Are We Heading Toward Environmental Catastrophe?

Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling unit on fire 2010.jpg

The fire on the Deepwater Horizon.

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about the end of the world. No, not the “Jesus is coming back” end of the world—which is obviously nonsense—but the end of human life brought about human activity. Yes, we are living in the Anthropocene, “an epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change.” (Wikipedia)

Let me begin with a brief summary of a recent article on this topic. In a Washington Post op-ed, “Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe,” the conservative columnist Kathleen Parker notes that

A new United Nations report projecting the extinction of one-eighth of all animal and plant species should rattle the cages of any remaining skeptics regarding climate change and the central role humans have played in Earth’s accelerating destruction … 
Finding out that 1 million species face extinction without radical corrective changes in human behavior is akin to finding out you have a fatal disease. One day you have a thousand problems; the next, you have just one. Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the catastrophic potential posed by climate change and the decimating effects of careless consumerism around the globe.

The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death — weren’t far off the mark. Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation and Homo sapiens.

Describing the UN report, which was the result of a three-year study by hundreds of scientists from around the world, Robert Watson, a British chemist who served as chair of the panel, wrote in a statement that “the health of ecosystems on which we and all species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” As Parker highlights:

The report makes the essential connection to human wellness, as opposed to merely caring about the horrors endured by sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic or Arctic animals starving to death as the ground melts beneath their feet. If something hurts economies and schoolchildren, we eventually get around to paying attention. 

(A recently reviewed a book which goes into existential crisis. And I will continue my discussion of catastrophic global problems in my next post.)

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10 thoughts on “Are We Heading Toward Environmental Catastrophe?

  1. First, I cannot imagine anything that would render Homo sapiens extinct. With 7 billion of us distributed over every corner of the planet, no disaster, no matter how great, will manage to kill everybody. Well, yes, I suppose a major asteroid strike could do the job. Perhaps a really big nuclear war could trigger a nuclear winter long enough to finish us off. But all in all, Homo sapiens is similar to Rattus rattus in its ubiquity and survival ability.

    On the other hand, civilization is too fragile to survive much longer. The centrifugal forces are growing in strength, and they’re growing faster than the centripetal forces.

    The disasters you cite will of course contribute to the destruction of civilization. The ongoing mass extinction will inflict serious economic damages. The civilization-killer, however, is global warming. It will inflict economic damages of such great magnitude that societies will face extreme stresses. The fact that those stresses will be differential in impact will generate geopolitical stresses to great for our clumsy geopolitical institutions to handle. My guess is that, by painting a huge target on our back, Mr. Trump has set us up for all the blame when the costs of global warming reach the trillions of dollars per year. The rest of the world will demand compensation for its losses; America will say “Go to hell!”; economic sanctions will come crashing down on the country. Economic disaster will lead to somebody even worse than Trump being elected, he’ll launch the nukes, and we’ll all go to hell.

    But somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, where the effects of the nuclear war are minimized, some hunter-gatherer groups will cling to life and outlast the nuclear winter. And Homo sapiens will revert to its natural state as a few million hunter-gatherers living a Stone Age existence. After a few tens of millions of years, everything will be back to normal, and the wild, crazy excursion that was civilization will be utterly obliterated.

  2. The trouble with environmental damage is that it is too slow and cumulative for ordinary and less educated people-voters to perceive and accept as really harmful compared with conquest, war, famine and death. In the same way, the same people find it hard to believe in evolution by natural selection which is very slow and cumulative as compared to creation by a mighty God. The politicians, many of whom have short term vested interests depend on such people to keep voting them again and again into power.

    The question is; how can enlightened citizens and scientists break this relationship between ignorance and greed to save our planet before it is too late? In fact, it is already very late!

  3. ” ‘Trump’s latest regulatory rollback should horrify you’ ”

    Several months ago Trump said re the future of the economy:

    “I wont be here.”

    Was he specifically saying after he leaves office? Did he mean decades from now when he is dead? At any rate, it is a key to widespread thinking: people don’t care much what occurs after they leave the scene one way or another. They do care what happens to their children and grandchildren– yet it is up to descendants as for what is to be done.

    “No, not the ‘Jesus is coming back’ end of the world—which is obviously nonsense”

    Not absolute nonsense. In the event of Apocalypse, Christians might band together in communes; thus Christ would theoretically Return in spirit to guide survivors of the End Times.

    “The four horsemen of the apocalypse — generally considered to be conquest, war, famine and death”

    Not to forget earthquakes, volcanoes.

    “Today, we might revise the New Testament version to include plastics, emissions, deforestation […] sea creatures dying with their stomachs packed with plastic”

    Revelation does mention waters becoming “bitter”. Question is, is such self-fulfilling prophecy? Is all prophecy self-fulfilling?

  4. I’ve thought about moving to the southern hemisphere for this very reason.

  5. thanks for the comments Alhazen. And you’re right, it may be too late. JGM

  6. We’ll find out next year; if Rattus Rattus Trump is re-elected, we are royally f**ked.

  7. Your review of Phil Torres’ book, THE END: WHAT SCIENCE AND RELIGION TELL US ABOUT THE APOCALYPSE (March 28, 2016 post) seems very relevant to this topic and the immediately preceding one on whether one should accept religious beliefs.

  8. thanks for pointing that out. I’ll add a link to it from the pages. JGM

  9. Seems like the worst of the damage mankind has inflicted has happened 1900+,so in just over a century – in most of my lifetime . Every time I watch and listen to David Attenborough (My Hero since I was a litle’un) ,I feel panic and a high pitched squeak issue from my throat at the damage we have done to the earth. We did, as happy hippies, try to warn the great and good about it, but we were seen as jokes. (not jokers, just jokes),.That was in the 1970’s when we saw the writing on the wall.Money will beat ethics every time though,won’t it? Please don’t ask me what I think about Trump just now. My lip curls just mentioning his name. Is there a reverse snobbery about stupidity these days? In contrast, our UK politicians aren’t stupid, just the most immoral and self-obsessed bunch you could imagine. People are living longer, there are fewer famines, wars and plagues and both Catholicism and Islam tell followers to have more children. I despair on a weekly basis.

  10. “no disaster, no matter how great, will manage to kill everybody.”

    Agreed, Chris. Instead, there’s mega-death: 1/4 million were killed by the tsunami of fifteen years ago.

    “Is there a reverse snobbery about stupidity these days?”

    Always was– now it comes out into the open. The speed, though, was stunning. All throughout the first half of the decade people were sharpening their knives, just waiting for the time to use them. Now the time has arrived.

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