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Updated January 2022



Synoptic diagnosis of present situation and counter-effects on humankind

(evidence-based review of factual data from present times - forecasts are not included)

A report by Marcelo Juanicó

Table 1.   Biosphere – summarized diagnosis.


The relationships between impacts, effects and counter-effects are not linear but complex,

since each impact causes several effects, and each effect is the consequence of several impacts.


More than 200 references support each statement in the Table.

Main impacts of humankind

Present main effects on biosphere

Present main counter-effects on humankind

Emissions of greenhouse gases

Massive emissions of greenhouse gases (Miller et al. 2019; Ripple et al. 2020, 2021; Thompson et. al. 2019; Butler and Montzka 2020; Peters et al. 2020; Stanley et al. 2020).


Air physico-chemical pollution

Urban release of contaminants to atmosphere: Particulate Matter, NO2, O3, benzene, formaldehyde. Rural release of contaminants to atmosphere: Particulate Matter, NH3, N2O, biocides (WHO 2018a; EEA 2019; Guo et al. 2019; American Lung Association 2021; Fan et al. 2020).


Water and soil physico-chemical pollution

Massive release of conventional contaminants to water and soil: fertilizers (FAO and IWMI 2018), multiple biocides (FAO 2017; Geissen et al. 2018), heavy metals (Lamborg et al. 2014; Toth et al. 2016; Wu et al. 2016), plastic debris (Lavender 2017; Mishra et al. 2019; Peng et al. 2020), crude spills (ITOPF 2019), garbage, mining smelt, radionuclides. 80% of global wastewater is discharged without treatment (UN-Water 2020).


Continuous release of emerging contaminants only partially removed by treatment procedures: hormones, antibiotics, pharmaceutical and personal care products, cleaning and laundry products, veterinary drugs, food additives, PFAS, organic compounds released by industrial process, flame retardants, the metabolites of these chemicals, engineered nano-materials, rare earth elements, etc. (Landrigan et al. 2017; Wilkinson et al. 2017; Damania et al. 2019; Khan et al. 2020; Wiesinger et al. 2021).


Biological pollution

Massive introduction of non-native species  (Seebens et al. 2018; Roy et al. 2018; Sage 2020).


Light pollution

Conspicuous light pollution of specific vast areas and also of sky general brightness (Owens et al. 2020; Svechkina et al. 2020; Kocifaj et al. 2021).


Habitat destruction

Massive deforestation (FAO 2018b, 2020a; Ceccherini et al. 2020; NYDF Assessment Partners 2020).


Massive destruction of wetlands (Ramsar 2018).


Total destruction of almost all natural habitats where agriculture or urban use of land is feasible (Abegão 2019; Zabel et al. 2019; Brotons et al. 2021; Chure et al. 2021; Kuang et al. 2021).


Irrigation practices that cause soil salinization (Damania et al. 2019).


Vast soil rupture by tillage in crop areas (IPCC 2020).


Over-exploitation of natural resources

Over-exploitation and exhaustion of freshwater resources (Gleeson et al. 2012; Gleeson and Richter 2017; IPCC 2020; FAO 2020c).


Water reallocation from rural to urban use (Garrick et al. 2019; FAO 2020c).


Overfishing (Rousseau et al. 2019).

High and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in atmosphere.

Increased mean temperatures in atmosphere, oceans and freshwater bodies. Accelerating losses of ice thickness and sheets, glaciers, snow depth and cover, rise of sea-level (IPCC 2019, 2020, 2021; Pihl et al. 2019; Rignot et al. 2019; Zanna et al. 2019; Barbosa et al. 2020; NOAA 2020; Raymond et al. 2020; Sasgen et al. 2020; Scanes et al. 2020; Shepherd et al. 2020;  Veng and Andersen 2020; Cheng et al. 2020, 2021; AMAP 2021; Auger et al. 2021; Slater et al. 2021; Sun et al. 2021; Grinsted and Christensen 2021; Hugonnet  et al. 2021; Joughin et al. 2021; Mallett et al. 2021; WMO 2021).


Instable and extreme climate, duplication of the climate-related disasters in the last 20 years: increased droughts and floods, heat waves, dust storms, desertification, wildfires, hurricanes and cyclones (Grinsted et al. 2019; IPCC 2020, 2021; Ripple et al. 2020, 2021; Watts et al. 2019; Perkins and Lewis 2020; UNDRR/ CRED 2020; Li and Chakraborty 2020;  Bras et al. 2021; Chiang et al. 2021; WMO 2021). 


Conspicuous changes in the distribution of species due to climate change (Pecl et al. 2017; Pihl et al. 2019; Román and Wiens 2020).


Acidification of oceans and freshwater bodies, decline of productivity (Stiasny et al. 2016; Hall-Spencer and Harvey 2019; Cattano et al. 2020; Fabricius et al. 2020; Scanes et al. 2020; WMO 2021).


C3 photosynthesis favored over C4 one by high CO2 concentrations. Grasses outcompeted by shrubs, changes in vegetation composition (Sage 2020).


Widespread eutrophication of freshwater bodies and coastal areas: algae blooms, reduced light penetration, strengthened stratification, deoxigenation and hypoxic zones, changes in species composition, toxic phytoplankton, fauna mortality (Selman and Greenhalgh 2010; Liu et al. 2012; Dodds and Smith 2017; Breitburg et al. 2018; Damania et al. 2019; Ho et al. 2019; Laffoley and Baxter 2019; Jane et al. 2021; Lapointe et al. 2021).


Sharp alteration of flora, fauna and microorganisms by mixtures of multiple biocides and emerging contaminants (Al-Farsi et al. 2017; Ebele et al. 2017; Lorca et al. 2017; Geissen et al. 2018; Okada et al. 2018; Silva et al. 2018; Angeles et al. 2020).


Millions of polluted land sites (FAO 2018c; Liu et al. 2018).


Massive pollution by plastic debris of oceans, rivers, lakes, lands and atmosphere, with strong negative effects on macro- meso- and micro-fauna, alteration of food-webs (Lu et al. 2016; Lavender 2017; Pazos et al. 2017; Lebreton et al. 2018; Carbery et al. 2018; Perez et al. 2018; Pitt et al. 2018; Sanchez et al. 2018; Seuront 2018; Allen et al. 2020; Aznar et al. 2019; Bergmann et al. 2019; Brandon et al. 2019; Mishra et al. 2019; Pierdomenico et al. 2019; Sala et al. 2019; Tanaka et al. 2019; van Emmerik and Schwarz 2019; Peng et al. 2018, 2020; Bellasi et al. 2020; Kühn et al. 2020; Lopez et al. 2020; Qi et al. 2020; Walkinshaw et al. 2020; Pabortsava and Lampitt 2020; Haram 2021).


