Friday, April 30, 2010

Too Many Humans

And you're lucky it cuts off at 2000, we're almost at 7 Billion.

This is part four of five in the HIPPO series. The second P: Population - specifically human overpopulation.

Just by existing, you're already part of the problem. There are over 6.8 Billion people on earth, and right now, the number's only going up. Fun fun fun.

Most of the growth is relatively recent. 6.8 Billion is almost 14 times as many people as the 500 Million people who existed in 1500.

There are no easy solutions. These huge population numbers amplify the habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution and overharvesting that blight the ecosystem. If we plan to live within global carrying capacity, we need to get the numbers down.

Having an exponentially increasing population in a finite system is a recipe for disaster. Winemaker's yeast consumes the sugar in the grape juice, multiplies rampantly for about a week or so, then dies off in a puddle of its own alcohol.

The analogy isn't perfect, the planet has an outside source of energy, the sun, that it can use to repair itself. All the same, we had better be smarter than the yeast if we want to stick around here, rather than being an evolutionary flash in the pan.

Too many people. The more mouths there are to feed, the more we have to continue changing natural biomass into human biomass. We are literally converting the natural world into human beings.

All that biomass has to come from somewhere, and to get it, we're taking from nature at an unprecedented rate. Through the vast majority of human history, human populations haven't been able to use it all. We didn't need to be smart enough to control our own population. Nature did it for us.

We depend on the earth completely. We live well beyond what it can regenerate by raiding the aquifers and the fossil fuels to temporarily increase the food supply.

It's going to end. It's going to be ugly, and there are no easy answers. If we don't choose to control the runaway population growth then nature is going to do it for us, and Mother Nature won't be very forgiving.

As Gwynne Dyer said in Climate Wars, people always raid before they starve. We're on the verge of having billions of hungry, desperate people with nothing to lose. That's a dangerous recipe.

It would be better to figure out how to live within our means, and start recognizing that that means living in a world where the population is going down. If we don't restrain ourselves, mother nature will remind us who's boss, cancel our ecological credit cards, and take the T-bird away.

You might also like:

A future with a future. - Build the social infrastructure for the future

Irrational Exuberance - We're blowing our ecological lottery winnings.

Crisis of Culture - Slaying some culturally sacred cows.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


No photo this week. Too graphic. Better off the site. What I'm linking to are Chris Jordan's photos at Midway island, of dead birds with plastic in their bellies, taken in October 2009. Sad.

Nobody likes pollution, but everyone contributes to it. It's easy to blame the big industrial polluters, but the real culprits are the consumers who let it happen.

Take plastic, for example. The volumes of plastic that have ended up in the great pacific garbage patch stagger the imagination. The bellies of baby albatross are stuffed with bottle caps and other plastic garbage that their mothers mistake for food. Then they die.

It's not totally your fault. The system allows companies to profit while externalizing the costs of the pollution.

Solving pollution is going to involve changing the systems of production and consumption. The age of the throwaway society is over.

What most companies don't realize, is that solving their pollution problem can improve their bottom line. Pollution is wasted production. Companies need to pay for those inputs, and waste products can't be sold.

For the regular citizen, don't call yourself a consumer. The obvious fix is to use less stuff. We all consume more than we actually need.

For businesses, design the waste out of the system.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart give a thorough account of the approach necessary to eliminate pollution in their book Cradle To Cradle.

The book proposes a radical rethink of the whole design process. It involves keeping biological and technical materials separate in products. Let the biological materials biodegrade, and reuse the technical materials in cycles that allow them to be endlessly reused. At their end of their useful lives products can be easily cycled into new, equivalent products.

In nature, waste equals food. Nothing is wasted. We need to design products so that we don't have a steady accumulation of waste. There is no longer any 'away' for us to throw things.

As citizens, you can vote with your dollars. Companies that are redesigning their offerings to be easier on the planet are worthy of your support. Educate yourself about the issues, and be mindful of greenwashing.

Find ways to use less. It will save you money, and you won't be contributing so much to the pollution problem.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Invasive Species

Kudzu. It takes over everything.

Hippo Part 2: I don't know why she swallowed the fly. I guess she'll die.

After Habitat Destruction, Invasive Species are the second major threat to our ecosystems. The other three HIPPO factors are Pollution, Population, and Overharvesting.

When life forms that haven't evolved in a place arrive in a new location they might die, survive, or in some instances, take over. Taking over typically means disrupting and devastating the ecosystem they find themselves in.

In October of 1859, 24 rabbits were intentionally introduced in Australia. Ten years later, in 1869, they had become so prevalent that two million rabbits could be killed annually without really affecting the population. The cute little pests cause major damage to crops and trees, and contribute to erosion by eating the native plants, which stabilized the soil.

