‘A ghastly future’: Leading scientists offer bleak prediction for civilisation

Biodiversity loss and climate change coupled with inaction ‘threatens survival of all species’

World leaders “need a cold shower regarding the state of our environment, both to plan and act to avoid a ghastly future”, according to 17 leading scientists who have assessed the current state of civilisation.

They warn the outlook for planet Earth “is more dire and dangerous than is generally understood”.

A loss of biodiversity and accelerating climate change in coming decades coupled with ignorance and inaction "is threatening the survival of all species, including our very own", say the experts who include eminent biologists at Stanford University and UCLA in the United States, and Flinders University in Australia.

Lead author Prof Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University said the group had summarised the state of the natural world in stark form to help clarify the gravity of the human predicament.


"Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth's ability to support complex life. But the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilisation," Prof Bradshaw said.

“In fact, the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts,” he said.

“The problem is compounded by ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymying the action that is crucial for survival,” he added.

The expert in mass extinction, Prof Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, said no political or economic system, or leadership, was prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action.

“Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability,” he said.

While it was positive news that US president-elect Biden intends to re-engage the US in the Paris climate accord within his first 100 days of office, “it is a minuscule gesture given the scale of the challenge”.

We need to be candid, accurate, and honest if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future

“Humanity is running an ecological ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for short-term economic enhancement today,” he believed.

Most economies operate on the basis that counteraction now is too costly to be politically palatable, Prof Ehrlich said. “Combined with disinformation campaigns to protect short-term profits it is doubtful that the scale of changes we need will be made in time.”

Speak boldly and fearlessly

Prof Dan Blumstein from UCLA said the scientists were choosing to speak boldly and fearlessly because life literally depends on it.

“What we are saying might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But we need to be candid, accurate, and honest if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future,” he said.

“Without political will backed by tangible action that scales to the enormity of the problems facing us, the added stresses to human health, wealth, and well-being will perversely diminish our political capacity to mitigate the erosion of the Earth’s life-support system upon which we all depend.

“Human population growth and consumption continues to escalate, and we’re still more focused on expanding human enterprise than we are on devising and implementing solutions to critical issues such as biodiversity loss. By the time we fully comprehend the impact of ecological deterioration, it will be too late.”

Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals, “and catastrophe will surely follow”, he predicted.

The experts say in their “perspective” paper, which cites more than 150 studies, that they seek to outline clearly and unambiguously likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption, and planetary “toxification” – all tied to human consumption and population growth. It is also “to demonstrate the near certainty these problems will worsen over coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come”.

“It also explains the impact of political impotence and the ineffectiveness of current and planned actions to address the ominous scale of environmental erosion,” they conclude.

The added stresses to human health, wealth and wellbeing will perversely diminish political capacity to mitigate the erosion of ecosystem services on which society depends, they find. “The science underlying these issues is strong, but awareness is weak.”

The paper – Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future – is published in the latest issue of Frontiers in Conservation Science.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times