Thoughts on “Mixed Messages”

Mixed MessagesChemicals!  Chemicals everywhere!

The latest article comment reading assignment in People and the Environment was the feature from the January-February 2002 issue of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer“Mixed Messages” by Mary Hoff.

The article details the increasing discovery of endocrine disruptorsin the environment and their relation to anomalies of nature.  In particular, this article revealed the presence of vitellogenin, a protein female fish produce as part of egg-making, in Mississippi River malecarp and walleye.  The fish tested were pulled from waters downstream of the Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Plant effluent in St. Paul.

“Nobody blinked at the carp data, but when we found vitellogenin in male walleye, it was on the front page of the Star Tribune,”  explains Leroy Folmar, the research physiologist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who conducted the study highlighted by Hoff’s article.

Well, of course, a carp is – well – a carp, an overgrown minnow, a rough fish, a Eurasian invader introduced to North American waters by humans long ago.  But the walleye is the Minnesota state fish, and, for its beauty and table fare, the prize catch and most sought after game fish in the land of 10,000 lakes.

The extent of the affects, the damages to the global ecosystem, of endocrine disruptors are largely unknown, but increased studies are producing more prevalent evidence.  The process of recovery is slow because of the daunting task of identifying the vast array of individual chemical culprits and the equally vast array of abnormalities they produce.  Then there is the “harmless” chemicals that bond with other seemingly harmless chemicals to form yet another endocrine disruptor.

A web search turned up a 2005 Institute for Environment and Health compilation of published lists of Chemicals Purported to be Endocrine Disruptors – it’s 91 pages long!

What are we putting into our environment?  Why are we only concerned to a sense of urgency when it threatens human life or a desirable part of human life, if at all?  Our environment is trying to tell us something – we’re poisoning our Earth.

Earth’s Carrying Capacity

Have we reached the Earth’s carrying capacity?  Well, perhaps I can offer my answer to this question by first defining carrying capacity and then establishing the Earth’s carrying capacity as assessed under current natural and social conditions.

As defined in The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

  • car·ry·ing (kār’ē-ĭng) ca·pac·i·ty (kə-pās’ĭ-tē) n.  
    • The maximum number of persons or things that a vehicle or a receptacle can carry: a van with a carrying capacity of 12.
    • Ecology The maximum number of individuals that a given environment can support without detrimental effects.

As explained by the Carrying Capacity Network, a watchdog organization of sorts, presenting “Real Solutions for America’s Problems”:

A common fallacy is to equate existing and seemingly open or “unused” spaces with the kind of resources and ecologically productive land needed to support human life under modern conditions. In fact, the criterion for determining whether a region is overpopulated is not land area, but carrying capacity.

Carrying capacity refers to the number of individuals who can be supported in a given area within natural resource limits, and without degrading the natural social, cultural and economic environment for present and future generations. The carrying capacity for any given area is not fixed. It can be altered by improved technology, but mostly it is changed for the worse by pressures which accompany a population increase. As the environment is degraded, carrying capacity actually shrinks, leaving the environment no longer able to support even the number of people who could formerly have lived in the area on a sustainable basis. No population can live beyond the environment’s carrying capacity for very long.

The average American’s “ecological footprint” (the demands an individual endowed with average amounts of resources, ie, land, water, food, fiber, waste assimilation and disposal, etc. puts on the environment) is about 12 acres, an area far greater than that taken up by one’s residence and place of school or work and other places where he or she is.

We must think in terms of “carrying capacity” not land area. The effects of unfettered population growth drastically reduce the carrying capacity in the United States.

In a post titled “Living Above the Line,” Environmental Research Foundation Precaution Reporter, Peter Montague, reiterated the assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme‘s fourth Global Environmental Outlook Report (GEO-4) in order to answer this question

…GEO-4 concluded that we humans presently require 22 acres per person to support our global average lifestyle — but, the report said, Earth has only 15 acres per person available.

In other words, we have already exceeded the Earth’s “carrying capacity” — it’s capacity to “carry” (or support) 6 billion humans. And the human enterprise is poised for a massive spurt of economic and population growth — expected to raise our numbers to 9 billion by roughly mid-century and to double the size of the human economy every 23 years….

Looking at the findings for the world as a whole presented in GEO-4, taking into consideration my own personal results I found in the ecological footprint quiz, and taking into consideration all of the other factors we have been discussing in People and the Environment lectures, such as the rate at which the Earth’s population is doubling, it is hard to argue against the fact that not only have we reached the Earth’s carrying capacity, but for many reasons we have long since exceeded the upper limits of population the global ecosystem can support.  However, I hope that we have recognized these statistics in time to correct the situation.  I believe the global society’s recognition of the mismanagement of our natural capital in time to continue to make strides toward a sustainable society, and setting and attaining hard and fast goals to meet sustainability, may provide the hope for our future and our grandchildren’s future.

Thoughts on “How Much is Clean Water Worth?”

“How Much is Clean Water Worth?” is a fascinating feature article written by Jim Morrison for the Feb./Mar. 2005 issue of National Wildlife, the magazine of the National Wildlife Federation.  There are some staggering, almost unfathomable, numbers in the form of dollar amounts calculated when it comes to the value of our global ecosystem – something that really should need no dollar value as it is invaluable to all of us using this planet.

However, how does a controversial 1997 Nature report estimating the annual dollar value of the global ecosystem to be $33 trillion grab you?  That’s ($33,000,000,000,000.00) 14 zeroes in dollars and cents if you’re counting – and I was.  Apparently it grabbed some the wrong way:

One report by researchers at the University of Maryland, Bowden College and Duke University called the estimate “absurd,” noting that if taken literally, the figure suggests that a family earning $30,000 annually would pay $40,000 annually for ecosystem protection.

But, if not taken literally, how can we begin to make exponentially important decisions about the future of our society as a species, and the managing species, on this planet.  If we continue to ignore stewardship of our natural resources as a society by not assigning an economic value to something that is invaluable, when will the price tag to correct our mismanagement exceed our natural capital?  Or have we already reached a point where we are writing checks our collective butts can’t cash?

The article is packed full of amazing examples of stewardship and recognition of our natural capital in the form of monetary valuation that gives me some new hope in our society.  Examples of restoring what nature had intended all along; restoring for not only natural instrumental benefits, but the intrinsic social, economical, and ecological benefits as well.

If the planet is still offering us the chance to fix our mistakes in stewardship, and if the best way to recognize the benefits of fixing those mistakes is by assigning a dollar figure to enhance the understandability of the big picture, then, I say, give me a price gun and I’ll help price tag the place.

What did it cost you to read this rant?  Time.  What did it cost the earth in natural capital to provide you the opportunity to read this rant?  Time.  If, as the old saying goes, time is money – which is more valuable to me?  And do you really want to know my answer?