When I was a child, my parents convinced me that we were living in “the last days”. They were evangelical Christians, and they told me that Biblical prophecies were being fulfilled all over the place: Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, false prophets, moral decay, all that end times stuff. They were very good parents, and they seemed to be right about most things, so I believed them.
You’d think I would have been frightened by the prospect of witnessing the end of the world, but actually, I was excited. My parents said Jesus would return and rescue all the true Christians before anything really bad happened, so I eagerly awaited the day when I would hear trumpets, see a bright light, and find myself floating up into the sky. Christians call this “the rapture.”
After high school, I was so certain the rapture was imminent that I didn’t see any point in going to college. I didn’t even see the point in dating because I knew I would never get the chance to raise a family. So I just worked, helped out around the house, and spent half my free time at church.
Over the next few years, I did a lot of reading, and I began to question the things my parents had taught me. I realized that a lot of the supposed prophecies in the Bible could apply to countless times and events throughout history. After all, there have always been wars and rumors of wars. Just like with Nostradamus, what you get from the Bible depends on how you interpret it.
Once I figured this out, I decided to go to college and start dating. Eventually I graduated, met a nice girl, got married, and had a couple of children. For the next ten years, I looked back on my hardcore Christian days with amusement. Even though the rapture sounded pretty amazing, it was nice to know I had a future on Earth to look forward to.
Then a few years ago, I realized that we really are living in the last days, but they weren’t what I expected.
The Great Acceleration
Most of us were born during a time known as The Great Acceleration, which began around 1950 and continues to this day. The Great Acceleration is the rapid increase in both the development of civilization and the destruction of the natural world.
Look at global population, for example. It took 123 years for the world to go from 1 billion to 2 billion people, then 33 years to go from 2 billion to 3 billion (which happened in 1960). Ever since then, we’ve added another billion people to the world every 12.4 years, on average. And despite rapidly declining birthrates, the last billion was added in record time — only 11 years.
Of course, population isn’t the only thing that is skyrocketing. We’ve also seen a rapid increase in energy usage, water usage, transportation, fertilizer consumption, and more. Take a look:
All this growth is having a disastrous effect on the planet. Humans are pumping oil, draining aquifers, cutting down forests, eroding topsoil, and mining rare-earth metals as fast as they can. All of this is done in the name of economic growth and improving people’s living standards.
And it’s working. People in developed nations live like kings and queens compared to people a few centuries ago. Unfortunately, few of them stop to ask, “How long can we keep this up?” Politicians and businessmen want us to believe that growth will continue forever. All you have to do is vote for them and buy more stuff.
But the more stuff we buy, the more damage we do to the planet. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet that can support life. There may be others, but even if we find them, they would be too far away. This is our one and only home, and we’re destroying it. Take a look:
Again: “How long can we keep this up?”
Many have convinced themselves that human civilization will keep growing and advancing for centuries, culminating in a future that looks something like Star Trek. I can understand why people want to believe this. The idea that things will keep getting better is comforting, and they don’t want to feel guilty about buying more stuff.
But people forget that all their stuff has to come from somewhere. It doesn’t just magically appear in factories before getting shipped to stores. In order to make products, companies have to get raw materials.
For example, plastic — which is used in everything from household items to medical equipment — is made from oil. And nitrate fertilizers — which farmers rely on to grow half the food in the world — are made with ammonia derived from natural gas. So what happens when we start to run out of oil and natural gas?
Many people put their hopes in renewables, but those can’t be used to grow food. Even if they could, solar panels and other electronic devices are made with rare-earth metals like lithium, dysprosium, scandium, and many others. What happens when we start to run out of these metals?
The fact is, we are living on a finite planet, so there is a limit to how much our civilization can grow. And now, we are beginning to push up against those limits.
The Great Deceleration
Whenever I look at a chart of human population growth, I always think of that old adage: What goes up, must come down.
The U.N. predicts that the total human population will level off at about 11 billion by the end of the century. But this projection assumes that business-as-usual will continue for the next 80 years. They assume there will be plenty of energy and natural resources, and a climate stable enough to grow lots of food.
