The future is grim*

*unless we  will finally get our act together.


Admittedly, this seems a bit of a leading question, implying a negative approach, perhaps even a negative character. I cannot deny that fits my profile. We are not really taking care of the earth. It is impossible to ignore the multiple challenges we face these days, but still we refuse to act. Even though we have both the knowledge and the possibility to solve the problems we face. Problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution but also poverty and unequal treatment. People keep saying it is impossible to solve these problems, or they are too complex to tackle. This however is solely a diversionary manoeuvre. It is possible and complexity is an invitation to apply a truly integrated approach.

If it would be about our sun dying, there is nothing we could do. However, as our grim future is self-inflicted and both knowledge and technology as well as money to solve it is available, there is nothing that would make acting impossible. Except for us.

__ So, why? 

_____________ Why don’t we do it? 

________________________ Why don’t we make this world a better place? 

___________________________________ Why are we destructive? 

This haunts me. It haunts me as long as I can remember. Why are we, as an alleged civilized society, not doing the right thing? Why not taking care of our planet, why not act as true and committed stewards of the earth we have? I cannot avoid questioning the judgement of mankind to do what is right, what makes sense, what would help our children also when they are older. We do have the necessary scientific knowledge but unfortunately are also exposed to the fallacies of pseudoscience via outcries by delusional characters with a destructive nature.

It seems that we – humanity – like to experiment. Experiment with our lives to be precise. Instead of taking action to ensure a decent living for future generations, we choose to ignore the facts and remain to plunder the planet as if we have some spare ones. It might, from a scientific point of view, be a very interesting experiment to see whether or not the apocalyptic scenarios are right or not, but is it worth billions of human guinea pigs? 


Something changed with the Earth System. The Earth System is the sum of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human processes. Millions of years it was driven by natural forces. However, human activity, and predominantly the global economic system, is now the prime driver of change in the Earth System. This is illustrated by scientists with a set of 24 global indicators1 Steffen et al, 2015, The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration, The Anthropocene Review, Volume 2 issue 1, 2015, pp 81-98,; call it a “planetary dashboard”. These indicators are charting the “Great Acceleration” in human activity from the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 to present times, and the subsequent changes in the Earth System. The post-1950 acceleration of the human imprint on the Earth System have played a central role in the discussion around the formalisation of the Anthropocene as the next epoch in Earth history.

The Great Acceleration. Source: Steffen, et al, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration” Anthropocene Review, January 2015. See also:

There is an abundance of compelling evidence that humans are altering the planet, including long-term global geologic processes. We do this at an unequalled and increasing rate2 Water et al 2016, The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene, Science , Vol. 351, Issue 6269, 2016, . Climate change is reality. Environmental degradation is reality. Biodiversity loss is reality. Not in a distant future in a place far away, but here and now (no matter where you are). We managed to add 1.1oC of warming to the pre-industrial levels globally. Europe faces an even bigger increase with a warming of approximately 1.8oC over the same period3 Copernicus 2021, 2020 warmest year on record for Europe; globally, 2020 ties with 2016 for warmest year recorded, In 2015, countries agreed to cap the global warming “well below 2oC” and preferably around 1.5oC4 The so-called Paris Agreement,

Despite warnings from the scientific community for more than 30 years, global emissions are increasing every year. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, we are heading to a 4oC to 4,5oC temperature rise in 2100, with our current emission of greenhouse gasses5 IPPC 2014, AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014, Even full implementation of the of the pledges made for the Paris Agreement, of which most are not implemented yet, would only reduce the temperature increase from 4o to 3,2o. And even if we manage to remain between 1.5oC and 2oC, it could produce “progressively serious, centuries-long and, in some cases, irreversible consequences” according to the latest draft report of the IPCC6 The Guardian, 23 June 2021, IPCC steps up warning on climate tipping points in leaked draft report, Statements from the IPCC should better be taken serious, as the IPCC tend to use conservative estimations and only use (new) research if it is solid and part of a broad scientific consensus. But, despite all the knowledge, we still seem to refuse to take action. 

