The Book of Revelation describes events leading to the end of the Earth as we know it in mysterious and extravagant imagery. Included in that imagery are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse–Pestilence, War, Famine and Death–the causes of mass destruction known at the time of the writing of Revelation.
We are now facing other potential global threats that the author of Revelation did not anticipate. Two are within the ability of mankind to mitigate, if not control, but for political, economic, religious and other reasons, mankind has likely waited too long and acted too little and too late to preserve the planet as we know it.
These two new Horsemen of the Apocalypse are global climate change and over-population. Each is serious cause for concern about whether the quality of life, or life itself, that we have on Earth can be sustained indefinitely, but the two are combining into a perfect storm of conditions that will threaten the continued productivity of our planet’s arable lands to provide food for our ever-increasing population, and thus our continued existence.
This is not merely a problem that will affect some country on the other side of the world about which we can avert our eyes and cover our ears when images of emaciated children covered with flies are shown on television. Eventually, all parts of the world will become familiar with steadily increasing changes in the temperature and extreme weather conditions, with accompanying and ever-escalating shortages of food.
Climate change has been the subject of much scientific and public discourse since 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress that the average temperature on Earth is increasing and that the cause of that increase is attributable to human-caused carbon emissions.
Today, the vast majority of qualified scientists regard the warming of Earth as a serious problem, and many scientific studies have been written about it. But in a country where 74 million of its citizens voted in 2020 for Donald Trump (who denies the reality of climate change) for president, only a third of the American general adult population consider climate change to be a priority.
Over-population, on the other hand, hasn’t been a major part of public discussion since the late 1960s when Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University, published a book titled “The Population Bomb,” the thesis of which is that the Earth had reached a state of over-population that exceeded the planet’s capacity to feed it. The book was a popular read, but was widely denounced by other scientists and faded into obscurity, taking the subject of over-population with it.
The human population of the Earth at the time of Ehrlich’s book was approximately 4 billion. Today, that population has doubled to 8 billion. Currently, the world population increases at an estimated 81 million people per year. It is time to revisit the question of how many people the Earth can support.
The phenomena of climate change and over-population in tandem are especially significant because, while the reduction of food supply in one area of the world–Ukraine, for example–can be compensated for by supplies from other areas, with climate change, wars and other catastrophes potentially affecting the world’s entire food supply to a yet-unknown degree, there is a realistic threat of worldwide food shortages.
Why isn’t the general public alarmed by these problems? There are a number of reasons, most having to do with the human psyche. The changes brought about by climate change and over-population are imperceptible to the average person preoccupied with immediate problems.
Hearing repeated scientific warnings of global warming, seeing the meltdown of the icecaps and glaciers on television, experiencing more frequent flooding, more severe storms, and ever-hotter average yearly temperatures, and witnessing on a daily basis the continuous growth and sprawl of cities into the countryside doesn’t seem to impress us that change is occurring. The change has to be in our backyards and affect our personal comforts or our pocketbooks to provoke a reaction. That time isn’t here yet, but it is coming.
Then there are the inevitable ideological considerations. Climate change shouldn’t be a politically partisan issue, but has been since 1988. The issue of over-population, although not yet hotly debated, can be even more contentious when one considers the political, religious and sociological aspects of limiting reproduction and the question of whether abortion could be a possible means of doing so.
It is an unfortunate trait of humans that we have to be directly affected before we become conscious of a problem and develop enough incentive to do anything about it. As T.S. Eliot said, “Humankind … cannot bear very much reality.” Thus, no serious efforts to control climate change or over-population was done by any of the industrialized nations until the problem became obvious and undeniable, and such efforts have been contentious and largely ineffective. To the contrary, world carbon emissions have continuously increased since Hansen’s warning in 1988.
Increasing numbers of credible scientists are coming to the conclusion that it is too late to avoid the more severe consequences of climate change. The collective efforts of the nations of the world–especially the largest carbon emitters–to take strong measures necessary to cut those emissions have been too little, and are now too late.
It took over 100 years to get into this predicament, and it will take a long time to stabilize it, let alone reverse it. Notwithstanding ample warnings, there is little hope that the major carbon emitters will overcome the nationalistic issues that prevent a coordinated effort to avoid a significant increase in world average temperatures.
And we haven’t even begun to discuss the issue of over-population. It will be even more difficult to overcome than climate change.
Richard H. Mays, an environmental attorney, was formerly Senior Enforcement Counsel and Acting Assistant Administrator for Enforcement at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Visit our sponsors
Wise (formerly TransferWise) is the cheaper, easier way to send money abroad. It helps people move money quickly and easily between bank accounts in different countries. Convert 60+ currencies with ridiculously low fees - on average 7x cheaper than a bank. No hidden fees, no markup on the exchange rate, ever.