As I write this, it’s a lovely day outside: spring green, bright blue canopy overhead, fresh air, bees buzzing, and birds chirping. It certainly doesn’t seem like we are in crisis. However, scientific research continues to warn of massive changes in the ecological health of planet Earth. The latest is a United Nations report that combines many recent studies into a frightening summation. This lede is from the New York Times:
“Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.”
It’s tough to comprehend that statement given the beautiful day and abundant nature outside my window. And that’s the problem- these changes are occurring right under our noses. Unless we pay close attention we won’t see this disaster coming. It’s no longer a matter of worrying about the decline in elephant or rhinoceros populations, science shows that we are losing a huge amount of the insect population. One German study found a 75 percent decrease in the flying insect population in one region over the last 27 years. Insects are a foundational part of the Earth ecology.
It’s ridiculous to argue about what is responsible for all of these changes- it is humanity. There is no other logical conclusion supported by science. The damage is the result of a variety of human impacts: expanding human development, agriculture, livestock, the burning of fossil fuels, chemical use, and many other factors combined. The common element here is humanity. We are altering the planet in a way that we are only beginning to understand. And even if you don’t care about plant and animal life, the effects will likely produce devastating impacts to human lives. Agriculture may experience collapse in some regions. Animal and plant life is intermeshed in ways beyond our comprehension. Losing one species can alter many others. The end result could be crop decline and then human famine.
We have not even begun to tackle the problems at hand. That will take a comprehensive change in how humans live their lives- everything from how we travel and where we live, to what we eat. We can’t continue to live this way. We are fundamentally altering Earth in a way the planet cannot support.
The lovely day outside is part of the problem. Until people experience crop failure and famine, ecological collapse may not seem believable. If we wait until that happens the results will be devastating. Even if we started right now, and took these challenges seriously, the research points to devastating consequences. The only hope is to mitigate the horrible and deal with the results.
And yet there is probably more discussion about current movies and sporting teams today than there is of this topic. That is the definition of insanity. We are suffering from a human mass delusion. We see what we perceive as normal conditions and assume that it will always be this way. Even people who are beginning to feel the impact of climate change push it off as something long-term. Those of us in our later years may not suffer as much, but every generation after us will experience a significant degradation in quality of life. Poor people in vulnerable nations will be the first to be hurt. Climate change is already making life difficult for farmers in countries such as Guatemala. We may not recognize the U.S. border crisis as a climate change issue, but it is one factor creating the migration of people from Central and South America. That is only going to grow worse.
So, when do we take action? It may takes years for any significant change to take place given our complacency and the incentives to ignore the warnings. Imagine the pushback from fossil fuel producers, farmers, car companies, and makers of consumer goods? Politicians will need to lead the charge and yet all of those constituencies will be screaming at our leaders and fighting change at each and every step. It’s not just corporations that are responsible for the ignorance- most humans are not prepared to take the steps needed to mitigate climate and ecological change. It will require a fundamental alteration in how we live our lives. It will mean a sacrifice in lifestyle. We will have to make concessions and behave differently. That’s a tall order, especially for people in poorer nations who are already struggling to survive. You tell the taxi cab driver in Mumbai that he can’t drive that fuel wasting, carbon emitting, 1980s Toyota. And then tell his family who depend on that income. Will India buy electric cars for all? Will the United States government? And then, guess what? Your electric car is most likely fueled by a coal power plant. Figure that out.
I believe that the best hope for humanity is a “critical mass” event. Critical mass in this sense is “…a size, number, or amount large enough to produce a particular result.” We need something that can change the human perspective in a way that is stronger than all of the forces of complacency. It may happen someday due to cataclysm, or more likely a series of cataclysms, but perhaps a push from outside our little world could do the same? If an extraterrestrial civilization were to make itself known and give us advice, perhaps we would take action? That advice wouldn’t need to be some brilliant new technology. It could just be an acknowledgement that we have massive problems here on Earth. Extraterrestrials could take the data we have already collected and spit it back to us in ways we have not been able to do. Humans will need to solve their own problems, but we could sure use an objective point of view.
In the meantime, step outside and enjoy nature. Our days with our current ecology may be limited.