Could Earth Capacity Trump the Severity of Climate Change?

Lots of PeopleJust as advocates of sustainability and the environment promote the notion of an evolving society, so too must their message be open to evolution. With the amount of connotations–good or bad depending on where your views are–it may be time to question the usefulness of climate change as the weapon of choice used to induce our need for change. Not to say that climate change is not a real phenomenon, but it is certainly not the only phenomenon or the only reason we have to reassess our societal norms. On the contrary, we have no shortage of reasons.

In reading through Paul Gilding’s new book “The Great Disruption,” the reason that he pulls out is not new–in fact people have been talking about it for a good half-century–but it is only more relevant now than ever before. While climate change brings the likely possibility of serious impacts to all corners of civilization, its severity may pale in comparison to the earth’s capacity to provide for a continuously growing population. Our home could end up bursting at the seams before it even has the chance to be baked by rising temperatures.

The book points to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), a 2004 report conducted by the UN that enlisted 1,300 scientists to study the current state of the global environment. The MEA broke the world’s ecosystems into 25 different components, or ecosystem services, that serve as a pillar to our way of life. Examples would be land to cultivate for food, animal species to eat, cleansing of water and air–qualities that were, in many ways, similar to those efforts of trying to monetize ecological processes and effectively put a price on nature. The report concluded that 16 of the 25 services were being utilized unsustainably in methods that could not last forever. Paul Gilding’s definition of sustainability seems to be quite similar to my own.

Gilding presents the problem as a certainty given the speed at which we are approaching the tipping point, but his book focuses more on the changes to society that will occur out of the necessity of survival. His forecast points to the collapse of our consumer-driven economies as the result of a reassessment of what it is contributes to our lives in a meaningful way rather than excessive, materialistic trivialities that ultimately consume for its own sake. According to him, the end of the age of the shopping is on the horizon.

I often argue that the idea of climate change operates at a scale so large that it surpasses the conception of the relatively small impact of a single household. When it comes down to it, wrapping your head around the complexities of the earth’s weather patterns and their inherent link to all of its ecosystems can be a challenge. Trying to put the world’s capacity for humanity’s consumption into perspective might be just as difficult. Conversely, I see the complexities able to be broken down into a rather simple equation. The question that really matters is can the earth logically sustain and support an infinite number of humans? If the answer is “no” (and I find that most people find their way there) then all that remains is our futile game of chicken to see who will change their course first; us or nature.

I am drawn to a passage highlighted by Gilding from Rachel Carson, the famous scientist and author of Silent Spring that drew fire at excessive pesticide use in the U.S. In a television interview, Carson said:

“We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man’s attitude towards nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to destroy nature. But man is a part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Sustainability’s message must continue to grow to envelope all portions of our society that run counter to it–as well as their repercussions. Our blind, continued acceptance of infinite growth as a means of benchmarking success, let alone prosperity, has to be challenged. (Wayne Arnold had a great article in the NY Times: Rethinking the Measure of Growth) We have to look for other methods of sustainable stability as signs of progress rather than only getting bigger faster, because at the end of the day we are running out of space.

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