The Life at the Brink
Posted by Fredsvenn on March 10, 2016
The spread of humans and their large and increasing population has had a profound impact on large areas of the environment and millions of native species worldwide.
Advantages that explain this evolutionary success include a relatively larger brain with a particularly well-developed neocortex, prefrontal cortex and temporal lobes, which enable high levels of abstract reasoning, language, problem solving, sociality, and culture through social learning.
Humans use tools to a much higher degree than any other animal, are the only extant species known to build fires and cook their food, and are the only extant species to clothe themselves and create and use numerous other technologies and arts.
Humans are uniquely adept at utilizing systems of symbolic communication (such as language and art) for self-expression and the exchange of ideas, and for organizing themselves into purposeful groups.
Humans create complex social structures composed of many cooperating and competing groups, from families and kinship networks to political states.
Social interactions between humans have established an extremely wide variety of values, social norms, and rituals, which together form the basis of human society.
Curiosity and the human desire to understand and influence the environment and to explain and manipulate phenomena (or events) has provided the foundation for developing science, philosophy, mythology, religion, anthropology, and numerous other fields of knowledge.
They began to exhibit evidence of behavioral modernity around 50,000 years ago. In several waves of migration, anatomically modern humans ventured out of Africa and populated most of the world.
Though most of human existence has been sustained by hunting and gathering in band societies, increasing numbers of human societies began to practice sedentary agriculture approximately some 10,000 years ago, domesticating plants and animals, thus allowing for the growth of civilization.
These human societies subsequently expanded in size, establishing various forms of government, religion, and culture around the world, unifying people within regions to form states and empires.
The rapid advancement of scientific and medical understanding in the 19th and 20th centuries led to the development of fuel-driven technologies and improved health, causing the human population to rise exponentially.
By 2014, the global human population was estimated to be around 7.2 billion and rising. By February 2016, the US Census Bureau has estimated the world population to exceed 7.3 billion.
In the near future, anthropogenic extinction scenarios have been proposed: global nuclear annihilation, dysgenics, overpopulation, biological warfare or an accidental pandemic, ecological collapse, and global warming; in addition, emerging technologies could bring about new extinction scenarios, such as advanced artificial intelligence or self-replicating nanobots.
Species are disappearing at an alarming rate, and that raises questions about our survival. In the last half-billion years, life on Earth has been nearly wiped out five times. These events are known as the Big Five mass extinctions, and all signs suggest we are now on the precipice of a sixth, an event characterized by the loss of between 17,000 and 100,000 species each year.
This time we have no one but ourselves to blame. According to a study published in Science Advances, the current extinction rate could be more than 100 times higher than normal—and that’s only taking into account the kinds of animals we know the most about. The climate change might be the final trigger that pushes an extinction event over the edge from possibility to certainty.
According to Barnosky current extinction rates are 1,200 % greater than normal due to humans killing animals for food, money, or development. At this pace, up to 75 % of known species could go extinct within the next two to three generations. We have killed about 50 % of the world’s vertebrate wildlife in just the past 40 years. We’ve killed half the numbers of individuals. We’ve fished 90 % of the fish out of the seas. So these are big things we’re doing to the world.
Fears about overpopulation, once the apocalyptic vision du jour, have disappeared from the headlines in recent years. The consensus had been that we can look forward to peak population by late this century – maybe at 9 or 10 billion, compared to the current 7 billion. The only question seemed to be precisely when and at what level.
The real issue is overconsumption, where we purchase things, not to fulfil our basic needs, but to fill some voids about our lives and make social statements about ourselves. It is the ravenous demands of the rich world that is enlarging the human footprint on our planet – pumping greenhouse gases into the air, polluting the oceans, trashing forests and the rest. Any further rise in numbers of poor people will barely figure in that.
More stuff isn’t making us any happier. Our obsessive relationship with material things is actually jeopardising our relationships, which are proven over and over to be the biggest determining factor in our happiness [once our basic needs are met]. Overconsumerism is other words adding little to our wellbeing as well as being disastrous for the planet. In fact we are witnessing nothing short of the collapse of social fabric across society.
