Global warming is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, as well as other industrial activities and land destruction. Concentrations of atmospheric methane have increased by about 250 percent from preindustrial levels. The preindustrial concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm (parts per million). In 2005 it passed 379 ppm. In 2010 it stands at 392 ppm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that it could reach 541 to 970 ppm by the year 2100. However, many climate scientists believe that levels must be kept beneath 350 ppm to avoid “irreversible catastrophic effects.”12
Models predict a temperature increase of 2.4 to 6.4°C (4.3 to 11.5°F) during the twenty-first century.13 An average increase of that amount would be bad enough, but the increase won’t be distributed evenly. Instead, some areas will be subjected to smaller increases, while many regions will be subjected to severe temperature increases upward of 8°C (14.4°F). There will also be with year-to-year variation, some years a few degrees cooler, and others a few degrees warmer. These stacked effects will further add to the potential extremes. Rare (every ten years) extreme weather events, such as major storms, could happen every year. Catastrophic events that should happen once in a hundred years could happen every decade.
The effects of greenhouse gas emissions are delayed because it takes time for the extra heat captured by the atmosphere to accumulate. We are only now feeling the effects of decades-old emissions, and current emissions will take decades to have their full effect. Even if emissions stopped immediately, existing gases would contribute to global warming and rising sea levels for at least one thousand years.14 Furthermore, global warming becomes self-sustaining beyond a certain point. As tundra melts, frozen organic matter will thaw and release great gouts of greenhouse gases. Drastic climate changes will damage many such biomes, causing them to release more carbon.
Projections are one thing, but paleontologists have implicated global warming in all but one of Earth’s prehistoric mass extinctions.15 The most severe mass die-off, dubbed the “Great Dying,” happened a quarter of a billion years ago and wiped out 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of all land-based vertebrates.16 A massive release of methane from the ocean floor has been blamed. Currently, in the Arctic Ocean warming has forced methane to bubble up in great, churning plumes.17 NASA says a tipping point that would lead to “disastrous effects” will be reached by 2017.18 Others argue that such a tipping point—perhaps one of several—has already been reached.19 Of course, for many species and cultures on or past the brink of extinction, it has certainly already been reached.
Global warming is most urgent, but more insidious forms of pollution causing the poisoning of the planet lurk. Researchers at Cornell University blamed 40 percent of all human deaths on water, air, and soil pollution.20 Speaking from my experience as a paramedic—and my personal experience seeing friends or loved ones facing cancer and similar diseases—I can tell you that death by pollution is usually a ghastly way to go. It is not quick or painless, but a drawn-out descent into slow asphyxiation (in the case of diseases caused by air pollution), and sores, rashes, and tumors (in the others). This is worse even than the myth of nature red in tooth and claw; being eaten by a bear or a tiger is fast and merciful compared to a gasping, hacking death by coal lung. And think of the sheer numbers of deaths. Every year some 57 million humans die from all causes, which means that 23 million of them are killed by pollution. That’s 63,000 per day or the equivalent of twenty-one September 11 attacks every day.
The burden of ecocide is felt most by the poor. In China’s burgeoning cities, smoke from coal-burning stoves and cooking oil kills 300,000 people per year.21 And it has long been known that pollution-spewing industrial facilities and hazardous waste sites are much more likely to be placed where people of color live, rather than in predominantly white areas.22
Though agricultural or sanitation problems do cause runoff and water contamination, industry is the main pollution culprit. When industry stops or declines, pollution levels drop immediately. The Northeast Blackout of 2003 caused such a decline in air pollution. Twenty-four hours after the blackout began, sulphur dioxide levels dropped 90 percent, stratospheric ozone levels 50 percent, and light-scattering particulates 70 percent.23
More insidious types of pollution aren’t so responsive. Persistent organic pollutants, the poisons that accumulate and biomagnify in body fat, have become globally ubiquitous. These pollutants endure for centuries, and on breaking down may release more toxic by-products. This crisis requires immediate action to prevent further accumulation.24
An essential dynamic of civilization is the centralization of power and the externalization of consequences. The last fifty years have clearly seen a fusion of runaway corporatism, militarism, and the systematic exploitation of the poor, both domestically and internationally. To continue the centralization of power, the expansion of capitalism, and resource extraction, those in power must destroy traditional, land-based cultures and increase social control.
