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If the world is going to hell, why are humans doing so well?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For decades, apocalyptic environmentalists (and others) have warned of humanity’s imminent doom, largely as a result of our unsustainable use of and impact upon the natural systems of the planet. After all, the most recent comprehensive assessment of so-called ecosystem servicesbenefits provided for free by the natural world, such as clean water and air—found that 60 percent of them are declining.

Yet, at the exact same time, humanity has never been better. Our numbers continue to swell, life expectancy is on the rise, child mortality is declining, and the rising tide of economic growth is lifting most boats.

So which is it? Are these the best of times or the worst of times? Or both? And how imminent is our doom really? In the September issue of BioScience, a group of scientists attempts to reconcile the conflict and answer the question: "How is it that human well-being continues to improve as ecosystem services decline?"

The authors, led by geographer Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne of McGill University, offer four hypotheses for this "environmentalist’s paradox": humans are actually worse off than we think; the ability to grow food trumps all other ecosystem services as far as humans are concerned; technology has allowed us to transcend the environment; and the ill effects of environmental degradation lag its benefits, i.e. the worst is yet to come.

First off, as far as anyone who has studied the issue can tell, despite vast differences, on the whole, humanity has never been better. Yes, more people are now displaced by warfare than at any time since World War II, and yes, natural disasters affect more people than ever, but we’re far more prepared to deal with such things and therefore actual deaths as a result of them are going down. Plus, the "human development index"—an aggregate measure of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment and per capita gross domestic product beloved by economists and wonks—has never been higher. "Human well-being is, on average, growing," the authors write. So that hypothesis is right out.

As for farming, it’s pretty clear that it’s one of (if not the) most important ecosystem services humanity requires. That’s certainly one lesson of the "Green Revolution" that averted the famines many apocalyptic environmentalists forecast in the 1970s. At the same time, farming drives much of the ecological damage humans do: from habitat loss (and decreasing biodiversity) to messing around with the cycle of nitrogen through the environment. So while there are costs associated with the loss of other ecosystem services—an example on my mind this anniversary week is the loss of wetlands that helped doom New Orleans to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina—our continued success at farming trumps them.

And we are getting better at it, growing more crops on less land—a key technological innovation. The technological innovation of burning fossil fuels—liberating the energy stored by eons of life on Earth—is also at the root of present human well-being. At the same time, however, these new technologies hardly free humanity from, for example, the need for the fresh water provided by natural systems.

So are we simply storing up trouble for the future, like the rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere that have locked in some amount of global warming for the foreseeable future? Yes and no—climate change is a certainty, whether all of human society is headed for collapse is not. As the researchers put it: "While there are many important time lags in Earth’s systems…the consequences of those lags for human well-being are unclear."

That’s not exactly comforting, nor is the fact that we cannot assume that the past is prologue to the future. The potential for unexpected and sudden crises always looms, like the global economic collapse or food crisis in 2008. At the same time, there is the potential for technology to begin helping ecosystem services—engineering man-made systems that mimic natural ones and produce as many benefits—rather than hurting them. A prime example is cities—both a maw of human consumption and a way to minimize the human footprint on the planet. Beginning to design urban ecosystems holistically rather than piecemeal might alleviate some of the pressure on natural ecosystems.

That said, one thing is clear: We live in the Anthropocene—an era when everything from the atmosphere to the layers of rock laid down for the future are dominated by human activities. Management is no longer a luxury. We had better get good at it.

Image: NASA

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  1. 1. ssm1959 4:05 pm 09/1/2010

    Once again most commentators express the view that we humans are in some way separate from the natural world. We are not!! Every species has impacts on the land. A recent book authored by Cynthia Eisenberg notes rapid and rather dramatic changes in the flora of Glacier Natl Park following the reestablishment of the wolf. We are not alone in our ability to change the land and our activities are no less natural than any other. Critics of this view will point to such things as species loss as a measure of our destructive tendencies. There are no vacuums in nature. While a given species may disappear, a different one is moving into the vacated niche. Since our ability to determine Speciation is far less clear than is extinction we fail to see the flow of the biological world as it rapidly moves to adapt to our activities. Another way to look at this is to consider the question who domesticated who. Our human arrogance forces us to consider OUR domestication of say corn or wheat. However the inverse biological argument can also be made; corn and wheat captured this third chimpanzee to do its bidding. Lets face it, our agricultural crops have expanded their range through our efforts at the expense of competing species; exactly what the biological drive of a species is supposed to do. While we may not always find the sequella of our activities to our liking our activities are well within the natural sphere. Consequently it is our responsibility as the sentient (presumably) organism to develop adaptations that are the least harmful. The remainder of the biological world will for better or worse adapt to us.

