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Deep Green: Overshoot and Tech Dreams

Background - July 7, 2009
Global warming is a symptom of human overshoot: the consumption and waste that exceeds the biophysical capacity of the Earth. If we attempt to reduce the fever, but ignore the disease, we will, at best, extend the suffering.

Rex Weyler

Most species, when confronted with abundant food and no predators, will outgrow their environment. Locust or pine beetles will devour their hosts and crash. Bacteria in a Petri dish will exhaust the food capacity and breed themselves to death. This is overshoot.

In 1944, the US military brought 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea as food for soldiers. However, when the war ended the Americans abandoned the island and the reindeer remained. With no predators and lots of lichen, the herd grew to over a thousand reindeer in 15 years. Biologists estimated that the island might have sustained this herd of a thousand reindeer, munching moderately within the island's carrying capacity. However, by 1965 the herd had grown to 6,000 reindeer. Then, in one winter, with the lichen obliterated, the herd crashed back to just 44 animals.

This is overshoot.

Humans at Earth-scale

The Rapanui on Easter Island, with a population of only a few hundred in 900 AD, had already degraded the island's capacity by cutting down trees to transport giant stone statues. As the Rapanui population grew to over 7000 by 1350 AD, their forest disappeared, they splintered into sects, and they fought over the remnants. When Europeans arrived in the 18th century - seeking resources to solve their own overshoot problems back home - only a few hundred Rapanui remained, scraping for survival on a depleted landscape.

Throughout human history, settlements and cities have overshot local environments - whether in Pleistocene watersheds, Mesopotamian floodplains or the American dust bowl. In these cases, communities could migrate, relocate, or shift food sources. Now, in the 21st century, the human enterprise has reached the scale of the planet. This time, we cannot abandon our watershed. We will not sail away to a new island or discover a new hemisphere. We're flat out of hemispheres.

The new dream for sustaining human consumption is 'innovation'. Our alleged leaders - political and corporate - denied global warming for decades. Then, they blamed it on sunspots or claimed it might me a good thing that would allow us to grow avocados in Norway and drill for oil in the Arctic.

Now, we hear claims that industrialists take global warming seriously. Witness the tsunami of proposals to create a 'green economy', cool the planet with sulphate aerosols, fertilise the dying oceans with iron, build hybrid cars, and construct giant 'green energy' systems.

Some so-called 'green' projects may indeed play a role in a human future, but not if we rush to treat the symptoms while ignoring the disease. A friend in Los Angeles told me: "You used to see Porsches everywhere. Now everyone has a Prius." In Washington DC, hip lobbyists drive USD 100,000 electric Tesla sports cars. Did trading in the Porsche for a Prius or Tesla help the planet? No. It cost the planet in metals, plastics, toxins, energy and CO2, the burgeoning throughput of human overshoot.

"Customers who embrace green products," says Sandy Di Felice of Toyota Canada, "don't want a radical change to their lifestyle." Therein lies the problem: the world's most voracious consumers cling to a hope that technology will rescue them from having to change their lifestyles. Tech-fix entrepreneurs, their academic apologists, and political cheerleaders scramble to create new 'green' products, but fail to address the cause of the fever: reckless human consumption of Earth's natural bounty. We need to produce and consume less stuff, not more.

The tech trance

The builder, who only has a hammer, treats everything as a nail. In the US, the earnest Obama administration has leapt to solve global warming with the tools it knows: money and engineering. In a world addicted to a growing energy supply, it seeks a cleaner, greener strain of the drug, while simultaneously and contradictorily launching 'shovel-ready' highway projects and applying Band-Aids over the inevitable consequences.

Obama science adviser John Holdren proposed blasting sulphate particles into the atmosphere to block the rays of the sun. In fairness to Holdren, he acknowledged, "It would be preferable by far to solve this problem by reducing greenhouse gas emissions." However, in April, Holdren claimed, "global warming is so dire, the Obama administration is discussing radical technologies to cool Earth's air."

In 1971, scientist Paul Crutzen first proposed the idea of cooling the atmosphere with sulphur particles, mimicking a volcanic eruption, to reflect solar energy and offset the effect of greenhouse gases. This plan treats the symptoms while ignoring the disease. Global warming is caused by burning hydrocarbons and depleting forests, not by the sun. The sun is not our enemy.

A programme to launch sulphates into the atmosphere will burn more fossil fuel energy - the source of the problem - risk depleting the ozone layer, and would likely dry the Mediterranean and Mid-East climates. Blocking the sun is going backwards to sustain the unsustainable.

