Hold on to your tailcoats, ladies and gentlemen … things are about to get dangerously strange on this planet.
That was pretty much the gist of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) recent update. The 15,000 members of it didn't release a message high on hope. In it, scientists examined environmental progress over the last 25 years, since they issued their first warning. And unfortunately for mankind, the results aren’t exactly comforting.
The original warning, from 1992, broke down the impending predicament, describing an almost apocalyptic future of depleted resources, barren oceans and collapsing biodiversity if the world failed to act preemptively.
“We the undersigned, senior members of the world's scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead,” the original document cautioned. “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
“Irretrievable mutilation” and “human misery” aren’t phrases the scientific community tosses around lightly. Or often. But desperate times called for desperate vocabulary. And, according to the scientists, those were desperate times indeed. Yet it's only gotten worse.
The original warning described several different Earth systems, and how utterly screwed humans would be if nothing was done to curb environmental impact on each. Now, 25 years later, the scientists have revisited their statements, to see if humanity has made that “great change in stewardship” they called for so long ago:
The Atmosphere – It’s filthy, grossly polluted, and actually far worse today than it was in 1992. Humans have pumped it so full of greenhouse gasses, it’s straining at the seams and heating things up to a dangerous degree. With the exception of our success healing the ozone hole, there has been little to no progress in mitigating atmospheric pollution.
Water Resources – The exploitation of freshwater is as greedy and careless as ever. Severe water shortages are ravaging countries like Yemen, starving both the land and the people of the vital resource. In some places, like the Pakistani-Indian border, conflicts over access to freshwater are simmering just under a boil, verging on all-out warfare.
Oceans – If one didn’t know any better, it would look like humanity was trying to kill the oceans: dumping enough garbage into them to create an entire continent of trash, spilling ton after ton of oil, and carbon bleaching reefs into a state of death and decay. On top of that, the fishing industry is engaged in a full-on holocaust of marine life, trolling and netting and industrially fishing the waters dry.
Forests – Trees are one of our best resources for fighting climate change, because they act as a carbon sink — they breathe carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. One might imagine that, given two and a half decades, we would have started protecting, preserving and even expanding these forest regions as a filter. In reality, though, deforestation is clipping along at a record pace, as if we’re in some kind of terrible race, chopping, cutting and chipping away to sustain the lumber industry. By the end of the century, many of our tropical rainforests will be dead and gone, and entire species of plants and animals along with them.
Living Species – Human beings are the only species in world history to have set in motion a mass extinction event. Usually it takes an asteroid, or an ice age … not this time. All it took to destroy billions of years of evolution was a bunch of lazy homo sapiens too dependent on burning dead dinosaurs, and too attached to their plastics. Losing species at the current rate could trigger a much more significant collapse in biological systems — a collapse that could bring the biodiversity of life on Earth crashing down like a house of cards.
Population – Just like any vessel Earth has a maximum capacity. Beyond which, is a tipping point where the planet’s finite ability to produce food and energy, and finite faculty to absorb pollution, and finite patience for human BS simply runs out. Unrestricted population growth has weighed heavily on the planet, and threatens all possibility of a sustainable future. When the UCS warning was first published, the population of Earth was 5 billion — today it pushes 8 billion. If it isn’t curbed, and soon, we will surge past the maximum capacity of Earth, overburdening the planet like a ship with too many passengers.
According to the UCS: “Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”
It continues: “By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivize renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperiled biosphere.”
It seems that no matter what direction, or Earth system, one looks to, dark clouds are looming. There’s a bad moon on the rise. And we’ve got front row seats for the roughest ride humanity has ever had to contend with. Stewarding this ship to safety may be impossible.
But that all depends on the future. If mankind hunkers down into habits, and digs its heels into the sand against a radical change of lifestyle, then folks might as well make some popcorn, sit back and relax to watch the fall of human civilization. Though there’s still time to adapt, according to the updated warning from UCS … if only a little.
“Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out," it finally states. "We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.”
[Originally published on July 18, 2018]