The destruction of indigenous and sustainable cultures is unrelenting. Language is a good indicator. There are some 6,800 human languages, of which 750 are extinct or nearly extinct. Of 300 indigenous North American languages, only 30 are expected to remain by the year 2050. About half of all languages are endangered.25
The gap between the rich and the poor has continued to grow rapidly. The income of the richest 1 percent of people equals that of the poorest 57 percent.26 The three richest people own more than the poorest 10 percent of people combined. This inequality occurs both between and within countries. In 1992 the pay ratio between the CEO and the average American worker was about 42 to 1. By the year 2000 it had grown to 525 to 1.
Civilization is not one hierarchy, but multiple interlocking hierarchies and systems of oppression based on gender, race, and class. For example, women do two-thirds of global work, earn less than 10 percent of wages, and own less than 1 percent of wealth.27 We can make similar observations about race and class.
Some say that even the poor are wealthier now than ever before in history, which depends on how you measure “wealth.” (But that’s not very meaningful when the global economy is based on dwindling supplies of finite resources, meaning such “wealth” is short-lived and based on future impoverishment.) The next fifty years aside, the past fifty are telling. In 2007 some 57 percent of 6.5 billion people were malnourished, up from 20 percent of a 2.5 billion population in 1950.28
This wealth and well-being gap is partly a by-product of the mantra of profit-at-any-cost, but also from deliberate attempts to harm or impoverish, so that marginalized people are less able to mount resistance against occupation and resource extraction. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate and war criminal Dr. Henry Kissinger infamously advised, “Depopulation should be the highest priority of foreign policy towards the third world, because the US economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries.”
International policies like structural adjustment programs (SAPs) are just the latest form of colonialism. SAPs force poor countries to increase tax collection and cut government spending, sell off public lands and enterprises to private corporations, and remove restrictions (like those pesky labor and environmental policies) on trade and the generation of profit. SAPs have been criticized from the beginning for dramatically increasing poverty and inequality, reversing land reforms, and forcing people off the land and into urban slums.29
These policies often go hand in hand with inducements to borrow money from the industrialized nations to buy infrastructure or commodities from those very countries, one of many practices which has resulted in crushing debt in the third world. In some countries, such as Kenya and Burundi, debt repayment vastly outstrips spending on social services like health care. The cancellation of debt has been shown to result in a prompt and significant increase in social spending.30 The poor countries of the world pay about $4 million in debt per hour.
Enormous as this may seem when we compare it to our own household budgets, it’s small compared to the $58 million the US spends on the military each hour.31 According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, global military spending now exceeds 1.3 trillion dollars. Although spending dipped after the end of the Cold War, it began to climb more steeply with the so-called War on Terror and has now approached its previous peak.32 The United States, which uses the majority of its discretionary budget on the military, spends almost as much as all other countries combined, and, after accounting for inflation, recently surpassed its own Cold War record for annual spending.33
There have been social advances over the last century, especially in civil rights for people of color and women. But human societies ultimately rest on the foundation of the landbase, and global ecocide threatens to reverse the progress that has been made. Economic crises will occur and worsen, but they are difficult to predict because finance is imaginary. The state of the real world, on the other hand, requires no speculation.
In Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, William R. Catton Jr. identifies “drawdown” as “an inherently temporary expedient by which life opportunities [i.e., carrying capacity] for a species are temporarily increased by extracting from the environment for use by that species some significant fraction of an accumulated resource that is not being replaced as fast as it is drawn down.” Drawdown means using reserves, rather than income, to meet yearly demand. Industrial drawdown increases both the human population and the “overhead” costs of operating industrial society.
The dominant culture is utterly reliant on drawdown, such that it is hard to identify something that’s not being drawn down at a staggering rate. The most crucial substances to industrial society and human life—soil, water, cheap energy, food stocks—are exactly those being drawn down most rapidly. And as Catton writes, the use of drawdown is an “inescapably dead-end” approach.
