Updated: Jul 16, 2020
This piece was also published in the Church and State website. Access here.
I'll be honest. I have a very unusual hobby. Whenever I have the chance, I like to attend conferences, seminars or other scientific gatherings of minds in all sorts of areas of knowledge. Not just by being "passionately curious" as Albert Einstein said, but also because I revel in agitating the conventional flow of these meetings by merely asking questions. The one question that I have been regularly asking, especially where the orators and audience ought to be aware of our environmental and existential quandary is:
"What are your reasons to remain optimistic?"
Although it is a seemingly simple question, it is enough to give pause even to the most idealistic and assured of speakers. Even so, the self-defence mechanism soon kicks-in and their reactions flood the auditoriums:
Humans are "safer, healthier, freer and happier than in any other point in history" (Pinker, 2018);
Food production outpaced population growth;
Autonomous vehicles saving hundreds of thousands of lives;
A new Space Age and asteroid mining;
All of these concepts, ideas, trends and forecasts are indeed wonderful in the lens of improving the human condition. It is unquestionably hard to argue with Steven Pinker's line of reasoning that if a human could choose a time to be alive he or she should consider the late 20th century and the 21st century. If you're a human, "honestly, this is the best time to be alive," as Tony Allen-Mills writes.
But therein lies the rub. For all the human development, progress and advancement that have enabled this golden age to take shape, something else had to give. That something is the living planet we all inhabit as well as the non-human species with which we ought to share this Earth, but are instead driving out (euphemism for large-scale ecocide). Where The Wild Things Were is Where Humans Are Now: An Overview is a small attempt to describe that atrocity.
The massive outbreak in the growth of humans roaming this planet has not been without consequences to the natural world. Through our immense dispersion and consumption of natural resources, Homo sapiens has been absorbing the material bedrock necessary for their survival.
Indeed, our biophysical reality is remarkably straightforward. The 7.6 billion (plus the roughly 80 million added annually) request some proportion of manufactured ‘capital.’ This includes homes, infrastructures, personal vehicles, technology, furniture, toys, clothing, on top of other essentials such as food, water and energy. Consequently, the enlargement of the human population, the energy consumption growth by a factor of 25 and 100-factor burst of real gross world product demand a continuous and increasing withdrawal of energy and materials from the natural world, leading to an unsustainable breaching of carrying capacities, which in turn have produced the scenario of overshoot we already find ourselves in.
The current unsustainability crisis requires us to pose the question of not just how to find a way of feeding 10 billion humans in roughly three decades, but also how can we possibly do it without destroying the natural world in the process. As the report Creating a Sustainable Food Future, published by the World Resources Institute (WRI) forewarns:
“If today’s levels of production efficiency were to remain constant through 2050, then feeding the planet would entail clearing most of the world’s remaining forests, wiping out thousands more species, and releasing enough GHG emissions to exceed the 1.5ºC and 2ºC warming targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement – even if emissions from all other human activities were entirely eliminated.”
Undeniably, providing for the essential nourishment as well as the redundant cravings of billions has induced the death of many animal and plant populations, wiped out species and subspecies, precipitated collapsing ecologies, disseminated bio-homogeneity, as well as the overthrowing of wild places. The seizure of the natural world to serve a human scheme materializes in the reduction of ocean life to food and bycatch; rainforests destroyed for meat, soybeans, palm oil, and timber; boreal and temperate forests overthrown for their wood, pulp, and energy resources, mountains and underground shale fulminated for coal and natural gas; deep-sea floors punctured for oil and suppressed of life by deep-water fishing; grasslands overgrazed or converted into strictly human breadbaskets and freshwater bodies funnelled, dumped in, overfished and fragmented.
In light of this, worldwide, animals are being killed at an unprecedented pace, either expelled or killed for their meat and lucrative body parts, revealing exceptionally rapid losses of biodiversity, above the “background extinction rate,” and of course, where natural areas and nonhuman beings do not ebb directly, they take indirect hits from anthropogenic climate change and pollution, which are aggravated by human population growth.
Given the increasing evidence of damage towards the natural world, one should give some thought to what world we will be inhabiting in three decades when it is projected to contain over two billion additional human passengers. Such a rapid population growth in conjunction with rising affluence will translate into roughly 50 percent more global food demand, while the requisition for animal-based foods such as meat and dairy products is contemplated to soar by 70 percent.
The need to feed the 3.2 billion (and rising) that depend on fish reserves for their sources of protein is leading to the collapse of fisheries worldwide, with fish-stocks along the Asia-Pacific coastlines predicted to be unable to provide for the dietary needs of the world's most populous region, circa 2048. Explicitly, commercial fishing now covers a higher surface (>55 percent of the ocean) area than agriculture (four times as large). Besides, merely five countries are responsible for 85 percent of all commercial fishing measured by million hours at sea, for which China is accountable for half of all hours, thus raising some vital questions to the current health of the oceans in the face of an overwhelming need to feed more people with more purchasing capacity.
So how can we effectively cease our assault on the biosphere, when the dietary needs of one growing species, are responsible for such unprecedented demands on the living systems of the planet?
But even if all of humanity were to maintain levels of consumption of resources on par with just sustenance and survival (current numbers would still imply profound ecological damage), human beings seek to satiate not only their indispensable needs but also to indulge in other gratuitous wants, to maximize comfort and well-being. As the populion ethicist Karin Kulhemann impeccably affirms:
“All human beings engage in at least subsistence level consumption, and virtually all either already consume more than required for survival or would if given the opportunity.”