The human species’ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-twentieth century. Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage, and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of catastrophic threats.
Coming on the heels of severe climate impacts around the world, including droughts, floods, storms, and fires, the coronavirus pandemic is a wake-up call to all of humanity that we need to do things differently.
The threats emerging now are varied, global, complex, and catastrophic. They all relate to the way we humans organize ourselves.
Although the above-mentioned threats seem isolated, they are part of a larger puzzle in which all parts are connected. The report “Survival and Growth in the 21st Century”, just published by the Commission on the Future of Humanity, identifies 10 potentially catastrophic threats to humanity.
1. Climate change
Global warming is primarily driven by the emission of greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels and the clearing of land.
Climate change is happening faster than previously anticipated. It has intensified extreme weather events around the world. Both the speed and scale of its impact have been badly underestimated, physically, and economically.
Dangerous climate change is occurring at 1 oC average global warming. Extremely dangerous climate change is likely at 2 oC, which may be reached by 2035.
With current global policies, 3 oC warming is likely by 2050, producing a world that national security experts consider spells social chaos. These policies will lead to +4 oC warming before 2100 creating a world which the same experts consider will result in the collapse of human civilization.
2. Environmental decline and extinction
Growing evidence suggests that human changes to the Earth’s environment are driving the planet’s Sixth Great Extinction and are now so profound that we are entering the third stage of evolution of life on Earth.
The global degradation of biodiversity is truly staggering and planetary in scale. The Earth’s terrestrial vegetation has halved over human history, losing one-fifth of this realm’s original biodiversity. Up to 70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by humans.
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Some 700 animal and 600 plant extinctions have been recorded and many more have likely gone extinct unnoticed. Since 1970, 60% of all land animals have disappeared. At least a million species are facing extinction out of a probable Earth total of around 8 million.
Globally, our ecological footprint means that we now consume 1.75times the regenerative capacity of the Earth to provide the goods and services we use each year. This is not sustainable, either for humans or for nature and the ecosystems which support life on this planet.
3. Nuclear weapons
Nuclear weapons pose the greatest immediate threat to human health and welfare. They have the capacity to destroy the human future in an afternoon. Unless they are eliminated, they will be used again.
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There are 13,890nuclear weapons in the global stockpile. Around 2000 are on hair-trigger/high alert for immediate use. Detonatingless than 1% of this arsenal would cause an abrupt ice age and a global famine affecting everyone.
4. Resource scarcity
The human population, now 7.7 billion, is forecast to reach 10 billion in the 2050s and 11billion by 2100, leading to spiraling consumption, degradation, and wastage of overstretched resources.
Total human demand for resources has increased 40-fold in the past 120 years and is likely to redouble again by the mid-century. For example, while the human population has tripled since the mid-C20th, our demand for water has grown sixfold.
As previously mentioned, humanity is currently consuming 1.75times the regenerative capacity of the Earth every year. If everyone lived at the US or Australian living standards, we would need five planets to satisfy our combined demands.
5. Food insecurity
Global food security is on a knife-edge due to massive soil loss, growing water scarcity, ecosystem decline, and climate change. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of the global industrial food chains which feed the megacities, raising the specter of scarcity amid plenty. Everybody needs to eat, every day.
History shows that, if they don’t, wars break out. The Spanish have a saying that “There are only seven meals between civilization and anarchy.”
Humanity currently produces around 5 billion tonnes of food a year, up to 2 billion tonnes of which is wasted. Food production is one of our biggest impacts on the Planet. Two-thirds of the world’s available freshwater is used to grow food and a global water crisis is fast approaching as the megacities consume more of the water that farmers need to grow crops.
This means our conventional food system is failing. It will be unable to feed 10 billion people on a hot, resource-stressed planet. Global diets and food production methods must change.
6. Dangerous new technologies
A wide array of advanced technologies is having a profound effect on the planet and all life, including our own. These range from chemical pollutants to radioactive nuclides and plastics to intangible but real threats such as artificial intelligence, robot killing machines biotechnology, nanotechnology, and electromagnetic radiation that are entirely new to the Earth System and may potentially alter the evolution of life on our planet.
