The Ecological Crisis Goes Global: We're Witnessing a Biological Coup
We’re rapidly approaching the threshold of
a major extinction, a biological collapse,
in which the life forms we know will disappear.
The collective disbelief in this catastrophe is apparent
in the lack of a political-social discussion about the importance
our species, Homo sapiens, will have in the future.
It seems that our eyes don’t see it.
And our hearts and minds don’t feel it.
Ramón Fernández Durán
The urban-agro-industrial system has had a direct negative impact on the biosphere, all its ecosystems—the life forms and all their habitats—at a rate it won’t be able to sustain for much longer given that it’s been exceeding its bio-capacity for many decades.
Our species is responsibleUntil the 20th century, the development of life was marked by genetic evolution, with occasional important historic upheavals—mass extinctions of species resulting from cosmic changes, meteorite strikes and endogenous changes in the biosphere itself caused by super-volcanoes, massive glaciations, etc.
There have been five massive extinctions so far, the Cretaceous being the last, 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared along with many millions of other species. We’re now entering the sixth extinction, which scientists say will extend from the Holocene (evolution’s most recent geological period, the past 12,000 years, starting from when agriculture began) up to what some people are already calling a new geological era: the Anthropocene.
The principal cause of mass extinction in this new era is now not the cosmos, meteorites, volcanoes or major glaciations but today’s global capitalism and the Industrial Society. It’s not all Homo sapiens as a species who are causing the extinction, but a particular system—a human construct—that’s been involving an ever greater part of our species in its infernal dynamic and is already having a biospheric impact. Human activities—agriculture, fishing and forest management—that were more or less sustainable and renewable until the 20th century, when they stopped being so as a result of the planetary triumph of today’s anthropogenic global mega-machine.
Intensified use of theoretically renewable resources through mass industrialization became an increasingly unsustainable activity in the 20th century, the result of operating under the logic of the market, based on the imperative of continuous growth and the application of technologies that would be unthinkable without a colossal consumption of fossil fuels, especially oil.
The green revolution: The globalization and evolution of industrialized agriculture have had very serious environmental impacts. Industrialized agriculture’s energy balance is quite deficient compared to traditional agriculture: it consumes far more energy than it produces. Its tremendous increase in productivity and “success” result from an enormous consumption of fossil fuel, especially oil, and the consumption of chemical fertilizers, mechanization, water pumping and transport. With all of this, it was “only” possible to double the Earth’s agricultural area in the 20th century, despite a fourfold increase in the world’s population as well as increased life expectancy.
A giant toxic predator
In 1900 world agriculture wasn’t industrialized. It basically used the same techniques as for the last thousand years, with a quarter of the land used for livestock, which provided most of the necessary nutrients. By the end of the century industrialized agriculture had already spread over a large part of the Earth, feeding 50% of the world’s population, already considerably urbanized, and enormous quantities of livestock, principally to supply meat to the world’s middle and upper classes, especially in the central countries.
This agribusiness was organized in clearly differentiated centers and peripheries, the latter providing the key inputs to the former’s agricultural and food supply system, thus seriously compromising its own food sovereignty. At the same time, the major central agro-exporters were seriously eroding the viability of the peripheries’ barely or not at all industrialized native agriculture based on totally unequal world trade.
The green revolution, as it’s been called, has had growing ecological impacts. On the one hand, the expansion of the agricultural frontier has already altered more than 10% of the Earth’s surface, especially in the flatter and essentially most fertile lands. That’s five times more than all the world’s constructed areas. On the other, it pushed the so-called subsistence agriculture and the grazing land to more marginal and rugged terrain, accentuating the environmental impact.
The consequences of agrarian metabolism have also impacted aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems: the eutrophication, or over-fertilizing with nutrients, of underground and surface water resources; the degradation of soils as a result of intensifying their natural erosion rates; an increase in soil salinity; and a serious rise in erosion rates. In short: the loss of fertile soil.
Industrialized agriculture has increased natural erosion rates by two to three times, exacerbating the problems of desertification that affect a third of the world’s landmass and degrading a quarter of the Earth’s cultivated land surface. Industrialized agriculture has also fostered mono-cropping, as it would be inconceivable otherwise. All this has caused a significant loss of biodiversity.