Cheap oil undergirds every aspect of industrial society. Without oil, industrial farms couldn’t grow food, consumer goods couldn’t be transported globally, and superpowers couldn’t wage war on distant countries. Peak oil is already causing disruption in societies around the world, with cascading effects on everything from food production to the global economy.
Peak oil extraction has passed and extraction will decline from this point onward. No industrial renewables are adequate substitutes. Richard C. Duncan sums it up in his “Olduvai Theory” of industrial civilization. Duncan predicted a gradual per capita energy decline between 1979 and 1999 (the “slope”) followed by a “slide” of energy production that “begins in 2000 with the escalating warfare in the Middle East” and that “marks the all-time peak of world oil production.” After that is the “cliff,” which “begins in 2012 when an epidemic of permanent blackouts spreads worldwide, i.e., first there are waves of brownouts and temporary blackouts, then finally the electric power networks themselves expire.”34 According to Duncan, 2030 marks the end of industrial civilization and a return to “global equilibrium”—namely, the Stone Age.
Natural gas is also near peak production. Other fossil fuels, such as tar sands and coal, are harder to access and offer a poor energy return. The ecological effects of extracting and processing those fuels (let alone the effects of burning them) would be disastrous even compared to petroleum’s abysmal record.
Will peak oil avert global warming? Probably not. It’s true that cheap oil has no adequate industrial substitute. However, the large use of coal predates petroleum. Even postcollapse, it’s possible that large amounts of coal, tar sands, and other dirty fossil fuels could be used.
Although peak oil is a crisis, its effects are mostly beneficial: reduced burning of fossil fuels, reduced production of garbage, and decreased consumption of disposable goods, reduced capacity for superpowers to project their power globally, a shift toward organic food growing methods, a necessity for stronger communities, and so on. The worst effects of peak oil will be secondary—caused not by peak oil, but by the response of those in power.
Suffering a shortage of fossil fuels? Start turning food into fuel or cutting down forests to digest them into synthetic petroleum. Economic collapse causing people to default on their mortgages? Fuel too expensive to run some machines? The capitalists will find a way to kill two birds with one stone and institute a system of debtors prisons that will double as forced labor camps. A large number of prisons in the US and around the world already make extensive use of barely paid prison laborers, after all. Mass slavery, gulags, and the like are common in preindustrial civilizations. You get the idea.
Industrial civilization is heavily dependent on many different finite resources and materials, a fact which makes its goal of perpetual growth impossible. In particular, certain metals are in short supply.35 Running out of cheap platinum wouldn’t have much ecological impact. But shortages of more crucial minerals, like copper, will hamper industrial society’s ability to cope with its own collapse. Severe shortages and high prices will worsen the social and ecological practices of mining companies (bad as they are now). These shortages would also represent a failure of industrial civilization’s fundamental and false promise to expand and bring its benefits to all people in the world. According to one study, upgrading the infrastructure in the “developing world” to the status of the “developed world” would require essentially all of the copper and zinc (and possibly all the platinum) in the earth’s crust, as well as near-perfect metal recycling.36
The growing global food crisis is a severe confluence of economic, political, and ecological factors. Right now plenty of food is being produced, but for economic reasons it isn’t being distributed fairly. If, at its apex of production, industrial agriculture can’t feed everyone, imagine what will happen when it collapses. Prices for corn and rice are already dramatically increasing, in part because of biofuels, even though the biofuel industry is still small.
The food crisis is going to get worse, but it’s not going to be a “Malthusian crisis,” in which a crisis exponential population growth outpaces increasing agricultural production. Our crisis is likely to culminate in a decrease in agricultural production caused by energy decline and increasing use of biofuels, and worsened by climate change and ecological damage. Sustainable ways of growing food are labor-intensive because they are horticultural and polycultural, rather than agricultural and monocultural. (That is, sustainable methods are small-scale and ecologically diverse, rather than the opposite.) As soil microbiologist Peter Salonius states flatly, “Intensive crop culture for high population[s] is unsustainable.”37 The longer humanity waits before switching to sustainable food sources and reversing population growth, the greater the disparity will be between carrying capacity and population.