The same goes for another devastating trend, the decline of biodiversity. Studies suggest that probable extinction rates at present are up to 100-1,000 extinctions per 10.000 species per 100 years. This is 100 times higher than the long-term rate of extinction, the so-called  background extinction rate7 Ceballos et al 2015: Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P.R., Barnosky, A.D., García, A., Pringle, R.M. and T. M. Palmer. 2015. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Science Advances 1 (5): e1400253 1-5. 2015, Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.1400253.. Large declines of population size have been widely observed and currently 22,176 species are threatened by extinction8 Haipeng Li et al 2016: Haipeng Li, Jinggong Xiang-Yu, Guangyi Dai, Zhili Gu, Chen Ming, Zongfeng Yang, Oliver A. Ryder, Wen-Hsiung Li, Yun-Xin Fu and Ya-Ping Zhanga, Large numbers of vertebrates began rapid population decline in the late 19th century, PNAS | December 6, 2016 | vol. 113 | no. 49 | 14079–14084, That’s 27% of all assessed species9 This made scientists conclude that we are on the edge of a sixth mass extinction10 Kolbert 2014: Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction – An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Co., 02/11/2014, ISBN: 9780805092998.

The primary cause of human-induced extinction events is simply human overpopulation of planet Earth. The most important causal anthropogenic activities are: habitat destruction, overexploitation, pollution (water) and the introduction of alien species to an environment. Of all the plant, amphibian, reptile, bird and mammal species that have gone extinct since AD 1500, 75% were harmed by overexploitation or agricultural activity or both (often in combination with the introduction of invasive alien species11 Bellard et al 2016: Céline Bellard, Phillip Cassey, Tim M. Blackburn, Alien species as a driver of recent extinctions, Biol. Lett. 12, 17 February 2016. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0623 (


Do we really need to worry? Is it really that problematic if we have a bit more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere? The answer is simply ‘yes’12 David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2019.. Large parts of Africa, Australia, the USA, South-America north of Patagonia and Asia south of Siberia will be uninhabitable due to heat, desertification, and floods in 2100. Already with 2o, many people living cities close to the equator will suffer from extreme heat and water scarcity13 A nice interactive overview can be found at: A 3o rise in temperature would lead to continuous droughts in the South of Europe the US and Northern Africa and the number of wildfires will increase, for the US up to 6 times the current number.

The number of climate refugees will increase rapidly. Expectations are that from the 18.8 million climate refugees in 201814 UNHCR 2019, Climate change and disaster displacement, will increase towards a 140 million (World bank15 World Bank 2018, Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, to 200 million (UN16 United Nations University 2015, Climate Migrants Might Reach One Billion by 2050, in 2050. 

The sea level will rise, and new studies show this rise is actually accelerating17 If the rate of ocean rise continues to change at this pace, sea level will rise 65 centimeters by 2100 — enough to cause significant problems for coastal cities like Amsterdam, which is actually below sea level, Singapore, Bankok and parts of New York and Hong Kong. The Fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report similarly finds that global mean sea level has risen 7.5 inches (190 mm) over the period 1901–2010, or 1.7 millimeters per year (mm/yr). Between 1993 and 2010, the rate was very likely higher at 3.2 mm/yr18 IPPC, 2013, AR5 WGI: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,. The polar icecaps will start to collapse. A total collapse would lead to an increase of the sea level of more than 60 meter, but many cities are way less below sea level .

