The Age of Man costs the Earth

The Amazon rainforest is being rapidly eaten away by deforestation, just one example of how modern civilisation is taking its toll on the environment. (Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)

The Amazon rainforest is being rapidly eaten away by deforestation, just one example of how modern civilisation is taking its toll on the environment. (Ricardo Moraes, Reuters)

“By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilisation has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life support systems.” This warning comes from the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission report on planetary health.

The commission brought together research from groups as far apart as the African Population and Health Research Centre in Kenya and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Its findings were published in peer-reviewed medical journal the Lancet this week.

The report charted the rise of human health and wellbeing, alongside the destruction of ecosystems. Average life expectancy in the 1950s was 47 years. Now it is 69 years. Similar improvements have been made in child mortality death rates and in the lessening effects of preventable diseases, such as diarrhoea.

In the past three decades, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by 700-million, despite the population of developing countries increasing by two billion in the same period.

But the planetary health report said this progress has come at a high cost: “The degradation of nature’s ecological systems on a scale never seen in human history.”

And while advances have been made since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, these environmental costs would mean the collapse of ecosystems in the future, it said. The report warned that this would reverse progress made on healthcare. “We have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present.”

Humanity’s impact on nature is so profound that it has started a new age in the Earth’s history – the Anthropocene or “Age of Man”. This is because humans are now the main driver of change in ecosystems.

The Lancet tackled the myriad ways in which advancing human civilisation in the short term is having profound impacts on ecosystems – including climate change, ocean acidification, land degradation, water scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries and loss of biodiversity.

“Throughout history, humanity has advanced by exploiting the environment to provide essential services and resources,” the report said. “But there is a growing awareness that humanity’s historical patterns of development cannot be a guide for the future.”

This awareness, however, has not slowed the rate of exploitation in the past 15 years. Instead, it has increased. In that time alone humanity has cut down 2.3?million square kilometres of primary forest. Humans have also overexploited 90% of fisheries, dammed 60% of the world’s rivers, and driven extinction at a rate of a hundred times what is commonly seen in nature.

In addition, the concentrations of major greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – are at their highest levels in the past 800 000 years.

The report warned that the result of these human-driven effects will be wholesale changes to the ecosystems on which life relies to continue existing.

Because life works through a web of inter-reliance, changes in one place have an effect elsewhere. These different changes are already occurring at such a rate that many species cannot adapt quickly enough to survive, it warned.

But the advances in health could be maintained if something is done rapidly to tackle the model of mining the environment for societal progress, it said.

“Humanity can chart a safe, healthy and prosperous course through the 21st century by addressing the unacceptable inequalities in health and wealth within the environmental limits of the Earth,” the report’s authors said.

Sipho Kings


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