Scientists’ latest warning to humanity as unlikely to be heeded as were all their previous alarms

Twenty-six years ago, over 1,500 scientists signed an open letter warning humankind that we had to start protecting life on our planet instead of continuing to ravage it.

Our corporate and political leaders ignored that warning, prompting scientists – now nearly 15,000 of them – to issue another desperate appeal for human as well as planetary preservation.

They pointed out that, since their 1992 alert, the world’s  population has increased by another two billion, that more animal species have been exterminated, more forests clear-cut, more fisheries depleted, more freshwater polluted, more plastic dumped into the oceans. There has also been a 62% increase in carbon emissions, with the subsequent rise in global warming fuelling stronger and more frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, forest fires, and other environmental disasters.

Regrettably, there is little evidence that political and business leaders have paid any more attention to the latest appeal by 15,000 scientists than they did to the one issued in 1992 by 1,500 of them.

Even though most of Earth’s natural resources are limited and non-renewable, they continue to be recklessly exploited and extracted, as if infinite economic growth on a finite planet were possible. The Global Footprint Network calculates the date each year when human demand on Nature – for food, wood, fiber, and carbon dioxide absorption – exceeds what Earth can regenerate in a year. In 2017 that “Earth Overshoot Day” was August 4, the earliest on record, with humans using about 1.71 Earth’s worth of resources.

The “plastic charter” promise

Typical of this unsustainable abuse of our planet is the continual dumping of plastic into the oceans. Prime Minister Trudeau has been praised for initiating a “plastics charter” and having it signed by four of the other seven G-7 leaders, as well as Canada, at their recent summit in Quebec. Representing the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy, they pledged to put a stop to this horrendous aquatic pollution.

This remarkable feat is to be achieved even though the charter is non-binding, and wasn’t signed by the United States or Japan. Even if they had signed, and even if Russia, China, and other major countries joined in later, it remains a voluntary agreement that – like all other such non-binding pacts — will likely be honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Trudeau hailed the charter as “a common resolve to eradicate plastic pollution – an important step towards achieving a life cycle economy in which all plastics will be recycled and re-purposed.”

Good luck with that. Every year, according to the National Geographic, our oceans are being clogged with up to 14 million tons of plastic bags and bottles that, being non-biodegradable, will stay there forever (or at least 450 years). So do the many trillions of microplastic bits that end up in the seas and are ingested by marine species of all kinds, from zooplankton to whales. “Plastic takes a tragic toll on wildlife,” says the NG’s Laura Parker, “killing millions of marine animals every year.”

Why is this happening? It’s because selling plastic goods is immensely profitable for the corporations that manufacture and distribute them. How many of these firms can realistically be expected to stop or even reduce plastic production and sales voluntarily when no laws or regulations compel them to do so? And how many Canadians will voluntarily stop buying and discarding up to four times their body weight in throw-away plastic every year (the amount estimated by the Vancouver NGO Oceanwise)?

Cynicism or reality?

I’m sometimes accused of being unjustifiably cynical, but the persistent human demolition of the planet’s climate and resources is not a maybe-yes, maybe-no matter. It is undeniably happening, as the world’s most eminent scientists desperately keep reminding us. Are they, too, being overly pessimistic? The right-wing scoffers and deniers would have us think so, but the widely held notion that we are still “living in the best of all possible worlds” is clearly a fantasy.

The world we actually do live in was more accurately described in a recent study published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. The following highlights are derived from an article about the study by Damian Carrington, environment editor of The Guardian. They are guaranteed not to cheer you up, but they will give you a factual account of the extent to which humans have destroyed other forms of life on the planet, as well as devastating the planet itself.

  1. The world’s 7.6 billion people constitute just 0.10% of all living things, but since the dawn of civilization have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while livestock kept by humans abounds.
  1. Farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet, with just 30% being wild.
  1. About 60% of all mammals left on Earth are livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, while 36% are human and just 4% are wild animals.
  1. The destruction of wild habitat for farming, logging and development has resulted in the start of what many scientists consider the sixth mass extinction of life to occur in Earth’s four-billion-year history, this one being caused almost entirely by human activities. About half of Earth’s animals have been wiped out in the last 50 years.
  1. Plant and animal species that are the foundation of our food supplies are as endangered as wildlife, threatening the world’s food supplies. In exploiting natural resources, humans have culled, and in some cases eradicated, wild mammals for food or pleasure.
  1. Three-quarters of the world’s food today comes from just 12 crops and five animal species, and this leaves supplies vulnerable to disease and pests that can sweep through large areas of monoculture, as happened in the Irish potato famine when a million people starved to death. Reliance on only a few strains also means that the world’s fast- changing climate will cut yields just as the demand from a growing global population is rising.
  1. Huge proportions of the plant and animal species that form the foundation of our food supply are just as endangered as wildlife, but are getting almost no attention. If there is one thing we cannot allow to become extinct, it is the species that provide the food that sustains each and every one of the seven billion people on our planet.

A daunting but not yet hopeless future

Unfortunately, the stark facts and figures marshalled in both the scientists’ warnings and the National Academy of Science study were not widely circulated. I don’t recall either of them getting more than scant coverage in the commercial media, apart from The Guardian. And most of those who did read either or both – especially our business and political leaders – seem to have dismissed the scientists’ warnings yet again as too fanciful and farfetched to warrant consideration.

To take the scientists seriously, after all, and undertake the radical protective and restorative measures they urge, would require a drastic switch from profitably plundering the planet’s resources to unprofitably preserving them. It would entail a strict curb on economic growth and resource extraction, a more equitable allocation of wealth, and the fair payment of taxes by the super-rich who now stash most of their cash in tax havens. Horrors! It would actually mean scrapping the entire global capitalist economic system!

What are the odds of the neoliberal corporate and political elites surrendering their enormous wealth and power to prevent the looming mass extinction? If you think that would be a sure bet, think again. The grim fact is that, unless forced by overwhelming public pressure, they will almost certainly cling to their affluence and influence until an ecological and economic global collapse can no longer be averted.

I hasten to add that this doesn’t necessarily mean hope for salvation has been completely lost. Most of the scientists still don’t think it’s too late. But they warn that the tipping point beyond which effective preventive efforts would become futile is not all that far off. Maybe as soon as 2025, and certainly no later than 2030. That’s not much time in which to mobilize the worldwide crusade against the corporate and political planet-wreckers that’s needed to forestall the imminent mass extinction.

What are the odds of such a last-ditch populist revolution being mounted in time and being successful? Undoubtedly pretty steep. But it’s really the all-important achievement on which to place your bets – and then do everything you can to beat the odds.

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