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  2. 2. sofistek 6:12 pm 09/1/2010

    "the rising tide of economic growth is lifting most boats"

    I’d like to see some evidence of that. What I read is that the gaps between rich and poor are getting wider. Even if the ones at the bottom of the ladder are getting more that doesn’t mean that their living standards are increasing.

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  3. 3. sofistek 6:20 pm 09/1/2010

    "Plus, the "human development index"–an aggregate measure of life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment and per capita gross domestic product"

    So this index of human well-being doesn’t include the day to day health of people? Anecdotally, this seems to be getting worse, probably from toxins and poor nutrition. Are there any studies that look into human health? It’s possible for the average life expectancy to increase while general health decreases.

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  4. 4. scientific earthling 6:22 pm 09/1/2010

    Its the boom before the bust.
    For those of you mathematically inclined: Every J curve must turn into an S curve.

    When a stock price sky-rockets SELL IT.

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  5. 5. eco-steve 7:13 pm 09/1/2010

    There is an economical and scientifically validated solution which is slowly taking off as investors provide capital : Biomass pyrolysis. The subject would merit a detailed article, but for a technical overview, see before the information gets swallowed up as defence secrets….as the method will progressively eliminate traditional oil industry.

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  6. 6. sofistek 8:04 pm 09/1/2010

    Biomass pyrolisis? It’s amazing how people cling to the notion of a magic elixir. Fossil fuels are accumulations of hundreds of millions of years of biomass and yet some people think that we can obtain enough biomass each year at the same (indeed, for economic growth, increasing) scale, and do so sustainably.

    There is no solution to resource depletion – we have to adapt. Power down and localise. We need to change our way of life, folks. There is no getting around it.

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  7. 7. ormondotvos 8:22 pm 09/1/2010

    The Optimist fell ten stories,
    And at each window bar,
    He called out to his friends within
    "All Right, So Far!"

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  8. 8. ormondotvos 8:56 pm 09/1/2010

    Whimsical, but essentially correct.

    There is no better place to study ostrich behavior than on the global warming and overpopulation blogs.

    It is SOOO obvious to anyone with a clear mind and a scientific education that we are due for a huge crash of population due to resource depletion and climate extremes!

    I observe the vague feints and wishful bleats of the soon-to-be-enlightened (or endarkened) and I say, boy was I lucky to live in the USA between Hiroshima and AIDS! Big cars, freedom to travel, hitchhiking, religious freedom and sexual liberties.

    Not so the young, who are going to go through relative hell.

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  9. 9. oldvic 4:59 am 09/2/2010

    ormondotvos wrote:

    "There is no better place to study ostrich behavior than on the global warming and overpopulation blogs.

    It is SOOO obvious to anyone with a clear mind and a scientific education that we are due for a huge crash of population due to resource depletion and climate extremes!

    I observe the vague feints and wishful bleats of the soon-to-be-enlightened (or endarkened) and I say, boy was I lucky to live in the USA between Hiroshima and AIDS! Big cars, freedom to travel, hitchhiking, religious freedom and sexual liberties.

    Not so the young, who are going to go through relative hell."

    How true. The general inability to see the full consequences of our actions is staggering and has been compounding the problem for a long time.

    These narrow horizons blind us to the fate we are foisting upon our descendants, the ones we supposedly love above everything else and whose lot we (also supposedly) fight so hard to improve.

    I can imagine a grandparent, a few decades from now, explaining to a grandson why we failed so miserably to take their interests into account.

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 7:51 am 09/2/2010

    ormondotvos, oldvic – Very well put.

    oldvic – We knew enough in the 1970s – I need to have this discussion with my grandchildren. Thanks.

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  11. 11. tichead 12:13 pm 09/2/2010

    doug l: Human transition from a terrestrial to a space faring species is definitely not imminent. At the very least the technology required to see that vision realized requires the terrestrial resources that we are so rapidly depleting for the very simple reason that we cannot adapt to living in space without such technology. Here on pre-industrial revolution earth, we adapted to every climate with minimal technology applied to, for the most part, locally obtainable sustainable resources. In space, without substantial supporting terrestrially obtained resources subjected to incredibly complex dynamic technology, we are just frozen meat.

    Post-industrial revolution, most of the non-renewable resources and technology have been expended to benefit a minority of the population in an increasingly unsustainable manner and most likely at the expense of our descendants.

    I tend to be critical of David Biello, but I agree with his last words in this article: "Management is no longer a luxury. We had better get good at it." If we can’t manage the rock we are born on, then we don’t stand a chance of living off it.

