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What are the causes of the degradation of the biosphere?
Answer to the question asked by Tanya, our site's visitor, on December, 25th, 2005.
There is a single cause of the degradation of the biosphere. Everything else is but its consequences. This cause is the unacceptably high population number of people on Earth.
People have been destroying the biosphere at all times. The modern deserts of Australia, Africa, Central Asia, North and South America appeared due to the human-induced deforestation of the continents over tens of thousand years. However, this most dramatic in its consequences biospheric degradation occurred at a slow pace unnoticeable during the life span of a single generation. Modern rates of biospheric degradation are catastrophic. The various elements of this degradation are intruding our every day life. In order to slow this degradation down to the degree when it is unnoticeable by a particular generation, it is necessary to cut down global population numbers by at least tenfold. The stationary stable state of the biosphere with slowly recovering biospheric functions is only possible if the global human population numbers are reduced hundredfold.
Several things should be emphasized. First, the current global population number of humans, over 6 billion people, is absolutely prohibitive with respect to the task of stopping the degradation of the biosphere. Second, the degradation can be ultimately stopped via the radical, hundredfold reduction of population numbers, if only the modern humanity takes on a scientifically sound approach in their interactions with the biosphere. On the other hand, even if the global human population numbers are dramatically reduced, but we people continue the present-day illiterate practices of interacting with the biosphere, in particular, with the natural forests, the biosphere will be destroyed anyway. Appearance of continent-scale deserts during the time period when humans were by far not as numerous as they are today proves the latter statement. This point finalizes the shortest possible answer to the posed question. The text below briefly expands and justifies the statements made so far.
Reduction of global human population numbers is a very complex problem. Let alone to solve the problem, it is even difficult to make people face it. These difficulties are grounded in the genetically programmed instincts of the human being. If the human behaviour, similarly to the behaviour of all other biological species, were dictated by instincts only, either setting or attempting to solve this problem would be meaningless and all in vain. The humanity would have inevitably destroyed the biosphere and perished like many other biological species of the past.
However, Homo sapiens differs from the other species in being in possession of a unique intellect, which, in principle, allows people to be conscious of their instincts, control them and oppose them if the instincts dictate a destructive behaviour. This fact alone fosters hope for a positive solution of the problem of preserving the biosphere and life on Earth. The question that you posed, too, testifies to the reality of such a hope.
The unique human intellect is associated with another unique human property, the ability of accumulating cultural heritage. Cultural information accumulated by one generation of humans can be transmitted to the next generation, while in other species the transmission process is largely confined to passing the genetic information from parents to the offspring. The unique human ability of accumulating cultural heritage is supported by the equally unique social habit of our species, which is genetically fixed. As dictated by the relevant instinct, human beings seek the company of their conspecifics; it is through this communication that the acquired knowledge (culture) spreads in the population and is transmitted to the following generations. All these properties rendered the human society unprecedentedly competitive in the biosphere. Man proved to be able to suppress and force out any other biological species. In modern times, the inherent human need for communication is often satisfied in rather primitive ways, e.g., taking the form of local gossiping about the neighbours or collective drug use by the young. Such degenerated "communication" can increase or decrease the prestige of particular people, but diminishes the competitiveness of the society as a whole.
Until now, the humanity have been using their intellectual advantage to enhance the anthropogenic pressure on the biosphere, which led to the increase in population numbers. Cultural and scientific achievements have been traditionally merited from the point of view of their efficiency with respect to colonization of the biosphere. Any cautions that the biosphere can be irreversibly destroyed, shy as they were, were opposed and suppressed by the firm faith that the biosphere can be safely substituted by a technosphere which would be similarly or even better satisfying the human needs. This faith is not grounded in the intellect. It is based on the instinct of eliminating the weakest, an instinct common to all species of the biosphere. Weakness is a manifestation of decay, malformation, which should be eliminated to maintain the high orderliness of life. Thus, the only attitude which could cause people to realize the necessity of restoring and preserving the biosphere, is to scientifically demonstrate them their own weaknesses in the face of the colossal biospheric power.
