Take action: New study warns of “imminent irreversible planetary collapse”

A group of 21 researchers from Chile, Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, Spain and the United States recently published an important paper predicting “imminent irreversible planetary collapse”.

They report that the impact of human activity is substantially changing our biosphere, putting civilization at risk of “rapid and unpredictable transformations”.

The global pressures causing this include:

  1. Human population growth and increasing resource consumption;
  2. Accelerating loss of biodiversity and habitat transformation;
  3. Energy production and consumption; and
  4. Climate change.

One of the study authors, Arne Mooers, is a professor of biodiversity from my alma mater, Simon Fraser University. He says of the findings:

The odds are very high that the next global state change will be extremely disruptive to our civilizations. Remember, we went from being hunter-gatherers to being moon-walkers during one of the most stable and benign periods in all of Earth’s history.

Once a threshold-induced planetary state shift occurs, there’s no going back. So, if a system switches to a new state because you’ve added lots of energy, even if you take out the new energy, it won’t revert back to the old system. The planet doesn’t have any memory of the old state.

These findings further show the urgency of action on the environmental crisis and contradict those who say delay, adaptation and restoration are tolerable policies.

Mooers recommends five actions government should take immediately if we hope to delay or avoid a planetary state shift:

  1. Collectively decide to drastically lower our population;
  2. Relocate people to safe areas and at higher density;
  3. Allow parts of the planet to recover;
  4. Reduce material consumption;
  5. Invest in technologies to produce and distribute food.

David Roberts at Grist has an excellent commentary on the findings, urging us to take responsibility over the planet:

After a multi-century explosion in number, power, and impact, homo sapiens is now the dominant force on the planet, reshaping its biophysical systems through land-use changes, resource depletion, and climate change. We live in the Anthropocene, a geologic era shaped by humans.

We have not yet begun to grapple with that realization. In time, I believe it will rank alongside evolution by natural selection among ideas that have fundamentally transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world. Like Darwin’s dangerous idea, it will ripple its way through the physical and social sciences.

Chris Mimms also makes an interesting contribution about our dangerous transformation of the planet at Vice.

Mimm says: “We’re going to so degrade the environment on which we depend that we’re going to have to devote an ever-increasing percentage of our inventive capacity to merely staying alive.”

Whatever limbs we sever now, whatever critical systems we wreck, are going to have to be replaced. Imagining that they might even be upgraded underestimates the unfathomable parallel processing power of 4 billion years of evolution on this planet, which is essentially a vast computer for determining the optimal solution to the problem of resource allocation. So no, I don’t think we’re going to do better…"

If we imagine that we are going to survive the coming transition, it’s worth asking, what does “success” actually look like?

I don’t yet know what “success” looks like. But studies like this one in Nature should motivate us to drastic and urgent action, even if we the outcome is uncertain.

Figuring out what “success” looks like and how we get there is what I am doing on this blog and in my research and activism.


2 thoughts on “Take action: New study warns of “imminent irreversible planetary collapse”

  1. Pingback: Protesting scientists decry “state propaganda” and “fantasy” in Ottawa « Steady City

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