Food Supply, Climate Change, Population: Stabilizing Tipping Points in Nature

We are in a race between tipping points in nature and our political systems. The risk is that the consequences of accumulating problems — population, poverty, climate — will overwhelm more and more governments, leading to widespread state failure and, eventually, the failure of civilization.


| Aug. 14, 2009


In recent years, there has been a growing concern over thresholds, or tipping points, in nature. For example, scientists worry about when the shrinking population of an endangered species will fall to the point from which it cannot recover. Marine biologists are concerned about the point at which overfishing will trigger the collapse of a fishery.

We know there were social tipping points in earlier civilizations — points at which they were overwhelmed by the forces threatening them. For instance, at some point, the irrigation-related salt buildup in the Sumerian people’s soil overwhelmed their capacity to deal with it. With the Mayans, there came a time when the effects of cutting too many trees and the associated loss of topsoil were simply more than they could manage.

The social tipping points that lead to decline and collapse when societies are overwhelmed by a single threat or by simultaneous multiple threats are not always easily anticipated. As a general matter, more economically advanced countries can deal with new threats more effectively than developing countries can. For example, while governments of industrial countries have been able to hold HIV infection rates among adults to under 1 percent, many developing-country governments have failed to do so and are now struggling with much higher infection rates. This is most evident in some southern African countries, where up to 20 percent or more of adults are infected.

A similar situation exists with population growth. While populations in nearly all industrial countries except the United States have stopped growing, rapid growth continues in nearly all the countries of Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. Nearly all of the 80 million people being added to the world population each year are born in the countries least able to support them — countries where natural support systems are already deteriorating in the face of excessive population pressure. In these countries, the risk of state failure is growing.

Some issues seem to exceed even the management skills of the more advanced countries, however. When countries first detected falling underground water tables, it was logical to expect that governments in affected countries would quickly raise water use efficiency and stabilize population in order to stabilize aquifers. Unfortunately, not one country — industrial or developing — has done so. Two failing states where overpumping water and security-threatening water shortages loom large are Pakistan and Yemen.

Although the need to cut carbon emissions has been evident for some time, not one country has succeeded in becoming carbon-neutral. Thus far this has proved too difficult politically for even the most technologically advanced societies. Could rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prove to be as unmanageable for our early 21st-century civilization as rising salt levels in the soil were for the Sumerians in 4000 B.C.?

George Works
8/17/2009 3:02:10 PM

Economists speak of the "tragedy of the commons". It's a situation where what is good for each person individually is bad for everyone collectively. The classic example is destroying the village commons by grazing too many cattle on it. Most of the tipping point issues seem to be of this type. I am a big fan of capitalism. Capitalism made it possible for me to retire in comfort on my small farm on a beautiful Caribbean island. But capitalism doesn't deal with the "tragedy of the commons" because nobody owns the commons. Neither do democracies. People don't vote for policies contrary to their individual interests. I really hope that somebody out there knows a solution to this essential problem of civilization, but I've never seen one. And I'm not very optimistic.


21stCenturyTerminus
8/17/2009 12:44:10 PM

All this sort of makes you wonder if conspiracy theorists may have a point. How can so called "World Leaders" carry on portraying a "business as usual" tack when we have the convergence of scenarios threatening our very existence? Are they hoping that people will hang on to the protestant work ethic , glibly thinking that we can buy our way out of this? Lets face it, carbon offsetting is a joke; there is no way any amount of offsetting will counteract the climate change that will inevitably happen due to the lag effect. Please, urge everyone you know to make a stand on December 12th, when the talks at Copenhagen will, one way or another , seal our fate. The Transition Town Network, here in the UK and in other countries too, is trying to alert people to the onset of Peak Oil, now thought to occur between 2013 and 2018. The government here seems to run away from explicit mention of it. Denial will be or downfall. Remember the old Chinese curse....? "May you live in interesting times" Guess we do, eh?


21stCenturyTerminus
8/17/2009 12:43:32 PM

All this sort of makes you wonder if conspiracy theorists may have a point. How can so called "World Leaders" carry on portraying a "business as usual" tack when we have the convergence of scenarios threatening our very existence? Are they hoping that people will hang on to the protestant work ethic , glibly thinking that we can buy our way out of this? Lets face it, carbon offsetting is a joke; there is no way any amount of offsetting will counteract the climate change that will inevitably happen due to the lag effect. Please, urge everyone you know to make a stand on December 12th, when the talks at Copenhagen will, one way or another , seal our fate. The Transition Town Network, here in the UK and in other countries too, is trying to alert people to the onset of Peak Oil, now thought to occur between 2013 and 2018. The government here seems to run away from explicit mention of it. Denial will be or downfall. Remember the old Chinese curse....? "May you live in interesting times" Guess we do, eh?






mother earth news fair 2018 schedule

MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR

Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Whether you want to learn how to grow and raise your own food, build your own root cellar, or create a green dream home, come out and learn everything you need to know — and then some!

LEARN MORE



Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

Money-Saving Tips in Every Issue!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).


Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard


Copyright 2018, All Rights Reserved
Ogden Publications, Inc., 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, Kansas 66609-1265