Natural Systems Under Stress

Consider Haiti, described by Brown:

Once a tropical paradise, Haiti is now a case study of a country committing ecological and economic suicide. As its forests have shrunk and its soils have eroded, Haiti has been caught in an ecological/economic downward spiral from which it has not been able to escape.

Note the feedback loop between ecology and economy and the basis of civilized life on soil and the gifts of the earth. Brown does not mention the crushing foreign debt that forces Haiti to sell its resources at bargain prices or the corrupt elites that plundered Haiti's natural and human heritage.

Add to the mix population growth. As deserts expand and coastal area recede, population densities rise and thousands become environmental refugees. Lester Brown wrote of this in November, 2006:

Our early twenty-first century civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas. Measured by the land area that can support human habitation, the earth is shrinking. Mounting population densities, once generated solely by the addition of over 70 million people per year, are now also fueled by the relentless advance of deserts and the rise in sea level.

The introduction to this dramatic chapter reminds us that all civilization is based on the soil. Indeed, about half of humanity even today are land based people living in subsistence-based cultures. But the land, even the sea, is under the threat of the ecologist's nightmare scenario: overshoot and collapse. Brown, again in reserved tone, tells a harrowing story.

He focuses on key natural life support systems under human assault:

  1. Shrinking forests
  2. Eroding soil
  3. Deteriorating rangelands
  4. Advancing deserts
  5. Collapsing fisheries
  6. Disappearing plants and animals, extinction

As members of the Ramapo College community, are generally not land based people. Note how many of the ecological holocausts Brown depicts intersect within the poorer regions of the world, particularly Africa and Asia, where 4.8 billion people struggle to survive within subsistence cultures. This recalls the Malthusian dilemma of humanity swamping and degrading the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Note, however, that most of the damage can be averted with forethought and intervention of the destructive patterns of human behavior, often rooted in the economy. Solutions are not presented here, but issues are. Examine them, for they are serious, although distant from our daily lives. Our children's future will depend on finding policy remedies for the agenda elaborated in this chapter.

Shrinking Forests

Heed Brown's observation: "World forest loss is concentrated in developing countries." Brown provides an overview here. Brown depicts how deforestation occurs in different places, not citing a single cause for all regions. Hard pressed native populations forage for fuelwood and destroy remaining patches of forest in Africa's Sahel and on the Indian subcontinent. Commercial lumber logging, often for tropical hardwood, clear cuts whole forests in Africa and Southeast Asia. Often, foreign-owned countries purchase the rights to the forests at a discount provided by national governments desperate for hard currency needed to pay debt service. Ranchers and farmers destroy forests for easily exhausted plantations, then move on, repeating the destruction--subsidized again by public policies that never solve their problems. Even alternative fuels, such as biodiesel come at the expense of deforestation. And as forests denude hillsides, erosion of topsoil and vast flooding inevitably follow. The feedbacks between ecological destruction and human culture intensify the perverse downward spirals.

Brown frequently points to model programs that reverse these trends, but that appears absent in this section. He also does not comment on the relationship of deforestation, the diminishment of the lungs of the planet, on CO2 increases and on global warming. The interconnections throughout this chapter, and the whole book, must be kept in mind: One Earth.

Losing Soil

We are all familiar with the story of the Dust Bowl of the U.S. Great Plains in the 1930s depicted in John Steinbeck's classic, The Grapes of Wrath. With that in mind, ponder the contemporary Dust Bowls of China, Africa, and recently Russia. Ethiopia, perpetually at the brink of starvation, loses an estimated one billion tons of topsoil per year due mainly to erosion.

How important is soil? Brown begins this section noting "The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet's land surface is the foundation of civilization." In the following paragraph he concludes: "Today the foundation of civilization is crumbling." Brown does note some major regional policies in China, which has recognized that economic growth and population pressure often destroys essential environmental services. The U.S. has made great progress in reversing soil conservation. Experience shows that remedial policies are feasible and affordable. Yet, the problem of soil erosion intensifies--and agricultural capacity with it. Note again the perverse feedback loops.

Deteriorating Rangelands

Rangelands, 20% of the earth's surface, shift over time, often due to the degradation of human habitation, human population growth, and the increasing population of ruminants such as cattle, sheep, and goats, now numbering 3.2 billion. The overlap of rangeland with farmland shifts, and human cultures collide. Consider the excerpt below from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology study Environmental Degradation and Interethnic Disputes in Darfur. As you read this, note the complex relations between land use and human culture. I have highlighted text that illustrates the underlying social ecology:

