Humans cannot survive without them yet within a century the world’s insects may be extinct

The Guardian reports:

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

Insect population collapses have recently been reported in Germany and Puerto Rico, but the review strongly indicates the crisis is global. The researchers set out their conclusions in unusually forceful terms for a peer-reviewed scientific paper: “The [insect] trends confirm that the sixth major extinction event is profoundly impacting [on] life forms on our planet.

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” they write. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

The analysis, published in the journal Biological Conservation, says intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines, particularly the heavy use of pesticides. Urbanisation and climate change are also significant factors.

“If insect species losses cannot be halted, this will have catastrophic consequences for both the planet’s ecosystems and for the survival of mankind,” said Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, at the University of Sydney, Australia, who wrote the review with Kris Wyckhuys at the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing.

The 2.5% rate of annual loss over the last 25-30 years is “shocking”, Sánchez-Bayo told the Guardian: “It is very rapid. In 10 years you will have a quarter less, in 50 years only half left and in 100 years you will have none.” [Continue reading…]

Rising temperatures could melt most Himalayan glaciers by 2100, threatening the water supply of 25% of global population

The New York Times reports:

Rising temperatures in the Himalayas, home to most of the world’s tallest mountains, will melt at least one-third of the region’s glaciers by the end of the century even if the world’s most ambitious climate change targets are met, according to a report released Monday.

If those goals are not achieved, and global warming and greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rates, the Himalayas could lose two-thirds of its glaciers by 2100, according to the report, the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

Under those more dire circumstances, the Himalayas could heat up by 8 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius) by century’s end, bringing radical disruptions to food and water supplies, and mass population displacement.

Glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan Region, which spans over 2,000 miles of Asia, provide water resources to around a quarter of the world’s population. [Continue reading…]

David Suzuki: ‘It’s very, very late and urgent’ to take climate action if we want to prevent human extinction

 

Global WEIRDing is a trend we can’t ignore

By Kensy Cooperrider

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it. 

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us.

[Read more…]

The 26 richest people possess as much wealth as half the world’s population

The Guardian reports:

The growing concentration of the world’s wealth has been highlighted by a report showing that the 26 richest billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.

In an annual wealth check released to mark the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the development charity Oxfam said 2018 had been a year in which the rich had grown richer and the poor poorer.

It said the widening gap was hindering the fight against poverty, adding that a 1% wealth tax would raise an estimated $418bn (£325bn) a year – enough to educate every child not in school and provide healthcare that would prevent 3 million deaths.

Oxfam said the wealth of more than 2,200 billionaires across the globe had increased by $900bn in 2018 – or $2.5bn a day. The 12% increase in the wealth of the very richest contrasted with a fall of 11% in the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population.

As a result, the report concluded, the number of billionaires owning as much wealth as half the world’s population fell from 43 in 2017 to 26 last year. In 2016 the number was 61. [Continue reading…]

The 26 richest billionaires are: Jeff Bezos (U.S.); Bill Gates (U.S.); Warren Buffett (U.S.); Bernard Arnault (France); Mark Zuckerberg (U.S.); Amancio Ortega (Spain); Carlos Slim Helu (Mexico); Charles Koch (U.S.); David Koch (U.S.); Larry Ellison (U.S.); Michael Bloomberg (U.S.); Larry Page (U.S.); Sergey Brin (U.S.); Jim Walton (U.S.); S. Robson Walton (U.S.); Alice Walton (U.S.); Ma Huateng (China); Francoise Bettencourt Meyers (France); Mukesh Ambani (India); Jack Ma (China); Sheldon Adelson (U.S.); Steve Ballmer (U.S.); Li Ka-shing (Hong Kong); Hui Ka Yan (China); Lee Shau Kee (Hong Kong); Wang Jianlin (China) (Source: Forbes)

Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems’

The Guardian reports:

“We knew that something was amiss in the first couple days,” said Brad Lister. “We were driving into the forest and at the same time both Andres and I said: ‘Where are all the birds?’ There was nothing.”

His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming.

“It was just astonishing,” Lister said. “Before, both the sticky ground plates and canopy plates would be covered with insects. You’d be there for hours picking them off the plates at night. But now the plates would come down after 12 hours in the tropical forest with a couple of lonely insects trapped or none at all.”

“It was a true collapse of the insect populations in that rainforest,” he said. “We began to realise this is terrible – a very, very disturbing result.”

