Collapse Print E-mail

For a minority of intellectuals and ordinary citizens, unimpressed by the likelihood of Techno Explosion or Techno Stability, the logical future seems to be some kind crisis leading to implosion and the collapse of civilisation. The old adage “what goes up must come down” still has some truth but several factors lead to people jumping to the conclusion that the Collapse scenario is inevitable without thinking about the possibilities of Descent.

Several factors lead to people jumping to the conclusion that the Collapse scenario is inevitable without thinking about the possibilities of Descent.Firstly there is a long tradition of millennialism in Judeo-Christian culture which periodically leads to predictions of the “end of the world as we know it” based on the idea that our current world is fundamentally flawed in some way. The simplicity and mostly incorrect nature of these past predictions suggest caution when considering current predictions of doom. The fable of the “boy who cried wolf” is sometimes cited to suggest current concerns are also false alarms. But this history also has the effect of inoculating society against considering the evidence. Exposure to a small dose of millennialism leads to resistance to the effects of larger doses. Ironically, the point of the fable is that the threat of the wolf is real but that no one takes any notice because of past false alarms.

Ironically the point of the “boy who cried wolf” fable is that the threat of the wolf is real but that no one takes any notice because of past false alarms. Another factor reinforcing this tendency of some to believe in Collapse is the rapid rate of recent cultural change and the very short term perspective of modern people despite the huge increase in knowledge about the distant past.  Life in cities and suburbs, surrounded by technology and sustained by reliable income and debt is "normal" for many people in affluent counties, even though these features only emerged in the latter half of the 20th century. If future change were to sweep away this way of life, many people would see this as “the end of civilisation” even if these changes were quite modest from an historical perspective. For example, a return to the conditions of the Great Depression is clearly not "the end of civilisation"  but the idea that any downturn from the current peak of affluence represents  "the end of civilisation", is quite widely assumed. Perhaps this reflects the egocentric nature of modern mentality where we consider our own survival and well being as being more important than was perhaps felt by past generations. It may also be interpreted as an intuitive recognition that this peak of affluence, like peak oil, is a fundamental turning point that will break the illusion of the, more or less, continuous arrow of growth and progress into the distant future. 

There is substantial evidence that current, let alone projected human populations cannot be sustained without fossil fuels. The concept of overshoot in animal carrying capacity has been used by population ecologists to model past and potential future collapses in human populations.10 There is substantial evidence that current, let alone projected human populations cannot be sustained without fossil fuels. Historical evidence from the Black Death and other pandemics show that societies can survive significant die-off in human numbers even if they do go through great setbacks and changes as a result. Because human systems are now global in scope and integration, the more limited regional collapse of economies and civilisations in the past is not necessarily a model of the scale, intensity and likely recovery from any global collapse. Also these societies were less complex with less specialisation of critical functions. It is possible that loss of critical numbers of engineers, technologists, medical specialists or even large scale farmers in a pandemic could cause modern industrial society to collapse very rapidly.

...but the best documented historical case, that of the Roman empire, suggests a more gradual and less complete decline process.The consideration of collapse has been strongly influenced by some ecological historians such as Catton, Diamond and Tainter. While Catton emphasises the concept of overshoot leading to severe collapse, Diamond emphasises the aspect of societal myopia leading to unnecessary collapse. Tainter provides a systemic view of how failure of energy capture strategies leads to decline in complexity that can play out over centuries. In turn, the conditions for ordinary people may actually improve when the resources devoted maintaining societal complexity are freed for meeting more basic needs. While all these perspectives and understanding are useful, I think the all-encompassing use of the term collapse is too broad a definition and inconsistent with our normal understanding of the term as a rapid and complete process. Historical examples of relatively complete and/or sudden civilisational collapse from the Minoans in the eastern Mediterranean to Mayans in Mexico are potential models for what could happen to global industrial civilisation. The best documented historical case, that of the Roman empire and Greco-Roman civilisation more broadly, suggests a more gradual and less complete decline process.

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Ruins from the massive earthquake that devastated Valdivia Chile in 1960 now a wetland conservation zone. Click image for more commentary

I don’t want to underplay the possibility of a total and relatively fast global collapse of complex societies that we recognise as civilisation. I think this is a substantial risk but the total collapse scenario tends to lead to fatalistic acceptance or alternatively, naïve notions of individual or family survivalist preparations. Similarly, the Collapse scenario is so shocking that it reinforces the rejection by the majority of even thinking about the future, thus increasing the likelihood of very severe energy descent, if not total collapse. Perhaps a majority of people think civilisational collapse is inevitable but think or hope that it won’t happen in their lifetime. A more realistic assessment of the possibilities and adaptive responses to the Collapse long term scenario is only possible after a deep and nuanced understanding of the diverse possibilities and likelihoods of the Energy Descent long term scenario.

Next page: 2.2.3 Energy Descent; The Ignored Scenario  

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 13 August 2008 )