Today

The present

"I'm convinced that the story of life unfolded like that of inert matter... from the simplest to the most complex. The proof of this is that fossils from the first three billion years are all unicellular. It's not until four billion years that you get pluri-cellular fossils. In other words, multicellular living creatures. This law, which is truly general, at least for our universe, is evident as much in the sky as it is on earth...in the history of life and the history of mankind."

— French paleontologist Yves Coppens (Quote from Homo Futurus, a documentary film by Thomas Johnson and produced by Hind Saih in 2005, televised on SBS 6 May 2007)

THE PRESENT

"...99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived are now extinct." (1)

Earth as it appears today. Image © 1997 Christopher R. Scotese.

It is official. The state of world affairs is looking pretty grim in areas relating to our environment and our level of social development at the present time. In particular, our demand for more resources is never ending, and socially we have yet to abolish poverty. On the positive side, humans have developed some amazing new technologies and advanced our knowledge in understanding many issues. Yet we are still heavily burdened by the basic problems of finding enough food for an ever expanding human population, dealing with conflict among other humans, finding greater meaning in our lives while working to pay for the things we need to survive, and so much more. Just on the environmental aspect, we now know that a large number of scientists around the world are acknowledging the fact that humankind is eating its way to extinction (if wars and diseases don't get to us). And an increasing population is only going to accelerate this inevitable conclusion.

If humans need examples to see whether we are going, we do have the Aztec, Malta and Easter Island experiences to guide us. The only difference now is that we have no other place on Earth to hide or escape the consequences of our actions. This time, if anything happens to life on Earth and all the resources get depleted, this will means the end of human civilisation as we know it and the extinction of our species.

The bottom-line is this: when the resources go down sufficiently, the remaining resources have to be controlled by a few powerful people to be sold for a very high price to people who can afford it. If the price is too high and people suffer too much, wars begin (or else we all die from famine). Then the end is near for humanity.

Is there a depletion of resources as we speak? Scientists are now observing the following disturbing trends:

  • massive deforestation of the remaining natural rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia and very little replanting to replenish tree stocks;
  • fresh water rivers and lakes getting increasingly more exposed to the sun and wind resulting in an increase risk of becoming dried up or at least turn muddy and salty;
  • the air becoming hazy, dusty (2) and increasingly poisonous partly due to deserts and drought-affected areas having their top soil blown in the air and partly due to man-made bushfires, wood burning in heaters and industrial areas emitting gaseous pollutants;
  • world temperatures rising as carbon dioxide and methane production from farm animals, humans and chemical factories, and eventually the Earth's reserves of methane fills the atmosphere with these heat-trapping gases;
  • there is less rain to form adequate surface water supplies because humans use up the valuable resource for growing agricultural plants and allow the rest to evaporate because of fewer trees and other plant life to protect it.
  • rainforest trees are showing signs of stress as rain levels are reduced leading to a greater emission of carbon dioxide (instead of absorbing the gas by the trees). The trees are able to do this by letting microbes in the soil break down the dead or dying tropical plant material (3); and
  • the air pollution is starting to create severe droughts in Africa and other parts of the world.
  • More people are starving in drought-affected countries.
  • Sea levels are rising. Scientists expect to see massive displacement of people from islands and coastal regions, placing greater pressure on remaining resources.
  • Greater terrorism and wars as people fight for the remaining resources.

And in return for all of this, some humans are getting extremely rich and many others are struggling to survive.

The whole planet is starting to look like a giant dust bowl for holding all our waste products - that is, the proverbial toilet for humankind! And this is before we have touched upon the social problems such as poverty, crime and AIDS within towns and cities which are all interrelated with the large-scale world problems scientists are observing.

Still not convinced?

