Earth’s Nine Lives

Darkness and Light, Earth and Sky
Image by fred1st via Flickr

It is as if we are waking from a long, drugged sleep, from a dream we’ve perpetuated by will because the waking truth was both beyond our grasp to understand and beyond our willingness to accept. Now, we can no longer plead ignorance. And there is no going back to a numb unconsciousness.

Mankind has touched and mostly despoiled every living system on Earth, even as, in an increasing number of areas, we become able to measure that change and project how close we are to the edge. [yesterday’s post about European overfishing was a case in point.] The planet is not infinitely resilient, and we are pushing our limits dangerously close on many fronts.

We can now go a long way towards quantifying the planet’s health, and nine tipping points beyond which we must not go have been developed over a number of years by ecologist-economists like Robert Costanza. Here are the recommended planetary “boundaries” we must not exceed: climate change, biodiversity loss, excess nitrogen and phosphorus production, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global consumption of freshwater, change in land use for agriculture, air pollution, and chemical pollution. See also NewScientist

You come back from the doctor with complete blood work. There are parameters that say one blood chemical or other measure is outside of healthy limits. You cut back on cholesterol, reduce salt intake, get more exercise. You want to live a healthy life. These planetary boundaries are like your doctor’s report telling all of us we had better change our ways–or at least be knowledgeable of approaching limits–if we want to pass on a healthy planet to those who come after us.

My hope is that, with this growing ability to gauge our impact on specific life support systems of Earth, we will do the right thing in time to prevent the activities of ONE species–our own–from doing irrevocable harm to the biosphere.

My concern is that we cannot do this without collaboration at the largest levels–including governments, non-profits, state agencies and a broad swath of human communities acting as if our lives depended on it. Given we are operating in a time such that we can’t ruin one place and move to a new one, the unrestrained freedoms of a pioneer society are necessarily past.

This desperate need for working for the common good comes at a time when there is strident opposition to anything that diminishes individual rights. While we might understand the fears of change, we can’t let our focus be diverted from the measurable givens of the best tools we have at our disposal. We can’t let the received wisdom of conspiracy therorists take precedent over the most accurate measures of the real threats we face.

I’ll be focusing more on the eco-economic realities we are finally beginning to confront on a broad front and in ways that can make a difference. There is light up ahead. That’s where I’ll be putting my energy, even if others chose to spend theirs cursing the darkness.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Your intent to post examples of the light up ahead is a very good plan. I am so encouraged by these developments, and I think all your readers will be, too. When it looks like we’ve got a winning team, lots more will want to be a part of it, I believe. Despair never got anyone moving.

  2. Many of us here in Europe are adopting ‘greener’ lifestyles , have been for years, decades in my case, and that is heartening, but still we come up against the sceptics who claim that Climate Change is a corporate and government con and they make me despair.

    Your friend David over at making ripples is one such person.

    Until we convince everyone that it makes good housekeeping sense to protect the planet and her resources things will only get worse

    Tell me, are you also suffering the heatwave that has struck the USA?

  3. Nearby, records are being set, both for daytime highs and record high night time low temps–which for us without air conditioning, makes for a less pleasant next day. Happily, we live in a deep sheltered valley where we are sometimes 10-12 degrees cooler than Roanoke, 30 miles east and 1000 feet lower.

    Yes, it’s a real disappointment to discover some of our local folks’ true nature. They have some good qualities, most of them, but demanding an objective truth to stand on is not one of them.

  4. Amazing but true….My congresswoman down here in North Carolina states that she is a global warming skeptic because of a 1975 NY Times article that expressed fear of global cooling. In reality, the article stated that climate change was imminent but scientists at that time weren’t sure if it was going to get cooler (due to CFC) or warmer (due to CO2). Of course, the finer print in the article stated that 90% believed it was going to get warmer. The article is used by the nay-sayers as a red herring to deflect the reality of the issue.

    “Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize that we can’t eat money.”
    – Cree Indian proverg

  5. The above Cree Indian Proverb is one I think about often. It’s already happening, isn’t it?
    Thanks so much for the “9 Planetary Boundaries” link Fred. I like that the visual charts and tables that the ecologist-economists created are powerful, succinct, and easily reproducible. I hope to see these 9 categories become part of a common lexicon that everyday citizens, industries, and law-makers can all use when making decisions. I hesitate to say “decisions that affect our environment”, because don’t all decisions affect our environment (thereby directly affecting ourselves)? I wish people would stop acting like humans were hurting “the environment” as if it were a separate entity. We’re composed of the stuff in the environment, so in essence we’re hurting ourselves!!
    Also, kudos to the ecologist-economists for somehow managing to begin measuring each of the 9 planetary boundaries in quantifiable ways. I believe these measurements will send a clear message to a world that has come to be so data-driven. As unpoetic as they might seem, numbers are, afterall, a universal language. As Fred mentioned in his article, we often continue bad habits despite our physical symptoms until the numbers on the bloodwork conjole us to do otherwise.