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The Human Ecological Footprint

 Web Note: From: Scott Silver 23 May 2006

 In or around 1981 the conservation community (specifically the "Group of Ten") and their corporate partners, jointly and willfully, made a decision that now threatens the survival of civilization  -- or so some suggest. They chose to disregard the findings of the then recently released Club of Rome report and embark instead upon the clearly oxymoronic path of "Sustainable Growth."  They did so, in part, because the success of capitalism depended upon it. They did so, in part, because their own success depended upon it.

The consequences of that decision, and the very fact that such a decision was consciously made (and made by leaders of the conservation movement), has escaped public scrutiny for far too long.   (See appended note for background.)

Pasted below is a newly published article that reminds us of that historical branch point and addresses the now vitally-important issue of "overshoot" --- i.e., the consequences of that decades-old decision.

Here's a quote from this article.

 [ While the evidence indicates that it is now too late  to rescue civilization as it now exists, it may not be  too late to preserve key elements of civilization, and  the world's present knowledge base.]

Which, if any, part of that statement is a correct assessment?

What, if anything, should we now do differently?


   "Man will occasionally stumble over the truth,     but most of the time he will pick himself up     and continue on."   -Winston Churchill

 -- begin quoted --

We humans are a very recent arrival on Planet Earth. Anthropological studies indicate that while tool making hominids evolved some three million years ago, homo sapiens as a distinct subspecies of hominid did not emerge from East Central Africa until as recently as 120,000 years before present.

The available evidence also reveals that during the first 90% of our relatively short biological journey we obtained needed sustenance by hunting and scavenging other earth creatures, as well as gathering of fruits and roots of planetary flora. Apart from acquiring the ability to tame and keep fire, as well as to gradually develop tool making skills, as hunter- gatherers we met our basic needs and survived not only much like other primates, but also not unlike our more distant relatives in the animal kingdom.

The ecological footprint of the less than one million of us who walked the earth at the time was of little consequence, even though it is probable that we eliminated several large mammals including the wooly mammoth.

While cooperation with hominid relatives may have played a role during an earlier period in our evolution, there is evidence that as homo sapiens we achieved our present status on the planet through a series of victories in exterminating fellow humans, culminating in the extinction of the Neanderthals about 30,000 years ago. In the years following our elimination of all rivals we occupied all the habitable continents and our population increased to perhaps three million.

The Agricultural Revolution

About 10,000 years ago, a brief moment in biological time, a few of our ancestors discovered farming. The Agricultural Revolution initiated a truly pivotal change, permitting the establishment of permanent settlements and freeing many from the need to forage for food. The domestication of plants and animals marked a point of departure for humans, leading to a significant increase in our numbers to about 300 million in the next eight millennia, as well as the emergence and subsequent collapse of several civilizations in both the eastern and western hemispheres.

The Industrial Revolution

In about 1750, when our population had increased to an estimated 800 million, we gradually embarked on a second major revolution, the Industrial Revolution. The first tentative steps occurred in The United Kingdom with the development of the steam engine and other machines. It was not long, however, before the new machines were linked to a new energy source, fossil fuels, which would rapidly lead to an enormous increase in human work output. The linkage of our new machines, and later electronic technology, with low cost and energy intensive fossil fuels soon equipped the average human in the industrial world with the equivalent muscle power of over 300 human slaves. Overnight, homo sapiens became what some describe as homo colossus.

The new machines and new energy also quickly led to an explosive growth in human population.

Prior to the onset of the Industrial Revolution, world population had less than tripled during the preceding 1,750 years; during the last 255 years it has increased more than 8-fold, from 800 million to 6.5 billion. The population increase during the Industrial Revolution represents an incredible rate of increase 21 times greater than it was during the preceding 1,750 year period.

Until very recently, the world sounded no alarm bells in response to the above unprecedented increase in human numbers, together with a more than 100-fold increase in the consumption of natural resources during the same period, and an even greater level of increase in the pollution of the planet and its atmosphere. Our obsessive homocentric focus on ourselves has blinded us to the perils of destroying the ecosphere, the planetary home of humans and all other life forms. We have become a species run amok.

Biologists have long recognized that when a species enters exponential growth in population, consumption, and the creation of wastes, it has entered plague mode. Humankind, however, appears oblivious to what is happening, and its political leadership has repeatedly failed to acknowledge that exponential growth by definition must have limits. By acting as if humanity can continue its expansionist trajectory indefinitely, we fail to apply to ourselves what is accepted as self evident for all other species.

The Limits to Growth

In the late 1960s, largely through the private initiative of a single individual, Aurelio Peccei of Italy, a first effort was launched to address what was described as "the predicament of mankind."

Peccei, with the support of Alexander King of Britain and a few others, founded The Club of Rome. In 1970 it commissioned a project team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to examine five basic factors that determine, and ultimately limit, growth on this planet. The team's findings were published in 1972 in a book titled Limits to Growth. The book was translated into about 30 languages, it became a best seller in several countries, and a vigorous world wide debate followed.

