All posts by johnkeir

The Malthusian Crisis, Revisited

Image result for malthusian crisis
The Malthusian Growth Model.

We are reaching a crucial point for the future of Earth and the life it supports. If we choose not to act, it will continue to warm, tipping points will set off positive feedback loops, and humanity, along with the millions of other species supported by our planet, will face an existential crisis. As described in Steffen et. al.’s article, there are two possible trajectories: Hothouse Earth and Stabilized Earth. While both of these trajectories exist now, lack of action will commit us to Hothouse Earth, with little to no hope of return. 

In 1798, Thomas Malthus, an English clerk and scholar, published An Essay on the Principle of Population stating that food production was linear and population growth was exponential, and therefore food production would limit population size. While Malthus’s hypothesis has clearly been disproved, I think it is valid to argue that we may be approaching a situation similar to the one Malthus predicted.

Our current rate of consumption is not sustainable; we are cutting down trees, catching fish, pumping groundwater, and mining coal faster than these resources can be replenished. With an exponentially growing population, and increasing consumption rates due to globalization bringing higher standards of living to previously low-consumption communities, our consumption rate is far surpassing the rate of resource replenishment. We have a linear supply of (sustainable) natural resources (not to mention non-renewable resources), and an exponentially growing population. As a global society we need to realize this disjuncture between our way of life and natural resource production. If not, we will continue hurtling towards Hothead Earth.

When Fiction Becomes Fact

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Photo from The Wall Street Journal.

I’m With the Bears is a collection of short fiction stories that portray a potential future life on Earth. Although these stories are fiction, they provide a window into how life could be if we fail to act. The short story The Tamarisk Hunter takes place along the Colorado River. In this futuristic US, California has won and bought 4.4 million acre feet of water rights from the Colorado River and consequently the basin upstream has become uninhabitable. They have build unimaginable infrastructure to provide adequate comfort and amenities to Californians, while people upstream suffer.

While this story is indeed fiction, it is based on truth. Water scarcity and water rights are current and very important issues that impact people every year. Cape Town, South Africa nearly reached Day Zero last year. Countries surrounding the Jordan River, including Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, struggle with water scarcity, and the political implications of water allocation. Farmers in the western US who don’t hold senior water rights have been suffering in drought years because they aren’t receiving adequate water supply for their crops. These problems are here after only one degree Celsius of global temperature rise. I don’t think that the environment in The Tamarisk Hunter is too far off from how Earth will look after two, three, or four degrees of temperature rise.

We could all learn something from fiction. These stories provide a glimpse into the future without having to live through it. While we have made mistakes that have brought us to the place we are today, we don’t have to continue making mistakes. If we can read fiction such as I’m With the Bears, and understand it more as fact than fiction, than we can avoid situations such as that portrayed The Tamarisk Hunter.

Fragmented Solutions

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Forest fragmentation. Photo from by Ellen Damschen.

A soundscape, like an ecosystem, cannot be evaluated on the basis of a single organism. As discussed by Bernie Kraus, sound fragmentation takes noise out of context where it can be manipulated for other purposes. Listening to a fragment of a soundscape removes meaning and value of the sound; the power of sound stems from its interactions with other sounds. This idea of fragmentation is similar to how we are approaching climate change solutions.

The global climate is a complex and deeply interconnected system. Currently, many approaches to climate solutions are unilateral and fragmented, only dealing with one issue or one side of an issue. There are local regimes put into place to try and address with deforestation, but they don’t deal with the root cause of deforestation. We have sustainable energy systems dispersed to some, but nowhere near all, locations on earth while the rest of the population relies on fossil fuels. There exist laws and regulations on fishing and poaching to regulate species population, but these address one species and often fail to explain the importance of species’ larger ecologic impact (although they do often focus on the economic impact). These fragmented actions, while beneficial for their own sector, often lose sight of the intrinsic interconnectedness of ecosystems. Regimes, laws, and individual states strive to regulate one aspect of the global ecosystem, and similar to sound fragmentation, neglect to account for the interactions among the varying components. Instead of approaching solutions from a case to case basis, we would benefit from stepping back and evaluating the environmental crisis as a whole. This would allow for better understanding of the complexities and nuances that so intimately bind together our planet. Similarly, states would benefit from working together to build international regimes to manage international resources and issues, as opposed to focusing on resources within their own borders. Nature does not adhere to political borders, and neither should we.

Geo-engineering Our Demise

The Manhattan skyline is seen Thursday, July 25, 2018, at 5:44 AM, in this photo by EarthCam
Orange skies in New York City from humidity and haze. Sulfur dioxide pumping would have a similar impact. Photo from EarthCam.

