Earth: A changing planet of life

Change happens. In a dynamic world, this has always been true.  Over many aeons, climates have changed, varieties of life have come and gone, and all living systems have evolved.  These monumental transformations  characteristic of physical reality find their continual drive in complex phenomena, from age-old solar cycles to the habits of terrestrial creatures (e.g. from bacteria to beavers) — to other possible forces which may yet lay beyond our understanding.  Every life form impacts the system in which it lives and of which it is an inseparable part.  Change is, perhaps, the only constant of the natural world.

Throughout our existence, human beings – as members of the animal world – have also always influenced change.  Pushed by the urge to survive and thrive, human activity has reflected its myriad cultures in re-sculpted landscapes, interrupted natural processes and in the creation of new ecological patterns all over the Planet.  The depth of ecological change has varied from culture to culture, with notable societies far more intense than others in their utilization of and impact on the Earth’s bounty.  From the Ancient Romans to the indigenous peoples of the Aleutian Islands, numerous societies throughout history have pushed up against physical limits of their local biological systems, causing a slow in their growth or a search for new landscapes from which to fulfill communal needs.

Warning signs: what has happened

It is the pace and depth of change over roughly the past two centuries, and particularly over the most recent several decades, that has astoned those who reflect on this remarkable break from past patterns.  Seldom has this Planet Earth seen such a widespread, radical and expeditious transformation of the natural world due to a single variety of life.  In recent decades, expanding environmental consciousness and concern for the natural world has been effective in documenting examples of “runaway” change.  The WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report is one such comprehensive snapshot.  To name merely a few of the many highlights:

  • Only a third of rivers in the world greater than 1000 km in length remain free-flowing and without dams on their main channel.
  • The acidity of world oceans has increased by 30% since the Industrial Revolution.
  • Global biodiversity health has declined by 30% since 1970, with the greatest decline seen in freshwater species and tropical regions.
  • Varieties of life which have been crucial to the survival and cultural identity of human populations, such as the Northern bluefin tuna, are now in danger of extinction.
  • Many of the forest systems, rivers, grasslands, oceans, watersheds, flora and fauna upon which we and all other life forms depend are in a state of profound alteration.

Although decline in biodiversity is the global norm, there are some examples of species making a positive comeback in places like the United States.  An analysis of 110 endangered species in the US found that 90% are currently on track to meet their recovery goals, including gray wolves in the north Rocky Mountains and California condors.  However, the same cannot be said around the Planet due to a complex combination of anthropogenic factors.

Notably, global climate change increasingly appears to be a troubling reality, significantly spurred on by the burning of fossil fuels.  Both greenhouse gas emissions and the concentration of warming gases in the atmosphere have been rising since the Industrial Revolution; by the 1950s, the atmospheric concentration had risen from pre-industrial levels to the highest level in at least 800,000 years.  We have begun to note the initial effects on long-term weather systems, especially in the Earth’s polar regions.

Analyses such as the Living Planet Report tend to formalize two sobering conclusions:

1.  Biodiversity has declined, and is declining, all over the Planet.

2.  The demand by the human population as a whole has exceeded the Planet’s supply – and ever-increasingly so.

In the early 1970’s, humanity’s global ecological footprint passed a mark indicating what one Earth could sustain in terms of resource use.  On average as a species, we are currently using 50% more resources than the Planet can provide.  This means that it takes 1.5 years for the Earth to regenerate the resources that people utilize in one year.  Put simply, our human population is in a state of “overshoot”.  There is now no question that on average, present human development is physically unsustainable.  It is also worthy to note that, in contrast, the historical and current activities of highly industrialized societies have placed the largest burden on natural systems.

With the realization that Planet has physical limits to what activities it can support, we are now faced with the question, how are we to continue to live on Planet Earth?

Changes in living

Change is not restricted to so-called natural systems.  All human societies also change over time – in practices, territories, and systems of organization.  Clearly, each and every society changes at its own pace; and the pace of change for any society is not universally static.

However, just as we see the pace of change throughout many of the Earth’s living systems increase as we move toward the present day, so too do we see a recent acceleration of change in human history – especially visible in societies yielding now-global influence.

This rapid pace of global social change wasn’t always so.  According to historian Clive Ponting, previous human patterns of life and survival remained roughly unchanged for 99% percent of human history.  For nearly two million years, humans obtained their means of survival from gathering foodstuffs and hunting animals, drawing on a deep knowledge of their local areas and tools (mostly derived from stones) fitted to their function.  With this nutritionally adequate diet, this range of lifestyles allowed the human species to gradually spread out over nearly every part of the world.  Typical life for most of human existence was mobile and closely connected to the flow of the seasons and the migration of wildlife; belongings and food storage were kept to a minimum; and communities consisted of small groups of 25-50 people.  It took nearly two million years to reach a population of only about 4 million people worldwide – roughly the current population of the city of Montreal, Quebec.