We no longer hear All this has generated bona fide “green deserts” where “the sounds of spring” are no longer heard. The alteration of the ecological balance has caused a proliferation of pests, which requires increasing chemical pesticides and herbicides to maintain productivity, in turn expanding the toxic impact on agrarian ecosystems. All this is compounded by the introduction of transgenic agriculture, creating the possibility of uncontrollable mutations, a potential Frankenstein playing with biodiversity.
“the sounds of spring”
The global impacts of the Green Revolution aren’t homogenous. They are concentrated where industrialized agriculture has expanded furthest and been in existence longest, especially in the United States and the European Union, although also in other major agro-exporting countries (Australia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Indonesia and Colombia). These countries’ large-scale agricultural production is dominated by agribusiness conglomerates that also control seed production.
Despite all this, almost half of world agricultural production still takes place outside of this model and largely outside of the market, with very low fossil fuel consumption and low environmental impact, based on traditional local knowledge and human and animal labor. But its existence is threatened by the irrepressible expansion of global industrialized agriculture.
The environmental destruction brought about by the expansion of industrialized agriculture was already starting to take its toll in the late 20th century. The high productivity yields reached in the second half of that century, when world agrarian production almost tripled (exceeding global population growth), now started to stagnate, making more chemical inputs necessary. At the same time, the first symptoms of the impact of climate change on agrarian productivity were beginning to be felt.
Industrialized exploitation More than half the world’s original forests have already been felled or have suffered irreversible damage. Although this process has been taking place for the last 8,000 years, it intensified and accelerated from the Industrial Revolution on, particularly in the northern hemisphere, and especially took off in the 20th century, mainly because of the possibilities offered by mechanized and industrialized exploitation of the forest mass. Its expansion in the second half of the century was thanks to the indispensable aid of oil.
threatens the world’s forests
Until that time, rapid and massive logging was limited by the enormous manpower required, especially in the southern hemisphere. But the advent of chainsaws and heavy machinery removed any obstacle to intensive logging. Since 1950 deforestation occurred primarily in the southern hemisphere, especially its tropical rainforests, veritable paradises of biodiversity, while tree destruction greatly subsided in the northern hemisphere, except in the boreal zones where it intensified due to socio-political pressures, strategic considerations and reforestation—and exploitation policies—with “armies of trees.”
More than a quarter of our world’s landmass still has forest cover, although only about half is original forest. There are many causes for the process that has brought us to this point, including the logging and destruction of forests with the expansion of the agricultural frontier (most concentrated in the southern hemisphere in the second half of the 20th century); the industrialized exploitation of tropical rainforests in Latin America (especially the Amazon), Sub-Saharan Africa (principally the Congo basin) and East Asia and the Pacific (Indonesia, Philippines); the explosion of urban-metropolitan growth and consequent construction of connecting infrastructure; the immense expansion in mining and gravel pits; the opening of exploitation of the boreal forests in Canada and Russia; the North’s increasing pressure on the South’s forestry resources in order to preserve its own forests; and the human consumption of firewood through population pressure, especially in the South. In the last decades of the 20th century all these dynamics accelerated, reaching a spectacular 200,000 square kilometers of deforestation a year by the end of the millennium.
A questionable reforestationThe reforestation and later exploitation of what is reforested is primarily due to the development of the paper industry and an exponential increase in world demand for paper. Reforestation doesn’t only take place in the northern hemisphere. It’s also increasingly intensifying in the southern hemisphere, as an expression of the industrialized exploitation of forests.
The increasing decline in the arboreal mass is also a consequence of increased pollution (especially acid rain); the expansion of pests (accelerated by forest monocrops); military strategies to flush out the enemy (the use of chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange in Vietnam) and the nascent climate change, with more forest fires and droughts.
The consequences of this loss and deterioration in global forest mass are dramatic, firstly through the loss in biodiversity—micro-organisms, vegetables and plants—it entails. This is especially the case in the tropical rainforests, which are great storehouses of planetary biodiversity containing over half of all existing world species. Biodiversity loss also occurs in tropical dry forests and lowlands, those most affected by agrarian pressures, over-grazing, urban-metropolitan expansion and the search for firewood, the fuel used by practically half of humanity, i.e. the world’s poor.
