Science & Environment
By Our Own Hand
“Each effort to solve one crisis seems to clash with the solution to the others.”
—Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power
“As human population has surged this century, the populations of numerous other species have tumbled, many to the point of extinction.”
"The nature of famine has changed. Whereas it was once geographically defined by areas of poor harvests, today famine is economically defined by low incomes. . . .”
“Due to our lack of knowledge, we have not only failed to eradicate such diseases, we may actually have assured their survival.”
—William H. Stewart
Humanity has ignored its responsibility to interact wisely with the environment. The Worldwatch Institute and others have warned of an ominous future unless we make some changes. But have we set in motion a chain of events that is beyond our control?
This phenomenon is known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” It is the hallmark of behavior that scientists term “chaotic." More than an academic pursuit, chaos theory explains how multiple factors impact the behavior of turbulent systems such as the flow of a river, the drifting of smoke or the spread of fire. It also may explain why we find ourselves in the midst of what could be an ever expanding crisis of our own making.
As we observe any chain of events, we know (or suspect) that there was an initial action that set those events in motion. We can also deduce that for every cause there will be an effect. What scientists are discovering through their inquiry into chaotic systems is that any initial cause, even a seemingly insignificant one, can have multiple effects, many of which are unpredictable based on the initial action. This occurs because effects are not simply determined by the initial activity that produced them. They are also the result of how a particular system's components relate with one another and how shared connections between systems interact.
The phenomenon of chaotic systems at work without our input is complex enough. We exacerbate that complexity, however, when we act to influence a system with which we are unfamiliar. This is so because our ignorance prohibits us from appreciating how our actions will impact a system, or others with which it interacts. And when we act, knowing that our actions are not in harmony with a system or some of its processes, we introduce destructive forces into our world. Another way that we interject complexity into our natural world is to misinterpret the effects we observe based on what the system feeds back to us.
In his book The Poverty of Power, published in 1976, noted biologist and environmentalist Barry Commoner addressed, in principle, the phenomenon of sensitive dependence on initial conditions with respect to three of the most fundamental systems that we depend upon everyday: the ecosystem, the production system and the economic system. Commoner wrote to address what he called “a series of ominous, seemingly intractable crises” that had been facing the United States for about a decade: environmental survival, an energy shortage and economic decline. His prescient words still speak to us a quarter of a century later.
These crises, he stated, “are usually regarded as separate afflictions, each to be solved in its own terms.... But each effort to solve one crisis seems to clash with the solution to the others.” The solution, Commoner noted, lies in understanding the complex interactions among the three basic systems.
The ecosystem, which he described as “the great natural, interwoven, ecological cycles that comprise the planet's skin, and the minerals that lie beneath it,” is the system that provides the resources that support all life.
The production system is a man-made network of agricultural and industrial processes that convert natural resources into wealth.
The economic system is also a man-made system. It distributes wealth through trade, capital formation, credit, savings, investment and taxes.
Commoner explained that, “given these dependencies—the economic system on the wealth yielded by the production system, and the production system on the resources provided by the ecosystem—logically the economic system ought to conform to the requirements of the production system, and the production system to the requirements of the ecosystem.... In actual fact the relations among the three systems are the other way around.... Thus what confronts us is not a series of separate crises, but a single basic defect—a fault that lies deep in the design of modern society” (emphasis ours).
That defect is one that we, largely by our own hand, have created. In so doing, we have been and continue to be insensitive to the natural world's dependence on our input. Even worse, we are, and for the most part seem willing to remain, apathetic about the trouble that has resulted from our insensitivity. In some cases, the demands we make of this earth and our indifference to the damage we do is nothing short of criminal. Perhaps that is why crises that were largely limited to the United States in the '60s and '70s are now global in nature and more serious than ever.
Consider a couple of recent examples.
A dam constructed on the Danube River between Romania and Serbia, combined with an increase in certain pollutants, initiated a chain of events that produced a sixfold increase in toxic red tides in the Black Sea, hundreds of miles away.
After the construction of the dam, a ship released the contents of a ballast tank into the sea and, in so doing, accidentally introduced a species of jellyfish not indigenous to the area.
Because the existence of the dam had already altered the balance of life in the sea, the jellyfish population exploded, triggering another chain of events that left the Black Sea oxygen starved and stench ridden. Many fish native to that sea died. Today it is reported that fisheries there are overharvested, starved of zooplankton, and periodically suffocated and poisoned. Seagrass beds that once were a source of life are reported to be regularly laced with cholera.
