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Are we doomed? It all depends

January 10, 2013 in Science

EMBARGOED until 0001 GMT on Thursday 10 January

By Tim Radford

There are immense threats to human survival, two population biologists say. But the end of our civilisation is not inevitable if we act now.

LONDON, 10 January – Humanity faces a possible collapse of global civilisation, according to two Californian scientists. Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, of Stanford University, US, argue in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published by the UK’s national academy of science, that civilisation is faced with a menacing array of environmental problems.

“The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption,” they write. They list other ingredients in the recipe for worldwide disaster: these include the accelerating extinction of vital animal and plant populations; land degradation; the pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and the appearance of dead zones; increases in human vulnerability to infectious disease; the depletion of scarce resources, including groundwater; and resource wars.

“These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems; the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.”

Paul Ehrlich is a population biologist and ecologist of academic distinction who startled the world in 1967 with a book called The Population Bomb: critics have dubbed him an “irrepressible doomster”, and even admirers concede that he doesn’t often present a cheerful view of the human condition. Anne, who is married to Paul and is co-author of several books with him, is associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University.

“All nations need to stop waiting for others to act”

The growth in human numbers remains a prime concern for the Ehrlichs. They warn that the projected additional 2.5 billion people on Earth by 2050 “would make the human assault on civilisation’s life-support systems disproportionately worse.”

Future global collapse could be triggered by anything from a small nuclear war to a more gradual breakdown because of famines, epidemics and resource shortages. No civilisation could avoid collapse if it failed to feed its population. Despite food production “miracles” in the last century, the Ehrlichs argue, two billion people today were hungry or poorly nourished. Food was wasted, and demand for meat was increasing, forcing up the price of food grains.

“Perhaps even more critical, climate disruption may pose insurmountable physical barriers to increasing crop yields. Indeed, if humanity is very unlucky with the climate, there may be reductions in yields of major crops, though near term this may be unlikely to affect harvests globally,” they write. (See our earlier story on warming and food production here.)

Other threats to production could come from sea level rise and increasingly severe droughts, storms, heat waves and floods. “Unless greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically reduced, dangerous anthropogenic climate change could ravage agriculture.”

The authors believe that humans can develop enough “foresight intelligence” to respond to the challenge, but they argue that we cannot afford to delay action to address climate change. “All nations need to stop waiting for others to act and be willing to do everything they can to mitigate emissions and hasten energy transition, regardless of what others are doing.” (See earlier story on emissions targets here.) – Climate News Network

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