Caragh Medlicott explores the theories and implications of a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis, “Will Humans Survive the Century?”
What do superheroes, doomsday prophets and classic religious texts all have in common? A preoccupation with the end of the world. The concept of human extinction is simultaneously a cultural point of fascination, yet something we loathe to consider seriously. BBC Radio 4 recently aired an episode of their Analysis series entitled ‘Will humans survive the century?’ – it’s a question that sounds fairly ludicrous amidst the mundane parade of Brexit drama, because, surely if there were any substance to it, it would be given our total and undivided attention. Code Red. All of our efforts would flow into the prevention of such an unimaginable disaster. The truth is, despite scientific experts around the world squirming under the enormity of our situation, the reality has yet to make a big dent in the social psyche.
The problem, according to population size researcher Karin Kuhlemann, is that the real issues facing us – disastrous levels of global warming, overpopulation, diminishing biodiversity, deforestation, pollution filling up our atmosphere, our seas, our already overcrowded land – all these very real, material problems… they’re just not sexy. Though the genre has existed in one form or other for a long time, the explosion of nineties Hollywood disaster films (think Armageddon and Independence Day) have cemented a very specific idea of what the end of days looks like. Asteroids colliding with earth, the invasion of an unfriendly alien race – we’ve seen time and again that threats to the human race come with a 24-hour countdown and a side order of fire and panic. When the question ‘will humans survive the century’ arises, it seems that the comparatively gradual, yet ever increasing, depletion of our resources and rising global temperature are altogether harder to feel panicked about. Especially when the apocalypse is most commonly packaged as something that coincides with the rise of aliens or zombies – both of which Will Smith could presumably save us from, anyway.
‘Will humans survive the century?’ manages to pack a truckload of nail-biting facts into its short, sub-30 minute running time. The amount of research into this area – known to those involved as ‘existential risk’– is proportionally small when considered within the context of the problem, yet, there is still more than enough evidence to prove we’ve not just reached a crisis level, we’ve actually gone past it. What we’re currently aspiring to is damage control; at this point, the manifestation of that damage on a global scale is inevitable. This episode from Analysis is not only limited by its brevity, but by the BBC’s requirement for political neutrality. Environmental issues have become so wrapped up in the political that they’re almost impossible to separate; this is especially disheartening when you consider that their politicisation has rarely been for the right reasons. The scientific legitimacy of global warming is a fact, and so is the continual climate change denial of the president of the United States. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, with the short and shadowy cast of not even a full two years, is already being remembered as a dark day in history. The Paris Agreement may fall short of establishing the serious sanctions needed to meaningfully slow the levels of climate change, but, to put it drably, at least it’s something.
To say that the general public is totally unaware of the situation is unfair. Every month more facts and figures drip, drip, drip through to the media (yet are rarely juicy enough to tick the boxes of headline spots). The damning report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change late last year is particularly noteworthy for shifting the wandering attention of the world’s media, at least for a moment, back to the alarming signs of our planet’s ill health. The green branding of environmental issues has often become associated with a hippy image, it is recurrently depicted as something propagated by those with a naively idyllic agenda. We see environmental concern as optional, not the overwhelmingly universal problem it really is. The partial ignorance and general lack of clarity surrounding environmental turmoil has not come about by chance, but instead is a product of the concerted efforts of invested corporate parties – and this has been going on consciously and intentionally ever since research first began to indicate the serious implications of climate change.
Last November, a piece from The New Yorker revealed that Exxon – one of the world’s largest oil companies – had themselves identified the role burning oil played in rising global temperatures back in the late seventies. By 1982, Exxon privately concluded that the prevention of “potentially catastrophic events” called for a major reduction in fossil fuel combustion. Exxon then took their research, with millions of dollars behind it, and began drilling in the Arctic while keeping their findings closely guarded. There is to be no mistaking that actions such as these were made with full knowledge of the suffering and chaos to be inflicted on later generations. To say ‘and that’s not all’ would be an appalling understatement – I have no doubt that the depth of lies and greed to be found in cover-ups such as this would stagger us all. Last year it came to light that an undercover British police officer was paid to infiltrate the personal life of an environmental activist. Why? So that both she, and the campaign group to which she belonged to, could be closely monitored. Enlightenments surrounding these environmental realities – and their equally real obscuration – can begin to feel more like the flimsy bullet points of a conspiracy theory, than actual cold truths. You almost have to wonder if that fact alone is something the likes of Rupert Murdoch have to hedge their bets on.
While I can’t attest to the current school curriculum, it is certainly the case that for the majority of British adults – even those still at university – there is only a vague understanding of how the world’s issues tie together. Of course, most people know that insects dying out, plastic filling our oceans and growing meat consumption relate to a bigger picture of global health, but there is no real clarity on exactly how these issues are married together. In fact, it can often seem that in everyday choices there is no right way to turn; veganism is frequently cited as an eco-friendly lifestyle choice (and there is no denying that it is environmentally preferable to eating meat) – and yet even dairy alternatives such as soy milk partially feed into a bigger picture of deforestation, while growing demand for almonds (and almond milk) have an adverse effect on California’s biodiversity. Not that you’ll see any of this on the packaging, obviously. Lack of clear information is our biggest enemy, especially as we continue down a path of such catastrophic proportions. And of course, striving to make good personal choices is a key part of the solution, but so is demanding more from our governments. Without restrictions placed on corporations, personal efforts can nearly be rendered useless.
Sustainability is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown about whenever you wade into the world of global issues. Oversaturated and overused, we all too often lose sight of its meaning and what is, essentially, the crux of the matter; we are filling our planet with more and more people, while simultaneously destroying the resources needed to provide for them at an ever faster rate. As you’d expect, there is a lot to be worried about; with wealth already disproportionately hoarded by the few and poverty, even in the UK, rife, the thousands, and eventual millions, of ecological refugees who will be displaced by everything from encroaching tides to increasing natural disasters will find an ever widening gap not just in wealth, but in life expectancy. And yet, amongst it all, there is still so much good to be found in humanity: from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who has sparked global protests amongst students, to the US defiance of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, innovators researching methods of converting CO2 into fuel, and even rising local efforts, it seems, just as in any good disaster movie, there remains at least a glimpse of hope.
‘Will Humans Survive the Century’ can be found on BBC Radio 4.
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Caragh Medlicott is a regular Wales Arts Review columnist.