The greatest threat to the human race is the human race itself

The greatest threat to the human race is the human race itself

The greatest threat to the human race is the human race itself
A billion humans were added in the past 12 years alone. (AFP)
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The history of our universe goes back 13.8 billion years to the occurrence of the Big Bang. Our relatively young planet Earth was formed “only” 4.5 billion years ago, with the first complex animals emerging 500 million years ago and homo sapiens appearing only 300,000 years ago.

It would be useful here to repeat an exercise some of us might remember from school: Were we to squeeze the entire history of Earth into 24 hours, humans would appear just a little before one minute to midnight.

Therefore the development of complex forms of life on Earth predates us humans by almost 500 million years, yet in just the past 50 years we have managed to eliminate almost 70 percent of wildlife, according to the Living Planet Report published in October by the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Zoological Society of London.

The destruction we have wrought on our planet goes far beyond this tragic statistic — it extends to the destruction of entire ecosystems, the pillaging of our planet’s finite resources and the emission of so much toxic waste that we are killing ourselves and disrupting the Earth’s climate with already-disastrous consequences.

Just a few weeks ago, we passed the milestone of 8 billion humans on Earth. A billion were added in the past 12 years alone. We have noted before that if all humans consumed resources at the same rate as Americans, we would already need more than five Earths to sustain humanity.

Inevitably, in our crazed race of overconsumption we have lost more than a third of arable land to erosion and pollution over the past 40 years. We have seen desertification expand to more than 25 percent of Earth’s land mass and threaten the livelihoods of more than one billion people. Marine life has declined by 50 percent, with plastic soon set to outnumber marine life by weight. And the poisons we release into the air we breathe kill more than 7 million people every year.

Eminent physicist Stephen Hawking was, it seems, not exaggerating in 2017 when he urged us to rapidly learn to colonize new planets because he gave Earth only 100 more years before its irreversible destruction.

As historian Yuval Noah Harari outlined in his landmark book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” we humans stand out through our remarkable brains, which arm us with an intelligence that has allowed us to achieve the unimaginable. The progress we have made over the past two centuries — the past two millennia, also — is simply remarkable.

Unfortunately, that progress has come at a terrible cost, highlighting the human mind’s other great capacity: Its capacity for ignorance that allows us to set aside the rather uncomfortable details of the devastating side effects of our progress.

Although we try to forecast everything from the weather to every kind of market or even geopolitical realignments, we seem utterly unable to take in the minute-by-minute destruction we are wreaking on the sustainability of life on Earth. Humans have become the single largest threat to the very existence of other species, to our planet and, of course, to ourselves.

Nothing illustrates our willing ignorance of our ongoing daily destruction of the planet that sustains us more clearly than the forced global standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic. Confined mostly to our own homes, the usual traffic of cars, ships and airplanes was vastly reduced, as were the emissions from industry and general pollution.

Suddenly, we glimpsed animals wandering through our towns, we were able to see stars in our skies that we had not seen for years, and we breathed air in cities so fresh we had to do a double-take to check where we really were. Mother Earth sent us a clear message through the coronavirus and we saw how our reduced activity was benefiting the planet, all while not stopping the Earth from turning.

Nothing illustrates our willing ignorance of our ongoing daily destruction of the planet that sustains us more clearly than the forced global standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hassan bin Youssef Yassin

Clearly, there was a strong silver lining to seeing most of humanity spend a little time in domestic prison. As soon as the gates reopened, however, we threw ourselves back into our previous lives and destructive habits, instantly brushing off any lessons we might have learned.

I view our fixation with “saving” specific animals in Africa in a similar way. How arrogant it is of us to first destroy the habitats and natural elements necessary for a certain species to survive, and then to rush in as potential saviors to rescue that which all our previous actions were knowingly destroying.

Most of all, I see in such behavior one more excuse for not coming to terms with the extent to which our daily lives — and, indeed, our entire way of life — are responsible for the inexcusable destruction of our planet and all the Earth’s species, including ourselves.

This is not unlike our blind faith in technology to somehow save us all from the brink of destruction. These are tranquilizers for our conscience that we continue to deploy until we die, burying with us every opportunity to leave behind a world in which our children have any chance of surviving.

Indeed, for those of us who follow the Earth’s daily ticker, there is not much good news to be found. We can no longer claim that we are in any way in control; we are simply sliding ever further into the darkness.

Humans have proven themselves in so many illustrious domains, yet humanity as a whole seems unable to recognize its own failings in a way that could precipitate the vast changes necessary to make life on this planet sustainable again.

I cannot leave you with any solutions, only a warning expressed by a prescient Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

• 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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