In 2015, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich coauthored a study declaring the
world’s sixth mass extinction was underway. Five years later, Ehrlich and
colleagues at other institutions have a grim update: the extinction rate is
likely much higher than previously thought and is eroding nature’s ability
to provide vital services to people.
Their new paper, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences, indicates the wildlife trade and other human impacts have wiped
out hundreds of species and pushed many more to the brink of extinction at
an unprecedented rate.
For perspective, scientists estimate that in the entire twentieth century,
at least 543 land vertebrate species went extinct. Ehrlich and his coauthors
estimate that nearly the same number of species are likely to go extinct in
the next two decades alone.
The trend’s cascading effects include an intensification of human health
threats, such as COVID-19, according to the researchers. “When humanity
exterminates populations and species of other creatures, it is sawing off
the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own
life-support system,” said Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population
Studies, emeritus, at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and a
senior fellow, emeritus, at the Stanford Woods Institute for the
Environment. “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a
national and global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to
climate disruption to which it is linked.”
The study comes in the wake of an April 7 letter from a bipartisan group of
senators urging the Trump administration to close markets that sell live
animals for food and unregulated wildlife markets, among other measures to
stop the trade in illegal wildlife and wildlife products.
Human pressures, such as population growth, habitat destruction, the
wildlife trade, pollution and climate change, critically threaten thousands
of species around the world. Ecosystems ranging from coral reefs and
mangrove forests to jungles and deserts depend on these species’
long-evolved relationships to maintain their functioning and make them
resilient to change. Without this robustness, ecosystems are less and less
able to preserve a stable climate, provide freshwater, pollinate crops and
protect humanity from natural disasters and disease.
To better understand the extinction crisis, the researchers looked at the
abundance and distribution of critically endangered species. They found that
515 species of terrestrial vertebrates- 1.7 percent of all the species they
analyzed- are on the brink of extinction, meaning they have fewer than 1,000
individuals remaining. About half of the species studied have fewer than 250
individuals left. Most of the highly endangered species are concentrated in
tropical and subtropical regions that are affected by human encroachment,
according to the study.
In addition to rising extinction rates, the cumulative loss of
populations-individual, localized groups of a particular species- and
geographic range has led to the extinction of more than 237,000 populations
of those 515 species since 1900, according to the researchers’ estimates.
With fewer populations, species are unable to serve their function in an
ecosystem, which can have rippling effects. For example, when overhunting of
sea otters-the main predator of kelp-eating sea urchins-led to kelp die-offs
in the 1700s, the kelp-eating sea cow went extinct.
“What we do to deal with the current extinction crisis in the next two
decades will define the fate of millions of species,” said study lead author
Gerardo Ceballos, a senior researcher at the National Autonomous University
of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology. “We are facing our final opportunity to
ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably
The loss of endangered creatures could have a domino effect on other
species, according to the researchers. The vast majority-84 percent-of
species with populations under 5,000 live in the same areas as species with
populations under 1,000. This creates the conditions for a chain reaction in
which the extinction of one species destabilizes the ecosystem, putting
other species at higher risk of extinction.
“Extinction breeds extinction,” the study authors write. Because of this
threat, they call for all species with populations under 5,000 to be listed
as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of
Nature Red List, an international database used to inform conservation
action on a global scale.
These findings could aid conservation efforts by highlighting the species
and geographic regions that require the most immediate attention.
Understanding what species are at risk can also help identify what factors
might be most responsible for rising extinction rates.
Among other actions, the researchers propose a global agreement to ban the
trade of wild species. They argue the illegal capture or hunting of wild
animals for food, pets and medicine is a fundamental ongoing threat not only
to species on the brink, but also to human health. COVID-19, which is
thought to have originated in bats and been transmitted to humans through
another creature in a live animal market, is an example of how the wildlife
trade can hurt humans, according to the researchers. They point out that
wild animals have transmitted many other infectious diseases to humans and
domestic animals in recent decades due to habitat encroachment and wildlife
harvesting for food.
“It’s up to us to decide what kind of a world we want to leave to coming
generations-a sustainable one, or a desolate one in which the civilization
we have built disintegrates rather than builds on past successes,” said
study coauthor Peter Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical
The sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating, according to an analysis by scientists who warn it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation.
More than 500 species of land animals were found to be on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years. In comparison, the same number were lost over the whole of the last century. Without the human destruction of nature, even this rate of loss would have taken thousands of years, the scientists said.
The land vertebrates on the verge of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 individuals left, include the Sumatran rhino, the Clarión wren, the Española giant tortoise and the harlequin frog. Historic data was available for 77 of the species and the scientists found these had lost 94% of their populations.
The researchers also warned of a domino effect, with the loss of one species tipping others that depend on it over the edge. “Extinction breeds extinctions,” they said, noting that unlike other environmental problems extinction is irreversible.
Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing, scientists said, with the coronavirus pandemic an extreme example of the dangers of ravaging the natural world. Rising human population, destruction of habitats, the wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crisis must all be urgently tackled, they said.
Human society under urgent threat from loss of Earth’s natural life
“When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system,” said Prof Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, and one of the research team. “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”
Harlequin frog. Photograph: Gerardo Ceballos/University of Mexico/PA
“We are facing our final opportunity to ensure that the many services nature provides us do not get irretrievably sabotaged,” said Prof Gerardo Ceballos of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who led the research.
The analysis, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined data on 29,400 land vertebrate species compiled by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and BirdLife International. The researchers identified 515 species with populations below 1,000 and about half of these had fewer than 250 remaining. Most of these mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians were found in tropical and subtropical regions.
Scientists discovered that 388 species of land vertebrate had populations under 5,000, and the vast majority (84%) lived in the same regions as the species with populations under 1,000, creating the conditions for a domino effect.
UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction
The researchers said their findings could aid conservation efforts by highlighting the species and regions requiring the most urgent attention.
Prof Andy Purvis, at the Natural History Museum in London, and not part of the new analysis, said: “This research provides another line of evidence that the biodiversity crisis is accelerating. The hardest problem [the researchers] faced is that we don’t know more about the history of species’ geographic distributions. They only had that information for 77 of the species on the brink, and we can’t know for sure how typical those species are.”
Española giant tortoise. Photograph: Gerardo Ceballos/University of Mexico/PA
“But that doesn’t undermine the conclusion,” he said. “The biodiversity crisis is real and urgent. But – and this is the crucial point – it is not too late. To transition to a sustainable world, we need to tread more lightly on the planet. Until then, we are essentially robbing future generations of their inheritance.”
