Thursday, April 19, 2007
The Myth of Sustainable Development and the Great Die-Off
James Lovelock, in his haunting The Revenge of Gaia, points out the obvious when he says that “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. What we need, he says, is a “dignified retreat,” or in more contemporary language, negative development. Along with the deep ecologists, Lovelock argues that negative development would provide habitat for earth’s ongoing evolutionary project beyond the overbearing human. The earth passed the threshold of sustainability in 1985, after which the average global eco-footprint has exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity. At that point, we numbered 4.85 billion, and used slightly more than half the total energy we use now (with 6.5 billion people who are more “developed”). Since the Kyoto protocols went into effect, not one of the “developed” signatories have reduced their carbon emissions, and the US continues to increase more than the rest of the G8, though at a slightly lower rate than it did ten years ago. Meanwhile, China and to a lesser degree India, with their combined 2.3 billion people, are just getting revved up. In 2004 alone, China built more coal-fired power plants than Britain has its entire history – the home of the industrial revolution. Just yesterday, the UN changed its prediction of when China would overtake the US in carbon emissions from three years to later this year.
In terms of our energy discussion, without fossil fuels or nuclear power, 6.5 to 9 billion people (in 2050) cannot be serviced at a modest level (Costa Rica or Romania, say). Even with a ravaged earth, the one billion on earth at the beginning of the industrial revolution could be sustainable with subsequent technological improvements. I am no expert, but I seriously doubt that 4.5 billion would be. With assured global warming, the amount to which the system is already “committed” as the climate scientists say, added to the reduction in biomass since 1985, I suspect that the number we can sustainably support is from 2.5 to 4 billion – if we increase nuclear power capacity,* work to increase efficiency at all levels, conserve power (again, how much is enough?) and vigorously develop alternative sources of energy . But in order to build increased nuclear capacity as we decommission old coal plants, we will need a lot of capital, and as James Kunstler convincingly argues in The Long Emergency, capital is firmly built upon the platform of cheap oil. As soon as global markets realize that oil extraction has peaked, the markets will plummet, and with them our window of making any significant large-scale, capital-intensive conversion of business as usual. With peak oil immanent, we don’t have much time to achieve a new platform for a steady-state.
If the looming systemic adjustment of human population is going to make room for replenishment of biodiversity, then the number is probably going to be on the low side, perhaps in the long run closer to the number we supported at the beginning of the industrial era. Along with species extinction of 20% (committed) to 50% or more (probable), a human population collapse inevitable. Gaia will take care that there is a die-back, and the current momentum of pumping carbon from underground reservoirs into the atmosphere is pushing the earth system towards a human die-off of unprecedented magnitude. As significant players in concentrations of atmospheric gases, we are as gods, a “planetary power” (Brian Swimme), which, along with overexpanded terrestrial and oceanic habitat, is on the threshold of being brought firmly back into scale, animals subject like any others to population dynamics. Metaphorically, we are a cancer, but looked at more simply, we’re a population in dangerously overextended bloom due to the “petroleum interval.”
Planning can lessen the impact. Alternatively, an economic crash, which is virtually assured in some form by looming peak oil, would slow the surge in CO2, which correlates directly with economic growth. Either way, the sooner we curb our greenhouse emissions, the less the scale of die-off. But it is inevitably going to mean a lot of suffering for human beings. In a warming world of diminished resources creating tensions over oil and water, encroaching seas producing unprecedented numbers of refugees, and severely compromised farmland leading to widespread famine, compassion is the resource we are going to need to grow most of all, not just for fellow human beings, but extending to the entire web of life.
*When I argue that nuclear power is a necessity, I do not mean for unrestrained development and continued growth of material fulfillment (“development”) for an overpopulated world. With nukes, human beings in equilibrium with the web could still drive vehicles (electricity for plug-ins; hydrogen for fuel cells if that ever becomes viable), repair roads, sail ships, (though not fly). Public transportation and ride-shares in efficient vehicles would be far more necessary than private vehicles, which will become luxuries of the rich. We could maintain a grid, rather than having patchwork of independent distributed electrical generating sources. We could provide supplemental heat to underbuilt buildings, which might be able to maintain indoor plumbing during northern winters, though that is something of questionable value in a sustainable world, both in terms water usage and btu’s for space heating.
NEXT: The Challenge of Compassion in a World Ravaged by Global Warming
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