Time to speak the unspeakable

Julian Cribb | December 12, 2019 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF



If you come to a realisation that our civilisation is crumbling in the face of climate chaos, then it opens a vast and challenging agenda. Because it affects all aspects of life.
Prof. Jem Bendell, University of Cumbria, UK

On any given day between 10,000 and 30,000 wildfires now blaze around the planet. Realms as diverse and distant as Siberia, Amazonia, Indonesia, Australia and California are aflame.

The advent of the pyrocene – ‘The Age of Fire’ – is among the bleakest warnings yet that humanity has breached boundaries we were never meant to cross and that our tenure on Planet Earth is now in jeopardy. 

It is time not only to imagine the unimaginable, but to speak it: that the world economy, civilization, and maybe our very survival as a species, are on the line. And that it is past time to act.

It isn’t just the fires. 

It is the incessant knell of other, unnatural (i.e. human-fed) disasters – droughts, floods, vanishing rivers, lakes and glaciers, and the rise in billion-dollar climate-fuelled weather disasters

It is the spate of extinctions, the precipitous decline of sea fish, birds and corals, the disappearance of forests, mammals, frogs, bees and other insects planetwide. It is the remorseless spread of deserts and the baleful waxing of dead zones in the oceans.

It is the toxic avalanche of billions of tonnes of human chemical emissions that poison our air, our water, our food, our homes, our cities, our farms and our unborn babies, and which now kills 9 million people a year. 

It is the probability that there will be no Arctic by the end of this century, and rising seas will expel 300 million from their homes. 

It is the slow, ominous seepage of methane from the world’s oceans, tundra, tropical peatlands and fossil fuels, threatening runaway warming of 7-10 degrees or more.

It is the insidious drift of billions of tonnes of soil from the land that feeds us, into the blind depths of the ocean, placing the world food supply on a knife-edge as age-old methods of growing food fail in the turbulent climate and droughted landscapes of the future. 

It is the rising toll of noncommunicable disease that stalks affluent societies, killing three people in every four. 

Nor can we avoid the fact that humanity presently invests $1.8 trillion a year arming itself for the real ‘war to end all wars’. Robotic weapons of mass destruction commanded by artificial intelligence will probably take the final, fateful decisions about who is to live and who to die, once unchained by political malice or blunder. These weapons are mainly controlled by men of unsound mind and national governments seething with paranoia about one another.

Around the world there is a rising chorus, from science, youth, elders and women for urgent, immediate action in the face of inescapable threats to our society and existence. From warning issued by thousands of scientists to Extinction Rebellion and the School Strike for Climate a citizen’s movement is claiming the streets of the world’s cities. 

Pope Francis foreshadows adding “ecological sin against the common home” to the Catholic catechism. Bank of England governor Marc Carney warns of an “abrupt financial collapse” due to climate change, as firms which ignore the issue go bankrupt. The Global Economic Forum see mounting danger in its annual assessment of risks to our common future. 

Swedish student Greta Thunberg states: “For way too long, the politicians and the people in power have gotten away with not doing anything to fight the climate crisis, but we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer. We are striking because we have done our homework and they have not.”

Professor Bendell, cited at the start of this article, is one of a growing number of voices now warning that the collapse of civilization may already have begun. That we cannot easily predict its pace, trajectory or magnitude is no longer an excuse for inaction, he says. His paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating our Climate Tragedy garnered worldwide attention with its prediction that “There will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers”.

 Catastrophe is “probable,” it added, and extinction “is possible.”

So far only a handful of countries – France, Canada, Britain, Ireland and Argentina – have declared even a climate emergency, despite surging support for such a move by thousands of cities and local jurisdictions. Most Governments continue to move at glacial pace – ignoring the other 9 existential threats that confront humanity (1). The question is: why?

