This page provides examples of the sort of evidence that has persuaded me that we are perilously close to the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). No one item makes the case, but perhaps you will find the accumulated weight of evidence compelling, as I did. Each of the TWELVE CRISES below has my brief introduction, with highlights of content and underlined links to sources and additional information:
1. CLIMATE CHANGE CRISIS
The Earth is warming. This is a fact confirmed by literally thousands of climate researchers worldwide, including those at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), from which the chart on the left was obtained. Critics of global warming point to a year here or there that was cooler than the last, but this chart, which plots mean worldwide temperatures over more than a century, shows an unmistakable trend upward. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), “The decade 2001-2010 was the warmest since records began in 1850.” Although 2009 was cooler than normal in North America, that was more than offset by warmer temperatures elsewhere in the world. (Click here for a NASA snapshot of temperature offsets.) “What we’re talking about is trends averaged over large areas and over long periods,” said Michel Jarraud, the WMO’s secretary-general, as quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. The annual State of the Climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) agrees with the WMO and NASA that “the past decade was the warmest on record and the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years. . . . Despite the variability caused by short-term changes, . . . when we follow decade-to-decade trends using multiple data sets and independent analyses from around the world, we see clear and unmistakable signs of a warming world.” The U.S. National Academy of Sciences concurs, reporting as “settled facts” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.” (Click here to see how skeptics misinterpret global warming data, as illustrated on the Skeptical Science website, and click here for 136 responses to global warming skeptics, compiled by the Climate Progress website.)
The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) reports that “the scientific community has reached a strong consensus . . . The world is undoubtedly warming . . . largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities including industrial processes, fossil fuel combustion, and changes in land use, such as deforestation.” The website provides several pages of “Global Warming Facts and Figures,” including “The Physical Basis of Global Warming,” “Observed Temperature and Greenhouse Gas Trends,” and “Impacts” of climate change observed thus far. Elsewhere, an NASA map of the Arctic illustrates that polar ice has “diminished by almost 50 percent between 1980 and 2012″ as air and ocean temperatures have increased. TreeHugger reports on recent polar research, quoting the University of Manitoba’s David Barber, who says his three-year study found that “climate change in the region is happening much faster than our most pessimistic models expected,” and National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serreze, who says, “We’ve grown back ice in the winter, but that ice tends to be thin . . . and thinner ice simply takes less energy to melt the next summer.” Less arctic ice means more sunlight is absorbed rather than reflected, which further increases warming, releases more methane gas from the arctic floor, which further increases warming, in a self-reinforcing cycle. “Heat waves. Drought. Flooding. Cold spells. Wildfires.” These are examples of a “weather-related backlash” far to the south of the Arctic, reports the Washington Post. “Shrinking arctic ice” causes a “weaker jet stream” whose “steeper north-south waves” result in “a shift toward more extreme weather events.”
In “The Carbon Bathtub,” National Geographic illustrates the problem. “It’s simple, really: As long as we pour CO2; into the atmosphere faster than nature drains it out, the planet warms. And that extra carbon takes a long time to drain out of the tub.” Its “Global Warming Fast Facts” page reports that “global warming could lead to large-scale food and water shortages and have catastrophic effects on wildlife,” according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Other concerns include rising sea level and acidifying oceans, melting glaciers and ice caps, heatwaves and wildfires, droughts and growth of deserts, disappearing habitat, and species extinction.
Although the Earth’s climate has cycled between cold and warm periods, the current Quaternary ice age has persisted for 2.5 million years. Without intervention by man, the mild climate of the Holocene epoch, the 10,000-year period in which glaciers have retreated and human civilization has blossomed, would surely give way to renewed glaciation over much of the Earth (NY Times). The central thesis of global warming is that the Industrial Revolution, which has pumped greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for 200 years, has overwhelmed natural cycles and tipped the world into a new and dangerous warming trend. Is it possible that pre-industrial man might have been able to achieve a prolonged Holocene epoch without consciously trying to do so, but that industrial man will not be able to prevent runaway global warming, despite taking the most desperate measures? (Click here for more information about natural cycles of climate vs. human influence on climate.)
“Methane Bubbles in the Arctic Ocean Give Climate Scientists the Willies,” is the title of a disturbing article on the Discover Magazine website: “Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.” Photos and a video in the LA Times of burning methane gas leaking through holes drilled in frozen Arctic lakes illustrate that global warming is freeing methane from its frozen state. “As much as 55 billion metric tons of methane could be released from beneath Siberian lakes alone . . . . That would amount to 10 times the amount currently in the atmosphere.” On land, measurements show that “a third to a half of permafrost is already within a degree to a degree and a half [Celsius] of thawing.” The United Nations Environment Programme warns, “methane release due to thawing permafrost in the Arctic is a global warming wild card,” which could lead to “abrupt changes in the climate that would likely be irreversible.”
A report by the UK’s Guardian on a global warming conference at Exeter University is headlined, “Too late? Why scientists say we should expect the worst.” Conference speakers reported that “carbon emissions were soaring way out of control – far above even the bleak scenarios considered by last year’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” At the same time, studies showed that the ability of the oceans and forests to absorb carbon dioxide was weakening. “The battle against dangerous climate change had been lost, and the world needed to prepare for things to get very, very bad.” James Lovelock, best known for his Gaia Hypothesis, is also pessimistic. On Lovelock’s website he says, “There is little that can we do to prevent the Earth System moving to the hot stable state,” such as that of the Eocene period, 55 million years ago. “I now take an apocalyptic view of the future because I see 6 to 8 billions of humans faced with ever diminishing supplies of food and water in an increasingly intolerable climate. . . . We now face the stark choice between a return to a natural life as a small band of hunter gatherers or a much reduced high tech civilization also in balance with nature.” In April, 2012, Lovelock revised his timeframe for the worst effects of climate change, saying “We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit.” This is the only real controversy among the great majority of climate scientists. As Katherine Bagley puts it, “Climate change is a matter of how bad and by when — not whether.”
It’s also possible that global warming could paradoxically trigger another ice age, according to a report on thedailygreen.com. “The theory goes that a warming-induced influx of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic from melting polar ice caps and glaciers could shut down the Gulf Stream, an underwater channel of warm ocean water that winds its way north from the Caribbean and moderates temperatures in the northeastern U.S. and Western Europe. The result, some scientists speculate, would be a return to ice age conditions. In the extreme, glaciers and freezing temperatures would render large swaths of the civilized world uninhabitable . . . . A less dire version would still cause bitterly cold winters, droughts, worldwide desertification and crop failures . . . .” You may recognize this as the premise of the sci-fi movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” which speeds up the phenomenon to a matter of weeks.
