Choke point: Climate change and humanity's final gamble

After a few short decades in planetary limbo, it's crunch time to act on climate change.

This article originally was published as "Passing through the Bottleneck" in the Spring '15 issue of Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute's magazine for transformational people and design.

Like most people, I have good days and bad days. When it comes to looking at the future and thinking about the pressing social and environmental issues before us, it is easy to vacillate between hopefulness and hopelessness, optimism and pessimism.

If you are paying attention, it is impossible not to feel agonizing despair when looking at the convergence of global challenges such as population growth and consumption levels, habitat and species decline, and the multiple negative impacts underway with global climate change.

It is very possible to imagine a future scenario where the requirements for human civilization can’t be supported and life as we know it greatly diminishes. It is possible that humanity’s days are numbered.

But it is impossible not to feel optimistic when witnessing the incredible innovations and emergence of cutting-edge designs, ideas, projects and technologies to make our world a better place due to the outstanding work championed by amazing people and organizations all over the world.

These examples instill hope that a truly living future is possible — a world where humanity fully participates in the beautiful cycle of regeneration in which all other species are involved. Historically, humans did participate in this cycle, but we must reconcile our role as stewards and a keystone species.

A mature and nuanced way to deal with this is to be able to sit with the following seemingly contradictory feelings — accepting the gravity of the current environmental disturbances while maintaining hope.

Losing hope has few benefits and only increases the likelihood of the first scenario of a pessimistic future of humanity coming true. Existing in hope without acknowledgement of the real possibility of human decline is at best living in delusion and at worst supports the lack of responsibility and accountability that comes from believing that someone else will save us, while we continue to consume and live within the industrial and societal framework that is the cause of the global environmental decline.

While it’s easier to view the world and thoughts of the future in black-and-white terms — succumbing fully to either vision of the future — it is more mature to sit somewhere in the middle and acknowledge that the future has not yet been written while working our asses off to ensure that the positive living future is what we pass on to future generations.

Let’s explore both sides of this duality.

The dark side: Trends that fuel hopelessness

A number of global trends should cause everyone great concern about the future.

For the sake of this summary, I’m not even acknowledging potential catastrophes that are beyond our control, such as meteor impacts or supernovas capable of wiping out the planet with little to no notice.

There are numerous scenarios that could conceivably end us, but it does little good to dwell on those; let’s save them for Hollywood action movies.

It is important to acknowledge that all of the issues below are so heavily interconnected that it is hard to separate them.

1. Population and consumption trends

I have written previously about the exponentially increasing population which places immense strain on the planet’s carrying capacity. Not only are there too damn many of us — more than 7 billion humans are squeezed onto the earth, and population is projected to be 8 billion strong by 2024 — but we appropriate too much of the earth’s resources to support ourselves.

To make matters worse, consumption trends are increasing at an unhealthy pace, especially as developing countries begin to emulate the typical behavior of westernized countries’ reliance and overconsumption of natural resources. According to one estimate, worldwide private consumption expenditures have increased fourfold in the last half-century.

2. Climate change

While debate continues regarding the precise timing and severity of global climate change, there is undeniable evidence that the earth is warming at an alarming rate.

Before the Industrial Revolution, natural causes (such as variations in how the sun’s energy reached Earth and changes in the planet’s atmospheric reflectivity) were largely to blame.

However, the responsibility for climate change in the modern age, including the dramatic warming that has occurred in the past 75 years, falls squarely on human shoulders.

Accordingly, in the coming decades, we should expect to see even more dramatic weather shifts, natural disasters, droughts, ocean acidification, disappearing glaciers, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

3. Famine, drought and war

Climate change leads to food and water shortages, ecosystem diebacks, nutrient scarcity and hunger. Left unchecked, these conditions spread from microclimates to regions, ultimately threatening the stability of global food supplies and contributing to further desertification and resource challenges.

History has shown that ecological crises typically raise questions about who has the right to Earth’s natural resources, particularly when they are in short supply. How will we feed our population (especially in regions already stretched thin by poverty and hunger) when water and soil are precious commodities? How will we deal with vast numbers of climate refugees who become displaced?

4. Global pandemics

The 2014 Ebola outbreak demonstrated how quickly illness can spread when international travel allows infected individuals to cross the globe in a matter of hours. The recent rash of measles only helped prove the point of how infectious diseases can become easily widespread with modern travel.

Yet imagine what is possible with something as highly transmittable and deadly as smallpox. As population numbers and densities climb, and as we are ever-more connected through a network of international airports, it doesn’t take long to envision certain infectious diseases spreading faster than they can be vaccinatated or treated. The consequences are potentially deadly.

Then, once bacteria develop resistance to the antibiotics, the cycle starts anew. The age of antibiotics is perhaps coming to a scary end as even small skin infections can turn deadly again. 

5. Dimished resilience from wildlife and habitat loss

A healthy natural world is fundamental to the survival of all species. The more we degrade or destroy natural habitats, the greater the risk of species extinction. The World Wildlife Fund claims that habitat loss is the primary threat to 85 percent of all at-risk species.

Human activities alter and sometimes eradicate entire ecosystems through the relentless pursuit of goods and services. This process of habitat elimination systematically threatens thousands of interdependent species, which makes everything less resilient to further disruptions. If honeybees become extinct, for example, they’ll take their pollinating capabilities with them, so fruits and nuts may not be far behind.

The more compromised global habitat diversity becomes, the greater the likelihood of species extinction and cascading effects that ultimately could undermine our very existence, given that humanity ultimately relies on thousands of other species for its survival and certainly for its well-being. So just as we are making the world less stable due to climate change, we are also undermining the very systems that could help us adapt.

6. Nuclear disaster

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi meltdown demonstrates that even the most sophisticated safeguards aren’t powerful enough to withstand the effects of a nuclear accident.

With nuclear power present in more than two dozen countries (and nuclear weapons in at least nine) the potential for catastrophe is very real — especially when coupled with the potential for increased terrorist activity, humanity currently rests in a very precarious position.

However, even simple human error — a cause for past nuclear disasters — is equally as dangerous. Any technology that requires constant vigilance for future generations is immoral and dangerous.

7. Technological singularity and a lack of human purpose

Some researchers hypothesize that our technological innovations one day will progress to the point where artificial intelligence will exceed human brainpower, ultimately taking over civilization and relegating the human species to subservience — or worse.

I tend to think this is very unlikely, but the concern itself is an important reflection of an existential crisis I believe humanity is experiencing. It’s not outrageous to question whether we will be rendered obsolete by machines, as this is already happening on a number of levels: grocery store checkouts, manufacturing and the use and capabilities of software, to name a few.

Whether the contribution of human physical and intellectual labor will become obsolete in the modern industrial world is very real, leaving us potentially without purpose and with too much time on our hands — a dangerous combination.

The light side: Seeds of emerging hope

Among the encouraging innovations picking up speed around the world are the following promising examples, each of which instills a dash of hope that there’s still time to change our trajectory:

1. The rise of renewables and the end of fossil fuels

We are on the cusp of an energy revolution driven by renewables. The cost per kilowatt hour of clean options (with solar at the top of the list) continues to fall, which allows these sustainable solutions to compete more directly with traditional fossil fuels despite their subsidies.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, solar energy from photovoltaics is leading the cost decline of all sources of renewables, with the cost of PV modules falling 75 percent since the end of 2009, and the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV falling 50 percent since 2010.

In spite of a recent sudden drop, which likely has political underpinnings, petroleum prices will continue to increase in parallel with renewable energy affordability. As soon as renewables become consistently the least expensive alternative, they will dominate the energy market — quickly and completely.

In fact, this change may come about sooner rather than later. The fossil fuel divestment movement is gaining steam, aided by the recent Global Divestment Day in February. Meanwhile, even in such notoriously polluted regions as China, there is growing awareness of the need for change in demand for renewable solutions.

2. Living buildings, living communities

With Living Buildings and net zero energy structures developing around the globe, we are gradually creating a more sustainable built environment; the change is slow, but evident.

One need only look at the Bullitt Center in Seattle — a six-story, 52,000-square-foot commercial office Living Building that generates its own power and treats its own water without a drop of fossil fuels — to see what’s possible.

If a Class A office building in the cloudiest city in the lower 48 states can operate without fossil fuels while retaining marketability, then virtually anything is possible in the built environment, anywhere in the world. Living Buildings are emerging all around the world — in every climate zone and every building type — rapidly showing that a new paradigm is possible for how we live and work.

3. Super-efficient consumer products

The advent of energy-conscious goods, from household appliances to electric cars, indicates that the consumer marketplace is ready and willing to embrace smarter choices.

Just as Tesla Motors has proven that vehicles do not require combustion engines to deliver performance and elegance, brands across numerous product categories are simultaneously emerging as emblems of what is possible. Nest made a smart thermostat sexy. Comfy is changing our relationship with heating and cooling through learning from occupant behavior.

Countless innovations are emerging every day. The Institute launched the Living Product Challenge in 2014 as a call for all manufacturers to produce goods that support a living future.

A huge movement in support of buying local and organic is changing consumer expectations as well. Rising demand for greener, locally manufactured products will help realign toward positive environmental and social progress.

4. People-centric communities

As we near the end of the fossil fuel era, a greater number of neighborhoods and cities are investing in infrastructure that supports people rather than automobiles.

Clean public transportation options are becoming more plentiful, and our urban centers are becoming more walkable — people are moving out of the suburbs and into the cities — vastly shrinking their ecological footprint in the process.

5. Sustainable food production processes

The rise of organic food availability and a growing resistance to processed and genetically modified foods are taking us in a healthy direction.

People are eating less red meat, and vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more common. Even the shift from meat to insects offers a wonderful example of a possible positive menu change. With the livestock industry responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation industry, more people are turning away from beef, chicken and pork, choosing different options.

A combination of hard work and good policy might strengthen the sustainable food movement to the point where it can meet the demands of a growing global population while retaining nimbleness and nutritional integrity in the world’s food supplies.

6. Slowing birth rates

Although global population numbers continue to rise, the actual pace of new births has begun to slow and is expected to keep doing so — perhaps even reaching the point of zero growth within our lifetimes (it took 12 years to increase from 5 billion to 6 billion inhabitants, but 13 more years to go from 6 billion to 7 billion).

The list of nations experiencing negative population growth is increasing. Japan and Italy, for example, have been included in recent lists of nations with declining population rates, which some sources attribute to more broadly available contraception and a more empowered female demographic.

Declining or replacement birthrates are increasingly common in developed countries — those that also tend to have the largest per-capita environmental footprint.

7. Education and communication

Technology effectively has created a global open-source classroom that is spreading information that can enrich and strengthen nations. Innovations in devices and connectivity give us a sense of power we’ve never before realized.

We watch events unfold in real time from halfway around the world, which allows us to react and get involved, whether to help, participate or simply celebrate. We can interact and empathize with people and cultures that we previously never had the opportunity to encounter.

There is great promise in living in an era where everyone, regardless of economic status, can carry the Internet in their pockets and be connected to a global community — allowing people opportunities to self-organize, stay current on issues and connect to rapid changes.

New ways of communication and more powerful communication mediums offer hope that many people can’t be kept in the dark about issues important to their rights and survival.

8. Women's rights

Women around the world are gaining societal ground through great strides being made to increase educational, healthcare and leadership opportunities.

Gender equality strengthens the global community’s chance to thrive — for too long, the majority of nations (both governmentally and socially) have operated under a patriarchy. Countries where women’s rights are most tenuous are often those with the most internal strife, violence and conflict.

9. The new story

Hope stems, too, from enthusiastic new generations coming together and facing these challenges head-on, accepting responsibilities for the present and future health of the planet in ways their predecessors were unable and/or unwilling to do.