Near destruction of the Black Sea was not the objective of engineers when they constructed the dam, but it was the result nonetheless.
When China's Yangtze River flooded during heavy summer rains, it resulted in the death of an estimated four thousand people and affected, to varying degrees, another 240 million—the most costly disaster of 1998. Decades of deforestation in the river basin had seriously undermined the river's natural flood-control devices. The World Resources Institute, along with the Worldwatch Institute (an independent, nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C.), report that logging and agriculture had cleared about 85 percent of the forest cover. The construction of dams and levies and the destruction of wetlands also contributed to the disaster.
Are these events isolated cases, or are they examples of what could be a growing global crisis? To answer this question, we need to consider the scope of our current trouble, our role in creating it, and its impact on those with whom we share this planet. Worldwatch reports that, “as human population has surged this century, the populations of numerous other species have tumbled, many to the point of extinction. Indeed, we live amid the greatest extinction of plant and animal life since the dinosaurs... with species losses at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate” (Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem, 1998, p.19). So before many species and ecosystems can regenerate, and before we can identify them or learn how they contribute to the ecology of the planet, they are destroyed.
“But humans are not just witnesses to a rare historic event, we are actually its cause,” the report continues. “The leading sources of today's species loss—habitat alteration, invasions by exotic species, pollution, and overhunting—are all a function of human activities.” We are also experiencing a “growing incidence of plant, animal, insect, and microbial invasions of ecosystems worldwide as human interchange increases.... Growth in human travel and commerce explains many accidental invasions by exotics, but foreign species are also deliberately introduced into farms, plantation forests, and aquaculture systems” (p. 20).
Worldwatch also notes that “we have seen a near fivefold growth in the oceanic fish catch” and that "marine biologists now believe we may have ‘hit the wall’ in oceanic fisheries and that the oceans cannot sustain a catch any larger than today's” (pp. 10–11).
Freshwater habitats may be worse off. “As biological assets, freshwater systems are both disproportionately rich and disproportionately imperiled. Twelve percent of all animal species, including 41 percent of all recognized fish species, live in the 1 percent of the earth's surface that is fresh water.... At least 20 percent of all freshwater species have become extinct, threatened or endangered in recent years.... The problem is the sheer scale of the current human assault on freshwater ecosystems” (Janet N. Abramovitz, Imperiled Waters, Impoverished Future: The Decline of Freshwater Ecosystems, Worldwatch, 1996, pp. 7–8).
Human demand for energy grew twice as fast as population in the last half century. Reliance on fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to produce energy is the likely cause for disruptive shifts in the earth's weather patterns. Energy consumption over the next half century is projected to grow by 336 percent due to the demands of the developing world. It is reasonable, then, to expect more intense weather—droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and heat waves. The possible effects of that destabilization include additional losses of species, the destruction of established ecosystems, disruption in food production and the spread to new areas of diseases that were once geographically confined.
More and more we are seeing population shifts from the country to the city. In 1996, 2.6 billion people lived in cities. Worldwatch estimates that number will be 6.5 billion by 2050, based on United Nations projections for the year 2030. “As societies urbanize, the use of basic resources, such as energy and water, rises” (Beyond Malthus, p. 44).
Increased demand on the earth's resources is not the only stress of increasing urbanization. Dispersal and disposal of residential and industrial waste adds significantly to our dysfunctional relationship with our home. Another phenomenon of urbanization is shanty towns, which are certain to increase if migration from the country continues to outpace the ability of cities to provide basic services. With these towns come congestion, pollution, disease and crime.
Globally we face shrinking supplies of cropland and smaller yields on land under cultivation—this at a time when populations are increasing, primarily in developing countries. Those nations are experiencing economic expansion but are less self-sufficient in food production. Both trends are projected to continue. Why is that a problem? As people become wealthier, they consume an increased proportion of available food. The undeniable outcome is famine—but not traditional famine caused by scarcity alone. As Worldwatch notes, “the nature of famine has changed. Whereas it was once geographically defined by areas of poor harvests, today famine is economically defined by low incomes in those segments of society that lack the purchasing power to buy enough food. Famine concentrated among the poor is less visible than the more traditional version, but it is no less real” (Beyond Malthus, p. 6).
In 1967, U.S. surgeon general William H. Stewart and other world health officials determined that they were going to put an end to infectious diseases. Yet infectious diseases are reportedly still the leading cause of death in the world. The reasons are complex but range from an inadequate understanding on the part of health experts of the life cycles of microbes and the mechanics of infection, to the ecology of disease. Published research from Harvard University suggests that due to our lack of knowledge, we have not only failed to eradicate such diseases, we may actually have assured their survival.
