Featured Photo: Five hundred homes were lost in Canberra in 2003; the whole coastal and near inland of south-eastern Australia was aflame in 2019/2020.
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 March 2021
The Last Five Years, Global Threats in 2021: mass extinction, climate change, human population, refugees, Covid-19 and the Internet
This article is a companion to my last article Killing Osama bin Laden, Update 2021 in which I also covered what has happened in global politics in the last five years.
Climate change is now becoming front and centre in global politics as has been predicted for some time. Many countries are beginning to treat climate change as an emergency that must be solved, but are not to date doing anything much about it.
Australia is coming to the issue late, neither major party in Federal politics is doing anything and will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table. The less significant National Party is still in denial. Yet, the corporate sector, business, non-government agencies and to a lesser extent State governments are beginning to act, as is much of the corporate sector around the world.
In my view this is all too little too late. I am reminded of the trope in cartoons and elsewhere of the gloom-laden man holding up a sign that reads The end is nigh! I am not going to present arguments here. The facts are too self-evident.
Let’s look at the last five years and forward to the next ten.
Problems Humanity Faces
The major problems of mass extinction, climate change, human population, refugees and Covid-19 are inter-related. The internet is slightly separated but integral to our future too.
Mass Extinction of Species
Mass extinction of other life forms began with the industrial revolution and has been creeping up on us. Most do not think extinction of species, especially the many of which we know very little about, is a threat to humanity and our survival.
Even if the survival of humanity isn’t in play, the disappearance of animals, plants, fungi and microbes is going to make our planet a dreary place.
Yet, we have become blasé about the potential disappearance of tigers, rhinoceros and elephants.
Koalas, Frogs and Coral
A large percentage of Australia’s iconic koala bear population died in the massive bushfires in 2019/2020. Koala populations were already threatened by habitat loss and Chlamydia disease. Yet, the NSW National Party think farmers are more important than koalas.
Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef, already weakened by other factors and by government inaction, will disappear soon because of climate change.
Since the 1980s, Chytrid fungus has been decimating frog populations in Australia and around the world. The problem is possibly related to climate change, but also to other human related factors such as pesticides, habitat destruction and even global travel.
Since 1996 the iconic marsupial the Tasmanian Devil only found in Tasmania, Australia has been struck by Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) a transmissible cancer-like disease that is 100% fatal and appeared likely to cause the extinction of the species. Human monitoring and the potential emergence of resistance in a small group of the marsupials may save the species from extinction.
These are a few examples of hundreds of similar cases around the world.
Insects & Bees
The decline of insects, however, is perhaps an existential challenge for humanity.
One has heard of the Varoa mite and its impact on bees and honey production around the world. The mite has not yet become endemic in Australia. However Varoa destructor though aptly named is not the only culprit. A Yale article in 2013 mentions pesticides, fungicides, viral pathogens as well as mites.
Wikipedia suggested bees themselves may be responsible for the decline of other insect pollinators. They also mention that only 30% of the world’s major food crops are dependent on insect pollination. However, 87.5% of the world’s flowering plants are animal pollinated and 60% of crop plant species use animal pollinators. Therefore, the effect of the loss of pollinators on the world’s ecosystems and on humanity is likely to be dire.
However, the loss of bees and other insect pollinators is only a small part of the problem. We sometimes think of insects merely as a nuisance (e.g. mosquitoes, ticks, flies). However, insects are the most numerous examples of complex multicellular life on the planet. A decline in insects will have consequences that, whilst unknown, are likely to be enormous for life on the planet.
Longitudinal studies of Insects
A longitudinal study of insects is a measure repeated over many years for various insects found at one or several sites. As to be expected, there has been no systematic attempt to assess insect populations and species loss on a global basis, nor to objectively estimate what the impact might be.
A 27-year longitudinal study in 63 nature protection areas in Germany showed a decline in flying insect biomass of 75%. This is called the Krefeld Study and is the most widely cited. Eight other influential studies with similar findings are cited by Wikipedia below. Some reports on ‘insectageddon’ may be overstated, but it is hard to deny that it is happening. As a personal anecdote think of insects crushed on windscreens in your childhood as opposed to now.
Bird populations are also crashing around the planet, some of which are certainly related to the decline in insects, but are also related to other human induced factors, such as habitat destruction and chemicals.
Mass extinction of species is now related to climate change. Climate change is not the cause, but it is accelerating the process.
James Hanson credibly alerted the world to climate change in the 1980s. Richard Aedy in four podcasts Hot Mess on ABC Radio National Australia in 2020 summarises why nothing has been done in more than four decades (the fourth podcast is called Hope):
- Our brains are not wired properly. We are cognitively unable to confront crises that are not immediately in front of us.
