Since I was born in 1948 animal populations have been reduced by more than one half. We have destroyed the wild world that was. Our species has done this. Perhaps Professor John Moriarty is right—we are like an Aids virus of the planet. It seems difficult to deny this. Our species has overrun the planet. We have a lot on our conscience. Whenever Huckleberry Finn had a serious thing to consider, like whether or not to continue floating down the Mississippi River deeper into the south, a place of great danger for his friend Jim, he said, this deserves “a long think.”
David Attenborough called the statement he made in his documentary film Our Planet, a witness statement. He wanted to summarize what he had seen and what the consequences were of what he had seen. That statement was a story of global decline during a single lifetime. His lifetime. It was a lifetime I have shared. I have experienced the same thing. I will summarize what he said.
Here is a photograph of a sunset, for a world turning from colour to darkness. I started this journey to Arizona in 2023 wanting to explore two themes. The decline of western civilization and the decline of nature and the need for a new attitude to nature. This really is one story with 2 sides to the same page. Like 2 streams merging. It is not a happy story. It begs for us to make “a long think.” That is what I want to do.
This story is not over. As David Attenborough said, “if we continue on our present course, then the damage that has been the defining feature of my lifetime will be eclipsed by the damage coming in the next.” In other words, though things were bad during my lifetime, they will be much worse during the lifetime of my granddaughter. Her world will be greatly impoverished compared to mine. And that is what we have left her.
In 2020 when this photo was taken, the world population reached 7.8 billion, the carbon in the atmosphere reached 415 parts per million, and the remaining wilderness was reduced to 35% of what it once was.
Extrapolating what David Attenborough said, science predicts that my granddaughter who was born 4 in years ago is likely to witness the following:
In the 2030s, the Amazon rainforest will be degraded to such an extent that it won’t produce enough rain to remain a rain forest but instead will survive as a dry savannah. This will bring catastrophic species loss. This will seriously disrupt the global water cycle. Not just in the Amazon, but around the world. The Arctic will become ice free in the summer. The speed of global warming will increase as a result because less of the sunlight will be reflected back into space when all that white snow and ice disappears. This will create a global feedback loop.
In the 2040s frozen soils will collapse and release vast amounts of frozen methane. It is a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than CO2. Of course, this will dramatically increase the rate of climate change—another feedback loop that we will have created.
In the 2050s as the oceans continue to heat up and get more acidic, coral reefs where 25% of the oceans’ marine life now lives, will die, causing immense loss of that marine life. Ocean populations will crash.
In the 2080s, when my granddaughter will reach my lofty age, soils will become exhausted, if they will not have been exhausted before then, and food production will plummet, even though populations will have risen dramatically. What kind of political upheavals will that create? Pollinating insects will disappear, again drastically reducing food production. The weather will become more and more extreme.
In the 2100s the planet will become 4ºC warmer, rendering large parts of the earth uninhabitable. Hundreds of millions of people, perhaps more, will be rendered homeless. Where will all those climate refugees go? What struggles will they encounter with people who don’t want to let them in? What havoc will they bring in their wake? What will life be like on the planet then?
It is likely that a 6th mass extinction event has already started. And this time, unlike the first 5 of such events, the cause will be us. We will be the producers of that massacre of life on the planet.
As David Attenborough said, “Within the span of the next lifetime, the security and stability of the Holocene, our Garden of Eden, will be lost.”
That is the lifetime my granddaughter can look forward to. And she can thank me, and my generation for what we have done. Imagine that. I can’t!
We can’t let this happen. We need to make a long think!