The Intersection of Various Conservation and Social Issues
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is one lives alone in a world of wounds” -Aldo Leopold
I wrote these ideas for a class that I taught at New Mexico Highlands University. They are a summary of various classes on conservation in that course. While the words might seem overwhelming, they are meant to expose the difficult questions that many politicians want to avoid. Unfortunately, political ignorance and denial do not produce good policy. The informed public must be involved to force political hands. Despite conservation issues seeming like a high wall to climb, do not despair. With hope, we can make a difference. Hope is what fuels the fire in the belly. Nelson Mandela thought that he may be in prison for life, but he never lost hope, and he changed a country. Despite the magnitude of the task, never give up.
One of the key things to understand about destabilizing the planet is tipping points. Very little in nature responds in a linear fashion. When a system is pushed, the response becomes non-linear. This can be deceptive because a series of small changes may each seem unimportant, but when added together, those small changes can pass a tipping point to produce a dramatic change. A small example is dropping temperature. There may be an insignificant difference between a change of 34 degrees to 33 degrees, but at 32 degrees, rain becomes snow. In the planetary system, a tipping point is the critical point when that system is pushed outside of its boundaries established over evolutionary time, and that causes a significant and often unstoppable change. Essentially, the physical state can’t keep up with the rate of change. That change can be irreversible within human time frames. Another problem is that we face multiple tipping points in different problems, and those problems can act synergistically.
First, we are going to rehash the problems moving toward tipping points. We will then propose solutions. In a nutshell, don’t expect government to do the right thing. Make them do the right thing. In addition, Ghandi said, “be the change you want to see in the world.” What we do now will determine our future.
There have been temperature swings during the 17 ice-ages of the Pleistocene. Each ice age was separated by an interglacial warming period. We are now in an interglacial period of stability where temperature has varied about + or – one degree Celcius over the last 10,000 years. The natural temperature changes during this time were driven by a change in energy from the sun. During recent times, that has changed. Now, the temperature is rising faster in the lower levels of the atmosphere than outer layers, more for nighttime temperatures than daytime temperatures, more for winter temperatures than summer, and more at polar regions than at the equator. That is the opposite of what one would expect if temperatures increased because of changes in the sun’s energy. In addition, solar energy has decreased slightly yet temperatures are increasing. The above are examples of greenhouse gas accumulation holding in the heat. Think of covering yourself with a blanket. According to ice cores, both methane and carbon dioxide are now at the highest levels of the last 800,000 years.
Polar ice is a critical factor in stabilizing global weather patterns and has played a role in keeping the global temperature stable. But the ice is melting. Ice reflects heat and blue water absorbs it. So as ice melts, the darker water absorbs more heat which melts more ice (an example of positive feedback). Greenland ice is two miles thick, and the high altitude of that ice kept it in cooler air. That had a cooling effect on the planet. As that ice melts, the ice mass lowers in altitude and enters a warmer temperature zone. That increases the melting of the ice. The Greenland ice is past the tipping point, and the melt will raise the oceans, perhaps up to 15 feet over time. Another problem with melting Greenland ice is the addition of fresh water to the northern Atlantic. That has the potential to reverse the ocean currents, which will change weather for Europe and North America. Those currents are now weakening.
Arctic ice is melting, but that polar ice cap is on water, so the melt won’t have a significant effect on ocean levels. Arctic ice is already composed of ocean water. A major problem in the northern regions of North America and Russia is that warming temperatures are melting the permafrost. This can be visually seen by huge sinkholes in Siberia, and by lighting the methane released in North American arctic lakes. As more methane is released it increases warming which releases more methane. The oil wells on the north slope of Alaska rely on frozen permafrost to form ice roads for travel. There are standards that the road must meet before trucks can use it. Right now, the roads are below standards. The response has been to lower the standards, a policy from pressure by the fossil fuel industry. The economic cost of melted Arctic ice and permafrost may be 60 trillion dollars.