- The fossil fuel industry knew about climate change from the 1960s, became actively engaged from the 1970s and spent large amounts of money sowing doubt, in a manner similar to the tobacco lobby, from the mid-1990s.
- In Australia, our politicians, particularly the conservatives, were both captured by the fossil fuel lobby and found it politically and ideologically expedient to deny climate change. As a major resource exporter Australia has become increasingly an outlier on climate change denial (see my article on the Coal Curse).
There are multitudes of other overviews. Indeed, we are buried in information. It is much too easy to focus on the fossil fuel industry and to blame them and their seeding of doubt onto impeccable scientific analysis for all our problems.
However, what is really at issue is that not one national government around the world has acted on the climate emergency in a serious way. Nor have we been able as individuals to act effectively! Greta Thunberg is perfectly right in all her speeches: Our house is on fire and you are doing nothing about it. It is her generation and those who come after her who are going to bear the brunt of climate change.
I went to a climate change conference at ANU around 2005. The discussion then was trying to keep the global temperature rise to 1.5˚C, 2˚C was considered undesirable but tolerable, above 3˚C was considered catastrophic. I’ve heard from what I consider reliable sources that we are now in the range of 3-6˚C from 2050 to 2100 (maybe sooner) and heading more to 6˚C. At 6˚C the future of civilisation is in doubt.
Climate change is also having a huge and unknown impact on the extinction of other life forms. Farming originated and has continued until now in pretty much a straight line of temperature for twelve thousand years (See figure 4 in my article on World Economic History). Our major grain crops may fail with a temperature rise.
Our lack of a global response to climate change is inexplicable. We have experienced it in so many ways in the last decade. Almost every year has been the hottest year on record. The catastrophic bushfires in Australia last year, in the USA, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Brazil and Siberia are merely a sign of worse catastrophes to come. Cyclones, storm surges, rising sea level, tornadoes, melting ice at the poles, melting permafrost, extreme heat waves and cold snaps, etc. etc.
Refugees and Population
Refugees are a consequence of small conflicts around the globe, the growth of strong men, but more particularly to human population growth and soon climate change. Australia has been shameful and draconian in its treatment of refugees as a means of domestic political manipulation. Most western countries are already showing resistance to the refugee problem.
A massive increase in refugees is inevitable in the coming decades. Human population will continue to increase until around 2050 when the world demographic transition will begin to take effect. Famine and refugees will be a growing consequence of climate change. We are not good at dealing with either.
The Millennium Development Goals were adopted by the UN in 2000. In 2005, Jeffrey D Sachs a contrarian but highly respected economist with an impeccable track record published The End of Poverty a practical pathway to achieve the first development goal by 2025. The amount of money required of rich nations was minor. Not surprisingly, by 2020 not much progress has been made.
I used to think that 2050 was the definitive turning point for world population, but recent projections put peak world population at 2075 (Wikipedia). However, as Wikipedia says population projections of more than one generation into the future are highly speculative.
Increasing population levels from the 20th century are inextricably linked with utilisation of resources, climate change, habitat destruction, movements of humans into new environments, increase in diseases such as HIV/AIDS, SARS Cov-1 and Covid-19.
We were actually concerned about world population size from the 1950s to the 1980s. Yet, when world population had really become an issue it seemed to fall off the radar. Perhaps, neoliberalism and growth economics (to no purpose) made commentators and politicians wary of mentioning population. Until the world population begins to decline late in the 21st century, human population size will remain a major problem.
Covid-19 is an indirect consequence of human population growth, of humans moving into new areas and coming in contact with the endemic mammals and birds, and of climate change.
Public health professionals have been aware of the problem for decades. How we have handled Covid-19 around the world to date and continue to handle it, as vaccines are used and become successful or fail, is a microcosm of the climate change dilemma.
To everyone’s surprise we phased out chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as aerosols, solvents and refrigerants and solved the hole in the ozone layer problem in the late 1990s.
But, that apart we don’t seem to be any good at global action. Several marvellous large-scale engineering solutions have been offered to solve the greenhouse gas problem. Fortunately to date, and hopefully into the future, no one has been stupid enough to contemplate them seriously.
The state of the oceans, plastic pollution and the decline of fish is another area of major concern. Rainforests, forests… Growing income inequality and the world’s resources in the hands of a tiny few, economics without purpose are ferocious issues. I’m sure there are others.
