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Updated 05 July 2008

The biosphere we share with all other species is some 20 miles thick and spans the girth of the globe. It is not so vast that it cannot be disturbed; it can even be destroyed. Not since a bolide (mini asteroid) ended the reign of the dinosaurs, has the biosphere been presented a challenge like that of civilization. This human-made challenge is chemical and biological instead of physical. By burning coal, oil, and gas we release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which are now driving a global temperature increase. By deforestation and processing chemicals, civilization is driving thousands of species to extinction. Will and Ariel Durant provide an Historical Perspective into civilization.

Here we examine some physical limits to civilization.

"The balance between mouths and food will be maintained in the future,
as in the past, by famine, pestilence, and war."
Thomas Malthus

"Man, not Earth, makes civilization."
"Total perspective is an optical illusion."
"Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution."
Will & Ariel Durant

By releasing certain chemicals into the atmosphere, civilization has altered the ozone layer that protects life from deadly ultraviolet rays from the sun. By releasing other chemicals into the environment, civilization has introduced disease into numerous pockets all over the world. These, along with the potential for an atomic holocaust, have put the biosphere itself at risk. Life on earth is vulnerable like never before. For example, civilization now removes 20% more resources from the biosphere than is naturally replenished. If everyone on earth lived at the level of the average American, the removal rate would be 300% greater than natural replenishment. Being an actual documented fact, it is now an historic perspective, unique to our age; it is here and it is now.

Yet we Americans, as a whole, are doing little to protect, much less salvage our future. Making war simply moves any solution further off the table. And that is not all. Under the guise of catchy phrases like "Clear Skies," "No Child Left Behind," and "Healthy Forests," the current Administration has brought about just the opposite. His "Compassionate Conservatism" is a similar play on words intended to sooth the voters about the intentions of "Big Brother." All were propaganda. For more on that see Seth Schulman's "Undermining Science" where the Bush Administration systematically politicized science throughout the federal government by muzzling scientists whenever their findings conflicted with his particular warped view of the world. When those things did not work, he unilaterally changed the rules in ways to nullify the Clean Air Act, passed under Nixon, and improved upon during the Bush senior administration. As his policies now stand, a utility can replace up to 20% of its generating capacity with old technology without invoking the Clean Air Act.

The allegory of the wine bottle is appropriate. First, you squeeze the grape juice into a vat; then you add yeast and sugar; microbes multiply exponentially consuming sugar and producing alcohol at proportionate rate. Eventually all microbes die in their own effluent— they are not smart enough to eat each other. Malthus was not so wrong. The biosphere is not so vast that the wine-bottle allegory could never happen.

It is true that technology can make a difference. It is also true that our appetites for energy will continue to grow. Electing oil and energy people to high office only makes the problem worse to the detriment of public health. By swallowing nice phrases that mean the opposite, we become complicit. We can do better; we must do better.

To be sure, technology can change these equations. Just as surely there are physical limits. Livable space is limited by the fertility of arable lands, recycling of carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, earth axis precession, and the solar constant. And, the quality of life in that livable space is limited by the fertility of people and their use and misuse of resources. Malthus put it this way: "Population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence."

In fact, it is America's thirst for oil that finds us bogged down in the Middle East. Many Americans may see no connection here with terrorism. We do. Hogging the resources as an economic empire only increases the gaps between the haves and have nots in their competition for resources. The gaps in opportunities are too important to ignore. This is a civilization issue of first magnitude. Terrorism is merely one attempt at redress. Our response cannot be endlessly in kind. Rather, ways must be found for all people to share the biosphere equally and in such ways that are sustainable. With population pressures increasing, it will become increasingly difficult to avoid the desperation, humiliation and alienation that go with over-crowding and hunger. The developing nations will produce most of the projected population growth for this century. The confluence of unstable governance, population growth, terror, and Nuclear Weapons make this a commanding imperative for all people. See Scott Ritter in that regard.

See Crises for notes on the seriousness.


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