What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us?
Prof Georgina Mace, of University College London, said: “This new analysis re-emphasises some startling facts about the extent to which vertebrate populations have been reduced worldwide by human activities.” But she said she was not convinced that simply having a population less than 1,000 was the best measure of a species being on the brink. A declining trend for the population is also important and both factors are used in the IUCN Red List, she said.
“Action is important for many reasons, not least of which is that directly and indirectly we rely on the rest of life on Earth for our own health and wellbeing,” she said. “Disrupting nature leads to costly and often hard-to-reverse effects. Covid-19 is an extreme present-day example, but there are many more.”
Mark Wright, the director of science at WWF, said: “The numbers in this research are shocking. However, there is still hope. If we stop the land-grabbing and devastating deforestation in countries such as Brazil, we can start to bend the curve in biodiversity loss and climate change. But we need global ambition to do that.”
Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I frequently hear and read that COVID-19 is a nefarious attempt by the so-called “elite” among us to depopulate the burgeoning human population on Earth. Other conspiracy theories abound, including COVID-19 as an attempt to further reduce human rights, promote expensive medical therapies, and otherwise enrich the wealthy at the expense of the bamboozled masses.
I do not doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to fleece the ignorant masses. Nor do I doubt the ability of the informed wealthy to turn virtually any situation into an opportunity for monetary gain. A quick glance at the past two centuries provides plenty of examples. However, I doubt the monetarily wealthy among us are interested in accelerating human extinction, even for financial gain. As I explain below, the ongoing reduction in industrial activity as a result of COVID-19 almost certainly leads to loss of habitat for human animals, hence putting us on the fast track to human extinction. I doubt the knowledgeable “elite” are interested in altering the sweet deal they are experiencing with the current set of living arrangements.
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the ongoing Mass Extinction Event, and abrupt, irreversible climate change, I am pleasantly surprised humans still occupy Earth. I strongly suspect the ongoing reduction in industrial activity will reduce the aerosol masking effect sufficiently to trigger a 1 C temperature spike, as described in the peer-reviewed literature. In fact, I suspect it already has. The outcome is not yet obvious because the timing of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus was favorable for human habitat. Trees produced leaves in the Northern Hemisphere spring of 2020 as a result of carbohydrates stored the previous year. Grain crops were harvested before the novel coronavirus emerged. I suspect the results of the recent and ongoing rise in temperature, which has already been reported in China and India, will become obvious to most humans when many more trees die. Large-scale die-off of trees likely will approximately correspond with catastrophic crop failure. This might occur by the end of this year, although I would rather it not.
History is replete with examples of human hubris. We thought we were mighty, and we thought we were human, whatever that means. Collectively, we certainly have left our mark on Earth. How embarrassing for the big-brained human species that a microscopic virus could pull the trigger on our extinction. How wonderful for thoughtful individuals that we get to ponder our deaths, and therefore our lives. We get to contemplate not only our lives, but also how we live.
Andrew Glikson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
in the history of our planet, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have caused extreme global warming, prompting the majority of species on Earth to die out.
In the past, these events were triggered by a huge volcanic eruption or asteroid impact. Now, Earth is heading for another mass extinction – and human activity is to blame.
I am an Earth and Paleo-climate scientist and have researched the relationships between asteroid impacts, volcanism, climate changes and mass extinctions of species.
My research suggests the current growth rate of carbon dioxide emissions is faster than those which triggered two previous mass extinctions, including the event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
The world’s gaze may be focused on COVID-19 right now. But the risks to nature from human-made global warming – and the imperative to act – remain clear.
Past mass extinctions
Many species can adapt to slow, or even moderate, environmental changes. But Earth’s history shows that extreme shifts in the climate can cause many species to become extinct.
For example, about 66 million years ago an asteroid hit Earth. The subsequent smashed rocks and widespread fires released massive amounts of carbon dioxide over about 10,000 years. Global temperatures soared, sea levels rose and oceans became acidic. About 80% of species, including the dinosaurs, were wiped out.
And about 55 million years ago, global temperatures spiked again, over 100,000 years or so. The cause of this event, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, is not entirely clear. One theory, known as the “methane burp” hypothesis, posits that a massive volcanic eruption triggered the sudden release of methane from ocean sediments, making oceans more acidic and killing off many species.
So is life on Earth now headed for the same fate?
Comparing greenhouse gas levels
Before industrial times began at the end of the 18th century, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere sat at around 300 parts per million. This means that for every one million molecules of gas in the atmosphere, 300 were carbon dioxide.
Using carbon records stored in fossils and organic matter, I have determined that current carbon emissions constitute an extreme event in the recorded history of Earth.
My research has demonstrated that annual carbon dioxide emissions are now faster than after both the asteroid impact that eradicated the dinosaurs (about 0.18 parts per million CO2 per year), and the thermal maximum 55 million years ago (about 0.11 parts per million CO2 per year).
The next mass extinction has begun
Current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are not yet at the levels seen 55 million and 65 million years ago. But the massive influx of carbon dioxide means the climate is changing faster than many plant and animal species can adapt.
A major United Nations report released last year warned around one million animal and plant species were threatened with extinction. Climate change was listed as one of five key drivers.
The report said the distributions of 47% of land-based flightless mammals, and almost 25% of threatened birds, may already have been negatively affected by climate change.
A shift in climate zones is also causing the tropics to expand and migrate toward the poles, at a rate of about 56 to 111 kilometres per decade. The tracks of tropical and extra-tropical cyclones are likewise shifting toward the poles. Australia is highly vulnerable to this shift.
Uncharted future climate territory
Research released in 2016 showed just what a massive impact humans are having on the planet. It said while the Earth might naturally have entered the next ice age in about 20,000 years’ time, the heating produced by carbon dioxide would result in a period of super-tropical conditions, delaying the next ice age to about 50,000 years from now.
During this period, chaotic high-energy stormy conditions would prevail over much of the Earth. My research suggests humans are likely to survive best in sub-polar regions and sheltered mountain valleys, where cooler conditions would allow flora and fauna to persist.
Earth’s next mass extinction is avoidable – if carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically curbed and we develop and deploy technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But on the current trajectory, human activity threatens to make large parts of the Earth uninhabitable – a planetary tragedy of our own making.
How can you be a country if you don’t have any land?
