Protecting the environment isn’t a “liberal” idea; it’s everybody’s business. Liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, the environment provides life support for us all, and if we fail to recognize that, we are truly doomed as a civilization.
To help explain this, I’ve put together a simple thought experiment. It begins with three undeniable truths about humans and the environment:
Truth #1 – The Earth’s resources are limited.
This should be self-evidence, but some people still don’t get it. The Earth’s resources — oil, forests, water, energy, and so on — are finite. They do not exist in infinite quantities. If they did, they would obviously be larger than the Earth itself (and would, in fact, fill the universe). But they don’t fill the universe. They are contained within the boundaries of planet Earth, and therefore they are limited.
Of course, many of Earth’s resources can be either regenerated or recycled, but that only happens over time — usually a long time. In the case of oil, it’s hundreds of thousands of years. For fossil water it’s much the same. The rate at which modern human civilization is using up these resources is orders of magnitude faster than the rate at which they can be naturally regenerated. This holds true for oil, water, topsoil, forests and more.
Truth #2 – Each person living in modern civilization consumes some amount of the Earth’s limited resources.
This should also be self-evident: People consume resources. When you drive your car, you’re obviously consuming limited natural resources. When you buy a car, you’re consuming many other natural resources (all the elements that went into making a car), too. This is true even when you buy a solar panel.
Every time you turn on a light switch, or open a package of food, or swallow a piece of food, you are consuming some amount of the Earth’s limited resources.
The sum of your consumption is called your “ecological footprint,” and your ecological footprint is much larger than the immediate space you might call your home. The things you consume in your home require the resources of a much larger area far outside your home.
A human child born in America today, for example, will consume 45,000 pounds of metal in their lifetime (through the products they purchase). That’s 45,000 pounds of metal that must be mined, processed, transported and manufactured into consumable products, and metal mining is a very dirty business, by the way, even if that metal goes into making clean energy devices such as wind turbines.
Truth #3 – Humans are altering the environment
You can’t argue with this (although some people ridiculously try). Human activity is altering our environment in a huge way, from the massive deforestation of the planet to the release of gases into the atmosphere. We’ve poisoned the rivers, destroyed natural habitat, polluted the oceans (Gulf of Mexico, anyone?) and altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere.These are undeniable scientific truths. No sane person can reasonably argue that human beings have not radically altered the environment of our planet over the last 200 years.
If you visited North America 200 years ago, for example, you wouldn’t even have recognized it as the same continent dominated by human beings today. A few hundred years ago, North America was teeming with life, with huge old-growth forests, pristine rivers and abundant plains. Today it is relatively dead, having been over-developed, over-paved and over-population to a point so extreme that our ancestors would largely consider it “dead”.
Truth #4 – Humans really like to have babies
This is also self-evidence: People like to procreate. Every family, it seems, wants children, and those children want their own children, too. In general, human beings want to procreate without limitation. This, of course, leads to an explosion in population growth. We’ve seen this explosion over the last two hundred years as the Earth’s population has grown from less than one billion people in 1800 to nearly seven billion today.
Human beings do not consider their impact on the global population when they procreate. The decision to have children is made privately, selfishly, without regard to the impact on the planet. One more child seems like no big deal from the point of view of a couple that wishes for another son or daughter, but multiplied by billions, these decisions to procreate en masse lead to overpopulation, which leads to over-consumption of the planet’s limited resources.
The Easter Island effect
Now let’s work our little thought experiment. Given the four simple truths described above, it is only a matter of time before the continued procreation of human beings collides with the reality of limited resources, causing a crisis of unsustainability.
At some point, in other words, the continued expansion of human beings will destroy so much of the natural environment (and use so many natural resources) that there will not be enough resources available to support the continuation of the existing population.
I call this the “Easter Island effect,” in reference to the way in which the natives of Easter Island chopped down all their trees to build ever-larger monuments to themselves, and in doing so they destroyed their entire ecosystem and soon perished. The entire human civilization is now pulling an Easter Island on a global scale.