In "The Great Turning," David Korten describes how a growing number of people are abandoning "the old story" and readily replacing it with a new paradigm that seeks to restore a healthy connection between humanity and the natural world — a system supportive of community rather than exploitation. This growing shift is documented in my book, "Zugunruhe," and touched on in the article "Living Communities of the Future."

A shift to a new positive paradigm will require people who are self-aware and recognize the need for change. Each day I have the pleasure to meet individuals who are dedicated to this migration.

The great race for humanity

Given both the dark and light trends in front of us, what does this mean when mapped along a timeline? If we had all the time in the world, I’m sure the greater opportunities of hope would certainly prevail, but if we did, then we also wouldn’t have to worry about the consequences of our slow rate of change.

A responsible analysis must always contain a time dimension. Given where we are today and the current trajectories, and given what science is telling us, how do things really look?

We have placed ourselves in a great race to survive the consequences of our own actions — a wanton disregard for land, resources and life may have permanently diminished the environmental infrastructure necessary to sustain human life.

Our consumptive tendencies may very well end up being the death of us. But not the death of all living things. If the human race were to disappear, the planet undoubtedly would go on. In fact, it likely would thrive and rebound more quickly than any scenario where we become much better stewards of the planet.

In his book "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman explored how Earth would respond in the absence of people. He theorized that it wouldn’t take long for the planet to rebound and reinvent itself once it was rid of us. Modern humans act like an invasive species.

It’s a sobering thought that all of the ecosystems that were here before humanity entered the industrial age would benefit from our extinction. But that’s dwelling on a perverse form of hopelessness; I’d rather imagine us making it.

Humanity is capable of surviving, and I think we are also worthy of it. While our actions are often deplorable and our negative impact widespread, we are capable of extraordinary beauty, love, empathy, artistic expression — and ecological sensitivity. We are capable of truly becoming homo regenesis — a species that purposefully acts to create greater positive conditions for all of life.

Which trends will pull ahead and within what timeframe? Will we manage to solve these critical environmental and social issues in time to protect ourselves from extinction or massive die-off? Or have we wreaked so much havoc that our mistakes are irreparable? Are we facing an evolution to homo regenesis or the end of Homo sapiens? Will we dump fossil fuels and switch to a renewable world in time for humans and earth to thrive?

We most likely are approaching a theoretical bottleneck, a point in time when human civilization either transforms or disappears. We’ll either pass through or be pinched back.

With every passing month, year and decade of inactivity and denial, the consequences of our choices become more serious. We can’t continue to behave as we have, disregarding the damage and continuing the trends of consumption and impact.

Because nature will reset, disregarding us.

Where are we now?

In the January 2013 issue of Trim Tab, I laid out a time line called the Boundary of Disconnect, which depicts historic shifts in technology that allowed humans to nearly completely separate from nature in day-to-day existence.

The argument is that sometime between the end of World War II and the 1960s, we crossed an invisible boundary in terms of population and planet-wide impact and entered a new age where we had to either intentionally realign how we do nearly everything, or suffer tragic consequences at some point in the next few decades.

Here, I refine the graphic further with new categorizations of importance. Looking again at the trends in front of us, I map both the positive and negative scenarios on the timeline.

Currently, we are residing in a period of time that I call the Lost Ecological Interlude — a period that either will continue to be marked with further lack of progress (coupled with more marked global environmental and societal side effects of our collective decision-making) or rapid positive change due to some or all of the positive trends highlighted in this article.

This is of course the period we are in now — either the greatest blowout in our planet’s history, or, more positively, the beginning of the shift that David Korten calls "the great turning."

One could peg the start of this period at the late 1960s to early 1970s with the beginning of the environmental movement to perhaps sometime in the 2030s. During this time it’s been possible to live and deny the reality of the quandary we are in (as so many have done), while increasing numbers of people become aware of the situation.

