It is clear that we (as in
humanity, other species and the planet itself) face a potpourri of
problems. Most of the ecological issues in the world twine together
with human activities like a mating ball of snakes. This note
discusses a set of ecological and human problems, and tries to put them
into perspective against each other.
At the very top of my list of problems, always, is carbon dioxide which
I consider the main villain of the play. CO2, which is produced mainly
by burning fossil fuels, contributes heavily to climate change and
ocean acidification. The warming aspect of climate change contributes
to water shortages and biodiversity loss, while the climatic
variability it introduces contributes to food shortages. Ocean
acidification also contributes to more biodiversity loss and food
Energy shortages are likely to contribute to a number of ecological
problems, as we’ve already seen with the growth of coal generation
around the world. Another risk that will crop up in many places as oil
and gas supplies begin to decline is the increasing use of local
biomass as fuel. That means burning trees, which leads to deforestation
with the loss of carbon sinks (more global warming), loss of habitats
(more biodiversity loss) and ground water. Energy shortages will also
lead to more development of resources like tar sands and shale gas,
resulting in more damage to water supplies and species habitats.
Non-energy resource shortages result in more intensive exploitation of
ever more fragile and remote areas of the planet, increasing the
pressure on other species.
Pollution of all kinds leads to biodiversity loss in addition to the
toxicity risks it poses to humans.
Food shortages have their own ecological impact as people turn to
local, non-traditional food sources (aka “eating the songbirds out of
the trees”). This increases the pressure on biodiversity due to direct
decimation of target species and the disruption of local ecological
How much of this is due to human overpopulation, and how much of it is
due to human overactivity? It’s tempting to say that it’s because there
are just too damn many of us, but I think that’s a bit too simplistic.
The one set of effects that is unarguably the result of human numbers
includes anything to do with eating. Each of us needs the same minimum
number of calories per day to survive, and every human mouth that’s
added to the planet brings with it a 2500 calorie a day appetite. The
spiraling race between population and food supplies increases the
pressure on water supplies and biodiversity, as well as contributing to
river, ocean and ground water pollution.
Other effects that may appear to be the result of overpopulation – such
as resource shortages, energy shortages and industrial pollution – are
largely the result of human activity. In fact, the majority of the
damage we are doing to the planet is the result of our activity and not
our numbers. I say this for a number of reasons:
1. Human population growth is no longer exponential, it's linear. We
are adding a constant 80 million people to the planet every year, but
this growth is constant, not exponential. Population growth has been
approximately constant ever since we left the sheltering umbrella of
the Green Revolution in 1980. This simple fact lends great credence to
Russ Hopfenberg's theory that food causes people.
2. Humanity is in ecological overshoot already. Our consumption of
global biosystem resources is up to 50% greater than the natural workld
can support, if WWF and the Global Footprint Network are to be
believed. If our population magically stopped growing tonight, if we
could cut our growth by 80 million people a year right now, we would
still be in overshoot. We are simply consuming too much for the
3. The half of the world's births that occur in nations with the
highest ecological footprints consume three times as much of the
world's resources as the half that occurs in the nations with the
lowest ecological footprints.
4. If the Ecological Footprint is a good measure of sustainability (and
I think it is) the world could comfortably support its current
population in perpetuity at the living standard of Vietnam. If we each
had the same ecological footprint as the average Indian the earth could
sustainably support over twice as many people as it does today.
5. The problem is that we don't have the ecological footprint of India.
The world average is more on a par with Costa Rica or Turkey, with
industrialized nations consuming 5 to 10 times the sustainable
biocapacity. The 2 billion people that lead unsustainable lives in
developed nations consume as much of the planet's biocapacity as the 5
billion who lead sustainable lives in countries where the average
ecological footprint is below a sustainable 1.8 global hectares.
So while our population numbers are definitely a problem, our
consumption represents a much bigger one. Yes, there are probably too
many people, but it’s our consumption, not our numbers, that is
wrecking the planet.
While I recognize that others are of a very different opinion, nuclear
issues - whether they are proliferation, waste storage, radiation
releases or even outright warfare - seem almost insignificant to me.
The ecological threats I talked about above are global in scope, are
happening as we speak and are accelerating in severity with every
passing year. The significance of localized issues like nuclear waste
storage, or the risks posed by proliferation seems almost picayune in
But this is just my take on it. As I’ve said before, we need to have
everyone who is moved by the predicament working on whatever issues are
most important to them, in whatever way they feel is appropriate. We
never know what the pivotal problem may turn out to be, or where an
essential answer might be found.
Rather than moaning with despair as the ship goes down though, why not
choose to dance? Who knows what might happen if enough of us made