Robert J Traydon

Avoiding self-inflicted extinction. What are the solutions?

2018-06-01 13:25
Icebergs float in a fjord after calving off from glaciers on the Greenland ice sheet in southeastern Greenland. (David Goldman,  AP, File)

Icebergs float in a fjord after calving off from glaciers on the Greenland ice sheet in southeastern Greenland. (David Goldman, AP, File)

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Humankind has the unenviable duty to address the looming threats of runaway climate change and environmental collapse. At risk are Earth's millions of species and our human civilisation, all of which could face severe hardship or even extinction by the end of this century.

It seems like an impossibility: to meaningfully reduce our impact while thriving on fossil-fuelled technology and unrestricted population growth. But, there are solutions that could not only slow the rate of climate change and ecological decline, but also reverse them to pre-industrial norms.

Many will regard the solutions that follow as crazy, but keep in mind they're an order of magnitude less crazy than the sacrifices people will be forced to make if our planet's biosphere fails.

Atmospheric restoration

The single greatest threat facing Earth right now, is climate change caused by human-related carbon emissions. Since the year 1850, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration levels in our atmosphere have soared from 280 parts per million (ppm) to a record 410 ppm, mostly due to the industrial revolution and mankind's immoderate population growth.

The major sources of CO2 include slash-and-burn activities across the world's forested areas, the global fleet of coal-fired power stations and all fossil fuelled transport including cars, trains, ships and aeroplanes.

Hence the "fossil fuel convenience" versus "environmental sustainability" impasse we find ourselves at today.

But, if we're serious about dealing with climate change, then we should aim to eliminate all human-related CO2 emissions by 2050 – as a minimum. To achieve this, all of the CO2 sources listed above would need to be phased out to the point of zero over the next three decades.

As a start, a global moratorium should be instituted by the United Nations (UN) prohibiting all slash-and-burn activities with immediate affect, prohibiting the construction of coal-fired power stations after the year 2020, and prohibiting the manufacturing of fossil-fuelled transportation after 2030.

Right now, society would baulk at this suggestion – particularly those in the Trump administration – but the scary reality is, society doesn't have a choice. We either reduce our dependency on fossil fuels or suffer the incomprehensible consequences of runaway climate change.

Revival of 'redundant' technologies

For thousands of years leading up to the industrial revolution, human civilisation prospered with a per-capita carbon footprint that was a fraction of what it is today.

The main reason is that, in the absence of fossil-fuelled technology (besides fire used for heating and cooking), engineers and inventors had to use freely available energy sources for power generation and transportation. For example, many industries were powered by animals, water wheels and windmills. Sunlight and insulation helped keep houses warm in cold regions. Transportation on land was achieved mostly by walking, horseback, horse-drawn carriage and primitive bicycles; on water by human-powered boats and wind-powered sail ships; and, for those who dared take to the air, the air balloon.

Granted, these technologies were still in their infancy when they were replaced with fossil fuelled alternatives, but fortunately, their development continued to the point where their next-generation equivalents are leagues ahead in terms of efficiency and practicality.

In fact, modern hydro-electric power, wind turbines, solar energy, bicycles, e-bikes, electric vehicles, sail powered cargo vessels, and airships similar in design to the Zeppelin should be viewed as cornerstone technologies that will not only restore our planet's atmosphere to pre-industrial health, but will also adequately satisfy our civilisation's needs.

We should also consider how quickly these clean technologies will evolve if all the world's fossil-fuel technological research and development resources are diverted to these clean alternatives.

Environmental restoration

The second greatest threat facing humanity is ecological decline. The primary causes of this include: widespread land appropriation for exclusive human use; habitat transformation, pollution and destruction; large-scale eco-system interference; decimation of coexisting species' populations; warming oceans; and intensifying climate change.

As daunting as these problems are, they should not be regarded as insurmountable.

For us to slow down and do a U-turn on the autobahn of ecological decline, we must acknowledge that our survival is wholly reliant on our planet's life-sustaining ecological equilibrium, and recognise that if action is delayed, this decline will accelerate to a point of irretrievable collapse.

Protection and expansion of natural habitat

For us to do this, we must place the needs of our surrounding ecosystems above our own. For starters, the world should declare a moratorium on the appropriation of all unprotected natural habitat still in existence today.

This would include the rapid phasing out of development, mining, deforestation or any other exploitation of pristine natural habitat.

Governments should then embark on a phased "protected area expansion" initiative with the primary objectives being to increase the range of natural habitat and to link isolated habitats together via an intricate network of conservation corridors.

This restoration of habitat range would reinstate traditional migration routes used by countless insect, bird, animal and other species. This, in turn, would reverse the precarious phenomenon of crashing biodiversity that's followed in the wake of mankind's burgeoning footprint.

An astonishing article published by The Guardian on May 31, 2018 states that, "Avoiding meat and dairy is 'single biggest way' to reduce your impact on Earth" and that the "Biggest analysis to date reveals huge footprint of livestock – it provides just 18% of calories but takes up 83% of farmland".

If the trend towards veganism takes the world by storm – or by legislation – then vast tracts of pastureland and livestock-feed cropland could be acquired and returned to natural habitat.

Human moderation

The only subject that's more contentious than human overpopulation, is human population control.

There are many people, including David Attenborough, who believe that overpopulation is the root cause of climate change and environmental decline. Attenborough himself has been outspoken about the need for humanity to control its population growth, but his calls have been met with fierce criticism.

What we all need to understand, however, is that as the human population continues to grow, so too does the likelihood of a sharp correction in the near future. Thus, the choice is ours whether that correction occurs within our control via a population control policy, or outside of our control via environmental collapse and mass starvation.

Global one-child policy

A thought-provoking white-paper published in 2013 investigated how the human population would be impacted if a global one-child policy was implemented in 2013 when the world population hit 7,2 billion. The graph below shows the outcome of their investigation with 'N' being human population:

Immediately apparent is that the world population would still plateau at almost 9 billion in the year 2045, and then only be halved by 2130.

The authors of the paper, Corey J. A. Bradshaw and Barry W. Brook, concluded that even if the world implemented a global one-child policy today, it might not be sufficient to avert catastrophic climate change. Ironically, most nations haven't considered a population management policy of any kind, and the only nation that had a one-child policy, China, recently relaxed it to a two-child policy.

General consensus at this stage is that the only way to address population growth ethically is through education, family planning and access to contraception. In line with this, The Guardian published an interesting article last year titled, "Want to Fight climate change? Have fewer children".

The article contained the following infographic which shows how much carbon can be saved through a range of different actions (shown in yellow), compared to having one less child (shown in orange):

The sad truth is, our unchecked population growth will continue to amplify our negative impact on the climate and environment – something all life on this planet can ill-afford. Thus, the time has come for us to start talking openly about other ethical ways to moderate population growth.

As Attenborough so eloquently put it in a speech back in 2011: "The sooner we stabilise our numbers, the sooner we stop running up the 'down' escalator. Stop population increase – stop the escalator – and we have some chance of reaching the top – that is to say a decent life for all."

Humanity must 'reset' lifestyle expectations

The fossil-fuelled, car-centric, land hungry, meat intensive, large family way of life that humanity has become so accustomed to up until now, is not necessarily achievable in a world where lifestyle moderation and sustainability takes precedence.

Unfortunately having a population of almost 8 billion necessitates compromise. Therefore, we must all be prepared to accept a fair degree of lifestyle moderation, including global shifts toward:

  • remote renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, instead of grid-supplied fossil-fuelled power;
  • electric bicycles instead of motorcycles;
  • light electric mini-buses (like those used in Zermatt, Switzerland) instead of heavy cars;
  • slow Zeppelin-style airships instead of fast fuel-devouring airliners;
  • non-fossil fuel dependent sports and recreational activities;
  • less travel and a migration trend where families and friends live closer together;
  • vegan-style foods and steady phasing out of meat products;
  • incentivised urbanisation to free up rural land for protected land expansion;
  • phasing out of all non-recyclable and single-use plastics, with comprehensive rollout of biodegradable packaging; and
  • having smaller families with only one or maximum two children.

As inconveniencing as it might be for people to adopt these "testing" lifestyle changes, they should be reminded that they're a whole lot less inconveniencing than environmental catastrophe. In other words: these solutions are the easy way out…

Solutions vital to our survival

If every one of us embraces restoration and moderation as the core principles of our human civilisation, then there's a good chance we'll be able to pull our planet back from the brink and safeguard the future survival of all life on Earth.

We would also do well to remember that we don't own this planet, we share it.

Don't like these solutions? Then sit back and prepare yourself for the bumpy ride to extinction…

- Robert J. Traydon is a BSc graduate of Engineering and the author of 'Wake-up Call: 2035'. He's travelled to over 40 countries across six continents and worked in various business spheres. His articles explore a wide range of current affairs from a uniquely contrarian perspective.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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