[Coral-List] Sustainability - defining it.

Douglas Fenner douglasfennertassi at gmail.com
Mon Jun 29 18:07:12 EDT 2015


     Thanks for all this information, I certainly didn't know about the
phosphate limitations, and probably most people don't.  I've always thought
that there was a looming disaster coming in agriculture, because it is so
heavily dependent on oil, I've read that the food calories produced are
about the same as the calories in the oil used to produce the food.  That
means we are eating fossil fuel calories, and fossil fuels are finite, they
will run out at some point (well, become more and more expensive to produce
due to the easy deposits having been exhausted).  Now it is clear to me
that phosphates may well run out well before oil.  Sounds to me like when
phosphates run out, humans will be in very deep trouble unless populations
are decreased substantially by then, essentially impossible in 30 years,
but maybe possible in 300 years.

     Another explanation for the wide range of estimates of carrying
capacity of the earth could be that different people making the estimates
make different assumptions about things that can't easily be measured or
for which there are no data.  But it could also be because different people
use different models, include different things, and so on.  I'm just
guessing, I don't know.  I note that the estimates of the time until
phosphates run out vary from 30 to 300 years, also a pretty wide range.

     As for your statement that:

"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 agree that we can't save the corals that have already died.

I think it is a common miss-statement that 'X% of coral reefs have
disappeared.'  I don't think a geologist would say that.  Coral reefs (as
opposed to corals or coral reef ecosystems) are geological structures.  85%
of them have not disappeared.  They will be there long from now, pretty
much no matter what we do.  But this is a common way of speaking, almost
everybody does it.  It is probably based on Clive Wilkinson's statements in
his GCRMN "Status of Coral Reefs of the World" series.  I quote from the
2008 edition: "...the world has effectively lost 19% of the original area
of coral reefs; 15% are seriously threatened with loss within the next
10-20 years; and 20% are under threat of loss in 20-40 years."  These
statements are widely quoted or paraphrased.  I don't think he meant that
the geological structures were lost, rather the area on those structures
that we would call "coral reef ecosystem".  I'll argue that it is a loose
way of speaking, which if taken literally would be misleading, but surely
is not taken literally by those who use the term or read it.  We all fall
into the habit of speaking this way, but I think we'd do better if we were
clearer about what we mean.

     I would argue that we should all make an effort to try to make our
statements literally true.  Maybe a better way to state it might be
something like "19% of coral reef ecosystems have been degraded to the
point that they no longer are coral reef ecosystems".  That would raise the
question of just what that point was, corals no longer dominant (but they
aren't dominant on many near-pristine reefs), or corals a minor part of the
ecosystem (how minor?), or corals completely gone, not a single one left
(few places would meet that criterion), or something else.  Or we could say
that "19% of the world's corals have been lost."

     I also would have difficulty with a statement that 85% of coral reef
ecosystems or corals have disappeared.  Clive's 2008 statement was that 19%
have disappeared..  I think we can presume it is likely to be a bit worse
today, but that's the last version of his reports that I have.  85% is
closer to being true for Caribbean reefs, though the most thorough look at
the data, the recent Jackson et al. GCRMN report, reports more coral left
in the Caribbean (about 17% cover average) and less coral in the early
records (35% cover) than previous reports, due to including more data from
additional sites, which turned out to have more cover than the sites looked
at previously.  So their estimate is closer to 50% lost there.  The Bruno
and Selig (2007) paper, which points out that about 75% of the world's
reefs are in the Indo-Pacific, says that at that time coral cover in the
Pacific averaged 22%, "currently at least 20% below the best historical
reference points" and that although the original coral cover is not known,
it "was probably approximately 50%" which would provide a calculation of a
decline of a bit more than 50%, so their range of declines in the Pacific
might be on the order of about 22-55%.  Ateweberhan et al (2011) report
that Indian Ocean reefs' average coral cover has had a net decline of about
27% in the available data.

