Sede Vacante

The light is on but no one is home.

The environmental question

This post is dedicated to Steve.

Every day, we are bombarded with dozens of dire warnings with regard to the environment. Over a dozen environmental issues compete for our attention. And while the awareness of the plight of our planet has advanced greatly in the past 15 years, it has also suffered because of a lack of focus and, in my opinion, an intolerable degree of misguidedness.

What is most alarming to me is that no one is focusing on the real source of our problems–the size and frightening growth of our own human population.

Just think of all the messages that are trying to get to you. Climate change, greenhouse gases, CO2 emissions, forest conservation, biodiversity conservation, renewable energy, sustainable resources, reef conservation, overfishing, protection of endangered species, illegal wildlife trade, invasions of foreign species, save the whales, save the tigers, save the mangroves, reduce, reuse, recycle, and of course, my favorite (sarcasm) the clean air act.

With this dizzying whirlwind of messages come more than a hundred organizations; each spinning and thumping like mad djinn, pushing their own agendas on how WE as consumers and political beings should carry on our lives. The tragic thing is that all of these concerns are mere symptoms of the much more fundamental problem of our ever-growing population.

Limiting factors

Justus von Leibig figured out in 1840 that organic processes were always limited by the scarcest environmental resource. This law of the minimum has since then been expanded to state that the limiting factor of organic processes (such as species population) is the environmental resource that comes closest to the point of intolerance–that is, either too scarce, or too plentiful.

When you look at human beings and our environment, the most obvious suspects will be food and waste management.

The top of the pyramid exceeds its base

Now you’ve all heard of the notion of the food chain. It sounds simple enough, but in reality, it’s really a pyramid. Predators will consume a portion of the energy of the entire population of its prey. It must leave enough to keep that population stable, otherwise, it starves. Quite elementary. Now extend this across the food chain and a few realities become apparent.

The first is that ALL the energy on the planet ultimately comes from the sun. The base of the pyramid is made up of primary producers that start the chain by converting sunlight (and a few other cycled resources) into chemical energy. From here we see that the equation suddenly becomes one of SPACE and HABITAT. So an apex predator like an eagle or a shark (or a human being), is really being supported by a huge amount of physical space being occupied by the first tier of the food chain / web that supports it.

In the case of the Philippine Eagle, for example, each mated pair of birds requires approximately 50 square kilometers of primary tropical forest. Pretty impressive for an animal that never grows past 7 kilograms. And that’s 50 square kilometers of what is probably the most life-dense type of ecosystem there is. For larger animals, or those living in far less fertile environments, the habitat requirements can be far far greater than that. Just think of the polar bears in the arctic tundra.

Where does all the shit go?

That was just food. If you look at waste processes, it’s really very similar. A given area of space can only process and degrade so much waste material. Remember, the resource cycles (nitrogen, CO2, water, etc.) are very efficient, but they move at a pace that is utterly geological.

The problems of greenhouse gases and pollution are really just human beings literally producing more shit than the environment can convert back to soil. Back when we lived in caves, we understood a very important rule: move around. That is, don’t keep going back to the same place to take a dump, otherwise, you end up with a cesspool. It allows the environment ample time to turn it back into something useful. A few years later when you come back to the first place you shat on, it’s nice and pristine again.

You’d think we’d remember that when we designed sewage systems. Well, we didn’t. If you don’t believe me, take a dip in the Pasig River. It’s a wonderful environment–if you’re a fucking piece of kangkong. Otherwise, it blows. The fish are gone, and everything that still lives in it is gagging. Except the kangkong.

Biodiversity vs. monocultures

Now human beings are an interesting lot. We found the whole hunting, gathering, and digging latrines all over the place thing grossly inefficient. Instead we invented farming and essentially squeezed whatever bit of juice we could from available space. We also built sewage systems to move the shit elsewhere downriver. So the obvious question is this: why don’t we just convert as much space as we need to farmland? Why don’t we just put all the pooh in one place where it’s far away from us? The answer is simple–we have. And with it, accepted numerous trade offs that include eating into the habitats of practically every other living thing on the planet.

But so what? Extinctions happen every day. If it doesn’t die out now, it would have eventually. That’s all quite true. But there’s one important trade off that we must reconsider: stability.

