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  BBC 5 Nov 07
Humanity is the greatest challenge
John Feeney

The growth in human population and rising consumption have exceeded the planet's ability to support us, argues John Feeney. In this week's Green Room, he says it is time to ring the alarm bells and take radical action in order to avert unspeakable consequences.

We humans face two problems of desperate importance. The first is our global ecological plight. The second is our difficulty acknowledging the first.

Despite increasing climate change coverage, environmental writers remain reluctant to discuss the full scope and severity of the global dilemma we've created. Many fear sounding alarmist, but there is an alarm to sound and the time for reticence is over.

We've outgrown the planet and need radical action to avert unspeakable consequences. This - by a huge margin - has become humanity's greatest challenge.

If we've altered the climate, it should come as no surprise that we have damaged other natural systems. From deforestation to collapsing fisheries, desertification, the global spread of chemical toxins, ocean dead zones, and the death of coral reefs, an array of interrelated declines is evidence of the breadth of our impact.

Add the depletion of finite resources such as oil and ground-water, and the whole of the challenge upon us emerges.

Barring decisive action, we are marching, heads down, toward global ecological collapse.

Web of life

We're dismantling the web of life, the support system upon which all species depend. We could have very well entered the "sixth mass extinction"; the fifth having wiped out the dinosaurs.

Though we like to imagine we are different from other species, we humans are not exempt from the threats posed by ecological degradation.

Analysts worry, for example, about the future of food production. Climate change-induced drought and the depletion of oil and aquifers - resources on which farming and food distribution depend - could trigger famine on an unprecedented scale.

Billions could die. At the very least, we risk our children inheriting a bleak world, empty of the richness of life we take for granted.

Alarmist? Yes, but realistically so.

The most worrisome aspect of this ecological decline is the convergence in time of so many serious problems. Issues such as oil and aquifer depletion and climate change are set to reach crisis points within decades.

Biodiversity loss is equally problematic. As a result of their ecological interdependence, the extinction of species can trigger cascade effects whereby impacts suddenly and unpredictably spread. We're out of our league, influencing systems we don't understand.

Any of these problems could disrupt society. The possibility of them occurring together is enough to worry even the most optimistic among rational observers.

Some credible analyses conclude we've postponed action too long to avoid massive upheaval and the best we can do now is to soften the blow. Others hold out hope of averting catastrophe, though not without tough times ahead.

One thing is certain: continued inaction or half-hearted efforts will be of no help - we're at a turning point in human history.

Though few seem willing to confront the facts, it's no secret how we got here. We simply went too far. The growth which once measured our species' success inevitably turned deadly.

Unceasing economic growth, increasing per capita resource consumption, and global population growth have teamed with our reliance on finite reserves of fossil energy to exceed the Earth's absorptive and regenerative capacities.

Getting a grip

We are now in "overshoot"; our numbers and levels of consumption having exceeded the Earth's capacity to sustain us for the long-term.

And as we remain in overshoot, we further erode the Earth's ability to support us.

Inevitably, our numbers will come down, whether voluntarily or through such natural means as famine or disease.

So what can get us out of this mess? First comes awareness. Those in a position to inform must shed fears of alarmism and embrace the truth.

More specifically, we need ecological awareness. For instance, we must "get" that we are just one among millions of interdependent species.

It's imperative we reduce personal resource consumption. The relocalisation movement promoted by those studying oil depletion is a powerful strategy in that regard.

We need a complete transition to clean, renewable energy. It can't happen overnight, but reliance on non-renewable energy is, by definition, unsustainable.

But there is a caveat: abundant clean energy alone will not end our problems. There remains population growth which increases consumption of resources other than energy.

We have to rethink the corporate economic growth imperative. On a finite planet, the physical component of economic growth cannot continue forever.

In fact, it has gone too far already. As a promising alternative, the field of ecological economics offers the "steady state economy".

We must end world population growth, then reduce population size. That means lowering population numbers in industrialised as well as developing nations.

Scientists point to the population-environment link. But today's environmentalists avoid the subject more than any other ecological truth. Their motives range from the political to a misunderstanding of the issue.

Neither justifies hiding the truth because total resource use is the product of population size and per capita consumption. We have no chance of solving our environmental predicament without reducing both factors in the equation.

Fortunately, expert consensus tells us we can address population humanely by solving the social problems that fuel it.

Implementing these actions will require us all to become activists, insisting our leaders base decisions not on corporate interests but on the health of the biosphere.

Let's make the effort for today's and tomorrow's children.

John Feeney PhD is an environmental writer and activist in Boulder, Colorado, US. His online project is growthmadness.org

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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