Quarter of a century ago, as a science writer, I began encountering a lot of rather depressed scientists. Every day they went to work and grappled with data showing that the Earth was falling apart. Species were vanishing at accelerating rates, poisons were spreading unchecked, the climate becoming more violent, oceans fouled and lifeless and vital resources like soil, water, fish, large animals and forests were disappearing.
The scientists were soon joined by concerned grandparents. Then the grandparents were joined by a multitude of millennials and young people and finally by many educated people of all ages and backgrounds,
Many of these fear that we are in the endgame of human history.
As a journalist, I didn’t know for a fact whether this was true or not. But I knew I could find out, by studying the world’s best science, from the finest institutions and leading minds.
The result was a book, ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ which concluded humanity faces an existential crisis consisting of ten, interconnected, mega-threats all bearing down on us at the same time.
These threats cannot be solved one by one, as solving one threat generally makes others worse. They must all be solved together, at the same time, using cross-cutting solutions that make none of them worse.
These findings have informed the establishment of the Council for the Human Future.
Here is a brief review of what the latest science is saying about each of the megathreats:
EXTINCTION: the current mass extinction rate is 1,000-10,000 times higher than natural background rates. It is currently proceeding three times faster than the event that took out the dinosaurs. It is entirely due to humans. It may be the second worst such event in Earth history. The loss of species at such a rate is predicted to cause the collapse of ecosystems that sustain human life.
CLIMATE: Despite moves to limit carbon emissions in Europe and the US, the rest of the world is increasing them. They rose even during the covid lockdown. Currently they total 37 billion tonnes and will soar as economic activity picks up. CO2 concentrations are the highest in human history at 419ppm, and NASA has just warned that the Earth is now trapping twice as much heat as it did in 2005. The icecaps are melting and sea levels rising much faster than predicted. 1.5 degrees is now seen by many scientists as a politically unattainable target. We are on track for +4 degrees by 2100. At this level the world will lose about a third of its agriculture, creating famines, mass migration and wars. Heatwaves will kill millions. There are 3-5 trillion tonnes of frozen methane in the Earth’s crust, vastly more powerful as a climate driver than CO2: if this gets loose we are, quite literally, cooked.
POLLUTION: The world produces <220 billion tonnes of chemical emissions yearly – five times more than our climate emissions. They will double by 2030. There are 350,000 manufactured chemicals, most never tested for human safety. These toxins are in our air, our food, our water, our homes and workplaces. Deaths from chemical poisoning and disease are between 9 and 12 million a year, making this the worst case of mass homicide in human history. It is damaging human IQ and causing pandemics of brain disease and cancers. Very little is presently being done to prevent it.
RESOURCES: The world is entering a freshwater crisis, with over half the human population facing acute scarcity by 2050. Losses of topsoil now amount to 48-75 billion tonnes a year and will halve the food growing area by mid-century. The world has lost over a third of its forests and they continue to shrink at 10 million hectares per year. 90 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are now overfished. The number of ocean dead zones has tripled since the 1950s. Humanity now uses a full year’s resources in just 8 months.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight – the highest threat level since the H-bomb fell on Japan. “Modernisation of nuclear programs in multiple countries have moved the world into less stable and manageable territory. Development of hypersonic glide vehicles, ballistic missile defences, and flexible weapons-delivery systems may raise the probability of miscalculation. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use.” The Bulletin rates the nuclear threat as far worse than Covid-19.
PANDEMIC DISEASE: There have been six pandemics since 2000 (Flu H1N1, MERS, SARS, Ebola, and Covid. HIV continues to rage). On average a new pandemic arises every 2-3 years. Primary drivers are environmental destruction, overpopulation, air travel and scientific error. The resumption of travel will increase their spread. New plagues are unavoidable so long as populations remains high and densely packed. Some will be more deadly than Covid.
