Are We Teetering on Civilizational Collapse?

Apocalyptic proclamations are nothing new, and thus nowadays scarcely garner more than amusement or ridicule, if they’re even noticed at all. But with the world experiencing environmental calamity of unprecedented proportions amid mounting scientific and empirical evidence, it seems that warnings about ecologically-related disasters are worthy of more serious attention and consideration than most.

Consider a fairly recent NASA-sponsored* report by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center , which was written by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei in collaboration with a team of natural and social scientists. It not only concludes that modern civilization is doomed, but that the culprit is the entire fundamental structure and nature of our current global society — e.g. it will be no small task to rectify it.

As Tom McKay of PolicyMic further explains:

Analyzing five risk factors for societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy), the report says that the sudden downfall of complicated societal structures can follow when these factors converge to form two important criteria.

Motesharrei’s report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor].” This “Elite” population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the “Masses”, accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.

Elite power, the report suggests, will buffer “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing the privileged to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”

For most people, myself included, the solution lies in scientific innovation: the development of technologies that can reverse or at least mitigate the damage, whether it’s finding cleaner and more sustainable forms of energy, or developing machines that can absorb all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the report not only casts doubt on science’s ability to help, but goes further to suggest that such technological develops could make things worse:

“Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”

In other words, science and technology are neutral in this matter — they can only beneficial insofar as they’re applied that way. Any potential scientific gains will be outweighed by how they’re exploited to reinforce the existing overburdened system. If anything such development could even speed the collapse; for example, if we keep focusing on finding better ways to squeeze out more finite resources rather than begin the transition to more renewable and sustainable energies.

The worst-case scenarios predicted by the report are either sudden collapse due to famine or a longer-term breakdown of society due to the over-consumption of natural resources. As for the alternative:

The best-case scenario involves recognition of the looming catastrophe by Elites and a more equitable restructuring of society, but who really believes that is going to happen? Here’s what the study recommends in a nutshell:

The two key solutions are to reduce economic inequality so as to ensure fairer distribution of resources, and to dramatically reduce resource consumption by relying on less intensive renewable resources and reducing population growth.

These are great suggestions that will, unfortunately, almost certainly never be put into action, considering just how far down the wrong path our civilization has gone. As of last year, humans are using more resources than the Earth can replenish and the planet’s distribution of resources among its terrestrial inhabitants is massively unequal. This is what happened to Rome and the Mayans, according to the report.

Such solutions would require nothing short of a massive paradigm shift, which in turn would require tremendous public and political will across all segments of society, especially among the economic elites that have such tremendous influence on the system. But will we have the capacity and organization to make these changes, let alone in time to stay the collapse? Climate-change alone remains a fairly contentious and divisive topic despite its overwhelming scientific backing; even among nations whose policymakers acknowledge the problem to some degree, change is slow or incomplete.

Of course, all this assumes that people will actually take the report seriously. It is indeed largely theoretical, although as pointed out by Nafeez Ahmed at The Guardian, more solid research by groups such as KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science reach similar conclusions about the dangerous convergence food, water, and energy-scarcity. Is it worth the risk to not take action based on any potential doubts or uncertainties? Wouldn’t the necessary changes to avoid societal collapse — even if they were found to have been unnecessary to that end — nonetheless be beneficial in their own right anyway?

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions on the matter.

*NASA was utilized to provide research tools for the study, but it did not directly solicit, direct, or review the report, nor did it officially endorse the paper or its conclusions.

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One comment on “Are We Teetering on Civilizational Collapse?

  1. I think, most reasonably intelligent people will take them seriously. The problem lies in the idea we don’t have reasonably intelligent people in positions of power. What we have is people who do not look beyond their personal desires to the future, not even the future of their own descendants.

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