Essay | Life (and Death) in the Fulcrum Century

By Connie Mutel, author of The Emerald Horizon and A Watershed Year (both published by The University of Iowa Press). This essay is reprinted from IoWatch, the newsletter of The University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, fall 2010, with permission.

Connie Mutel

Family legend has it that my great-great-grandmother, one of many Germans who immigrated to eastern Wisconsin in the mid-1800s, walked wilderness trails to the village of Milwaukee to file the family’s farmland claim. Passing alone through the forest she sang the entire way as a protective measure: listening Native Americans were charmed by her voice. They watched her pass, but did not attack.

I love the image this story raises: a woman walking fearlessly through primeval oaklands, seeking protection with song. And I love our aging family journals that tell of her newly-arrived clan assembling slick structures in Wisconsin creekbeds to repel nearby howling wolves. Such stories of nature’s power and proliferation speak to me of a world so vibrant and complex that planetary change seems unimaginable.

But, of course, my family lore is nothing but a story of major impending change, of Native American populations ceding to white immigrants, of wolf packs positioning themselves for annihilation. I’m not comfortable with this fact. Even though I have studied ecological change for decades, I personally crave stability my grandchildren visiting the same swimming holes that their parents once used, falling in love with the same woodland birds and flowers, assuming that the natural world holds the same opportunities for them that it did for their parents and for me. But does it?

For nearly 20 years, I have written about environmental change issues for the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER). This work has been among the most satisfying of my professional career. I’ve grown to love the people I’ve written about, their work, and their intellectual passions. I’ve relished learning ever more about environmental issues and research. Now I feel that it’s time for me to move on.

Through this work, I have come to think of myself as living in the middle of a century that is redefining the very nature of life in a fundamental and elementary fashion, not only for humans but also for our planet and its other inhabitants. It’s as if my life were balanced on the pivot point of a fulcrum. On the one hand, I look back on the world from around 1950 to the present, a period some call “The Age of Acceleration,” when human numbers, consumption, technology, resource use, waste production, and physical and chemical manipulation of nature soared exponentially. During this time, I have been one of the planet’s fortunate Golden Billion who – unlike the world’s other nearly 6 billion – have never lacked for food, home, medical care, or energy.

On the other hand, looking forward toward the mid-point of the 21st century, I see us moving into payback time, during which the results of our excesses and affluence will become increasingly evident, and humans and many other species will be forced to cope with the results of current trends. By that time, the human population is expected to peak at around nine or ten billion people, signaling the end of rising environmental pressures from sheer human numbers (although not necessarily from increasing human needs and desires). Humans then may have the chance to enter a more stable and sustainable relationship with Earth, one that will depend on the amount and quality of environmental resources and services that remain. It’s uncomfortable living here on the point of a fulcrum, sensing how my actions and those of my nation each day are reshaping the potential for my children to live with the same abandon and abundance I’ve relished.

To better understand the “fulcrum century” concept, consider some numbers. Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s population soared from about 2.5 to 6.1 billion. Between 1960 and 2000, global freshwater use doubled; five to 25 percent of use now exceeds long-term accessible supplies. Biogeochemical flows were altered in crucial ways – for example, reactive nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems doubled, and phosphorus tripled, causing serious excess nutrient loading and water pollution. About half of the total increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide dates from the last four decades of the 20th century (55 ppm of the total 280-to-388 ppm rise since 1750).

Tens of thousands of new synthetic chemicals were released from 1950 to 2000, world ecosystems were structurally and functionally altered more rapidly and extensively than during any comparable historic period, with for example 40 percent of the world’s coral reefs being destroyed or seriously degraded. Global genetic diversity declined substantially and irreversibly as extinction rates soared to as much as 1,000 times background rates. Up to a third of all mammals, birds, and amphibians are now threatened with extinction. By 2000, about two-thirds of life support functions (ecosystem services) that were surveyed – including nature’s regulation of air, water, climate, and pests, and the propagation of insect pollinators, wild fisheries and food, and genetic resources – were being degraded or used unsustainably.