The Internet is such a broad arena it is difficult to distil what might happen in the next ten years in a few short statements. We also need to consider how important the Internet is to us. How could we live these days without smartphones? We are also talking of a technology that only became widespread in its utility in the last twenty-five years.
I have pontificated extensively on various aspects of the topic in various previous articles and include a list of them in Further Information below.
Misinformation & Its Frightening Extensions
In the companion article to this Killing Osama bin Laden, Update 2021, I covered truth decay, fake news and alternative facts. Misinformation in general has been around for a long time but in the Internet era and particularly in the last five years its proliferation and the harm caused have been mind boggling.
The Rabbit Hole a podcast in eight episodes by Kevin Roose, a journalist for the New York Times, covers the radicalisation of a young man Caleb by alt right podcasts on YouTube, the shooting at YouTube HQ, the Pewdiepie phenomenon on YouTube, and the rise of Q Anon through social media in general.
Although a bit tedious in parts, the podcast is riveting in what it covers. Roose began with the questions: How is the Internet changing? And, How is it changing us?
Until Roose, I’d thought of YouTube as relatively benign and useful. I still do partly. But, I’d never thought of the rabbit holes! Nor seriously considered radicalisation on the Internet.
Search & Social Media
The Internet used to be considered as relatively benign; and the vocal proponents of a free Internet unfettered by regulation, seemed a logical cause worth fighting for. All that has changed in the last five years and we are beginning an era where the Internet seems far less benign, and frequently a dangerous place, and much of it focuses on social media.
Social media itself in general was seen as benign, if sometimes a nuisance, until recently. Now Twitter and Facebook banning Donald Trump have raised a host of issues including what responsibility does social media have over the dissemination of misinformation. Certainly, among other things, Putin’s Russia, it’s bots and troll farms, target social fault lines and try to sow or amplify discord in other societies.
Similarly, the rise and popularity of Google has raised concerns only relatively recently. All of the big techs Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have recently come under pressure in the USA and around the world because of their monopoly power. Antitrust cases are underway in the USA on the four giant techs, but especially Google and Facebook.
When I began writing this article Google threatened to cut off services to Australia. I among thousands wrote negative comments on a PR video Google put forward to argue its case. My point was that such a move might end in destroying Google. Google did not proceed and indeed began to cut deals with news media companies.
On 18 February 2021 in a massive display of arrogance and lack of media savvy, Facebook cut off news services to Australia, but also inadvertently cut off emergency government sites, other sites and small non-news or minor players (including this blog) — ‘quick and dirty’ I suspect. There was an instant backlash, Facebook has rescinded the denial of service, but the long-term consequences on both Google and Facebook and other current services are likely to be negative.
China is in the process of reining in its two tech giants Alibaba and Tencent. No one knows where this will go. Similarly issues of freedom of the Internet and of the whole Internet will play out slowly, but change in the Internet is inevitable. It is a struggle between a free and open Internet and government regulation. How this will play out no one knows.
In another ten years we will have moved on and these issues will be historical issues. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok may no longer exist. Indeed, I think this likely for some, even the tech giants. Who remembers Netscape or MySpace?
Hacking, Cyber Crime and State-based Cyber Warfare
In an earlier article on William Gibson’s prescience about cyberspace in his Neuromancer Trilogy, I gave a quite comprehensive comprehensive history of the Internet with reference to the current topic, which is worth consulting. I’ll just make a few comments here.
Private hacking has grown from relatively harmless but slightly malicious exploits by individuals experimenting about where and how they could break into other systems to full-scale criminal enterprises that affect us all. The sophistication of criminal activities on the Internet have accelerated in the past five years, and will continue as a growth area in the next ten. Governments and major corporations have been slow to react.
Legislation in the Clinton era and later (e.g. Bill 266 in the US Senate 1991) encouraging backdoors in software, such as Microsoft Windows, and other measures made life much easier for hackers world-wide. Zero-day vulnerabilities are sold and traded for immense amounts of money.
State based hacking is also a growth-based area. Russia was an early player with its shutdown of Estonia in 2007 (an experiment only).
The French TV series the bureau is a fictionalised account of the the Deuxième style Bureau of the French Secret Service in recent years. Although fiction the accounts of secret activities in various countries seems quite accurate. Seasons four and to a lesser extent five give a reasonably accurate report on the capabilities of the Russians as state-based hackers.
The Russians have more recently also engaged in attempting to destabilise other countries through the promulgation of carefully crafted misinformation
The USA/Israel weren’t far behind with the Stuxnet virus (identified 2010), which disabled centrifuges in Iran’s nuclear program. In doing this they revealed, to anyone who cared, the insane vulnerability of manufacturing systems and process controllers of all types, which were invented pre-internet and in typical human fashion haven’t changed much since. Even new controllers in automobiles, for example, are surprisingly easy to hack.