Unlike the Arctic ice shelf made of ocean water, Antarctica has massive glaciers on land. There is an ice shelf on the water that holds the glaciers in place, but those ice shelves are melting. Antarctic glaciers entering the ocean will raise sea levels. The Thwaites glacier is the size of Florida, and that glacier alone would raise the sea level by two feet. If it pulls neighboring glaciers with it, sea levels could rise by 10 feet. In addition, warming seas expand, which adds to rising sea levels.
For commerce, many cities are located on present-day coastlines. Right now, sea water is damaging fresh water supplies for some of those cities. Some of those cities will eventually be submerged without action. If the seas rise by three feet, most of southern and western Bangladesh will be submerged.
Greenhouse gases are changing the weather patterns. Rising temperatures mean air in wetter areas will hold more moisture. That will increase the chances of damaging floods. Asian flooding has increased by a factor of 15 since 1950. Floods in Pakistan this summer covered 1/3rd of the country with water and wiped-out agriculture. About 3,000,000 people in Bangladesh annually face flooding damage from increased rainfall. This past summer (2022), Missouri and Kentucky saw rainfall of 9 to 10 inches in a single day. This April, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida had 25 inches of rain in six hours. Warmer oceans will increase the severity of hurricanes and increase the rain events that come with such storms.
Dryer areas will have increasingly severe droughts which will bring famine to areas that are vulnerable. Africa will be hard hit. It already is. The drought in East Africa is affecting 50,000,000 people. Evapotranspiration will increase, and that will expand areas of drought. It also increases the intensity, size, and number of catastrophic fires. Catastrophic fires in the western U.S. have increased by a factor of 25 since 1950. There are now such fires in the Arctic region.
Rising temperatures are also affecting the Amazon, called the lungs of the planet. As the forest dries, it loses the ability to regulate rainfall. As tropical forest changes to savanna, the dying trees will give off the carbon they have been storing, which will increase the atmospheric carbon load, something that will further increase temperature and change more forest to savanna. The Amazon Forest is also being cut for soybeans and cattle grazing, and about 20% of it is already gone. But it isn’t just tropical forests that are vulnerable. There are also temperate and boreal forests. Losing 25% of those global forests puts forested ecosystems at risk. 40% of global forests are already gone, so we have passed that boundary and are moving toward a tipping point.
Warmer oceans are bleaching coral at the present temperatures. Corals can recover, but the increasing frequency of bleaching events will prevent recovery. A rise of 2 degrees C will likely eliminate a great deal of coral, which is already disappearing. Coral is a hotspot for ocean species diversity. One-third of the annual carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean, and that increases acidity. The oceans are now 26% more acidic than 50 years ago. That reduces carbonates and decreases the number of species depending on the carbonate (mollusks, oysters, etc.). Roughly 60 to 70% of the oceans are under human-induced stress which threatens ocean survival if trends continue. The largest two threats are increasing temperature and acidity.
The boundary for greenhouse gases to make systems more vulnerable is 350 ppm which we passed in the 1990s. A level of 450 ppm will push us past a tipping point and into a danger zone. That may be passed in 2050. We are presently at 423.6 ppm. The U.S. increased greenhouse gases by 5% in 2021, and global rates continue increasing.
We should remember that the Permian extinction was caused by an enormous and long-lasting string of volcanic eruptions in Siberia. The lava from those eruptions also burned underground coal seams, accelerating greenhouse gases. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere raised the temperature by 10 degrees C and acidified the ocean. 90% of all life was extinguished by high temperatures and by ocean acidification. The Triassic extinctions were also caused by a series of volcanic eruptions which raised the temperature about 7 degrees C and acidified the ocean. Predictions for temperature increases by 2100 range from 3 to 8 degrees C, with most predictions at 5.5 degrees C. One problem with model predictions about climate change is that they have been exceeded in real life. Most models didn’t consider the effect of melting permafrost. An extinction spasm is not just about losing species, it is about making large parts of the Earth uninhabitable. Much of the damage will fall on poorer nations who contribute little to annual greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases are thus a social justice issue as well as an ecological issue.
