There’s More to the Ecological Crisis than Global Warming

It’s been my experience that any time environmental issues are brought up in political contexts, the conversation immediately goes to Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) and stays there. Tell someone you are an environmentalist or that you focus on environmental issues and I can practically guarantee that they assume you focus on CO2 reduction and the expansion of renewable energy.

And this is all well and good. AGW is an unimaginably terrible problem that is growing worse every year even while it accelerates. Contrary to what even good-climate-change-believing liberals will tell you, it severity is almost ubiquitously underestimated, and it will cause untold damage to our civilization and the biosphere if we don’t do something about it yesterday.

What is important to note, though, is that while Climate Change may be the ecological crisis that is going to kill us all the soonest, it is far from the only such crisis. Even if we were to convert to 100% renewable energy this afternoon , the crisis would not be past.

In fact, Scientists from various disciplines have come up with a list of what they call the “Nine Planetary Boundaries” — Earth systems which must be kept within certain favorable ranges for human civilization to be able to survive. While the inclusion/exclusion of specific items on the list can be debated, and putting aside for the moment questions of whether healthy parameters for any of the other millions of species that share the planet were considered, the Boundaries framework underscores the point that AGW is only part of the problem.

Rockström et al. Nature (2009) and Richard Morin/Solutions

I’ve already briefly discussed the Biodiversity Crisis in a recent piece on Progressive Army, please check it out if you haven’t already. Here I want to briefly discuss a few of the other ways our global civilization is pushing these limits, specifically water use, land use (in the form of soil degradation) and the biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen and phosphorous).

Water is Life

If you’ve never taken an environmental science class, you may not realize just how little water in the Earth System is actually freshwater available for use. Only 2.5% of Earth’s water is freshwater and of that, only 1% is available outside of glaciers, and not even all of that is easily accessible.

This has been more than enough water to meet the hydration and habitat needs of the biosphere throughout the entire Holocene epoch, until recently. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) calls water scarcity “One of the Greatest Challenges of Our Time”. It is not uncommon to hear how a multi-year drought was a substantial contributing factor to The Syrian Civil War, or how the resource wars of the future will be fought over water. And while the water crisis is undoubtedly unevenly severe, scientists are beginning to agree that it is an issue which requires a global outlook and solutions.

Isn’t the solution obvious though? Can’t we just restrict our water use like they do in California already? Unfortunately no.

If every person in the world stopped using water personally, stopped showering, stopped washing their clothes, stopped watering their garden, even stopped drinking glasses of water, we would reduce global water use by a whopping 3.5%. The vast VAST majority (92%) of water is used for industrial agricultural production — you eat more water than you drink.

A large part of this is the diet we eat, heavy in water-intensive meat and crops like soy. These foods are heavily subsided and make up a ridiculous percentage of global food production.

The vast majority of farms use wasteful irrigation techniques, basically because they are easier. Sprinkler irrigation, far and away the most common form of irrigation in industrial agriculture, is only 30–40% efficient, meaning that industrial farmers must use two to three times as much water as is needed, and upwards of 70% of the water evaporates or is otherwise wasted, never making it in to the crops. The USDA recently estimated 96% of US farmland is irrigated using these kind of inefficient practices.

Of the water not claimed by global industrial agriculture, most of the rest is used by industry. Many products require water to make, but much of industrial water use is for cooling equipment. This may not seem like it would be damaging to ecosystems, but water that has been heated by the industrial equipment it is used to cool is often returned directly to the stream or river it was taken from. Marine freshwater organisms require very specific temperature ranges to survive and this water use can push the ecosystem’s heat outside the healthy parameters. Beyond that, hotter water holds less oxygen, another factor leading to loss of life in freshwater ecosystems. Removing vegetation from the edges of streams exacerbates this problem.

All of what I’ve written above only accounts for what might be called “benign” uses of freshwater. Further exacerbating the water crisis is industrial pollution, erosion and dam construction, which could each be handled in their own piece and have their own adverse effects on marine ecosystems and human water access.

Soil is Life

Man, despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication and many accomplishments, owes the fact of his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains. ~ John Jeavons

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself ~ FDR

If few realize the extent of the Freshwater Crisis, fewer still grasp the extent of the other crisis happening literally under our feet — Soil Degradation.

