The beginning: life, and the sixth mass extinction
The best estimate is that there have been five “mass extinctions” before now in the history of life on Earth. Mass extinctions wipe out many species, and take millions of years to recover from. The last one was 65 million years ago, and it wiped out the dinosaurs (but not the cockroaches – I’ll return to them later).
We‘re now at the beginning of the sixth mass extinction[i].
It’s actually quite hard to see it for what it is. Previous mass extinctions have been the result of cataclysmic physical events which forced species into survival mode. This one is different – it’s not being caused by an external event like a giant meteor crashing to Earth. We would probably have sat up and taken notice if that had happened.
To be fair, we in the general population are noticing it, in a way. From the extinction of the dodo in Mauritius, to the near extinction of the American buffalo, to the collapse of fish and bee populations, we are aware of species which are becoming extinct or are seriously threatened. But only the big, noticeable ones. And for every large animal which goes extinct, there are tens or hundreds or thousands of smaller forms of life also going.
But we don’t pay enough attention to this, because we don’t grasp how fast it is happening, in terms of geological time, nor do we understand its implications. The scientists are telling us it is a mass extinction, but we don’t quite know what to do with that.
Particularly because we also know that it is we humans as a species who are causing it. By our damage and destruction to other species, their habitats and migration routes; by our transporting of life-forms around the planet so they can damage or supplant other life-forms; and by our transformation of the landscapes and waterways of the world.
So, maybe it’s just an inevitable result of our mastery of the planet and our consumption of the available resources?
Unfortunately, the extinction rate is rapidly increasing, as we turn more and more of the Earth’s surface to our own purposes, and generate waste and throw it away, leaving less and less healthy living space for other species. Humans have altered between a third and a half of the Earth’s land surface[ii], and very rarely has this been a benefit to other species.
One current estimate is that the species extinction rate is between 100 and 1,000 times the normal, “background”, extinction rate, and speeding up[iii]. We are reducing the diversity of life on Earth at a phenomenal rate. Diversity is essential to the health of the Earth, and the health of the Earth is essential to our own survival as a species. The same paper estimates that this rate of extinction is 10 to 100 times beyond a reasonable boundary for protecting Earth’s biodiversity. Estimates of extinction rates do vary, but scientists are consistently clear that the extinction rate is far higher than it can afford to be to preserve the necessary biodiversity for a healthy planet[iv].
The implications of the sixth mass extinction are quite clear: as we degrade our living space, the Earth, and reduce its capacity to support life, we humans are also putting ourselves at extreme risk, and are very likely to become victims of the extinction ourselves. And, even if we do not become totally extinct, we are definitely moving towards being one of those species which gets put on the endangered list. So, we have a serious problem, which we need to address far more vigorously than we have done to date. That’s what this book is about.
Life and time
Life took 4 billion years to develop on Earth (give or take a billion or two). That’s a length of time far beyond human imagination. But it explains the glorious diversity of life on Earth – it’s a lot of time for evolution to take place in, and for the development of sophisticated life forms and life systems.
Those excellent beasts of our childhood, the dinosaurs, lasted about 150 million years before being wiped out. Whether this was caused by massive volcanic or tectonic activity, or by a giant meteor, is apparently still a matter of debate among scientists. In either case the event caused drastic climate changes, just as we are on the way to doing now, and that is what killed off the dinosaurs.
We humans and our immediate ancestors have been around for about 4 million years so far, or let’s say 200,000 generations. Most of the basics of our current form were in place at the beginning of that 4 million years, as witnessed by our cousins the apes and other similar – and even apparently dissimilar – life forms.
What enabled us to become a dominant species on Earth is still debated, but is centred round our brain capacity and our “generalist” form. We’re not as fast or savage or big as other “apex predators”, but we’ve become expert at the use of tools, cooperation, and knowledge transfer on previously unseen scales.
But there haven’t been any huge changes in our basic make-up in that four million years.
And looking at our most recent and current form, homo sapiens – well, we’ve only been around for less than 200,000 years, or less than 10,000 generations. That’s far too short a time for really serious evolution UNLESS there are immediate survival threats which only the “fit” survive (I’ll come back to the word “fit” later).
We were able to settle down from nomadic life and develop agriculture about 12,000 years, or 600 generations ago, when the Earth entered a stable climatic era, the “Holocene” age. This fortuitous event led to the development of “civilisation” as we know it after about 5,000 years (250 generations), and eventually, among other things, to the Western “enlightenment” 500 years ago (25 generations) and the current industrial age 250 years ago (12 generations – but only 3-5 lifetimes).
