Thursday, December 29, 2016

Earth "Over Shoot Day" By 2030 - What Will We DO To Avoid It?

Graph showing absolute 'two planet' overshoot by 2030. This assumes 'business as usual' which will be the case certainly in "Trump world".

As we approach a new year it is useful to think about the planet's limited resources, our stewardship of them and the potential for overshoot. Even moderate UN scenarios suggest that if current population and consumption trends continue, then by the 2030s we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us. Of course, we only have one, and that is now badly polluted, including with coral reefs dying throughout the world's oceans,

Too many of our citizens fail to appreciate that every energy conversion process has as an accompaniment entropy, or disorder. In most cases this appears as waste heat, as well as pollutants. For example, a car engine produces carbon monoxide as well as carbon dioxide and waste heat generated via the internal combustion engine.  The 2nd law of thermodynamics or entropy law  states that the expelled gas constituents cannot ever be combined again to produce the original fuel. In other words, resource consumption here is a one way process. Resource extraction, such as oil shale fracking also has many adverse effects on the terrestrial environment, apart from the CO2 released when the stuff is burned (e.g. as kerogen)

Turning resources into waste faster than waste can be converted into resources puts us in global ecological overshoot, depleting the very resources on which human life and biodiversity depend.
Every year Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with our Earth Overshoot Day campaign. Earth Overshoot Day is the day on the calendar when humanity has used up the resources that it takes the planet the full year to regenerate. Just like the hands of the  'doomsday clock'  approaching 'midnight' for nuclear cataclysm, Earth Overshoot Day  has moved earlier and earlier each year across metaphorical calendar months. By way of comparison, it has already shifted from early October in 2000 to August n 2015 and will arrive by early July next year - but many predict by early May under a Trump administration's excesses. This is nothing to cheer about but instead something to fear because it shows our time is running out..

The inevitable result will be dying coral reefs,  collapsing fisheries, faster melting polar caps and glaciers, diminishing forest cover, depletion of fresh water systems, and increasing ocean acidification as well as sea level rise.  Overshoot also contributes to resource conflicts and wars, mass migrations, famine, disease and other human tragedies—and tends to have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who cannot buy their way out of the problem by getting resources from somewhere else.

When famed science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov arrived in Barbados in February, 1976, the entire island was in an uproar The reason was eager anticipation of his public lecture at the venerable Queen's Park Theater.

Isaac Asimov makes a crucial point concerning overpopulation at his Queen's Park Lecture in Barbados, in February, 1976.

Asimov's general theme was 'The Moon and What It means To Us' but - as usual- his lecture did veer off into other important areas, especially the increase in human population, and its dire effects on the welfare of everyone.

A metaphor that Asimov used to make his point then has since become known as "the bathroom metaphor" and it works to get people to understand the debilitating, disastrous effects of too many people, and particularly overshoot of limited available resources.. As Asimov noted, if two people live in an apartment, and it comes with two bathrooms, they have a comfortable life. Either one can use the bathroom anytime he or she wants, and can remain in there as long as they desire, even reading while doing business.

One can say, that for the purpose of "Bathroom freedom" - 2 is the carrying capacity for a two -person apartment. Now, let there be twenty people occupying the same apartment, and what happens? Bathroom freedom evaporates. Visits now must be regulated by the clock, and no one may stay in for too long. Indeed, a timetable likely has to be set up for each person's bathroom use. (Don't laugh too hard at the improbability of this example, since we now know of numerous cases where immigrants have been found crammed into such conditions - but usually in a house)

The point is, that the liberating use of the bathroom which applied for two persons, no longer applies with twenty, and probably evaporated by the time there were five or six occupants of the apartment. By the latter numbers, say at two or three times the normal occupancy - one attains "overshoot" for the apartment. In a similar way overpopulation of a finite planet with limited resources and space  degrades the quality of living, and cheapens it for all.

Is Asimov's example a tad too extreme or is there a real world, historical example to support it? In fact, there is, and it can be traced to Easter Island. The Easter Islanders went from a maximum 20,000-odd population ca. 1600 AD to barely 1,000 when the first Europeans landed in 1720. (Massive civil war broke out ~ 1680) The newcomers had found that the natives had descended into war and cannibalism. In the case of the E. Islanders, they expended all their wood, forest stores – and were reduced to living in caves by the time the Europeans arrived.

What happened? The Islanders grew too comfortable with their existing resources, and began to consume them at a rate beyond their replacement leading to overshoot. This had a critical impact because of the fact: a) Easter Island was so remote - closest other island is Pitcairn, 1240 miles west, and b) the trees that formed the base of the resource supply were limited in extent.

Because of the trees, the Islanders could build adequate shelters, plus construct boats able to navigate many miles offshore to catch large dolphin (fish, not mammals) and eat heartily. But they became too sated too soon. Their ability to provide a bounty of food early drove their birth numbers higher. From a base population of ~ 3500, they grew to 5500, then 7800, then 10,000, then 15,000. In all likelihood they were already on the verge of overshoot by 5500.

As their numbers increased on the tiny island, the demand for lumber did as well. Massive deforestation was now the rule, as they cut down trees to try to keep pace with the exploding population. Before long, new seedlings planted could not reach the maturity needed to build the sturdy fishing boats to go miles offshore and catch dolphin. The populace was now reduced to scavenge for small mollusks near the tidal basin, and to hunt whatever birds there were (the birds were hunted to extinction).

As people, then animals, soon descended to eating the seeds of the trees, collapse set in. By the time the Europeans arrived there were no more wood shelters, and the people had retreated into caves and had been eating each other for decades. Such are the horrific fruits of overshoot, when people become desperate.

Like Easter Island before its overshoot, the Earth has provided humans all that's  needed to live and thrive. But also like Easter Island and its then inhabitants, we are approaching the critical limits beyond which it will be impossible to survive - far less thrive. So what will it take for humanity to live within the means of one planet? Individuals and institutions worldwide must begin to recognize ecological limits. We must begin to make ecological limits central to our decision-making and use human ingenuity to find new ways to live, within the Earth’s bounds.

This means investing in technology and infrastructure that will allow us to operate in a resource-constrained world. It means taking individual action, and creating the public demand for businesses and policy makers to participate.

Using tools like the Ecological Footprint to manage our ecological assets is essential for humanity’s survival and success. Knowing how much nature we have, how much we use, and who uses what is the first step, and will allow us to track our progress as we work toward our goal of sustainable, one-planet living.

Regrettably, such objectives will now be vastly harder to achieve under a Trump administration which has appointed a horde of climate deniers who don't give a damn about planetary stewardship. Further, they deny global warming reality in favor of a business model that is totally unsustainable in a world beset by the runaway greenhouse effect.

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