The End Game for a Truly Planetary Society

Geoffrey Holland | August 14, 2018 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

The earth cupped by diverse hands

A thoughtful examination of human history boils down, more or less, to two steps forward, one step back. Our next step must be in a different direction if we intend to avoid biospheric collapse.

No written record of our beginnings exists. For most of our history, we humans lived in small, clan-like groups, roaming the landscape, hunting and gathering what we needed to survive. We got our start in Africa as a distinct species several hundred thousand years ago. Over the ensuing millennia, humans migrated and occupied much of the planet, evolving in the process into ethnicities adapted to survive with the regional climate and survival opportunities that shaped their existence.

The era of recorded history began about 5,000 years ago. Since those early times, when the total number of humans on Earth was perhaps 10 million, we have pushed through a succession of global scale transitions and become increasingly sophisticated…expanding our understanding of how the world works and developing technologies that have impacted our lives in profound ways.

We’ve endured many bumps along the way caused by famine, disease, or violent conflict. Despite the setbacks, overall, we humans have been very successful in adapting to and exploiting new opportunities.

 

In fact, we’ve been so successful as a species that our population has exploded to 7.6 billion, that’s billion with a b… double what it was only 50 years ago. By the end of this century, the human population could be 10-12 billion¹.

The problem is the Earth isn’t getting any larger. Neither is the planet’s store of essential resources. At this moment, a billion people have little or no access to clean water or adequate sanitation. We are stripping the life from our oceans, exhausting our precious topsoils, clear cutting our forests, and poisoning Earth’s living biosphere with toxic pollution. A recent study published by the National Academy of Sciences² states that while humans constitute only 0.01% of the planet’s biomass, we have annihilated 83% of all wild animals and 50% of all plants in terms of biomass. Of the avian biomass remaining on Earth, poultry raised for human consumption constitutes 70%. Of all the mammalian biomass remaining, livestock comprises 60%, humans 36%, with only 4% being wild species. The biomass of marine mammal populations have dropped 80%. The world’s ocean fisheries have been largely exhausted by commercial fishing.


“The human juggernaut is permanently eroding Earth’s ancient biosphere.”

E.O. Wilson, Emiratis Professor of Biology, Harvard University


Much of the excessive exploitation has taken place in just the last 50 years, coinciding with the explosion in human numbers. To a substantial degree, we have already stripped away the diversity and the resiliency required to sustain a healthy planetary biosphere.

Quite simply, we are guilty of civilization scale overreach. Every passing day the situation gets worse. The scientific consensus is clear. Mindless exploitation and profiteering have pushed the planet’s living systems to the breaking point. The course we are on is a dead end and a certain prescription for biospheric collapse.

The good news is there is still time for a course correction. It will not be easy. It will require a civilization scale response. But we can still save ourselves from ourselves.

The path to a future that is sustainable and life-affirming will be built on a profound reshaping of the way we humans organize ourselves. Exactly what that remaking will look like would be an educated guess at this point. Better to focus on two foundational principles that would have to be at the core of any kind of transcendent planetary culture that is worthy of our species.

The first organizing principle is the idea that dignity is a human right. All humans, without exception, would be planetary citizens. All would be entitled to dignity. Government would be mandated to assure that every person would have enough food, water, shelter, and peace of mind to maintain at least a modest level of personal dignity. To that, I would add access to affordable health care and education.

With dignity comes responsibility. The second organizing principle is that an enlightened society prioritizes the protection of the living biosphere we all depend on. Every human must share in that responsibility. Here’s what that means in practical terms…

Our planet is already overpopulated with humans. We have to figure out how to thoughtfully draw down our numbers. It begins with universal reproductive choice and access to contraception. If we don’t get a collective grip on our fertility soon, we will most assuredly exhaust our planet’s ability to provide. Before that happens, nature could well impose its own harsh brand of corrective action.

Without question, humanity is currently on a regressive path. We must come to terms with our mindless excesses, and embrace a sense of shared responsibility. If we do that, the details of building a truly sustainable planetary society will unfold over the coming decades.

The way to avoid the worst from happening is to treat every citizen with dignity and make every citizen responsible for taking proper care of the only planetary home we have. That’s a tall order, but there really is no good alternative.


“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works” Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Author


Geoffrey Holland is a Portland, Oregon based writer/producer, and principal author of The Hydrogen Age, Gibbs-Smith Publishing, 2007

 


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org


[1]UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/

[2] National Academy of Sciences. (2018). The Biomass Distribution on Earth, http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/05/15/1711842115

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Mike Hanauer

    The USA is greatly overpopulated. We need to act on this.