Indeed, we people cannot prevent the on-going shallowing of rivers and lakes, large-scale fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. Now we know that the natural undisturbed forests easily manage these important tasks, provided they cover extensive, continent-scale areas. We also know that the climate of Earth is maintained in a state suitable for life by the controlling functioning of the natural biota, which is composed by natural terrestrial and marine ecological communities. Without biotic control, the climate of Earth would spontaneously run either to a state similar to Mars (i.e. extreme cold) or to a Venus-like state (extremely high temperatures). The biotic regulation of climate and environment is based on the genetic programs of a dozen of million biological species inhabiting the biosphere. The flux of information processed by all living cells of the biosphere - natural computers - exceeds the flux of information processed in all computers (including Internet) of the modern civilization by 20 orders of magnitude (unity with twenty zeroes). The biotic flux of information can never be replicated by technology.
Suppose that you agree with what you have just read, but what to do, what should one devote his or her life to? The answer is unambiguous: it is necessary to think rather than remain in the power of blind instincts. In the modern society it can well appear that the most efficient actions are those undertaken in most unusual directions and demanding much courage and moral strength. And first of all, it is necessary to maximize the participation of women in solving these problems; women, who have been so far remained the most intellectually suppressed part of the humanity; women, who are directly responsible for the growth of population numbers.
As we have learnt from history, either the most devastating wars, epidemics or revolutions shaking the civilization's pillars cannot limit the growth of population numbers, on the contrary, they even stimulate and accelerate it. Therefore, it is obvious that to stop the degradation of the biosphere and to restore the state of the biosphere suitable for life as a whole and the human life in the first place, it is necessary to limit the birth rates. And this is the most complex problem.
Various states and countries - modern structural units of the global human society - maintain their high internal organization in the process of competing with each other. In the past, countries featuring largest population numbers used to be most competitive. They could form the largest military troops and supply these troops with modern arms produced by the large number of the country's citizens. Those social structural units, where population density remained stable, as in all other biological species except humans, could not withstand the increasing pressure of the societies with rapidly growing populations. However, population growth within the borders of a single country violates the basic, genetically programmed, inherent need of humans - large animals - to be in the possession of large individual territories (home ranges). Therefore, population growth has been always yielding various attempts of extending the country's borders and invasion of new territories.
In the distant past of the human history, new territories were acquired at the expense of forcing out and eliminating other animal species originally occupying those territories; obviously, this also resulted in the degradation of the biosphere. Thus, Homo sapiens, who originated in Africa, spread all over the globe. And everywhere the human expansion was accompanied by elimination of the natural species of plants and animals, desertification of entire continents (Australia) or their significant parts (in Africa, Asia and the Americas). At the same time, where the aboriginal human societies managed to stabilize their population density (e.g., the Papuans, North American and Amazonian Indians, peoples living in the Far North of Russia and Canada and the Far East of Russia, aborigines of New Zealand and the non-degraded parts of Australia), the biosphere was saved from complete degradation.
However, the rapid population growth in Western Europe, medieval Mongolia and Central Asia resulted in the military occupation of territories inhabited by peoples who traditionally maintained stable population numbers. The history of world wars supports this statement with vivid images: aggressive wars in the times of Ancient Greece (e.g., Alexander of Macedonia), Ancient Rome (e.g., Cesar), the medieval Central Asia (e.g., Timur), the medieval overseas expansion of the growing European population into Africa, North and South America. In the XXth century this process took the form of the two most devastating world wars ever plaguing the planet. Everywhere and at all times in the result of the wars the aboriginal peoples were either totally exterminated or deprived of their territory and enslaved, with an aggressively imposed alien life style. Today, the nuclear weapon balance of the major powers has made large-scale wars impossible. The modern face of the ancient war for territories is the face of terrorism.
Thus, historically, the European culture still conquering the world and owing its seeming prosperity to large population numbers, contains elements of panic awe with respect to any possibilities of stabilisation or reduction of population numbers. The process of depopulation is considered as death of the nation and is related to the notion of genocide.
Population growth make the economic growth a must. On the other hand, economic growth facilitates population growth. The military and economic expansion of nations with growing populations leads to degradation of the biosphere in those regions where it was still maintained in a relatively intact, stationary state by the indigenous peoples with stable population numbers. Total elimination of the natural forests of Western Europe, including the Ukraine, has not resulted in a complete desertification of the European sub-continent thanks to its unique geographic situation, with numerous inner seas and jagged oceanic coastline. However, as soon as the "culture" of deforestation was exported to the rest of the world occupied by the Europeans, this immediately facilitated irreversible desertification on the other continents.