I refuse to believe that geo-engineering will solve our climate crisis. In his article, Re-engineering the Earth, Graeme Wood discusses different “quick fixes” to anthropogenic climate change, all of which take a geo-engineering approach. These ideas include ocean iron fertilization, pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and creating a visor to block incoming solar radiation. However, all of these so called “solutions” are not, in fact, solutions, but rather a way for humans to continue with business as usual without being forced to rethink their lifestyle.

Geo-engineering is immoral. It is not fair for the current generation to decide the fate of future generations. It is already unfair that they will be living in a damaged world, and it would be even more unjust to force our fake solutions onto them because of our selfishness and inability to take action. Wood states in his article, “If a future generation discovered that a geo-engineering program had such a disastrous side effect, it couldn’t easily shut things down”. By choosing to use geo-engineered solutions we are taking away future generation’s freedom of choice.

Geo-engineering is dangerous. Further altering the earth and the atmosphere will lead to unknown consequences. If, and when, geo-engineered projects fail, the ramifications of the fallout will be detrimental. Even if geo-engineered projects are implemented properly, there will still be repercussions. In the article, Wood discusses how sulfur dioxide pumping would cause climate changes primarily affecting countries around the equator. These countries are already disproportionately harmed by our actions; there is no justification for amplifying the negative consequences borne by the least responsible. 

Lastly, geo-engineering takes attention away from the urgency of the climate crisis. The promise of a solution that will reverse climate change gives people too much hope. Governments will fail to act, treaties will fail,  global temperatures will rise, and people will continue to suffer. Wood argues that the publicization of geo-engineering, particularly its dangers, will encourage people to take action on their own. However, the risks and uncertainties are not publicizes as much as the benefits. With the promise of geo-engineering, people will not switch to driving a Prius, as Wood suggests, because there is no incentive for change if everything can be reversed with a sprinkle of iron or a puff of sulfur dioxide. 

Sustainability is the New Christianity

The Crusades.
Image from Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock.

Once again the western world is attempting to dictate the actions of the whole world, this time through a lens of sustainability. Western culture began its crusade for world domination with religion and the propagation of Judeo-Christian values to all corners of the planet. It has continued through the spreading of western scientific discovery, industrial technology, and more recently social and cultural norms portrayed through the media. Our newest method of western proliferation is sustainability. 

As the article points out, sustainability is an English word (duh). However, the implications of this are impactful for understanding how the idea of sustainability is translated into actions across cultures, especially those that do not speak Indo-European languages. The example given by Maldonado et. al. takes place in Guatemala in a Mam-dominated village. There, western ideas of sustainability are not sustainable; they are destroying local ways of life and disrupting systems that have been built up over hundreds of years. 

The most unsettling aspect of this argument is that until reading this article I had never considered that sustainability (the word and the idea) would not translate across boundaries. I had always thought that sustainable practices should be implemented across the world (with changes to adapt to local cultures, of course) as a global solution to climate change. Using a different word, especially one from a non-English language, had never crossed my mind. It is time we step outside of our western way of thinking and look to other cultures around the world for sustainable practices instead of trying to fight western practices of capitalism and consumerism (and their associated negative impacts) with a western idea of sustainability.

Activists, philosophers, scientists, and other environmental scholars say we need a “World War II scale mobilization” or to “adopt a spiritual ecology” to fight climate change, but in a way is that not what we have already? Sustainability is the religion of western environmentalists, and we (western environmentalists) are the missionaries, spreading the practices and ideas of sustainable living to improve the health of the global citizens and the planet itself. However, as Maldonado et. al. discuss, the benefits of sustainability are not, in fact, beneficial for everyone. From this perspective, is the propagation of sustainability any better than the spreading of Judeo-Christian beliefs?

I Don’t Want Your Apology

Youth at climate strike in Edinburgh, Scotland
Photo from Chicago Tribune

The environmental crisis will lead to a collapse of the infrastructure of civilization. In fact, the impact of climate change is most likely more horrific than we can possibly imagine. These are both facts stated in Allan Thompson’s article, “A World They Don’t Deserve: Moral failure and deep adaptation.” Thompson bases his argument on two main assumptions: first, that the future conditions of the natural world are “deeply uncertain”; and two that the members of the current generation have a moral responsibility to protect the livelihoods of future generations through the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change. I agree with both of these assumptions, however I think that he is discounting a few very important other assumptions in his argument. 

Thompson’s article is based entirely on an anthropocentric worldview, meaning that he considers that the value of ecosystems and the natural world is instrumental rather than intrinsic. It is essential to recognize the intrinsic value of nature, not just for the sake of recognition, but also because it plays an enormous role in awareness and support for conservation policy. This article would lose a significant amount of validity if considered from an ecocentric point of view; it is impossible to apply deep adaptation principles to something that no longer exists. In this light, Thomspon’s discussion about novel ecosystems is a justification for ecosystem destruction, and a way for humans to continue exploiting already overburdened natural systems.

