Paul Andersen: Today, it would take four Earths
November 11, 2002
According to E. O. Wilson, a noted naturalist, it would take four Earths to meet the consumer demands of today’s human population if all the people in the world consumed at the pace of the average American.
But there are not four Earths, and the one Earth we have is being sorely taxed by an enlarged human footprint that is running rampant over the globe with a pair of lug-soled Vibram boots.
Our waffle-stomper march of progress is plundering the earth of its wild places and destroying natural ecosystems on a scale never seen before. We are in a crazy race to dominate, exploit and ultimately destroy the very basis of nature that has given us life. Sadly, much of the developing world emulates our rapacious appetites.
The legacy of our extravagance will be told in vast interstate highway systems and towering high-rise skyscrapers. Archaeologists of the future will marvel at the energy glut we Americans worshiped during the bright flare of fossil fuel energy consumption in the 20th and 21st centuries.
“Scientists have shown that we appropriate over 40 percent of the net primary productivity (the green stuff) produced on earth each year either taking it directly or keeping other organisms from using it through our agriculture and land use practices,” states the Wildlife Conservation Society on a sobering website: http://www.wcs.org
“We consume 35 percent of the productivity of the oceanic shelf, are fishing down food webs, and taking 60 percent of the available freshwater runoff. These few statistics are testament to the unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption during the twentieth century, resulting in entirely new environmental crises in the history of humankind and the world.”
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You won’t see this report on page one of the Wall Street Journal, or on the back page of Forbes Magazine. Dire statements of this sort are not popular among the talking heads of network TV news or talk show radio hosts. The Bush administration and most of the US Congress do not even acknowledge such “environmental propaganda.”
And yet, the empirical evidence is undeniable, as the WCS website intones: “The influence of human beings on the planet has become so pervasive that it is hard to find an adult person in any country who has not seen the environment around them reduced in natural values during their lifetime ? woodlots converted to agriculture, agricultural lands converted to suburban development, suburban development converted to urban areas.
“Think of your life, of your neighborhood, of the neighborhood you grew up in ? what it was and what it is now.”
If you throw a frog into boiling water, it will immediately leap out. Place a frog in tepid water and slowly raise it to a boil, and you’ll have a boiled frog. Humanity is near the boiling point. We are ignorant of the gradually rising tide of human impact on the Earth’s natural systems and yet we see around us inexorable changes in our world.
“Human influence is arguably the most important factor affecting life of all kinds in today’s world,” states the WCS website. “Yet, this phenomenon and its implications are less appreciated by the broader human community, which does not recognize them in its economic systems or most of its political decisions.”
With 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface currently affected by human activity and 98 percent of the arable land (able to grow rice, wheat and corn) also influenced, only 17 percent of the land now provides opportunities for conservation.
That small portion of land may hold a key to the future of life on our planet. If we human beings can restrain our industrial growth and curtail our waste, if we can agree to self-imposed limits and conserve raw nature there is a chance that the last wild places on Earth can be saved, and with them the instructions to Earth’s natural balance.
In Aspen, it’s easy to become complacent about wild, natural lands. We are graced with numerous wilderness areas and vast, open stretches of public land. And yet, designated wilderness in the United States is a mere 2 percent of the US land mass, equal to that which has been paved. The compromises have already been made.
As E. O. Wilson implies, we don’t have the luxury of three spare Earths on which to learn our lessons and correct our mistakes. We must act before conservation becomes a moot issue. To measure your personal footprint, try this website: http://www.earthday.net/footprint/index.asp
[Paul Andersen hopes one world is enough. His column appears every Monday.]
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