Our civilisation is unsustainable

This post by David K. Clarke originally appeared at The Ramblings of a Bush Philosopher.

By definition, a civilisation that is unsustainable must change in one way or another. If the unsustainable features of a civilisation are not changed by a conscious effort of the citizens then changes will be forced onto the civilisation. Each of the problems below must be solved if our civilisation is to become sustainable. The first twelve points in the list below are based on those that Jared Diamond included in his excellent book, Collapse, I added the remainder. (Diamond’s list is repeated in its short form on my page, Threatened disasters compared.)

1. Habitats are being destroyed at record rates.

2. Wild foods, especially fish stocks, are being destroyed; trawling is damaging the sea-bed.

3. Biodiversity is being lost at record rates.

4. The area of land available for food production, and the remaining land’s productivity, is decreasing due to:

  • Soil lost to erosion;
  • Fertility lost following declining levels of plant nutrients and soil carbon;
  • Soil productivity is being destroyed by salinisation due to the build-up of natural salts from irrigation water and reclaimed sewage water;
  • Land is being taken out of production for the construction of housing and roads, etc.
  • Productivity in a number of areas is declining because of declining rainfall (with climate change), in some areas previously productive land is turning to desert;
  • Coastal land is being lost due to rising sea levels, this is particularly important in the world’s great river deltas (which have some of the world’s most fertile land);
  • Land-use is being changed from food production to fuel production.

5. Our civilisation is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, particularly petroleum, yet the supply is declining.

6. Fresh water resources are greatly over-committed, and in many areas are declining due to climate change. Water is being drawn from many of the world’s major aquifers at rates much greater than they are being recharged by natural processes; many are failing or will begin failing in the near future. Much of the world’s food production depends on irrigation, but the water available for irrigation is decreasing.

Last July, in the midst of a two-year drought, only a few wells in rural Lesotho, like this one in the relatively wet west, could still yield water. (Photo: John Wessels / Agence France-Presse)

7. Humanity is approaching the ‘photosynthetic ceiling’. Soon there will be little photosynthetic capacity on earth that is not dedicated to man’s direct use.

8. A huge range of chemicals are being released into natural environments with unknown long-term effects.

9. Plastic wastes are being released into natural environments with unknown long-term effects. It has been forecast that by 2050, 95% of seabirds will have plastic in their gut.

10. Alien species: weeds, pests and pathogens that humanity has spread around the world are having a steadily increasing effect.

11. Problems due to climate change:

  • Rising ocean temperatures are causing coral reefs to die, sea ice to melt and sea levels to rise.
  • Rising temperatures on land are causing declines in agricultural productivity.
  • Mountain glaciers are retreating; this is particularly serious for those rivers that have their sources in the Himalayas and are heavily relied upon for irrigation in South and East Asia.
  • Positive feed-back effects are beginning, for example the release of methane from arctic permafrost and the decline in snow and ice cover will increase the greenhouse effect.

12. World population continues to rise, especially steeply in many poorer states.

13. The environmental impact of the average person is increasing, due to rising living standards. For example, people with more money to spend are demanding more meat, the production of which is more environmentally expensive than vegetable-based foods.

14. The oceans are becoming more acidic (their pH is falling) due to increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (with climate change). This is detrimental to all those oceanic invertebrates that have calcium carbonate skeletons, such as corals, molluscs and many planktonic species.

15. The oceans are becoming polluted, apart from floating plastic waste, there are high levels of pollution even in the deepest parts of the oceans.

16. Forest is being cleared and not replaced. (Diamond was well aware of this problem, but did not include it, as an individual item, in his dozen.)

17. Modern mechanised agriculture requires large quantities of cheap (petroleum) fuel; in some cases the energy in the crops produced is little greater than the energy consumed to raise the crops. To be sustainable agriculture must produce crops containing far more available energy than is consumed in the total production process. (See energy return on investment.)

18. Phosphate supplies for the production of fertiliser are running out. Phosphorus is one of the three most important plant nutrients; without phosphorus fertilisers the “Green Revolution” in agriculture would not have been possible. Scientific American (June 2009) called the world’s phosphate supply “a looming crisis” and said that if action is not taken now “future agriculture will collapse”. Some phosphate deposits contain levels of cadmium sufficient to cause contamination of the soils that receive the phosphate fertilizers over an extended period of time.

