Updated: Jul 16, 2020
Keywords: Climate Change/Environment; Collapse; Civilization; Eco psychology; Extinction.
“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity”
- Limits to Growth (Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 1972, updated 2004)
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss gazes also into you.” Lately, this quote by Friedrich W. Nietzsche has been slowly and uninvitedly making its way into my conscious mind. What had always just been an influential passage by the philosopher, has now become a source of profound reflection.
Indeed, what could more appropriately be described as gazing long into the abyss than the emergent study of the ‘global systems death spiral’ (Dembicki, 2019), which might consign humanity to the fossil record, or at the very least, pull the plug on this civilization? Naturally, for both clarity and sanity sake, I will mainly restrict this examination to the latter case, at least when dissociation between civilizational collapse and human extinction is within the realm of possibility.
Moreover, and parallel to this analysis of civilizational collapse, I will delve into how humans are making sense and enduring the “new-normal” of both a climate and an ecological emergency (Dodson, 2019), which is causing people to question not just their existence but the ethics of bringing new humans into an uncertain future (Blum, 2020; Kirkey, 2019). Indeed, the new crisis shaping in our midst will be a mental-health one, as increasingly more cases of eco-anxiety, climate crisis grief, ecological grief are being diagnosed by psychotherapists, both in the general public and in those studying and communicating the issues (Woodbury, 2019; Clayton et al. 2017; Hickman, 2019; Buckley, 2019; Andrews, 2018; Frazen, 2019; Corn, 2019; Vince, 2020; Bendell, 2019).
In view of this, I myself have been struggling to confront the predicament of how to live with the threat of climate change in mind (Abegão, 2020), and what that means for the longevity of this civilizational project. As a result, one of the ways that I’ve found to best cope with the uncertainty and uneasiness of collapse, is to attempt to disentangle its complexity. For this reason, I’ve decided to contribute scientifically to the combination of areas involved in the byzantine quagmire that is the study of civilizational collapse. Owing to the nature and unfamiliarity of the subject, I’m treading lightly into this new frontier of knowledge with the intent to share it with others as to help alleviate some of the apprehension around it. As Margaret Fuller once remarked:
“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
It should come as no surprise that Homo sapiens is quickly becoming the harbinger of its own demise, due to a mixture of increased economic output and simple biological rules, which is to say that humanity’s appetite has grown too large to be sustained in a prolonged sense. The late American sociologist William R. Catton Jr. was quite possibly the one to better encapsulate this notion of limits and the “destructive momentum” of humanity, when he contributed to the book Life on the Brink (2012):
“Carrying capacity limits, too often unrecognized, mean that in any environment there is a rate or amount of resource use that cannot be exceeded without reducing the subsequent ability of that environment to sustain such use. Much human use of planet Earth has been in defiance of this principle, so twentieth-century population growth - and technological advances that enabled some Homo sapiens to develop huge resource appetites and impacts - turned the past human carrying capacity surplus into the present carrying capacity deficit […]
The cumulative biotic potential of the human species exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat.”
Evidently, Catton’s concept of the ‘cumulative biotic potential’ of H. sapiens is becoming all too conspicuous to ignore (Bar-On, Phillips & Milo, 2018). For one thing, these profoundly troubling signs of drivers and impacts, as they are addressed in the most recent World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency (Ripple et al. 2020), demonstrate how the combined effects from the multitudes of the poorest trying to get by (Hassan, Zaman & Gul, 2015; Watmough, Atkinson, Saikia & Hutton, 2016; Cheng et al. 2018; Abegão, 2019) and the hedonistic minority pursuing whimsical and nonessential cravings (Hubacek et al. 2017; Oxfam, 2015; Dietz, Rosa & York, 2007), are both accelerating the anthropogenic burden on Earth.
Regardless of its origin, both affluence and population play a pivotal and combined role (Liddle, 2013; Rosa, York & Dietz, 2004; Meadows, Meadows & Randers, 2005) in the deterioration of the natural world, as it was first described in the I(mpact) = P(opulation) x A(ffluence) x T(echnology) formula by Holdren and Ehrlich (1971).