The best illustration I could find of human “time”[v] – note that the last 12,000 years is the tiny dark yellow bit at the end
Humanity’s recent “accomplishments”
So, geologically speaking, humans have been around for a very short time, and our tool-making has gone from basic axes to splitting the atom in a blink of the geological eye. But look at our recent accomplishments:
- The Earth’s human population was about 1 billion at the start of the Industrial Revolution. It doubled after about 120 years, to 2 billion in the 1920s. Then it doubled again in the next 50 years, and will have doubled again in the next 50 years to 2030, to about 8 billion. In a single human lifespan of 80 years we have added nearly 5 billion people to the planet.
An illustration of the number of year we have taken, and are projected to take, to add extra billions to the Earth’s human population[vi]
- Over the last 50 years, the number of “affluent” people has more or less doubled, along with the doubling of the total population, to between one and 1.5 billion, or 15-20% of the world’s population. Different sources have different definitions of affluence, but it more or less means material security and safety, with the ability to buy and consume a range of goods and services well beyond those needed for survival. Affluence is mainly confined to North America, Europe, Oceania, and the new middle-class in China.
- In their 2015 report on global wealth, Global Credit- Suisse describes a world “middle class” as having wealth-per-adult of $US50,000-500,000-equivalent[vii]. There are 664 million adults in this group, or 14% of the world’s adult population, who own 32% of the world’s total wealth.
- Above this are the 96 million seriously wealthy, with personal wealth of $US500,000 or more. They represent 2% of the world’s adult population, but own 60% of its wealth. And the top 1% alone now own 50% of the world’s wealth.
- At the other end of the scale, there are between one and 1.5 billion people in extreme poverty, more than there were in total on the planet 200 years ago. More than 1 billion people live on less than $US2 per day, and over 2 billion on less than $US3 per day[viii].
- The number in extreme poverty has actually reduced by about a third in the last 25 years, mainly because of increased wealth in China and India. Sub-Saharan Africa bucks the improving trend, with numbers in this category increasing from 300 to 400 million over the same period[ix].
- The 3-4 billion in between live mostly in “moderate poverty”, above the survival line but lacking at least some of the basic amenities and opportunities described in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights[x].
- China is the only major region to have eliminated extreme poverty more or less completely, while North America is a land of only the extremely poor and the extremely affluent. India and Africa have disproportionate numbers in extreme poverty, while wealth is more evenly distributed in Latin America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
2014 distribution of wealth by region by decile [xi]
- Feeding most of the 5 billion people added to the population of the planet since 1930 has been one of humanity’s greatest material accomplishments, but it has been at the expense of our long term future.
- In the last fifty years, while our population has doubled, our footprint on the Earth has also doubled. The Global Footprint Network estimates that we now consume more than one and a half times the planet’s annual capacity to replenish itself[xii]. This means that the land, water and air are being degraded, and gradually losing their capacity to renew and replenish – we are eating into our future at a high, and increasing, rate.
Global Footprint Network’s analysis of growth 1961-2012 (higher quality graph to come)
- Most of this overconsumption is because of the affluent people. The 1.5 billion people in the 55 most affluent countries, mainly in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region, account for 50% of our footprint on Earth[xiii], despite only being 20% of the population. If all 7 billion of us consumed at this rate, we would need nearly 4 Earths to sustain us.
- Conversely, if we consumed at the average rate of the countries of the “middle” 4 billion (which include India and China), we would use only about 75% of the Earth’s current ability to replenish itself each year.
- For now, the Earth provides more than enough food to feed everybody on it, despite wastage of between one third and half of this food[xiv]. Yet 800 million people are malnourished, and 3 million children a year die of starvation – and this is without counting the effects of irregular famines and other humanitarian disasters[xv]. The fact that we do not feed everybody is a fundamental failure of our governance and economic systems.
- However, even if we correct this, the future does not look good. As our footprint on the planet grows, modern industrial agricultural and harvesting methods continue to degrade the soil and the water, and useable water itself becomes scarcer.
- Our consumption is now on the near-vertical part of an exponential path. That is to say, it is increasing at a phenomenal rate, as a result of increases in production and trade over the last 50 years. Real Gross Domestic Product is a reasonably good indicator of our increase in consumption, as illustrated below.
Growth in real GDP split between the OECD, the large “emerging” nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China), and the rest[xvi].
To give a brutal example which I will return to later, our energy use is also on an exponential path, as illustrated below.
This massive increase in energy use, created largely by burning fossil fuels, has created the global warming which is exercising so many people now, under the name of “climate change”. The Earth’s surface temperature has gone up by nearly 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times, and we are already feeling the effects this is having on the climate and the weather.