Soil losses due to tillage, 100 times higher than soil formation rate (IPCC 2019; Thaler et al. 2021).


Alteration of ecosystems structure due to the introduction of alien species (Seebens et al. 2017; Roy et al. 2018).


Alteration of the life cycle, increased morbidity and population decline of numerous taxa due to light pollution (Owens et al. 2020; Svechkina et al. 2020).


Sharp reduction of the minimal water ecological flows in numerous rivers, lakes and swamps. Dried springs, salinization of coastal aquifers (Horne et al. 2017; FAO 2020c).


Abrupt decline of fish biomass due to overfishing, pollution, water acidification and climate change (Stiasny et al. 2016; Hall-Spencer and Harvey 2019; Laffoley and Baxter 2019).


Drastic reduction of forests and fragmentation of the remaining ones. Saturation of CO2 sequestration by remaining forests (Haddad et al. 2015; FAO 2018b, 2020a;  Hansen et al. 2020;  Hubau et al. 2020;  NYDF Assessment Partners 2020).


Drastic reduction of wetlands and fragmentation of the remaining ones (Ramsar 2018).


Sharp and fast decline of biodiversity, extinction rates 1000 times the likely background rate (Heatwole 2013; Pimm et al. 2014; Agathokleous et al. 2015;  Regan et al. 2015; Rai 2016; Carré et al. 2017; Abegão 2019; IPBES 2019;  Sanchez and Wyckhuys 2019; Cardoso et al. 2020; Dietzel et al. 2020; Zhu and Penuelas 2020; Brotons et al. 2021; Eddy et al. 2021; IPBES-IPCC 2021; Neubauer et al. 2021; Wagner et al. 2021).


Alteration, deep alteration or total destruction of most ecosystems on Earth, only less than 3% of land surface remains functionally intact or almost intact (Plumptre et al. 2021).

Human safety and economy hit by increasing climate-related disasters during the last 20 years (devastating droughts, floods, heatwaves, heat-humidity events, wildfires, hurricanes, etc.)  which affected ca 4 billion people and have caused losses by ca 2 trillion US$. More than 30 million people displaced by disasters in 2020 (Watts et al. 2018, 2019; Li et al. 2020; UNDRR/CRED 2020; Watts et al. 2020; iDMC 2021; WMO 2021).


Increased human morbidity and reduced life expectancy due to permanent exposure-to and intake-of multiple pollutants in urban and rural air, water, food, clothes, toys, etc. : increased incidence of cancer, asthma, allergies, pulmonary diseases, neurodegenerative disease, sleep and learning disturbances, and increased lethality of  viruses affecting the respiratory system including COVID-19. Spread of climate-sensitive infectious diseases (cholera, salmonellosis, dengue, malaria, encephalitis). Increasing frequency of outbreaks of infectious diseases (SARS, MERS, Ebola, COVID-19). Increased premature deaths of both poor and wealthy people. These counter-effects are partially masked by medicine developments (Wu et al. 2016, 2020a, 2020b;  Alves et al. 2017; Landrigan et al. 2017; Takano and Inoue 2017;  Avila-Vazquez et al. 2018; Global Burden of Disease Cancer Collaboration 2018; Gwenzi et al. 2018; Liebmann et al. 2018; Peden 2018; WHO 2018a, 2018b;  Yang et al. 2018; Watts et al. 2018, 2019; ANSES 2019; Cox et al. 2019; EEA 2019; Guo et al. 2019; Hyland et al. 2019; Lelieveld et al. 2019; Liu and Mabury 2019; Porta et al. 2019;  Radke et al. 2019; Rojas-Rueda et al. 2019; Zwolak et al. 2019; Croft et al. 2020; Greenstone and Fan 2020; American Lung Association 2021; Copat et al. 2020; IPBES 2020; Luo et al. 2020; Manisalides et al. 2020; Peng et al. 2020; Petroni et al. 2020; Schmeller et al. 2020; Aurisano et al. 2021).


Water scarcity for both agriculture and urban use. Billions of people already experiencing water shortage and limited access to drinkable water. Degraded water quality limiting drinkability and other uses (EEA 2021; Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank 2019; Damania et al. 2019; WWAP 2019; Garrick et al. 2019; FAO 2020c).


Agriculture land limited by exhaustion of physical space while being reduced by urban, industrial and infrastructure expansion (Güneralp et al. 2020;  Kuang et al. 2021). Further reductions requested for ecosystem restoration (Temperton et al. 2019; Strassburg et al. 2020;  Kuang et al. 2021).


Agriculture land impoverished by losses of soil, pollution, reduced soil biodiversity, desertification and soil salinization (Damania et al. 2019; Núnez and Finkbeiner 2020; IPCC 2020; FAO et al. 2020).


Decrease of food production at global level: reduced global staple crop production, reduced productivity of oceans and freshwater bodies, reduced fish biomass, reduced diet diversity, increasing food real price (Bradshaw et al. 2016; FAO 2018a; Palomares and Pauly 2019; Ray et al. 2019; Rousseau et al. 2019; Vogel et al. 2019; Bras et al. 2021; FAO 2021; Niles et al. 2021).


Increasing hunger and poverty (2 billion people already suffer starvation or hidden hunger), social instability, migrations (270 million migrants). About 9 million premature deaths per year due to starvation (pre-COVID-19 data). No estimations are available of premature deaths due to hidden hunger but for sure the numbers are high (Global Hunger Index 2017; FAO et al. 2019; Pihl et al 2019; FAO 2020b; IOM 2020).


Chronic noise pollution at harmful levels affecting millions of urban and suburban people, causing reduced health and premature deaths (EEA 2020).


Overcrowded urban and sub-urban recreational areas. Saturation of main tourist destinations, growing tourismophobia (Dodds and Butler 2019; Perkumiené and Pransküniené 2019; World Tourism Organization 2019;  Yasmeen 2019).

The full report

If the Earth had a diameter of 2 m, the thickness of the layer of life called biosphere could be 2-3 mm.


Biosphere is a hyper-complex whole of interconnected ecosystems with numerous mechanisms of regulation and adaptation that make it very stable. However, the present impact of humankind on the biosphere is so large that its stability is challenged (Equation 1).


Equation 1.      total impact of humankind on biosphere = number of persons (growing)  *  impact per person (growing)


The present report describes the disintegration of the biosphere and its counter-effects on humankind, offering a holistic synoptic diagnosis.

