Coming Ecological Collapse: Failing Ecosystems the Mother of All Bubbles


The converging mortgage, financial, food, fuel and climate crises are all symptoms of a massive global ecological bubble

Earth Meanders by Dr. Glen Barry,

April 11, 2008

Ecological overshoot whereby humanity exceeds the Earth's carrying capacity is the mother of all "bubbles". Within the current sub-prime mortgage and financial bubbles, and food and energy price increases, we are witnessing the logical and inevitable economic consequences of over-population, resource scarcity, inequitable and unreasonable consumption, and unsustainable economic growth. Growth and livelihoods based upon unreasonable presumptions of continued resource outputs from dwindling ecosystems is a dangerous, unprecedented "ecological bubble" that threatens civilization and mass apocalyptic death.

The global growth machine is seizing up because it is hitting ecological limits, and as a result of its own greed. Clearly the addition of a billion more people every decade and a half, physical limits upon arable land and fossil fuels -- as well as exceeding the atmosphere's waste absorption capacity and minimum amount of intact terrestrial ecosystems necessary to power the biosphere -- are together severely negatively impacting economies and individual's well-being.

The economic slowdown is painful for many families. I personally share economic anxieties associated with the mortgage bubble popping. We are all finding it harder to pay the mortgage, buy food and fuel, and enjoy some special luxuries. Yet all bubbles burst -- be they historically for tulips in Holland or property in Japan -- and you deal with the underlying causes or you suffer further. I believe strongly that there should be no bailout of high flying bankers, home flippers, or people that took out mortgages they cannot afford. Wall Street fat cats that created the mortgage backed security Ponzi scheme should go to jail.

Endless Growth Impossible in a Finite World

Yet this economic cooling may also offer a welcome respite to reconsider the growth at any cost madness devouring the Earth’s life giving ecosystems, and which threatens to impoverish and kill many or all of us. It is essential that we look at the far deeper ecological roots to this economic crisis, and their foretelling of related environmental bubbles. The ongoing biofuel scam, using first food and soon trees as fuel to supposedly avert climate change, shows the potential for ill-conceived climate change responses to increase land pressures, food prices and negatively impact economies. These sorts of macro ecological/economic connections are examined further here.

Humans seem to always want more, even when there is none, or achieving it diminishes the future. A colleague recently pointed out to me that there may be a genetic component, expressed sub-consciously, to humanity's expansionist bent that constantly seeks more, bigger and better human works. And that there are societal memes that foster and promote this myth that endless growth and expansion in population, consumption and resource use at the expense of ecological habitats is possible. For a few hundred years the western economic model of markets and growth that builds upon these human proclivities has created wealth while wreaking havoc upon peoples, societies and ecosystems.

Growth in economies, human populations and resources accessed by destroying ecosystems is a disease upon the living Earth. The malignant growth machine turns ecosystems into resources and then into financial investment papers and consumption. A year later the consumer products are in the landfill, the paper wealth may be further over-priced or just scrap paper, and there are both fewer resources and ecosystems -- but always more people. The ability to live well based upon long- term steady-state interdependence with intact, healthy ecosystems and their natural capital is lost forever.

The Mortgage Bubble: Destroying Our Habitat to Build Homes

The mortgage bubble is a case is point. In America and many other over-developed countries the size of new homes grew and amenities seemed to know few limits. Each had to have restaurant quality kitchens, hardwood floors, multi-car garages, track lighting, and other seemingly endless conspicuous consumption to denote social class. Each represents the unsustainable consumption of resources from ecosystems, and requires continued intensive inputs to maintain. Most such development requires extensive automobile travel, sprawl into native ecosystems, and energy that will not be there in the future.

These extravagant McMansions are the epitome of everything wrong with "modern" society, industrial capitalism, and demonstrates our detachment from Earth, whose habitats are our true home. This more at any expense economy that knows no limits and has no concept of enough is responsible for our current economic downturn and is literally killing our future economic and ecological prospects. Can those that believe in markets and capitalism not entertain any limits upon the size and resource use intensity of our homes? Does anyone see the connection between more people using more resources to build large homes, leading to less farmland and overuse of limited energy, resulting in food and energy price hikes?

In the mortgage bubble, we are seeing the first signs of many wholly ecological bubbles to come. The world is not only at peak oil, but well past peak water, land, climate, oceans, food and energy in general. Rising food prices are the front edge of the food bubble -- a result of over-population, climate change, water shortages and land scarcity. The climate bubble has already begun to burst –- it is too late to return to the relatively stable set of climate patterns with which we evolved -- but failure to stabilize emissions as early as possible will bring far worse. And perhaps most ominously, and by extension of the food and climate bubbles, we are facing a deadly water bubble that is already disrupting societies and may prove insurmountable.

Ecological Bubbles and a New Global Dream These ecological bubbles are partly responsible for the current economic downturn, and unless addressed now, they are certainly going to soon fully burst with calamitous impacts in their own right upon societal and individual well-being. The American dream which has been embraced by the world -- based upon a sub-conscious urge to expand our dominance over nature and always, forever have more of everything, with constant societal pressure to do so -- will have to give way to a more organic, ecologically-cognizant reality of living simply but well within ecological limits. Sadly for many, but a blessing for the Earth System and the not super rich, the whole world cannot live an over-consumptive super-sized lifestyle without destroying being.

It is time for a new global dream. The new dream would include aspiring that all have their basic needs met, even as individuals are free to pursue their passions and fortunes, as long as they do not undermine common ecological systems. Such a dream seeks to avert apocalyptic ecological and societal collapse through promotion of a sense of personal enoughness, voluntary simplicity and a whole range of necessary fundamental changes in society such as ending the use of coal and logging of ancient forests.

One thing is clear -- more unbridled growth based upon unsustainable resource use will not solve the global ecological problems associated with unbridled growth and unsustainable resource use. The human enterprise and each global citizen's consumption aspirations must be downsized to a scale appropriate to ecosystem limits. Or the Earth herself -- as it turns out, with the assistance of the human created economic system -- will do so brutally.

The industrial resource and illusory financial binge must end if we are to reverse the destruction, and begin the restoration, of the biosphere, its component ecosystems, and their ability to provide natural capital upon which to base a steady-state economy. It is time to get back to making honest, good livings from actually making or doing something of societal value, by making a living with the land and Earth, and that does not depend upon liquidating ecological being and financial speculation.

As the economic bubble deflates we might as well get on with finding a way to live simply, sustainably, equitably and justly with the Earth and each other. Because when the water, food and climate bubbles fully burst -- we are going to need each other, and to be ready.

Dr. Barry is founder and President of Ecological Internet; provider of the largest, most used environmental portals on the Internet including the Climate Ark at and http://www.EcoEarth.Info/ . Earth Meanders is a series of ecological essays that are written entirely in his personal capacity. This essay may be reprinted granted it is properly credited to Dr. Barry and with a link to Earth Meanders. Emailed responses are public record and will be posted on the web site unless otherwise requested.


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