Is homo sapiens in trouble?
The Global Footprint Network1,2 tells us that our ecological footprint is 1.4 times bigger than the ecologically productive area our planet has to offer and half of that is the carbon footprint that results from burning coal, oil, and natural gas. Therefore, our technology-based civilization in its present form is not sustainable. The extinction rate of species is one indicator of the seriousness of the situation. At present between 20,000 and 100,000 species are disappearing per year.3 The gravity of this becomes clear when comparing this with the natural extinction rate of some three species a year in the pre-technology era. Without radical changes and swift sapient action humans may be among the disappearing species.
The root causes of our problems:
It is necessary to understand and to eliminate the root causes of the problem. Humankind’s environmental impact (I) is determined by three factors. Population (P), affluence or consumption per person (A), and the kind of technology used (T). The famous IPAT equation by Ehrlich and Holdren summarizes the root causes of environmental destruction4 I = P * A * T
Each of the factors is of importance for the total impact. Using the Ehrlich- Holdren formula, our present technology factor can be illustrated by taking the extinction rate of 30,000 species per year as a measure for humanity’s environmental impact, the global average energy consumption rate of 2.3 kW/cap, and the present world population of 6.5 billion humans. The result is: T = 2 species per year extinct for each GW of energy used by humans. By comparison, Ontario’s energy use is some 120 GW, and thus we are responsible for the disappearance of some 240 species a year.
James Lovelock claims there is no solution. Climate change will destroy our civilization, and therefore, the action he recommends is to enjoy life while we can.5 With due respect for Lovelock’s scientific contributions, we should not give up so easily. The Wasan Action Framework on Climate Change and Energy6 indicates the solutions to choose as well as the directions to avoid. What can be done about each of the three root causes of our problem?
First: the number of people. On a global scale, it is practically impossible to reduce the number of people, because life and procreation are basic rights for everyone. When resources run out, and anthropogenic climate becomes hostile, will human numbers be reduced by WW3? I have no idea on how to deal in a peaceful way with population as a cause for the collapse of our civilization. Any suggestions?
The UN population conferences are a start. The recommendations of the last one in Cairo in 1994 were on educating and empowering women with regard to the reproductive process. However, these were not fully implemented. Two religious groups, the Catholics, and the Muslims did not sign the agreements to begin with, and the money pledged for implementation did not come forth either.
Much more attention must be given to the population question by all sectors of society. I suggest that Science for Peace Global Issues Project put a serious effort into the planning of a population Roundtable, which in turn should follow up with promoting an intensification of the UN population discussions with great urgency.
Second: the per capita consumption of vital natural resources, including energy. Efficiency is a key word for all. Improving the overall efficiency requires better technology, but also better societal infrastructure, and better individual attitudes. Changing of technology requires financial means for research, development and implementation. Changing infrastructure and personal habits is even harder to achieve, and will take time. Unfortunately, more conservation can only be asked of the rich. For the sake of global justice the more numerous poor should be allowed to consume a bit more per capita, to lift them out of miserable poverty. Therefore, it is likely that the global average of consumption per capita will rise in the future, even with the rich tightening their belts.
Third: Technology as a root cause of homo sapiens’ problems. The kind of technology we are using today severely burdens the ecosystems; in particular, the environmentally damaging fossil fuels based energy technology. This technology change is feasible, is urgent, and must be done as quickly as possible if we are not to exhaust the ecological capital of our planet.
It is a scientific certainty, that renewable energy resources alone can drive the world economy now, and in the long term. The main resources that are technically feasible too are solar, wind and geothermal energy resources. The swift and forceful development and implementation of these technologies can solve our climate change and energy problems by removing the carbon part of our ecological footprint. This technical fix can make our technology based civilization sustainable for some time, until the other two root causes can be addressed. Inevitably, the question of economic feasibility of the technology change will arise. My answer is that it is more economical than the alternative: what is the cost of Armageddon?
In addition to knowing the right direction it is essential to know where not to go. Nuclear power should not be used, because it makes us vulnerable, and leads to nuclear weapons proliferation, as experience shows in India, Pakistan, Israel, and likely Iran. Large scale biomass use should be avoided, because it competes with food, and is environmentally destructive. Branson’s Virgin Airlines are bragging about the first transatlantic flight of their Jumbo Jet with ‘green’ biofuels. I figured out, that in one day of flying the ‘hungry’ Boeing 747 gobbles up the amount of biomass that could supply the daily bread for 1.5 million people.
The path to the solution:
Scientists and engineers must convince the media and all educators that there are feasible solutions. All together must then educate the public, and the decision makers that the world economy can be driven by renewable energy resources alone. One essential task on the way to implementation of feasible solutions is to remove the obstacles to change created by social inertia, and vested interests in the existing system, which may bring short term financial gains by using up the global ecological capital of the global commons.
1 Global footprint: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/index.php/blog/af/what_exactly_is_the_carbon_footprint . ^
3 Extinction rate of species: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_extinction_event . ^
4 Root causes of environmental impact: http://ipat-s.kb-creative.net/IPAT_and_ImPACT.html . ^
5 Lovelock’s non-solution: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/mar/01/scienceofclimatechange.climatechange . ^