     So world declines in coral cover are likely substantially less than
85%.  It is true that coral cover could have been even higher before the
first surveys, that may even be quite likely.  However, the world's most
pristine existing coral reefs do not have 100% coral cover, far from it (US
remote Pacific islands: 10-25%, Vroom, 2011; Chagos: 63%, Sheppard et al
2012; Ningaloo: 28%, Speed et al 2013; northern GBR: 25%, De'ath et al

     I probably should have written "save what coral remains."  I think a
substantial amount remains, although obviously we've lost a lot, especially
in the Caribbean.  There is quite a bit of coral reef that is still in
reasonably good condition, as I wrote in my recent email about "good
news."  I also haven't seen good evidence that if the stresses on coral
reefs are removed, they can't recover.  Indian Ocean reefs recovered quite
a bit after the mortality of 1998, and Chagos recovered essentially all of
its coral cover, probably because it has so much less human-produced stress
(Sheppard et al, 2012).  I think that it is at least theoretically possible
to "save the remaining coral reef ecosystems" and even recover previously
lost coral.  In practice, I think that will not be at all easy, as I stated
before.  Most of us are doing our best right now, and likely we are loosing
additional coral (though the Indian Ocean showed recovery and then
stability at a level lower than the original, and some areas of the
Caribbean show stability in the most recent data (Jackson), and the Bruno
data looks to me like it is showing a slowing of decline in the Pacific in
the most recent data).  We may or may not succeed, but I think coral reefs
are worth trying to save and restore, and trying very hard indeed, as hard
as we possibly can.  I think the hundreds of millions of people who depend
on coral reefs for the food to feed their families would agree, plus the
people whose income depends on reefs (I recently read in Van Dam et al,
2011, that Jameson et al 1995 estimate that coral reefs provide $140
billion income a year for Caribbean islands alone; sounds like a high
figure to me, but in any case it is substantial).  I think we all,
including particularly funders, need to commit more to the fight.
Government funding in the developed world for saving remaining coral and
restoring lost coral is a pitiful fraction of what is spent on all sorts of
other things.  But budgets are not bottomless pits of money, and there are
many demands on governments and NGOs (and most all of the latter have very
little money).

Cheers,  Doug

Wilkinson, C. (ed.)  2008.  Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008.
GCRMN.  (quote from page 5)

Bruno, J.F., Selig, E.R.  2007.  Regional decline of coral cover in the
Indo-Pacific: timing, extent, and subregional comparisons.  PLoS One.

Ateweberhan et al  2011.  Episodic heterogeneous decline and recovery of
coral cover in the Indian Ocean.  Coral Reefs 30: 739-752.

Jackson, J. et al 2014.  Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs:
1970-2012.  GCRMN.

Vroom, P.S.  2011.  "Coral dominance": a dangerous ecosystem misnomer?
Journal of Marine Biology

Speed et al.  2013.  Dynamic stability of coral reefs on the west
Australian coast.  PLoS One   open access

Sheppard et al  2012.  Reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago, Indian
Ocean: why it is the world's largest no-take marine protected area.
Aquatic conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 22: 232- 261.

De'ath, G., Fabricius, K.E., Sweatman, H., Puotinen, M.  2012.  The 27-year
decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef and its causes.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 17995-17999.

Van Dam, J.W., Negri, A.P., Uthicke, S., Mueller, J.F.  2011. Chapter 9:
Chemical pollution on coral reefs: exposure and ecological effects.  Pp.
187-211 in Sanchez-Bayo, F. et al (eds), Ecological Impacts of Toxic

Jameson SC, McManus JW, Spalding MD. State of the Reefs: Regional and
Global Perspectives. US Department of State, Washington, DC; 1995.

On Mon, Jun 29, 2015 at 3:57 AM, Durwood M. Dugger <ddugger at biocepts.com>

> 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:
> Durwood,
>     I see that Wikipedia has a more comprehensive page on 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

Douglas Fenner
Contractor with Ocean Associates, Inc.
PO Box 7390
Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA

phone 1 684 622-7084

Join the International Society for Reef Studies.  Membership includes a
subscription to the journal Coral Reefs, there are discounts for pdf
subscriptions and developing countries.  www.fit.edu/isrs/

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website:  http://independent.academia.edu/DouglasFenner

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