A runaway process
An example of a “runaway” process is that of a human body when its temperature increases much above 42 C. Positive feedback takes over with chemical reactions making the body’s metabolism (chemical reactions) go faster, which in turn increases the body’s temperature further which in turn increases the pace of these chemical reactions and so on. A human’s cells work only within a narrow temperature range, and this rapid, spiraling increase in body temperature ends up killing cells and results in death.
In his book “10 Billion,” Stephen Emmott, an English scientist, describes the Earth and its processes as a complicated system. He points out the various problems we face “as we continue to grow to a population of ten billion” human beings. He writes:
“Every which way you look at it, a planet of ten billion looks like a nightmare.
And even more worryingly, there is now compelling evidence that entire global ecosystems are not only capable of suffering a catastrophic tipping point, but are already approaching such a transition.”
Emmott’s conclusion is that Earth’s system will go into a “runaway” process, a tipping point like that of a fever over 420C, and that most, if not all, of us humans are therefore doomed. He says, “I hope I’m wrong, but the science points in my not being wrong.”
Carlo Rovelli, the Italian physicist, agrees with this conclusion:
“I believe that our species will not last long. It does not seem to be made of the stuff that has allowed the turtle, for example, to continue to exist more or less unchanged for hundreds of millions of years… We belong to a short-lived genus of species. All of our cousins are already extinct. What’s more, we do damage. The brutal climate and environmental changes which we have triggered are unlikely to spare us. For the Earth, they may turn out to be a small irrelevant blip, but I do not think that we will outlast them unscathed… We are perhaps the only species on Earth to be conscious of the inevitability of our individual mortality. I fear that we shall also have to become the only species that will knowingly watch the coming of its own collective demise, or at least the demise of its civilization.”
Unfortunately, many humans do not accept the above arguments. What occurs is denial. The present reaction to the covid crisis is a good example. Instead of making all efforts to vaccinate as many people all over the world, many rich countries focussed only on themselves. But we do not live on an island, and now the new Omicron variant has spread all over the world.
The covid crisis is also not as bad as other potential risks and threats to humanity. Slower but continuous deterioration relating to climate change and the raid use of our Earth’s resources without keeping conservation and sustainability in mind may be much more significant threats. Artificial Intelligence and genetic engineering, combined together or separately gone awry, and other risks not of our own making, such as the Earth being hit by a large meteorite, are also serious threats to our existence.
So What do we do?
I hope Emmott and Rovelli are wrong about their view on the “inevitable and imminent” end of humans and most life on Earth. I hope that humans can change. However, unless we understand the root cause of our problems, our survival is not assured. What, in this urgent situation, should mankind do? We need to combine science and humanism, the logical, rational analysis of risks we face together with kindness in looking after our fellow humans and all life on Earth.
Implementing this is not easy, but Mahatma Gandhi showed the way. He said, “Be the change you want to see.” Each one of us must play our part.