[Coral-List] Sustainability - defining it.

Durwood M. Dugger ddugger at biocepts.com
Mon Jun 29 10:57:03 EDT 2015

Doug and Steve,

We would be simply playing semantic games when we attempt to separate overpopulation from consumption and its effects. As I said they are interlinked and consumption rates are growing dramatically on a global basis. Using just population numbers masks the other impacts of over population.

I think when you consider estimates that 85% of coral reefs have disappeared in the past hundred years - I’m not exactly sure of how you can say we are “saving" them. We might be saving legacy broodstocks, but IMO “saving the reefs” - that ship sailed in the late 60s.

I started looking at human sustainability issues seriously about a decade ago. I read most of the “sustainability estimates” then and still do. A 400% range (4-16 billion) in estimate variation among “experts” of sustainable global carrying capacity - suggest to me a very strong BS factor among said “experts.” So, I started thinking/researching what the real bottle necks were to human population expansion. Two things came to light as I sorted through the current research:

First, was that we are approaching 95% of the global population's food supply being absolutely dependent upon NPK fertilizer (as India and China have rapidly converted from manure to western NPK driven ag. methods). BTW - according the USDA Annual Fertilizer Summary the US now imports more than 50% of its NPK fertilizer components. If we thought imported oil was a problem for your car, wait to our food production becomes even more dependent on foreign suppliers.

Of these three NPK elements - phosphorus from phosphates is the primary limitation for NPK food production. Nothing lives and grows without adequate phosphorus. USGS estimate of global phosphate reservers is about 300 years - at a population of about 6-7 billion. Then you have to take into account that those USGS reserves are based on host country estimates (same ones they use on their asset sheets to justify debt - see the bias?) and there are no ground truth verifications of them - zero verification. Additionally, even if the estimates were correct, large percentages of global phosphates are typically not useable for food production due to the high levels of uranium commonly found intermixed with phosphate deposits and it’s economically difficult to separate and dispose of these wastes. FL (formerly the nations largest phosphate producer) already has large issues with radioactive phosphate mine tailings and there are large acreages of former tobacco fields in Virginia and surrounding states that are no longer safe for food production - due to the high levels of cummulative phosphate uraniums applied to them back in the 50s and 60s before they were required to be tested. Heavy metal contamination is another economic problem with phosphate mining and consequently in accurately determining viable/useable phosphate reserves - at least at production costs that don’t dramatically shift the global food production economic paradigms. 

While population estimates show a decline of global population growth of about 1% from the prior 2%/yr. in the last hundred years, and this sounds good - what sustainability “experts” don’t consider is that during this same time life expectancy has also doubled. For every person born now - there is another adult person (who would have died 100 years ago) that is “born” again into the second half of their life - significantly adding to global standing human biomass. From a standing biomass and consumption standpoint the human population biomass and it’s critical resource demands have still dramatically increased in spite of an apparent birth rate decline and probably higher than they were when population growth rates were 2%/annum. By 2050 the human population are projected to require 79% more food calories (calorie source impacts from “meats” will undoubtedly be much higher than in the past and represents much higher ag. production areas and NPK.). This has serious implications for food production sustainability, the downstream effects of this scale of agriculture, ag. runoffs, oceanic water quality, dead zones, etc. - and more rapid consumption of global phosphate reserves.).

If you read the Story of Phosphorus and other pubs. by Dr. Dana Cordell (Dr Dana Cordell is a Research Principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney) you find that her worst case useable phosphate reserve estimates might be less than 30 years - as compared to the USGS 300 yrs. You might also want to look up recent “Food Riots” in Wikipedia as well, as they are considered an early warning to coming peak food (economic) conflicts. 

Second, once you mention peak phosphates to a lot of people and even if they have ever heard of the term, they immediately come back with organic farming and permaculture as solutions global food production - and they are clueless about the timelines of the natural phosphorus (bio-active phosphorus) cycle which on land is very slow - decades if not centuries depending on soil chemistry. You can recycle organics till you are blue in the face, but until resident phosphates become bioactive again, you won’t produce squat, no matter how much nitrogen is present. Currently less than 5% of the global food supply is “organically produced” and averages 25% less yields than similar NPK crop production that has much lower costs. If there was a global conversion to organic food production the vast majority of the global human population couldn’t afford to buy it and it would require far more acreage - and energy. Currently, it’s estimated that 80% of global arable land is already being NPK farmed by large multi-national food companies. There simply will not be another “green revolution” for the next 2-7 billion people arriving by 2050.

For me the bottom line regarding the natural human carrying capacity in a world where peak oil and peak phosphates timelines are pretty much in parallel and nearing the end of their economic viability curves (suggest you read Gail Tverberg’s essays regarding petroleum and related economics) - is to look back to when human kind left the natural phosphorus cycle - which was in the early 1800s at the birth of the Industrial Revolution which brought about the “green revolution” with the advent of mechanized ag. and NPK. The human population at the time was about one billion people - surviving within the natural phosphorus cycle. Considering peak oil and peak phosphate world - if you double that number for the sake of modern science ability - you are still at only two billion people for a sustainable population - not seven billion, and certainly not at nine or sixteen billion. Consequently, unless global human carrying capacity estimates are based on biologically active phosphorus production limitations -  including the cycling time - they are essentially inaccurate, naive - if not just plain incompetent.  

I mentioned earlier that a “free” energy source could shift these limitations, simply because when energy is cheap enough both phosphorus recycling and elemental phosphorus generation become more technically and economically feasible - phosphorus recycling to date has proved to be uneconomic for agriculture scale needs, and the atomic synthesis of elemental phosphorus is just theoretical under current energy generation economic paradigms.