Our two choices
Given that the unlimited expansion of the human population must inevitably use up key resources required to sustain human life, it stands to reason that there are only two choices for how we human beings can choose to deal with the situation:
Choice #1 – We can acknowledge the ecological impact of human beings on our planet and make conscious choices to live within the bounds of sustainable balance with our planet (i.e. keeping our population size relatively stable by limiting runaway population growth, reducing our ecological footprint, respecting the natural environment that supports life on our planet, etc.).
Choice #2 – We can continue our mindless population expansion and resource exploitation while ignoring any long-term consequences. This is the definition of stupidity, and yet it is precisely the path that modern human civilization is now choosing. It also seems to be the chosen path of “anti-environmentalists” — people who resist the idea that we need to protect the environment at all.
Sadly, human civilization has decided to go with choice #2. I believe the future of modern civilization is now set. Population expansion and resource depletion will soon collide with the limitations of our planet and result in a cataclysmic collapse of our civilization. We human beings are pulling off the Easter Island scenario, but with more than just trees: We’re doing it with oil, water, soil and habitat. We are destroying the only planet that can keep us alive, and there now appears to be no stopping this self-destructive tendency of the human species.
I have personally seen no evidence that the current human species is capable of long-term, sustainable balance with any ecosystem. It lacks the intelligent foresight necessary to anticipate such outcomes and make adjustments well in advance of them coming true. Some people among us even argue against environmental protection, not realizing they are essentially arguing for their own self-destruction.
Other who are more thoughtful argue only against the fear of a world government enforcing environmental regulations at the expense of losing personal freedoms. This is a legitimate concern, and I happen to agree with these concerns. “Protecting the environment” can all too easily become a slippery mantra for world domination over individual freedom. The best way to avoid losing freedom while saving our environment is through education of the public that urges people to make better decisions without turning them into criminals if they fail to make those decisions.
Can humanity save itself?
Saving human civilization from its own ignorance is no easy task. It will require intelligent, forward-thinking business leaders who see the long-term picture and who genuinely care about the future. Yet sadly, there is no such thing. Business leaders are, by definition, focused on the next fiscal quarter, not the next century. They will ALWAYS mortgage our collective future to increase their immediate profits.
There is almost no such thing as a successful business person who is simultaneously an effective steward of our planet’s natural resources. The simple act of generating more business — in any business — always results in more consumption because our entire economic system is based on consumption. It’s even true about internet businesses, by the way. Every bit and byte you consume over the internet has an indirect environmental cost due to the electricity consumption of the CPUs delivering that content to you as well as, more importantly, the enormous cooling demand in data centers that spend fortunes just cooling all the computers running there.
The fact that our economic activity is fundamentally based on consumption rather than conservation demonstrates why humanity is doomed to destroy itself. After seeing the failure of so many environmental summits, I’m convinced of it. I don’t see any possible way that human beings will suddenly gain the intelligence and foresight necessary to live in balance with our natural world. Not without a crisis to teach everybody a few lessons, anyway. But even the Gulf Coast disaster isn’t fundamentally changing the way business leaders think about consumption. They think it’s just an “oil problem” not a global problem with the business models that drive our world into a self-destructive cycle of mindless consumption.
What may be coming in the next few years
When the population continues to expand and most of the world’s resources are wiped out, the human population will plunge into a time of great darkness. The loss of life will be immense — perhaps as much as a 90% reduction in the planetary population. Ecosystems will fail, crops will fail and civilization itself will be brought to its knees. It won’t take much to crash the current global system. Once the power grid is down for as little as 5 days, there’s almost no bringing civilization back — at least not modern civilization as we know it.
Once the population is drastically reduced, the natural environment will have a chance to recover. Plants and animals will re-populate areas once lost to high-density human populations. And once the abundance returns, humans will again have the abundance necessary to re-populate, too. Hopefully future generations of human beings will learn from our present mistakes and not pursue the same path we did — the path of endless consumption of the planet’s resources to the point of destruction.