Engineers at Columbia University are developing a 'carbon scrubber' that could remove over 300 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. The challenge with this approach is that humanity is currently emitting over 20 billion tons of carbon annually, and increasing at 3% a year. Capturing even half of this carbon in scrubbers would require over USD 6 trillion in initial costs, plus operation, maintenance, and eventual replacement of the scrubbers. If the public pays this, it amounts to a bailout of the energy companies on the scale of the current banking bailouts, and would contribute to another global recession.

More significantly, as Herman Daly pointed out decades ago in Steady State Economics, these 'geo-engineering' mitigations actually make us more vulnerable. Once we prop up our unsustainable habits with counter-technologies, we are trapped. We build up a dependence on the tech-fix, and when future generations can no longer maintain the fix, the impending crash will be worse.

Daly also pointed out that these are 'costs' of running society, not 'benefits', and these two get confused in our GDP analysis economy health. We must return to authentic quality of life rather that put hope in stimulating more unsustainable growth, more stuff, and more activity.

Reviving the oceans

Carbon emissions increase ocean acidity, devastating coral reefs and contributing to ocean species die-off. Adding powdered limestone to the oceans could theoretically reverse acidity. Fertilising the oceans with iron could stimulate phytoplankton photosynthesis, absorbing more CO2.

These 'solutions' could help, but they represent patchwork mitigations with added costs. Adding iron and limestone to the oceans mimics the natural process of wind carrying fine sand over the ocean, but there are problems. For phytoplankton to sequester the CO2, the organisms have to die and sink to the bottom. A study recently published in Nature magazine showed that the projects sequestered far less carbon than predicted.

Likewise, iron fertilisation tests conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute "dampened hopes on the potential of the Southern Ocean to sequester significant amounts of carbon dioxide and thus mitigate global warming." The iron helped Phaeocystis phytoplankton increase slightly, less than natural blooms, but copepods quickly consumed the shell-free, soft algae. Then, the copepods became food for shrimp-like amphipods, which provided additional food for squid and whales. This was a positive result, but the experiment did not result in tons of CO2 safely sequestered on the ocean floor.

Grasping at tech straws

The American conservative think-tank, Enterprise Institute - which once denied global warming - has now joined the bandwagon and proposed building 'artificial trees'; giant towers that suck carbon dioxide from the air and store it. Like the carbon scrubber plan, this scheme requires more materials and fossil energy, the source of the problem.

Others propose fertilising trees with nitrogen to stimulate CO2 absorption, but high nitrogen concentrations create nitrous oxide emissions (a greenhouse gas), groundwater contamination, and water demands, since trees that consume larger amounts of nitrogen also require more water.

An episode of Discovery Project Earth tested a scheme to drop tree seedlings encased in biodegradable containers from the air, rather than plant trees traditionally by hand. The project failed. On Earth Day this year, Obama's Special Advisor for Green Jobs, promoting the social benefits of environmental mitigation, said live on CNN, "trees don't plant themselves." Mr. Jones appears to be a nice person and well-intentioned, but he exposes a fundamental misconception about natural systems ecology. News flash: Trees do plant themselves. They only require an intact forest. Dropping trees from airplanes and building giant 'artificial trees' represents industrialism gone mad.

The presumed tech-fix solutions suffer from fundamental errors because their designers do not understand ecology. They attempt to preserve a wealthy lifestyle that is not sustainable. They fail to perform necessary net-energy and carbon-cost accounting. They demand an ever-growing supply of material and energy, and they fail to account for total ecosystem analysis.

Humanity is in overshoot. Every day, without much comment from our 'news' media, we degrade the carrying capacity of the planet, add more humans, and extend ourselves farther out over the edge of the sustainability cliff, with nothing below to stop our fall.

Worse, the tech-fix proposals avoid genuine solutions: Humanity must consume less, not more. We should replace our petroleum-guzzling car cultures with light rail transport. We should be localising agriculture, preserving farmland, conserving energy, recycling everything, creating resilient communities, and developing a steady state economic system. If we are serious about global warming and preserving natural wilderness, we should be stabilising human population with non-evasive means such as women's rights and contraception. We should be leaving remnant wilderness alone to recover through natural processes.

These genuine remedies require the wealthy nations and consumers to drastically change their lifestyles, not buy hybrid sports cars. These changes prove politically difficult, but they represent the inevitable path back to paradise.

- RexWeyler

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