I am not a prophet. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, much less next year or beyond. However, as a scientist, I read scientific literature and books about ecology, agriculture and dynamic systems and, at this point, I am compelled to say that the collapse of civilizations is, at least, possible. Given my attachment to family and friends, my preference is to spare them this article, although I’ll plod ahead.

“The world’s top climate scientists expect global heating to blast past a 1.5C target and they envisage a ‘semi-dystopian’ future, with famines, conflicts and mass migration, driven by heatwaves, wildfires, floods and storms of an intensity and frequency far beyond those that have already struck,” Damian Carrington, The Guardian’s environment editor, recently wrote.

“Almost 80% of climate scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change… foresee at least 2.5C of global heating, while almost half anticipate at least 3C.” More than two years ago, climate scientists were resigned to a less than 10 per cent chance of hitting the 1.5C target.

Bill Rees, in his well-written 2023 scientific paper, warns “the growth of the human enterprise (population and economy) on a finite planet is the greatest factor contributing to plunging biodiversity. Reduced human populations almost everywhere are necessary to preserve remaining patches of non-human life on Earth.”

Further, he contends that fossil fuel use generated an “abundance” for humankind that enabled it to experience a “one-off global population boom-bust cycle” that would not be repeatable. Rees bluntly states, “the human enterprise is effectively subsuming the ecosphere” and “wide-spread societal collapse cannot be averted — collapse is not a problem to be solved, but rather the final stage of a cycle to be endured.” Even still, he acknowledges that “barring a nuclear holocaust, it is unlikely that Homo sapiens will go extinct.” Even if you read just one scientific paper every decade, ponder this one.

In another seminal 2023 paper regarding planetary boundaries — the limit to which the environment can self-regulate the impact of human activities — Richardson et al., update the 2009 and 2015 planetary boundary papers. The two planetary boundaries previously crossed (excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our ecosystem and loss of species and an excess of photosynthetic productivity hoarded by humans) are still clearly beyond the safe operating space.

The four planetary boundaries newly crossed in the 2023 paper are:

  • Humans changing the use of land, with natural habitat, especially forest cover, being assigned for narrow human uses;
  • Climate change with atmospheric CO2 concentration now at 417 ppm, well beyond the recommended 350 ppm and an increasing amount of heat from the sun staying within Earth’s biosphere;
  • An excess of novel entities (only in our ecosystem because of humans), including synthetic chemicals, microplastics, endocrine disruptors, organic pollutants and nuclear waste;
  • Freshwater flows that are too high or too low.

The planetary boundaries framework is only focused on the stability and resilience of patient Earth. Obviously, human health depends on Earth health, and this is adroitly addressed by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

In the time we have left as individuals and civilizations, we can at least appreciate and respect our singular home, Earth, where we belong with other species and elements, writes @ralphmartinOAC #climateaction #ClimateLiteracy #ActOnClimate

Wade Davis, an author I highly respect, recently said, “Doom and gloom will never encourage people to action. Only hope and the promise of a better world will lead to action.”

He argued that we survived the Second World War and other crises and, in the end, we will be fine. I want to agree with him, but then I consider the scientific literature about living within our ecological carrying capacity and the disturbingly accurate predictions of the 1972 book, Limits to Growth.

At this stage of our human journey, it is appropriate to recognize the threat humans have become to the entire global ecosphere and to understand it is possible to proceed too far along this path. This knowledge may be crucial to changing our course to a path within ecosystem limits.

In his book, A Good War, Seth Klein also compares our current emergency to that of the Second World War and asks us not to underestimate the capacity of humans to look reality in the eye and to respond with alacrity. His suggestions for action are practical but, unfortunately, mostly ignored. Nevertheless, Ecojustice is holding governments’ and corporations’ feet to legal fires.

Before acting to adapt, take a breath and reflect on Cynthia Bourgeault’s advice, from her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing. “Rather than rushing around in exhaustion to exercise our ‘choices’ in clothing, cars, jobs and vacations, to maximize the selfhood that is illusory anyway, we could learn to give and take with life in the effortless freedom of inner authenticity.”

Coming full circle, I don’t know what will happen in the future, nor do I know what will not happen. In the time we have left as individuals and civilizations, we can at least appreciate and respect our singular home, Earth, where we belong with other species and elements. Thomas Berry, a wise eco-theologian, asserted that the Earth project is primary while the human project is derivative. Our role is to live accordingly, regardless of outcomes.

Ralph C. Martin, Ph.D., Professor (retired), University of Guelph. Information on book, Food Security: From Excess to Enough at www.ralphmartin.ca

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"Bill Rees bluntly states, 'the human enterprise is effectively subsuming the ecosphere' and 'wide-spread societal collapse cannot be averted — collapse is not a problem to be solved, but rather the final stage of a cycle to be endured.'"

"Wade Davis … recently said, 'Doom and gloom will never encourage people to action. Only hope and the promise of a better world will lead to action. He argued that we survived the Second World War and other crises and, in the end, we will be fine.

The contrast in views between ecologist/ecological economist and retired UBC professor Bill Rees and UBC Professor of Anthropology Dr. Wade Davis could hardly be more stark.
At most only one of these academics can be right.
Is our species going down for the count, or will we be fine?
How could we possibly be fine if ecosystems collapse?

While Dr. Rees may be closer to the truth about our fate, his prescriptions are not remotely realistic. Which means we are doomed, in his scenario.

Dr. Wade Davis "refuses to embrace conventional wisdom on climate change" (Washington Post). Hardly reassuring. After a cursory online search, I am unable to pin down his specific objections. (Anybody know?) Be on guard about academics' speaking outside their field of expertise, particularly when they challenge scientific consensus.

IPCC projections may well be the best-case scenario. Not only will humanity fail to slow global warming any time soon, I believe, but the climate impacts may well be worse than the conservative IPCC projects.

The ocean covers 70% of the Earth. Marine ecosystems are well on their way to collapse due to warming, acidification, pollution, plastics, overfishing, destructive fishing, loss of habitat (coral reef bleaching), and loss of biodiversity (from the base of the food chain, plankton, to apex predators, sharks and whales). Sea level rise is likely to continue for millennia, even if emissions and warming stop tomorrow. Large parts of the tropics and subtropics are likely to become uninhabitable. Crop failures due to heatwaves, flooding, and saltwater intrusion will wreak havoc on food supplies and rural communities. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees on the move. Emissions from huge wildfires create an unstoppable climate feedback.

When even environmentalists and climate scientists/activists are unwilling to change their ways, what hope is there for the rest of humanity?