    The global population data alone does not present the impact of the USA and developed countries. Yup, global predictions go from reaching 10 billion to way more than that. And that needs to be better addressed — people in most of those high fertility nations are living in abject poverty, partly as a result of their many births.

    “The future is not so much to be predicted as to be selected” – Donella Meadows (1941-2001, author of Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits)

    But, in terms of environmental damage (as opposed to poverty), nations with a higher standard of living — like the USA — are the biggest culprit by far. Developed nations are responsible for most of the worlds overfishing, ocean pollution, water needs, chemical pollution, and climate change — just to name a few. Reducing consumption will help and is important, but even at a European lifestyle, the US is playing an outsized role in killing the planet and most of its diversity (here and globally). Population is a multiplier of almost every other problem. Google I=PAT.

    I think we need to stop pointing to the rest of the world, and get our own house in order, for the sake of the rest of the world, and as an example. Only big corporations benefit from US eternal growth — they love the added profits.

    Please have a look at what the well respected World Population Balance has to say about overpops impact from the USA. This can’t be fixed because of a growing population — which is overwhelming all else we do. http://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/us_population. Also consider checking out the short paper at http://npg.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/OverpopulationandOverconsumption-revised2013.pdf.

    The USA is doubling its pop, unsustainable now, every 65 years or so with no end in sight (if people keep quiet).

    We too often ignore the question of how big the US should get, for the sake of ourselves and the world. Science shows we are too big now with a huge impact on ourselves and the Earth. I believe further growth US growth is irresponsible. Our overpop is a major planetary problem!

  • Michael Mielke

    Nice wishes.

    The real problem is that we have exceeded carrying capacity some 50 years ago, and we have left a stable climate behind in the last geological age before the Anthropocene.

    Even with dramatic constriction of the human enterprise, something our Paul Ehrlich has been calling for for over 25 years, we will have to enact dramatic triage to have anything left for those few who (might) survive to this consequence century’s end.

    I just wish on this blog we would tell each other the truth of our situation.

    We are in the Age of Consequence, wishes (no matter how nice) do not help the matter.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      I’ve written many blogs that point to the current, very ugly reality in which we are entirely complicit. Yes, there are consequences. I reject the idea that it’s too late to think about a more worthy course for humanity.
      .

      • Michael Mielke

        Of course, it is not too late to “THINK” about a different course.

        However, to get the public to understand the “speed and scale” of the changes needed, and even for our side to understand what is needed, is the issue.

        Do you believe we will generate the NETs needed to hold to 2 degrees?

        Do you even understand that NETs is built into almost all models, and giant portions to boot?

        So, the speed and scale needed to have any future is about 10%/year fossil fuels reductions in the rich countries. See Kevin Anderson, if you do not get it.

        Almost any video from the last two years.

        Lets tell the truth about the speed and scale needed, and our side does not even know. Do you think the San Fran Conference can get us there?

        Why is there only one Congressional Congress woman, a socialist at that, who is talking the speed and scale, the mobilization needed.

        No wonder the public is apathetic!

        • Geoffrey Holland

          I agree, when one has a even a modest understanding of where things stand, optimism is not the first thing that comes to mind. However, we pretty much know how it will go if we remain complacent.

          • Michael Mielke

            How do you expect people to deal with pandemic complacency, particularly when it comes to the speed and scale needed to respond so that composite triage yields some measure of a future.

            Its crystal clear that we will blow past 2 degrees C, and the ecological overshoot, (we are in an age of consequences already), has been increasing almost 50 years.

            Yet, even our side, the climate hawk side will not calmly explain that no techno solutions are at hand, and as PAUL EHRLICH has been saying for over 25 years,

            ONLY A SHRINKING OF THE HUMAN ENTERPRISE GIVES US HOPE FOR A LIVABLE FUTURE.

            See his 2016 paper when he was accepted to the Royal Academy.

  • Needless to say that, being a Geographer and Physicist, I agree with basically everything Geoffrey Holland writes, precisely because the “scientific consensus” is so clear. There is much else to discuss, and I’m afraid despite all the facts that are on the table currently a sustainable path towards long term solutions seems more elusive than, say, 25 years ago. One little critique from my side is about wording: when scientists talk about “scientific consensus” among each other, it is clear to them what that means: that the professional scientific community in a given scientific field by and large agrees that the conclusions are in accordance with empirical evidence. Among the general public however the interpretation in my experience often is that “somehow” scientists arbitrarily decided to accept something as fact, as a matter of opinion or ideology, as if they vote in absence of evidence. I therefore completely stopped using the expression “scientific consensus” when I write for the general public.