POPULATION: World population is just shy of 8 billion and growing at a net rate of 85m or 1% a year. Urban population is 4.4 billion and megacities are at increasing risk of collapse due to water scarcity, fragile food chains and failing infrastructure. Global fertility rates are still 2.4, about 0.2 above ‘replacement’. The UNPD’s median forecast has the population peaking in the 2060s and starting to decline naturally towards 2100 from around 10 billion – five times what the Earth can support sustainably. However, most governments, afraid of an ageing population, continue to bribe their people to have more children.
FOOD INSECURITY: The world food supply is on a knife-edge. Loss of access to fresh water, loss of topsoil and a more hostile climate mean that agriculture will be unable to supply humanity’s needs from the mid-century on. There will be an increase in droughts, famines, pests, refugee crises and wars. Despite this, the world clings to an outdated model for food production when other, far safer, healthier and more effective means to produce food exist. The modern industrial diet is now implicated in 2 out of every 3 deaths.
UNCONTROLLED TECHNOLOGIES: Dangerous new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotic killing machines, synthetic biology and quantum computers are proliferating without public oversight or government control.
MASS DELUSION: The most deadly aspect of these combined threats is mass ignorance, disinformation and the rise in false beliefs. The four greatest belief systems – money, politics, religion and the human narrative – are all founded on delusion.
Together, these ten megathreats add up to the greatest existential challenge humans have ever faced.
However, it is a challenge than can be solved. We have the brains and the technology to solve it. But we do not yet have the institutions, the awareness or the collective will.
Here, for example, are some of the most urgent solutions:
- Outlaw all nuclear weapons, eliminate their stockpiles and safely recycle or bury their materials.
- End all extraction and use of fossil fuels and their byproducts, pesticides, plastics and petrochemicals by 2030. Replace with renewable energy. Rewild half the Earth’s land area.
- Create a circular global economy in which every resource is recycled and nothing is lost, wasted or allowed to pollute.
- Develop a renewable world food system consisting of:
- Regenerative agriculture
- Urban food systems that recycle water and nutrients
- Deep ocean farming of plants, fish and marine animals. (See Food or War)
- Return half of the world’s current farmlands to forest or wilderness to end the 6th Extinction. Create a Stewards of the Earth program to implement it.
- Create a new Human Right Not to Be Poisoned and a Clean Up the Earth Alliance (see Earth Detox), to eliminate all forms of toxic pollution. Introduce a global inventory and universal safety testing of all manufactured chemicals.
- Introduce a world plan to progressively and voluntarily reduce the human population by 75 per cent by 2120.
- Prevent future pandemics by ending environmental destruction (5), banning dangerous scientific experiments, discouraging global travel, creating early warning systems and reducing world population (7).
- Put Women in Charge. Unlike men, women do not start wars, wreck oceans, fell forests, ruin landscapes, pollute and poison. They do care about the needs of future generations.
- Introduce a global megarisk awareness and education platform, as proposed by the Council.
The challenge facing humanity is vast – but solutions are both feasible and available.
The question is whether humans have the intelligence to adopt them.
At present no government on Earth has a policy for human survival.
The mission of the Council for the Human Future is to spread these facts and solutions as fast and far as we possibly can.
Our purpose is to help save literally billions of lives that will otherwise be needlessly sacrificed.
*This is the text of a speech by Julian Cribb AM to Australia21, July 2021. It can be watched at: https://1drv.ms/v/s!AlvjbdYh9HsDgrhTE2Mm3J_u6xGkSw?e=7GmNjP
2 thoughts on “Our existential crisis: what is to be done?*”
I wonder why so little attention is devoted to population ethics or antinatalism? Let me guess, it’s too extreme and, instead, we’ll wait until we’re all blown off the face of the earth, having seriously fouled our nest. Thanks for sharing. Take care, Julian
Thank you. You have put such good words to illustrate the problems.
I remember following your weekly news from the CSIRO, hmm, 20 years ago? A bit more? Then the Lib govt cut funds and gagged scientists etc. What a lovely open society we live in! (not).
But as long as there are clear thinking people such as you and colleagues, we aren’t completely doomed. Good on you.