Following up the idea of resource consumption discussed in this post, I stumbled across this infographic (click on graphic for full-size version):

The infographic wasn’t published on Earth Day (April 22), but it might should have been. Also, concern with what starting date to use when naming the current geological epoch after ourselves (the Anthropocene), while perhaps interesting, is more than a little self-congratulatory — but in the darkest sense, since we wrecked everything. I have nothing further to say about the futility of naming a geological epoch after ourselves considering how it marks our self-annihilation and soon enough no one will be left to know or care.

Let me describe briefly what else the infographic shows. In the extremely tiny slice of geological time (1760–2010 CE) shown along the x-axis, we have been on a gradually rising trend of consumption (measured by human population, air pollution, energy use, large dams, and more recently, number of motor vehicles), which is mirrored by a decreasing trend in available resources (measured in tropical forest area and number of species). The author, Haisam Hussein, notes that around 1950, trends began a steep acceleration (in both directions), which have not yet reached their limits. Of course, there are limits, despite what ideologues may say.

To recharacterize in slightly more recognizable terms, let’s say that the entire human population is the equivalent of Easter Islanders back in the day when they were cutting down now-extinct Rapa Nui palms as part of their ongoing project of building monuments to themselves. The main difference is that the whole planet stands in for Easter Island. And instead of palm trees, let’s say our signature resource is a money tree, because, after all, money makes the world go around and it grows on trees. Easter Island was completely forested up to about 1200 CE but became treeless by around 1650 CE. The trend was unmistakable, and the mind boggles now (hindsight being 20/20) at what must have been going on in the minds of the islanders who cut down the last tree. Here’s the equally obvious part: the planet (the money tree) is also a bounded (finite) ecosystem, though larger than Easter Island, and we’re in the process of harvesting it as fast as we can go because, don’t ya know, there’s profit to be made — something quite different from having enough to live comfortable, meaningful lives.

So we’re not yet down to our final tree, but we’re accelerating toward that eventuality. It’s unclear, too, what number of trees constitutes a viable population for reproductive purposes. When considering the entire planet as an interlocking ecosystem, the question might be better posed as the number of species needed to maintain the lives of, say, large mammals like us. Aggregate human activity keeps whittling away at those species. Of course, the last money tree isn’t a physical tree like the Rapa Nui palm; it’s a social construct where ROI on continued mining, drilling, manufacturing, harvesting, building, paving, transportation, distribution, etc. runs its course and all profit-making activity comes to a screeching halt. The so-called shale oil miracle that promised eventual U.S. energy independence only a few moons ago has already busted (it was going to anyway as production tailed off quickly) and job losses keep piling up (tens and hundreds of thousands worldwide). Consider that a small, inconsequential brake on accelerating trends. Where things get really interesting is when that bust/halt spreads to every sector and food/energy supplies are no longer available in your neighborhood, or possibly, just about anywhere unless you grow your own food well away from population centers.

Virtually every failed bygone civilization provides evidence that we, too, will proceed doing what we’re doing heedlessly: cutting down trees until at last there are no more. Again, the mind boggles: what could possibly be going on in the minds of those holding the reins of power and who know where we’re headed (to oblivion) yet keep us pointed there steadfastly? And why don’t more of us regular folks also know our trajectory and take to task our leaders for failing to divert from our trip into the dustbin of history?

  1. leavergirl says:

    Recently, the Berkley alum magazine published a favorable article about one of the guys behind trying to start a new geological epoch. The man was quoted saying it was about time to do so, because we need a name for the time when humans began to steer the planet (I am paraphrasing).

    The man is clearly mad.

    • Brutus says:

      I agree completely, but that assessment (madness, lunacy) loses most of its sting when the entire society providing context has also gone mad. This quote gets lots of repetition on that point:

      It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

      –Jiddu Krishnamurti

      • leavergirl says:

        That would explain why the inmates accept the pronouncements of the more prominent crazies as meaningful…

    • Brutus says:

      I read the reddit comment but admit I don’t see the problem. Energy use measured in quadrillion BTUs increased from 34 to 99.5 (globally, I surmise, not per capita) from 1950 to 2010. Where the graphs shows no increase having occurred is lost on me. Another reddit comment was about time spent at labor in HG societies vs. agrarian and industrial societies. The blurb on the left of the chart says our time was freed up, but that also gave me pause. So yeah, the infographic has flaws.

      However, measuring quantities of anything on a global scale or in our prehistory is inherently problematic, with large margins of error and plenty of disclaimers as to accuracy. That was a prime takeaway of Harvesting the Biosphere, which I reviewed a few blog posts ago. Perfect measurement simply is not possible. That said, trends and behaviors are still pretty clear.

      • xraymike79 says:

        The 99.5 quadrillion BTUs is actually just America’s share of global energy consumption which totals 500-600 quadrillion BTUs. That’s where the mistake is. Of course developing countries account for the huge growth in energy consumption in recent times. I think things are more dire than that infographic implies.

      • Brutus says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Wonder which “last tree” is being cut today?

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