Modern civilization has covered the continental part of the planet with the birthmarks of modern cities - megalopolises. Individual territories of human beings have been reduced to the size of apartments or even rooms. While the social instinct of the human being and his need in communication is being satisfied, modern civilization comes in conflict with the basic human claim for controlling a large individual territory, the size of which is genetically programmed in the human genome, as is the case with all other animals of the biosphere. The worst of punishments, excluding the death penalty, is when the human being is for many years confined to a prison cell. To retain mental health and to compensate, at least partially, the tragic loss of individual territories, people have to move all the time across large territories despite these are no longer their own. This is manifested in continuous, seemingly meaningless movements of people using private or communal transport. Instinctively, people choose the place of their work to be situated a while away from their home, to have a "lawful" opportunity of moving there and back every day. The passion for tourism is grounded in the same instinct. As far as the instinct of possessing a large individual territory cannot be satisfied, modern people try to sublimate the shortage of fundamental positive emotions by enhancing the satisfaction of other instincts, including the instinct for the social communication. This is manifested as multi-thousand meetings, carnivals, massive pilgrimages, etc.
These apparent manifestations of unsatisfied natural instincts are never observed in those indigenous societies who maintain stable low population numbers and provide each person with a necessary larger individual territory. However, the "Western" culture fostered by Europeans has spread almost everywhere on Earth, so it is almost impossible to find areas with non-growing population. Human sociality, similarly to the social habits of other social animals, produces a situation when a large territory is commonly owned by all members of the social group. Group size should also be genetically programmed; judging from the sustainable indigenous societies, normal group size in humans does not exceed several hundred individuals. All members of such a group are able to know each other very well, they speak one dialect and together protect their common territory against intruders, in competitive interaction with other social groups. Most closely, this genetically programmed instinct is satisfied in the countryside, where people adhere to the ancient rural lifestyle. However, rural social groups have never been able to compete with the social groups of large cities, who are in command of huge armies and economic resources.
All said above illustrates the inherent complexity of the task of reducing the global population numbers down to a level when the degradation of the biosphere could be stopped and its recovery initiated. We stress once again that this could be only achieved via reduction of birth rates, which should include transition to the one-family-one-child demographic pattern with a large part of the society voluntarily refraining from reproduction altogether. The mutely accepted and widely spread, as if it were self-evident, opinion that such a scenario is impossible for a variety of (1) economic, (2) military and (3) ethical reasons, proves to be groundless as soon as it is exposed to an elementary logical analysis.
(1) The main economic burden imposed on the society is the burden of raising the children. Children cannot prevent being born and are not responsible for coming into existence. The modern society should stop bringing children to life where the inherent, basic human needs cannot be satisfied. The society must bring up and educate children under conditions when their natural instincts/needs are satisfied, which first of all implies providing them with appropriate individual territory. Until aged 15 years, all children demand educative care and huge economic investments, in order to become normal members of the society when adults. In contrast, most old people of the modern society retain the ability to work and sustain themselves practically until their very death. The widely adopted old age pension system, when an elderly person receives pension and is freed from social labour irrespective of his or her health status, contradicts the human nature. Healthy humans are predisposed to work. Therefore, the pension age can be increased to any level compatible with the economic needs of the society.
(2) Nuclear weapons created in the XXth century dispense the need for a large army with a huge number of soldiers. Contract army with a small number of highly qualified specialists can ensure the safety of any modern country.
(3) Finally, from the ethical point of view, it is not antihuman to refrain from giving birth to numerous children who will be deprived of normal life conditions during both childhood and adulthood. (But uncontrolled reproduction is indeed a crime against humanity.) Refraining from excessive reproduction is a normal process regulating population numbers of all natural species of the biosphere.
To conclude, reduction of birth rates cannot cause any extra economic, military of ethical problems to the modern society.
Human instincts were formed in, and correspond to, the undisturbed biosphere. If the biosphere degrades, they cannot be satisfied. Therefore, the task of stopping degradation and initiating recovery of the biosphere should have the highest priority in human activities, along with conservation of the true cultural achievements of the civilization. This task is real. But it can only be solved if we people make use of all the scientific and cultural knowledge acquired by the modern civilization, which was born in Europe and spread over the globe, unfortunately, just at the expense of the degradation of the biosphere.
Anastassia Makarieva, Victor Gorshkov