We have now emitted about half the carbon we can afford to pump into the atmosphere without inexorably raising the global temperature more than 2 degrees from the pre-industrial average. It has taken us the last 250 years to get this far but, on current emission trends, the next half will take us less than 20 years[xvii].
- Only 70 years ago we developed the capacity to wipe ourselves out as a species, by developing the fission, and then the fusion, bomb. And now there is also one personal weapon available for every ten of us, giving us another efficient way to kill each other off, albeit at a slower rate than with nuclear weapons.
- And on our current path of consumption and waste, we have a good chance of wiping ourselves out – or at least a significant proportion of our species – in the next 70 years or so, even without recourse to atomic weapons or handguns.
We will do this for a number of reasons, a major one of which seems to be short-sightedness. Are we as a species unable to grasp either the scale of the negatives which surround us, or the possible and likely negatives of the future? In the affluent world, many live in comfort and feel able to consume carelessly, without understanding the true costs of what they are doing, or their negative impact on our future.
It is ironic that a major reason the human species became an “apex predator” was its ability to transmit knowledge between generations. It seems we only transmit the knowledge that enables us to dominate in the short term, not the knowledge that enables us to be part of a sustainable and regenerative whole. We seem to transmit cleverness, not wisdom.
This is all being very unfair to the large and increasing number of progressive people in both the affluent and the poor world who are fighting back against this short-sightedness, and against our careless consumption of our future. But if our overall actions to date and our present state are the sum of our accomplishments as a species, then we are all implicated in the problem.
The pursuit of profit and the problem of power
Key underlying issues are the pursuit of profit and the nature and distribution of power. As a species, we have made enormous material gains from the triumphs of science. But our political and economic systems have kept tipping the balance in favour of the “haves” rather than the “have nots”.
The wealthy and the powerful have, in a very short space of time, driven an increase in consumption in the affluent world, and secured more wealth for themselves, far beyond what is necessary or reasonable. The pursuit of profit needs to be stopped, and the eternal problem of power needs to be better addressed.
But isn’t population the real problem?
Some people say that the fact there are 7 billion of us, with more to come, is at the heart of our existential challenges. That because there are so many of us, we are inevitably consuming too much, and degrading our living space.
But, as illustrated above, it is not population as such which is doing the damage at the moment, but the consumption levels of the most affluent societies and people. The Earth could support all of us at a lower, but still more-or-less acceptable, living standard.
The immediate issue we face is that, particularly in the last half-century, the affluent world, led by the United States, has promoted a consumption-based ideal, creating a world in which all are encouraged to aspire to maximum affluence. Those in the “under-developed” world should aspire to the living standards of the “developed” world.
The Earth simply cannot sustain 7 or 9 billion humans living at the material standards of Europe, let alone wealthy North America. Yet our public ideals of economic and social “progress” are based on achieving exactly this – GDP growth, and “development”, are apparently the way forward for all the world, and the target is getting higher all the time.
The “good” news is that, under the current dominant economic system – capitalism, and its toxic variant neoliberalism – this simply won’t happen. The system is designed to extract as much as possible from the poor and the planet to sustain the rich. So, while encouraging them to aspire to more comfortable levels of living, the system simultaneously extracts from the poor at low or no cost their labour, their resources, and their land. And it exploits the Earth’s resources in unsustainable ways, in pursuit of “cheap” consumer goods.
It gets worse. An underlying issue is that, by accepting and even maintaining the sorts of poverty we still have in the world, the system is itself creating the huge explosion in population that we are currently experiencing.
Most of us know that the “affluent” world barely even reproduces itself these days, in terms of birth-rate. Less of us know that the reproduction rate falls dramatically as soon as families are out of extreme poverty as described earlier in this chapter.
It is the bottom billion who will contribute the next 2 billion to the world’s population, unless they are lifted out of extreme poverty. And it would take very little to do this, it is “a simple problem, compared with climate change and war”, as Hans Rosling says, in one of his fascinating contributions to the questions of population and poverty[xviii].
So, let’s backtrack 50 or 60 years, and see what might have been. Had we aggressively continued the immediate post-Depression and post-World War II ideals of mutual support and development, and targeted more equal “development”, the human population might now or soon be stabilising at 4 to 6 billion, not still be on a trajectory to 9 billion or more.
