02 February 2008

We did what...!?

The magnitude of human induced changes to the planet is astounding. The existence and reality of anthropogenic global climate change, largely wrought by greenhouse gas emissions, is itself difficult to comprehend. And as global capitalism continues to accelerate, CO2 levels have reached new peaks, up to 394 ppm. Contrary to the claims on deniers, the recent global warming has not stopped, nor is it likely to in any sort of imaginable near future. Unfortunately, our environmental problems are not limited to the atmosphere.

All the 'spheres' (i.e. atmo-, hyrdo-, bio-, etc.) of the Earth are deeply interrelated, each affecting the other through poorly understood feedback mechanisms. Changing one aspect of the environment can have dramatic effects on a different, seemingly unrelated aspect. Over the eons, these different aspects of the environment have reached a 'dynamic equilibrium', allowing all we sense and rely upon to exist. Unfortunately, humans are radically altering all of these spheres at once, risking our existence. Often, this is done for the purpose of short-term profit and unchecked economic 'growth'. A few examples follow.

Our attitudes towards the ocean and its fish stocks are particularly shocking. Overfishing has long been a concern, but governments around the world continue to subsidize these activities and turn a blind eye towards regulation. Corruption rules the day. Recent studies using records of fishing activity from the pre-industrial era have begun to shed some light on the enormity of these transgressions against nature. A quote:

In 1855, just 43 schooners out of Beverly, Mass., were catching considerably more cod in the waters south of Nova Scotia in a season than their modern counterparts can catch today. Crews fishing over the side with baited hand lines caught 7,800 metric tons of cod – about three times what fishermen caught in that area in 2006. And they did it within sight of land in coastal waters where today cod are virtually nonexistent.

Consider also that the ocean's 'biological deserts' have expanded by over 15% between 1997 and 2006, likely driven by anthropogenic global warming. What effect will these have on future fish stocks? Will carbon sequestration in the ocean be reduced as a result, hence increasing global warming? What about man-made nitrogen? What will people who rely on the sea eat?

Our attitudes to the forests of the world, particularly in tropical regions, are also primarily motivated by profit. After a few years of relative decline, deforestation in the Amazon is again on the upswing, driven by high commodity prices and other land use pressures. The government is unlikely to take any serious remediative action. Similarly, mangrove swamps have declined by 20% since 1980. Land use changes, particularly conversion for agriculture is the main driver. These forests are mainstays of biodiversity and are a crucial part of maintaining the 'dynamic balance' needed for life as we know it to continue to exist. However, the true rate of tropical deforestation remains uncertain due to data quality issues.

While many of these changes are occurring in less-developed regions of the world, one can hardly fault them for following the model for success which served the western world so well. It continues there today. Similar questions to those for the ocean apply here. What about the carbon sequestration by the forest? What is the greater effect of species loss?

Issues of tropical deforestation were discussed at the recently Bali conference, and a tentative agreement was struck. Regardless, the World Bank continues sponsor destruction of the forest a month after promising to fight deforestation. If there is a buck to be made, they will make it. This attitude is symptomatic of the environmental problems we face. Our global economic system is harsh, with two possible outcomes: exploiter or exploited. The exploited get to live in post-collapse conditions now; the rest of us have to wait a few more years.

The magnitude of the environmental crises we have caused is beginning to be more widely recognized. So is the main driver of global capitalism and incessant economic growth. Bill Gates, one of the world's richest men, recently issued a call for a “kinder capitalism”. How to actually go about creating a low carbon society is being serious discussed by academics. But we in the rich nations cannot make our taking action contingent on action by the poor. We must lead by example and act unilaterally, freely sharing our knowledge to create a better life for all. We largely created the problems, we need to fix them. A new lifestyle is needed around the world, free from the clutches of unrestrained global capitalism. The changes won't be easy, but they are the only hope we have.

To achieve this, we must both summon to political will to change, as well as make a personal commitment to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. Duplicitous climate change talks won't do it. Neither will greenwashed BS like the Eco credit card. It's easy to expect nothing of our political leaders or ourselves. Most wouldn't elect someone who runs on a platform similar to what is required.

We have already pushed ourselves into a new geological epoch with our radical alteration of the planet. We need to act now so that there will be future scientists to interpret these events in the geological record and marvel at how we avoided calamity.

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