Forest loss causes other problems that indirectly accentuate all these dynamics. Most notable are the loss of rainfall and fertile soil, as well as an increase in soil dryness and erosion. We’re also witnessing a growing practice of partitioning off forested land, due to the boom in infrastructure construction, which further impoverishes biodiversity and damages forest ecosystems by failing to achieve the critical mass necessary for maintenance.
Similarly original forest is replaced by reforested “armies of trees,” often unsuited to the type of soil (for example, eucalyptus plantations, a fast-growing non-native species), producing severe ecosystem degradation, which results in an abrupt fall in the previous biodiversity and acute soil degradation, especially through the mechanized handling involved in industrial exploitation.
All this destruction hasn’t taken place without strong social resistance, which has sometimes succeeded in partially halting or reversing the processes. The Himalayan women’s Chipko movement is perhaps the best known worldwide exponent of these struggles and also witness to their limited success. The women of the Uttar Pradesh region in the north of India hug the trees—Chipko means hug in Hindi—in active, non-violent defense of their communal and vital resources. Another example is the Green Belt movement in Kenya, also led by women, amongst them Nobel prize winner Wangari Maathai. These are only some examples of the so-called Environmentalism of the Poor, developed in many parts of the world in response to the Industrial Society’s aggression against the natural resources on which the life of entire communities depends.
Industrialized fishing Fish is the main source of protein for about one billion people and is an important nutritional complement for half of humanity. But this important source of protein, a true culinary delight, is seriously threatened.
devastates world fisheries
Since the early 1990s, world fish catches began to drop. They grew steadily between 1950 and 1973, and especially in the 1980s when oil was cheap and industrialization and the predatory capacity of fishing gear were increasing. The global “peak” for fish catches stood at more than 90 million tons in the first years of the 1990s, compared to only 20 million tons caught in 1950. We should remember that almost 30% of the catch was destined for non-human usage, becoming fodder to fatten livestock.
Since the 1990s world marine fishing has tended to decline, albeit with ups and downs. The reason is that 80% of global fish stocks are over-exploited: 50% are already fully exploited and exhausted and the remaining 30% are up to 90% below their maximum extraction rate. Since that time, catches are basically increasing in the remaining 20% that are still not over-exploited. At the current rate of exploitation it is expected that all marine fish species will be exhausted by the mid 21st century.
Furthermore, increasing capture in the lower levels of the food chain could cause a sudden, irreversible fissure in marine ecosystems. The next generation may be the last to eat wild fish. And perhaps only a few will be able to do so because the supply is very limited and the prices will probably be sky high. The rest of the world’s population, those who are able and willing, will be forced to eat “cultivated” fish, which has been in growing expansion since the 1980s. Already today, half the fish consumed worldwide come from fish farms.
The fishing goliaths are responsibleBy the late 20th century a transition was taking place on the world’s seas equivalent to what occurred in the Neolithic with the development of aquaculture. How did we get to this point? Where are the most depleted species caught? And who has benefited—is benefiting—most from this insanity? Nothing like this has ever occurred in the 200,000 years Homo sapiens have lived on the Earth’s crust eating fish and shell-fish from its rivers and coasts, and never in the thousands of years spent crossing and living from the oceans. All this happened in the second half of the 20th century, in just 50 years, although the “party” continues to the present day—for some.
The main reason we’ve gotten to this point is that industrialized fishing, developed in the second half of the 20th century, allows for an unprecedented haul as a result of highly predatory new techniques (i.e. trawling, with collateral death for discarded species) and the use of increasingly larger boats, particularly on the high seas, once the fishing resources from the coastal platforms are exhausted.
The new giants of the sea are equivalent to over a thousand small-scale fishing boats. These fishing goliaths demand a complex technology—based also on their freezing capacity—and an energy consumption that requires a large capital investment as well as the need to work 24 hours a day to be profitable. These high-tech fleets are owned by large companies from the central countries (Japan, European Union, United States and Canada) and are devastating the world’s fishing resources. Major emergent players increasingly adding to this predation, especially China, the largest fishing country in the world, which until recently had a barely technified fleet but for some years now has been drastically industrializing its fishing, along with South Korea. In Latin America, Peru, Chile and Mexico are also involved. The high-tech fleets from the central countries, and little by little those from the newly emerging players, have been gradually displacing small-scale fishing, first on the seas and oceans bordering the central territories and then over the whole world.
