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].”
It is no longer possible to discard these concerns as simply the fumes of fancy of a few alarmists, since the precursors of collapse are becoming more evident and the world’s most authoritative organizations are declaring one emergency after the next. For a fact, in 2019 alone, the UN’s top echelon organizations issued reports attesting to the distress that the natural world is facing and how a crisis of biodiversity is being linked with human food security (FAO, 2019; IPBES, 2019). At the same time, the UN’s leading organization on disaster risk, released a statement that the weather variability would definitely threaten future food supply (UNDRR, 2019). Alternatively, the 2019 Global Risks Report declared that the top three most likely hazards to occur, were all climate-related (WEF, 2019).
In spite of all the mounting and disheartening evidence that climate change is advancing unhampered, with calamitous reverberations for both the natural world and human civilization, there is still reticence of the scientific community to present an alarming facade, or the fact that researchers are not encouraged to think and research beyond their individual expertise areas, which makes it all much harder to “join the dots” and translate the implications for human societies (Read, 2018a; Bendell, 2019).
Provided that societal collapse can be interpreted as “likely, inevitable or unfolding” (Bendell, 2019b), due to – not solely - the effects of climate change, this should not be regarded as a doom-and-gloom- scenario, but more of a wake-up call to reality, so we start going beyond mere mitigation, and start focusing as well on a deep adaptation (Bendell, 2018).
Indeed, much has been done on the mitigation front in the last couple of decades (Aaron-Morrison et al. 2017), and in climate and carbon management, which includes awareness, policies and innovation (Flannery, 2015). But that simply isn’t slowing down this juggernaut (Hersher, 2019). Humans must prepare themselves for a precarious future, one in which it is quite possible that our entire societal archetype has to be relinquished and where something else must take its place. Up next, an examination of the deliberations of those struggling to understand the meaning and the science of civilizational collapse.
First and foremost, a disclaimer is required. It is an unfortunate recognition that the scientific field of collapse is still in its embryonic stage. Of course, this can be explained by the fact that it is a profoundly interdisciplinary science that embodies the astonishingly complex, co-dependent natural systems that make up the Earth’s System, on top of having to comprehend how those systems interact the intricate and interconnected social, political, economic and cultural systems that humanity has erected (Ahmed, 2019). It is also a scientific field hungry for data and scientific rigor (Dembicki, 2019). Nevertheless, a number of world leading experts claim that civilizational collapse is by far more plausible than customarily assumed, which means that it must be explored and advanced, if possible.
In This Civilization is Finished – Conversations on the End of Empire – and what lies beyond (Read & Alexander, 2019), Read defines “civilization” as the “hegemonic civilization of globalized capitalism – sometimes called ‘Empire’ – which today governs the vast majority of life on Earth.” Read considers that humanity faces three distinct scenarios which ultimately lead him to argue that this civilization cannot last:
This civilization could collapse utterly and terminally. Climate instability and extreme events could precipitate widespread and rampant food-shortages, nuclear war, pandemics, or financial crisis can create mass civil breakdown and a downgrading in complexity. Either climate instability or ecological breakdown can conceivably trigger a civilizational collapse.
This civilization seeds a future successor-civilization(s).
This civilization will somehow manage to transform itself, by an intentional, radical, swiftly and in an unheard-of effort to fend off collapse
Evidently, the third option would be the most alluring, merely because either the first or the second would encompass an increase in human suffering as well as death on an unparalleled scale (Rees, 2019a). Considering the first option, the risk of the human species becoming extinct is credible, whereas in the second option, multiple mega deaths could become a reality (Morgan, 2009; Tonn, 2009; Lopes et al. 2009; Carpenter & Bishop, 2009; Bendell, 2018; Wallace-Wells, 2019). Comparatively, there has been virtually no discussion by the environmental movement on any option but the third, when the real prospect of attaining such a state is, arguably, nothing short of a delusion at this point (Read, 2018a).