Earth’s bugs outweigh humans 17 times over and are such a fundamental foundation of the food chain that scientists say a crash in insect numbers risks “ecological Armageddon”. When Lister’s study was published in October, one expert called the findings “hyper-alarming”.

The Puerto Rico work is one of just a handful of studies assessing this vital issue, but those that do exist are deeply worrying. Flying insect numbers in Germany’s natural reserves have plunged 75% in just 25 years. The virtual disappearance of birds in an Australian eucalyptus forest was blamed on a lack of insects caused by drought and heat. Lister and his colleague Andrés García also found that insect numbers in a dry forest in Mexico had fallen 80% since the 1980s.

“We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet,” Lister said. “It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the natural world like this.” [Continue reading…]

New plant-focused diet would ‘transform’ planet’s future

The Guardian reports:

The first science-based diet that tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe has been devised. It requires huge cuts in red meat-eating in western countries and radical changes across the world.

The “planetary health diet” was created by an international commission seeking to draw up guidelines that provide nutritious food to the world’s fast-growing population. At the same time, the diet addresses the major role of farming – especially livestock – in driving climate change, the destruction of wildlife and the pollution of rivers and oceans.

Globally, the diet requires red meat and sugar consumption to be cut by half, while vegetables, fruit, pulses and nuts must double. But in specific places the changes are stark. North Americans need to eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.

The diet is a “win-win”, according to the scientists, as it would save at least 11 million people a year from deaths caused by unhealthy food, while preventing the collapse of the natural world that humanity depends upon. With 10 billion people expected to live on Earth by 2050, a continuation of today’s unsustainable diets would inevitably mean even greater health problems and severe global warming. [Continue reading…]

1.32 million Jews were killed in just three months during the Holocaust

Live Science reports:

Operation Reinhard, known as the single largest murder campaign during the Holocaust, was worse than historians imagined. In a mere three months, at least 1.32 million Jewish people died — close to one-quarter of all the Jewish victims who perished during World War II, a new study finds.

The finding is based on an old data set that tallied the number of Jews who were forced from their homes onto trains, which then took them to the death camps in Poland known as Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Once there, the majority of these victims were killed in gas chambers.

This data set allowed study researcher Lewi Stone, a professor of biomathematics at Tel Aviv University in Israel and a professor of mathematics at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, to estimate the rate at which the Nazis killed their victims during Operation Reinhard.

Stone’s analysis shows how the Nazis worked toward their “goal of obliterating the entire Jewish people of occupied Poland in as short a time [as] possible, mostly within three months,” Stone told Live Science in an email.

The mass killing happened quickly and in complete secrecy, which “ensured the Jewish people did not have a chance,” Stone said. “And [it] made the formation of organized resistance extremely difficult.”

The scale of the killing happened so quickly and was so extreme that it exceeds that of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which is often considered the most intense genocide of the 20th century, Stone said. [Continue reading…]

Yuval Noah Harari sees a big-data threat to humanity

Steve Paulson interviews historian Yuval Noah Harari:

What’s different about this moment in history?

What’s different is the pace of technological change, especially the twin revolutions of artificial intelligence and bioengineering. They make it possible to hack human beings and other organisms, and then re-engineer them and create new life forms.

How far can this technology go in changing who we are?

Very far. Beyond our imagination. It can change our imagination, too. If your imagination is too limited to think of new possibilities, we can just improve it. For billions of years, all of life was confined to the organic realm. It didn’t matter if you were an amoeba, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a coconut, a cucumber, or a Homo sapiens. You were made of organic compounds and subject to the laws of organic biochemistry. But now we’re about to break out of this limited organic realm and start combining the organic with inorganic bots to create cyborgs.

What worries you about the new cyborgs?

Experiments are already under way to augment the human immune system with an inorganic, bionic system. Millions of tiny nanorobots and sensors monitor what’s happening inside your body. They could discover the beginning of cancer, or some infectious disease, and fight against these dangers for your health. The system can monitor not just what goes wrong. It can monitor your moods, your emotions, your thoughts. That means an external system can get to know you much better than you know yourself. You go to therapy for years to get in touch with your emotions, but this system, whether it belongs to Google or Amazon or the government, can monitor your emotions in ways that neither you nor your therapist can approach in any way.

Are you saying computer algorithms can break down personal data we may not even be aware of?

