Friday, March 12, 2021

Our Ghastly Future

No one, as yet, has come up with a solution to the great challenge facing those who want to settle Mars - terra forming. Mars can't be settled until it has an ecology - an atmosphere, weather, precipitation, all the things that sustain life on Earth.  Some estimates claim that would take millennia, possibly hundreds of thousands of years. We haven't got that kind of time.

Before we tackle establishing a suitable environment on Mars, we should direct our efforts at restoring our endangered ecosystems right here on Earth. 

Around the world our existing ecosystem that has nurtured mankind for tens of thousands of years is on the verge of collapse. You might have thought that the most powerful among us, those we elect to high office and entrust with the reins of power, would have rallied to respond. If you believe that, you are wrong.

A call to arms was sounded in January. It took the form of a paper published in the journal, Frontiers in Conservation Science, "Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future." The warning is blunt. 

"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."

Even the experts are struggling to grasp the enormity and immediacy of the threat. Yes, this is a present danger, not something that your grandkids will have to deal with.

The authors, "ask what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action."

The verdict is plain - our leaders don't get it. Whether that's from ignorance, neglect or willful blindness really doesn't matter. 

"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."

Biodiversity Loss.

On the loss of biodiversity, the report notes that the loss rate is well within extinction-level values.

The IUCN estimates that some 20% of all species are in danger of extinction over the next few decades, which greatly exceeds the background rate. That we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable (Barnosky et al., 2011; Ceballos et al., 2015, 2017).

Overpopulation and Ecological Overshoot.

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 woman−1), with an average of 4.8 children woman−1 in Sub-Saharan Africa and fertilities >4 children woman−1 in many other countries.

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. By some estimates, 700–800 million people are starving and 1–2 billion are micronutrient-malnourished and unable to function fully, with prospects of many more food problems in the near future (Ehrlich and Harte, 2015a,b). Large populations and their continued growth are also drivers of soil degradation and biodiversity loss (Pimm et al., 2014). More people means that more synthetic compounds and dangerous throw-away plastics (Vethaak and Leslie, 2016) are manufactured, many of which add to the growing toxification of the Earth (Cribb, 2014). It also increases chances of pandemics (Daily and Ehrlich, 1996b) that fuel ever-more desperate hunts for scarce resources (Klare, 2012). Population growth is also a factor in many social ills, from crowding and joblessness, to deteriorating infrastructure and bad governance (Harte, 2007). There is mounting evidence that when populations are large and growing fast, they can be the sparks for both internal and international conflicts that lead to war (Klare, 2001; Toon et al., 2007). The multiple, interacting causes of civil war in particular are varied, including poverty, inequality, weak institutions, political grievance, ethnic divisions, and environmental stressors such as drought, deforestation, and land degradation (Homer-Dixon, 1991, 1999; Collier and Hoeer, 1998; Hauge and llingsen, 1998; Fearon and Laitin, 2003; Br├╝ckner, 2010; Acemoglu et al., 2017). Population growth itself can even increase the probability of military involvement in conflicts (Tir and Diehl, 1998). Countries with higher population growth rates experienced more social conflict since the Second World War (Acemoglu et al., 2017). In that study, an approximate doubling of a country's population caused about four additional years of full-blown civil war or low-intensity conflict in the 1980s relative to the 1940–1950s, even after controlling for a country's income-level, independence, and age structure.

Voracious Overconsumption - Sacking Nature's Pantry.

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 (Lin et al., 2018), 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 ( While inequality among people and countries remains staggering, the global middle class has grown rapidly and exceeded half the human population by 2018 (Kharas and Hamel, 2018).

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: 85% of commercial energy, 65% of fibers, and most plastics are now produced from fossil fuels. Also, food production depends on fossil-fuel input, with every unit of food energy produced requiring a multiple in fossil-fuel energy (e.g., 3 × for high-consuming countries like Canada, Australia, USA, and China; This, coupled with increasing consumption of carbon-intensive meat (Ripple et al., 2014) congruent with the rising middle class, has exploded the global carbon footprint of agriculture. 

Government Indifference and Neglect.

The apparent paradox of high and rising average standard of living despite a mounting environmental toll has come at a great cost to the stability of humanity's medium- and long-term life-support system. In other words, humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes in the short term (Ehrlich et al., 2012). Even the World Economic Forum, which is captive of dangerous greenwashing propaganda (Bakan, 2020), now recognizes biodiversity loss as one of the top threats to the global economy (World Economic Forum, 2020).

The dangerous effects of climate change are much more evident to people than those of biodiversity loss (Legagneux et al., 2018), but society is still finding it difficult to deal with them effectively. Civilization has already exceeded a global warming of ~ 1.0°C above pre-industrial conditions, and is on track to cause at least a 1.5°C warming between 2030 and 2052 (IPCC, 2018). In fact, today's greenhouse-gas concentration is >500 ppm CO2-e (Butler and Montzka, 2020), while according to the IPCC, 450 ppm CO2-e would give Earth a mere 66% chance of not exceeding a 2°C warming (IPCC, 2014). Greenhouse-gas concentration will continue to increase (via positive feedbacks such as melting permafrost and the release of stored methane) (Burke et al., 2018), resulting in further delay of temperature-reducing responses even if humanity stops using fossil fuels entirely well before 2030 (Steffen et al., 2018).

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. The rise of right-wing populist leaders is associated with anti-environment agendas as seen recently for example in Brazil (Nature, 2018), the USA (Hejny, 2018), and Australia (Burck et al., 2019). Large differences in income, wealth, and consumption among people and even among countries render it difficult to make any policy global in its execution or effect.

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. Even though climate change alone will incur a vast economic burden (Burke et al., 2015; Carleton and Hsiang, 2016; Auffhammer, 2018) possibly leading to war (nuclear, or otherwise) at a global scale (Klare, 2020), 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 (Oreskes and Conway, 2010; Mayer, 2016; Bakan, 2020), it is doubtful that any needed shift in economic investments of sufficient scale will be made in time.

What Needs to Change? Us, We Need to Change.

The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women. These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.

Yes, the situation is dire. We need to abandon the mad pursuit of perpetual economic growth. We have to stop Canada's production of high-carbon, low value fossil fuels, the worst such as thermal coal and bitumen. Capitalism must either be abandoned or, through regulation, reformed to harness it into service to the public. This is the fundamental responsibility of those we elect to represent us and to whom we entrust the levers of power.

At the moment our political caste is not acting in our interest, is not answering the call to action. That's the Liberals as well as the Conservatives. That's the NDP as well. If I knew what the Greens stand for anymore I'd probably also lump them in with the others.

"A Ghastly Future" indeed. We're well down the road to making that a reality for our children and theirs. We are complicit in this with our support for the political parties that are failing us, those for whom action is "politically inopportune."

The message is powerful but it is not novel. This statement is a culmination of research that has been done over the course of more than thirty or forty years. Knowledge obtained by observation and testing. Fact, not belief. This report argues it is past time to face the unvarnished truth. 

We're all faced with a choice. We must choose whether we'll be complicit in this dereliction. Will we support political parties that pursue dangerous, even deadly policies that temporarily enrich the few at the ultimate cost of the many? Yes, yes, I know - this bunch isn't as bad as that bunch. Frankly, the bar has been set so low that, where it really matters, questions of life and death, the prospect of a Ghastly Future, they're almost indistinguishable.

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