Wednesday, August 2, 2017

August 2: Earth Overshoot Day!

Growing up in New England, I remember being told, time after time after time, about the "Boston  Blue Blood's" caution "Don't touch the capital." That's essentially the same message being delivered by the folks who bring us Earth Overshoot Day. It's the core of the analysis I first encountered when I read Limits to Growth [free pdf]. Last year, the guardian printed an analysis that "The 1970s study which predicted civilisation would collapse some time this century was wrong on resources, but right on pollution." In systems terms, global growth's limitations are currently more limited by the capacity of sinks to safely and effectively neutralize wastes than by the availability of resources to support more growth.

NASA earth

In Minnesota, concerns about pollution's effects are hindering proposals for growth in many extractive sectors of our economy. Mining, both for iron and for sulfide ores for other metals, is being challenged because of historic failures to meet pollution control requirements. Logging is conflicting with multiple uses of forests in Minnesota. Industrial agriculture continues to degrade both surface and groundwater in Minnesota and the midwest. Business as usual has been leaving large, very expensive messes for taxpayers, not investors, to clean up.

The authors of Limits to Growth did a 30-year update back near the turn of the millennium.

A Synopsis: Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update

The signs are everywhere around us:
  • Sea level has risen 10–20 cm since 1900. Most non-polar glaciers are retreating, and the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice is decreasing in summer.
  • In 1998 more than 45 percent of the globe’s people had to live on incomes averaging $2 a day or less. Meanwhile, the richest one- fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of the global GNP. And the gap between rich and poor is widening.
  • In 2002, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimated that 75 percent of the world’s oceanic fisheries were fished at or beyond capacity. The North Atlantic cod fishery, fished sustainably for hundreds of years, has collapsed, and the species may have been pushed to biological extinction.
  • The first global assessment of soil loss, based on studies of hundreds of experts, found that 38 percent, or nearly 1.4 billion acres, of currently used agricultural land has been degraded.
  • Fifty-four nations experienced declines in per capita GDP for more than a decade during the period 1990–2001.
Earth Overshoot Day, in one form or another, is not just a hypothetical exercise. In response, instead of finding ways to work better together, we're busy practicing a strategy of "Will the last human on Earth please turn off the lights?" Gated communities don't work well on a dead planet. The only other choice we have left, it seems to me, is to try for a soft landing, instead of just letting all Earth's systems crash around what's left of us. One way or another, growth, in and of itself, will not meet our needs.

For those who would dismiss these issues as unrealistic pessimistic doomsday scenarios, it's not true, since the computer model is probably:
... highly optimistic. It has no military sector to drain capital and resources from the productive economy. It has no wars to kill people, destroy capital, waste lands, or generate pollution. It has no ethnic strife, no corruption, no floods, earthquakes, nuclear accidents, or AIDS epidemics. The model represents the uppermost possibilities for the “real” world.
If those words don't convince you, try this picture from the Stockholm Resilience Center:

Mother Earth: Her Whales

Gary Snyder, 1930

An owl winks in the shadows
A lizard lifts on tiptoe, breathing hard
Young male sparrow stretches up his neck,
                   big head, watching—

The grasses are working in the sun. Turn it green.
Turn it sweet. That we may eat.
Grow our meat.

Brazil says “sovereign use of Natural Resources”
Thirty thousand kinds of unknown plants.
The living actual people of the jungle
        sold and tortured—
And a robot in a suit who peddles a delusion called “Brazil”
        can speak for them?

        The whales turn and glisten, plunge
                and sound and rise again,
        Hanging over subtly darkening deeps
        Flowing like breathing planets
              in the sparkling whorls of
                     living light—

And Japan quibbles for words on
        what kinds of whales they can kill?
A once-great Buddhist nation
        dribbles methyl mercury
        like gonorrhea
                      in the sea.

Pere David’s Deer, the Elaphure,
Lived in the tule marshes of the Yellow River
Two thousand years ago—and lost its home to rice—
The forests of Lo-yang were logged and all the silt &
Sand flowed down, and gone, by 1200 AD—
Wild Geese hatched out in Siberia
        head south over basins of the Yang, the Huang,
        what we call “China”
On flyways they have used a million years.
Ah China, where are the tigers, the wild boars,
                   the monkeys,
                      like the snows of yesteryear
Gone in a mist, a flash, and the dry hard ground
Is parking space for fifty thousand trucks.
IS man most precious of all things?
—then let us love him, and his brothers, all those
Fading living beings—

North America, Turtle Island, taken by invaders
        who wage war around the world.
May ants, may abalone, otters, wolves and elk
Rise! and pull away their giving
        from the robot nations.

Solidarity. The People.
Standing Tree People!
Flying Bird People!
Swimming Sea People!
Four-legged, two-legged people!

How can the head-heavy power-hungry politic scientist
Government     two-world     Capitalist-Imperialist
Third-world     Communist      paper-shuffling male
             non-farmer     jet-set     bureaucrats
Speak for the green of the leaf? Speak for the soil?

(Ah Margaret Mead . . . do you sometimes dream of Samoa?)

The robots argue how to parcel out our Mother Earth
To last a little longer
                    like vultures flapping
Belching, gurgling,
                    near a dying doe.
“In yonder field a slain knight lies—
We’ll fly to him and eat his eyes
                    with a down
         derry derry derry down down.”

             An Owl winks in the shadow
             A lizard lifts on tiptoe
                         breathing hard
             The whales turn and glisten
                         plunge and
             Sound, and rise again
             Flowing like breathing planets

             In the sparkling whorls

             Of living light.

                      Stockholm: Summer Solstice 40072

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Please be kind to each other while you can.