It is only in the most recent 40,000 years do we begin to find evidence of more profound change.  Artifacts from certain locations suggest the proliferation of new forms of tools crafted from a far wider array of materials.  Contrary to popular belief, hunters and gatherers did indeed have an impact on their local living systems, particularly when their hunting activities revolved around one species (e.g. bison) to the exclusion of others.  Overall, because of persistently low and thinly-spread populations, and in some cases embedded cultural practices in place to restrict overhunting, the global impact of these communities was small.

Many of these time-tested ways of life would eventually meet startling new methods of obtaining sustenance from the living world.  Starting about 10,000 years ago, in the space of a few thousand years “a radical different way of life emerged based on a major alteration to natural ecosystems in order to produce crops and provide pasture for animals” (Ponting).  Through marginal changes, the world had entered the revolutionary era of agriculture.  While some societies retained their traditional forms of life, for others agriculture delivered the power to harness the land according to human desires.  Fuelled by this newfound bounty of food production and storage, cities and powerful political bodies began to emerge.  By 1200 CE, the worldwide population had reached 200 million and then rose sharply to 550 million by 1600.  The world’s population at long last reached one billion in about 1825.

In the past two centuries leading up to the modern day, daily life for some societies “changed more than it had in the 7,000 years before” (Mokyr).  In Western Europe, revolutions in science, industry and commerce released enormous transformations upon largely pastoral societies.  Whereas people had predominantly lived in quiet rural areas, they now lived mostly in noisy, polluted urban areas, removed from the forests and the fields of smaller communities.  Most personal household items were now machine-made, leading to the positioning of consumption as a dominant purpose in life.  With powerful developments in medicine and sanitation, the death rate and infant mortality rate in these regions began to drop.

Thus we come to the present day.  Due to globalization (the spread of the capitalist economic system) under the moniker of “development”, the pace of change in human societies has arguably never been higher.

  • New technologies are pushed out with greater frequency than ever.  Currently, the average American child spends on average more than seven hours a day interacting with an online world through a digital screen.  Reduced direct contact between children with the natural world is reported all of the world (e.g. Ethiopia).
  • Cultural change is afoot: UNESCO estimates that nearly half of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century.
  • Health is now better everywhere in the world today and income is much higher in most countries than it was in 1800.  However, the income and health gaps between countries are larger today than 200 years ago.  More than half of the human population lives in poverty and at least one fifth are severely undernourished.
  • In 2008, for the first time in human history, more than half of all people live in towns and cities than not.  Our finite world has shot past a once unthinkable benchmark:  7 billion people and counting.

Change has always been a fact of human life.  Change itself is neutral — open to our own subjective judgements of good and bad.  Yet in the present day change seems to have grown to a breakneck pace.  And again we face the question:  Given our current tragetory of change, how are we to continue to live on Planet Earth?

The world to come

Given the present pace of change, what may happen in the future?  What risks might we face?  Of course, no one can know with certainty what events will come to pass in the years, decades and centuries ahead.  Our collective fate is not set in bedrock.  Nevertheless, foresight is a rare human ability not to be dismissed.  Through close observation and interpretation of data, trends and cycles, and allowing for unexpected tragectory-changing events, we may cautiously project future likelihoods.  Together, these possibilities may serve as a ray of hope, a rude wake-up call, or a dire warning to prompt preparation, adaptation and prevention.

Sometimes perceived as so much “doom and gloom”, it seems such potential risks are commonly ignored or even publicly denied.  Many predictions are hard to stomach, because they go far beyond our daily experiences or even the span of our mortal lives.  Yet with stakes so high, face them in earnest we must.

Ecological relationships

Certainly, the world of the future will likely be one in which urban centers play a pivotal role in most societies.  The UN projects that in 2050, two out of every three people worldwide will live in a city.  With dense concentrations of people residing in sprawling, heavily-populated regions, the impact on biological systems may often go directly unseen, and it likely will be much more difficult for citizens to maintain daily contact with the “external” forests, fields, rivers, mountains and other living spaces from which they sustain their lives.

Indeed, how will people in various societies of the future come to experience the natural world?  It is easy to imagine that with increased reliance on technology and online forms of interaction that our direct relationships with the “wild” will continue to waver.  The impacts will likely be felt throughout cultural, intellectual and spiritual domains.  Societies run the risk of having a complete social and emotional disconnection from their local biosytems – a loss of ecological identity in which “nature” exists only as an abstract concept.