Melting ice means rising sea levels – which could put low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives, under the sea.
“It will have all kinds of social consequences because the people who live in these low-lying areas will have to go somewhere,” says Dr Cornell.
“There are already lots of discussions with people in low-lying Pacific islands talking with Australia and New Zealand about where they can live, and how they can have nationhood while renting land from another country.”
Combine rising temperatures with other human activity such as deforestation, and you have drastic effects on the water cycle.
“When you change landscapes, you change where water can flow,” says Dr Cornell.
“When you warm the planet and are simultaneously changing the landscape, you’re changing the water cycle… in a much less predictable way than it was before.”
Extreme changes to the water cycle can lead to severe floods – and severe droughts.
How a tree frog affects a whole ecosystem
Two years ago, a little brown treefrog called Toughie died in Atlanta, USA, at the age of 12.
He was the last known living Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog to exist.
Toughie’s story is a symbol of the rate of extinction that is being caused as a result of climate change.
The extinction of a species even as small as a frog has consequences which we don’t yet fully understand.
“We could lose treefrogs, and that doesn’t sound important but it’s vitally important because it’s what we lose with it,” says Dr Cornell.
“When we’re killing species, we probably won’t know in advance what the consequences are.
“But we already know that we’re making ecosystems much more vulnerable”.
Assuming they are delivered as promised (and there’s no guarantee of that), there could still be a rise in the global average temperature of more than 3C by the end of the century, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The latest assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) lays bare the dangers of that.
It suggests that a rise of anything above 1.5C would mean that coastal flooding, heatwaves and damage to coral reefs would become more severe.
And the latest figures show that the world has already warmed by just over 1C.
What happens next?
As things stand, further heating looks inevitable.
“We’re already living in a changed world,” according to Professor Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading, a scientist whose depictions of global warming have often gone viral on social media.
He uses bold coloured stripes to show how much each year’s temperature is above or below average – different shades of red for warmer and blue for colder.
The designs now adorn T-shirts, scarves and even a tram in Germany.
At the moment, Prof Hawkins uses dark red to denote the highest level of warming, but regions such as the Arctic Ocean have seen that maximum level year after year.
Such is the scale of change that he’s having to search for new colours.
“I’m thinking about adding dark purple or even black”, he told me, to convey future increases in temperature.
“People might think climate change is a distant prospect but we’re seeing so many examples around the world, like in Australia, of new records and new extremes.”
What else is on the environmental agenda this year?
The natural world, and whether we can stop harming it.
While most political attention will be on climate change, 2020 is also seen as potentially important for halting the damage human activity is having on ecosystems.
Sir David has a blunt explanation for why this matters: “We actually depend upon the natural world for every breath of air we take and every mouthful of food that we eat.”
A landmark report last year warned that as many as one million species of animals, insects and plants are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.
A more recent study found that the growth of cities, the clearing of forests for farming and the soaring demand for fish had significantly altered nearly three-quarters of the land and more than two-thirds of the oceans.
One of the scientists involved, Prof Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, says that by undermining important habitats, “we’re hacking away at our safety net, we’re trashing environments we depend on”.
He points to the impact of everything from the use of palm oil in processed food and shampoo to the pressures created by fast fashion.
And while the need for conservation is understood in many developed countries, Prof Purvis says “we’ve exported the damage to countries too poor to handle the environmental cost of what they’re selling to us”.
The gathering in Kunming takes place in October, a month before the UN climate summit in Glasgow, confirming this year as crucial for our relations with the planet.
In this months episode of Nature Bats Last on PRN.FM podcast, I was honoured to re-interview Professor Paul Ehrlich on his book “The Annihilation of Nature”,the show is embedded here:
“The numbers are sobering: Over all, there has been a human-driven decline in the populations of all species by 25% over the past 500 years, but not all groups have suffered equally. Up to a third of all species of vertebrates are now considered threatened, as are 45% of most species of invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, amphibians are getting clobbered, with 41% of species in trouble, compared to just 17% of birds—at least so far. The various orders of insects suffer differently too: 35% of Lepidopteran species are in decline (goodbye butterflies), which sounds bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to the similar struggles of nearly 100% of Orthoptera species (crickets, grasshoppers and katydids, look your last).“The Sixth Great Extinction is Underway and We’re to Blame;
Johns Hopkins University Press, The Annihilation of Nature
Published on Apr 23, 2015
“In this beautiful book, three of today’s most distinguished conservationists tell the stories of the birds and mammals we have lost and those that are now on the road to extinction. These tragic tales, coupled with eighty-three color photographs from the world’s leading nature photographers, display the beauty and biodiversity that humans are squandering.”
For a slide show of the wonderful photo’s and illustrations in this book click on the following link;The Annihilation of Nature
“The oft-repeated claim that Earth’s biota is entering a sixth “mass extinction” depends on clearly demonstrating that current extinction rates are far above the “background” rates prevailing between the five previous mass extinctions. Earlier estimates of extinction rates have been criticized for using assumptions that might overestimate the severity of the extinction crisis. We assess, using extremely conservative assumptions, whether human activities are causing a mass extinction. First, we use a recent estimate of a background rate of 2 mammal extinctions per 10,000 species per 100 years (that is, 2 E/MSY), which is twice as high as widely used previous estimates. We then compare this rate with the current rate of mammal and vertebrate extinctions. The latter is conservatively low because listing a species as extinct requires meeting stringent criteria. Even under our assumptions, which would tend to minimize evidence of an incipient mass extinction, the average rate of vertebrate species loss over the last century is up to 100 times higher than the background rate. Under the 2 E/MSY background rate, the number of species that have gone extinct in the last century would have taken, depending on the vertebrate taxon, between 800 and 10,000 years to disappear.” Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.
I mentioned in the interview; “The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) simply blows out of the water anything else that’s been attempted in human history. As currently planned, it will involve some 7,000 separate infrastructure or extractive industry projects scattered across 70-odd nations, with a total price-tag of $8 trillion. It’ll span half the planet — from Asia to Africa, Europe and the South Pacific.”
It’s hard for me to think where the sand, let alone the energy for this project will come from,considering to all intents and purposes we have consumed the planets ‘construction sand’ already.China’s Global Infrastructure Initative Could Bring Environmental Catastrophe
Also mentioned was this quote from Joanna Macy: “Because of social taboos, despair at the state of our world and fear for our future are rarely acknowledged. The suppression of despair, like that of any deep recurring response, contributes to the numbing of the psyche”. The Greatest Danger;
In sifting through 10,000 studies, researchers find some species seem to be able to cope with global warming, but are still running out of time.