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  12. 12. jtdwyer 1:16 pm 09/2/2010

    tichead – Very well put, not mentioning that adopting any off-World survival strategy requires the abandonment of the billions of unfortunate souls that must be left to suffer on Earth.

    We can’t even transport a critical mass of humans presenting a sustainable genetically diverse reproducing population.

    Revising your closing statement, if we can’t manage the Garden of Eden (Earth) how can we expect some select few to survive a long trip to flourish on some barren rock?

    Western society has relied on the New World’s surplus resources to compensate for mismanagement for many hundreds of years, barely avoiding infrastructure collapse the entire time. The ‘promise’ of space migration is simply the imagined extension of Manifest Destiny.

    It’s over. There is no new ‘New World’ to be found. We must adapt our resource usage to our available and sustainable inventory.

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  13. 13. TruthAddict 6:13 pm 09/2/2010

    We are at a precipice. The idea that we live on a planet with infinite resources is clearly false. Yet we have an economy driven by maximizing GDP which is a measure of the cost of doing business. As the left and right argue about whether climate change is real or not, both sides are pushing for solutions to grow the economy which will only hasten our apparent peril. The whole concept of money is at issue. The idea that banks lend money into existence is the problem. The banks and their wealthy owners expect to be paid back with interest. That can only happen if the money supply grows. Hence we must have growing economies or face economic collapse. This concept of creating money through an accounting ledger is out dated and must change. There are many ideas out there but we should choose one soon. The simply idea of having our government spend money into existence by funding infrastructure projects is a good start. Imagine if our government actually worked for the tax payers rather than the banks that are financing the tax payer debt. We could build a new economy based on maximizing sustainability systems. Sustainability and the need for a growing economy are mutually exclusive. Citizens must wrestle control away from financiers and begin building things of real value that we can pass on to our future generations before it’s too late. It’s all about the money.

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  14. 14. jtdwyer 6:31 pm 09/2/2010

    TruthAddict – No need to worry about the economic system – if we don’t manage the population in relation to the resources available there won’t be any need for an economy.

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  15. 15. TruthAddict 7:35 pm 09/2/2010

    There is much evidence that economic disparity and exteme poverty lead to larger families for the impoverished. It’s also true that more equitable socities a happier. Given that the top 25 hedge fund managers in America "earned" a billion dollars each on average last year, I’d say there is some wealth disparity in the world we have created. The economy and overpopulation are directly linked. You can argue that educated women would reduce poverty sooner. In any case my hope is that educated women would choose a more humane economy too.

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  16. 16. rbcurti 8:26 pm 09/2/2010

    "we cannot assume that the past is prologue to the future. " So that the same is true from the perspective of continued prosperity, but also from the perspective of global disaster. Anti-humanism does not help matters. We are native to the planet–not our fault–we are the result of survival of the fittest and evolution–again, not our fault. War is our fault, pollution is our fault but we are trying to something about both. Our science tells us that the earth have experienced several ice ages, mitigated by "global warming" and predict that it will happen again with or without us. From a political standpoint, I see environmentalists, by-and-large as hypocritical to a fault. If humankind causes the problem, be the first to leave. If our big vehicles are causing greenhouse gases, be the first to stop driving big vehicles and flying in airplanes. Drew Barrymore went to Tanzania with some other Hollywood types and said she defacated in the bush and that it was "awesome." Is she kidding? The people in Tanzania would probably give anything they could to have indoor plumbing. Another one–I think Cheryl Crowe said that industrial nations should stop having babies but that people in Third World nations could continue having as many as they like. Why? Because the 5-10 children born in some Third World Nation don’t affect the environment as much as children in industrial nations–is she kidding? First of all, the birthrates are way down in industrial nations–I guess she didn’t bother to check–but the more children in Third World nations means more suffering and death by starvation in those nations. This kind of thinking is ludicrous to me.

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  17. 17. TruthAddict 11:50 pm 09/2/2010

    I like your perspective of what global events are in humanities control and which ones arent. Its true we live in a world where both the animal and plant kingdoms live by survival of the fittest. Its also true that planet earth will continue on with or without humanity. I also agree that the Hollywood/Celebrity crowd, most notably Al Gore, are hypocritical when judging others or worst, opportunistic by flouting their virtues for public consumption. You are also correct that the ones who can AFFORD and large vehicle can choose to take the bus instead. Whats missing is that the majority of humanity is born into a world where buying a large vehicle is never a thought. Survival is the norm. They dont have a choice. We who are fortunate enough to enjoy reading Scientific America can make a choice. And our best choice is to open the eyes of our neighbors to the fact that human society has in fact been progressing through history. And we live in a precious time where the one and only super power has a Constitution where We The People rule. If we get it right, the rest of the world will follow. Thats what I tell my children anyways.

