Question for Discussion: What are the Major Threats to the Global Environment?
Readings: Ed Ayres, "Four Spikes"; Lester Brown, "The Economy and the Earth";
Ten of the most polluted places on the planet – Features – ABC
on the Edge( conclusion) ; Earth 2100 (2 min)
Ecology vs. Economics on Globalization
Increasing Global Environmental Problems
Ecology vs. Economics on Globalization
- Nicholas Stern: 'I got it wrong on climate change – it's far, far worse' (2013):
The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are "on track for something like four ". Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, "I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise."
- The World Bank's Dire Report and Warning on Climate Change
- ‘The Daily Show’: Jon Stewart Mocks Climate Deniers
- Brown asks: Should our Global Economy or the Global Environment be at the Center of our World and concerns?
- Brown: Economists versus Ecologists
- Economy as dominant force in our world (see graphic image)
- Fallacious Map of Economy, Society, Environment (see graphic image)
- Ecology vs. Economics on
- Global Problems not being Solved by Globalization
- Increasing Global Environmental Problems
The Living Planet Report 2012
- EarthTrends: Environmental Information | World Resources Institute
- Earth System Trends
- "State of the Planet Declaration 2012":
Humanity’s impact on the Earth system has become comparable to planetary-scale geological processes such as ice ages. Consensus is growing that we have driven the planet into a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which many Earth-system processes and
the living fabric of ecosystems are now dominated by human activities. That the Earth has experienced large-scale, abrupt changes in the past indicates that it could experience
similar changes in the future. This recognition has led researchers to take the first step to identify planetary and regional thresholds and boundaries that, if crossed, could generate
unacceptable environmental and social change.
Research now demonstrates that the continued functioning of the Earth system as it has supported the well-being of human civilization in recent centuries is at risk. Without urgent
action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources: these threats risk intensifying economic, ecological and social crises, creating the potential for a
humanitarian emergency on a global scale.
- Ten of the most polluted places on the planet – Features – ABC
- Our top 10 environmental problems Sue White
- Ayres: The Four Spikes
- World Scientists Warning to Humanity
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
- The Global Climate Coalition
- The 1997 Kyoto Protocol
- The U.S. Problems with the Kyoto Treaty
- Earth Policy Institute – Building a Sustainable Future
- Lester Brown, "The Economy and the Earth"
- How do We Convince People that an Eco-Economy is Necessary?
- Brown: Creating an Eco-Economy
- Brown: The China Problem
Increasing Global Environmental Problems
The Four Spikes
"Ed Ayres argues that increasing economic, technological, and social change is overwhelming us. It is hard for us to keep track of all these changes and their impact on us. But more important than these more obvious changes is global environmental change. The sheer scale of this change--that it is occurring at a global level--and the increasing rate of change--that this change is accelerating--makes it hard for us to understand it. It is increasingly hard for individuals to understand these changes and their impact on our everyday lives." (Chris Lewis)
"The four spikes are causally
connected, each adding fuel to the others. Together, they are hurling us into a spiraling loss of capacity either to see or to control where we are going." (Ayres,11)
Four Megaphenomena (the four spikes)
The Carbon Dioxide Spike
The Extinction Spike
The Consumption Spike
The Population Spike
The Carbon Spike
"The IPCC had been unequivocal in
its conclusions that (1) warming is happening,
rapidly; (2) human activity is causing it;
(3) the warming is likely to unleash devastating
weather disturbances ranging from unnaturally
heavy storms and floods to heat waves and droughts; and (4) it is therefore urgent that
carbon emissions be cut sharply all over the
but particularly in the industrial nations where these emissions are heaviest... the IPCC scientists noted that to stabilize climate would require a cut of at least 60 to 80 percent."
"The concentration of C02 began a slow risewith the global expansion of human development, which over the past several millennia has reduced the world's forest cover by one-half. Trees store much of the planet's carbon, and
In recent centuries, asforest storage capacity declined, more carbon remained in the air-and the concentration rose." (Ayres, 16)
The Extinction Spike
The second of the four megaphenomena appears on a graph of human history as the steepest spike and ultimately the most dangerous. Yet it, like
silent rise in C02, is largely invisible to the majority of us: it is a sudden, sharp rise in the number of species in the world experiencing population crashes and going extinct.
the species are disappearing without our ever
; as we go about our everyday lives,
they are dying off in distant forests, deep ocean
waters, or in the soil under our feet. Yet their
disappearance threatens to unravel the web
of life that sustains our everyday lives."
