The Human Foot Print
By Andy Kerr
Column #28 - Go to next column
Length: 747 words
Published: 14 August 1997, Wallowa County Chieftain
It's official. We humans won. It's time to end the war on nature.
An article in the journal Science entitled "Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems" should give pause even to those who take Genesis 1:26 ("Go forth and have dominion over the Earth....") too literally. The article speaks to the "human foot print," that is how much of the Earth and its resources are dedicated to human use or abuse.
The scientists note that humans consume more than half of the Earth's usable surface water; that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased 30% since the Industrial Revolution, that between one-third and one-half the Earth's surface has been transformed by human action; that people have more than doubled the amount of nitrogen in the environment through mining, use of fertilizers and burning fossil fuels; and that human activities "have triggered a wave of extinctions" with ecological "ripple effects" that "go beyond the loss of cute or commercially valuable creatures." It notes that one quarter of all bird species have been driven to extinction.
The authors note: "Human alteration of Earth is substantial and growing.... By these and other standards, it is clear that we live on a human-dominated planet."
It's not just than people dominate our nest, we are fouling it as well. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 2,193 fish-consumption advisories because of chemical contamination were issued in 1996, up 26% over 1995. That represents 5% of the nation's total stream miles and 15% of total lake acres.
Environmentalists are charged with putting animals above humans. In fact, they believe in proper stewardship—not conquest and elimination—as called for in Genesis. It is in people's own self-interest to act magnanimously victory. If we take care of the other species and ecosystems, the Earth will take care of us. If humans are to continue to prosper as a species, we simply cannot continue to pollute or eliminate the ecosystems upon which we depend for air, water and food.
We Earthlings are engaged in the greatest evolutionary test of all time. With our large brains and opposable thumbs, people have conquered the world. Any species or any ecosystem will live or die because we humans allow it. As humans, we have no serious predators—save ourselves. To date, humans have successfully out-maneuvered all the environmental checks and balances that keep any other species within limits. Our population continues to grow in spite of diseases like AIDS. Due to environmental stresses such as toxins in the environment, human sperm counts are down 50% in the last 30 years. Rather than address the underlying causes, we can now do it in test tubes.
As a species, we are orders of magnitude more successful than any other species. We have—for the short-term at least—transcended any limits.
But nature bats last. In the end, we humans must learn to live within our means on Earth or we won't be on Earth, at least not in the exalted position we are now.
The evolutionarily challenge is whether we, as a species, will evolve to have the wisdom to practice something no other species has ever done or had to do, that is to practice willful self-restraint. We must learn to live with our means, both economic and environmental. We must be concerned about the quality of our people, not the quantity of people.
Will we as a species learn that our long-term survival, as well as our short-term real comfort, depends upon a healthy, clean and diverse planet?
I believe we can. The Chinese ideogram for "crisis" is a combination of their ideograms for "danger" and "opportunity."
Making the human foot print smaller doesn't mean diminishing our quality of life. It means scaling back our impact and presence on Earth to levels that are sustainable.
If you are still feeling the need to exploit the Earth so you can get what you feel is your fair share, it's time to redirect your energies to demand a more fair allocation of human wealth. The net worth of the Earth's 358 known billionaires is $760 billion, equal to the net worth of the Earth's 2.5 billion poorest residents. There is enough to go around. It's just that some people have too much and many others not enough.
Enough, if we stabilize population at a sustainable level. The human population is about 6 billion now, going on 10 billion.