Humans Face a “Ghastly Future” Unless Extraordinary Action Is Taken Soon on Sustainability

Future Earth Global Warming

The global population could reach 10 billion by 2050; explosive population growth is contributing to a broad array of other challenges for the planet.

Global team of scientists, including UCLA’s Daniel Blumstein, points to environmental, population and political challenges.

Without immediate and drastic intervention, humans face a “ghastly future” — including declining health, climate devastation, tens of millions of environmental migrants and more pandemics — in the next several decades, according to an international team of 17 prominent scientists.

In a paper published today (January 13, 2021) in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, the researchers cite more than 150 scientific studies and conclude, “That we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable.”

Among the paper’s co-authors is Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Because too many people have underestimated the severity of the crisis and have ignored experts’ warnings, scientists must continue speaking out, said Blumstein, author of the 2020 book “The Nature of Fear: Survival Lessons from the Wild” — but they also must avoid either sugarcoating the overwhelming challenges or inducing feelings of despair.

“Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals, and catastrophe will surely follow,” he said. “What we are saying is frightening, but we must be both candid and vocal if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future.”

The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions, each accounting for a loss of more than 70% of all species on the planet. The most recent was 66 million years ago. Now, the paper reports, projected temperature increases and other human assaults on the environment mean that approximately 1 million of the planet’s 7 million to 10 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.

Blumstein said that level of damage could occur within the next several decades; an extinction affecting as many as 70% of all species — like the earlier mass extinctions cited in the paper — could potentially occur within the next few centuries.

One of the major trends discussed in the paper is the explosive growth of the planet’s human population. There are now 7.8 billion people, more than double the Earth’s population just 50 years ago. And by 2050, the figure is likely to reach 10 billion, the scientists write, which would cause or exacerbate numerous serious problems. For example, more than 700 million people are starving and more than 1 billion are malnourished already; both figures are likely to increase as the population grows.

Population growth also greatly increases the risk for pandemics, the authors write, because most new infectious diseases result from human–animal interactions, humans live closer to wild animals than ever before and wildlife trade is continuing to increase significantly. Population growth also contributes to rising unemployment and, when combined with a hotter Earth, leads to more frequent and intense flooding and fires, poorer water and air quality, and worsening human health.

The authors write that there is a “near certainty that these problems will worsen over the coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come” and that the adverse global trends are obvious.

“Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for short-term economic enhancement today,” said Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University professor emeritus of population studies and a co-author of the study.

The paper elucidates issues that have been publicized over the past few years by many activists, including the Swedish 18-year-old Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 person of the year. Blumstein said Thunberg has been absolutely right about the urgency of the dangers we face.

The authors also write the severity of the threats should transcend political tribalism, but so far they haven’t — and they’re skeptical about when or if change can occur. “[M]ost of the world’s economies are predicated on the political idea that meaningful counteraction now is too costly to be politically palatable. Combined with financed disinformation campaigns in a bid to protect short-term profits, it is doubtful that any needed shift in economic investments of sufficient scale will be made in time,” the paper reads.

Said Ehrlich: “While it is positive news that President-elect Biden intends to reengage the U.S. in the Paris Climate accord within his first 100 days of office, it is a minuscule gesture given the scale of the challenge.”

The paper suggests concrete changes that could help avert catastrophe. Among them: completely and rapidly ending the use of fossil fuels, strictly regulating markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying and empowering women. But it also acknowledges that humans’ innate “optimism bias” has led some to ignore the warnings about our planet’s future.

“By the time we fully comprehend the impact of ecological deterioration, it will be too late,” Blumstein said.

Reference: “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future” by Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Paul R. Ehrlich, Andrew Beattie, Gerardo Ceballos, Eileen Crist, Joan Diamond, Rodolfo Dirzo, Anne H. Ehrlich, John Harte, Mary Ellen Harte, Graham Pyke, Peter H. Raven, William J. Ripple, Frédérik Saltré, Christine Turnbull, Mathis Wackernagel and Daniel T. Blumstein, 13 January 2021, Frontiers in Conservation Science.
DOI: 10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419

The study’s lead author is Corey Bradshaw, a professor of global ecology at Flinders University in Australia. Other co-authors include John Harte of UC Berkeley; Joan Diamond, Anne Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo of Stanford; and William Ripple of Oregon State University.

12 Comments on "Humans Face a “Ghastly Future” Unless Extraordinary Action Is Taken Soon on Sustainability"

  1. Paul Ehrlich has a poor track record with predictions!

    “…the paper reports, projected temperature increases and other human assaults on the environment mean that approximately 1 million of the planet’s 7 million to 10 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades.”

    One-million is equivalent to 10% to 14% of the known species. That is a far cry from 70%! The speculation that it could reach 70% in “the next few centuries” doesn’t take into account the impact of the near-term calamities they are forecasting, such as pandemics and food shortages. Their objectivity is overwhelmed by the hand waving. If they are right with their short-term forecasts, the long-term forecast will be prevented. If they are wrong about their short-term forecasts, then there is no problem.

  2. “The paper suggests concrete changes that could help avert catastrophe. Among them: completely and rapidly ending the use of fossil fuels, strictly regulating markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying and empowering women.”