To change the trajectory of climate change, we should do several things. We must abandon the idea of keeping temperature increases below 1.5 degrees C. We won’t be able to do that. Hope for keeping a temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C lulls us into a false sense of security. That hope has been used by fossil fuel companies to maintain the status quo and thus their profits. Accepting that we will exceed 1.5 degrees will encourage more action to stem the effects of greenhouse gases. Remember that there is a 25-year time lag between the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and the effects we see. What we are seeing now comes from atmospheric carbon levels in 2000, when carbon levels were around 370 ppm. Today carbon levels are at 423.6 ppm, and the effects of that carbon level won’t hit the planet until 2045. The time lag means we have to act now. This doesn’t mean defeat. It means humans need to take every measure to stop, or at least halve, every new ton of carbon going into the air and every small raise in temperature.
The fossil fuel industry is perhaps the most profitable business the planet has ever seen. Since the 1980s, that industry has funded an expensive campaign to sow doubt on climate change caused by greenhouse gases, even though science shows it is indisputable. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan married the fossil fuel companies to the republican party, giving fossil fuels enormous political power. Even though fossil fuel companies are making record profits and pay little in taxes, they receive a 20-billion-dollar stimulus each year from the U.S. government to expand drilling. That must change.
We need to switch to renewable energy as quickly as possible. Internal pressure comes by voting for that switch, but that is slow. There must also be external pressure from citizens. That can’t be a one-off street demonstration. It has to be a sustained, well-organized effort to keep the issue in front of the public. Perhaps legal efforts could challenge fossil fuels for their false information. Any settlements could help pay for the conversion to renewable energy.
Although China is now the biggest annual contributor to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the U.S. has contributed the most to the cumulative carbon load over history, and the fossil fuel companies have made enormous profits from it. The entire continent of Africa contributes only 6% of the annual carbon load to the atmosphere, yet that continent will be one of the most affected by the effects of climate change. Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the annual carbon load, yet 1/3 of the country was flooded with at least 1,500 deaths in the summer of 2022. In North America, many Native nations were relocated to marginal lands, and marginal lands will bear the brunt of climate change. Wealthy nations should contribute heavily to the poorer countries in relief as well as helping those countries convert to renewable energy. This should apply as well to Native lands in North America. Corporate profits in the fossil fuel industry are based on short-term gain without regard to the cost placed on nature and people. They lack ethics. Ethics require a level of self-sacrifice for the common good. An example is a speed limit on highways, but common good should also include the rights of nature (a Land Ethic). Policy based only on profit needs to be changed before the damage is irreplaceable, and that means breaking the unequal gap of income differential. Inequality produces the Prisoner Dilemma, where cooperation could elevate ethics, but a few who don’t cooperate could elevate their own interests at the expense of both nature and people. Of course, any system relying on constant growth will harm nature (more below).
Biodiversity is important to global stability. Tropical forests are being cut and along with climate change that is changing rain patterns and species interactions. 40% of all global forests have been cut, whereas the boundary to make systems more vulnerable is 25% loss. Healthy forest ecosystems provide 3 trillion dollars a year in ecosystem services.
The background rate for extinctions is the rate of extinction from normal causes. It doesn’t include the five mass extinctions. The background rate of extinctions is roughly equal to the rate of forming new species. The background extinction rate is about one species per year for every 1,000,000 species in existence. If there are 8 or 9 million species, then we should expect about 8 or 9 extinctions in a year in the background rate.
Right now, we have eliminated about 68% of wildlife. Only 30% of the world’s birds are wild. North America has lost 3 billion birds since 1970. Of mammalian biomass, 96% is human and our domesticated animals. About 1,000,000 species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction out of perhaps 8 or 9,000,000 total species (far greater than the 8 or 9 species of a background extinction rate).
Much of this loss has happened in recent history. Jared Diamond said it was due to the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Direct killing of species, fragmentation and loss of habitat, invasive species and disease, and secondary extinctions. We can also add pollution and climate change. For direct killing, there are many examples. Sea turtles and whales were almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s. 39% of the world’s ocean species are overfished, and that doesn’t include death as bycatch. Many of the overfished species play important roles in ecosystem function. Changes cause ecosystem shift outside of evolutionary boundaries and crossing the tipping point can cause oceanic systems to collapse. Mammals suffered from market hunting. Beavers once numbered 60,000,000 but were nearly eliminated for the hat industry in England. Bison once numbered 30,000,000 and were reduced to 1,000 by 1900. Passenger pigeons, once the most numerous of any bird species on Earth, were shot to extinction. Native predators have been systematically killed by the U.S. government to benefit the livestock industry, and livestock are exotic to this hemisphere. Wolves and grizzly bears only persist today in a few locations. Prairie dogs have been eliminated from 97% of their original range.