Worldwatch cites human interference with natural ecosystems, global travel, increased poverty and urbanization, social disruptions, human-induced climate change and the overuse of antibiotics as conditions that contribute to, or perpetuate, infection in humans. Currently scientists are studying infections which, although typically found in animals, are now being found in humans. This form of infection, referred to as pathogen pollution, is expected to increase if animals that grow up in the wild continue to be relocated outside their normal habitats and interact with humans.
Add to this the fact that world population more than doubled in the last 50 years. “This unprecedented surge in population, combined with rising individual consumption, is pushing our claims on the planet beyond its natural limits” (Beyond Malthus, p. 5). Likewise, expansion in the global economy, from $5 trillion in 1950 to $29 trillion in 1997, is outgrowing the earth's ecosystem. Despite this unprecedented economic growth, the World Bank estimates that 1.3 billion of the earth's population have to find a way to survive on one dollar a day or less.
Lastly, there is the all-too-familiar scourge of war. In the last century, intranational and international relations were especially subject to turbulence and unpredictability. Consequently history recorded some of the most horrific wars ever fought. The legacy of war is well documented—destruction or pollution of important natural resources, displaced populations, famine and disease. War, and the threat of war, with all its consequences, still imperils life on this planet.
We are hurting the earth and those with whom we share it. And we are destroying ourselves. Clearly, we are in trouble—trouble that is of our own making. We should consider whether we are unleashing the “chaos” in nature and, if so, whether we can stop it.
Ed Ayres of World Watch magazine, in an essay entitled “Why Are We Not Astonished?” says that “we are in a mega-crisis of our own making, and... we have a chance now to escape it before it destroys us—but that... chance won't last long. The window of opportunity is closing fast” (May–June 1999, p. 25). The megacrisis that confronts us, Ayres says, is “something so completely outside our collective experience that we don't really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming.... Environmental scientists have made it emphatically clear--coming about as close as scientists ever come to shouting—that we are in trouble. What they point to can be described in terms of four global 'megaphenomena'—of rising carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, rising rates of extinction, rising consumption of resources, and rising population. And all four, after hundreds of centuries of relative stability, have suddenly spiked. Plotted on graphs, they look like heart-attacks.”
Who among us has the experience to resolve this?
Just under 2,000 years ago, another individual made it clear that humanity would, if not stopped, drive itself and all life to extinction—just the kind of trouble scientists now say looms on the horizon. He also knew what conditions would end the age of man's rule over the earth. In addressing them, He described the “spikes” that today's scientists observe on the graphs they plot, not as heart attacks, but as birthing contractions. This is because the “megaphenomena” that now threaten all life have been in the making for some time. They have, like labor pains, increased in frequency and intensity with the passage of time. And they will continue to do so unless we all change the way we live.
The man with the vision was Jesus Christ. His instruction about the end of this age of human rule over the earth, and His return to it, is contained in the Gospels. Notice what Jesus says regarding our world in Matthew 24:4–8: “And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘See to it that no one misleads you. For many will come in My name, saying, “I am the Christ,” and will mislead many. And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs’”(New American Standard Bible). Jesus was predicting that people would arise claiming to be the messiah (Greek, Christos, meaning “messiah” or, literally, “anointed one”).
Jesus went on to say that there will be a time of great trouble such as has never been nor will ever be again. He also said that unless that time is shortened, all life will cease to exist (Matthew 24:21–22).
What makes the conditions Jesus described, which admittedly have always been a part of human experience, precursors of the end of an age is their global nature, their frequency and their intensity. Even with the state of our world today, Jesus said that we are only in the beginning stages of a process that will ultimately end human rule over the earth; we are not yet at the end.
To better see the path we are on, we may turn to the book of Revelation, chapter 6. The events described there correspond to those described by Jesus in Matthew 24. They depict the condition of the world at the culmination of the time when humanity's dominion over the earth is at its end.
When Jesus said that many would come professing to be “the anointed,” He meant that many would come claiming the same sort of authority that He has—professing that they represent the solution to humanity's problems. Although some individuals have claimed to be The Messiah (e.g., Haile Selassie and Sun Myung Moon), not all would-be messiahs have claimed to be ordained by God. Down through the ages many leaders have arisen on the world scene offering to solve human and societal problems. Jesus warned against being misled by them. Today ethnic aspirations, self-determination and democratization increasingly characterize the international political scene. More and more, leaders are chosen by the people they rule. In various ways, these are today's popular “messiahs”—those who profess to be appointed to resolve many of humanity's troubles.