2. ECONOMIC CRISIS
Early in 2013, many politicians, economists, and CEOs announced that the global financial crisis of 2008-2012 was over — but over for whom? As President Obama said in his 2013 inauguration address, America “cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” Robert Reich provided further details on the problem: “The super-rich have done well in the economic recovery while almost everyone else has done badly. The top 1 percent of earners’ real wages grew 8.2 percent from 2009 to 2011, yet the real annual wages of Americans in the bottom 90 percent have continued to decline in the recovery, eroding by 1.2 percent between 2009 and 2011.” (More on economic inequality below.) A couple of years ago, Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University, whose predictions of an impending global financial crisis were on the mark, warned that “the long-term picture for workers and families is even worse than current job loss numbers alone would suggest…. Many firms are telling their workers to cut hours, take furloughs and accept lower wages…. equivalent to another 3 million full time jobs lost on top of the 7.5 million jobs formally lost…. Many of the lost jobs are gone forever, including construction jobs, finance jobs and manufacturing jobs. Recent studies suggest that a quarter of U.S. jobs are fully out-sourceable over time to other countries.” The disparity between upbeat economic reports and real-life experience in average households continues.
“35 Facts That Show Just How Much The Average American Has Been Destroyed By This Economy” is the title of an article in Business Insider. Here are some highlights that may give you pause: “#4) If the U.S. government measured inflation the way that it did before 1980 the inflation rate would be . . . at a 9.6 annual rate . . . . #10) U.S. workers compete for jobs with workers in places such as Indonesia [who are paid] as little as two dollars a day. . . . #11) U.S. home values have fallen an astounding 6.3 trillion dollars since the peak of the real estate market in 2005. . . . #18) The number of children living in poverty has gone up by about 2 million in the past 2 years. . . . #20) There are 10% fewer ‘middle class jobs’ in the United States today than there were a decade ago. . . . #21) The United States has lost an average of 50,000 manufacturing jobs per month since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. . . . #22) Half of all American workers now earn $505 or less per week. . . . #25) Average household debt in the United States has now reached a level of 136% of average household income. In China, average household debt is only 17% of average household income. . . . #28) Over the last decade, the number of Americans without health insurance has risen from about 38 million to about 52 million. . . . #30) Medical bills are a major factor in more than 60 percent of all personal bankruptcies. . . . #34) Almost 25 percent of all U.S. households now have zero or negative net worth — in 2007, that number was just 18.6 percent.”
About one in four families renting homes barely earn enough to pay for food and housing, so they fall further behind on other bills every month, according to according to a Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report.
“The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged [to 46 million in January, 2013] as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless,” reports the Financial Times.
In “Prophesy of economic collapse ‘coming true,’” New Scientist reports, “A real-world analysis of a controversial prediction made 30 years ago concludes that economic growth cannot be sustained and we are on track for serious economic collapse this century. In 1972, the seminal book Limits to Growth by a group called the Club of Rome claimed that exponential growth would eventually lead to economic and environmental collapse.” (More about the Limits to Growth study in section 12, below.)
“The United States of Inequality” is the title of an article in Slate. “Economically speaking, the richest nation on earth is starting to resemble a banana republic,” explains Timothy Noah. “Income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.” As in such Latin American countries as Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador, where wealth is also concentrated in the hands of few, in the U.S. “the richest 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income.” That’s income. What about assets? According to David DeGraw, on AlterNet, “The economic top one percent of the population now owns over 70% of all financial assets, an all time record. . . . The first full year of the [economic] crisis when workers lost an average of 25 percent off their 401k . . . the wealth of the 400 richest Americans increased by $30 billion, bringing their total combined wealth to $1.57 trillion, which is more than the combined net worth of 50% of the US population. Just to make this point clear, 400 people have more wealth than 155 million people combined.” It gets worse. “The wealth of the Walton family [of Walmart discount department stores] now exceeds the wealth of the bottom 40 percent of American families combined,” notes Robert Reich.
Writing in AlterNet, Les Leopold offers a startling example of wealth inequality: “Hedge Fund Gamblers Earn the Same In One Hour As a Middle-Class Household Makes In Over 47 Years.” Leopold profiles John Paulson, whose $4.9 billion per year in personal earnings equates to $2.4 million every 60 minutes, about what everyone in an average US household combined earns in 47 years of work.
Of course, if you can’t find work, you won’t earn anything. Millions of American workers are unemployed because US corporations moved production overseas, closing 54,621 factories and eliminating 5 million American jobs in the last decade, according to Manufacturing and Technology News. So underpaid foreign workers make products in American-owned factories overseas to be sold in the US. Indeed, half of goods imported from China are from such factories.
Since 70 percent of America’s GDP is generated by consumer spending, it should be obvious that with tens of millions unemployed, or working part time, or employed in jobs that don’t pay enough to lift them above the poverty line, then consumer spending has to decline and bring the GDP down with it. Henry Ford wisely paid his workers enough that they could afford to buy the cars they made. Walmart pays its workers so little that as many as 80 percent are on food stamps.
3. ENERGY CRISIS
America, along with the rest of Western civilization, is powered by fossil fuels. About 40 percent of our energy comes from oil, 24 percent from natural gas, 23 percent from coal, and 8 percent from uranium (nuclear energy). We use these resources as if supplies were endless, but they are not. When production declines, as it must, what will take their place? Only about 5 or 6 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, and wind. It does not appear that we have the technology, the money, the will, and the time to transition from non-renewable to renewable energy in a way that will preserve “The American way of life.” The “Peak oil primer” from Energy Bulletin is a brief but effective introduction to the problem. “Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource . . . . Oil companies have, naturally enough, extracted the easier-to-reach, cheap oil first . . . on land, near the surface, under pressure, light and ‘sweet’ (meaning low sulfur content) and therefore easy to refine. The remaining oil is more likely to be off-shore, far from markets, in smaller fields and of lesser quality. It therefore takes ever more money and energy to extract, refine and transport. Under these conditions, the rate of production inevitably drops. Furthermore, all oil fields eventually reach a point where they become economically, and energetically, no longer viable. If it takes the energy of a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, then further extraction is pointless, no matter what the price of oil. . . . Of the 65 largest oil producing countries in the world, up to 54 have passed their peak of production and are now in decline.” The bottom line is that “peak oil presents the potential for quite catastrophic upheavals.” This is because “our industrial societies and our financial systems were built on the assumption of continual growth -– growth based on ever more readily available cheap fossil fuels. . . . Oil is so important that the peak will have vast implications across the realms of war and geopolitics, medicine, culture, transport and trade, economic stability and food production.”
