It seems to me that the ultimate cause of most of the world's environmental problems is human greed.
Those who control nations, powerful corporations, and the economy are primarily interested in profits; consideration for the health of the environment and for the long-term sustainability of society and the planet have very low priorities.
There are many reasons to believe that the present global civilisation
is facing its last years.
The problems listed below may not bring down civilisation, but they will
greatly change it.
In addition, many of humanity's activities are
, the forced
change toward sustainability, which must come in time, will also greatly
change our society.
- Environment has a low
the majority of the people of the world, and consequently the governments
of democratic nations, give a low priority to the environment.
As an example, on 2014/01/16 Lara Giddings, Premier of the Australian state of Tasmania, said: "[Labor party supporters] see from the Greens still [as] a party that concentrates on the environment as their number one core issue."
She was pointing out why people should vote for Labor and not for the greens.
This idea, that the environment is all very well, but should not get top priority is no doubt a common view, and is why we see the problems listed on this page; the environment must come first, if we rubbish our environment we will find that we have nothing.
We are running out of readily accessible petroleum, the evidence is suggesting that peak production of conventional petroleum has past, yet governments and industry are taking little action.
The development of horizontal drilling and fracking has made available unconventional petroleum and has, at least temporarily taken the pressure off conventional petroleum, but there are serious environmental problems associated with fracking.
a trained cyclist can produce about 400 Watts for an hour or so, an
adult of average fitness can produce 50-100W for an hour and a
healthy, well fed labourer, about 75W for 8 hours.
Tens of thousands of years ago mankind's energy came from the food we ate.
With the domestication of animals, we harnessed the energy in
the food that our domestic animals ate and at about the same time we
discovered fire and were able to use the heat from
burning wood to warm ourselves and cook our food.
From about the twelfth century we progressively harnessed an increasing amount
of energy from wind and flowing water; then, in the nineteenth century
we started using steam engines to enable us to use the energy stored in
From then the price of energy has more-or-less steadily fallen and our
consumption steadily increased.
"All the energy in crops grown today–along with plants consumed by
livestock and trees harvested for pulp, paper and other wood
products–comes to roughly 180 Exajoules, or about 20 percent of
world energy consumption." Scientific American, p45, August 2011.
Modern farming is energy intensive, because of the machinery used and the
heavy use of fertiliser, the manufacture of which is also energy intensive.
The energy cost of food packaging, preparation, transporting foods long
distances is also very high.
Scientific American (January 2012) estimated the energy consumption of the
food industry as percentages of the total U.S. energy budget:
|U.S. Energy Budget Spent on Food
|Food packaging, preparation, refrigeration, handling, sales and
|Food processing and manufacturing
The same article stated that ten times the fossil-fuel energy goes into foods
grown in the USA as is available from those foods.
The declining supply of petroleum will force food prices up.
will cause massive disruption, environmental disasters,
mass migrations and wars; yet not a single government is doing enough to
reduce greenhouse gas production; most are doing next to nothing.
For every one degree Celsius rise of temperature above the norm, wheat,
rice and corn yields fall by 10 percent
(Scientific American, May 2009).
Yet denial of climate change abounds.
- Water supplies are coming under increasing pressure.
More and more water is needed to maintain agricultural production, but
most of the world's water resources are already over-exploited.
- While world population continues to rise world food production seems to have peaked and be on the decline.
This decline will accelerate as fertiliser prices rise with readily accessible deposits being used up and more land is used for energy production to replace the petroleum that we must try not to burn.
- Population growth has stopped in China and in many developed nations (not Australia).
This has resulted in several forms of disruption: ageing populations having to be supported by a diminishing work force in the West, and a gender inequality in China.
There are increasing population pressures in many other countries and this,
combined with loss of agricultural productivity associated with climate
change and declining water resources is adding to the increasing number of
refugees in the world.
- There is an increasing gap between rich and poor in most of the world.
This is resulting in an increasing level of disillusionment among the poor,
which, in turn, is leading to a less cohesive and stable society.
No governments seem willing or able to reverse the trend in financial inequality.
- The ultimate cause for the failure of this civilisation is the dominance of short-term, emotionally-based and ill-informed decision making.
Science and technology has given humanity power over our environment,
but humans are driven largely by emotions.
At a time when rationallity and an understanding of science and the knowledge that science has made available to us is increasingly essential,
many of the world's people seem to be turning away from science; ignorance seems to be increasing, belief in 'new age' mumbo-jumbo, religion and other superstitions is increasing.
- War in space: Any war between the nations that have space capabilities could lead to an attack on opponents' satellites. The nation whose satellites were targeted would probably respond by attacking the first nation's satellites.
In 2022 there were some 16 nations or groups of nations that had launched vehicles into space.
Such a 'space war' would leave a huge number of fragments in low and medium earth orbit. The possible cascade in satellites being fragmented by fragments from other satellites could destroy any remaining satellites, at least in low and medium earth orbit.
We would loose many services including telecommunication and global positioning services (GPS). How big the flow-on effects of this would be are hard to estimate.
By definition, a civilisation that is unsustainable must change in one way
If the unsustainable features of a civilisation are not changed by a
conscious effort of
the citizens then changes will be forced onto the civilisation.
Each of the problems below must be solved if our civilisation is to become
The first twelve points in the list below are based on those that Jared
Diamond included in his excellent book, Collapse, I added the remainder.
(Diamond's list is repeated in its short form on my page,
Threatened disasters compared
- Habitats are being destroyed at record rates.
- Wild foods, especially fish stocks, are being destroyed; trawling
is damaging the sea-bed.
- Biodiversity is being lost at record rates.
- The area of land available for food production, and the
remaining land's productivity, is decreasing due to:
- Soil lost to erosion;
- Fertility lost following declining levels of plant nutrients
and soil carbon;
- Soil productivity is being destroyed by salinisation due to the
build-up of natural salts from irrigation water and
reclaimed sewage water;
- Land is being taken out of production for the construction of housing
and roads, etc.
- Productivity in a number of areas is declining because of declining
rainfall (with climate change),
in some areas previously productive land is turning to desert;
- Coastal land is being lost due to rising sea levels, this is
particularly important in the world's great river deltas (which have
some of the world's most furtile land);
- Land-use is being changed from food production to fuel production.
- Our civilisation is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, particularly
petroleum, yet the
supply is declining.
- Fresh water resources are greatly over-committed, and in many areas
are declining due to climate change.
Water is being drawn from many of the world's major aquifers at rates much
greater than they are being recharged by natural processes; many are
failing or will begin failing in the near future.
Much of the world's food production depends on irrigation, but the water
available for irrigation is decreasing.
- Humanity is approaching the 'photosynthetic ceiling'.
Soon there will be little photosynthetic capacity on earth that is not
dedicated to man's direct use.
- A huge range of chemicals are being released into natural
environments with unknown long-term effects.
- Plastic wastes are being released into natural environments at increasing rates and are causing great harm to many species and the environment as a whole.
For more information you could see
Wikipedia's article on plastic pollution.
- Alien species: weeds, pests and pathogens that humanity has spread
around the world are having a steadily increasing effect.
- Problems due to climate change:
- Rising ocean temperatures are causing coral reefs to die, sea ice to
melt and sea levels to rise.
- Rising temperatures on land are causing declines in agricultural
- Mountain glaciers are retreating; this is particularly serious for
those rivers that have their sources in the Himalayas and are heavily
relied upon for irrigation in South and East Asia.
- Positive feed-back effects are beginning, for example the release of
methane from arctic permafrost and the decline in snow and ice cover will
increase the greenhouse effect.
- World population continues to rise, especially steeply in many
The environmental impact of the average person is increasing, due to
rising living standards.
people with more money to spend are demanding more meat, the production of
which is more environmentally expensive than vegetable-based foods.
Economists and governments still believe that a growing economy is the
only healthy economy, while the absurdity of this argument is obvious to
anyone capable of seeing that one finite planet is incompatible with
permanent exponential growth.
oceans are becoming more acidic
(their pH is falling) due to
increasing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (with climate change).
This is detrimental to all those oceanic invertebrates that have calcium
carbonate skeletons, such as corals, molluscs and many planktonic species.
are becoming polluted, apart from floating plastic waste, there are high
levels of pollution even
in the deepest parts of the oceans.
- Forest is being cleared and not replaced.
(Diamond was well aware of this problem, but did not include it, as an
individual item, in his dozen.)
- Modern mechanised agriculture requires large quantities of cheap
(petroleum) fuel; in some cases the energy in the crops produced is
little greater than the energy consumed to raise the crops.
To be sustainable agriculture must produce crops containing far more
available energy than is consumed in the total production process.
(See energy return on investment.)
Phosphate supplies for the production of fertiliser are running out.
Phosphorus is one of the three most important plant nutrients; without
phosphorus fertilisers the "Green Revolution" in agriculture would not have
Scientific American (June 2009) called the world's phosphate supply
"a looming crisis" and said that if action is not taken now "future
agriculture will collapse".
Some phosphate deposits contain levels of cadmium sufficient to cause
contamination of the soils that receive the phosphate fertilizers over an
extended period of time.
Morocco has control of about 40% of global phosphate reserves.
Most of this phosphate is actually in Western Sahara, a nation that was
annexed by Morocco in, I think, the 1990s.
The UN has made efforts to allow the Sahrawis a referendum on the
sovereignty of Western Sahara, but the Moroccan government is not moving.
Morocco has a poor record on human rights.
has the second largest phosphate reserves on
earth and just as poor a record on human rights as does Morocco.
- The populations of most countries are aging (if population growth is controlled average age increases).
Apart from the aged, the proportion of the populations of Western nations in particular who are incapable of, or unwilling to, work is increasing (single mothers, disabled, unemployable, etc.)
This is placing an increasing load on the shrinking proportion of the population that has to support the economies.
and fundamentalist religions, particularly
are gaining an increasing grip on the world's people at a time when what
is needed is a carefully thought-out and
response to the problems listed here.
How many people are expecting a non-existent god to fix all our problems
rather than taking action themselves?
- Sperm counts in decline;
Miranda Bryant wrote an
article for The Guardian, 2021/02/26, about a study and book by epidemiologist Shanna Swan describing seriously declining human sperm counts.
Swan's study found that sperm counts in Western nations had fallen by 59% between 1973 and 2011.
Quoting from the Guardian article:
Swan blames “everywhere chemicals”, found in plastics, cosmetics and pesticides, that affect endocrines such as phthalates and bisphenol-A.
If human sperm counts are declining we can only assume that other mammals, that share our environment, are suffering from the same problem.
“Chemicals in our environment and unhealthy lifestyle practices in our modern world are disrupting our hormonal balance, causing various degrees of reproductive havoc,” she writes.
- Insects are in decline; perhaps this is most obvious to ordinary people in the decline in the numbers of squashed insects that we are seeing on or cars' windscreens compared to 20 years or more ago.
Among pollinating insects, honeybees in particular, are suffering badly in many countries from colony collapse disorder.
(While the cause of CCD is not fully known, it seems to be due to "multiple
factors [that] interact to weaken the hives, making them susceptible to a
range of pathogens and viruses." [New Internationalist, Sept. 2009])
Wild bees are also suffering losses and quite probably extinction of some
Some of the causes of the decline of pollinating insects are: the clearing of
native vegetation, with its enormous variety of flowering species;
monoculture agriculture, which all flowers at the same time resulting if
feasts alternating with famines for the insects; and widespread use of
agricultural chemicals, insecticides in particular.
Without the pollinating insects, many plants are less able, or unable, to
A synthesis of studies shows many species decreasing in numbers.
Quoting from the
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
"What we found is that 41 per cent on average of all insect species that we know are declining," said Dr Sanchez-Bayo.
Among those, a third of all the species are going into extinction. They're in danger right now. The rate of extinction in insects is about eight times higher than the rate of extinction of vertebrates.
Dr Sanchez-Bayo and his colleague Kris Whyckhuys analysed all the long-term studies of insect populations they could find. The majority of the 73 studies were from Western Europe and the US, with only a handful of studies from other parts of the world and only one from Australia."
- Man is now artificially producing more nitrates (as fertilisers)
than are produced naturally, with the result that the natural nitrogen
cycle has become unbalanced.
Nitrates and phosphate being washed off farmland and from sewage are
causing algal blooms and consequent 'dead zones' in the coastal waters of
many parts of the world.
- The present careless use of antibiotics is causing
micro-organisms to develop resistance.
Antibiotics are, for example, routinely added to some animal feeds because
it produces slightly faster growth rates.
- The ozone layer that protects the earth's surface from damaging
ultra-violet light has been damaged.
Production of the worst of the gasses that have caused most ozone loss have
been controlled by the Montreal Protocol, and there is cause for optimism;
but no room for complacency.
Our mega-cities are not compatible with a declining supply of petroleum.
Carting food and other materials from where they are produced into cities,
and carting wastes out, requires a lot of fuel.
As the imperative to reduce petroleum consumption makes our present form of mechanised agriculture less viable and as food prices rise due to shortages, more labour will be required to maximise food production; that labour is living in the wrong place at present.
Modern cities and suburbs have been developed to suit the private car.
People with access to enough land to significantly supplement their needs
will do so, but modern city and suburban blocks are so small that their
owners will not have this option.
- The private car, as it is, is incompatible with declining petroleum
supplies and the need to reduce greenhouse gas production; its use must
be greatly reduced if societies are to become sustainable, but there is
no indication of reduction as of 2009.
Changing to electric vehicles of similar power to current petroleum-fuelled
models will no much help, going to much lower-powered and lighter vehicles
might be viable.
- The gap between rich and poor is widening.
Even in the great democracies, the
wealthy are gathering to themselves a
steadily increasing share of political power (by controlling who gets
into government and then controlling what those in power do –
consider the lack of government action on
climate change while the great majority
of informed voters want action), leaving a declining
amount of power to the less well-off.
As in the past, a point will be reached at which those near the bottom of
the heap will demand a more balanced spread of wealth and power.
- Malnutrition is increasing.
Many people still don't have enough to eat, that is nothing new and may not
be increasing, but obesity due to poor eating habbits is increasing at a
very high rate, and not just in the well fed West.
This is leading to increased health problems and health costs.
- Meat consumption is increasing.
The production of meat requires far more land that the production of the same
amount of vegetable foods.
There is no more land.
Of critical importance is the fact that humanity has not reacted
appropriately to these problems.
In response to climate change governments are doing as little as possible
and the great majority of individuals are not changing their
lifestyles; governments refuse to see that growth cannot continue for ever
and seem to not want to know about the declining petroleum supply.
People live as if most of the
above problems did not exist and we can continue to live the next
fifty years with as little care for the environment as in the past fifty.
We have become reliant on a globally integrated economy.
Given the above problems, this cannot continue.
A walk for action on climate change
In 2014 a small group, including me, walked
about 750km from Melbourne to the Australian capital, Canberra, to deliver a petition to parliament asking for serious action on climate change.
How did we, humanity, allow all the ills that we are seeing happen to the planet that we call home?
Why didn't we look after the planet that we live on and that our children and grandchildren will inherit from us?
Science, greed, selfishness, ignorance, short sightedness, apathy; all are factors.
We couldn't have destroyed the world without science, but science is not to be blamed for our destruction of the world. Science allowed us to understand how the world works, what we did with that knowledge is outside of science.