On a long time scale, you will likely see human population rising, then crashing, then rising again from the ashes of a collapsed civilization. This is the ebb and flow of the future of life on Earth. You might even call it a “natural” cycle of human population expansion, then collapse, followed by expansion and yet more collapse. It’s very similar to the way a virus invades a human body and multiplies until it kills the very host that once gave it life. In terms of big-picture behavior, humans are much like a virus on our planet.
This cycle of destruction and rebirth could be balanced out, though, by a sufficiently intelligent species gifted with sufficient foresight to see what’s coming and make early adjustments to avoid the population collapse. Our current human species, sadly, is not sufficiently intelligent to do so.
The corporate greed machine
I hadn’t really accepted this outcome as reality until just recently. I’ve always maintained a more optimistic attitude, thinking that we could find innovative ways to reverse climate change, reduce consumption, educate people and invent new technologies to clean up the planetary messes we’ve made. But I can now see that we’re up against corporate monsters that are relentlessly pushing for our collective destruction.
They’re destroying our seeds and genes (for profit, no less), our soils, rivers, oceans and lands. They’re corrupting our minds with pro-business propaganda and our bodies with their chemicals poisons. And they absolutely will not stop until every last exploitable resource on the planet has been used up and sold to a consumer. When our world is dominated by Monsanto, DuPont, oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, weapons manufacturers, junk food giants and chemical companies, there’s not much hope for meaningful change that could set humanity on a new course of conservation and protection of life.
Sadly, there is no stopping the great corporate greed machine. It will keep rolling forward, aiming for more growth, more consumption and more exploitation until the very last drop of oil is squeezed out of the tar sands and every last tree is slashed to make room for cattle ranching.
A profit-based economic model cannot coexist with environmental protection because the two concepts are opposites. Big Business depends on endless growth, expansion, exploitation and consumption. But the environment can only be protected by consuming less. And that’s not even in the vocabulary of today’s business executives. The idea of consuming less is the antithesis of corporate profit and expansion.
Have you ever seen a Coca-Cola ad that urged you to “drink less Coke”?
That’s why as long as corporations rule our world (and make no mistake, they already do), there is no saving the environment. Ergo, there is no saving ourselves from a complete civilization blowout that will eventually see the near-destruction of our natural world… with the collapse of the human population to soon follow.
The thought experiment – SimEarth
Imagine you’re playing a software game called SimEarth. (Such a game actually exists, I believe, but I’m not referring to any real game. This is a fictional exercise.)
In this SimEarth game, you get 1 point for every year that one human being is alive on planet Earth. The simulation runs for 1000 years and begins in the year we know as 1500 A.D.
In the game, just as in the real world, the survival of human beings depends on the people having access to food, water, shelter, safety and other essentials. When the game begins, you have a blank slate SimEarth planet with enormous untapped resources of fossil oil, fossil water, old-growth forests, abundant ocean life and incredible biodiversity on land and sea. The human population is relatively small, perhaps only a few million people.
As the game progresses and the years tick by, you start earning more and more points by allowing the human population to multiply. At one point, you turn on the invention of the combustion engine coupled with the discovery of oil, and then things really begin to accelerate: Food production suddenly multiplies, making food resources incredibly cheap and abundant, leading to a population explosion.
As the points keep racking up, you watch as your SimEarth world becomes increasingly taken over by humans. The old growth forests are cut down and replaced with farm lands and cattle ranches. The once-abundant populations of wild animals are replaced by concrete highways and housing developments. Fossil water supplies drop sharply and oil drilling rigs pump out a heavy portion of the planet’s remaining oil resources.
Your points are really accelerating now as you watch the human population blow past four billion people, then five, and then six. At that point, on-screen statistics begin to flash red, warning you that world’s oil, water, food, soil and ocean health are all reaching critical levels of deficiency. Although you’re earning big points from all the human activity, the environmental cost of supporting all those people is now threatening the ecological stability of the planetary ecosystem.
