Averting Ecocide: We need a Human Survival Index

Julian Cribb | November 21, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

The Earth Cries by Jay Peeples | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

In the view of most thinking people, the human species is more likely to earn its end in either a nuclear Armageddon or an episode of uncontrollable global overheating. There is now a third, and more intractable, scenario by which our tenure of Planet Earth may be terminated: ecocide.

Ecocide? Sounds like another greenie scare story. Well, maybe, until you pause to consider that, according to the British medical journal The Lancet, 9 million people died of ecocide (ie pollution) just last year. That’s two million more victims per year than perished in World War II.

Ecocide is death caused by the collapse or vitiation of the systems that support life, including human life.

Last month the scientific journal PLOS One reported in a disturbing new study carried out in Germany that three quarters of flying insects in conserved areas had vanished in just 27 years. Such insects are responsible for pollinating 80 per cent of the world’s wild plants and trees and a third of all our food crops, besides feeding birds, frogs, fish, reptiles and mammals.

This follows reports in recent years by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) that 58 per cent of large animals, birds and fish on land and at sea, have disappeared in the last forty years. Between 30 and 50 per cent of all species may be gone by mid-century. At the same time, in the oceans and coastal waters around the globe, 415 huge ‘dead zones’ – places where no fish or ordinary marine life can exist – are spreading,.

Equally unsettling, and even closer to home, a scientific study of almost 50,000 human males in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, found that sperm counts had fallen by 50-60 per cent since 1973. Whatever is wiping out insects and animals is also wiping out human fertility.

A subtler and more insidious indicator is the worldwide rise in mental disorders – suicide, depression, Alzheimers, autism, substance abuse, Parkinsons, etc. – estimated by the World Health Organisation to affect 450 million people worldwide at any one time, and one person in every six in western countries.

The common thread here, and the most parsimonious explanation, is that the human brain and reproductive system, as well as those of insects and other animals, are intensely sensitive to their chemical environment and are easily poisoned by toxins or fooled by chemicals that mimic the body’s natural hormones. Total human chemical emissions are conservatively estimated at over 250 billion tonnes per year – four times the scale of our climate emissions. There are 144,000 man-made chemicals and 2,000 more are added each year. It now takes 18,000 different chemicals to grow, process and package the world’s food.

The deeper explanation, which few people and almost no governments or large corporations fully grasp is that, as US forest ecologist Glen Barry puts it in his excellent piece on MAHB, the human population bomb has already burst.

Since 1900 human numbers have quadrupled. At the same time, our use of resources per person has increased tenfold compared with those that sustained our ancestors just four generations ago. Thus, humanity now uses and releases 40 times more stuff to live –unimaginably more – than we did in 1900.

As Paul Erhlich recently framed the issue: “The idea that we can just keep growing forever on a finite planet is imbecilic.” Yet our governments, businesses, banks, media and many individuals remain hypnotised by the mantra of eternal growth. Warning voices like those of Ehrlich, Pope Francis, David Suzuki, Jane Goodall, Richard Heinberg, Sylvia Earle and EO Wilson are still dismissed as nuisances whose intent is to disrupt the smooth business of plundering the Earth’s natural resources and the worldwide release of contamination.

What the latest scientific data show, however, is that The Great Dying – as people are starting to call this era – applies not just to bees, birds, fish, plants and animals. It applies to we humans, too.

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health makes it plain that the polluting substances we release through all this ‘production’ are heavily implicated in a pandemic of premature death from cancers, lung disease, cardio-vascular and circulatory disease, diabetes, suicide and other disorders. To this can be added the toll taken by climate change, famine, military conflicts and social dislocation, which also reflect the wider decline of the Earth’s life support systems.

Although it does not appear yet in any formal statistics, ecocide is becoming the predominant way by which humans, as individuals, meet their premature end in our hot, overcrowded world.

The question which, so far, few outside the specialised professions of science have dared to raise is whether all this can precipitate a global ecological decline so severe as to endanger human survival. Yet we already know the answer. In Collapse (2005), Jared Diamond posited that several civilizations have already met their end in such a way. Human extinction by ecocide is not unthinkable.