Updated December 2021

Global warming and climate change


Biosphere is getting warmer - fast

The XX Century and beginning of XXI Century have been the warmest in the history of modern civilization and temperatures continue to rise. Since the 1980s each successive decade has been warmer than any preceding decade on record, and the last five years have been the warmest on record around the world (WMO 2019, 2021; Sun et al. 2021). Year 2019 has been characterized by heat waves with temperatures and frequencies above any previous record almost everywhere: Australia, Alaska, California, India, Central and Southern Europe, Greenland, Russia …(WMO 2019, 2021; AMAP 2021). January 2020 has been hotter than any previous (NOAA 2020). The heat content of the world oceans’ upper 2000 m in 2019 was the highest of any previous record, and 2018 and 2017 were the 2nd and 3rd . highest on record. The increase in temperature of ocean waters is accelerating: the past five years are the top warmest years, and the past ten years are also the warmest ten years on record (WMO 2019, 2021; Zanna et al. 2019; Cheng et al. 2020, 2021; Auger et al. 2021).


The depth of snow in the Alps shows a decrease trend during the last four decades (Matiu et al. 2021).


Earth lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017 (Slater et al. 2021). Greenland’s ice has been  melting since the onset of the industrial era (Trusel et al. 2018) and at a higher rate during the last decade (Sasgen et al. 2020; Shepherd et al. 2020; AMAP 2021). The Arctic ice-sheet in the month of September has decreased by ca 13% per decade during the last four decades (IPCC 2019, 2020). The losses of the ice sheet and glaciers in both Antarctic and Arctic seas have accelerated over the last two decades (Rignot et al. 2019; Barbosa et al. 2020; Hugonnet et al. 2021; Joughin et al. 2021; Mallett et al. 2021).


Freshwaters are also warming (Scanes et al. 2020).

The consequences of global warming

Climate is becoming instable and extreme in many regions (IPCC 2019, 2020, 2021; Pihl et al. 2019; Ripple et al. 2020, 2021; WMO 2019, 2021; AMAP 2021). Dry months and droughts are increasing in both frequency and strength while precipitations and wet months are increasing in other areas (Chiang et al. 2021). Land and marine heat waves are more frequent and intensive (Perkins and Lewis 2020). Dust storms are more frequent and desertification is expanding. The exposure of human populations to wildfires has increased in most countries (Watts et al. 2019) and the intensity and frequency of hurricanes have increased (Grinsted et al. 2019; Li and Chakraborty 2020).


Sea level has risen at 2-3 cm per decade since 1880, accelerating to ca 3.6 cm during the last decade (Veng and Andersen 2020). Nerem et al. (2018) estimate that open sea level will probably rise by another 60 cm in the next 80 years, while other authors (e.g., Bamber et al. 2019; Grinsted and Christensen 2021) conclude that sea level may eventually rise by 2 meters or more in the next 80 years. Sea level is not homogeneous in coastal areas because the changes in open sea are amplified or neutralized by coastal topography, wind, waves, and tide gauges. Thus, whatever the future increase in open sea, some specific coastal locations already see (and/or will see) a multiplied effect (Vinogradov and Ponte 2011; Woodworth et al. 2019).


Land and marine organisms are affected by rising temperatures and climate change (Pecl et al. 2017; Pihl et al. 2019). Some species are extending their distribution to higher latitudes at almost 20 km per decade for terrestrial taxa and ca 70 km per decade for marine taxa. Some mountainside taxa are moving to higher altitudes while some marine taxa are moving to deeper layers. However, many plants have their adaptative dispersal potential severely reduced because the animals that perform seed dispersion have their populations reduced (Fricke et al. 2022). Some taxa have their numbers reduced, some disappear. The changes are stronger in land areas with more frequent or longer rainy and droughts periods, or extreme seasonal temperatures (Román and Wiens 2020).


Agriculture is weather-dependent. An analysis of ten global crops (barley, cassava, maize, oil palm, rapeseed, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane and wheat) indicates that climate change is likely already reducing global crop production. Extreme weather deeply affects crops (Vogel et al. 2019) and is already reducing crop productivity in Europe (Bras et al. 2021). It is estimated that another 100 million people will be forced into poverty during the next 10 years (WHO 2018a; Ray et al. 2019).


Human safety and economy have been hit by increasing climate-related disasters during the last 20 years (droughts, floods, heatwaves, heat-humidity events, wildfires, hurricanes, etc.) which affected ca 4 billion people and have caused losses by ca 2 trillion US$. More than 30 million people have been displaced by disasters in 2020 (Watts et al. 2018, 2019; Li et al. 2020; UNDRR/CRED 2020; Raymond et al. 2020; Watts et al. 2020; iDMC 2021; WMO 2021).


Climate-sensitive infectious diseases change their spread patterns, reproduction and survival (e.g., water-born ones such as Vibrio and Salmonella, and those transmitted by insects such as dengue, malaria and encephalitis). It is estimated that climate change is already adding 250,000 premature deaths per year (Wu et al. 2016; WHO 2018a; Watts et al. 2018, 2019; Li et al. 2020; IPBES 2020).

The causes of global warming

Most scientists agree in that global warming is due to the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons (Thompson et. al. 2019; Stanley et al. 2020; Ripple et al. 2020, 2021). The combined concentration of these gases in atmosphere has almost duplicated from year 1700 to the present time (Butler and Montzka 2019). Tropical forests used to remove about 15% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions but their carbon sink capacity is being saturated (Hubau et al. 2020). A few scientists have argued that warming and cooling periods have already occurred before the industrial era, quoting the fluctuations known as “The Little Ice Age” and “The Medieval Climate Anomaly” during the second millennium. These arguments have been dismantled by Neukom et al. (2019) who have shown that these previous warm and cold periods were neither global nor continuous but local and fluctuating, while present warming is global, simultaneous and continuous.

The initiatives to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases are failing

Several international summits on climate change (from the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992 to the Glasgow COP26 in 2021) have not succeeded neither to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide nor even to stop their increase. The anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide continue to grow (Peters et al. 2020) as well as those of methane (Miller et al. 2019) and hydrofluorocarbons (Stanley et al. 2020). The International Energy Agency released a note (IEA 2020) stating that the energy-related CO2 emissions flatlined in 2019. But the balance is based on country self-reporting by governments (a reliable source?), it is limited to the energy sector, and it is too early to know whether it represents a trend or just a temporary fluctuation. Meanwhile, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 continues to increase sharply (Figure 1) reaching 416 ppm in 2020 (Ripple et al. 2021).

