Friday, August 26, 2011

Man: more dependent on nature than ever

"Production in the future will be more limited by the availability of fish than of boats or nets, by trees rather than chain saws and by the availability of topsoil rather than ploughs or genetically modified organism"

Conscious man, as a changer of his environment, is now fully able to wreck himself and that environment, with the very best of conscious intentions (Gregory Bateson[2])
Our growing population, market economy, capitalism, industrial technology and fossil fuel together form a force of such dignity that we can now speak about Antropocene, a development stage of the planet, where human influence has become a determining power for the whole planet, for the biosphere, for the atmosphere and even to the geosphere.  Despite industrialism, farming and other uses of landscape is at the core of almost all important debates, including those about global development. Many, yes most, environmental issues are multifaceted and can’t be properly understood in isolation. For instance, because of the bleaching impact of warmer water, elevated nutrient levels from pollution, over-fishing, sediment deposition arising from inland deforestation, acidification and other pressures, tropical coral reefs worldwide increasingly become algae-dominated with catastrophic loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, threatening the livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of people (CBD 2010).

Many people say, or think, that industrialism has made us less dependent on nature. That is an illusion. On the contrary, current society is dependent on much bigger parts of nature than any previous society was. Hunter and gatherers were certainly dependent on nature, but they foraged on the surplus of limited parts of the ecosystems. They didn't use all the mineral and fossil resources that we do today; they were not dependent on a lot of physical infrastructure like we are and they used less of the ecosystem services. Even compared to the agriculture civilization that preceded us, we are as or more dependent on supply of product and services from nature. True, we produce a lot more per square meter, but we have increased the population so that the entire surplus is needed. There is no more food surplus today than before, rather the opposite. One difference is perhaps that we can today ship food from surplus areas to deficiency areas with the help of cheap fossil fuel and modern technology meaning that local food shortages should be less devastating. But the fact is that we don't do that. 1 billion is short of food despite all our progress. 

The illusion of that we are less dependent on nature is caused by that we live further away from nature. But that is distorting our perspective. The fact that we get electricity in cables and petrol from tubes in the petrol station doesn't mean that we are less dependent on nature for energy than the hunter sitting around the camp fire or the farmer putting another log on his hearth. 

Industrialism was introduced in order to profit from the labour embedded in manufacturing, and later moved into agriculture, fisheries and other nature resource based industries. There is a contradiction, however, that while the population goes through the ceiling; nature resources are getting scarcer and ecosystem services are stressed, we still act as if man-power is the most limiting resource that we need to save on, while wasting the others. The flaw of that perspective starts to show, first in the sectors that are directly using nature resources.  

Production in the future will be more limited by the availability of fish than of boats or nets, by trees rather than chain saws and by the availability of topsoil rather than ploughs or genetically modified organisms. The fact that things have “worked out well” so far should not be a big comfort. Even if industrialism has been around for 250 years and some of us believe (I don't) we live in a post-industrial society, the fact is that this explosion of resource use is fairly recent. In 1961 we used a little more than the earth's bio-capacity; in 2006 we used more 44 percent more than was available. The estimated annual environmental costs from global human activity is equating to 11% of global GDP in 2008 (UNEP-FI 2010). And at the same time we use so called environmental services provided by nature valued to two times the volume of the economy. The third part of what nature does for us, the real value of minerals and fossil fuel, has not been estimated at all[3]. An overall question is of course how do we calculate this and what do we want to accomplish by doing it.

[2]       Gregory Bateson (1904 – 1980), British social scientist and communication theoretician.
[3]       Ecologist Jeff Dukes calculates that there is 98 tons of biological material embedded in one gallon of oil. Expressed in another way, the daily use of fossil fuel in the world corresponds to the total biomass growth in a year  (Siegel 2003). 

Extract from Garden Earth

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