By the end of the 2020’s, we’ll know which way we’re headed: toward environmental oblivion or an era of global restoration

 

(This is Part 1 of a four-part series. Read part 2. Parts 3 and 4 will be published in January and early February, 2020.)

Well, we’ve finally arrived. The 2020s, the decade of dueling tipping points is here.

I’ll go out on a limb and predict that by the end of this decade, we’ll know which way the world is headed: toward oblivion or environmental restoration; toward democracy and general prosperity advancing under the banner of a global “green new deal”; or toward entrenched authoritarianism stemming from chronic economic depression rooted in a global environmental disaster. 

Why so soon? Why think that the planet’s future course will be set in just 10 years? Because of the nature of tipping points, those moments in history when the weight of accumulated developments is sufficient to suddenly tip the scales — and keep them tipped with the addition of self-reinforcing feedback loops that add more and more weight. 

Currently, we are poised to tip toward a state of ongoing and unstoppable environmental disaster. In fact, we may have already passed that threshold, but there is no way of knowing until we see what happens next. 

What we do know is that in a complex system like the biosphere, tipping points can interact and reinforce each other. 

For example, one of several immediate, large-scale threats to the planet is the potential death of the Amazon rain forest. The forest is so huge that it makes its own weather — rains on itself, so to speak — and that weather feeds its growth and maintenance. However, if it reaches the (tipping) point where it loses its capacity for “watering itself,” the entire forest will enter an irreversible cycle of collapse, called “dieback,” and be gone in a matter of decades.  

Two environmental stresses are pushing the forest toward that point: deforestation and global heating. So far, about 17% of the original forest has been lost to deforestation. Scientists have calculated that when 20-to-25% is lost, dieback, which we cannot stop or control, will begin apace. With the Brazilian government’s recent development push underway, an area of forest the size of a soccer field is disappearing every minute. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that at current deforestation rates 27% of the forest could be lost by 2030. Meanwhile global heating is drying the Amazon basin, and already causing an incipient dieback of the ecosystem according to some studies.  

If the Amazon is permitted to collapse, one of the world’s primary carbon sinks will turn into a huge carbon source — yielding about ten-years-worth of current human emissions, while absorbing none. Also, the vast forest will be replaced by arid savanna, or possibly a desert, with little solar reflectivity — further exacerbating global heating. And we will lose approximately 10% of the worlds biodiversity. 

A number of other major systems are at risk of tipping into a state of irreversible collapse, including, but not limited to the global ocean’s biota that provides much of our food and oxygen; the world’s ice masses, especially those of Greenland, the Arctic and much of Antarctica, that cool the planet and store fresh water; the permafrost’s carbon and methane storage system that helps maintain global temperatures; and the systems of atmospheric and hydrologic stability that regulate biological productivity, including agricultural output. Again, these systems are interdependent — if any one of them collapses, others will follow. 

Humanity’s imminent challenge is to recognize the problem, stop making it worse and start making it better. But it takes time to redirect economic activity.  If we have not begun that process by the end of this decade, it will be too late. 

The possible good news is, there are a number of developments ranging from the youth climate movement to technological developments to existing blueprints for action that could take us in a different, positive direction. We’ll explore that potential tipping point next in Are Positive Tipping Points Possible?, Part 2 of this series on global tipping points in the 2020s.

— PSW

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.

(This is Part 1 of a four-part series. Read Part 2. Parts 3 and 4 will be published in January and early February, 2020.)

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