Even so, the vast majority of the world’s small-scale fishing is still in Asia and the Pacific (India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines) and to a considerably lesser extent in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. The destruction of employment in the small-scale fishing sector is tragic. This way of life, more in tune with environmental limits and natural rhythms, is declining, affecting entire communities.
Small-scale fishing disappearsThe most depleted fishing grounds are those in the North Atlantic, part of the Indian Ocean and the North-West Pacific (around Japan, China and South Korea), with those of Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa increasingly following suit. Not surprisingly, fish consumption is highest in Japan, the European Union, the United States, Canada, China and South Korea, and every day these players take more fish out of other seas.
Chile and Peru are important fish consumers and so far have had abundant resources of their own. In the early 1970s when the Northern fleets were widening their scope to fish over the entire world, Ecuador demanded—and got—the creation of the so-called 200-kilometer exclusive economic zones, with control of the offshore continental platforms allocated to the bordering coastal countries. However, this act of sovereignty is a double-edged sword as it forces the peripheral countries, faced with economic asphyxiation, to sell access to their fishing banks for a “mess of pottage.” While they’re trying to reduce their foreign debt, their elites take advantage of the situation. The most dramatic case is that of many African countries that sell unrestricted access to their fishing resources for one million Euros.
The tragic situation created by the bankruptcy of small-scale fishing fleets through the growing depletion of resources induced by their own countries is favoring the proliferation of piracy. Pirates, especially in the Indian Ocean, board Western fleets and demand millions in ransoms. It’s their new source of income as small-scale fishing disappears. In order to fish, the EU fleets are compelled to arm themselves to the teeth and have backup from NATO warships. In other West African countries people use their old small-scale fishing boats—dugout canoes and similar vessels—in desperate attempts to reach the coasts of the European Union.
Changing mangroves for farmsFaced with the growing destruction of wild marine species, worldwide fisheries are forced to increasingly focus on aquaculture, which presumes a drastic deterioration in the quality and wholesomeness of the fish we eat. This activity started developing in a limited way in inland waters in the first half of the 20th century, but intensified from 1950 on, undergoing major development since the 1980s, mainly due to the growing environmental deterioration of the world’s rivers.
Only 10% of world fishing is in inland waters; the other 90% is marine fishing, and is mainly in the salt waters along the coastlines where increasingly dwindling species are bred in fish farms. The development of this activity has been truly spectacular in recent years, already today accounting for half of the world’s supply of fish.
Worldwide, aquaculture is led by the countries of Asia and the Pacific—with two-thirds of the global total—and is especially increasing by China, both in its own waters and in the waters of nearby peripheral countries (Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand). Norway and Chile play an important role by breeding salmon in captivity.
In recent years, there has been an impressive growth in the breeding of shrimps and prawns by replacing mangroves to establish seawater farms. This phenomenon affects many countries in the world and is especially intense in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The ecological impact of this activity is enormous, as these farms are usually abandoned after a few years, once the mangroves’ nutrition is exhausted. It should be noted that mangroves are areas of very rich biodiversity, with a tremendous capacity to absorb carbon and an important value as a protective “cushion” in the earth-sea interaction. Its disappearance in many parts of Southeast Asia aggravated the consequences of the tsunami that swept that region in late 2005.
The progressive collapse of With industrialized agriculture, fishing and forestry increasingly unsustainable, and the urban-metropolitan model physically expanding together with the negative impact of its metabolism, all causing a rapid loss and degradation in planetary biodiversity, we’re witnessing a true biological coup by the global urban-agro-industrial system unleashed last century.
Adding to this tragedy is the relocation of species that reached a scale during that century never before seen throughout human history. Activated by the expansion and operation of the Industrial Society itself, it is an unsought consequence of global capitalism’s commercial dynamics.
After the acceleration in biological invasions caused by European imperialism starting with the circumnavigation of Africa and especially with the conquest of America, the 20th century witnessed a veritable whirlwind of bio-invasions from foreign species. The urban-agro-industrial system has acted like a real-life sorcerer’s apprentice, letting loose biological dynamics whose impacts on the ecosystems can’t be controlled. They are generating increasing inter-continental and inter-oceanic homogenization and simplification of flora and fauna, with serious consequences for the biosphere.