Humans are now powerful enough to affect life not just regionally but around the globe – a strength exemplified by World War II’s creation of the atomic bomb, as well as acidification of the world’s oceans (global ocean pH down about 0.1 units since 1800) and global rises in green house gases. As the scope and magnitude of human influences on the natural world continue to soar, climate scientists, ecologists, and others have speculated that our environmental systems are increasingly likely to break: that rising pressures, rather than incrementally intensifying ongoing trends, will produce non-linear and abrupt climate or ecological changes. Current regional examples of such quantum shifts include increasing numbers of dead zones in coastal waterways, regional collapse of fisheries, and disease emergence. Some visionaries are attempting to clarify this concept by defining “planetary boundaries” beyond which environmental change will be unacceptable.

Certainly humans have always reshaped their environment. Societies have come and gone, sometimes failing because of environmental degradation. But they always did so within the womb of a larger natural world that buffered their actions and maintained an overarching environmental stability, sustained by the globe’s tremendous biodiversity and the complexity of healthy integrated ecosystem functions. In general, people could assume an abundance of clean water and air, pollinators and migrating birds, natural buffers to reduce flood-water, renewed soils, recycled nutrients to feed crops, and countless other natural amenities. Our planet was a self-sustaining and life-supporting homeland. That was a given.

Today’s unprecedented massive changes represent a potential reversal of these assumptions. As we compromise the planet’s stabilizing diversity, interactions, and processes, Earth is losing its resilience, constancy, and regenerative capabilities. In many ways it is becoming more erratic, brittle, and limited. We are, some would say, creating a no-analogue world in which we cannot predict the future based on past patterns.

When I contemplate these trends, I wonder: Are we indeed headed toward cataclysmic planetary change, when nature will insist on shouting out the last word? Or will the planet and human race continue to muddle along, even as the environment and our resulting quality of life continue to decline, the world as we know it ending not with a bang but a whimper? I hope that neither prediction is true. But I’ve come to accept that all our attempts to recreate a self-sustaining world will not vacuum excessive greenhouse gases from our atmosphere, resurrect extinct species, or bring about the other regenerative changes I desire. Even as CGRER members have continued to teach and research the questions at hand, I’ve wondered about how we might create a sense of urgency that would motivate people and governments to make necessary changes. And about policies, institutions, and practices that might somehow slow the massive momentum of current trends. I’ve wondered about where we could find political and economic leadership to look in new directions and fund dramatic environmental initiatives. And about whether, just maybe, the attempts of individuals around the globe might miraculously coalesce to form a societal and political common vision that would lead to collective action that redirected the current incorrigible trajectory of our planet.

Meanwhile, life goes on. Several years ago, when I had the joy of becoming a grandmother, I acknowledged that my grandkids’ greatest inheritance would be one of environmental integrity and health – not monetary wealth, goods, or outdated traditions. With this belief in mind, and my continuing faith in active lives guided by personal integrity, I offer the following suggestions (see below). These thoughts have helped me maintain hope and continue to work for positive change. Applied collectively, by governments as well as individuals, I believe that they also could reshape our planet’s future.

I have usually ended my IoWatch articles with words about CGRER members rising to the challenge and doing the right thing. But not today. Instead, I retreat to the natural world that I love. I did so this spring, when enjoying indigo buntings, eastern wood-pewees, eastern phoebes, and other birds nesting near our woodland home. One morning, I noticed a walnut-shell-size nest on a tree limb overhanging our deck, a lichen-covered cup fused to the branch with strands of stretchy spiderweb silk. A hummingbird nest. I started rising at dawn to watch the nesting mother awake, rustle her feathers, and raise her head. After a few minutes she’d lift her tiny body, her wings flapping at over 50 beats per second, and zip down to a nearby flower for a morning feast. There was something sacred in that event and in the recognition that this three-gram bird had flown to the Midwest from Central America. Just as her ancestors had likely done for thousands of years before. These processes, these elementary patterns and habits of nature that still abound, are struggling to hold the world together with intermeshed strands that – like spiderweb silk – are stronger than steel. They are indeed sacred and profound. They are indeed worth fighting to preserve. I know that I’ll continue to do so, and that CGRER and its members will do the same.

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