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  18. 18. tichead 2:09 am 09/3/2010

    TruthAddict: I’m with you on all points except: "… a Constitution where We The People rule.".

    First: We The People don’t rule. I think (% is illustrative, not actual) only about 50% of the people elect our rulers. Of those, only about 50% pay any attention to the vote. Of those, only about 50% have any understanding of why they are voting for that choice (candidate, proposition, amendment, etc.), and of those, only about 50% are sufficiently active in the process to choose wisely. That leaves 6.25% of the population making ‘informed’ decisions about our future. And I just may be overly optimistic about these numbers. We The People can rule, except that 93.75% of us don’t do that very well.

    B: Once in office, or made law, established power and money drive the program. Politicians may placate enough constituents to retain their position, but they really placate the large donors who generate the party funding. Consequently, the suppliers of energy (fuel, electicity, food, information, etc.) actually rule.

    Conclusion: When the 93.75 of the energy ‘serfs’ get organized, then We The People can and will rule.

    Epilogue: That may not be such a good thing, as mob rule has not always worked out so well.

    Addendum: We just need more informed rulers intent on long term survival of not only our species but of the planet that allows us to do so. "We only get to crack this egg once."

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  19. 19. jtdwyer 5:29 am 09/3/2010

    Politics – I really hate this subject, OK.

    IMO, media interests are motivated to produce revenues by generating advertising traffic. These famous-personalities/media-darlings are merely distractions from any real events taking place in the world. They are the `eye candy’ used to attract the attention of those who are most easily entertained by the `news industry’, like the really cool CAI action sequences in today’s meaningless movies. IMO they must be ignored in order to identify and understand the significant events that do occur in the real world. One should only follow these media `action figures’ in order to understand how the `general public’ (participant of the developed world) may perceive the world.

    IMO, since citizens of the developed world most commonly perceive the world through video presented by media interests primarily motivated to generate revenue, the concept of an `informed’ populace electing `informed representatives’ is a complete self deception. Politicians are motivated by votes, electoral success and power. It must always be presumed that the political figureheads of election enterprises are being polished to present whatever brings electability and will likely say and do anything that attracts votes while making the least policy commitments. Once elected to a position of power, politicians are motivated to say and do whatever most likely secures their advancement to positions of greater power. Whatever that entails, `save the planet’ for example, that’s what will be said. What will eventually be done depends on not the interests of the electorate but those who control the resources whose cooperation is required to present the appearance of doing what was said.

    Of course, I could just be pessimistic, but I don’t think so. I know most people really are well intentioned, but I think this is how things really work these days. I couldn’t vote for anyone who has any chance of being elected – they must be corrupted, already. In any case, the games will continue, but I try not to misdirect my efforts.

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  20. 20. TruthAddict 12:20 pm 09/3/2010

    Jtdwyer & tichead I agree with both of your assessments of how the world really works. I too follow the news to see what the rest of the world is thinking. My sources for factual information and analysis are Democracy Now, Alternative Radio and Speakers Forum from my local public radio station. As far as Im concerned as the system is today there is no hope unless both the decision makers and the masses decide to look beyond their narrow self interests and do whats best for the whole. That will take a fundamental shift in perception, or rather a spiritual awakening, depending on your point of view. This awakening will only occur with eye to eye contact with your neighbors as you humbly speak your truth. Keep of the good work. Its encouraging to here rational voices out in the wilderness.

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  21. 21. bongobimbo 2:42 pm 09/3/2010

    To this author:

    Where have YOU been? Living inside a gated community, I suspect. If you bothered to look, in your own city you’ll find the outsourced out-of-work, the homeless caught in bank scams, the sick who can’t afford medical care, hopeless people on drugs & alcohol, immigrants–legal ones–and brown skinned folk frightened by bigotry shouted from the mass media, people who can’t read and write, people bewildered by the pace of change (by no means all good), veterans without legs, veterans with mental illness abd brain injury, old people fearful of losing Social Security to pay off the sins of the rich, victims of BP, Exxon and the bad human errors before and after Katrina, young black men in jail for minor nonviolent crime learning how to be violent, and like you, deniers of evidence of decline. I could go on and on.

    Multiply those by the thousands and you will see modern America in decay, then look at yje real statistics like our declining status in health care and frozen wages for everyone but the 1% super-rich who feast off our earnings. Then take a careful look at other places like Congo, Lesotho, Bangladesh, ruined Pakistan, ruined Iraq, ruined Afghanstan. . . and Gaza.

    Who cares? Not you! HOW DARE YOU claim that statistics mean a damn thing when any spin artist can tweak them to fit his propaganda? Get off your duff, go out and feel the pain of the world we’ve made, then DO something about it!

