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Humanity’s ‘ecological Ponzi scheme’ sets up bleak future, scientists warn

Blue dart frog. Image by Rhett Butler.

  • In a recently published perspective piece, 17 leading scientists say the world is facing a “ghastly future” due to ongoing environmental degradation, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and human overpopulation and overconsumption.
  • The authors say their message is meant to give a “cold shower” to leaders who can help make positive changes for the planet.
  • While other scientists agree with some of the report’s messages, they point out several issues with the argument’s framework, including its possible misidentification of migration and population growth in places like sub-Saharan Africa as driving environmental problems.

Earth’s future looks decidedly bleak, according to a group of 17 prominent international scientists. But understanding the magnitude of the world’s problems is not an easy feat, even for knowledgeable experts, they say.

In a new perspective piece published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, the scientists say that key environmental issues, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, and human overpopulation and overconsumption, coupled with ignorance and inaction, is driving the world into a state of disrepair. The problems will only worsen in the coming decades, they warn, with ramifications spanning over centuries.

Lowland rainforest in Sumatra. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

The world’s ever-expanding human population will lead to food insecurity, as well as other “social ills” such as overcrowding, joblessness, deteriorating infrastructure, poor governance, and an increasing number of conflicts, all the while placing further stress on the planet’s biosphere, the authors say.

“When populations grow up towards their carrying capacities, individual fitness declines,” lead author Corey Bradshaw, professor of global ecology at Flinders University, Australia, told Mongabay in an interview. “Now we’ve artificially inflated our carrying capacity through technological innovation. But that has required us to develop essentially an ecological Ponzi scheme, which means that we steal from the future to gain short term increases.”

Despite the report’s dismal tone, the authors say their messaging is “not a call to surrender,” but is meant to give world leaders “a realistic ‘cold shower’ of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future.”

Proffered solutions to these issues include “fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality” as well as “the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, [reining] in corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women,” the authors write.

Coral growing off a reef in Indonesia. Image by Martin Colognoli / Coral Reef Image Bank.

Co-author Rodolfo Dirzo, professor of environmental science at Stanford University, U.S., said the impetus for writing this report came from a “collective sense of urgency” between him and his colleagues.

“[W]e thought that we needed a collective voice to meet what we feel is our responsibility, as scientists, of ‘telling it like it is,’” Dirzo told Mongabay in an email. “The critical state of our life supporting systems in the so-called Anthropocene, and the magnitude of the formidable challenges that humanity needs to address to avoid a really ghastly future are issues that cannot be overstated, nor indeed, is the necessity to understand that we are running out of time.”

Sarah Cornell, a global sustainability scientist and associate professor at Stockholm University’s Stockholm Resilience Centre, who was not involved in this report, says she agrees with some of the central tenets.

“I think that the paper does some things very well,” Cornell told Mongabay in an interview. “Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity [and] it is important for scientists to speak out candidly and accurately. So, they are highlighting a real issue, and I’m sure they’re doing it with the very best of intentions.”

Blackwater oxbow lake in the Amazon. Image by Rhett A Butler for Mongabay.

However, she says the paper is problematic in other regards. For one, she does not agree with the paper’s framing of mass migration, “especially migration of poor people to countries that are perceived as rich,” as an environmental issue, as well as its identification of sub-Saharan Africa being a source of overpopulation.

“If you frame a problem in a particular way, it forces people to think of solutions in particular ways,” Cornell said. “There are many other ways that this paper could have been framed that I think would have reflected our real understanding of global change processes better.”

She added: “If they’d sort of said, ‘Look, here we are, a group of mainly elderly, mainly Western, mainly white authors, [and] we recognize that our overconsumption has been really contributing to the problem of global change, and therefore, we feel that we need to bring this [information] to a wider audience. How do we do that?’ The paper would have [had] a very different flavor and a very different set of messages.”

Garry Peterson, a sustainability scientist and professor of environmental sciences at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, who was also not involved in the report, says he agrees that humanity is causing biodiversity loss on a grand scale, but says the paper has a lot of noticeable gaps, including an omission of the “adaptiveness, flexibility and ongoing action of people, governments and organizations” to deal with critical environmental issues.

Drone photo of a whale shark feeding the ocean surface. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

The world may not necessarily face a “ghastly future” if transformative change occurs, Peterson told Mongabay in an interview.

“Is humanity causing massive biodiversity loss?” he said. “Yes. Are we failing to meet goals that the government has set? Yes. But … does that mean people don’t understand this? Does that mean we’re all done? I don’t think either of those things are true.”


Bradshaw, C. J., Ehrlich, P. R., Beattie, A., Ceballos, G., Crist, E., Diamond, J., … Blumstein, D. T. (2021). Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers in Conservation Science1, 9. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2020.615419

Banner image caption: Blue dart frog. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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