By all means, we require an open dialogue on the likely materialization of both scenarios. To reiterate, scenario (1) comprises a concomitant fallout from either natural (ecological and climatic breakdown) or human systems (downgrading complexity/loss of global institutions), which would generate a civilizational collapse that might or might not bring about the extinction of humanity by profound alterations to the habitability of the planet or the disintegration of global institutions. Scenario (2) includes a circumstance in which this civilization has capitulated but human life is still able to thrive to the point of erecting one or more heir civilizations (Read, 2018c). However, for that to happen, we need a new imaginary, as in, inter alia (Earle, 2017):
“The cultural world of a particular actual society; the internal dynamics of particular systems within certain societies; projected future scenarios; and the comprehensive nexus of beliefs, practices and institutions that collectively comprise the entire web of society per se.”
To put it another way, this is as much as saying that we require a new meta-narrative, a renewed set of values, ethics and philosophy on which to base a progeny-civilization upon. Such a successor needs to be imagined and we need to learn to imagine how to imagine this metamorphosis (Read, 2018c). To conceive and carry out such a profound change of paradigm, as Machiavelli once wrote, can be the most arduous of tasks:
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies […] and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”
Nonetheless, we must be mindful that if this civilization collapses, the world in which a successor civilization could arise would not be the same that we have today. The conditions that lead to societal collapse will likely have such a profound and lasting effect, that human existence might be imperiled, or at the very least, large-scale cooperation cannot be taken as a given. To demonstrate, a world with an unstable climate, or with ravaged ecosystems (decreasing carrying capacity of environs in the process) could very likely constrict the size of the human population, to a point in which our geographical range would cease to be global and become much more dispersed. Moreover, scarcity of resources, permanent conflict for their possession and waves of migration would make the project of a scion civilization much harder to accomplish (Read, 2018c). Still, that is the world we are walking into, and it is crucial that we prepare this lifeboat.
The power of disagreement in science should not be underscored (Nature Methods, 2016). In effect, scientists are proven wrong many times, but it is vital to emphasize that those who point out their blunders are, most of the time, other scientists. This is because the scientific method and the institution of science only advance when peers profoundly disagree in their interpretation of the data and come up with different hypotheses and conclusions. Under these circumstances, scientists should remain intellectually humble regarding one’s long held convictions, because they might just be wrong (Resnick, 2019). And that is okay. That is how we have found progress.
The same principle applies to collapse science, since I’ve already mentioned that it is a nascent interdisciplinary field which is definitely open to interpretation. In this segment I’ll review some of the criticisms both in support and against the more mainstream literature emerging on this field.
Some preeminent publications have been making the rounds on the subject of civilizational collapse. The two most in vogue have been Jem Bendell’s paper Deep Adaptation (Bendell, 2018), which has been downloaded roughly 600,000 times (Bendell, 2019; Ahmed, 2019) and The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (Wallace-Wells, 2019), which has become a New-York Times Bestseller (Wallace-Wells, 2020).
Particularly, both of these publications have argued that option (1) is well within the realm of possibility, although with specific differences to Read’s thesis, which appears more prudent and pragmatic, on a couple of very specific points. Specifically, Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future (2019) is afflicted by other conditions.
First off, Wallace-Wells does not recognize the feasibility of leaving behind a successor-civilization if this one ends up failing. Furthermore, Wallace-Wells is in a strange place of nearly unfounded optimism, as he appears convinced that this current civilization can be salvaged and maintained in a state similar to what we have today even if we manage to tweak it by major adjustments (Read & Alexander, 2019). That notion in itself seems contradictory, much like the allegory of the Ship of Theseus and the paradox of identity that it unveils. In detail, this thought exercise postulates that if all of the wooden planks of the original ship were to be replaced by new ones, could one still hold the ship to be the same as the original (Perry, 2018)?
The same question could be put forward regarding what Wallace-Wells appears to be advocating. Assuming we can change our civilization so dramatically in order to transition into a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative paradigm, would the end result resemble anything like the lifestyle and conduct present generations have grown accustomed to? Highly unlikely. Much more reasonable would be that the cheap and rampant availability of fossil fuels has allowed current and preceding generations to enjoy a state of prosperity which will hardly ever be replicated again.
