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Feature - Issue #7

The World is a Spirit Vessel

Words by Jeremy Lent
Illustration by Cláudia Salgueiro

One who desires to take the world and act upon it,
I see that it cannot be done.
The world is a spirit vessel,
Which cannot be acted upon.
One who acts on it fails,
One who holds on to it loses.

- Tao Te Ching.

At first sight, our modern age might seem to have proven this passage from the Tao Te Ching wrong. Our dominant culture has explicitly “desired to take the world and acted upon it” - and in many ways has succeeded beyond even its own wildest dreams. But is it possible, we may wonder, that the Tao Te Ching was right after all?

Since the second world war, the scale of human impact on the world has exploded in virtually every dimension. The sheer number of humans has more than tripled to 7.8 billion, and is growing at a rate equivalent to a new city of a million inhabitants springing up every five days. Global growth rates in production, consumption and trade have been even more dramatic, each gauge increasing more than tenfold.

This explosion of human activity - known as the Great Acceleration - has, however, come at a massive cost. As our global civilisation expands its scope, it does so by literally consuming the living Earth. Three quarters of all land has been appropriated for human purposes, either turned into farmland, covered by concrete or flooded by reservoirs. Three quarters of rivers and lakes are used for crop or livestock cultivation, with many of the world’s greatest rivers, such as the Ganges, Yangtze and Nile, no longer reaching the sea. Half the world’s forests and wetlands have disappeared; the Amazon rainforest alone is vanishing at the rate of an acre every second.

The Earth’s topsoil is rapidly being depleted, with significant loss of agricultural productivity on nearly a third of arable land. This loss has mostly been masked by the extensive use of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser, which drains into the ocean, causing uncontrolled algae blooms that suffocate all other life, creating more than 400 dead zones in coastal waters, some covering 20,000 square miles. Beyond the dead zones, commercial fishing encompasses an area four times that of agriculture, leaving less than 13% of the oceans free from human impact. At the current rate, it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish.

The nonhuman creatures with whom we share the Earth are being systematically annihilated by the Great Acceleration, as they lose their habitat, are hunted down, or poisoned by our pollution. There has been a 68% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide since 1970, with freshwater species such as amphibians registering a jaw-dropping 84% loss. Insects have been faring just as badly, with reports of “insectageddon” from some areas that have seen populations crashing toward extinction levels - such as the Monarch butterflies that migrate annually from Mexico to the United States, which have declined by 98% over the past 30 years.

Leading Earth scientists have identified nine “planetary boundaries” representing what they call the safe operating space for humanity - but report that we have already exceeded four of them. Concerned that their message has not been heard by the world at large, a group of 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a warning to humanity in November 2017 that, because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss”. Time is running out, they aver: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” To date, though, this trajectory continues.

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