The food crisis is deeply tied to two other ecological crises: water drawdown and soil loss. Industrial water consumption is drying up rivers and swallowing entire aquifers around the world. Although shallow groundwater can gradually be replenished by rainfall, when those supplies become depleted many farms and industries use deep wells with powerful pumps to extract water from fossil aquifers, which aren’t replenished by rainfall. This shift to industrial drilling for water—essentially water mining—has caused major drops in water tables. In India, for example, deep electrically pumped wells used by large cash-crop monoculture farms have caused a major drop in water tables. This means small and subsistence farmers who use hand wells are losing their water supplies, a disaster which has caused a dramatic rise in suicides.38 Approximately half of hand-dug wells in India—up to 95 percent of all wells in some regions—are now dry, driving an abandonment of rural villages.
In the grain-growing regions of central China, the water table is dropping about 3 meters (10 feet) per year, and up to twice as fast in other areas.39 Chinese wheat production fell by 34 million tons between 1998 and 2005, a gap larger than the annual wheat production of Canada.40 In Saudi Arabia (as well as other countries), the technology being used for well drilling is now a modified version of oil drilling technology, because many wells must exceed one kilometer in depth to reach fresh water.
Access to groundwater has always allowed agriculturalists to occasionally consume more water than rained down each year, but now farming around the world has become dependent on its overconsumption. And make no mistake, drawdown of aquifers through deep drilling and pumping is utterly driven by and dependent on a highly industrialized culture. Without industrial machinery, even the most unsustainable society would be limited to drawing the amount of water that the water table could sustainably recharge each year. Furthermore, water used by industry and agriculture far outweighs residential water use, and typically less than 1 percent of residential water is actually used for drinking.
Among the most threatening crisis is soil drawdown and desertification. It takes a thousand years for the earth to create a few inches of topsoil. Currently, topsoil is being lost at ten to twenty times the rate at which it can be replenished. In his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery traces the collapse of previous civilizations that destroyed the topsoil upon which they depended. He estimates that about 1 percent of the world’s topsoil is lost each year.41 According to United Nations University, by 2025 Africa may only have enough intact land to feed 25 percent of its human population.42
Desertification is primarily caused by overcultivation, deforestation, overgrazing, and climate change. About 30 percent of Earth’s land surface is at risk of desertification, including 70 percent of all drylands. Fifty-two thousand square kilometers are turned to desert each year; about the area of Hong Kong is turned to desert each week. The UN reports that desertification threatens the livelihood of one billion people in 110 countries.43
More land was converted into cropland in the three decades following 1950 than in the fifteen decades following 1700.44 Cultivated lands now cover about one quarter of the earth’s land surface, but about 40 percent of agricultural land in the world has become degraded in the last fifty years.45 Further expansion of agriculture to move beyond damaged lands is no longer an option—humans already occupy 98 percent of the areas where rice, wheat, or corn can be grown.46 Canadian research scientist Peter Salonius estimates that once petroleum has been exhausted, the soils of the earth will be so degraded that the planet will only be able to support 100 million to 300 million people.47
Per capita seafood consumption has tripled since 1950.48 Thanks to overfishing, between 1950 and 2003, 90 percent of the large fish in the ocean have been wiped out, and those who remain are smaller.49 Since then, industrial fishing has continued to take more fish each year. By the midpoint of the twenty-first century, scientists estimate, all oceanic fish stocks worldwide will have collapsed.50 Bottom trawling, a form of industrial fishing that involves dragging heavy nets across the sea bottom, obliterates seafloor habitat and seafloor creatures in the “most destructive of any actions that humans conduct in the ocean.”51 Every six months, bottom trawlers drag an area the size of the continental United States.
