Let me be quite blunt here – not all the data is in, but it doesn’t appear too promising. It is now the twenty-first century. The world is crowded with humans with apparently no letup in sight; this trend does not take into account the possibility of a massive and precipitous decrease in the size of the human population due in part or entirely to the inevitable environmental impact of human activity – not that unlikely a scenario.
However, let us say for argument sake that the human population continues to expand without any genuine regard for accepting the natural consequences for human activity. Honestly, living in the present in ways that will help ensure a viable existence for future generations does not seem to reside in the purview of modern human behavior.
Given the ravenous appetites of humans and the seemingly inexhaustible collective need for material acquisitions, what kind of human world will the future entail? What will the climate look like? What will be the state of the natural resources upon which human life depends? What will be the living conditions and the general quality of life for the vast majority of the members of this remarkable species? What will be the prospects for establishing a human environment where peace would thrive?
In regards to the climate, this question is not difficult to answer. With the ever-escalating rise in the levels of greenhouse gases in the environment despite all the science that has established a clear and unambiguous relationship between this increase and the deleterious impact on the environment, we can expect:
· Increasing average ambient temperature worldwide leading to increased desertification, that will lead to population shifts on a massive scale – some areas will be become virtually uninhabitable for human populations.
· Extreme droughts in certain parts of the world and extreme weather conditions in others with more violent storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.
· Increased releases of dangerous and toxic methane gas, also a greenhouse gas, as a result of the melting of permafrost in the northern climes as the temperature increases. This effect produces a so-called “feedback loop” as the increased emission of methane raises surface temperature causing a further release of methane and on and on.
· Accelerated melting of land-based ice leading to an inexorable rise in sea level that over time will have a devastating impact upon those populations living on the world’s coastal areas. As land ice melts, it reduces the reflective properties of snow and ice (referred to as albedo) thereby increasing warming and further accelerating the melting process. This is yet another example of a feedback mechanism. Such dramatic changes will necessarily lead to displacement of large numbers of people that will inevitably lead to social unrest and war on a massive scale.
A thorough scientific analysis of the full impact of increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere on global weather conditions requires complex algorithms to account for all the variables involved and supercomputers to run the data. Although this remains a work in progress, the results of this approach have already shown itself to be a good predictive tool.
The examples cited above merely touch upon some of the most important aspects of the impact of climate change on human populations. This is by no means an exaggerated accounting. In spite of the massive amounts of climate data that have confirmed these trends, governments throughout the world – all too ready to accommodate corporate interests – are either proposing tepid measures to corral and decrease the release of greenhouse gases from the burning of fossil fuels or are doing absolutely nothing to avoid future disaster. If left unchecked, the atmosphere will become so overburdened with greenhouse gases that no solution will be possible no matter how much effort and resources are thrown at the problem.
Regarding the access of humans to the resources that are necessary to sustain human life such as adequate food, safe drinking water, appropriate housing, affordable health care, meaningful employment and a good education, there is reason to believe that on account of the extreme and ever-increasing inequity in regards to income and wealth, more and more individuals will slip into an economic strata typified by poverty, desperation and hopelessness. Furthermore, as the human population on planet earth continues to grow this will necessarily place a greater burden on finite and shrinking resources.
The economic model that much of the world has come to regard as the bedrock of human advancement, presupposes that progress is equated to and dependent upon the relentless production, expansion and market share of products. The manufacture of these products depends upon finite resources, some of which are rapidly becoming exhausted.
This wholly commercial outlook of life has led to its inevitable conclusion – everything is for sale. Consequently, large numbers of people throughout the world are unnecessarily dying of starvation, have no access to safe drinking water, health care and are made homeless because they lack the economic resources to afford these “commodities.” The net impact of this fundamental aspect of contemporary economic life is the unmistakable reality that longevity is directly related to wealth – that the very small percentage of the world population that have accumulated abundant wealth are outliving everyone else. The level of individual consumption that is required to maintain the desired quality of existence in modern terms is essentially unsustainable in the long term. For these reasons, it is a model that is bound to fail and ultimately fail catastrophically.
