Trigger warning; what follows may leave you feeling a little disheartened and apathetic.
Let’s cut to the chase, civilisation as we know it is coming to an end. In all honesty I believe that we are doomed and that our time on this planet is rapidly approaching its endgame.
The structures of society, and the foundations that our systems and our way of life are built on, are completely unsustainable. And with the base beginning to collapse it is only a matter of time before the rest follows suit.
Not to be the prophet of doom, but we are blindly and seemingly willingly accelerating towards our own self-destruction. You may think that this is an exaggeration, and that me being the grumpy cynic that I am what I write here is less an inevitable conclusion and more a depressive dystopian look to the future, but you would be wrong.
Nothing in this piece is speculation, nothing is hyperbole, and nothing in this piece is anything less than a known and proven fact. When these facts are connected it can lead to only one diagnosis, and that is that human civilisation is on its deathbed.
Both internally and externally there are numerous threats to civilisation and life on this planet as we know it. I have broken down the multiple symptoms into three broad categories. First, Environmental covers those aspects referring to our surroundings, our earth and its nature. Second, Political or Societal refers to the internal workings of our global society, the framework and how we exist within the world. And third is the issue of Scarcity, which acts as a bridge of interaction between the first and second issues. The impact is on the environment, but that is because of the actions in the political or societal sphere.
Much of this can be attributed to climate change, a process now considered as the greatest threat by the global population. Under this heading there are many things that deserve a mention, but with space and time limitations I shall speak about just three.
The rising global temperature on both land and in the sea impacts on every living thing on this planet. It is caused by increasing levels of C02 in the atmosphere and has numerous knock on effects. WWF report that “the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates global temperature rises by the end of the century of between 1.1°C and 6.4°C.” To put this into some context, New Scientist reported that a 2 degree rise in global temperatures would see water availability drop by 20-30%, crop yields in Africa drop by 5-10%, 40-60 million more people exposed to malaria in Africa, 10 million more people affected by coastal flooding, Arctic animal species will begin to die out, and Greenland’s ice sheet could melt permanently.
The UN has said that “desertification is a phenomenon that ranks among the greatest environmental challenges of our time.” Through unsustainable farming practices and through the impacts of climate change, more and more arable land is lost each year. It is occurring at “30 to 35 times the historical rate” and causes 12 million hectares of land to be lost every year. That is 23 hectares every minute with a single hectare being roughly the size of London’s Trafalgar Square or an international rugby pitch. 1.5 billion people are currently affected by desertification.
With capitalist societies relentless drive for bigger, better and more expensive, we have taken the phrase “out with the old, in with the new” to an unparalleled stage. Human waste and pollution has turned enormous parts of our Earth into dumping grounds of last seasons’ commodities. Its detrimental effect can be seen across the globe. Scientists from the US, France, Chile, Australia and New Zealand have found that there are “more than five trillion pieces of plastic, collectively weighing nearly 269,000 tonnes… floating in the world’s oceans”. Human waste can be found on the peaks of Everest, in the Gobi desert, in the waves along Indonesia’s coast, and on the island of Midway, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, where the birds are found dead with pounds of plastic in their stomachs.
As well as these three issues there are also increasing number of floods each year, more numerous and more violent tropical storms and cyclones, droughts, the threat of volcanic explosions, earthquakes, rising sea levels, soil erosion, coral reef destruction, ocean acidification, nuclear waste, and unsustainable and damaging human farming methods.
Political or Societal
Though I would love to write about the coming global revolution, it seems more likely that the system will collapse under its own weight rather than be overthrown. Again, there are innumerable warning signs that point towards the eventual breakdown of society, but again I will choose to speak of only three here.
Quite rightly this issue has had a lot of attention in the last 24 months. Despite the economic crises and the implementation of austerity, across the world, the number of billionaires has increased and inequality has reached feudal proportions. In 2014, Oxfam found that the 85 richest people on the planet had as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. And a year later another Oxfam report found that “on current trends – by next year, 1% of the world’s population will own more wealth than the other 99%.” It is a system similar to an elastic band, it can stretch, but when it goes too far it will snap. We are at breaking point currently.
In the last 15 years we have seen conflicts in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Palestine, Israel, Ukraine, Colombia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Sudan, Darfur, Turkey, Kurdistan, Pakistan, Central African Republic, Yemen, Mexico, Somalia, Georgia, and many more. There may not have been the much prophesised World War Three, but for the last decade and a half the world has been in a state of near total war. Along with the death and destruction comes the inevitable refugee crisis. Host countries and aid agencies are “stretched to breaking point” as the global refugee figure climbs towards 60 million. Antonio Guterres, head of the UN’s refugee agency, said: “we are witnessing a quantum leap in forced displacement in the world”.