Habitat loss is primarily human-driven. Habitat destruction and fragmentation not only affects individual species but the health of the global ecosystem. Roughly 40% of the ice-free land is used to feed a growing human population. Another 33% of the ice-free land provides resources for humans. 50% of the freshwater is used by humans, and aquatic systems are degraded by pollution. By 2050, we may see the amount of land in food production double.
While many introduced and exotic species don’t proliferate in new areas, the ones that do can transform ecosystems. In one example, cheat grass outcompetes native grasses by changing soil chemistry to its own benefit and to the detriment of native grasses. It also changes the fire regime to its benefit.
Of particular importance to secondary extinctions are the highly interactive species that help drive ecosystem function. This group includes carnivores, which keep the world green by limiting the number of herbivores and changing herbivore behavior. The group also includes habitat engineers that change habitat in a way that increases diversity. Finally, mutualists produce results that affect a wide range of species. An example is pollinating insects. Insects are declining, and 70% of all plants need insects for pollination. Intensive and corporate agriculture is killing the insects and depleting diversity. Without insects, birds will decline.
We need stable and functioning ecosystems. Diverse systems increase productivity of the area, increase drought tolerance, increase the ability to fend off catastrophes, increase the ability to respond after a catastrophe, increase the ability for nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration, and increase the ability to defend against disease.
Declining biodiversity means we increase the chances of pandemics. Loss of carnivores and large herbivores increases the number of small mammals. Rodents and bats are big vectors for disease. Habitat destruction brings people in closer contact with these vectors. The Covid pandemic showed that an outbreak in one region can become global. The health of nature and health of people are closely connected. We have crossed the threshold for vulnerability of biodiversity.
Can we find the generosity of spirit to share the world with non-human neighbors? Our market economies without regulation work against it. Nature is viewed as a commodity for material benefit instead of global health. Today about 15% of the land and 7% of the ocean is protected. Unfortunately, some of those protected areas exist only on paper. There is a global campaign to protect 30% of the planet by 2030 and 50% by 2050. The Biden administration and 50 countries endorse that effort. Many traditional cultures have a deep respect for nature and indigenous expertise can contribute a great deal to protected area management. Unfortunately, a market economy erodes traditional culture as well as nature. Any group invested in a market economy will not do justice to protected areas. Converting Bear’s Ears National Monument into a National Park managed by traditional Pueblo tribes could be a step toward righting past wrongs.
Again, voting is important, as is organizing citizens to push for more protection. In short, we have to upscale protection while downscaling human consumption patterns and population growth (more below). Regulation of extractive industries would protect sensitive land and water. Our food choices can also help. Eating fewer processed foods would decrease the demand for palm oil, which is decimating Asian tropical forests. Eating less meat would reduce pressure on the Amazon and other sensitive areas. In general, trying to live within nature instead of on top of it is beneficial. An unregulated profit motive perpetuates the idea of dominating nature.
The average person uses three tons of water each day. While amounts for bathing, drinking, etc. aren’t that large, most of that freshwater use comes from producing food and in “hidden water.” Hidden water is water used in production and transport. One hamburger takes 650 gallons of water, one cup of coffee takes 35 gallons, and one computer chip takes 19 gallons, and we make about 3 billion chips each year. 90% of the Ogallala Aquifer is used for food and fiber production, and that accounts for 20 billion dollars a year economically. That aquifer is disappearing. When it dries, it will take 6,000 years of rest to recharge. Wheat alone uses 12% of the global water for crops. Climate change is drying some rivers in the west that are local sources for transporting goods, irrigation, and supplying drinking water. Of the total global water supply, only 2.5% is freshwater, and most of that is locked in ice (for now).