But is there any person or group of people who can do so?
In Revelation 6:1–8 is the famous depiction of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—picturing false messiahs, war, famine and disease. These principal evils have been extant from Christ's time in the first century, but the apostle John envisioned that they would culminate in a time of unprecedented world trouble at the “time of the end.”
Revelation 13 depicts a system of government that comes to dominate the world. Again the leadership no doubt thinks it can resolve humanity's problems. A time will come when there will arise a single ruler heading a conglomerate of nations who have willingly conceded aspects of their sovereignty. Of course, this does not necessarily mean that his rise to power spells the end of national sovereignty among the nations he rules. We can already see this type of development taking place as globalization proceeds and dictates the sharing of sovereignty and greater international cooperation. In the larger scenario pictured by Revelation, however, these developments lead to unprecedented war and trouble on a global scale.
Jesus said that there would be wars and rumors of war, and He was specific about their nature. The word translated “nation” in Matthew 24:7 is ethnos in the original Greek text. When Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation,” He was describing ethnic conflicts—both intranational and international.
The significance of ethnicity has been strengthened today by doctrines of national self-determination and the end of the Cold War. When Jesus said that kingdoms or empires would continue to war with one another, He reminded us that world war is still a real threat. The second horseman of Revelation 6:3–4, picturing war, confirms that. It tells us that those who make war carry a great sword. This can only mean that many will continue to suffer and die as a result of war.
Could the defect that Commoner pointed to in modern society, and the scarcities we are creating as a result of it, be a cause of this kind of social disruption?
Along with war, and due in part to it, famine ensues. But the kind of famine described in Revelation 6:5–6 is more a famine of poverty than one of scarcity. Notice what it says: “And I looked, and behold, a black horse; and he who sat on it had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard... a voice... saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius; and do not harm the oil and the wine’”(New American Standard Bible).
A quart of grain is the amount that would support a man of moderate appetite for a day. A denarius was one day's wage. What is depicted here is famine that results from poverty. As cited earlier, approximately 20 percent of the world's population lives on less than one U.S. dollar per day. Those people cannot afford to purchase more than the most basic foodstuffs. Luxuries, depicted by commodities like oil and wine, are beyond their reach, even though available in sufficient abundance for those who can afford them. This disparity between rich and poor will continue unless we act to change it.
The fourth horseman pictures death (the Greek text implies death by disease). Death is a fact of life. However, as we have seen, our assault on life is outside natural cycles, and this is what the fourth horseman depicts. Revelation 6:8 tells us that the effects of war, famine, disease and wild beasts will culminate in the death of one fourth of humanity. Whether this is a climactic future event or something that has already begun and will continue over time, these phenomena all speak to what we are doing to the earth and to ourselves now. It is no exaggeration to say, in this regard, that the future is upon us.
Jesus saw this age as an unrelenting one where we would allow life to be destroyed rather than try to save it (Matthew 24:22). When it is apparent that no human leader is capable of preventing unleashed chaos from becoming irrevocably destructive, Jesus intervenes and humanity is indicted for its mistreatment of the earth.
Concerning this same time, the prophet Isaiah described the Creator's assessment of humankind's treatment of the earth, which He delegated to their care at the time of Adam. “The earth will be completely laid waste and completely despoiled.... The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away. The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. Therefore, a curse devours the earth and those who live in it are held guilty” (Isaiah 24:3–6). Those who thought themselves messiahs, together with those who believed them, will first seek shelter from the trouble that follows, and later will seek death (Revelation 6:12–17).
We thought we knew, and we are learning too slowly that we did not. Even to this day we have presumed that we were not created but rather that we evolved. So it never occurred to most of us to humble ourselves enough simply to ask the One whose earth it is how it all works. How are we supposed to live? How should we care for what has been given to us so that it will sustain life? Did we—do we—care too much about ourselves and not enough for what we depend upon?
We, as the prophet Hosea said of Israel (Hosea 8:7), have sown the wind. What we will reap, unless we make dramatic changes now, is a whirlwind—one that experts say is something completely outside our collective experience.
The fact is, not one of us really knows whether a butterfly flapping its wings in Tahiti can actually create a tornado in Kansas. What we are coming to realize is that we cannot anticipate everything that is needed to prevent catastrophe. We cannot save ourselves from something we cannot comprehend.
Yet the seemingly inevitable does not need to happen—if we determine to change. But it will require that we call out to someone for help. And to whom better than our Creator?
STEVEN D. ANDREWS