The good news is that the Anthropocene is almost over. It will have been the shortest geological epoch in all of Earth history. The bad news is that the Catastrophocene is just beginning.
This is a period marked by the interaction of ten catastrophic risks which many scientists are now warning could precipitate the end of human civilisation – and potentially bring about the departure of our species from an uninhabitable Earth.
The Holocene, the climatically stable period which enabled humans to develop agriculture and cities, is now over. It lasted about 11,650 years, from the last Ice Age to the mid C20th. And now it is gone and we are into a wholly different world, named in 2000 by Dutch Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen ‘the Anthropocene’ – the epoch in which humans became a truly geological force, reshaping and altering the entire planet, its atmosphere, oceans, the land, and life itself. On present indications, the Anthropocene will last only a century or two.
The evidence is all about us that we’re into something altogether grimmer. Each day, almost, brings fresh reports of colossal unintended consequences of human activity around the planet – vast floods, tens of thousands of fires raging, dust storms sweeping topsoil off our farms, heatwaves, dried-up rivers and lakes, melting glaciers, unimaginable losses of birds, animals, insects and other life, dwindling forests and fish, poisoned water, oceans, food and air, declining oxygen levels, hunger and starvation, the dissemination of new diseases, the mass migration of 350 million people a year, the advent of powerful new technologies whose effects are unknown and uncontrolled, and the insidious worldwide seep of malicious lies about it all.
These phenomena are the physical manifestations of what the Council for the Human Future has termed the ‘existential emergency’ now confronting humanity – a crisis which many scientists and individual citizens now recognise as real, but which most governments, corporates and politicians seem loath to accept the evidence that is before their very eyes.
This crisis is comprised of ten catastrophic risks, not just the one or two most commonly reported in the media. All these risks interact with one another, meaning they cannot be tackled separately or solved one by one. Collectively, they are driven by human overpopulation, overconsumption and overpollution. The risks are:
Extinction and eco-collapse: currently proceeding 1000-10,000 times faster than normal, eliminating the ecosystems that humans and wildlife need to survive. Mainly caused by agriculture and land development.
Overheating: a climate approaching out-of-control as nine huge ‘feedbacks’ from the Earth system itself make it even faster, hotter and more turbulent than man-made factors (like fossil fuels and land clearing) alone.
Global poisoning: five times larger and ten times more deadly even that climate, human chemical emissions are the largest and most underestimated threat to planetary health and survival.
Nuclear holocaust: with 70 nations still committed to nuclear arms and conflict, scientists currently rate the threat at ‘100 seconds to midnight’, the worst level since Hiroshima.
Resource scarcity: a world water crisis is already a reality for half the population. Loss of topsoil, forests, fish stocks and scarcity of other key resources threaten to unleash fresh conflicts.
Pandemics: there have been seven pandemics since 2000, with a new one striking every 2-3 years. With some 90 wild animal diseases already crossed into humans, more are on the way.
Overpopulation: due to hit 8 billion in November and 10 billion by 2060, human numbers are estimated by some researchers to now be 4 times what the Earth can carry in the long run. Not a threat in itself, population pressure drives all the other threats and must be brough under control.
Famine and hunger: already rising due to loss of soil, water and a stable climate. World food chains increasingly vulnerable to disruption from shortages, conflict and big events, putting megacities at risk.
Ultratechnologies: uncontrolled development and release of powerful new technologies without thought for the consequences will unlock fresh threats for humanity, just as fossil fuels and chemistry already have.
Misinformation: the world is drowning in lies, half-truths and disinformation, mainly spread by the fossil fuels lobby, certain media, politicians and other malicious actors. These are disabling government, breeding mistrust of science and making the task of saving civilisation ever harder.
It is the interaction of these ten mega-threats which now constitutes the new age – The Catastrophocene. This will be a period in which most human lives will be consumed in attempting merely to survive and find workable collective solutions to these threats, to repair our damaged planet and salvage all that is good and decent of our civilisation.
Take heart, solutions do exist. I detail the main ones in a forthcoming book, both global answers and what individuals can do to save themselves. However, as the Council for the Human Future has noted: no government on Earth yet has a policy for human survival. They simply do not grasp the magnitude or the reality of what is unfolding. Or they don’t care. Nor do the giant corporations who now rule the world economically.
If humans have become a geological force reshaping the Earth in the Anthropocene, then we need to become a geological force to undo the damage we have caused, and correct the threats we are still causing. Part of that consists in reducing both our numbers and our material demands to what the planet can safely bear in the long term. If we do not undertake this task, then nature will surely do it for us. Doing nothing, or doing too little too late, will destroy us.
In other words, controlling the catastrophic risks we now face will save countless lives, help avoid total collapse or even extinction, restore the Earth and preserve what is best about the human endeavour.
It is the greatest, noblest and most urgent cause in all our million year journey.