Yes. Fear and anger and love, or any human emotion, are in the end just a biochemical process. In the same way you can diagnose flu, you can diagnose anger. You might ask somebody, “Why are you angry? What are you angry about?” And they will say, “I’m not angry about anything, what do you want?” But this external system doesn’t need to ask you. It can monitor your heart, your brain, your blood pressure. It can have a scale of anger and it can know you are now a 6.8 on a scale of 1-to-10. Combining this with enormous amounts of data collected on you 24 hours a day can provide the best healthcare in history. It can also be the foundation of the worst dictatorial regimes in history. [Continue reading…]

Portrait of the Earth at the threshold of climate catastrophe

The Guardian reports:

On Sunday morning hundreds of politicians, government officials and scientists will gather in the grandeur of the International Congress Centre in Katowice, Poland. It will be a familiar experience for many. For 24 years the annual UN climate conference has served up a reliable diet of rhetoric, backroom talks and dramatic last-minute deals aimed at halting global warming.

But this year’s will be a grimmer affair – by far. As recent reports have made clear, the world may no longer be hovering at the edge of destruction but has probably staggered beyond a crucial point of no return. Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable. We have simply left it too late to hold rising global temperatures to under 1.5C and so prevent a future of drowned coasts, ruined coral reefs, spreading deserts and melted glaciers.

One example was provided last week by a UN report that revealed attempts to ensure fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 will fail. Indeed the target will not even be reached by 2030. Another, by the World Meteorological Organization, said the past four years had been the warmest on record and warned that global temperatures could easily rise by 3-5C by 2100, well above that sought-after goal of 1.5C. The UK will not be exempt either. The Met Office said summer temperatures could now be 5.4C hotter by 2070.

At the same time, prospects of reaching global deals to halt emissions have been weakened by the spread of rightwing populism. Not much to smile about in Katowice.

Nor will the planet’s woes end in 2100. Although most discussions use the year as a convenient cut-off point for describing Earth’s likely fate, the changes we have already triggered will last well beyond that date, said Svetlana Jevrejeva, at the National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool. She has studied sea-level rises that will be triggered by melting ice sheets and expanding warm seawater in a world 3-5C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, and concludes these could reach 0.74 to 1.8 metres by 2100. This would be enough to deluge Pacific and Indian Ocean island states and displace millions from Miami, Guangzhou, Mumbai and other low-lying cities. The total cost to the planet could top £11trillion.

Even then the seas will not stop rising, Jevrejeva added. “They will continue to climb for centuries even after greenhouse-gas levels have been stabilised. We could experience the highest-ever global sea-level rise in the history of human civilisation.”

Vast tracts of prime real estate will be destroyed – at a time when land will be needed with unprecedented desperation. Earth’s population stands at seven billion today and is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050 and settle at over 11 billion by 2100 – when climate change will have wrecked major ecosystems and turned farmlands to dust bowls.

Unfortunately many experts believe Earth’s population will actually peak well beyond 11 billion. “It could reach 15 billion,” said Sarah Harper, of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing. “All sorts of factors suggest women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will still want to have relatively high numbers of children and this might keep the world’s population approaching 15 billion rather than 12 billion.”

The world will have double its present numbers – but with hugely reduced areas of fertile land to provide food. We will be living in a shrunken, scorched planet bursting with human beings. Somaliland gives a grim vision of this future.

In the past few years climate change has killed 70% of its livestock and forced tens of thousands of families to flee from its scorched interior to live in refugee camps. “You can touch it, the climate change, in Somaliland. It is real. It is here,” the country’s environment minister, Shukri Ismail Bandare, said in the Financial Times last week.

Sudan and Kenya are also victims of a drought that has dried the Horn of Africa faster than at any other time in the past 2,000 years. Similarly, in Vietnam, thousands a year are abandoning the once fertile Mekong Delta as rising seawater pollutes paddy fields. By 2050, the World Bank says more than 140 million will become climate refugees.

It will be bad for humans, but catastrophic for Earth’s other inhabitants. Arctic ice loss threatens polar bears, droughts imperil monarch butterflies, and koala habitats are being destroyed by bush fires. In all, about a sixth of all species now face extinction, say scientists, although in the end no creature or plant will be safe. “Even the most resilient species will inevitably fall victim as extreme stresses drive ecosystems to collapse,” said Giovanni Strona of Europe’s Joint Research Centre in a report last week on climate change. [Continue reading…]