HUMANS: THE REAL THREAT TO HUMANITY
By Vincent Lyn
Humanity is but a blip on the time-scale of life on earth. But that blip is all that we have, and our present global course guarantees its extinction. What are the realities?
Earth is home to millions of species. Just one dominates it. Humans. Our cleverness, our inventiveness and our activities have modified almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound impact on it and are now the drivers of every global problem we face. Every one of these problems is accelerating as we continue to grow towards a global population of 11 billion. In fact, I believe we can rightly call the situation we’re in right now an emergency — an unprecedented planetary emergency.
Humans emerged as a species about 200,000 years ago and in geological time, that is really a blip on the time-scale. Just 10,000 years ago, there were one million of us. By 1800, just over 200 years ago, there were 1 billion of us. By 1960, 60 years ago, there were 3 billion of us. There are now over 7.8 billion of us. United Nations projections by 2037, there will be 9 billion and by 2057, 10 billion of us. We are on route to hit 11 billion around 2086. Possibly much more.
We got to where we are now through a number of civilization- and society-shaping “events”, most notably the agricultural revolution, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution and — in the West — the public-health revolution. By 1980, there were 4 billion of us on the planet. Just 10 years later, in 1990, there were 5 billion of us. By this point initial signs of the consequences of our growth were starting to show. Not the least of these was on water. Our demand for water — not just the water we drank but the water we needed for food production and to make all the stuff we were consuming — was going through the roof. But something was starting to happen to water.
Back in 1984, journalists reported from Ethiopia about a famine of biblical proportions caused by widespread drought. Unusual drought, and unusual flooding, was increasing everywhere: Australia, Asia, the U.S, Europe. Water, a vital resource we had thought of as abundant, was now suddenly something that had the potential to be scarce.
By 2000 there were 6 billion of us. It was becoming clear to the world’s scientific community that the accumulation of CO2, methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — as a result of increasing agriculture, land use and the production, processing and transportation of everything we were consuming — was changing the climate. And that, as a result, we had a serious problem on our hands; 1998 had been the warmest year on record. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.
There are now nearly 8 billion of us on Earth. As our numbers continue to grow, we continue to increase our need for far more water, far more food, far more land, far more transport and far more energy. As a result, we are accelerating the rate at which we’re changing our climate. In fact, our activities are not only completely interconnected with but now also interact with, the complex system we live on: Earth. It is important to understand how all this is connected.
Demand for land for food is going to double — at least — by 2050, and triple — at least — by 2080. This means that pressure too clear many of the world’s remaining tropical rainforests for human use is going to intensify every decade, because this is predominantly the only available land that is left for expanding agriculture at scale.
Meanwhile, another 3 billion people are going to need somewhere to live. By 2050, 70% of us are going to be living in cities. This century will see the rapid expansion of cities, as well as the emergence of entirely new cities that do not yet exist. It’s worth mentioning that of the 19 Brazilian cities that have doubled in population in the past decade, 10 are in the Amazon. All this is going to use yet more land.
We currently have no known means of being able to feed 10 billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system. Indeed, simply to feed ourselves in the next 40 years, we will need to produce more food than the entire agricultural output of the past 10,000 years combined. Yet food productivity is set to decline, possibly very sharply, over the coming decades due to: climate change; soil degradation and desertification — both of which are increasing rapidly in many parts of the world; and water stress. By the end of this century, large parts of the planet will not have any usable water.
Meanwhile the emerging climate problem is on an entirely different scale. The problem is that we may well be heading towards a number of critical “tipping points” in the global climate system. There is a politically agreed global target — driven by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — to limit the global average temperature rise to 2C. The rationale for this target is that a rise above 2C carries a significant risk of catastrophic climate change that would almost certainly lead to irreversible planetary “tipping points”, caused by events such as the melting of the Greenland ice shelf, the release of frozen methane deposits from Arctic tundra, or dieback of the Amazon. In fact, the first two are happening now — at below the 2C threshold.