"Scientists have been studying this
phenomenon of decimated animal and plant life, or biodiversity loss, with as much intensity and concern as they've been studying CO2, and climate change. Not surprisingly, the two spikes turn out to be
linked, in some important ways. The slash-and-burn clearing of rainforest to make space for oil-palm plantations or crops, as is now taking
massive scale in Indonesia and Brazil,
for example, not only releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air but destroys
large areas of natural habitat resulting in
accelerated decimation of endangered
" (Ayres, 26)
"The survey found that a large majority of the scientists believe that during the next
thirty years, one of every five species alive today will become extinct. A third of the
scientists predicted that as many as half of all species will die out in that time. The
consensus was that the Earth is now in the throes of the fastest mass extinction in the
planet's history which would make it even faster than when the dinosaurs died. At the same time, the museum conducted a parallel survey of the general public, with a curious finding: most people were unaware that we are in the midst of a biological
crash-and that it is a crash we have brought upon ourselves." (Ayres, 34)
The Consumption Spike
"At the projected rate, which includes both the
consumption of wood for timber or fuel and
clearing of forest for farming,
the world will be denuded of natural forest within the lifetimes of those who are now in their 20s or younger.
A denuded planet cannot support human life.
Of course, we won't let the planet be denuded;more likely, we'll replace natural ecosystems with highly simplified artificial ones-such
as eucalyptus tree plantations and catfish farms. But doing that drives up the spike of extinctions
still faster-and subjects all of humankind to a
high-risk biological experiment.
As with any
experiment, it's a procedure for which we can't know the results in advance, and if it
turns out badly we will not have a second
chance." (Ayres, 36)
The Population Spike
"With each passing
month, the four megaphenomena become more entangled by
feedback loops through which they all
exacerbate each other.
But the spike of
human numbers, no longer controlled as it once was by diseases-and no longer
limited in its impacts to the capacities of our own bodies-is the primary driver of the others."(
A decade ago, experts on population
were warning that the planet's human carrying
capacity was fast approaching its limits. Most experts in this field now agree that it has already passed those limits
and we are living
on borrowed or stolen assets we can never
repay." (Ayres, 45)
The central problem represented
by these four spikes is their sheer scale and rapid growth. Each of these spikes is growing and influencing the
other spikes to grow. At such a massive global scale and at such a rapid rate of change, the growth in these spikes could very quickly create conditions that our industrial civilization can't adapt to.
This is the larger fear of concerned
The changes are happening on such a global scale and at such a rapid rate of speed that we will not be able to control and stop them"
Brown: Creating an Eco-Economy
Eco-economy Data Center
Eco-Economy: Building an Economy of the Earth
Economic theory and economic indicators do not explain how the economy is disrupting and destroying the earth’s natural systems. Economic theory does not explain why Arctic Sea ice is melting. It does not explain why grasslands are turning into desert in northwestern China, why coral reefs are dying in the South Pacific, or why the Newfoundland cod fishery collapsed. Nor does it explain why we are in the early stages of the greatest extinction of plants and animals since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years
ago. Yet economics is essential to measuring the cost to society of these excesses. (3)
Evidence that the economy is in conflict with
the earth’s natural systems can be seen in the daily news reports of collapsing fisheries, shrinking forests, eroding soils, deteriorating rangelands, expanding deserts, rising carbon
dioxide (CO2) levels, falling water tables, rising temperatures, more destructive storms, melting glaciers, rising sea level, dying coral reefs, and disappearing species. These trends, which mark an increasingly stressed relationship
between the economy and the earth’s ecosystem,are taking a growing economic toll. At some point, this could overwhelm the worldwide forces of progress, leading to economic decline." (Brown, 4)
"Just as recognition that the earth was
not the center of the solar system set the stage for advances in astronomy, physics, and related sciences, so will recognition that the economy is not the center of our world create the
conditions to sustain economic progress and improve the human condition. After
Copernicus outlined his revolutionary theory, there were two very different worldviews. Those who retained the Ptolemaic view of the world saw one world, and those who accepted the Copernican view saw a quitedifferent one. The same is true today of the disparate worldviews of economists and ecologists." (Brown, 5)