Climate change has thrown our beautifully balanced planet into chaos. As oceans and forests transform and ecosystems go into shock, perhaps a million species teeter on the edge of extinction. But there may still be hope for these organisms. Some will change their behaviors in response to soaring global temperatures; they might, say, reproduce earlier in the year, when it’s cooler. Others may even evolve to cope—perhaps by shrinking, because smaller frames lose heat more quickly.
For the moment, though, scientists have little idea how these adaptations may be playing out. A new paper in Nature Communications, coauthored by more than 60 researchers, aims to bring a measure of clarity. By sifting through 10,000 previous studies, the researchers found that the climatic chaos we’ve sowed may just be too intense. Some species seem to be adapting, yes, but they aren’t doing so fast enough. That spells, in a word, doom.
Matt Simon covers cannabis, robots, and climate science for WIRED.
To determine how a species is adjusting to a climate gone mad, you typically look at two things: morphology and phenology. Morphology refers to physiological changes, like the aforementioned shrinking effect; phenology has to do with the timing of life events such as breeding and migration. The bulk of the existing research concerns phenology.
The species in the new study skew avian, in large part because birds are relatively easy to observe. Researchers can set up nesting boxes, for instance, which allow them to log when adults lay eggs, when chicks hatch, how big the chicks are, and so on. And they can map how this is all changing as the climate warms.
By looking at these kinds of studies together, the authors of the Nature Communications paper found that the 17 bird species they examined seem to be shifting their phenology. “Birds in the Northern Hemisphere do show adaptive responses on average, though these adaptive responses are not sufficient in order for populations to persist in the long term,” says lead author Viktoriia Radchuk of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
In other words, the birds simply can’t keep up. By laying their eggs earlier, they’re encouraging their chicks to hatch when there are lots of insects to eat, which happens once temperatures rise in spring. But they’re not shifting quickly enough.
This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to human-caused climate change. Life on Earth is so diverse because it’s so adaptable: Temperatures go up or down, and a species might move into a new habitat and evolve to become something different over time. But what we humans have unleashed on this planet is unparalleled. “We’re experiencing something on the order of 1,000 times faster change in temperature than what was seen in paleo times,” says Radchuk. “There are limits to these adaptive responses, and the lag is getting too big.”
Which means now more than ever, we have to aggressively conserve habitats to help boost species. “I think the results of this paper really add an abundance of caution, that we shouldn’t hope that species will adapt to changing climate and changing habitats, that we don’t need to do anything,” says Mark Reynolds, lead scientist for the Nature Conservancy’s migratory bird program, who wasn’t involved in the study.
Indeed, this paper is a terrifying window into what might be happening to ecosystems at large. A bird doesn’t live in a vacuum—it preys and is preyed upon. An ecosystem is unfathomably complex, all sorts of creatures interacting, which makes these dynamics extremely difficult to study, especially when Earth’s climate is changing so quickly.
“It’s not an internet type of network, it’s not an electrical grid,” says Peter Roopnarine, curator of geology and paleontology at the California Academy of Sciences, who wasn’t involved in this work. “These are systems that have very specific structures and configurations to them. We have poor documentation of that.”
On a very basic level, if insects start breeding earlier in the year because the planet is warming, birds have to shift their life cycles. That means the birds’ predators do, too. “One phenological change in one species can have a ripple effect through the system,” says Roopnarine.
Another major consideration here is generation length. Species that more rapidly produce offspring tend to adapt better to change. That’s why bacteria can so quickly evolve resistance to antibiotics: They proliferate like mad, and individual bacteria with the lucky genetics to survive the drugs win out and pass those genes along. Something like an elephant, which may not reproduce until she’s 20 years into a 50-year lifespan, is working with way longer timescales and may struggle to adapt to change.
What’s so troubling about this study is that, by comparison to other animal families, birds are relatively adaptable in their phenology: They can tweak the timing of their migrations, for instance. A less mobile critter like a frog has no such luxury. But what these researchers have found is that flexibility is no longer enough for salvation.
“The heavens were all on fire; the earth did tremble.”
–William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part 1
For much of my life, I thought our species would soon go extinct. I assumed we might last another hundred years if we were lucky. Now I suspect we are facing extinction in the near future. Can I speculate as to exactly when that might happen? Of course not. My sense of this is based only on probability. It might be similar to hearing about a diagnosis of late stage pancreatic cancer. Is it definite that the person is going to die soon? No, not definite. Is it highly probable? Yes, one would be wise to face the likelihood and put one’s affairs in order.
First, let’s look at climate data. Over the past decade I have been studying climate chaos by reading scientific papers and listening to climate lectures accessible to a layperson. There is no good news to be found there. We have burned so much carbon into the atmosphere that the CO2levels are higher than they have been for the past three million years. In the last decade our carbon emission levels are the highest in history, and we have not yet experienced their full impact. If we were to stop emitting carbon dioxide tomorrow, we are still on track for much higher heat for at least ten years. And we are certainly not stopping our emissions by tomorrow.
This blanket of carbon in the atmosphere has triggered, and will trigger, further runaway warming systems that are not under our control, the most deadly of which is the release of methane gases that have been trapped for eons under arctic ice and what is now euphemistically known as permafrost (much of it is no longer permanent frost).
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon, and much faster acting. In the first twenty years after its release into the atmosphere, it is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Whereas the full effect of heat from a carbon dioxide molecule takes ten years, peak warming from a methane molecule occurs in a matter of months.
As if these emissions were not daunting enough, a heretofore little-known gas, sulphur hexafluoride or SF6, used in many green and renewable technologies, is 23,500 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon. It leaks from electrical production sites and stays in the atmosphere for a thousand years.
The Arctic and Antarctic icecaps are melting at rates far faster than even the most alarming predictions, and methane is pouring out of these regions, bubbling out of Arctic lakes, and hissing out of seas and soils worldwide. Some scientists fear a methane “burp” of billions of tons when a full melt of the summer arctic ice occurs, something that has not happened for the past four million years. Should such a sudden large release of methane occur, the earth’s warming would rapidly accelerate within months. This alone could be the extinction event.