Coupled with this, other experts have pitched in (Read, Foster & Bendell, 2019; Foster, 2019) with some critics of their own to The Uninhabitable Earth. One of the main points of contention lies in the fact that Wallace-Wells appears convinced that since humans engineered the climate mess we find ourselves in, that means we must engineer a way out of it. This argument feeds the hubristic narrative that technology will always be there to solve our behavior, and that no major transition or deep adaptation will be needed. Wallace-Wells also appears unwilling to grant that an uninhabitable Earth and a majorly-reformed civilization won’t impact our sheer human numbers. Once again, it sounds extremely implausible that already fragile populations won’t suffer dreadfully to the point of having several mega-death episodes (Read & Alexander, 2019; Rees, 2019a).
Equally important, Michael Mann, whose reputation as a climate scientist is virtually unsurpassed, and who has been eviscerated by climate deniers, has criticized (Climate Feedback, 2017) the predictions of David Wallace-Wells’s Uninhabitable Earth, as follows:
“The article paints an overly bleak picture by overstating some of the science. It exaggerates for example, the near-term threat of climate “feedbacks” involving the release of frozen methane (the science on this is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming).
Also, I was struck by erroneous statements like this one referencing “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.” That’s just not true.
The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must content with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”
Mann was joined by other reputable scientists in examining the scientific credibility of Wallace-Wells’ claims, but for brevity's sake I’ll leave the reference here instead of reproducing their comments (Climate Feedback, 2017). In contrast to Wallace-Well’s criticism, Bendell has brought about a much more fatalistic narrative and the need for utter and agonizing change. Because of that he has also drawn much fierier objection and commentary.
For instance, Bendell asserts that societal collapse is considered “inevitable.” Scientifically speaking, it is challenging to ascribe certainty to any allegation, which is why, I share Read’s reluctance to adopt the term inevitable (Read, 2018b; Read, 2019), and instead advocate for something like a positive assurance of the likelihood of such an event.
Equally important, Jeremy Lent, systems theorist and author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017), acknowledges “a similar heartbreak at the unfolding catastrophe our world is experiencing” (2019), however finds it a faulty reasoning to slip between the terms “inevitable,” “probable” and “likely” as if they were interchangeable. Lent tells Vice (Ahmed, 2019) that:
“If he chooses to go with his gut instinct and conclude collapse is inevitable, he has every right to do so, but I believe it’s irresponsible to package this as a scientifically valid conclusion, and thereby criticize those who interpret the data otherwise as being in denial.”
Lent (2019) goes on to add that:
“Quite honestly, I was disappointed by the lack of academic rigor in Jem’s arguments. I greatly appreciate that his article has galvanized many people who were previously numb to the climate crisis, but if I were a reviewer on his academic committee, I would also have rejected it for publication—not because of its “alarmist” character, but simply because it doesn’t adhere to academic standards by constantly jumping from factual evidence to personal opinion without clarifying the distinction.”
On a different note, Bendell also stands by the affirmation that such an event of collapse is ‘near-term,’ with his upper-bound being located at 2028 (Bendell, 2018). Again, the question of too much firmness and specificity in one’s claims should raise some alarms, as Carl Sagan once remarked, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” In effect, we ought to be cautious of drawing on too much certainty as it might just be beyond all human knowledge and capabilities to predict the future in such precise manner. As Read contends, it is as hubristic of humans to think they can rise over and control nature, as it is in making overconfident forecasts of the future (Read, 2018b), even if these are grounded in the scientific method.
By the same token, even if the subject is as critical and pressing as the collapse of human civilization, scientists should resist the enticement of setting dates on events, because that hasn’t worked particularly well in the past (we need to go no further than Road to Survival, Limits to Growth or The Population Bomb to see how critics have undermined decades of potential positive action when explicit conjectures did not come to pass (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2009)). After all, mainstream thought welcomes the overconfidence in pessimist scenarios, because when the dates arrive and scenarios are described as wrong-headed prophecies (Smith, 2018) it ends up creating a feeling of false-security and complacency, leading people to focus on optimistic trends and disregard the negative ones, causing more harm than good (Clark et al. 2000).
On the other hand, and understandably, there are those who refute Bendell’s claims outright. For example, Michael E. Mann considers the Deep Adaptation paper to be deeply flawed and a “perfect storm of misguidedness and wrongheadedness.” In Mann’s own words, “[Bendell is] wrong on the science and impacts: There is no credible evidence that we face ‘inevitable near-term collapse” (Ahmed, 2019).
