Maps are not just informative, they are empowering. During periods of great change and volatility, they can help provide perspective. Yet maps are not necessarily fixed: They need renewing. As Albert Einstein said, “you can’t use old maps to explore a new world.” This is the case as governments, businesses and citizens around the world make their way in the new uncertain COVID-19 era. Although there are many reasons to be uneasy about the future, maps can inspire optimism. They can help identify dangers ahead and also reveal our species remarkable advances in recent centuries.
Humans are hardwired for maps. Map-making is an ancient impulse. For tens of thousands of years, Homo sapiens have scribbled down the nearest water and food source on cave walls, boulders and parchment. It turns out that maps appeal directly to our enlarged cerebral cortex, which controls functions including sight, speech, thought and memory. It is their capacity to show our progress and pitfalls that make some maps so appealing.
Arguably one of the most significant accomplishments of humankind is the prolongation of life. Today, more people are living longer and healthier lives than at any time in human history. There are currently several hundred thousand centenarians. While still comparatively rare, soon century-long lifespans won’t seem so special. Depending on where they live, people born in 2000 can expect to live for at least 100 years. Some scientists even believe that human life could be extended by an order of magnitude longer.
For years, the accepted view was that we had reached the outer limits of human longevity. Yet advances in technology, especially gene editing and regenerative medicine, mean that average life expectancies could be elongated to 150 years by the end of this century. Some of the central reasons we are living longer are because more children are surviving their first few years of life, fewer women are dying during childbirth and we are getting better at battling disease. Improvements in everything from medicine and lifestyles to the quality of nutrition and care has ameliorated health virtually everywhere.
The clearest indicator of this is global life expectancy at birth. For virtually the entire time Homo sapiens have inhabited this planet – give or take 200,000 years – life was short, often brutally so. Most humans lived on average 20 to 25 years. Then something extraordinary happened. Global life expectancy doubled in less than a century, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. The map reveals how average lifespans in 1960 were around 50 years. Today, the global average lifespan is closer to 71.5 years with dramatic improvements all over the world.
Not all lifespans moved ahead at the same speed. Because males are generally less healthy and adopt riskier habits than females, they tend not to live as long. Moreover, in a wealthy country such as Monaco, people live on average to 89, while in Chad, life expectancy is closer to 53. Although the upper age limit for humans continues to inspire debate and controversy, everyone agrees that we are on the precipice of a revolution in medicine.
Yet one of the biggest threats to long life – indeed to humanity – is climate change. While planetary temperatures have fluctuated over billions of years, the differences today are fourfold: temperatures are hotter than ever, changes are speeding up, they are lasting longer, and humans are mostly to blame. Already, about a third of the world’s population is exposed to deadly heat for 20 days or more each year. In India, 65 per cent of the population was exposed to heatwaves in 2019. If greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced, extreme heatwaves could threaten three-quarters of the global population by 2100. Put bluntly, the death toll from extreme heat could rise by more than 2,000 per cent within this century.
Global warming is accelerating because of spiralling greenhouse gas emissions. More CO2, NO2, methane and other noxious gasses were emitted over the past 30 years than in the previous 150. This is because we are burning more fossil fuels for energy, cutting down more forests for food, increasing meat consumption, and using more fertilizers and fluorinated gases than ever. Global warming is not just heating up land, it is also heating up the oceans. The world’s seas are dramatically warming and becoming less oxygen-rich, threatening marine ecosystems and the coastal communities that depend on them. An astonishing 200 species are disappearing every day and millions are threatened with extinction if temperatures continue rising.
Greenhouse gases are released not just by industrial emissions, but also by burning forests and grasslands. A whopping 32 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were released by forest fires in 2018, compared with 37 billion tonnes emitted by fossil fuel companies that same year. The figures for 2019 and 2020 are even higher. Historically, most fires were naturally occurring: They are a critical feature of the ecosystem since they consume dead vegetation, clear space for new fauna and reduce the density of plant life. But today, humans are the chief cause of large-scale wildfires around the world. The U.S. alone is being roasted by as many as 100,000 forest fires a year. About 80 per cent of the country’s 1.5 million forest fires since the 1990s were human-induced.
Greenhouse gas emissions are not just bad for the climate, they are bad for public health. Smoke contains tiny particles that penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation, asthma, respiratory illness and cancer. Ambient and indoor pollution from burning fossil fuels led to more than 8.8 million premature deaths in 2020, making it one of the world’s top killers. As the map shows, air pollution kills several times more people than wars, terrorism, murders and suicide combined. It is especially dangerous for people older than 65, whose risk of dying from cardiovascular causes increases dramatically when they are exposed to smoke, smog and dust.
Climate change is already banging down the front door. Radical mitigation and adaptation is needed, including a determined shift to a zero-carbon world. This can be achieved only by dramatically shifting away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.
In Terra Incognita, our goal is to help clarify what is happening around us, not just to enlighten, but to inspire action. Of course, maps are one tool among many to help us move toward greater insight and understanding.
For centuries, navigators have relied on a combination of methods – assessing the location of constellations and planets, observing the direction of the wind, interpreting their compasses and sextants, and drawing on local wisdom – to find their way to a destination. Maps can help give us safe passage, but we must not depend on them alone. Maps can help tell the story of our changing world – to make it terra cognita.