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Question for Discussion: What are the Major Causes of
the Global Environmental Crisis?

Readings: Ed Ayres, "Four Spikes"; Lester Brown, "The Economy and the Earth";
Ten of the most polluted places on the planet – Features – ABC

Video: Earth on the Edge( conclusion) ; Earth 2100 (3 min)

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Ecology vs. Economics on Globalization

Increasing Global Environmental Problems

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Recent Climate Change Studies

Ecology vs. Economics on Globalization

Increasing Global Environmental Problems

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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 world, 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."
(Ayres, 13)

"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 the
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.
Many of the species are disappearing without our ever noticing ; 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." (Ayres, 25)

"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
place on a 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 species. " (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 the
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."(
Ayres, 41)

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" (Chris Lewis)

Brown: Creating an Eco-Economy

Eco-economy Data Center

Eco-Economy Indicators

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 carbondioxide (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 relationshipbetween 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)

"The Economy expanded seven-fold between 1950 and 2000." (Brown, 7)

"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 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." (Brown, 14)

"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)

Br own: 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 (Brown, 17-18)

"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 economic decisionmakers—whether political 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." (Brown, 21)

"This book 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."
(Chris Lewis)

"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."
(Chris Lewis)

"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."
(Chris Lewis)

"The 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."
(Chris Lewis)

"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)

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).

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© 2000 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder