It’s hard to pinpoint the exact date when it all began to go wrong. Some people say that the tipping point came sometime in the middle of last century, around the time I was born and human population reached just over 2 billion. But the seeds of the existential catastrophe we are now facing were sown long ago. Perhaps at the time of the industrial revolution, when we learned to harness the energy stored in the fossilised remains of plants that trapped the Sun’s energy millions of years before we evolved. Or perhaps even further back when we cleared the natural vegetation in the fertile crescent of the Middle East to grow the first crops. It’s hardly worth arguing about it now. Our civilisation has been short, in geological terms, almost fleeting. Our species, recognisably different from other hominids that have existed, has only been around for two hundred thousand years. Only a few thousand years ago we first made marks on objects to record and convey information to others. Our progress from a handful of hunter-gathers to global dominance has been nothing short of meteoric. A major reason for this is that, in this short time, the Earth has been relatively balmy and stable. We have not experienced an ice age, neither have we witnessed a large asteroid impact such as the one that slammed into the Earth around 65 million years ago ending the 175 million-year-long reign of the dinosaurs. The Earth has not spewed out continent-covering amounts of lava and sea levels have not risen or fallen . Events like these, leading to mass extinctions of species, come along perhaps every ten or hundred million years, so it’s not something we think will ever really happen to us - except in apocalyptic disaster movies.
Even so, it is certain that groups of humans throughout our history have experienced disasters on a local or regional scale. There is now good evidence that there were a few occasions when our species was nearly cut short. For instance a massive volcanic eruption around 74,000 years ago, located near the site of present-day Lake Toba in Sumatra, could have caused enormous climatic upheaval. This is believed to have been one of the biggest volcanic eruptions ever and could have reduced the number of humans alive at the time to a few thousand breeding pairs. That was pretty much a near-miss but this time it's different - the devastation today is planet-wide and, for the first time, is of our own making.
The first warning signs that the end-game had begun were largely ignored though many scientists had seen it coming. They wrote scientific papers, magazine articles and books. They appeared on television to try to get the message across. They argued that it was not too late; that we might be able to change our ways in time to avert the worst effects of what was to come. At the beginning of the 21st century global climate change and associated sea level rise was becoming a big issue. Island nations and coastal cities were right in the firing line. But the world was still preoccupied with ‘sustainable growth’ and making money - as if somehow we might have been able to spend our way out of the mess. Many argued that human ingenuity would save the day. Some heroic climate engineering schemes were proposed - a giant solar screen placed in space to block a percentage of the sun’s rays and thus reduce global warming - enormous biochemical installations to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They were extremely expensive and none of them worked. It is odd to think that we have been able to probe and image everything from the infinitesimally small to the astronomically large. We understand how everything works - from quarks to quasars - but none of these discoveries would be of any help.
As much as three-quarters of all the species living on Earth a century or two ago are now extinct. Once common animal are now rarities and many others have already vanished. Polar bears starved and were shot as they encroached on human settlements. Nearly all of our primate cousins have gone - chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas did not survive as their forest homes were felled and burned. All the large mammals have been slaughtered for their horn and hair, flesh and bones. The last surviving individuals have been hunted for meat. The ‘big five’ African species, lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo disappeared almost twenty years ago. Marine life has fared no better. Over-fishing and pollution has killed the most life in oceans. Sharks, tuna and all other large fish as well as whales and dolphins are gone. The production of plastic, now littering the entire planet from the deepest ocean trenches to the highest peaks, is falling rapidly, but the damage has already been done. Thousands of billions of tonnes of it, produced in the last hundred years, will continue to choke and suffocate marine ecosystems for millennia to come.
The escalating chemical warfare waged to provide cheap, blemish-free food has had a disastrous effect. Pesticides have killed not just insects but many other animals - fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians. The loss of bees, poisoned on an industrial scale, means that flowering plants are no longer pollinated. Our insatiable appetite for energy has warmed the planet and destabilised weather patterns resulting in frequent storms, floods and droughts. Immense tracts of wilderness have succumbed to soil erosion and fire. Agricultural landscapes that once fed the human population are no longer productive. Water shortages, dwindling harvests and a massive resurgence of infectious diseases have already killed well over two billion humans and many more will die over the next few years. With the widespread collapse of law and order, the veneer of civilisation has been stripped away to reveal humans in their primitive state…a big-brained ape that still thinks the world owes it a living.