By Olivier Cameron Trudel
Wildlife Biologist & Photographer
Understand | Environment | Philosophy
Reading time: 4 minutes
Text and research by Olivier Cameron Trudel
Published December 2018
Earth is an approximately spherical, living organism known as the Biosphere. Although economic science took eons to recognize it, our planet is, indeed, a round and finite globe. Seeing as resources are limited in time and/or space, infinite growth on earth is not possible, contrary to the paradigm of economy based on infinite capital growth. The use of resources versus the limited quantity of these resources dictates the rules according to a very simple principle: nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.
The earth system generates and regenerates many products and services, and mankind is one of the beneficiaries of these products and services. Similar to an economic system, the regulating of the earth’s production can be observed through the concept of supply and demand. The difference between what the planet can produce, provide and absorb (the supply) and what mankind consumes and wastes (the demand) leads to a balance, whether negative or positive, much like a bank account. In this case, the balance is an ecological one and can be measured by the total number of resources used in the closed system that is the biosphere.
The footprint generated by any one human throughout his or her life will be the direct result of their consumer choices. This ecological footprint can greatly vary according to one’s geographic region, transportation habits, housing, dietary choices, etc. (reference: global footprint.org). We are 7.65 billion people living on this small blue and green globe, sharing a similar journey, using limited resources and . . . we have nowhere else to go.
Picture planet earth, with its biodiversity and all the complexities of its ecosystems, as a sophisticated electrical space shuttle travelling through space. Operating this shuttle requires the use of battery reserves, which are recharged by solar energy. Currently, the crew travelling aboard the shuttle is using more energy than the solar panels are capable of generating. The problem is, we don’t know what the total charge capacity was at the start. Emptying our battery reserves can have major impacts, such as compromising the progression of the shuttle in the time-space continuum, rendering impossible the avoidance of a probable collision with a celestial body a very real possibility, limiting the shuttle’s ability to absorb and recover from such a shock.
On a smaller scale, the shuttle is a system that operates thanks to the joint work of various parts: bolts, welded metal sheets, etc. Upon inspection of these parts, we realize that several have disappeared over time. Individually, each of these parts is perhaps not necessary to the proper functioning of the shuttle, but there comes a point when the loss of one more part will tip the scales and threaten the system’s fragile equilibrium and compromise the ability to navigate. We’re lucky that the biosphere’s system is filled with functional redundancies (example: several species have the ability to pollinate, or break down organic matter), which has bought us a little time. But it also delayed the detection of the system’s breakdown, perhaps making us underestimate the impact this will have. By removing parts here, cutting wires and ripping pipes there, we find ourselves with a shuttle whose air-conditioning system is no longer functioning to full capacity, a system circulating with contaminated water, with some parts lacking water and others inundated with it. If the loss of certain functions in the shuttle seems unpleasant or even costly for mankind, the loss of other functions becomes downright dangerous.
Will the shuttle that is our planet be capable of absorbing this ecological breakdown for much longer? For how long will the remaining batteries and parts be able to keep our precious ecosystems running? It’s hard to predict . . .
A team of scientists have developed a concept known as “planetary boundaries”, which represents the limits mankind must not exceed should we want to preserve a stable ecosystem and minimize the chances of large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. This approach stems from the fact that, environmentally speaking, we should be maintaining a planetary system with conditions comparable to the Holocene, the geological era when mankind evolved. According to research, we have already crossed the boundaries of several important variables, notably in regards to biosphere integrity, climate change, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and land-system change. Keep in mind that we live in a closed system, the only of its kind within light years . . . a very precious shuttle indeed!
So what would a collapse of our ecological system(s) look like? If one of the biosphere’s systems loses its ability to produce goods and services (pollination by bees, air purification by our forests, dietary protein provided by the sea, filtration of toxic substances by the soil and wetlands, etc.), how will it happen? Occasionally, gradually or will it create a domino effect? The two most important factors for ensuring the stability of our planetary system are biodiversity and climate, and both these factors are seriously impacted by our activities—the very heart of our shuttle. Seeing as so many elements are interconnected, it’s logical to think that the collapse of one system or ecological cycle could trigger the breakdown of other major parts of the biosphere. When one link in the operating chain ceases to function, the entire shuttle is in danger of total failure . . .
It’s time we realize that mankind is at a crossroads. We have the privilege of witnessing a defining moment for our species. We are among the first generations to so clearly understand the over-exploitation and challenges threatening our biosphere’s systems—a direct result of our own actions. But we’re also possibly among the last generations with the power to change the course of our planet in order to limit the extent of the disasters caused by our actions. We must find solutions—and fast—and we must change the course of mankind’s destiny. We must be the shift this world needs by taking part in the story that’s being written.
We need to take a stance . . . take concrete action on a daily basis, evaluate the planet, much like we would with a budget, over a period of time that allows us to see the results of our actions, and measure their efficiency rapidly while facing these ecological emergencies. Yes, it’s a question of respecting the environment, but it’s also more than that—it’s about respecting the common good, understanding that we all need to show some humility and take responsibility for our space shuttle and all forms of life that are on it.
So the question is : what trace do you choose to leave behind?
Penuelas J., Poulter B., Sardans J. et al. (2013). "Human-induced nitrogen–phosphorus imbalances alter natural and managed ecosystems across the globe", Nature communications, 4, 2934.
Steffen W., Persson Å., Deutsch L., Zalasiewicz J. et al. (2011). "The Anthropocene: From global change to planetary stewardship". Ambio, 40(7), 739.
Steffen, W., Richardson K., Rockström J., Cornell S. E. et al. (2015). "Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet". Science, 347(6223), 1259855.
Vörösmarty C. J., Sahagian, D. (2000). "Anthropogenic disturbance of the terrestrial water cycle". AIBS Bulletin, 50(9), 753-765.
Olivier Cameron Trudel
Wildlife Biologist & Photographer
In the field, by helicopter or kayak, Olivier captures nature and its animals in its purest essence, without artifice. He constantly pursues this little moment, this sparkle in the animal's eye or in extraordinary landscapes where the human is unequivocally reminded to remember that he is part of the ecosystem.