In the twenty-first century, the NSA and the CIA in the USA, and GCHQ in the UK have gone rogue to some extent. We might have suspected this but never truly known, if not for Edward Snowden.
China had been involved in systematically stealing official secrets and intellectual property from the USA since the 1980s. The Internet era merely offered them more opportunity. But, they have also been preparing the groundwork for cyber warfare (as have the other countries named above, North Korea, Iran and many others).
The China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398 based in Shanghai has been stealing government secrets and intellectual property (IP) world-wide quite blatantly through hacking, as have other government and private groups in China.
Cyber warfare gets mentioned in the press occasionally but no one, except governments behind closed doors, seems to treat it seriously.
In Australia the government occasionally mutters about cyber security, tackling cyber crime and even preparing itself to attack perpetrators, but the evidence of practical activities is scant.
In the William Gibson article above, I mentioned something that most Australians and seemingly even the government have forgotten. In April 2015 ex-Prime Minister Turnbull confirmed that China had placed trojans in one of two Australian Government supercomputer systems. In the same week he announced the $50 billion new submarine contract (now much more expensive), but said Australia could not afford the several hundred million dollars it would take to purchase new supercomputers, the only way to remove the trojans. This means that China effectively has an on/off switch for Australia (power, water, banks, process systems, traffic lights, food distribution systems, Internet, transport etc.) which it could use, or on-sell to a third party. And, no one even seems to remember it happened.
More incidents of a cyber warfare nature will continue, but hopefully nothing full-blown will occur in the next ten years. But, there is no guarantee and many countries are making preparations.
As the Chinese curse says: May you live in interesting times! We certainly have lived in interesting times in the last five years and will do so even more in the next ten. Global politics was discussed in the companion article to this Killing Osama bin Laden, Update 2021. I said: were the last five years of global politics portrayed in fiction no one would believe it. The next ten are unlikely to be any better.
In this article, I’ve commented on mass extinction of species, climate change, human population, refugees, Covid-19 and the Internet.
Recently, some climate change activists have commented that one needs to segment the audience for climate change, as a significant minority of ordinary people will not respond to a doom and gloom message. I’m not writing this commentary for them. I’m writing for those who recognise that there is a problem, but are not necessarily aware of the extent.
I hope this is useful to you. Even though the consequences of these human problems are dire, I still remain an optimist. Life can be good and remain so, as things slowly go to hell. I suspect that the world will soon begin to respond to these existential emergencies. Maybe we do have time to act. Perhaps if wartime style resources are thrown at the problem, anything is possible. I was encouraged that Richard Aedy’s last podcast on climate change was entitled Hope.
In the past few days, I heard a program in the Blueprint for Living series on Australian ABC radio. They interviewed Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass environmental scientists from Harvard University on the global fire crisis and climate change, and have done so previously on similar topics. Now these two are arguing from a particular base which they claim (rightly) is not aligned to veganism. My previous reaction to the vegan worldview has tended to be negative, although I do agree that meat eating could be a part of the huge problems we face. Vettese and Pendergrass contend that the easiest solution to climate change would be to stop grazing animals and the crops grown for grazing animals entirely and return the land to nature (for example, land-cleared for cattle soy beans in the Amazon). I’m not fully convinced, but the argument they make is compelling and the impact would be immense.
Perhaps, instead we should enjoy ourselves more and live as if there is no tomorrow. There may well not be!
Key Words: mass extinction, koalas, frogs, coral, Chytrid fungus, Tasmanian Devil, insects, bees, pollinators, Varoa destructor, insect decline, longitudinal studies of insect populations, Krefeld study, climate change, James Hanson, Richard Aedy, Hot Mess podcast, Greta Thunberg, world population, refugees, Covid-19, chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, plastic pollution, income inequality, Internet, hacking, private hacking, state-based hacking, misinformation, cyber warfare, Russian hacking, The Bureau French TV Series, cyber security, Google, Facebook, antitrust laws, Rabbit Hole podcast
20 March 2021: I forgot to mention David Attenborough’s A Life on our Planet released in 2020, which everyone should see (available on Netflix and elsewhere). It is David Attenborough’s witness statement on changes in life on Earth every decade of his long life. Although, depressing towards the end, it ends with hope on what could be done and should be done, including what Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass have recommended above. (My only slight quibble is his timeline of disaster. It is too conservative. Things are going to happen much quicker.)
