Thursday, September 19, 2013

Are People the Problem or the Solution?

The debate about humans and the self-destructive deterioration of the environment in which they inhabit is one that has continued since Thomas Malthus started worrying about it in the 18th century.  Malthus famously predicted that humans would quickly overwhelm the carrying capacity of the earth.  Then we had the Population Bomb in which Paul Ehrlich predicted, again, that population increases would soon lead to the end of humanity.  Of course the Green Revolution soon followed the population bomb and completely discredited it - not that it hurt Ehrlich's reputation at all, it seems one is always safe predicting the worst, because every one is happy and ready to forgive if it does not come to pass.

And then we had this ridiculous tautology: that humans themselves were more impactful on the environment than any one individual action.  (This is tautological because humans can be thought of as a collection of actions and thus the sum is greater than the parts).  This is a particularly pessimistic view of humans and the view that humans represent a problem and not a solution to me is dangerous. As birthrates and poverty are closely related, environmental scolds in rich countries are in danger of blaming the world's poor for the world's environmental problems.

Anyway this is all a long lead in to this interesting and (in my mind) quite correct essay on how to think about humans and their place on earth in The New York Times by Earl Ellis. Here is an excerpt:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits. 
Two hundred thousand years ago we started down this path. The planet will never be the same. It is time for all of us to wake up to the limits we really face: the social and technological systems that sustain us need improvement. 
There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future. There is no need to use any more land to sustain humanity — increasing land productivity using existing technologies can boost global supplies and even leave more land for nature — a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever. 
The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.
I think this is quite correct. And as I think about the impact of a new baby on the earth I prefer to think of the possibilities: to invent the next sustainable energy technology, to help solve world poverty, be a leader and lead people forward to a better future. I reject the pessimistic view of humans as only resource-suckers leading us to our doom. Our future is us and we need to figure out how harness the power of human potential rather than dismiss the world's poor as an overly reproductive cause of our problems rather than a symptom of a system that we have created.

1 comment:

ben said...

Interesting to see your position on the infamous Earle Ellis column, Patrick.

History suggests that human population figures are cyclical, and evolutionary ecologists would insist that humans may be niche creators in a certain esoteric sense but are ultimately inhabiting a niche. The fact is that all civilizations rise and fall according to the amount of energy throughput and, indeed, fundamentally, by every scientific metric, they are growth-based operating systems, and rise they must.. or fall. The so-called Green Revolution was merely the agricultural coming-out party, if you will, of a newly-matured industrial civilization. The Green Revolution is nothing more than the throughput of fossil fuels in our food supply, the substituting, for example, of naturally-occurring soil nutrients produced by bacteria with a synthetic version (Ammonium Nitrate) that is completely dependent on natural gas, a finite resource of which fracking is the Great Hope, but currently subject to quickly diminishing returns if you look at the incredibly short life-cycles of the fracking wells that are now essential to maintaining overall global production levels of transportation fuels that facilitate the Green Revolution.

Moreover, Patrick, by virtue of the Information Age, to pattern the decline, of civilization, and to prepare for it, is not pessimistic in and of itself; apply systems theory to the data and the smoke clears. Life during civilizational decline is a life no less to be lived, for beauty is in the eye of the beholder and, to be sure, the grassroots communities around the world that are organizing themselves around de-industrial resiliency are healthy, strong, self-reliant, and optimistic communities.

If you would like to revisit your position, or merely acquire a truly representative perspective of contemporary Sustainability Theory, now itself in its mature, professional phase, then I cordially invite you, and your friends and family, to attend either of a pair of KBOO-sponsored talks by Nicole Foss, currently on a world tour. She will be in Corvallis at 7PM on Wednesday, October 9th, 2103, talking in the First Congregational Church's Meeting Hall, and she will be talking in SE Portland at 7PM on Thursday, October 10th in the Tabor Space Dining Room. There will be a Q@A following the talks. You will not be disappointed, she is nothing short of brilliant. You can find her credentials at this link:

I will revisit this comments section in the event you'd like to respond.

Best regards,