Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Titanic is sinking and there are no lifeboats.

On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic, the largest ocean liner ever built, struck an iceberg and sank in frigid Atlantic waters, killing 68% of the passengers and crew aboard. The shock of this failure of technology put a lasting pall on an era of untrammeled human industrial growth and development. 

Today, we face a similar nick point in human history. This time the ship is the Earth and its inevitable sinking puts the lives of billions of its passengers and crew at risk. Our Earth ship has hit the iceberg of ultimate limits to human growth and consumption of the Earth’s finite resources.

The impact of Homo sapiens on this planet is a function of two main variables, Population growth and consumption of natural resources. Human impact on the Earth is a function of the per capita rate of resource consumption multiplied by the total human population. At present, both numbers are increasing geometrically.

Population Growth
Human population, at this moment, is 7,086,000,000 and increasing at the rate of 78,840,000 per year, slightly more than an average of 1% per year. Some countries have a population growth rate more than twice the global average.

Consumption of Natural Resources
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, human beings devour an estimated 45 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year, an average of 6.5 tons per person per year. Highly industrialized countries such as the United States, Japan and more recently, China, consume resources at up to 40 tons per capita. Increases in consumption also produce rapid increases in pollution in the form of waste products introduced into the biosphere, many of which are new to the evolution of life on this planet.

Habitat Loss
The rapid increase in human population and consumption results in an expanding rate of natural habitat loss, as more and more habitat is converted to human infrastructure for cities, transportation and agriculture. Modern corporate agriculture results in topsoil loss at the rate of up to forty times faster than topsoil formation. What little soil is left is depauperate of natural soil organisms and minerals necessary for healthy plant growth and for the health of herbivores and their prey species.

Species Extinctions
As a result of the above, the rate of species extinctions has increased from 100 to 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate. E.O. Wilson estimates that, at present rates, within 100 years as much as half of all species on Earth will have gone extinct.

Biodiversity loss
The combination of habitat loss and species extinction is drastically reducing overall biodiversity on the Earth. In some ecosystems biodiversity is reduced to such an extent as to threaten ecosystem collapse. The complex web of life is much more than the sum of its component species. Disruption of a single species can have cascading affects on all other species.

Climate Change
Whether or not caused by human action, climate variation is natural, real and happening all the time. Human actions introduce new variables into the complex patterns of climate change, adding new feedback systems with both positive and negatives influences. In a world wounded by pollution, habitat loss, species extinctions and biodiversity loss, climate change adds more stresses to already overburdened ecosystems.

Peak Oil
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, fossil fuels are finite resources that are rapidly approaching the end of their economic utility in human societies, known as Peak Oil. Reduction in fossil fuel use will ultimately reduce emissions and resource depletion fueled by fossil energy sources. However, human civilization is based on fossil fuel energy sources, which cannot be entirely replaced by renewable energy sources. As Peak Oil becomes more evident, human economic system will be faced with extreme changes in conduct and outcome.

What can be done to "solve" these approaching crises?
There is only one set of actions that can have any meaningful and timely influence on the inevitable collapse posed by the natural challenges outlined above. 1) Significantly reduce human population, and 2) significantly reduce per capita consumption.

It's a simple zero sum game. The total impact of human growth and development is a function of total human population multiplied by per capita consumption. The only way to reduce that impact to less than what it is today (to compensate for ecosystem effects already in the "pipeline" that will continue after we stop producing them) is to reduce population and consumption to the point where humans consume less resources than are replenished naturally and produce less waste than can be dispersed and recycled naturally.

Reduction of human growth (economic as well as physical) will reduce the driving force creating so much environmental destruction. Reduction in human consumption will relieve the pressure on all aspects of the biosphere, including the human world.

We must come to the realization that the ship of human civilization is sinking and decide the only recourse is to build life rafts and abandon ship. Otherwise more that 68% of the passengers and crew will be lost.

In a following post, I will analyze the ways we profligate humans may go about achieving the goals of decreasing population and consumption... or not.


  1. Anonymous11:02 AM

    I agree with you Michael but differ on what may be done. The global environment does not see human population, it sees the aggregate consequences of dollar denominated human economic consumption.

    The Titanic analogy is useful and more particularly instructive regarding the inequitable distribution of survival opportunity which was conveyed to the extent possible based on wealth and class. see chart wikipedia Titanic Survival Stats.svg

    1. Authorizing mass population reduction will convey a presumptive privilege or right of increased consumption to the successors or survivors, which will countervail your presumed economic / environmental objective.

    2. Targeting the poorest half of the world's population for "reduction" will restore very little habitat and conserve negligible dollar denominated renewable resources. Nor will mass population reduction even slightly reduce anthropogenic fossil fuel sourced climate effects.

    3. Losing the poorest 3.5 billion people without reducing the global economy by 50% will disproportionately further concentrate economic activity, headroom for consumption and the opportunity for resource exploitation in the hands of the most privileged one percent.

    4. Reducing global dollar denominated economic activity by 50% even without any direct attempt to reduce population will be just as effective as both would have been in reducing the aggregate environmental and climatological consequences of economic activity.

    5. The rich (with their disproportionate consumption and massive environmental and climatological consequences)know this, and they are looking for a distracting scapegoat in the world's 3.5 billion poorest people whose lives have almost zero per capita environment, climate or economic consequences.

    6. The more appropriate solution is to focus on rapid planned reversal of economic and financial growth and more equitably structuring the distribution of the economic and environmental benefits of conserving the planet from anthropological economic caused destruction of the sustaining environment.

    The world's 3.5 billion poorest people have an environmental footprint proportional to their economic footprint which is roughly similar in scale to that of the entire population of the state of California.

    A 50% reduction in global economic intensity would take us back to a mid 1970's level of economic activity but serving the present population mitigated significantly in consequences with the efficiencies and technologies developed in the ensuing 35 years.


    Michael Major\\ stoneboat*gmail

    1. Waiting is...

      1. My next post is about population. The following post will feature consumption. A subsequent post will deal with both together.
      2. I am not "targeting" the poorest 50% of the world's population. Population everywhere must be reduced. All people have an impact on the environment they inhabit. No special consideration. This thread is not about climate change.
      3. I have not proposed "Losing the poorest 3.5 billion people."
      4. There is no mechanism to "Reduc[e] global dollar denominated economic activity by 50%." Reducing economic activity without population reduction would mean that more people would starve faster.
      5. I don't care what the rich think. Global population must be reduced across the board. No special consideration, rich or poor.
      6. I know of no mechanism to initiate "rapid planned reversal of economic and financial growth," without reducing global population.

      Locally, poor people strip their environment bare in search of food and fuel, just as rich people strip the world bare globally. No special dispensation based on economic level.

      This sounds a lot like a Socialist Post-Scarcity argument. I do not accept it.

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