Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

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reikiman
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Canadian scientist Bill Rees talking about some tendencies and directions which appear to be leading our society into a hugely warmed uninhabitable planet. The core is an "evolutionary weakness" in human brains and he spent most of the talk explaining it. I've quoted liberally from the transcript and you can play the audio via a player way down below. There is permission on the website to republish.

One of the conclusions he gives is the need to enter a planned recession to decrease the environmental impact. He doesn't say it the same way as Richard Heinberg and the energy descent plan he pushes for. Dr. Rees is a fellow of the Post Carbon Institute. The idea as I understand it is given that society is heading towards an unsustainability collapse that we'll either experience unplanned energy descent (and associated population decrease) or if our society is wise enough we'll consciously choose an orderly energy descent. I'd rather do the latter rather than the former.

Blog post: http://www.ecoshock.info/2010/05/is-humanity-unsustainable.html
Full transcript of the talk: http://www.ecoshock.org/transcripts/Rees_100415_transcript.htm

He refers to a 1992 Union of Concerned Scientists warning: http://www.ucsusa.org/about/1992-world-scientists.html

INTRODUCTION: 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 about.

Ecological footprint:

Here is the simple reality. The average human needs about two hectares to sustain the average lifestyle on Earth. That includes the assimilation of carbon dioxide and other waste, but primarily it's consumption in the Third World. Waste production enters in to this very much in the First World.

Canadians use about 8 hectares. So we are four times above the world average. Americans almost 10 hectares, about 5 times above the world average.

The point then is, that the world is growing in population, the per capita input in consumption is increasing even faster. And so we passed sometime in the 1980's, the point at which the average consumption on Earth exceeded the average capacity on the planet to maintain that level of consumption.

So if you add up the total aggregate human ecological footprint, it is greater than the biocapacity of the planet.

Now you can ask 'Now how can that be? How can we be consuming more than there is?' And the answer is by drawing down the bank account.

Ecosystems are like bank accounts. They are productive assets. A fish stock will produce an annual interest of catchable fish, without being depleted. A forest adds a couple of percent a year, of total biomass. We can harvest that sustainably. But if you forest is adding biomass at a rate of two percent per year, and you are harvesting at four, and five and six percent per year - you are depleting that asset. You've exceeded the productive capacity of the forest, or the fish stock, or the soil, or whatever it might be.

Economic collapse:

we are on a track to reach about 650 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalence in the atmosphere later in this century.

The pre-industrial level was 280 parts. We are already at 390 parts, and the trajectory is an accelerating one. The rate of increase is increasing every year. At 650 parts per million, we can anticipate a global temperature increase, on average, of about 4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

To avoid this, they argued, that unless we can reconcile economic growth with unprecedented rates of decarbonization, - we need to be reducing by about 6 percent per year our use of fossil fuels - the only way to do this in the present structure of the economy, with current technologies, is to talk about a planned economic recession. A planned withdrawal from nature in the sense that we can not continue to sustain current levels of impact and expect to survive.

So if we go on to the next slide, this is what a four degree world would look like. The yellow and brown bits are areas that become virtually uninhabitable. The brown is desert, essentially. The yellow is much dried out. And you can see from this, that China, India, much of South America, Africa, areas where 3 or 4 billion people live, will become virtually uninhabitable if this particular model is correct.

Massive migration:

This means massive translocations of people. Migrations of tens or hundreds of millions of people from their homes by the end of this century. We are by no means prepared to even discuss this kind of possibility in polite company. Certainly it's not something that the Harper government in Ottawa [Canada] would even allow to be brought forward for a point of discussion.

But I bring it to your attention because it is serious science. And just a year ago, Australia looked pretty much like this. The Southern part of the country which had never reached 40 degrees Celsius before, was seeing temperatures of 47, 48 degrees for example, in the Melbourne region. Eight of the ten hottest days in the instrumental record occurred in the same ten day period in Tasmania, the little island state at the very southern end of Australia.

