Hannah Midghall’s successful entry in [X]ceptional, an opportunity for students in College of Social Sciences to present their own original research on any element of climate change.
The evidence is clear that with a global population on the rise, it is more important than ever to consider how the impact of humans has altered planet Earth beyond recognition. Human activities over the last few centuries have been cycling dangerous feedback loops that have caused an exponential growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Evidence suggests these emissions are largely down to transportation and industry (IEA, 2021). The very nature of these feedback loops means they are inherently intertwined with one another, so it is hard to pinpoint what specifically started them. This essay will focus on soil degradation, animal agriculture; the part they play in amplifying the anthropogenic greenhouse effect and how their associated feedback loops are causing continual damage to the planet. I will also explore how these problems have roots in capitalism and colonialism, and why it is important for environmentalists to understand the history of their field.
One of the greatest impacts humans have had on the environment is the expansion of agriculture. (Ritchie,2019) With an ever growing population, it is essential to provide food security for all. However, intensive agriculture is having a devastating effect on biodiversity and soil quality. What was once native biomes have been ploughed in favor of planting an ecological desert of monocrops, the majority of which are fed not to humans, but sold as animal feed. The intensive ploughing, dry cultivation, and lack of crop rotation in modern agriculture cause loss of precious topsoil, which in turn leads to a decline in crop yield. As a result, farmers need to use more land to keep up levels of production, which creates more soil degradation. Due to this feedback loop, it is estimated that 52% of agricultural land is already moderately or severely affected by soil degradation (Kopittke et al., 2019). This can amplify the greenhouse effect as soil is an important carbon sink, and vital for regulating every life system on Earth. Well maintained soils reduce atmospheric carbon levels and in turn, global warming.
While there is a growing demand for consumption and lack of land regulation, this unsustainable practice will continue to happen, which also raises the question as to whether growth and sustainability are compatible at all. Much of the world’s trade is oriented around neoclassical economic theory that assumes human behavior can be simplified into ‘stylized facts’, without regard for the culture, society, and natural world they are embedded in. It tells us that progress is measured through an exponential graph of economic growth, rather than a balance between meeting the needs of population and keeping within the means of the planet. (Raworth, 2017). This model has also failed to place economic value on many vital services such as the labor of raising children or the service of soil to our food economy. Until agronomic practices are financially incentivised, it is not economically viable for farmers to implement them (Kopittke et al., 2019)
Still, there’s more to the picture than just soil degradation. Many other feedback loops that are linked to soil degradation also contribute to the greenhouse effect. For example, the warming of the planet is leading to longer growing seasons in some countries. Longer growing seasons mean that increased numbers of livestock can be fed which will produce more greenhouse gases, and further warm the atmosphere. (Blanco et al., n.d.) As seen in Fig 1, 77% of land used for agriculture is reserved to keep and feed livestock, despite the fact that it contributes only 18% of global calorie supply, and 37% of global protein supply. Given that The Economics of Land Degradation Initiative stated, ‘In order to achieve global food security, food production must increase by 70% between 2005 and 2050’ (Noel, 2016), this is clearly an inefficient use of Earth’s invaluable habitable land. Not to mention the vast amounts of greenhouse gases livestock produce. Namely methane, which has a much higher global warming potential than Carbon Dioxide, and of which agriculture is responsible for producing 50% of global anthropogenic emissions (Ellis et al., 2007).
Of course, the feedback loop is bound to reach a breaking point, when the increasing temperature is no longer compatible with effective agriculture. This is already seen largely in the global south, where drought and desertification are devastating communities. (Sivakumar, 2007) With this information, it is down to producers and consumers to change their habits in order to protect more land from deteriorating in the same way.
Around one third of the world’s food is lost to waste every year. (Jackman, 2021) Surely tackling the cause of this huge loss should take priority over the exponential growth of industry and consumerism. Perhaps in the short term, the economic boost of increased production will seem worthwhile to some; but long term, the ecological damage it creates along with continually rising temperatures is far more severe. It is predicted that land degradation over the next 25 years could potentially reduce global food productivity by 12%, increasing food prices by 30%. (Kopittke et al., 2019) Typically, it is the least privileged, those that cause minimal damage to the environment, who will bear the brunt of the consequences.