The Arctic summer ice is currently two thirds less than it was as recently as the 1970s, and the arctic is warming so fast that a full summer melt is likely within the next five years. The continent of Antarctica is also rapidly melting at an acceleration of 280% in the last forty years. The massive ice melts that are happening there, such as the breaking off the Larsen B ice shelf defied scientific predictions; the ice shelf known as Larsen C, which broke off in July of 2017, was 2,200 square miles in size.
The Arctic ice has been the coolant for the northern part of the planet and it impacts worldwide climate as well. Its white surface also reflects back into space much of the heat from the sun, as does the Antarctic ice. As the ice melts, the dark ocean absorbs the heat and the warming ocean more quickly melts the remaining ice. Over the past three decades, the oldest and thickest of the Arctic sea ice has declined by a whopping 95%, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 annual Arctic report.
The U.S., Russia, and China are now vying for hegemony of the Arctic region in order to get at the massive reserves of oil that exist there and will be accessible as the ice melts. Aside from the real possibility of military conflagrations over control of the region, moving tankers through and drilling in this sensitive eco-system would cause the dual destructions of rapidly deteriorating whatever ice is left, thereby speeding up the release of methane; and then burning all that stored carbon of newly found oil reserves into the atmosphere. For instance, Russia has recently launched a floating barge on which two nuclear reactors will be wired into its infrastructure to power gas and oil platforms in remote regions of the Arctic.
These and all the other warming feedback loops are now on an exponential trajectory and becoming self-amplifying, potentially leading to a “hothouse earth” independent of the carbon emissions that have triggered them. Each day, the extra heat that is trapped near our planet is equivalent tofour hundred thousandHiroshima bombs. There are no known technologies that can be deployed at world scale to reverse the warming, and many climate scientists feel that the window for doing so is already closed, that we have passed the tipping point and the heat is on “runaway” no matter what we do.
We are now in the midst of the sixth mass extinction with about 150 plant and animal species going extinct per day. Despite the phrase “the sixth extinction” making its way into mainstream awareness via the publication of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book of that title, most people still don’t realize that we humans are also on the list.
Some of the consequences we face are mass die-offs due to widespread drought, flooding, fires, forest mortality, runaway diseases, and dying ocean life—all of which we now see in preview. A few of these consequences could even result in the annihilation of all complex life on earth in a quick hurry: the use of nuclear weapons, for instance, as societies and governments become more desperate for resources; or the meltdown of the 450 nuclear reactors, which will likely become impossible to maintain as industrial civilization breaks down. Since 2011, when a tsunami struck the northeast coast of Japan and caused a near meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, it has taken more than 42,000 gallons of fresh water per day to keep the reactors cooled. Keeping the radioactive elements contained requires dangerous jobs for the workers and building a new steel water tank every four days to store the spent radioactive water.
If we were to make it through this gauntlet of threats, we would still be facing starvation. Grains, the basis of the world’s food supply, are reduced on average by 6% for every one degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial norms. We are now about one degree Celsius above and climbing fast; the oceans are warming twice as fast and have absorbed a staggering 93% of the warming for us so far. If that were not the case, the average land temperatures would be a toasty 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) above what they are now. Of course, there is a huge cost for ocean warming in the form of dying coral reefs, plankton loss, ocean acidification, unprecedented storms, and increased water vapor, which is yet another greenhouse blanket holding heat in the atmosphere.
As I became aware of these facts and many hundreds like them, I also marveled at how oblivious most people are to the coming catastrophes. There has never been a greater news story than that of humans facing full extinction, and yet extinction is rarely mentioned on the evening news, cable channels, or on the front pages of blogs and newspapers. It is as though the world’s astronomers were telling us that an asteroid is heading our way and will make a direct hit destined to wipe out all of life to which the public responds by remaining fascinated with sporting events, social media, the latest political scandals, and celebrity gossip.
However, beginning about six years ago, a few books and other sources of information began to address the chances of full extinction of all complex life, and these became my refuge, even though the information was the most horrific I had ever imagined.
For decades, I had sensed that things were dramatically worsening, the rate of destruction increasing. As a journalist from 1982 to 1994, I specialized in social and environmental issues. I had written about global warming, the phrase we used in those days, numerous times in the 1980s, but because it seemed a far-off threat, we could intellectually discuss it without fear of it affecting our own lives in terribly significant ways. As time marched on, I began to awaken to how fast the climate was changing and how negative its impacts. It became a strange relief to read and listen to the truth of the situation from people who were studying the hard data as it affirmed my instincts and threw a light on what had been shadowy forebodings, dancing like ghosts in my awareness. It is an ongoing study that has taken me through a powerful internal process–emotional and cathartic–one that I felt might be helpful to share with those who have woken to this dark knowledge or are in the process of waking to it, just as I, over time, found comfort in the reflections of the small yet increasing number of comrades with whom I share this journey.
Because the subject is so tragic and because it can scare or anger people, this is not an essay I ever wanted to write; it is one I would have wanted to read along the way. But the words on these pages are meant only for those who are ready for them. I offer no hope or solutions for our continuation, only companionship and empathy to you, the reader, who either knows or suspects that there is no hope or solution to be found. What we now need to find is courage.
You got me singing, even though the world is gone
You got me thinking that I’d like to carry on
You got me singing, even though it all looks grim
You got me singing the Hallelujah hymm
–Leonard Cohen “You Got Me Singing”
For the last quarter century of his life, Leonard Cohen was one of my closest friends. We would often talk at the small kitchen table in his modest home in Los Angeles until the wee hours of the morning, and when I would make a move to leave, he would bring out a fine port he had been saving or show me some of his recent drawings, or regale me with a story of his time in Cuba in the early Sixties. He loved engagement and there was no place in conversation he wouldn’t go. In his company I never censored my thoughts. Since his passing I have realized that he was not only a close friend but a life mentor. One of the most inspiring aspects in this regard was what one could call his heart bravery. It is, in my way of seeing, the highest form of courage. In fact, the word courage comes from the Latin coeur, meaning heart. Leonard’s special genius was his ability to communicate both the sorrow and the beauty of the world, even in the same sentence. He never looked away from either, not even in his final months when pain wracked his body. He had a twinkle in one eye and a tear in the other.
In those last years of his life, we had many conversations about climate chaos, as he knew I was studying the subject. He always listened intently and asked pertinent questions throughout our discussions. Although climate had not been his own focus (his was more a passion for world politics), there was no surprise for him in seeing how close we are to the edge. He understood human nature and assumed we would do ourselves in. One need only listen to his song, “The Future” to know how prescient he was on the matter.
