Are We Destroying the Planet?

My question for everyone to ask themselves today is this: are we humans destroying Planet Earth? This is perhaps a strange question to ask and one would expect most people to say, ‘no, of course not’. So perhaps we should put a constraint on this question that this pertains to the next 100-200 years. So it is not an immediate question, something that will happen in the coming six months, but a long-term question about what will happen in the next centuries.

So the immediate response is, ‘how could we be destroying the whole of planet Earth?’ The answer might be to look at the newspaper this week, and ask yourself what will possibly happen when we run out of resources. Like food and water. As a simple paradigm of our problems we might use the sewage disposal problem of Victoria, BC. Victoria for years has simply dumped its untreated sewage out into the ocean in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The ocean, as we seem to believe, is a very large garbage dump. But might we think that a useful assumption of a civilized society is that you should not dump your garbage across the fence into your neighbour’s back yard? So then we say, we need to spend the money to construct a proper treatment plant. But the Victoria-area municipalities cannot even agree on a location for the sewage plant, and there are loud protests that we cannot possibly afford a modern treatment plant. What can we say about humans who think it is acceptable to dump their garbage over the fence into the ocean? One interpretation is that they have made the correct decision, and this will not affect them during their lifetime since it has been going on now for more than 100 years, so carry on. Yet this is a perfect mimic of the problems of the world today.

Climate change is all about what we dump into the atmosphere, in particular greenhouse gases and perhaps most obviously CO2. But we take no responsibility for this because it will not affect us in our lifetime and surely some clever engineer will solve this problem in the next century. Preferably at no cost to the taxpayers.

So yes, you might argue that we are indeed destroying the planet. But since Victoria, BC, and indeed all of Canada are only a small part of the global problem because of a low population base, why should we have to do anything? Well, many people think we should be doing something, but yet the majority continue to elect politicians who ignore the three major problems of the world today – climate change, population growth, and food security or at best say they will do something about it by 2020 or 2050. Most of the political parties of the developed world today subscribe to three propositions – growth is good and more growth is better, climate change is a minor problem, and implicitly we do not care one bit about what kind of a world we leave to our children and grandchildren. Spend now, they can pay later.

Now you will be hard pressed to find any business person or politician of any stripe saying any of these things, and all will protest loudly that they are doing all the right things. In their minds the main problems of our day are that taxes are too high and must be reduced, and that the 1% must be let free to improve the world as they choose.

None of this of course is ecological science or even sustainability science. The argument rests on only one simple principle – that the environment is not a garbage can. And what we do now impinges on what kind of Earth we wish to leave to the coming generations. So it might help to ask your favourite politician if he or she thinks we are destroying the Earth, and if not, why they do not read the newspapers. And why they do nothing about the major problems of our day?

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845.

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H. (2013). Future collapse: how optimistic should we be? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, 20131373. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1373.

Kelly, Michael J. (2013). Why a collapse of global civilization will be avoided: a comment on Ehrlich & Ehrlich. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.1193.