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The third great transition

Greg Studen  |  10/29/08 @ 2:00pm

One weakness of the current debate about environmental issues is that it does not take sufficient account of the history of human impact on the planet.

The modern environmental movement is widely accepted to have begun in the late 1960's and early '70's, when many critical environmental pollution problems exploded into public consciousness. Those were the years of Silent Spring and the DDT crisis, the Cuyahoga River burning and Lake Erie dying.

It is commonly accepted that we have made a lot of progress since then, and this is certainly true in terms of better control over the gross water and air pollutants which impact directly on human and animal life in rich countries. However, we are lacking a sense of the true baseline conditions with which to compare our present-day situation. We also fail to appreciate the degree to which we have long been on a course that has been and continues to be highly destructive to natural systems.

With a short term view that has been focussed on cleaning up pollution, it is easy to underestimate the scope and depth of changes that will be necessary to achieve sustainability.

A good way to begin understanding how far we have come in modifying the Earth and its habitats, starting from the earliest days of human development, is to read Clive Ponting's book, A New Green History of the World. Published in 2007, A New Green History is an update and substantial revision of his 1991 volume, A Green History of the World.

Ponting's book is a thorough and unflinching look at the historical impact of humans on the Earth's natural systems. A list of some of the main chapter headings will give the flavor of the book: 5. Destruction and Survival; 8. The Rape of the World; 9. The Foundations of Inequality; 11. The Weight of Numbers; 15. Polluting the World; 16. The Threat to Global Systems.

This is heavy stuff, yet the book does not seem sensationalist or overdone. In fact, the argument is presented as a rather dry recitation of facts, almost literally without comment or personal reflection by the author. What is compelling is the sheer scope of the work, combined with the argumentative force that comes from the mass of detail. There is no mistake about it: Ponting lays out the case that the Earth has been literally devastated by the relentless spread of human civilization.

Ponting's view is at the same time tragic and ironic: the tragedy lies in the unending story of thoughtless destruction; the irony, in the contrast with our smug self-stisfaction that we are an "advanced" civilization. Nevertheless, we cannot turn our backs on this history if we wish to do better in the future. Here is essential information for those who believe that the question of "Where do we go from here?" has to start with "Where have we been?"

It is useful to look at the history of human interaction with the Earth by dividing human history into three great eras, and then to analyze the central features of each era and how they contributed to impacts on natural systems. To mark the change that defines each era, Ponting identifies what he he calls the "Great Transitions."

He first describes a long period of very slow growth of human population, over about 100,000 years, which he refers to in Chapter 3 as "Ninety-Nine Percent of Human History." During this period, humans survived as hunter-gatherers, and had little power to dramatically affect the environment.

He then goes on in Chapter 4 to describe the First Great Transition of about 10,000 years ago: the slow change from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to a human civilization based upon agriculture. Ponting claims that "agriculture was the most fundamental change in human history." It allowed for growth in population, the rise of cities, and provided the resources for technology to flourish. The spread of agriculture profoundly altered the ancient world, as forests were cut down, wetlands drained, and large areas of the earth were converted from natural ecosystems to human landscapes. It also supported the growth of warrior, political, and priestly classes that led to the power struggles and wars that define so much of human history.

Still, world population in 1750 was less than one billion people, after 150,000 years of the history of homo sapiens (not to mention a few million years for our hominid ancestors).

Technology in agriculture, buildings, and transportation was not fundamentally different in the late 18th century from what had been in use for literally thousands of years. Try to imagine for example, what the current United States must have looked like just before the American Revolution. Less than 3 million European settlers, concentrated on the eastern seaboard, lived an almost entirely rural existence. The rest of the continent was occupied by as many as 18 million Native Americans. The amount of land that we today would view as pure wilderness is almost unimaginable; think for a moment about just two facts: flocks containing billions of passenger pigeons darkened the skies over the eastern forests, and 30 million buffaloes roamed over endless mid-continental prairies.