Rabbits, perch, mussels...There are many examples of bio-invasions. One of the most outstanding was the British introduction of rabbits to the Australian continent, which unleashed a true ecological disaster.
Because they had no Australian predators, the European rabbits multiplied like a real plague, causing serious environmental degradation. Moreover, as they consume half the grass that could feed sheep or cattle, they also caused a very serious socioeconomic problem. The rabbit’s incursion into Patagonia has also had very negative consequences.
Dutch Elm Disease (DED) would be another textbook case. DED is caused by fungi from Asia, where the elm species are more resistant. It came to Europe during the First World War, killing many elms. From there it jumped to the United States where it also seriously affected the elm population. And from there it appears to have jumped back again to the Iberian Peninsula, where it practically wiped out the existing elms.
The introduction of the Nile perch into Lake Victoria is another instance of biological disaster, causing the disappearance of more than 200 local fish species that had sustained traditional fishing in these waters for thousands of years. In addition, the perch, planned for export, ended local people’s lifestyle, intensifying poverty.
We must also highlight the case of the Zebra mussel and its tremendous invasive capacity. It comes from the Caspian and Black Seas, where it lives in biological balance. At the end of the 19th century it spread throughout Eastern Europe, through the navigation of rivers, and in the 20th century, began to invade North America and Western Europe through maritime cargo transport. Today this mussel is continuing to advance through much of the world, colonizing rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and causing important ecological and socioeconomic damage.
Upheaval of flora and faunaHuman activity has also caused the proliferation of a handful of “chosen” species (rats, cockroaches, pigeons and seagulls), especially in large urban-metropolitan areas. Thanks to domestication, the planetary populations of about 40 animal and 100 plant species have increased exponentially and risen in rank, occupying and demanding increasingly more environmental space globally. Cattle multiplied by four in the last century, the same as goats, sheep and the human population. Pigs multiplied by ten and barnyard fowl by twenty, faster than human beings. It’s further proof of how the urban-agro-industrial system created by Homo sapiensis increasingly conditioning the biosphere.
Industrial Society’s manipulation of biodiversity and the bio-invasions it causes, added to by trade in exotic life forms (monkeys, parrots, turtles, reptiles, ornamental fish, corals and cacti), which became a blue chip business despite being theoretically prohibited, is causing one of the biggest historical upheavals of planetary flora and fauna, a disaster equivalent to the serious loss of planetary biodiversity.
On top of this already severe situation is the ability to change biodiversity through genetically modified organisms, which the biogenetic industry has been spreading in the natural world for years, especially in the United States and in many of the large southern agro-exporting countries (Argentina and Brazil), as well as in the European Union, although to a much lesser degree because of a moratorium.
We’re on the threshold Occasionally the media warn us of the possible extinction of the Siberian tiger, the polar bear, whales, all of them emblematic species with strong media appeal. Little or nothing is said of the continuous disappearance of hundreds and thousands of species of micro-organisms, plants and animals, especially in the tropical jungles, which house more than half of global biodiversity. In addition, many still existing plant and animal populations have declined in number and extension to the point of being endangered.
of the sixth extinction
The pace at which species are disappearing is 100 times faster than its natural rate, and has intensified in recent decades. Planetary biodiversity declined by 30% between 1970 and 2005, which is spectacular, but we could reassure ourselves by thinking we still have a long way to go before witnessing a catastrophic extinction of species, considering the millions of species that still exist in the world—somewhere between 5 and 30 million.
We shouldn’t be complacent, however. Remember that in the five previous mass extinctions, the absolute loss of diversity in each period was around 50% of existing species in a process that took hundreds or even thousands of years, decisively conditioning biological evolution. In fact, the fifth extinction, 65 million years ago, opened the way for the development of mammals. Therefore, we can unequivocally affirm that we’re moving full steam ahead towards the threshold of a major extinction. Some scientists are already certifying this given the speed at which it’s happening and the collective disbelief in this biological collapse due to the lack of a political-social discussion of what this means for the future of our species. It seems our eyes don’t see and our hearts and minds don’t feel.