And yet, we laughed over all the years. Laughed like crazy. Leonard was a master of gallows humor, and I have a well-honed appreciation for that form as well. The power of gallows humor, and I highly recommend it in these times, is that it allows a sideways glance at the gathering clouds while one is still sipping tea in the garden. All of these small moments of recognition serve to accustom our awareness to difficult realities, to hammer at the chains that bind, to allow us to let go a bit. In sharing gallows humor, it is also comforting to know that your friend sees the tragi-comedy as well. There is an amortizing of the burden when we share a heavy load.
Courage is often confused with stoicism, the stiff upper lip, bravado that masks fear. There is another kind of courage. It is the courage to live with a broken heart, to face fear and allow vulnerability, and it is the courage to keep loving what you love “even though the world is gone.”
DISTRACTION AND DENIAL
They are as children, playing with their toys in a house on fire.
Never have these words of the Buddha been more true. We love to be distracted from ourselves, and we have myriad ways of doing that in our time. We pay big money for the privilege and we run about chasing objects and experiences in its service. We seem to be evolutionarily designed to put aside or entirely ignore future threats and instead focus only on immediate concerns and personal desires. This is understandable since for most of human history there was nothing we could do about future possibilities or events occurring far from where we lived. With some notable exceptions, evolution didn’t select for long-term survival planning. Being concerned about climate change does not come naturally to us. Daniel Gilbert, author and Harvard professor of psychology, proposes four features for why our brains respond primarily to immediate threats.
First, we are social animals who have evolved to think about what the creatures around us are doing; we are highly sensitive to intentions, especially if they seem threatening. Second, climate change does not challenge our moral sense of right and wrong and thereby stir the brain to action. As Gilbert notes, if it was clear that global warming was deliberately killing kittens, we would all be marching in the streets.
Thirdly, unless climate chaos is a threat to us today, we don’t think about it. I find that a lot of the data we see in conservative climate reports refers to horrific changes that will happen by 2100. When we see the year 2100, we easily think, “Whew! No problem.” Of course, changes occurring by 2100 is an overly optimistic timeline, yet it shows how the brain responds to slow motion threat in the future, even when it will affect the lives of children whom we know in the present. Gilbert’s fourth reason for why we ignore climate threats is that for millennia we have relied on our highly developed sense apparatus as physical creatures to gauge changes and threats in our environment—changes of temperature, weight, pressure, sound, or smell. If changes occur at a slow enough pace, they can fly under the radar of our notice. The frog boiling in the pot that is only gradually being heated.
During the historic floods in Queensland, Australia in early 2019, the rivers broke their banks and washed into the city of Townsville. As a result, there were crocodiles and snakes in the flooded streets and in people’s back yards. It might well concentrate the mind and promote a flight response to find oneself wading in floodwater on a street or yard that contained crocodiles and deadly snakes. But short of such clear and present dangers, our threat response is slow.
It seems even our genes favor short-term gain over long-term trouble. The twentieth century biologist George Williams recognized that, due to our genes having multiple functions, some genes have opposing functions. That is, for example, a gene can have great benefits for early life and at the same time cause great harm in later life, a process known as biological senescence. Evolution naturally selects for those genes since the organism doesn’t always make it to later life, so the early benefit has been accrued while the later harm has less chance of being activated.
Biologist Bret Weinstein sees a cultural analog to this process, “culture is biology, downstream of genes.” As he explains, “Ideas that work in the short term but fail and cause vulnerability in the long term tend to survive in our system because they often produce economic benefit. So if you produce a technology that has benefits for humanity over the course of several decades but the harm of that technology comes only in later decades, you will have become wealthy in the short term and that wealth will have resulted in an increase in your political influence, which will reinforce the belief structures that made it seem like a good idea in the first place. The market tends to see short-term gains and discount long-term effects until the political structure has been modified by that success. Just as in biological senescence, cultural senescence manifests in a system that is incapable of going in reverse and would drive itself off a cliff rather than recognize that something at its core was leading us into danger. We now have a cultural system that is making us very comfortable in the short term, but it is liquidating the wellbeing of the planet at an incredible rate.”
Evolution also didn’t select for us to be overly conscious of personal death itself. It would otherwise be emotionally paralyzing. Ernest Becker’s seminal book The Denial of Death, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, examined the awareness of death on human behavior and the strategies that developed in humans to mitigate their fear of it. “This is the terror:” Becker wrote, “to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self expression—and with all this yet to die.”
Sheldon Solomon, author and legendary professor of psychology at Skidmore College, spent thirty-five years conducting experiments based on Becker’s ideas. This body of work culminated in what Solomon and his colleagues call Terror Management Theory and relies on proving a central thesis of Becker’s work: that it is through cultural worldviews and through self-esteem that humans ward off the terror of death. As Sheldon told me in an interview in 2015, “What Becker proposes is that human beings manage terror of death by subscribing to culturally constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that gives them a sense that they’re valuable people in a meaningful universe…And so for Becker, whether we’re aware of it or not, and most often we’re not, we are highly motivated to maintain confidence in the veracity of our cultural worldview and faith in the proposition that we’re valuable people, that is, that we have self esteem. And whenever either of those, what we call ‘twin pillars of terror management,’ –culture or self-esteem– is threatened, we respond in a variety of defensive ways in order to bolster our faith in our culture and ourselves.” Listen to the full interview here.
Becker’s work relied on examining defense strategies for denial of personal death. We are now faced with the death of all. Therefore denial and defense of denial are accordingly amplified and dangerous. There is now a desperate rise of religious fundamentalism, superstition, and new age magical thinking, as predicted in 1996 by astronomer Carl Sagan in his final book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. To an increasingly anxious species, cultural and religious belief systems offer the promise of eternal life. And people will literally fight to the death for them.
Or they will offer up their children. From the Mayan priests who threw children from cliffs to the families of suicide bombers in present time who joyously celebrate the martyrdom of their son or daughter in the streets with their friends, people would rather see their children die than forego the preservation and defense of their culture or religion. In places where climate chaos is already underway, we are seeing a solidification of tribalism and battle lines drawn between communities who have formerly lived together in relative harmony. These pressures are bound to increase.
We also find it difficult to think exponentially. We might grasp the concept of an exponential factor but it is not our natural way to perceive. Therefore, as exponential warming triggers other imbalances that also become exponential, we perceive them only as linear problems and assume we will have time to address them. We carry on with business-as-usual and return to “the matrix,” the illusion that things are fairly normal, where our ordinary problems, comforts and entertainments await our attention, just like in the movie. But we have now come to the point of “amusing ourselves to death,” as Neil Postman put it in his 1985 book by that title.