So who needs all that oil, anyway? You do. We all do. Our civilization not only runs on oil, but a lot of the products we manufacture are actually made of the stuff. For example, fertilizer, pharmaceuticals, ink, floor wax, carpets, upholstery, drapes, clothing, asphalt, paint, shoe polish, perfumes, caulking, faucet washers, food preservatives, vitamin capsules, antiseptics, purses, putty, shoes, dyes, refrigerant, deodorant, dashboards, skis, mops, epoxy, tape, insect repellent, yarn, hair coloring, lipstick and other cosmetics, roofing, water pipes, nylon rope, glycerin, hand lotion, shampoo, guitar strings, shower curtains, luggage, toothbrushes, eyeglasses, awnings, antifreeze, ice chests, combs, cds and dvds, detergents, helmets, balloons, tents, parachutes, cameras, crayons, cellphones, computers, heart valves, dentures, bandages, fan belts, golf balls, tvs, radios, mp3 players, fishing rods, lures and line, hoses, linoleum, glue, toys, wire insulation, to name just a few of more than 6,000 oil-based products. And a lot of the electricity used to make all that stuff is generated by oil, and then gasoline, diesel, and other fuels are required to transport it to you and me. Without a steady supply of cheap oil, many of those products become unaffordable or unavailable. That means people who make those things are out of work, and people who need those things are out of luck.
As oil from “easy-to-obtain . . . near-at-hand energy deposits in relatively safe and friendly locations” diminishes, “the survival of our energy-centric civilization increasingly relies on supplies obtained from risky locations — deep underground, far at sea, north of the Arctic circle, in complex geological formations, or in unsafe political environments. That guarantees the equivalent of two, three, four, or more Gulf-oil-spill-style disasters in our energy future.” (TomDispatch) Claims of untapped deposits (e.g., 3-15 billion barrels from the Gulf of Mexico, 8-10 billion barrels offshore from Brazil) sound reassuring until you do the math. Even if the claims from new finds prove accurate and every barrel could be extracted, they would not make up for declining production elsewhere, much less meet growing world demands. The Brazilians predict production will reach 3 million barrels a day by 2020. Today, the U.S. consumes 20 million barrels a day, over 7 billion barrels a year. World consumption is nearly 85 million barrels a day, 31 billion barrels a year. By 2020 demand will be much higher, if nothing else changes between now and then..
Other unconventional sources include oil shale (sedimentary rock) and Canadian tar sands. The industry claims immense reserves, but extraction is extremely difficult, costly, and damaging to the environment. And even the most optimistic estimates of production from shale and tar sand 20 years from now would not meet even half of today’s consumption in the U.S. alone. Oil from Middle Eastern and African countries could be cut off at any moment by terrorism or political upheavals. If we are counting on oil to maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, we are bound to be disappointed.
Can natural gas take up some of the slack from oil? Although drilling is booming in the U.S., “shale production starts dropping fairly quickly,” according to Business Insider, and Bloomberg reports that industry estimates of vast reserves were cut 80 percent by the USGS. Worse still, critics point out that extraction is increasingly dependent on a technique called hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as “hydrofracking” or just “fracking”). Developed by Halliburton Co., fracking involves pumping fresh water laced with a cocktail of chemicals, including benzene and other toxic substances, into rock formations under high pressure to open up passages through which oil and gas can be extracted. During the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found the practice to be safe, and congress exempted it from the Clean Water Act, but opponents, such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, contend that “EPA’s conclusions are unsupportable,” agreeing with a “whistleblower” EPA employee who called his agency’s report “scientifically unsound” and questioned its impartiality. These and other critics are concerned that hydrofracking poses environmental hazards, including contamination of drinking water sources. The New York Times obtained internal EPA documents that reveal hydrofracking wastewater “contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known,” and the Times also reported on a congressional investigation that found “14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of . . . chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants.” ProPublica found over a thousand reports of water contamination from drilling across the country. One widely reported example is the town of Dish, Texas, a few miles north of Fort Worth, where residents are complaining that benzene emissions have lowered air quality, killed trees and animals, and sickened people. As one local woman put it, “I’m not against the oil and gas industry. I’m against being poisoned.” An award-winning film, “Gasland,” documents the consequences of hydrofracking (click here for the HBO trailer). Even the industry claim that natural gas extracted by fracking is a cleaner alternative to coal has been is disputed by a Cornell University study. As reported by Huffington Post, “gas is just as polluting as coal in the long term — and far worse in the near term due to the higher warming impact from methane when it is first released to the atmosphere during the controversial fracking stage.”
“How long before the lights go out?” is the headline in the UK’s Telegraph. “Gas heats almost every home and generates over 40 per cent of our electricity, making Britain the world’s fifth largest consumer. . . . Britain’s gas supply is apparently on thin ice. Until the beginning of this year, National Grid had only once been forced to issue a Gas Balancing Alert – warning the market that supply might not meet demand and urging suppliers to pump harder. Since then it has issued another four [in just one month, January, 2010]. . . . None of this would have happened a few years ago, when North Sea production meant Britain was more than self-sufficient in gas. But after a 30-year boom, UK output finally peaked in 2000 and started to fall . . . . In 2004 Britain became a net importer for the first time, and National Grid expects we will have to import three-quarters of our gas by 2015. That makes Britain increasingly vulnerable to any future supply interruptions like those last month, or when Russia next cuts off Ukraine in their long-running dispute over gas prices.” According to a report published by The Oil Drum, “It is projected that between now and 2020, Europe will need to develop additional natural gas supplies of approximately 120 – 150 Gcm/a (thousand million cubic meters per year) from more distant sources . . . .”
Some claim that vast supplies of coal can make up for declining oil and natural gas, giving us a century or two longer to develop alternatives to fossil fuels. But Matt Savinar points out that, “coal production, like oil production, will peak long before the total supply is exhausted. Were we to liquefy a large portion of our coal endowment in order to produce synthetic oil, coal production would likely peak within 2 decades, if not much sooner.” Others claim that uranium can power our civilization, even though it would take literally tens of thousands of nuclear power plants to do so (today there are just 438 worldwide), and there’s nowhere near the money or talent or time to build so many, nor the uranium to fuel them. And, of course, the Japanese reactor meltdowns in March, 2011, give credence to those who express concerns about the safety of nuclear power.