Since its birth the capitalist system has been threatening to break free from the restraints that we place upon it. Though there are business leaders who decry human prevention and intervention, we are at a stage whereby we run the risk of not being able to control the very things we create. Learning that not everything that can be created should be created (nuclear weapons), scientists and engineers are putting up stop signs and roadblocks to prevent progress in certain fields. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is one such field. Stephen Hawkins and Elon Musk are just two of the world’s leading thinkers that believe AI will bring about the “end of the human race”. Both Hawkins and Musk appear as signatories in an open letter that states as AI is now becoming a very realistic possibility, it is only to be used for societal good. More recently, thousands of leading experts and researchers penned another open letter “warning of a “military artificial intelligence arms race” and calling for a ban on “offensive autonomous weapons”. Not only is AI just around the corner, but it is an AI capable of creating killer robots.
These are just three internal problems that face humanity in the coming years, there are also issues surrounding mental health and psychological illness, further economic crises, nuclear weapons, the fall of capitalism, pollution, political instability, debt, the increasing prison populations, increasing numbers of walls and barriers, and nuclear proliferation. And this is before we even begin to examine what exactly is the driver behind trying to populate Mars. Perhaps the end is closer than we think.
Bridging the gap between the external environment and our internal political and societal systems is the issue of scarcity. Though we have but one planet, we are using resources as if we have far more. In 2010, the WWF found that Brits “consume almost three times as much of the planet’s resources than they should do”, and to worsen the problem is the fact that the majority of these resources are not being replenished. Our way of life is unsustainable and unless drastic changes are made soon, it will be too late to preserve it.
Earlier this year a chilling conclusion appeared from a study conducted by geologists and researchers, claiming that Earth was in the middle of its sixth mass extinction. The study calculated that three-quarters of animal species could die out in the next 300 years. Evolution does mean that animal species come and go, and historically species died out at a rate of two species per million years, but worryingly, in the last 500 years alone 80 species of mammals have become extinct. One in four mammals, one in eight birds, one third of all amphibians, and 70% of the world’s plants are currently at risk from extinction.
Though oil is the obvious substance to look at on the issue of scarcity, there is perhaps an even greater threat than running out of the black stuff. More than a billion individuals are already exposed to this shortage and it is likely that this number will continue to rise. In March of this year, The Observer reported that the “fresh water shortage will cause the next great global crisis”. Though typically many see this problem as an issue for the developing world, Californians can attest to the fact that it is a concern for us all. The state is now in its fourth year of drought and cities and towns are being urged to cutback on their water usage by 35%. The crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, recently admitted: “For us, water is [now] more important than oil.”
Though all of the above problems may have solutions, these solutions themselves then have the potential to cause further problems. We have seen this on the issue with disease and the widespread use of antibiotics which has now given rise to antibiotic resistant bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that antibiotics “have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective.” They continue by saying that “each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections”. The medical community has even gone so far as to call it an “Epidemic of Antibiotic-Resistant Infections”. The World Health Organisation (WHO) are concerned that diseases which are easily treatable may grow to become immune to antibiotics and become fatal to whomever contracts them. The Guardian commented that “the really terrifying thing is that the problem is already with us: this is not science fiction, but contemporary reality”.
As mentioned previously, oil is also running low, as having to drill in the arctic proves, and so too are other natural resources due to humans’ rapid consumption. There is deforestation on a huge scale, food shortages are all too common, there is a lack of living space, and the bee population is in decline. Everywhere you turn it seems we are running out of the basic things which we need in order to survive.
Though you may have a much rosier outlook on this situation, after all, each generation had its own problems to contend with and they overcame them, perhaps we will be fine after all. Perhaps warnings from NASA and climate scientists are wrong, perhaps Oxfam and WWF are misguided, perhaps WHO and CDC are exaggerating. It is far more likely however, that they are not. And if you believe that humanity will discover solutions and answers to these problems I will remind you of a statement made by Albert Einstein: “problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”
As long as we, as a species, continue to fight against nature and attempt to overpower it, we will fail. Longevity and success comes from sustainability. Our societies and our ways of living need to be in harmony with nature, not battling against it, because in a fight against Earth there can only be one winner, and will not be us.
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This article was originally published on Cultured Vultures on 20/08/15