The Ecological Crises of Our Time
“The great contribution of ecology has been, and still is, to make us conscious of the dangers threatening the planet as a result of the present mode of production and consumption. The exponential growth of attacks on the environment and the increasing threat of the breakdown of the ecological balance constitute a catastrophic scenario that calls into question the survival of the human species. We are facing a crisis of civilization that demands radical change.”
What is EcoSocialism? by Michael Löwy
As a child in the 1970s, I remember the early sense of crisis that accompanied the environmental movement. Earth Day 1970 was heralded as the beginning of a new movement that would save this world from seeming impending destruction. Now, nearly 40 years later, it may be useful to examine where the movement has come and what it might do over the next period.
In many ways, the intervening decades have not been a success for the movement. We now consume more petroleum and pump more gasoline exhaust into the atmosphere than ever before. We now use unleaded fuels mostly, which was an early victory, but as has been widely noted, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is nearing levels that are predicted to have serious adverse effects, such as acidification of the oceans and continued climate warming.
However, as documented by Paul Hawken’s 2007 book, Blessed Unrest, the environmental movement has spawned as many a million organizations large and small, from non-profit think-tanks to local campaigns to various entrepreneurial ventures. Although this disparate protean mass of organizations have no centralized leadership and often diverse visions, the ones Hawken identifies are all committed to some aspect of our global environmental crises. If Hawken is right, and my experience confirms he’s mostly right, then there is a movement out there that is dwarfing most of the other social movements in history.
I want to list the key challenges of this movement as I understand them. They are climate change, ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction, species endangerment, and over-population.
1) Climate change
Scientists have been predicting and documenting a marked rise in global temperatures for the past 90+ years. This rise has led to the warmest years on record since as far back as 900 A.D, which is as far as solid data takes us, but other tentative research suggest that the present rise is greater than any since the end of the last Ice Age. The onset of the rise has correlated very precisely with the rise of fossil fuel consumption and emissions. Scientists predict as much as a 6 degree rise in global average temperature by 2100, and even greater increases beyond that date.
A central goal of the environmental movement is the replacement of fossil fuels with alternatives of wind, solar, and other non-polluting sources. A corollary goal is scaling back heavy industry and combustion engine usages. It is hoped these changes will offset and potentially reverse global warming.
2) Ecosystem degradation
A parallel result of the rise of fossil fuel consumption and emissions has been the pollution and destruction of ecosystems by the waste products of industrial production. Chemicals are added to the water systems, land is rendered infertile, and air quality is compromised.
3) Habitat destruction
Not only are ecosystems degraded by the by-products of industrial production, but habitats are destroyed deliberately in the search for resources and profits. The most infamous example is the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, the largest of the old-growth forests on the planet. Over a million square kilometers of the natural rainforest has been destroyed in the past century, representing about 18% of the total forest.
4) Species endangerment
Habitat destruction is the main driver behind the rise in entire species becoming threatened or extinct. Nearly 40% of all organisms on the planet are at risk. While conservation laws protect many species, many, many more go unprotected.
5) Human over-population
While we want to avoid Malthusian pessimism about increasing numbers of humans, there is a challenge to be grasped. Depending on a variety of factors, human population is expected to reach numbers as high as 9-11 billion people by 2050. This growth places stress on all the above concerns as well as distinct challenges such as food and water shortages, rampant poverty, and health risks.
Taken as a whole the problems are immense and there are few easy answers. Modern industrial capitalism has given humanity a new world, but it has also created many dangerous challenges. Resolving these problems are critical to the future of humanity.