The idea of Derek Parfit’s Non-Identity Problem is fascinating, but I think it is applied a bit out of context. The environmental crisis is not only a future problem, it is a current problem. The victims of climate change are not some unknown, arbitrary people; they are citizens of the global south, coastal cities and towns, indigenous communities, and your (future) children and grandchildren. While the Non-Identity Problem argues that it is not immoral to fail to act on behalf of future generations, current generations are being devastated and it is immoral to fail to act on behalf of them.

In response to the ecological crisis and the moral failure of our generation, Allan Thompson suggests an apology. After his discussion of institution-collapsing and horrific repercussions of inaction, this seems far from sufficient. Thompson elaborates on his idea of an apology, including the component of “real effort”. My contention with his apology deepens here; how successful will an effort to repair a damaged world be when it has already been accepted that the world is doomed? If we can’t find funding to take action now, where will the funding come from when there truly is no hope for improvement? Furthermore, Thompson argues that if we can improve social institutions it will help compensate for our lack of environmental actions. At the beginning of his paper Thompson makes the assumption that the future conditions of the natural world are “deeply uncertain”. Taking this assumption into account, how can we be sure that social institutions will function the same as they do today, or even remain intact? It seems as if the focus on social institutions is a distraction from environmental crises. 

This course of action is not enough. Responses to climate change and environmental injustices cannot wait until we realize that it is too late. The burdens of climate change will not fall on generations far into the future, they will fall on my generation. I don’t want to live in a world with novel ecosystems and a geoengineered atmosphere, and I don’t want your apology.

Geology is Written by the Victors?

Indian troops, Cyprus
Troops from Indian under British rule are forced to do manual labor (Getty Images)

In her book, “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None”, Kathryn Yusoff argues that geology, particularly the new geologic era of the Anthropocene, normalizes historic marginalization of minority groups. While I agree that the propagation of western culture and globalization has disregarded numerous justice and equity issues, her analysis of geologic process and social injustices was too broad to have significant meaning. Yusoff’s comparisons between the extraction of slave labor and of coal and colonial violence and geophysics are analyzed from a perspective too far removed from the root of the problem. Her attempt to “naturalize” human actions and “humanize” geology is both offensive to those who she is talking about and to geologic science. Understanding and acknowledging our history of colonial violence and minority injustice is a crucial part to moving forward in society, but geology is not the mechanism to do so. 

As Yusoff notes “the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species life – anthropos – through a universalist geologic commons”, however she then goes on to explain how this “geologic commons” obscures historic racism in modern day society. There is nothing inherently incorrect in this statement, and I think that there is an ethical dilemma in placing blame on all humans for the environmental damage that we have caused when the majority of the damage originates from industrialized nations, however geology is inherently inhuman. The Anthropocene is characterized by human impact in rock formations and climactic patterns within our biosphere, not racial injustice, colonialism, nor slavery, nor should it be. 

However there are a variety of other fields dedicated to evaluating these human-nature interactions, including environmental justice, human geography, and most relevant to Yusoff’s book environmental determinism, which delves deep into how physical environments have supported colonialism and eurocentrism. These three fields of study along with social justice movements, the increase in vocalization by historically marginalized populations, and historical revisions to acknowledge of the horrors of colonization have had drastically higher benefits than abstract juxtapositions of social justice violations and geologic processes. 

Defining “Dominion”

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Dominion is defined as sovereignty or control. When translated literally in the context of Genesis 1:28 it gives rise to an interpretation of human superiority over Earth and her living creatures. In his analysis of the Catholic Church, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, Lynn White assumes the literal definition of dominion, and therefore places the blame of the ecological crisis on the church and its followers. This dominion, he argues, stems from the removal of natural spirits within the context of religion causing devaluation and exploitation of the natural world. However, there are other interpretations of the creation story, giving special consideration to the significance of dominion. In the Laudato Si’, the Pope specifically clarifies the difference between “dominion” and “domination”, stating that the dominion over nature given to man by God is a responsibility to care for and protect, not to exploit. He points out that, unfortunately, the actions of man have led the definitions of dominion and domination to become blurred into one and that the need to redefine and reevaluate our actions based on God’s original meaning of dominion has never been more urgent than now. 

The current actions of humans are reflective of Lynn White’s article and interpretation of dominion; we are exploiting the earth for selfish benefit and without respect for natural processes. The Pope acknowledges our actions, but instead of placing the blame on the teachings of the Catholic Church, accuses man of misinterpreting God’s word. These differences in interpretation have significant impacts on political, religious, and cross cultural understanding. If both White and the Pope interpreted the meaning of dominion in the same manner White’s blame on the Catholic Church may have instead been directed onto the actions of man. This misunderstanding has larger implications; without the divide between the scientific community (White) and the Catholic Church (the Pope), there would exist cooperation, rather than conflict, while working towards the common goal of a sustainable and healthy planet.