FRIDAY, APRIL 11, 2008
Coming Ecological Collapse: Failing Ecosystems the Mother of All Bubbles
The converging mortgage, financial, food, fuel and climate crises are all symptoms of a massive global ecological bubble
Ecological overshoot whereby humanity exceeds the Earth’s carrying capacity is the mother of all “bubbles”. Within the current sub-prime mortgage and financial bubbles, and food and energy price increases, we are witnessing the logical and inevitable economic consequences of over-population, resource scarcity, inequitable and unreasonable consumption, and unsustainable economic growth. Growth and livelihoods based upon unreasonable presumptions of continued resource outputs from dwindling ecosystems are a dangerous, unprecedented “ecological bubble” that threatens civilization and mass apocalyptic death.
The global growth machine is seizing up because it is hitting ecological limits, and as a result of its own greed. Clearly the addition of a billion more people every decade and a half, physical limits upon arable land and fossil fuels — as well as exceeding the atmosphere’s waste absorption capacity and minimum amount of intact terrestrial ecosystems necessary to power the biosphere — are together severely negatively impacting economies and individual’s well-being.
The economic slowdown is painful for many families. I personally share economic anxieties associated with the mortgage bubble popping. We are all finding it harder to pay the mortgage, buy food and fuel, and enjoy some special luxuries. Yet all bubbles burst — be they historically for tulips in Holland or property in Japan — and you deal with the underlying causes or you suffer further. I believe strongly that there should be no bailout of high flying bankers, home flippers, or people that took out mortgages they cannot afford. Wall Street fat cats that created the mortgage backed security Ponzi scheme should go to jail.
Endless Growth Impossible in a Finite World
Yet this economic cooling may also offer a welcome respite to reconsider the growth at any cost madness devouring the Earth’s life giving ecosystems, and which threatens to impoverish and kill many or all of us. It is essential that we look at the far deeper ecological roots to this economic crisis, and their foretelling of related environmental bubbles. The ongoing biofuel scam, using first food and soon trees as fuel to supposedly avert climate change, shows the potential for ill-conceived climate change responses to increase land pressures, food prices and negatively impact economies. These sorts of macro ecological/economic connections are examined further here.
Humans seem to always want more, even when there is none, or achieving it diminishes the future. A colleague recently pointed out to me that there may be a genetic component, expressed sub-consciously, to humanity’s expansionist bent that constantly seeks more, bigger and better human works. And that there are societal memes that foster and promote this myth that endless growth and expansion in population, consumption and resource use at the expense of ecological habitats is possible. For a few hundred years the western economic model of markets and growth that builds upon these human proclivities has created wealth while wreaking havoc upon peoples, societies and ecosystems.
Growth in economies, human populations and resources accessed by destroying ecosystems is a disease upon the living Earth. The malignant growth machine turns ecosystems into resources and then into financial investment papers and consumption. A year later the consumer products are in the landfill, the paper wealth may be further over-priced or just scrap paper, and there are both fewer resources and ecosystems — but always more people. The ability to live well based upon long-term steady-state interdependence with intact, healthy ecosystems and their natural capital is lost forever.
The Mortgage Bubble: Destroying Our Habitat to Build Homes
The mortgage bubble is a case is point. In America and many other over-developed countries the size of new homes grew and amenities seemed to know few limits. Each had to have restaurant quality kitchens, hardwood floors, multi-car garages, track lighting, and other seemingly endless conspicuous consumption to denote social class. Each represents the unsustainable consumption of resources from ecosystems, and requires continued intensive inputs to maintain. Most such development requires extensive automobile travel, sprawl into native ecosystems, and energy that will not be there in the future.
These extravagant McMansions are the epitome of everything wrong with “modern” society, industrial capitalism, and demonstrates our detachment from Earth, whose habitats are our true home. This more at any expense economy that knows no limits and has no concept of enough is responsible for our current economic downturn and is literally killing our future economic and ecological prospects. Can those that believe in markets and capitalism not entertain any limits upon the size and resource use intensity of our homes? Does anyone see the connection between more people using more resources to build large homes, leading to less farmland and overuse of limited energy, resulting in food and energy price hikes?
In the mortgage bubble, we are seeing the first signs of many wholly ecological bubbles to come. The world is not only at peak oil, but well past peak water, land, climate, oceans, food and energy in general. Rising food prices are the front edge of the food bubble — a result of over-population, climate change, water shortages and land scarcity. The climate bubble has already begun to burst –- it is too late to return to the relatively stable set of climate patterns with which we evolved — but failure to stabilize emissions as early as possible will bring far worse. And perhaps most ominously, and by extension of the food and climate bubbles, we are facing a deadly water bubble that is already disrupting societies and may prove insurmountable.