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  22. 22. jtdwyer 7:32 am 09/4/2010

    TruthAddict – Sorry, but I’m afraid I wasn’t clear enough: I don’t follow the news; I think there’s little reason to concern myself with what the general populace thinks. I don’t think there is any reliable source of factual information – IMO all news sources are biased by their motivation for dissemination, fundamentally to keep the books balanced and influence the public’s perceptions of reality to varying extents.

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  23. 23. Chryses 10:13 am 09/4/2010


    "… I don’t think there is any reliable source of factual information – IMO all news sources are biased …"

    Ignorance is bliss.

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  24. 24. jtdwyer 3:29 pm 09/4/2010

    Chryses – To clarify further, I get all the news I can stand without actively pursuing any, but I’m skeptical of all reports.

    Actually, ignorance is relative, having experienced firsthand events that are later inaccurately or incompletely reported and recorded in historical accounts. Those who study records of events can only be relatively less ignorant rather than knowledgeable.

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  25. 25. focalist 5:55 pm 09/4/2010

    Sofistek- I’d argue that day-to-day health of most in developed countries is indeed much higher also. One offshoot of being as gluttonous as we are is that we are rarely significantly undernourished or in lack of the best in medical care. We can abuse our bodies severely, and many of the consequences of this behaviour can be medically repaired or at least hidden.

    I have Crohns Disease.. and without modern medicine, I would have died about twelve years ago due to intestinal perforation (if something else wouldn’t have gotten me sooner). Even with this disease, though I’m too sick to maintain a job, I am an effective stay at home parent. Between the symptomatic control medications, I can live mostly pain-free most of the time– not bad for someone that ought to be twelve years dead. My life’s not ideal, but I do have to say the benefits of modern western society are something I enjoy, even if I realize that I am incredibly lucky to be able to tap such resources. I live a livable life… which in my book, would be a heck of a lot better, day to day wise, than death…

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  26. 26. ThisOldMan 7:16 pm 09/4/2010

    Is the glass half empty or half full? The answer is both. More people are living in both poverty and wealth than ever before. Because more people are living, period. Perhaps those in poverty are living a bit longer, on average, thanks to vaccines and better prenatal care, but are they living better? For the wealthy, that question is even more subtle: It depends on what you are living for. Frankly, shallow articles like this, which simplistically equate well being with income, depress me.

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  27. 27. Gizmo 7:37 am 09/5/2010

    So, just how do we answer our grandchildren when they ask us if we REALLY flushed our toilets with drinking water?

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  28. 28. hxm 11:13 am 09/5/2010

    I’m not sure where you live, Mr. Biello, but where I currently live, humans are not doing well. I moved from a sparsely populated corner of the northeastern USA to a city of 6 million people in China, and I have since developed asthma (which I never had before) and been constantly ill.

    If you live far away from all the factories, cars, and people – in a nice, developed country where you can breathe clean air, sneeze without your neighbor hearing it, and drink the tap water – it seems just dandy, doesn’t it?

    But all that clean air and water is just borrowed. We’ve exported our pollution elsewhere. It will be back. Just wait until the population increases by 3 billion in the next 40 years.

    Please visit some other places besides the comfy, cushy USA before making blanket statements about how "humans are doing so well."

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  29. 29. hxm 11:17 am 09/5/2010

    Wait, is this sarcastic?

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  30. 30. jtdwyer 2:06 pm 09/5/2010

    hxm – Excellent perspective of real world reality.

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  31. 31. jtdwyer 2:07 pm 09/5/2010

    hxm – I’m afraid not. Go West, young man!

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  32. 32. TruthAddict 1:13 am 09/6/2010

    Bongobimbo- Yeah, I love your attitude! In all seriousness. I agree with your stark, and accurate picture of our current state of affairs. By all measures we are headed in the wrong direction and are already in a bad place. The only solution is to get up and take action. I’m fortunate to live in a community that will rally this Wednesday to encourage our local Congressmen to sign the Fight Washington Corruption pledge. My sister and I have committed to making phone call to ask like minded citizens to join us with banners and signs and make a statement. This may very well be a futile effort but I have to do something. I have to show my kids and family that I not only understand the unsettling reality my peers try to ignore but am willing to make a positive action.

    I strongly believe that to apply all of the amazing technological solutions we have at our disposal in an effective manner to solve our environmental crises we must totally transform our society which will take an engaged citizenry. If we could take the fist necessary step and get the apathetic masses to vote for a tax structure like President Eisenhower presided over (you know, the Leave it Beaver 50′s) than we could get these same voters to vote for legislation that encourages sustainable practices and tax and dividend solutions to toxic practices.