Meanwhile, progress toward developing renewable energy is woefully slow. Don’t even mention ethanol. It takes about as much energy to produce it as you get out of burning it. What’s the point? The two most promising renewables, solar and wind, contribute a scant 2 percent combined to energy production in the U.S. To convert this country’s transportation and power generation from non-renewable to renewable energy sources would take trillions of dollars and literally decades of time, not to mention immense natural, industrial, and human resources, as well as strong and visionary leadership, unprecedented political cooperation, and whole-hearted public support, effort, and sacrifice. If that’s what it takes, we’re in big trouble, because we don’t have it.
In a Washington Post op-ed, James Howard Kunstler writes about the “global energy predicament. “I hear an increasingly shrill cry for ‘solutions.’ This is just another symptom of the delusional thinking that now grips the nation . . . the desperate wish to keep our ‘Happy Motoring’ utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system — or even a fraction of these things — in the future. We have to make other arrangements.”
4. FERTILE LAND CRISIS
“Only about 10 percent of the world’s land surface is arable, whereas the other 90 percent is just rock, sand, or swamp, which can never be made to produce crops,” according to Peter Goodchild, writing on The Oil Drum website. Given the number of humans who must be fed (about 7 billion) and the world population growth rate (tripled in the last 60 odd years), any reduction in the amount of land available for growing crops would be cause for concern. The following facts will give any reasonable reader cause for alarm.
Australia’s Daily Reckoning reports on the topsoil crisis. “The problem is that we’re losing it faster than we can replace it. And replacing it isn’t easy. It grows back an inch or two over hundreds of years.”
The UK’s Guardian reports that “new maps show that the Earth is rapidly running out of fertile land and that food production will soon be unable to keep up with the world’s burgeoning population.”
The International Herald Tribune reports that China risks food shortages because of its loss of arable land. “China has already lost about 1 percent of its agricultural land – the equivalent of Holland and Belgium combined – every year for the past eight years.”
“The Food Nightmare Beneath Our Feet: We’re Running Out of Soil,” reads a headline on the AlterNet website. “Each year the world loses an estimated 83 billion tons of soil,” the article warns. “According to the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC), as of 1991, human activity has brought about the degradation of 7.5 million square miles . . . of land, the equivalent of Europe twice over.” Causes include conversion of farmland to other uses, farming practices that decrease fertility and increase erosion, desertification (in which fertile land becomes desert), and pollution. “We’re running out of soil. As with other prominent resources that have accumulated over millions of years, we, the people of planet Earth, have been churning through the stuff that feeds us since the first Neolithic farmer broke the ground with his crude plow. The rate varies, the methods vary, but the results are eventually the same. Books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse and David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations lay out in painful detail the historic connections between soil depletion and the demise of those societies that undermined the ground beneath their feet. . . . We as a species would be wise to take better care of our dirt.” (Click here for more info about soil depletion.)
“Across wide swaths of Iowa and other Corn Belt states, the rich, dark soil that made this region the nation’s breadbasket is being swept away at rates many times higher than official estimates.” So says The Environmental Working Group in its report and video, “Losing Ground.” The report continues, “accelerating soil loss is being driven by federal farm policies that encourage and subsidize sowing commodity crops on even the most fragile terrain.” Although the federal estimate of soil runoff in farm states is less than 5 tons per acre per year on average, which is considered acceptable, Iowa State University scientists have found that millions of acres are eroding at higher rates, in many cases experiencing “utterly disastrous average erosion rates exceeding 50 tons per acre.” And washed into streams and rivers along with the soil are fertilizers, manure, pesticides, herbicides and bacteria that combine to make “our water undrinkable, our beaches unfit to swim in, and . . . an area in the Gulf so contaminated that aquatic life has to flee or die.”
5. FOOD CRISIS
In this TIME magazine article, “How to End the Global Food Shortage,” the authors lament, “The world economy has run into a brick wall. Despite countless warnings in recent years about the need to address a looming hunger crisis in poor countries and a looming energy crisis worldwide, world leaders failed to think ahead. The result is a global food crisis.” Recommendations for averting disaster include financial aid to farmers for fertilizer and seeds, a halt to subsidizing diversion of food crops into biofuel, and assistance in “weatherproofing” crops.
“Food crisis will take hold before climate change, warns chief scientist” is the title of this article from the UK’s Guardian. The gist is that biofuels are taking food from the poor. “There is progress on climate change. But out there is another major problem. It is very hard to imagine how we can see a world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous increase in the demand for food which is quite properly going to happen as we alleviate poverty.”
“In 2009, the critical threshold of one billion hungry people in the world was reached,” reports the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. That is nearly one out of every six humans, a “tragic achievement in these modern days,” according to FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf.
Australia’s The Age warns in “Food shortage catastrophe creeping up on the world” of “ongoing food shortages that go well beyond current concerns on food security, and which will result in regional unrest and conflict.”
India’s Financial Express reports in “Global food stock at lowest, prices to rise further” that “food stocks have plummeted to lowest level since 1980s.” The result has been “food riots reported from many countries like Egypt, Cameroon, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Senegal” and fear “that this may spread to other countries.”
In “The Global Food Crisis” National Geographic reports, “For most of the past decade, the world has been consuming more food than it has been producing. After years of drawing down stockpiles, in 2007 the world saw global carryover stocks fall to 61 days of global consumption, the second lowest on record. ‘Agricultural productivity growth is only one to two percent a year,’ warned Joachim von Braun, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., at the height of the crisis. ‘This is too low to meet population growth and increased demand.’ High prices are the ultimate signal that demand is outstripping supply, that there is simply not enough food to go around. Such agflation hits the poorest billion people on the planet the hardest, since they typically spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food. Even though prices have fallen with the imploding world economy, they are still near record highs, and the underlying problems of low stockpiles, rising population, and flattening yield growth remain. Climate change—with its hotter growing seasons and increasing water scarcity—is projected to reduce future harvests in much of the world, raising the specter of what some scientists are now calling a perpetual food crisis.”
Click here for a world map, released by risk analysis and rating firm Maplecroft, that shows food security risk for staples in 163 countries. Vast areas of the world are at risk, and the situation is expected to worsen in coming years, as the effects of economic downturns, poverty, warfare, failing infrastructure, and climate change are more pronounced.