A worldwide counter-revolution is under way, designed to paralyse action against climate change, global environmental destruction, extinction, polluted air, water and food. It is financed by ‘dark money’ from a terrified fossil fuels sector through shady institutions with anodyne names like the ‘Competitive Enterprise Institute’, the ‘Heartland Institute’ and the ‘Institute for Public Affairs’. It invests hundreds of million dollars a year in global propaganda aimed at discrediting climate and environmental science, seducing governments and deceiving the public.

While wise individuals haul desperately on the handbrake of the human transport as it hurtles towards the abyss, the climate counter-lobby is stamping on the accelerator as hard as it can.

A recent UN report says the world’s leading fossil fuel producers are planning to ramp up carbon emissions in 2030 by 50 to 120 per cent beyond the limit for a safe human future (1.5 degrees C). Despite a renewable energy boom, fossil fuel infrastructure investment worldwide has bounced back in 2019 after 3 years of decline, says the International Energy Agency. 33 international banks have ploughed $1.9 trillion into fossil fuels since the Paris Accord was signed. 

On the face of it, the fossil fuels lobby has turned the tide, at least in the short run – and humanity is now galloping towards collapse a little faster.

There are only three motives for hazarding human civilization in such a fashion: greed, malice and ignorance. Either the rewards are so great that fossil executives are prepared to risk cooking their own grandchildren, or they are just plain blind to the risks. Since they are largely technical people, the latter does not ring true, as the archives of leading oil companies like Shell and ExxonMobil, exposed in court, reveal they have known exactly what they are doing to the Planet for nearly half a century – and have not only ignored it, but worked assiduously to deceive humanity about its likely fate while they ramped up their output of carbon.

More sinister still is the growing power of the fossil fuels lobby over the world media and also over governments – not only the floundering western democracies, but also states like Russia, China, Brazil, India and Saudi Arabia. Media organisations such as the Murdoch News Corporation serve as an unofficial propaganda front for fossil fuels, brainwashing an unquestioning audience with a round-the-clock thunder of deceit, half-truths and misdirection.

The world is dividing into two opposing camps: the concerned ‘survivors’ – the young, the old, the wise, the educated, the informed and the pragmatic – and those who are willing to bet the farm on the very global system that will destroy them.

As I have written elsewhere, the scientific ‘best guess’ how many human lives Collapse will cost ranges from about half of humanity to well over 90 per cent. The actual number is not knowable because human behaviour, in the form of war, cannot be foretold. However, the process begins with climate-induced famines and global water crises – both already evident at a regional level – leading to mass refugee tsunamis and multiplying conflicts. Compared with the Holocaust of World War II, (one of the worst intentional crimes in human history) the toll of lives taken is likely to be around 1000 times greater.

As this brutal truth sinks in, the part of humanity committed to survival is starting to seek legal redress. Columbia Law School documents over 1640 ongoing legal cases against fossil fuel companies and/or governments, both in the US and globally, and many more are starting or in contemplation. But the law alone may not be enough, as it is slow and the fossil counter-revolution has deep pockets. 

It is time not only to think the unthinkable, but also to speak it. 

Without urgent action to terminate fossil fuel use, return the planet to a state of ecological health and address all 10 mega-threats in an integrated way, then our worst fears will become our fate. Collapse becomes inexorable. It has happened to most, if not all, empires and great civilization in the past; it is a process that humans have so far proven themselves ill-equipped to arrest. 

As things stand, most experts still believe there is a narrow window to avert this fate by universal, agreed action – but it is closing rapidly. Many, like Prof. Bendell, think it is already closed, though they refrain from saying so publicly, for many reasons. They do not believe it will happen in the near-term – as do the so-called ‘catastrophists’ – but that the process, once set in motion, becomes impossible to halt as it gains momentum. The impact will fall chiefly on the second and third generations hence. 

The only certainty is that doing nothing sentences humanity to Collapse – economic, societal and potentially, existential. Doing too little cannot avert disaster. It is time to discuss this, openly, honestly, truthfully, universally.

There is only one rational choice before us all: to choose to survive.

This involves taking all necessary actions (2), although they spell the end of familiar systems of energy, food, water, money, defence, transport and politics – and their replacement with new ones, universally dedicated to a viable, just and sustainable human and planetary future.


  1. The ten existential threats to human civilization and survival are: resource depletion, extinction and eco-collapse, WMD, global heating, global poisoning, collapse of food systems, pandemic disease, uncontrollable new technologies, population growth and mass delusion. They and their solutions are described in “Surviving the 21st Century”, Springer, 2017.
  2.  Op cit. “Surviving the 21st Century”, Springer, 2017.

Julian Cribb FRSA FTSE is an Australian author and science communicator. A former newspaper editor, his published work includes over 9000 articles, 3000 science media releases and eleven books, the latest four on the existential emergency facing humanity and potential solutions to it. He has received over 30 awards for journalism. Julian Cribb’s latest book, Food or War,  ties the existential threats faced by humanity to the food choices each of us makes every day. It will be released this summer by Cambridge University Press.

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

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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.
  • Steven Earl Salmony

    Dear Dr. Cribb, Colleagues and Friends,

    We are presented with an objective reality, with a clear choice between obfuscation and denial, on the one hand, and acceptance and accommodation on the other. The current positions taken by the author and the commentators are one of denial of science with potentially profound implications.

    Allow me to explain what is overlooked in these analyses of the “unspeakable.” The denied research is presented below. Dr. Cribbs’ perspective provides evidence of good work, but the evidence is effectively obscuring and ultimately serving to deny something else that is unspeakable. Note that other equally good ecological science of human population dynamics presents simply and clearly virtually irrefutable and heretofore uncontested research of human population numbers: human population appear as a function of food supply. Despite declining TFRs, absolute human numbers are continuing to skyrocket. Look at any graph of human population growth.

    Perhaps we could examine together science that could enlarge the remarkably helpful point of view put forward in Julian’s book. If Homo sapiens is an evolving species of Earth and, therefore, an integral part of the web of life of Earth; if human population dynamics is essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species; and if food is the independent variable in the biological relationship between food and human numbers just like other species of Earth, then human population numbers decrease or increase or stabilize as a function food supply.

    Is there a shred of respected scientific evidence that indicates how human population dynamics is different from the population dynamics of other species of Earth? Please provide citation.

    Is it not the ubiquitous absence of recognition, understanding, acceptance and validation of the “natural biological process” that describes simply the root cause of the current colossal size of absolute numbers of Homo sapiens of Earth what is preventing us from answering one question, Why are absolute global human population numbers continuing to skyrocket on our watch?

    In the lead article to be found in the following link, please find uncontested ecological science of human population dynamics that provides an inescapable response to this question.

    Human population numbers appear as a function of food supply just like other species of the web of life of Earth. What is most disturbing about this scientific evidence is that it is unchallenged ecological science of human population dynamics that has been consciously avoided or else deliberately ignored by professionals in disciplines inside and also outside science (eg, demography and economics). Scientists, demographers and economists among others have willfully refused to review and, more important, report objective findings regarding this apparently unforeseen and unwelcome research so that a primary root cause of the bacteria-like and patently unsustainable growth of a mammalian species can be correctly recognized, understood, accepted and validated within the community of scientists, much less shared openly in all intellectual honesty their findings with the public. By so doing these professionals with appropriate expertise have uniformly refused to rigorously examine and publish their responses to extant scientific research as well as betrayed their responsibility to science and their duty to humanity.

    Sincerely yours,
    Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D, M.P.A.

  • Sue Arnold

    Julian, are you going to email me the shorter version of the article ? I sent you my email not sure if you got it..

  • T. J. Hawk

    Very few are willing to speak this unspeakable truth: It is fifty years too late to save life on this planet. The destruction is progressing at an unstoppable, accelerating pace. How can anyone read Julian’s exhaustive summary of disasters without concluding that global environmental catastrophe has arrived and is worsening by the hour? Get real, folks. Give it up. Face the fear. Life on this planet has received a terminal diagnosis. Get your affairs in order and prepare to fry. Very little time left.

  • César Emilio Valdivieso París

    I really like the title of the article, because it is a call to courage. It is certainly time to call a spade a spade. It is time to say that the motivations of the world’s main leaders, unfortunately, are ignorance, greed and even, perhaps in some cases, malice.
    But the idea is not to confront anyone, since these leaders have the vast majority of the inhabitants of the planet in their pockets thanks to their power and manipulation skills . That would be a war of attrition too exhausting, in which they would have everything to gain. The way forward should be that of silent work, during which much research would be carried out and a well-detailed model of the type of sustainable world society we want to build would be developed. It would be presented to the public once finished. From then on, little by little, an increasingly collapsed world would have no choice but to start paying attention to us.

  • Eric Lee

    Yes, ‘it is time not only to think the unthinkable, but also to speak it’ or type it: there are no political solutions.

    Earth Day, 1970, I was there on the streets as were about one percent of the US population, vastly more support and enthusiasm than XR has managed. What has been the greatest breakthrough in our understanding of the human predicament since 1979? There hasn’t been any. I’ve read and heard countless calls for action base on why we must act now. As David Suzuki noted on his 80th birthday, despite all that he and all other environmental activists had done, ‘the pace of planetary destruction has not slowed’.

    • Our global economic system is NOT REMOTELY CLOSE TO SUSTAINABLE.
    • We are captured and being dragged along by a complex, powerful and remorseless dynamic that automatically thwarts all attempts to stop it.
    • If we don’t put time and energy into understanding it, we are doomed to go with it, right to the final curtain. —Garvin Boyle

    So far, calls for action and activism have not slowed the pace of planetary destruction. We haven’t understood the dynamic we are all part of. The traditional Hopi may not be part of the growth dynamic, but if you know what money is and value it, likely have some, then you are part of the remorseless dynamic. Know then thyself. We are playing a global endgame. The time has come to vote with your feet…but that’s unthinkable. All real solutions are unthinkable.

    • trilemmaman

      There are only political solutions! The politics of truth which we humans seem incapable of agreeing on. It either defines our relationships with one another as partners…or enemies. We the people have the power to begin the world again…or destroy it as we are now. Liberty and justice for ALL… Or survival for none!

  • Andrew Gaines

    As always, Julian’s summary is brilliant. However, it fails to have a useful call to action at the end, and therefore it is relatively useless.

    The appropriate call to action, for all such writing (and for lectures, panel discussions, climate change conferences and the like) is to call for the readers to be citizen-educators. Citizen-educators talk with their friends and business colleagues about the systemic changes necessary to reverse our drastic trends.

    If we can turn this into a movement, we have a means to mobilise the public will that is essential for turning things around. http://www.greattransition.net is a support platform for citizen educators.
    Otherwise we remain in our own thought bubbles, and nobody else is listening.

    • Julian Cribb

      You evidently didn’t read to the end. The detailed prescriptions of what is to be done are laid out in “Surviving the 21st Century”, as you know. There isn’t enough room in a single article to describe them all, and the way they integrate.

      • trilemmaman

        If funding and achieving the 17 sustainable development goals was NOT included or the primary focus. we’re all toast.

        • Julian Cribb

          On the whole, I’d agree. I assume you mean the Sustainable Development Goals (evolved out of the MDGs). However they still omit the most likely cause of human extinction: weapons of mass destruction. And they still contain the dreaded word “development” which many people – eg Trump – interpret as dig it up, waste and pollute the planet with it. This emergency needs a new vocabulary.
          I’m suggesting the “Human Survival Goals”.

          • Andrew Gaines

            “Human Survival Goals”. Very good!

          • trilemmaman

            Julian, Thank you for your very thoughtful response. Yes. The SDGs followed the MDGs…And “Development” is a word with different meanings for different people. I do like your suggestion of “Human Survival Goals” for several reasons…be we aren’t going to have much luck changing the official SDG marketing (which in my opinion is failing in getting the word out). Perhaps a campaign to rename them would at least get some attention given the reality that achieving them is vital to our survival…and can’t be done fast enough. Your WMD comment is directly correct but systemically off. Like you I’m convinced that the evolution of weaponry is a far greater and more urgent threat than global warming… The bad news is that disarmament is impossible. The dual use nature of every technology makes it impossible to control or repress how people use it. The same technologies we must use to improve human survivability are the same technologies that can be abused for mass destruction. From my 4 decades of working on interconnected issues I’m convinced by those who concluded long before me, that reducing the desire to mass murder is our only viable path. And the SDGs are the only systemic solution offered, short of the global enforcement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental teaching of every major religion (the Golden Rule), or those in the most powerful nation on earth…keeping their pledge of “liberty and Justice for all”.

          • Julian Cribb

            Thank you, Trilemmaman. Regarding weaponry, I think there is another useful pathway. In my latest book, Food or War (https://www.cambridge.org/us/academic/food-or-war) I advance the idea of food as the most powerful ‘weapon of peace’ and propose the diversion of a substantial proportion of the global ‘defence’ spend into securing the world food supply against the inevitable mid-century collapse caused by climate, resource scarcity etc. I am having some (limited) success in bringing this view to the attention of military establishments and strategic thinktanks. While this won’t abolish nukes, the risk of global water and food scarcity may cause the various threats to be viewed in a different light, including that food can prevent war, rendering nukes less necessary. This may dilute the warlike tendencies inherent in humans, along with other factors, such as putting women in charge of the planet.
            Separately, I have argued that the only way to get rid of nukes is to abolish the only entity that currently can afford them: the nation state. This is a concept well past its use-by date. This is happening naturally, and countries will probably mostly be gone by the end of the century. See http://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/nation-state-on-the-skids/ Following the Brexit election, the UK may well be the first to go…
            In my view the SDGs are very commendable and are the only global prescription we currently have. But other measures will be necessary to secure the human future, as you so rightly point out.

          • trilemmaman

            Julian, I broke my advocacy teeth in on Jimmy Carter’s bipartisan Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1980. Trust me. I get the connection between food (lack of) and war. I’ll email you the quotes from it that you may have already seen, if you want them. We’ve all had that difficulty of bringing it to the military’s attention…for decades…but that’s not our fault. (read the new Washington Post 5 piece series on “The Afaganistan Papers”. They get it…and always have…but the momentum and volume of noise of the military war machine drowns the idea in the bathtub of fundamental principles. You and I may disagree profoundly on what I’m going to say next…but you seem to have an open mind to basic principles…and hopefully you won’t write off my comments immediately. First. Nuclear weapons will never be “abolished” until we have real ‘international ‘law” that’s enforceable by the rule of law instead of the law of force. Even if we could…it wouldn’t be a good idea given the threats beyond our atmosphere they may be needed for our planets defense, Second. Nuclear weapons are NOT the greatest or the most urgent WMD threat we face. Biologicals are infinitely cheaper, more likely to be used (according to a congressional WMD commission), and have no return address (making deterrence irrelevant/useless). Hypersonic weapons, drones, cyber, and space weapons capacity make them somewhat irrelevant given the high cost of nukes (as you mention) …and the increasing capacity to shoot them down… unless they are smuggle to targets as IEDs in trucks, commercial air liners or shipping containers. And then there’s the issue of AI. OMG. If only it gained wisdom (before we do) and starts holding murderous leaders accountable for (or before) their orders to mass murder. Not likely…but possible.

      • Andrew Gaines

        Ah Julian, I did read through to the end. And I have a copy of Surviving The 21st Century. As have a few other people. But in the great scheme of things, probably very few.

        And this is the issue I want to raise. Since most people don’t seek out your books, MAHB articles, and the wealth of other transformative ideas
        that are out there – and since they have not actually come to grips with the
        emergency that you so eloquently highlight – I think that we have to go to them.

        So, I would suggest that as part of your writing and speaking you call your audience to take responsibility for our collective future well-being, and exercise that responsibility by talking with people they know about the systemic changes necessary to pull out of our ecological nosedive.

