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Climate disruption not the whole story of our sad predicament

We risk a global collapse of our civilization as we know it. Climate change is just one of our problems. We cannot avert calamity without tackling it and other pressing ecological concerns in concert.

Ehrlich perspective in Proceedings of the Royal SocietyCan a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

By Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich

During the 2008 presidential campaign, a press conference was held at the National Press Club with the goal of trying to inject environmental issues into the debates. It failed miserably, but it was also informative because every question asked by a reporter was about global warming.

This single-minded focus is a mistake we make at our peril.

Then, as now, a major portion of the press and the public seems to think that “global change” and “climate change” are synonymous, and that the latter is either the sole or the most important environmental dilemma. This single-minded focus is a mistake we make at our peril.

Numerous other serious components to the “perfect storm” of environmental problems now threaten a collapse of global civilization. Most of these interact with each other – and with climate disruption. All need our attention.

In a piece published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, we cover the scope and scale of this human predicament in more detail.

Vast epidemics

In short, in addition to more floods, droughts, killer storms, temperature extremes and coastal flooding, humanity faces an accelerating loss of biodiversity and the crucial ecosystem services it provides. We also face increased exposure to toxic chemicals – many of them endocrine-disrupting compounds that are dangerous in miniscule quantities – which have spread from pole to pole.

Society is also suffering increasingly severe resource depletion, forced to exploit minerals that are less concentrated and more difficult to locate and extract. We are increasingly reliant on more distant water sources and inferior soils. The resource wars could all too easily go nuclear and wreck the planetary environment. And we also are facing a greater possibility of vast epidemics.

This is not a list of independent, unrelated problems; it’s a tangled web of dilemmas, all the parts interacting and often reinforcing one another. A good place to see those interactions is by considering humanity’s most important activity and its largest industry: Producing food.

Furrows It was, after all, the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago that set Homo sapiens on the road to planetary dominance. Agriculture’s history has coincided with an unusually long period of relatively stable and favorable climate to which it has adapted.

Great vulnerabilities

In modern times, agriculture has turned industrial. Greatly expanded production has created great vulnerabilities, especially in a heavy dependence on fossil fuels, antibiotics, pesticides and fertilizers.

Today at least two billion people are still hungry or poorly nourished, and the FAO estimates that we must increase food production by some 70 percent to adequately feed a human population that could be 35 percent bigger by 2050. Meanwhile, human activities, especially fossil-fuel use, are ending the era of favorable climate, an end that could ravage food production.

Farming itself is a major source of greenhouse gases, as well as toxic chemicals. And it is a prime contributor to the loss of biodiversity that agriculture depends on for pollination, pest control and soil fertility.

Sad predicament

If humanity is very unlucky with the climate, there may be less food available in 2050 than today. Rising temperatures already seem to be slowing previous trends of rising yields of basic grains. Moreover, yields from many oceanic fish stocks are falling because of widespread overfishing, while warming and acidification of the oceans threaten coral reefs and the protein supply of some of the most nutritionally vulnerable people.

Political leaders and most people seem blissfully unaware that we are sawing off the limb upon which our civilization is seated.

But here’s our sad predicament: We cannot tackle these problems separately, in isolation from the others, and hope to solve them. Yet the United States has just completed a presidential campaign in which none of these potentially civilization-destroying environmental problems were subjected to significant discussion. Even climate disruption was ignored by politicians and the public alike until Sandy cast a spotlight on it.

Neither political party shows the slightest inclination in 2013 to address the two basic drivers of the human predicament – overpopulation and overconsumption by the rich – or the plight of the billions of people who are hungry or poverty-stricken. The appalling prospect of having to care well for 9.6 billion people in 2050, when we can’t do it for 7.1 billion today, is never mentioned.

Political leaders and most people seem blissfully unaware that we are sawing off the limb upon which our civilization is seated. As the old saying goes, “it is the top of the ninth inning and humanity is hitting nature hard. But everyone must remember that nature bats last.”

Paul Ehrlich is the president of the Center for Conservation Biology and the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University. Anne Ehrlich is a senior research scientist and the associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford. The two, who are married, have co-authored several books on overpopulation and ecology.

Originally published at The Daily Climate. The Daily Climate is an independent, nonprofit news site covering climate change.


Creative Commons License

 This work by The Daily Climate is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner


    Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s report is a timely and urgent reminder of how the collapse of civilizations has, in the past, been caused by the degradation of Nature’s services, and how that process is now being repeated on a global scale. The services provided by Nature underpin all global economic development. Whether it be the capture of carbon and its storage by forests and oceans, the natural renewal of the soil’s fertility or the replenishment of our freshwater supplies, we rely entirely on Nature’s benevolence to sustain development.

    We do, in fact, have all the tools, assets and knowledge to avoid the collapse of which this report warns, but only if we act decisively now. If, though, in our evermore interconnected and complex world, we are to succeed, real leadership and vision is required. It is just possible that we can rise to this challenge, but to do so we will need to adjust our world view in a profound and comprehensive way. We have to see ourselves as utterly embedded in Nature and not somehow separate from those precious systems that sustain all life.

    I have said it before, and I will say it again – our grandchildren’s future depends entirely on whether we seize the initiative and prevaricate no further. The alternative hardly bears thinking about. I hold to the fact that it is not in humanity’s nature to fail. But, as I have long tried to point out, to continue with “business as usual” is an act of suicide on a gargantuan scale.

    HRH The Prince of Wales


  • Avatar



    Ehrlichs ?

    Population bomb or whatever?

    isn’t this the duo who doomed and gloomed us 30-40 years ago? Oh, this time it’s true though.

    cc : G. Malthus



  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner


    11:45 – start filling bathtub
    11:50 – warning, bathtub will overflow soon
    11:55 – bathtub has not overflown, therefore warning was wrong
    12:00 – bathtub overflows


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    You make it sound as if 30 – 40 years ago is a long time. If you look at the damage that has been caused by humans and continues to be caused by humans, it’s alarming how quickly we are ruining our environment. You could argue it started when we left the hunting/gathering lifestyle roughly 10,000 years ago (still not that long ago), but it has accelerated at an alarming rate during the past few hundred years, and even more so the past hundred. Unless you’re one of those people that believes the earth is only a few thousand year old, you must see that damage is accelerating rapidly!


  • Avatar

    tim nalley


    This is a good article. Myself, through the last 4 Presidential campaigns I have been in the minority of my group of friends when I bring up the impending “resource war” if more green energy and renewables aren’t developed and FAST.
    Most geologist have estimated that most of the “easy” fuel has already been extracted and we are entering a time when more hard to get, hard to process fossil fuels are coming to the forefront. Fracking, deep water oil wells, etc. are the “new” energy sources being touted by big oil. We have basically been a oil based economy for a little over 100 years now, in that time, we have ALREADY hit peak oil production, and, most say that there is between 60-100 years of oil left in the ground. Even discounting the catastrophic affect on the climate, what does everyone think happens once energy prices get to the point where, either most cant afford it, or worse yet, cant even GET it?
    War is what will happen. It will be the Countries with the mightiest armies that will eventually wage this war, it WILL go nuclear, and then, all of those post apocolyptic hollywood scenarios we have been watching for years, will likely come to pass. That is, if anyone is actually left alive.
    If we dont take climate change, and energy seriously NOW, it wont be to far in the future when it will be to late on BOTH fronts,


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