The Real Problem With The Environment
We have a climate crisis and have to fix it. We are running out of clean water. Our oceans are filled with plastic. The list goes on and on. Are these problems? Yes, but, they are not the root of our real problem, only symptoms. Our scramble to fix any one of these symptoms alone is a distraction and a waste of time if it does not include fixing the source, much like putting bandages on a skin cancer may make the sufferer feel better, but the disease is not cured.
For most people, including scientists, it is obvious that we have problem with our climate. Ice fields are melting faster than they can be replenished in most places on earth and glaciers are shrinking. (01) The average global temperature is increasing (02) while sea levels are rising. (03)
Is this a serious problem? Yes it is, but again it is not the problem, merely a symptom. The real problem behind climate change, as with many of our other environmental ones, is that the planet is no longer sustainable in the manner which can indefinitely support human society as we know it.
Over eons the planet has developed an ecosystem that supports a vast and intricate web of life, including human life in its present manner. Everything in this web is interconnected with everything else, from the smallest single cell organism to the largest and most complex life form. How these connections affect us are still not fully known as we are still making new discoveries on the interactions between parts of the biosphere. What is apparent is that biodiversity is important and that we alter it at our own peril. Change one thing and everything changes to some degree. (04) As the naturalist John Muir once said “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Change itself is not bad, evolution is an ongoing process. What can be bad is the degree and speed of the change which can negatively impact all that cannot adapt quick enough.
A life form living within the means of the system to support it is living sustainably. When it lives beyond those means it is headed for extinction. When a system is sustainable all parts of that system retain the ability to continuously regenerate in a cycle where reproduction replaces that which has been used up or consumed and waste is recycled back to be used over again.
The problem today for a large number of life forms, including humans, is that many of the parts of the system are being consumed faster than they can be replaced. In essence we are drawing water from a well with limited capacity, and as demand increases and we increase the flow from the well we get closer to the time when it will run dry. At the same time we are creating waste in the system in quantities too great to be completely absorbed and recycled, for example carbon gasses and plastics.
The real root of our problem today is over consumption, gross over consumption in many places. The main ingredient in over consumption of course is population. An increasing number of consumers results in increasing consumption. There is the argument that only some people are over consuming and that we can fix the problem by reducing consumption in those societies that consume the most without dealing with the problem of over population. This is only true if we wish to reduce average consumption levels around the globe to about one quarter of what the average consumption per person is in the United States and Canada today. If we are to have a higher rate of consumption than that of places like Serbia then the global population must decline. (5)
The sustainable population for the planet is a factor of the total available sustainable resources divided by the desired consumption rate, assuming that everyone consumes more or less the same amount per person. For the planet to support a population consuming like Canada the limit would be around 1.5 billion people instead of the close to eight billion we now have. The planet could sustainably support about four billion if the average consumption was like that in Mexico, about one third of the current Canadian rate.
Solving our problem with the environment cannot be successfully achieved without also changing our entire economic system, and herein lays the real obstacle to saving the planet. Humans have developed an economic system predicated on growth and many depend on that growth to maintain or improve their status in society. When there were more sustainable resources than could possibly be used this was not a big problem, at least not environmentally. Now that we have passed the point of sustainability for our level of consumption every new bit of growth is yet another nail in the coffin of our society. Accumulating wealth beyond the needs of immediate survival has become a crime against society, yet our economic model encourages us to do so. The powerful and wealthy forces that profit the most from this system are the biggest road block to a more environmentally stable and sustainable society. To repair our environment we are going to have to reduce consumption and reverse growth. How much will depend upon what level of average consumption we want for society. And, if it is to be a fair society then limits on how much any one person can have will need to be in place. (6)