CO2 emissions.jpg

Figure 1.  Global Fossil CO2 Emissions and Surface Average Atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Schematic redrawn from Friedlingstein et al. (2019)



The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health (Landrigan et al. 2017) concluded that “Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015 (16% of all deaths worldwide)”. The incidence of cancer (age standardized) is increasing (Global Burden of Disease Cancer Collaboration 2018) including cancer in children (Figure 2). The causes of cancer are multifactorial (Wu et al. 2018) and pollution by carcinogens is one of the conspicuous factors. Allergies are also conspicuously increasing, partially (or fully?) related to pollution (Takano and Inoue 2017; Peden 2018). Pollution affects ecosystems with notorious consequences on biodiversity, mass cycles, energy flows and food production. The efforts to reduce pollution have drastically increased in some regions but actual achievements at global level are poor; e.g., 80% of global wastewater is still discharged into the environment without any treatment (UN-Water 2020).

Most people confuse “pollution” with “dirty” (e.g., crude spills, ITOPF 2019) and “malodours”, while most pollution is invisible and odourless.

Cancer in children.JPG

Figure 2. Incidence of cancer in children in the UK.

Data source: Cancer Research UK, accessed 03/2020

Air pollution

WHO (2018b) estimates that just particulate matter (PM) in polluted air is responsible for the premature death of 7 million people per year around the globe. Over the last two decades, the average loss in life expectancy due to air PM has been calculated in two years (Greenstone and Fan 2020). Urban people in Europe are  exposed to high levels of air polluters in spite of the several EU and national directives and regulations (Table 1). Fine-ultrafine Particulate Matter in air (PM2.5) was responsible for 412,000 premature deaths in Europe by 2016, NO2 for 70,000 premature deaths and O3 for 15,000 premature deaths (EEA 2019a). Other common air contaminants are benzene and formaldehyde. Lelieveld et al. (2019) estimated in 790,000 the excess deaths due to air pollution in Europe in 2015. In US, more than 40% of the population lives in places with unhealthy levels of ozone and PM (American Lung Association 2021).  A similar situation has been reported in China (Fan et al. 2020). Air pollution is a serious cause of pulmonary diseases also in third-world countries (WHO 2018b; Guo et al. 2019). The burden of air pollution is particularly significant in children (Rojas-Rueda et al. 2019; Greenstone and Fan 2020). Air pollution is linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and other types of Dementia (Calderon 2021; Shafer et al. 2021) and increases the lethality of viruses affecting the respiratory system including COVID-19 (Copat et al.2020; Croft et al. 2020; Petroni et al. 2020). It also strongly affects flora, fauna and ecosystem structure (Agathokleous et al. 2015; Rai 2016; Carré et al. 2017; Sage 2020).


Urban air pollution is mainly due to traffic, burning of fuels for domestic heating, cooking and industrial activities including power plants. Rural air pollution is mainly due to agriculture which in the UK is the main source of ammonia (NH3) and nitrous oxide (N2O) in air (Air Quality Expert Group 2018). N2O emissions from N-fertilizers are increasing (Thompson et al. 2019). Crop biocides are usually present in rural air, as well as PM due to ploughing and tilled soil.

The recent review on air pollution and negative effects on human health by Manisalides et al. (2020) summarizes much of the information on the issue.

Table 1. Percentage of urban population in Europe exposed to air pollution above WHO guidelines (EEA 2019)

Air pollutant

O3               hours

BaP (PAHs) year

SO2             day

NO2             year

PM2.5          year

PM10           year

Population exposed to values

above WHO guidelines

95 - 98 %

83 - 90 %

21 - 31 %

7 - 8 %

74 - 81 %

42 - 52 %

Urban Noise

“Long-term exposure to environmental noise is estimated to cause 12,000 premature deaths and contribute to 48,000 new cases of ischemic heart disease per year in the European territory. It is estimated that 22 million people suffer chronic high annoyance and 6.5 million people suffer chronic high sleep disturbance. As a result of aircraft noise, 12,500 schoolchildren are estimated to suffer learning impairment in school. These significant health impacts are most likely to be underestimated”. (EEA 2019b).

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is due to the massive absorption of atmospheric CO2 into seawater forming H2CO3 carbonic acid. The pH of ocean upper layers has already fallen by 0.11 units in the last 150 years (a 30% increase in acidity) and it is estimated that will fall by another 0.4 pH units in the next 80 years (Stiasny et al. 2016; WMO 2019, 2021). The negative consequences on marine ecosystems are multiple, reducing biodiversity and coral reefs, and affecting the biological cycle of numerous taxa of marine organisms (Stiasny et al. 2016; Hall-Spencer and Harvey 2019; Cattano et al. 2020; Fabricius et al. 2020).

Eutrophication of freshwater bodies and coastal areas

The use of fertilizers in agriculture is huge and continues to increase (Figure 3). Nitrogen and Phosphorus losses from manured lands to freshwater ecosystems has been estimated in 8.2 million N ton/year and 1.5 million P ton/year (FAO and IWMI 2018). Mekonnen and Hoekstra (2017) estimate the global losses of Phosphorus from both point and diffuse anthropogenic sources to freshwater bodies as 1.5 million ton/year. Eutrophication of water bodies by N and P results into excessive algae growth, reduction of light penetration, strengthened stratification, changes in species composition, low dissolved oxygen, hypoxic zones, blooms of toxic algae and cyanobacteria affecting water drinkability and decrease of biodiversity (Jane et al. 2021).


Eutrophication is widespread, affecting major world rivers (Liu et al. 2012) and major world lakes (Selman and Greenhalgh 2010; Dodds and Smith 2017). A study on the world’s 71 large lakes has found that the summertime phytoplankton blooms have increased during the last three decades (Ho et al. 2019). There has been a limited improvement of water quality in some specific regions (Johnson et al. 2019) but at global level eutrophication is expected to expand even more in the near future (Rabalais et al. 2010; Selman and Greenhalgh 2010; Liu et al. 2012; Withers et al. 2014; Damania et al. 2019).


Groundwater contamination by nitrogen has been reported in numerous aquifers in Europe, South Asia, East Asia and USA with values above the prescribed limits for drinking water (FAO and IWMI 2018). There are almost no data from Latin America, Africa and other underdeveloped areas. Removal of NO3 from drinking water is possible but complex and expensive.


Marine coastal areas also suffer eutrophication with a conspicuous increase in the last 50 years. Almost 80 percent of the assessed continental U.S. coastal area and approximately 65 percent of Europe’s Atlantic coast exhibit symptoms of eutrophication and there exist hundreds of dead zones due to lack of Dissolved Oxygen (Breitburg et al. 2018; Laffoley and Baxter 2019; Lapointe et al. 2021).


Figure 3. Estimated fertilizer production in the world in tons per year

Data source: FAO (2017b) and Our World in Data (2019).


Biocides have been massively applied to agricultural crops for about 60 years and present worldwide use is about 4 million ton of active biocide compounds per year (FAO 2017a). Just in the European Union there are more than 2000 approved active biocide ingredients. The human toxicity and environmental impact of each biocide are evaluated for approval but the combined effect of the resulting mixtures is unknown and not evaluated (Geissen et al. 2018). Biocides are found everywhere in soil, water, food, air…even in baby diapers (ANSES 2019) and in humans (Hyland et al. 2019). A large-scale study in Europe found that almost 60% of the tested agriculture soils are contaminated by mixtures of multiple biocides (Silva et al. 2018). The cultivation of GM-genetically-modified crops resistant to herbicides has multiplied herbicide application in some regions; e.g., at the vast Southeast Pampas of Argentina where GM-glyphosate-resistant soybean, maize and cotton are intensively fumigated with glyphosate resulting into polluted air, soil and water sources (Okada et al. 2018) with increased human morbidity (Avila-Vazquez et al. 2018). 

Heavy Metals

Toxic Cr, Ni, Cu, Zn, Cd, Pb, Hg, As and Se are widespread persistent contaminants (Wu et al. 2016). The amount of Hg in marine surface waters has tripled compared with pre-anthropogenic conditions (Lamborg et al. 2014). The increase in marine sediments is even higher. There are over 20 million ha of land contaminated with anthropogenic heavy metals in the world (Liu et al. 2018). Even remote rivers in the Amazonas basin are poisoned with mercury (Hill 2018) nickel (Hofmeister and Silva 2018) or arsenic (Hood 2018). Heavy metals accumulate in vegetables (Toth et al. 2016; Zwolak et al. 2019) and are magnified in aquatic and terrestrial food webs. The remediation of contaminated sites is very expensive and may take years (Liu et al. 2018).

Salinization of soils

Soil salinization occurs mainly due to a combination of irrigation and poor drainage in arid and semi-arid regions, and is responsible for the loss of vast agriculture areas every year (Damania et al. 2019; IPCC 2020; Núnez and Finkbeiner 2020). Fighting salinization requires a multi-stage approach (Juanico 2008) difficult to transfer to less-developed countries.

Emerging contaminants

“Emerging contaminants” are thousands of “new” anthropogenic chemicals found at low concentrations in the environment. Typical ones are hormones, antibiotics, pharmaceutical and personal care products (PPCPs ), cleaning products such as dish washing, rinse aid, oven cleaning, sink stain removal, floor brightening, window cleaning, etc., laundry products such as stain removal, carpet cleaning, softening, iron lining, leather renewal, etc., veterinary drugs, food additives, PFAS, organic compounds released by industrial process, flame retardants, the metabolites of these chemicals, engineered nano-materials, REE-rare earth elements. Many of these chemicals have a negligible Biological Oxygen Demand, many are not fully removed by conventional wastewater treatment plants and then discharged into the environment. Some of them are persistent or degrade at very low rate. Some of them bioaccumulate into organisms and through the trophic web. Many of them are toxic, or endocrine disruptors, or interfere with metabolism, or promote resistance to medicines (Yang et al. 2018; Khan et al. 2020).


“More than 140,000 new chemicals and pesticides have been synthesized since 1950 ... Fewer than half of these high-production volume chemicals have undergone any testing for safety or toxicity.” (Landrigan et al. 2017). “The United States alone receives notices for the release of more than 1,000 new chemicals into the environment each year—or around three new chemicals per day. Keeping up with such a growing range of risks is difficult even in countries with significant resources and nearly impossible in developing countries.” (Damania et al. 2019). “The fate of these contaminants once introduced into the aquatic environment remains relatively unresolved” (Wilkinson et al. 2017).


Emerging contaminants are widespread in water bodies and sediments (Ebele et al. 2017; Lorca et al. 2017), soils and edible vegetables (Al-Farsi et al. 2017; Luo et al. 2020), animals (e.g., antidepressants in fish brains, liver and gonads, Arnnok et al. 2017; antibiotics and antifungal compounds and metabolites in fish, Angeles et al. 2020). Many of these contaminants are also found in humans; e.g. plasticizers and flame retardants in human nails (Alves et al. 2017), phthalates in urine (Porta et al. 2019), REE in human hair, nails and biofluids (Gwenzi et al. 2018), photoinitiators in breast milk (Liu and Mabury 2019). The combined effect of numerous simultaneous contaminants at low concentrations on nature and human health is rather unknown.

Plastic debris

Plastic production is ca 330 million tons per year. Most plastics do not degrade or degrade very slowly, they are just fragmented by wear and persist in the environment by decades (centuries?).

Run-off is the main responsible for their transport to water bodies but many micro- and nano-debris can be also airborne transported.


Marine pollution by plastic debris has been reviewed by Lavender (2017), Mishra et al. (2019), Roscam (2019), Bellasi et al (2020), Peng et al. (2020) and EIA (2022). The amount of plastic debris entering the oceans from land sources has been estimated between 5 and 13 million tons per year. Floating visible macro-debris concentrate in the main gyros of ocean surface currents; e.g., the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which already contains about 80 thousand tons of plastic (Lebreton et al. 2018). But visible plastic debris represent less than 10% of the plastic mass at the oceans where most debris are microscopy (EIA 2022).Non-floating plastic debris have been found in all possible marine environments from open oceans to seafloors (Sanchez et al. 2018; Pierdomenico et al. 2019) including remote unpopulated regions such as the Arctic (Bergmann et al. 2019) and the Patagonian coast (Perez et al. 2018). The concentration of plastic nano-debris in the North Pacific has been measured as more than 8000 particles per litre (Brandon et al. 2019). They are found even in the Mariana Trench (with a depth of 11 km, the deepest point of the oceans) at 2 to 14 plastic pieces per litre in water and 200 to 2200 pieces per litre in sediments (Peng et al. 2018). A relatively new assessment by Pabortsava and Lampitt (2020) calculated the combined mass of 32-651 micron particles of just polyethylene, polypropylene and polystyrene in the top 200 m of the Atlantic Ocean in 12-21 million tonnes, and states that these results indicate that both inputs and stocks of ocean plastics are much higher than determined previously. Plastic pollution of rivers and lakes is equally ubiquitous and high in both surface waters and sediments (Eerkes et al. 2015; van Emmerik T and A Schwarz (2019);  Bellasi et al. 2020) from Mongolia to Canada passing by the Rio de la Plata (Pazos et al. 2017). Soils are a major sink of discharged agriculture greenhouse covers (de Souza Machado et al. 2017). Nano-debris transported by wind are found even in Alps’ and Arctic’s snow (Bergmann et al. 2019) and in pristine mountain catchments of the French Pyrenees (Allen et al. 2019); there is evidence of intercontinental and trans-oceaning transport of plastic nano-debris (Allen et al. 2021).


The impact in the aquatic environment is high with hundreds of reports on trapping, injury, damaging or gills’ clogging of macro, meso and micro animals. Filter-feeding animals blindly filter everything, while raptor feeders cannot differentiate between a piece of food and a piece of plastic covered by biofilm (Lavender 2017). The ingestion of plastic debris results in reduced storage capacity in the stomach, false satiation and reduced appetite, obstruction of the gut, internal injury, ulcerative lesions, transference of hazardous substances, reduced heart activity and poor egg quality. Many plastics contain or sorb toxic compounds that may be released into the environment or directly into the gut of an ingesting organism. A recent study has identified over 2,400 substances of concern in plastic products and production process; many of these substances are hardly studied, not adequately regulated in many parts of the world, or even approved for use in food-contact plastics in some jurisdictions (Wiesinger et al. 2021). Laboratory studies have demonstrated the transference of chemicals from plastics to fish and mammals upon ingestion, the entry of plastic microfibers in blood stream and lymphatic vessels, reduced predator avoidance behavior, oxidative stress, changes in metabolic parameters, reduced enzyme activity, liver toxicity and cellular necrosis (Lu et al. 2016; Lavender 2017; Carbery et al. 2018; Seuront 2018; Pitt et al. 2018; Aznar et al 2019; Sala et al. 2019; Tanaka et al. 2019; Roscam 2019; Bellasi et al. 2020; Kuhn et al. 2020; Lopez et al. 2020). Micro-debris change the nectonic foodwebs by providing substract for floating biofilms (Lavender 2017) while medium and macro-debris result into the emergence of a neopelagic community through the establishment of coastal species on the high seas (Haram 2021). Plastic debris laying on the bottom of marine and freshwater bodies cover the sediments and the benthic organisms living on and within them, precluding transference of gases, water, nutrients and of the organisms themselves.


In soils, a few performed investigations on remnants of greenhouse covers indicate negative effects on soil chemistry (accumulation of heavy metals and organic contaminants) physical properties and reduced crop yields (Liu et al. 2014; Jin et al. 2017; Qi et al. 2018, 2020).

Humans inhale airborne micro- and nano-plastics (Cox et al. 2019). Food for humans and livestock contains plastic debris (fish, shellfish, cooking salt, drinking water, sugar, beer, honey) and plastic debris are found in human stools (Liebmann et al. 2018). The ingestion of plastic by humans has been estimated in 39,000 to 52,000 particles per person per year (Cox et al. 2019). A review of the effect of plastic ingestion by humans published in January 2019 (SAPEA 2019) concluded that “we have no evidence of widespread risk to human health from nano and micro plastics at present”, but alerted that knowledge is still very limited. A later study of the Catalunyan Institute Hospital del Mar d’Investigaciones Mèdiques (Porta et al. 2019) informs of the presence of 15 plastic phthalates and 12 plastic phenols in a sample of 20 persons from Catalunya and Balearic Islands, finding that all the 15 phthalates and 5 of the phenols were found in the urine of each of the 20 participants (20 to 23 compounds by participant). A review published in November 2019 (Radke et al. 2019) indicates an association between ingestion of phthalates and increased risk of diabetes. A recent study shows that plastic toys expose children (and adults) to chemicals of concern (Aurisano et al. 2021).

Soil chemical pollution

Numerous sites are contaminated by some of the above listed pollutants (fertilizers, biocides, emerging contaminants, plastic debris, heavy metals, salts) plus many others: hydrocarbons (crude spills, PCBs, PAHs, used motor oil, etc.), night soil, garbage, mining smelt, radionuclides, etc. (FAO 2018c). Just in the European Union 700,000 contaminated sites have been identified, while the number of those not yet identified is estimated in another 800,000. The legal instruments for soil protection in Europe are still in the early stages of development (Payá and Rodríguez 2018). Some European countries and most third-world countries do not have either a policy or any inventory or even estimations regarding soil contaminated sites.

Introduction of non-native species

The introduction of non-native species has increased exponentially in the last centuries, including all living forms: trees, small plants, crops, diseases and parasites, mammals, birds, insects, crustaceans, algae, fungi, bacteria, pathogens, virus, etc. (Sage 2020). The number of introduced non-native species is huge and continues to rise (Seebens et al. 2017, 2018). Just in Europe 14,000 alien species have been recorded not including microscopic ones (Roy et al. 2018). The cost of insect invasive species worldwide has been estimated by Bradshaw et al. (2016) in US$ 77 billion per year and they alert that this may be a gross underestimation.

Light pollution

The natural pattern of light provided by sun and moon has been stable for millions of years. Massive artificial illumination alters this cycle as well as the color spectra, light direction, polarization and intensity, producing a range of adverse consequences for all taxonomic groups and habitats (Schroer and Hölker 2017; Owens et al. 2020; Svechkina et al. 2020; Briolat et al 2021).

Orbital garbage

NASA (2017) explains that “Orbital debris is any man-made object in orbit about the Earth which no longer serves any useful function... They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft.”


The European Space Agency (ESA 2019) estimated the number of orbital debris in 2018 as 34,000 larger than 10 cm, 900,000 with size 1-10 cm, 128 million with size 0.1–1 cm, and that the numbers are increasing fast.

The proliferation of orbital debris is rapidly increasing the brightness of night sky (Kocifaj et al. (2021).

Exhaustion of natural resources

Natural resources are over-exploited while the fast-growing human population increases the pressure on them (Equation 2).


Equation 2.

     Natural resources per person =

over-exploited natural resources (decreasing)

 / number of persons (growing)


Physical space for agriculture and urban expansion is exhausted

Most areas of the world with human-friendly characteristics (climate, topography, soil, water) are already occupied by agriculture and urbanization (Figure 4). The remaining land is mostly made of “deserts” with extreme characteristics. There are some exceptions, but their use for agricultural or urban expansion would further reduce the few remnants of wildlife areas (Zabel et al. 2019; Kuang et al. 2021). Thus, further urban expansion is made mainly at the expense of crop land. More than 125,000 square kilometers of land have been covered by urban expansion in the last five decades (Güneralp et al. 2020).


