Most ecologists and evolutionary biologists have known for a while that the earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event. It is a huge deal brought about this time by one species impacting most others. Nothing to do with meteorites or drastic oxygenation or global temperature shifts, just the appropriation of the bulk of the Earth’s primary production, land and fresh water by human beings.
And as Paul Ehrlich has been saying for some time a radical overhaul is needed to halt the Earth’s sixth great extinction event.
Most demographers know that the dramatic rise in human population is also locked in. At least another 2 billion will be added to the 7 billion of us already rushing around trying to make a living. When King George III was fighting the 7-year war against the French and then the American War of Independence in the 1800’s there was just one person for every 10 on the streets of tomorrow’s cities.
Demographers will also tell you that any slowdown in population growth comes from lower child mortality and then lower birth rates; and that this happens when people are able to leave poverty behind and progress in their standards of living.
So to speed up the demographic transition we have to feed everyone more equitably and reduce poverty quickly, especially in Africa.
So here is the reality.
There are 7 billion of us already, some 4 billion more than in 1960 and at least 6 billion more people than the 1780’s when the industrial revolution began.
And they are here, now.
All these people hold or seek the right to self-determination and self-improvement. They want to do well for themselves and their families. At the very least they want to be fed, have some shelter, and feel safe.
Only nature has a finite capacity for production.
There is only so much energy that plants can convert into biomass given the constraints of available space, water, temperature and nutrients. The raw material of nature’s food chains has a natural cap on its production.
Human ingenuity has raised the cap somewhat, and could some more, but this requires continued conversion of natural systems for food production as well as an intensification of the production systems we already have.
The 9 billion or so people at our population peak will need to get most of their nutrition from intensive production, ideally on short supply chains delivering locally relevant foodstuffs, with longer supply routes available as fail safes.
This is both a huge and fast change in resource needs.
The problem is vexed indeed. The best way to speed the demographic transition is to generate more wealth and that requires more of the activities that cause extinctions. And then to keep the 9 billion souls from going crazy and pillaging further, these activities will have to be maintained. In this reality, it is very hard to have the cake and eat it.
The pragmatic solution is to accept what cannot be changed, 9 billion people.
Then try everything possible to make sure that it is not 11 billion which, at a minimum, means reducing poverty and ensuring reliable food supply chains, water and shelter for everyone.
And then, make some considered decisions about what from the natural world can be retained, where and how before making the integrated effort to achieve it.
The biggest change will be in mindset. The solution is not in wilderness or reserves or zoos or in the power of the market. Nor is it in people chained to trees. It comes when the majority of people understand that in order to better themselves they need nature.
Only then will values and intent match.
The only hope to limit the impact of the sixth mass extinction is to build nature into people’s minds so that everything they do, eat and buy comes from a supply chain that includes nature as well as technology.
So there will be some wilderness, reserves and zoos, yes. But the real effort is in integrating nature into food production in all the myriad of possible ways, bringing nature to the home and making it obvious that activities that degrade nature are of no benefit to anyone.