The Planetary Perfect Storm

24 Jul

The Planetary Perfect Storm

This blog (originally written in 2010) is about the obvious convergence of two planetary “storms” that together are going to have obvious and predictable catastrophic consequences for all living beings on planet earth. However, as different from the forces of nature, these two “storms” are not created by the forces of nature but by human beings. Therefore, if corrections are begun in earnest now, the “Perfect Storm” configuration can be avoided. However, if ignored or minimized, the consequences will be much, much worse for planet earth and its inhabitants then by a single act by Mother Nature.

What are these two trends? The first is mass consumption with increasing population and the second is global warming. These two trends which can be scientifically shown to exist will create in the not too distant future the “Perfect Storm” of destruction of the present habitat and resources of the earth leading to catastrophic consequences. Let’s look at some of the projected consequences of these two trends.

Global Warming

  • A study by IISS found that reduced water supplies and hotter temperatures mean “65 countries were likely to lose over 15 percent of their agricultural output by 2100.”
  • Global warming will turn already-dry environments into deserts, causing the people who live there to migrate in massive numbers to more livable places.
  • A study by the relief group Christian Aid estimates the number of refugees around the world will top a billion by 2050, thanks in large part to global warming.
  • A report called “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” written by a group of retired generals and admirals, specifically linked global warming to increased border tensions. “If, as some project, sea levels rise, human migrations may occur, likely both within and across borders.”
  • “Developing countries, many with average temperatures that are already near or above crop tolerance levels, are predicted to suffer an average 10 to 25 percent decline in agricultural productivity by the 2080s.”
  • Global warming will cause longer, more devastating droughts, thus exacerbating the fight over the world’s water.
  • In April, 2009, a report completed by the Center for Naval Analyses predicted that global warming would cause “large-scale migrations, increased border tensions, the spread of disease and conflicts over food and water.”
  • “The World Health Organization has identified more than 30 new or resurgent diseases in the last three decades, the sort of explosion some experts say has not happened since the Industrial Revolution brought masses of people together in cities.” Why? Global warming “is fueling the spread of epidemics in areas unprepared for the diseases” when “mosquitoes, ticks, mice and other carriers are surviving warmer winters and expanding their range, bringing health threats with them.”
  • Once confined to land near the equator, West Nile Virus is now found as far north as Canada. Seven years ago, West Nile virus had never been seen in North America; today, it has “infected more than 21,000 people in the United States and Canada and killed more than 800.”
  • Greenland is melting at a rate of 52 cubic miles per year—much faster than once predicted. If Greenland’s entire 2.5 million cubic kilometers of ice were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of 7.2 meters, or more than 23 feet.
  • The amount of ice in the Arctic at the end of the 2005 summer “was the smallest seen in 27 years of satellite imaging, and probably the smallest in 100 years.” Experts said it’s the strongest evidence of global warming in the Arctic thus far.
  • In 2002, a chunk of ice in Antarctica larger than the state of Rhode Island collapsed into the sea. British and Belgian scientists said the chunk was weakened by warm winds blowing over the shelf … and that the winds were caused by global warming.
  • In 2005, a giant chunk of ice the size of Manhattan broke off of a Canadian ice shelf and began free floating westward, putting oil drilling operations in peril.
  •  “In Glacier National Park, the number of glaciers in the park has dropped from 150 to 26 since 1850. Some project that none will be left within 25 to 30 years.”
  • Global warming may unleash giant “sand seas” in Africa—giant fields of sand dunes with no vegetation—as a shortage of rainfall and increasing winds may “reactivate” the now-stable Kalahari dune fields. That means farewell to local vegetation, animals, and any tourism in the areas.
  • It sounds like a really bad sci-fi movie, but it’s true: The oceans are turning to acid! Oceans absorb CO2 which, when mixed with seawater, turns to a weak carbonic acid. Calcium from eroded rocks creates a “natural buffer” against the acid, and most marine life is “finely tuned” to the current balance. As we produce more and more CO2, we throw the whole balance out of whack and the oceans turn to acid.
  • According to the U.N., the Great Barrier Reef will disappear within decades as “warmer, more acidic seas could severely bleach coral in the world-famous reef as early as 2030.”
  • Italian experts say thanks to faster evaporation and rising temperatures, the Mediterranean Sea is quickly turning into “a salty and stagnant sea.” The hot, salty water “could doom many of the sea’s plant and animal species and ravage the fishing industry.”
  • The sacred Ganges River in India is beginning to run dry. The Ganges is fed by the Gangotri glacier, which is today “shrinking at a rate of 40 yards a year, nearly twice as fast as two decades ago.” Scientists warn the glacier could be gone as soon as 2030.
  • Geologists recently projected a 10 percent to 20 percent drop in rainfall in northwestern and southern Africa by 2070. That would leave Botswana with just 23 percent of the river it has now; Cape Town would be left with just 42 percent of its river water.
  • What happened to the five-acre glacial lake in Southern Chile? In March, it was there. In May, it was … gone. Scientists blame global warming.
  • Next on the global warming hit list: Rising sea levels linked to climate change mean we could lose half of the mangrove trees of the Pacific Isles by the end of the century.
  • British scientists warn of another possible side effect of climate change: A surge of dangerous volcanic eruptions.
  • Over the past century, the number of hurricanes that strike each year has more than doubled. Scientists blame global warming and the rising temperature of the surface of the seas.
  • Hotter temperatures could also mean larger and more devastating wildfires. This past summer in California, a blaze consumed more than 33,500 acres, or 52 square miles.
  • Global warming has also allowed non-native grasses to thrive in the Mojave Desert, where they act as fast-burning fuel for wildfires.
  • Hurricanes aside, NASA scientists now say as the world gets hotter, even smaller thunderstorms will pose more severe risks with “deadly lightning, damaging hail and the potential for tornadoes.”
  • Scientists believe sea levels will be three feet higher by the end of the century than they are now.