19. The populations of most countries are aging. Apart from the aged, the proportion of the populations of Western nations in particular who are incapable of, or unwilling to, work is increasing (single mothers, disabled, unemployable, etc.). This is placing an increasing load on the shrinking proportion of the population that has to support the economies.

20. Superstitions and fundamentalist religions, particularly Islam, are gaining an increasing grip on the world’s people at a time when what is needed is a carefully thought-out and reasoned response to the problems listed here. How many people are expecting a non-existent god to fix all our problems rather than taking action themselves?

21. Pollinating insects are in decline. Honeybees, in particular, are suffering badly in many countries from colony collapse disorder. (While the cause of CCD is not fully known, it seems to be due to “multiple factors [that] interact to weaken the hives, making them susceptible to a range of pathogens and viruses.” [New Internationalist, Sept. 2009]) Wild bees are also suffering losses and quite probably extinction of some species. Some of the causes of the decline of pollinating insects are: the clearing of native vegetation, with its enormous variety of flowering species; monoculture agriculture, which all flowers at the same time resulting in feasts alternating with famines for the insects; and widespread use of agricultural chemicals, insecticides in particular. Without the pollinating insects, many plants are less able, or unable, to reproduce.

22. Man is now artificially producing more nitrates (as fertilisers) than are produced naturally, with the result that the natural nitrogen cycle has become unbalanced. Nitrates and phosphate being washed off farmland and from sewage are causing algal blooms and consequent ‘dead zones’ in the coastal waters of many parts of the world.

23. The present careless use of antibiotics is causing micro-organisms to develop resistance. Antibiotics are, for example, routinely added to some animal feeds because it produces slightly faster growth rates.

24. The ozone layer that protects the earth’s surface from damaging ultra-violet light has been damaged. Production of the worst of the gasses that have caused most ozone loss have been controlled by the Montreal Protocol, and there is cause for optimism; but no room for complacency.

25. Our mega-cities are not compatible with a declining supply of petroleum. Carting food and other materials from where they are produced into cities, and carting wastes out, requires a lot of fuel. As the loss of petroleum makes our present form of mechanised agriculture less viable and as food prices rise due to shortages, more labour will be required to maximise food production; that labour is living in the wrong place at present. Modern cities and suburbs have been developed to suit the private car.

26. The private car, as it is, is incompatible with declining petroleum supplies and the need to reduce greenhouse gas production; its use must be greatly reduced if societies are to become sustainable, but there is no indication of reduction as of 2009. Changing to electric vehicles of similar power to current petroleum-fuelled models will no much help, going to much lower-powered and lighter vehicles might be viable.

27. We are travelling too quickly. The speeds that we travel at present in cars, and aeroplanes is unsustainable because we are approaching the end of oil and producing too much of several greenhouse gasses. Energy is about to become much more expensive, both in financial and environmental terms, and we are going to have to learn to use it more economically and rationally.

28. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Even in the great democracies, the wealthy are gathering to themselves a steadily increasing share of political power (by controlling who gets into government and then controlling what those in power do – consider the lack of government action on climate change while the great majority of informed voters want action), leaving a declining amount of power to the less well-off. As in the past, a point will be reached at which those near the bottom of the heap will demand a more balanced spread of wealth and power.

29. Malnutrition is increasing. Many people still don’t have enough to eat, that is nothing new and may not be increasing, but obesity due to poor eating habits is increasing at a very high rate, and not just in the well fed West. This is leading to increased health problems and health costs.

30. Meat consumption is increasing. The production of meat requires far more land than the production of the same amount of vegetable foods. There is no more land.

Of critical importance is the fact that humanity has not reacted rationally and appropriately to these problems. In response to climate change governments are doing as little as possible and the great majority of individuals are not changing their lifestyles; governments refuse to see that growth cannot continue for ever and seem to not want to know about the declining petroleum supply. People live as if most of the above problems did not exist and we can continue to live the next fifty years with as little care for the environment as in the past fifty.

We have become reliant on a globally integrated economy. Given the above problems, this cannot continue.

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Vatican control of World Health Organization population policy: An interview with Milton P. Siegel

National Geographic – Collapse (2010)

Dancing Star Foundation | Overpopulation Problem

Sir David Attenborough: an interview with the Wellcome Trust

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