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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Human Impact

We need a paradigm shift in which economists, politicians and ecologists alike recognise that humans are more than mere producers or consumers.

by Sir Crispin Tickell

Resurgence No 243 (July / August 2007)

THE EARTH'S SURFACE is wafer-thin yet everything in and on it connects and cannot be understood except as part of an integrated system. This unity has been recognised from the earliest days of human observation.

Indeed, it was the stuff of religion. Gods and goddesses were seen to embody specific elements, ranging from the sky to the most local spring. The notion that the Earth itself was alive was part of Greek philosophy. Leonardo da Vinci saw the human body as the microcosm of the Earth, and the Earth as the macrocosm of the human body. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake just over 400 years ago for maintaining that the Earth was indeed alive, and that other planets could be as well. The geologist James Hutton saw the Earth as a self-regulating system in 1785, and T H Huxley saw it likewise in 1877. Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) saw the functioning of the biosphere as a geological force, moving, processing and recycling billions of tons of surface material every year.

But it was James Lovelock who brought this together into the Gaia theory which challenges current reductionism. Most of us are better at looking at the constituent elements of problems than seeing the connections between them and understanding how the resulting system works. But Gaia theory compels us to look at the life on Earth as a composite system.

Over the 3.8 billion years of life on Earth, Gaia has survived great extinctions and catastrophes. This has required a remarkable resilience whereby physical and biological mechanisms have adapted to new circumstances. Gaia has no particular tenderness for humans. We are no more than a small, albeit immodest, part of Gaia. Only in the last tick of the clock of geological time did humans make their appearance, and only in the last fraction of it did they make any impact on the Earth system as a whole. But that impact has been enormous. There has been a greater human impact in the last 200 years than in the preceding 2,000, and more change in the last twenty years than in the preceding 200.

THERE HAS BEEN an enormous increase in the number of one animal species: our own. There were around a billion of us at the time of Thomas Malthus at the end of the 18th century and two billion in 1930, and there are now over six billion. The world population is increasing by over eighty million people each year. More than half our species now lives in cities, which are themselves like organisms drawing in resources and emitting wastes.

This has profoundly affected the condition of the land surface. More people need more space and more resources. Soil degradation is currently estimated to affect some ten percent of the world's current agricultural area. Although more and more land, whatever its quality, is used for human
purposes, increase in food supplies has not kept pace with increase in population. Today many of the problems are of distribution, but even countries generating food surpluses can see limits ahead. The application of biotechnology, itself with some dubious aspects, can never hope to meet likely shortfalls.

Industrial contamination of various kinds has also greatly increased. To run our complex societies we need copious amounts of energy, at present derived from dwindling resources of fossil fuels laid down hundreds of millions of years ago. It took around 200 million years to lay down the coal, oil and gas deposits on which our society depends, yet we have consumed the bulk of them over a period of around 200 years. Thus each single year we consume a million years of fossil-fuel deposits.

There has also been increasing pollution of water, both salt and fresh. No resource is in greater demand than fresh water. At present such demand doubles every twenty-one years and seems to be accelerating. Yet supply in a world of over six billion people is the same as at the time of the Roman Empire in a world of little more than 300 million people.

Human activity has been a prime driver in changes to the chemistry of the atmosphere. According to estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we could be altering the global climate at a rate far greater than would have occurred naturally over the last 10,000 years, with unforeseeable consequences. Carbon levels in the atmosphere are now the highest in the last 650,000 years, and are rising fast.

Humans are causing extinction of other organisms at many times the normal background rate. Indeed, current rates of species extinction are reminiscent of the dinosaur extinctions of 65 million years ago. The consequent damage to the natural services on which we, like all species, depend, is immeasurable. We face the prospect of creeping impoverishment of the biosphere.

Then come the still uncertain consequences of technology. Recently Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society, looked at the possible result of inadvertence, criminality, use of exotic weapons, nanotechnology and excessive dependence on technology, and concluded that the chances of our civilisation surviving this century are no more than fifty-fifty.

Change rarely proceeds in curves. It goes in steps and thresholds. We tend to believe that what we know will only change within narrow limits, but unfortunately history gives no foundation for this belief. I repeat that Gaia has no special tenderness for our species, but we certainly need to have more tenderness for Gaia.


If we are to reshape the future of humanity, we have to look more radically at our current value system. There is a school of thought that wants to attach monetary value to everything. But how can anyone give a monetary value to pollution of the atmosphere, acidification of the oceans, loss of a species, or supply of such natural services as the microbial disposal of wastes? Somehow we have to bring in the factor of costs. Markets are superb at setting prices but incapable of recognising costs.

It should be remembered that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment: therefore, governments should take particular responsibility to determine not only what is in the public interest, but what is in the global environmental interest, and use fiscal instruments to promote it. Yet governmental values seem to lie in the excesses of what has been called feral capitalism; in short, under pressure from vested interests. Democratic governments also suffer from electoral timetables that promote the short term above the long term. Few seem able to look far enough ahead.

There is an accompanying spread of rising cultural expectations, nourished by worldwide use of information technology. One consequence is a drive towards industrialisation as a synonym for development, and the catch-all answer to the world's manifest ills. With it have come globalisation and an increasing homogenisation of human culture. This at least has led to governments becoming more transparent in their actions, and feeling more accountable to their citizens.

Damage to the current life systems of the planet is not yet irreparable. Most of the solutions to the problems we have created are already well known. Take the human population problem: we know it can be solved through improvement in the status of women, better provision for old age, wider availability of contraception, and better education, especially for young women. Take degradation of land and water: we know that reforestation and introduction of greater biological diversity in agricultural systems can help restore the health of the land. Take the atmosphere: we know we have to change to systems of sustainable energy generation and reduce our levels of energy consumption. Take human relationships: we know we have to find ways to reduce the gaps between rich and poor. Take the way in which we conduct most scientific enquiry: we know we cannot continue to break down issues into compartments, and so miss the internal dynamics of life systems as a whole.

Our descendants may regard this as a disastrous epoch in the history of the Earth - or they may see it as a time when humans pulled themselves together, changed direction, and took advantage of the immense opportunities open to them.

Those opportunities are partly technical, relating to use of information technology, and partly personal, relating to the thousands of minuscule ways in which we run our daily lives. At the most basic level we have to reconsider how we feed ourselves; how we warm and cool ourselves - in short, how we receive and use energy; how we use and look after water; where we live and work; how we transport ourselves; how we use, save and recycle materials; how we work with others across the world; how we treat the other animals and plants with which we share the planet; and above all how we think: not just as producers or as consumers, but as real, creative, imaginative, resourceful people.


Sir Crispin Tickell is Director of the Policy Foresight Programme at the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation at the University of Oxford and President of Tree Aid.

Bill Totten


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