Inasmuch as it is understood that people’s attitudes, behaviours, choices and practices (Shove, 2010), as well as the number of individuals exerting them, are acting as the drivers of environmental impact (Fan, Liu, Wu & Wei, 2006; Holdren, 2010; Mitchell, 2012; Mikkelson, 2019), there are still those whose claims run counter to what William Vogt once said that “affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem” (Reisert, 2019). For instance, when too much conviction is put on optimistic trends (Monbiot, 2018), heedless assurances on technology (Goklany, 2009) or over-confidence in the Environmental Kuznets Curve (Sarkodie & Strezov, 2018) (even though environmental pressure tends to rise with economic development (Aydin, Esen & Aydin, 2019; Bradshaw & Di Minin, 2019)).
Given these points, in this essay I want to take the discussion a step further, and argue beyond the waltz between Population and Affluence. Instead, I’ll be supporting the case that we ought to recognize civilization as a thermodynamic system (in the sense that it has its own societal metabolism (Fischer-Kowalski & Amann, 2001) and acts as part of the physical universe, therefore being constrained by global scale energetic flows and the conversion of environmental potential energy into some less available form (Garrett, 2011a; 2011b)), which entails that it will continue to transform available matter and energy for as long as conditions allow its ‘abiotic potential’ to be maximized. To clarify, physicist and professor of Atmospheric Sciences Tim Garrett explains (2011a):
“If civilization is considered at a global level, it turns out there is no explicit need to consider people or their lifestyles in order to forecast future energy consumption. At civilization’s core there is a single constant factor […] that ties the global economy to simple physical principles. Viewed from this perspective, civilization evolves in a spontaneous feedback loop maintained only by energy consumption and incorporation of environmental matter.”
I should reiterate what exactly I’m trying to communicate. I’m growing increasingly convinced that a civilization should be understood as a social-ecological system (SESs), much like cities have been (du Plessis, 2008; West, 2017). In other words, a civilization is a complex and adaptive system, consolidated across spheres of matter, which permits interaction across scales and levels of organization. Most importantly, is that it demonstrates the properties of persistence in its growth, much like a single energy-consuming organism. Owing to this, all organisms have an interface with environmental reservoirs, meaning that they will maintain a reorganization of potential environmental energy into another less usable form.
Under these circumstances, it could be understood that without an external shock a civilization will continue to grow unimpeded until some ‘limits to growth’ (Meadows et al. 2005; Turner & Alexander, 2020) are reached, or planetary boundaries are breached (Rockström et al 2009; Steffen et al. 2015). As a result of this inherent tendency for growth and transformation of the environment that is bound to meet some sort of threshold, a path towards systemic collapse emerges, which in principle can put an end to our civilizational project (Steffen et al. 2018; Harvey, 2020; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013; Ahmed, 2019; Bendell, 2018; Bendell, 2019), or perchance, bring about existential uncertainty by triggering global catastrophic risks (Conn, 2019; Kulhemann, 2019; Bostrom, 2013; Farquhar et al. 2017; Liu, Lauta & Maas, 2018).
For argument sake, it is at least required to provide an inspection into the science of climate change, as to measure how critical this threat is to our civilizational project.
“Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.”
- Rachel Carson
The year 2019 wrapped up a decade of abnormal global heat, with average temperatures for the ten-year period of 2010-2019 almost certainly being the highest on record (WMO, 2019a). Comparatively, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years were recorded since the year 2000 (IPCC, 2018). Additionally, the World Meteorological Organization has stated that the global average temperature in 2019 was about 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels (WMO, 2019b). These are aberrant data and trends.
Furthermore, the total carbon concentration in our atmosphere achieved 415 parts per million (ppm) in 2019 (WMO, 2019a) and on the 10th of February 2020, the all-time record was broken, with 416 ppm being recorded by the US’ National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (2020).
This is the highest level it has ever been in the last 4 million years, back when the Earth had global average temperatures roughly 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than today (Robinson, Dowsett & Chandler, 2008) and the sea levels might have reached about 25 meters higher (Dwyer & Chandler, 2009). This begs the question as to why our planet is responding in a different way, even when the physical conditions in our atmosphere are similar. In effect, the concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere is just one part of the picture, as a result, the ocean needs to be included as well.
