Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day, warts and all

Today is Earth Day. A day of celebration, to promote awareness of Mothership Earth, ED began in 1970 and has picked up steam ever since. It's now hyped pretty much worldwide, and is often used as a vehicle for various organizations to blow their horns about this or that accomplishment.

We shouldn't fool ourselves too badly, though. The human species has a LONG way to go before we achieve anything approaching true environmental awareness. Or any sense of a long term big picture when it comes to ourselves, our role on earth, and our incredible, unprecedented ability to manipulate our environment. And by extension, the environment of every other organism on the planet.

GREEN is not building a more environmentally friendly Walmart. At best, that's damage mitigation. True green is conserving our natural habitats, and trying to live in balance with Nature.

Southern West Virginia. These Appalachian mountains harbor some of the richest diversity of life on earth. Their rich forests attempt to atone for our excesses by sequestering carbon, a byproduct of the ever-increasing need to provide energy for our growing world community. By just being there, these woodlands provide habitat for thousands of species of plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects of every stripe, and things that we don't yet even know about.

But fuel is required to feed our mechanized society, and this is one of the ways that we get it. The above shot shows an active mountaintop removal, in which places such as shown in the first photo are leveled to expose underlying coal seams. The depth of destruction is mind-boggling, and it's stupefying to realize that a species so collectively brilliant - us - could be so incomparably stupid. For a very short term gain, we have wrought a scorched earth change that will be with our planet for thousands of years, probably. From an indescribably lush and diverse forest to a lunar landscape, practically overnight.

The pressures to enagage in crimes such as mountaintop removal won't vanish anytime soon. In 2006, world consumption of coal was about 6.75 billion (BILLION) tons of coal. By 2030 our use is projected to rise to a staggering 10 billion tons, an increase of 48%. If we let that happen, you can expect to see many more fabulous mountains lopped off and planted to exotic grasses. There is no mitigation for this sort of thing.

A verdant southern Ohio woodland in spring, fairly bursting at the seams with life. Probably a hundred species of breeding birds can be found in this place, and they link us to the global bioeconomy like no other group of organisms. Dozens of species of Neotropical migrants nest here, and they collectively radiate to nearly every country in Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Older-growth forests spawn an amazing diversity of life, all of it dependent upon towering trees.

But we need wood, and more of it all of the time. Forty-five years ago, the world's people consumed 12 billion ft3 of wood products, and now the demand has eclipsed 17 billion ft3. That's a heckuva lot of wood and it has to come from earth's forests.

This crew is reveling over warblers in a big West Virginia woodland. I know, because I was there. On that same trip, we also thrilled to red trilliums, pipevine swallowtails, sharp-shinned hawks, tulip trees, the nest of a Black-and-white Warbler, greenshield lichens, and more other stuff than you could shake a stick at. Earth Day organizers would have been proud of us.

Parts of this very mountain, with its richness of life and endless intellectual stimulations, is scheduled for a life-ending double-whammy: a scalping of its timber, then pulverization by mountaintop removal. Hasn't happened yet, but many of its sister mountains have fallen.

Remember, the people that allow this sort of thing to happen have no knowledge of, or interest in, such places. They should be made to sit in the front of the Earth Day 101 class.

The aftermath of mining on a mountain that a high soaring Golden Eagle could see from the mountain on the previous photo. Not very Earth Day, is it?

Just as all other animals on earth have a finite carrying capacity, so too do we. This chart shows the astronomical rise in the human population, with the huge spurt coming with the so-called Neolithic Revolution - the modernization of agriculture. Now, at least for a while, we have the ability to feed what many experts believe to be far more people than the planet can sustain in the longterm. And the pressures to provide for all of our wants and needs will only continue to skyrocket as well.

Every year, our population grows by 74 million people. That's the equivalent of four (4!) New York Cities, every year. That's a lot of new space to eke out.

The first U.S. census was undertaken in 1790. Four million people were tallied. The 1850 census totalled 23 million, and by 1900, our population had risen to 76 million. It now stands at 308 million, and our numbers are projected to rise to 400 million+ by 2050. Global trends are similar: 7 billion people currently, projected to hit nearly 8 billion by 2050.

That is a lot of people, and what some might reasonably conclude is a bacteria-like runaway growth curve. I may or may not be around in 2050 to see what things look like on Mother Earth, but if this meteoric rise in our population continues, I don't think things will have improved from an Earth Day perspective.


A.L. Gibson said...

Couldn't agree more, Jim. To think the human race doesn't have a carrying capacity like everything else in nature is an ignorant thought and it will all come crashing down at some point. Mother Nature has a way of balancing and evening out things over the course of time; I don't doubt that humanity won't be any different in the end.

Anonymous said...

Earth Day here in southeastern

People in our county are selling
their future clean water supply
with a process known as fracking.
Not regulated by the clean water act, I don't believe their thinking of unintended consequences. The congress and the
E.P.A. won't help us.

natureinquiries said...

Thanks, Jim, for your closing emphasis on our overpopulation. I won't believe we are taking these matters seriously until I stop seeing ads praising large families. When such choices become socially unacceptable, we will have passed a threshold. Too late, perhaps, but the stage will be set for us to improve whatever chance the planet may still have.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, all. Overpopulation is the giant 300 pound gorilla in the room, that everyone wants to ignore. How many politicians do hear discussing it? Yet it is, in my view, the biggest long-term problem that we face.

Jeff Jones said...

I totally agree, Jim. More people just need more stuff in less than scientific terms. I do wish more people understood the impact beyond their little social circles of large families. Mother Nature will have her vengeance and it won't be pretty.