Earth. A lonely world in a vast universe. And all around us, in our solar system, and even in the places barely visible through the lengthening vision of our telescopes, are dead worlds. Barren worlds. Hellish hot worlds. Strange giant gas worlds. Frozen worlds. But none hospitable to the rich variety of life all around us.
There is poetry here. It is the poetry of beauty. Of singular wonder. Of a gift or of the great good fortune that we ended up here, the only place we could have come to be. It is also the poetry of loneliness and desperation. For if anything happened to this world. For if the world changed even just a bit. It becomes far, far less likely that we would continue. Change a little more and the chances for life existing on Earth grow slim indeed.
Massive things in motion
In many ways we are beholden to the enormous natural forces that surround us. There is much we cannot control — the fall of an asteroid, the explosion of a supervolcano, a gamma-ray burst all would result in changes that are likely beyond the scope of human beings to adapt or overcome. But there is also much we can control. And there are many things we can do to reduce the likelihood for harm coming to our world at our own hands.
There are 7 billion human beings living here. This is seven hundred times the number of hunter gatherers the world supported 10,000 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, sustainability experts set a cautious growth limit for humans on Earth at around 6 billion. Even at the time of the first reports, 4 billion human beings were causing major stresses to the world environment. Species loss was accelerating, resources were beginning to deplete, forests were disappearing, and pollution was creating greater and greater impacts. Loss of ozone was already a threat and reductions in the use of pesticides were needed to protect key species. It was also becoming clear that human emissions of CO2 more than a hundred times that emitted by volcanoes was starting to warm our climate.
Some sustainability experts, like the authors of the ground-breaking book Limits to Growth, made appeals for building a livable path forward. A transition to technologies that did less harm. A transition to ways of living that produced less children. A transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. The hope was to sustain civilization. To prevent overshoot. To preserve a world hospitable for human life. But few people listened and few of the policies were enacted. Now, we are in a situation where resources are rapidly depleting, arable land is shrinking, and the climate is growing increasingly hostile. We live in a world of social, political and national unrest. We live in a world of resource wars. A world where the number of refugees from extreme weather exceeds the number of refugees from warfare.
These instance are all signs of overshoot — a situation where the human stresses to Earth are beyond what is sustainable for a livable world. A situation where resource depletion exceeds the natural world’s ability to replace those resources. A situation where the rate of pollution, primarily of CO2, exceeds the ability of sinks to absorb it. A situation where the pollution sinks are filling up and starting to become sources.
The Global Footprint Network makes yearly estimates of how many planets would be needed to support human consumption. And their estimate is that currently 1.5 Earths would be needed to sustain our recent activity indefinitely. Looking forward, under business as usual, Global Footprint estimates that 2.2 Earths will be needed by 2050. Since there is only one Earth, this level of overshoot cannot be sustained indefinitely. And pushing Earth too far beyond its limits results in irreversible damage and a contraction of the world’s carrying capacity to .8, .5, .3 or even zero Earths. Overshoot for too long means we could, potentially, remove ourselves from the planet.
Returning to sustainability means both change and reduction. And, perhaps, this is why it is so unpopular. A drunk or a drug addict doesn’t like to be told he or she needs a change in behavior. And we have grown drunk on growth, addicted to fossil fuels, hooked on over-consumption, stuck in population growth without restraint.
To change to sustainability means more cooperation and less competition. It means more moderate winners and far less losers. It means holding the robber barons to account. It means reducing and removing fossil fuel consumption. It means eating less meat. It means more renewable energy and more localized communities. It means more democratic rule and less hierarchy. It means more freedoms for women to control their family size and when they have children and less oppression of and violence against women. It means more compassion and less selfishness from leaders.
Making a change to sustainability will be a hard lesson to learn. It is even doubtful that we are up to the task. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we fail, if we choose the path of hubris, then we risk losing our civilization, so much of life, and perhaps even our world. It is difficult to make an appeal to humanity’s better angels. But if the angels are listening, please fly to send word!