Have we reached tipping point for Planet Earth?

Endgame – Tipping Point for Planet Earth?

by Anthony D Barnosky and Elizabeth A Hadly

William Collins (€28)

The cover of this book is not subtle. Its authors, a pair of husband-and-wife palaeobiologists from California, have put their title in a 72pt WOB, and overlaid it with a fluorescent green cross. This is because, as they explain, their message is urgent. Within 20 years, they say, the world will tip into environmental and social catastrophe. Their book, according to the blurb, is the "wake-up call we all need".

And herein lies its problem. Do we really need a wake-up call? Another one? Because the world arguably woke up to the Barnosky message long ago. The canon of eschatological literature (see box for a selection) is old and long. The trouble is that we've stopped listening to the warnings. Indeed it sometimes seems as though the louder the alarm clock, the more inclined we are, these days, to roll over and hit the snooze button. The number of Google searches for the term "global warming", for instance, has fallen to less than a third of its 2007 peak. Faced with such indifference, what can a book with a big green cross on it possibly achieve?

Still, just because we have collectively lost interest in the doom clock doesn't mean it has stopped ticking. Endgame dedicates a chapter to each of our planet's most imminent, interconnected tipping points – climate change, overpopulation, overconsumption, food and water scarcity, pollution, disease and war – and the science is sound. Barnosky and Hadly are serious players at their respective universities, Berkeley and Stanford, with over half a century's combined experience in their field.

Their style may be too populist for some tastes but they are sincere in their proselytising. They argue that it is not too late to save the planet, if only we can learn to pull together – or, as they put it, to "embrace the present reality, and communicate the future... you need to talk to your friends and family about the issues we cover in this book".

There is more than a touch of missionary zeal in the way they have travelled the world, sometimes with their two young daughters strapped into baby carriers (the authors are Californian, after all), in order to attend international conferences in Africa, measure the retreat of the Himalayan pika (a small, rabbit-like animal), or record the blood toxicity of Costa Rican bats. Each chapter is prefaced with another illustrative tale from this adventurous and enviable life, to jolly along the science.

I personally skipped over those bits to goggle more quickly at the important facts and stats. On present trends, Earth will get hotter in the next six decades than it has been for 15 million years. The world's population is growing by 82 million a year, and will certainly reach 10 billion by 2050. More than 40% of the world's forests have been cut down, yet we are still felling an area the size of Greece each year. The average American's annual water footprint is about 665,000 gallons, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool. The developed world is getting older, almost everywhere else is getting younger, and supplies of food, water, land and resources are all in shortening supply.

It is not hard to join the dots. Already, somewhere in the world, a migrant crosses a border every 32 seconds. Fifty thousand migrants, most of them environmental refugees fleeing the sub-Sahara, have crossed the Mediterranean to Italy this year, with an estimated 600,000 waiting in Libya to join them. And that is likely only the beginning.

One of Endgame's most striking sections discusses the fate of the Ancestral Puebloans, a sophisticated, artistic, farming civilisation that flourished for 2,000 years in America's Four Corners region before vanishing almost overnight in the late 1200s. Dendrochronologists say they were destroyed by a 21-year "mega-drought". As water dried up and crops failed, the starving Puebloans retreated into forts, and then caves, fighting viciously over what remained. Archaeologists have turned up evidence of cannibalism.

Could the Puebloan story presage a comparable collapse in our modern societies? It is arguable that it has already begun, in countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Or, come to that, in California, now in the fourth year of its worst drought on record. Brown is the new green, as they say in Los Angeles. The rich are still sprinkling their lawns, and the resentful poor have taken to posting aerial photographs of their emerald compounds on the internet, a social phenomenon known as "drought-shaming".

When tipping points are reached, the change can be violent as well as sudden, like the moment that water reaches boiling point. Endgame may amount to a triumph of hope over experience, but you cannot fault the authors' determination to try to warn us.


Further reading on... eschatology

The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. The classic 1960s study on overpopulation is still highly influential, even though its prediction that hundreds of millions would starve in the 1970s turned out wrong.

A Rough Ride to the Future by James Lovelock. Incisive prognosis for humanity by the exponent of Gaia theory.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The book that forced a rethink of global agrochemical policy and spawned a green movement that eventually led the US to create the Environmental Protection Agency.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. The scourge of corporate capitalism argues that the free market is the greatest obstacle to environmental reform

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce. The wars of the future will be fought over water. Amounts to a hydrological Apocalypse Now.

Dr Lorax by Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss). Voted one of the 100 best books for children, an environmental fable of how the greedy Once-ler chopped down Truffula trees to make "Thneeds, which everyone needs".

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.

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