“The end is near. When I’m done, half of humanity will still exist, perfectly balanced, as all things should be…”
Thanos, Avengers: Infinity War
It’s a sad state of affairs when an action movie makes you question everything , as though you’re having some kind of existential crisis, but is it? Quite often the fictional, whether it’s a novel, a television show, or a movie, can have a bearing on real-world issues. I, myself, find that what we imagine on the page or the screen can trigger you to think far more than the cold, hard facts of a matter we encounter in the news media or in scientific studies. Not that facts should ever be disregarded, there’s enough of that going around in the fake news era already. Still, it is possible to allow for the questioning of reality based on a fantasy.
So let’s dissect the reality we have created for ourselves. We live on an amazing planet, the only one we know of in the universe to support life of any kind, much less a diverse and intricate biosphere. Life on Earth is no doubt resilient, having come through five major mass extinctions, and multiple smaller events interspersed between, throughout it’s long history. Each time, life has recovered and rebounded. A smattering of survivors becomes ecosystems brimming with almost countless species. But that’s the thing, life’s story is that of survivors, those generalist, often unremarkable species that pull through where specialists and fantastical beasts are the first to fall.
You see the meek really do inherit the Earth, not the mighty (sorry, Thor). That is why the dinosaurs were wiped out by the KT asteroid, but birds, insects, small reptiles, and to our sake, mammals, pulled through. This is why the megafauna of the Ice Age could not withstand a combination of rapid environmental change and human hunting pressures, yet smaller animals with more adaptability, made it.
All these crests and troughs of the living world have been happening for hundreds of millions of years, long before we came on the scene. The problem now is that we may be an agent of change that brings that crest crashing down into a sixth major extinction event. A phrase I often hear is that we are the asteroid this time, but I think that underestimates the degree of threat we pose. For we are potentially not just a big rock from space that makes a big bang, snuffing out three quarters of all species, no, we could be a second Great Dying.
This is what the end Permian-Triassic extinction is sometimes known as. It is the calamity that ushered in the age of the dinosaurs, but quite nearly put an end to complex life on Earth. 90% of living species went extinct with the oceans suffering the most. It is believed the massive volcanism of the Siberian Traps was largely responsible, though there’s also evidence of a significant asteroid impact at this time. Perhaps one is connected to the other. Either way, the flood basalt released gargantuan quantities of ash, sulphur, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to alternating volcanic winters and extreme warming periods before climate change triggered the release of unstable methane hydrates from the ocean floor. This methane supercharged warming, leading to the oceans suffocating from oxygen loss and the land being engulfed in unending heat and drought.
Millions of years passed before there was any true recovery, and it completely repainted the picture of life on Earth. So how do we humans compare to the force that nearly obliterated the living world? Disturbingly comparable to be honest.
You see, we are the Siberian Traps. We are akin to a globally distributed mega-eruption that is spewing mostly just greenhouse gases because we took issue with particulates and sulphur due to more obvious environmental crises like smog and acid rain. So that means unless we have a nuclear World War 3 (which doesn’t seem too far out of realm of possibility lately), no global winters, just straight-up warming, which may become an exponential problem if we liberate even a small fraction of the modern methane hydrates on our ocean floors.
Here I’ve laid out the consequences of just one of the pressures we apply to our buckling biosphere. Climate change is probably the most serious and far reaching, but it is hardly the only way in which we jeopordise the livability of our planet.
Right now, we are pulling fish out of the oceans so fast that we face virtually fish-less oceans by 2048. Our fishing methods are also decimating other species because of how unselective they are, pulling up juvenile fish, turtles, dolphins, sharks, and other sea life that end up being cast back into the water dead or dying.
The oceans are both acidifying and losing oxygen due to our emissions of carbon dioxide and massive amounts of agricultural pollutants that flow from our rivers. The acidification, caused by carbon dioxide dissolving in seawater to form carbonic acid, is another threat to sea-life as it prevents molluscs and small plankton from forming shells. This could undermine the whole ocean food chain. As for the deoxygenation, fertilisers and manure from our agricultural activities promote the growth of algal blooms, which consume oxygen as they decay. This can render entire areas as aquatic deserts where little life can live. There is a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is the size of the state of New Jersey and a growing one in the Gulf of Oman.
There may well be more plastic in the oceans than fish by the middle of the century. Plastic will break down into smaller fragments in the rough and especially warmer waters, but these release chemicals that end up in the food chain, finding their way back to us. If there were ever a perfect example that there’s no such thing as throwing things away, this is it. This plastic also ensnares sea life, or larger animals like whales eat the plastic debris, clogging their digestive tracts, from which they die slowly.
