The question is not whether we are going to trash the planet. The question is whether we are going to trash ourselves as a species. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from last week’s publication by the United Nations Environment Program of GEO-4 (available online here, news article summary here). What’s interesting is that we’re now seeing cultural responses to our potential extinction.

In short, the 300+ scientists who contributed suggested that the condition of land, sea, air and rivers have all deteriorated in the last 20 years, to a point where economies are likely to be threatened (or to put it another way, the free ride of the markets on the biospehere is about to hit its limits). Some quick headlines:

  • We have 15.7 hectares per person but are using 21.9 – broadly confirming the calculations of others – such as the Global Footprint Network – that we are more than 30% above the carrying capacity of the planet
  • Climate change is now ‘drastic and unequivocal’, and drastic steps are needed to curtail it: “Fundamental changes in social and economic structures, including lifestyle changes, are crucial if rapid progress is to be achieved”.
  • Irrigation is reducing the quantity and quality of water flows for food, while fertilisers are causing contamination. Desertification is destroying soil quality. The scientists put their hopes in GM food.
  • Fresh water shortages will become critical: by 2025 1.8 billion people will suffer severe shortages
  • Species are becoming extinct one hundred times faster than in any fossil record – we are likely to be heading for the sixth “great extinction”.

If the conculsions seem like yet another extreme environmental report, Mark Henderson, the science editor of The Times, argued that they had emerged from a process that is geared to caution. In other words: be afraid.

It was compiled by a group of more than 380 scientists, all leading figures in fields such as climate science, ecology, fisheries or land use, subdivided into ten expert groups that prepared the chapters. Some 157 of these were appointed by 48 governments – and were thus unlikely to adopt an extreme position.

A further 1,000 scientists took part as peer-reviewers, poring over the conclusions in the areas of their expertise to challenge any misleading claims. A total of more than 13,000 comments on the draft of the full report, and 3,000 comments on the summary for decision-makers, were recorded and considered by the expert groups writing each chapter.

The result of such a process is that conclusions have tended to err on the side of caution. Only claims that have reasonably robust support in published scientific literature have been made, and wilder hypotheses have been rejected. The report’s alarming conclusions appear rather more compelling in this light.

One of the interesting things about such reports is that they now seem to be producing a cultural response. I’ve been reading The World Without Us, a book by a journalist, Alan Weisman, which imagines in careful detail what would happen if the human species disappeared from the earth in short order. It is an elaborate thought experiment which makes such a disappearance seem – bluntly – no bad thing, certainly in the first half of the book.

And George Monbiot – in contrast – has picked up on the mirror image; a novel in which, instead of there being biosphere and no humans, there are humans and no biosphere. ”

Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot. Some years before the action begins, the protagonist hears the last birds passing over, “their half-muted crankings miles above where they circled the earth as senselessly as insects trooping the rim of a bowl.” McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.”

Such extreme metaphors are signs that people are trying to find the stories which will communicate the danger of the situation in a way which might be understood viscerally rather than intellectually. But – and this is only one example – having heard a UK government minister explain today why the continued expansion of Heathrow is necessary (if we don’t other people will, unless there’s a European-wide agreement) one can’t help but feel that even extreme stories aren’t going to have sufficient impact.

If it was done by design, the Great Designer must be looking on and thinking that testing the model by putting one of the most rapacious primates in charge maybe wasn’t so intelligent after all.

Other posts on biodiversity and resource use include “Gone into ecological debt for the year”, “Visualising consumption“, “Climate change impact on UK biodiversity” and “Britain’s carbon emissions – rising” not falling