Planetary Jeopardy

A mass extinction event is well underway, propagated by a burgeoning human population which has raped Nature with technological marvels in the name of ‘progress’. The graphs below show an exponential trend in human environmental impact.

There were less than 300 million hectares of croplands in 1600. Now over 1.5 billion hectares are plowed and planted.

Over 75% of the land on Earth has been scarred by human activity. 97% of the biologically richest ecosystems have been grievously damaged by humans. Yet deforestation continues, especially in tropical forests with the most abundant wildlife left on Earth.

There are over 65 million kilometers of roads crisscrossing the world’s lands. The very existence of these ribbons of death slices habitats into fragments, foreclosing viable lives for many animals. From an environmental perspective, what travels on these roads is pollution incarnate.

Shipping is the lifeblood of economic globalization. Over 60,000 colossal ships crisscross ocean trade routes, burning 2.2+ billion barrels of the foulest possible fuel. Besides massively polluting the oceans and killing large marine mammals, ships contribute ~2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Mass extinction is picking up pace. Vertebrate populations – amphibians, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals – plummeted by an average 70% in the past 4 decades.

The decline in global insect populations has been even steeper, owing mostly to pesticides. As insects pollinate many plants and are voluminously significant in the animal food chain, their decimation is a harbinger for larger animal species, as well as spelling a decline for the multitude of crops which require pollination.

The extent of wildfires in Siberia and the western United States this year have been unprecedented. The burning will only worsen as time wears on. The toll will be further biosphere loss, an acceleration in warming, and an addition to air pollution.

The oceans are dying as well as the land. Coral reefs are home to 25% of the ocean’s fish. Those fish are food for much other sea life which doesn’t live there. 80% of the world’s coral reefs have died since their global peak in the mid-20th century. The rest will be gone by 2030.

As with greenhouse gas emissions, the pace of global warming is increasing in a nonlinear way. Climate modelers have been too conservative in their estimates. The worst-case scenario modelers have put out best matches what has gone on this century. It’s going to be a lot hotter sooner than climate modelers have let on.

The most salient – and little appreciated – fact about global warming is that there is an approximate 40-year lag between emissions and atmospheric hotting up. This owes to oceans absorbing ~95% of the initial warmth from greenhouse gas emissions. Essentially, the global atmospheric temperature now owes to emissions in the 1980s.

By 2060, average global air surface temperature is likely to be 4.8 °C above the 1880 benchmark. The hotter parts of the planet – notably portions of southern Asia and Africa – will be uninhabitable for humans by that time.

Global warming alone would be enough wipe out much life on Earth. The rape of Nature otherwise simply ensures more extinction.

A growing scarcity of drinking water, and an increase in global hunger and poverty, are already happening. Harvests peaked worldwide in the mid-1990s. Yields have declined since. The combination of more severe storms, drought, and sporadic flooding are only going to further reduce agricultural production and raise food prices. There is no turnaround in sight for this trend.

Humanity’s ecological wallop is obviously unsustainable. Let’s consider what might be done to ameliorate the damage.

The most significant fact about the mass extinction event underway is its extent. The scale is staggering.

What that means is that piecemeal measures will prove wholly inadequate. Planting trees as a supposed amelioration to deforestation is a childish publicity stunt – only illustrative of how optimistically ignorant people are. Ecosystems aren’t refurbished by planting trees.

A ridiculous notion that will be increasingly brought up to address global warming is geoengineering. This is about as savvy as the “better living through chemistry” program of the post-WW2 era that begat the burgeoning production of pesticides and plastic.

Technology cannot fix what technology created. Not only is it infeasible and inadequate, it’s way too late to make any difference. Technology cannot bring dead creatures back to life, restore ecosystems, or even reverse the intricate dynamics of biospheric degradation that humanity committed itself to – for the luxury of more convenient or adventurous lives and the greedy accumulation of riches by the relative few.

The last refuge of climate deniers was that humans simply could not make that big a dent on the global environment. Geoengineers are on the opposite end of that silly spectrum in thinking that machines can put into reverse on a planetary scale what is accelerating in fast forward.

Another foolhardy endeavor is the promotion of “clean” energy. There is no such thing as clean energy. Taking more from Nature to generate more electricity is not environmental friendliness, even if it does lessen the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. More is not less, even if it draws its initial inspiration from the Sun.

In terms of energy, what is most bizarre is that energy conservation is seldom touted nowadays: a signification that humanity has lost any sense of discipline. Along that line, lessening food waste and limiting population growth go unsung as helpful gestures toward self-preservation. Nearly half of the food grown globally goes uneaten.

Wasting less food requires the same sort of societal organization that dealing with the covid-19 pandemic presented – and we know how well that is turning out.

The perils of unbridled population growth had been known long before the 17th century, when Thomas Malthus made himself unpopular by pointing the problem out at the onset of industrialization. Enforcing social distancing to avoid viral contagion is a truly tiny potato compared to stopping adults from indulging the core biological urge of dancing the horizontal tango.

The number of mouths to feed is not going to be a problem for much longer. Instead, the die-off is going to begin in earnest. The census of people on the planet will peak within the next decade or so before staring a precipitous decline.

Now we come to the nut of the problem. If plutocracy abides, not only will inequity and societal injustice continue to thrive, but the body count from it will climb to truly alarming numbers thanks to capitalism’s cumulative environmental toll.

As this brief survey shows, the mass extinction event underway is a systemic dynamic that may only addressed with a systemic solution. And the hour is running late indeed.

The covid pandemic highlights how humanity now collectively responds to a global crisis: panicked, uncoordinated to the point of disorganized, covetous and cantankerously disobedient. Covid is a pathetic prelude to the next act.

The bottom line: the only societies that have any chance of survival are those that adopt eusocialism. Self-sustaining survival cities must be established to ride out the biospheric decimation gathering force.

World civilization will collapse by 2070. Humans will be extinct by the end of the century.

Suggested further reading:

Ishi Nobu, The Fruits of Civilization (2019).

Ishi Nobu, “Environment” essays.

Living planet report 2020,” World Wildlife Federation (2020).