Mass Consumerism and population and resources

The consumption of the average U.S. citizen requires eighteen tons of natural resources per person per year and generates an even higher volume of wastes (including household, industrial, mining, and agricultural wastes). Some of these wastes are released to the atmosphere, rivers, and oceans; others are land-filled or incinerated; a small proportion is recycled. The standard conception of economic development envisions the rest of the world’s population as moving steadily up the ladder of mass consumption, eventually achieving levels similar to those achieved by the United States and some European economies.

Clearly, the environmental implications of the global spread of mass consumption for resource use and environmental waste absorption are staggering. Should not this promote some rethinking of economic theories of consumption, which for the most part have ignored resource and environmental implications? Jonathan Harris

While other factors such as technology and population growth are important, consumption levels play a key role as well. As such, technological change and population stabilization alone cannot save the planet; a complementary reduction of material wants is also required.

A Consumption and the Environment study of the international potential for reduction in fossil fuel consumption concluded that the entire world’s population could live at the level of West Europeans in the mid-1970s. This includes modest but comfortable homes, refrigeration for food, clothes washers, hot water, and ready access to public transit plus limited auto use. It does not include, nor could the world support, American lifestyles for all, with their larger homes, numerous electrical appliances, and auto-centered transportation. Even the European standard of the 1970s, if projected worldwide, may not achieve the global reduction in carbon emissions that is believed to be necessary to stabilize the world’s climate.

“Even assuming rapid progress in stabilizing human numbers and great strides in employing clean and efficient technologies, human wants will overrun the biosphere unless they shift from material to nonmaterial ends.

  • The ability of the earth to support billions of human beings depends on whether we continue to equate consumption with fulfillment.” Alan Durning
  • …This suggests that some limits to consumption are advisable and eventually inescapable. If, as Daly argues, the scale of the macro economy has expanded to the point where natural resources and environmental waste absorption, rather than human-made capital, are the scarce factors, then consumption itself needs to be rethought. Rather than maximize consumption in the pursuit of welfare, we need to seek ways to maximize welfare with minimum consumption. Hitherto the market system has been better at the former goal than the latter, and economic theory has measured success primarily in terms of greater consumption (or greater investment today in the cause of increased consumption tomorrow). This does not mean that the market system is not up to the new challenges; but it does suggest that it needs new direction.
  • Durning’s primary point is the impossibility of global “development” as conceived by economic theory. The resource and environmental demands of bringing all the world’s people up to “consumer class” standards of living would be catastrophic. This is all the more true in the context of planetary population growth up to an eventual eight or ten billion, which would nearly double resource and environmental requirements even with no increase in living standards.
  • Lest one might think that Ponting and Durning are over generalizing or exaggerating the problem, the World Resources Institute biennial report provides a wealth of specific detail to support these assertions. The problem is not, as originally conceived in the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth report, foreseeable shortages of specific nonrenewable resources— at least for the next fifty years or so. Rather, it is the impacts of industrial growth on renewable natural resource systems, including the atmosphere, that poses the greatest dangers.
  • Global inequality accentuates environmental impacts at both ends of the scale: The rich damage the environment through their high consumption levels, and the poor damage the environment by being forced to utilize marginal and fragile ecosystems. If indeed it is impossible for all to ride the escalator up to mass consumption, then some form of development that will reduce inequality while lessening environmental impacts seems essential. Jonathan Harris


A growing share of the global consumer class now lives in developing countries. China and India alone claim more than 20 percent of the global total with a combined consumer class of 362 million, more than in all of Western Europe. (Though the average Chinese or Indian member consumes substantially less than the average European.)

