Is Modern Civilization Unsustainable?

Winter 2012 | Breakthrough Staff,

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By Breakthrough Journal staff

Over the last several decades, a scholarly consensus has taken hold that humans are the ecologically dominant force on Earth. We are no longer living in the Holocene, the period of environmental stability following the last Ice Age. We have so dramatically altered landscapes, the oceans, and the climate that the planet has entered the age of humans, the Anthropocene.

While some insist that we've exceeded natural boundaries, and that we must return to the environmental conditions of the Holocene as quickly as possible, the geographer Erle Ellis reviews the evidence for Breakthrough Journal and concludes that "the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving."

The new age carries new risks, Ellis says, but so far agriculture has proven highly resilient to population growth, soil exhaustion, and climate change. Agriculture, Ellis notes, "already thrives across climatic extremes whose variance goes far beyond anything likely to result from human-caused climate change."

The main constraints on human populations are not environmental, Ellis concludes. Agricultural productivity around the world rises as population density increases. "Populations work harder and employ more productive technologies to increase the productivity of land only after it becomes a limiting resource," Ellis notes. And in most places, yield-increasing technologies were introduced long before they were needed to overcome natural limits.

What's ultimately at stake, Ellis argues, is not human civilization, but the ecological heritage of the Holocene. The good news is that urbanization could "drive ever increasing productivity per unit area of land, while at the same time allowing less productive lands to recover."

We should neither turn a blind eye to our ecological impacts nor exaggerate them, says Ellis. Rather, we must embrace our role as planetary stewards and start seeing the Anthropocene as "the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity."

Read the full article here.