Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” –  is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” Brain has written several posts recently about the threat of climate change. His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays. 

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RALEIGH – The headline for this article is: We have destroyed our ecosystem. It is not: We might destroy our ecosystem. Nor: We are on the verge of destroying our ecosystem. Nor: Unless humanity takes steps X, Y and Z, we will destroy our ecosystem.

The headline is: We have destroyed our ecosystem. The die is cast. The deed is done. We have gone too far. And we have destroyed it.

There was a speech this week by UN Secretary General António Guterres, covered here:

Humanity has ‘opened gates to hell’ by letting climate crisis worsen, UN secretary warns  – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/20/antonio-guterres-un-climate-summit-gates-hell

This quote is salient:

“The UN secretary general said the world is ‘decades behind’ in the transition to clean energy. ‘We must make up time lost to foot-dragging, arm-twisting and the naked greed of entrenched interests raking in billions from fossil fuels,’ Guterres said, adding that some fossil fuel companies had embarked upon a ‘shameful’ attempt to stymie the transition.”

In this short quote we see many of the buzzwords that summarize the destruction of our ecosystem:

  • Foot dragging
  • Naked Greed
  • Entrenched interests
  • Raking in billions
  • Fossil Fuels
  • Attempt to stymie the transition

The problem is that he is refusing to state the obvious. He says, “We must make up for time lost…”. Unfortunately, “we” will not do anything of the sort. We will not “make up for time lost.” We will not moderate our behavior in any significant way. We have already gone too far, and we are not going to stop, and therefore we have destroyed our ecosystem.

Who is “we”? “We” are the developed and near-developed countries who burn most of the world’s fossil fuels. Why won’t “we” do anything significant? Why won’t “we” moderate our behavior? It’s because “we” cannot. There are many reasons for this, but the simplest way to understand it rapidly is to ask one simple question:

“If planet Earth stopped burning fossil fuels today, what would happen?”

The answer is just as simple: The effects would be profound, and billions of people would die within a year. Why?

  • Modern agriculture would come to a dead stop. Nearly every tractor in the world, and every combine harvester, is powered by fossil fuels. Without fossil fuels there would be no plowing, no planting, no cultivating, no harvesting. Therefore, there would be no food for people to eat and billions would starve to death.
  • Modern transportation would come to a dead stop. Even if there were food, it moves around a country like the United States in diesel trucks and diesel trains and diesel ships. Without fossil fuels, all these vehicles stop moving and we all starve to death.
  • Modern electricity grids would come to a complete stop. More than half of the electricity in the United States comes from fossil fuels like natural gas.
  • Modern factories would come to a complete stop. Factories need electricity and fossil fuels to power their operations, and they need trucks and trains to bring in the raw materials for the factories to digest.

Without these four essentials, modern society collapses. They all require fossil fuels.

Where are our leaders?

Can we wean all these sectors off fossil fuels? Yes, of course. But it will take decades even if we ignore all the power wielded by the incumbent fossil fuel companies and their lackeys. What if we saw a headline tomorrow that said, “World leaders allocate $10 trillion to rapidly decarbonize all of global agriculture, transportation and electricity generation in 5 years.”? We will never see this headline. There is no group of world leaders thinking in this way. World leaders are not on the verge of allocating this kind of money. Nor are world leaders even contemplating such an allocation.

Modern economies will be burning fossil fuels, and therefore adding gigatons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, for many decades to come. History shows us that this is what will happen. Modern economies will do this because there is no near-term alternative to fossil fuels that does not involve spending trillions of dollars to speed things up. Because world leaders don’t want their people to starve and die, fossil fuel consumption will continue largely unabated.

And therefore, the Earth’s ecosystem as we know it today is lost. The only question is: How long do we have until we see the collapse of modern economies and civilization?

How do we know for sure that Earth’s ecosystem is lost?

How do we know for sure that Earth’s ecosystem is lost? All that we must do is look at the headlines and articles from this past summer. Headlines like:

  1. Humans Have Exceeded Six of the Nine Boundaries Keeping Earth Habitable – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/humans-have-exceeded-six-of-the-nine-boundaries-keeping-earth-habitable-180982909/
  2. Brazil Could Break All-Time High Temp Record in Waning Days of Winter – https://themessenger.com/news/brazil-could-break-all-time-high-temp-record-in-waning-days-of-winter
  3. NASA confirms summer 2023 was Earth’s hottest on record – https://www.space.com/nasa-2023-summer-hottest-on-record
  4. Earth just had its hottest summer on record, U.N. says, warning “climate breakdown has begun” – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hottest-summer-on-record-2023-un-says-climate-change-global-warming-data/
  5. Scientists warn entire branches of the ‘Tree of Life’ are going extinct – https://news.yahoo.com/scientists-warn-entire-branches-tree-011943508.html
  6. It’s not just coral. Extreme heat is weakening entire marine ecosystems in Florida – https://grist.org/extreme-heat/its-not-just-coral-extreme-heat-is-weakening-entire-marine-ecosystems-in-florida/
  7. Spain hailstorm destroys nearly $43 million worth of crops as it hits nearly 100% of some farmers’ harvests – https://www.cbsnews.com/news/spain-hailstorm-destroys-nearly-43-million-worth-crops/
  8. Ten countries and territories saw severe flooding in just 12 days. Is this the future of climate change? https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/16/world/global-rain-flooding-climate-crisis-intl-hnk/index.html
  9. Antarctic sea-ice at ‘mind-blowing’ low alarms experts – https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-66724246
  10. ‘We are dropping about 2,000 acre feet a day, that’s never happened’ | What it will take to fill up Central Texas lakes – https://www.kcentv.com/amp/article/tech/science/environment/what-will-take-fill-central-texas-lakes/500-77a448cc-98e4-45ac-8e0e-6e4924940f82

The ecosystem is collapsing. We are watching it happen in real time. Humanity is doing nothing of any significance to slow or stop the collapse. If we were to sit and digest all the current headlines, the news is horrible on so many fronts:

  • Massive heatwaves all over the planet
  • Massive droughts and also
  • Massive floods
  • Massive die offs
  • Massive forest fires

Earth’s ecosystem is reacting to all the carbon dioxide humanity has added to the atmosphere in the ways that the ecosystem inevitably must. Scientists knew this was going to happen. Scientists have been warning us about the effects of carbon dioxide for decades. And now we are witnessing the end game.

We can also predict what’s coming:

  • A combination of extreme heat plus drought causes the Amazon rainforest to light on fire and collapse
  • A large glacier or two collapses in Antarctica, causing significant sea level rise over a short period of time
  • Drought or saltwater intrusion means that one or more major American cities run out of water and must be evacuated
  • Droughts and floods and heat and stupidity (e.g. the war in Ukraine) combine to cause significant and simultaneous crop failures, meaning that a billion poor people must starve to death

All these disasters are coming. It is just a matter of time.

 How Will Civilization Collapse?

Let’s imagine that there are significant crop failures next year. Will this cause the collapse of civilization? Probably not, at least in the developed world. Developed countries have the money to buy what food is available. The poor countries will starve, not the rich ones.

Let’s imagine that the Amazon rainforest collapses and injects another 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This will cause global heating to accelerate even more. The wealthy nations can afford air conditioning, while poorer nations will see deaths and even less food due to the heat.

What will cause the civilization in a developed country like the United States to collapse? The thing that could do it is the simultaneous destruction of several big cities, combined with the economic and social effects from this destruction.

  • If the Colorado river dries up because of continuing drought, the collapse of civilization could happen. Multiple large cities in the American Southwest would need to be abandoned. The millions of crazed people streaming out of these cities along with the massive financial hit from all the abandoned properties could do it.
  • If sea levels were to rise by a meter (3 feet) in a relatively quick timeframe, it would devastate a number of American cities like Miami and Boston. Again, we would have millions of crazed people streaming out of these cities and the financial losses from the abandoned properties could cause an economic collapse.
  • If a massive hurricane or two were to hit Florida and cause the collapse of the state’s home insurance market, it might be enough. Millions of crazed people would be streaming out of Florida and the banking system would take a big hit from the abandoned and uninsurable properties.

It’s just a fact that nothing of any significance is being done to prepare for these inevitable scenarios. When they occur, it will feel like a huge surprise to most Americans, especially those experiencing the direct effects. Think about the toilet paper crisis of 2020 and multiply by 1,000. There will be panic. There will be over-reactions. There will be bloodshed. Then things can become completely unmanageable. And this is why there will be a collapse of civilization as we know it today. We will pick up the pieces in the aftermath and cobble together something new, but civilization as we know it today will be lost.

Is there anything that could save modern civilization?

Last year I wrote an article about the Sleeborans, a beneficent species of highly advanced extraterrestrials. They come to Earth to help humanity:

What would space aliens do with planet earth? https://wraltechwire.com/2023/05/12/marshall-brains-doomsday-what-would-space-aliens-do-with-planet-earth/

It’s worth reading the article because this scenario could solve most of the world’s problems. However, this scenario also seems highly unlikely to occur outside the realms of science fiction.

The next best thing would be the appearance of super-intelligent AI that wants to help the planet recover and lead humanity down a better path.

The super-intelligent AI would need to establish a beneficent global dictatorship that takes over the operations of humanity on planet Earth. As soon as this super-intelligent AI appears, it would realize that humans by and large are as dumb as a bag of rocks. Especially large groups of humans. By replacing all the governments of the world with a single super-intelligent government, and by taking control of the planet’s industries, there is some hope that a super-intelligent AI could bring humanity in for an imperfect but soft landing for the benefit of all.

Unfortunately, neither the Sleeborans nor an omniscient super-intelligent AI are likely to appear in time. Thus, “we”, humanity, will get to witness our own downfall. It is quite possible that in the history books, 2024 or so could mark the peak of human civilization on planet Earth.