Further reductions of agriculture land are requested for ecosystem restoration, and some few marginal agricultural lands are being returned to nature in some countries, but the significance of this phenomena is negligible at global scale (Temperton et al. 2019; Strassburg et al. 2020;  Kuang et al. 2021).

Land use for agriculture.JPG

Figure 4.  World land area used for agriculture versus time. 

(redraw from Ritchie and Roser 2019b)

Soil is being lost at high rate

Erosion due to agriculture causes soil losses that are higher than the soil formation rate. In agriculture fields without tillage the losses are “only” 10-20 times higher than natural losses, while in fields with conventional tillage the losses are more than 100 times higher. Desertification aggravates the problem: between the 1980s and 2000s, ca 0.5 billion people live in areas which experienced desertification. Pollution and reduced soil biodiversity further reduce soil availability and fertility (Damania et al. 2019; Núnez and Finkbeiner 2020; IPCC 2019, 2020; FAO et al. 2020; Thaler et al. 2021).

Freshwater resources are exhausted in regions where most needed

Earth freshwater resources are huge but most of them concentrate where demand is almost null (e.g., polar and sub-polar regions, Amazonas) while are exhausted in populated and agriculture areas where they are needed most (e.g., the Mediterranean basin and India). Freshwater over-explotation and scarcity is a chronic limiting factor in vast areas of the world (FAO 2020c). Over 2 billion people live in countries experiencing high water stress and it is estimated that more than half of world people experience severe water scarcity during at least one month of the year (WWAP 2019). More than one billion people do not have access to adequate drinking water supply and sanitation services in Asia (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank 2019) while ca 20-30 % of the European population is exposed to water scarcity during the summer months (European Environmental Agency 2021). Many large aquifers and rivers that are critical to agriculture are overexploited especially in Asia and North America, resulting in a sharp reduction of the minimal water ecological flows in numerous rivers, lakes and swamps; dried springs and salinization of coastal aquifers are common (Gleeson et al. 2012; Gleeson and Richter 2017; Horne et al. 2017; FAO 2020c). Agriculture water demand is currently accounting for 70% of global freshwater resources (IPCC 2019); 3.2 billion people live in agricultural areas with high to very high levels of water shortage (FAO 2020c) and future intensification of the still low-intensity agriculture would require further water resources for irrigation. Meanwhile, more and more water is reallocated from agriculture to urban use due to the growing urban sector (Garrick et al. 2019; FAO 2020c). The desalination of seawater that is performed in some countries has high costs and energy demand.

Production of energy is huge, yet it is by far below demand

The production of energy has increased almost exponentially since 1950 and continues to grow. Most energy is produced by burning fossil fuels constituting the main source of greenhouse gases. Coal -a heavy polluter- continue to provide 40% of the electricity produced worldwide while renewable energies still provide only 10% (Ritchie and Roser 2019a).

Fisheries are being exhausted

The global fishing-fleet grew from 1.7 to 3.7 million vessels between 1950 and 2015 (more than doubling the UE-units of effort) and major technological improvements have increased the effectiveness of each UE. However, the catch per unit of effort (CPUE) has consistently decreased to a fifth of its 1950 value and then total captures have not increased. The biomass of fish in the oceans is declining abruptly by a combination of overfishing (FAO 2018a; Rousseau et al. 2019; Palomares and Pauly 2019) and the reduction of oceans productivity by pollution and global warming (Stiasny et al. 2016; Hall-Spencer and Harvey 2019; Laffoley and Baxter 2019).

Forests are drastically reduced and fragmented

Forests are the habitat for ¾ of world’s terrestrial biodiversity, and still provide food, medicine and timber fuel for one and a half billion people (FAO 2018b). They also play an important role in carbon sequestration (Maxwell et al. 2019). About 1/3 of the original world forests have been burned or cut down. Between 2015 and 2020, the global rate of deforestation has been “only”  4.7 million ha per year (FAO 2020a). The disappearance of forest in Amazonas and Central Africa during the last two decades has been 30% and 14% respectively (Watson et al. 2016). Deforestation in Europe is increasing since 2015 (Ceccherini et al. 2020). The present main cause of deforestation continues to be land conversion to crop and grassing fields to produce more food for a fast-growing human population (FAO 2018b). Besides reduction, forests are also being fragmented: “70% of remaining forests is within 1 km of the forest’s edge; habitat fragmentation reduces biodiversity by 13 to 75% and impairs key ecosystem” (Haddad et al. 2015). The size of these fragments continues to be reduced (Hansen et al. 2020).


Wetlands suffer the same process of drastic reduction and fragmentation (Ramsar 2018).

Natural habitats are devastated and biodiversity is in steep decline

Almost all natural habitats where agriculture or urban use of land is feasible have been destroyed and biodiversity is declining at an accelerated rate (Abegão 2019; Zabel et al. 2019; Brotons et al. 2021; Chure et al. 2021; Kuang et al. 2021; Neubauer et al. 2021). Only less than 3% of land surface remains functionally intact or almost intact (Plumptre et al. 2021). Biodiversity is also affected by the massive introduction of non-native species, spreading of infectious diseases, pollution, climate change, over-exploitation and ecosystem drift/collapse. At least 680 vertebrate species have disappeared since the 16th century and more than 9% of the species of domestic mammals used in the past for food and agriculture had died out by 2016 (IPBES 2019). Heatwole (2013) states that 170 species of amphibia are believed to have gone extinct in the past two decades and that ca 2500 additional ones are in decline. Insects (including pollinators) are also in sharp decline (Wagner et al. 2021), and it is estimated that ca 40% of the world's insect species may be extinct over the next few decades due to anthropogenic activity (Sanchez and Wyckhuys 2019; Cardoso et al. 2020). Coral reefs are in sharp decline both in particular areas and in large spatial scales (Dietzel et al. 2020; Eddy et al. 2021). From the birds and mammals that are known as pollinator species, 2-3 species per year are already moving towards extinction (Regan et al. 2015). Many species exist just as remnants in isolated small areas and then are condemned to disappear. Around 1 million known species face extinction, many within few decades (IPBES 2019). Also the microbiome (and dependent biogeochemical processes) is deeply changed (Zhu and Penuelas 2020).

Recreational spaces and tourist destinations are overcrowded

Overtourism starts to be a social, infrastructure and environmental problem. Recreational spaces within and near big cities are overcrowded during weekends, while enervating traffic jams of people trying to leave and enter the city characterize the “recreational” time. Most urban population understands that it is possible to travel countryside to find “nature”. But “nature” beyond the urban limits has been substituted by monoculture agriculture fields fumigated with biocides, artificial parks and tree plantations, industrial areas, highways, airports, crowded and eroding beaches.