My point here isn’t to lead resource mangers and conservators away from coral reef and other related habitat protection and restoration efforts, but to help explain (IMO) the context of the greater problems and coming impacts that you attempt it under and hopefully enhance their planning and solutions to fit within this context as best possible. 
Best regards,

Durwood M. Dugger, Pres.
ddugger at biocepts.com
BCI, Inc. <http://www.biocepts.com/BCI/Home.html>
On Jun 28, 2015, at 7:01 PM, Douglas Fenner <douglasfennertassi at gmail.com> wrote:

    I see that Wikipedia has a more comprehensive page on Human overpopulation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation>.  I see that it says that "Most contemporary estimates for the carrying capacity of the Earth <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth> under existing conditions are between 4 billion and 16 billion. Depending on which estimate is used, human overpopulation may or may not have already occurred. Nevertheless, the rapid recent increase in human population is causing some concern."  Later in the article, it says "Many quantitative studies have estimated the world's carrying capacity for humans, that is, a limit to the world population.[95] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation#cite_note-95> A meta-analysis of 69 such studies suggests a point estimate of the limit to be 7.7 billion people,  while lower and upper meta-bounds for current technology are estimated as 0.65 and 98 billion people, respectively".  Also, "The InterAcademy Panel Statement on Population Growth <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IAP_statement_on_population_growth>, circa 1994, stated that many environmental problems, such as rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_carbon_dioxide>,global warming <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming>, and pollution <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pollution>, are aggravated by the population expansion.[14] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation#cite_note-14>"  I would agree with "aggravated".  And "However, many believe that waste and over-consumption <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Over-consumption>, especially by wealthy nations, is putting more strain on the environment than overpopulation.[16] <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation#cite_note-16>"  That fits with the view that population multiplies the effects of consumption, and vice versa, not that population, in and of itself, causes the problem.
       What I think we do know is that large and fast growing populations increase a wide variety of problems, the need to build more schools for large numbers of children, find more water sources, build more electricity capacity, roads, more food, more deforestation, overfishing, greenhouse gas emissions, etc etc.
      I recommend looking at the "Effects of human overpopulation" section on the Human overpopulation webpage on Wikipedia, at the long list of effects.  It introduces them by saying "Some problems associated with or exacerbated by human overpopulation and over-consumption are:"
     Whatever the level of population that is not sustainable, if population continues to grow, it will be exceeded sooner or later, since resources are finite.  I am reminded of the prediction of Malthus, that population growth will exceed resources, and populations will be controlled by starvation, war, or disease.  In large part that has not happened since his writings.  The available resources have been greatly expanded by the tool making revolution, the agricultural revolution (about 9000 years ago) and the industrial revolution, and the green revolution (agriculture) (only the last two were after Malthus).  Whether that can continue over the medium term or not is debatable, but in the very long term, it can't.
     So agreed, population is at least one of the two ultimate causes of coral reef degradation.  But as I argued before, there is no way that population can be reduced fast enough to save reefs.
      I don't agree that we can't get off of our addition to fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are heavily subsidized.  In the US, oil companies receive $35 billion (with a "b") a year in direct subsidies.  An excerpt from one of Tom Goreau's recent papers says "At present the world subsidizes fossil fuels to the rate of 500 billion dollars per year (Whitely, 2013), or about $15 per tonne of CO2 emitted."   Fossil burning plants do not have to pay the societal costs of all the pollution they emit, if they did, they would be uneconomical compared to renewable energy.  Oil doesn't have to pay the costs of the military necessary to keep the supply lines open in places like the Persian Gulf.  Remove the subsidies, and renewables would then be cheaper than fossil fuel, and people will switch relatively quickly, voluntarily.  Yes, a huge change.
      I agree that people in the developing world will be unwilling to limit the growth of their economies.  And I add that I don't think people in developed countries have a right to demand that they do so, while people in the developed countries consume so much more.
      I agree we will have many drastic declines in many types of ecosystems and quality of life long before CO2 levels become toxic (I don't think anyone has proposed CO2 will reach toxic levels, asphyxiating people, anytime in the near or even distant future).
      I never said I was satisfied with incremental progress.  I said I would take what I can get.  I'd much rather have rapid progress than slow, and the slower we are, the more damage will be done before we get these things under control.  But I appreciate any ethical thing that helps us to get farther towards our goal, and more quickly.
     I don't think we have to choose between fixing the ultimate causes of population and over-consumption on the one hand, and working on proximal causes on the other hand.  We can work on local causes of coral reef decline and on reducing greenhouse gases, and on reducing population growth rates and reducing consumption, all at once.  In fact I think that's the best way to go.  As for the disease analogy, we have no cures for diseases like colds or Ebola.  We can only treat symptoms for those diseases, and with colds at least, people recover on their own.  Broadly speaking, human populations increase in spite of diseases, and the human species survived even before there was modern medicine to treat diseases.  I don't think that humans are necessarily doomed, nor is the environment.  I do think that overpopulation and over consumption, unless reduced, are likely to greatly reduce the quality of life in the future for many.
    Anyhow, we aren't going to save coral reefs by reducing population, that will take at least a couple hundred years or more, the the big mass mortality from bleaching is predicted to start in a few decades.  (But if anybody has a bright idea of how to reduce world population in just three decades without killing vast numbers of people, please tell us.)  The only way to do it is to reduce local impacts, and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.  All of which can be done in time to save reefs, without waiting for population to be reduced.  But it certainly won't be easy and if we don't start making progress we're going to loose.
    Cheers,  Doug

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