As for the third, we’re not waiting for climate change to do this: we’re doing it right now through deforestation. And recent research shows that we look certain to be heading for a larger rise in global average temperatures than 2C — a far larger rise. It is now very likely that we are looking at a future global average rise of 4C — and we can’t rule out a rise of 6C. This will be absolutely catastrophic. It will lead to runaway climate change, capable of tipping the planet into an entirely different state, rapidly. Earth will become a hellhole. In the decades along the way, we will witness unprecedented extremes in weather, fires, floods, heatwaves, loss of crops and forests, water stress and catastrophic sea-level rises. Large parts of Africa will become permanent disaster areas. The Amazon could be turned into savannah or even desert. And the entire agricultural system will be faced with an unprecedented threat.
More “fortunate” countries, such as the U.K, the U.S and most of Europe, may well look like something approaching militarized countries, with heavily defended border controls designed to prevent millions of people from entering, people who are on the move because their own country is no longer habitable, or has insufficient water or food, or is experiencing conflict over increasingly scarce resources. These people will be “climate migrants”. The term “climate migrants” is one we will increasingly have to get used to. Indeed, anyone who thinks that the emerging global state of affairs does not have great potential for civil and international conflict is deluding themselves. It is no coincidence that almost every scientific conference that convenes about climate change now has a new type of attendee: the military.
Every which way you look at it, a planet of 10 billion looks like a nightmare. What, then, are our options?
The only solution left to us is to change our behavior, radically and globally, on every level. In short, we urgently need to consume less. A lot less. Radically less. And we need to conserve more. A lot more. To accomplish such a radical change in behavior would also need radical government action. But as far as this kind of change is concerned, politicians are currently part of the problem, not part of the solution, because the decisions that need to be taken to implement significant behavior change inevitably make politicians very unpopular — as they are all too aware.
The behavioral changes that are required of us are so fundamental that no one wants to make them. What are they? We need to consume less. A lot less. Less food, less energy, less stuff. Fewer cars, electric cars, cotton T-shirts, laptops, mobile phone upgrades. Far fewer. And here it is worth pointing out that “we” refers to the people who live in the west and the north of the globe. There are currently almost 3 billion people in the world who urgently need to consume more: more water, more food, more energy. Saying “Don’t have children” is utterly ridiculous. It contradicts every genetically coded piece of information we contain, and one of the most important (and fun) impulses we have. That said, the worst thing we can continue to do — globally — is have children at the current rate. U.S population is expected to grow to 458 million by 2050, much of which will be attributed to international migration. If the current global rate of reproduction continues, by the end of this century there will be according to the United Nations, Zambia’s population is projected to increase by 941% by the end of this century. The population of Nigeria is projected to grow by 349% — to 730 million people.
Afghanistan by 242%.
Democratic Republic of Congo 213%.
Gambia by 242%.
Guatemala by 369%.
Iraq by 344%.
Kenya by 284%.
Liberia by 300%.
Malawi by 741%.
Mali by 408%.
Niger by 766%.
Somalia by 663%.
Uganda by 396%.
Yemen by 299%.
Where does this leave us? Let’s look at it like this. If we discovered tomorrow that there was an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and — because physics is a fairly simple science — we were able to calculate that it was going to hit Earth on 3 June 2072, and we knew that its impact was going to wipe out 70% of all life on Earth, governments worldwide would marshal the entire planet into unprecedented action. Every scientist, engineer, university and business would be enlisted: half to find a way of stopping it, the other half to find a way for our species to survive and rebuild if the first option proved unsuccessful. We are in almost precisely that situation now, except that there isn’t a specific date and there isn’t an asteroid. The problem is us. Why are we not doing more about the situation we’re in — given the scale of the problem and the urgency needed — I simply cannot understand.
We can rightly call the situation we’re in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do — and I mean actually do — something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will. I think we’re royally screwed!
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency