Scientists don’t make sweeping statements. They speak, and write, objectively. Research papers, even those on climate change, don’t have alarming titles. Rousing public emotions, and appealing to the collective conscience of humanity, is the work of writers like me. Scientists state facts, with caveats in place. What then must compel a group of 17 leading ecologists from around the world to sound an alarm about the state of the planet, and the future of humanity? The realisation that the scale of threats is so great that it is difficult to grasp even for them?

Evidence that we are sleepwalking towards a ghastly future is crystal clear. Humans have altered over 70% of the Earth’s land surface.

Photo: Naveen Nkadalaveni

“Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for boosting incomes in the short term,” they say, in the bluntly worded paper titled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”, published in Frontiers in Conservation Science in January 2021. Robbing future generations of a future? That sounds familiar. Our very own Bittu Sahgal, who has inspired thousands of youngsters to care for the planet, has been crying this out for years. He wants to protect the next and coming generations from the consequences of the reckless, shortsighted actions of his own generation, and he minces no words in his editorials in Sanctuary Asia, the nature and wildlife conservation magazine he founded in 1981.

The paper shines light on three major environmental issues staring humanity in the eye, which require urgent action, but have received little attention. First, it reviews evidence that future environmental conditions will be far more dangerous than we currently choose to believe. The scale of the threats to the biosphere, and all its life forms, including humanity, is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts, write the authors. Second, it discusses how current political leaderships and economic systems over the world are ill-prepared to handle the predicted disasters. Third, it exhorts scientists and experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to abstain from “reticence and sugar-coating” and “tell it like it is” when engaging with the society at large.

Evidence that we are sleepwalking towards a ghastly future is crystal clear. The paper collates staggering data that paints a picture of the imminent crisis. Humans have altered over 70% of the Earth’s land surface. In just the last 500 years, over 700 vertebrate and around 600 plant species extinctions have been documented, and the number of species going extinct unrecorded is beyond anyone’s grasp. Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered. Freshwater and marine environments too have been severely altered or destroyed. In a span of just the last 300 years, over 85% of wetlands have been lost. More than two-thirds of the oceans have been compromised to some extent by human activities: live coral cover of reefs has declined by 50% in the last 200 years, kelp forests have suffered a 40% decline, and the biomass of predatory fish in the world’s oceans has declined by two-thirds over the last 100 years. With losses in biodiversity happening at such magnitudes, the decline in ecosystem services, on which humanity depends, has also been drastic. The paper lists published evidence of reduced carbon sequestration, reduced pollination, soil degradation, poorer water and air quality, frequent and intense flooding and fire incidents, and compromised human health.

We are tearing apart the living, breathing fabric of life, consuming it, and turning the Earth into a monoculture of us and our livestock. Of the estimated 0.17 gigatonnes of the living biomass of terrestrial vertebrates on the planet today, only 5% is made up by wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians combined. The remaining 95% is humans (36%) and livestock (59%). With non-stop growth in population, humanity’s consumption as a fraction of Earth’s regenerative capacity has also grown: from 73% in 1960 to 170% in 2016. These calculations clearly indicate that we are eroding our own future on this finite planet.

Despite evidence of the inevitability and magnitude of the crises we are staring at, we see lack of political will in much of the world when it comes to policies to tackle the existential threats to humanity. On the contrary, the opposite is unfolding, write the authors, in the form of anti-environment agendas, citing examples from across the world. Add to this the human “optimism bias”, and humanity can continue to underestimate the gravity of the crisis, even while walking, nay running towards it.

In my view as a former environment journalist, apart from scientists and other experts, the mainstream media can play a vital role in disseminating the truth about the ongoing ecological crisis: that it is an existential crisis for humanity. One often sees media houses skirting this duty in the name of taking a ‘balanced’ approach, or peddling the flawed paradigm of ‘environment versus economic growth.’

While telling it like it is will help humanity wake up and appreciate the challenges facing us, possible solutions to the human predicament, according to the authors, can come from political and economic will to bring about changes to capitalism, education, equality (which includes the abolition of perpetual economic growth), giving up of fossil-fuels, and empowerment of women, among a host of other fundamental changes.

For our shared future, and the future of the generations to come, we can no longer defer difficult conversations and decisions. “The choice is between exiting overshoot by design or disaster,” write the authors. “Exiting overshoot is inevitable one way or another.”

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About the author: Rizwan Mithawala is a Conservation Writer with the Wildlife Conservation Trust and a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers. He has previously worked as an environment journalist with a national newspaper.

Disclaimer: The author is associated with Wildlife Conservation Trust. The views and opinions expressed in the article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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