Interrelated Threats to Humans and to the Biosphere


John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service

Relatively Short-Term Dangers from Climate Change

David Wasdell, Director of the Apollo Gaia Project, has pointed out that curves based on observations indicate that possibly as soon as 2015, the Arctic will be free of sea ice in September, which is the month when ice is at a minimum. Arctic seas will of course refreeze during the winters, but the ice is observed to be thinner and more vulnerable to storms, and before one or two decades have passed, sea ice will vanish entirely from the Arctic.

With the vanishing of Arctic sea ice, several dangerous feedback loops will come into play. Ice reflects sunlight, but dark water absorbs it, accelerating the warming of the region. Warmer waters will progressively release more water vapor into the atmosphere, where it acts like a greenhouse gas. Melting Arctic tundra will release large quantities of the potent greenhouse gas methane. Furthermore, the warming of the bottoms of shallow Arctic seas will destabilize the very large amounts of methane hydrate crystals found there, releasing much more methane and CO2 into the atmosphere, and further accelerating the rise in temperatures. The Arctic is already roughly 3 degrees Celsius above the 1981-2010 average.

In 2012, the World Bank issued a carefully-researched report which concluded that the world as a whole is presently on track for warming of 4 degrees C by the end of the 21st century, and if determined action is not taken to prevent it, the warming will not stop there.

With higher temperatures, melting of the Greenland ice cap will accelerate. The time that will be needed for the complete melting of the Greenland icecap is uncertain. It is predicted to take place within 1,000 years, but non-linear effects may cause it to take place much sooner. It is observed that lakes forming on the surface of the ice sheet during the summers drain down to the bottom of the sheet, where they lubricate the flow of the ice towards the sea. Complete melting of the Greenland ice cap would raise global ocean levels by about 7 meters, and the loss of Antarctic sea ice would add approximately 7 meters to the total. Coastal cities throughout the world are at risk.

The rising sea levels, combined with the increased intensity of hurricanes and typhoons, have already had devastating results. One can think of the effects of hurricanes Katrina, Irene and Sandy in North America, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. As ocean levels continue to rise, and as sea surface temperatures continue to increase, the damage caused by hurricanes will become much greater,

Rising ocean levels threaten to flood many low-lying regions of the world, such as the Netherlands, oceanic islands, parts of Vietnam, Bangladesh and Southern Florida, producing climate refugees and reducing global agricultural output.

Glaciers throughout the world are melting rapidly because of climate change. The continuation of this trend would threaten the summer water supplies of China, India and some parts of North and South America. This would also damage global agriculture at a time when population is increasing. Droughts and floods produced by climate change also threaten the world’s agricultural output. We have recently seen severe floods in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as unprecedented droughts in the South Western regions of the United States and in East Africa.

Thus, through several mechanisms, climate change threatens the world’s food supply. We must also recognize that a large fraction of global agricultural output depends heavily on high-yield modern agriculture (the “Green Revolution”), which in turn depends on the availability of fossil fuels, for producing chemical fertilizers, for driving farm machinery, and for transportation of food. Not only is the use of fossil fuels one of the main causes of climate change, but also one can predict that both oil and natural gas will soon become very expensive.

We can see that by the middle of the present century, just as the global population reaches the unprecedented level of approximately 9 billion, the world’s food supply will be dealt a severe blow by the effects of climate change coupled with the collapse of modern high-yield agriculture. There is a danger that an extremely wide-spread global famine will then occur, which may produce billions of deaths, rather than millions.

Almost all scientists agree that the threats posed by climate change are very severe indeed, and yet the majority of governments fail to take the firm steps that will be needed to avoid its worst effects. To make matters worse, powerful lobbyists from fossil fuel industries have mounted massive advertising campaigns to convince the public that climate change is not real, that it is “a liberal hoax”. Thus we can see that dangers due to climate change are linked with dangers from the rise of economic inequality and corporate power, and to the decay of democratic government. Part of the blame must also fall on our servile and dishonest mainstream media.

Economic inequality, the decay of democracy, and the danger of nuclear war

A recently released study by Oxfam concluded that almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just 1 percent of the population. The report states that “Left unchecked, political institutions are undermined and governments overwhelmingly serve the interests of economic elites, to the detriment of ordinary people”.

Extreme inequality, such as we have today, can also contribute to economic collapse. The poor do not have enough money, and the very rich are too few in number to buy back the output of a society. This is a formula for economic recession. To avoid the inevitable downturn caused by excessive inequality, our oligarchic governments resort to what might be called “Military Keynesianism”. To prevent the crash of stock markets and banks, our corporate-controlled governments pour almost unimaginable amounts of money into perpetual wars. Enemies have to be found: communists, terrorists, the Islamic world, Russia, Iran, China, and so on. The corporate press keeps the public perpetually in fear of these “enemies”.

Although many countries have undemocratic and oligarchic governments, the decay of democracy is especially worrying in the United States. When Barak Obama was elected President, there was hope throughout the world that the gangster-like domestic and foreign policies of the Bush administration would change. On the basis of his campaign promises and his speeches in Prague and Cairo, Obama was even (prematurely) awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. But nothing changed. In fact, under Obama, perpetual wars and aggressive interventions in the internal affairs of other countries have become more flagrant and reckless than they were under Bush. At home, violations of the constitution and civil rights, as well as prosecution of whistle-blowers and militarization of the police have become the norm.

Why did Obama change overnight into a new and worse version of George W. Bush? Why do both Democrats and Republications in the US Congress slavishly vote for the interests of the super-rich oligarchy, the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry and Israel? Why do European politicians support the imperial goals of the United States? Are they being blackmailed through personal secrets revealed by all-encompassing NSA spying? Are they being bribed, or threatened, or both? We do not know. All we know is that the will of the people no longer counts for anything. In Frank Zappa’s words “Government is the Entertainment division of the military-industrial complex”. The corporate billionaire oligarchs are saying to us: “Vote for whomever you like; we own them all”.

Under this system, Washington insiders have begun to believe their own propaganda. Influenced by ingrown “group-think”, they exhibit symptoms of recklessness bordering on insanity. We can see this almost-insane recklessness most clearly in the recent attempt of the United States government to revive the Cold War by supporting a neo-Nazi coup against the elected government of Ukraine. The aim seems to be to provoke a conflict with Russia. Conflicts are, after all, needed to justify obscenely bloated military budgets. But a conflict between Russia and the United States could easily escalate into a nuclear war.

The centenary of the tragic outbreak of World War I reminds us of the dangers of escalation. We can also remember that none of the people responsible for the outbreak of that world-destroying conflict had any imaginative idea of what it would be like. They thought that it would be over in a few months. They visualized romantic and heroic cavalry charges. But the machine gun, long-range artillery and poison gas had changed the character of war. Similarly, it seems that none of the Washington hawks who today risk provoking a thermonuclear war with Russia have any imaginative idea of what such a war would be like.

Recent research shows that a large-scale nuclear war would be an ecological catastrophe, damaging global agriculture to such an extent that it could initiate a very large-scale famine involving billions of deaths, and severely damaging the biosphere. Furthermore, long-lasting radioactive contamination would make large areas of the world permanently uninhabitable.

Limits to Growth

Although never-ending exponentially-increasing economic growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility, today’s politicians and economists are almost universally committed to such growth. Their defiance of logic is achieved by refusing to look more than one or two decades into the future. We can gain some understanding of this self-imposed myopia by examining today’s fractional-reserve banking system.

Fractional reserve banking is the practice whereby private banks keep only a small fraction of the money entrusted to them, and lend out the remaining amount. Under this system, profits from any expansion of the money supply go to the banks, rather than being used by the government to provide social services. This is basically fraudulent and unjust; the banks are in effect issuing their own currency.

When the economy contracts instead of expanding, the result is still worse. The depositors then ask the banks for their money, which it is their right to do; but the banks do not have the cash. It has been lent out. Unless the government and the taxpayers are able and willing to save the banks, they collapse. This explains why politicians and economists fear a stationary or contracting economy, and why they are so dedicated to limitless growth, despite the fact that it is a logical and mathematical impossibility.

Of course, it is necessary to distinguish between industrial growth and growth of knowledge and culture, which can and should continue to grow. Qualitative improvements in human society are possible and desirable, but resource-using and pollution-producing industrial growth has reached or exceeded its sustainable limits.

Because of the unrestricted growth of both industry and population, the earth is headed towards an ecological mega-catastrophe. According to Wikipedia, “Global deforestation sharply accelerated around   1852. It has been estimated that about half of the earth’s mature tropical forests… have now been destroyed. Some scientists have predicted that unless significant measures (such as seeking out and protecting old-growth forests that have not been disturbed) are taken on a worldwide basis, by 2030 there will be only 10 percent remaining, with another 10 percent in a degraded condition. 80 percent will have been lost, and with them hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable species.”

The world’s ability to feed its growing population is threatened by loss of fertile cropland through erosion, salination, desertification, loss of topsoil, urbanization and failure of water supplies. In China, India and in the southwestern part of the United States, water tables are being overdrawn and are falling at an alarming rate. For example, the Ogallala aquifer in the US southwest is has a yearly overdraft of 160 percent.

If irrigation of arid lands is not performed with care, salt may be deposited so that the land is ruined for agriculture. Another type of desertification can be seen in the Sahel region of Africa, south of the Sahara. Rapid population growth has led to overgrazing, destruction of trees and wind erosion, so that the land has become unable to support even its original population. Often tropical rain forests are felled or burned for the sake of new agricultural land. However, the nutrients in the newly-cleared land are often quickly washed away by rains, so that the land becomes unsuitable for farming and has to be abandoned. Loss of fertile land also occurs when it is paved over by urban development.

The Long-Term Perspective

The interrelated threats to humans and the biosphere which we have been discussing become still more clear and severe if we consider the long-term perspective. For example, we mentioned climate change feedback loops resulting from the destabilization of methane hydrate crystals on Arctic sea floors. In the long term, there is a danger that melting of these crystals will occur at the bottom of oceans throughout the world. Geologists tell us that there have been five major extinction events in the past, in each of which more than half of all living organisms were lost. Many scientists believe that global warming by 10-15 degrees C due to the release of methane from ocean floors was the cause of these mass extinctions, and that unless prompt measures are taken to prevent it, there will be a danger of a human-initiated 6th mass extinction. The worrying thing about methane hydrate crystals at the bottoms of oceans is the enormous quantity of carbon which they contain, perhaps as much as 10,000 gigatons. One can put this enormous quantity into perspective by comparing it with the total amount of carbon emitted by human activities since the start of the Industrial Revolution: 337 gigatons.

The danger of nuclear war also becomes clearer when we look at far ahead. Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 1 percent. Then in a century the chance of a disaster will be 100 percent, and in two centuries, 200 percent, in three centuries, 300 percent, and so on. Over many centuries, the chance that a disaster will take place will become so large as to be a certainty. Thus by looking at the long-term future, we can see that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive.

Finally, the limits to growth become very clear if we look far into the future. One can argue about the exact future date at which particular non-renewable resources will become so expensive that they cannot be used economically, but one cannot argue that such a time will never come. Furthermore, exponential growth of any kind, whether it is growth of population or growth of pollution-producing and resource-using industry, cannot be continued indefinitely on a finite planet. For example, if the rate of increase is a modest 2 percent per year, then over 500 years, whatever is growing at that rate will have increased by a factor of 22,000. No one can maintain that the earth can support 22,000 times its present human population or 22,000 times its present industry.

What Then Can We Do?

On the 23rd of September, 2014, the United Nations Climate Summit took place in New York. Delegates and heads of state from around the world were shown images of the inspiring and heartfelt People’s Climate March, which took place on Sunday, September 21st. The organizers of the march had expected 100,000 participants. In fact, more than 400,000 came, and the march was unique in its artistic brilliance and ethnic diversity. On the same day 2,600 similar events took place in 170 nations throughout the world, with the participation of 600,000 people. The slogan of the march in New York was “To change everything, we need everyone”, and in fact, everyone came!

On that momentous September Sunday in 2014, the people of the world spoke with one voice on the urgent need to prevent the worst effects of climate change. They shouted loudly, “We do not want climate change! We want system change!” In her new book, “This Changes Everything”, author and activist Naomi Klein argues that the urgent need for action to avoid the worst consequences of climate change can unite people in the cause of other urgently needed changes, such as overthrowing oligarchy and re-establishing democracy.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges believes that widespread civil disobedience demonstrations will be necessary. Of course such demonstrations cannot be violent, since they would have no chance at all against today’s militarized, tank-driving police. But both Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King have shown how effective non-violent campaigns can be as a tool for system change. And, as both Gandhi and King showed in their own lives, fearlessness is the key.

All of the technology needed for the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy is already in place. Much research and thought have been devoted to the concept of a steady-state economy. The only thing that is lacking is political will. It is up to the people of the world to make their collective will felt.

We live in a time of crisis. We did not ask to be born at such a time, but history has given to our generation an enormous responsibility towards future generations. We must achieve a new kind of economy, a steady-state economy. We must stabilize global population. We must replace fossil fuels by renewable energy. We must abolish the institution of war. We must act with dedication and fearlessness to save the future of the earth for human civilization and for the plants and animals with which we share the gift of life.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 November 2014.

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