Human civilization stands a 90 per cent chance of an ‘irreversible collapse’ within decades as a result of deforestation, physicists claim.
It is thought that within the next two to four decades Earth may no longer be able to sustain a large human population due to the destruction of forests, according to a peer-reviewed paper published in Nature Scientific Reports.
The study, written by Dr Gerardo Aquino and Professor Mauro Bologna, states that if the rate of deforestation continues ‘all the forests would disappear approximately in 100–200 years’.
‘Clearly it is unrealistic to imagine that the human society would start to be affected by the deforestation only when the last tree would be cut down.’
This trajectory would result in the loss of planetary life-support systems necessary for human survival including carbon storage, oxygen production, soil conservation and water cycle regulation.
It is thought this would ultimately result in the collapse of human civilization as ‘it is highly unlikely to imagine the survival of many species, including ours, on Earth without [forests]’.
The paper, which was published in May this year, states: ‘The progressive degradation of the environment due to deforestation would heavily affect human society and consequently the human collapse would start much earlier.’
The Earth was originally covered by 60 million sq km of forest before the development of human civilizations.
But now, following deforestation accelerated due to human activity, there is less than 40 million sq km remaining.
‘Calculations show that, maintaining the actual rate of population growth and resource consumption, in particular forest consumption, we have a few decades left before an irreversible collapse of our civilization,’ the paper concludes.
The authors, having tracked the current rate of population growth against the rate of deforestation, stated that ‘statistically the probability to survive without facing a catastrophic collapse, is very low.’
The best case scenario is that we have a less than 10 per cent chance of avoiding collapse.
‘In conclusion our model shows that a catastrophic collapse in human population, due to resource consumption, is the most likely scenario of the dynamical evolution based on current parameters…
‘We conclude from a statistical point of view that the probability that our civilization survives itself is less than 10 percent in the most optimistic scenario.
‘Calculations show that, maintaining the actual rate of population growth and resource consumption, in particular forest consumption, we have a few decades left before an irreversible collapse of our civilization.’
A model developed by the authors went on to depict human population growth reaching a maximum level that is undermined by the debilitation of forests.
After this point, ‘a rapid disastrous collapse in population occurs before eventually reaching a low population steady state or total extinction…
‘We call this point in time the “no-return point” because if the deforestation rate is not changed before this time the human population will not be able to sustain itself and a disastrous collapse or even extinction will occur.’
Dr Gerardo Aquino and Professor Mauro Bologna said that without changing the unsustainable levels of population growth and consumption the only other possibility of survival would come from an unprecedented degree of technological development.
‘The consumption of the natural resources, in particular the forests, is in competition with our technological level,’ wrote Aquino and Bologna.
‘Higher technological level leads to growing population and higher forest consumption… but also to a more effective use of resources.
‘With higher technological level we can in principle develop technical solutions to avoid/prevent the ecological collapse of our planet or, as a last chance, to rebuild a civilization in extra-terrestrial space.’
Another alternative, the authors suggest, would be to fundamentally transform human civilization.
The underlying factor in the current collapse trajectory is that ‘consumption of the planetary resources may be not perceived as strongly as a mortal danger for the human civilization’, because it is ‘driven by Economy’.
They suggest that to escape our collapse trajectory ‘we may have to redefine a different model of society… that in some way privileges the interest of the ecosystem above the individual interest of its components, but eventually in accordance with the overall communal interest.’
But the study comes as the rate of global deforestation reportedly declined over the last few decades, according to a joint report in 2020 by the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation and the UN Environment Programme.
In the 1990s the average rate of deforestation was around 16 million hectares per year.
But between 2015 and 2020, this had decreased to an estimated average of 10 million hectares annually.
It is thought that the cause of this is that new forests are being established, both naturally and man-made, despite ongoing deforestation.