6. MASS EXTINCTION CRISIS
“The Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of both plants and animals,” reports Science Daily. “The last mass extinction near the current level was 65 million years ago, called the Cretaceous Tertiary extinction event, and was probably the result of a meteor hitting the Earth.” “The current extinction event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things that we are doing today,” said co-author Bradley J. Cardinale, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. “The Earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation.”
This PBS article reviews evidence that an extinction is underway and wonders, “What is the fate of our own species likely to be? . . . One possibility is that as diversity and abundance wither, the species causing it all — Homo sapiens, the most dominant species in history — could also be on the road to oblivion. But another possibility is that Homo sapiens, which has proved to be a very effective weedy species itself, will persist. That’s the view of paleobiologist David Jablonski, of the University of Chicago, who sees us as one of the survivors, ‘sort of picking through the rubble’ of a world that has lost much of its biodiversity” and with it “much of its ability to provide many of the valuable services that we take for granted, from cleaning and recirculating air and water, to pollinating crops and providing a source for new pharmaceuticals.” This destruction is not easily undone. “The recovery will be unbearably slow in human terms — 5 to 10 million years . . . before levels of biodiversity comparable to those we inherited might be restored.”
“How Will the Sixth Extinction Affect Evolution of Species?” is the title of this article on the ActionBioscience website. The answer? “The current extinction crisis, if unchecked, will disrupt evolution to a degree that earth will see a proliferation of pests and a decline of large mammals, the tropics will no longer be powerhouses for the evolution of new species, and the biodiversity losses will persist for millions of years.”
“Forests razed can grow back, polluted air and water can be cleaned — but extinction is forever,” reports TIME. “And we’re not talking about losing just a few species. In fact, conservationists quietly acknowledge that we’ve entered an age of triage, when we might have to decide which species can truly be saved. The worst-case scenarios of habitat loss and climate change — and that’s the pathway we seem to be on — show the planet losing hundreds of thousands to millions of species, many of which we haven’t even discovered yet. The result could be a virtual genocide of much of the animal world and an irreversible impoverishment of our planet. Humans would survive, but we would have doomed ourselves to what naturalist E.O. Wilson, of Harvard University, calls the Eremozoic Era — the Age of Loneliness.”
You’ve no doubt read about honeybees, which have suffered the loss of a third of their colonies each year for the last four years, but the dieoff of species extends to many more life forms. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that “17,291 species out of the 47,677 assessed species are threatened with extinction.” This includes “21% of all known mammals, 30% of all known amphibians, 12 per cent of all known birds and 32% of all known gymnosperms (conifers and cycads).” ICUN also notes that “results for other species-groups . . . such as freshwater fishes and dragonflies, indicate similar high levels of threat.” Indeed, TreeHugger notes that “between 5 million and 50 million flowering plant species may be threatened with extinction.” Since “fewer than 2 million have been discovered . . . millions of species may vanish from the planet before they are known to science. And these numbers, a new study shows, may be conservative.”
7. MINERAL CRISIS
In “Earth’s natural wealth: an audit,” New Scientist reports that “reserves of such commonplace elements as zinc, copper, nickel and the phosphorus used in fertiliser will run out in the not-too-distant future.” How much of these and other metals and minerals on which we rely is left in the ground? There is no authoritative audit, but rough calculations have scientists concerned. “Virgin stocks of several metals appear inadequate to sustain the modern ‘developed world’ quality of life for all of Earth’s people under contemporary technology.”
New Scientist displays a “Mineral Depletion” map in which “territory size shows the proportion of all annual mineral depletion that occurs there.” North America, Europe, Africa, and China appear much smaller than on traditional maps, indicating that they “lack minerals or have already used those worth extracting.”
“If we keep following the ruling paradigm of sustained global economic growth, we will soon run out of cheap and plentiful metal minerals of most types. . . . The precautionary principle urges us to take immediate action to prevent or at least postpone future shortages. . . . for the sake of next generations.” So warns André Diederen, senior research scientist at TNO, Holland, in a lengthy and well-documented article on The Oil Drum.
“World faces hi-tech crunch as China eyes ban on rare metal exports” reads a headline in the UK’s Telegraph. “Beijing is drawing up plans to prohibit or restrict exports of rare earth metals that are produced only in China and play a vital role in cutting edge technology, from hybrid cars and catalytic converters, to superconductors, and precision-guided weapons,” the article reports. The metals include terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium, and lutetium, neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum. Alternate sources of these elsewhere in the world are rare and extraction is much more difficult and expensive. China’s hoarding of these metals effectively gives its domestic needs priority over the rest of the world and corners the market for products that cannot be made without them. Indeed, if supplies of the metals are exhausted by consumption within China, it could eliminate outside markets for certain products, until such time as substitute technologies can be developed.
At the top of the “Peak Minerals” page on Oil Empire is a quotation by Sir Fred Hoyle: “It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.”
8. OCEAN CRISIS
NASA reports that “dead zones are occurring in many areas along the coasts of major continents, and they are spreading over larger areas of the sea floor. Because very few organisms can tolerate the lack of oxygen in these areas, they can destroy the habitat in which numerous organisms make their home” Satellite imagery includes the Mississippi River Delta (reproduced here), the Yangtze River, the Pearl River, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea.
“Industrial carbon dioxide is turning the oceans acidic, threatening the foundation of sea life,” reports Discover Magazine. University of Bristol researchers compared today’s ocean conditions to the last period of catastrophic acidification, “55 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum . . . and determined that acidification is happening ten times faster today than it did during the PETM,” according to a report in TreeHugger.
“Marine phytoplankton — the vast range of tiny algae species accounting for roughly half of Earth’s total photosynthetic biomass — have declined substantially in the world’s oceans over the past century,” according to a report in Nature. “Phytoplankton are the basis of the entire marine food chain, and . . . through photosynthesis, they produce around half of the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere . . . .”
“We thought we could fish forever,” says Fishery Crisis, but “the size and abundance of commercially targeted fish species has plunged in recent decades.” The author places much of the blame on “Greedy human ‘overfishing.’” A Science Daily headline reads “Fishing Fleet Working 17 Times Harder Than in 1880s to Make Same Catch.” The article reports on a study by the UK’s University of York and the Marine Conservation Society that found that “trawl fish landings peaked in 1937, 14 times higher than today, and the availability of bottom-living fish to the fleet fell by 94 per cent.” In a Bloomberg.com interview, oceanographer Sylvia Earle describes not only the depleted stocks but the pollution and destruction left in the wake of commercial fishing: “We take 100 million tons of sea creatures out of the ocean every year and replace them with 100 million tons of garbage. . . . Trawling for shrimp is like bulldozing a forest to catch songbirds and squirrels. You throw away the forest and all the other creatures and shake out a few pounds of protein.”