Digital technologies like Artificial Intelligence contribute to many catastrophic threats. Fake news is distorting the discussion around the climate emergency. Machine learning is being used to manipulate elections to increase resource consumption.
‘Big tech’ is increasing inequality and creating a “digital divide” within society. Facial-recognition software, data mining, AI, and quantum computing are being used to spy on, manipulate, and control populations.
None of these technologies are adequately overseen by society or sufficiently governed by regulation in the public interest. While most deliver palpable benefits to society, all are capable, if misused, of making other threats worse.
In 2020 the global population will reach7.77 billion, at an annual rate of growth of 1.05 percent. Populations growing at 1 percent per annum double every70 years. Without a decline in growth to 0 and below, the human population would exceed 15 billion by 2090.
There are now too many people on the planet using too many resources and producing too many risky wastes.
Human population growth at current levels exacerbates all other threats. Its seriousness, and preventability, are not being addressed in any country or internationally.
The key question is “How can we slow both population growth and its impact in ways that can enable survival and prosperity for all?” Lowering the human birth rate voluntarily is surely better than the alternative of massive dieback or slaughter of billions of people in their prime.
8. Universal pollution by chemicals
The number, variety, and volumes of chemicals produced by humankind has risen exponentially since the beginning of the 20th century.
They are now found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, in mother’s milk, and in wildlife in the most remote parts of the planet. Many of these chemicals are relatively stable and long-lasting and can accumulate in animal and human tissues.
Humanity releases between 120-220 billion tons of chemically-reactive substances every year –from three to five times more than our climate emissions. These emissions are cumulative. Very few people have any idea of the scale or impact of our combined emissions on human health or the stability of life on Earth.
There is increasing evidence that this chemical outpouring poses a threat to human existence –because long term exposure to apparently non-toxic amounts of some environmental chemicals has been shown to contribute to the development of cancers, autoimmune, developmental, reproductive and neurological diseases.
9. Pandemic Disease
The coronavirus (COVID-19) is the latest example of a disease pandemic that doctors and environmental health researchers have warned about for decades. There have been seven pandemics since the start of the 21st Century.
Pandemic diseases generally arise in the first place as a consequence of human overpopulation, destruction of forests and the wild world, increased trade in wild animals, farming practices, international transport, and dense urban living conditions. All must be addressed to limit the threat.
This pandemic, in particular, highlights the devastating combination of an intertwined global economy, unpreparedness, belated action, social disconnection, and hyper-individualism.
However, on the other hand, positive responses by people and governments also show that widespread, universal change in human behavior is possible –at least in the case of an acute global health crisis. What we learn from this may also apply to the ten catastrophic threats to humanity that are now unfolding.
10. Denial, Misinformation, and Failure to Act Preventively
Faced with constant and growing global evidence of catastrophic droughts, fires, floods, storms, and rising seas, people can no longer delude themselves that climate change is not happening. The same applies to all the catastrophic threats.
There is a need to galvanize people everywhere to come together to debate, design, and implement innovative strategies to transition to a sustainable world -and to avoid bequeathing an environmental and societal catastrophe to future generations.
One thing the ten existential threats have in common is that their solution requires the imposition of measures and some costs now in order to secure a future benefit. Contemporary politics is bedeviled by the fact that politicians are for the most part unwilling to impose any costs. Those who attempt to campaign for good policy becomes a target for scare campaigns by their opponents.
Summing up the Challenge:
The coronavirus pandemic appeared suddenly, without warning, and took the whole world by surprise. This shows how swiftly a catastrophic threat can appear and affect everyone, how short-term and blinkered are our horizons, how vulnerable and unprepared we are for threats that can shake or collapse our civilization, even extinguish us as a species.
At present, no government in the world has a plan for meeting all these threats, for dealing with them as a total system and for finding the best and safest way out of them. This lack of preparedness means humanity will continue to be ambushed by unforeseen crises.
What our species does about these 10 catastrophic threats in the next few years will determine whether present and future generations face a safe, sustainable, and prosperous future or the prospect of collapse and even extinction. It is a choice we all must make, together.