Moderate affluence for all, rather than extremes of wealth and poverty, is the formula for a sustainable future for humanity. Or, to be more precise, a bare minimum of wealth and income for all must be the basis on which a sustainable society is built. Once this is achieved, it is very likely that population growth will be eliminated. Which has to happen while there is still enough material wealth to go round, if we are to survive as a species.
It seems to me that the affluent world now has three choices:
- to keep doing what it’s doing now – hanging on grimly to what it has, and continuing to exploit the rest of the world to maintain this, while still apparently encouraging them to “develop” towards its own living standards;
- to take what it’s doing to the next level – waging an open all-out-war of conquest, expropriation, and genocide so as to simultaneously increase its wealth and decrease the population; and
- to shift from the high-extraction, high-consumption model it has now to something different, which acknowledges the rights of all people to a reasonable material life, and helps create space for this.
The first case involves accepting future population growth to 9 billion or more without putting any brakes on consumption; the second tries to reduce population through extreme violence; and the third puts rapid brakes on population growth, in a way which creates hope for a better future, eventually perhaps leading to a better balance between population numbers and achievable affluence.
The first two cases – what we are doing now, and what amounts to a reversion to what we have done in the past – are both crimes against the whole of humanity, against both those less affluent and also ourselves. I am not interested in being among those who accept or advocate that people living now need to die before their time, as many in extreme poverty or war zones already do.
So, population as such isn’t the problem that I address in this material. Consumption is the primary problem I address. The need for the affluent world to moderate its consumption is a cornerstone for creating a sustainable future.
And linked to this is the question of making our production systems more sustainable. Most development effort these days is focused on production (“sustainable business”), naturally enough under a capitalist/ consumerist model. But we in the affluent world need to think more radically, and act more radically, about consumption.
Is the end really nigh?
As a species, there’s a good possibility that we have already doomed ourselves to extinction, or near extinction.
What’s really strange about this is that we probably have all the material technologies and resources we need to live in at least modest material comfort, with minimal or no poverty anywhere in the world, while helping the Earth regenerate itself so it can support us indefinitely.
The reason we’re probably doomed is that we’re on an exponential path of extraction, exploitation and destruction.
We’ve gone from living well inside the Earth’s capacity to sustain us to well outside it in less than 60 years, or 2-3 generations. We’re doomed, if not to extinction, then at least to massive loss of lives and livelihoods, unless we change direction, fast.
And it’s not just about climate change
There’s a lot of focus on climate change at the moment, and the need to cut emissions to reduce the carbon being pumped into the atmosphere. There’s good reason for this focus. Climate change is the canary in the mine – well, actually, it’s the rather large flock of very sick canaries.
But even if we cease carbon emissions, we will still be on an unsustainable path caused by our levels of consumption in the affluent world, and the long term degradation caused by industrial agriculture, indiscriminate harvesting and use of the oceans, and industry in general.
We have to take action across a wide range of fronts.
The solutions will not be technological, despite the gung ho rhetoric of the technophiles. Yes, wisely directed technological improvements can continue to make useful changes.
But the real solutions are economic, social, and political. They are in how we produce and consume, how we act towards one another, and how power is managed.
Read on, about “The End…”>>
Back to the Manifesto>>
[i] See, for example, the Pulitzer Prize winning ”The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, Elizabeth Kolbert, publ Henry Holt, 2014; or “Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction” at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/5/e1400253.fullStudy
[ii] “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”, Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 2014, Kindle edn loc 1494-1501
[iii] “Planetary Boundaries” Guiding human development on a changing planet”, W. Steffen et al, Sciencexpress, January 2015
[iv] See for example “Global Extinction Rates: Why Do Estimates Vary So Wildly?”, Fred Pearce, Yale Environment 360, 17 Aug 2015
[v] From spongebobquh.wikispaces.com – thank you!
[vi] From http://knowledge.desertec.org/wiki/index.php5/Population
[vii] See Credit Suisse “Global Wealth Report 2015”
[viii] See http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview
[x] See http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/
[xi] From http://imgur.com/y99OYYU
[xiii] Global Footprint Network, NFA 2015 Public Data Package, Country Results
[xv] See http://publications.wfp.org/en/annual-report/2016/section_1.html re 800M malnourished, and https://www.worldhunger.org/world-child-hunger-facts/ re 3M annual deaths by starvation
[xvi] This and the next two slides are from “Planetary Boundaries”, a course initially run by the Swedish Resilience Institute for the UN in 2014-15
[xvii] See for example http://www.theguardian.com/environment/keep-it-in-the-ground-blog/2015/mar/25/what-numbers-tell-about-how-much-fossil-fuel-reserves-cant-burn
[xviii] See minute 58 of https://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-end-poverty/