|The world is not enough
“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
By: John Gibbons
Is the world big enough for anything other than humans? At first glance, this sounds a pretty preposterous question. After all, we’ve always share the planet with millions of other species of plants and animals.
And yet… Our needs, our wants, our desires, and of course our sheer numbers are crowding, hunting, poisoning and literally pushing other species out of existence by wiping out their habitats. All the top predators have either already been wiped out or only survive today in wildlife parks or zoos.
Creatures such as sharks have been successful predators on this planet for millions of years before man arrived, surviving every threat down the ages, including the massive asteroid strike 65 million years ago, which wiped out the last of the dinosaurs. Yet today, many species of shark are extinct, with the rest on the edge of oblivion.
As the recent publication of the 2007 ‘Red List’ of endangered species shows, the human holocaust is gathering pace, as our activities either directly or indirectly, condemn tens of thousands of species to oblivion, Scientists now calculate that the current extinction rates are between 100 and 1,000 times the expected ‘background rate’ which can be attributed to natural (non-human) forces.
What can be done? Surprisingly little, in fact. In the course of the 20th century human population exploded four-fold, from well under 2 billion in 1900 to 6.5 billion at the end of the century. In that time, the world’s economy grew 14-fold, our energy use shot up 13-fold, air pollution levels rose five-fold and C02 emissions rose 17-fold.
The water use required to service this huge growth in human numbers and economic activity increased nine-fold in the 20th century, while the tonnage of marine catch extracted increased an astonishing 35-fold. Also, in the course of the 20th century, the world’s population of blue whales declined by 99.75%, fin whales by 97% and 20% of the world’s forests disappeared as land under the plough doubled.
If an economist or politician were to describe this frenzy of human activity, it would be as an astonishing triumph of man and his technology in turning the world over to serve our needs. And on one level, that’s hard to argue with.
But taken as a whole, the 20th century should also be seen as the greatest assault ever undertaken against the very systems upon which we all depend for survival – soil erosion, water and air pollution on a global scale, massive deforestation and critical increases in greenhouse gases – these are the real, but strangely hidden ‘price tag’ on the most extraordinary century in the short, turbulent history of our species.
In the words of John McNeill, author and historian, “the human race, without intending anything of the sort, has undertaken a gigantic uncontrolled experiment on the earth”. And it’s all about scale and intensity. For example, he points out, gradual increases in fishing brought about total collapse in some oceanic fisheries. There is a point beyond which most systems will, if pushed, collapse. In most cases, we know too little about the systems that we are interfering with to be even aware of when we may be approaching a ‘tipping point’, but there are clear warning signs, if we care to look for them.
One of these is the rate of species extinction. This tells us if the fabric of life systems which support one another is unravelling, and on this score, the current whirlwind rate of species loss is a red flag.
In its latest report, the World Conservation Union (www.iucn.org) has identified more than 16,600 species now facing extinction. “If everybody on the planet co-operated and adopted a sustainable way of living, a lot of these problems would go away”, said the Union’s Craig Hilton-Tailor. He quickly added that in all of human history, that has never happened.
And seriously, what are the odds of us now changing our ways? The model that we in Ireland have grown up with (and that has by and large served us well within the confines of this island) is western consumer capitalism. Put simply, this involves economies growing rapidly and consuming even more rapidly. Indeed, this model represents the total triumph of consumption over conservation.
In fact, it’s safe to say that if people in Europe and the US stopped their frenzy of consumption, the entire western world would slump into recession or even depression. That’s how wedded our world is to this way of life, and how impossible, barring catastrophe, it is to even slow this down, never mind throw it into reverse.
And yet… if we fail to rein in our consumption dramatically – and soon – it will quite literally consume us. Our addiction to cheap, virtually unlimited energy could well be compared to a heroin habit – exhilarating, euphoric, but deadly over time. And it’s extremely difficult to wean off. And let’s face it, since we’re all carbon junkies, who’s going to shout ‘stop’ – and which of us would listen?