Human evolution:

Genes are nuggets of biological information, genetic information, that can be passed from one generation to the next. A 'meme' is a nugget of cultural information that can be passed from one generation to the next, but also within the generation. Memes accumulate over time. Cultural information accumulates. Technology improves. The libraries get fuller. We acquire more and more knowledge. And we act out of that knowledge as much as we act out of our genes.

Human evolution is a code-dependent product of the interaction between genetic information and the memetic information, that is a reflection of our culture.

Passion and instinct trumps reason:

What I'm arguing, that in these circumstances, in eight behavioral propensities, that operate beneath consciousness, in the mid-brain and reptilian brain stem, will over-ride your rational behavior. Passion and instinct will trump reason in many, many circumstances, in both ordinary people's lives, and certainly in the political arena. We see it daily on the news.

And by the way, we seem to pay a hell of a lot more attention to ridiculous things, such as the current kafuffle over who, well somebody was arrested over drunk driving, and his wife happened to be in the Cabinet, and how come he only got a five hundred dollar fine - this is not exactly earth-shaking stuff. But it appeals to the human connection at that middle part of the brain. It doesn't quite reach the higher end.

Now, it's not as if this is "news". I've put it in kind of a modern context. If not literally the triune brain, this mixed brain model - then going back hundreds of years. The philosopher Mirandola recognized in human behavior exactly the kinds of tensions that I've been talking about.

The unsustainable mind:

I'm arguing, for the sake of getting you all excited here, that unsustainability, the state of where we now find ourselves, is an inevitable emergent property of the interaction of the human species, as we currently think. It's the modern mind interacting with Nature. It's the way we think, in terms of the beliefs, values, and assumptions under which we operate, particularly in our economies, are so far removed from the way in which natural systems function, that there is no way that you can compatibly integrate the two.

So, if you have two systems that are so fundamentally different in their structure and operation, and you try to merge them together, - unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property.

Expanding to fill all space:

Human beings are, as I said, evolved species, just like any other. What happens if you drop a single bacterium on a Petri dish of nutrients? It becomes a colony, and within a few days under ideal conditions it will completely cover that Petri dish. It will just continue replicating and replicating every 15 or 20 minutes, until all of the resources are used up, and the entire space is covered. And then it dies out.

Actually, the bacteria have the advantage of being able to sporulate, and then they blow away to find another Petri dish, or dead fruit or whatever it might be.

The point is: every species has two tendencies that we humans share. The first is the tendency to expand to fill all the potential habitat.

What do you think is the species, the large-scale vertebrate species, with the largest geographical range on the planet? It is sitting in your seats. We are just much better, because of our intellect, our cumulative memetic endowment, at exploiting the habitats on this planet. No habitat that is even remotely capable of sustaining human life does not have it. We are there, in numbers, in every habitable landscape on Earth. AND, we will, like other species, use up all available resources.

How many of you own a credit card? Not only will humans use up all available resources. But when you run out of resources, you will intent one called a piece of plastic, which enables you to use up even more resources, that don't yet exist, and you have to go our an earn to pay down your credit card. This is a predisposition.

How many of you have gone to a buffet, eaten your fill, and said 'That's it, this is the last canapé I'm going to touch.' And within three minutes you are back there, almost unconsciously, eating - and you've done this, saying 'I wasn't going to do that.' Well, guess what's working. That's a little reptilian brain stem just trying to stuff you, because you see, under primitive conditions you wouldn't leave food lying around. It would rot. So there was an advantage to cramming yourself as full as you could, when you had the food available. And packing it on to your butt and your tummy for those lean times.

It is by no accident that the Northern Hemisphere, well I shouldn't say that any longer - that the rich people on this planet, have among their numbers about a billion people who are obese. Precisely because they cannot keep their fingers out of the cookie bowl. We will use the available resources to which we have access.

Then we found oil:

For the longest period of time, humans survived at carrying capacity. In fact we could draw this [line of population] way, way back here, a flat line for 50,000 years. There were ups and downs as civilizations or local communities rose and fell. But for the most part, growth is not a persistent in human or any K strategist population.

