Little should imagine Martyl Langsdorf, illustrator and wife of one of the researchers of the Manhattan Project, architect of the first atomic bomb, that his representation of nuclear danger on the cover of the magazine The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists would become an icon to this day.
Since then, the hands of the Clock of the Apocalypse, as it was called, have not stopped moving closer and away from the midnight point that represents the end of the world.
Since last year, the minute hand is only two minutes away from that fateful hour, a level of alert that was not repeated since the 1953 crisis between the US and the USSR during the Cold War.
The scope of this threat is now much wider and includes emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that have not stopped growing exponentially since the fifties and that increased again in 2017 and 2018.
The first global collapse in history?
It is not the first time in the history of mankind that the overexploitation of the environment has ended up bringing entire civilizations into decline or simply erasing them forever, as has also happened with numerous animal species.
This time, however, the collapse would be global, due to the concatenation of interrelated problems: climate change, rapid extinction of species, degradation of land and its fertility, dissemination of toxics, acidification of the oceans, eutrophication of waters, new epidemiological risks, depletion of essential resources …
It is difficult to face such a complex and global situation from a strictly human perspective, that’s why we especially welcome visions that are located in a point of observation as far as that offered by the biologists Paul and Anna Ehrlich, professors and researchers from Stanford University.
His study, from the ecology, of the evolution of natural populations of butterflies, fish and birds provides a new context less anthropocentric to the impact of humans on the planet.
As can be seen from the article “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoider?“, Published in the scientific journal Proceedings of The Royal Society B, the measures that can be proposed to redress the situation will always be short if effective decisions are not taken beforehand. slow population growth and overpopulation.
It is enough to see that, at the level of resources, we would have to have half a planet more to maintain the consumption of the current population according to the living standards of the developed countries.
But if we go further, and we do the exercise of placing ourselves in 2050 adding 2,500 million people in the total of inhabitants, estimating levels of consumption like those that currently exist in the US, we can see that we would need, at least, the resources equivalent to 4 or 5 Lands!
In the opinion of the authors of the study, the first clear symptom of the beginning of a global collapse would be the inability to adequately feed a large part of the world’s population.
One of the great “technological miracles” that has led to an exponential increase in demography, nearly 80 years ago, has been the revolution of industrial agriculture but due to its unsustainable design, it has its own expiration date.
It goes without saying that any State that is not able to guarantee such a basic supply would see the minimum necessary social cohesion fall so as not to disintegrate its structure.
Global warming, already led to an increase of 2'4°C (clearly above 2°C that scientists considered "safe") will cause irreversible damage, among others, in food production. If we do not take urgent measures, an increase to 5ºC of the average temperature could very well leave our species out of history.
Thus, it would be necessary to halve the use of fossil fuels by 2050, a difficult goal to achieve, among other things, because the fertilizers and pesticides used in the current food industry depend on oil for its manufacture.
New emerging countries aspire to the standards of living that Western countries have enjoyed for decades and this implies exorbitant energy demands. Globally, it is planned to create 1,200 coal power plants (2012 data), which would represent an installed capacity of 1.4 million Mw, the majority in China.
And then, are we faced with the inevitable?
Despite this darkening horizon as the years pass without drastic reactions from the international community, Paul and Anna Ehrlich are convinced that the global society has the capacity to react to serious global threats as it has demonstrated in the past with the limitation of nuclear escalation, but that the main enemy is the low awareness that society still has its gravity.
Understanding that the false belief that technology will magically save us from these dangers (a good part of the current problems have been generated by bad technological choices) does not have too much travel, we can adopt a more integrative and holistic vision that assumes criteria inspired by Nature , always sustainable and balanced in the use of resources.
In this crucial situation, scientists and technologists are called to play a fundamental role, in close complicity with broad social strata, in reversing the disaster.
This implies, first of all, renouncing the illusion of sustained and arbitrary annual growth and learning to decelerate. Reduce overconsumption, rethink the priorities of technological development and, in essence, accept that another distribution of costs and benefits is necessary, with sacrifices for the present, for the benefit of the future.
In essence, we are talking about generational responsibility and instinct of survival as a species. Regardless of whether we feel involved or not, the time to act is now. Do not pass us like the frog that when he decided to escape from the boat with hot water in which he was already too late. The temperature had risen so slowly that when she realized it, she was too weak to react.
Biomimetic Sciences Institute