“An oceanic toilet bowl” is the title of an article on GlobalPost.com. “Lurking a few inches below the ocean’s surface and straddling an area the size of Texas . . . is a giant swirl of plastic and trash, all emanating from someone’s backyard, village, boat or beach. It’s your garbage, not quite buried at sea. These are the gyres, where the ocean’s currents collect floating garbage. There are five or six around the globe. The most prominent one . . . floats in the doldrums of the north Pacific, halfway between the coasts of the United States and Asia. . . . Researchers can only estimate the number of animals killed by debris throughout vast swaths of ocean, but one 1997 study suggested more than 100,000 marine mammals die from entanglement or ingestion of trash and fishing gear each year. . . . Scientists fear pieces of plastic smaller than plankton are entering the food chain when ingested by fish, and later, by you and me.” National Geographic reports that researchers who trawled the garbage patches using fine-meshed nets found an average of 520,000 bits of plastic per square mile in the Atlantic and 1.9 million bits per square mile in the Pacific. Those results from skimming the surface appear to be underestimates, according to a report by MSNBC of another study that found more debris, 2.5 times more, extending as far as 82 feet deep. Ocean currents are also spreading debris and radioactive particles washed into the Pacific from the Japanese earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster of 2011 around the world, collecting some in the garbage patches and depositing some on beaches in North America and elsewhere.
“Monster Jellyfish” is the title of an article on Discovery Channel, and the accompanying photo shows one of the sea creatures that appears larger than a human diver next to it. The article reports, “overfishing and high levels of nutrients in the water . . . create low-oxygen dead zones where jellyfish survive, but fish can’t.” Add to that the effect of climate change and we could see a “jellyfish stable state, in which jellyfish rule the oceans.”
Click here for an interactive world map of “762 coastal areas impacted by eutrophication and/or hypoxia,” from the World Resources Institute. Eutrophication is the over-enrichment of water (e.g., by fertilizer and sewage runoff), and hypoxia refers to a lack of oxygen (e.g., in dead zones, where sea life dies and only noxious anaerobic microbes survive).
“A ‘deadly trio’ of carbon-related ocean impacts (ocean acidification, warming, and oxygen depletion) may lead to global marine extinctions on a scale unprecedented in human history, reports Kelly Rigg in The Huffington Post. She summarizes the main conclusions of a report on the work of 27 marine scientists issued by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO):
• The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history.
• The speed and rate of degeneration in the ocean is far faster than anyone has predicted.
• Many of the negative impacts previously identified are greater than the worst predictions.
• Although difficult to assess because of the unprecedented speed of change, the first steps to globally significant extinction may have begun with a rise in the extinction threat to marine species such as reef-forming corals.
9. OVERPOPULATION CRISIS
The worldwide average lifespan of a human is about 66 years (64 for males and 68 for females). In the 20th century, for the first time in human history, the world population doubled during an average human lifespan. Now, early in the 21st century, there are many who have lived through a tripling of population. For example, in the 66 years from 1943 to 2009 population grew from about 2.2 billion to about 6.7 billion. Considering that scientists estimate it took about 15,000 years for the population to triple in preagrarian times and about 1,500 years in the agrarian era, does the growth rate in the industrial age give you any cause for alarm?
People and Planet calculates that “about seven babies are born every second, joining 7 billion humans who preceded them. Globally, many experts are concerned that the earth’s ‘carrying capacity’ is already overstrained.” Newcomers arriving at this rate “add enormously to the burden of greenhouse gases which threaten to heat the planet — not to mention all the other demands which increases in both population and consumption are putting on the earth’s natural systems.” The authors provide a useful overview of the main issues.
World Population Awareness aggregates news from around the world on population growth and resulting environmental and human impacts. Links include the “World Population Clock,” which regularly increments the number of humans on the planet. The site quotes Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall, “If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity — and will leave a ravaged world.”
“By 2050 or so, the world population is expected to reach nine billion, essentially adding two Chinas to the number of people alive today. Those billions will be seeking food, water and other resources,” says Andrew C. Revkin, on Dot Earth, his New York Times blog. He asks, “Will resource limits (including the limited capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to provide a disposal site for human-generated greenhouse gases) impose population or economic declines?”
This article on Dieoff.org, “Population, Sustainability, and Earth’s Carrying Capacity,” was written in 1992, but it is still one of the best introductions to the subject. The authors provide “a framework for estimating the population sizes and lifestyles that could be sustained without undermining the potential of the planet to support future generations.” The world’s population in 1992 was about 5.5 billion, and the authors looked ahead to its doubling with concern: “Whether the life support systems of the planet can sustain the impact of so many people is not at all certain.” Speaking about the 90′s they noted, “The current decade is crucial, marking a window of environmental and political opportunity that may soon close.” From our perspective, more than a decade into the new century, we can say that the window closed. Note the name of the website, “Dieoff.” That’s what happens when population and consumption overshoot carrying capacity, as illustrated by the above graphic. (Click here for more information about overshoot and its consequences.)
Scientists at the 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science discussed ramifications of the world’s population growing to 9 billion by mid-century. One researcher estimated that “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000. By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable.”
10. WAR CRISIS
“Throughout prehistoric, written, and recent history, human warfare has been commonplace. Nearly all societies engage in regular or periodic war. In many examples, human warfare has characteristics similar to chimpanzee war: an in-group fights with and kills members of the out-group.” (From overview of MCDB 150, a course at Yale University.) It is not surprising that humans share traits with chimps, since we humans “share over 98 percent of our genetic program with the other two chimps,” as UCLA professor Jared Diamond wrote in The Third Chimpanzee. Indeed, the three species of chimps should be lumped into the same genus, he argues, because they are closer to each other genetically than they are to gorillas. An article in the New York Times reports on University of Michigan professor John Mitani’s study of warfare waged by the Ngogo band of chimps against neighboring bands in Uganda: “The objective of the 10-year campaign was clearly to capture territory, the researchers concluded. The Ngogo males could control more fruit trees, their females would have more to eat and so would reproduce faster, and the group would grow larger, stronger and more likely to survive. The chimps’ waging of war is thus ‘adaptive,’ Dr. Mitani and his colleagues concluded, meaning that natural selection has wired the [warlike] behavior into the chimps’ neural circuitry because it promotes their survival.”