Australian Academy of Science on the topic
Insects & Bees
Declining bees as a threat to agriculture
Insect decline: longitudinal studies
ABC Australia general article with two slightly opposing views
A large review of 73 historical reports finds that over 40% of insect species are threatened with extinction
Guardian article is more alarming based on the same information
Another general article by the New York Times
The Krefeld Study
A 27-year longitudinal study in 63 nature protection areas in Germany showed a decline in flying insect biomass of 75%.
BeeSafe on other longitudinal studies mentions an article in Nature
Wikipedia on insect population decline provides a good summary and outlines Krefeld and other longitudinal studies that have been conducted.
Wikipedia on James Hanson
Richard Aedy Hot Mess podcasts on ABC Radio National Australia in 2020
Millennium Development Goals & the End of Poverty
Jeffrey D Sachs The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for our Time 2005.
The Rabbit Hole Podcast
Antitrust cases against Google, Facebook and others
The Guardian says this is big in December 2020
February 2021 Update on antitrust issues facing Amazon, Google, Facebook & Apple in the USA and other countries
The Conversation has a long article on Facebook and antitrust in January 2021
The Wall Street Journal & the New York NY Times have numerous articles on the topic. The BBC had an article on the Tech Giants accused of Monopoly Power in October 2020.
Much has been written about the Microsoft Antitrust case of 22 years ago. It had a major impact on the company. Business Insider outlines some of the issues relevant to Google today. Microsoft avoided being split into two companies, which happened to AT&T in the early 1980s. Antitrust cases are likely to bring about major changes in the corporation.
The French TV Series The Bureau gives a good insight into the capability of Russian hacking. There is much anecdotal information on Russian hacking but it is hard to access to gain an overview.
Stop Grazing Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass (& the Vegan View of the World)
Eliminate grazing and animal crops to solve climate change and let the lands revert to natural ecosystems. This according to the authors is the simplest and almost complete means of halting climate change and rising temperatures. Certainly, from my point of view, eliminating grazing and reverting the land back to rainforest in the Amazon would be a wonderful thing to do. But, also ploughing in oil palm plantations and reverting to the original forest would be equally wonderful in SE Asia (also well-understood by Vettese and Pendergrass). Even cutting the amount of grazing and diminishing the herds in The USA, Australia and Argentina wouldn’t be a bad thing.
However, how could one convince the current systems and corporations involved in industrial food production and industrial agriculture (mostly developed in the USA) to stop what they are doing and revert to drastically reduce meat eating. My friend Rukmini has enormous problems convincing poverty stricken women farmers in India to adopt low input agriculture and to escape from the clutches of the pesticide and seed merchants.
Unfortunately, for Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, the vegan view of the world is promoted so rigorously and the movement so ideologically based that it tends to ‘get up peoples’ noses’ and it is hard to progress on a rational basis.
But, eliminating grazing and animal crops is not the ultimate or only solution to climate change. We need to do a lot of things at a lot of levels to combat climate change and we need to start now!
Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass are environmental scientists from Harvard University and represent the most persuasive version of the stop eating meat solution to global problems. They are sophisticated and have intensively researched other alternatives. They are quite convincing and have made me stop, think and cogitate. I suspect that they are part of the solution and not part of the problem.
The ABC program Blueprint for Living 20 February 2021 part Understanding a Global Fire Crisis is well worth listening to.
An Op-ed in the Guardian on 8 December 2020 gives a brief summary of their views.
In response to this article Troy Vettese contacted me and pointed out that ‘our arguments are not typically made by vegans, who tend to focus on ethics.’ He also sent me an article in New Left Review that sketches his views in more detail. The article covers a broad field but it also provided me with detailed information on specific areas of my thesis above that I did not know. His fear of macro-engineering solutions mirror my own and our biological understandings overlap. Indeed, we’d probably agree on most things in overview, perhaps only disagreeing on details.
My BreadtagSagas has commented on the Internet frequently
I searched Internet on my site. Here’s a list of articles with something to say. I’m including a list here of practical things as well as scary things in my articles. It is almost a catalogue.
Misinformation, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and the post-truth era 2021.
My personal introduction to the Internet and related technology
Kindle Direct Publishing and ebooks 2020.
Teaching oneself new artistic skills on the Internet 2019
Hiring a Nepalese guide on the Internet for trekking and ethical trekking in Nepal 2018
The development of computers and the Internet post WWII and consequent leaps in molecular biology & gene technology.
The computer age post World War II and in particular the massive leaps in computing power, mass storage and the Internet from the 1980s have made possible the vast leaps in gene and molecular biology since.
Comments on the issue of Cybersecurity
Internet History and William Gibson’s prescience
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