This is a fantasy. Over the next few decades, we are going to start running out of the raw materials we need to sustain our civilization. Oil, natural gas, freshwater, sand, metals, forests… It might not seem like it yet, but these resources are nearly gone.
According to the MAHB (Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere), the world will run out of oil by 2052 if energy demand continues to grow as much as the IEA predicts. You might think that we’ll simply find more oil, but oil companies are already searching far and wide. Despite that, new oil discoveries are at their lowest level in 75 years.
As our oil supply dwindles, the price will skyrocket, which will raise the price of everything else, making food and basic necessities unaffordable for most people. Once all the cheap oil is gone, we won’t be able to create cement, steel, or plastic. And guess what? We can’t maintain our civilization without those things.
Then there’s natural gas, which will be gone by 2060 if the global population keeps growing. As with oil, the price will skyrocket as the supply dwindles, making electricity unaffordable for most people. Even more terrifying is the fact that half the world’s food only exists because of nitrate fertilizers, which can’t be produced without natural gas. Once natural gas is gone, half the world will starve to death.
Speaking of food, we can’t grow it without plenty of fresh water. But thanks to droughts caused by climate change, many farmers are relying on aquifers to grow crops. At this rate, some of the world’s largest aquifers will be mostly gone later this century. And probably sooner since the population is still growing and droughts are only getting worse.
Even sand is getting hard to find. We need a certain kind of sand in order to make roads and concrete — the kind that comes from beaches and riverbeds. But it takes so much sand to create these things that we’re running out of easy-to-reach sources. As demand for sand keeps growing and it becomes harder to source, the price of roads, buildings, and even homes (you need sand for the concrete slab) will keep rising.
I already mentioned rare-earth metals. The green energy industry is trying to convince us that they will save the world by solving both the problems of dwindling fossil fuels and climate change at the same time. But recent research has revealed that there simply aren’t enough metals to replace our entire infrastructure with green energy and convert all of our vehicles to electric.
And then there’s forests. Humans continue to clearcut forests, burn the trees for energy, and use the land for raising cattle. What most people don’t realize is that forests are part of our life support system. They purify the air and water and provide a home for countless creatures that keep food webs functioning. Scientists have estimated that if we keep cutting down forests, we only have a 10% chance of surviving the next few decades.
If you’re living in a first world nation and have a place to live and plenty of food, then it might seem like everything is fine — kind of like a child who thinks his parents are rich when they’re actually using credit cards for everything. It’s only a matter of time before we all go bankrupt.
The Last Days Are Here
The human population hasn’t gone into decline yet, but for the rest of nature, the apocalypse has already begun.
Consider this: Flying insects have declined by at least 75% over the last three decades. And it’s not just flying insects. We’ve lost about half of all insects over the last 80 years. This is terrifying when you consider that at least 80% of the world’s food production is dependent on pollinators.
Birds and reptiles also rely on insects for food, which means that as the insects die off, so will they. And without small animals like birds and reptiles, larger animals will begin to die off as well. This is partly why we’ve already lost 69% of the world’s wildlife over the past 50 years.
Marine life is also going extinct at record rates. Phytoplankton — which produces half the planet’s oxygen and forms the base of the marine food web — have declined by 40% since 1950. This is one of the reasons 90% of marine species face extinction. And remember, billions of people rely on fish for protein, but at this rate, our fisheries will be in a state of collapse by 2050.
And it’s not just animals. Plants are going extinct 350 times faster than usual. Millions of trees are dying due to drought. And if deforestation continues, places like the Amazon rainforest are going to turn into grassy savannahs, causing the entire planet to heat up even faster.
It’s the end of the world, and most people don’t even care. They hear news like this and shrug their shoulders, and I can sort of understand why. They spend most of their lives indoors, and even when they’re outside, they’re surrounded by houses and buildings. From their perspective, nature has little effect on their day-to-day lives.
What they don’t understand is that we are all part of nature. As the web of life collapses, so will our ability to produce food. What’s happening to plants and animals around the world is just a preview of what’s going to happen to humans later this century.
We are living in the last days. But not the last days from the Bible, with the rapture and the antichrist and the four horsemen of the apocalypse. We don’t need a god to bring about the last days. We’re doing it ourselves.