OP-ED: Planetary Emergency Ahead

Kent Shifferd
Kent Shifferd

 By Kent D. Shifferd

We humans are facing a perfect storm of crises of our own making that could bring a sudden and ugly end to the way of life we have known, but we are not paying attention.

We are all focused on small things—our jobs, the fate of our favorite sports team, the price of gas, the latest clothing fad, the newest app for our smartphone.  For most of us our view is too limited, too narrow and too confined to the present moment. We are looking down at our feet when we should be looking up and outward to the future. We are happily oblivious to the one big thing that will determine our fate. Without realizing it, we stand on the brink of a planetary emergency brought on by our pride and our ignorance.

We are facing a species extinction crisis on a scale not seen in millions of years; a sudden and unprecedented population explosion; the creation and spread of thousands of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials for which we have no biological protection; a dramatic shift in climate—for the worse; the degrading of agricultural land world-wide; the dramatic depletion of ocean fisheries, and the rise of environmentally induced diseases. Describing each one of these crises could take a whole book. Each exacerbates all the others.  We also stand on the brink of radically meddling with the basic genetic structure of life.  These crises should be the main focus of education, the media and the government, but instead we go on frittering about with details as if nothing earth-shaking had changed. 

The cause of this perfect storm is our pride and our ignorance.  We think we know how to control nature to create an overstocked material paradise.  In fact, nature is far more complex than we can imagine and our efforts so far are not encouraging.  We have made several huge mistakes in the past 150 years, thinking they were “Progress.” They are: first, the exploitation of fossil fuels, especially coal-fired power plants and millions of automobiles that are bringing on the massive web of changes--fire, flood, storms, drought, extinctions--that we call climate shift. Second, we learned to split the atom, leading to thermonuclear weapons that could destroy the world in an afternoon, and nuclear power plants that will leave poisons around for tens of thousands of years just so we can turn on a light bulb. Third, we created 85,000 new chemical substances, almost wholly untested for human health impacts, and spread them about in almost every commercial product we use, from fabric softeners to the lining of food cans.  Fourth, we have allowed our population to go from a billion in 1800, a sum that took all of human history to achieve, to seven billion today and nine billion projected by 2050.  So many people eating up so much habitat that we have triggered a massive extinction process.  Our grandchildren will live on a planet with no lions or polar bears, but much more importantly, the very base of the biological pyramid, the plant kingdom, is being radically depleted of species.  And it’s not only population growth that is at fault, it’s our unsupportable belief in unending economic growth.  If everyone alive today lived at the American standard of material consumption we would need at least four planets. How will we cope with two billion more people? We are overspending our natural capital and degrading the ecological base on which civilization rests.  Too many people with too much power and too many toxic things.

Even people who foresee this disaster in the making think we can manage it by geo-engineering and genetically modifying plants and animals.  They think we can act as if we were gods when we weren’t even able to manage coal to keep it from harming the biosphere.  Instead of ceasing to do the destructive things we are doing, they are sure in their hubris that they can invent fantastic ways that will allow us to do even more.  In all probability they will accelerate and deepen the disaster. 

We have not done a very good job of maintaining the health of the planet on which our health and our civilization rest.  We fail at far-sightedness and at seeing each of our man-made changes in the larger context of the biosphere.  We ignore the fact that you can’t do just one thing in nature because so much is connected to so much else.  In short, as a species we lack wisdom and humility and so we imperil ourselves and much of the rest of life. 

We can have a good future on this planet but only if we greatly reduce our population, replace our tool kit with one that is non-toxic and less damaging, and consume far, far less and do it soon.  We need to invent a new way of life. The alternative is global ecological collapse.  We are facing a planetary emergency.

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Kent Shifferd, Ph.D., (kshifferd@centurytel.net) is an historian who taught environmental history and ethics for 25 years at Wisconsin’s Northland College.  He is author of From War to Peace: A Guide to the Next Hundred Years (McFarland, 2011) and is syndicated by PeaceVoice. This commentary was submitted by Tom H. Hastings, Ed.D., director, PeaceVoice Program, Oregon Peace Institute,  http://www.peacevoice.info/