The Earth has been here for an estimated 3.5 billion years. Humanity’s time on the planet has been but the minutest fraction of that period. Yet such has the level of dominance that mankind has exerted over its living systems over the past couple of centuries, that you would not be mistaken to believe that we collectively feel we own the Planet. We partake in Earth resources and treat its systems as if they are our own personal ATMs, willing to dispense value whenever we demand. Never before has one species demonstrated such influence over the global environment to the extent that it can change its mean temperature.
Within the environmental movement, there can be a tendency to take the same ownership approach when it comes to preservation. The idea of ‘saving the Earth’ has become a common notion, portraying the current crisis as one that endangers the existence of the planet. The reality is that despite the incalculable damage humanity has inflicted, there is an underlying resiliency to Earth. Barring a global nuclear holocaust, if humanity disappeared from the planet today, much of its legacy effects on the living systems of Earth can within a century can be restored and the plant can continue to be a thriving biosphere. Rather than adopting a ‘savior complex’ on wholesale protection of the larger environment, perhaps our focus can shift to our personal and social relationship with Nature and how to halt our possible demise.
Ecosystem vs Ecology
In Nature, systems can periodically collapse based on a number of factors. Anticipating collapse it not an exact science but we can trace back records in history of culture that encountered collapse based on their interaction with the larger ecosystem, as recounted in Jarod Diamond’s book Collapse. Using the knowledge of these patterns can help us forestall our own impending catastrophe.
One important distinction to make when talking about endgame scenarios is the difference between ecosystem and ecological collapse. Ecosystems relate to the natural physical environments which host a habitat, such as a forest, desert or a delta. Ecosystem system occurs when critical features of that system, including biotic and abiotic elements, are lost, which poses a dangers to the survival of species in the area. Critically, ecosystem collapse can be a reversible process and is much the focus of restorative permaculture practices.
Ecological collapse happens when the systems of organisms within a natural habitat reach their carrying capacity, at which point the system demands have exceeded the resources available. Ecological collapse inevitably results in mass extinction in a relatively short amount of time and cannot rebound from disruptions in the way ecosystem collapse is.
A 1972 MIT paper predicted a full scale collapse of our industrial civilization by mid-century based on our infinite growth economic model taxing the limits of resource consumption and our carrying capacity within the ecosystem. Recently, a KPMG researcher checked up on the projections based in the original paper, and found rather alarmingly that we are right on track for a break down by 2040 based on the metrics laid in the original paper.
Not to unnecessarily generate pessimism, but despite such warnings given in the past decades by science, humanity remains as addicted as ever to drawing from the natural environment we are supposed to be part of. Where this will lead is not likely extinction, but the erasure of our current relatively stable world order and a diminution of our way of living. It is not an exaggeration to say that the next coming two to three decades can be the most crucial in history, based on our ability to adapt and radically change our ecological footprint.