Can Humanity Survive an Ecological Collapse?

Our survival is completely dependent on the Earth’s ecosystems, and yet as a global society we seem to be intent on causing them grievous harm. What happens when they are beyond repair? Can we survive an ecological collapse?

By Victoria Safarian

A robust ecosystem provides clean water, purifies the air, ensures healthy soil, promotes nutrient recycling and regulates the climate. The survival of humanity depends on it. But what happens when these ecosystems weaken beyond repair?

What is an ecological system?

An ecological system (ecosystem) is a physical environment where the organisms and the non-living elements of a geographic area develop relationships. Animals, plants, decomposers, soil, sunlight, temperature and water become interdependent in this “bubble of life.” Each serves a purpose and plays a role in contributing to a properly functioning, stable ecosystem. It is amazingly complex, and any small or large disturbance to its balance can result in a catastrophic—often cascading—outcome.

One would hardly think that coral reefs prevent property damage or that bees account for a large portion of global food production? But they do, and the destruction of biodiversity loss is just one of the many changes contributing to Earth’s environmental systems’ dismantling.

Biodiversity and the climate. 

Why do biodiversity and climate change matter? It’s pretty simple: humans rely on nature for basic survival. Oxygen, clean water, nutritious food, regulating disease, and advancements in medical research result from wildlife and nature. Current research shows that up to 70% of all modern medicine is derived from a natural source. 

In addition to human health, world economies rely closely on nature. Included are industries such as construction, agriculture, and food and beverage. The natural world around us is so important that according to a 2020 report released by Swiss Re, “Over half (55%) of global GDP, equal to USD 41.7 trillion, is dependent on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Yet, the worst threat is climate change, impacting clean air, food sources and habitats. Approximately 7 million people worldwide die of air pollution each year, with carbon emissions taking the lead as having the most harmful impact on global warming. Carbon dioxide traps some of the planet’s heat, preventing it from escaping, contributing to an overall rise in temperatures.

recent report released by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) indicates that greenhouse gas emissions have doubled since 1980, resulting in at least a 0.7 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures.

At this rate, sustainability will not be achievable. The world needs to limit its global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and even that is still not considered safe

Ecological Collapse: A calving glacier. Witness to global warming.
A calving glacier. Witness to global warming.
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

What’s the problem?

Ecosystems are reaching their thresholds and losing resilience. Scientists involved with the United Nations’ Millennium Ecosystem Assessment caution that over the next 50 years, the deterioration of human health could significantly worsen. And for this, we can thank human drivers such as population change, sociopolitical factors, cultures, religions, and changes in technology for impacting Earth’s natural systems. Not only do these pressures occur at a local level, but also on a national and global scale.

In some cases, the changes happen quickly, while others take longer. These vast spatial and temporal differences make studying and managing ecosystem services challenging. 

Then there’s the history of it all. Traditionally, for businesses, the concept of going environmentally friendly has not been wholly accepted. Potentially high costs with no real positive (immediate return) would thwart organizations from going partially or fully green. Or, as the Harvard Business Review once put it, going green is often viewed as a “no-win proposition” for business managers. The concept of an organization establishing relationships with environmental groups is a relatively newer trend. 

Veterinarians Rachel Berngartt and Kate Savage volunteer with NMFS Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network during the necropsy of a humpback whale calf.
Veterinarians Rachel Berngartt and Kate Savage volunteer with NMFS Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network during the necropsy of a humpback whale calf.
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Can we survive an ecosystem collapse?

Here we have another problem. The study of “ecosystem collapse” requires more research and modeling. So, it’s kind of hard to gauge the severity of its negative impact. What is known is that without clean air, clean water, nutritious food and shelter, humans would struggle to survive, economies would begin to crash and overall life, as we know it, would change. However, this wouldn’t be the first destroyed ecosystem that humanity has endured. But does this mean that the world can survive another one? Perhaps.

Basically, it’s all bad then, right?

As bleak as all of this may sound, there is hope. Public expectations for environmental performance have drastically changed over the years. This has created a new social movement where going green is the “new norm” and a catalyst for progressive and modernized thinking. The “old school” reluctance to accept specific corporate social responsibilities is now replaced with trying to stay ahead of the curve.

Most importantly, the science behind climate change is widely agreed upon. But despite all of this, the world still needs to massively step up its effort and with great urgency. A 2018 report published by The Nature Conservancy provides a detailed comparison of what the world would look like if human and economic development continues down a “business-as-usual” path, where fossil fuel will continue to claim a 76% share of total combined energy by 2050.

The results are grim. But a more sustainable existence is possible with significant consumption and production pattern shifts. 

Ecological and global governance.

Ecosystem governance is important because it connects social and ecological systems. This connection helps give a better understanding of how to live more sustainably while contributing to biodiversity conservation.

study published by Ecology and Society reveals the imperative role that global governance plays in the management of ecosystem services. However, many organizations claim that environmental control alone isn’t enough and that government involvement is critical for effective management. While there might not be enough attention directed toward how ecosystems are governed, the efforts to turn policy into practice are even less sufficient. Elected officials and legislatures can enact policies that support a sustainable future, which is why people must take political action.

The future of humanity depends on it.

Humans have the power to stop ecological degradation, but it requires acceptance and global collaboration.

Individuals, governments, and communities worldwide will need to work together to reduce emissions, curb consumption, recycle and reuse, and realize that the planet’s resources are finite. The end of the world is a scary concept, and some of the planet’s ecosystems have reached an irreversible tipping point. But there is still time to make a difference. And while individual actions might seem insignificant, small choices can become significant changes.

About the Author

Victoria Safarian is a writer focusing on many topics, including environmental science, sustainability, and equality. Along with writing, she enjoys being a mom, traveling, and embracing new cultures. She aims to raise awareness about environmental issues and the challenges facing low and middle-income communities through her articles.

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