Limits to Growth attempted to sketch alternative futures for humanity - a range of alternative scenarios - based upon a computer analysis of the best data available on population increase, agriculture production, non renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. The book did not attempt to predict the future but it did make clear that if humankind continued on its present course of exponential growth, a collapse of civilization could occur in the late 21st century.

The opposition to Limits to Growth was fierce and continues to the present. Most economists, together with many industrialists, politicians and Third World advocates, have expressed outrage that growth has limits. The attack on "Limits" was compounded by misleading media information and a shallow understanding of the book's contents. Today, while there is increasing acceptance among knowledgeable scholars and many others of the validity of the essential message contained in Limits to Growth, the general public, and our prevailing culture, continues to view "Limits" as unthinkable and impossible.

In 1972 there was still time to achieve a major course correction in the human journey. That opportunity is no longer available. Several studies confirm that the human ecological footprint now exceeds the regenerative carrying capacity of the planet, and our civilization is rapidly approaching a discontinuity unprecedented in history.

It is hoped by some that civilization will rally in its 11th hour. Homo sapiens, however, perhaps because of genetic characteristics acquired during our early evolutionary development, experience great difficulty responding to abstract concepts, particularly if they apply to an invisible future threat. Our experience through the ages has been to first feel the pain, and then when the event is upon us, act. The obvious inadequacy of this traditional approach as a response to capacity overshoot requires no comment. It is now probable that we have passed the point of no return.


Civilization overshoot of course has occurred many times in earlier years at the local geographic level; now for the first time it is occurring globally. There are important differences between the collapse of historic civilizations in earlier times and the approaching collapse of today's technically advanced global civilization. These differences include:

. Unlike all earlier civilizations, in the early 21st century we possess detailed population, economic, resource, and environmental data, as well as sophisticated computer analyses and projections, that provide us with advance warning of collapse. We possess the tools to warn us what may be coming, earlier civilizations did not.

. Because our present civilization is complex, its scope is global, and overshoot is increasing rapidly, the magnitude of mitigation efforts requires an unprecedented level of global cooperation and discipline, as well as preparation time measured in decades.

. The fact that our present civilization is global, not limited to one geographic area, as well as the fact that supplies of many critical resources are diminishing, increases the potential of global collapse imperiling the future of all humankind, perhaps for centuries. The stakes this time are very much greater.

An Ecological Revolutions

While the evidence indicates that it is now too late to rescue civilization as it now exists, it may not be too late to preserve key elements of civilization, and the world's present knowledge base. An important first step in formulating a survival blueprint for humankind is the adoption of a new world view to replace today's doctrine of species selfish homocentrism with an ecologically responsible and Earth-centered perspective. As Ted Mosquin and the late Stan Rowe state in A Manifesto for Earth: "What is required is an outward shift in focus from homocentrism to ecocentrism, providing an external ethical regulator for the human enterprise. Without an ecocentric perspective that anchors values and purposes in a greater reality than our species, the resolution of political, economic, and religious conflicts will be impossible."

A future for planet Earth and humanity requires that a third major revolution, a successor to the Agriculture Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, be initiated by the Earth's most influential life form. The third major revolution: clearly an Ecological Revolution.

-- Mr. Clarke was formerly Secretary General of the World Federalist Movement and a former manager of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. He is at present editor of Proceedings, the journal of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome.



For those unfamiliar with the "Group of Ten", here is something that will serve as a primer. I'm quoting this  from a paper titled:

Environmental Movement Organizations And Political Strategy: Tactical Conflicts Over NAFTA

 The major conservationist organizations that moved to support NAFTA, especially the NWF, readily used their access to governmental circles and corporate supporters. The pro-NAFTA groups, as Table 1 indicates, are organizations with close dependency on external revenue, especially corporate moneys. These organizational dependencies stem from their historic role in "rationalizing the field" of environmental politics during the rapidly developing national environmental policy apparatus in the 1970s (Gottlieb, 1993; Sale, 1993). Their success and dominance of environmental politics in the United States during the 1980s stems from a deployment of organizational forms aimed at securing foundation money, boosting relations with power brokers in the Reagan administration, accompanied by tactics emphasizing lobbying and litigation. Prepared to compromise in 1981, the CEOs of the several large EMOs formed the "Group of Ten" (G-10) with the explicit aim of creating a niche in the neoliberal policy agenda under Reagan's executive order. Succumbing to the political dominance of neoliberal capital, the G-10 increasingly leaned to market solutions for environmental regulation, turning nature into "a commodity to be bought and sold" and defining objectives "in terms of their economic value" (Gottlieb, 1993, p. 317). Jay D. Hair-president of the NWF-urged that "our arguments must translate into profits, earnings, productivity, and economic incentives for industry" (quoted in Commoner, 1987, p. 68). As the G-10's defensiveness subsided, overtures to industry became routinized through the boards and funding sources of these organizations (Dowie, 1995; Gottlieb, 1993; Sale, 1993).