Indeed, the one thing that can assure such a fate is refusing to think about it – as most societies, governments, media and the global monetary system presently do. Walking out on the highway with your eyes tightly shut and ears blocked is no way to dodge the oncoming truck.

It follows that, if the human species is not to perish by ecocide, the absolute prerequisite is risk awareness. We need an informed society and an informed discussion about how best to prevent it.

As I argued in Surviving the 21st Century, one way to do this is develop a Human Survival Index, which takes accounts of all the main factors which imperil our future and represents them as an easy-to-understand number, so people can clearly see whether the risk is growing or receding.

Today, everyone with media access is informed about the weather forecast, the state of the stock market, price of houses or monetary exchange rates. Yet they are told nothing of any practical use to human survival.

It is time to amend this universal ignorance before it consumes us. My challenge to the scientists and academicians among us is this: help design a simple, practical Human Survival Index that will inform Joe Average just how close to the existential abyss we are…

Julian Cribb is a science writer and author of Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2017).

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/human-survival-index/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Jimmy Johnston, your ebook sounds very interesting and I would be happy to consider adding it to the MAHB’s electronic library. Would you be able to share a little more about the book, either in a comment here or in an email (erika@mahbonline.org)? Thank you!

  • Brendan Carton

    We’re in a bind: increasing incomes in countries now hamstrung by poverty can bring population growth down to manageable levels, but in the short-term this increases our footprint. Part of the solution has to be a “Paris agreement”-style international push for education for women; something that gives more force to this aspect of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Great idea Julian. I suggest we put health indexes such as average longevity, and post-natal survival, suicide and murder rates, alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness, education levels, percentage of population in prisons, and inequality. The more unequal societies become the more unstable and unproductive they will become. We’ve already seen death and addiction rates go up for elderly white males in the U.S, but, of course, that made no contribution to the political situation in the last two years….

    • Sailesh Rao

      Perhaps this can be captured as (1-GiniCoeff).

      We can combine all these excellent suggestions together in product form:

      HSI = (1-GiniCoeff) * 1/Ecological_Footprint * LPI_10K.

      This captures social inequality, human economic impact on natural ecology and biodiversity remaining on Earth.

    • On afterthought, I realize the irony of using birth and longevity to measure the effects of over-population. I still think those measures are important. It’s partly what we define the problem as. It’s not over-population per se that is a problem for us, it is the effects. loss of biodiversity, increase in environmental, pyschological, economic, and political stresses. It’s not a problem for me that I and the people I know exist as part of seven billion people, the problem is lack of food, shelter, physical security, and increase in social conflict that accompany this population size. I would further venture to say is that there is not much we can do about population size, and anything we try to do will most probably backfire by exacerbating the above mentioned problems, particularly social conflict. Nature will solve this problem for us. What we need to do is to survive the consequences which will probably first manifest as economic and political collapse. Sorry for the unintentional irony here.

  • Sailesh Rao

    May I suggest that we use the Living Planet Index anchored to the estimated biomass of wild megafauna from 10,000 years ago (200 MT) as the Human Survival Index (HSI). Therefore, the HSI today is roughly 20MT / 200MT = 0.1.

    • Julian Cribb

      Unfortunately these measure only biomass retrospectively and do not measure certain human behaviours, ie nuclear war, money, unsound beliefs, destructive leadership, chemicals released etc which my index would include.

      • Sailesh Rao

        Agreed, but nuclear war, money, unsound beliefs, destructive leadership, chemicals released etc., are characteristics of our dominant, violence-drenched, growth-oriented, socioeconomic system. And the sooner we conclude that we can’t solve any of our problems within this system, the sooner we’ll start work on the necessary whole systems change.

  • Sailesh Rao

    Terms like “The Great Dying” frame the problem as something outside our control. Why not call this “The Great Massacre” so that we assign agency for our ecological self-destruction and hence, the responsibility to act?

    Take for example, the WWF Living Planet Index (LPI) statistic of 58% reduction in wild vertebrate biomass, quoted in the article. This is actually for 42 years from 1970 to 2012. The LPI reduced by 52% between 1970 and 2010, meaning that an additional 6% disappeared in just 2 years between 2010 and 2012. If such rates of decline continue unimpeded, we will lose 100% of the wild vertebrate biomass by 2026, in 8 short years.

    Why is this happening? The Trump administration just announced the slaughter of 90,000 wild horses 4 days ago. Earlier, the administration had authorized the killing of hibernating bears and wolf cubs. In all cases, it was “to appease the special interest
    livestock lobby”, which views wild horses as competition for cheap
    taxpayer subsidized grazing on public lands, and wild predators as nuisances for the smooth functioning of their remote-controlled herding business.

    We are all aware of human overpopulation. Ten thousand years ago, the biomass of all wild megafauna was 200 Million metric tons (MT), while today, the biomass of our one species is 500 MT. But our livestock consume FIVE times as much food as all humans put together! Thus, Meat and Dairy (MAD) consumers are the number one cause of our ecological self-destruction and consequently, they are our number one hope for halting and reversing the Great Massacre.

    MAD consumption is the foundation of our present growth-oriented global culture and must be eliminated as we transition to a life-enriching global culture.

    • Julian Cribb

      The name of the event is unimportant. You can call it whatever will work for the majority of the human population. Some will respond to one name, others to another. Yes, livestock are an issue, but they can be managed in a way that restores ecology and draws down carbon. The price of meat would go up – but that’s good for farmers, and to reduce consumption. In any case, cultured (cowless) meat and cowless milk will probably take over the cheap end of the protein market by the late 2020s.

      • Sailesh Rao

        Ecological restoration and carbon draw down are better accomplished through re-wilding than livestock production. Since you agree with Glen Barry that the human population bomb has already burst, then every livestock product that we consume would be coming at the expense of human lives. Consider the analogy of a weight lifter who’s lifting 5 times his weight above his head, discovers that he’s on quicksand and that he’s sinking. Knowing that his weight alone is too much for the quicksand to bear, it would be prudent for him to drop the weight he’s lifting first before attempting to slim himself down.

        Besides, livestock production embodies the archetypal master-slave dominance relationship that has brought us numerous social justice ills, extreme inequality, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, to name a few, within the current system. Perhaps the Human Survival Index should also include a measure of social inequalities as such dominance relationships are clearly unsustainable.

  • stashgal

    I think it’s way too late, horrible overpopulation that continues to grow, governments & populations that refuse to address overpopulation, pollution etc, rising pollution, rising C02, rising CH4, melting ice, shrinking glaciers, dying wildlife, dying forests, dying oceans, toxic soil, dead rivers, ocean dead zones, dying coral reefs, declining fish catches, bacterial infections immune to all our antibiotics, growing STUPIDITY, IGNORANCE & RELIGION!
    Of course we are DOOMED!
    Party on people, it will be our last “party”.

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Would the inverse of the ecological footprint be a useful human survival index?

    1 / 1.5 = 0.67


    • Julian Cribb

      The Footprint index is very useful, as is Rockstrom et al’s Global Boundaries concept. Neither however measure important elements like nuclear weapons. The Doomsday Clock, which does, only covers two existential threats – nukes and climate. There are 8 other threats or issues that need to be factored in. My sense is that an HSI, reported on the nightly news, would connect humanity with our own mortality more effectually than any of these indices, in ways that ordinary folk can identify with. (eg most people don’t even think about ‘resources’)

      • Luis Gutierrez

        OK, but what would be the formulation of the HSI, and what database would be required to quantify the index in a credible manner?

        • Julian Cribb

          This is the reason I wrote the article. I want the world’s best brains to focus on constructing it! I describe how I think it should be structured in pp 209-13 of ‘Surviving the 21st Century’ – but those are just one person’s views, and heaven knows, I’m no expert.
          Personally, I’d base it on Rockstrom et al, but I have proposed other important metrics including rate of elimination of nukes, increases in female leadership (men will only wreck the place), rate of ‘rewilding’ of half the world’s current farmed area, rate of recycling of resources (including water) etc etc

          • Luis Gutierrez

            OK, will study your book. Not sure that any single metric will do it. A radical cultural evolution will be required to overcome the patriarchal mindset of command and control. Agree, gender balance is key.

          • Julian Cribb

            Its a single metric that incorporates 10 separate, broad metrics, each of which in turn may incorporate other specific metrics.