To avoid a tipping point for freshwater, we can advocate for several issues. We can legislate to restrict construction of dams. Dams disrupt the aquatic ecosystem. Hydropower dams flood large areas, force people to relocate (usually the powerless), threaten freshwater biodiversity, disrupt subsistence fisheries, and leave rivers dry. They are usually built for recreation, industry, or irrigation. Incentives for farming could be used to reduce the use of pesticides and irrigation. Wetlands are important, but they are routinely drained for development. Wetlands clean the water, recharge water supplies, reduce flood risks, remove pollution, and provide wildlife habitat. They should be protected under a stronger Clean Water Act. Finally, we need to closely regulate water withdrawal by humans. One example of that is the in-stream flow regulations. In the dry west, however, water use is presently regulated by an outdated policy. Western water policy is the miracle that turns water into sand.
Closely linked to water use is eutrophication. Excessive fertilizer use is killing seas and lakes. Lake Erie recovered from industrial pollution, largely because the Clean Water Act focused on point-source pollution from industry. Now, however, it is damaged by fertilizer runoff. The Clean Water Act doesn’t address non-point pollution, like fertilizer runoff or livestock waste, because of lobbying by powerful agricultural interests. Eutrophication has caused 400 dead zones in the oceans. Midwestern crops of corn and soybeans use fertilizers intensively, and they run off into the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. That has created a dead zone in the Gulf that covers 6,500 square miles. Eutrophication lowers oxygen levels and that kills aquatic life. In addition to killing aquatic life, excessive use of fertilizers also destroys soils faster than they can be made. We should remember that the Devonian extinction was caused by eutrophication. Land plants took hold during the Silurian Period, and that added nutrients into the formerly infertile soil. When those new nutrients flowed into the seas, eutrophication robbed the water of oxygen causing death in the seas.
Industrial pollution caused heavy damage to water. The Clean Water Act remedied this, but there is political pressure to weaken regulations in the name of increased profit. The same person who put lead in gasoline to reduce engine knock also developed CFCs for refrigeration. Lead in gasoline increased lead levels in children living near interstates as well as workers producing gasoline. Standard Oil fought to keep lead in gasoline until the 1970s, even though they knew it was harmful in the 1930s. CFCs began destroying the ozone layer that protects the planet from ultraviolet radiation which can destroy the DNA of living organisms. An intensive effort starting in the 1980s removed CFCs from products and restored the ozone layer. That example shows that action works. Mining operations used cyanide and mercury to process ores. In Colorado alone, there are 9,000 abandoned mines that are still polluting. Clean-up of mines is often left to Superfunds administered by the EPA instead of the polluting company. Plastics and microplastics are polluting the oceans and killing marine life. Some heavy metals can breach the blood-testis barrier and the blood-brain barrier. Much of human waste is created by design to keep consumers buying new products.
Industrial pollution must be more closely regulated by legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Many industries view their waste as external to profit. Externalized waste is left to the government to clean (using your taxes). A strong step would be legislation to make companies take full responsibility for those externalized costs. Fossil fuels not only add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, but they also increase water and air pollution. Air pollution increases heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory diseases such as emphysema and asthma. It can cause long-term damage to people’s nerves, brain, kidneys, liver, and other organs. The switch to renewable energy will mitigate those effects, but the fossil fuel industry interferes with developing renewable sources. Of course, continuing to embrace the assumption of constant growth for both the economy and people means that even a switch to renewable energy will still destroy nature.
Right now, the government subsidizes fossil fuels with 20 billion dollars each year. The 1872 Mining Act is still in place. It contains no environmental protections for hard rock mining, which has been the most egregious polluter over the years. Hard rock mining pollutes 50 million gallons of water each day. The Mining Act allows companies to open claims on federal lands for $2.50 to $5 an acre. It is a huge subsidy for companies using publicly owned land. Companies have lobbied congress against updating the Mining Act, so the 1872 law remains in place. Legislation should change that 1872 law. Fossil fuels are used to make plastic, even though plastic can be made from plants. Only about 5% of plastic from fossil fuels is recycled, and petroleum companies profit because without reuse they can keep making new plastic. Plastic can be made from plants without fossil fuel, and plant-based plastic is 100% recyclable.