The gap between economists and ecologists in their perception of the world as the new century begins could not be wider. Economists look at the unprecedented growth of the global economy and of international trade and investment and see a promising future with more of the same. They note with justifiable pride that the global economy has expanded sevenfold since 1950, raising output from $6 trillion of goods and services to $43 trillion in 2000, boosting living standards to levels not dreamed of before. Ecologists look at this same growth and realize that it is the product of burning vast quantities of artificially cheap fossil fuels, a process that is destabilizing the climate. They look ahead and see more intense heat waves, more destructive storms, melting ice caps, and a rising sea level that will shrink the land area even as population continues to grow. While economists see booming economic indicators, ecologists see an economy that is altering the climate with consequences that no one can foresee.(5)
"As we begin the twenty-first
century, our economy is slowly destroying its support systems, consuming its endowment of natural capital. Demands of the expanding economy, as now structured, are surpassing the sustainable yield of ecosystems. Easily a third of the world’s cropland is losing topsoil at a
"The Economy expanded seven-fold between 1950 and 2000." (Brown, 7)
rate that is undermining its long-term productivity. Fully 50 percent of the world’s
rangeland is overgrazed and deteriorating into desert. The world’s forests have shrunk by about half since the dawn of agriculture and are still shrinking. Two thirds of oceanic fisheries are now being fished at or beyond their capacity; overfishing is now the rule, not the exception. And overpumping of
underground water is common in key food-producing regions.7 (Brown, 7)
Aside from climate change, the economic effects of environmental destruction and disruption have been mostly local—collapsing fisheries, abandoned cropland, and shrinking forests. But if local damage keeps accumulating, it will eventually affect global economic trends. In an increasingly integrated global economy, local ecosystem collapse can have global economic consequences.
"In an increasingly integrated global economy, local ecosystem collapse can have globla economic consequences."
"Each of these civilizations collapsed in isolation, with no effect on the others. But today, in an integrated global economy, a collapse in one country or region will affect all of us.
Even a currency devaluation in a developing country, such as Indonesia, can send shock waves through Wall Street half a world away." (Brown, 16)
The China Problem
"The flow of startling information from China
helps us understand why our economy cannot take us where we want to go. Not only is China the
world’s most populous country, with nearly 1.3 billion people, but since 1980 it has been the world’s fastest-growing economy—expanding more than fourfold....
Last year, Japan consumed nearly 10 million tons of seafood. If China, with 10 times as many people as Japan, were to try to move down this same path, it
would need 100 million tons of seafood—the entire world fish catch.45
But if Beijing’s goal of an auto-centered transportation system were to materialize and the Chinese were to have one or two cars in every garage and were to consume oil at the U.S. rate, China would need over 80 million barrels of oil a day—slightly more than the 74 million barrels per day the world now produces. If annual
paper use in China of 35 kilograms per person were to climb to the U.S. level of
342 kilograms, China would need more paper than the world currently produces.
There go the world’s forests.47
"Whether we study the environmental undermining of earlier civilizations or look at how adoption of the western industrial model by China would affect the earth’s ecosystem, it is evident that the existing industrial economic model cannot
sustain economic progress. In our shortsighted efforts to sustain the global economy, as currently structured, we are depleting the
earth’s natural capital." (Brown, 21)
"How do we achieve this economic transformation when all economicdecisionmakers—whetherpolitical leaders, corporate planners,investment
bankers, or individual consumers—are guided by market signals, not the principles of ecological sustainability? How do we integrate ecological awareness into economic decisionmaking? Is it possible for all of us who are making economic
decisions to “think like ecologists,” to understand the ecological consequences of our decisions? The answer is probably not. It simply may not be possible." (Brown, 22)
"The pre-eminent challenge for our generation is to design an eco-economy, one that respects the principles of ecology."
has three purposes.
The first is to make the case that we have no alternative to restructuring the economy if we want economic progress to continue in the decades ahead. The second is to describe not only the broad structure of the eco-economy, but some of its details.
And the third is to outline a strategy for getting from here to there in the time available." (Brown, 23)
How do we convince People that
creating an Eco-economy is necessary?