Imperial expansion over the last century has caused the plunder of natural resources. (McFarland Dias, 2020) Indigenous people have been able to balance the needs of their people and land without triggering dangerous feedback loops or tipping points for centuries, so should be at the forefront of environmental activism. The destruction of these practices stems back to colonialism and slavery by Western powers, and the capitalist ideology that we can exploit whatever we want so long as there is a profit to be made.
Historically, maritime trading companies set out under the guise of global environmental awareness to seek resources on oceanic islands. The indigenes of the Canary Islands are a classic example of early phases of globalisation and the extinction of small indigenous cultures. (Damodaran, n.d.) The motives of these trading companies resulted in ‘intensive cash-crop plantation activities on oceanic islands and the clearing of forests for agriculture, fuel wood and ship construction.’ (Damodaran, n.d.) This explains the root driver of desertification in these parts of the world, which dates to the 1670s.
Although this isn’t a climatic feedback loop in the same way that previously discussed soil degradation or animal agriculture is, economic feedback loops play a pivotal role in amplifying the greenhouse effect. Lower income countries are still being continually exploited to feed developed nations insatiable taste for overconsumption. They are in fact not the causes of industry greenhouse gas emissions, but the victims of it. Western politicians, scientists, and policymakers must take responsibility for the historical damage caused in order to reverse the climate crisis. It is not fair to point the finger at newly industrialised countries for their excessive emissions, when that is only the case because of colonialism and globalisation.
Of course, much of the general public are simply ignorant of the true cost of what they consume, rather than malicious in their daily habits. Western culture is inherently disconnected from what we consume and needs to foster a sense of stewardship for the planet. Our own wellbeing is interconnected with the great web of life. Humans are not independent creatures from the natural world; we are ultimately indistinguishable from the air we breathe into our lungs, the water that makes up 60% of our being, and the nutrients in the soil that grow our food. (Boyle, 2015)
In conclusion, human behaviour has undoubtably caused desertification and increased greenhouse gas emissions around the world. However, we have to opportunity to reconsider how agricultural practices take place in order to prevent further desertification and greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, we must look at the bigger picture. We must change the culture of powerful nations in order to halt the anthropogenic greenhouse effect. It is vital to educate the public about the truth of the consumer choices they make every day and encourage people to take power away from harmful industries. Government policy will play a huge role in ensuring that the wishes of humanity to protect the Earth, rather than profit from it, are pursued. Furthermore, environmentalists and conservationists must also take responsibility to be aware of the racist history and colonial legacy of their practice, so they can work to achieve social and environmental justice.
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- Boyle, M. (2015). Living without money: what I learned. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/15/living-without-money-what-i-learned [Accessed 4 Nov. 2021].
- Damodaran, V. (n.d.). Colonialism, Imperialism and Environmental History. [online] Available at: https://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C09/E6-156-20.pdf [Accessed 4 Nov. 2021].
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- Jackman, J. (2021). Food Waste Facts and Statistics. [online] The Eco Experts. Available at: https://www.theecoexperts.co.uk/home-hub/food-waste-facts-and-statistics.
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- Kopittke, P.M., Menzies, N.W., Wang, P., McKenna, B.A. and Lombi, E. (2019). Soil and the intensification of agriculture for global food security. Environment International, [online] 132(132). Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019315855.
- McFarland Dias, K. (2020). Environmentalism and the legacy of colonialism. [online] Human Rights Pulse. Available at: https://www.humanrightspulse.com/mastercontentblog/environmentalism-and-the-legacy-of-colonialism.
- Noel, S. (2016). Economics of Land Degradation Initiative: Report for policy and decision makers_ Reaping economic and environmental benefits from sustainable land management. [online] repo.mel.cgiar.org. Available at: https://hdl.handle.net/20.500.11766/4881 [Accessed 4 Nov. 2021].
- Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics : seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. London: Random House Business Books.
- Ritchie, H. (2019). Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. [online] Our World in Data. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/global-land-for-agriculture [Accessed 3 Nov. 2021].
- Sivakumar, M.V.K. (2007). Interactions between climate and desertification. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 142(2-4), pp.143–155.
[X]ceptional: The COP26 Challenge
The [X]ceptional: The COP26 Challenge initiative enabled students in students in the College of Social Sciences to engage in COP26, the global climate change conference held in Glasgow in November 2021.
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