As you begin to awaken to the specter of extinction, you will likely feel the powerful lure of your usual distractions. You may want to go back to sleep. But denial will become harder and harder to maintain because once your attention has turned to this subject, you will see the evidence of it everywhere, both locally and globally.
And you will find yourself among the throngs of humanity who are easily distracted and amused, playing with their toys as the house burns, “tranquilized by the trivial,” as Kierkegaard said, and speaking of the future as though it was going to go on as it has. After all, we made it this far. We have proven our superiority at figuring things out and removing obstacles to our desires. We killed off most of the large wild mammals and most of the indigenous peoples in order to take their lands. We bent nature to our will, paved over her forests and grasslands, rerouted and dammed her rivers, dug up what journalist Thom Hartman calls her “ancient sunlight,” and burned that dead creature goo into the atmosphere so that our vehicles could motor us around on land, sea, and air and our weapons could keep our enemies in check. And now we have given her atmosphere a high fever. But, as the old adage has it, (a phrase I first heard in the 1980s, which has informed me ever since), “nature bats last.”
You may find yourself in the company of people who seem to have no awareness of the consequences we face or who don’t want to know or who might have a momentary inkling but cannot bear to face it. You may find that people become angry if you steer the conversation in the direction of planetary crisis. You may sense that you are becoming a social pariah due to what you see, even when you don’t mention it, and you may feel lonely in the company of most people you know. For you, it’s not just the elephant in the room; it’s the elephant on fire in the room, and yet you feel you can rarely say its name.
I once asked Leonard for his advice on how to talk with others about this. He replied: “There are things we don’t tell the children.” It is helpful to realize that most people are not ready for this conversation. They may never be ready, just as some people die after a long illness, still in denial that death was at their doorstep. It is a mystery as to who can handle the truth of our situation and who runs from it as though their sanity depended on not seeing it. There is even a strange phenomenon that some of my extinction-aware friends and I have noticed: you might sometimes find relaxation in the company of those who don’t know and don’t want to know. For a while you pretend that all is well or at least the same as it has been. You discuss politics, the latest drama series, new cafes. You visit the matrix for a little R & R. But this usually doesn’t last long as the messages coming from the catastrophe are unrelenting.
The Parent Trap. There is one category of people that I have found especially resistant to seeing this darkest of truths: parents. A particular and by now familiar glazed look comes over their faces when the conversation gets anywhere near the topic of human extinction. And how could it be otherwise? It is built into the DNA that parents (not all, of course) love their children above themselves. They would sacrifice anything for them. So to think that there will be no protection for their children in the future, that no amount of money or homesteading or living on a boat or in a gated community or on a mountaintop or growing a secret garden will save them is too unbearable a thought to hold for even a second. I have also noticed a flash of anger arise in the midst of the distracted look on their faces, an almost subliminal message that says, “Don’t say another word on this subject.”
It is a subject I have learned to avoid in the company of parents although, to my surprise, I am recently finding more of them coming to terms with it. It is an added layer of grief, to be sure, and I can only admire and grieve with them in the knowledge that it is unlikely their children will live to old age, leaving aside what they may suffer beforehand.
I had my own battle of despair with this. As I began to realize the gravity of our situation, I quickly recognized that my own death was not much of an issue. After all, I have lived a long time, longer than most people in history. I certainly have preferences about how I would like to die, and I don’t make any claims about having no fear of death at all, but the fact of my own death is something I have considered since my teenage years and has been part of my many decades of dharma interest. No, the despair came from the thoughts about my young great nieces and great nephew with whom I am close. All nine of them were under the age of ten when I began to realize that they are not likely to have long lives. The anxiety and despair into which I sank was such that I became very ill. I developed a massive case of shingles covering large areas of my torso, front and back in two zones (apparently it is rare to have more than one zone) and I ended up in the hospital. Shingles (way too puny a word for a disease that feels like your nerves have been set on fire from the inside) is considered a stress-related illness. My anxiety and despair had made me physically sick. Once home and bedridden for the best part of a month, I had a chance to consider how unaffordable my fear and anxiety would be going forward. I had to find a perspective that would allow me to access at least some quiet underneath the profound sadness, some whisper that says, “This is the suchness of things. Everything passes.”
Of course, there are now many millions of parents in the world who have already had to come to terms with this. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees for whom any fretting about the future would seem the greatest of luxuries and privileges. They are struggling for survival due to climate catastrophes, even as you read these words.
I’ve seen the future, Brother.
It is murder.
—Leonard Cohen “The Future”
Of all the threats we face, the one I find most frightening is the breakdown of civilized society. We now see large regions of the world that are no-go zones. Failed states, where life is cheap and barbarism reigns. Huge swaths of Africa are now lawless and controlled by armed and violent men and boys roaming the countryside in gangs, engaged in despicable acts too sickening to write. The Middle East is much the same as are parts of South America. All of these areas are enduring severe drought. As professor and journalist Christian Parenti said in an interview with Chris Hedges, “How do people adapt to climate change? How do they adapt to the drought, to the floods? Very often, the way is you pick up the surplus weaponry and you go after your neighbor’s cattle or you blame it on your neighbor’s ideology or ethnicity.”
In his book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, Parenti writes: “Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis. The current and impending dislocations of climate change intersect with the already-existing crises of poverty and violence. I call this collision of political, economic, and environmental disasters ‘the catastrophic convergence.’ ”
In their desperation, people, especially women, sell themselves into prostitution and other forms of modern slavery. Or they are taken and sold by others. Human trafficking is now big business worldwide. People also sell their own children to save the rest of their families. I saw a CNN news interview with a widow and her son and daughter in a refugee tent in Afghanistan. Having left the drought-ridden area of her home region, she was explaining to the reporter that she was selling her six-year-old daughter to an old man so that she could feed herself and her son. The little girl sat quietly by her side, looking sad and bewildered, perhaps dimly aware that whatever change to come in her already difficult life was going to be a far worse fate. Nearby sat the old man who was purchasing her as a “gift” for his ten–year-old son, this rationale most likely for the benefit of the reporter, one that I didn’t believe as I suspected an even darker plan for the little girl. Apparently, this is a common practice now in the Afghan refugee community.