Biodiversity is the mainstay of our livesBiodiversity is the very basis of life on Earth and the mainstay of our existence. Without it our lives wouldn’t be possible. Biodiversity is also the key to the daily operation—emphasis on daily—of the urban-agro-industrial system we’ve created, and is the basis of global capitalism, which wouldn’t be viable without it. But this remains hidden, invisible, to the logic of the system, which operates blindly because biodiversity’s contraction and degradation so far hasn’t fully affected the dynamics of constant growth and accumulation. It’s like another pillar of the system that remains invisible: the work of thousands of millions of women, because it also takes place outside of the marketplace, in this case in the home. Along with biodiversity, women’s anonymous work sustains and permits the daily operation of the system in which we live.
There’s no possible way within our reach to artificially rebuild biodiversity. Its loss is already affecting essential life cycles: those of water and carbon. This dynamic regarding planetary diversity will certainly become more noticeable in the near future in two ways: through its accelerated loss with the expansion of the urban-agro-industrial system, and through the effects of climate change on it. The advance of the process will profoundly alter the functioning of the so-called environmental services, vital to the operation of the Industrial Society and of life itself, services we’ve been able to avail ourselves of gratuitously, up until now, without according them their due.
Services we get for free have limitsWhat is meant by environmental services? Although we don’t like the term, because of its heavy anthropocentric focus, we’ll use it for lack of a better one. Environmental services are those processes that are essential to life and to physical and mental health: photosynthesis, the natural regulation of the climate, purified water and air, plant pollination, edaphogenesis (soil creation), the natural control of erosion, environmental beauty and balance…
All these environmental services are vital to the operation of the urban-agro-industrial system itself: they supply natural resources (wood, fresh water, food) and even the dwindling mineral resources that nature gives us for free.
The loss of biodiversity and subsequent degradation of the ecosystems, as well as the progressive exhaustion of mineral resources, will bring into question this thus far free supply, which of course we have taken for granted in the belief that Nature was and is there for our unlimited exploitation. A current example is the remarkable decline in the world bee population due to agro-chemical pollution, which could endanger the pollination of plant species, an “environmental service” vital for food supply and so far offered by Mother Nature at no cost.
Until now, the most powerful social sectors and those most favored by the urban-agro-industrial system have been able to resolve their territories’ limited carrying capacity and degradation by importing biodiversity and environmental services from other parts of the world, ones less degraded and with an abundance of resources. But this is already ceasing to be true, especially for the most impoverished people in the world, who have been suffering from a covert environmental war for decades.
The poor of the world are paying the most for this silent war against nature that has so far not openly affected either the system’s unhalting logic or the human minority that benefits to a greater or lesser degree from the system. The global power structures are now aware of this; they know it can’t last much longer and are desperately beginning to search for some way to deal with the future scenarios of biodiversity crisis and ecosystem degradation, with their consequent boomerang effects, although without moving outside the logic of constant growth and accumulation and of the market mechanisms, which can’t provide even a minimally lasting solution. Nonetheless, this is the “solution” that’s brewing.
The ecological footprint this system is leavingAt the end of the 20th century, the human species and especially the global urban-agro-industrial system were already appropriating 40% of the global biomass. The Homo sapiens of the Industrial Society were occupying and appropriating an unprecedented environmental space, which meant an enormous decrease for the other species, whose vital number and territories were reduced.
This global biomass consumption is neither homogeneous among the different countries of the world nor within their own societies; their consumption levels are profoundly different. Perhaps a more appropriate concept to capture the true magnitude and inequality of the global urban-agro-industrial system’s environmental impact would be the ecological footprint, which shows us the total territorial requirements of that systems’ socioeconomic metabolism: both inputs and outputs.
On the one hand, the ecological footprint analyzes the ecological capacity of different land covers and their biologically productive capacity and on the other tries to measure the flows of materials and energy consumed by a particular population and economic activity, as well as the waste it generates. It then expresses this data in territorial terms, as the land and sea surface needed to produce resources and absorb waste. If the ecological footprint of a particular urban-agro-industrial system exceeds its territory’s bio-capacity, we’re looking at an ecological deficit that must be resolved in some way to ensure its operation. This is accomplished by over-exploiting its own resources or, primarily, by importing “sustainability” (bio-capacity) from the rest of the world.
Existing calculations support the conclusion that the global urban-agro-industrial system’s ecological footprint at the end of the 20th century was already well above planetary bio-capacity: about 20% above. This means that the global Industrial Society was overshooting the goods and services provided by nature. In other words, it cost the biosphere 1.2 years to regenerate what humanity was consuming in a year. We’re are already over 1.3, a clear indication of the ecological crisis in which global capitalism is immersed, even though it tries to hide it.
