We are underestimating the urgency and scale of the threats to Earth’s life-support systems, warns new report. —
No 2710 Posted by fw, February 19, 2021
“We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action. First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts. Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action. Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends.
The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.” —Frontiers in Conservation
Without immediate and drastic intervention, humans face a “ghastly future” — including declining health, climate devastation, tens of millions of environmental migrants and more pandemics — in the next several decades, according to an international team of 17 prominent scientists. “Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for short-term economic enhancement today,” said Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University professor emeritus of population studies and a co-author of the study.
The study has generated over a thousand media articles and interviews which suggests that public interest is extremely high despite competing news– insurrection, inauguration, and pandemic. It has been covered in media organizations including: CNN World, Reuters, The Guardian, International Business Times, Taipei Times, The Irish Times, and the University of California among many others.
This report is the best single source of documented evidence of humanity’s existential plight that I have seen.
The team of scientists who co-authored this paper, reposted below, cited a reference list of 158 evidential sources. This lengthy piece is organized under nine main headings: Introduction; Biodiversity Loss; Sixth Mass Extinction; Ecological Overshoot: Population Size and Overconsumption; Failed International Goals and Prospects for the Future; Climate Disruption; Political Impotence; Changing the Rules of the Game; and Conclusions.
For readability purposes, my repost omits the overflowing inline hyperlinks to cited sources, the names of the 17 co-authors, and the list of 158 references. These are available in the original report.
On a related note, posted at the bottom of my repost, is a 90-minute video which brings together six experts, including Bill Rees and Nate Hagens, to discuss the recently published report that I have reposted below. On a personal note, I would have preferred more of a brainstorming discussion featuring a consensus on the essence of the challenge we face followed by an outline of an action plan.
My repost below features added subheadings, highlighted text, and bulletted formatting.
To read the original report, which includes the names of 17 co-authors, all the inline hyperlinks to the 158 sources, and the full list of references, click on the following linked title.
We report three major and confronting environmental issues that have received little attention and require urgent action.
First, we review the evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than currently believed. The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms—including humanity—is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.
Second, we ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action.
Third, this dire situation places an extraordinary responsibility on scientists to speak out candidly and accurately when engaging with government, business, and the public. We especially draw attention to the lack of appreciation of the enormous challenges to creating a sustainable future. The added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends.
The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.
Six Main Points
1/ Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth’s ability to support complex life.
2/ But the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilization.
3/ While suggested solutions abound, the current scale of their implementation does not match the relentless progression of biodiversity loss and other existential threats tied to the continuous expansion of the human enterprise (Rees, 2020).
4/ Time delays between ecological deterioration and socio-economic penalties, as with climate disruption for example, impede recognition of the magnitude of the challenge and timely counteraction needed.
5/ In addition, disciplinary specialization and insularity encourage unfamiliarity with the complex adaptive systems in which problems and their potential solutions are embedded.
6/ Widespread ignorance of human behavior and the incremental nature of socio-political processes that plan and implement solutions further delay effective action.
Three aims of this paper
1/ We summarize the state of the natural world in stark form here to help clarify the gravity of the human predicament.
2/ We also outline likely future trends in biodiversity decline, climate disruption, and human consumption and population growth to demonstrate the near certainty that these problems will worsen over the coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come.
3/ Finally, we discuss the ineffectiveness of current and planned actions that are attempting to address the ominous erosion of Earth’s life-support system.
Ours is not a call to surrender—we aim to provide leaders with a realistic “cold shower” of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future.
Global trends in biodiversity loss
Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems (summarized below in Figure 1). While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious.
Figure 1. Summary of major environmental-change categories expressed as a percentage change relative to the baseline given in the text. Red indicates the percentage of the category that is damaged, lost, or otherwise affected, whereas blue indicates the percentage that is intact, remaining, or otherwise unaffected.
Freshwater and marine environments have also been severely damaged.
