Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Overshoot, Immigration and Globalization: Different faces of the same fetid, growing heap of Elephant Dung in the living room

Frantic adaptation in any species or group, when their local carrying capacity has been exceeded, can temporarily stave off population collapse (many species, gerbils and some other rodents being prime examples, will resort to cannibalism in the face of severe overshoot). It ultimately deepens the catastrophe, however, when the inevitable can no longer be avoided. Of all the living species on this planet man has consistently proven, through our brief history, to be arguably the most adaptable species on earth. We have achieved this by adopting a strategy very different from that forced on other species by instinct. Where other species are instinctively compelled to adapt to their environment we intellectually adapt that environment to fit our needs.

Despite our ingenuity, however, we, like all other species, are ultimately subject to and constrained by the same finitude of the resources upon which we rely and which support our existence. Unlike other species, though, we have cleverly manipulated the game so that we are not individually constrained by the availability of resources in our local environment. We have taken survival of the species to a whole new level. The survival of our entire species, unlike any other, is limited not by the local environment in which we individually live but upon the collective resources of the entire planet. We are the first and, thus far, the only truly global species, not forgetting, of course, the other species we have domesticated and taken along with us on our march to dominate the globe.

We move things from one place to another depending on the abundance or scarcity of those things in different places. If an area is short of water we build a pipeline to bring in water from another area. Our individual food consumption is not limited to what can be grown in our local area. Millions of tons of food are moved around the planet on a daily basis, moving from areas where we can produce a surplus to those areas in need or want of that surplus. Where other carnivores rely on the availability of game in their territory we have domesticated and bred our game to ensure we always have it close at hand. If one nation has a surplus of population and another can or will absorb some of that surplus people leave and immigrate into other nations. Areas that can produce cotton or wool or silk supply the raw materials to clothe people throughout the world.

Unlike other species, we can and do ignore local shortages because we know that those shortages can be made up from surpluses elsewhere, anywhere in the world. And when we move through or into areas that are deficient in the resources we need or want we, unlike any other species, take those resources with us to compensate for those deficiencies.

All of this has, especially over these past two or three centuries, given us the false impression that we humans have no limits, that the resources that sustain us are infinite and the ability of the human population to grow is equally infinite. Yet we, of all species, know with absolute certainty that this is not true. We know we live on a finite world. And we know what happens to a species when it is in overshoot and is exceeding the carrying capacity of its environment.

Man is the only species with the vision to foresee its own possible extinction, the intellect to bring it about, the intelligence to avoid it, and the stupidity to let it happen anyway. The epitaph on our species tombstone may read: We knew we could destroy ourselves and now, by God, we've proven it. That's the problem with disasters. They're never quite as believable when avoided as when they happen.

We have a cultural aversion to individual murder and suicide and moreso mass murder, like that in the WWII holocaust or in the Rwanda genocide, or group suicide such as that in Jonestown. Odd that we seem not to have the same aversion to species murder and suicide. Like the hopeless addict, we adamantly cling to the very practices that we do or should know are destined to destroy us. Like the terminal addict, we may well go to our collective grave looking for that next fix believing it to be the salvation that came too late.

Our human population is in serious overshoot. There is not enough carrying capacity to sustain us all naturally. The appearance that our population is sustainable is a hologram maintained by massive amounts of fossil fuels. We have, for at least the last couple of centuries, been living in a virtual world. We consume virtual food each calorie of which requires 10 calories of fossil fuel energy. We wear virtual clothing made from a variety of fibers derived from oil. We sustain ourselves with virtual work, ride to work on virtual horses, live in virtual tribes in virtual communities. Everything about, in and from our human world is virtual. We have, we mistakenly believe, cut ourselves off from the natural world, see it only as a resource to be turned into virtual stuff in our virtual world.

It takes countless trillions of calories of fossil fuel energy every day to maintain the illusion of our virtual world. We consume, globally, over eighty-four million barrels of oil every day to maintain the illusion that our population is sustainable. And we are destroying the real, natural world, like a black hole devouring stars, to support our illusion.

Our virtual world, our illusion of reality, our illusion of sustainability, is totally dependent on the natural world against which we do constant, destructive battle. While the population of our virtual world continues to grow the resources of that natural world on which our existence is critically dependent are rapidly racing toward depletion. We have not just temporarily avoided the consequences of overshoot by adapting, which occurred when our global human population surpassed 1-2 billion. We have continued to breed like rabbits, growing our numbers to 4-7 times the real carrying capacity of the planet.

At the same time we have been rapidly destroying and reducing that real carrying capacity. We are destroying and polluting our sources of water, destroying millions of tons of life-supporting topsoil annually, narrowing the genetic diversity and the global gene pool that supports evolution, destroying the atmosphere we breath with air-borne toxins, destroying the natural cycles, rhythms, and systems that maintain the delicate planetary life-support system.

Very soon, in natural terms, the energy that drives and supports our virtual world and our ceaseless growth, is going to go into terminal decline. Oil, natural gas, coal, the uranium for nuclear power, new rivers for more hydro-electric production, the metals from which we produce stuff like cars, planes, ships and more, are all at, past or nearing peak. The quantity of these available to support our virtual world can no longer keep pace with our insatiable demands. Our virtual world is about to go into terminal contraction. There will soon be no pockets of surplus food that can be moved around the planet, insufficient energy to continue to move that food around our globalized model of community, no nations with the surplus virtual carrying capacity to allow them to absorb immigrants, no surplus natural resources to support the continued or existing population of our virtual world.

The sustainable carrying capacity of the real world is estimated to be 1-2 billion. The population of our virtual human world is 6.7 billion and still growing. That virtual world is about to be shut down due to a terminal power failure. We are soon going to have to scramble, fight, claw, cheat and steal for an existence within the 1-2 billion carrying capacity of the real world.

I don't have any answers as to how that will happen. I don't believe there are answers. I don't imagine it can possibly be pretty. It's going to be very nasty. Ultimately we will not be in control of how that unfolds. Nature, that natural world from which we have tried to divorce ourselves, only has so much carrying capacity with which to absorb those humans seeking to come back to her embrace. Those who make it are going to have to live by her very strict rules. My suspicion is she will be a harsh mistress.