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.
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.
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.
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.
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.