Can humanity survive the 21st century?

Cribb, Julian | September 20, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Humans are facing the greatest test in the million-year ascent of our kind. But this isn’t a single challenge, like a famine or disease outbreak. It is a constellation of ten huge man-made threats, which are now coming together to imperil our existence.

Society often regards these risks – ecological collapse, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, global warming, global poisoning, food insecurity, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion – as separate issues. In reality, they are deeply intertwined: each affects the others. This means they cannot be dealt with one at a time, but must be solved in conjunction – and at species level.

Over recent years I have encountered many well-educated, well-informed people – scientists, grandparents and young people especially – who expressed the fear that we may be entering the end game of human history. That civilisation, and maybe even our species, will not survive the compound dangers we are accruing for ourselves. Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2017) is my attempt to discover whether they are right or not.

Drawing on the latest and best science the book appraises each of those dangers – and also looks at what we need to do, both as a species and as concerned individuals – to avoid them. Finding ways to limit mortal danger is what humans generally do best – at least, that’s how we made it through the last million years. Almost certainly we have the technical ability to do so again. However, on the present evidence, our national governments, financial and other institutions lack the capacity, wisdom and will to solve this compound threat. In many cases, as Sir David Attenborough suggests, they are “in denial” about its sheer scale. Something has to change.

The end of civilisation and human extinction are distasteful topics. Nobody likes discussing them and many people prefer to ignore them as they go about their daily lives. But ignoring them does not banish the risk – inevitably, it only renders humanity less prepared, our future more perilous. There is no other way to deal with such a complex problem than to face up to it, to understand it thoroughly, and to then take resolute and agreed species-wide action to prevent it.

To take some examples:


Dozens of species are thought to go extinct every day due to human activity. As the world’s greatest biologist, E. O. Wilson, warns “We are tearing down the biosphere” – the very thing that supports life on this Planet. Or as young environmentalist Bindi Irwin succinctly puts it “If you keep on pulling one brick after another out of your house, eventually the house falls down.”

The solution is not as hard as many imagine. It is to move half the world’s food production into cities and recycle both nutrients and water, and then ‘re-wild’ 24 million sq kms (an area the size of North America) under the wise management of indigenous people and farmers. It is to gradually replace mining with mineral recycling, and cease releasing toxins. Yet answers like these are not yet front-and-centre in our social and political discourse.

Resource scarcity:

In their lifetime, the average person uses 100,000 tonnes of fresh water, 750 tonnes of soil, 720 tonnes of metals, 5 billion energy units and emits 300 tonnes of greenhouse gas. No wonder resources are becoming scarce and landscapes worldwide being ruined to obtain them. The self-evident answer is to re-use everything, and then re-use it again. Thanks to technology the ‘circular economy’ is already feasible and becoming cost effective, while green energy is rapidly replacing fossil fuels. However resistance – by political and vested interests – continues to block it.


The latest climate models indicate it would only require 50-100 Hiroshima-sized (i.e. small) nuclear bombs to eliminate civilisation in a nuclear winter. World stockpiles currently hold around 15,000 such devices, and the risk of their falling into terrorist hands is growing as nuclear materials are stolen, on average, every ten days (IAEA). A new technology-based arms race is under way among the major powers featuring things like pilotless nuclear drones and artificial intelligence (what could possibly go wrong?)

Nuclear conflict remains the most likely route by which civilization may be terminated, but the conflict itself will spiral out of other issues such as famines, quarrels over resources, population displacement, and collective delusions (e.g. political, religious, monetary or nationalistic). As the International Red Cross (and many others) have pointed out, the only way to banish the spectre of such a conflict is to ban and demolish all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and their material stockpiles. Regrettably, nuclear governments and industry are loath to do this.

Climate’s hidden risk:

The release of 2.9 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans is predicted to drive the planet into a hot phase of +5-10 degrees Celsius above present temperatures. Humans have already released 1.9 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide and are adding 50 billion tonnes a year by burning fossil fuels and clearing land. The big risk is that, as the planet warms, this will cause the release of all or a part of the 50 billion tonnes of methane locked in the tundra and seabed, causing unstoppable ‘runaway’ warming. Scientists fear this may render the Earth uninhabitable to large life forms, including humans. [Edited September 29th]

As most people now know, the only way to prevent this is to cease using all of fossil fuels and revegetate half the world’s land mass. This can be accelerated by a switch to urban agriculture, carbon farming and landscape restoration – the same solution as for ecological collapse. Green energy is advancing by leaps and bounds and will soon be in a position to take over from fossils. Governments, however, paid off by the 90 big companies who make up the bulk of the fossil fuel industry, are hampering this transition.

The poisoned planet:

Every day, every child on our planet is poisoned by man-made toxins. The whole of humanity and indeed, all life on Earth, is mired in a toxic swamp of 250 billion tonnes of annual chemical emissions from human activity. They are in our food, our water, the air we breathe, the furnishings and materials of our homes, vehicles, schools and workplaces, in wildlife, the oceans, in our bodies and even, now, in our genes. Humanity’s chemical emissions are four times greater even than our carbon dioxide emissions. Medical evidence that this combined assault is damaging human intelligence, gender, reproduction and health is mounting. With IQs being damaged in all industrial societies there is a risk we may become too unintelligent as a species to save ourselves.

There is an answer, though not an easy one.  It is for consumers worldwide to stop buying toxic goods and foods, and to start rewarding companies which produce clean, safe products. This requires an act of co-operation and knowledge sharing on a global scale, to cleanse our poisoned planet. Concerned citizens, parents, cancer societies, doctors, environmentalists and others are already uniting, worldwide, to start this process. There must be a new human right: not to be poisoned.

Food security:

World food security is on a knife-edge – for the simple reason that population and economic growth between them will drive a doubling in global food demand by the 2060s – while the world is running out of everything needed to satisfy it by traditional methods: topsoil, freshwater, wild fish, oil and fertiliser. Also we have already extinguished the climate in which agriculture was born. Governments and ‘Big Food’ don’t get this.

Food perfectly illustrates the dilemma humanity faces: to solve the problem using modern high intensity agriculture will only (a) worsen climate change, (b) destroy more land and water, (c) accelerate extinctions, (d) displace a billion small farmers, and (e) undermine human health. In other words, it’s a solution that makes things far worse.

On the other hand, producing half the world’s food in cities using recycled water and nutrients, by converting the rest to low-intensity carbon eco-agriculture, and rewilding the abandoned lands is a win-win-win which addresses several of the mega threats.

These examples illustrate the compound challenges humanity faces during the 21st Century, and the necessity for cross-cutting solutions. The evidence for them is overwhelming and cannot be denied by rational people – only ignored. But, as the book illustrates, all these issues are potentially soluble with wisdom, co-operation and technology.

However the greatest challenge may lie, not in the physical threats we face, but in our own minds. Our belief in non-material things like money, politics, religion and the human narrative often diverts and weakens our efforts to work together for survival. This has to change. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, demonstrated how religion can be re-dedicated to human survival – and it is essential that money, politics and the human narrative are similarly reinvented.  Otherwise they will sabotage the very actions essential to our continuance.

There are also two extremely promising developments. The advent of a new human ability to ‘think as a species’ by sharing knowledge and values through the internet and social media is reshaping, for all time and for the better, our ability to co-operate around the planet. And the emergence of women as leaders in all walks of society is changing how humanity thinks about the future: women, as a rule, do not start wars, dig coal, ravage landscapes, empty the oceans, wipe out other species and knowingly poison their offspring. They think about the children and the grand children, and their needs – and they have already made a start on the population threat by reducing the human birth rate worldwide.

Such ways of thinking are a universal necessity for Homo sapiens, if civilisation and our species are to survive the 21st Century.

Julian Cribb is an Australian science writer and author of Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2017), the conclusion of his trilogy about how humanity can overcome the existential threats it has created. Surviving the 21st Century can be found here.

September 29th, the above article was edited to clarify measurements of carbon, carbon dioxide, and methane.

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  • Craig Schoonover

    I think it is widely recognized that we are in the middle of a mass extinction event, and this extinction event started at least a decade ago. For the last five years, it has become evident to many that several feedback loops have been triggered. Global warming has melted the Arctic Ice Cap, what we have now is a lot of small ice bergs floating around, mostly clumped together, over a rapidly shrinking area of the Arctic, and this is likely to continue to accelerate. Less ice cover means the darker waters absorb more heat, leading to a warmer Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean cools the rest of the oceans, as the ice melts and the Arctic warms the Arctic no longer cools the rest of the oceans. There are massive amounts of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, locked up in the Siberian continental shelf, and since 2011 this methane has been observed boiling out of the Arctic Ocean in kilometer wide plumes. Also as the Arctic warms, the vast frozen tundras are starting to melt, and those tundras are releasing even more CO2 and methane. This increase in the release of these carbons is growing like a fire. Actual fires are also increasing in the Arctic. Add to the issues of Arctic warming the numerous other problems, over population, deforestation, the spread of toxic pollutants, the threat of nuclear war, and my favorite, the increasing likelihood that another nuclear power plant will melt down in the not too distant future, the odds increasing rapidly if modern society and its infrastructure begins to fall apart.

    There are scientists starting to predict that humans could be facing an extinction event in ten years. Maybe homo sapiens sapiens can fix this, but the problem is that the political will does not exist to bring about these changes, and we are quickly running out of time. When the impact on humans is projected on a timeline of fifty or a hundred years down the road, it is hard to get people motivated to create change in the near future, but when looked at on a 10 year timeline, most people are going to be a lot more motivated to create change. The first step would be to convince enough people that the problem is real, and it is now, so that enough people get involved and start the change. Then we would need to fix the problems politically, economically, and then physically.

    Maybe, if scientists start taking a harder look at a possible ten year homo sapiens sapiens extinction event, enough people might get involved to trigger actual change. Hey, maybe there are aliens out there watching us circle the drain, and they might step in to shut down the nuclear power plants, so that a more intelligent species could have a chance to evolve on planet Earth.

  • ACT I

    It likely became too late to save our species several years–if not several decades–ago.

  • Mayra Donate

    Mr Cribb
    I read your article and the comments above, and although very interesting, mostly scientific. My question is, what can I as an individual do at home and my community to help? Does your book provide solutions at this level or is it mainly government and business level solutions?

  • Dan Costello

    Hello Dr Cribb:

    Thanks for posting a digestible list of the complex challenges facing humanity during The Sixth Great Extinction. I agree that Pope Francis is making an impact on global dialogue. However, in the Canadian context, you’ll likely find that most parishes have a dedicated fossil fuel supplier (usually a Catholic parishioner family buying on slight discount from local monopoly fat cats) who do all they can to undermine climate change research. These commercial faithful are keeping churches in oil furnaces rather than switching to geothermal, solar or wind. In contrast, the Vatican does practice what it preaches through full hydro electricity systems with aqueducts and subterranean rivers buried beneath St. Peter’s.

    Given your described “200,000+ new hungry mouths at the dinner table every night” revamping city infrastructure for urban gardening does have several innovative concepts to choose from. One of my favourites lately is Vertical Harvest Jackson, an NGO in Wyoming led by two very bright women entrepreneurs capitalizing on a small strip of bare concrete next to an ugly parking garage. The other is Soliculture a USC Santa Cruz spinoff utilizing solar greenhouse glass which also doesn’t interfere with wavelengths required for optimal plant growth. There are plenty of other examples of smart technologies.

    Yet, overall, examples such as Caracas, Venezuela or São Paulo, Brazil may illustrate that making urban farming BAU may require further experiences of poor socialist urban planning and widespread food shortages to invigorate similar projects to a global scale. Even She’ll Oil’s brain trust predicts widespread societal panic is the only real impetus to shutting down the fossil fuel industry yet by that time, the minerals and metals required to produce alternative energies will be largely exhausted (the periodic table already lists several nearly extinct elements) while still requiring fossils to produce.

    Furthermore, Circle of Blue and Wilson Center are doing similar exposition of the water crisis focusing on Chokepoints China, India and The USA. These might be great collaborators for you! It’s shocking that urban societies are not yet more concerned about the impending supply and demand shortfalls and the complex social crises which food, water and energy scarcities quickly bring as illustrated in your work and elsewhere. The scope and scale of the wicked problem has perhaps been ignored for far too many decades.

    In agreement with other posters, mainstream urban societies would greatly benefit from permaculture in their urban food deserts. While acculturation to gardening in kindergartens and schools is becoming more common, until the lowest cost, highest benefit sheet mulching and rewilding methods are mainstream, the speed at which many cities reach scarcity tipping points may only increase. Allan Savory and Paul Beckwith seem to share the similar views that the climate emergency is in the now, in a collective disassociation from our habitat. Breaking that lack of awareness is an individual realization that mainstream advertising and marketing does everything to prevent perhaps due to its fossil fuel industrial and military basis of existence.

    The earth suffers from this lack of human care, for the soil, water and trees which sustain our lives. So there appears little rational thought in current BAU methods of wealth accumulation if this means sacrificing the lives of up to 30% of the populations of China, India and The US as early as 2025-2030 as many researchers indicate. It’s not a popular topic because the happy ending appears elusive?

    Best regards, Dan Costello, Costello InterCreative Ltd.

    • Julian Cribb

      You are so right Dan. Urban food production systems (“urban permaculture”) are taking off around the world. My twitter feed is full of new ideas and enthusiasm from investors and participants. There are conferences everywhere. Farmers markets are booming. Its a real people’s revolution, which is taking place despite the influence of Big Food, the fossil fuel lobby and their hired politicians. Alan Savory is especially good on how we can use sustainable grazing systems to lock up carbon and reverse the cycle of landscape destruction – so I’m not one of the ‘don’t eat meat’ lobby. Just don’t eat grainfed, intensively reared meat!

      PS. the list of existential threats is longer than in the article. Please refer to:

  • liveoak

    Several comments emphasize the dominance of concerns about “the economy” over concerns about “the ecology.” Why should this be? John Searle’s analysis of how we construct our “social reality” holds that our social institutions–a prime example being economic institutions–are created by means of a logico-linguistic process that carries its own deontology, the conviction that we ought to continue to maintain their functioning, regardless of the consequences–it “locks into our rationality.” Logico-linguistic rationality constitutes only part of our available human reason, however–it comes from the left hemisphere, along with quantification, abstraction from context, and a focus on what we humans have made, in contrast to that which was here before us, i.e., nature. (Moreover, as explained by Iain McGilchrist, the left hemisphere divides and separates, encouraging us to think in terms of the “we’s” versus the “they’s”–not an adaptive strategy in a world bristling with nuclear weapons!) The right hemisphere “grounds” the cognition of the left, appreciates living relationships and opens us to empathy, and it can restore context to what the left hemisphere has abstracted. If we could only halt and reverse the increasing left-hemisphere dominance of the globally-spreading industrial culture, perhaps we would come to our senses before it’s too late. Of course there could be no “economy” without ecological systems to support it!–but the left hemisphere neglects this fact, denies there’s a problem, and confabulates about irrelevancies to distract us from recognizing the serious dimensions of our situation. How to reverse this process? The first step has to be drawing attention to what’s going on.

  • April Reeves

    I shared this everywhere. Thank you. There are many of us out here, that fully get the integration and work together theme. Mostly female, but more men are joining the challenge. We may not survive this, but we are exchanging more and more negative energies for positive ones. I for one am hopeful. Likely because I am out on the front lines DOING something…

    • Julian Cribb

      Thanks, April. For me it comes down to one thing: men are great if you want someone’s head lopped off with a broadsword or a new poison or explosive invented. But it is going to take female leadership, in every sphere, to get the human race out of the hole it is currently digging for itself. This isn’t a feminist argument – its the ground-rules for survival in C21. See

  • Tommy Tolson

    If there is one disease that contains all the symptoms discussed here, it is Cartesian culture, the one that started with a man who could dissect a living animal without anesthesia and swear it felt no pain emerging from his tent in a military campaign somewhere in Europe to announce that he had a dream and now knew how to control nature. Over time, all science departments in western culture taught reductionist science like it was a religion. Instead, it was a cult of death that took western culture over the cliff and into the abyss of the willful ignorance of highly intelligent and highly educated followers of the death march.

    The Sixth Mass Extinction is not new. We know that humans have driven nearly all of the large mammals extinct and are at work (some 100 extinctions of species per day or more, now) in continuing this success.

    Cartesian culture contains all of this, and more. It contains a large population of humans who believe they are the crown of creation and nothing more is expected of them. They await the Rapture, and in the meantime live extremely destructive lives – on purpose.

    There will not be a time when perfection reigns and we can do all the things we want to do when things get better. This is as good as it will be if we – humans, that is – remain in the web of willful ignorance we can easily attribute to Descartes and a few others of his time or close afterward who believed they knew “The Answer” and it related to Descartes’ answer.

    Pure hubris.

    Descartes was an aristocrat, those who make no errors thus can’t learn from their mistakes so they keep repeating the error over and over. Neoliberalism is the current vehicle for the hubris of aristocrats, extracting the last resilience out of the life system to transform it into money. Radical capitalism forced back to the beginning when there were no social constraints whatsoever placed on The Investors, back in 17th century Europe, with the intent to live out that Golden Age all over again.

    Here is the source of The Problem with so many aspects that a Cartesian observer can’t get their heads around it, since it’s necessary to dissect each aspect until Hell won’t have it and continue from there as if doing the same thing again will produce a different result.

    Those 10 elements of The Problem are some of the components of the Sixth Mass Extinction. Descartes and his contemporaries named their time The Enlightenment. It had no effect whatsoever on altering the making of deserts common to humans. Rather, it obscured real facts in a cloud of nonsense the powerful called Reality. By the time of the terrifying discovery that the only real reality is in “nature,” the status quo, intent on capital growth, had to dismiss the truth of Reality outright. Today’s aristocrats continue to worship themselves as they always did, since they slimed their way into being the protectors of the surplus grain of farmers forced by the priest’s thugs out of the hunter/gatherer lifestyle to farm in one place – and to create deserts. Extinction R Us, I heard someone say as we left a Transition meeting one night in Austin.

    The solution is evolution – evolving past the nonsense that passes for western culture, when we see that culture for what it is – the perversion of aristocrats, such as the US Constitution written by one slaveholder, James Madison and adopted almost word for word at the Constitutional Convention, so that some people were reduced to 3/5 of a person. Does this nonsense occur in nature?

    How much of abstraction is meant to obscure real reality?

    The real work is conscious evolution, and committing to that project so completely that we live our lives from the present moments, the only place we can find traction, of our lives as we learn to interact with the life system in a symbiotic manner until enough people pick up the intention to engage conscious evolution. In Texas, where I live, a lot of people say they did not evolve. It’s true. They haven’t. They still live out dead people’s ideas as if they will, by some miracle, finally work out. Then the Rapture will occur and perfect people can leave their deserts behind.

    If only I were being cynical.

    The work is convincing others to commit to conscious evolution. Sadly, it’s not head stuff. It’s soul stuff, and the first piece of work is to clean the social excrement off our souls so the rest of it amounts to something different than what we’ve always done before. I think that has to happen in community, in the circle of support and confrontation, of real love being all it needs to be to render clean souls so we might quit living out of the wounds that a culture of trauma put on us to keep us docile while the aristocrats lead us into the next desert.

    The next desert is this planet, and now is the great test. Will we get back up, clean our souls off, and commit to conscious evolution, and create gardens, inner and outer gardens? Or will we allow tradition to render us a failed species?

    We live (so to speak) in interesting times.

    Evolution is the solution.

    At some point, that takes the form of a novel, once I extricate it from my obliterated mind. The only useful thing I can see to do with myself besides permaculture design, inner and outer, is fictionwriting, lying to tell the truth so people can hear it through the layers of scar tissue that are the personal wounds of an aristocracy from Hell that attempts to kill our volition.

  • Ikuo Hatsukade

    At first, we need the ability of compassion which we have been continued to loose so far.

  • “However the greatest challenge may lie, not in the physical threats we face, but in our own minds.” Your point about our minds being the greatest challenge, is pertinent. We can deal with a lot of these issues if we put our heads together, just as a family pulls together in a crisis. A big part of the problem is the economic and financial mess that can result from global and national economies slowing down. How do we look at economic growth? is it a magic elixer that keeps on multiplying wealth forever? Or is it a transient result of access to cheap and concentrated energy? If the latter, I think we need to create a new story to capture what has happened and the way out of it. We are at or near Peak Economy. This means that we have to tailor a new story that will have to compete with the dominant positive story of endless growth. The problem is that economic indicators suggest the best thing to do is “All systems go.” A healthy growing economy creates prosperity, and pulls up the lower classes into the middle class. Rising expectations leads to trust in the system. Lowering expectations leads to the loss of trust. The trend is going towards lowering expectations and loss of trust. There is a very real danger that economic downturns can lead to catastrophic political changes. Germany in the thirties and the United States today illustrate those dangers. Who has the more convincing story? That is where the stakes are.

    The solutions, as you alluded to involve people and organizations on many different levels, from individuals, to NGO’s to National Governments and Global Bodies. These solutions may have a PR problem with a lot of people who see economic growth, consumerism, and do-your-own-thing individualism as an attractive package.

    A permaculture world, where we are imitating nature’s best methods and strengthening local ties and traditions can also be attractive, but here the point is that it looks attractive to those who realize that we are or will be on the downslope of Peak Economy in our lifetimes. But if you are part of the majority who still believes that there is nowhere to go but up, then this vision seems quaint and retrograde. I see it as an ideological battle between Market Fundamentalism and Environmentalism. The money and most of the intellectual firepower is on the Market unfortunately.

    • Julian Cribb

      Absolutely, Charles. Couldn’t agree more. One way to deal with the issue, which I discuss in the book is to ‘dematerialise’ the economy – ie focus monetary and economic growth in the creative sector, rather than the material sector. UNEP has been banging on about this for several years. Also, controversially, I propose a fixed Earth Standard Currency that is not subject to idle speculation, but which provides a real indication of the value of eg water, soil, biodiversity. As to the involvement of people, I am suggesting that our growing ability to ‘think as a species’ (ie share information, knowledge ideas and values at lightspeed) will achieve a far more global outlook and consensus in the coming generation. Just hope its not too late…

  • roby v d

    And, not to forget, getting vegetarian, all of us. Producing meat is a climate killer. Even full vegan is preferred. “Urban farming” you mentioned is probably a non-starter if we continue to kill and eat animals.

    • Julian Cribb

      Not so. Biocultures can be used to produce meat in cities (without animals) while sustainable grazing systems (eg Australia’s ‘precision pastoralism’) are essential to lock up carbon in the world’s rangelands. It is really only the US/European intensive meat system that is defective.

  • Suzanne

    One word – permaculture. We can’t solve the problem at the same level of thinking as what created it. Permaculture provides a paradigm shift for how humanity should organize itself.

    • Julian Cribb

      As an Aussie, couldn’t agree more. We need to take ‘urban permaculture’ to the next level – ie apply it to the whole of New York city, Shanghai, Mumbai, London etc. These cities harbour the essential resources – nutrients and water – and are currently throwing them away. We need to close the loop, and re-use.

  • shore bird1

    Nice try, however a major assumption/oversight is in this writing, as evidenced in the US, EU, and Aussie govts. in the wording “standard farming”. Industrial chemical farming has been a major contributor to worldwide air, water and soil pollution, topsoil erosion and lack of nutrients in resulting produce. Transitory airborne nitrogen and methane release that create microclimates during and after each spray application that dry conditions can worsen, large amounts of greenhouse gases coming off treated fields are mostly being ignored. “Standard farming” is a major oil consumer, with petroleum based pesticides and herbicides, airplanes used for sprays, truckloads of chemicals coming in and off farms. Add to this, CAFO-raised animals, whose now toxic waste products from antibiotics used to keep them in close confinement and fatten faster, are being sprayed on farmers fields in the US (at least). Over time, the separation of ruminant animals from grassland has created even higher demand for more chemical use, and less nutritive results. Big Chem and Big Ag are having a party at the expense of the environment. Yet it has been proven in several countries that intensive organic or loosely termed bio-dynamic farming can outproduce this standard farming techniques, without any of the nasty side effects of industrial agriculture, seriously reduced energy inputs and far better soil tilth. The industrialization of agriculture has been yet another case of smoke and mirrors, covering over farm nutrient issues (caused by farming seriously depleted soils) instead of replenishing and enriching soils worldwide. Please do your own research first, before letting loose with doom and gloom predictions. Change is already afoot if one cares enough to look for it.

    • Julian Cribb

      I think you will find, if you read the book, that I propose a radical transition for world food production that not only secures supply, but also massively reduces all of these undesirable impacts – and which gives hope of ending the 6th Extinction. It is the industrialised ag system that is at fault, as you correctly note – but there is no need to persist with it, given the far cleaner and less resource-intensive systems now available.

      • shore bird1

        Maybe later this year, as the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker (?) are catchy chapter titles. US scientists were writing as early as 1972 (or thereabouts) that continued dependence in fossil fuels could ultimately lead to disaster. Increased water use is out of scale to demand, farmers are wasting water growing plants to convert to fuel (ethanol). How ridiculous can things get? So many Americans over 45 are on statin medications to reduce cholesterol, an important substance the body uses to make hormones from, that statin drug metabolites can be detected in most municipal water supplies. Catch the double irony in that one? Environmental disaster creeps even closer to home, as antibiotic resistance continues to grow worldwide from overuse of antibiotics in CAFOs, confined animal feeding orgs. In the states, Big Ag/Big Chem and Big govt. have been lockstep with millions of acres of taxpayer supported grain production, monoculture crops. Taking animals off grass and farm land is another major mistake. Words are easy but difficult to wrap ones head around changing this deeply entrenched and highly supported system. Doubt it is simple to course adjust, nevermind attempt to turn around. Way too much capital investment is at stake. Time will tell.

  • Henrik Nordborg

    We are not going to stop global warming as long as we continue to prioritize economic growth. Please check for a proof of this statement. What is needed is a high and increasing tax on carbon emissions. It will not solve all problems but it is a necessary first step.

  • Michael Mielke

    I can’t wait to see how Julian gets from these ten interconnected problems to survivability, in a way that is feasible. In our world, our very large Association perceives that the doorway to a viable future comes through dealing with the most pressing and over-arching crisis/threat, and that is climate destabilization.

    We see that IF we can deal with that ONE, then we have a chance to deal with the others. Meanwhile the US has to take the lead in bringing that about. How we approach it is unique.

    I hope that Julian can add to our thinking and approach.

    • Julian Cribb

      I’m not offering a magic potion, but accentuating the need for solutions to one existential threat to not make another threat worse. Ie they have to be integrated. Also offering some new thoughts on how to develop unified solutions across the species, how individuals can contribute (this is often overlooked) , how we can overcome the principal delusions that prevent us from acting in our own best interest and finally, a way to measure our progress towards survival or extinction…

      • Michael Mielke

        I would like to be able to compare your unified solutions across our species, as you communicate it, to our own comprehensive solution set.

        Ours involves a “doorway” solution to the entire set, with plausible ways to have it executed, meaning the solution set, in time enough to meet the dire aspects of the crisis before social disintegration makes cooperation difficult to come by.

        I meet few individuals or groups who even attempt to dive into this interconnected crises sets, and I have written and published publicly on the matter, and I would not believe you would offer a magic potion. However, that does not mean I understand your approach, strategy and tactics. I would say that time is short, however. So, the approach needs must offer a way to achieve the meta-goal soon, right?

        • Julian Cribb

          Aye, indeed. As for ‘strategy and tactics’, well the ultimate solution has to come from the grassroots, by human consensus. So it has to be simple to understand and practical to implement at both global and individual level. Happy to compare, contrast, discuss, evolve any time.

    • Andrew Gaines

      Hi Michael − great to see what Tree
      of Life is doing. I would like to add an additional perspective, and invite
      your participation.

      I think the key to success to solving global warming and other big issues is to inspire thoughtful mainstream
      commitment to doing everything required to transition to a life-sustaining
      society – a whole system change. We have to get the public on board. And we
      need to inspire thousands of groups to act as citizen educators.

      There is more to it than aspiration.
      People also need to have a rough grasp of the deep systemic changes that are
      required for success. We need to engage the unengaged and catalyse big picture thinking. We have innovative can communication tools to catalyse this level of thinking.

      We are organising a Great Transition Communication Blitz. It will be
      throughout March 2017. We envision thousands of
      groups and individuals around the world communicating through their networks
      about transitioning to a life-sustaining society. has a complete platform for supporting citizen educators communicating with our networks about whole system change.

      We have a simple communication strategy that can align thousands of groups,
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      I would like to think that many of
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      • Geoff Mosley

        Andrew Gaines is right. Without a clear way to a truly sustainable world the predicted eco-catastophe will happen. This way is what we should be focussing on.

  • Karl-Heinz Schneider

    There is one root-cause: population overshoot. Too many little human chimps added everyday on this planet is unwittingly creating prospective competition for its fellow add-ons over thinning resources. Paul Ehrlich has been banging his head on this for decades, but no one has been listening. People still aren’t listening. I saw many of those poor human chimps back in Africa that were bare skin and naught. I looked a few of them in the eye as they were reaching out to me: I can tell you, they didn’t want to be there.

    If we’re going to really want to protect biodiversity and prevent human quality from getting diluted, a few things need to be planned out immediately:

    – Dismantle the current political system called “democratic voting,” and institute a political system where uneducated/religious/60+ year olds cannot vote, and only those possessing an ecological science education can make and influence policy (with training and sensibilities of social sciences and humanities). Basically, establish a political system based on scientifically-attested reality (of human cognitive psychology and ecosystem ecology), where decision-makers are specially trained from birth to be environmentally altruistic. This type of calculated and byzantine arrangement is now needed because of the culture gap. It’s a way to control randomness in politics and check for selfish power surge latent in most male human primates.
    – Overhaul the standardized education systems; retrain all teachers; make environmental and ecosystem ecology education mandatory for all.
    – Engineer a sterility plague an deploy it in anti-biodiversity hotspots (aka. regions with the highest fertility rate).

    Since we are lazy, tend to pick the lowest hanging fruit in the branch, and technosalvationist, I predict that the last option may become prominent in a few decades. There’s a game called Mass Effect that explored that theme, where a hostile and easily reproducing alien race’s ambitions to conquer all habitable planets in the galaxy was curbed by a genetic instrument reducing the probability of viable pregnancies in that race. The moral/ethical consequences of that decision was sufficiently explored in the game. I think that may be a place to start.

    It’s a hard pill to swallow. But must be swallowed nonetheless, as it is a much better alternative to nuclear war and other types of violence sparking off over scarce resources and competition among males. There is no one coming for rescue. Steven Pinker argues that violence has declined quite a bit over hundreds of decades; but that statistical trend is just as likely to turn its arrow steadily (or sharply) upwards over the next few decades. It may be the deep breath before the plunge.

    There are many of us young people (pejoratively called, “Millennials”) in the west who are determined not to have any children. That’s partly because women are empowered here and they have a lot to say in their choices. But in other places around the world, that isn’t the case. We simply can’t wait for their women to get empowered so that they can forego childbirth, because that isn’t happening.

    I also disagree with the argument that social media enables us to “think as a species”. That’s biologically impossible for primates and belies the nature of primate brain evolution. We aren’t termites, we don’t have swarm cognition or hive mind or alike. What we are getting with social media is an artificial, almost a pseudo-Lamarckian psychological phenomenon. A controlled experiment would show this effect. (And I’m sure some scientist somewhere in the world is already conducting it).

    Humans will survive the 21st century and adapt to thrive in a chemically altered environment; we reproduce, perhaps, too easily. For us living in the present moment, that isn’t a future involving prancing ponies, dancing girls, and tea parties. But future generations will know that as their normal, baseline condition; and if they happen to have access to pictures of a few centuries back, will ponder about when on earth things started going wrong.

    Sorry I can’t be optimistic about this. I have long discarded my rose-colored glasses. And since I trained as an ecosystem ecologist, it may be by default that I have a dismal predisposition. So: Accept, move on, and cherish that little piece of beauty and natural history you experience and own as an individual.

    • Julian Cribb

      Well, women are listening, as are millennials. They are lowering their fertility all around the globe.
      It is the males who are the rampage emitting carbon, building nukes, emitting toxins, ravaging landscapes, extinguishing species etc. This is a very masculine thought process: fix it now and to hell with tomorrow. Women have a different perspective, and should lead the next phase of human evolution – as that is the only road to survival.
      You’re right about democracy, in that it only works for the betterment of society if the majority are (a) intelligent and (b) educated. This is increasingly luminous in the US presidential race….
      Hold your horses on ‘thinking as a species’, I appeal to you. We’ve been thinking in community for over a million years, and the internet for the first time offers us the capacity to exchange knowledge, ideas and solutions globally, at light speed. You should see what I’m seeing on twitter, as consumers arc up over toxins in food etc or farmers and indigenous over fracking, citizens over green energy etc. This is still the ‘second trimester’ in the evolution of a planetary intelligence (or noosphere, as de Chardin called it). Give it time and you may be pleasantly surprised.
      I know a lot of people will just want to give up and succumb. That has been the case through all the great catastrophes of history. But there is also a core who want to survive and who apply their intelligence and skills to doing so. If that small number can become a significant majority they can rein in or predominate over some of the more destructive tendencies of nations, the capitalist system, transnational business, religious fanaticism etc.
      Am I optimistic? No, not really. Pessimism is realism. But I also think we have a spark of wisdom in out makeup, and can maybe rediscover it before ‘lights out’.

      • Karl-Heinz Schneider

        I appreciate your work Julian. I really do. However, I think the issue is not so much about pessimism/optimism per se, but more about naivety. As it is, I must disagree with you on “thinking species”. Humans can’t think collectively; that’s biologically impossible because we don’t act on pheromones like termites do. In effect when there’s collectivism, there is no thinking at all. So, what you see in social media is exactly that. People react on hype and low-information content to reinforce their existing biases, rather than stop and reflect on them. Many psychologists are studying this effect, like how friendships form on Facebook, how key individuals reinforce a group’s belief outlet by intentionally demonizing another one. That’s why I called it a pseudo-Lamarckian mechanism. Maybe you should have a look at Dunbar’s and Stanovich’s work on social-cognitive psychology?

        Toxins have always existed in food in one way or another and H. sapiens fared quite well with them. We undergo natural selection to adjust foreign substances to our bodies over many generations. So we will adapt. It may not be nice for us; many will indeed die; but future generations won’t notice that because that’ll be their baseline experience of being human. We’re self-domesticated and that actually reinforces the extent of our adaptability.

        The entire world of renewable energy transitions are riddled with myths, make-beliefs, suppositions, and confounded correlations, and naive opinions. Ask any engineer, scientist, or environmental economist in the energy industry – anyone – who will tell you about the economic, environmental, and social costs of changing energy infrastructure in a matter of decades. They’ll list you environmental impacts of that transition, its implications for real estate prices, taxes, and job security. When the grid becomes intermittent, so too our entire social fabric. Then, you’ll have pandemonium in the streets.

        Since the average citizen doesn’t have any training in science or engineering or some other analytical field, I wouldn’t really count on the reliability of those “Twitter” revolutions, Facebook lobbies and such. Did you know that Clinton and Trump have both used computer “bots” to augment the number of their “virtual” followers? I’m sure those bots are programmed to think. Go figure.

        As I said, if H. sapiens had a more manageable population – like 500,000 or so – all these transitions could have be more manageable. But not with 7 billion. The sheer number of us defies any proper social policy to show its intended effect in any visible time frame. Again, Paul and Anne Ehrlich mentioned about that in a paper few years ago (Proceedings of Royal Academy paper. 2013)

        We’re addicted to fossil fuels. We can’t get rid of it. Just about most things you use in your daily life today, as part of human material culture, we sustain our lives on the availability and refinement of hydrocarbons. There’s no “anonymous hydrocarbon addicts,” no external intervention coming in. And no developed/developing country in the world will ever give up on their current/improving standards of living, so that all the world can be equalized in terms of GDP and environmental quality. There is a reason why the so-called Environmental Kuznet Curve is about to become a defunct hypothesis. Geographical variations compounded with the variations of human behavior defy any proposal for equality. Hence, don’t hold your breath for a rescue.

        It’s an evolutionary catch 22; we’re trapped. Our addiction is going to be the end of many of us, but not all of us. So, to minimize the agony, there is one course of action needs following: reduce the damn population, the competition will decline, degrowth will follow, and then the environment will recover. So, stop making babies, right now. Incentivize any single person who pledges to not have children. Reduce taxation, tuition fees, and other types of registration and admissions costs with those without family.

        Would it work? If politicians change the direction from a family-oriented government subsidies towards single-person oriented program coupled with a robust, naivety-free environmental education, there’s a good mathematical probability that it would. That’s why we need “different” types of decision-makers, as I foreshadowed in my above post.

        Either we’ll make these things right now or we’ll condemn current and future generations to fall onto their own swords. It’s an enormous sacrifice, you know, not having any children. It’s biologically imprinted in us to reproduce ourselves. But given the catch 22, what else can we do?