Ecological Bubbles and a New Global Dream
These ecological bubbles are partly responsible for the current economic downturn, and unless addressed now, they are certainly going to soon fully burst with calamitous impacts in their own right upon societal and individual well-being. The American dream which has been embraced by the world — based upon a sub-conscious urge to expand our dominance over nature and always, forever have more of everything, with constant societal pressure to do so — will have to give way to a more organic, ecologically-cognizant reality of living simply but well within ecological limits. Sadly for many, but a blessing for the Earth System and the not super rich, the whole world cannot live an over-consumptive super-sized lifestyle without destroying being.
It is time for a new global dream. The new dream would include aspiring that all have their basic needs met, even as individuals are free to pursue their passions and fortunes, as long as they do not undermine common ecological systems. Such a dream seeks to avert apocalyptic ecological and societal collapse through promotion of a sense of personal enoughness, voluntary simplicity and a whole range of necessary fundamental changes in society such as ending the use of coal and logging of ancient forests.
One thing is clear — more unbridled growth based upon unsustainable resource use will not solve the global ecological problems associated with unbridled growth and unsustainable resource use. The human enterprise and each global citizen’s consumption aspirations must be downsized to a scale appropriate to ecosystem limits. Or the Earth herself — as it turns out, with the assistance of the human created economic system — will do so brutally.
The industrial resource and illusory financial binge must end if we are to reverse the destruction, and begin the restoration, of the biosphere, its component ecosystems, and their ability to provide natural capital upon which to base a steady-state economy. It is time to get back to making honest, good livings from actually making or doing something of societal value, by making a living with the land and Earth, and that does not depend upon liquidating ecological being and financial speculation.
As the economic bubble deflates we might as well get on with finding a way to live simply, sustainably, equitably and justly with the Earth and each other. Because when the water, food and climate bubbles fully burst — we are going to need each other, and to be ready.
posted by Dr. Glen Barry @ 11:13 AM
SUNDAY, MARCH 30, 2008
How Can the Earth Win If Global Citizens Do Not Seek Ecological Truth and Sufficient Action?
Sustaining biodiversity, climate, and the biosphere requires protest to achieve sufficient policies based upon ecological science; and all of us including the environment movement taking risks while committing to massive social change
As the fourth anniversary of my Earth Meanders personal ecological essays approaches, I thought it appropriate to meander on the past and future challenges of their writing. Given the demands of 80 hour weeks required by my day job running Ecological Internet (EI), the leading provider of environmental portals, I much desired an opportunity to more broadly express my ecological insight. Thus Earth Meanders was born with the mandate of “placing environmental sustainability within the context of other contemporary issues”.
After 20 years of focusing tightly upon studying and working to protect forests, and climate for the last ten years, writing these essays and expressing more widely a biocentric vision has helped me tremendously. I do this out of love for the Earth and to help myself deal with the personal pain of knowing the violence being done to her. However, I do realize there has been some confusion regarding my dual roles within EI and these writings. They are completely separate, and to make this clearer you will see that future Earth Meanders will be coming from •••@••.••• .
Earth Meanders is my attempt to understand and communicate how ecology pervades every aspect of life. This ongoing dialogue regarding ecological sustainability and related issues is not meant to be strategic, or part of a campaign. The only criterion determining whether I like a piece and will send it out is if I believe it to be truthful, and it says what I meant to say. This essay is even more bloated and self-indulgent than usual, but I find it necessary to respond at length to what I consider unfair criticisms and further explain what I do and why.
Far too little effort has been made to truthfully determine global ecological policy required to sustain humanity and the Earth. A strong disservice is done to the Earth’s prospects by those who generally know the scope and seriousness of the global ecological crises but continue living and working as if token change is enough. My personal approach as an essayist, and professional methods as an activist — both based upon biocentric ecological truth seeking and protest action — are frequently criticized, even by my closest colleagues.
Let me give a few examples, not to chastise, but to illustrate some important points. A dear advisor and financial supporter recently castigated me in regard to my cellulosic biofuels essay, letting me know “nothing that you write will have any significant impact”, urging me to accept them as inevitable rather than tipping at windmills. A longtime colleague of EI recently suggested we should not protest Brazil’s soy policy because it was undiplomatic and could cause outrage. As I went ahead, this individual reneged on pledged financial support.
And there is the long-standing six-year effort to get former colleague Rainforest Action Network out of the business of supporting ancient forest logging. RAN refuses to answer the simple question “how does FSC certified logging of primary and old-growth forests protect endangered forests”. These sincere, truthful efforts have been met with stonewalling and increasingly personal attacks suggesting I just seek attention, like causing problems, and dismissal of EI’s campaign to end ancient forest logging as “flame bait”. If all I wanted was attention I would go and hang off a building as RAN does!