    Of course the Rich who rule the Poor, will offer quite a resistance to the rabble who suggest to change the current system. But I see no alternative to save our planet from utter destruction (from lack of clean water, soil, and nourishing food, or overpopulation or nuclear holocaust) but by changing the political system to meet the ideals of the rhetoric of our Founding Fathers. I understand too that these men only included 7% of the population (the white, wealthy, land owners) in the original bill of rights. I know that the sick and twisted concept of corporate person-hood must be exposed for the destructive force it is. Only the Truth can set us free.

    By the way, I chose my tag from a Rage Against the Machine song. Your writing has a similar edge.

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  33. 33. jtdwyer 6:20 am 09/7/2010

    TruthAddict – Unfortunately, I see no explanations from you or any other political commentator of how any political change will improve our survivability much less solve the issues threatening our survival.

    Simply put, humanity’s reproductive success in conjunction with our effect on the biosphere threatens to overwhelm the ability of technology applied to the environment to provide adequate quantities of consumable resources.

    The truth is that imposing any political agenda on global conditions will do nothing to address the real problems jeopardizing our continued survival.

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  34. 34. Sisko 12:23 pm 09/7/2010

    I have just returned from a trip to India, and am thoroughly convinced that we in America are worried about the wrong issue(s) when in comes to protecting planet earth’s environment. The issue should be population control, first and foremost, and smart use of non renewable resources as a secondary issue. It is clear when travelling the globe, that certain religions (Islam and Catholicism ) promote birth rates that are simply unsupportable from a long term perspective. Currently, Islam is the worst offender, and is using birth rates as a means to effect politics.

    We in the United States need to look after our our interests, and let others do the same.

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  35. 35. TruthAddict 6:13 pm 09/7/2010

    Jtdwyer I share in your pessimism all too often. What keeps me going is the idea that this too shall pass. Consumerism is just the latest way humans have filled the void in their souls. This latest escapism isnt just destroying the individuals life and family, but life on this planet as we know it. So I stand corrected. First there must be a spiritual awakening which will rebuke our crazy, self destructive culture (including the practice of having huge families). Second, political action must occur to wrestle control from the elite who live in their ivory towers and appear very lackadaisical in their response to the true causes of human/environmental calamity. Then, we can create a new world based on sustainable systems.

    IMO, the first system that must change is industrial agriculture. Seventy percent of our unsustainable water consumption is feeding thirsty green revolution crops. A large percentage of fossil fuels are used for green revolution fertilizers. Top soil erosion can be mitigated by replacing the tractor with a mule. An example of this very transformation occurred in Cuba after loosing 2/3 of their oil supply when the Soviet Union collapsed and is now 80% organic.

    I envision a world based on organic agriculture with many more farmers working than there are today. One hundred years ago the average farmer feed 20 people. Factory farmers now feed over 120 people. Imagine the job opportunities as we switch to organic, sustainable agriculture. Instead of a Wal-Mart or McDonaldss job, young people could be working the fields rather than taking orders from a middle aged manager with a chip on his shoulder.

    Solar panels on every house, wind and wave energy farms, grey water plumbing, rain gardens, water and energy saving technologies will too shape our future. Well take the best of the old and new worlds.

    Doesnt the science of consciences teach us that we create the world around us through our minds? If enough of us can articulate what a better world could look like then we as a collective can create it.

    Now that you forced me to articulate my crazy notions I must stand corrected yet again. The spiritual awakening will only occur after we conclude that the statement humans are doing so well is a lie.

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  36. 36. jtdwyer 8:27 pm 09/7/2010

    TruthAddict – Very well put. Perhaps I’ve lost my ability to envision the future. I hope those that can avoid placing their faith in invalid visions and especially the inactivity that has been generally adopted for the past fifty years. The more comfortable choices in life do not produce a sustainable lifestyle – long term survival will require a great deal of effort.

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  37. 37. Gary Noel 10:09 pm 09/7/2010

    The humans are certainly destroying everything at a supersonic speed and if you thing destroying the planet (not liviving in harmony with nature) is termed as "doing well"then certainly we posses no foresight and wisdom and therefore we have no right to be even classified as humans.

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  38. 38. slih 8:57 am 09/8/2010

    …and how many of you have voted in recent years for politicians who are opposed to population planning? Such a vote might be understandable for an uneducated voter, but not for anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the mathematics of population growth.

    Are we going to depend on plagues, pollution disasters, collapse of fisheries, and war for population control?

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  39. 39. Albert Reingewirtz 9:13 am 09/8/2010

    Yeast with food in a container grows until there is no more food and, oops! Same with humans. You can say to a child to answer China to the question: Who invented that and be right most of the time. In fact China invented the unpalatable solution to the planet’s ills: One child per couple. This would solve the global warming, food shortages, pollution… You name it!

