The end of the Earth and the end of humanity are two separate concepts. There are only three things that could destroy life on Earth: an asteroid of an adequate size hits the planet, the sun expands into a Red Giant, turning the planet into a molten wasteland, or a black hole captures the planet.
It is key to note, however, that these possibilities are highly unlikely; at least, not in our lifetime and generations to come. For example, in recent months, Ukrainian astronomers claimed a giant asteroid, named 2013 TV135, would hit the Earth on August 26, 2032, but NASA later debunked this hypothesis, saying there is a 99.9984 per cent certainty that it will miss the planet’s orbit since the probability of an Earth impact is 1 in 63000.
Plus, these outcomes are out of our hands. Even if it was likely for an asteroid to strike the Earth, the Sun to consume it, or a black hole to swallow it, there is absolutely nothing in our power to prevent such outcomes. Conversely, while there are less than a handful of reasons for the end of the Earth, there are countless, more likely possibilities that could destroy humanity on Earth as we know it. And we can prevent them.
This collapse was described by the science journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society, as a “gradual breakdown [due to] famines, epidemics and resource shortages [which] cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scare necessities”. Let’s look at each plausible theory thoroughly.
The entire fundamental structure and nature of our society is at fault
According to a new study written by Safa Motesharrei, applied mathematician of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) and a team of natural and social scientists, civilization will last only for a few more decades before “everything we know and hold dear collapses”.
The report blames the end of civilization on the fundamental structure and nature of our society. The downfall of societal structures will follow when the factors for societal collapse – population, climate, water, agriculture and energy – converge. This convergence will result in, according to Motesharrei, the “stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and the “economic stratification of society into [rich] and [poor]”.
The rich, coined as the “Elite”, limit the resources accessible to the poor, also known as the “Masses”, which in turn leaves an excess of resources for the rich that is high enough to strain them (overuse). Thus, with the restricted resource use, the decline of the Masses will occur much faster, followed by the downfall of the Elites, whom, initially thriving, will eventually succumb to collapse as well.
Technology is at fault
Moreover, Motesharrei claims that technology will damn civilization further: “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use”.
Therefore, this speculative worst-case scenario involves sudden collapse due to famine or a breakdown of society due to the overconsumption of natural resources. So what is the remedy? The study calls for the recognition of the imminent catastrophe by the rich and the restructuring of society into a more equitable arrangement.
Economic inequality is necessary to guarantee fairer distribution of resources and to reduce resource consumption by using less renewable resources and decreasing population growth. However, this poses to be a difficult challenge. The human population is continuingly increasing at an alarming rate. At approximately 7.2 billion people according to the World Popular Clock, one birth occurs every eight seconds on Earth, increasing the demands for products and services and creating more waste and resource depletion.
At this rate, the global population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050. And as of last year, humans are using more resources than the Earth can replenish (the level of resources needed to support humanity now is about 1.5 Earths, moving up to 2 Earths before the middle of this century) and the distribution of resources is evidently unequal and has been for some time.
Take the cases of the Romans and the Mayans. Historical data shows that the rise and collapse of civilizations is a recurrent cycle: “The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent”. In addition, the report claims, that, “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory”. The expression, history is bound to repeat itself, is undoubtedly appropriate and although the warning signs are clear, they are left unnoticed due to ignorance, naivety, or for whatever other reason.
An array of environmental problems, including global climate change, is at fault
Global climate change is also a rising issue. Experts in a Proceedings of the Royal Society article fear that escalating climate disruption, ocean acidification, oceanic dead zones, depletion of groundwater and extinctions of plants and animals are also drivers of the upcoming collapse of humanity.
Canadian Wildlife Service biologist, Neil Dawe, points out that “economic growth is the biggest destroyer of the ecology. Those people who think you can have a growing economy and a healthy environment are wrong. If we don’t reduce our numbers, nature will do it for us … Everything is worse and we’re still doing the same things. Because ecosystems are so resilient, they don’t exact immediate punishment on the stupid”.
Other studies, by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance, concur with Motesharrei’s findings and have similarly warned that the convergence of food, water and energy could potentially lead to crises. Some evidence of potential dangers by 2030, according to KPMG, is as follows: There will likely be a 50% increase in food production to feed the demanding growing middle class population; There will be an estimated 40% global gap between water supply and demand; The international Energy Agency projects an approximate 40% increase in global energy; demand, driven by economic growth, population growth, and technological advancements; About 1 billion more people will live in areas of water stress; Global food prices will double; Consequences of resource stress will include food and agricultural pressures, increased water demand, energy demand on the rise, competition for metals and minerals, and increased risk resource nationalism; To learn more, download the full report here.
So what will the Earth look like near the end of civilization?
In September, NASA posted a time-lapse video showing how the altering global climate is expected to impact the Earth from now to the end of the 21st century. To see the video, click here. It is essential to note that these theories are not separate issues; they interact into two complex systems – the biosphere and the human socio-economic system – and the “negative manifestations of these interactions” are the current “human predicament” driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources and the use of environmentally damaging technologies.
But the truth of the matter, no matter how dismal it sounds, is that the world—the Earth and all that occupy it, ancestors and descendants—will not last forever. Neither will humans. At some point, this will all be gone and we will “all succumb to the mercy of time.”