Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Author and UWA graduate Julian Cribb provides specialist consultancy in the communication of science, agriculture, food, mining, energy and the environment. He was formerly scientific editor of The Australian and Director of National Awareness for the CSIRO and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering. His book The Coming Famine queries whether we can feed humanity through the mid-century peak in population. In a letter to the journal Nature he made the case for... Re-naming the human race : by Julian Cribb FTSE

It is time the human race had a new name. The old one, Homo sapiens - wise or thinking man - has been around since 1758 and is no longer a fitting description for the creature we have become.

When the Swedish father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus first bestowed it, humanity no doubt seemed wise when compared with what scientists of the day knew about both humans and other animals. We have since learned our behaviour is not as wise as we like to imagine - while some animals are quite intelligent. In short it is a name which is both inaccurate and which promotes a dangerous self-delusion.

Humans are presently engaged in the greatest act of extermination of other species by a single species, probably since life on Earth began. We are destroying an estimated 30,000 species a year - a scale comparable to the great geological catastrophes of the past.

We currently contaminate the atmosphere with 30 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent a year. This risks an episode of accelerated planetary warming reaching 4-5 degrees by the end of this century and 8 degrees by the middle of next century - a level at which food production would be severely disrupted, posing a serious risk to all members of an enlarged human population.

We have manufactured around 83,000 synthetic chemicals, many of them toxic, and some of which we inhale, ingest in food or water or absorb through the skin every day of our lives. A 2005 US study found newborn babies in that country are typically contaminated by around 200 industrial chemicals, including pesticides, dioxins and flame retardants.

An EU study (2010) found compelling evidence that even harmless chemicals can recombine with one another to form poisons. These chemicals are now found all over the planet, even at the poles and in the deep oceans. Yet we wonder at the rise in cancers.

Every year we release around 121 million tonnes of nitrogen, 10 million tonnes of phosphorus and 10 billion tonnes of CO2 (which causes acidification) into our rivers, lakes and oceans - many times more than the Earth recirculates naturally. This is causing the collapse of marine and aquatic ecosystems, disrupting ocean food chains and replacing them with ‘dead zones' that no longer support life. The number of these found has risen to more than 400 in recent years.

We are presently losing about one per cent of the world's farming and grazing land every year to a combination of erosion, degradation, urban sprawl, mining, pollution and sea level rise. The situation has deteriorated in the last 30 years, confronting us with the challenge of doubling food production by 2060 off a fraction of remaining land. At the same time we waste a third of the world's food. Current freshwater demand from agriculture, cities and energy use is on track to double by mid century, while resources in most countries - especially of groundwater - are drying up or becoming so polluted they are unusable.

Humanity passed peak fish in 2004, peak oil in 2006 and is likely to encounter growing scarcities of other primary resources, including mineral nutrients, in coming decades. Yet our demand for all resources - including minerals, energy and water - will more than double, especially in Asia. If all the world were to live like contemporary Australians or Americans, it would require four planet Earths to satisfy their wants, says the Global Footprint Network.

Humans invest $1.6 trillion a year in new weapons - but only $50 billion a year in better ways to produce food. Despite progress in arms reduction, the world still has around 20,000 nuclear warheads and at least 19 countries now have access to them or to the technology to make them.

Finally, as a growing number of eminent scientists are now saying, these things carry the risk of catastrophic changes to the Earth's systems, deleterious not only to our own future but that of all life.

This is not to deny or belittle any of the great, creative, artistic or scientific achievements of humans today or over the centuries. Rather it is to recognise that our present behaviours combined with our numbers now have the capacity to nullify or even eliminate all other human accomplishments.

The human population is currently on track to reach 10 billion or more by the end of the century and this is a primary concern. An even greater one is our ungovernable appetite - for food, for material resources, for energy, for water, for land - and our lack of wisdom when it comes to managing and reusing these resources.

A creature unable to master its own demands cannot be said to merit the descriptor ‘wise'. A creature that takes little account of the growing risks it runs through its own behaviour can hardly be rated thoughtful. The provisions of the International Code on Zoological Nomenclature provide for the re-naming of species in cases where scientific understanding of the species changes, or where it is necessary to correct an earlier error. I argue that both those situations now apply.

The wisdom to understand our real impact on the Earth and all life is the one we most need at this point in our history, in order to limit it.

Now is the time humans get to earn - or lose - the title sapiens.

Note : This is an edited version. The full text of Mr Cribb's letter, with footnotes, can be read online at the Nature and Science Alert websites .

Published in Uniview Vol. 31 No. 2 Winter 2012