The seemingly inevitable destruction of the world by Mankind is linked to Man's failings: his ability to delude himself (eg. religion), his shortsightedness (eg. chasing profit at all costs), his selfishness and greed, his innate tendencies (eg. to have too many children and overpopulated the planet), the inability or unwillingness of the great majority to work for the greater good.
Science is, will always be, Mankind's greatest, most noble, achievement. The destruction of the world could be blamed largely on the lack of ethical standards in those who rose to the top of the heap and the apathy of the great majority.
The present interdependent world-wide civilisation might fail catastrophically
, provoked by some crisis (like the economic crisis of 2009), or it could gradually come undone due to increasing combinations of economic and/or environmental factors.
The costs of food, water and energy are increasing.
We have run out of new agricultural land; there is no more good agricultural
land that can be brought into production.
The Green Revolution is over.
Poor agricultural land can be temporarily got by felling the world's
remaining forest, at great environmental cost.
There are increasing problems with loss of fertility and weeds in the
world's agricultural land.
Nearly all the water available has been committed in the parts of the world
where water is needed for food production.
Water can be diverted from one use to another, or one place to another, or
fresh water can be got from the sea, but all with increased costs and
increased consumption of increasingly expensive energy.
The portable energy that we have got from petroleum is becoming more
expensive because we are
running out of petroleum
The Global Financial Crisis of 2009 temporarily eased the pressure on the
petroleum supply (and therefore on the cost of petroleum), but by early 2011
we were again seeing increasing petroleum prices.
There are still huge reserves of lower value forms of petroleum, but all
come with greater financial and environmental costs.
The cost of electricity is increasing due to several factors:
- Nuclear power has proved to be much
more costly (in money, irrespective
of its environmental costs) than was expected fifty years ago, and the
cheapest uranium has already been mined; what remains is low grade ore and
more costly to get out of the ground.
- Little more hydro-power is available without either unacceptable
environmental damage or loss of agricultural land, or both.
- We cannot increase the rate at which we mine and burn coal without
increasing climate change, and in any case, the easiest coal to mine has
gone in many parts of the world.
- We are running out of petroleum; the increasing cost of fuel feeds-back
into many other costs.
- Sustainable power, while potentially plentiful, is more expensive
than the simple mining and burning of fossil fuels.
So, it seems likely that the graduall decline in availability of cheap
food, water and energy will cause finding a livelihood on this planet to
become steadily more challenging.
It is probable that economic decline will be initiated by falling petroleum
supplies; if so then there will be a feed-back between demand and price
of petroleum – as petroleum prices rise, world economy will decline and
demand for petroleum will shrink, tending to ease the pressure on price.
Our civilisation is very dependent upon cheap energy, and petroleum is the
most portable and convenient of the cheap energy sources.
Rising petroleum prices will cause shortages and price rises in many other
things that have been cheap because energy and petroleum has been cheap.
It seems likely that there will be a positive feed-back with small rises
in the cost of energy leading to increasing costs in almost everything
else, leading back into further increases in the cost of energy.
At the time of writing, 2020/08/11, the number of cases that had been diagnosed worldwide had just passed twenty million and there had been well over 700,000 deaths from COVID-19.
While the disease does not have a high death rate, about 5%, it is causing huge social and economic disruption.
Only time will tell what impact this will have on global stability.
(According to WHO the disease is properly called 'coronavirus disease', COVID-19; while the virus itself is 'severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2', SARS-CoV-2.)
It is possible that an outbreak of a highly contagious disease, such as the
flu epidemic of 1918 or SARS, might provide the trigger that begins the
End of growth?
Governments and economists have long relied on growing economies and have
irrationally seemed to believe that economies can continue to grow for ever.
Declining resources, the end of cheap energy in particular, will probably cause
negative economic growth.
In the early stages of the decline there could be rising unemployment.
This may result in reduced turn-over in the retail industry, restaurants and other businesses that rely on discretionary spending; in turn this may lead to increasing defaulting on mortgages, eventually resulting in the failure of banks.
Governments will have greatly reduced revenue because of the decreased tax
income and increased expenditure due to unemployment; so they will not be in
a position to bail-out the banks.