How long can we keep this up?The global urban-agro-industrial system reportedly has an ecological footprint of 2.2 hectares per person, which means a deficit of 0.53 hectares. Put another way, it has an overshoot of 0.53 hectares per person given that the world’s bio-capacity is 1.67 hectares per person, taking into account the different land covers and current world population. The report “Our common future,” published back in 1987, first made known that the planet’s bio-capacity was being exceeded.
This global ecological deficit is offset by over-exploiting existing natural resources (consuming them faster than they can be regenerated) by using fossil fuels to appropriate and metabolize them, as bio-capacity can’t be imported from outside the planet. Except for certain meteorites that come in once in a while, the biosphere is a closed ecosystem in material terms, but it is open in terms of energy, as we make use of the Sun’s energy that reaches us every day and allows for life on Earth.
The global urban-agro-industrial system thus appears to be growing—at least temporarily—above the planet’s bio-capacity, ever more intensely exhausting the resource base that sustains it. Monetary capital is thus increasing at the expense of “natural capital.” Although we don’t like using this term, we do so to show the absurdity of what’s happening. The big problem, as anyone can see, is to know how much longer it’ll be possible to continue in this way. Drawing on a film image: we seem now to be in a situation similar to that portrayed in the Marx Brothers film Go West, when they merrily rode through the prairies on a steam locomotive feeding the engine with wood from the train’s cars until they end up riding on the chassis…
The ecological debt the North is accruingNot all countries or all social sectors consume the same bio-capacity. The central areas—specifically their urban-metropolitan centers, particularly their middle classes and especially their elites—absorb and squander the most bio-capacity, by and large increasingly importing it from the rest of the world and also increasingly using this same rest of the world as a sinkhole for their waste.
Resource importation has been since capitalism started expanding globally and especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, increasing to incredible levels in the 20th century through the possibilities of the technological mega-machine, which include motorized transport that runs on fossil fuels. Ghandi already denounced it in the mid 20th century, saying that if the people of India were to consume the same quantity of resources (per person) as is gobbled up by those in Great Britain, we’d need three planets. Perhaps he exaggerated a little in his metaphor, but he aimed at the heart of the matter.
If at the turn of the new millennium “average world citizens” were consuming anything like their US counterparts, they’d be consuming six planets, which is impossible. If that “average person” were from the European Union, it would be two and a half planets, the same as Japan.
This forces us to emphasize that the North has been racking up an enormous ecological debt with the South, without which it is impossible to understand the “development” of global capitalism’s central areas. It is a debt accumulated from centuries of pillaging resources, failing to repair environmental damage, paying little or nothing to use environmental space to deposit waste, undermining food sovereignty, dumping pollutants… The North is even responsible for the impacts of today’s climate change. In fact, there’s now talk of climate debt as well.
Little by little, new emerging players are also aggressively starting to act like capitalist sub-centers, some already with enough power to demand and obtain global environmental space, having already exceeded their own countries’ bio-capacity. China is the most significant case, which is why it’s importing “sustainability” from other areas of the world’s South (Latin America, Africa and Asia).
Islands of order in an ocean of disorderUntil quite recently the heirs of the old central empire were always supplied from the existing bio-diversity within their borders. But over the past few decades they’ve been forced to cross their frontiers—through investment and commercial mechanisms, not yet directly military—to obtain or buy planetary bio-capacity. The same is true of emerging capitalist sub-centers, justifying the conclusion that on a world scale centers are created—especially urban-metropolitan ones—with an apparent order, importing “sustainability” at the cost of generating a growing world disorder or entropy. Only 10% of the Earth’s natural surface areas are reportedly “virgin” today and 50% are already changed by human activities, especially by the urban-agro-industrial system. They are islands of fictitious order that are starting to become increasingly apparent in a worldwide ocean of ecological disorder of anthropogenic origin.
Ramón Fernandéz Durán, an engineer and urbanist, is a member of Ecologists in Action and a university professor. This text, plus the first two already published in previous issues and those we plan to publish in coming editions form the nucleus of his forthcoming book on the crisis of global capitalism and the foreseeable collapse of civilization.