        Such conversations, if we can take them to scale, prepare people mentally and emotionally to support transformative leadership. This is critically important, because without prior public support, leaders who put forward the degrowth policies we need never get anywhere.

        Or so I suppose. What do you think?

        • Julian Cribb

          I agree with what you say, Andrew – and it is one way of reaching people. Myself, I do what I am best at, which is writing about science and then using social media to disseminate it around the planet. People ought not to have to be told to take responsibility for their own survival – but such is the state of western education, many of them still don’t know they are at risk. They will find out, soon enough. We are now entering the World Water Crisis, to be followed by the Global Food Crisis. These are the wakeup calls, and speak for themselves.

        • Sue Arnold

          That would involve teaching people to think and give up Fox News.

  • Michael Mielke

    Thank you Julian for speaking the unvarnished, if also the “unwanted” TRUTH.

    Consistent with what Paul Ehrlich has been saying for some 30 years since he and Anne published “Healing the Planet,” calling then as they have repeatedly called for a reduction in the scale of the Human enterprise.

    Now that reduction must be drastic and immediate in order to salvage some livable future for some of Humanity and some fellow creatures and some of our living systems, damaged as they continue to be.

    Keep speaking Julian, someone’s simple unvarnished truth must be heard, even if it is too late to salvage any shard of our civilizations.

    • Julian Cribb

      Paul Ehrlich is the forefather in this field. Those who follow can only repeat and amplify what he said – back in the 1960s!

    • trilemmaman

      Reduction is not quite the right word. Transformation (of our values) and restoration (of natural systems) are more in the ball park. If you are talking about reduction in population numbers, even if we did reduce the population to just 1 billion — existing consumption patterns and poor values would still crash/trash the planet’s biofilm beyond recovery. The fastest and only sane and justly reduce human population numbers is by achieving the 17 SDGs. In that context you might reconsider your view of Paul Ehrlich’s focus and the 17 SDGs.

      “The critical prerequisites to reduced fertility are five: adequate nutrition, proper sanitation, basic health care, education of women, and equal rights for women.”
      Paul Ehrlich, The Population Explosion. 1991

      “Development is the best Contraceptive” Third World Slogan

    • trilemmaman

      New scientific study… “Transformative change can save humans and nature”
      Human impacts on life on Earth are unprecedented, requiring transformative action to address root economic, social and technological causes.

  • Sue Arnold

    IF only we could sue the perpetrators who head governments that allow the earth’s life support systems to be destroyed.

    • trilemmaman

      The CIA would say there isn’t a problem in the world that can’t be solved with a well placed explosive.

    • Julian Cribb

      According to Columbia Law School over 1640 groups are doing just that… the more the merrier.

      • Sue Arnold

        Dear Julian, a brilliant article. Are you ok with it being republished in the Independent Australia – I ve done a number of interviews with Paul Ehrlich in this publication and your article is so important. Also, if you have any contacts to the relevant folk in the Columbia Law School who are organising any legal action, it would be very helpful for those of us struggling against a trump clone in Australia.

        • Julian Cribb

          You are welcome, Sue. Do you need the original text? I have a shorter (1100 word) version, if you prefer.
          Columbia just maintains a database on ongoing legal actions, mostly in the US. http://climatecasechart.com/ You need a climate lawyer to identify the opportunities for litigation in Oz.

          • Sue Arnold

            Thank you so much Julian. Yes a shorter version would be better, we have a word limit of around 11-1300.. my email is: suearnold25@icloud.com. As for a climate lawyer in Oz. ha ha.. we don’t have any governments, legislation much less acknowledgement of climate change in spite of the fact the country is burning and drought is drying up the rivers, forests, lands.. Oz is likely to be one of the worst impacted countries .. run by the coal industry and evangelical nut cases.

    • trilemmaman

      So those who elected the heads of democratic governments hold no responsibility? And when those elected governments persistently fund and protect leaders of unelected governments (and the corporations pillaging those nations)…who really needs to be held accountable?