The Sumers, Mesopotamians, Minoans, Mayans, Egyptians, Romans and Easter Islanders are all civilisations known to have ended up waging resource wars owing to dwindling food supplies. Usually this was the result of agricultural land becoming over-salinated or suffering soil degradation and eventual loss of fertility following deforestation. Like climate change the problems crept up gradually, and in some cases strategies were deployed that kept disaster at bay for several centuries. But in the end sophisticated societies disintegrated (into cannibalism in the case of the Easter Islanders) and entire cities were abandoned. We have much more to lose this time.
The looming one
The risk now is that the whole world descends into a vortex of violence, in which dwindling resources and instability lead to ever increasing conflict. The need for expanded – high emissions – military industrial complexes would add to existing self-reinforcing feedbacks, ending in irreversible climate catastrophe.
Forget planet B
Luckily for us, past environmental disasters did not threaten the entire planet’s ecosystems, and other people lived to tell the tale. However, if the Earth becomes uninhabitable the idea of mankind departing in time to colonise another planet is pure fantasy. We should forget Planet B. There isn’t one. The question is: Are we willing to do the hard thinking and work together effectively enough to build a sustainable future for the uniquely benign one we already have, with its pre-built-in, highly robust, corrective mechanisms?
Humans understand complex physical realities with science. This gives us a superior kind of way of ‘seeing’ that no other species possess. Reliable information and metrics are vital for us to have any chance of plotting a successful course through the uncertain future we face. What the eyes don’t see the heart doesn’t grieve over, but cutting science budgets is like walking along a foggy precipice blindfold.
Next: Earth System