Individually, we can recycle, repair, and reuse sturdy products instead of letting advertising push us toward the latest “shiny object.” We can reduce driving by directing travel toward necessary goals. Driving also can be reduced by using public transportation. Trains are energy efficient. International tourism relying on air travel increases the ecological footprint. Using recycled paper reduces energy needed by 40%. Making use of solar energy helps. Simple things like turning off lights and lowering the thermostat make a difference. Buying local food, instead of imported food, reduces energy and helps the local economy. Do not waste food. Leftovers work. While individual efforts can help, the bulk of pollution is from corporate sources. We need legislation to reduce pollution. Our culture needs to change individualism to ethical community responsibility.
Assumption of Constant Growth
Among the major, mutually exacerbating, factors that impede sustainable living are: (1) growth in per capita consumption, (2) disparities of wealth and power within and among nations, and (3) growth in human numbers.
Many people seem to understand the causes we mention, but do not understand that that they are deeply rooted in the structure and culture of our society. Our political leaders assume that constant growth, acquiring material goods, and the expansion of wealth and power, is beneficial. Very few challenge the assumption of constant growth, even though there is no evidence supporting it. It is good for short-term profit, but in the long-term it is a progress trap. Economics is a human construct concerned with the production, consumption, and accumulation of wealth and power. People assume that economics is a unifying factor while nature is composed isolated parts. It is actually the reverse.
The problem comes because while nature supplies the resources for economic transactions, economic theory ignores the principles of physics and ecology that govern those natural resources. We thus have a continuing conflict between the human economy and nature’s function. Markets and technology contribute to the dynamic by increasing the power of the human economy over nature’s economy. In the end, growth and profit get first choice and nature and the poor get what’s left over. This is short-term benefit with long-term cost.
As an example of conflict between the human economy and natural economies, the First Law of Thermodynamics establishes a limit to the amount of energy and matter that are available for an ecosystem. Except for an occasional asteroid, we live in a closed system. Material cannot be created, only converted from other forms, and those conversions require energy. The Second Law establishes that conversion of matter from one form to another takes increasing amounts of energy because entropy prevents efficiency. Because energy is necessary for converting materials into human consumables, whoever controls the energy controls the power. This leads to inequality as some groups exploit others. Nature is destroyed.
We continue to grow in an unsustainable manner, ignoring ecological limits and thresholds. We now consume in one year what it takes one year and seven months to replace. That is not a sustainable strategy. We have been able to exhaust a resource in one area and simply move to another. But we live on a globe and if we keep eating whatever is in front of us, we will eventually reach our own back door.
The solution is converting an economy based on constant growth into a steady state economy. We must reverse human population growth (more below). Nearly all economists view progress as growth, yet things can grow without getting better (clogged roads, etc.) and can get better without growing (improved health care). Constant growth can only work if goods could be produced from nothing, and waste could be obliterated into nothing. The transition to a steady-state economy is one that recognizes and respects the fixed ecological limits of the planet. The economy based on growth suffers ups and downs, but a steady state economy alleviates those fluctuations. Measuring by GDP obscures the tipping point when growth is un-beneficial. Instead of funneling the focus on growth, the steady state economy focuses on improving the lives of citizens. A steady state economy limits the amount and rate of depletion that the economy can be allowed to impose on the ecosystem. Caps are quotas, limiting the use of basic resources, especially fossil fuels. It changes a tax system from “value-added” to “which value is added.” Instead of relying on growth to reduce poverty (which hasn’t worked), poverty reduction requires redistribution. Complete income equality is unfair; unlimited inequality is unfair. So, we need to seek a minimum income and a maximum income. International trade should be regulated instead of the present unregulated system that promotes inequality. A steady state economy allows for growth, but growth that is confined to increased efficiency by technology. That is about 1.5% annually. Limiting quantitative growth improves qualitative development. This is only a cursory version of the steady-state economy. It is worth reading more by Brian Czech in his book Supply Shock.
