A Few Things Ill Considered

Global Day of Overshoot

August 13th was Earth Overshoot Day. The correct date, if calculated precisely, would come earlier and earlier each year, the current choice is just an approximation.

This year, the year 2015, by sometime around August 13th, humanity had consumed as much of what we require from the lands and seas as our planet can sustainabley provide in an entire year. That is another way of expressing the fact that at current consumption rates, humanity requires 1.6 planet earth’s worth of fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood and other organic materials. It is a remarkable annual deficit, and if it is not reduced to zero, we will simply run out of things vital to our survival. That is the simple arithmetic of “unsustainable”.

But what does “unsustainable” look like?

Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot by Tom Butler, William Ryerson, et al (Goff Books, March 2015)

One of the (very few) perks of blogging is the occasional free book offer that comes to my inbox. I don’t often take advantage of them mostly just because of personal disinterest in whatever specific topic is at hand. Out of those offers that are interesting to me, I have to be realistic about what I am going to have time to read. An offer came to me a while ago that finally ticked those boxes. It was about an interesting, if bleak, subject: the mark humans have made on this planet through overpopulation and over consumption, and it was promising to be readable without a large time commitment since it was primarily a book of photography. I’m talking about the extraordinary book, Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot by Tom Butler, William Ryerson, et al published by Goff Books, March 2015.

Because of this promotional book, I can show you, in the most graphic manner you might want, the answer to my rhetorical question above: what does unsustainable look like? The book is filled with high quality images from around the world. Images “framed with essays by renowned women’s rights, population and conservation experts,” images that illuminate “the depth of the damage that human numbers and behavior have caused to the Earth — and which threaten humanity’s future prosperity.”* Some of these images are awe-inspiring, some rather horrifying, but almost all of them are disturbingly compelling. Below are some examples reproduced here with permission of the publisher. I recommend buying the book and seeing them all.

Images are linked to higher resolution versions, please click.


Air pollution, C02, and water vapor rise from the stacks at a coal-burning power plant in the U.K.; © Jason Hawkes.

Tar sands-related tailings ponds are among the largest toxic impoundments on Earth and lie in unlined dykes mere meters from the Athabasca River; indigenous communities downstream are fearful of being poisoned by toxic seepage into the food chain. Alberta, Canada; © Garth Lentz.

Trucks the size of a house look like tiny toys as they rumble along massive roads in a section of a mine. The largest of their kind, these 400 ton capacity dump trucks are 47.5″ long, 32.5″ wide, and 25″ high. Within their dimensions you could build a 3000 square foot home. The scale of the Tar Sands is truly unfathomable. Alberta Energy has reported that the landscape being industrialized by rapid Tar Sands development could easily accommodate one Florida, two New Brunswicks, four Vancouvers, and four Vancouver Islands.

On Midway Island, far from the centers of world commerce, an albatross, dead from ingesting too much plastic, decays on the beach; it is a common sight on the remote island. © Chris Jordan.

Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya catches a wave in a remote but garbage-covered bay on Java, Indonesia, the world’s most populated island; © Zak Noyle.

Sprawling Mexico City, Mexico, population 20 million, density 24,600/square mile (9,610/square kilometer), rolls across the landscape, displacing every scrap of natural habitat; © Pablo Lopez Luz.

“American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. the far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future.” —James Howard Kunstler
Los Angeles, California, population 15 million typifies America’s consumption-oriented and car-dependent culture; © Mike Hedge.

Suburban Sprawl: “Human agriculture and industry are embedded in and supported by the natural ecosystems of earth…. Yet modern societies heedlessly displace, poison, overharvest, and directly assault natural ecosystems with little thought for their importance in their own sustenance.” —Paul and Anne Ehrlich aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades; Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO.

To give a better sense of what you are looking at just above, right below is a full resolution enlargement of a small section from the center of this image:

Detail from Suburban Sprawl: Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO.

Delhi Grid: “Humans evolved in wild nature. Only relatively recently in our time on Earth, roughly ten to twelve millennia ago, did we begin to domesticate other species—and ourselves. That first agricultural revolution set humanity on a trajectory of population growth and settlement-based land use. Increased social organization and the invention of cities went hand in hand to allow development of increasingly complex economic and political systems. In 2008, for the first time in history, the majority of humans on Earth lived in cities. We had become, at least superficially, urban animals.”Aerial view of New Delhi, India, population 22 million, density 30,000 per square mile (11,700/km2); Google Earth/2014 Digital Globe.

As with the image of Florida, below is a full-resolution enlargement of a small section from the center-bottom portion of the New Delhi image above:

Delhi Grid: Detail from center, bottom of Aerial view of New Delhi, India, population 22 million, density 30,000 per square mile (77,700/km2); Google Earth/2014 Digital Globe.

Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million; © Mike Hedge.

“I don’t understand why when we destroy something created by man we call it vandalism, but when we destroy something created by nature we call it progress.” —Ed Begley, Jr.
Depleting oil fields are yet another symptom of ecological overshoot; Kern River Oil Field, California, U.S.; © Mark Gamba/Corbis.

Cattle gather near a watering pond as fires set to clear and rejuvenate the land burn on a ranch in Sao Felix Do Xingu Municipality, Para State, Brazil, Aug. 12, 2008.
Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Cattle ranch in Agua Boa, Mato Grosso, Brazil, August 8, 2008.
Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Desolate landscape of working oil pumps on the Kern River Oil Field — Image by © Mark Gamba/Gallery Stock/Galeries/Corbis

Sometimes called the Brazil of the North, Canada has not been kind to its native forests. Image of clear-cut logging on Vancouver Island, © Garth Lentz.

Views of the PSA container port in Singapore, the world’s largest and busiest port in the world.

* Quotes borrowed from some of the promotional materials that came with the book offer.