Furthermore, the ever- increasing population pressure upon the planet’s finite resources is placing a significant strain upon the availability of the necessary requirements for living. Not only are greenhouse gases being introduced to the earth’s atmosphere at alarming levels as discussed earlier, but a host of other poisons are entering the air and water supply. These poisons are by-products of commercial production and their ultimate impact upon the biosphere is impossible to measure.
These issues are not being adequately addressed on account of the fact that corporate interests are thoroughly enmeshed within the political systems of most world governments. Although the current economic infrastructure that predominates the vast majority of national economies is being questioned from many different sectors it is not being effectively challenged. For these reasons, real change is highly unlikely.
Extrapolating the current economic trends into the near future and examining the projections being made by climatologists from around the world in regard to the climatic conditions, the picture that is forming is not a pleasant one.
Given the growing inequality of wealth between the few that seem to possess a staggeringly large portion of the economic pie and the paucity of wealth possessed by the vast majority of the world’s population, it is patently obvious that societies around the globe will be comprised of two tiers in which the wealthy few will live abundant and lavish lifestyles within fortified and gated communities with everyone else struggling with and competing for shrinking resources – these conditions already exist in many parts of the world and the situation will grow increasingly bleak and more hopelessly out of balance.
Couple these conditions with the accelerated global impact of climate change, as discussed earlier and you have a world in which the human species is relentlessly besieged by forces that will rent and tear at human communities everywhere. A number of somber scenarios come to mind in this regard –
· As the sea levels rise due to the accelerated melting of land-based ice, human communities living by the sea at what was once sea-level will be forced to move inland on a massive scale. This kind of chaotic and forced migration will bring with it opposition by those who already live safely inland and would suddenly find themselves at risk – this kind of opposition is so bound up with survival that wars of aggression would necessarily follow.
· The sea will grow more and more acidic as the overburden of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide. This already is having a deleterious impact on coral populations and the health of marine phytoplankton – small plants that are an essential ingredient in the food chain. The increasing acidity of world’s oceans together with overfishing that is a direct consequence of human population pressure, will inexorably lead to the rapid diminishment of life in the sea; this process has been referred to as devolution. The implications of this eventuality on the human species - especially in regards to the supply of protein in the diet - lies beyond comprehension; for, it entails starvation at unprecedented levels.
· Yet another impact on the oceans as a result of the increased temperature of the oceans is the possible disruption of the deep water thermohaline circulation (THC) that is responsible for the transfer of enormous amounts of heat throughout the planet. Such a disruption would have major consequences for the global climate.
· Havoc caused by the unprecedented and wholly unpredictable onslaught of severe and prolonged extreme storms and weather conditions will place a heavy and relentless burden on human populations and the economic infrastructure of human communities everywhere.
· Members of the affluent class would remain insulated from these dramatic and disruptive changes for a time; however, as national economies and ultimately the global economy begin to feel the full impact of the environment devastation, no one would remain immune to the deleterious consequences of unsustainable human activity.
· Ultimately, the intricate and interdependent systems that are required to maintain the highly technical and mechanized social order of modern life would collapse under the sheer weight of the global crisis and human societies would necessarily need to adjust to a far more primitive existence. As a consequence, human populations would shrink over time as the human world is overwhelmed by war, wide-scale famine, severe deprivation and disease.
Finally, the cumulative psychological damage of these catastrophic events would necessarily have a negative impact on individual and group behavior adding to the increasingly chaotic nature of existence.
This is not a terribly sanguine look at the future. It does in my judgment, however, represent a reasonable projection of the consequences of current human activity on planet earth if nothing is done to significantly address the underlying issues that demand our full and unmitigated attention.
In answer to the question, “Is the Species Smart Enough?” in regards to insuring a viable future for the human kind, it seems that my answer is leaning towards the negative with the open possibility that this analysis can be readily updated to a more positive conclusion provided that meaningful reform in human behavior becomes evident.