Then we found oil. Oil gave us access to everything else. More food. More resources of every kind to create the infrastructure we needed to sustain more and more people - and so more and more people came along. Only eight generations of people have really experienced a consistent period of growth - sufficient so they would notice it really in their lifetimes.

Just a couple of things. Some of you may be thinking 'Well, surely we don't use all resources.' There's actually been studies of the history of human resource exploitation. One of the more famous ones was undertaken by three of my colleagues at UBC [University of British Columbia] in the '90's.

This is a quote from an article in [the journal] ‘Science:’

'Although there's considerable variation in detail, there's remarkable consistency in the history of resource exploitation. Resources are inevitably over-exploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.'

That is a fact of human resource exploitation. As our technology improves, and we will take the last one - unless powerfully restrained by international regulation, or some other form. This is where Federalism comes in, at either the global or national level: you need a basis in law to prohibit what humans would otherwise do naturally. That's the history.

Cod fishery collapse in Canada

Here is a perfect example of non-response to science. This is not a short time period. From 1962 to 1992 is a thirty year period, during which Canada had responsibility for the world's largest fishery, a fishery that had sustained human fishing for hundreds if not thousands of years.

We watched over that period the steady decline in the spawning stock biomass, to the point where it collapsed in 1992, now eighteen years ago. We stopped fishing, and the stock has not recovered. The fish haven't disappeared. They haven't gone extinct, but the impact of human exploitation has so altered the ecosystem structure, that the fish can no longer exploit or retain the niche that they once occupied within that particular ecosystem.

It's not clear that the stock will ever recover, without some other knock of some kind or other, pushing them back into that original state. This is a shameful example of ignoring the scientific data that something is awry here. I won't go into the details, but it was quite clear for many, many years before the collapse actually occurred.

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Dauntless
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Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

reikiman wrote:

One of the conclusions he gives is the need to enter a planned recession

Boy, now that THAT is out of the way. . . .

Quote:

The average human needs about two hectares to sustain the average lifestyle on Earth. . .And so we passed sometime in the 1980's, the point at which the average consumption on Earth exceeded the average capacity on the planet to maintain that level of consumption.

One square mile per 8 people. But that's scientific doubletalk. 2 hectares of WHAT? City park? Farmland? Amazon forest? The CO2 consumption of each is different. Just from one yard to the next on my block will be a variation based on the foliage. While I certainly agree that there's a "Bank Account," the "Obamatization" of speeches is what gets them debunked, colorful talk with a lack of clarity.

In 1990, the message was "We have 10 years to save the Earth. Did we make it? We're still here. The fear was the "Environmental cliff." (I work in TV, I shot the TV special on one such speaking tour.) You take us to a certain point, and we fall off the edge. We're well past that point: Not only did the 10 years pass a decade ago, but the numbers (6 billion world population, etc.) were blown past like a 7 mpg musclecar speeding through town as the driver gives the finger to all the people waiting for busses. ("So long, succors.") And the people who don't want believe there's any danger laughed at the people who delivered the message. And I guess they should laugh, if you want to deliver a message, it should be TRUE. Especially if you raised a lot of money, taking up collections when you delivered the message.

Quote:

And you can see from this, that China. . .will become virtually uninhabitable if this particular model is correct.

Oh, China is about there, in case there's people in this community that haven't been keeping up. They had to take all cars off the road, etc., in 2008 and STILL almost had to cancel the Olympics. My own thought is that the U.S. subsidy of sending jobs to China was intended to send the pollution with it.

Quote:

. . . .The fish can no longer exploit or retain the niche that they once occupied within that particular ecosystem. It's not clear that the stock will ever recover, without some other knock of some kind or other, pushing them back into that original state. This is a shameful example of ignoring the scientific data that. . .