    In general my view over time became that we created a machine and turned ourselves into mere elements of that machine, not unlike as it was expressed in the old Charlie Chaplin movie “Modern Times”. “The System” is a term that also is overused as well as occasionally misleading, yet, as Donella Meadows said so insightfully: A system develops in the direction of its goals. Now what are the goals of this huge and by now all dominating chaotic dynamic system we refer to as “The Economy”? What are the incentives? The system develops towards its goals. I have the plain and naive suggestion that the goal should be to provide, in a sustainable and ecologically sound manner, a good livelihood for human beings. It obviously is not. The cynical part is that we created this thing, but we seemingly are unable to fix it. The German author Carl Amery commented that our “Economical System” ultimately follows the logics of beer yeast…

    • Geoffrey Holland

      You are right about our current economic system. No chance for a soft landing without a fundamental transformation. I’m all in for that. Let’s start by getting the dirty money out of our politics.

  • Steve Gwynne

    Ecological Impact =Human Consumption x Human Population x Human Technology

    When it is realised that Corporate Capitalism is what is driving ecocide and biocide on a mass scale by encouraging much greater consumption which in turn encourages human population growth through larger more capital intensive agricultural systems and larger more capital intensive health provision in the name of shareholder profits and executive bonuses.

    And when it is realised that our human systems are rigged to favour corporate control over our survival needs then we realise that there is only one principle that needs to be followed and that is democracy.

    By progressively deepening the democratisation of our everyday lives, The Peoples can then decide on the flows of people, capital goods and services entering and leaving their local ecologies in order that The Peoples, rather than The Corporates, can create the peaceful and healthy environments they naturally desire.

    Then we will also have dignity and responsibility.

    For example, Democratic Capitalism will allow The Peoples to make ecologically dignified and ecologically responsible corporate decisions, compared to Corporate Capitalism where the corporate shareholders and the corporate executives make ecologically undignified and ecologically irresponsible corporate decisions

    Similarly, civic democracy would enable The Peoples to decide on local development, planning licensing and procurement decisions rather than corporate led local authorities

    Democracy Now for People and Planet.

    • From an idealistic point of view I am with you, but in reality I’m afraid people quickly step on their own feet, voting against their own interest. In Germany many of the poorest and least educated voted for the ultra nationalist Neo Nazi Party AfD, which is pro big industry, pro coal and nuclear power, anti union, anti social welfare state, anti minimum wage and also openly deny the reality of climate change in their party program. They are racist nationalist revisionist white supremacists with no interest whatsoever in the people who vote for them. Their main propaganda leverage is fear mongering related to refugees entering Europe, with followers at public demonstrations aggressively chanting “Let them drown, let them drown!”

      My dream society would be one made up of educated and moral people, always willing to get informed and to critically evaluate before making a decision, always willing to give “the other” at least the benefit of the doubt. What we have in reality here is that a judge who last week ruled in favour of a refugee in a deportation case, receives hate mails and murder threats – for doing his job and holding up the law, that is! In short: before we could have deeper democracy, a lot would have to change, otherwise we might end up in Chaos. Also think Brexit. Fear on many levels, human weaknesses, lack of information and education, the media landscape, the “economic” incentives, the human tendency to simply believe in things for which there is no evidence whatsoever – you name it. As you can see I’m not overly optimistic when it comes to humanity at large. What we could possibly change, however, may be the incentives set by the framework of the economic system. I believe that would require only relatively minor adjustments, at least when compared to altering human nature and human societies at large and on many levels.

      • Steve Gwynne

        I think you have swallowed the corporate pill by the sounds of it. Your argument is that a corporatist that was witnessing his country in a deep economic recession due to The Punishment Versailles Treaty (obviously created by other corporates) mobilise and motivate people for war in order to recapture German land given by the Western Allies to Russia after WW1. Also Hitler was interested in the corporate colonial supply chains for himself.

        Your corporate version of democracy is a liberal corporate narrative to put you off democracy.

        So I’m curious what your minor adjustments do to the current destruction as usual corporate driven political system and the destruction as usual economic system. A little bit less of the same 🤔.

      • Geoffrey Holland

        Maybe instead of letting capital control the markets, we should manage the markets so the needs of citizens and the biosphere come before stakeholder profits. Imagine a world governed like Norway, Sweden, and the other social democracies.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      People before profit.

  • Max Kummerow

    Living in harmony with earth systems and other species will also mean reducing consumption in the rich world. Thinking about how we might be better off consuming less requires cultural changes at least as big as reducing fertility rates. But it could be that with more leisure, less work, less debt, more time to interact with friends and family and art and literature, etc. we could be better off consuming less. Poor countries still need to increase per capita consumption and they can best accomplish that by having fewer children. So “what to do” looks different in different countries and income levels.

    • Geoffrey Holland

      Any remedy for the human predicament must start with compassion..