Since I first published this page in 2011 the environment has continued to change. For example, the atmosphere has gone past the 350 parts per million of CO2 that scientists define as the upper end of the “normal” range, to 400 parts per million. Data also show the atmosphere warming faster than earlier models predicted.
Future historians might likely note that the expansive use of fossil fuels was a big mistake on humanity’s part. Although we have been releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the discovery of fire, human population and energy use were too small to make a difference in the greenhouse effect. That all changed with the development of industrialization and the eventual replacement of water, wind, and animal power with machines powered by coal and, later, petroleum. This led to a dramatic increases in world gross domestic product (GDP) and the explosive growth of the human population–the primary drivers of climate change. Our ability to produce more food, shelter, clothing, housing, and other things per capita enabled our population to grow at an exponential rate, as shown with the world population growth curve.
The result has been a gradual increase in global temperatures since 1880 (nearly 1° C, 2° C is considered a threshold to drastic climate change). By the mid-sixties, the globe started heating at much faster rate, shown by the Global Land-Ocean Temperature Change Index (the green bars represent the 95% confidence limits for temperature estimates in each of the three periods). However, the sub-arctic and arctic regions are warming at a much faster rate, contributing to sea-level rise and the expected release of large amounts of methane from melting permafrost.
The population growth curve might be the precursor to a sharp population drop (though not necessarily all the way down to pre-1750 levels). The planet simply cannot sustain 8+ billion people. This is due to the fact that to sustain current and even larger future populations requires even more industrial production. This requires dwindling resources that pollute the planet, emit evermore carbon dioxide and methane, become more expensive to extract, and threatens a wide array of species with extinction.
Other scientific evidence confirms this, as documented in a recent report released by the National Academy of Sciences. Native Peoples around the world knew they had to live in concert with the environment. With the advent of the modern Europeans, and a philosophy that supported mercantile and industrial expansion, this link with the environment was broken. This philosophy of industrial growth spread to the Western countries, and more recently, to many developing countries.
If our descendants are to survive, we must begin the long, slow process of scaling back industrial production. One way or another we will enter a period of micro-industrialization.