In each case criticism from respected associates that I depend upon for my livelihood has strongly stung. I am deeply reflective, and this leads me to consider whether changing my approach would be a good idea. Ecological Internet continues to struggle financially. Is this because of these controversial personal writings and EI protests, and should I sell out and stop strongly identifying and advocating ecological truth in order to better fit in while paying my modest mortgage?
Certainly if I stopped writing these essays and removed controversial content from EI’s portals, while toning down our campaigns, it would result in more mainstream, broad-based support including more funding. But would the Earth’s interests and truth in general be best served? Though modest in resources (though perhaps not in personality) I have built one of the world’s only ecological truth-telling truly global networks committed to sufficient policies to achieve global ecological sustainability. Should this be traded away for social acceptability, some coins, and a return personally to IT/ecological consulting to make a living?
In response to each expression of concern, I have replied that truth matters, that a central truth is that ecosystems are required for life and are failing, and that discussion of uncomfortable yet sufficient alternative ecological views is a good thing. These three instances are but tiny examples of the timidity and cautiousness of the environmental movement.
I am constantly amazed at the lack of fight. If any other issue threatened to kill billions, and even perhaps end human civilization, there would be outrage and urgent mobilization to action. Alas, it is easier to raise armies than achieve necessary widespread personal and societal sacrifice. When asked to give up material comforts to save their species and habitat, even the greenest would rather seek reform than revolt.
If the Earth is to have a future, it is critical that little in regards to human consumption patterns remains sacrosanct. If we cannot fuel personal automobiles, power our electronics and use large timbers in construction without destroying global ecosystems; then autos, coal and ancient forest logging have to go. The status quo is irredeemable and will change either through lack of (or inadequate) effort, continued destruction and eventual collapse; or through personal and societal revolutionary change based upon ecological truth.
Humans are animals. Fundamentally our habitat requirements are met by the variety of life and their cumulative outputs and interactions; that is, biodiversity creates ecosystems we need to live. There is virtually no chance that humanity can engineer these ecological processes and patterns. All aspects of human endeavors – economic, cultural, social, artistic and political – are subsets of the global ecological system. No ecology, no economy.
Economic, justice, security and other political concerns are very important. Yet none rise to the level of biodiversity loss, ecosystem failure, global heating and the biosphere’s pending collapse. If the global ecological system fails, being ends, and all these other matters mean nothing. There are many fancy and increasingly complex policies proposed to protect the Earth’s climate and biodiversity. These range from carbon markets, to biofuels, to payments for avoided deforestation — all meant to extend growth of the human enterprise.
Yet in reality, limits to such growth have already been exceeded, and the solutions are simple — ending the burning of fossil fuels, and any diminishment of rainforest and other natural habitats. And we must be willing to pay the price of forgone development including meeting needs of those economically dependent upon these antiquated activities.
If humanity really decides saving the Earth’s diversity of life and relatively stable climatic patterns is worthwhile, we would swing into action with a sense of urgency to support this environmental sufficiency agenda at all costs. Ecologically enlightened global citizens will protest across borders judging rightly that their survival depends upon success. Europeans and Americans will protest Amazonian rainforest loss; even as Bolivian victims of climate change induced floods protest their wasteful use of energy.
Saving the Earth and all her species including humans depends critically upon creating a movement of global citizens interested in truthfully identifying what is required to maintain the Earth, and then taking sufficient action (whatever the odds) to achieve that which must be done. This effort must not be bound by social convention, political boundaries, or the interests of environmental funders and gatekeepers of permissible thought.
I believe strongly it is less risky for the Earth and the survival of all her creatures to perhaps fall short of what is truly necessary to achieve ecological sustainability, while just maybe wholly succeeding; than to achieve in their entirety policies that are inadequate and can only inevitably lead to ecocide. For as long as we can possibly hold out, you can count upon Ecological Internet to help facilitate required global protests, and for me to write freely and truthfully here about sufficient measures to achieve global, just and equitable ecological sustainability. It is what I do.
posted by Dr. Glen Barry @ 10:02 AM
SATURDAY, MARCH 15, 2008
Burning Forests to Feed Cars
The Ecological Madness of Biofuels, Take Two
How cellulosic ethanol will fail, exacerbate the global forest and climate crises, and why it must be rejected along with other quick fixes in favor of an environmental sufficiency agenda
If you thought burning food for fuel — agrofuels — has been an unmitigated disaster, just wait until we start chopping up our last natural forest habitats for cellulosic ethanol biofuel. Much heralded second generation biofuels, to be based largely upon woody biomass, will be a resounding ecological disaster, and must be stopped now. It is a myth that enough unused forest and agricultural waste, and a surplus of land to grow various grasses and wood, exists to base an industrial energy source.
Humanity must stop seeking easy answers to perceived energy shortages that in fact are a result of over-population and ecological limits to growth. Agrofuels were heavily promoted for climate benefits and pursued at much expense, yet have been catastrophic to the world’s food security, habitat, water and climate. The same will be true of ethanol production from trees. Cellulosic ethanol will be the ultimate deforestation biofuel, equivalent to dismantling and burning your home to keep warm.