Part of the problem is our confused sense of self. We are being dwarfed by a relatively new reflex action – consume, consume, consume. Our consumer self is so overdeveloped that we spend most of our time there. We interact with others from our consumer self and are most spoken to as our consumer self. We are so comfortable there that even when we’re faced with really big problems [like climate change], we think about what to do as individuals and consumers: ‘I should buy this instead of this.’
The thing is that if you’re going to vote with your dollar you need to remember that Exxon has a lot more dollars than you. Instead we need to vote with our votes; re-engage with the political process and change the balance of power so that those who are looking out for the wellbeing of the planet dominate, instead of those who are just looking our for the bottom line. Or get rid of the whole voting system and put in place real democracy.
So-called ethical consumption, or greensumption, is not going to get us out of the problem either. That will just be a green painting and continuation of our ongoing dysfunctional system. We need a complete overhaul in our approach that involves a real cradle-to-cradle revolution; marrying intelligent design upstream and consumer incentivised recycling and composting downstream. We have simply to get rid of our capitalist system.
One of the slogans of the 2011 Occupy protests was ‘capitalism isn’t working’. Now, in an epic, groundbreaking new book, French economist Thomas Piketty, who debunks everything that capitalists believe about the ethical status of making money, explains why they’re right. He demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that capitalism can ever solve the problem of inequality, which he insists is getting worse rather than better.
Contrary to our perceived perception of the 20th century as an age in which inequality was eroded, in real terms it was always on the rise. The rich get rich and the poorer get poorer. The real danger is that if this process is not arrested, poverty will increase at the same rate and, Piketty argues, we may well find that the 21st century will be a century of greater inequality, and therefore greater social discord, than the 19th century. He contends that capitalism’s inherent dynamic propels powerful forces that threaten democratic societies.
Ecological Debt Day, also known as Earth Overshoot Day, is the annual marker of when we begin living beyond our means in a given year. While only a rough estimate of time and resource trends, Earth Overshoot Day is as close as science can be to measuring the gap between our demand for ecological resources and services, and how much the planet can provide.
August 13 was the Earth Overshoot Day 2015, marking the date when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year. For the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We will be operating in overshoot. August 19 is Earth Overshoot Day 2014.
Just as a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, Global Footprint Network measures humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and ecological services. And the data is sobering. Global Footprint Network estimates that approximately every eight months, we demand more renewable resources and C02 sequestration than what the planet can provide for an entire year.
We are well over budget, and that debt is compounding. It is an ecological debt, and the interest we are paying on that mounting debt are becoming more evident by the day and comes with devastating human and monetary costs.
Climate change—a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans—is the most obvious and arguably pressing result. But there are others—food shortages, soil erosion, and the build-up of CO₂ in our atmosphere, shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices and civil unrest, to name a few.
In other words, overconsumption is costing us the earth and human happiness, and will make us extinct if we don’t change our behaviour and our political and economical system. We simply have to end the focus on making stuff for consumtion and instead produce stuff we need. We have to stop advertising and making needs we don’t have.
The probability of human extinction within the next hundred years, due to anthropogenic consequences, is an active topic of debate. Humanity has survived natural existential risks for hundreds of thousands of years, therefore it would be an unlikely piece of bad luck for a sufficiently large natural catastrophe to occur in the next hundred.
In contrast, human extinction by wholly natural scenarios, such as meteor impact or large-scale volcanism, is extremely unlikely to occur in the near future.
Degrowth is a political, economic, and social movement based on ecological economics, anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist ideas that arose from concerns over the perceived consequences of the productivism and consumerism associated with industrial societies.
It is also considered an essential economic strategy responding to the limits-to-growth dilemma. Degrowth thinkers and activists advocate for the downscaling of production and consumption—the contraction of economies—arguing that overconsumption lies at the root of long term environmental issues and social inequalities.
Key to the concept of degrowth is that reducing consumption does not require individual martyring or a decrease in well-being. Rather, ‘degrowthists’ aim to maximize happiness and well-being through non-consumptive means—sharing work, consuming less, while devoting more time to art, music, family, culture and community.
A steady-state economy is an economy of relatively stable size. A zero growth economy features stable population and stable consumption that remain at or below carrying capacity. The term typically refers to a national economy, but it can also be applied to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire planet. The objective is to establish it at a sustainable scale that does not exceed ecological limits.