With such a rapid, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the ecosystem services it provides have also declined. These include inter alia [among other things]
Humanity’s huge transfer of biomass from natural ecosystems to human use
As telling indicators of how much biomass humanity has transferred from natural ecosystems to our own use, of the estimated 0.17 Gt of living biomass of terrestrial vertebrates on Earth today, most is represented by livestock (59%) and human beings (36%)—only 5% of this total biomass is made up by wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. As of 2020, the overall material output of human endeavor exceeds the sum of all living biomass on Earth.
Sixth Mass Extinction
“That we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable”
A mass extinction is defined as a loss of ~75% of all species on the planet over a geologically short interval—generally anything ❤ million years. At least five major extinction events have occurred since the Cambrian, the most recent of them 66 million years ago at the close of the Cretaceous period.
That we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable.
Ecological Overshoot: Population Size and Overconsumption
The challenges of human population growth
The global human population has approximately doubled since 1970, reaching nearly 7.8 billion people today. While some countries have stopped growing and even declined in size, world average fertility continues to be above replacement (2.3 children [per] woman), with an average of 4.8 children [per] woman in Sub-Saharan Africa and fertilities >4 children [per] woman in many other countries (e.g., Afghanistan, Yemen, Timor-Leste).
The 1.1 billion people today in Sub-Saharan Africa—a region expected to experience particularly harsh repercussions from climate change—is projected to double over the next 30 years.
By 2050, the world population will likely grow to ~9.9 billion (prb.org), with growth projected by many to continue until well into the next century, although more recent estimates predict a peak toward the end of this century.
Large population size and continued growth are implicated in many societal problems. The impact of population growth, combined with an imperfect distribution of resources, leads to massive food insecurity.
Negative impact of humanity’s consumption growth on Earth’s regenerative capacity
Simultaneous with population growth, humanity’s consumption as a fraction of Earth’s regenerative capacity has grown from ~ 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2016, with substantially greater per-person consumption in countries with highest income.
With COVID-19, this overshoot dropped to 56% above Earth’s regenerative capacity, which means that between January and August 2020, humanity consumed as much as Earth can renew in the entire year (overshootday.org).
While inequality among people and countries remains staggering, the global middle class has grown rapidly and exceeded half the human population by 2018).
Over 70% of all people currently live in countries that run a biocapacity deficit while also having less than world-average income, excluding them from compensating their biocapacity deficit through purchases and eroding future resilience via reduced food security.
The consumption rates of high-income countries continue to be substantially higher than low-income countries, with many of the latter even experiencing declines in per-capita footprint.
This massive ecological overshoot is largely enabled by the increasing use of fossil fuels. These convenient fuels have allowed us to decouple human demand from biological regeneration:
It is therefore also inevitable that aggregate consumption will increase at least into the near future, especially as affluence and population continue to grow in tandem.
Failed International Goals and Prospects for the Future
Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability.
The emergence of a long-predicted pandemic, likely related to biodiversity loss, poignantly exemplifies how that imbalance is degrading both human health and wealth.
Governments at all levels are finding it difficult to deal effectively with climate change
The dangerous effects of climate change are much more evident to people than those of biodiversity loss, but society is still finding it difficult to deal with them effectively.
Human alteration of the climate has become globally detectable in any single day’s weather.
The public should not expect politicians to rise to the difficult challenges ahead
If most of the world’s population truly understood and appreciated the magnitude of the crises we summarize here, and the inevitability of worsening conditions, one could logically expect positive changes in politics and policies to match the gravity of the existential threats. But the opposite is unfolding.
Historically, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity
A central concept in ecology is density feedback —as a population approaches its environmental carrying capacity, average individual fitness declines. This tends to push populations toward an instantaneous expression of carrying capacity that slows or reverses population growth. But for most of history, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity for us by developing new ways to increase food production, expand wildlife exploitation, and enhance the availability of other resources. This inflation has involved –
Moreover, fossil fuels have pushed human consumption far beyond Earths biocapacity and what we can manage sustainably
But with the availability of fossil fuels, our species has pushed its consumption of nature’s goods and services much farther beyond long-term carrying capacity (or more precisely, the planet’s biocapacity), making the readjustment from overshoot that is inevitable far more catastrophic if not managed carefully. A growing human population will only exacerbate this, leading to greater competition for an ever-dwindling resource pool.