It is no wonder that people leave these hellholes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and make their way, often risking death, to countries of greater abundance and saner policies. It is also no wonder that those countries don’t want them. At some point in loading a rowboat, even one extra person will sink it. And many of the refugees are nationals of countries with almost opposite values of those of their new host countries. Europe is now on the front lines of the refugee crisis and is struggling to hold itself together. It is one of the great historical ironies that the European countries, perhaps the most enlightened and progressive of all time, are employing greater and greater draconian measures to try to preserve what they have. But the refugees will keep coming, in the millions and then the hundreds of millions, and there will be no walls or armies strong enough to stop them. This is true not only for Europe but anywhere there is potential for a better life.
The places where there still exists “a better life” are rapidly deteriorating as well. In Chris Hedges’ book, America: The Farewell Tour, he forensically chronicles the decline of 21st century America. The “flyover” states, that is, almost everywhere except the coasts, are ridden with poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, drug and gambling addiction, porn addiction, violence, inferior education, depression and other mental illnesses, poor physical health, and suicide. “The diseases of despair” as sociologists call them.
These diseases of despair likely have a correlation to our severance from the natural world. At the 2017 Bateson Symposium in Sweden, Rex Weyler gave a thought-provoking presentation called “Ecological Trauma and Common Addictions.” Weyler, one of the founders of Greenpeace, defines ecological trauma as “the experience of witnessing – consciously or not – the pervasive abuse and destruction of the natural world, of which we are a part, and for which we have a primal affinity. Almost everyone in the modern, industrial world can tell stories of treasured childhood experiences in natural settings or wilderness sanctuaries that have been obliterated for a shopping mall, parking lot, highway, or other industrial, consumer function.
“Modern neuroses and addictions, prevalent in industrial nations, can be traced, at least partially, to the trauma of separation from natural security and the trauma of witnessing the abuse of nature. The marvels and conveniences of technological society provide only a thin veneer over our natural being. We remain biophysical animals akin to ants and raccoons.
“Regardless of prevailing conceits, we retain patterns learned from fifty million years of primate evolution, five million years of hominid development in productive ecological habitats, and 500,000 years of fire-bearing, tool-making hunter-gatherer culture. During this long genesis, humanity grew within the comfort and constraints of an intact ecosystem that supplied sustenance, vital lessons, wonder, and a home. Watching that home fall under the blade of industrialism shocks our system, whether we know it or not.
“Within the last few hundred years, industrial culture has widened this separation from nature, divided families, and destroyed communities, creating alienated individuals clinging to scarce jobs and rewarded with packaged food and entertainment, like the “bread and circuses” that Roman emperors bestowed upon disenfranchised peasants.”
In fact, for the past two years, average life expectancy in the USA has declined due to suicide and opioid overdoses. The U.S is now in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in its history; more people die from opiate overdoses than from car accidents or gun homicides. Due to the poverty existent in these communities there is also a breakdown of law and order as well as basic services. The local municipalities are going broke and are beginning to function like banana republics.
Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in the United States, provides gas and electric power for two thirds of California. It just filed for bankruptcy protection against lawsuits of an estimated thirty billion dollars due to its power lines blowing about and possibly starting some of the deadly fires that recently occurred in California. Who bails out the utility companies when these things occur? The Federal Government, which means the taxpayers get the bill. How long can governments bail out corporations? The US national debt, for instance, now stands at 22 trillion dollars. At what point is the “let’s pretend” game of currency value over? How long will we be able to exchange pieces of paper for food? And what will happen when we are forced to make extreme sacrifices?
The richer countries are particularly intolerant of making even relatively small sacrifices that might have a future benefit; for example, the “yellow vest” riots that began in Paris in October 2018 and spread throughout the country.
The fracas started when French President Emmanuel Macron announced an “eco-tax” on fuel in an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to address global warming. Soon after the rioting began, the government walked back any talk of the tax, but by then the rioters had added on a host of other grievances and the mayhem began to grow, becoming more violent, destructive, and deadly. These are not people who are starving or being removed at gunpoint from their homes. These are people who are being asked to sacrifice some of their income for the greater good. But as we are seeing there and elsewhere, short-term greed prevails.
What is happening in France is no doubt a cautionary tale to other progressive world leaders who dare to challenge Big Oil and its hungry consumers. It is a mark of immaturity to be unable to delay personal satisfaction for the chance at greater wellbeing for all at a later date. And it is yet another wearisome example of why we humans are in the mess in which we find ourselves. We see it throughout human history. Greed is not new to modern times. We can easily understand the greedy impulse as most of us are afflicted with it. Perhaps the evolutionary imperatives from ancient times would have had no use for delayed gratification since servicing immediate needs often meant the difference between life and death. However, we can now see that being enslaved to our base desires and impulses is contraindicated to our survival. Seeing disintegrations occur in the developed countries gives a glimpse as to what societal and economic breakdown will look like when there are widespread food shortages everywhere and when the infrastructures, including the electric grids, become spotty, too costly to maintain, or are no longer working.
OVERPOPULATION AND CO-EXTINCTIONS
In 1952, when I was born, there were approximately 2.6 billion people on earth. There are now 7.7 billion, a more than threefold increase in my lifetime. Our use rate of resources would allow for our planet to sustainably host only about one billion people. As William Catton explained in his 1980 book Overshoot, we are in “carrying capacity deficit.” In other words, the load on resource use is far in excess of its carrying capacity. Of course, the only way we have been able to pull this off is by stealing from the future, just as we might have a garden of food that could last ten people through the winter and instead we have a wild party for a thousand and go through the entire supply in an evening.
It is also troubling to realize that whatever reasonable measures we might attempt to mitigate our situation, and there are none known that can be done at scale, the addition of roughly 220,000 humans per day (births minus deaths) would curtail our efforts at mitigation.
According to many scientific studies, some of the inevitable outcomes of overpopulation are severely polluted water, increased air pollution and lung diseases, proliferation of infectious diseases, overwhelmed hospitals, rising crime rates, deforestation, loss of wildlife leading to mass extinctions, widespread food shortages, vanishing fish in the oceans, superbugs and airborne diseases along with diminished capacity to treat them, proliferation of AIDS, less access to safe drinking water, new parasites, desertification, rising regional conflicts, and war. As astrobiology professor Peter Ward explained in a story on the BBC, “If you look at any biological system, when it overpopulates it begins to poison its home.”
Of course, when we speak of overpopulation we specifically refer to humans. In fact, human activity is causing massive die-offs of the other species.