Will the Environment Heal Itself?
The environment will heal itself, all right, but humans should worry how. The population explosion is causing damage at a faster rate than the earth's ability to recover, and the damage threatens to become permanent. Furthermore, when an expanding population meets shrinking resources, the results are starvation, poorer health and pitched competition for survival. Among other resources, the world has reached its limit in crop harvests, and is declining in animal species, rain forests, top soil, fish stocks, and fresh water.
There are two types of damage that humans cause to the environment. One is long-term, even permanent destruction, such as the extinction of a species or the radioactive poisoning of Chernobyl.
The second is short-term damage -- and this is where conservatives latch onto false hope. It is true that the environment has the capacity to heal itself in some ways. Endangered species can rebound, the earth can create its own ozone, the oceans can absorb greenhouse gases. The rate of recovery depends on the type of damage being done. Species can recover in a few decades; ozone, a century; old growth forests, several centuries; the cooling of radioactive waste, hundreds of thousands of years. But here is a critical point: the environment cannot recover while we are still increasing the damage to it. In many areas, humans are destroying the environment faster than it can recover, as the following statistics will show. And if we continue in our current ways, the damage will inevitably become permanent.
In surveying statistics on the environment, it is important to keep two opposing trends in mind. One is the population explosion:
World population growth (1)
Year Length of
Population reached Interval
1 billion 1804 200,000 years after rise of modern humans
2 billion 1927 123 years
3 billion 1960 33
4 billion 1974 14
5 billion 1987 13
6 billion est. 1998 11
7 billion est. 2009 11
8 billion est. 2021 12
9 billion est. 2035 14
10 billion est. 2054 19
11 billion est. 2093 39
At present, we are adding the population of China to this planet every decade. Feeding and supplying this population explosion are placing huge demands on the environment. And this brings us to the other, opposing trend: the environment's resources are either reaching their limit or shrinking. The result will be like two trains barreling towards each other on the same railroad track. Biologists, historians and economists all concur that whenever growing populations have met shrinking resources, the results have been pitched competition for survival. This is why the above chart sees population growth...