But as this short era comes to a close (likely in less than two decades) the dire situation will be impossible for anyone to ignore, regardless of political bent. Climate change and population pressures will ensure that.

Finally, we reach the Homo sapien bottleneck, which will extend to sometime between 2030 and possibly 2100. Most likely this will be a period of incredible upheaval, the likes of which we have never seen and will be the most challenging period that humanity has faced.

How we transition through this bottleneck (or if we will) will be directly proportional to the scale of our intervention and course correction, changing our ways in countries around the world. To date, our society hasn’t done very well with change when the implications for the change are distant in the future.

We react well to immediate threats — and very poorly to long-term, systemic threats. But during the Homo sapien Bottleneck period, what was once "far off" will be a daily struggle and a challenge that will confront even the wealthiest among us. Change will be demanded with more immediate repercussions.

Loss as a motivator

There is a very powerful human emotion that, while sad to point out, could very well work in our favor as we approach the bottleneck: grief and direct loss.

Pondering very viscerally about what we have to lose could very well spur the compassion to take action that is critical to our own survival.

We have been living in the Anthropocene for some time — losing species and habitat at alarming rates for many decades — but the losses have been largely distant, abstract threats for most in developed countries. Yet the distance between us and palpable loss is shortening, and what we will be confronted with will be evident to all in the coming decades.

Consider the incredible sense of loss we’ll feel when nearly every major large mammal becomes extinct. What will we tell ourselves and our children when the last of the rhinos, giraffes, lions, polar bears, tigers, hippos, gorillas and many more actually disappear forever, as they are likely to do?

What happens when the rainforest does disappear completely and the rains go with it? What happens when drought comes to a huge region in the heartland — and doesn’t leave?

For most citizens of developed countries, such reports are bothersome but not fully real. We tend to watch environmental and biological depletions from a distance, which protects us from internalizing the loss the way we do when a loved one dies.

We can turn off the channel and look away for only so long. The bottleneck, though, will make loss evident to people in every corner of the world at an incredible magnitude.

Species loss is just one indicator. All nations will be affected — although the poorest nations will continue to be the hardest hit, which will make the effects more immediate — profound changes will affect even those of us who previously have been blissfully detached.

Environmental harm will trigger powerful emotional responses. The abundance of loss will turn grief into an everyday human experience.

Parents will have to explain to their children that animals used to live not just at the zoo but in the wild; that there was a time when rats and squirrels were not the largest animal species found in cities; that our once bio-diverse planet used to bloom with a rich assortment of plants and flowers. That the whole foods we used to eat are now gone, along with the pollinators and the landscapes that are altered and diminished beyond recognition.

At some point, the looming fear of loss has to wake us up — even those fervent climate change deniers among us who want to keep things the way they are and use a couple weeks of cold weather as proof of the lack of climate change.

Grief, if harnessed effectively, could very well guide us through the bottleneck.  

Tick tock

On my dark days, I wonder if we’ll even make it to the end of this century. I worry that scientists will soon predict a point on the calendar at which their data show the bottleneck squeezing us back for once and for all.

Like George Orwell’s "1984" or Stanley Kubrick ’s "2001: A Space Odyssey," a late-21st-century year might very well be recognized as the likely date of our demise. This is not that far-fetched.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently moved their famous Doomsday Clock two minutes forward — to 11:57 p.m. — inching us perilously close to that organization’s predicted end of humanity. Nuclear proliferation and climate change inaction spurred the clock ’s adjustment.  

I would love for us to prove those atomic scientists wrong.

I’m not a betting man, but I would still lay down odds that we have it in us to make it. That we can evolve and that we will find the love in our hearts and passion for life to change how we see ourselves, each other and our place on the earth. Our innovations, convictions and sheer survival instincts will work in our (and in the planet’s) favor.

The bottleneck will greatly restrict our options, and huge dark days lie ahead, but I remain hopeful that we’ll figure out how to make the necessary massive societal changes to see ourselves through.

Besides, what choice do we have?