Still and all, there is one disagreement I find with Mann’s communication of the science. He has repeatedly stated on Twitter (Mann, 2017; 2019) his antagonism with the “doom-and-gloom” narrative, to the point of blocking users that convey such a message. I consider this to be a faulty behavior not just for a scientist but for a communicator of science as well, because as I explore further down this document, there are many people now trying to cope with climate anxiety and ecological grief, and the solution cannot be to just shut the door on dialogue and debate. Such a demeanor should not be compatible with the institution of science and claiming that “I’m quite CERTAIN that doomers are a destructive force in our current public discourse over climate change,” (Mann, 2019) is an improper way of dealing with uncertainty and intellectual humility.
Getting back to the critical assessment of Deep Adaptation. Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies also asserts that the “evidence for ‘inevitable societal collapse’ is very weak to non-existent.” Schmidt concedes that we are likely to witness more instances of local collapse events in certain regions, but that it is far-fetched to make the case at a global level (Ahmed, 2019).
On the contrary, in consonance with Wolfgang Knorr, Principal Investigator at Lund University’s Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in a Changing Climate Program, the risk of near-term collapse is being underestimated and possibly miscalculated, given the fact that climate tipping points are an area filled with uncertainty, which means that climate scientists should take the matter more vigorously. Knorr conveys that the premise of collapse in Bendell’s arguments will come from accelerating failures in the global food system and that the trigger will be due to (Ahmed, 2019):
“An uneven ending of our normal modes of sustenance, security, pleasure, identity, meaning and hope […] I am not saying that Bendell is right or wrong. But the criticism of Bendell’s points focuses too much on the detail and in that way studiously tries to avoid the bigger picture. The available data points to the fact that some catastrophic climate change is inevitable.”
Contemporary cases of local and regional collapse such as those that triggered the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising and the protracted conflict in Syria have been linked with climate-induced phenomena, which have heightened socio-political and economic problems that led to massive food insecurity (De Châtel, 2014; Kelley et al. 2015; Serra, 2015; Merchant, 2014; Gleick, 2014). For instance, the Syrian conflict has been argued (Ahmed, 2017) to have a multitude of intersecting factors – like declining oil exports – besides an unstable climate which induced a spike in food prices, prompting the state to cut domestic fuel and food subsidies. This, on top of a massive unemployed youth bulge created by unrestrained population growth, since Syria’s population climbed from four million in the 1950s to 18.5 million at the time of the eruption in conflict (UNPD, 2019).
Consequently, these should be taken as samples of what Professor Thomas-Homer Dixon, from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment, has characterized in his book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creative and the Renewal of Civilization (2006) as “synchronous failures.” According to Dixon, when a collective of interwoven pressures amplify over time before provoking self-reinforcing feedback loops, the resulting consequence is a crisis overwhelmed by discordant political, economic and administrative functions, which have not been devised for such complex events (Ahmed, 2019; Dembicki, 2019). Therefore, Syria could be considered a case-study sample of how a systems collapse can materialize, on a local to regional scale, and even global if the impacts are pervasive and inescapable.
As I’ve argued recently in Hunger Games: How to Feed a Growing Population Without Turning the Planet into a Human Factory (Abegão & Silva, 2020), food insecurity is only increasing as the number of people in a malnourished and stunted condition continues to rise unabated. Challenges to feed a growing human population will continue to pile up as more of the natural world is transformed and replaced to make way for agriculture, pastures and commodity crops. Together with this, as I’ve written in Where the Angels Fear to Tread (Abegão, 2019), with the concomitant effects from ecological degradation and climate chaos, unprecedented numbers of people will be uprooted and seek a better life somewhere else, with the clear and unfortunate effect of destabilizing social order where they manage to settle. As the author and climate expert Joseph Romm has stated (Harris, 2017):
“If the planet warmed 2ºC and stopped we would probably adapt. It wouldn’t mean that probably two billion people wouldn’t have to move, and these numbers of climate refugees would be a catastrophe. We saw how 2-3 million refugees from Syria turned global politics upside down.”
