The Catastrophe Narratives for Humanity Are Wrong -- Here's Why

05/13/2015 08:37 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016
Anna Henly

The catastrophe narratives for humanity are wrong. Here are three reasons why we should be optimistic.

First, we have reached peak child. The number of children in the world is not growing and so we eventually have a chance to stabilize the population at around 10 billion. We have the technology and wherewithal to feed and provide energy for this many people.

Second, through decisive global action we averted catastrophe with the ozone hole. Sixteen years after committing to outlaw ozone-destroying chemicals through the Montreal Protocol, there are strong indications the ozone hole above Antarctica has stabilized and it is predicted to recover by the end of the century. The ozone layer protects life on Earth from harmful radiation from the sun. This success was based on robust science, policy action and the right technologies.

And third, worldwide emissions from the energy sector did not rise in 2014. This news comes just as the door is closing on the opportunity to limit climate change to two degrees above temperatures at the start of the industrial revolution. We have reached a "Montreal moment" on climate, we have the science, renewable energy systems are scaling up, and 2015 offers unprecedented opportunities for global leadership.

More broadly, we are eradicating diseases. We are rapidly reducing poverty. The wellbeing of billions is being improved almost beyond measure. I am optimistic we can navigate the next century and create a resilient and equitable global society. However the three critical success stories above point to something profound in the scale and influence homo sapiens -- the wise ape -- has on Earth. Recently, the Pope and other faith leaders pondered this new responsibility. It is worth taking a moment to reflect on the journey, and where we are headed.

Geologically speaking, our great civilizations arose during a remarkably stable period. In the last 10,000 years, which geologists refer to as the Holocene, we have lived in the Garden of Eden. This climate stability, on a global scale, has allowed agriculture to flourish. This stability is now being threatened by human action.

During the Holocene we undoubtedly altered our environment significantly, clearing land, diverting water and building great cities But until very recently, our impact has been local, or at most regional. We now have a mountain of evidence to show that something remarkable happened in the last 50 years. We grew into a phenomenal global force. We now move more rock and earth than all natural processes. We have changed the water cycle. And the carbon cycle. And the nitrogen cycle. We are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. Unlike previous extinctions, one species is causing it -- us.

This dramatic growth is now called the "Great Acceleration." The evidence is clear that we have left the Holocene. Indeed, geologists are now deciding whether to confirm that we have entered a new epoch -- the Anthropocene.

If we are moving beyond the Holocene, then what does this mean for the stability of the life-support system we take for granted? Sea ice in the Arctic is dwindling rapidly, much faster than predicted just a decade ago. In a few decades, we will likely have no sea ice in the summer months. We will have crossed a tipping point in the Earth system.

On the other side of the planet, researchers announced last year that parts of the Antarctic ice sheet may also have crossed a tipping point and will melt irreversibly. There are still many uncertainties about the precise point where a system crosses a tipping point. In 2009 my colleagues and I published research to identify a safe operating space for humanity. We updated our work in January this year and confirmed that Earth has nine planetary boundaries. Transgressing these boundaries risks approaching or crossing tipping points in the Earth system. We also concluded that we have transgressed four of these boundaries and entered a danger zone relating to climate, biodiversity, deforestation and our use of fertilizers, which cause eutrophication and other major environmental problems.

We need a great transformation to chart a course to this safe operating space. This is the opportunity in the next decade and it really starts now in 2015. World leaders meet three times to tackle some of the existential challenges of our age: in July to strike a deal on funding development, in September to agree on the universal Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and in December to hammer out a climate agreement.

There is a new sense of urgency and momentum. Recently myself, climate scientists John Schellnhuber, Brian Hoskins, and Mario Molina, US economist Jeffery Sachs and colleagues in the Earth League published the Earth Statement, supported by business, religious and civil society leaders. The Pope and other religious leaders are urging their congregations to act. Business leaders like Unilever's Paul Polman and Richard Branson argue that the Anthropocene demands businesses accept a new responsibility. Bill Gates and others argue for a shift in worldview so that we pivot our mindset and see ourselves as truly global citizens. And the research community through inspirational international endeavors like Future Earth will now focus on solutions.

We might, after all, be on the right track to a prosperous and resilient future. We know great transformations in complex societies require a shift in worldview, a change in the goals of the system, a change of rules and a change in information flows. These are all coming together through the Anthropocene, the SDGs, planetary boundaries, and initiatives like Future Earth, respectively. A new world paradigm is emerging and increasingly possible to fulfill, of humanity living in prosperity within Earth's safe operating space.

The window of opportunity remains open. Our actions in the next decade will have implications for the future of our planet. If bold decisions are taken this year, I am optimistic the future will be bright.

This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post's 10-year anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.