Are We Lemmings Heading Toward a Cliff?
When I was a kid, I remember seeing a disturbing film about Lemmings in the Arctic. The film showed how these little rodents bred as though there were no tomorrow when food was abundant, quickly became overpopulated, and apparently due to a herding instinct combined with a drive to find new feeding grounds, before long were following each other in massive numbers to a cliff over the ocean, plunging over the edge and dying down below. I was astonished at this sad spectacle.
I am typically an optimist, and have been throughout life. However, over the years, I have learned that there are certain facts about humanity and our impact on our life-support planet, Earth, which make me wonder whether we as a species may be acting similarly to Lemmings as we head for an ecological cliff which will severely impact not only human life, but life on this planet as a whole -- something akin to the tragedy of the Lemmings, but on a much grander scale and in slower motion.
In order to induce people to take action to stop this ecologically genocidal stampede, perhaps what we need to do is put the facts directly in front of peoples' faces. Thus, this blog post will be heavy on graphics.
Let me begin with human population. The human population has recently experienced a "population explosion" -- certainly a measure of our species "success" on an evolutionary level, but also something that has limits and very powerful impacts on our lifeboat, planet Earth. Here is a Wikipedia link about human population over the past 12,000 years: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth. Do you see the little graph on the right, the one that is nearly flat until 2,500 years ago, which ends in a nearly vertical line at the present time? That is what we are dealing with in terms of spiraling human population growth. This is important regarding our planet's ecosystems because human beings cannot help but have an impact on our planet, and the more of us, the more impact in general. However, not all people have an equal impact on the planet. It depends upon lifestyles. People who live simply and get by without much in the way of modern technology, still impact our planet, but less than people who rely on copious use of natural resources such as fossil fuels, water, minerals, etc. The key to success for humans, in terms of having educated, enlightened, technologically advanced societies, is to utilize more eco-friendly technologies and lifestyles. Some technologies which could help us greatly have been around for many years, but the corporate power structure discourages (to put it mildly) their use. Other eco-friendly technologies are in the process of being developed. Distinguishing the good ideas from the bad, and applying the good technologies is one of our most important tasks. But even more important, we need to alter economics, politics, lifestyle, and the human ethos to make ourselves act as a truly intelligent, creative and wise species, rather than acting like a horde of Lemmings. Human beings are "intelligent," but we have been behaving as a group in incompetent ways, and indeed, we do have limited intelligence and competence. We need to keep that in mind, including those of us who are in positions of power and influence, in attempting to utilize our intelligence to the best of our abilities.
In projecting future population levels of humanity, there are varying predictions. Most projections show 3 possibilities: Slow, medium and rapid population growth. Even the slow growth model shows continuing population growth, however, at least in the short term. While it is true that birth rates have been reducing around the world, the human population at this time continues to climb faster than ever, due to a combination of more people living to breed more people, and longer life expectancies. There is hope for a leveling off or even modest decline in the total number of humans this planet must care for. The following article cites one population specialist who predicts that the human population -- without any genocide or draconian sterilization projects, presumably -- will peak at 8.7 billion people in 2055 and decline to 8 billion by 2100: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/21/business/uns-forecast-of-population-growth-may-be-too-high.html?_r=1&. However, other models predict considerably more population growth than that, and given current trends, these higher growth scenarios seem more realistic. The world's population surpassed 7 billion people in 2011, and has been adding people at an increasing rate, so that currently, the population is growing at a rate of about 1 billion more people every 10 years or so. Yes, this population growth is expected to slow down, but how much and how soon is unclear. To make matters worse, rising sea levels and effects of climate change are likely to further restrict habitable areas for humans as well as food producing capabilities -- unless melting ice opens up Arctic and Antarctic areas for human colonization or living as "boat people" becomes a very popular lifestyle.
Now, let us check on some of the better documented impacts of humans on our planet. First, CO2 levels, a factor in global warming, have been rising rapidly, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels by humans. Records at Mauna Loa in Hawaii have been showing this increase over many years: http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/. We have nice, big, clear graphs on this site which illustrate the carbon dioxide increases over the past several decades, levels which continue to climb. Again, not all humans have anything close to an equal impact on the climate or ecosystems of the earth. In fact, the rest of the world should probably be suing the United States and other industrialized nations for the disproportionate devastation our lifestyles are causing to the planet.
To make matters worse, melting ice and increasing ocean temperatures may induce the release of massive amounts of sequestered methane gas into the atmosphere. The problem with that, is that methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. Thus, if methane levels in the atmosphere increase markedly, rather than this planet's ecological feedback mechanisms having a self-correcting, stabilizing effect on climate, the increased methane levels will only exacerbate global warming; the warmer the planet becomes, the more methane will be released into the atmosphere, and the more heating will result. Essentially, temperatures may spiral out of control, until there is no more sequestered methane gas to release into the atmosphere. By this time, the planet's temperatures will be quite a few degrees warmer than they are now, likely resulting in the extinction of most species on earth, including ones such as ocean species that humans don't directly impact by habitat destruction. When I spoke to my ecologist brother about climate change a few months ago, this was his greatest concern. Ecologists are confident that this global warming scenario is a scientific reality because according to the evidence, it has happened during each of the 5 previous mass extinctions on this planet. Coincidentally, Thom Hartmann produced a recent blog post and video about the potential ecological disaster we face -- and will be responsible for having created -- if the world's methane supply is released into the atmosphere. Here is Thom's short documentary on this topic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRGVTK-AAvw.
It is clear that temperatures have been increasing, commensurate with the increases in carbon dioxide levels. The following website links increasing extinction rates with increasing global temperatures: http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Largest_mass_extinction_in_65_million_years_underway,_scientists_say. Notice the graph showing global warming. Finally, humans have caused the extinction of certain species over a period of many years, but the rate of extinctions have been increasing. This is due to a number of factors, including deforestation, overharvesting, desertification, and of course, climate change; however, if current trends continue, climate change will become the primary human cause of species extinctions as we begin to lose species at epidemic levels. This final website indicates that the sixth mass extinction may have already begun: http://en.wikinews.org/wiki/Largest_mass_extinction_in_65_million_years_underway,_scientists_say. We need all of us to put our brainpower together and come up with intelligent, consensual ways of dealing with the problems we humans are causing to our ecosphere.
I suppose this is just another way of saying that we need to drastically change how humans "do business" on this planet -- something that requires nothing short of the economic, political, technological, social and spiritual reform of our species. We clearly have our work cut out for us and even if successful, as I expect ultimately for us to be, it will be a very bumpy ride -- but first, we need people as a whole, to recognize the challenges we face as a species. There are already many movements involving technological and social changes which have great potential in helping humanity resolve this crisis. Humanity as a whole generally focuses attention on problems when crises become evident, and once people do this, great accomplishments are inevitable. I believe that humanity will learn as it must, and create new solutions which will allow continued cultural evolution of humanity as modern lifestyles change so that instead of working against nature we adapt our lifestyles to work with nature.