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Apocalypse now? No...

... But unless we change tack, the planet is fast running out of time. Andrew Simms writes.

india Updated: Mar 03, 2013 23:23 IST

After millennia of falsely predicting the apocalypse, humanity has become understandably flippant. There were so many threatened catastrophes in 2012, from rolling earthquakes to interstellar collisions and a misunderstanding of the Mayan calendar that the quips began to flow. 'People are making apocalypse jokes like there's no tomorrow,' was a favourite.

But just because we've been wrong so many times before, does that mean we're safe forever? Or have we been lulled into a false sense of security, and do the timeframes involved disguise the scale of the risks posed to conditions for human civilisations? Look back far enough and you'll see that very bad things do happen. The world has experienced five mass extinction events during which over 95% of marine species and 80% of four legged creatures died out.

The climate warmed during the gloriously named Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), driving one of Earth's more recent extinction events 55m years ago. Now we are living through a man-made mass extinction event.

The PETM was bad, but Nasa climate scientist James Hansen notes that with global warming today, climate zones are moving about 10 times faster than they did during the PETM extinction. It's an indicator of the force and speed of the unintended consequences of our economic activity, and something which makes it impossible for many species to adapt. And left unaddressed that could be the case for humanity too.

Homo Sapiens may feel smugly secure in our abilities, but its worth remembering we've only been around for a humble 300,000 years or so. The dinosaurs lasted for about 165m years, and we seem to be trying hard not to outlive them. Vast subsidies pour into the fossil fuel industries, and in Britain new tax breaks have encouraged investment at a 30-year high into North Sea oil and gas exploration and production.

That is in spite of the best science available suggesting that we can only afford to burn around a quarter or a fifth of proven reserves if we are to avoid potentially runaway global warming. And, instead of climate campaigners being applauded for their actions, they are being hounded with £5 million law suits.

With the right approaches we can all benefit from re-engineering our financial, food, transport and energy systems. We can re-imagine the shape of our high streets and the pattern of our working weeks to improve the quality of our lives and lessen our burden on the biosphere. But this can only happen if we let go of the tenacious economic dogma that has taken root in recent decades. Perversely, as evidence mounts of its failure to spread the benefits of enterprise, its lack of respect for its natural resource base, or even its ability to succeed on its own terms, the old ideas are clung to more tightly. Political familiarity misinterpreted as security.

At the time of the Second World War, economist JM Keynes came up with a plan for how to finance the war effort. It aimed to raise savings for the war effort and minimise costs for those least able to bear it. But even with the spectre of Nazism looming, his medicine was thought too strong. Opinion was not ready. Keynes lamented: "My discomfort comes from the fact, now made obvious, that the general public are not in favour of any plan." My book, Cancel the Apocalypse, is a take on where and how to begin to tackle current systemic environmental, economic and social challenges. It's the start of a plan. If having this conversation only reveals the state of ignorance among our leaders, that will be a start.