Earth’s greatest tragedy may be just 100 years away

Earth’s greatest tragedy may be just 100 years away

Egrets gather at a garbage dump in Blang Bintang, near Banda Aceh, Indonesia. (AFP)

The history of our blue and green planet is a truly extraordinary one. Formed some 4.5 billion years ago — a relatively young age compared to that of the universe — it saw an outburst in the diversity of complex lifeforms half a billion years ago. Abundant water, oxygen and carbon allowed life to thrive. Some 300,000 years ago, our own species, Homo sapiens, made its appearance, the lucky beneficiary of evolutionary processes on an Earth with an abundance of resources. Animals as large as apartment blocks attest to that abundance of resources. Before long, humans applied their uncommon intelligence to employing resources such as stone, fire and minerals to create tools and metals. The history of our species is a remarkable story of ingenuity and progress.
The last 200 years, in particular, have seen exceptional developments in the capacities and inventions of human beings. The Industrial Revolution allowed us to produce all kinds of tools and objects in far greater numbers. Along with a demographic explosion, this has led us to our present day, where there are more mobile phones in existence than the 7.7 billion human beings alive. Humans rely on about 30 elements from the periodic table to live, while an iPhone is made from more than 75 of the 118 elements. This is just one example of the scale of planetary resource exploitation that is required to satisfy our current lifestyles. We don’t need Yuval Noah Harari to tell us that humans have done exponentially more damage to the planet in just a few thousand years than all other species combined over hundreds of millions of years.

We are no longer unaware of the extent of the environmental damage we are doing to our planet, or how rapidly this could constrain human existence in the near future.

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin

We are no longer unaware of the extent of the environmental damage we are doing to our planet, or how rapidly this could constrain human existence in the near future. Stephen Hawking even urged that we rapidly learn to colonize new planets because he only gave Earth 100 more years before irreversible destruction. The greatest problem we have today is not knowledge but action. We have all heard how the Arctic has lost three-quarters of its summer ice already, that marine life has declined by 50%, that there is 250,000 metric tons of plastic in our oceans, that more than one-third of arable land has been lost to erosion and pollution over the past 40 years, and that we now live in an age of climate refugees. Individuals and scientists who cite these numbers are often mocked by politicians for impeding “progress,” but there is no escaping the fact that, as Mathis Wackernagel, head of the Global Footprint Network, put it: “Our economies are running a Ponzi scheme with our planet. We are using the Earth’s future resources to operate in the present and digging ourselves deeper into ecological debt.”
As we instead busy ourselves with petty politics and the latest celebrity news, the warning signs for our environment and our planet are multiplying rapidly. The contrast between what the Earth offered our young species some 100,000 years ago and the state we have left it in today is particularly arresting. The tragedy of our species is that we have been able to make such immense progress but, instead of employing our ingenuity to reverse the damage we now recognize that we have done, we choose to stick our heads in the sand. Our ability to destroy the planet and all life many times over with a simple press of the so-called nuclear red button belies the slow-motion button press that our current actions toward our planet and our livelihood constitute. That button is one of ignorance and negligence.
What I would like to see most of all today is the lifting of the spell of our politicians, with individuals around the world taking responsibility for our deeds and taking concrete action on a daily basis to slow or reverse the damage we are doing. I believe that a majority of the world’s population is sensitive to the environmental changes we are seeing on our planet, and most do not have the possibility to buy their way out of the consequences as our elites do. 
Getting 70 percent of the world’s population on board to play a daily role in limiting the damage to our planet is not an unattainable goal. Limiting car and airplane use, limiting our intake of meat products, and reducing waste are steps we can all implement in our daily lives. I want to focus first on worldwide participation in reducing waste by, say, 15 percent over the next three years. This can include household, water, food or energy waste. Let us all participate and show that our species has not been irredeemably anaesthetized into ignorance and inaction.

  • Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He headed the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981, and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.
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