Continental Scale Ecological Collapse

Earth Meanders
by Dr. Glen Barry
May 16, 2007

The Earth is entering a new phase in its human caused decline. We are witnessing the advance edge of bioregional and continental scale ecological collapse -- the final stage of environmental decline before global ecological collapse. For millennia human caused ecosystem loss and decline has destroyed plant communities and devastated landscapes, but generally the global matrix of terrestrial, oceanic, aquatic and atmospheric cycling of energy and nutrients continued relatively unabated. Until now, as the cumulative impact of poor land, water and ocean management, and a failing atmospheric system, is becoming widely evident.

Humanity has become the dominant force of nature. We are witnessing the logical consequences of over-developing large regions and even continents without regards to ecology. Given this advanced state of eco-decline, this essay posits that saving the Earth and achieving global ecological sustainability will require development of bold policy decisions and their difficult implementation; rather than half-measures that nibble around the edges but do not get at the root of the Earth's disease. This is demonstrable ecological science based truth, not some apocalyptic vision based upon millennia old myth.

A Whole New Scale and Intensity of Environmental Problems

Australia is an arid, ecologically fragile continent. As such it is not surprising that its current extreme drought conditions are first indications of what to expect with extreme weather caused by climate change. Years of terrible land management including farming marginal lands and clearing sparse forests have greatly exacerbated this lack of water. This is not your garden variety dry spell -- many areas have experienced virtually no rain for years, and the nation's primary river system has essentially gone dry. The Australian Prime Minister has the situation well in hand, asking Australian citizens to pray for rain. If rains are not received to replenish reservoirs soon, within weeks there will be no water for agriculture in the nation's breadbasket.

North America is also beginning to experience spatially extensive environmental decline. The list of symptoms is voluminous, so let's be selective. In past weeks the United States' mid-section suffered major flooding. At the same time the forests of Southern California, Northern Minnesota and Florida and Georgia are ablaze after experiencing severe climate induced drought conditions; again exacerbated by years of terrible land management practices that failed to maintain healthy, intact ecosystems. Another terrible ecological disaster looms as huge numbers of bee colonies are dying. Causes are not clear -- with suggestions ranging from cell phones to some sort of viral disease -- but almost certainly climate change and habitat fragmentation have played a part. Lack of pollinators could devastate the continent's food production.

The situation is much the same around the world. Southern Europe is undergoing extreme desertification threatening to lay barren vast regions. China's river systems are a toxic mess, and they are virtually mining their water aquifers. Their miracle economy exists on the back of a water bubble. Drought and climate change continues to victimize Africa, leading to social strife and widespread death. In all these cases, we are witnessing the phenomena of environmental decline that is of unprecedented scale and intensity. Each involves the interplay of too many people having so diminished terrestrial ecosystems and polluted the atmosphere that as climate change sets in, lack of ecosystems and of resiliency of what remains becomes readily apparent.

The Consequences and What Must be Done

I have written at length on other occasions of the potential for great social and economic harm resulting from broad-scale ecological collapse. As abrupt and run-away climate change, terrestrial ecosystem collapse, droughts, floods, lack of pollinators and a whole host of other environmental malignancies ripple through cosseted human civilizations; we are talking of widespread death and social disintegration. Resource scarcity leads to militancy and conflict. I believe we are talking of the end of being -- either the complete loss of advanced life including humans, or humanity reverting to barbarity, living in a depleted Earth that is a shadow of its former bounty.

As the magnitude of ecological dysfunction increases the only sufficient response is for conservation to think bigger and more ambitiously. As individuals we must all continue changing light bulbs, driving less, eating organic and less meat, having small families; and all the other things we can do to try to bring our lives in line with Gaia. Yet the world is on track to go from 6.5 to 9 billion people, and the vast majority is yet to realize their desired potential consumption levels. The forces destroying the Earth are such that personal efforts are necessary but not sufficient, and there exist societal requirements for global ecological sustainability that must be implemented with all haste. Many are so momentous and revolutionary that to even suggest them is to invite ridicule. But at this late date, there is really no other way to save ourselves and our Earthly habitat.

It all begins with human population and relative consumption levels. Human population growth needs to peak and total human population begin receding soon. Major financial, preferential access to education and other incentives are necessary to promote zero, one and two children households. As we work to cut human population levels by at least 75%, we must discourage excessive conspicuous consumption while ensuring that all humanity's basic needs are met. This will require carbon taxes and means to encourage voluntary sustainable simplicity. Reduced population and equity in consumption are prerequisites for global ecological sustainability -- yet even this is not enough.

Current population and consumption trends have left the biosphere's processes of energy and nutrient cycling and patterns of diversity, structure and function in tatters. We are well past the point where any further natural ecosystems, particularly ancient forests, can be lost or diminished. We must find a way as a society to place all remaining primary forest ecosystems under strict protection as global ecological reserves, and do so in a matter that fairly and justly compensates governments and local peoples for not having deforested or industrially diminished their lands. We must stop treating our atmosphere, inland waters and oceans as garbage dumps. Foremost, there is no place for coal burning that pumps its carbon waste into the atmosphere. And we must begin continental scale ecological restoration one region at a time. The trend lines are so clear that anything less means miserable terror filled death, destruction and pestilence for the future of humanity.

It used to be that a river catching fire, or an oil spill, constituted an environmental catastrophe. Now we are witnessing whole regions drying up, catching on fire, and losing nearly all their life giving potential. As we move from local, to regional and global ecosystem collapse, we are just one step from global ecological collapse and the end of being as we know it. We need to build the political movement to do what is necessary based upon global ecological science to save the Earth, ourselves, and species with who we share existence. Having ended slavery, walked on the moon, and developed freedom and liberty as a form of government; I have no doubt that if the threats are understood and we work hard, humanity can make peace with our Mother Earth. Can you hear Gaia calling? Go to her.

Earth Meanders is a series of personal essays that places questions of environmental sustainability within the context of other contemporary issues. Comments can be made, and past writings can be found, at: // . Emailed comments will be posted there as well. Permission is granted to reprint this essay provided it is properly credited.


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