While the interconnected global civilisation seems likely to fail in
not many years, it is very probable
that more local civilisations will endure in many places.
If we are lucky the rule of law will not break down in most areas and
perhaps the present Golden
of free thought and scientific advance will continue in at least
Are the current financial problems the beginning of much greater changes?
Why are we having the present problems?
Why the financial slow-down generally in The West, worse than that in Europe.
What is the underlying cause?
Increasing cost of fuel? Increasing cost of food?
Declining supply of space for development?
Or maybe it can't be stated specifically?
Maybe it's just the result of an ever increasing use of resources that are
becoming steadily more scarce?
In the early phase of declining petroleum, energy and food prices will rise
because the cost of agricultural production will rise, this will lead on to an
increase in malnutrition and starvation particularly in third world
As I write this in early 2011 we have already seen big rises in energy
prices and food riots in response to steeply rising food prices.
Manufacturing and services industries will decline because people will
make-do with aging machines or do without, and will not be able to afford
many of the services.
This will lead to widespread unemployment, particularly in cities, with
consequent defaulting on mortgages and loans; many banks will fail
(many came close to failing in the recent Global Financial Crisis).
The GFC showed that banks are less stable than
we used to think; in a more serious down-tern
many will fail, and governments will not be able to afford to prop them up.
Financial constraints on governments – largely because
income from tax will be much reduced – will become very tight, but
the lessons that we are seeing in the near-economic failures of states such
as Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Spain and Portugal in 2010 and 2011 will
probably not have been learned and there will be many states that will
Fuel is one of the main costs in farming, fertiliser is another; manufacture
of nitrogenous fertiliser is highly energy intensive and the raw materials
for making phosphate fertilisers are running out.
The developed nations will no longer have the money (or the will) to
support poor nations; this, combined with the increasing cost of energy,
price of food, scarcity of water, etc. etc. will lead to wide-spread
starvation and political instability there.
Many of the people of poor nations will attempt to move to richer nations,
causing further instabilities.
In the developed nations agricultural industries will have to be supported
so that enough food can be produced to feed the people.
Unemployment, and the lack of the option of any subsistence gardening
within our crowded cities will probably cause a migration from urban to rural
areas, placing heavy loads on local economies and societies.
Regulation of wages will be reduced or stopped all together to put more
flexibility into economies; reduced wages and government support for
agriculture will cause a great increase in employment in the sector.
The availability of lowly paid workers will allow for an increasingly
labour-intensive agricultural industry and probably lead to an increased
level of productivity per hectare.
If I am right about the collapse of this global civilisation then the
Internet may also fail (or people will simply have higher priorities than
reading material on the Internet), so few or none will read this page.
Until that time, people will be able to read this page, and they will
probably believe that I am wrong because civilisation has not failed
Bankrupt states will not be able to financially support those people who cannot support themselves; the poor will, at least to a large extent, be thrown on their own devices.
People such as self-funded retirees will find that most of their investments
On the world scale it seems likely that mass migrations and consequent wars will ravage Africa and Eurasia in particular.
If, in the worst case, there is a major decline into barbarism, it will be difficult to climb back to civilisation because all of the easily mined resources have been used up.
The next civilisation will be a different one, we can hope it will be a saner one.
Has it already started?
There can be no doubting that the way that humanity is living in the early twenty-first century is unsustainable.
The world is grossly overcrowded and the numbers are still increasing.
There are more refugees than there have ever been, they are finding refuges harder to find; it seems that no countries want them.
Water shortages are widespread; there are an increasing number of failed or failing states in the world; things are looking increasingly grim for many of the world's poorer people.
Our environment is suffering insults on many fronts, the rate of extinctions is high enough to make the present comparable to the great extinctions of the geological past.
We are in the later years of a great global
golden age of freedom and
There is no reason to think that our present civilisation should be in some way fundamentally different to other civilisations (other than its global nature) and immune from the failures that have occurred to many others in the past.