I hate to be bleak. I’m not a bleak person. But, I’m also a realist, and there is something real to worry about here. There’s a reason many people are concerned about the planet; it’s not just some fad, not just some way of life that lets people feel special or gives them some sense of unique identity.
Bottom line– what we’re doing to the environment now is bad enough, but it’s the trend lines that are scary. Nearly every key metric is still going in the wrong direction. The world’s population is still growing, despite a long-term trend toward leveling off, and every three days or so there are a million more mouths to feed on the planet (net increase). Worse, the current demographic situation has its own momentum—as all these young people grow up and have their own children, population will continue to rise for decades even if birthrates were at replacement levels (roughly 2.1 children per female). All of these present and future people will be trying desperately to live the best lives they can, and will continue to put extreme pressure on the planet.
So as we look out and see pollution, habitat destruction, species extinctions, and a host of other problems, we have to realize that these are all poised to get worse. And herein lies the real danger, that of cascading failure. It could play out in different ways, but the general patterns in such scenarios are all similar.
Let’s just play a little “what if”… Fisheries the world over are under intense pressure right now, and many have collapsed. What if continuing demand for seafood causes these collapses to continue, spurred on by population growth? We would then have a simultaneous situation of more food demand, and less food. People have to eat, so agriculture would need to take up the slack. But agriculture is also under pressure. The benefits of the Green Revolution have played out; average yields are no longer growing, and in some cases are falling, and all this as population is rising. So food in this situation becomes more scarce, and prices rise. Around the world, more land would have to be brought into production in response. But, virtually all arable land on the planet is in production already, so the new lands would be marginal. Worse, these lands would be put into production by further hacking down forests and destroying wildlife habitat and natural species. The deforestation and the tilling of the soil would both add further to atmospheric carbon, which in turn would cause increased global warming and unpredictable weather. This would put yet more pressure on agriculture. In a quest to eat, groundwater would be pumped for agriculture at an increasing rate, and
around the world groundwater would begin to disappear. (In some places in India today, the drop in groundwater levels, yearly, is already measured in meters.) And, as sea levels slowly rise due to rising global temperatures, millions upon millions of the world’s poorest people, in places like Bangledesh, will find flooding to be more common, making it ever harder to grow food. The entire system is interconnected, and failure in one area adds pressure to another, and can cause it to fail, which causes the next thing to fail, like dominos falling. We see this in power grid failures, we see it in financial market meltdowns, and we could see it with the environment. It could happen in various ways, but in all situations each failure would contribute to other failures.
This isn’t some new concept. Biologists have long described it when studying populations, of everything from bacteria and yeast to birds and elephants—it’s called “overshoot and collapse”. Populations outstrip their resources, and population momentum causes these same sorts of cascading failures.
Worse, all of this might be only decades away. When the Club of Rome did their famous study and wrote “The Limits of Growth” in 1972, they used early computers to graph out trend lines, and predicted cascading failures about the year 2030. After forty years, we are still following these trend lines; they remain essentially accurate.
This is what keeps “environmentalists” up at night. This is why humankind isn’t changing its ways fast enough. This is the danger. Because these scenarios are possible, we are playing a dangerous game. I am not predicting catastrophe—only pointing out that failure of this nature has a probability far greater than zero. And once failures of this nature begin occurring, they would be virtually impossible to stop, the system would be in a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop.
In 1511 a Dominican friar, Antonio de Montesinos, delivered a sermon on the island of Hispaniola entitled “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, as he spoke out against the abuses of native Americans in the New World. Sometimes I feel like that, like the voice of one, as I see business as usual every day. But I’m not actually alone, there are thousands, tens of thousands who see the trend lines, and attempt to act. But sometimes I’m afraid that even these tens of thousands are not enough, and that the momentum in the system is going to get away from us.