. . . .That the messenger should be killed and replaced with a competent messenger. The scientific data was released in a very UNSCIENTIFIC manner. Whining, complaining. . . . Yeah, ain't it great to travel here and yon pointing the finger at what THEY are doing wrong, pausing here and there to listen to the applause, and taking up a collection to make your tour profitable. Yeah, your dollars are helping the cause, making it possible for these people to make MORE speeches, and collect MORE money. To pay for MORE speeches where the hot air is expended. The fishing ended NOT because people decided the obscure science was right, but because it was no longer economically feasible to keep fishing. The people needed alternatives, but the scientists were no help with that, they were too busy taking up collections so they could keep telling people what they already knew.

And this makes them our worst enemy. Let me explain how the human body works, and why an amputee feels pain in the foot that has been gone 20 years. The mind cannot endure the extended negative sensory input, so it seeks a solution. If the pain cannot be stopped, it is ignored. You know how you suddenly feel that same old pain that had gone away, but just for a moment? The amputee is feeling the same thing for the same reason: The long ignored messages remain there, backed up like an L.A. freeway at midnight. (Anyone who lives around here will tell you, yes, I mean backed up at midnight.) The mind is not interested in endless pain messages, and rightly so.

How much money did this guy make off this speech? How brilliant did the audience say his was? What came of the whole thing? Remember that story of the mouse that said they should bell the cat so they'd know when he was coming, but said he'd done plenty by coming up with the idea. Update the story with this guy as the mouse, traveling from house regaling packed basements with the horrors of allowing the cat to go unbelled, warning the entire mouse population will be gone in the morning, then taking up a collection on the issue and moving to the next house. In the morning, when the mice are still there, they decide the loudmouth life was clearly crazy. . . .

Someone should point out to this guy that REAL science seeks answers, NOT to say "I told you so" after the scientists did nothing but complain. If you want to fix a problem, you gotta start at the beginning. I think I've already mentioned in this community my friend Ernie, who says "When you point that finger at everyone else, there's 3 more pointing back at you."

Quote:

Human evolution is a code-dependent product of the interaction between genetic information and the memetic information, that is a reflection of our culture. .

Never mind that, what is all this pollution going to cause man to evolve into? Don't WARN us or BLAME us, just inform us on where we're REALLY going. . . .

(That sound you hear is scientists by the thousands slamming the door in my face.)

Men go and come, but earth abides.
-Ecclesiastes 1:4

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marcopolo
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Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

John, let me see if I've got this right? Is the upshot of what are advocating, that the human species is doomed because of it's own greed and excess?

Hardly new! This sort of preaching used to be in the province of fundamentalist preachers and socialists.

Now it's preached by a certain type of scientist/prophet. The philosophy hasn't changed, just the dressing. The methods remain the same.

Doomsday, like Utopia, is a safe concept to preach because everyone nods wisely, and says the correct thing, because the narrative seems nice and moral. Secretly, everyone is relieved because nothing is actually going to happen, to them, nor is any real threat perceived, except by the few real fanatics!

If that seems cynical,consider the history of inaccuracy of such movements.

I don't share you view that the only way the human species will survive is some sort of peculiar downsizing. Even if such a proposition was valid, no one can explain how it can be schemed except in some vague idealist manner that is totally impractical.

This argument that you can somehow add up the planets total resources, divide by the number of humans and predict gotterdammerung! This is just plain silly! Civilised economies just don't work that way! Humans invent aesthetic concepts to increase wealth far beyond the simple arithmetical based gibberish of socialist, doomsday economic theory.

An example would be a work of art, say a painting. An engineer may state and quite rightly, that an old painting is, in practical terms of it's components, valueless! The moralist would argue that the money spent on the painting should be spent on worthy causes, feed the poor, fix the environment etc..

The reality is because of human perception, everyone is right! The paintings only value, say $150 million, is the value human civilisation accords the painting. The greater the value, the greater the civilisation.The concept that the painting can be used to feed the poor, is erroneous. (unless you can find someone so poor that they can survive on old canvass and dried oil paint!). But in the real world the contents of the Guggenheim At gallery would be greater than most nations GDP.