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  40. 40. jtdwyer 11:48 am 09/8/2010

    Albert Reingewirtz – Well put. The critical factor in the equations: population * {water, nutrient and land requirements} or {GHG and organic waste production}, etc., is the human population.

    Whatever the resource requirement or environmental pollutant produced, its impact is the product of the human population.

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  41. 41. eco-steve 12:19 pm 09/8/2010

    Ask the billion starving humans and billion exploited workers earning less than a dollar a day if they are doing well. And the situation is worsening all the time.

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  42. 42. viewpoint 2:35 pm 09/8/2010

    This not a black and white issue. There are always unintended consequences to decisions and actions made and taken. There are scientific, ethical, and political considerations at play that do not always meld together well. And lastly, there is still so much that is unknown and possibly unknowable, whether it’s concerning medicine and health, climate, new chemical products, or who’s going to be in power. No crystal ball, no omniscience, and often, not much good will.

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  43. 43. jtdwyer 3:36 pm 09/8/2010

    eco-steve – If that is the problem as you perceive it are you suggesting that everyone be well fed and paid a ‘fair’ salary? The result would be an even greater population increase.

    IMO, the fundamental problem is that there are nearly 7 billion people living on our planet – an increase of more than 4 billion since I was born in 1950.

    If we focus on the relief of human suffering the population will only grow at an increasing rate. While it may seem counter-intuitive, the most effective method of reducing human suffering is not to make everyone more comfortable but to reduce the total population.

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  44. 44. ZoePittaki 5:47 pm 09/8/2010

    Euripides once said that impudence is the worst of all human diseases. While “more people are now displaced by warfare” and, “natural disasters affect more people than ever”, isn’t it absurd to have some people claiming that “humanity has never been better”? And this is not the only kind of problems facing people today. For example, how could one possibly say that “things have never been better”, when even preschoolers are diagnosed with depression? ( )
    Of course, if one reads the article “The Era of Babel” of the author Ioannis G. Tsatsaris, one easily understands the way such references are created. I cite hereupon a very illustrative excerpt:
    “I believe that if we do not pass into some perception of the meaning of life here, we will not be able to make correct evaluations of the results of our every choice. That is more or less how we ended up as we are today. In fact while we want to comprehend the language we speak and be comprehensible, in the end absolute incomprehensibility prevails. The main reason is that each of us speaks with the impulsive wish to influence others, to impose upon them and turn them into our partisans, a function that comes under the supply of the hormonal. It may be seen both in scientists as in politicians. There is (…) no way in which a person’s function is restored, if he does not first perceive in himself what the meaning is of his life and of his presence in the space in which he finds himself. This is the cause of the irregularity of relations of communication among people.”

    (Ioannis G. Tsatsaris, “The Era of Babel, Foni tis Korinthias, 25.03.2010″)

    Zoe Pittaki, Economist / Athens

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  45. 45. jimbojambojoe 1:40 am 09/13/2010

    TruthAddict – I agree that currently mankind has taken a plunge for the worst. The "research" that these scientists are giving is bias based off of their own personal opinion that is shaped around their self-fear that it is probable there will not be a brighter tomorrow. This article is seen as a way to make people nationwide feel as if their livelihood is in no present danger because people like to hear what is most appealing to them; which in this case would be to find out that their actions are making a "positive" effect on humanity. The human race only changes their character when faced with an event of catastrophic proportions. These can range from the ozone completely dissipating to the lack of essential raw materials causing the planet to lose any stability. Our planet has faced more hardships in the past couple decades than it has in centuries. Life as we know it will cease to exist unless humans get their major responsibilities in order and act to save our planet immediately. Everyone needs to get their facts together so that misleading information will not spread ideas of safety and solitude to humanity.

    Link to this
  46. 46. jimbojambojoe 1:40 am 09/13/2010

    TruthAddict – I agree that currently mankind has taken a plunge for the worst. The "research" that these scientists are giving is bias based off of their own personal opinion that is shaped around their self-fear that it is probable there will not be a brighter tomorrow. This article is seen as a way to make people nationwide feel as if their livelihood is in no present danger because people like to hear what is most appealing to them; which in this case would be to find out that their actions are making a "positive" effect on humanity. The human race only changes their character when faced with an event of catastrophic proportions. These can range from the ozone completely dissipating to the lack of essential raw materials causing the planet to lose any stability. Our planet has faced more hardships in the past couple decades than it has in centuries. Life as we know it will cease to exist unless humans get their major responsibilities in order and act to save our planet immediately. Everyone needs to get their facts together so that misleading information will not spread ideas of safety and solitude to humanity.

