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Page added on May 26, 2013

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Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

General Ideas
Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of
socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline
in population size [1]. Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered
from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the
Classic Maya, were apparently permanent [1,2]. All those previous collapses
were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted
unaffected. Sometimes, as in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, new civiliza-
tions rose in succession. In many, if not most, cases, overexploitation of the
environment was one proximate or an ultimate cause [3].
But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide,
increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to
one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of
environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince
Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’ [4], facing what the
UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of
environmental problems [5]. The most serious of these problems show signs
of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements
could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of
animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosys-
tem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use
change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and
eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological
environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious
diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially
groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas [8];
and resource wars [9]. These are not separate problems; rather they interact
in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the
human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions
are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ [10], and determining how to
prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps theforemost challenge
confronting humanity.
The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of
natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging tech-
nologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service
Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption [11–17]. How far the human population size now is
above the planet’s long-term carrying capacity is suggested (conservatively)
by ecological footprint analysis [18–20]. It shows that to support
today’s population of seven billion sustainably (i.e. with business as usual, including current
technologies and standards of living) would require roughly half an additional
planet; to do so, if all citizens of Earth consumed resources at the US level
would take four to five more Earths. Adding the projected 2.5 billion more
people by 2050 would make the human assault on civilization’s life-support
systems disproportionately worse, because almost everywhere
people face systems with nonlinear responses [11,21–23], in
which environmental damage increases at a rate that becomes
faster with each additional person. Of course, the claim is often
made that humanity will expand Earth’s carrying capacity dra-
matically with technological innovation [24], but it is widely
recognized that technologies can both add and subtract from
carrying capacity. The plough evidently first expanded it and
now appears to be reducing it [3]. Overall, careful analysis
of the prospects does not provide much confidence that tech-
nology will save us [25] or that gross domestic product can
be disengaged from resource use [26].
Royal Society [PDF]


16 Comments on "Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?"

  1. BillT on Sun, 26th May 2013 11:41 am 

    “The human predicament is driven by”… GREED! Especially in the Western countries. The EX-Empires of old who lived off of the plunder of the colonies. Now, there are no more colonies to plunder and even Mother Earth is saying, “ENOUGH!”.

    So, yes, we are speeding towards our own extinction and will not turn from the path until it is too late to do so. Some think we have already passed the turn back point decades ago, but certainly by now.

    Technology is both boon and bane, and we were too stupid to use it wisely. As I said before, we could have been going to the stars. Instead we go to Walmart.

  2. Malarchy on Sun, 26th May 2013 12:37 pm 

    The short answer is “No”. What arrogance to assume we are different to any other civilization. The only question is whether we slowly poison/starve ourselves, or will Gaia rid herself of the pesky humans with a quick injection of stardust. Comet Ison is less than a year away: could be interesting! (Chinese style)

  3. Kenz300 on Sun, 26th May 2013 1:02 pm 

    Quote — “The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of
    natural resources and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging tech-
    nologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service
    Homo sapiens’ aggregate consumption [11–17]”
    ————————

    Worst Environmental Problem? Overpopulation, Experts Say

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090418075752.htm

  4. dsula on Sun, 26th May 2013 2:12 pm 

    BillT: “GREED in Western countries.”

    This is simply WRONG. Everybody tries to get as much as they can and then some more. EVERYBODY. That’s why the US is full of Mexicans, because they want more than they can get in mexico. That’s why BillT moved to Manila, because he can get MORE with his meager US retirement check than he could get back home. That’s why every negro who knows where north is tries to cross the Mediterranean to Lampedusa. They want MORE.

  5. rollin on Sun, 26th May 2013 3:31 pm 

    Who cares about global civilization, it is not necessary or helpful, the trend is toward totalitarianism even in the so called free nations.
    What is needed is local action to start making positive changes to the environment instead of negative changes. If people get busy making positive changes they won’t have time to destroy the environment.
    Remember, all those industries that wreck the planet cease to exist if we stop buying their stuff.

    Maybe those stuffed shirts in the royal academy should start showing people how to rebuild their environments instead of regurgitating the nastiness we already know about.

  6. Billc on Sun, 26th May 2013 4:21 pm 

    “This is the end, my beautiful friend the end, no safety no surprise the end”

    “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper”

  7. Plantagenet on Sun, 26th May 2013 5:52 pm 

    Of course technology can prevent collapse.

    We have the technology to reduce population growth and resource consumption right now. What we don’t have is the political will.

  8. Dmyers on Sun, 26th May 2013 6:08 pm 

    The article rightly points out that we are in uncharted territory.

