That special input called water
Large cities in many parts of the globe now ration household water. A few have made news by actually running out of water. Such traditional natural reservoirs as glaciers and snow packs are in steady decline. Even as clean, safe drinking water is becoming scarce almost everywhere, up to eighty percent of water drawn from wells is diverted to crop irrigation—the most extreme waste of water lost to evaporation. What’s the priority here?
Thousands of wells drilled into every aquifer in the USA are drawing down these precious underground reserves significantly faster than natural rains can replenish them. Several major U.S. aquifers are within a few years of being used up. Much of the rest of the world is in worse shape, and warming climate’s disruption of traditional rainfall patterns is upsetting human water use patterns around the globe.
Most glaciers worldwide are expected to melt and disappear within this century. Even the massive Himalayan glaciers—the source of six great rivers on which 1.5 billion Asians depend—are melting from rising temperatures and are predicted to be over half gone by 2100. Melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps is accelerating and meltwater is certain to raise worldwide ocean levels by at least several feet before the end of this century. Dozens of coastal cities will be inundated in varying degrees, forcing millions of climate refugees to migrate inland. Already in south Florida, steady ocean rise now floods suburban streets with virtually monthly regularity as each spring tide arrives.
W can go without food longer than we can go without water.
At the other end of the system—the tail end outputs, so to speak—it can be accurately generalized that the more food, clothing and shelter people consume, the more garbage and single-use Styrofoam they generate to be hauled off to a landfill or washed away down our streams and rivers to the oceans. Whereas our systemic inputs cause increasing demand and resource scarcity, our systemic outputs are waste and pollution. The more people there are, the greater their consequential garbage and waste. And the more the growing number of people advance to a more comfortable middle-class lifestyle, the greater grows their consumption and the greater waste and pollution resulting from it.
The better off we get, the faster we pollute ourselves to death. Something must be wrong.
In terms of output, it is axiomatic that waste expands in proportion to consumption. More than half a century of chemical pollution by herbicides and pesticides intended to increase crop yields have rendered vast acreages nonviable for any traditional crop growing at all. Yet increasing varieties of genetically modified crops are non-viable without use of herbicides and pesticides. Many old varieties are preserved in costly seed repositories, but the food security of their historical distribution is lost forever. Rampant overpopulation is forcing humans to build houses and roads over productive fields, and to settle in marginal lands traditionally set aside for wildlife. Poaching of endangered species and farmer conflict with grazers such as elephants are inevitable results.
Six miles from where I sit a formerly beautiful deep valley has been transformed into a massive, abnormally rounded faux mountain a mile long. It towers above the adjacent hills, releasing ever-more-copious outgassings of noxious-smelling methane into the air breathed by thousands for miles around. Offended that local and state governments let it happen, still I am luckier than those citizens living directly downwind.
There is going to be hell to pay
When I was a child in our small prairie town’s elementary school, I walked during lunch hour one day to our tiny downtown’s nearby Main Street, as we kids often did, to go shopping at the ten cent store. There was a toy I wanted, price fifteen cents. Having the money and the time, I was soon in possession of a little green road grader. Very detailed this lovely machine was, with a blade entirely suitable for constructing the little roads I had envisioned in a sandy part of our yard. It was made of this new stuff called plastic.
Returning to the classroom at lunch hour’s end, I proudly showed my prize to a classmate. Unexpectedly, perversely, the twerp snatched it from my hand and commenced to play keepaway, whirling in malicious glee, keeping my road grader beyond my reach. Lunging to reclaim it I grabbed one end…and, intent on wresting it away again, he twisted…
…Snap—it broke squarely in the middle, the toy’s narrow weak point. My road grader and engineering dreams died in an instant. I did not have another fifteen cents, nor after such trauma would I have spent it ignominiously for another if I had. The trauma cut deeper than it was worth, but with that Snap I learned early in life the truth about plastic. It breaks. Now late in life I’ve learned a fuller truth, and it is worse than a bad nightmare.
There’s little that’s been left unsaid about our pollution of the earth. Everyone who is conscious knows how human pollution degrades our living earth and our civilization. Oil spills, chemical spills, power plant coal ash, toxic waste dumped into our creeks, stinking runoff from hog farms, E. coli and sewage in the rivers from which we draw our drinking water, illegal roadside dumps…and plastic. Most people have by now heard about the gigantic gyres of plastic waste circling in all the world oceans. A lot of people are aware that plastic bags, bits and pieces routinely turn up in the stomachs of food fish and other sea-dwelling creatures, such as whales and dolphins that beach themselves to die of it.
Quite a few folks are even aware that we are only just now learning, a century after plastic appeared, that plastic left out in the sun slowly degrades into ever smaller bits, then to tiny pieces, and finally down to the constituent molecules, most of which are toxic to some degree. But fairly few people are aware that microscopic plastic now floats ubiquitously in our earth-enveloping atmosphere, that we breathe it without knowing it, and that molecules of the stuff are now in the bloodstream and tissues of all of us—even our newborn infants and the placentas which lovingly enwrapped them for a while.
