Pope Francis recently met with a delegation of Pacific leaders urging leaders to curb heat-trapping emissions and blasting “shortsighted human activity” for global warming, rising sea levels, and the overfishing and pollution of the oceans.
There is no question curbing heat-trapping emissions is critical in helping our earth’s natural systems remain in balance, but what about soil erosion, water scarcity, deforestation, loss of natural habitat, increasing extinction rates, depletion of fisheries, and the pollution in the waters, on the land and in the air?
Does the Pope understand the common thread and upstream cause of all this ecological devastation? He should….
To demonstrate to the world that faith and science are inextricably linked AND compatible with church teachings, the Catholic Church established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the mid- 19th century. Today, that venerable organization is made up of approximately 80 scientists from around the world, a quarter, on average, of whom are Nobel laureates.
In conjunction with the Pontifical Council for the Family, which consists of an international group of Bishops and Cardinals, the Academy and Council issued a report in 1994 entitled Population and Resources which detailed the results of human interaction with the natural world, including resource extraction, food production, and water use, along with various other global economic, social, cultural and educational trends. Their report concluded:
“It does not seem possible that population can grow indefinitely in the long term. With the capacity humans have acquired to control sickness and death, which will plausibly increase, it is now consequently unthinkable to sustain indefinitely a birthrate beyond 2.3 children per couple to guarantee replacement. The contrary demographic consequences would be unsustainable to the point of absurdity…. Given the long-term consequences created by the decline of mortality, there is an inescapable need for global containment of births, which must be met with scientific and economic progress and all the intellectual and moral energies of mankind to assure respect, equity, and social justice among all parts of the planet, and between present and future generations.”
Scientists agree we are consuming our global resources far faster than the ability of the earth to regenerate or absorb the wastes created from that consumption. We would have to cut global consumption in half in order to give our natural systems and the species that depend on them a fighting chance.
As global standards of living improve, it is only human nature for all of us to want to live a better life, eat a better diet, have reliable electricity, affordable transportation, and comfortable shelter. If the Pope truly wants to lead us down a more just, peaceful and prosperous path, it means (unlike his predecessors) adopting his own Pontifical Academy’s findings and shouting unabashedly to the world that human numbers matter, matter a lot, and that the Church embraces a small family ethic.
As reported in the Associated Press on October 5th 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ceased internal production of livestock feed and wheat due to water scarcity. Food and water security are a major strategic challenge for the middle eastern country, resulting in strategic trade deals with Russia to import feed for Saudi livestock.
In the same week, 200 miles across the Red Sea, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi, the President of Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Egypt stated “Terrorism and population growth are the two biggest threats in Egypt’s history.”
Egypt’s President didn’t hide behind an environmental term like “water scarcity” and used brutally frank language to make the connection between overpopulation and the pressures being placed on the country’s natural resources. Pressures that Global Footprint Network (GFN), an organization that monitors Country’s biocapacity and consumption, are causing an ecological overshoot of the Egypt’s resources by 150%.
Modern Day Cairo
Does the U.S. have similar strategic interests that are affected by our population and the consumption of its citizens? The short answer is yes. In fact, the same organization, GFN, indicates the 320 million U.S. citizens overshoot our ability to live within the means of our country’s resources by almost 2 ½ times what it can provide. If our population numbers were aligned with our current consumption of goods, the U.S. would claim no more than 140 million citizens.
What does this situation mean strategically for our country? It means the more our population grows, the more we become dependent on resources from outside our country and the greater the chances of a conflict arising by relying on other countries to satisfy our needs. And unlike Egypt and Saudi Arabia our expectation of “needs” is far greater based on our Western way of life.
If U.S. leadership had the foresight, they would, like Egypt’s president, acknowledge the threat that our population numbers and consumption poses to our national security and take steps to educate Americans about the importance of reducing our numbers to ensure a safe and sustainable future for our children.
Today, August 2 marks Earth Overshoot Day. A day that represents when all 7.5 Billion people on our planet have used up the resources that the earth can naturally regenerate every year.
Tomorrow, August 3, according to The Global Footprint Network, an organization that studies the bio capacity of the earth, we start eating into the principle of the Earth for the rest of the year.
Global Footprint Network tracks every country’s use of six categories of productive surface areas: cropland, grazing land, fishing grounds, built-up land, forest area, and carbon demand on land.
From their exhaustive calculations, and beginning in the 1970’s, they discovered the Earth was no longer able to generate all of the resources our populations collectively consume, including fish, wood, water, plants, animals, and other goods, nor absorb the resulting carbon dioxide emissions. Each year, the date of overshoot has crept earlier and earlier, and is now up to August 2. Another way to look at this is it is like the earth is a huge savings account. Until the 1970’s, the earth was able to provide enough resources (interest) for our population to live off.
Thereafter, as population and consumption grew, we began consuming all of the annual interest and eat into the principle. A good example would be our fisheries. If managed judiciously, fish stocks can more than naturally replace themselves from what we harvest each year. Unfortunately, as reported by the United Nations 2015, 90% of our fisheries worldwide are now being fished to capacity, overfished, or in total collapse.
How long can we go on overshooting? No one knows. What we do know is, unless there is a drastic reduction in population and consumption nature will respond, perhaps gradually or maybe unexpectedly and violently.
The Earth acts in many ways like a giant respiratory system. It naturally transpires approximately 750 billion tons of CO2 every year. On its own, the natural emission and absorption of CO2 is a fairly balanced process. However, humans contribute another 30 Billion tons of CO2 per year, an additional 4%, through burning fossil fuels.
Regardless of politics, scientific fact shows that the additional CO2 being expelled into the atmosphere by humans has increased the amount of carbon in the sky from an average fluctuation of 180 to 280 parts per million over the past 800,000 years to 400 parts per million now. That number has no precedent in the last 800,000 years, and it is climbing steadily. Much of the dispute over global warming questions whether the increase of CO2 in our atmosphere is really responsible for increased temperatures. This argument suggests that warming is a geologic process that ebbs and flows over vast periods of time, and that the current increase in carbon in the atmosphere just happens to coincide with this natural cycle.
Beyond the controversy regarding warming and the atmosphere, there is a second, overlooked effect that the annual 30 billion additional tons of CO2 is having on the Earth’s environment: it is dangerously altering the earth’s oceans.
CO2 is not weightless, and it eventually falls to the Earth’s surface. Normally, when CO2 lands on the surface in the waters of the ocean, much of it is photosynthesized by algae. However, because of the excess amounts of CO2 falling into the ocean due to human output, scientists have found that more and more is instead combining with water molecules to form a carbonic acid, H2CO3. The result is that the oceans are becoming more acidic, which in turn disrupts sea creatures’ abilities to live and thrive all along the food web. Unless the amount of CO2 entering the oceans is reduced, or more can be absorbed by algae, by the end of the century, the Earth’s oceans are predicted to become acidic enough that most sea life as we now know it will be unrecognizable, or dead.
Each American’s annual share of CO2 pollution per capita is 20 tons, or approximately 5.5 tons of carbon per person (stripping away the oxygen, Carbon is 27% of the atomic mass of CO2). In concrete terms, that means each person creates enough to fill five pickup trucks with carbon dust every year. All that carbon is filling our skies and descending on our land, and in our waters. It’s illegal to just throw your trash onto the street, into rivers, or into the oceans. Why then are we allowed to burn carbon fuels and pollute for free?