Although some still cling to the idealized view that early humans lived peacefully, too preoccupied with their hunter-gatherer existence to engage in warfare, this myth has been overturned by growing evidence of violent territorial conflicts between neighboring groups of prehistoric humans and marauding bands who pillaged, killed, and even brought home prisoners to enslave or eat. “Numerous heads of javelins, arrows, and spears show that the Neolithic inhabitants of Britain and Ireland were frequently at war.” (William Boyd Dawkins) “Prehistoric warfare has increasingly attracted the attention of archaeologists in North America . . . . Skeletons with distinctive conflict-related bone damage indicate that warfare must have had a perceptible impact on ways of life.” (George R. Milner) “Fortified hilltop villages in East Polynesia provide the most obvious archaeological evidence prior to European contact and indicate the inter-village conflict was an important component of social and political life.” (Douglas Kennett, et al.) “Evidences of mass cannibalism that took place 7,000 years ago . . . were found by archaeologists on excavating a prehistoric site in Germany. . . . The large number of victims discovered in the pits suggests that the settlement (now called Herxheim) may have served as a kind of ritual depository where people from all over the area would gather to perform custom sacrifices on slaves or war prisoners or other deserving parties.” (Great Archaeology News)
Given man’s genetic predisposition to do violence against his fellow man, his refinements in weaponry, and the evidence of armed conflict by groups of humans wherever they are found on Earth, from prehistoric times to the present, the story of man cannot be told without reference to an endless series of wars. Several thousand wars have been fought in ~5,000 years of recorded history. (For lists of wars by time period, region, country, religion, etc., click here, here, and here.) There’s always a war somewhere on Earth. Several wars are being fought right now, and threats of war are issued frequently by nations, ethnic groups, terrorist organizations, rebel militias, guerrilla bands, tribes, clans, etc.
It was once thought that in becoming “civilized,” humans would turn away from war, but that has not been our experience. Spilling blood is in our blood. True, some humans debate the morality of war, but such discussions usually devolve into arguments over which wars are more moral than others, and whether wars can be fought morally with appropriate codes of conduct and rules of engagement. So the wars continue, and the more civilized humans get, the more sophisticated their weapons of mass destruction become. As if nuclear-tipped missiles weren’t deadly enough, the arsenals of war have expanded to include chemical and biological weaponry. There are enough such weapons deployed to destroy every city and kill every human on Earth many times over. History has shown that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to refrain from employing the weapons we create. The inescapable conclusion is that civilization, if not humankind itself, is heading towards The Inescapable Conclusion: The War-to-End-All-Wars. And all warriors. And all innocent bystanders.
Actually, even a localized nuclear war between minor powers, say Pakistan and India, could create a worldwide environmental disaster, according to research results presented at the 2011 conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Wired reports that computer simulations indicate that firestorms would degrade the Earth’s atmosphere, creating huge holes in the ozone layer, which would let ultraviolet radiation through to the surface, trigger global cooling and precipitation decline, cause major dieoffs of plant and animal life, and ultimately lead to a global famine. If a localized nuclear war could be this harmful to mankind, what might be the effect of a global war?
The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists estimates how close we humans are to the next global war. The clock was 2 minutes to midnight in 1953, when America and the Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs. The minute hand would have been even closer to midnight during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but it was over before the clock could be reset to reflect that threat. It was 6 minutes to midnight at the end of 2010, after the signing of a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) between the U.S. and Russia. But treaties have not put a stop to wars in the past. And as in 1962, events may again unfold so quickly that the Doomsday Clock would not be able to keep up. Rationally, it’s hard to conceive of a situation in which unleashing weapons of mass destruction would be the preferred solution to a dispute. On the other hand, if Las Vegas oddsmakers offer a line on the likelihood of war between well armed and mutually threatening adversaries whose trash talking is reaching a fever pitch on the nightly news, it wouldn’t be smart to bet against human nature..
11. WATER CRISIS
“The reason for the world’s growing water woes is evident in the numbers. The planet fairly sloshes with water–326 quintillion gal. of it–but only 0.014% of that is available for human use. . . . And the available water we do have is far from evenly distributed. About 1.1 billion people have no access to clean water.” That’s the crux of the problem that TIME magazine confronts in this article, entitled “Dying for a Drink.” Reports from various locations show that providing fresh, clean water for drinking, agriculture, and other uses is not just a problem in the third world, but in the US, Australia, and other industrialized countries, as well. The article is a useful introduction to the water crisis.
“In 1999 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that 200 scientists in 50 countries had identified water shortage as one of the two most worrying problems for the new millennium (the other was global warming).” This BBC report offers an overview article, “Dawn of a Thirsty Century,” and an interactive map of “World Water Crisis Flashpoints.” You may be surprised at how widespread the problem is. One of the flashpoints is America’s Ogallala Aquifer, which “stretches from Texas to South Dakota, and waters one fifth of US irrigated land.” This vital resource “is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic metres (bcm) a year. Total depletion to date amounts to some 325 bcm, a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers.” The article goes on to point out, “We use about 70% of the water we have in agriculture. But the World Water Council believes that by 2020 we shall need 17% more water than is available if we are to feed the world.” The article says we’re exhausting surface water sources, overpumping underground aquifers dry, and finding that climate change is altering traditional rainfall patterns and amounts.
“The lack of safe drinking water is not confined to the world’s poorer nations; it also threatens over 100 million Europeans,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon according to this report from IPS. “Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.”
The U.S., too, faces ongoing threats to its water supply. The New York Times reports that “more than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years,” and AlterNet asks “Why Are California Regulators Turning a Blind Eye to Massive Groundwater Pollution from Dairies?” in an article by the same name, pointing out that “in the Central Valley of California alone, cows generate the same amount of fecal waste as a city of 21 million people, much of which goes untreated and pollutes waterways.” Time reports on a Pacific Institute assessment that “parts of the U.S., especially the arid West, may have passed ‘peak water’ — the point at which it becomes essentially impossible to increase supply.”