By all means, there is a time lag between the heat that is being trapped in the atmosphere due to an enhanced greenhouse effect, and the subsequent change in global air temperature (as well as the tipping points of ecosystems). This time lag between concentrations of GHGs and the rise in atmospheric temperatures has been predicted by Hansen and colleagues (2005) to be roughly 40 years and oceans are partly responsible (Winton, Takahashi & Held, 2010; Abraham et al. 2013; Kuhlbrodt & Gregory, 2012; Goodwin, Williams & Ridgwell, 2015). The World Meteorological Organization (2019a) asserts:
“The ocean, which acts as a buffer by absorbing heat and carbon dioxide, is paying a heavy price. Ocean heat is at record levels and there have been widespread marine heatwaves. Sea water is 26 percent more acidic than at the start of the industrial era. Vital marine ecosystems are being degraded.”
Without a doubt “the oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming, and we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth,” one of the authors of Record-Setting Ocean Warmth Continued in 2019 (Cheng et al. 2020) published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, affirms (Fox, 2020). Michael E. Mann, co-author of the study also claims that “we found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated.”
To put it differently, climate change can crystallize itself in gradual environmental deterioration, such as the melting of polar ice caps and rising sea levels, heightened salinization of groundwater and soil, droughts and desertification and from altered precipitation levels. Or, it can also unfold as a pattern of abrupt disasters including storms and floods, heat waves, wildfires, windstorms, tropical cyclones, storm surges, extreme temperatures and landslides, or by health epidemics and insect outbreaks, directly associated to meteorological and hydrological circumstances (Guha-Sapir, Hoyois, Wallemacq & Below, 2017; Eckstein, Hutfils & Winges, 2018).
Markedly, the number of weather-related natural disasters has risen on all continents since 1980 (Heim, 2015). From 1970 to 2012 there were 8,835 disasters related to climate, of which 3496 took place between 2001 and 2010. All of them put together caused the deaths of 1.94 million lives and economic losses of US$ 2.4 trillion. Specifically, storms and floods accounted for 79 percent of the total number of disasters due to weather, water and climate extremes and accounted for 54 percent of deaths and 84 percent of economic losses. Moreover, droughts, caused 35 percent of deaths, mainly due to the severe African droughts of 1975, 1983 and 1984 (Eckstein et al. 2018).
Furthermore and specifically, 2018 witnessed chaotic weather events which cut production of grains and open-air vegetables by over twenty percent (Masante, Barbosa & McCormick, 2018), with a similar scenario taking shape in 2019 (Masante, Barbosa & Magni, 2019). In view of this, older models had assumed 2018 to be an anomalous year, even though other recent models are shifting that narrative (Xu, Ramanathan & Victor, 2019; UNDRR, 2019).
Under these circumstances, we can assume that the unpredictability and disturbance caused by climate change can become a menace to this civilization. In fact, historians have wondered how climate change has led to the collapse of previous civilizations in the past (Cullen et al. 2000; Medina-Elizalde & Rohling, 2012; Weiss et al. 1993; Haug et al. 2003; Douglas, Demarast, Brenner & Canuto, 2016; Ellenblum, 2012; Fagan, 2008; Diamond, 2005; Wiener, 2016), and how the cycle can repeat itself in our time, with greater magnitude and severity than ever before (Oreskes & Conway, 2013; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013). As Paul and Anne Ehrlich write in Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? (2013):
“[a collapse] could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization (Toon et al. 2007), to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities [...] No civilization can avoid collapse if it fails to feed its population […] Agriculture made civilization possible, but it has also created serious long-run vulnerabilities, especially in its dependence on stable climates, crop monocultures, industrially produced fertilizers and pesticides, petroleum, antibiotic feed supplements and rapid efficient transportation […] perhaps more critical, climate disruption may pose insurmountable biophysical barriers to increasing crop yields [for future population growth].”