A pandemic, like any other life-threatening event, prompts us to reflect on our mortality, but our error-prone response to the pandemic should force us to ponder a larger question: Are we a fatally flawed species?
COVID-19 does not pose an existential threat, but as David Attenborough vividly portrays it in his latest documentary, A Life on Our Planet, there are other global challenges, including climate change and, more broadly, environmental degradation that could imperil, individually or collectively, the progress of civilization, if not our survival as a species. The jury is still out on whether we will rise to the occasion and defuse these threats.
Intelligent though we may be, we have obvious faults. God or nature may have endowed us with speech and a superior intellect, but our weaknesses are manifest. We can be caring and sometimes heroic, but we can also be terribly thoughtless, if not cruel. We can be farsighted, even visionary, but more commonly we are focused on the insistent demands of today, not the urgent needs of tomorrow. We have at our fingertips a wealth of information and science, but we resort, all too frequently, to our deeply ingrained prejudices. Our ability to assess risk is uneven. We respond quickly to imminent and visual threats, but are often immobilized when it comes to those that are more distant or less tangible.
Despite our shortcomings we have not just survived, we have thrived. Over the past ten thousand years, our numbers have increased nearly a thousand-fold, and much of that increase has occurred within the past two hundred years. At the beginning of the 19th century, world population was about 1 billion. Twenty years ago, it was 6 billion. Today, it is rapidly approaching 8 billion, and by midcentury it will come close to exceeding 10 billion.
In a largely unpopulated world stocked with ample resources, our faults never held us back. To the contrary, self-interest and greed impelled us forward. The resulting competition for land and resources spawned wars, killed millions, and toppled empires, but never threatened our survival as a species. The unbridled exploitation of resources may have inflicted harm on the natural world, but humanity, with some notable exceptions, continued to advance and billions have even prospered.
Our circumstances, however, are changing. A growing scarcity of water and farmland, exacerbated in many areas by climate change, threatens our long-term food security. Recent studies highlight the impacts that the pandemic and climate change will likely have on the world’s food supply.
Unless checked, climate change will render many areas economically untenable or, worse, uninhabitable. By century’s end, hundreds of millions of people could be forced to relocate, and if the melting of the permafrost, peat fires, or other positive feedback effects trigger a runaway increase in global warming, far worse will ensue, including rising sea levels that will remake, quite literally, the map of the world. Recent reports highlight ever more dire forecasts for the future of the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Amazon rainforest, and, ultimately, the planet.
Climate change alone will not result in our demise, but it’s not the only threat we face. We are also outgrowing the planet. We now occupy or utilize the vast majority of the earth’s habitable surface. We require a land area roughly the size of South America to grow our crops and an area nearly as large as Africa to graze cattle and feed farm animals. To irrigate more crops we are draining underground aquifers and dramatically lowering water tables. To satisfy our demand for energy and freshwater, we have damned, to the detriment of the environment, most of the world’s great rivers. We are rapidly depleting our land-based metals and minerals, and in a few decades we will likely rip up sea beds to satiate our demand for more resources.
The wholesale destruction of forests and wetlands and our relentless encroachment on wildlife habitats are contributing to what scientists now refer to as the “sixth mass extinction.” With little remorse, we are steadily destroying the web of life that gave birth to Homo sapiens. The World Wildlife Fund reported last month that wildlife populations have declined by nearly two-thirds in the past half century. A few weeks ago, a UN Conference on Loss of Biodiversity warned of a looming planetary crisis.
The extinction of rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, polar bears and other large mammals may not, by itself, imperil us. At some point, however, the loss of smaller creatures, including birds and bees, begins to unravel the web of life on which flora, agriculture, and yes, humans, depend. It is sheer folly to contemplate a one-species planet.
It is equal folly to believe that our faults and flaws, if not unchecked, could not undermine the mutual respect and trust that are the bedrock of a just and efficiently functioning society. When truth is devalued and lies become political currency, institutions tremble, and democratic rule begins to crack. QAnon and other conspiracy theory purveyors foment revolt. This week six men were charged with plotting to kidnap the Governor of Michigan. And, ultimately, when democracies dissolve into autocracies or chaos, the international rule of law crumbles, along with the peace and commerce it upholds.
In terms of our ultimate survival, it matters not whether we wear masks and maintain social distance. The coronavirus will not be our undoing. Not even close. But it has brought into sharp relief shortcomings that are all too prevalent, all too human, and all too capable of someday destroying us. We must, as a matter of some urgency, engender more respect for science and public institutions. We must promote greater cohesion and social responsibility, and, above all else, we must develop a keener awareness of our shortcomings.
We humans are exceptional beings, but we are not immortal, not yet anyway. If we are to survive and prosper, we must cultivate our public virtues and cling to them as if our very existence depends on them. They might someday.
This op-ed by Robert Walker, who is the President of the Population Institute, originally ran on October 13, 2020 in Newsweek