StudentsForTheEarth.org
 
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability,
and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Aldo Leopold


 

 
Connecting the dots:
From human behaviors to a failing Ecosystem.
 
 
  I. Population explosion
 II. Over consumption of Earth's renewables
III. Dysfunctional distribution of resources
IV. ...protecting American interests...?
 V. The Earth's Ecosystem in steep decline
VI. World Scientists's Warning to Humanity (1992)

 
 
I. Population explosion1
 
     Billions of people

Graph of the population in billions vs. year between year 1000 AD and 2003. The graph is only very slowly sloping up--reaching about 1.5 billion in 1900--until the 1950's when the curve goes vertical. It shows us to be at 6.3 billion in 2003.
While the fertility rate (the number of births per woman) has fallen faster than expected (from 4.9 to 2.8), the absolute rate (vs. the % rate) of increase in population has continued at close to historic levels--an additional billion people every 12 to 14 years. The reasons for this:
  1. the population base has become so large, and
  2. the average age of the population is now skewed toward the reproductive years (vs. the normal age distribution which you find in a population which has been stable over time.)
The yearly additions to the population have fallen from a peak of about 86 million to 73 million. The current estimate for the population at mid century is 8.9 billion.2.

  1. UN Population Division, (UNDP), World at Six Billion (UNDP), New York, 1999. Page 5.
  2. See U.S. Census Bureau World Population Information
Additional links:
World Population Clock Projection
U.S.Population Clock Projection
Fuse On The ‘Population Bomb’ Has Been Relit

 
II. Over consumption of the Earth's renewables
 
    The number of Earths required to sustainably
      meet human consumption3


The ecological impact of humanity can be measured as the area of biologically productive land and water required to sustainably produce the resources consumed (e.g.crops, meat, seafood, wood, and fibre,) sustain its energy consumption, assimilate its waste, and to give space to all its infrastructure. This area may be for a citizen, a country, or the globe and it is referred to as the Ecological Footprint (EF).4,5

The EF of the world average consumer in 1999 was 5.75 acres per person, or 20% above the Earth's biological capacity of 4.75 acres per person--an ecological overshoot. In other words, humanity now exceeds the planet's capacity to sustain its consumption of renewable resources6.

Like drawing down one's trust account, this global overdraft is achieved by eating into capital. In this case, we are talking about eating into the Earth's capital stocks of forest, fish, water, and fertile soils7. This natural capital, and the ecosystem services which it produces, are critical to the functioning of the Earth's life-support system and the human economy8,9,10,11.


  1. J. Loh et al., WWF Living Planet Report 2002 (World Wildlife Fund, Gland, Switzerland, 2002) Pages 4,21.
  2. M. Wackernagel, et al, E O Wilson, ed., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 99 (no 14), 9266 (2002).
  3. Loh 4.
  4. Loh 4.
  5. Loh see report summary.
  6. R. Costanza et al., Nature 387, 253 (1997)
  7. Costanza 254. Some examples of ecosystem services: regulation of the gases in the atmosphere, regulation of the climate, buffering (such as storm protection, flood control, weather modulation, etc.), regulation of hydrological flows, storage and retention of water, retention of soil, soil formation, nutrient cycling, waste treatment, pollination, control of populations, provision of habitat, food production, raw materials, genetic resources, recreation, and cultural. See cited page for a more complete description of each of these ecosystem services and further references.
  8. A. Balmford et al., Science 297, 952 (2002) : At the current rate of conversion, the net cost to the economy for that habitat lost in a single year is on the order of $250 billion for that year and then $250 billion for every year thereafter. In addition to that loss, there is the yearly loss secondary to (perverse) government subsidies that are given to convert habitat into unsustainable projects. That figure globally is $950 billion and that excludes associated environmental costs.
  9. Technology has not freed us from a dependence on nature. Quite apart from its positive contributions, technology has allowed us to extend the efficiency and range of our destructive activities e.g. the decimated predatory fish populations17. Trade--in combination with our economic and political power as exercised through the World Bank, IMF, and WTO--has enabled the developed world to avoid some of the local consequences of this resource depletion by expanding its EF onto the territory of others e.g. the deforestation of the South for the production of shrimp, cattle, coca, coffee, soy bean, and other such products for export to the North.


III. Dysfunctional distribution of resources
 
     Allocation of the Earth's biologically productive acres 12

Exceeding the 4.8 acres of biologically productive capacity available per person is ecologically destructive for several reasons13:
  1. The Earth's resources are already over subscribed (See previous section.) thus making non ecologic any usage over and above a person's 4.8 acre share, and
  2. 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 per day Of this group, 1.1 and 2.4 billion respectively live without even safe water or adequate sanitation and will thus be improving their life style and thereby increasing the ecological overshoot14. Were there already no over consumption, this furthering of the ecological overshoot secondary to people moving out of poverty would not be occurring.

  1. Loh 26, 4, 22.
  2. In addition, wealth inequality between individuals or government entities may be non ecologic if the party with the lesser resources is unable to make ecologic choices e.g. solar panels and local organic food in the case of an individual and sewage treatment and mass transit in the other case.
  3. UN Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report 2002 (UNDP), New York, 2002. See Chapter I, pages 17,29.

IV. ...protecting American interest... ?
 
        The World's three largest military
         budgets in billions of dollars15


After China, the combined total of the next five largest military budgets Japan, UK, France, Germany, and Saudi Arabia's, is 157 billion dollars.

Putting aside the disproportionality one sees between US defense spending and that of other countries and whether or not it is related to the US securing a disproportionate share of the Earth's renewable resources, the direct negative environmental impact of this spending is widely documented.


  1. Data from the Center for Defense Information.



 
V. The Earth's Ecosystem in steep decline
 
       Wildlife population as a % of that present in 197016,17


 
The stark trends indicated [by this population data] are a quantitative confirmation that the world is currently undergoing a very rapid loss of biodiversity comparable with the great mass extinction events that have previously occurred only five or six times in the Earth's history18,19.


  1. Data is from surveys done around the world on 643 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. These surveys are supervised by the United Nations Environmental Programme-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), Cambridge England. See Loh 3,21,30.
  2. The world's oceans have lost over 90% of large predatory fish, with potentially severe consequences for the ecosystem, R. Meyers et al,Nature 423, 280?83 (2003). Quote is from highlights section.
  3. Loh see report summary.
  4. "Only humans can halt the worst wave of extinction since the dinosaurs." An E O Wilson Time cover story and essay, Oct. 30, 1995. At Harvard University, Dr. Wilson is the Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the winner of Two Pulitzer Prizes and arguably the World's most eminent living scientist.

 
VI. World Scientists' Warning to Humanity (1992)
 
Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course . Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about20.

  1. Excerpted from report of the same title from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCC). The signatories were 1500 of the world's leading scientists including 104 Nobel laureates in the sciences--a majority of the then living recipients. The report can be ordered from UCC.

 
 
 

 
Last revision: May. 21, 2007
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Photo credits:
The Earth: NASA
The monarchs: www.gatewest.net/~cwhp/ habitat/monarchs.html
The tigers: www.yogananda-srf.org/calendar/ 03_03tigers.html

 
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