Quick! Someone, anyone, find us a new “just right” world in the Goldilocks zone, a planet not too hot, not too cold. And someone, anyone, build us a vast spaceship to get there – soon, before we finish trashing this joint.

A report released today on “critical” land degradation and restoration is not exactly news, but confirms what anyone using our eyes, ears and minds already knows: humanity’s reckless farming, mining, resource reaping and sprawl is already harming 3.2 billion of our own kind, driving other species to extinction, and worsening climate change.

Claiming to be the “world’s first comprehensive evidence-based assessment of land degradation and restoration,” the large summary was released in Colombia, ahead of the massive complete report, at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The IPBES is a global science organization with 129 state members, independent of the United Nations. The organization is to biodiversity as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to, well, climate change.

The report warns of drought, famine, human migration from lands made unlivable, and increasingly violent conflict. It blames “high-consumption lifestyles in the most developed economies, combined with rising consumption in developing and emerging economies.”

It landed today in my news feeds alongside the ongoing torrent about Steven Pinker and his latest book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” published last month. I haven’t (yet?) read it, but I’ve read some of his previous work, and I am again startled by the cheerleading response to his main message. Humans have never had it so good, Pinker contends, to mass approval and high-fives all around.

I actually think Pinker is correct, in ways measurable and anecdotal:  life never has been better – for First World peoples, those of us lucky enough to live in one of the best places and times in history. But I don’t think anyone should be congratulating ourselves.


The IPBES report reveals what a Pinker-coloured lens ignores: the good fortune of the lucky few has created hell on earth for others, including millions of fellow humans and most especially the non-human beings now dying in the world’s sixth mass extinction. And even the limited good fortune of some is precarious; it will end as the degradation spreads.

As the IPBES report documents the extent of our world’s degradation, it holds out an optimistic branch, of sorts: evidence-based ways to avoid worsening, or even reverse, degradation.

But the report’s co-chairs warn that time is short.

“By 2050, the combination of land degradation and climate change is predicted to reduce global crop yields by an average of 10%, and by up to 50% in some regions,” said co-chair Luca Montanarella.

Co-chair Robert Scholes predicted that 4 billion people will live in drylands in three decades, by which time land degradation and related climate change “will have forced 50-700 million people to migrate.” Expect violent conflict, he warns: “decreasing land productivity also makes societies more vulnerable to social instability.”

There’s zero chance that even a few of us, let alone billions, of humans, never mind other beings, will move to a new planet anytime soon. And experts warn that we can’t – we won’t – continue on as we are.

I find little that’s light, let alone “enlightened,” about these times. An enlightened response would be to stop cheering Pinkerian optimism, and start cooperating to change the status quo. Actual enlightenment would mean acting on the science, and applying the solutions suggested by the global experts on biodiversity and climate change — quickly, as if our lives depend on it.


Choice readings, etc.

Media Release: Worsening Worldwide Land Degradation Now ‘Critical’, Undermining Well-Being of 3.2 Billion People. IPBES

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,.” By Steven Pinker, Feb. 2018, published by Viking

Book review: “Steven Pinker: The world is getting better, not worse. Seriously. But in his new book Enlightenment Now, Pinker warns authoritarian populism on the right, and repressiveness on the left, could thwart progress.” By Brian Bethune, Maclean’s, March 2018

Book review: “Unenlightened thinking: Steven Pinker’s embarrassing new book is a feeble sermon for rattled liberals.” By John Gray, New Statesman, Feb. 2018

Book Review: “Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker review – life is getting better. Now is the best time to be alive claims this triumphalist defence of scientific rationality – if it matters, we’ll solve it.” By William Davies, The Guardian, Feb. 2018

The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation

Who is Steven Pinker? Ask Wikipedia.