It gets worse. New research (Scientific American, May 2020) shows a strong correlation between exposure to fine-particulate air pollutants and several of the neurodegenerative diseases. Alzheimers is a specific focus of the article, which calls attention to toxic droplets and fine bits down to one-thirtieth (1/30) the diameter of a human hair that now go floating in the air breathed worldwide. Noting how easily these fine particulates cross the blood-brain “barrier” that is unable to bar these microscopic particulates, the article specifically points to oil and gas pollutants from cars, trucks and power plants as well as burned coal and wood. Also included is the dust emitted into the air by vehicle brakes, clutches and tires. The authors didn’t mention the toxic airborne microscopic plastics so recently discovered, but they did note that Alzheimers-associated proteins have now been found in the brains of children and infants as young as eleven months. With Alzheimers, they say, it’s chronic, long-term exposure that does the job. And you can’t avoid it.
Every last human on earth is now polluted by the plastic with which we have polluted our earth for less than a mere century. Millions more tons of it are still being created every year. Manufacturers who make our stuff are dependent on it. But could we do without it? How, oh how, could we ever possibly manage to get by without our dear plastic?
That’s inputs and outputs. Of the in-between part, the processing expressed as various activities that consume energy, more will be said in later chapters.
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Almost nobody talks about it
Unlike thirty or even twenty years ago when global warming was thought a far out topic by the few who’d heard of it, media of all types nowadays spend lots of time describing in great detail our worsening weather and climate. The more outrageous consequences of burgeoning worldwide pollution get mentioned. With such matters so often in the news, there is no excuse for anyone anywhere to now be uninformed about these existential threats other than willful ignorance and contrarianism—but of these there is much.
In even the best reporting, however, there is a massively important lacuna—a hole, consisting of information that’s nearly always not there. This particular lacuna is the neglected context of global warming that rarely gets mentioned. It is a huge elephant standing full in the center of the room, and I have tried here to devote a few useful lines to it. The elephant’s name is human overpopulation.
Lots of people today bewail our over consumption, our declining resources, our abysmal waste and awful pollution—but almost nobody ever talks at all about the over-populating of the earth that is causing all these problems. We humans, as a worldwide species, need to become aware—certainly more consciously aware than we are—of how truly severe is the problem of human over-population. It causes all the other problems, like human over-demand and human-generated waste. Many people who fear global warming don’t recognize overpopulation as the greater threat. It is in fact the biggest threat because it is the first cause—our overpopulation is causing our overheating our planet. Global warming they call it—the greenhouse effect—climate change. It’s all one thing, caused by us. It didn’t happen to any measure that mattered when there were far fewer of us.
And the Lord said “Be fruitful and multiply.” And they did, mygod did they ever. Every major problem troubling humanity today is a direct result of too many people. But all talk is about the various individual problems resulting from that fact, not the fact itself. That fact of gross overpopulation of the earth is itself the foremost problem—the big main causal problem. Almost no one talks about it.
Faces of global overheating
Seven-plus billion approaching eight billion people is more than our planet has capacity to sustain. We’re still eking by but it cannot last. For those who bother to read the news in science—or simply look out the car window at the fields and see—it’s obvious that we’re slowly losing ground, the imbalance is slowly increasing, and it is speeding up. This time, moreover, there can be no clever new technological green revolution to save us—the petering out of the first green revolution demonstrated that. The planet simply cannot adequately sustain the quantity of hungry mouths we’ve already got, much less the tsunami of new babies promising to arrive over the next five decades.
Common sense and hard scientific facts cry out that the evidence is ubiquitous. How do we so manage to ignore these elephantine realities staring us in the face—global overpopulation, global warming, and the bona fide spirituality of near-death experiences?
Global warming is everywhere we look or should be looking, though closed mindsets will keep denying it to the bitter end. And the end will be bitter, as the killing famines of recent decades in Africa’s driest regions will finally be understood by we who live in other places. If you live in the well watered lush green farmlands of Ohio and Kentucky, these words may not seem so real to you—though even here, some of the farmers suffered extreme losses in 2019, to local droughts in this county, torrential rains in that. Arizona farmers after twenty-one years of drought can attest from their own experience the reality of the climate threat we all face. So can those in California’s central valley, a breadbasket producer of the nation’s food supply, where long-term droughts and ground water depletion have caused farmland to subside by up to twenty-eight feet.
Too many people, at the uttermost thin edge of earth’s carrying capacity, make two interrelated consequences inevitable in the years immediately ahead: massively growing consumer demand will significantly exceed Earth’s finite resources (the inputs), and vast human-generated waste will severely pollute the entire earth environment (the outputs).
Everything relates to everything else, but every threat to human survival traces back to overpopulation. Perspective on interrelating threats is obvious in just the first two absolute requirements of every human life: 1) a subsistence level of food sufficiently nutritious to sustain life, and 2) water clean enough and safe enough to drink. If you don’t get enough of these two basics you soon die. If you control the supply of them, you soon become filthy rich. Both processes are currently at work.
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