Chuck Duck Dynasty. Move over, Honey Boo Boo. Forget the Real Housewives. The ultimate reality show is here, and it is a colossal battle: Man Versus Nature. For centuries, it has been a dull, one-sided contest, with nature faring about as well as the Denver Broncos did against the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. Not anymore. Nature is mounting a fierce comeback with forest fires, soaring temperatures and raging storms. It could be the greatest comeback in all of recorded history.
Since the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago, we have been steadily subduing nature, converting forests and grasslands into farmland and pasture, mining the earth for metals and minerals, cutting down trees for timber and fuel, building wells, constructing dams and even re-routing rivers. Sure, nature has put up some resistance along the way, but, until lately, with little success.
Humanity fields a formidable offense and our playbook is positively ingenious. Having substantially depleted many land-based resources, we are drilling for oil far beneath the ocean floor and dredging remote seabed for metals and minerals. Running short of arable land, we have been fiendishly clever at boosting crop yields through the development of hybrid seeds and the generous application of artificial fertilizers. When nature has produced insufficient rain, we have built dams and reservoirs and pumped water from deep underground aquifers. When we have effectively exhausted a natural resource, we have been resourceful at developing and exploiting substitutes that are more abundant.
For a long while, it appeared that humanity was virtually unbeatable; nature didn’t stand a chance against human resourcefulness. From time to time, nature would fight back. Loss of topsoil and nutrients would render some distant land unsuitable for agriculture. Deserts would encroach on farmland. Pollution would render the water from some rivers unusable, but man was still winning, and the final outcome never appeared to be in doubt, even as human numbers soared from 1 billion to over 7 billion in less than 200 years. Man, not nature, would prevail.
But the contest between man and nature, if it can really be described as such, is not a sprint. It’s not even a marathon. There is no finish line or timeline. The way things are going, it could be a fight to the death. If so, don’t bet against nature.
Sure, humanity is confidently ramping up its emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases,but nature is raising global temperatures and increasing the frequency and intensity of drought and flooding. Yes, we are drilling deeper and deeper for water, but underground aquifers in many areas are now being exhausted. Our engineers are finding new ways to exploit metal and mineral resources, but the commodity prices for those resources have increased dramatically in the last decade. Farmers are still converting grasslands and tropical forests into farms and pastures, but in China and elsewhere desertification is gaining the upper hand. Dams in many areas are silting up. Reservoirs are drying up. Farmers are applying more fertilizers to sustain crop yields, but what we gain in agricultural output we are starting to lose in terms of ocean productivity thanks to the nitrogen runoff.
Here, at home, record droughts in the West are putting farmers and ranchers out of business, curtailing hydroelectricity and limiting growth prospects. In Southern Brazil, record heat and drought are curbing coffee production; in South Africa it’s the corn, and in Australia it’s the wheat. Around the world, from Northern India to Southern California, farmers who once made their fortunes, thanks to irrigation, are suddenly facing economic ruin. Even homeowners find themselves at elevated risk as the incidence and severity of forest fires increase.
For centuries, we have sown the wind with little or no regard for our impact on nature. Now, it appears we are reaping the whirlwind. Nature is fighting back. The once academic debates about the potential impacts of greenhouse gases and resource depletion are now taking on real life dimensions. An ecological peril once dimly perceived and often dismissed is now coming into sharper resolution.
Man Versus Nature: It’s the ultimate reality show, and we may not have to wait long to see who will be he ultimate loser. For except in our minds, humanity has never existed separate and apart from nature. The harm we inflict on nature we ultimately inflict in some measure upon ourselves.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, president
Originally posted on the Huffington Post on February 19, 2014