The corollaries [consequences] are many:
Entrenched interests threaten to limit prospects for wise and prudent decision-making
Given these misconceptions and entrenched interests, the continued rise of extreme ideologies is likely, which in turn limits the capacity of making prudent, long-term decisions, thus potentially accelerating a vicious cycle of global ecological deterioration and its penalties.
For example, America’s Green New Deal has exacerbated the country’s political polarization
Even the USA’s much-touted New Green Deal has in fact exacerbated the country’s political polarization, mainly because of the weaponization of ‘environmentalism’ as a political ideology rather than being viewed as a universal mode of self-preservation and planetary protection that ought to transcend political tribalism. Indeed, environmental protest groups are being labeled as “terrorists” in many countries.
The severity of sacrifices will likely lead to public backlash and ideological ebtrenchments
Further, the severity of the commitments required for any country to achieve meaningful reductions in consumption and emissions will inevitably lead to public backlash and further ideological entrenchments, mainly because the threat of potential short-term sacrifices is seen as politically inopportune.
Politicians would likely see any action on climate change as politically unpalatable
Even though climate change alone will incur a vast economic burden possibly leading to war (nuclear, or otherwise) at a global scale, most of the world’s economies are predicated on the political idea that meaningful counteraction now is too costly to be politically palatable. Combined with financed disinformation campaigns in a bid to protect short-term profits, it is doubtful that any needed shift in economic investments of sufficient scale will be made in time.
A rising tide of “environmental migrants” will weaken global mitigation of the crisis
While uncertain and prone to fluctuate according to unpredictable social and policy trends, climate change and other environmental pressures will trigger more mass migration over the coming decades, with an estimated 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants expected by 2050. Because international law does not yet legally recognize such “environmental migrants” as refugees (although this is likely to change), we fear that a rising tide of refugees will reduce, not increase, international cooperation in ways that will further weaken our capacity to mitigate the crisis.
Changing the Rules of the Game
Fortunately there is abundant evidence-based literature on “how” and “what” to do
While it is neither our intention nor capacity in this short Perspective to delve into the complexities and details of possible solutions to the human predicament, there is no shortage of evidence-based literature proposing ways to change human behavior for the benefit of all extant life.
The remaining questions are less about what to do, and more about how, stimulating the genesis of many organizations devoted to these pursuits (e.g., ipbes.org, goodanthropocenes.net, overshootday.org, mahb.stanford.edu, populationmatters.org, clubofrome.org, steadystate.org, to name a few).
The situation demands fundamental changes to capitalism, education, and equality
The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia [among other things]
The choices will entail difficult conversations
These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.
We have summarized predictions of a ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health, and climate-disruption upheavals (including looming massive migrations) and resource conflicts this century.
Authors’ goal is not to present a “fatalist perspective”
Yet, our goal is not to present a fatalist perspective, because there are many examples of successful interventions to prevent extinctions, restore ecosystems, and encourage more sustainable economic activity at both local and regional scales.
Goal is to present “a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges” humanity faces
Instead, we contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future. While there have been more recent calls for the scientific community in particular to be more vocal about their warnings to humanity, these have been insufficiently foreboding to match the scale of the crisis.
To gain acceptance of the dire reality, the authors must undercut humankind’s innate “optimism bias”
Given the existence of a human “optimism bias” that triggers some to underestimate the severity of a crisis and ignore expert warnings, a good communication strategy must ideally undercut this bias without inducing disproportionate feelings of fear and despair.
Experts must, therefore, avoid sugar-coating the challenges and “tell it like it is”
It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.”
Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.
RELATED VIDEO –
OMEGA – Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future, posted by Stanley Wu on You Tube, January 31, 2021 — The formal session will last an hour with an additional half hour for those who can stay. We hope you will join us for this thought-provoking discussion.
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