Here is a summary of distressing water statistics:
• Over a billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean drinking water
• By 2025, this number could be 1.8 billion
• More than 2 billion tons of human and animal waste and industrial pollution are dumped into waterways every day
• 2.5 billion people have no access to proper sanitation
• Over half of the world’s illnesses are due to diseases caused by unsafe water
• More than 5 million people die each year from water-related diseases -– 10 times the number killed in wars
• We’re draining aquifers much more quickly than the natural recharge
• Americans use about 100 gallons of water at home each day, while the world’s poorest subsist on fewer than 5 gallons
• 46 percent of people on Earth do not have water piped to their homes
• Women in developing countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get water
• The Tibetan Plateau supplies water for nearly a third of humanity, 2 billion people, from its snowpack and glaciers, which are melting faster than they are being replenished
• With 83 million more people on Earth each year, water demand will keep going up
12. MULTIPLE, SIMULTANEOUS CRISES
In Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, Richard Heinberg addresses “a frightening array of peaks” mankind faces in the new century: oil, natural gas, coal, uranium, and other crucial metals and minerals, as well as peak population, climate stability, fresh water, arable land, and grain and wild fish harvests. Heinberg notes the “societal pattern of denial” about this, and warns that talking about it “is not likely to win votes, lead to a better job, or even make for pleasant dinner banter.” And yet, to ignore these crises is to ensure that they will unfold in the worst possible way. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that, while the 20th century saw the greatest and most rapid expansion of the scale, scope, and complexity of human societies in history, the 21st will see contraction and simplification. The only real question then is whether societies will contract and simplify intelligently or in an uncontrolled, chaotic fashion.” Click here to read the preface to Heinberg’s book, on his website.
By way of comparison to what Heinberg is describing, in March, 2011, the Japanese people faced a 9.0 earthquake, tsunamis up to 30 feet high, nuclear reactor meltdowns, and fatalities numbered in the tens of thousands. ALNAP, a humanitarian aid organization, uses the term “compound crisis” to describe situations such as this. “A crisis is any disruptive or destructive event that occurs at a rate and magnitude beyond the ability of a society to cope and recover. . . . At a given level of degradation and damage, usually associated with the loss of lives, the crisis becomes a disaster. . . . The idea of a compound crisis is one where a second or even third crisis occurs either simultaneously with a first crisis, or before the impact of the first crisis has been completely resolved.” But as terrifying and devastating as that compound crisis was to one island nation, it did not come close to the level of the multiple, simultaneous crises threatening life and civilization worldwide. Yet the crises in Japan were reported 24/7 by media everywhere, while coverage of crises affecting the entire planet–variously described as an “array of peaks” (Heinberg, above), as “tipping points” (University of Minnesota, below), and as a “cataclysmic convergence of crises” (Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, below)–are underreported and virtually ignored by most of the public. Apparently, befouling and warming the atmosphere, and polluting and depleting fresh water sources, and overfishing and poisoning the oceans, and exhausting oil, gas, mineral, and other non-renewable natural resources, and wreaking the greatest mass extinction of species in 65 million years on the planet, and the other crises simultaneously affecting life on Earth are not newsworthy, or are simply beyond the average person’s ability to comprehend, and perhaps even those who do understand the scope and implications find this matter so troubling that they prefer to put it out of mind. But, again, to ignore these crises is to ensure that they will unfold in the worst possible way.
The University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) has produced a video about the “tipping points” of several environmental crises, such as climate change, ocean acidification, and the mass extinction of species. Once a tipping point is passed, a major and irreversible change takes place. Depending on the crisis, we have already passed that point or are rapidly approaching it:
This video coincides with publication of “Boundaries for a Healthy Planet,” IonE Director Jonathan Foley’s cover story in Scientific American magazine.
Click here to see “How Much Is Left? The Limits of Earth’s Resources, Made Interactive,” a Flash-graphic presentation of the Peak Everything crisis, Scientific American’s “visual accounting of what we have left to work with, a map of our resources, plotted against time.”
A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save it, by Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, is the first systematic, peer-reviewed study of the multiplicity of crises we face. Ahmed explains how climate change, energy scarcity, food insecurity, economic instability, and international terrorism and militarism interrelate and synergize in a “potentially cataclysmic convergence of crises, which fundamentally threaten the viability of modern industrial civilization.” The author points out a number of “key structural problems,” including politics from the international to local levels, military-industrial-financial power bases, and social belief systems, that keep us from confronting these crises and taking meaningful action.
Thomas Robert Malthus hypothesized in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that unchecked population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. He developed a mathematical model of geometric population growth and arithmetic resource growth and found proof in the misery, famines, plagues, and wars of his time. But the “Green Revolution” fed an unprecedented population boom in the 20th century, and persuaded many that there were no limits to growth. The Limits to Growth (1972), commissioned by a think-tank called the Club of Rome, brought Malthus’ thesis up to date through computer models of population, pollution, industrial and food production, and resource consumption, confirming that there are, in fact, resource limits on Earth beyond which growth and consumption would lead to sudden collapse in both population and industry. The Minnesotans for Sustainability website has a synopsis of Limits to Growth, The 30‑Year Update (2004), which found “symptoms of a world in overshoot,” including sea level rise, a widening gap between rich and poor, depleted fisheries, degraded agricultural land, declines in per capita GDP, unsustainable water use, increasing wastes and pollutants, and approaching peak oil production.
A summary of Chris Clugston’s lengthy report, “On American Sustainability — Anatomy of a Societal Collapse,” is available on The Oil Drum. He says we are in a “predicament . . . irreparably overextended — living hopelessly beyond our means ecologically and economically — at a time when the supplies of many critical resources upon which we depend will soon be insufficient to enable our American way of life. We are about to discover that we are simply another unsustainable society subject to the inescapable consequence of our unsustainable resource utilization behavior — societal collapse.” We’re using up renewable resources such as water, croplands, grazing lands, wildlife, and forests faster than Nature can replenish them, and we’re exhausting nonrenewable resources such as oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and metals which cannot be replenished, and we’re degrading atmospheric, aquatic, and terrestrial natural habitats beyond Nature’s ability to replenish them. He warns that “no amount of ingenuity, innovation, and effort can create unlimited resources on a finite planet. . . . We will be sustainable, either voluntarily or involuntarily; and we will be sustainable soon.” His prediction? “Absent immediate fundamental changes to both our distorted worldview and our dysfunctional resource utilization behavior,” neither of which he expects to occur, “America, as we know it, will cease to exist well before the year 2050.” Clugston’s complete 79-page report can be downloaded in PDF format here.
NOTE: This page is updated frequently. Some content is drawn from previous posts on the main page.