Why we cannot increase our dependence on nature – even by a modest 2 % per year…

The other day, I read an almost 100 year old article in one of the first Danish scout magazines. It was fun to read about the issues they were dealing with in establishing the scout movement, and how well perceived it was in the entire society. From a ‘BioCircular’ point of view, there was an interesting article of how scouts learned tracks and signs in nature in Denmark. It was striking to read the description of all the mammals and birds of prey that you ‘typically’ would encounter back then. Many of which are now, very rare or gone altogether from our landscapes. Changes has happened; however, as it is not in my lifetime, I do not have the baseline for comparing changes to nature over the 100 years period.

After the pandemic of COVID-19, everybody got a fair understanding of what exponential growth means. As the virus spread globally during March 2020 there was a doubling time of approximate 6 days in the registered number of cases. With that pace, it was clear that exponential growth that initially seem harmless rapidly can turn into significant numbers. Going from 10 to 80 cases might be a challenge for a large hospital in four doubling times (approximately 4 weeks) – however, going from 80 to 1,280 cases (in another four weeks) is a catastrophe.

The tricky thing about exponential growth is that it often seems insignificant in the beginning, except when doubling time is days or weeks, then, we as humans, are able to perceive, the change as substantial. When the doubling time is years or decades, then changes occur so slowly that we adapt without being conscious or do not realise it, as it would require comparison between generations. While COVID-19 spread fast, the degradation of natural systems are happing at a much slower pace. In order to grasp how different many ecosystems are today, we either need to interview old people and hear their description, or turn to data or narratives in old written records. In both cases we are limited in getting good facts about the status more than 100 years old.

I have read old descriptions of fish catch data in European water, hunting kills for fur in Greenland and the efforts of building railways and establishing farming in Kenya and the conflicts and encounters with the wildlife in those situations. Reading these today, you are amazed and cannot fathom, that it was descriptions of reality. Each person and each generation sets its own baseline for comparison. So, a change might be noticed, but as you experience a gradual change, you reset your internal base line and do not recognize the decadal change. When thinking back, you might actually recall major change in some areas compared to your childhood. Green spots that have now been developed into farming areas, roads that have been constructed or buildings put up. And that is in your life time alone…

Our society really began using natural resources about 150 years ago. Here you see depletion of a resources with a 2% growth rate per year.
Some countries have growth rates of about 7% per year. Here you see depletion of a resources with that rate.

In the above graphics you can see how fast an area would change with a 2% and 7% growth rate per year. In the beginning you see a small use and some change, and before the last doubling time, there is still 50% of the resource left. 3 doubling times before full use, only 1/8th (12 percent) has been used, and you would probably not be worried that the resource will eventual be depleted! For all our non-renewable resources, even a tiny, yet consistent increase in resource use will eventually lead to depletion.

For our biological resources, it is not as rapid depletion as depicted in the graphic. For two reasons: one, there is a continued replenishment of the resources, so that the use of the resource is to some degree counteracted from renewal – new photosynthesis production or new off-springs of organisms. The other reason is that when a resource becomes scarce, it is more difficult to find, capture, harvest or kill the remaining. Thus, a small fraction will probably survive for a longer period of time. And that is actually what we see in e.g. the numbers of a lot of game, from which there is some kind of data or estimate of previous abundance. Lions in East Africa are a good example. We still think there is an reasonably sized population of lions left, and if you go on safari in the region you stand a good chance to meet them. In my life-time, and coming to the region in the past 30 years, I have no impression that there is less – though IUCN estimate a decline of about 59% in the region. Totally, the lion population is down to about 20,000 individuals. Compared to estimates of 200,000 a hundred years ago, it is only a fraction.

What I can observe though, is that settlements are creeping in on the habitats of the lions. More houses, more cattle and goats, more farming is fenced off right at the borders of the national parks. Thus, the free movement in the larger ecosystem in which the park served as a safe-heaven has changed. Here the land is now cultivated, and only the park remains of the original ecosystem and even the park is often encroached by grazing life stock. Small changes, but added up, the have significant impact on the lions possibility to roam and live their lives. If the changes continue to grow with the same pace, the lions are confined to fragmented park areas only, and only kept in healthy genetic condition through breeding programmes.

We need to have these perspectives in mind, when discussing a transition to a new bio-based society. We can succeed and are capable of developing a fundamental new way of living, where we a sustainable in the way we utilize resources. It is a huge challenge, and it will require a lot of new thinking:
a) developing new artificial ecosystems that are somewhat decoupled from natural systems;
b) ensure that we set aside a good chunk of space for nature to unfold itself (not in our picture, but allowing it to develop as climate and other factors change);
c) only utilize the agreed amount and do not encroach the resources bit by bit;
d) do out best to develop truly sustainable business models through systems thinking.