Diseases will spread and be make significantly more victims19 Ryan SJ, Carlson CJ, Mordecai EA, Johnson LR (2019) Global expansion and redistribution of Aedes-borne virus transmission risk with climate change. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 13(3): e0007213. Seealso: CNN 2019, Climate change could expose 1 billion more people to bug-borne diseases, study says, . Malaria, for instance, is strongly influenced by climate. This is not only the result of the the fact that the transmitting mosquito thrives in the heat, but also because the malaria causing parasite reproduces faster inside the mosquito when the temperature is higher20 Siraj et al 2014, Altitudinal changes in malaria incidence in highlands of Ethiopia and Colombia, Science, 2014, Mar 7; 343(6175):1154-8. Malaria already kills over 400 000 people every year. The mosquito responsible for spreading dengue is also highly sensitive to climate conditions, and studies suggest that climate change is likely to continue to increase exposure to dengue21 WHO 2018, Climate change and health, ( [visited 8 May 2019]. Only in South America,  8 million people could be infected every year when the temperature rises with 4o..

All except one of the first five mass extinctions are caused by climate change caused by increased levels of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere22 Endangered Species International, The Five Worst Mass Extinctions, ( During the worst extinction, the Permian-Triassic extinction, 251 million years ago, the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere led relatively fast to a temperature rise of 5oC. Current CO2 levels rise much faster though23 David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Tim Duggan Books, New York, 2019.. More than half of the CO2 added to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels, has been added in the last 3 decades24 Boden T ; Marland G ; Andres R J (1999): Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions (1751 – 2014) (V. 2017). Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Oak Ridge, TN (United States). With thanks to David Wallace-Wells. Which is quite remarkable, knowing that the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), that is assessing the science related to climate change, celebrated it’s 30th anniversary in 2018.

Important to realize is that many people oppose (or as they prefer to call it, “nuance”) these numbers by recalling the uncertainty. This is a prejudiced approach as it only refers to the uncertainty that would lead to an overestimation of the possible effects of climate change. In science there is always an uncertainty range (it is very rare to know something with 100% certainty, especially when it is about the future and touches upon a very complex system). This means that it can indeed turn out to be less dramatic, but it can also go in the other direction, turning out even worse.


__ Why?

_____________ Why do we let this happen?

________________________ Why do we accept that future generations will have a hard time.

Can we change the future? Yes, absolutely, but in order to do so, we need drastic changes, politically, economically and socially. The current neo-liberal idea of economic growth is unsustainable and we need to change the way we measure success. It should not be about maximizing financial gain anymore. If we stick to this, our kids will not be able to get a better life than we have now. They will suffer from climate change, more pollution, less resources. It is simply impossible to give all 7,7 billion people in the world25 , let alone the expected 10 billion people in 205026 UN 2017, World population projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100,, the same level of economic wealth as we in the western world have at this moment. The poorer countries will be disproportionately affected, both in intensity as in the time left to take action to prepare for the consequences. Striking is that most of these countries so far only contributed very little to climate change27 King, A. D., & Harrington, L. J. (2018). The inequality of climate change from 1.5 to2°C of global warming. Geophysical Research Letters,45, 5030–5033. Thanks to Wallace-Wells for the reference..

There is a Dutch proverb that describes the root-cause of environmental perfectly: “voor een dubbeltje op de eerste rang willen zitten”. The English equivalent would be “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”. The Dutch proverb however has one advantage above the English one as it explicitly refers to money. The literal translation would be “for a dime in the first rank”. And here we get to the core of the problem: money.

It all boils down to neoliberalism. Money is power. Money comes first and people are only a necessity in order to produce stuff (much of it not needed at all or a much lower quality than possible) and to buy stuff (as much as possible). Money dictates politics, which makes it hard to change the system. Or as the Dutch writer and former politician Jan Terlouw says: there is only one thing more important than money, and that is more money.

As the neoliberal thinking is an intrinsic part of our society and political systems, it won’t be easy to create the necessary societal changes. However, sooner or later we will be forced to do so. Resources are limited and although it is good to have faith en trust in technological improvement, it is a naive to assume that we can counterbalance the limited amounts of raw materials by technological innovations. It is impossible to change the biosphere without  consequences. The sooner we adapt, the easier the process will be. Pure common sense, but unfortunately that is not the basic building block of mankind.