"Globalization and increasing global economic growth is increasing the global destruction of the environment. Instead of improving the global environment, globalization is accelerating its destruction. Unless we change the way globalization works, we will destroy the global environment within the next 50 or 100 years."
"Brown argues that other civilizations have collapsed because they destroyed their local environments, for example, the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and the Sumerians. The problem facing our global industrial civilization is whether we can recognize the warning signs and change course fast enough to prevent the
collapse of vital global ecosystems."
"This is the central question at the heart of the global sustainable development debate. People still don't see that it is necessary for them to change their lives and their choices in order to save the Earth. Sure, China may be polluting, but we aren't. Sure, Americans may be driving energy-inefficient SUVs, but Europeans aren't."
current debate over globalization doesn't sufficiently recognize the larger threat to the global environment. Environmental protection and resource conservation are seen as secondary goals. Thomas Friedman and others would argue that we can't afford the price right now to take drastic action to preserve the global environment. For most supporters of globalization, more economic growth and wealth will finally give us the resources to clean up the global environment."
"But the larger, more important question is who will pay for cleaning up the global environment? Should rich nations pay more than poor nations? Should the wealthy around the world pay more than the poor? Should those nations most responsible for destroying the global environment pay more than those nations least responsible? How much should individuals throughout the world be asked to sacrifice in their daily lives to clean up the environment." (Chris Lewis)
"The real test for humanity is whether we can all get together and recognize that we share the larger problem of collapsing global ecosystems. Once we recognize that we all share this problem, then we must decide on how we will all work together to solve it. Today, nations, individuals, and the wealthy are all too often worried about their own problems and interests. We are not yet willing to collectively share the burdern of preserving and restoring the global environment." (Chris Lewis)
No Consensus on Global Warming (1995)
U.S. Problems with the Kyoto Treaty:
One of the main reasons as to why the United States has not ratified the treaty is because there is a lack of participation in the developing world. The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases but developing countries, which are quickly increasing their burning of fossil fuels for energy, are predicted to surpass the amount of greenhouse emissions released by the United States. China, Brazil, and India are expected to surpass the United States emissions within 25 to 30 years. The way that the treaty is designed, fourteen out of twenty of the top emitting countries would not have to limit their emissions. By not requiring these countries to reduce their emissions, it would damage any attempts by other countries to reduce their emissions (Mathews 215-216).
Web Links to Global Environmental Trends
See Women of the World website on Family Planning
In her essay, "Environmental Degradation and
Subversion of Health," Mira Shiva argues instead of looking toward
technological fixes to solve health, reproductive, and environmental
problems, we should focus on the larger social and environmental causes
of these problems. Shiva charges that because our modern industrial
society often focuses on technological solutions we end up creating
more problems than we solve. Instead of seeing human health as intimately
related to the health of the local environment, we often treat sickness
or health as a medical or technical problem. Shiva argues that development
often brings a focus on technological solutions to Third World societies,
solutions that often make the problem worse.
Let's look at some example of technological
fixes that more often than not don't work. Shiva argues that the best
example of a technological fix to a larger social, economic, and environmental
problem is the First World's efforts to use birth control devices
and information to encourage Third World women to have fewer children. Since 1950, First World governments and global development agencies
have been tying development assistance to a Third World country's
creation and development of birth control programs. Believing that
the number of children a woman has is the result of her access to
and knowledge about how to use birth control, First World development
experts have encouraged Third World societies to adopt expansive birth
control programs. But these program haven't worked, and the number
of children many Third World families are having is going up not down.
The larger cause of the failure of birth control technology to work
is that the number of children a woman has is not merely a function
of her knowledge about and access to birth control devices.
Third World women and families see children
and large families as social security. Children provide a means of
income, work, and support to women and families. In many Third World
countries, children are forced to work in factories at very young
ages in order to support their families. In addition, having many
children helps families farm the difficult to work, degraded, marginal
land that they are forced to live off of, because the good land has
been taken by large corporations to grow export crops. Because many
children die in infancy or before they mature because of malnutrition,
disease, and environmental pollution, Third World women have many
children, sometimes even up to 6 to 8 children, to ensure that some
of them will survive into adulthood to support their parents in their
Given their dependence on children and
large families for social security, Third World women and families
will not choose to reduce their family size just because they now
have access to birth control. However, they might reduce the number
of children they have if their lives and economic futures are improved. Given more productive land, education, access to health care and a
clean, safe environment, Third World families might then use birth
control to reduce their family size. But global development has all
too often caused an increasing debt crisis in Third World countries
which are forced to use even more of their productive lands for export
crops, to reduce government spending on health care and education,
and reduce their environmental, work safety, and health regulations
in order to attract global corporations. As a result of these development
pressures, Third World families are finding their economic and social
lives even more insecure and are therefore choosing to have more children.
One of the technological solutions put
forward by develop experts who have recognized that birth control
programs weren't working is to encourage Third World countries to
modernize and develop their farms and industries to produce more food
and goods to support their growing populations. Since the late 1960s,
development experts have been pushing the Green Revolution to help
Third World countries produce more food to feed their hungry people.
the pressure to adopt modern farming The Green Revolution involves the adoption of hybrid seeds that require huge amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to produce large crop yields. However, many Third World farmers find that the only way they can afford to pay for these expensive seeds and chemicals is to grow export crops, which promise to guarantee them a high enough return to pay the money they borrowed to adopt this modern farming technology. But if the focus of the Green Revolution is growing export crops, how will that help local people feed their families? Technology has led to the failure
of small, local farms that were producing food for local consumption
and the growth of giant plantation farms focusing on growing export
crops. Thus, far from relieving the pressure to feed their families,
the Green Revolution has actually increased poverty and malnutrition
in many Third World countries.
In addition to their adverse economic
costs, the Green Revolution technology damages the environment and
threatens the health of Third World families. The massive use of pesticides,
herbicides, and fertilizers soon leads to toxic chemical pollution
of the ground water and rivers. This pollution can cause birth defects,
high infant mortality and chronic health problems in women and children. Thus because of the environmental pollution and health threats caused
by the Green Revolution technology, Third World families have even
less social security and are therefore apt to have more children as
Other examples of technological fixes
that don't work are cholera and malaria vaccines. First of all, these
vaccines are often so expensive that the Third World people who really
need them can't afford them. In addition, these vaccines often don't
work because the cholera and malaria viruses adapt and change to fast
in polluted Third World cities and slums. Instead of treating cholera
as a medical problem to be fixed with a vaccine or a drug, Shiva argues
that we should treat the larger environmental cause of cholera--the
lack of clean water and proper sewage disposal of human and animal
wasters. But because of the economic pressure forcing small Third
World farmers off their land and into the exploding urban slums, there
is not enough clean water and sewage treatment for these people. Third
World governments often find that they are forced to reduce government
spending for health, education, water, sewage, and electricity in
order to pay off their development debts to First World banks. As
a result of development, Third World countries find that cholera and
epidemic diseases are the result of economic development and progress.
Clearly, there are a number of interdependent
social, economic, and environmental causes of exploding birth rates
in the Third World, increasing threats of cholera, Tuberculosis, malaria,
and other epidemic diseases, and hunger and growing poverty. So what
should be our approach to solving these problems? Shiva concludes
that we can't rely on technological fixes. If we are to solve the
growing economic, social, and environmental problems facing the Third
World, we must look at the larger causes of these problems.
To get a sense of how to do this, I want
to now look at women's social and economic status, birth rates, use
of contraception, and health in a number of different countries in
the world. Let's now go to Women
of the World site and
see if we can compare and contrast these interdependent variables
such as size of family, birth control used, age at marriage, family
size, abortion rate, and women's health in different countries. By
looking at the overview statistics for the United States, India,
Nigeria, and China, we discovered that we can better understand how
technological solutions to birth control fail across all of these
countries. In the United States, despite easy access to birth control,
healthcare, and literacy, one million American teenagers become pregnant
each year. In Nigeria, the average age at marriage for women is 16,
they have on average six children, and have very little access to
birth control. In India, the major form of birth control is sterilizing
women and there is a high rate of abortion, which apparently is being
used a method of birth control. Finally, in China, much like in India,
there is a heavy reliance on the sterilization of women and abortion
as a means of birth control. A country's dependence on technological
solutions to limiting family size is a function of the social and
economic status of women, its commitment to limiting its growing populations,
and the degree to which its government can control women's reproductive