Topsoil is the first few inches of soil under our feet, it is a combination of minerals from the weathered rock below, and organic substances from the life above. It is in this layer that the vast majority of all plant roots reside, including those of our agricultural crops. This resource is not renewable within a human lifetime, it can take a thousand years to build a single centimeter of topsoil and global industrial capitalist society is currently destroying it at the rate of over 7,000 square meters per minute. We have used up half of the Earth’s topsoil in the past 150 years.

This has led some scientists to make the apocalyptic prediction that we have only 60 harvests left.

The most readily perceivable of soil degradation processes is erosion. Arable land is literally being blown away by the wind or washed away by rain. Erosion occurs when there is no crop cover to hold the topsoil in place, as in areas that have been heavily deforested or on the huge tracts of land that grow annual monocultures during the warm months but lay barren during the winter. If those monocultures aren’t rotated yearly, or if they are of heavy feeding crops like corn and soy, it is possible for them to use up all of the available nutrients in the soil, turning once-living landscapes into functional deserts — a process called desertification.

Soil compaction occurs when all of the tiny pores of oxygen and water are squeezed out of soil that has been walked over too much by humans or other animals (most often livestock confined to a CAFO or small range), or rolled over by heavy machinery. When the soil is compacted too much, it becomes very difficult for plant roots to get the oxygen and water they need and production is reduced.

The combination of these first two crises , of freshwater and arable soil, cannot be overstated. We’re fast approaching a point where agriculture, especially agriculture as we know it today, will become impossible. If this happens the social unrest of the past decade will pale in comparison to what is to come. Those who insist industrial agriculture is necessary to feed the world will have to explain how barreling toward a point where the most basic ingredients of agriculture — soil and water — are no longer available is a viable strategy.

Nitrogen & Phosphorus are Death

The issue of soil nutrient depletion, in the global capitalist age, is solved by pulling nitrogen out of the atmosphere and mining phosphorus out of the Earth to create synthetic fertilizers. However, as is the wont of industrial agriculture, these fertilizers are typically applied in great excess and with little regard to the consequences. Thus, a great deal of the fertilizers aren’t taken up by the plants, but rather washed into nearby bodies of water.

When excess Nitrogen and Phosphorus enter a marine environment, they act like fertilizers for the algae that live there, a process called “eutrophication” (literally “a lot of nutrients”) causing huge population explosions known as algal blooms. Sometimes these algae are directly toxic to humans and marine life, but even when they are not themselves toxic, they can block light from reaching submerged vegetation and increase the pH of the surrounding water, leading to the deaths of countless marine organisms.

An algal bloom in the Chesapeake Bay

But the most deadly aspect of eutrophication occurs after the algea die. The dead algae are quickly decomposed by microbial life which uses up all the oxygen in the surrounding environment, creating what is known as a “dead zone” — an area with low or no oxygen where no life can survive. Every year multiple dead zones appear in bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay in the US, as well as off the coasts of heavily populated and industrialized countries, mostly in the global North.

Global dead zones map by NASA

No System but the Ecosystem

As Leftists, we need to make clear that global industrial capitalist civilization is inherently devastating to the biosphere, even if it’s carbon-neutral. Solar panels and wind farms, while necessary, are not going to stop the Biodiversity Crisis, the Freshwater Crisis, the Soil Crisis or the Biogeochemical Crises the Earth is facing.

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

The above quote, attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, is really going to be put to the test. A world with no industrial agriculture and no global capitalism, isn’t within the realm of possibility, as far as mainstream discourse is concerned. Goals such as these are considered “utopian” or “unrealistic”. But what could be more unrealistic than ignoring the the existential crises in front of us, simply because their solutions are incompatible with your ideas of how the world (by which they mean, of course, human civilization, not the Earth) should work? What could be more utopian than a dream that allows for limitless growth and accumulation, while staying within very finite planetary limits?

The solution so far seems to be to ignore the problems, and the wider civilizational dysfunction they point to. This can’t last forever. Eventually things will start to really fall apart. If we don’t start formulating a vision of a new world now, it’ll be too late. We can’t wait for any one of these crises to come to a head before we deal with it. We on the Left need to formulate the vision of a new world that can meet the needs of the human species, including those in future generations, while meeting the needs of our land base, our non-human neighbors, and the planet as a whole.



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Social ecologist and library socialist in Salem Oregon. Writing about ecosociopolitical issues.