From Ron Epstein
Rachel’s Democracy & Health News #1000, February 26, 2009
By Peter Montague
In this final issue of Rachel’s News, I offer the last installment of on our 17-part series, “What We Must Do.”
This series was named after the prescient article, “What We Must Do” by John Platt in Science magazine Nov. 28, 1969, pg. 1115. It is worth (re-)reading Platt’s urgent description of “a storm of crisis problems” 39 years ago, comparing it to our world today, and then asking ourselves if what we are doing with our time seems likely to produce the outcomes we intend and hope for. Are we asking questions that are radical enough, which is to say, questions that get to the roots of our problems?
In that spirit, here are 17 suggestions, all aimed at avoiding the worst as our human population climbs from 6.7 billion to 9 or 10 billion or more by 2050. They are not ranked in order of importance because I think we have to try to do all of them.
1. Learn to live within limits
The toughest problem we humans face is learning to live within limits. I know it’s popular to pretend limits don’t exist, but they do. We live on a small stone hurtling through space, a stone “partly bare, partly dusted with grains of disintegrated rock, upon which rests a thin film of air and water no thicker, relative to the size of the Earth, than the fuzz on a peach.” Furthermore, so far as anyone has been able to discover, ours is the only stone in the universe hospitable to our species. Earth is our only home, so we had better take care of it.
To puny humans, the Earth has always looked immense but just recently we discovered the truth: sometime during the 1970s, the human economy grew so large that it outgrew planet Earth. We humans have exceeded some invisible ecological limits and we are now degrading the planet’s natural capacity to renew itself. We are living in a condition called “overshoot” — like the cartoon Roadrunner who speeds off a cliff, hangs stationary in midair, still running ever faster, until the inevitable crash. To avoid the crash we humans must reduce our footprint by reducing our numbers or by reducing our individual demands upon the ecosystem, or both. Running ever faster won’t help.
In 2005, the authoritative Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was published — a five-year study of the condition of the Earth’s ecosystems, involving 1360 scientists from all across the globe. When they announced the first volume, the MEA Board of Directors said, “At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.”
In 2007, the Global Environment Outlook report (known as GEO-4) was published. GEO-4 concluded (among other things) that human activities now require 54 acres (22 hectares) per person globally, but Earth can provide only 39 acres (16 hectares) per person without suffering permanent degradation. We are living well beyond Earth’s means.