Forget all the never-ending talk about the beauty of the forest and how we’ll never find new drugs if we lose it. The most critical thing is that a biodiverse ecosystem is extremely stable. Practically nothing can kill it. With thousands of different species, a forest can withstand almost everything that nature can throw at it. That’s because there’s no single point of failure. Even fragile species are sheltered by the massive hulks of the larger more robust ones. Specimens of the same species tend to be spread out such that even a blight or plague will at most kill some of a particular species.

At the other end of the spectrum is a rice paddy. It’s so unstable that an entire harvest can be wiped out by any number of things. Drought. Disease. Floods. Fields of corn or wheat are no different. In fact, a cattle ranch isn’t much different.

So what we have done is really bring ourselves to a point of instability where we’re constantly in a state of catastrophe somewhere in the world. Famine never ends. Period.

Am I saying that we should all just give up our civilization and start moving back to the forests. Hell no. Where would I get my porn? What I’m saying is that biodiverse ecosystems are an insurance plan against human catastrophe. Part of our plan must include the preservation of highly biodiverse areas. The problem is that with over 6 billion people, we’ve got very little of these areas left. And because of how fast our population is growing, we’ll need to convert more and more of them into unstable monocultures just to support it.

Killing the planet? Puhleez.

So now you’ve got a million tree-hugging hippies telling you that we’re killing the planet. No, we’re not. You see, the planet as a whole is just about as biodiverse as a system gets. We can’t really kill it. All we can do is fuck things up so badly that we kill ourselves and maybe take a few thousand species with us. But all that means is that there’s suddenly space again for the survivors to move and evolve into.

If there’s anything that scientists have learned is that the planet is delightfully fertile. Even the most extreme and inhospitable environments have things living in them.

The planet has a wonderful ability to correct imbalances. If there are too many lemmings, they start jumping in the water. What will really just happen is that we’ll push ourselves to the brink and finally SOMETHING will cull our numbers and things will go back to a more stable equilibrium.

So to all you doomsayers out there: stop worrying about the planet, and focus on worrying about our kids. And get a fucking haircut, you noobs.

The problem with conservation: shoving the problem elsewhere

Ok, so what about this whole conservation bit. Much of it is still misguided. Think of the miracle of Japanese forest conservation–total and highly enforced log ban. All it meant is that during the 80’s, they imported all their wood from poorer stupider countries like the Philippines. If you’re wondering where all our forests went, try Tokyo.

But you shouldn’t worry about our need for wood. Despite the fact that we have only 15% of our forests left, we now happily import our wood from Papua New Guinea. The last fucking frontier of rainforest and biodiversity in our neck of the woods. You see, they’re even poorer and stupider than us. And yes, I know that “stupider” isn’t really a word. But hey, we’re stupid, remember?

The point is that human beings need a lot of resources. It has to come from somewhere. The problem is that our rate of consumption far exceeds the ability of the planet to create biomass from sunlight. We can all turn into mighty reusers, and recyclers, but it still wouldn’t make too much of a dent against the total needs of over 6.6 billion people.

End the kvetching!

So what am I really saying? What I’m saying is that the solution is obvious: we need to reduce our population.

Here’s a pop quiz: how many human beings were there 1807? If you said 800 million, then fine, you’re a smarty-pants. That’s just 200 years ago.

Now those among you with brains understand that we can’t reduce our population drastically. Anything past a one and a half percent reduction per year and economies would start collapsing and social distortions would reverberate across the globe. Think wars and other nasty shit. So that means, it’ll take us hundreds of years to fix the problem.

This is where conservation finally makes sense. You see, there is a solution. Some day we’ll find a way to reduce our population or greatly decrease our impact on the environment to the point where perhaps we won’t need to reduce it by much. BUT UNTIL THEN, we need to preserve the biodiverse areas that we do have left. As I said before, it’s an insurance policy for our children.

What can you do?

Really, the first and most important thing you can do is have no more than 2 kids. That’s it. If you’re going to contribute something, let it be that.

If you want to do more than that… well, go back to the third paragraph and take your pick. Every little bit helps.

(You also might want to read my post on ethical consumerism. It’s right here.)


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