Step Two: Acknowledge the Challenges

My wife and I love watching our land flourish. Raising livestock in a natural way on our little piece of native prairie has enmeshed us in a web of relationships with the millions of living things that share our property. With careful management, keeping the livestock on pasture, we have seen the soil improve each year as the animals help stimulate the natural processes that make the native prairie one of the most productive biological systems on earth. Previous owners cut hay and hauled the nutrients and energy off the land. Since we began grazing it, the land has become much more fertile. A pasture that four cows grazed off in five weeks a few years ago has this summer carried 15 full-grown animals for four months and the forage is still excellent, probably good for another four to six weeks.

“Watching grass grow” metaphorically defines boredom for a lot of people but if you’re a rancher and that grass supplies your sustenance, watching grass grow gets a lot more interesting.

And watching it die–destroyed by overgrazing–can be devastating.

The main thing a rancher manages is population.

Conscientious ranchers maintain intricate, attentive relationships with their habitats. Temperature, precipitation, sunshine and many other variables affect our pastures. Properly husbanded, the prairie is perpetually productive. Natural prairie can survive extended periods of drought, floods, snow cover and sub-zero temperatures. But its health can be destroyed by a few weeks of acute overpopulation. Overgrazing devastates grasslands in ways that can take decades to repair, even with expert human intervention. In arid regions overgrazed grasslands become deserts.

Every natural system is vulnerable. Every habitat has limits. Balanced ecosystems evolve over millions of years. When ecosystems fall out of their natural balance the consequences for their dependents are profound.

The global human population has doubled during my lifetime. Our habitat is either in serious trouble now, or it will be, probably soon. Our powerful technology aggravates the damage caused by our expansion. Technology makes us more potent, but it has magnified our impact on the planet. We mine carbon from the earth and deposit it in our atmosphere. We concentrate toxins and release them into the air and water. We cut down forests and despoil the oceans. We can debate the symptoms but we can’t reasonably deny that our habitat is limited and our expansion is testing its capacity. Eventually we must manage our impact, our consumption and our population.

It’s not going to be simple. No living thing has ever recognized the limits of its habitat and consciously chosen to curb its own expansion. In fact only one species in the universe, so far as we know, is capable of conceptualizing its own impact on its habitat. That’s us. We would be the first ever to consciously limit ourselves. So it’s a little hard to imagine.

But sooner or later we must stabilize our population. Then we’re going to have to design an economy that creates prosperity without a perpetually expanding human population.

The global economy is built on population growth. In 2009 global economic output shrunk by about half a percentage point.[i] Global financial markets read that as a catastrophe and world trade volumes shrank by more than 11 percent. What would happen if we had 1 percent fewer customers and 1 percent fewer workers every year for a few years in a row?

The scale and complexity of this economic dilemma are intimidating. Evidence of habitat damage is alarming, and that evidence is visible everywhere. Resource depletion, population expansion and economic vulnerability are enormous obstacles and they form a barrier that effectively blocks our view of the future. Even if we dream up a beautiful and abundant vision for our future, can we see the path from where we are today to that future past these big obstacles?

How do you see past an obstacle? You have to climb over it or travel around it. Either way, you have to move. You need to begin climbing to gain a prospect. But how do we pick a direction? For that we need some criteria to direct our first few steps.

[i] International Monetary Fund. World Economic Outlook Update: Restoring Confidence Without Harming Recovery. Table 1: Overview of the World Economic Outlook Projections. July 7, 2010. Sourced July 14, 2010.