The Future of Humanity and the Earth

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A few days ago I was reading an article on overpopulation. In the comments section someone had posted “when I was born in the 1950s there were only 2.5 billion people on the planet”. I thought to myself – surely that can’t be right…if there are currently 7.6 billion people on the planet, how could there only have been 2.5 billion people just 67 years ago. I looked this figure up and it turns out these stats are correct. I don’t know about you, but that really puts things into perspective for me. Scientists predict that our earth can sustain a maximum of 10 billion people until we begin encountering major problems with resources, and we are expected to reach this in 2056. In fact, in 2023 Africa’s population is forecasted to overtake that of India and China. These regions combined will make up half the world’s population by 2023. Sure, there are some places, like Japan, that have an imploding population, but in its entirety, overpopulation is a huge problem, and I believe that most of us aren’t aware of the magnitude of this problem, as well as how many of today’s issues are linked, some of which are listed below.

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Climate change – The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 1.38 to 5.5 degrees Celsius over the next century. To maintain stable global human societies, we must prevent the earth from warming above 2°C relative to the pre-industrial level. To stay below two degree warming we must take the global energy system to net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Scientists warn that we have a 5% chance of limiting warming to 2°C. If this tipping point is crossed, there may be catastrophic effects such increased droughts and heat waves, an ice-free Arctic, stronger and more intense hurricanes, and a sea level rise 1-4ft by 2100. In fact, recent research has found that many areas in Australia, such as Darwin and the state of Queensland will become uninhabitable in the very near future due to temperature rise. In addition to C02, another greenhouse gas, methane, is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide, and there is more methane stored in the Arctic ice than there is C02 in the atmosphere. The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet. The IPCC also states that a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. If the planet warms by more than 3°C, this will be detrimental to most of the world’s ecosystems.

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The Global food crisis – Sarah Menke’s models predict that the world could be short by 214 trillion calories per year by 2027. A food deficit we will not be able to replace (please see her TED talk for more information on the global food crisis). Earth Overshoot Day is an annual event when humanity’s consumption outweighs Earth’s production of resources. An event which is becoming earlier and earlier. This year, this event landed on August 2nd.

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Deforestation – The destruction of large areas of forest is disastrous for the local species and communities that rely on them. Eighty percent of Earth’s land animals and plants live in forests, and many cannot survive the deforestation that destroys their homes.  Every year about 18 million acres of forest – an area the size of England and Wales is destroyed. Deforestation is also a driving factor behind climate change.

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Ocean acidification – one of the biggest threats facing humanity, yet one in which so many people are unaware of. Since pre-industrial times, the pH of the oceans has dropped from an average of 8.2 to 8.1. Projections of climate change estimate that by the year 2100, this number will drop further, to around 7.8. Increased human activity has ultimately resulted in the oceans becoming 30% more acidic since the beginning of the industrial revolution, taking a heavy toll on marine organisms. The impact of ocean acidification on plankton may have serious implications, as these microscopic organisms sit at the base of the food chain. Coral reefs are also at risk. If global warming remains on its upward path, by 2050 just 5% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef – will remain. Around half a billion people rely on fish from coral reefs as their main source of protein and these reefs also act as nurseries to young fish and smaller species. Researchers predict that most of our remaining coral systems will collapse even before a global temperature rise of two degree Celsius.

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Plastic pollution – Plastic constitutes approximately 90% of all trash floating on the ocean’s surface, with 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile. At least 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. It takes 500-1,000 years for plastic to degrade. Recent studies have found that sea salt around the world is also contaminated by microplastics – the effects of this on humans is not yet known. By 2050 there is expected to be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Overpopulation is the common denominator underlying the majority of these environmental issues. The most important question is, what can we do about it? How can we limit our population? Personally, I believe that introducing a world-wide one child policy would be incredibly difficult to implement and control. In a podcast on overpopulation I was listening to recently, the speakers discussed the possibility that scientists, are most likely, already working on a super virus (that could be transmitted by mosquito’s) which could drastically reduce the population. While this theory may be disheartening, it would come of no surprise to me if it were true. Another solution could be reducing fertility rates – chemicals and toxins may be incorporated into food products or water streams in order to lower fertility rates in both men and women. If you really want to help the environment – the most productive way you can do this is by not reproducing. Studies have found that having one fewer children per family can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per year. Scientists propose that everyone on the planet needs to reduce their carbon footprint to just 2 tonnes of C02 per year by 2050, to stay below the two degree tipping point.

In regards to my personal views on humanity and the status of the earth – I sometimes view climate change and increased weather patterns as the earths attempt to eliminate the human plague. It took literally perfect conditions for this earth to form, and every so often I questions whether humans are perfect enough of a species to survive and succeed on this planet. One thing I will never be able to comprehend is the sheer amount of ignorance humans possess in regards to these issues. How so many humans can passively go through their lives, blatantly ignoring (and even disputing) the major threats to humanity, is beyond me. If you don’t feel educated or knowledgeable on these issues – go and make yourself aware.  However, I also understand the difficulty in knowing what to believe. While all of the “facts” and statistics I have stated above have come from scientists and researchers, there is no way of knowing with 100% certainty that these facts and figures are correct. But what I do know, is that being uneducated and choosing to ignore the issues, is the worst thing you can do.

While I may have somewhat of a skeptical take on the future, I do have faith in science and technology. I believe that advancements in science and technology could resolve a number of environmental threats, however, it is all a race against time. There are countless technological solutions (such as project Clean up, and Bill gates idea of lab grown meat), which have been proposed to alleviate the varying threats facing humanity, however, I feel pessimistic as to whether such solutions will be implemented in time. It seems as though too many tipping points are about to be crossed. The outcome all comes down to who will win the race first – mother nature or technology.

I would love to hear your views on this topic – do you believe that humanity will survive? Or do you believe the earth will become uninhabitable? Do you think we will develop the technology in time to save the planet? Please comment below.