningly difficult it is for persons of different generations or mindsets to accept that humanity and society's enterprises have become the Earth's dominant force. And they are systematically dismantling the Planet's life-giving ecosystem engines.
In our post-natural ecological world of tawdry ecosystems surrounded by and encroached upon by endless human sprawl, we have to understand that climate change and other planetary, ecological and social ills are humanity's greatest security threat. We are not talking a change in political regimes, the fall of a civilization, or arcane social policy; we are speaking of the end of the world.
Cataclysmic crisis calls for dramatic change. As a start, and only a start, stopping burning coal, ending ancient forest destruction and restoring natural forests, and having far fewer children to actually shrink the population are the three biggest societal things that could be done to save the planet. We will never live securely and sustainably given actions of lesser magnitude than those that seek to protect and restore the Earth System.
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