Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, February 14, 2011

Can the Earth Survive Overshoot and Collapse?

by Wendy Moyer (February 11 2011)

Ecologists are saying that the Earth is in an "overshoot and collapse" mode. Our forests are shrinking, our soil is eroding, and our water tables are falling. In addition, throughout the world the number of heat waves that can decimate crops is increasing, fisheries are collapsing, deserts are expanding, rangelands are deteriorating, and coral reefs are dying.

Our glaciers are melting, which is causing our seas to rise. Consequently more powerful storms are arising and species are disappearing. And because we've been so dependent on oil for so long the supply of oil is shrinking.

Although many people have been aware of these destructive ecological trends and - some have even been reversed at local levels - none of them has been globally reversed.

In the past the demand for resources on local levels has exceeded the sustainable yields of natural systems. There's nothing new about that. However, what has been happening at an accelerated pace is that, for the first time, demand is exceeding supply on a global level.

Our forests are shrinking virtually everywhere around the world while on every continent our grasslands deteriorate. Carbon dioxide emissions are above carbon dioxide fixation throughout the world and many countries are seeing their water tables fall.

According to a report by the Global Footprint Network, mankind's demands surpassed the Earth's regenerative capacity for the first time around 1980. And since then the demand has been accelerating the consumption of the world's natural assets. This has all set the stage for the decline and potentially for the ultimate collapse of our ecosystem.

What Is "Overshoot and Collapse"?

A well known example of "overshoot and collapse" began in 1944. At that time 29 reindeer were introduced to a remote island in the Bering Sea. Nineteen men were stationed on Saint Matthew Island at that time.

When World War Two ended the following year the base closed and the men were evacuated from the island. Then, in 1957, David Kline from the US Fish and Wildlife Service visited the island and found that the original population of 29 reindeer had grown to 1,350. And they all were thriving on the four-inch thick mat of lichen covering the one hundred twenty eight square foot island.

Because there were no predators the reindeer population continued to explode.

It continued to grow until 1963, when there were 6,000 reindeer on the island.

Kline returned to Saint Matthew Island three years later. When he arrived he found that almost all of the reindeer had perished. There was very little lichen and reindeer skeletons covered the island. Now there were only 41 female reindeer and one male. There were no fawns. The reindeer population was dying.

By 1980 they were all gone.

Like those reindeer, the worldwide growth of population is over consuming the Earth's natural resources.

However, there still is hope. For example, since 1970 a small scale dairy producer relying almost exclusively on crop residue as a source of feed has multiplied its production more than four times. India has recently overtaken the US as the world's leading producer of milk.

And in China a sophisticated ecologically sound crop polyculture has made that country the first in the world whose fish farm output has exceeded its oceanic catch.

Bill Totten


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