During the 20th Century, the world’s human population increased by a factor of four, and the world economy increased by a factor of 40. Along with this, the distribution of consumption and resource use has become increasingly skewed toward the industrial nations. Unequal distribution of wealth harms people and biodiversity. When some take so much, there is little for everything else. Although only 25% of the world’s population lives in the industrial nations, they consume 70% of the earth’s resources and 80% of the energy.
Affluence, inequality, and social stratification are grave problems, though neither poverty nor wealth is inherent in the natural human condition. Both are caused by political actions. Inequality and stratification turn the natural world, and humans, into commodities to be exploited and consumed by the powerful. The history of colonialism laid the groundwork for many socio-economic problems of today. Modern powers often controlled newly independent former colonies by manipulating their economies to secure resources. Roughly 45% of the gross national product in all developing countries relies on resource extraction for export, and that leaves many countries little alternative but to destroy the environment for short-term survival.
Another economic problem is the trend toward global markets. When parts for a product are made in one country, assembled in another, and marketed by the home office in a third, there is less accountability to local regions. Decisions made from afar make it easier to sacrifice the welfare of nature and people. To draw on an example from Mexico, on January 1, 1992, Mexico, the US, and Canada signed a free trade agreement (NAFTA). This was accompanied by a controversial change in the Mexican constitution allowing foreign interests to buy land in Mexico. Agreements such as NAFTA have increased pressure to destroy habitat for the production of crops that are exportable to wealthier countries. Roughly 50% of produce consumed in the U.S. is grown in Mexico. NAFTA also increased the number of landless rural poor because when the emphasis is switched from growing food for local consumption to corporate farming for export, the land is concentrated in the hands of a few. The landless rural poor are then forced farther into unexploited areas.
In Mexico, NAFTA increased the number of people living below the poverty level and the number living without basic services. On the other hand, it increased the number of billionaires in Mexico from 11 to 27. That is billionaire in U.S. dollars. NAFTA removed tariffs in trade between Mexico, the U.S., and Canada, but free markets are established on an already uneven field.
Another problem of the global markets is that poorer countries often try to induce investment from international corporations, but the main thing they offer is low wages and lax environmental restrictions. Lax environmental regulations, or simply unenforced regulations, means an industrial country can also ship its pollution to another place. It is a race to the bottom. This creates and extends poverty, and poverty is profitable for those in power. It also threatens nature.
Because of the direct dependence on natural resources, environmental deterioration in the underdeveloped world is both a cause and an effect of poverty. Loss of forest, eroded soil fertility, desertification, and lack or loss of clean water supplies are all related to impoverished biota and have clear economic costs to society. This inequality feeds into population growth. Paid less than living wages, larger families are often used as a survival strategy, particularly for the landless rural poor. Quite simply, low wages mean more family members are needed to contribute to subsistence. Children as young as 9 or 10 can hold full-time jobs and augment family income.
Consumption is baked into modern culture. Profit comes when there is planned obsolescence in goods. Corporations spend $450 billion annually on advertising to make people think they need the latest gadget. We should resist that. We can recycle, repair, and reuse goods, but we need a major cultural shift. Right now, a consumer economy means we are outwardly directed and defined by what we accumulate. Inward direction means we value ourselves on what we are. Many indigenous cultures defined a person on what they could contribute, not what they could accumulate. We should move in that direction. This means income fairness as mentioned above. Internationally, the U.S. could forgive debts and redistribution could make up for past exploitation, which has become a legacy problem still existing today.
Consumption and population are not separate issues. Please see the work of Eileen Crist on the interaction of population, consumption, and biodiversity.
Population growth and increased consumption are not separate issues. The powerful profit from poverty because they have a guaranteed supply of low wage labor. Lack of medical access, social safety nets, and infrastructure means large families are needed for subsistence.
The assumption of constant growth also applies to populations. The Neolithic moved humans from nomadic existence to settled lifestyles based on power and expansion. It took humans 200,000 years to reach one billion and 200 more years to reach eight billion. Inequality is crippling, but even if every resource were distributed equally, growing numbers would eventually mean there won’t be enough to go around. Food production now grows linearly while population grows exponentially. High human numbers are more than a food problem. It also affects mental and physical health and quality of life.