The evidence

The UN-backed US$20 million scientific Millenium Ecosystem Assessment reports have finally confirmed what many scientists have long been suspecting and observing for some time. The agonising truth is that all the global ecosystems humans need to survive known as the basics of life — water, clean air, food, timber and a predictable climate — are being destroyed. More concerning is the fact that these ecosystems are at critical levels given our current levels of human population and rate of consumption on this planet.

The report — written by over 1,350 authors from 95 countries to work in four technical expert groups to prepare the global assessment and another few hundred more to conduct more than 30 assessments at the local level — found that:

(i) Most of the world's ecosystems are already on the path of unsustainability.

(ii) 60 per cent of the world's natural resources are at critical levels. The resources at risk of total destruction involve all the basics of life — water, clean air, food, timber and a predictable climate.

(iii) Much of the damaged or near total destruction of the natural resources are largely an irreversible loss to the world's biological diversity.

(iv) Between 10 and 30 per cent of the mammal, bird and amphibian species are at risk of extinction.

(ii) The responsibility for the destruction of the natural resources lies squarely at humans.

Of all the ecosystem services, only crop, livestock and aquaculture production, and carbon sequestration for global climate control has increased to the benefit of a better environment. But far too many other services are creating problems for the environment. The worse ones of all are presently fisheries and fresh water, which are said to be so poorly managed that it can no longer sustain current, let alone future, demands.

Director of the MA study Mr Walter Reid summarised the reports to the media in London on 30 March 2005 in the following way:

"These [ecosystem] changes have resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss to the biological diversity of the planet.

Over the past 50 years, humans have changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any comparable time in human history, largely to meet rapidly growing demands for food, fresh water, timber, fiber and fuel. This has resulted in substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth."

The only hope humans have so far of easing the strain on the environment and their own long-term survival is to make significant changes in consumption habits, better education, introduce new and radical technologies (especially of the renewable type), and raise the price of those services and products that aren't recyclable or is not sustainable at certain times of the year (e.g. introducing an environmental tax to reflect their true cost).

If humans don't change their attitude towards the environment immediately, environmental degradation will be so great that:

(i) humans dying in third world countries because of starvation will be in unprecedented numbers;

(ii) the rest of the human population will experience new and more devastating diseases;

(iii) The cost of basic commodities such as water will skyrocket;

(iv) fresh water supplies and clean air will be polluted creating massive health problems for humans such as lung cancer;

(v) the commercial fisheries industry will collapse; and

(vi) there will be dramatic changes in local climates resulting in much higher than expected temperatures, and most likely to exceed any human and other animals can survive with the risk of mass extinctions, whereas other areas will experience mini-Ice Ages in the winter followed by a massive swing towards high temperatures in the summer causing massive flooding and erosion to valuable fertile agricultural lands (e.g., Europe).

Since the release of the reports, no Australian commercial television station (Channel 9, 7 and 10) or major newspaper (except The Age) would give them a brief mention. Only The Age in Melbourne made the reports on the State of the World front page news, and the ABC radio stations and the ABC 7.00pm news in Canberra discussed the results of the report as a minor story (definitely not the first item of news) on Thursday 31 March 2005 (and came a day after the reports were officially released to the media in London showing the priority was not high).

The titanic of the current economic system must continue to sail on at full speed ahead, and the public must know everything is okay.

Clearly humans don't have their priorities right.

The Australian Federal (Howard) Government was not entirely immune to the reports. On hearing the results, the Government essentially overlooked them saying it is not significant enough to require changes in the Australian economy, in a nation where the biggest carbon dioxide emissions from coal burning occur.

In other words, it is unlikely people will change their behaviour by putting the environment first. Jobs for supporting the economy and profit in its current unsustainable and unrenewable form are more important. Why? Because too many people are in massive debt with banks for purchasing homes and taking out mortgages (and people hope interest rates will remain low). They will only change if their own survival is affected through a massive hike in the price of food in the supermarkets, or perhaps mortgage payments get well beyond their means and cannot afford to buy food as a result. Then things will change. But will it be too late?