The orange roughy is just one of the creatures who have been decimated by this practice. These fish may grow to nearly three feet in length, and live up to one and a half centuries. Because they are so long lived and slow to mature, and because they produce few eggs compared to most fish, their populations are slow to rebound from any trouble. The assault of bottom trawling is ceaseless. Schools of orange roughy recently discovered near Australia have declined by 90 percent in a decade.52
Orange roughies spend much of their time congregating in large schools. As scientific research has recently confirmed, fish are highly intelligent and social animals. Dr. Culum Brown of the University of Edinburgh writes, “In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates, including nonhuman primates.”53 Doctor Brown, along with Doctors Kevin Laland and Jens Krause, go on to say that “fish are steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.”54 Furthermore, they recognize their “shoal mates” (that is, their friends) and have long-term relationships, follow the social prestige and relationships of others, and build complex nests. Of course, the rich social lives of fish—the researchers above use the word “culture”—are ignored by those who facilitate their industrial decimation.
As with many resource extraction industries, large-scale commercial fishing would not be economically feasible without heavy government subsidies. Economists have calculated that the expense of catching and marketing fish is almost twice as much as the value of the global catch.55 None of these figures, of course, include the true ecological costs of destroying biomes that cover the majority of the earth’s surface.
And then there’s deforestation. Global warming–induced mild winters have increased the spread of temperate forest pests like the mountain pine beetle. Massive tree kills caused by the beetle (and industrial logging) have turned many Canadian forests from carbon sinks into carbon emitters.56 They are now contributing to accelerating warming, worsening the spread of pests like the pine beetle.
Fully half of the mature tropical forests have been wiped out globally, and some areas have been hit especially hard. The Philippines have lost 90 percent of their forests, Haiti has lost 99 percent, and between 1990 and 2005 Nigeria lost 80 percent of its old-growth forest.57 Without major global action, by 2030 only 10 percent of the tropical forest will remain intact, with another 10 percent in a fragmented and degraded condition.58 If we don’t prevent it, hundreds of thousands of species will go extinct; global warming, drought, soil erosion, and landslides will all worsen severely.
Tropical forests are being wiped out at a rate of 160,000 square kilometers per year, with demand for biofuels driving that number upward.59 To put this into perspective, imagine lining all of that destruction up into one long swath that stretched from horizon to horizon in width and more than 16,000 kilometers in length.60 To walk this distance on the globe you would have to start in Cape Town, South Africa, walk the entire length of Africa to Cairo, hike across the Middle East to the tip of the Caspian Sea, and then traverse the entire width of Asia, finally stopping at the Bering Sea near Kamchatka. Or you could string it from the southern-most tip of Argentina all the way to Alaska, the length of South and North America combined. To walk that scar from end to end would take you eighteen months, during which you would see nothing but stumps and ash and dust and ruin. And because it would take you eighteen months to see only twelve months of destruction, you would never be able to see it all.
The year 2005 broke all previous records for woodcutting.61 The harvesting of wood for fuel and lumber is only one factor. In the Amazon the main factor is clearing land for cattle-grazing pasture. Other causes include government subsidies for settlements, road building, and infrastructure development, and commercial agriculture, mostly of soybeans for export. According to one researcher, “Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors.”62
As is the case with many forms of fiscally and industrially driven ecocide, analysts have noted that deforestation in Brazil is “strongly correlated” with the “health” of the economy. Periods of economic slowdown match periods of lesser deforestation, while a rapidly growing economy causes much greater deforestation. Writes Rhett Butler: “During lean times, ranchers and developers do not have the cash to rapidly expand their pasturelands and operations, while the government lacks funds to sponsor highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest exploiters.”63 In other words, economic growth is bad for the health of the planet, and economic contraction is good for the health of the planet.
Much of the world’s remaining tropical forest is in the Amazon. This enormous rainforest creates the moist climate it needs by transpiring huge amounts of water and affecting air currents over the entire continent. Deforestation stops that transpiration and encourages desertification. This may create a self-perpetuating cycle of drought that kills even the largest trees and further reduces transpiration. Many ecologists believe that there is a tipping point beyond which this cycle would become irreversible and the Amazon would turn into a desert.64 Some estimates put this tipping point as early as 2007, which would mean that action was required yesterday (or, second best, immediately). There is ample evidence that worsening drought is already well underway.65 This cascading drought would not be limited to Latin America: “Scientists say that this would spread drought into the Northern Hemisphere, including Britain, and could massively accelerate global warming with incalculable consequences, spinning out of control, a process that might end in the world becoming uninhabitable.”66