Exponential growth comes from the intrinsic rate of increase (r), which is the per capita birth rate minus the per capita death rate. As long as r is positive, even a low r will increase population over a given time period because it is multiplied times the existing population (rN). An example is interest in a bank account. If the interest rate is 5%, then you will double your money in 14 years (not 20). While food production increases linearly, it has mainly been done by converting more land into agriculture. Because of this extension, human numbers are correlated with extinctions, and that pushes us over the biodiversity tipping point. With increasing human numbers, by 2050 the amount of land to produce food may need to double as will demands for fresh water. Like all forms of life, eventually we can overshoot our carrying capacity leading to a crash.
Some have proposed draconian measures to reduce population, which could have a racist purpose. A humane solution to population growth is to promote the overall well-being of women around the world. In every place that has expanded education toward women, and given women a place in society, the birthrate has dropped. In several studies in Africa, women with no education had 5.4 children, but that dropped to 2.7 children with a high school degree, and 2.2 children with a college degree. A replacement rate of 2.1 would stop growth. Lengthening the generation time, between a person’s birth, and that person having children, will also slow population growth. Empowering women also led to an increased standard of living in those studies, thus women with a place in society could help reduce poverty and inequality.
Birth control needs to be widely available along with counseling from family planning. Several years ago, the U.S. cut global funding for family planning. Sex education in schools could reduce unwanted pregnancies, and unwanted pregnancies are close to 50% of the pregnancies in this hemisphere. There is strong religious and patriarchal resistance to empowering women. Patriarchy must be eliminated. When Malthus first talked of organisms overshooting their food supply, he also proposed that, instead of growth, when food supplies are good, we use those food supplies to raise the standard of living for those already here. The underlying assumption of constant growth works against that utopia.
A viable strategy for societal change depends on carefully analyzing the root of the problem before leaping to solutions. For more detail, refer to the work of David Johns (Conservation Politics). For a brief summary, there are a series of questions to consider when forming a strategy. Who has the power to make the decisions needed to reach the goal?; do the decisions face a system run by powerful interests who oppose the goal (if yes, identify the opposition and what structural changes are needed)?; can an insider strategy prevail with lobbying, political pressure, etc., but if there are insufficient resources for an insider strategy, or structural change is needed, then outside pressure is also needed (if that is the case, which groups are needed for influence, how can they be enlisted, and what kind of pressure can they bring)?; which messages will emotionally resonate and motivate action?; who are the best messengers?; which political channels are the most effective?; what can you offer in return to groups for their support?; can mobilization be sustained over the required period?; how can opposition to the goal be minimized?; how will progress be monitored and evaluated, especially given the long time needed for recovery?; can we be observant and open to suddenly appearing opportunities that weakens opponents or causes decision-makers to be more receptive? We should be flexible in means without compromising goals.
Many policies are formed with the goal of power and control. You can see this at the local, state, and national level. Indeed, if you pay close attention during a meeting, you can see that many meetings are not so much about solving a problem as to who gets the power to do so. Our political parties are sharply divided, and most are willing to support an unqualified candidate if he/she wears jersey of the right color. In addition, corporations hold great power in policy, particularly in energy policy. Their goals are profit above the welfare of people or the health of the planet. They are strong opposition that must be neutralized.
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Brian J. Miller received a PhD from the University of Wyoming in behavioral ecology and conservation of black-footed ferrets and was then awarded a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship at their Conservation and Research Center. Brian worked with the conservation of the endangered black-footed ferret for a decade, then lived in Mexico for five years beginning an ongoing research project on jaguars and pumas in the dry tropical forest of Jalisco, Mexico.
After seven years as a Coordinator of Conservation and Research at the Denver Zoological Foundation, Brian accepted a position to develop conservation and education programs at the Wind River Foundation. His main research interest concerns the role of highly interactive species (keystones) in regulating ecosystem processes, and how to improve protection for those species when designing reserves.
He has published 100 scientific articles, seven books, and has been on the board of five conservation organizations. He has helped start two protected areas, one of which is Rio Mora NWR. In 2009 he was given the Denver Zoo’s Annual Conservation Award. Brian is a member of the Rewilding Leadership Council.