    This sound like a prescription for socialism, which has a track record as poor as Ehrlich!

    • We are facing deteriorating conditions for humans all over the planet, including dangerously severe weather, more pandemics, and loss of agricultural land, with consequent starvation and mass death possible. These are life and death matters. This is no time for concerns about who is winning political contests. We humans need to stick together as never before.

  3. With this bit of logic:-

    Assume there is no money, then there are no banks or money lenders to supply money because it does not exist. Only the government is allowed to produce money (print cash) but it has to spend it into the economy before it can demand taxes, Logically the government must spend before it can collect taxes. In fact government expenditure is balanced by the tax generated by this expenditure.

    The bottom line is that the government can spend as much as needed on climate change (or anything else) is only limited by available resources which includes trained labour. Note government can increase this by funding the required training.

    Governments are willing to allow climate change, destroy our civilisation and cause a mass extinction just because they do not understand this or worse delierately hiding this.

    • Ben,
      I’m not sure that I would call it “logic.” You seem to be unfamiliar with the effects of hyperinflation. You overlooked the necessity of obtaining natural resources like food, energy, and building materials from countries that have no need for your worthless paper. Spend some time reading about what happened in Germany after WWI when the government ran the printing presses as you are suggesting. Sometimes it was cheaper to burn the paper money to keep warm than to buy wood. You might want to start here:

      It is funny how people who know almost nothing think they know everything.

  4. Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a total fear-mongering screed pushing and still pushing for gov’t regulation of the greatest experiment in SELF gov’t in history.
    Mr. Spencer, excellent response to this rather unscientific article. Greta Thunberg???
    I too remember Mr. Ehrlich’s book!!!

  5. So does this mean we can use nuclear now, or is this not “catastrophic” enough?

  6. “Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshiping.”

    ― Hubert Reeves

  7. Ya’ll are just too, too funny. You get tangled up in what can only be referred to as wild conjectures and that’s being generous. But the simple, obvious mechanism that will determine the fate of our species and likely spare most others is in every secondary school biology textbook. So, quietly answer this one simple question within your own mind: What is the carrying capacity of an environment, in this case Earth, for any organism that lives by the exploitation of non-renewable resources? As a bonus, the correct answer also solves Fermi’s Paradox. You’re welcome 😉

  8. Walter Wyrostek | January 16, 2021 at 11:44 pm | Reply

    Reduce the population growth. Dah…………………

  9. Steven Earl Salmony, | January 20, 2021 at 9:44 am | Reply

    or the careful consideration by CJAB, DTB, AB, GerCeb, EC, JMD, RD, AHE, JH, MEH, GP, PHR, WJR, FS, CT, MatW and P. Also, for TW, JR, WER, StuLP, WL, TFH-D, GCD and JEC.For God’s sake, it is getting late and time is precious, as your wonderful article so clearly indicates. This is the finest work I have seen in 20 years. That said, let us all “cut to the chase”. Just for a moment can we imagine that the entire paper consisted of three paragraphs? Include two sentences from the first paragraph and two sentences from the the last paragraph. Between these opening and closing remarks place a single paragraph. The article would read, as follows.begin —The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak. Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals.A central concept in ecology is density feedback (Herrando-Pérez et al., 2012)—as a population approaches its environmental carrying capacity, average individual fitness declines (Brook and Bradshaw, 2006). This tends to push populations toward an instantaneous expression of carrying capacity that slows or reverses population growth. But for most of history, human ingenuity has inflated the natural environment’s carrying capacity for us by developing new ways to increase food production (Hopfenberg, 2003), and distribution annually. Increasing the food supply causes human population numbers to grow (Hopfenberg, Pimentel, 2001) because human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species. The growth of population numbers that is directly derived from a continuously increasing food supply for human consumption will recklessly expand wildlife exploitation, and enhance the availability of other resources for relentless depletion…. A growing human population will only exacerbate this, leading to greater competition for an ever-dwindling resource pool. The corollaries are many: continued reduction of environmental intactness (Bradshaw et al., 2010; Bradshaw and Di Minin, 2019), reduced child health (especially in low-income nations) (Bradshaw et al., 2019), increased food demand exacerbating environmental degradation via agro-intensification (Crist et al., 2017), vaster and possibly catastrophic effects of global toxification (Cribb, 2014; Swan and Colino, 2021), greater expression of social pathologies (Levy and Herzog, 1974) including violence exacerbated by climate change and environmental degradation itself (Agnew, 2013; White, 2017, 2019), more terrorism (Coccia, 2018), and an economic system even more prone to sequester the remaining wealth among fewer individuals (Kus, 2016; Piketty, 2020) much like how cropland expansion since the early 1990s has disproportionately concentrated wealth among the super-rich (Ceddia, 2020). The predominant paradigm is still one of pegging “environment” against “economy”; yet in reality, the choice is between exiting overshoot by design or disaster—because exiting overshoot is inevitable one way or another.It is therefore incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges ahead and “tell it like it is.” Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst.end —Thank you to all for all you are doing to protect biodiversity from massive extirpation, finite resources from unbridled dissipation, the environment from irreversible degradation and to assure a good-enough future for children everywhere.SteveSteven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.AWAREness Campaign on The Human Populationestablished 2001Chapel Hill,

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