Developing countries also have the greatest potential to expand the ranks of consumers. China and India s large consumer set constitutes only 16 percent of the region s population, whereas in Europe the figure is 89 percent. Indeed, in most developing countries the consumer class accounts for less than half of the population suggesting considerable room to grow.

What About Population?

At least part of the rise in global consumption is the result of population growth.

  • The U.N. projects that world population will increase 41 percent by 2050, to 8.9 billion people, with nearly all of this growth in developing countries. This surge in human numbers threatens to offset any savings in resource use from improved efficiency, as well as any gains in reducing per-capita consumption. Even if the average American eats 20 percent less meat in 2050 than in 2000, total U.S. meat consumption will be 5 million tons greater in 2050 due to population growth.
  • Then there is Peter Farb who came up with a paradox: “Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.”
  • If the consumption aspirations of the wealthiest of nations cannot be satiated, the prospects for corralling consumption everywhere before it strips and degrades our planet beyond recognition would appear to be bleak.

Despite rising consumption in the developing world, industrial countries remain responsible for the bulk of the world s resource consumption as well as the associated global environmental degradation. Yet there is little evidence that the consumption locomotive is braking, even in the United States, where most people are amply supplied with the goods and services needed to lead a dignified life.

The U.S. Consumer

  •          The United States, with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world s fossil fuel resources burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world s natural gas.
  • ·         As of 2003, the U.S. had more private cars than licensed drivers, and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles were among the best-selling vehicles.
  • ·         New houses in the U.S. were 38 % bigger in 2002 than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average.
  • If the levels of consumption that…the most affluent people enjoy today were replicated across even half of the roughly 9 billion people projected to be on the planet in 2050, the impact on our water supply, air quality, forests, climate, biological diversity, and human health would be severe.

Today s human economies are designed with little attention to the residuals of production and consumption. Among the most visible unintended by products of the current economic system are environmental problems like air and water pollution and landscape degradation. Nearly all the world s ecosystems are shrinking to make way for humans and their homes, farms, malls, and factories. WWFs Living Planet Index, which measures the health of forests, oceans, freshwater, and other natural systems, shows a 35 percent decline in Earth s ecological health since 1970.

Environmental Impacts of Consumption

  • Calculations show that the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes yet the average person on Earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. These ecological footprints range from the 9.7 hectares claimed by the average American to the 0.47 hectares used by the average Mozambican
  • The failure of additional wealth and consumption to help people have satisfying lives may be the most eloquent argument for reevaluating our current approach to consumption.
  • Individuals often face personal costs associated with heavy levels of consumption: the financial debt; the time and stress associated with working to support high consumption; the time required to clean, upgrade, store, or otherwise maintain possessions; and the ways in which consumption replaces time with family and friends.
  • Aggressive pursuit of a mass consumption society also correlates with a decline in health indicators in many countries, as obesity, crime, and other social ills continue to surge.

Social Impacts of Consumption in the U.S.

  •       An estimated 62 % of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, leading to an annual loss of 300,000 lives and at least $117 billion in health care costs in 1999.
  •       In 2002, 61 % of U.S. credit card users carried a monthly balance, averaging $12,000 at 16 % interest. This amounts to about $1,900 a year in finance charges more than the average per capita income in at least 35 countries (in purchasing power parity).

The economies of mass consumption that produced a world of abundance for many in the twentieth century face a different challenge in the twenty-first: to focus not on the indefinite accumulation of goods but instead on a better quality of life for all, with minimal environmental harm.


So the gist of this blog, which gives only some highlights of the Planetary “Perfect Storm” problem, is that unless the global community comes to grips with both global warming and the new quickly evolving consumption patterns with increasing population, there will be a catastrophic “Perfect storm” in which all inhabitants of Earth will needlessly suffer greatly. These issues need to be discussed and then acted upon. Some of the authors of this blog were found in the GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT AND ENVIRONMENT INSTITUTE, Tufts University, papers.


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