    “Virtually every past civilization has eventually undergone collapse, a loss of
    socio-political-economic complexity usually accompanied by a dramatic decline in population size [1]. Some, such as those of Egypt and China, have recovered from collapses at various stages; others, such as that of Easter Island or the Classic Maya, were apparently permanent [1,2]. All those previous collapses were local or regional; elsewhere, other societies and civilizations persisted unaffected…” [current article, 1st paragraph]

    A point worth pondering. Our gauge and guide for collapsed civilizations is based on what we recognize as discrete instances of collapse. Western Civilization, the most advanced and complex yet, is now everywhere, even in the East. Whether fully Westernized or not, the whole world has by now drunk the poison of the West and for that has assumed its worst deformities, which no doubt include the seeds of its demise.

    The civilization that now stands in line to collapse is global, not local. The whole thing goes down. Nothing left standing to pick up the slack, other than the uncivilized.

  9. DC on Sun, 26th May 2013 6:43 pm 

    Complex systems have immense social political inertia in them that make them very resistant to change.Its almost like to trying to deliberately alter the course of a mountain range. I can see this inertia at work over the course of my life so far. Very little has actually changed despite the constant hoopla about what a high-tech nirvana we live in. With the singular exception of the internet, the world I see outside my window looks identical to as it did in the 1980’s, the 1990’s and the 00’s. IoW, if ‘tech’ is going to make the world a better place, I keep asking myself, when is it going to get started on that?

    Because so far, nothing has remotely improved. Gas-powered cars still spew there poison in ever greater numbers, populations, even in’ low-denisty’ Canada and Australia etc are going only one way-up. Sprawl and corporate big-boxes are everywhere, even in small backwaters now. Toxic spills, adulterated food and water are the norm-even in the ‘rich’ countries.

    So again I ask, when is ‘tech’ going to get started on the job of cleaning up the mess corporate rule has created?

    Maybe it get started in 2020 sometime…..

  10. Newfie on Sun, 26th May 2013 7:01 pm 

    Every species in Nature utilizes energy and resources at the maximum rate possible and multiplies exponentially. Humans are behaving the same as yeast multiplying in a vat of grape juice. And the final outcome will be similar. We will exhaust the energy and resource supply and our population will crash.

  11. Jerry McManus on Sun, 26th May 2013 7:44 pm 

    @Newfie

    Well said, thank you. I would just add that in addition to exhausting energy and resources our species will also suffer the consequences of our own pollution, which in the case of the yeast is alcohol.

    Pollution, overpopulation, resource depletion, ecocide…

    In a race to the bottom it’s hard to say which of the four horsemen will take first place.

  12. GregT on Sun, 26th May 2013 8:02 pm 

    The Native peoples of the West Coast of Canada believed that they were stewards of the land. They took only what they needed, and did not believe that the Earth was their property to exploit and destroy. They understood the balance of nature, and their responsibility in maintaining that balance.

    Western GREED destroyed those indigenous cultures, their ideologies, and yes, even the very ecosystems that are necessary to sustain life.

    So the question should not be; ‘Will our societies collapse?’, but rather, ‘Will the very ecosystems that sustain human life on this planet collapse?’ It is looking more likely everyday that they will not, and when they collapse, they will take human existence on this planet with them into extinction.

  13. J-Gav on Sun, 26th May 2013 8:42 pm 

    Answer to the article’s question – probably not. New question: what does ‘collapse’ mean? Extinction or ‘only’ serious ‘down-sizing’? There may still be some room for maneuver there but the window is shrinking with every passing month.

    GregT – I think I understand what you wanted to say in that last paragraph but it didn’t come out quite like you meant – happens to all of us …

  14. BillT on Mon, 27th May 2013 12:12 am 

    dsula and plant are obvious techies. Of course it’s GREED. There are people who do NOT live lives of acquisition and waste. Many of the billions NOT indoctrinated by the West.

  15. GregT on Mon, 27th May 2013 12:53 am 

    “We have the technology to reduce population growth and resource consumption right now. What we don’t have is the political will.”

    We don’t need ‘technology’ to reduce population growth, resource consumption, environmental degradation or species extinction. All we need to do is stop using human technology voluntarily, or wait for natural limits to stop our technologies for us.

    The Earth doesn’t really care which way we stop, and it doesn’t particularly care whether we are in it’s future or not. That is our decision to make, and we need to choose wisely, very soon.

  16. Gates outcast on Mon, 27th May 2013 5:30 am 

    Bill T: I love your quote. We were at the crossroads between giving our kids the stars, instead we are retuning them back to the cave.

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