    Link to this
  47. 47. eco-steve 6:52 pm 09/13/2010

    Sofistek : Yes you are right, hydrocarbons are part of Biomass, and are included in Biomass pyrolysis technology. Only coal cannot be so treated, as it contains little hydrogen. (Town gas from coal is made by reacting coal with steam, so is a non-starter as it creates CO2). For Biomass pyrolysis to function today, CO2 prices need to be doubled, which means at long last introducing a carbon tax to improve planetary hygiene. So this is not pie in the sky!

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  48. 48. dbowman1101 1:19 am 09/23/2010

    There is a very long chain that connects the relationship between the statuses of humanity to the environment. The key to the entire relationship is that with time, education and innovation are always growing. Over time, education improves vastly in the areas of medicine, agriculture, and engineering. This in effect, causes longer life expectancies and higher birth rates which increases population. With growing populations, more people need to live on a smaller amount of land so big cities develop. This causes a decrease in the availability of farm land, so farmers must learn to produce more crops on a smaller amount of land. Cutting down the farm land and trees that take in carbon dioxide to produce cities heavy in carbon dioxide emissions is not a good combination for the environment. This combination causes a decline in the state of the environment and an increase in natural disasters. In effect, humanity may be flourishing and will likely to continue to do so, but we are just a severe enough natural disaster away from our doom. All we are doing is making the human race significantly more vulnerable to worldwide disasters which could contribute to the end of the human race.

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  49. 49. donmalvin 5:30 pm 09/28/2010

    Sad to say, the petri dish analogy paints a reasonably accurate picture. Recall the ‘irrational exuberance’ of financial markets prior to great crashes. In the past, isolated, successful civilizations have depleted their resources and collapsed. Now we can visit their ruins. Today, of course, civilizations are no longer isolated, but global, bound by links that are not always secure or robust. A failure of the wheat crop or interference in the transport of petroleum, as well as drought, extreme weather, even a massive solar flare or super volcano could bring it all crashing down. Perhaps a more apt title for this article would be, Pride Goeth Before a Fall. By the way, did I mention nuclear war?

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  50. 50. klatu 2:28 pm 11/2/2010

    "one thing is clear: We live in the Anthropocene" and that means that human agency is responsible for the future. It is our human values that will demonstrate either their sufficiency or to be wanting. And their will be no one else to blame! And if the later, where does humanity turn?

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  51. 51. joem789 11:45 pm 07/9/2013

    The way the science community tries to rationalize reality is so far from reality its sickening. Just because people wear prettier clothes, or seem to thrive doesn’t mean we’re doing better. The rich are getting richer. And to keep it that way, they need even more people to be poor. hence the reason why the middle class is shrinking. There is still such a thing in this world that science has nothing to do with. Its called greed. And the secrets are abound. Every single time something is invented that could help mankind, it ends up in the hands of the greedy. And then it helps man very little while helping some jackass tremendously.

    Out life expectancy is LOWER than it once was. It is laughable for today’s so-called experts to say otherwise. There are still people in this world who are over 100 years old!! They were raised on food that wasn’t genetically modified. And sugar was more scarce in most diets. People have gone from being meat eaters to sugar eaters. They have gone from eating natural food to packaged foods. We are literally filling our bodies with poison. And you have the gall to say we are living longer?? Statistics easily show that people are ending up in hospitals at an earlier age than ever before. If someone today lives to be 90, they are on life support or they are financial well off enough to pay a lot of doctors every other day. We are getting cheated out of health care because of the insurance companies and their presence. there should be no such thing. We need fewer doctors and lower prices.

    Our children are being demoralized. No matter how much things have changed over the decades, we could always manage to protect our children and family interests. Certain things were always kept out of reach. But ever since the Internet came around, that all changed. It is equivalent to putting every good and bad thing in the world into a single book. Then handing the book to our kids and telling them NOT to look at pages 120-149. The fact that the Internet has become a necessity more and more, all the while the corruption that is out in the open is disturbing. You cannot go on a single website without getting hit with SEX and/or violence. All things that were considered an abomination to humanity are being broad-casted 24/7 and celebrated through rhetoric and advertisements.

    One may look upon the material and think we live in a wonderful period of time. But that’s an illusion. There’s a tremendous amount of inner, spiritual pain being felt by millions of people today. They are lost. They look around at the time and money they invested in fancy homes, cars, pools, clothes, toys, and whatever else. And they see NOTHING at all great about it. Just tools for passing the time. Spiritually, they are as dim as the night sky. Science knows nothing about this reality. And the more we depend on science, the worse the world will get.

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