The verdict is in. Homo sapiens has fucked up. We’ve screwed the pooch.
It’s been 50 years or so since folks started talking about humanity’s tenure on Earth. Worrisome talk, seen in books such as: “Silent Spring” (1962) and “The Population Bomb” (1968). These two books, in particular, were the ones that brought wide-spread attention to two linked issues that now, 50 years later, have us very worried – climate change and over-population/resource depletion. Back then, I was a graduate student in Anthropology, and I, too, was worried. In a 1969 term paper I stated that the human race would cause its own extinction. But, while disaster didn’t strike as soon as some predicted, we now know that we are participating in the beginning of the end.
Certainly, there was, 50 years ago, an understanding on the part of some scientists of the causal relationships between burning fossil fuels, the build up of greenhouse gases and the warming of the atmosphere. The first warnings came in the 1800s. And then, beginning in the 1950s, car ownership in the US took off, and that was that. So, the increasing pollution of the atmosphere crept up on us. By 2011, our carbon dioxide emissions were 266 times greater than in 1850, and ” … In 2013, CO2 levels surpassed 400 ppm for the first time in recorded history. This recent relentless rise in CO2 shows a remarkably constant relationship with fossil-fuel burning, and can be well accounted for based on the simple premise that about 60 percent of fossil-fuel emissions stay in the air.” (climate.nasa.gov)
During this period of time, those scientists and others cognizant of the damage we were doing to the atmosphere may have felt that they had to give technology the benefit of the doubt. I heard it asserted more than once that we would find technological fixes to the problems that technology had created. And maybe we have. Solar and wind power sound good. But, will they, along with other renewable energy sources, be developed in sufficient scale, and in time, to head off serious climate change? What determines that? Politics will ultimately determine what happens next … and today’s domestic politics isn’t offering much reason to be optimistic about the likelihood of a successful switch to non-polluting energy sources.
As to over-population – only China took measures to reduce its population. The rest of the world? Not so much. And, believe it or not, one thinker (back in the day) suggested that over-population was not a problem, because the absolutely greater number of people on Earth would ensure an absolutely greater number of geniuses, one or more of whom would solve the problem of controlling fecundity and the problems engendered by population growth! More important than the number of people crowding onto the earth, however, is the matter of how much that number of persons will consume. In 2017, per capita yearly consumption was $41,602 in Switzerland, $1097 in India and $64 in Malawi (The World Bank). The developing world has a long ways to go, to even things up. They want the same things that the Swiss have now, and why shouldn’t they? They want cars, for sure. So, the question is: How many people living at the level of the Swiss in 2017 can the world support?
Can we save ourselves from climate disaster and a standing-room-only Earth? The climate disaster has already begun, and continued unchecked growth in population and per capita consumption of goods and energy only accelerates the pace and increases the ultimate severity of the disaster. Many scientists are saying that we have now passed (or will soon pass) the point of no return. Is this really it, then? Really? But, but … what if all the world’s countries drastically reduced emissions and mandated fertility control tomorrow? Could this reverse the course of the unfolding apocalypse? Maybe … maybe not. But who supposes that the worlds’ governments, one and all, can and will do that? No one with their head screwed on right has any reason to believe that.
So … I conclude, 50 years after first crying wolf, that the verdict is in. The metaphor is correct – we are passengers on an out-of-control train that is heading for a cliff. Business-as-usual has delivered us to the brink of a world-wide climate apocalypse, and we will hurtle off that brink. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to pour into the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, and will do so into the foreseeable future, hastening the disruption of the world’s climate in ways we are already experiencing: higher average temperatures, heat waves, droughts, forest fires, rainfall events and cyclonic storms on a scale never seen before and the raising of sea levels due to accelerating glacial and polar ice melting. The loss of albedo (reflectance of the sun’s rays) due to less snow cover around the world and at the poles is a positive feedback loop adding to the accelerating pace of climate change. We are at the start of Earth being rendered less habitable for ourselves. And, as the stresses mount, at what point will our much-vaunted civilization collapse, as it will inevitable do? How, then, does one survive the failure of our thoroughly mechanized and interconnected infrastructure – a delicately poised house of cards? How will one find food, water and fuel? What happens when winter comes? Hell will be loosed on Earth, as marauding bands fight each other for dwindling resources. Perhaps the only groups that will have a chance of surviving are those that retain the knowledge of how to live off the land (and whose lands can still supply their traditional food sources) e.g. the Inuit (Eskimos), the Kalahari Bushmen, the Australian Aborigines etc. And, of course, if they can insulate themselves sufficiently from the starving hordes. If they cannot, then we will likely have brought about our own extinction. Take this as the Introduction to our own true-life dystopian story.