Age of environmental breakdown

The Eastern Cape is being crippled by a drought. In Makhanda, the dams are dry and an entire city will have to live off one water pipeline. In Bethlehem, in the eastern Free State, it didn’t rain in November or December. As a result, a large chunk of South Africa’s maize crop has had to be planted late, or not at all. Food prices will rise. Cape Town only just survived an unprecedented drought, and the city is spending R8-billion to better prepare for the next one.

In Johannesburg, heat waves are being followed by nights of damaging hail and flooding. This rain is channelled overwhelming old and poorly maintained drainage systems, flooding homes and neighbourhoods. More rain is falling in less time. Lephalale, where Eskom’s new Medupi power plant is struggling to produce power, is experiencing temperatures as high as 38°C.

This was all predicted. It was a problem for the future. It is now a crisis of today.

This is the warning from a devastating report out this week: “Human-induced environmental change is occurring at an unprecedented scale and pace, and the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic collapse in societies around the world is rapidly closing.”

The report, This Is a Crisis: Facing Up to the Age of Environmental Breakdown, from the centre-left Institute for Public Policy Research in the United Kingdom, brings together research into environmental collapse around the world. Research normally focuses on a single collapse. Put together, an alarming picture emerges.


The 20 hottest years on record have been in the past 22 years. The past four years are the hottest on record. More than 75% of the Earth’s land is substantially degraded, and 30% of arable land — the equivalent of 10 South Africas — has become unproductive because of erosion. Since 1950, the number of floods worldwide has increased by 1 500%, extreme temperature events by 2 000% and wildfires by 700%. In 2017 alone, extreme weather events costs the world R4.5-trillion. And climate change is already killing some 400 000 people each year.

The natural world is also going silent. Extinction rates are 1 000 times higher than normal. Another piece of research this week said that 45% of insect species are going extinct. That number could reach 100% by the end of this century. These are the insects that pollinate flowers in suburban gardens and keep the global agricultural system working. They’re the ladybugs and dung beetles that children prod and poke. 

It is African countries and their developing peers around the world that will be hardest hit.

Yet last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation address and mentioned this new normal once, in a throwaway line that had no planning attached to it. In the debates about the address, not one politician thought to bring up this collapse of ecosystems.

Last year, the United Nation’s climate change body — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — said carbon emissions need to drop by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050 if dangerous global warming is to be avoided. If this doesn’t happen, the world will warm by more than 3°C, a number generally accepted as catastrophic.

The institute warns that the collapse of ecosystems and the environment is already happening in lots of different ways, from economic instability, large-scale involuntary migration and conflict to famine and the “potential collapse of social and economic systems”.

Focusing on agriculture, for example, it says that 75% of the world’s food comes from five animal and 12 plant species. It is also concentrated in a handful of “breadbasket regions” (China and the United States supply 60% of the world’s maize, which export to South Africa when the local grain crop fails). There used to be a one-in-100 chance of both crops failing each decade. There is now a one-in-20 chance that flood, drought and heat will combine to threaten 60% of global maize supply.

To feed the world’s growing population, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says food production needs to increase by 60% by 2050. More food must be grown in the next 50 years than in all of human history. This will require 120% more water and 42% more land, and will increase carbon emissions from agriculture by 77% by 2050. But a third of arable land is already unproductive and the insects that pollinate plants face extinction. 

More demand for food is part of an increase in demand for everything. Between 1900 and 2010, total global resource consumption increased by 790%. With the world population growing from 1.6-billion to more than seven billion, resource use per person tripled.

Providing for this has put too much strain on a world in which all the components have evolved over millions of years to work in equilibrium. The institute says: “In the extreme, environmental breakdown could trigger catastrophic breakdown of human systems, driving a rapid process of runaway collapse in which economic, societal and political shocks cascade through the globally linked system — in much the same way as occurred in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007.”

Despite this — and all the warning signs of global ecosystem collapse — the institute says we aren’t paying enough attention. “Mainstream political and policy debates have failed to recognise that human impacts on the environment have reached a critical stage, potentially eroding the conditions upon which socioeconomic stability is possible.”

In South Africa, there is little debate or recognition of any of this. And, in the Cabinet reshuffle late last year, the department of environmental affairs was given to a minister frequently accused of corruption and who presided over the collapse of the department of water and sanitation.

The recent find of gas off the coast near Mossel Bay will mean more carbon emissions.

The United Kingdom Meteorological Office says global carbon emissions this year will be the highest in all of human history. This is despite 197 countries pledging in Paris in 2015 to lower emissions so that global warming stays at a survivable 2°C. In December, documentary filmmaker Sir David Attenborough warned that: “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisation and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

Last month, the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Risk Report, ahead of the annual Davos meeting. This warned that: “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening.” The forum concluded that the world is “sleepwalking into catastrophe”.

Society has been built on top of a functioning environment. Rainfall and healthy soil have meant 12 000 years of agriculture and food for billions of people. Clean air has allowed people to thrive, improbably, on a rock in space. Insects and other species have helped to ensure working ecosystems.

But something has to give and now all these ecosystems are collapsing. We are in an age of environmental breakdown.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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