It is at this point you realize that, to beat the high score, you need to keep your human population alive at some level for the next 500 years, and yet the planet’s resources are running out, reaching depletion in just 50 years or less. What should you do?
You decide to just watch and see what happens. With your eyes fixated on the screen, the years tick past. Twenty-five years further into the simulation, the oil runs out, thrusting your simulated societies into an energy crisis. Without cheap, plentiful oil, food production grinds to a halt. Mass starvation takes hold in just one year, leading to disease and the unleashing of a global pandemic. Over the next five years, the human population suffers a massive, catastrophic die-off, plummeting to less than a billion people. Your once-awesome score now looks pitiful: Human civilization crashed and you’ll never win the simulation now. Game over.
This is the outcome facing modern human civilization… and it’s no game. The possibility is very real. Unless something drastic is done to find a balance between human consumption (which is directly tied to population) and the natural environment that supports us all, our population is going to crash, too. It is a simple matter of biology.
The population problem no one dares speak of
There’s no way around this sobering thought: Population is the problem. There are too many people consuming too much stuff. It cannot be sustained — especially not at the very high rates of consumption our western world has grown used to.
To solve this dilemma, you can either reduce the population over time (through one-child policies, for example) or reduce consumption (through a variety of means), but you’ve got to do something. In no way do I support the idea of a one-child policy, by the way. I don’t support government intervention in our private lives, and I don’t support governments mandating personal limits on our carbon consumption. But then again, if something radical doesn’t change, it’s fairly obvious that the human population is simply going to keep expanding until key resources are all dried up. And that, of course, will result in a devastating crash of the human population.
So there you have it: The price for our expansionistic, high-consumption lifestyles today is eventually going to be the blowout of human civilization in the future, followed by a sharp population crash. The only thing that can really stop it is forced government population control, a global pandemic, or some other widespread disaster that kills off a huge percentage of the world population. None of these seem particularly desirable.
Or, perhaps, the world could be saved with a sudden burst of global education that teaches people to think about the long-term consequences of their own actions, but I’m not betting on that happening anytime soon. Even really smart people in first-world nations still burn up oil and use up resources as if there were no consequences.
Education alone cannot save human civilization from destroying itself. Smart people are not necessarily ecologically-aware people. In fact, you could argue that the most highly-educated people on the planet are precisely those who are consuming the greatest natural resources. (Poor, uneducated populations don’t consume much for the simple reason that they cannot afford to.)
There’s no way around it: We are on a track headed straight for our own destruction. A planet-wide collapse is coming sometime this century.
If you think I’m wrong, I’d like to hear from you. I hope I’m wrong, and I’m looking for a reasoned argument that can offer a solution to our population problem — preferably without resorting to government-run population control initiatives or forced one-child policies.
Seriously: How can the human species now save itself from its own destruction? Even free energy technologies aren’t the answer, as they don’t solve the problems of running out of fossil water, topsoil, natural habitat or rare earth metals used in industrial processes. Free energy will only cause the human population to explode even more rapidly, worsening the current problem of over-population.
I challenge every person reading this to do the math. Run the numbers yourself. Look at the limited resources on our planet and compare them with the per-capita consumption facts associated with modern-day consumers. Then consider what happens when the population keeps expanding… and add to that the desire for poorer nations to “achieve” the consumption rates of first-world nations like the USA.
If you do the math, you’ll quickly see it doesn’t add up. The projects all come to a screeching halt in the next hundred years (if not sooner). The population growth rates still under way lead to a literal dead end, given current rates of consumption.
This may not be a popular topic to write about. Most people prefer to pretend this problem doesn’t exist (much like the U.S. national debt). But it is, in reality, the single largest problem facing the future of human civilization: How do we find a way to live in balance with our natural environment while sustaining a steady population… without turning our world into a population control police state?
I personally cannot think of any acceptable solution to this problem that does not involve some sort of massive population control measure… and that solution is, itself, unthinkable.