What does the word apocalypse bring to mind? Violence and chaos? Cities scorched to rubble? Deadly plagues wiping out most of the human population? Perhaps the word evokes images alike those portrayed in disaster movies, the ones that detail the downfall of human civilization. This would all make sense, since the word apocalypse typically means “the complete final destruction of the world”.
Yet, the individual things that we think of when hearing this word are not at all far off from the world we are living in right now. The planet is already on fire, with millions of acres of forests being burnt to a crisp, due to planetary heating. As a result, cities have been backlit by a smoky orange haze, blocking out light and poisoning lungs. A plague has shut down our normal living systems, exhausted health care provisions, and taken the lives of many. Cleverly disguised authoritarian governments have been exposed for what they really are, and in response to peaceful protests, unjust violence and the infringement of human rights are prevalent. Add all of this together into one movie, and you would create a very terrifying, dystopian type story. Yet it is reality.
Although the word apocalypse seems almost too perfect for describing these chaotic and fearful times, the word itself derives from the Greek apokalypsis, which means “something uncovered” or revealed. So, when I say 2020 is the apocalypse, I do not mean that this year somehow represents the most destructive and deadly year of modern times. 2020 isn’t the Book of Revelations, and we aren’t about to witness the immediate collapse of civilization (yet). Nor is 2020 this random collection of unlucky tragedies, as implied by all the exasperated utterings of “ugh 2020 sucks”. What I mean, is that this year has really uncovered some hard truths. It has forced many to open their eyes to the massive, looming threat of the climate crisis. It has proven to everyone that the over-exploitation of animals and natural habitats can create dire consequences, such as a deadly global pandemic. It has shown just how incredibly far away we are from social justice and equal rights, even in the most progressive countries on Earth.
And this revelation needs to be acted upon this year. This needs to be the year in which we declare that it is time to drastically alter society in order to prevent extreme climate change, because time is running out. If what has happened in 2020 hasn’t yet convinced you of this, you just need to know more information. Perhaps its easy to think that the awful happenstances this year are survivable, and therefore manageable. However, there is so much more than what meets the eye. Take this year’s wildfires alone, as an example.
This year got off to a fiery start, thanks to Australia’s Great Inferno. By March of this year, the Black Summer fires had burnt around 19 million hectares, wiping out over 3,000 houses, costing the economy $4.4bn. Worse still, these fires directly killed 33 humans, and over 1 billion animals.
In the U.S, over 30,000 firefighters have been working to manage blazes, with fires burning over 4.6 million acres in 10 states. At least 4,900 structures have been damaged, with California passing its record for the amount of land ravaged by fires in a given year. There have so far been at least 24 fatalities.
Whilst everyone has been pre-occupied with news of fires in Western civilization, areas across other parts of the globe have been burning. In Siberia, fires have released more CO² in just June and July alone, compared to any other complete fire season, dating back to when records began (earthsky.org). In the Global South, record-breaking wildfires have been threatening thousand of acres of forestry in one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet – Brazil’s Pantanal region.
Alongside the tragic and immediate human effects of wildfires (loss of life, destroyed land and structures, and financial costs), there can be more harm caused, in the long-term. The vital biodiversity that is now gone can never be replaced, ruining the stable equilibrium of natural environments. Likewise, the harmful carbon dioxide released cannot simply be sucked back into the planet’s ecological systems.
Instead, it will linger in the atmosphere, alongside the wildfire smokes smothering the land. This toxic smoke is made up of particulate matter (a mixture of particles including dust, soot, and liquid droplets), and carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and various volatile organic compounds. It significantly reduces air quality, causing many harmful health effects, such as:
- increased mental illnesses in children
- higher likelihood of dementia in adults
- higher likelihood of premature births and low birth weights
- increases in blood pressure
- increases in rates of respiratory infections
- increased prevalence of stroke heart disease, all cancers, acute and chronic respiratory diseases, and adverse pregnancy outcomes
Air pollution has even been shown to damage the development of neurons in the brain. Globally, one in every six deaths is caused by air pollution, and somewhere around 260,000–600,000 people die every year due to wildfire smoke. In Seattle of 2018, wildfires made it unsafe for anyone, anywhere, to breath outside. By 2090, it is thought that as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level.
It may at first seem like rain is the answer to the out-of-control fires. However, heavy rains that follow a wildfire can form torrents of water running through the damaged land, washing the ash and soot into rivers and lakes, clogging waterways. The massive influx of nutrients into aquatic systems can cause algal blooms, which choke fish and other life under the water’s surface. As such, wildfires can even present risks for aquatic life, and they can damage sources of drinking water for years. This is not an ideal outcome in a rapidly heating world, where water scarcity is already on the rise.
Since forest fires destroy huge amounts of plant life, they also destabilize soil. If sudden downpours hammer down onto this unstable soil, this can cause mudslides. In 2018, weeks of fires, followed by heavy rain, caused a river of dirt and mountain detritus to cascade down onto the low-lying homes in Santa Barbara. This killed at least 15 – including children. One child was found in a gullet near the coastline, having been swept an entire two miles away from his home by an endless wave of sludge.
If we continue down our current treacherous path, as if we are all riding an unstoppable mudslide, then the future looks bleak. By 2050, the U.S. will experience fires twice as destructive as they are today. Just three decades from now. In some places, fires will destroy five times as much land. At 3˚C of warming, the areas burned by wildfires each year would double in the Mediterranean, and increase 6-fold in the U.S. Imagine seeing what is happening in the U.S right now, multiplied by six. It is truly unthinkable.
To quote David Wallace-Wells: “If wildfires grow more prevalent and damaging, homes become weapons, roads become death traps, and air becomes poison… idyllic mountains that have hosted entire resort communities become indiscriminate killers, and are made, with each successive destabilizing event, only more likely to kill again”. All in all, 3˚C of warming could easily mean the complete collapse of civilization, with humanity stumbling along a downward spiral into our demise.
If 2020 can be the apocalypse – a great revelation – then it can act as an alarm bell, finally telling us that we need to start anew. It is the signal that now is the time to start tearing down the unjust and deadly system we inhabit, and to build anew. It could mark the time at which we decided that we wanted to choose freedom and hope, over greed and suffering.
2020 is a turning point: a year in which we saw how bad things could be, and chose to do a U-turn, to find a new path, before we reached the impending descent. Or perhaps 2019 was simply the year in which humanity peaked, and we do not have it in us to escape the thunderous mudslide we created.
The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells
Image: Noah Berger/AP