We are entering a crucial period in the history of the planet, a situation unprecedented in millions of years characterized by too many people with too much power to ruin the ecological base on which civilization rests. For example:
- One third of U.S. cropland is now witnessing marked declines in long-term productivity. In the period 1955-1977, the Chinese lost twenty-five million acres of crop land due to erosion and today over one seventh of the arable land in China is damaged by erosion. In the U.S. a quarter of all irrigated farmland is now suffering from waterlogging or salinization. Deserts are now advancing steadily in the southwestern parts of the U.S., northern Mexico and Australia and Africa. Paul Hawken reports that over the last hundred years average depth of topsoil in the world has gone from twenty-one inches to six. Our industrialized agricultural system uses fossil fuels and pesticides to produce and transport low quality food over thousands of miles, yielding greenhouse gases, while destroying wild habitat and depressing biodiversity.
- At the same time there has been an explosive growth in the numbers of cattle in the world, to feed the burgeoning population that is demanding more meat per capita, degrading the world’s grazing lands, turning them into over grazed lands and in some cases outright deserts. Where cattle are not grazed they are combined into huge feedlots that pollute surface and ground waters. In such crowded conditions they develop disease and are then dosed with the same antibiotics we rely on to cure human disease. The overwhelming majority antibiotics used in the United States are used in cattle, leading to new anti-biotic resistant disease organisms and a rise in infections in hospitals.
- Meanwhile, Homo sapiens has been fouling the surface waters and the seas. In Appalachia streams are filled in with toxic overburden containing heavy metals from mountain top removal. Lake Erie is again the poster child for surface water pollution. Last summer Toledo had to shut down its water intakes. They were fouled with algae. A recent study found millions of plastic micro beads in the Great Lakes, flushed down peoples’ sinks from cosmetics, toothpaste, etc. (Where did the inventers of micro-plastic think it would go?) And in both oceans there are enormous gyres of floating plastic and other debris from industrial civilization.
- Do we have to put up with this? No, we do not. There are many citizen based organizations working to reverse these trends including my favorites, Earth Justice, Food and Water Watch, and the Center for Biodiversity. We can take the fate of the earth and our children into our own hands if we join together and mobilize. The planet and the future are too important to be left to corporations and governments.
The State of the Earth, Part I
We are entering a crucial period in the history of the planet, a situation unprecedented in millions of years characterized by too many people with too much power to ruin the ecological base on which civilization rests. The next several entries will address this, beginning with:
- Human Population: It took over three million years for hominids to evolve and to reach the number of one billion, a mark finally achieved around 1825the next billion took just 123 years; the next increments of 1 billion took 33 years, 14, years and 13 years. The transition from the fifth to the sixth has already occurred. Today human population is over seven billion, up from 1.7 billion in 1900 and climbing toward 9 billion by 2050. While it is true that those of us in the affluent North use far more than our proportionate share of resources and contribute disproportionately to pollution as well, we still have an unprecedented and unsustainable situation with global population.
Those of us born before 1950 have seen more population growth during our lifetimes than occurred during the preceding 4 million years since our early ancestors stood upright. This is an ECOPATHOLOGICAL TREND.
- Where do all the people go? They go into cities that have been growing explosively since 1900. In the year 1900 less than one person in ten lived in a city (only about two hundred million total). By the 1980s almost half of the now much larger population of the world lived in cities, about 2.5 billion people. In 1890 there were only nine cities in the world with populations over a million. By 1920 there were twenty-seven and by 1980 there were 230 such cities including twenty-six with populations over five million. Today 54% of the world’s people live in cities and that will go to 66% by 2050. New Delhi, for example, has 25 million people. Many of these megacities are environmental disasters, despoiling the country side for hundreds of miles around. In Colombia, the Bogota River downstream of the capital city had a fecal coliform bacterial count of 7.3 million. (The safe drinking water limit is 100.)
- Since the earth has not gotten any bigger, nor arable land increased, the ratio of food-producing land per person is getting smaller. That is why the affluent are scrambling to buy up food producing land in Africa, driving off the land the peoples who have farmed it for centuries so that corporations can produce export crops to feed the Chinese and the Saudis and the Europeans and the Americans, that is, until they ruin the fertility of the soil.
- Soil health all over the world is being degraded. Healthy, productive soil is a complex physical and biological system that creates the plant nutrients. Industrial agriculture, with its pest-attracting monocultures, mines the natural nutrients out of soil, replaces them with artificial fertilizers, sprays toxic pesticides and causes massive erosion. The soils of the American Midwest are running into the Gulf of Mexico laden with pesticides and nitrogen that are creating an anoxic dead zone in the Gulf bigger than Texas.