Likewise, the environment. The gulf oil spill occurred, because USA citizens value oil more than the Louisiana shrimp industry. It's not BP's choice, but that of US citizens and Government. Don't want the risk, or oil, don't issue the Licence.

The anthropomorphising of 'Mother Nature' is silly! The only sentient beings in charge of the planet, are humans. It's our choice what we do with the planet!

Because very few people understand the economic dynamics of civilisation, large groups of humans try to bring a moral dimension to economic debate. This is very human, but this moral viewpoint a human invention. Animals, plants etc, do not possess an ethical base except those we attribute to them.

As a specifies we cannot 'downsize'! We must put our faith in our own imperfect civilisation, technology, our desire to enhance life for our children, the intelligence given to us by our God(s) (if that way inclined), our innate curiosity and boundless optimism.

What else is there? Failed socialism? Failed utopianism? Failed 'isms?

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Dauntless
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Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

marcopolo wrote:

What else is there? Failed socialism? Failed utopianism? Failed 'isms?

There is the third position, as advocated by o Duce. Where he shall give a speech, and it shall all go away. And you are not to notice if it fails.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/gordon_brown.html

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marcopolo
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Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

Dauntless wrote:
marcopolo wrote:

What else is there? Failed socialism? Failed utopianism? Failed 'isms?

There is the third position, as advocated by o Duce. Where he shall give a speech, and it shall all go away. And you are not to notice if it fails.

http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/gordon_brown.html

How dare you! snort! , snort,! I shall report you to the George Monbiot Institute! By god, you won't be laughing when George and his fellow travellers subject you to good sneering!!

Gordon Brown,
Out of power, but still preaching to the converted masses, Phone Booth,Haggis on Platitude. New Scotland

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dp
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Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

"The average human needs about two hectares to sustain the average lifestyle on Earth. . ."

So change the average lifestyle!

I have spent the past few years super-insulating my house with dense pack cellulose...waste newspaper not a petroleum product. I zip around on the electric scooter and only use a few tanks of gas per year in the last car I will ever own.

I burn no oil or gas to heat my house... only electricity that comes from a hydro dam and also powers the scooter.

Water capture composting and edible landscaping are my other projects.

The difference in carbon foot print between myself and the person who lived in my house 5 years ago is stunning and amounts to at least $7,000 per year in oil/gas/natural gas consumption.

It always amazes me how a scientist can go on about how bad things are and advocate a radical solution while ignoring a combination of simple answers (super-insulation, e-bike, composting, water capture, urban gardening, edible landscaping, etc.)

There is massive waste in the average lifestyle.

They harvest over 6,000 pounds of produce in a city on a tenth of an acre of cultivated land:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEvHVXoNZCE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NGEtuh9PdnI

You won't do as well in cooler climates but...

Two hectares is for idiots.

marcopolo
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Points: 837
Re: Is humanity unsustainable? - Radio Ecoshock

dp wrote:

"The average human needs about two hectares to sustain the average lifestyle on Earth. . ."
So change the average lifestyle!

I have spent the past few years super-insulating my house with dense pack cellulose...waste newspaper not a petroleum product. I zip around on the electric scooter and only use a few tanks of gas per year in the last car I will ever own. I burn no oil or gas to heat my house... only electricity that comes from a hydro dam and also powers the scooter. Water capture composting and edible landscaping are my other projects.

The difference in carbon foot print between myself and the person who lived in my house 5 years ago is stunning and amounts to at least $7,000 per year in oil/gas/natural gas consumption.

It always amazes me how a scientist can go on about how bad things are and advocate a radical solution while ignoring a combination of simple answers (super-insulation, e-bike, composting, water capture, urban gardening, edible landscaping, etc.)

There is massive waste in the average lifestyle. They harvest over 6,000 pounds of produce in a city on a tenth of an acre of cultivated land:You won't do as well in cooler climates but...Two hectares is for idiots.

Well done! You are an excellent example of applied technology!

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marcopolo

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