We are destroying our usable soils, and farming as we know it might have to end in 60 years. This is caused by a mix of poor farming practices and environmental stressors such as climate change and deforestation.
The Amazon Rainforest, the so-called lungs of the Earth could collapse completely into a degraded savannah if just an additional 3% of its area is lost to either climate change or deforestation. Taken together with the decline of other forests and phytoplankton in the oceans, this could lead to deoxygenation of the atmosphere itself, which is thought to be something that occurred during the Great Dying.
And the big elephant in the room, animal agriculture, something that is more discussed lately and accepted as an environmental threat but previously, most people couldn’t abide the thought that what we put on our plates has an environmental footprint. Of course it does and of all the things we eat, animal products have the broadest reach, impacting climate change, ocean dead zones, species extinction, habitat loss, and water pollution. They also require vast quantities of our available land and fresh water.
Our Planetary Boundaries: Already, we are coming up against hard, natural limits to what our Earth’s systems can sustain, and others are creeping up. Image Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre
This is just an overview of some of the broader environmental challenges we face with countless others that may only have local or regional impacts but collectively, are contributing to broader pollution and environmental degradation. We face a number of tipping points that we dare not cross. Perhaps it’s too late, and we already have, in which case there’s even a greater necessity for drastic action.
Yet the reality where heroes save the day and avenge the Earth is not the one we live in. At least, there isn’t enough people taking an active role in speaking out about these growing calamities, or taking direct action to draw more attention. Those that do are often silenced by an uncaring system, or even a deliberately malign one intent on maintaining the status quo for the sake of economics.
Ultimately, our world has limits, limits to what we can reasonably extract from it in a given amount of time and expect those resources to be renewed. There are limits to how much we can pollute and waste without engendering deleterious effects. There are limits to how much space we can occupy and still expect local ecosystems and the greater biosphere to remain stable.
Yet our culture and our economic model doesn’t believe in limits. Neither our mindset nor our capitalist system is built to even consider them. Our system demands continuous growth, which requires more inputs so the system can generate more wealth from making endless products from the natural capital we extract from the Earth. This is expected to go on and on and on without end, a mad belief that we can somehow derive infinity from a finite world.
Ultimately, the bubble we keep blowing hot air and hopium into will burst. Whether it will be struck down by multiple environmental tipping points being hit at once or one after the other hardly matters. If we continue on as we do, the day will come when life as we know it will be impossible.
We face a dystopian future to make the Hunger Games, Mad Max, or Blade Runner look like some kind of idyll to look forward to.
The climate will destabilise.
The oceans will broil and suffocate and die.
The forests will burn away to ash.
The majority of Earth’s species will go extinct.
People will be displaced by rising seas and expanding deserts.
People will starve.
People will go to war for what’s left.
Then? Who knows? Human extinction is not off the cards.
We’d all like to pretend that this isn’t happening, that this is not the reality we live in, and just go about our normal lives, blissfully unaware of exactly what’s going on even though in the back of our minds, we sense all is not well, and things can’t just keep going as they are.
We all hope someone else will save us, but there is no one else. There’s no soldiers, warriors, demi-gods, or any being or external force that is going to come down and undo all our wrongs for us. There are no superheroes waiting in the wings, ready to fight the corruption and greed and apathy that has gotten us to where we are now. We have to be those people, by speaking out, by demanding change from our leaders, and making change in our own lives. Avoiding the above demands we rapidly change our ways from the top down and the bottom up.
Thanos, despite being the villain, understood that the universe has physical laws and limits that cannot be overcome, that thinking everyone can have everything and that ultimate satisfaction for all is somehow reachable, is a joke. His answer to the problem of overpopulations is, of course, despicable, and definitely isn’t the solution. Logic would say less people means less demands on the Earth and therefore, less environmental destruction. However when you consider that the Earth can only realistically sustain a little under two billion people at the consumption levels of an average US citizen, you begin to see the problem. It would take four to five Earths to sustain the current world population at those levels.
However, I don’t think this population is optimal or that we should take drastic measures to reach it like draconian reproduction laws, mass sterilisation, or anything akin to Thanos’s egalitarian genocide. It’s indeed possible that the Earth could sustain our current numbers and more. It’s less about overall numbers and more about how much we’re willing to change as individuals and as a global civilization. It’s about whether we can fathom living differently and having different individual and societal values, or are we doomed to follow our current path to its inevitable end.
Only time will tell.