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Our feet are too big July 24, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Global warming, Politics, Society, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
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Here’s the (unedited) story I wrote for the July version of The Big Issue. What do you mean you haven’t bought your own copy yet!? You only have a few days left, so you’d better get out there right now and fork out 12 Rond, 6 of which will go straight to the vendor.

“We’re devouring the life-sustaining resources of the earth as if it were a bag of Doritos”, says US writer Phil Rockstroh. “The size of our denial is as enormous as the body of a Brachiosaurus and our response to the dire situation has been about as adequate as if we were using its walnut-sized brain”.

More and more of the 6.68 billion people who inhabited the planet at the beginning of 2007 are agreeing with Stanton’s assessment. Although global population growth rates have been declining from a peak of 2.19 percent in 1963, our numbers are still growing by 75 million people every year. Long-term future growth is difficult to predict, but most current estimates suggest that by 2050 there will be about 9 billion of us.

Overpopulation is just one of a number of interrelated problems, including global warming, excessive exploitation of scarce and non-renewable resources, deforestation, pollution and soil degradation, which are putting the earth under increasing pressure.

Almost 15 million hectares of tropical forest are being cut down every year and industrialised fishing has reduced the total mass of large fish in the oceans by 90 percent. By 2100, global average temperatures could increase by 2 to 11 degrees and sea levels could rise by 60 centimetres. We can expect disappearing glaciers, severe droughts, epic floods, widespread water and oil shortages, famine, disease and the extinction of a quarter of all plant and land animal species.

Until now, a relative minority, living in the developed world, has been at the forefront of unsustainable living, out-consuming and out-polluting the rest of the world. In the near future, aggressively industrialising and immensely populous developing nations, led by India and China, are set to make similarly damaging contributions and some environmentalists are predicting very dire consequences.

According to Derrick Jensen, a popular US writer and public speaker, “the only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age”. Jensen and his fellow primitivists believe that humanity took a fatally wrong turn thousands of years ago with the invention of agriculture and that the human population has long exceeded the earth’s “carrying capacity”. According to them, industrial civilisation is inherently unsustainable and will collapse spectacularly sooner rather than later, resulting in a massive population “die-off”.

It’s not only people from the radical fringes of society that envisage such doomsday scenarios. James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, who warns of the fact that global oil production is about to reach its maximum, and James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis, who believes that global warming is the most pressing issue, talk of millions or even billions of people dying unless drastic measures are taken worldwide.

Richard Embleton, another oil-theorist, agrees that “regardless of what we call it, “die-off” is a distinct and serious possibility”, but believes that the process will take decades or even centuries.

Critics point out that such disastrous predictions have been made before without actually turning into reality. In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously forecast a giant population crash for the middle of the 19th century, and in 1968, Paul R. Ehrlich warned that a worldwide food shortage in the 1970’s would lead to the death of hundreds of millions of people.

Some futurists are somewhat less pessimistic. Thomas Homer-Dixon, who wrote The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, expects economic, political, social and technological crises and breakdowns, but not necessarily a total collapse. He argues that such crises may in fact provide the impetus for far-reaching change. Michael Wesley, Professor of International Relations at Griffith University in Australia, agrees: “It’s much more likely that environmental problems and resource scarcity will promote a co-operative approach between nation states”.

Clearly, predictions about what may or may not happen in coming years and decades are ultimately flawed. What is equally obvious, however, is that a monumental shift in behaviour and mindset is required from individuals as well as society as a whole.

Potential remedies for our environmental predicament are as varied as the forecasts, ranging from calls for simpler, less resource-intense lifestyles and smaller, more sustainable and self-sufficient communities (for those who can’t quite get their head around a return to the hunter-gather clans of the Palaeolithic era), to energy-saving light bulbs, solar water heaters and ambitious proposals for space mirrors to cool the earth and the colonisation of Mars.

In the opinion of Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, successful societies practice long-term thinking and are willing and flexible enough to change their values when they no longer serve them. The question is: will we as a civilisation respond positively to the challenge implicit in Diamond’s assessment, or will we (my horribly mixed metaphor notwithstanding) behave like dim-witted dinosaurs, helplessly caught in the headlights of an oncoming global disaster?

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