Biofuel from trees a looming disaster
The promise being made is that wood can produce fuels to run our cars. A few years ago we were told corn, rapeseed, sugar, oil palm, soy and various other crops could be grown for biofuels while providing energy security and reducing greenhouse emissions. The reality has been far different with globally surging food prices, loss of rainforests and other important habitats, further depletion and poisoning of aquifers, and rampant human rights abuses — all for little or no greenhouse gas emission reduction.
So called “second generation biofuels”, including the use of woody biomass, is being given the same unthinking, ecologically bereft hype. I will focus upon the idea that a wide variety of woody plant materials — including both waste and planted woody crops — should be the basis of a cellulosic ethanol industry. Creating ethanol is trickier than with agrofuels, the cellulose more difficult to break down, but clearly it is possible to produce liquid fuels from woody biomass. But what of associated social and ecological issues that are again being ignored?
Second generation biofuels based upon woody biomass will clearly be an unmitigated disaster. As with agrofuels, a cellulosic ethanol industry will indirectly destroy forests and lead to more costly food by increasing land pressures upon natural forests and agricultural crop lands. We can expect more vast, lifeless, toxic and water dependent monocultures of genetically modified Frankentrees on stolen deforested lands at a net carbon loss. And the biofuels will be sold to us as a green product, perhaps certified as “well-managed” by WWF, FSC, and other forest sell-outs.
Global forest crisis the fundamental ecological problem
Forest waste is a euphemism for the materials left over when industrial forestry decimates a forest. The branches, bark, saw dust, etc. represent nutrients that are best returned to virtually mined soils to make new forests. There is certainly not enough such “waste” lying around unused to power industrial society. Just what the world’s beleaguered natural old-growth and regenerating forest ecosystems need, another potentially limitless draw upon their growth, diversity and regeneration.
Once the infrastructure is in place to toss wood into vast choppers and have energy come out the other end, how long until meager switch grass harvests are supplemented with natural forest clearance? Let’s skip the step of clearing rainforests to plant crops and just toss the chopped up liquefied rainforests directly into our gas tank instead. The use of wood biomass from natural forests is already occurring on a limited scale and will be ramped up. Such is the promise of cellulosic ethanol.
Natural forests and other habitats provide a thin layer of biological life that shields and acts in concert with other aspects of the Earth System to make advanced life possible. This human habitat is endangered, devastated in short order by the human locust. All major environmental crises are entwined, but my observation is that clearing of terrestrial ecosystems — that is dismantling human habitats as resources to allow unsustainable growth — is the crux of the human dilemma.
As if the world’s forests, land base, ecosystems and habitats do not have enough demands upon them already, let us try to use them to power seven billion consumers in their drive to each have it all. Think this a needlessly harsh appraisal? Name one time the global economic system has demonstrated self-control in matching growth to underlying resources. Biofuels based upon wood must be rejected now, before it begins, to avoid the next ecological catastrophe. Given the scale of human energy demands and dismal state of global ecosystems, this one may prove fatal.
Time only for ambitious, sufficient global ecological responses
The Earth system is perilously close to failure and cannot stand more environmental solutions based upon greater and more intensive resource use for current, much less increased, human population and consumption. Most want an energy panacea that allows endless procreation and economic growth. None are to be had. There is a finite amount of energy that can be taken from, and waste put into, the global biosphere before it becomes uninhabitable. And we are reaching or have passed that point.
It is imperative that we embrace an environmental agenda based upon what is actually needed to maintain and restore ecological systems upon which all life depends. It is too late to put our efforts into anything else than the full package of societal and personal change necessary to maintain the biosphere. There are no solutions worth pursuing at this late date other than those that are ecologically sufficient. Anything less is more of the same disease that is assuredly destroying being.
Regular readers will know I have identified several major societal changes that could be implemented now at considerable but affordable cost and would make major headway in saving creation. These include immediately ending the use of coal that emits waste in the atmosphere; ceasing industrial clearance of natural habitats including ancient forests; investing major sums in renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency; and providing incentives to reduce global population and sum consumption (more at http://www.ecoearth.info/ssi/ ).
These and other rigorous and sufficient measures will be pursued, or global ecological collapse is unavoidable. If part of your shtick is we can cut our forests, burn our fossil fuels, and continue to grow endlessly; you are the disease eating the Earth. Change sides and become part of the cure by rejecting reformist quick fixes such as biofuel from food and trees in favor of an environmental sufficiency agenda. Or we can all die looking for an easy way to have it all at the Earth’s expense.
posted by Dr. Glen Barry @ 1:07 AM
Moderator: •••@••.••• (comments welcome)