Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 9/13: Case study of collapse by resource over-exploitation

No 26, Posted by fw, June 18, 2010

In Pt 8, Rees traced the link between the explosive growth of human population in the past 150 years to the discovery and refining of oil. The subsequent global economic boom for western industrial nations was built on the over-exploitation of oil and other natural resources. Absent some form of growth control mechanism, Rees warned we are on sure a path to collapse.

Following up on his warning of collapse, in Pt 9, below, Rees provides biological evidence to show how resource over-exploitation can lead to collapse — in this instance at the micro level of a single but significant industry. It may be a forerunner of what could occur at a macro level. He also introduces the power of myth in video 5. The transcribed excerpts that follow are from Part 5 of the You Tube video, which you can watch by going to the end of this post, or by viewing it in on You Tube at UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 5.

The collapse of the world’s largest fishery

“Here is a perfect example of non-response to science. This is not a short time period. From 1962 to 1992 is a 30-year period during which Canada had management responsibility for the world’ largest fishery, a fishery that had sustained human fishing for hundreds of not thousands of years and we watched over that period of time the steady decline in the spawning stock biomass to the point where it collapsed in 1992. Now 18 years ago we stopped fishing and the stock has not recovered.”

Collapse of cod fishery, 1962-1992

“The fish haven’t disappeared. They haven’t gone extinct. But the impact of human exploitation has so altered the ecosystem structure that the fish can no longer retain the niche that they once occupied within that particular ecosystem. So it’s not clear that that stock will ever recover without some other knock of some kind or other pushing them back into that original state. But this is a shameful example of ignoring the scientific data of something that’s awry here. I won’t go into the details but it was quite clear for many, many years before the collapse actually occurred.”

Eating ourselves to death

“A group of scientists compared human beings to 96 other species, very similar to humans in their ecological requirements and they measured a dozen different qualities or characteristics and they found that almost every case human were the outlier.”

Evidence of human gluttony

“What this graph shows is a distribution of these 96 species according to their appropriation of biomass. So how much does each species eat basically. And what it shows is a normal distribution. These are humans out here. The other 95 species are over here, human beings are way out here — two orders of magnitude more biomass extracted from our ecosystems than by the others. We are way out there, eating a couple of hundred times more stuff than species at the 95th percentile.

“This is quite an astonishing mark of human competitive superiority on the one hand but also a mark of our capacity to over-exploit the ecosystems of which we are a part.”

‘That’s all biology.”

Myths enable us to ignore reality – That’s their power

“What has culture got to do with this? Because I’m often berated by sociologists and political scientists for underplaying the role of culture. Now, look, there’s a hell of a lot more sociologists and political scientists out there promoting culture and there are very few biologist who are willing to stick their necks out the way I am. So I don’t apologize for trying to put the biological argument forward.”

But I want to now bring in the cultural and show that it actually reinforces the biological. This is actually a combination of culture and biology. Humans are a myth-making species. Sociologists talk about the cultural narrative. Every culture has its narrative, its origin myth, its destination myth and a whole lot of other mythic constructs that makes us behave and so on and so forth.”

“We need stories. In fact it’s the shared mythologies, the shared stories that make this group different from that group. And look at how this disrupts geo-politics. You’ve got the Muslim group of myths in conflict with the Christian group of myths. And these myths are extraordinarily powerful enough to get people to go out blow themselves up in support of their particular mythic construct.”

A mythic moment masks the historical reality of American imperialism

“I’m sorry if I’m offending anyone here. But the myths that we believe in are more powerful than even the survival instinct. That’s how powerful the need for mythic constructs are in the human organism. And they are a very dominant force, a prevailing force, in geo-politics even today.”

“We in the Western scientific tradition are no less myth bound than any other culture. In fact I would argue that the notion that we are science-based culture is our biggest cultural myth. It simply enables us to ignore the reality that we actually don’t behave that way at all.

“There’s been lots written about this and I recommend a very readable and accessible little book by a theologian from Mount Allison University, Colin Grant, simply called Myths We Live By.”

Rees talks more about the power of myth in the following videos.

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.

RELATED VIDEO

End of Part 9

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One thought on “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 9/13: Case study of collapse by resource over-exploitation

  1. All mythology aside the human race on this planet can be likened to a culture growing in a petrie dish. We consume. We pollute. We are gluttens and we live in our own waste. Just like a culture in a petrie dish our timeline is determined by how long it takes us to poison our environment to the point that it is completely unsustainable. That is, we kill off the environment around us and when it is dead and too poison for us, we die off. Forever. Mythology and everything else that drives us is just a part of the poison swill we create around us. The microscope light goes out.

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