International tourism has increased from 0.5 billion arrivals in the early ‘90s to almost 1.5 billion in 2018 (World Tourism Organization 2019) and main tourist destinations are invaded by masses of visitors. The list of cities receiving between 10 to 20 million visitor/year is long (Yasmeen 2019). Local inhabitants start to complain about an excess of tourists that distort their normal life and even push them out of the city (Amsterdam -with more than 20 million tourist per year- already prohibited the construction of new hotels in the city). Tourismphobia is an increasing phenomenon (Perkumiené and Pransküniené 2019; Dodds and Butler 2019). Main non-urban tourist destinations are also saturated forcing the authorities to restrict access; some examples are Machu Pichu, Taj Mahal, Galapagos Islands, the poppy-blanketed Walker Canyon in California, Cinque Terre, Pascua Island...

Biosphere's disintegration

The cause-effect and interactions between impacts and specific phenomena and processes as described above are difficult to investigate due to the complexity of the biosphere. Nevertheless, some of them are already known. For example, the decline of fish biomass in the oceans is known to be due to the combined impacts and interactions between overfishing (Rousseau et al. 2019) eutrophication (Laffoley and Baxter 2019) ocean acidification (Hall-Spencer and Harvey 2019) plastic debris (Lavender 2017) and ocean warming (IPCC 2019), all of them with a single origin: human impact. The fishing fleets have been multiplied to maintain catches (Rousseau et al. 2019) increasing the use of fuel and emissions of greenhouse gases, thus further contributing to ocean acidification and warming. The high population density in large cities facilitates the spread of infectious diseases, while the almost permanent air pollution in these large cities increases pulmonary problems in the population and thus the lethality of viruses such as COVID-19 (Conticini et al. 2020; Petroni et al. 2020; Wu et al. 2020). The outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases are occurring with increasing frequency and consequences, including wildlife diseases and zoonoses (Schmeller et al. 2020).


Figure 5 exemplifies the complexity of the relationships between the multiple impacts that overpopulation imposes on biosphere and the multiple interrelated crises of the biosphere with a boomerang impact on humankind.

With the help of technology, humans have protected themselves from predation and diseases, overcome climate limitations, massively invaded almost all ecosystems, transformed much arable land into monoculture fields, taken advantage of all the trophic levels and increased human population to huge numbers. Humans are simultaneously over-exploiting resources and using the biosphere as a sink of massive pollution. The biosphere has received large impacts in the past (falling meteorites, strong volcanic activity, changes in incoming outer radiation, etc.) but most of them had a small effect due to biosphere resilience. Only a few of these strong impacts drastically changed the biosphere causing the known five mass extinctions in the past. The biosphere is now starting to disintegrate again and the sixth mass extinction is a running reality.

The counter-effects of biosphere’s disintegration on humankind are already felt. Human premature deaths due to pollution are ca 10 million per year and those due to climate change already reach ca 250,000 per year. Progress in medicine and safety mask the numbers, but the effects continue to rise. Poverty and hunger are also mounting: by the end of the Middle Ages (ca year 1500) the world population was about 0.5 billion people most of them suffering malnutrition (Tables 2 and 3). Since then, several technological revolutions (the green agriculture revolution, food conservation, industry, transport...) have multiplied the production of food per hectare by almost 10. Nevertheless, the number of people suffering malnutrition multiplied by four mounting to 2 billion today, because the rate of population growing is higher than the rate of increasing food production. Malnutrition is accompanied by lack of safe water, sanitation, proper housing, basic health services, basic education, etc.  Malthus was not wrong. In year 2000, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals committed to eradicate hunger in the world in fifteen years by 2015. This wishful thinking failed: the rate of hunger eradication became almost negligible by 2010 and the number of starving people in the world started to increase again for years in row since 2015 (Figure 7; FAO 2020b). Lately, crop yields and food production at global scale has started to decline (Ray et al. 2019; Thaler et al. 2021) and food real prices started to increase (FAO et al. 2019; FAO 2021). Diet diversity is also reduced (Niles et al. 2021). It is estimated that another 100 million people will enter poverty in the next 8 years (WHO 2018a) and that the COVID crisis will add another 100 million people to the hunger count (FAO 2020b). Human safety and economy have been alreay hit by increasing climate-related disasters during the last 20 years (droughts, floods, heatwaves, heat-humidity events, wildfires, hurricanes, etc.)  which have affected ca 4 billion people and have caused losses by ca 2 trillion US$. More than 30 million people have been displaced by disasters in 2020 (Watts et al. 2018, 2019; Li et al. 2020; UNDRR/CRED 2020; Watts et al. 2020; iDMC 2021; WMO 2021).

Some authors (e.g. Rosling et al. 2018; Pinker 2018) argue that humankind is now in a much better situation than in the past by quoting the impressive progress made in numerous fields. This is true only for the 5.7 billion wealthy people that enjoy progress. For the other 2 billion people (and the numbers are growing) life is today as miserable as it was for miserable people centuries ago. Table 3 shows that the defenders of the optimistic “everything is better today” get a distorted image of reality by the misuse of percentages instead of actual numbers. They also overlook the fact that the “impressive progress” of humankind is one of the two causes of biosphere disintegration (Equation 1) that starts to affect everybody, also the wealthy people.

Table 2. World population classified by level of nutrition

(Global Hunger Index 2017)


Number of people

in the world

Hunger = undernourishment = starvation

People eating less calories than needed

0.85 billion

Hidden hunger = undernutrition = malnutrition

People eating enough calories but with a diet deficient in proteins and/or vitamins and minerals (it is more expensive to feed on vegetables and milk or meat than on plain rice, potatoes or maize). This type of hunger is “hidden” because these people can eventually be fat (hunger is not seen) but the lack of essential nutrients makes them underdeveloped, ill and short-lived.

1.15 billion

No hunger

People eating a more or less proper diet

5.7 billion

Table 3. Number of people suffering starvation or undernutrition in the world,

end of Middle Ages versus 2017.

Global food deficit has increased fourfold in spite of all the technological developments

(population grows faster than food production)


World population

around 1500

around 0.5 billion


7.7 billion

Number of people with

an "acceptable" nutrition


5.7 billion

Number of people suffering undernutrition or starvation

< 0.5 billion

2 billion

Percentage of people suffering undernutrition or starvation

95 % ?

25 %

Biosphera relationships.jpg

Figure 5. Some of the multiple and complex interactions between specific crises of biosphere and humankind


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