Invasive species typically emerge because of unintended consequences. It's nearly impossible to understand nature far enough ahead, especially when it's had many thousands of years to balance things out.

Thomas Austin, an Englishman, who introduced the rabbits to Australia said "The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting."

Then there's Kudzu, a vine from southern Japan and Southeast China was introduced in the South Eastern US to stabilize earthworks, but ended up taking over large sections of the SE States. 'The vine that ate the South' spreads at 150,000 acres (600 square km) annually.

Smaller invasive species like insects and fungi can also spread by innocuous things like moving firewood. Firewood can contain invasive insects and tree diseases that devastate forests.

Buy your firewood within 80 km of where you will have your fire. If your friends are bringing non-local firewood to the places you love, they are putting those places unnecessarily at risk from insects or disease.

Be conscientious about the potential damage even the most well-meaning introduction of a species can generate when the ecosystem can't handle it. Don't upset the balance. Don't swallow the fly. Avoid the unintended consequences.

With the significant potential threat from invasive species it's far better to simply prevent their introduction.

You might also like:

Hippo Part 1: Development or Habitat Destruction

Avatar and our relationship with nature

What Cuba can teach us about farming

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Development or Habitat Destruction

Hippo, Part 1

In the quest for 'development' we're pretty cavalier about bulldozing whatever is in the way and putting up houses, big box stores, highways, condos, or whatever else in the name of development.

What if its already developed?

Habitat destruction is the biggest of the five major pressures on our ecosystems. Conservation biologists abbreviate those threats HIPPO: Habitat Destruction, Invasive Species, Pollution, Population, and Overharvesting.

The existing tenants, the plants and animals that live there can't defend themselves very well in the courts. They're not very good at filing out the paperwork. If they're to have any chance, we're going to need to think for them, and it's in our interest to do so.

Ecosystems have evolved in place over thousands of years and have become precisely adapted to the natural forces at play. Those forces balance each other and continue the cycle of life.

Our national and provincial parks provide a good way for us to recognize areas we want to protect. That shouldn't mean that the rest of the planet is free for the taking though.

Intact ecosystems are really good for business. The services they provide are the ones we take completely for granted. Things like clean air and water come from intact ecosystems.

Even though you can probably get your municipality to approve whatever development you have in mind, that doesn't necessarily make it right.

Consider the long term value of what already exists on the property you are considering. There's always another way to solve your problem. It may take a little more creativity, ingenuity, or guts, but you can find a better solution. The creative, innovative solutions also tend to be more attractive to a marketplace that is becoming more sensitive to green issues.

If you're thinking of developing, consider how you can redevelop inside an already impacted area so that you're not contributing to habitat destruction.

If you're not developing, make sure you ask these sorts of questions of people who are, and choose to live in redeveloped neighbourhoods, not the new ones on the edges. They build it because we buy it. Changing your purchasing decisions to reflect your beliefs is a good way to send a message.

This will reduce your impact on the ecosystems we need, and help keep the planet in good shape for generations to come.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Irrational Exuberance

Are we blowing our ecological lottery winnings?

Exuberance (noun): filled with or characterized by a lively energy and excitement.

We're lively. We're energized. We're excited. Far more so than any previous generation. We've already won all sorts of lotteries:

We were born as human beings, the alpha species on the planet. We don't really need to fight for our survival in the sense that we're not likely to be killed by tigers or starve to death anytime soon.

We live in Canada, one of the world's most prosperous countries, while most of the world lives in poverty.

We live in an age when energy is cheap and technology is plentiful.

All this has been present for long enough that we take it for granted. This is a mistake. We are extremely blessed.

Most million dollar lottery winners don't do so well with the money. It came to them by chance, they haven't had the experience and developed the money management skills to use it responsibly and it vanishes.

We're in the same boat as the lottery winner who's frittering his capital away. Our capital is natural, and we're enjoying the temporary exuberance that come with being a big spender.

Being the big spender can't last forever. It can't last very long at all. We're blowing through that stored solar income (hydrocarbons) as fast as we can possibly dig, pump, pipe, or boil them out of the ground. Irrational? Who cares. It sure is fun and besides, we've built the whole system around it.

Our ecological bender might last long enough for us, but the generation who most needs an environmental revolution is the one that's not old enough to vote. They can't control their destiny.

All they can do is hope their parents and grandparents make the hard choices necessary to make sure they have the same chances their parents did.

The environment was well balanced, and the more we do this, the weaker it gets, and that will come back to haunt those future citizens who will get stuck with the bill for this imminent ecological disaster. And today, when it matters, they can't even vote.

Whether we're greedy or stupid is anyone's guess, but if we waste our ecological lottery winnings, we certainly won't end up with a nickname like 'the greatest generation'. More likely the opposite.

You might also like:

What does it mean to be wealthy?

Career Opportunity: Spaceship Crew

Crisis of Culture