billion by 2050, an increase of almost 30% from the current 7.4 billion people on Earth. But before it gets there, something else catastrophic will happen: We are currently dying at the average of more than 1,500 deaths per day. The number of human beings who have died ever since our species first evolved 200 thousand years ago will rise to approximately 150 trillion in just the next few decades. That’s how many fossils we’ll have left behind.
The big, looming question is: Will it matter if we’re gone? From a scientific point of view, the answer is unambiguous: Of course! The transformation from a few small communities to the Earth as we know it now was initiated by human activity. That’s right us.
From the first flint axe that early humans used to fell a tree, billions of years of evolution and planetary dynamics came together in such a way that regular ol’ water and organic stuff became our human bodies. The synergy between living beings and their surroundings led to animals like us – creatures so powerful we’ve wrestled control over Earth’s other species, molded its geology to build cities, and are now altering the atmosphere itself.
So while Homo sapiens may be only 0.01% of Earth’s biomass, we’ve irrevocably shaped our planet. But if this human-centric view is too anthropocentric for you, consider that nothing you see would exist without human beings. The same can be said of every other living creature on the planet, and we share this pale blue dot with 3.7 million other known species – most of which we haven’t even gotten to know yet.
Yes, humans have evolved over millennia: We’ve overcome countless diseases and ecological hardships, and our bodies and brains are impressively capable. But up until very recently, these survivors have all been part of a sustainable system that was able to continually replace its casualties and rebuild itself again anew.
All this changed with the Industrial Revolution in Europe 250 years ago. For the first time ever, our species thought it could create something new – a strange concoction of steam, metal, and fire – that would allow us to multiply our efforts many times over. This new technology offered so much power that humans could now extract resources from Earth faster than they could be naturally replenished.
So we turned our world into a huge mine with no plans for the future. Instead of worrying about how to keep what’s left, we’ve focused on how to get even more. Now, everything is going down at a breakneck pace: Over the past 60 years alone, half of Earth’s arable land has been lost to erosion and development. In other words, an area about twice the size of India has been snatched from our planet’s lungs.
In that same time, our oceans have absorbed more than half of all the CO2 we’ve emptied into the atmosphere. This has caused them to warm up faster than at any point in human history. And that’s not even mentioning plastic pollution or the surplus of fish-seeking “ghost nets” that are suffocating sea life by the hundreds of thousands.
Meanwhile, we’re still pumping out more CO2 at a record-breaking pace and the concentrations in our air continue to rise. At this rate, we’ll likely cross the threshold where human intervention can make lowering carbon emissions near-impossible. Even with the whole world working against this already dire scenario, we don’t have much hope of stabilizing our climate before it starts breaking down.
But here’s the thing about scientific predictions: They don’t just predict the future, they create it. So even if we continue to ignore this data and push forward with business as usual, we’ll be running over a path we helped clear, while shouting warnings at one another from inside this same very real future. Fortunately, the more people who know about this path, the smaller it becomes.