Drought is one common feature of environmental change that has been associated with conflicts in many African countries. The severe drought of the early 1970s that hit African Sahel countries instigated a series of changes that affected seriously the lives of millions of people in that belt for ever. The western part of the Republic of Sudan was among those areas deeply affected by that drought which culminated in the 1984 infamous famine. Almost exactly two decades after Darfur hits the news again as experiencing the worst “humanitarian crisis” in the world today. This time the crisis resulted from the on-going civil war that has polarized Darfurian people into two non-distinctive ethnic groups: Africans and Arabs. Since most African Darfurians are settled cultivators and most Arab Darfurians are nomadic pastoralists, a legitimate question arises in this case regarding the extent to which the current conflict is somehow related to competition over natural resources; notably land. A further question to be asked is how much of the competition over natural resources is directly linked to environmental degradation? As time goes by, there is growing demand for more productivity in order to feed an ever increasing population. Keeping the delicate balance in issues of land use becomes more difficult because customary land tenure systems have less elasticity to enable them to cope with changing conditions. On the other hand, new changes can play an important role in turning an otherwise peaceful coexistence between groups into a hostile confrontation or even a full-scale war. For that matter, some researchers tend to consider ecology as an important factor that explains many conflicts in Africa today (chiefly Suliman, 1999). When there is a change in the environment the capacity of land to sustain people’s livelihoods shrinks; but when this is combined with a population increase a conflict is already under way. In the case of Darfur, the combined effects of a multitude of factors culminated in a chronic land degradation. Overgrazing and deterioration of range land resulted from the fact that much of the land in the semi-desert and goz zones lost their capacity to grow grazing grasses, forage, and trees. Combined with drought the human factor (in the form of tree-felling, excessive cultivation and overgrazing) contributed greatly in speeding up the desertification process to the extent that vast areas lost their capacity to sustain traditional livelihoods for its inhabitants. Some experts assert that millet cultivation in the semi-arid zone has dangerous implications for the environment and have even advocated the prohibition of millet cultivation beyond certain boundaries (Ibrahim, 1980).

Those not faint of heart might view this gruesome BBC photo that depicts a similar situation.

This phenomenon is familiar throughout Africa and Asia. Brown speaks to several case studies. China seems to have mounted effective remedial policies. Few others have.

Advancing Deserts

China is the main front in the battle over the spread of deserts, typically into rangeland:

China is now at war. It is not invading armies that are claiming its territory, but expanding deserts. ... WangTao reports that over the last half-century, some 24,000 villages in northern and western China have been entirely or partly abandoned as a result of being overrun by drifting sand.

Desertification has been concentrated in Asia and Africa, where 4.8 billion of the earth's 6.5 billion people live. As the case study of Darfur, above, demonstrates, for many subsistence cultures, the rapid spread of deserts is a holocaust like no other. Brown this time offers no simple solution other than to recommend that the population growth of humans and their domesticated ruminants decelerates.

Collapsing Fisheries

I generally consume fish twice each week, always have. Maybe you do, too. Our children probably will not, unless fish farming expands enormously, despite the ecological havoc it brings. The oceans have been dramatically overfished, with the accompanying economic dislocation and ecological decline.

Consider some chilling anecdotes:

Brown presents issues for a global agenda and saves policy prescription for later. The only remedy he sites is fish farming, which requires land-based fish-food production and creates environmental problems. I suspect that our children will eat less fish and pay more for their catch.

Disappearing Plants and Animals

We are well into the sixth great wave of extinction, although this is the first induced by humanity, an evolutionary setback. If you are, like me, fond of habitat, plants, and animals, you should be disturbed. If you take any of the thousands of pharmaceuticals derived from nature, you should also be concerned about the loss of knowledge and potential. You get the point.

Here is a recent example of extinction to consider: After surviving 20 million years, China's goddess of the river, Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, is driven to extinction. Yahoo! says: A powerful moral argument can also be made: Species deserve an opportunity to survive., but goes on, into the terrain of ethics:

When charismatic birds or mammals are threatened, that gets people's attention. One mammal humans warm to, the polar bear, has now been joined with another huge environmental challenge: climate change. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is to rule any day on whether to propose listing the polar bear as endangered. Environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity say global warming is melting the ice on which the bears live. Climate change is likely to raise awareness about species extinction.

For a more scientific treatment of extinction, check out the entry in Wikipedia. For a less anthropocentric (human based) discussion of extinction, use Wikipedia's entry on deep ecology. See also a treatment from an environmental ethics position.

Protecting the diversity of life on earth requires protection of habitat. The discussion above reveals the pressures that will make that problematic. Add to that the impact of climate change on existing habitat and species, and diversity is further threatened. Then consider the invasion of exotic species, that for example constantly threaten my lake in New Hampshire. Worse still is the effect on rich ecosystems within the tropics, such as the vast Amazon. Brown notes that we are entering a new world. His only optimistic gesture is that our knowledge base has increased, or rather that our ignorance has diminished a bit.

Are you optimistic after studying this chapter? My concerns for our children only deepen.


Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | Initialized: 11/9/2006 | Last Update: 2/18/2010