Our modern civilization, through its gargantuan appetite for natural resources and its propensity to generate wastes and pollution, has unleashed a number of dynamics which are now severe enough to impact on human welfare worldwide. These dynamics are (1) Climate Change, (2) Resource & Energy Depletion and (3) Environmental Degradation which henceforth will be referred to as the CREED dynamics.
(1) Climate Change. Since the industrial revolution our civilisation has been pumping billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that traps solar radiation within the atmosphere and turns this radiation into thermal energy (heat). This additional heat inevitably works its way through the planetary climatic and oceanic systems thereby causing extremes of weather like more powerful storms, more rainfall in some places or drought in others and raises sea levels and global temperatures.
(2) Environmental degradation is characterised by a decline in soil fertility, a decline in fisheries, water crisis, and loss of biodiversity, land and water pollution. Currently 40% of land worldwide is seriously degraded whilst substantially degraded land may climb to 95% by 2050. World forestry cover has declined from 50% before the industrial revolution to about 30% now. Overfishing affects 30% of fish stocks and 60% to 90% of oceans are overexploited. By 2050 most fisheries will have collapsed on current trends.
Water scarcity now affects one-third of humanity increasing to two-thirds by 2025, 80% of waste water worldwide is dumped into the environment untreated. Plastic waste pollution is everywhere on the planet with microscopic plastic debris found in many animals. There is a gradual loss of biodiversity worldwide. It has been estimated that a 100 to 1000 species go extinct each year, a far greater number than the natural extinction rate. Taken together these are hallmarks of a decline in the environment world wide.
(3) Energy Depletion. 80% of world energy consumption comes from either, coal, oil or natural gas, the main contributors to CO2 emissions. In spite of considerable efforts worldwide, human civilisation is largely unable to reduce its fossil fuel consumption significantly. Upsurges in renewable energy production may not cause a dramatic reduction in demand for fossil energy. Only when fossil fuel resources will have been severely depleted thereby causing a reduction in supply that fossil fuel consumption will decline. It is probable that the world is fast approaching that point for oil supplies.
(4) Resource depletion. This least visible parameter refers to non fossil fuels mineral supply. Although mineral scarcity is not yet apparent, humankind’s voracious appetite for minerals keeps on increasing. There is a worldwide search for new sources of ores that fuels war and destitution as can be seen in Central Africa.
World population has reached 7.5 billion humans and may reach 9 billion by 2050. Rising prosperity means increased demands for food, energy, water and other resources. Pressures on the environment will remain high into the foreseeable future. CREED dynamics will therefore continue apace. In short, our civilisation is slowly eroding its resource bases and is in over-shoot.
In that context, it is likely that the world’s ability to produce enough food for all will be threatened. Food prices may rise together with shortages. The poor will suffer most and first. Hunger or malnutrition may rise. Energy depletion may cause large spikes in oil prices and could lead to shortages. Oil is indispensible for modern transportation systems and agro-chemicals. High oil prices and/or shortages may result in poor economic growth or depressions and impact food prices with severe social consequences leading to unrests, revolutions or wars. We have well and truly entered an age of consequences of our own making.
The triple crisis of 2008-2010 which combined a financial meltdown with food and oil prices hikes caused immense human suffering across the planet. In Mauritius there were significant drops in tourism arrivals and revenue. This triple crisis had many causes but to some extent it was also the resultant of high oil prices, triggered by the difficulty of many oil producing countries in increasing oil production to dampen high oil prices. This crisis is a foretaste of what is in store for us. This time round the world was lucky because of (a) the rapid injection of unlimited funds into the failing financial system by the central banks of rich countries and (b) the rapid rise of US light tight oil production as from 2007 onwards which managed to prevent a significant reduction in oil supplies worldwide and so prepared the way for the oil price collapse of 2014.
These two factors did much to save the decade of 2010-2020. It is possible that US light tight oil production may reach a plateau within the next few years before a gradual decline sets in as the resource is depleted. Should that be the case, further oil price hikes are very likely in the years to come. The basic model of future crisis may well be along the lines of financial instability together with high food and oil prices, water scarcity followed by economic depression. A period of recuperation characterised by lower food and oil prices may follow until a new crisis comes along. With each round of crisis, our economic and material welfare may be reduced measurably generating more poverty worldwide. Our civilisation begins its decline. In our model, we ignore the real possibility of major warfare among powerful countries. Such events are very difficult to predict and can only accelerate decline.
Although we paint a rather bleak picture of the future that many will reject out of hand, at all levels of society much can be done to mitigate the impacts of such crisis. This will be the focus of our next article.