Beyond one planet

Globally, the human population is set to continue its expansion.  By 2050, it is estimated by the UN that over 9 billion people will compete (or, hopefully, collaborate) for the water, food, materials, and energy of Planet Earth.  The growth is projected to come predominantly from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

It is not only the sheer volume of people that will unleash a massive footprint on the planet’s biological systems (and, in turn, all human societies).  While industrialized countries have historically impacted the Earth – and will continue to do so – the so-called emerging economies of the world will place additional and unpresidented strain on the world’s biocapacity.  Deservedly, the rapid economic growth of these nations – Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa – will no doubt bring social benefits to their peoples.  However, the world will face a severe challenge in how to bring great economic equality without putting crucial planetary systems at risk.

To feed the hunger and aspirations of 9 billion people, it is estimated that an equivalent of almost 3 planets will be required.  As many have noted, we have only one habitable home – a simple but cruel mathematical reality.  Our continued pattern of consumption and waste will further draw down the supply of valuable sources of sustenance and the Earth’s ability to regenerate its own living systems.

Loss of species

As the weight of human industrial and economic activity bears down on all living systems, the loss of each species – through loss of habitat, overhunting, or other compounded causes – will have unpredictable ripple effects throughout their habitats and food webs.  Far beyond the background extinction rate of species, some scientists suggest we are now approaching another great mass extinction, marked by the unintended effects of intense human activity.  Most of those species disappearing are those least documented, often vanishing without having been known to human observation.  The eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson goes so far as to estimate that “our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100.”   This disturbing likelihood begs the question, to what degree will our cultures and societies be forced to change when once-iconic creatures (e.g. salmon in the Pacific Northwest) become rare in our collective experience?

Climate consequences

As industrialized societies continue their burning of fossil fuels largely unabated, and emerging economies add to global emissions in a race to “catch up”, the global average temperature will continue to rise (and will go on rising even if global emissions suddenly dropped to zero).  Potentially, by 2040 large regions will individually exceed a 2° increase in average temperature relative to pre-industrial levels, while a global average 2° increase is predicted for 2060 under “business as usual” scenarios.

The potential reprocussions of a warming planet are too numerous to list in full (and the reality is that we do not fully know the full consequences of this complex and unparalleled planet-sized “experiment”).  The extent of climate change resulting from global warming on individual regions will vary with the ability of local systems to adapt to change.  Some of the more certain outcomes include:

  • Here in Canada, an economic cost of $21-43 billion per year, resulting from flooding damages to coastal dwellings, timber supply impacts, etc.
  • Regional increases of:  flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, and ocean acidification; tropical cyclone intensity; frequency of hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation; thaw in permafrost regions
  • Regional decreases of: sea ice extent, snow cover areas, precipitation in subtropical regions, water resources in semi-arid areas.

While rich, industrialized nations may have the ability to adapt to, and even profit from, some elements of climate change, perhaps the most unjust of all potential effects of climate change is likely its reprocussions for the already-suffering populations of poor and (so-called) developing countries.  Climate change is expected to hit these regions the hardest.  According to the World Bank, an increase of global temperature could have “catastrophic implications” for the billions of people in developing countries, rolling back recent gains in the “fight against poverty, hunger and disease”.   The effects pose extreme risks for food and water suppliesFor example, by 2020 many hundreds of millions of people on the continent of Africa are projected to experience increased water stress and a severe decline of agricultural production by as much as 50%.  The availability of freshwater is projected to decrease across Asia, while the death rate from disease stemming from floods and droughts is expected to rise.  In part due to the strain on river basins and underground aquifers, three billion people worldwide may live in a state of water stress as early as 2025, leading to a severe water crisis and a growing source of political and military conflict between regions and nations.  Increasingly a coming reality, the entire island nation of Kiribati may need to be relocated over the threat of sea level rise.  In short, those most vulnerable to the effects of future climate change may be those who are least able to prepare for the coming changes.

Overall, due to the potential effects of climate change and other human-induced ecological effects, by 2020 the world may see up to 50 million “environmental refugees”, forced from their habitat by the lack of intact living systems to sustain them.  There’s little doubt this is only the beginning of the social and ecological chain of events from this very sudden transformation in historical patterns on the Earth.

Terminal prognosis?

How will cultures and societies change alongside or in response to these planetary impacts?  Will societies become “sustainable” in time to prevent the most serious projections?  Or, as some fatalists argue, will humanity submerge into committing “ecocide”?

Here we come to a fork in the road.  We may deny these threats, resign ourselves to this possible fate, or hope that future generations will “fix the problem”.  Alternatively, we may trust humanity will respond in a way that is commensurate with the present and likely-future reality, and will establish, protect or discover meaningful and sustainable ways of life.  Increasingly, we can find plenty of examples of response to crisis.  It is our responsibility to future generations – and to the planet’s living systems which have faithfully sustained our communities for millenia – that beckons us toward the latter path.

If we choose to respond, then in what kind of world do we envision living, and how do we get from here to there?