Guest Blogger Professor Mark Maslin
Professor Mark Maslin is based at University College London. His research ranges from early human evolution to defining the Anthropocene, or from the global green economy to climate change and global health. Oxford University Press has recently published the third edition of his “Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction”.
So let us investigate the state of our planet starting with human health around the globe. Every year 7 million children die needlessly due to preventable disease and starvation. 700 million people go to bed every night feeling hungry and almost billion people still do not have access to clean safe drinking water. This is despite the fact that we have enough food and water for all 7 billion people, but our political-economic system means that many people simply cannot afford them. Every year there is a drop in the total number of people in extreme poverty but the challenge is exacerbated by the fact that by 2050 there could be at least an extra 2 billion people on the planet and most of those in the very poorest countries.
If we look at the Earth’s major biogeochemical cycles all have been profoundly altered by humanity. In the early 20th century invention of the Haber-Bosch process allowing the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia for use as fertilizer has altered the global nitrogen cycle so radically that the nearest suggested comparison over 2 billion years ago. Human actions have increased atmospheric CO2 by 40% to a level not seen for at least the last million years, and may have even delayed the next ice age. This has increased the acidity of the ocean faster than anytime in the last 50 million years
Human action also impacts on non-human life. The productivity of the Earth appears to be relatively constant; however, the appropriation of a third of it for human use reduces that available for millions of other species on Earth. Land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions some 100 to 1000 times higher than background rates, and is the start of the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. We have also moved crops, domesticated animals and pathogens around the world leading to a unique global homogenisation of Earth’s biota. Human actions also constitute Earth’s most important evolutionary pressure. The development of diverse products, including antibiotics, pesticides, and novel genetically-engineered organisms, combined with intense harvesting and climate change, are all dramatically altering evolution on Earth. So important is the effect of humanity that we are now seen as a geological power on the scale of plate tectonics or a meteorite impact. Prompting many to call for the period of time to be defined as the Anthropocene.
If we want to eradicate extreme poverty at the current rate of trickle down and bring the living allowance of the very poorest people in the world up to $1.25 per day it would require global GDP to increase by 15 times taking over 100 years. Under the current economic system this would require huge increase in consumption levels. This all requires cheap energy, which will mainly come from fossil fuels which will accelerate climate change and more land for agricultural products driving deforestation and environmental degradation making those poorest of people more vulnerable to extreme weather events.
So the understanding of the World’s current and future social and environmental challenges suggest the very economic theories that have dominated global economics for the last 35 years are not fit for purpose. But do not misunderstand me this is not a rant against capitalism but against the extreme pervert form of capitalism called neoliberalism. What is required is proactive and aggressive redistribution of wealth both within and between countries. This could be via provisioning of free essential services such as access to clean water, health care and education. Progressive taxation is essential to rebalance inequalities. This in turn reduces cost as it has been shown that the smaller the social divisions within a country the lower the health care costs and the higher the longevity. Outdated major international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation need to be dismantled and new governance structures fit for the twenty first century created to accelerate sustainable development. This is where academics can make a fundamental difference by envisioning new political systems of governance, which enable collective action and more equal distribution of wealth, resources and opportunities. After reading this blog ask yourself one question ‘why are we constantly told we cannot have a more equal, fair and sustainable global society?’