Do We Have the Courage to Put the 800-lb Gorilla On the Table?

The planet’s ability to provide useful materials and absorb wastes (its biocapacity) is deemed essential to sustain human life. Yet, the rate those useful materials are consumed (our ecological footprint) per person is rising at an alarming and unsustainable rate. According to the Global Footprint Network, humanity currently uses the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of biocapacity per year. Stated another way, it takes the Earth 1.5 years to regenerate what we use and waste in a year. Here in the USA the average person’s ecological footprint in 2010 was approximately 8 soccer fields per person per year – the largest of any nation – while the global capacity in the same year was estimated to be about 2 per person. What this tells us is we Americans are not living within our means. In addition to deficit spending we are, in fact, deficit living. And other countries are not far behind.

Biocapacity and Ecological Footprint

Our ecological footprint – which path will we take?

Today this reality is a conundrum for anyone with an ecological conscious, particularly an American in the field of conservation. Current production and consumption of energy (for our bodies and machines) directly and indirectly create a suite of problems from loss of habitat to pollution. For conservationists, the 800-lb gorilla in the room is our society’s pursuit of economic growth fueled by conspicuous consumption. Quite simply our country’s Gross Domestic Product serves as a self-evident indicator for loss of nature and liquidation of our shrinking resource base. As conservationists, we need to place this gorilla on the table and help friends and neighbors understand the problem. It’s time to have frank conversations with the public about the need for intelligent consumption, recycling and reusing, and stabilizing human population.

Some will say this is too radical and not an issue a conservationist should be wading into. I would argue nothing is more important or in need of leadership. In the past Olaus Murie, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson spoke to the matter. In 1948, articulating the need for a land ethic, Aldo Leopold wrote, “Our bigger-and-better society is now like a hypochondriac, so obsessed with its own economic health as to have lost the capacity to remain healthy.” Approximately ten years later, Olaus Murie pressed for the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and believed it was emblematic of, “The real problem of what the human species is to do with this Earth.”

Today, Dr. Curt Meine (author of Correction Lines), Dr. Julianne Warren (author of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey), and Dr. Brian Czech (author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and Supply Shock – Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution) are Americans in the field of science writing and speaking passionately about the real problem. I encourage you to follow their work. If reading books isn’t your cup of tea or you’re short of time, check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s documentary, Green Fire, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s call for a steady state economy, Enough is Enough or if you’re into Hollywood entertainment, watch Wall-E with the kids for an exploration of where we could be headed.

Of course, there are critics inside and outside the conservation community.  The status quo is tenacious. Calling for change is uncomfortable. We have to be prepared for the allegations. Like Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to abolish slavery while being a slave owner, we have to acknowledge we own a piece of this mess while we move humanity forward. We must admit we conservationists are contributing to the problem with every aerial survey, vehicle, item of clothing, glass of wine, or electronic device we buy (even the six-year old MacBook Pro I’m using to write this post). Acknowledging our contribution to the problem isn’t enough – otherwise it’s just rhetoric. We must act and model the behavior we hope for ourselves and others. Consider these three broad actions to get started:

Break the problem down. Become familiar with what contributes to the problem of an oversized ecological footprint. There is a mountain of literature on the unsustainability of human population growth and consumption of natural resources. Figure out the myriad connections between the nation’s pursuit of higher GDP and the conservation challenges we face today.

Identify solutions. There are so many ways we can lessen our ecological footprint from the individual level to the national pursuit of a steady state economy. Start at home and the workplace. Make an inventory of the wasteful practices and figure out how to make life and work more sustainable. Don’t overlook local, state, national and international solutions that could use our support and advocacy.

Exhibit leadership. The solution to this problem will require all of us to adapt. There are no technical fixes that will save us, no easy remedies and no authority figures leading the way. Solutions will be found through our interactions and relationships with others. Find the courage to share your concerns about the current reality and speak passionately about your aspirations. Talk about what we can do to close the gap between our unsustainable lifestyle and a sustainable one – and do it.