Alternatively, as Jeff Goodell put it in The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (2017):
[Such a rise in sea-level would] “Create generations of climate refugees that would make the Syrian war refugee crisis look like a high school drama production.”
In any event, if current climate data is reliable, even a business-as-usual trajectory, where humanity would maintain ‘current policies’ (figure 8) (meaning between 3.0 to 3.4º degrees Celsius increase in temperatures above pre-industrial levels and no effect from feedback loops), the Dawe Global Security Model (Natalini, Bravo & Jones, 2019) points to a scenario in which:
“The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption.”
Comparatively, the UN’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2019) declares that a “projected increase in extreme climate events and an increasingly interdependent food supply system pose a threat to global food security,“ making “local shocks have far-reaching effects on global agricultural markets.” Not to mention, that the UN’s report claims that the models they have been using have been consistently not too alarmist and too conservative, only now becoming aware of how bad the situation is shaping up to be (Oreskes, Oppenheimer & Jamieson, 2019). Scott Williams, the lead author of the UN’s report puts it in a very forthright way (Ahmed, 2019):
“In a nutshell, Bendell is closer to the mark than his critics.”
Under these circumstances, an article published in the journal Agricultural Systems (Gaupp, Hall, Mitchell & Dadson, 2019), has forewarned that the expected rise in global average temperatures is magnifying the likelihood of “production shocks,” leading to cascading effects in our interconnected global food system. In detail, the researchers caution that surpassing the 1.5ºC threshold could already prompt major “production losses” of millions of tonnes of maize, wheat and soybean. Together with this, even the conservative IPCC body claims that the 1.5ºC threshold can be hit as soon as 2030 and we are on track to quite a lot more than that (Ahmed, 2018).
Regardless, the point that needs to become clear is that my intent is in demonstrating that the data is extremely complex, and subject to different interpretation, even among the world-leading researchers and experts on climate science. This isn’t about taking sides, it’s about intellectual honesty. In respect to Bendell’s Deep Adaptation, his focus on the key aspects of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration, might just be what we need for this new 'imaginary' (Earle, 2017):
“[Deep Adaptation] involves building resilience, both physical and psychological, learning to relinquish long held-beliefs and aspirations, and the attempted restoration of attitudes and practices which our carbon-fueled way of life has so dangerously eroded, while recognising the certainty that the civilization which has brought us to this situation, is finished” (Read, Foster & Bendell, 2019).
“There is infinite hope, only not for us.”
- Franz Kafka
Although the goal to rein in dangerous climate change has been clear for at least three decades (the science goes even before that (Rich, 2018)), there has been little to no progress, despite noble and valiant efforts by many parties and individuals (Hersher, 2019). Owing to this, the science has reached a point of being irrefutable, and with that the message that if one is younger than sixty, they have a good change of testifying to the radical destabilization of life on the planet (Kolbert, 2019) – crashing economies, uncontrollable fires, biblical flooding, massive crop failures or hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions that no longer provide safety or sustenance. If one is under thirty, they are all but assured to be witnesses to these events (Frazen, 2019).
It is 2020, and in the last thirty years alone humans have used half of all fossil fuels and emitted as much atmospheric carbon as in two whole centuries (Franzen, 2019; Saxifrage, 2019). If thirty years ago the message to “save the planet” bore any substance, it has certainly withered with time, as we should be under no illusions that it will either stall or decrease in the coming years.
Given these points, the question that we should be asking ourselves is not “how could this have happened?” but “how could it not?” For starters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the notion of ‘sustainable growth’ has been nothing more than an oxymoron, seeing that we cannot enjoy both economic growth and environmental sustainability. In detail, there seems to be no empirical evidence to support the existence of material decoupling connected to economic growth, from the environmental pressures created by it (Parrique et al. 2019; Wallace-Wells, 2019). Actually, global resource consumption continues to skyrocket, having just reached 100 billion tonnes of material a year (Benson, 2020).
Furthermore, the idea that this civilization could transition to a new transformative stage without fossil fuels is nothing short of a delusion, unsupported by evidence. A look at figure 10 tells a completely different story, since the fossil fuel share of global energy has only diminished by a few percentage points in several decades, while the “absolute fossil fuel use” has only been increasing every year. This is no hint of climate progress, it is exactly the opposite (Saxifrage, 2019).
The reality is that the human population keeps on increasing, that every new arrival wants to move up the affluence ladder (roughly half the population is now middle class or higher and about 160 million people are joining the ranks of the middle class each year (Wang, 2018)), and that the cheap and widespread availability of fossil fuels was what made this civilization and this population grow in the first place. If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, this civilization (and our human population) will - irrevocably - crash (2019a; Rees, 2019b; 2019c).
James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter, writes for The Conversation (2019):
“One explanation for your collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. The system is called the technosphere (Haff, 2014) […] Humans consume. In the first instance, we must eat and drink in order to maintain our metabolism, to stay alive. Beyond that, we need shelter and protection from physical elements [in the technosphere] the purpose of humans is to consume products and services. The more we consume, the more materials will be extracted from the Earth, and the more energy resources consumed, the more factories and infrastructure built. And ultimately, the more the technosphere will grow.”
In like manner, as Tim Watkins writes in What Extinction Rebellion is Getting Wrong (2019):
"The sad reality is that we are all prisoners of the very system that is killing us; dependent upon it for the food, water, clothing and shelter that sustain us even as it destroys the habitat we depend upon. We could end it tomorrow if only the majority of us chose to stop playing the game; but the sacrifice is too great… and few of us are prepared to take the hit while others continue to get a free pass."
To this extent, what are people supposed to do with this knowledge? Should we continue to shy away from some harsh truths (Rees, 2019b), while we enjoy the remaining days of a slightly harmonious Holocene in denial, by hoping that catastrophe is preventable but getting frustrated by the inaction of humanity, or should we embrace the authenticity of the Sword of Damocles that hovers above our heads, and start rethinking what it means to be alive at this point in time and clinging to a more realistic sense of hope by the deeply transformative changes that must lie ahead of us?
Climate chaos and the systems collapse that it will provoke, is a messy and unsexy risk (Kulhemann, 2019). To explain, this means that it will take the form of severe and compounding crises that will magnify each other until the pillars that sustain this civilization begin to falter and crumble. The main problem with unsexy risks, is that their slow and creeping nature leads to negligence and denial. On the other hand, sexy risks like thermonuclear wars, pandemics, AI, or asteroids can easily mobilize people’s attention and attitudes. To that effect, our real problem are the unsexy risks which have been playing in the background and now threaten our entire way of life.
In the light of this, I recommence the discussion regarding how people are coping (or not) with their uncertain future. It is worth exploring – on the surface – how scientists are dealing with ecological grief and climate anxiety. Caroline Hickman, teaching fellow at the University of Bath wrotes for The Conversation (2019):
“I’m hoping that reading this will help you feel depressed – about biodiversity loos and our lack of progress over the climate crisis. The thing is, in these extreme circumstances, a bit of depression about the environment could be precisely what we need – and it’s the only sane response. As a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance I believe that psychological understanding can help with the wide range of complex individual and cultural responses to the environmental crisis. Feelings such as anger, guilt, grief, terror, shame, anxiety, despair and helplessness are all appropriate reactions. But defences against these feelings – denial and disavowal – mean we have avoided taking the necessary action to address their cause. There is also value in understanding how grief, loss and mourning can shape our responses to climate change (Randall, 2012). For if we block out our emotions, then we are unable to connect (Rust, 2008) with the urgency of the crisis – which may be the one reason why we have so far failed to act sufficiently quickly.”
Susan Clayton, one of the lead authors of the American Psychological Association Mental Health and Our Changing Climate (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman & Speiser, 2017) affirms that (Christensen, 2019):
“Paralysis caused by fear is a real problem. The psychological responses to climate change such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes and solutions for our changing climate and from building and supporting psychological resiliency. It makes sense that there is a straightforward therapeutic response to this.”
Ashlee Consolo, Director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, Canada (Vince, 2020):
“A lot of [indigenous Inuit] people talked about grief for what it might mean for children and future generations to come. “We are people of the sea ice. And if there’s no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice? And that sort of profound existential question is so deep and complex. The Inuit people talked about mourning their own identity, and also anticipatory grief: the sense that the changes are continuing, and they’re likely to experience worsening what they’re already seeing. This is a slow and cumulative grief without end – unlike a human death, say. There’s not one moment that you can pinpoint, but long, enduring grief and anxiety that’s underneath.”
Priya Shukla, a Ph.D student at the University of California-David who studies how climate change is affecting shellfish aquaculture and coastal food security (Corn, 2019):
“[Shukla] realized she was “emotionally exhausted” by the toll of constantly scrutinizing the “huge tragedy” happening in the oceans. “I did not want to experience this fatigue, because then I wouldn’t want to do this work anymore.” “I saw a therapist.” “I’m tired of processing this incredible and immense decline – and I’m a contributor to the problem. I have to walk away from the papers and don’t want to face myself in the mirror. I feel profound sadness and loss. I feel very angry.”
Steve Simpson, professor of marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter (Vince, 2020):
“We come back from our field seasons incredibly broken. You can ether think: I can’t do this, I’m going to have to change the science I do; or you might try to internalize all of that pain that you feel. Lots of scientists do the latter – they feel we should be objective and robust, not at the mercy of our emotions […] It’s really important that we find ways of communicating the grief that we’re feeling and work together to support each other. I think that finding any way of fostering a love of the natural world in the next generation is critical for them to be a part of the solution.”
Cara Buckley, a reporter for The New York Times writes (2019):
“What I learned, in long conversations with psychologists, deep ecologists, an indigenous activist and Western Buddhists, was more or less a prescription for handling climate grief. It looks like this: Live like the crisis is urgent. Embrace the pain, but don’t stop there. Seek out a spiritual path to forge gratitude, compassion and acceptance, because operating out of denial, anger or fear only hurts us in the end.”
“Several psychologists told me they are telling the same thing to patients who are grappling with eco-despair: Feeling depressed about the crisis is actually a sane, healthy response. Yet as a culture, we pathologize depression as a personal failing, and as individuals, we avoid it, partly out of the fear that if we dive in we won’t emerge. But that causes us to shut down.”
“Still, the eco-pessimism dies hard. [In our sessions] we were asked to find a pair and tell each other why we were grateful to be alive at this time. My partner told me he was grateful that he was living at a time when we could see gorgeous animals, plants and sprawling wilderness that might not be around much longer. My breath caught. I hadn’t thought of that. Something shifted. I noticed the guy’s eyes were red and leaky, and that mine were, too.”
In a final analysis, and considering what has been written thus far, I would like to leave in print, proof of the undeveloped and evolving state of my frame of mind before embarking on the next few years of a thesis development. Considering that I myself have been taken by the feeling of ecological grief, the best way that I’ve encountered to ventilate and express my concerns has been to study and comprehend this inaugural field of systems and civilizational collapse. The task at hand will be labyrinthine - due to the intricate and heterogeneous nature of the linkage between human and natural systems (as previously described) - nevertheless there appears to be here the opportunity to confront a truly multidisciplinary challenge, with authentic consequences.
In light of this, the threat appears to be legitimate and the stakes couldn’t be higher, so other forms of internalizing collapse become justifiable. One of the most elemental approaches to communicate and symbolize something that lies deep within not just Homo sapiens but to our Homo genus, has been to resort to artistic expression. With this in mind I’ve started a photographic project named Creative Collapse, which is meant to capture instances of a once thriving civilization that has been reconquered by nature. Each photo with the feeling or thought that it evokes, expressed in a single word. This has helped me make sense of what Bendell is calling Relinquish in his Deep Adaptation.
Without a doubt, some part of this civilization will have to be left behind, and I hope we can manage to leave a successor-civilization behind. With this preliminary examination into the study of collapse, I still want to finish with a sober message and so, I’ll make the words of Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who have already been mentioned in their article “Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? my own:
“The answer is yes, because modern society has shown some capacity to deal with long-term threats . . . but the odds of avoiding collapse seem small.” They add that regardless of the odds, “our own ethical values compel us to think the benefits to those future generations are worth struggling for, to increase at least slightly the chances of avoiding a dissolution of today’s global civilization as we know it.”