Then, of course, came the Second Great Transition: "...the exploitation of the earth's vast (but limited) stocks of fossil fuels." In terms of influence on the environment, the impact of this revolution has been far more profound, and has taken place over a far shorter period of time, than anything that had come before. To use just one dramatic example that Ponting describes, world coal use in 1800 was about 10 million metric tons. By 2000, this figure had risen to over 5 billion metric tons, with all the attendant water and air pollution, health effects, and carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

We are still in the midst of this transition, after a little more than two hundred years, but perhaps nearing its end. Population and fossil fuel use continue to grow each year, while mounting evidence indicates that we are nearing the point where cheap and abundant fossil fuels will become scare, and at the same time the Earth's atmosphere and oceans are reaching the limit of their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide without serious consequences.

Ponting's story takes us up to the present, and then leaves us to face the future with the realization that significant changes will need to be made in the way that human civilization relates to the Earth. We no longer will be able to treat fossil fuel resources as if they are infinite. We will have to recognize the limitations of "waste sinks" in the water and air.

Finally, we must accept the right of other species to exist in reasonable balance with humanity. To make these changes, we will have to go through very significant modifications in our economic systems, while bringing human populations into a better balance with nature. These changes will be necessary: if we do not choose a new way for the future, it will be forced upon us.

As the Romans said, "The Fates lead the willing, and drag the unwilling." Whatever comes next, the end of the fossil fuel era will be the "Third Great Transition." The nature of this transition will determine what kind of a world we will live in.

Here are some scenarios which seem possible for the Third Great Transition:

1. A business-as-usual approach in which we use up resources without developing adequate replacements, drive CO2 emissions up to cause serious global warming, and relentlessly pursue economic growth on the American model for all the Earth's 9 billion citizens in 2050. The consequences of this approach are difficult to predict exactly, but would certainly be dire for the Earth's living ecosystems, and would make the continuation and expansion of our current consumption-based American lifestyle impossible.

2. A technological-wonder approach in which we make numerous marvelous scientific and technical breakthroughs which lead to endless energy, reduced pollution, and prosperity for all 9 billion of us in 2050, while we protect and restore the Earth's ecosystems. This is the hopeful scenario dearly wished-for by optimists (mostly economists) who are committed to the idea that human material wealth can and must grow forever. "Growth optimists" believe that continued economic growth over the next four or five decades will give us the wealth to solve all our problems. This would be wonderful, but the combined force of arguments from history, biology, and thermodynamics make it seem extremely unlikely. It does not seem possible that our technological society can escape from dependence upon the proper functioning of the natural world.

3. A contraction-and-convergence approach in which the rich nations cut back voluntarily on consumption, and share equitably with poor countries, while everyone works to reduce human population in the long run to two to three billion people, and ecosystem protection becomes a top international priority. This requires not a technological revolution, but rather a spiritual one, in which we enter into a partnership with nature to maintain the Earth's living systems. Like scenario number two, this would be wonderful, but also seems unlikely: in this case we face deep-set cultural and perhaps even biological behavior patterns that would make it extremely difficult for people to change from attitudes of personal and tribal selfishness to a primary concern for humanity and the Earth as a whole.

My guess is that the likely outcome will be a mix of the three scenarios. We must and will make a big commitment to alternative energy sources, but they will not easily replace fossil fuels. We will continue to use up our fossil fuel resources (they will get very expensive long before they run out) and will have some bad consequences from global warming and ecosystem destruction. As a result, we will have a hard time maintaining historical economic growth rates.

Considerable progress will be made in developing alternative energy technologies, which will help to avert the worst consequences of warming (unless a somewhat unpredictable runaway warming ensues). Technology will primarily benefit the wealthy countries, who will continue to live well. Ecological and resource constraints will make it very difficult for the poor to catch up.

On balance, the future is as uncertain as ever; however, unlike earlier eras where natural forces have determined the fate of the Earth, human actions are now the dominant force. The real "Inconvenient Truth" may be not so much about global warming and ecosystem destruction as such, but rather the hard fact that if we want to assure a positive future for the planet, we cannot rely upon purely technological solutions-we will also have to accept the responsibility for living with less, sharing more, and protecting the integrity of the natural world.

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