I realize this issue isn’t much fun to think or talk about. It’s personal. It calls into question what we do and our devotion to nature. It forces us to think about how our actions today will negatively affect future generations. As a conservationist, it’s much easier and more socially acceptable to treat the injury than call for a cure. We can busy ourselves with species protections and habitat restoration. But if we value nature – if we value humanity – business as usual is unacceptable. As conservationists we are documenting the outfall of the problem and have a moral obligation to sound the alarm. Ask yourself, would Rachel Carson ignore the gorilla in the room were she alive today? Ask yourself, if we won’t act, why should we expect anyone to? Now is the time for leadership. Leadership means having the courage to address the ultimate source of our conservation problems.

Putting this 800-lb gorilla on the table in a public forum isn’t easy. But like most hard work, it’s useful. I encourage you to take a moment and post your thoughts as a member of a thinking community. If you like what you’re reading and believe the conversation is important, follow this blog and share with others.


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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3 Responses to Do We Have the Courage to Put the 800-lb Gorilla On the Table?

  1. Noah Kahn says:

    Jimmy, thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve had conversations around this very topic for many years, within government and in the conservation NGO communities. Most everyone I’ve ever talked with (even those who have made the choice to not publicly touch this topic with a ten-foot pole) agrees with the premise that the pursuit of perpetual economic growth (i.e., using an ever-increasing amount of finite resources) is fundamentally at odds with long-term efforts to conserve the environment and wildlife. I think that’s sort of a given for any thinking person these days.

    And so then the conversation quickly turns to solutions. This, as you know, it where the conversation quickly bogs down. Solutions involving a purposeful slowing of the economy, say, or some sort of campaign to dramatically reduce birth rates, are incredibly hard for me to imagine. Perhaps I’m not visionary enough, or perhaps spending the last 8 years in D.C. has jaded me on what’s politically realistic. Or perhaps that’s just it…people like me first think of politically-driven solutions when in fact real change on this issue, if it ever comes, will come from the people first. So, then, how do we convince people to have fewer children, buy less stuff (and fix it when it breaks rather than buying a new one), commute shorter distances, live in smaller and more dense housing, etc. I’m not seeing any trends in this country or other developed/developing countries that lead me to believe people are willing to use less or have less in exchange for some future promise of a healthier planet. Or maybe unforeseen technology will do the trick.

    And so you may ask, why do I bother with a career in conservation, and lead the resource-light lifestyle that I do, if I’m so pessimistic about humanity’s ability to meaningfully address the economic growth problem? Well, to put it simply, I believe that in 100 years, the world will have significantly less wildlife habitat, and significantly less wildlife, but if that we do nothing, then we will have NO wildlife. Ugh, this can be a depressing subject, and normally I do my best to stay positive. I still get great joy from turning logs with my daughter to show her bess beetles, or birding on the Delaware Shore, or swimming alongside manatees. There’s so much that’s great out there; I know we’ll all do our best to paddle against the strong tide and conserve whatever we can. I admire you for raising a difficult subject. What do you (or others who may read this) believe some realistic solutions may be?

    • James says:

      Noah, thank you for your thoughtful, honest reply. You raise a valid, common concern about finding real solutions without throwing up our hands in despair. Realistic solutions are too numerous to be listed here but the problem always comes back to people’s willingness to adapt. To be honest, I’m not certain which solutions will be most popular but I’m fairly confident the best will be found through our relationships with others. Regarding our personal role, I believe it is important I remember I really only control two things – what I say and what I do. Those two simple acts have been key to solving some of the most notable adaptive challenges humanity has ever faced. Carson, Gandhi, King, Leopold, Lincoln, Mandela, and others leading change all spoke and modeled the behavior for others – those acts generated the relationships that led people to make huge changes and accept loss. I hope this response was helpful.

      • Noah Kahn says:

        Hi Jimmy, thanks for the reply and sorry it took awhile to respond. I appreciate reading your writings and hearing your thoughts, as we certainly need more positivity and optimism in the conservation and environmental fields! Thank you.

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